Q&A: NFL X-factors

As the National Football League prepares to kick off its 86th season on Thursday, Sept. 8, there is one thing just about everyone can agree on: we need a T.O. from T.O.

Philadelphia's Terrell Owens, one of the game's most exciting receivers (both on and off the field), has turned the Eagles' training camp into a daily soap opera. There have been threatened contract holdouts. Then injuries. Finally he was banished from camp for behavior problems (he's since returned). Mr. Owens has made some of the other NFL "bad boys" (Randy Moss, Ricky Williams) look like mere apprentices.

So consider this a T.O.-free zone.

As for the rest of league, there's plenty to discuss. So we asked a panel of experts to assess some of the league's biggest questions. The envelope, please:

Q. Will New England and Philly be slugging it out again in this year's Super Bowl?

The Pats and Eagles are the closest things to dynasties in the current era of free agents and salary caps. New England, led by Bill Belichick, has won three of the past four Super Bowls but must cope with the loss of its top coordinators (Charlie Weis on offense, Romeo Crennel on defense) and its top defensive performers (Tedy Bruschi because of illness, Ted Johnson because of retirement).

"You've got some problems there," says Jason Sehorn, a former Giants cornerback now with Fox Sports Net. "There is no clear-cut favorite when you have the Super Bowl winner decimated by injuries and departures." ESPN's Joe Theismann notes New England is paying the steep price of success: Over the past four years, through postseason runs, the Pats played the equivalent of an extra season's worth of games, exerting a physical toll. Still, Belichick's system has weathered losses before.

For all that, the Eagles, who have played in the past four NFC championship games, are in worse shape. In addition to the problems with a certain unnamed receiver, head coach Andy Reid has grappled with other contract disputes (defensive tackle Corey Simon, running back Brian Westbrook), injury (receiver Todd Pinkston is out for the year), and worse (defensive end Jerome McDougle was shot this summer and is out indefinitely).

Q. So how about those other 'bad boys'?

Before drawing headlines for saying he still smokes marijuana, new Raiders receiver Randy Moss seemed to be on his best behavior after seven prolific but tumultuous years in Minnesota. Says former Oakland wideout Tim Brown: "You're going to have to give Randy his [passes]. Otherwise, Oakland will be blown up."

Meanwhile, Miami tailback Ricky Williams, back after a one-year hiatus and facing a four-game suspension for previous drug use, will be paired with hotshot rookie coach Nick Saban, who will try to make the often difficult leap from the college ranks. "Saban will do well in the NFL, but he doesn't have enough players yet," says Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru who now works at NFL.com. "Ricky is a good player, but will his teammates accept him? The ideal thing would be to trade him later this season."

Q. Can these former "geniuses" return to the promised land?

This means you, Bill Parcells (Cowboys), Joe Gibbs (Redskins), Mike Shanahan (Broncos), Jon Gruden (Bucs), and Mike Holmgren (Seahawks). Each has at least one Super Bowl ring, but none has won a playoff game since 2002, an eternity by NFL standards. "You're never as smart as they say you are and you're never as dumb, either," says Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.

Q. Whither the Mannings?

Two-time defending MVP Peyton, last seen losing another AFC championship after hurling a league-record 49 TDs, needs a better defense. And if the Colts could ever get home-field advantage, instead of having to win in icy Foxboro in January, "Indianapolis would be the odds-on favorite for the Super Bowl," says Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach who led the 49ers to three titles. And brother Eli, last year's No.1 overall pick, struggled as a rookie with the New York Giants. He hopes new arrival Plaxico Burress from the Steelers will buttress the receiving corps. But like his brother, Eli needs more D.

Q. Who should you know that you may not?

Among established players, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers turns heads. Last season he set an NFL record for interception-return yards by a lineman, including a 97-yard gem at Denver. "He's tremendous," says Steve Sabol, NFL Films president. "He's nimble and powerful at once." As for rookies, none are expected to match Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger's impact last season, but analysts are most intrigued by newcomers J.J. Arrington (Cardinals running back) and Alex Smith (49ers QB).

Q. Which teams will surprise this year?

Expect the biggest revivals in Kansas City (major defensive upgrades), Arizona (veteran QB Kurt Warner, Arrington, and second-year coach Dennis Green), and Carolina (decimated by injuries but still almost made the playoffs last year). "Kansas City has a scintillating offense and a much better defense [than last year]," Mr. Walsh says. "They're poised for a great season."

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