I’ve got to pick the Cowboys | NevadaAppeal.com

I’ve got to pick the Cowboys

Are you ready for some football!?!

Yes, it’s that time of year to celebrate the return of the most popular form of sport known to American man, the National Football League. It’s also time for those who dare to make their picks as to who will make the playoffs and ultimately play for Super Bowl XXXIX.

But making a bunch of preseason predictions is like a Jennifer Lopez wedding – there’s a lot of second-guessing. Salary cap-induced parity has made it so almost every team owns at least a slim chance of reaching the postseason, and one key injury can send a team quickly down the toilet.

There is no correct formula for making playoff predictions, but I: 1) examined last year’s scores factoring in injuries and focused on a squad’s ability to win on the road or be dominant at home, 2) paid attention to team player additions and losses, 3) kept track of the preseason and its injuries and 4) looked at each club’s strength of schedule.

Someone might ask, “Why keep track of the preseason? It’s meaningless, isn’t it?”

Although exhibition games don’t count, they can be an indicator as to how a team will fare that year. In 2003, both New England and Carolina finished undefeated during the preseason before meeting in the Super Bowl. Of the 12 playoff teams, six had winning exhibition records and three were at .500. Only three of the 14 clubs with losing preseasons eventually went on to the postseason. So, it seems that it’s never too early to create a winning attitude.

When it comes to capturing recent Super Bowls, however, the recipe for success has been simple – defense and/or coaching. Defense wins championships, and one can never underestimate the importance of a great head coach. Offense just sells tickets.

Predictions: AFC East – New England. The defending champion Patriots possess last year’s No. 1 scoring defense and a proven overall coaching staff. With a relatively easy schedule and the addition of running back Corey Dillon, the Pats might be better.

North – Baltimore. The Ravens are another team with excellent defense and a Super Bowl winning head coach. Their only question mark is the passing game.

South – Indianapolis. After signing quarterback Peyton Manning to the largest yearly contract in the history of football, there was no money left to improve the team. Still, a repeat as division champion is likely.

West – Kansas City. Last season the 13-3 Chiefs started 9-0 before their poor defense was exposed and exploited. Great offense and leading the league in turnover margin fueled their fortunes. Former KC head coach and new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham must work some magic with that same set of starters.

Wild Card – Tennessee. The salary cap has hit this team hard, but quarterback Steve McNair will continue to excel. The co-Most Valuable Player McNair led the NFL in passer rating and is an underrated leader.

Wild Card – New York Jets. Two years ago quarterback Chad Pennington topped the league in passing efficiency with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Jets won the AFC East and embarrassed Indianapolis 41-0 in the playoffs’ first round. Last year Pennington was injured while New York got off to a terrible 2-5 start from which it never recovered.

NFC West – Seattle. Super Bowl winning coach Mike Holmgren must inspire his Seahawks to increase last season’s 2-6 road record.

North – Green Bay. Minnesota’s 6-0 2003 start wasn’t good enough to win the division. The pick is the Packers with Brett Favre and Ahman Green one more time.

South – Carolina. One would have to go back to the 1999 Tennessee Titans to find a Super Bowl losing team that reached the playoffs the following year. But a strong defense and undefeated preseason have the Panthers primed to break that hex.

East – Dallas. The Cowboys have improved at running back, wide receiver and quarterback if veteran Vinny Testaverde can outperform Quincy Carter’s 2003 total of 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, which he should. The ‘boys also have added defensive end Marcellus Wiley to the league’s No. 1 rated defense. Head coach Bill Parcells’ teams always improve record-wise in their second year, which means 11-5 or better.

Wild Card – Philadelphia. The Eagles went out and got their men in wide receiver Terrible Owens and oft-injured defensive end Jevon Kearse, but at too much expense. Starting cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, and linebacker and team defensive MVP Carlos Emmons, among others, were sacrificed in the process. Philly’s 20th-ranked defense should grow worse.

Wild Card – Atlanta. Two seasons ago quarterback Michael Vick led the Falcons to an improbable playoff victory over Green Bay, which broke numerous Packer home and cold weather streaks. In 2003, Atlanta went 3-1 in Vick’s return from injury, 2-10 otherwise. He seems to make a big difference.

Super Bowl – Last year I correctly picked the Patriots to win it all, but this time I’ll take Dallas over New England. If form holds true, defense and coaching will be the differences. People seem to forget that Bill Parcells is the best coach on the planet, and the Cowboys have statistically the NFL’s best defense. Also, Vinny Testaverde would continue the bizarre trend of Tampa Bay quarterbacks winning Super Bowls. He would join Doug Williams, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson. If Dallas has even a remote chance of capturing the title, I always take the Cowboys.

Joe Ellison is the Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist. Contact him at editor@nevadaappeal.com.