So now it’s the AFC’s turn. There was plenty of turn over last season, from the worst to first Dolphins to the resurgent Ravens and the Titans finally wrestling the division away from the Colts. Will it be more of the same in 2009 or have we found some powerhouses for years to come, or have some previous powerhouses returned to life…
1) New England Patriots – Yeah, yeah. But it’s not exactly a reach homer pick here. Let’s go through the roster quickly: Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, the entire offensive line from 2007, and 4 RB’s all of whom could start for other teams. Oh, and they still have Bill Belichick calling the shots, and last time I checked, he’s decent.
THE NASTY: A Defense in Flux. So Ellis Hobbs is gone. Same for Mike Vrabel. Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired. And in a huge surprise move, the Raiders lovingly gift trade a 1st round pick in 2011 for Richard Seymour, who happens to be one year away from free agency. (And will most likely re-sign there, right? A guy who has won 3 Super Bowls, playing for the top franchise of the last 8 years, will probably stay with the worst team over the same time, right? Great trade. Oh, and thanks for Derrick Burgess too.) So there are plenty of new faces on this defense. Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, Gary Guyton, and Burgess will join super soph Jerod Mayo and other hold overs Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and Brandon Merriweather in starting a new Pats D. The offense can score enough early on for this unit to gel, but they will need to come together by mid-season to be a force for this team to go deep into January.
PREDICTION: Barring another catastrophe, i.e. Brady in… I’m not even finishing that sentence. Bottom line, this team will be there, with the road to Miami in February likely leading though them.
2) Miami Dolphins – Last year, the Dolphins went last to first, surprising everyone by capturing the division. And what had to break their way? First, Tom Brady’s anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Second, the Dolphins were first in games lost by starters to injury. As in, basically, no one meaningful got injured the whole season. Third, they had the easiest schedule in the league. And fourth, they used their personnel to their advantage and created the latest NFL fad – the Wildcat. So what will they do for an encore? Most likely, poop in the refrigerator…
THE SWEET: Confidence. They know they can win. They just won 11 games. And didn’t lose any key players. In fact, Jason Taylor came back! So they know they can win. Chad Pennington just won the Comeback player of the year, which was almost a team trophy for them. Ronnie Brown found his stride and Ricky Williams continues to NOT have to pay the team back while he shows up at games. Everything was great last year. What’s not to like?
THE NASTY: All The Breaks. While the innovative offense was wildcat-ly successful last year, it’s not going to fool anyone this year. We saw that in week one, when the Falcons were ready for every trick, wrinkle, formation, and gimmick the Fish threw at them. Now that’s less effective. The trainer’s room can’t stay empty for two years in a row. In fact, history says that injuries will regress to the mean, so while the Dolphins should get more injuries, some other teams (i.e. the Patriots, who were 3rd worst in the league in starter’s games lost to injury…) will be healthier. Bad sign number 2. And they get to play a 1st place schedule! Welcome the Pats, Colts, Saints, and Steelers to Landshark Stadium and pack your bags for the Falcons, Titans, Pats and Chargers. Those should be their 8 toughest games. In how many are they favored? 2? How many wins? Even if they split the Pats games, steal one versus the Titans, where’s another win? They will have to run the table on everyone else and still need help to get back to the playoffs. Feel good about the Dolphins this year?
PREDICTION: A major market correction for Miami. This team is stampeding towards 8-8. The only thing to watch for will be who will Khloe and Kourtney Kardasian be rooting for when the Saints come to town: their new hometown team or their sister’s hunky beau. Find out this week on Khloe and Kourtney Bore the Crap Out of Me in Miami…Only on E! (Do you know one of them has a radio show? Seriously. One of the less talented Kardasian sisters has her own radio show. No…really…)
3) New York Jets – So here’s the problem with the Jets, are they ready now? With a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach, are the Jets the 2008 Falcons and Ravens or are they the 2001 Cowboys with Dave Campo and Quincy Carter. (Bet you haven’t thought about either of them for a while, have you? Campo is the secondary coach of the ‘Boys right now, by the way. When no one’s around, does he wistfully run his fingers over Wade Phillips’s door, while playing Madonna’s This Used to Be My Playground on his iPod? Do players ask him what it was like to choose between Ryan Leaf, Clint Stoerner, and Anthony Wright at quarterback? Does Jerry Jones keep him around to yell at? Ah, Dave Campo memories…) What the Falcons and Ravens accomplished last year was almost unprecedented, but new head coach Rex Ryan saw it first hand as the D-Coordinator of the Ravens and so he is ready to win right now.
