The 2006 season begins tonight with the Miami Dolphins traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Last season, I debuted a new system for picking winners and point spreads. That system, which relies on performance to date, clearly will not work for the first week of the season and is particularly poorly suited for use with a team such as the Dolphins which has a new face and looks to be much improved over last season. Hence, a different approach for tonight's game.
The Steelers enter the season as the slight favorites to repeat as NFL Champions in 2006. That stature, largely the result of the fact that the Steelers have yet to lose a game since their Super Bowl victory, is, of course, virtually meaningless. Despite the Steelers' status as reigning NFL champions, they face several obstacles to repeating.
Among the Steelers' immediate concerns are the health of two of their key offensive players, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward. Roethlisberger is out for tonight and that means that Charlie Batch is in. That can't help the Steelers who already struggle with the Bill Cowher offensive choke chain around their collective necks. And though it appears that Ward will play, his effectiveness will not be what it would have been were he healthy.
The only thing helping the Steelers right now is something that most have predicted will be their achilles--at least compared to last season--the running game. With Jerome Bettis retiring too early, the Steelers will be forced to give the ball to Willie Parker more often--even more so with Batch running the offense in Roethlisberger's absence. That should lead to more explosive runs at some point this season. Unfortunately for the Steelers, that might not happen until Roethlisberger returns as teams will key on the run with Batch at quarterback.
The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, are suddenly a team without major issues. Gone is the running back by committee approach of last season with Ronnie Brown ready to assume control. Also gone from last season, by all accounts, is the long-running misery that the Dolphins have realized since Dan Marino left the team--the lack of a legitimate starting quarterback. In is the rehabilitated Daunte Culpepper.
Vikings' fans undoubtedly will attest to two things about Daunte Culpepper--he has a cannon for an arm and hands to fit a miniature watch. Sometimes, that combination pays dividends as it allows Daunte to make deep and short passes alike. Other times, however, it leads to alligator throws and fumbled snaps. Unfortunately for Daunte, the latter tends to happen far too often in the clutch. Still, Daunte is a huge upgrade over anything that has stood in the pocket for the Dolphins for some time now and his presence should pay immediate dividends.
Along with a solid running back and quarterback, the Dolphins have a legitimate All-Pro receiver in Chris Chambers and a still good, one-time star at number two receiver in former Chicago Bear Marty Booker. The offensive potential, combined with a steadily improving Nick Saban defense that yielded twenty points per game last season, should spell double trouble for the conservative Steelers on opening night of the 2006 NFL season.
Prediction: Dolphins 23 over Steelers 16
Up Next: What we care about--more Vikings' talk.