The start of the NFL season brings thousands of previews. This isn't unusual, but no league is easier to forecast at the top nor harder to forecast in the middle and bottom. Here's a very concise look at the NFL.
New England is the best team. Indianapolis is second and those two are followed by a gaggle of teams that includes Dallas, Jacksonville, Seattle, Minnesota, San Diego and Green Bay. Last year, the gaggle included different teams (except Seattle and San Diego which have settled into a consistent run of good but not quite great teams).
Most of the previews focus on "skill" players like quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and cornerbacks, but the real key to win is in the trenches where a usually anonymous bunch of offensive and defensive linemen engage in a hand-to-hand combat. Your team's star quarterback won't look very good if he's on his back a lot. But, your team's defense will look really good if opposing quarterbacks don't have time to throw or opposing running backs are usually struggling just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Yet in the character-driven world of sports media, linemen rarely get their due. So in the name of offering a slight correction to this situation, here's an NFL preview that focuses on how teams fare where it counts—at the point of attack.
1. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants could barely afford to lose one great defensive end in Michael Strahan, but losing a second, Osi Umenyiora dooms their season to mediocrity.
2. Dallas keeps its linemen remarkably healthy (important since the drop-off from starter to reserve offensive lineman is usually steep), and they should enable Cowboy fans to forget about Jessica Simpson.
3. The play of the Washington Redskins defensive front four was as much as part of their late season run as the memory of slain free safety Sean Taylor, but except for Anthony Montgomery, the unit is old and likely to experience age-related declines.
4. Philadelphia has a Super Bowl contender of a team everywhere but in the offensive line, and that weakness should knock them down to a wild-card contender.
5. Green Bay's offensive line is so solid that new QB Aaron Rodgers should have little trouble making Packer fans forget his predecessor, Brett somesuchoranother.
6. Minnesota's offensive line is great, but it won't matter much if QB Tarvaris Jackson keeps making bad decisions.
7. Chicago has championship caliber defense and special teams, but its only hope to contend is if the offensive line gels.
8. The Detroit Lions are a case study in what happens when you don't spend money on linemen; they haven't had a winning season in 13 years, but they continue to draft one skill player after another.
9. If Seahawks guard Mike Wahle lives up to the hype, the Seahawks could get back to the Super Bowl.
10. Arizona's lines are gelling fast; look for a late-season surge from the Cardinals.
11. The Niners are a classic example of a team trying to play a three-four defense with four-three personnel.
12. If offensive tackle Orlando Pace can return to his old level of play, the Rams could bounce from miserable to mediocre.
13. If Defensive End Julius Peppers plays like an all pro, then the Carolina Panthers will win the NFC South; if he doesn't the team might as well clean house and start over.
14. The New Orleans Saints rookie DT Sedrick Ellis could be the league's top rookie, and he'll get lots of hype if the Saints return to the playoffs.
15. The Atlanta Falcons offensive line is nearly rebuilt, but the defensive line is a mess.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans should feel secure; their team boasts the young, strong lines on both sides of the ball.
17. The Patriots started winning in the Belichick era due to solid line play, and now that the salary cap has expanded dramatically, they have added star players
18. Brett Favre will get the credit for the Jets' improvement, but guard Alan Faneca will deserve most of it.
19. Miami is building from the lines out, and it should bear fruit in a year or two for each team.
20. Ditto for Buffalo.
21. The holes on the offensive line make the Pittsburgh Steelers a prime candidate for a steep decline.
22. Cleveland's lines have gelled, and the Browns make a nice, dark-horse candidate to enter the league's elite.
23. The Cincinnati Bengals have been the sports-page equivalent of a tabloid with their arrests and malcontents, but their lines are solid; if they were good or very good, the Bengals would be in the Super Bowl hunt.
24. Baltimore's lines mirror the team; promising and inexperienced on offense and stellar but aging on defense.
25. On average, Peyton Manning was sacked about once per game last season; if the defensive line was that good, then we'd be in the middle of a Colts dynasty.
26. Jacksonville is so solid across the board that they would probably win six other divisions, but not this one.
27. With defensive tackle Mario Williams leading the way, the Texans are primed for their first playoff appearance.
28. Tennessee Titan DE Albert Haynesworth was so good last year that several of his line mates got big free-agent deals just by association with him; their absence will cause the Titans to decline.
29. If San Diego fixes their offensive line, then they will win the Super Bowl; it was the only subpar unit on the team last season.
30. Denver hasn't drafted well in years, and the weaknesses across both lines could spell the end of the Shanahan era there.
31. Kansas City is rebuilding with linemen first; Chiefs fans can expect to contend again in 2010.
32. Oakland is rebuilding with skill players first; good luck with that.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.