THE SWEET: Swagger. If the marketing geniuses at Old Spice can get Tony Stewart, Brian Urlacher, Bruce Campbell, and LL Cool J to do commercials, this Jets team is next. Ryan isn’t from the clichéd sound byte, one-game-at-a-time school of press conferences. He’s confident and has no problem letting you know it. A big difference from Eric Mangini. And players take their cues from their head coaches. Tom Brady doesn’t say anything of substance in his press conferences. Where would he learn that? The same is true in the opposite here. The Jets will talk the talk, but will they walk it for a whole season?
THE NASTY: History. Since the league went to a 16 game schedule, there have been 40 rookie quarterbacks to be the primary QB for the season and only 5 started all 16 games. (Rick Mirer at Seattle in 1993, Peyton Manning at Indianapolis in 1998 and David Carr at Houston in 2002, Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan) So if Mark Sanchez pulls off starting the whole year, he’ll be in very rare company. If Sanchez wants more elite company, he’ll have to lead his team to the playoffs, like only Flacco, Ryan, Ben Roethlesberger, Shaun King (Buccaneers in 1999), and Dan Marino have done that in the last 30 years. And since Flacco and Ryan are the only rookie QB’s to ever WIN a game in the playoffs, Sanchez has a tall hill to climb.
PREDICTION: This team is a year away. But a very entertaining (and as a Pats fan – scary) year.
4) Buffalo Bills – Oh boy. Is it a good sign when you fire your offensive coordinator 10 days before you start the season, then that OC pops off in the press about how the head coach wanted a “Pop Warner offense” and that it “wasn’t simplified enough”, AND THEN you decide to go no huddle almost exclusively? Oh yeah, and they signed the most disruptive team force in pro sports in the off season. Get your popcorn ready!
THE SWEET: Um…the Anchor Bar, home of the Buffalo Wing? Or, how about loyal fans. Bills fans show up every single year. When it snows, it rains, it sleets, there they are, sitting in their frigid plastic seats. Its heart warming, which is good since it’s so frigging cold. Despite a lifetime of heartache, they are there. They just trotted out their 50th anniversary team, which was like a walking reminder of 4 lost Super Bowls. (Shame OJ Simpson wasn’t there. He must have had a prior engagement.) They have lost game in ways that make Bengals fans feel sorry for them. And the first game this year was no exception. Yet, they still come. God love ‘em.
THE NASTY: Dick Jauron. How he continues to get naked pictures of every boss he’s ever had astounds me, because he sure is a lousy coach, so something has to explain why he’s still a head coach. He’s offensively retarded. (Sorry, Sarah Palin…he’s offensively challenged. Or better yet, his offense should appear before a death panel.) He traded away his best O-Lineman, so he now has 3 rookies on the line. 3! You know the last team to start the season with 3 rookies on the O-Line? NO ONE! No one has ever been foolish enough to do that. Then you add Terrell Owens to fix the offense? Trent Edwards has hired an attorney to look into filing a suit against the team for both non-support and harassment. And TO, if I could make a suggestion: CATCH THE FUCKING BALL! Either catch the ball and bitch about how you’re open all the time, or drop perfectly thrown 50 yard bombs and shut the fuck up. Pick one, because dropping and bitching just isn’t cute anymore.
PREDICTION: If this team wins 5 games, I’ll be shocked. There are pieces in place, but while Dick Jauron is calling the shots, this team is going no where.
1) Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are scary. I’d think they would be even scarier if Rex Ryan was still running the defense, but they are pretty scary nonetheless. After an unlikely trip to the playoffs last year, they should start taking the training wheels off of Joe Flacco and letting him loose. Big things are likely from this team.
THE SWEET: Balance. All of the pieces are there. Solid young quarterback. Stable of RB’s, all of whom could carry the load if there’s an injury, but in today’s NFL, you need at least 2, so they have that covered. Crushing defense. What more do you need? The defense is not only filled with stars like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but they all know what they’re doing. There’s almost no learning curve. A tough team to face, every single week.
