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Who will win the Super Bowl? Cris Collinsworth isn’t saying -- but that didn’t stop him from talking to us.


It’s late in the afternoon on an unexceptional day, and Cris Collinsworth is a bit slow getting to the phone. He apologizes profusely upon picking up, but the excuse he offers is far different from the typical “I was in the car” or “my kids were yelling.” Rather, Collinsworth admits that he’d had to burrow out of his video cave, where he’d been watching tape of a 2008 contest between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.

In other words, if Collinsworth should somehow fail to click as NBC’s Sunday Night Football analyst this season, it won’t be because he spent the off-season on the charity golf circuit. Renowned for his straightforward, no-bull assessments and his avoidance of “I tell ya, he’s one heck of a player” clichés, Collinsworth clearly delights in the game’s intricacies. Shifted from a regular studio gig to the broadcast booth upon John Madden’s retirement, he’s devoted himself to absorbing every detail possible, including assorted minutiae, of course.

What else would you expect from a football lifer -- prior to picking up a microphone, he racked up receiving yards first for the University of Florida and then for the Cincinnati Bengals -- who can barely contain himself when discussing his new job and the upcoming season? Here, then, are the items on Collinsworth’s mental blotter as he readies himself for the National Football League 2009.

Change Happens Fast.
Collinsworth can’t remember an off-season with as many jaw-dropping moves as the one that just concluded. “Where do you start?” he asks rhetorically, before pointing to the trade that landed quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago after a falling-out with the new Denver Broncos coach, Josh McDaniels. “That will be one of the most discussed deals for many years to come. To let go of a young, proven Pro Bowl quarterback in his 20s? You just don’t see that.”

Who Are These Guys?

Collinsworth is equally concerned with the sideline shuffling. An unprecedented 11 teams have changed head coaches since the start of the 2008 season, as many owners have opted for young and energetic but unproven coaches over veteran mainstays. “So many guys are now out of the game -- Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren -- and they’ve given way to these 30-something coaches, who now have an opportunity after the way that [Pittsburgh Steelers head coach] Mike Tomlin succeeded,” Collinsworth says. The situation that interests him the most? The one in Indianapolis at Colts camp, where retirements gutted a wildly successful staff that had been in place for years.

Terrell Owens Shuffles Off.

Collinsworth is intrigued by wide receiver Terrell Owens’s unlikely relocation to the Buffalo Bills and curious about the effects it will have on his new team and on his old one. “I would have bet a lot of money that he would have wound up somewhere else,” he says. “Then, you have the [Dallas] Cowboys making the decision to let him go, which is either going to be the greatest thing that has happened to [QB] Tony Romo or the move that will expose him.”

Surprise, Surprise.

If you’re looking for the franchises most likely to shock (à la 2008’s Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals), keep an eye on the teams that lost quarterbacks to injuries in ’08. “The [Seattle] Seahawks didn’t have [QB] Matt Hasselbeck last season, and he means so much to that franchise,” Collinsworth says. “The same thing goes for the Bengals. They didn’t have [QB] Carson Palmer for the most part, and [wide receiver] Chad Johnson/Ochocinco was on a different planet. What happened with the Cardinals a season ago should give hope to Bengals fans everywhere.”

Shhh!

Collinsworth identifies the Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars as potential sleepers, the former because of their skill-position upgrade via the Owens acquisition and the latter due to a rebuilt offensive line. “The Jaguars lost so many linemen at the start of last season, they almost had no chance,” he argues. “If you lose your quarterback, people say, ‘Okay, they can’t win right now.’ But injuries on the line are just as bad.”

Uh-oh.

Similarly, if you’re trying to find bust candidates, look to the teams that have experienced the most tumultuous changes. Let’s put it this way: Fans in Tampa Bay, Miami, and Denver might want to turn their attention to next year’s NFL draft.

A Viking MVP?

When asked to identify most-valuable-player candidates, Collinsworth throws out the usual names -- QBs Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Colts, natch -- before adding Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to the list. “Up until now, he’s been running all over the place, even when everybody knows the Vikings are going to run the ball. If they can open it up even a little bit, just think of what he might do.”

Predictions? He’ll Pass.

Believing that making predictions too early is a fool’s outing, Collinsworth declines to give a Super Bowl, or even a conference-champion, pick. That said, he doesn’t hesitate to call each of the league’s eight divisions:

AFC East: New England Patriots
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Tennessee Titans
AFC West: San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
NFC North: Chicago Bears
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

A Super Duo.

While he won’t name names for the Super Bowl, Collinsworth kind of sort of likes the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. He doesn’t come right out and say that, but it sure feels like it is what he’s leaning toward. He touts the Patriots due to Brady’s return from a mangled knee suffered in the first game of the 2008 season. “All due respect to the Steelers, who are the world champions, but Tom Brady makes [the Patriots] the team to beat,” he says. As for the Eagles, Collinsworth is bullish on their off-season maneuvers. “They’ve had to make some tough calls, losing Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. But they’re young at the skill positions, and they picked up Jeremy Maclin, another talented receiver, from the University of Missouri. Defensively -- if you watched them at the end of last year -- they were tough. They’re a team that could emerge out of this.”