NFL Contenders: History suggests Saints won't repeat
Surging Packers among teams gunning for Super Bowl glory
The New Orleans Saints are officially The Hunted.
After erasing years of misery by capturing the franchise's first Super Bowl championship last season, the Saints will have to resist complacency, along with facing the opposing team's best effort each week.
History suggests the Saints, who upset Indianapolis in the title game last February, will fall to heightened expectations.
Only one football club — the New England Patriots — has repeated as NFL champion during the last decade.
Here's a look at the teams that could be contending for this season's Vince Lombardi Trophy:
Green Bay Packers
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the main reason the Packers are hopeful of winning their division for the first time in three years. Rodgers, the only QB in NFL history to begin a career with consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, should join Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Rodgers will lead an explosive yet underrated offence that includes 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant, speedy wideout Greg Jennings and emerging tight end Jermichael Finley. There may be some concern in the secondary, but the Packers still led the NFL with 30 interceptions last year and return with the defensive player of the year in cornerback Charles Woodson.
What could derail them: You can bet one of coach Mike McCarthy's top priorities is getting his offensive line ready to keep Rodgers upright. The third-year starter was sacked 50 times last season. Part of the blame can be placed on Rodgers, who held on to the ball too long at times while attempting to keep plays alive.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has to be salivating at this thought: aside from the fact his team is a legitimate title contender, Dallas will be hosting Super Bowl XLV. And don't you just know Jones would love to become the first owner to see his club win the NFL's showpiece game in its own backyard. The chances appear encouraging. Tony Romo had a breakthrough season in 2009, piling up a career-high 4,483 yards en route to his first playoff victory. Miles Austin came out of nowhere to become one of Romo's favourite targets, hauling in 1,320 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. A gift was also waiting for Jones during this past April's draft. Character issues forced Dez Bryant — the most talented receiver of the rookie crop — to slide down to No. 24, a spot the Cowboys were all too glad to trade up to and nab the Oklahoma State star. Led by sack artist DeMarcus Ware, Dallas returns a unit that allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL.
What could derail them: Jones decided not to sign a veteran kicker, settling on powerful kickoff specialist David Buehler. The 23-year-old is quite a weapon in that role, but is unproven as a placekicker. By not opening up the job to competition, Jones leaves the Cowboys vulnerable at a key position.
After a magical run two years ago that was led by then-rookie Matt Ryan, the Falcons came down to earth in 2009. Atlanta did finish with a winning record, but injuries to Ryan and running back Michael Turner ruined any chance of the team making consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history. Now healthy, Ryan has plenty of weapons — wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, to name two — to spearhead another playoff run. To help shore up a leaky secondary, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff signed unrestricted cornerback Dunta Robinson in the off-season. Robinson will be counted on to improve one of the worst pass defences from a year ago.
What could derail them: The secondary can't shoulder all of the blame for Atlanta's defensive woes. The defensive line generated little in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, finishing near the bottom of the league by registering only 28 sacks. Defensive ends John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury must come up big this season for the Falcons to make a deep playoff run.
New Orleans Saints
Everyone knows how Drew Brees (4,388 yards, 34 touchdowns) powered the potent Saints offence in a Super Bowl MVP performance. The offensive weapons remain, yet few realize just how critical the team's defence was in its memorable journey. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter form possibly the best cornerback tandem in the league. Both missed time due to injuries last year but came back strong. Remember, it was Porter who picked off quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC title game during the Vikings' last drive, preventing a possible game-winning score. It was also Porter who intercepted Peyton Manning late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, securing the Saints' victory.
What could derail them: Defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams did an outstanding job in preparing his unit on a weekly basis last year. Part of that success was due to New Orleans' innate ability to create turnovers at just the right time. How well the unit holds up if those same turnovers don't happen this year could go a long way in determining this team's fate.
For the third straight year, we were forced to stomach another of Brett Favre's "will he retire?" off-seasons. Now that his Royal Highness decided to come back for another year, Minnesota, which returns 21 starters, remains a serious threat in the NFC. Coming off ankle surgery, Favre will find repeating a near MVP performance difficult, especially with No. 1 receiver Sidney Rice gone for at least six games with a hip injury. With that in mind, the Vikings will rely heavily on running back extraordinaire Adrian Peterson, and a run defence that allowed only 3.9 yards per attempt.
What could derail them: With Rice gone for possibly half the season, Favre is without a true No. 1 receiver — even with second-year speedster Percy Harvin in the fold. Unless receivers Harvin, Bernard Berrian and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe can pick up the slack, opposing teams will stack the line in an effort to stop Peterson.
