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5 teams on the rise and 5 on the decline


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1. Minnesota - Lament the departure of Randy Moss all you want, but the Vikings have just become THE legitimate contender to the Eagles in the NFC. Minnesota's biggest weaknesses were on defense, so what did it do? Went out and plucked four outstanding defensive players - free safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Fred Smoot, defensive tackle Pat Williams, and linebacker Sam Cowart - that will transform the unit overnight. Moss is gone, but the Vikings took some steps to overcome his absence, re-signing tight end Jermaine Wiggins and snaring former Raven disappointment Travis Taylor to complement Nate Burleson and whatever receiver the team gets with the No. 7 pick in next month's draft (Braylon Edwards or Mike Williams). Mike Tice's team may have lost Moss' style, but they could get to Detroit for Super Bowl XL based on their new-found substance.

2. Miami - The Dolphins made some subtle changes during the free agency period, as blowing up a team that has more talent than say, the Browns or the 49ers, was not necessary. Miami filled some needs, bringing in ex-Titan Kevin Carter to clog up the defensive interior, adding right tackle Stockar McDougle for veteran help on a thin offensive line, and quietly ushering in Gus Frerotte to run new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's system. The Fins will have their choice of running backs at No. 2 in the draft and should be able to get more offensive line help with their two third-round selections (they traded their second-round selection to the Eagles for A.J. Feeley). What's more, Nick Saban excised some baggage (WR David Boston, QB Jay Fiedler, FB Rob Konrad), and put an immediate stamp on his team in the process.

3. Cincinnati - There were no sexy offseason free agent signings in the Queen City, but the Bengals made a big step toward their first playoff berth in 16 years by keeping much of their talented young offensive core intact. Cincinnati re-signed both running back Rudi Johnson and wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and continuity should be a big mark in the favor of Carson Palmer and the offensive attack. The signing of defensive tackle Bryan Robinson will help shore up the oft-suspect run-stopping unit, and the Bengals should be able to pick up an impact starter or two on the defensive side of the ball via the draft.

4. Arizona - The Cardinals were a couple of players and a couple of plays from competing for the NFC West title last season, and though they ended up a disappointing 6-10, you got the feeling that head coach Dennis Green was beginning to change the losing culture of the franchise. With that in mind, Green went out and got a few of "his kind" of players to step in and contribute on defense - strong safety Robert Griffith, linebacker Orlando Huff, and end Chike Okeafor - as well as a veteran quarterback in Kurt Warner and sturdy right tackle in Oliver Ross to chip in on the other side of the ball. If the Cardinals can add a frontline running back (likely through the draft, though Travis Henry is still on the trading block) and another defensive playmaker or two, there's no reason they can't compete with the Seahawks, Rams, and 49ers in the division.

5. Washington - Most would speak negatively of the past couple of months in Redskin Park, since the team lost two of its top defenders - linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot - and also took a major salary cap hit just to get rid of wideout Laveranues Coles. But things are actually looking up for the Redskins, particularly on offense. Signing run-blocking center/guard Casey Rabach away from the Ravens was huge, as was reworking the deal of tackle Chris Samuels. The other tackle should be Jon Jansen, who missed all of 2004 with a torn Achilles, and the presence of three major o- line horses should greatly benefit Clinton Portis and the Skins' run-first offense. The team will likely use their No. 9 pick on a receiver (possibly Mike Williams) to complement newly acquired wideouts Santana Moss and David Patten, and shouldn't lose a great deal of sleep about replacing Smoot with Walt Harris at corner. If LaVar Arrington returns healthy, the Washington defense shouldn't miss a beat, and that spells trouble for the NFC's other wild card contenders.


1. Green Bay - How long can Brett Favre, who will turn 36 in October, be expected to carry this team? The Packers allowed two cornerstones of their offensive success - guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle - to high-tail it out of cheese country, and have done basically nothing to upgrade one of the league's worst secondary groups. In fact, Green Bay let their most credible member of the '04 secondary, Darren Sharper, slip away to NFC North rival Minnesota. With the Vikings and even the Bears and Lions counting on being better in '05, the sand in Green Bay's hourglass could be about to disappear.

2. Buffalo - Forget that late-season playoff run, the Bills have taken a step back. Either cut-rate newcomer Kelly Holcomb or the inexperienced J.P. Losman will be taking the snaps in 2005, and will be operating behind a line that just lost left tackle Jonas Jennings. On the other side of the ball, the departure of key run-stuffer Pat Williams to the Vikings will undoubtedly be felt in a big way. Don't expect the Patriots, Jets, and improving Dolphins to be very forgiving to Buffalo's plight come the fall.

