Steelers and Patriots and Chargers, Oh My!

Dave StanleyCorrespondent ISeptember 9, 2009

Super Bowl XXXIV, Atlanta, GA.  

Jaguars 27, Vikings 20.  

Don't remember it?  Of course not.  That's because the experts are almost never right.

It was the official 1999 Sports Illustrated NFL preview that made that "informed" prediction, backed with facts, statistics and intangibles.  To have picked the Tennessee Titans falling to the St. Louis Rams (in what went down as one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory) would have been sheer lunacy at the time.  Those teams were predicted to go 8-8 and 5-11, respectively.

And it wasn't just that year; it's nearly every year that the trendy picks fail to live up to expectations.  In the early part of this decade, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers that made everyone's preseason Super Bowl list.  Yet reality had other plans, with the New England Patriots racking up title after title.  

This time of year, the sports fan enjoys a near ambivalent relationship with the press.  At first, most fans are more than eager to soak up every bit of information they can about the upcoming season.  

"Will New England switch to a 4-3 this year?"

"Will my city be one of the 12 markets affected by the TV blackouts?"

Yet eventually, overkill is dubiously achieved.

"Gee, I always did want to know what the long snapper's diet regimen was!"

"I hear that Mike Tomlin prefers blue Sharpie's over red ones!"

And on and on.  By the time the eve of the first regular season game arrives, most find themselves starved for the action itself; enough with the analysis.  

This season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers at the top of the heap.  After poring over all of the national pundits' team reports, season previews and prognostications, these three squads are the absolute darlings of the media.  

To be fair, much of it is deserved.  From returning starters still in their prime to team nuclei still intact, "the Big Three" do, in fact, look like sexy picks.  

But haven't we learned something by now?  Don't the "experts" know that injuries, intangibles and Cinderellas are as much a part of the game as anything else?  Granted, they're harder-if not impossible-to predict, but you'd think they would be factored in somehow, based history and tendencies.  

Looking at this year's predictions, you would think that free agent departure Albert Haynesworth won all 13 games by himself for the Titans last year, given most publications' calling for a Tennessee drop off in wins.  

And it's not just about the Titans (for what it's worth, they do much better flying under the radar).  

No, the bigger point is that there are many other teams out there, from the dark horses to the so-called "pretenders," that more than likely will be the ones vying for the title come February.

While there is no way to predict the future, there are, however, other factors beyond statistics and the previous season's performance, which are all that sports writers seem to look at, given their overwhelmingly poor prediction history.  

For instance, coaching.  It's not so much about the win-loss record as it is their ability to maximize their talent and adjust on the fly to injuries and distractions.  

Jeff Fisher and Bill Belichick are some of the better ones at doing so.  

Another oft-overlooked touchstone is the front office.  Do they have an eye for waiver wire talent when mid season injuries strike?  Do they stand by their coach during a slow start, ensuring that there will be no lame duck situation that could instigate a morale loss during a would-be playoff push? 

And statistical histories aside, what are a player's personal, off the field tendencies?  Terrell Owens' reality show producers just might tell him to return to his malcontent ways to boost sagging ratings, for example.  Far fetched, yes, but you get the point.  

Most would be right to say that at the end of the day, it's all in good fun.  The silver lining is that it's almost just as fun going back and looking at the faulty predictions in February for a laugh (which is good medicine for the fans of the thirty one franchises that didn't win it all).  

Yet thankfully, the 90th NFL season will commence in just over twenty four hours, with computer keyboards briefly falling silent, giving way to the sound of pads colliding.

This, as they say, is why they play the game.