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Saints can march into contention for glory; 'The Giants are in a stinking division, but then they didn't win it last year'.

Byline: NICK HALLING

IT's too soon to write an obituary for New England. The first thing I would say to anyone worried about the pre-season results of the Super Bowl favourites is that I can guarantee teams' form in the exhibition matches won't make any difference when the regular season starts.

The Patriots lost all four of their games this summer but I remember when Steve Spurrier arrived at the Redskins, said he was going to win every game in pre-season and the regular season - they scored a record points tally while going unbeaten, only to do nothing when the real stuff began.

The Patriots still have head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, they went 16-0 last year and 7-2 still looks like a good bet to me.

What the Giants did in the Super Bowl, though, was to confirm to everyone else in the league how you have to beat New England.

They've proved that it's no good sitting back and playing a prevent defence, trying to limit the damage, and that the way to beat them is to get at Brady and rattle him from start to finish.

He can expect plenty of that this season, but I certainly don't expect a major drop-off from the Pats, nor would I read much into the latest Brady injury scare - the Pats are generally the most disingenuous team in the league when it comes to injury news and Brady has been on their official injury report for the last four seasons.

They are getting old on defence and it was a surprise that they cut cornerback Fernando Bryant - but that says to me that either Bryant simply didn't understand their defensive scheme, or that Belichick is happy enough with what he already and I'd bank on the latter.

Elsewhere in the AFC, Cleveland won't be pushovers but quarterback Derek Anderson may not find things so easy now opponents have plenty of game film of him, while it's hard to get away from Indianapolis but they always seem to pick up harmful defensive injuries.

San Diego have too many good players not to contend, while if there's going to be a surprise package it could be either the Jets, for whom Brett Favre should proved he's far from washed-up, or Buffalo, who are very interesting with the talented Marshawn Lynch at running back.

Champions New York Giants have every right to have a chip on their shoulder at the lack of respect shown to them by the bookmakers - I can't remember a year when everyone ignored the Super Bowl winners like this.

Yes, they are in a stinking division, which will be hard to win, but then they didn't win it last year either.

Dallas are loaded with talent, Philly are going to be better again and Washington could be squeezed out.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is coming good, RB Felix Jones is a good addition and they have enormous talent on defence, but they are thin at receiver after 34-year-old Terrell Owens.

A lot of people are excited about Minnesota, but I'd prefer to reserve judgement on them.

They should be stronger defensively with pass-rusher Jared Allen joining the huge duo of Pat and Kevin Williams in the line.

I expect New Orleans to roar back into contention.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey adds a new dimension, linebacker Jonathan Vilma is an impact player and their secondary will improve for the arrival of Randall Gay, so they are my pick.

Seattle have lame-duck coach syndrome to deal with after Mike Holmgren announced this is his last year, while Arizona have talent defensively and lost a lot of close games last year, but then good teams win those games.

Tampa Bay are efficient but dull and so my dark horses in the NFC are Carolina.

The Panthers have a totally reshaped offensive line who have come together really quickly, they have a great 1-2 punch at running back and I expect to see a reborn Julius Peppers at defensive end now he is in a contract year.

Wideout DJ Hackett is a fine complement to Steve Smith and they have really freshened up their defence. RB Jonathon Stewart is not a bad shout at 8-1 for rookie of the year.

Nick Halling presents Sky Sports' NFL coverage along with Kevin Cadle. Each week, fans can see up to five live games on a Sunday night (including interactive options) and one live Monday game.

NICK'S PICKS

New England

7-2 Betdirect, Stan James

New Orleans

25-1 general

Carolina

50-1 Blue Square, Cora

CAPTION(S):

Brett Favre (left) is enjoying life as a New York Jet
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 4, 2008
Words:773
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