THE NASTY: Loss of Rex Ryan. It’s all I can come up with. Luckily, that defense has played with each other for so long (? There’s probably a better way to say that… well, you know what I mean.), that they almost don’t need a DC. They do have a rookie kicker, so close games might be an issue. But if I’m picking on kickers, it’s a pretty complete team.
PREDICTION: One of the best teams in the conference and they should be there deep into January.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers – Hey, they are a good team. Frankly, I was unimpressed with them last year. I thought they were good, and they took advantage of the non-existent juggernaut team. So, good for them. And there’s no reason to think they won’t be there this year too. I just don’t think they are a super team.
THE SWEET: Mike Tomlin. I think he’s a great head coach. And add the fact that he’s my age and I am really impressed with the job he has done. (The Steelers sure can pick head coaches. Imagine not having a Rod Rust, Rich Kotite, or Bruce Coslet in your history?) He’s tough. He wants his players on defense AND offense to be tough. And he’ll most likely be there for as long as he wants. So the rest of the league can look forward to a smash-mouth, hard-nosed day of football and a post game ice bath for the foreseeable future.
THE NASTY: The field. Again, hey, they’re a good team. It’s hard to find things wrong with the reigning Super Bowl Champs. Imagine that! But Heinz Field is a travesty. The fact that the league allows games to be played in the inevitable slop that happens each November is embarrassing. It can’t be that hard to grow grass there. And if it is, just put in the OmniTurf. It’s pretty cool!
PREDICTION: The Steelers will be there in January. But I doubt a return trip in February.
3) Cincinnati Bengals – We just wait and wait and wait for this team to get better under Marvin Lewis and it just hasn’t happened. After a while, you have to look at the ownership and wonder if this team can ever really be successful under Mike Brown.
THE SWEET: Carson Palmer. For the time being, they are covered at QB. A rocket armed, confident, no-doubt, top 10 quarterback. While he needs to prove that he is still the QB he was before the Steelers rolled up on him, the ability is there. He has weapons and can put points on the board. He even has some kind of a running game now, for as long as Cedric Benson can stay off the lake and out of jail.
THE NASTY: They’re the Bengals! It’s almost impossible to get away from. Lewis has tried to look forward repeatedly, but the stink on this franchise won’t go away. Hard Knocks didn’t help. Thank God the Bills blew an 11 point lead in the last 2 minutes of the 1st Monday night game or people would still be talking about how they allowed that circus catch to the Broncos in week one. Who else does that happen to? And they almost did it again in Green Bay in week 2!
PREDICTION: Any forward momentum would be amazing for this team. They are staring at an almost guaranteed 4 losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, to go with the Denver loss. That means they almost have to run the table to make noise. I think I’ll put my money elsewhere.
4) Cleveland Browns – When you have 2 starting quarterbacks, you have none. Just wait until the revolving door starts swinging later this season. A ding here, a knee tweak there and each week, this team is answering quarterback controversy questions. Didn’t work when Vinnie Testaverde took over for Bernie Kosar and it’s not going to work now.
THE SWEET: Loyal fans? No I already used that. Um…sure-handed receiver? Nope. Ah…um…Sam Bradford next year? No, they already have 2 QBs under contract. Jeez… explosive young running back for years? No sir. C’mon… Uh…nice weather? LeBron James? Ok. Well, LeBron James might come to a game this season, so fans can look at him instead of this team. Well, until he leaves in 2010…
THE NASTY: Eric Mangini. While he may not be the worst thing, he’s the symbol of how poorly this team is put together. He makes no sense as a head coach. Did this team look like a contender that just needed a fresh start? Not even close. This team needed to be gutted like a fish and have a new, upstart, exciting, young head coach get his big break. Instead it’s a team of retreads that 2 years ago looked like it was going somewhere, and gets a retread head coach to go with them. And one that secretly isn’t respected at all by players or coaches alike.
PREDICTION: Might as well put the 2009 Cleveland Browns on the clock right now. If it weren’t for the Raiders…
1) Indianapolis Colts – Ho hum. It isn’t sexy, but they are still the Colts. While Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison may be gone, everyone else is still there, including ol’ Number 18.
