Remember Miami’s ‘wild cat’ offense? Its metamorphosis in this rebuilding year will resemble the “fluffy kitten curb-stomped ’n’ stuffed” offense. That’s what most people believe, anyway.

But here’s one metal-chair-to-the-head, big, bold prediction for the season: The Dolphins will not be the worst team in the NFL. Not even close. (Instead, we’re looking at you, Cleveland).

After three successive losing years (they also went 0-4 in pre-season), the Dolphins may get near to achieving at least eight wins in rookie head coach Joe Philbin’s inaugural season.

They have new coordinators on both sides of the ball (although they will badly miss defensive guru Mike Nolan, who has joined Atlanta) and a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who made just 19 starts in college for Texas A&M. And they start the season without the services of seven free agents they signed this summer.

But while the talent-level lacks depth – especially at the wide receiver position – the Phins will still be competitive, largely thanks to a soft schedule that includes eight games against opponents from the NFC West and AFC South. An 8-8 mark would be surprising, but it is not out of the question.

Perhaps the best signing of any team last year was made by the Houston Texans, who host the Dolphins on Sunday.

Wade Phillips arrived as coordinator and in his first season his defence ranked fourth in points allowed and second in yards allowed.

They went from pretenders to contenders, despite losing key players to injury such as quarterback Matt Schaub, receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end Mario Williams.

Houston went to the Divisional round of the playoffs with third-string passer T.J. Yates.

So can they take the next step to become Super Bowl contenders in 2012?

Free agency hasn’t been kind (losing Williams to Buffalo, offensive tackle Eric Winston to Kansas City and guard Mike Brisiel to Oakland) but there’s no reason why they should not win the underwhelming AFC South division.

An easy schedule helps, facing just six teams who boasted a winning record last season. One big question mark is the offensive line, which must replace two starters.

Still, the playoffs are almost certainly assured – as is an easy victory over the Dolphins, despite their history of close games.

The Dolphins have never beaten the Texans in six attempts, but only once have they lost by more than seven points (a 23-13 home defeat last September). The Phins have lost by three points or less on their only three visits to Reliant Stadium.

The BETDAQ handicap says the Texans will win by more than 11.5 points. Don’t worry. It may not even be half as close as that. Put receiver Andre Johnson in your fantasy team. And thank me later.

It’s great to see Kevin Cadle and the gang back on Sky. The new TV deal, announced on Tuesday, is for another three years of NFL coverage on British screens.

We’re so stoked that this week’s musical interlude (we know you missed it) is dedicated to Cadle, producer Karl Baumann and the rest of the crew.

Sunday night’s opening salvo between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears (Sky Sports 2, 5.30pm) looks a really fascinating match-up.

After a 2-14 season, Colts owner Jim Irsay decided to begin anew. Gone are the cornerstones of the franchise, including the NFL’s only four-time MVP Peyton Manning, who missed last term after undergoing four neck/spine operations in 21 months.

Replacement Andrew Luck is one of the most polished passers ever to come out of college and the Stanford quarterback reminds many of Manning, with added mobility. That is an incredibly lofty statement – one that looks well wide of the mark at this stage – and he will need time.

It does not help that he will play behind a makeshift offensive line which is no longer anchored by centre Jeff Saturday (now in Green Bay). But Luck was as good as advertised in pre-season (albeit against vanilla defensive schemes) completing 41 of 66 passes for 522 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions and an 89.3 passer rating.

The Colts drafted well, taking two excellent tight ends in Luck’s former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen, which should ease the growing pains.

While they have managed to keep veterans such as Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, there are still glaring holes on defence, and they will be particularly vulnerable against the run (they gave up 449 yards on the ground in four preseason games). That noise? It’s only the running backs in the AFC South – Chris Johnson, Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew – smacking their chops.

With top attacks like those of the Bears, Packers, Patriots and Lions on the schedule, the low points will far out-weigh the highs again this term.
Losing quarterback Jay Cutler to injury last season when holding a 7-3 record was a crushing blow to Chicago. They dropped five straight to end the season 8-8.

Cutler is now healthy and he now has a legitimate No.1 receiver, having been reunited with receiver Brandon Marshall; the duo previously enjoyed a prolific partnership in Denver.