3. St. Louis - The Rams entered the offseason needing lots of help on defense, and they seem to have plugged their holes with scotch tape rather than concrete. Former Viking Chris Claiborne and former Cowboy Dexter Coakley will step into starting linebacker jobs, but Claiborne has mostly underachieved as a pro and Coakley will be 33 in October. St. Louis' approach in the awful secondary was to move Pisa Tinoisamoa from linebacker to safety, meaning the team will have two converted LBs (Adam Archuleta is the other) in the defensive backfield. The offensive and defensive lines both needed addressing, and to this point, neither has been. The flag football-style offense that improbably carried the Rams to within a game of the NFC Championship in '04 will have to do the same this season.

4. Denver - The Broncos' offseason readjustments always seem to end up making sense, but this one is hard to figure. The three big signings were chronic underachiever and DT Gerard Warren as well as linebacker Ian Gold, who was a disappointment in Tampa Bay this past season. The best pass-rusher on a team that largely struggled in that regard, Reggie Hayward, is now a Jaguar, and safety Kenoy Kennedy and underrated cornerback Kelly Herndon are gone from the secondary. Combine these coming and goings with the presence of the combustible Jake Plummer at quarterback, an uncertain backfield situation, and a pretty average group of receivers and you're left with more questions than answers in the Mile High City.

5. Pittsburgh - Any team that goes 15-1 is sure to take at least a small step back the next year, and the temptation not to do much tinkering with the personnel that got you to 15-1 is certainly understandable. But the Steelers had a couple of areas they could have upgraded, cornerback most notably, and instead chose to rest on their laurels. They'll probably be back in the playoffs next year, but the Steelers haven't made the key additions necessary to be a lock to compete for a Super Bowl berth.

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Miami a team on the rise? With Gus Ferotte at QB? You've got to be joking! I must disagree with Washington also. They seem to be in a constant state of disarray, even with Gibbs back. Their best WR (Coles) expresses concern over the direction of the offense and they trade him for a smaller, less physical receiver who hasn't had anywhere near the success of of their own guy, and they take a salary cap hit to do it? Other then those 2 though, I would tend to agree with the rest of the teams you listed, especially the teams you have on the decline....you seem dead on there. I would add Jacksonville to the list of teams on the rise, from 5-11 to 9-7 and on the verge of making the playoffs. They have an excellent young QB in Leftwich and that defense is going to be something to be reckoned with with the 2 monster DT's that they have and the addition of Hayward from Denver. In fact if we could combine the Bengals O with the Jags D - that would be one amazing team!

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Lools can be deceiving on paper... Will the Steelers go 15-1 again? I doubt it but Cowher has the nucleus to have another fine year and there is talk that Ty Law might sign with them or KC shortly..

The Bengals have made great strides... Doing it on the field is where the final product will be decided...

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I agree with most of it but...

Although its clear GB is on the decline, they did save a lot of cash by getting rid of Sharper who had a bad year. Their best player in the secondary was probably Harris, which isn't saying much cuz that unit sucked. Although sharper on minny will be trouble for them. I pull for the pack in the NFC, so it kinda sucks, although their offense with favre and their receivers are still good..O -lines a bit of a ? and the D is just well...bad at this point.

As for Miami, I agree, ya they are on the rise...but until Feely can prove he can play well for them, or they get someone else, I would put Cincinatti over them and probably arizona.

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How the hell are the Bills on the decline.

Sure we lost a left tackle, we'll have Shelton by the draft. We have Ron Edwards to fill in for Fat Pat Williams, and former Buckeye Timmy Anderson to spell him.

Mcgahee will be 100%.

Losman, even though he will make rookie mistakes, will make the same mistakes our "veteren" QB made last season.

Evans will be used from the get go, demand more attention, and then Moulds will be open more.

We ended the season, minus the let down against Pittsburgh, on a tear. We blew out six teams in a row, outscoreing them 224-71. Even if they weren't the toughest teams we destroyed them.

Now, I'm not saying the bengals aren't on the rise, they are. But to claim the Dolphins, who signed a couple of second tier D-lineman, are gonna trun around 4-12 right away, or the skins (haha) are gonna turn heads makes me question this articles cred.

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