THE SWEET: They expect to be there. They play whole seasons like this. They don’t panic if there’s a lull. The sit guys at the end of seasons if they don’t have to play them. You know week in, and week out that you are going to get lots of offense, just enough defense, and usually a win on the board. It’s been almost 10 years of it. It’s like Law and Order – some of the players change but you know what you’ll get week in, week out. And there are lots of copies.
THE NASTY: Complacency. If they know what it’s like week in, and week out, isn’t there a chance that they could take it for granted? Maybe a little slip in intensity? New head coach Jim Caldwell looks like he’s a tad feistier than Dungy, but so is a blueberry scone, so he should keep this team fired up. They have to make up for the quiet leadership of Harrison, but by the time his contract was up, he just wasn’t the same player. (And isn’t it interesting that he didn’t sign ANYWHERE? The Bears, Eagles, Dolphins, Buccaneers, and even the Raiders were all so content with their receiving corps that they didn’t even bring Harrison for a work out? Maybe there’s a little more to the Philly car wash shooting story than originally reported.)
PREDICTION: The Colts should win this division, that even as early as last season looked like it might be one of the most competitive in all of football. Then it will be back to the old question if Peyton has enough to win the big games, after two years of early playoff losses.
2) Houston Texans – If Brad Childress is 1st on the Green Banana Hot Seat List, then Gary Kubiak is second. He’s had enough time to put together “his” team. He’s changed quarterbacks, changed defensive coordinators and personnel, and still the team hasn’t really sniffed the playoffs. This better be the year, or Kubiak puts the OC headset back on with Mike Shanahan when he makes his return to coaching next year.
THE SWEET: Offense. There is nothing not to like about this offense. The most underrated player in the NFL in Andre Johnson. An accurate and dynamic quarterback in Matt Schaub (if he would stay healthy…). And a one-two running punch of Steve Slaton and Chris Brown. And if Brown hits the holes as hard as he hits Rhianna, then the Texans shou…(What? That’s a different Chris Brown? Oh. Oh ok. Well, I’m a little embarrassed… Um… I guess I should just try and get through that.) The defense is where they could make a major leap. They’ve tried scheme after scheme, player after player, but Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye should lead an inspired defense.
THE NASTY: They’ve Never Won. This is the 8th season for the Texans and their best record is…8-8, both in 2007 and 2008. They are 40-72 overall. Out of the recent expansion franchises, every other team has at least a winning season, including a Super Bowl appearance by the Panthers. Even the restart Cleveland Browns went both 9-7 and 10-6. And while this team has some veteran presence as far as experience, only backup QB Rex Grossman and DT Jeff Zgonina have been to a Super Bowl. That might be hard to over come in December.
PREDICTION: They are the sexy pick this year, which is what makes me think they will under whelm. When did the last sexy pick in the NFL pan out? The Browns had it last year. The Rams the year before. Just battling for a playoffs spot is important for this franchise and they should be in the mix.
3) Tennessee Titans – This team was the 1st seed in the conference last year, and yet they seem to be the Carolina Panthers of the AFC. They sustained heavy losses in DC Jim Schwartz and DL Albert Haynesworth. (See what I did there? Huh? “Heavy” in both the literal and figurative. Nailed it!) Yet still Jeff Fischer rolls along. The longest tenured coach in the league (And who saw that coming when he replaced the immortal Jack Pardee in 1994? 1994!??!) just finds a way to win. Now if only he could find a way to transform Vince Young into the legend he thinks he can become…
THE SWEET: Chris Johnson. This guy can be hands down the best runner in the game. But it almost seems like he doesn’t bring it with him every week. He should be a DC’s nightmare on Saturday nights. Breakaway speed. Can square the shoulders and hit the hole. Can catch passes out of the backfield. You could probably split him out wide and throw to him or run the end around. He could be everywhere. It seems like it would be up to him where his potential takes him.
