On Sunday afternoon the road to Tampa, FL for Super Bowl XLIII officially begins. Football fans all across the country will fill stadiums, local sports bars, and living rooms to officially kick off the 2008 NFL season.
The draft is over, exhibition games are over, and now it's time to play some football.
The usual suspects are back to put up a strong campaign. Teams like the Patriots, Chargers, Cowboys, Colts, Giants, and Steelers should have successful seasons.
At this point, the dream of winning a Super Bowl is very much alive for fans of all 32 NFL teams. On Sunday, however, the pretenders will be separated from the contenders.
When you mention contenders a couple of teams come to mind. The first team out of the AFC has to be the New England Patriots.
After going 18-1 last year, they are poised to bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. They possess the deadly, unstoppable combination of Tom Brady and Randy Moss, who connected 98 times for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2007. Defense is the Patriots' only question at this point.
An aging defensive unit that lost Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel to the Eagles in free agency has to find away to stay one step ahead of the younger competition. Just this week the Patriots signed two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Deltha O'Neal.
Another contender is the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are coming off of a 13-4 season, which includes a second round playoff loss at the hands of the San Diego Chargers.
The Colts were handicapped at wide receiver, with veteran Marvin Harrison missing 12 games in 2007 due surgery to remove a bursa sac from his knee.
The offseason hasn't gone any better with Payton Manning missing all four exhibition games, due to the same exact surgery. Manning practiced for the first time since his surgery this week and all signs point to the Colts being the second best team in the AFC.
In the NFC the contenders are very clear. The Dallas Cowboys seem to be everyone’s No. 1 choice.
The Cowboys return this season with Terrell Owens and Tony Romo looking to finally break through in the playoffs and win for the first time since 1996, when they defeated the Vikings 40-15 in the wild card round at Texas Stadium.
The Cowboys have strengthened their defense with the addition of cornerback Adam Jones and linebacker Zach Thomas.
Brett Favre's move from the Packers to the Jets in the AFC makes the road to Tampa a little bit easier for T.O. and the Cowboys.
The New York Giants are the other strong contender coming out of the NFC. However, they will have to find a way to make up for the loss of Michael Strahan, who retired after winning the Super Bowl last year.
Osi Umenyiora was supposed to be the seamless replacement for Strahan, but Umenyiora went down with a torn ACL in the preseason, which effectively ended his season.
Even with all of that the Giants are still a top contender because the NFC is pretty weak when compared to the teams in the AFC.
Now on to the pretenders, teams that look good on paper but are not that great when they step on the field.
The Green Bay Packers parted ways with Brett Favre after 16 glorious years, including a Super Bowl victory in the '96-'97 season.
Aaron Rodgers is expected to lead this team to the playoffs, but the Packers will experience some letdowns from the fourth-year quarterback who has only thrown the ball 59 times in his NFL career. He will hit the wall at some point in this season and backups Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn are both rookies.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are a team that has lot of expectations coming off of last year’s 12-6 performance, during which they made it to the divisional round of the playoffs. Honestly, the performance last year is not likely to be repeated. The Jaguars have looked awful in the preseason and the AFC is just too tough.
The two dark horse teams that fans should keep an eye on are the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many people are overlooking these teams.
The Jets are a team that finished 4-12 and were in the basement of the AFC last year. With the addition of Brett Favre, expect this team to make the playoffs and possibly do more than that this season.
Tampa Bay is a team that made the playoffs last year. With the injury that the Giants suffered, the Buccaneers could rise up and be the third or fourth best team in the NFC.
Super Bowl Predictions
Patriots vs. Cowboys
The season is almost here, fans. The players are ready. The coaches are ready. Are you ready?