Despite the 90 degree heat, the oppressive humidity and the fact that Labor Day was only four days ago, football season is upon us. After last night’s season opener, the preseason is finally over, and the games actually have meaning. Since the NFL is too confusing due to parity, injuries and the fact no team has managed to repeat since the Broncos in 1997 and 1998, instead of picking the eventual champion, I’m going to take the safe route and just pick two teams that will defy expectations, one by exceeding them, and one by falling well short.

The Carolina Panthers are the team that will manage to play into January despite most pundits prophesying that they will be well into their vacations by then. They have what it takes to make the playoffs: a good running game and an exceptional defense. First of all, they signed one of the top free agents in Stephen Davis. He may have had an off year last season, but most of that was because Steve Spurrier had no idea how to use him. There’s a reason no one ever talked about Florida’s running backs when the Fun `n’ Gun was there. Carolina runs the kind of system the Redskins ran pre-Spurrier. The Panthers also upgraded their line by picking Jordan Gross in the first round and signing Doug Brzezinski from the Eagles to shore up their line.

Secondly, the Panthers defense is one of the best in the league. They’re young, they’re fast and they’re strong. Despite an absence of hype, they had the second-best defense in the league last year. Julius Peppers is a force to be reckoned with, racking up 12 sacks in as many games, which is more than Michael Strahan had the entire year. Plus he’ll be motivated to prove his stellar rookie year wasn’t because of the banned substance that cost him the last four games of the year.

While Carolina doesn’t have a marquee name at quarterback, Rodney Peete is from the same mold as Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson: he won’t win the game for you, but he won’t lose it either. They went 7-9 last season, but three of those losses were by three points or fewer. With the addition of Stephen Davis, and the continued improvement by the defense, the Panthers should be able to turn around that record and make the playoffs for the first time in years.

The Buccaneers, however, are heading in the opposite direction. They just have too many things stacked against them. First off, they’re the defending champs. While this may seem like a good thing, you have to remember that it didn’t do too much for the Patriots, Ravens, Rams or Broncos. Playing the fourth hardest schedule wears on a team. Everyone’s going to be gunning for them, as well.

Then you factor in that their starting running back pulled a “Kobe” and is going to be in jail for most of the year. ichael Pittman’s replacements aren’t exactly Walter Payton’s either: there’s the Arizona Cardinals’ reject, the slow bruiser who has had years to assume the starter’s role but hasn’t stepped up, and the no name back up with no experience. Now Brad Johnson has to carry the offense. Jeff Christy, one of the premier centers is gone, and while Keyshawn Johnson may want the damn ball, he doesn’t want it in the end zone, shown by his six touchdowns in the past two years. It’s not as if Brad Johnson is a mobile quarterback either. And if he goes down, it’ll be the return of the Shaun King era. And Shaun King is not leading any team to the Super Bowl, let alone one without a running game and all the pressures of a defending champion.

To win the Super Bowl, everything has to go right for a team. That doesn’t happen too often, and it’s much more likely a team won’t get the break or two they need, or even have one or two breaks go against them. The Bucs already had their year, and there’s a reason we haven’t had a repeat champion in five years. We won’t again this year.

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