THE NASTY: The Dreaded Over Achievement Hangover. Everything came together for this team. Vince Young stinks, gets booed, and drives off after an opening day loss and sends out possible suicide flags. That’s ok; the immortal Kerry Collins can step in and lead the team to a number one seed. Can they really expect that kind of season again? Albert Haynesworth becomes one of the best run-stuffers in the business in 2008. He got his pay day, but who will fill that void? The secondary was better because of Haynesworth, so two units are affected. All while this team needs to shed the feeling that they went so far last year, but made very little noise in the playoffs.
PREDICTION: A free fall to 3rd in this division. Bet the under as the Titans only make a whimper in 2009.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars – If a team falls to last place, but no one is around to see it, did it really happen? Or better yet, how fast does the NFL move this team to LA?
THE SWEET: Maurice Jones-Drew. A few years ago, a short, peppy little runner out of UCLA came into the league and did ok. Fred Taylor was happy that his load was lightened a bit. This kid could run it, catch it on 3rd down, and throw a block, if needed. He could do it all. And the Jags made it to the playoffs that year. (Following one of the biggest balls-out moves in coaching in the last 10 years in cutting Byron Leftwich, which at the time was nuts, but now, seems like a no-brainer.) Now he’s the man, for both the Jags and in fantasy. (Although I still don’t see the top 5 fantasy standing.)
THE NASTY: Lack of Support. The Jaguars came on strong early in their franchise’s history. Their second year in the league they went to the conference championship game. And yet, this team might not show a home game on TV locally all season. As a player, don’t you eventually say, why bother? You then have to go out and play for yourself, which is just terrible in football. Mix lack of support with a lack of real talent and you have a last place finish all lined up.
PREDICTION: This team quit on Jack del Rio last year. I guess they are looking to set a record for the amount of times a team can quit on a good head coach. On tap – a 6-10 season and a date with the LA Coliseum.
1) San Diego Chargers – I would like nothing more than to see another team in this division as an option, but that is just not the case. This might be the biggest slam dunk division winner in the NFL.
THE SWEET: Phillip Rivers. When he came out of North Carolina State, he was supposed to be can’t-miss. He was the consolation prize when Eli Manning didn’t want to play in San Diego. (Two things: 1) Who in their right mind doesn’t want to play in San Diego? The weather is perfect year round. There are some of the most beautiful women and buildings ever down there. Hell, they shot Simon and Simon down there! What? You haven’t heard of Simon and Simon? Gerald McRainey? Ah, forget it. And 2) It did give us the a top 5 awkward draft moment of the decade, when Eli had to pose with Commissioner Tagliabue and a Chargers #1 jersey. Oh, that was awesome. Only the look on Brady Quinn’s face when Miami passed on him could eclipse it.) I know it worked out for Manning in NY, but Rivers is the better quarterback. He had to wait his turn behind Drew Brees, but learn he did. And he also got a whole lot of fans in his own locker room when he played with a sprained MCL in the playoff against the undefeated Patriots, while a certain running back watched in his trenchcoat. Rivers could vie for MVP honors this year. He’s that good and that important to this team.
THE NASTY: Norv Turner. You know the guy in your office that you always have to pick up the slack for because he’s really good at about 25% of his job, but some how he doesn’t get fired, because of that one time on a business trip to Indianapolis, he came through? That’s Norv Turner. All of the stats say he’s one of the worst playoff coaches of all time. Never mind his regular season record. He’s the Wikipedia page for great coordinator/bad head coach. He’s lucky that GM AJ Smith keeps this team stocked with talent. This team may have won 2 Super Bowls by now if he had Bill Cowher/Mike Shanahan/Mike Holmgren running it with ol’ Norv in the OC booth. But that’s who they’ve chosen to go to battle with. And if he can’t win the division this year, 25% won’t be enough to save his job.
PREDICTION: This team is a lock for double-digit victories. What they do in the playoffs is a whole other story. That will depend on health, will, and how little they need Norv Turner by then.
2) Kansas City Chiefs – Someone has to finish second and it could very well be the Chiefs. They stabilized their QB situation after a couple of years of uncertainty. (I said, “stabilized”, not “established a super star”.) And have a young hungry defense. If they had kept Tony Gonzalez, this team might have been able to surprise.