Don't sleep on …
New York Giants
The Giants began the 2009 season 5-0, becoming early favourites to return to the Super Bowl. However, injuries and mediocre play along the offensive and defensive lines in the final 11 games put an end to those hopes. The Giants hired former Buffalo interim head coach Perry Fewell to restore defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora to championship form. Expect New York's rushing attack to return to prominence with Ahmad Bradshaw leading the way, and quarterback Eli Manning to continue guiding the passing game.
What could derail them: Since helping the Giants win the Super Bowl in 2008, Umenyiora suffered a season-ending left knee injury the following year, then was benched during a miserable 2009 campaign. If the Giants are to regain their status as an elite team in the NFC, Umenyiora must come back as a dominant pass rusher.
San Diego Chargers
It's been argued that the Chargers play in perhaps the worst NFL division. Although that may be true, San Diego still has the talent to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw for a career-best 4,254 yards in 2009 and is the unquestioned leader of the offence. After cutting ties with all-time franchise rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson, general manager A.J. Smith drafted Fresno State standout Ryan Mathews in hopes of giving the offence some much-needed balance. Matthews has already shown in pre-season that he can be a threat in both the running and passing games. Shawne Merriman is not the pass rusher he was when he entered the league, but the Chargers can go a long way with the defensive unit they have.
What could derail them: Left tackle Marcus McNeil and standout wide receiver Vincent Jackson remain holdouts, which could significantly hurt San Diego. Jackson, suspended for the first three games, said he's prepared to sit out the entire year.
What could derail them: Manning isn't the only indispensable member of the Colts. When defensive end Dwight Freeney injured his right ankle in the AFC title game against the Jets, it was thought that Indianapolis would still prevail over the Saints. Instead, Freeney, who sacked Brees early in the game, was ineffective the rest of the way, which contributed greatly to Indy's loss.
As always, the Ravens will sport one of the best defensive front-seven units in the NFL, powered by linebacker Ray Lewis and tackle Haloti Ngata. It's time for quarterback Joe Flacco to take the next step in his development. Entering his third season, Flacco has already guided the Ravens to consecutive playoff appearances. But head coach John Harbaugh needs Flacco to do more than simply manage the game this year. He'll definitely have help. Running back Ray Rice emerged as a game-changer last year. The Ravens also bolstered their passing attack by trading for receiver Anquan Boldin and signing the recently released T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
What could derail them: The Ravens' secondary took two big hits to an already questionable unit. First, they lost cornerback Domonique Foxworth for the season with a torn ACL. Making matters worse, all-world safety Ed Reed will miss the first six weeks of the season following reconstructive hip surgery.
New England Patriots
It's clear the Pats are far from the dynasty team they were in the last decade, but as long as they have Tom Brady, New England should field another playoff team. It's been reported that Brady, two years removed from major knee surgery, is close to signing a new lucrative deal. Brady is motivated to win another title, receiver Randy Moss is playing for a new contract and Wes Welker's recovery from knee injury has gone better than many expected. The Patriots also believe receiver Brandon Tate will make an impact, and the team wants a renewed commitment to the running game.
What could derail them: Season-ending injuries to defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden make New England even weaker on defence. This is a unit that couldn't hold leads last season, including the colossal collapse against the Colts.
On paper, this is as talented a football team as there is in the NFL. After more than a month of acuminous negotiations, the Jets were finally able to come to financial terms with Darrelle Revis — the league's best cornerback. The off-season acquisitions of receiver Santonio Holmes, who will serve a four-game suspension to begin the season, and Tomlinson will boost the offence. Sophomore quarterback Mark Sanchez should progress from an up-and-down rookie campaign. The Jets do have injury concerns, as they'll have to overcome the loss of linebacker Calvin Pace, who is out four to six weeks following foot surgery.
What could derail them: No matter the praise he gets, Sanchez was not the Jets' saviour last season. After throwing an alarming 20 interceptions in the regular season, Sanchez was merely a game-manager in the playoffs, allowing the running game and defence to carry the team to the AFC title game. If the Jets hope to make good on coach Rex Ryan's Super Bowl prediction, they'll need Sanchez to gain a better understanding of the offence.
Don't sleep on …
Tennessee's season depends on two factors: the maturation of quarterback Vince Young and the continued production of star running back Chris Johnson. After beginning the 2009 year 0-6, stubborn head coach Jeff Fisher finally reinserted Young into the lineup. The troubled pivot, who has been plagued by off-field issues, surprised opposing teams by leading Tennessee to eight victories during the next 10 games. Johnson became only the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. He is also motivated by the Titans' reluctance to offer him a huge contract extension. Tennessee has a deep and underrated defensive squad, which should significantly improve last season's 28th-ranked unit.
What could derail them: It all comes down to Young. Will the former No. 3 overall pick finally realize his sizable talent and help the Titans unseat Indianapolis in the AFC South, or will he revert to his immature ways?