Patriots, Bengals, Steelers

This is going to be remembered in pro football as the year of the pass -- the year of more pass-first teams and fewer run-first offenses. For, in the 2006 exhibition season, a record number of coaches had their players throwing the ball aggressively -- that is, passing on early downs. And in doing so, they started a trend that is likely to light up the league as the regular season begins next week.

For one thing, this is the first time the NFL has ever simultaneously had four passers as talented as Tom Brady of New England, Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh, Carson Palmer of Cincinnati and Peyton Manning of Indianapolis.

So look for the games to be a little different, more footballs in the air and fewer running plays, in a league that now appears to be stronger and more evenly matched than ever, top to bottom -- most noticeably at the very top. There, the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers seem jointly supreme.

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Palmer Tops as a Longball Passer

IT'S LIKE THIS in a league in which change seems to be the only constant:

  • The Patriots are going for their fourth Super Bowl of the new century with the NFL's most polished quarterback, Brady, and most resourceful coach, Bill Belichick.
  • The Bengals can counter with Palmer, the most accurate long passer the NFL has known in at least a half century.
  • The Steelers will be defending the league championship with Roethlisberger, the strangest good quarterback in the history of pro football. A giant of a man who is listed at 6-foot-5, though he's obviously larger, Big Ben towers over teammates and opponents alike while powering the ball with rare accuracy at all distances. Still, largely inexperienced, Roethlisberger never played quarterback until he was a college senior.

This year's quarterbacks are so different that it's hard to compare them. Thus it isn't easy to compare their teams.

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Patriots Best If Palmer Isn't Himself

BRADY, PALMER AND ROETHLISBERGER are the principals as another dawn breaks over the NFL, in which New England is possibly No. 1 this year, though only because there's some uncertainty at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

The problem in Cincinnati is whether Palmer, who played spectacularly in his return to football this summer, has sufficiently recovered from a desperate wound. His knee was wrecked eight months ago during an attack by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman, Kimo von Oelhoffen.

The problem for the Steelers is whether Roethlisberger can continue to bail out an obtuse coach, Bill Cowher, a run-and-defend old-timer who, in last winter's Super Bowl, let the Steelers pass just often enough to take out Seattle, 21-10.

Meanwhile, in the other conference, which is perceived to be somewhat inferior to the AFC, Detroit, 5-11 last year, might have improved enough as a passing team -- under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz -- to challenge the Philadelphia Eagles as the NFC's Super Bowl representative this winter against New England.

The Eagles, though, building on years of success as a pass-first team, figure to have no trouble with the Carolina Panthers as long as Carolina's coach, John Fox, sticks to his outmoded run-and-defend style.

The fact is that in 13 of the 14 most recent Super Bowl games, passing offenses have been decisive.

In other words, for at least 14 years, the NFL's best teams have known that passing wins. The difference this year is that the majority is finally catching up, leaving Fox very much in the minority. Run-and-defend teams can still win a division these days, or, with injury luck, possibly even the NFC, but never the NFL.

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This Season's Pro Football Top 10

HEADING INTO THE FIRST GAMES of a competitive new season, the 32-team NFL looks something like this at the top:

NFL Top 10 (First division)

One -- New England Patriots: As long as they can keep quarterback Brady and Coach Bill Belichick --- the league's two best at what they do --- the Patriots will be dependable winners.

Two -- Pittsburgh Steelers: The coach who developed, designed, and calls the pass offense for Roethlisberger -- winning it all for Cowher last year --- is offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt; and even on Cowher's team, Whisenhunt was toying with pass-first play-calling this summer.

Three -- Cincinnati Bengals: Playing in the same division with the Steelers, this team seemed better than the Steelers last year until Palmer was injured.

NFL Top 10 (Second division)

Four -- Philadelphia Eagles. Despite doubters, there seems to be no sound reason why the Eagles can't dominate the NFC again with quarterback Donovan McNabb's passing and Coach Andy Reid's play-calling.

Five -- Detroit Lions: A new coach, Ron Marinelli, has changed everything in Detroit, bringing in, among others, the incomparable Martz as offensive coordinator. That was the NFL's personnel move of the year; and the Lions, with little to beat in the NFC North, should have the Martz system down by playoff time.

Six -- Miami Dolphins: As coached by Nick Saban, the Dolphins won their last six games last year and could keep the string going this year if Saban has guessed right on new quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington.

NFL Top 10 (Third division)

Seven -- Denver Broncos: With Mike Shanahan as their coach, the Broncos are probably best of the rest with their well-designed ground offense setting up Jake Plummer's passes.

Eight -- Indianapolis Colts: Manning is a great self-made passer who can beat most regular-season rivals -- sometimes 13 of them in a row. And because running back Edgerrin James is gone now, Manning, forced to pass more often, will be better than ever. But he isn't a natural quarterback and so, in big games, he tends to flame out.

Nine -- Dallas Cowboys: A veteran coach, Bill Parcells, has put in the NFL's most modern and potentially most effective offense, one with two tight ends or sometimes three wide receivers but only one running back and no fullback. He has great receivers in a great passing formation, but quarterback Drew Bledsoe is iffy.

Ten (tie) -- Seattle Seahawks: Because this is the NFC's best passing team, it played in the Super Bowl last winter, and it can make it back there this time with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and his flock of receivers, old and new.

Ten (tie) -- Washington: If Coach Joe Gibbs could see that football in general, and Super Bowl football in particular, changed drastically while he was gone, he'd have the aggressive pass offense he now needs to contend.

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