Okay, I'm ready to go way way way out on a limb: The NFC Champions, and therefore that conference's representatives in the Super Bowl this coming winter, will be the Washington Redskins.
No, I'm not smoking peyote (or whatever you do with peyote). And no, I'm not a Skins fan -- haven't rooted for them since they let George Allen and Billy Kilmer go without ceremony or thanks at the end of the 1970s, and have strongly disliked them since they maltreated Richie Petitbon after leaving him am empty cupboard in the early 1990s.
But I really think the Skins are the real deal.
How could that be, you ask. Didn't they go 4-12 last year?
Yes. But seven of those 12 losses were by less than a touchdown. Most of those were games in which the Skins led until late. In short, they were ohsoclose to being a good team. Their defense, which was superb anyway most of the year, returns at full strength -- but this time with Albert Haynesworth in much better shape, and this time also under the stewardship of Jim Haslett, whose history is of doing a great job with his units in his first year anywhere, before he rubs them all the wrong way.
Now, add to that good defense a MUCH improved offense. Jason Campbell was a solid, middle-of-the-pack NFL quarterback. Donovan McNabb, who replaces him, is probably going to end up in the Hall of Fame. Last year the running game went to hell when Clinton Portis went gimpy. This year Portis is joined by Larry Johnson and Willie Parker; if one goes down, one of the others surely will fill in ably. Last year the offensive line was held together by bailing wire and, frankly, was mediocre. This year they have a first-found draft choice, highly rated, to play one tackle, and a former Pro Bowler, Jamaal Brown, to play the other. They got Brown for a song from the Saints, who won the Super Bowl last year while he sat on injured reserve and thus found his salary expendable. But he's very, very good. Last year several journeymen offensive linemen were seeing their first-ever serious playing time. This year, if called upon (a couple might be backups again rather than starters), they will enter the game with a ton of hard-won experience. Last year TE Chris Cooley got hurt. Fred Davis stepped in and proved to be a superb player. Now BOTH of them are healthy, meaning the Skins can be a serious, serious threat when they use a two tight-end set.
Finally, last year the head coach was the classy, thoughtful, hard-working but overmatched Jim Zorn, undermined by a less-than-skillful GM and undermined by an interfering owner who had different rules for different players. This year the owner finally seems to have taken a back seat, because his GM is Bruce Allen (son of the aforementioned George, brother of the George who was U.S. Senator from Virginia), who has been successful elsewhere, and the coach is no-nonsense, two-time Super Bowl champion, perennial winner, tough-as-nails Mike Shanahan.
All of which means that my New Orleans Saints, the Dallas Cowboys, and any other pretenders to the throne will need to keep a close eye on the Washington Redskins.
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