It’s also addition by subtraction, as offensive coordinator Mike Martz is gone and there will be more flexibility with Mike Tice utilizing the roster’s strengths, as opposed to moulding players to Martz’s specific scheme.

And Cutler, who will now be allowed to change plays at the line of scrimmage (he looked severely restricted under Martz) has a viable back-up with Jason Campbell arriving.

Running back Michael Bush will add spice to a backfield that already boasts a hungry Matt Forte, and if the Bears can get another decent season out of their 30-something defensive stalwarts, they have the squad to challenge Green Bay in the NFC North.

The Colts are 9.5-point underdogs on the BETDAQ handicap and the Bears were trading at 1.2 on the moneyline on Thursday night.

If pushed for a handicap pick, it would be to back the Colts, although it would be a tentative pick.

The hors d’oeuvre should whet the appetite for the main course: San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers (Sky Sports 2HD, 9.15pm).

Some tag this as a prelude to the NFC Championship game. That might be a stretch, for the 49ers enjoyed a perfect storm of mistake-free football, an easy schedule and avoided significant injuries last season. The football Gods might not be as kind this term, especially with an average quarterback and a so-so running game.

They clearly don’t boast the talent of the Packers, who return the No.1 ranked offense.

Any slight improvement from last season’s defence, which conceded 359 points, should make the Packers very much the team to beat.

Green Bay are one of the best teams in the NFL at developing young talent and they used their first five picks in the draft on defensive players, who have already contributed in preseason. Time will tell if the defence is better, but Aaron Rodgers’ offense is relentless. In their last 16 meetings, the Packers have never dipped below 20 points against the Niners and they won 14 of those games.

San Francisco are 5.5 BETDAQ underdogs on the handicap and the Packers can win by a touchdown or more.

You may have heard that Peyton Manning has arrived in Colorado to take the reins and steer the Denver Broncos towards the Promised Land. Well buckle up, because the ride could be bumpier than expected. Forget the fact that he hasn’t played for a year. It is the dreadful defence that is cause for concern. Denver have not made too many moves to shore up a rearguard that conceded a woeful 24.4 points per game average last season.

They will need plenty of Manning magic to paper over the gaping cracks and with a San Diego bounce-back likely in the AFC West, the Broncos may well find themselves on the outside the playoffs looking in come January.

Denver host Pittsburgh in the Sunday night game (1.20am, C4) and the Steelers will be thirsting to avenge last season’s playoff wildcard loss where Tim Tebow managed six good throws and stunned the visitors with a 29-23 overtime win.

The Steelers have a terrible 5-10-1 record in Denver and have never beaten the Broncos in the month of September (in four attempts).

Pittsburgh are the ninth franchise since 2002 to face the team that knocked them out of the previous season’s playoffs in Week 1 of the following season – and in five of those eight games, the team that won in the playoffs also won the season opener.

Going forward, age is possibly a concern for the Steelers. Even of the 11 projected defensive starters are over 30. That did not stop them being first in total defence and points conceded last season, though.

Of more concern is the chemistry between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and incoming offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who lasted less than three seasons as head coach at Kansas City. They are both big personalities and Roethlisberger was close with Bruce Arians, who was ‘retired’ after last season’s wildcard playoff exit.

The offense, which has for so long been something of a passenger to the defence, will have to produce, and while the return of every starter looks good on paper, injury to running back Rashard Mendenhall and the protracted holdout of receiver Mike Wallace (who finally arrived in camp last week) could have a detrimental impact.

Pittsburgh should exact revenge, but it is the first week of the season. The Broncos are a relatively new team with a four-time league MVP running their offense. Anything can happen.

Yet despite the weight of history against them, backing Pittsburgh receiving a point on the handicap looks the most obvious call.
Elsewhere, take the New York Jets to beat Buffalo, Minnesota to handle Jacksonville and the Arizona Cardinals to upset the Seattle Seahawks.

Suggestions for Live TV Games:
Lay Chicago -9.5
Lay San Francisco +5
Back Pittsburgh +1

Suggestions for other games:
Back Houston -11.5
Back Minnesota -4
Back NY Jets – moneyline
Back Arizona – moneyline

Twitter: @simonmilham

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