THE SWEET: Matt Cassel. (And his bank account.) After auditioning Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen, and Trent Green’s corpse, the Chiefs know who is suiting up under center for the foreseeable future. Matt Cassel is the Eminem of the NFL. In so far that he was a 7th round pick who NEVER started in college or the pros until his 4th season, but took his one shot, one opportunity and made it count. So now he’s the clear cut starter in KC, after signing a 6 year/$63M contract. The problem is Randy Moss and Wes Welker didn’t join him in KC, so we’ll see just how much of that contract he should invest in long-range, safe investments.
THE NASTY: Inexperience. There is so little experience throughout this team its scary. Talk about culture shock for Cassel. His head coach is a rookie. And only 17 players on the team have 5 or more years of experience, and that includes Cassel. Less than a third should truly be considered a veteran in the NFL. That could mean they have a core for years to come, or it could mean they have a bunch of kids who have no idea what they’re doing. No wonder they acquired Mike Vrabel and Bobby Wade…
PREDICTION: I bet this team looks terrible in the first half. Looking at their schedule, bet on 2-6 to be as good as it gets. But I have a feeling they become the second half team no one wants to face. Including the Steelers in late November.
3) Denver Broncos – Hey, Mike Shanahan, thanks for the two championships 10 years ago. Pack your bag. It’s on. (No wait. I clearly have been influenced by some 3rd party. If only marketing wasn’t subconscious…) Out goes Shanahan. In comes young hot offensive assistant Josh McDaniels, who wants some of his own guys. You can’t fault him for that, unless you’re Jay Cutler, who clearly can, so out goes Cutler. Now star WR Brandon Marshall would like a new contract, because after a league suspension, a forearm injury due to horsing around with family members in an apt in FL resulted in him slipping on an empty McDonalds bag and falling through a television, and an trial for assaulting his girlfriend, he feels he’s earned it. But since he didn’t get what he wanted, he acts out at practice, so Marshall gets suspended by the team for the 2nd half of the preseason. Welcome Josh McDaniels! Welcome to head coaching in the NFL.
THE SWEET: Offensive Weapons. And I include McDaniels in that group. Marshall can take over a game. And just when you have Marshall covered, Eddie Royal is now open. Mix in a Knowshon Moreno and the man who oversaw the best statistical offense of all time and you have the ingredients for an explosive offense. Now you just need a quarterback…
THE NASTY: Defense. Through everything that McDaniels has had to suffer through in his 1st 6 months at the helm, fixing the defense needed to be priority number one. But he literally had everything else he had to deal with first. Last year, only the Lions and Rams gave up more points that the Broncos. And that’s with the best cover corner in the league on your team in Champ Bailey. If the Broncos truly want to compete again quickly, they need to sure up the D.
PREDICTION: Either all of the distractions are media hype or they need to put a tent over this circus. A fluke last second win against Cincy and a beat down of Cleveland are good starts. Congrats! You might be the worst 2-0 team of all time. Under 7 wins.
4) Oakland Raiders – Dysfunctional as dysfunction gets. When your owner doesn’t know the resume of the coach he just hired and we all find out together DURING the press conference, especially when he was already the interim head coach? When the same owner seemingly surprises everyone with the first round pick at the draft, including his own personnel? When your head coach is questioned by police investigating an assault charge from one of the team’s assistant coaches, who was sucker punched BY the head coach? You might be a Raider fan. Oh, and for an encore, a week before the season started, they traded a first round pick for a Pro Bowl, injury-prone D-Lineman, who won’t re-sign with them in a million years. (How was this not HBO’s choice for Hard Knocks? Dare to dream…dare to dream.)
THE SWEET: Nothing.
PREDICTION: I just looked at their schedule and I found 3 wins. Maybe 4. And that includes the garbage, last second win they just got last week against KC, when they didn’t have a top passer, rusher, or receiver in the game. While the sport is better with a good Raiders team to hate, I am enjoying the current one.
AFC East: New England
AFC North: Baltimore
AFC South: Indianapolis
AFC West: San Diego
AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh
AFC Wild Card: Houston Texans
AFC Champion: New England
“The Sweet Nasty” Chris Cause is a host for the “Wheelhouse Radio” program that airs every Sunday – Thursday @ 8pm ET/5pm PT at www.blogtalkradio.com/thewheelhouse
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