Hear that noise?

That low rumble in the distance?

That’s the sound of NFL football bursting out of its offseason backfield to smack you out of your baseball-induced stupor.

Are you ready? Because I’m so ready for some football — the sound of Hank Williams Jr.’s voice has never been sweeter.

And since the first of the season’s 267 games has already been played, Britney’s provocative prelude sung, and the Jet’s postseason hopes quashed, it’s high time I officially made a fool of myself (if Dr. Z can do it every week, why can’t I?) by making predictions about that most unpredictable of sports associations, the National Football League.

1. Repeat Champs? Yeah, right.

Last year, I predicted Oakland would win the Super Bowl.

Close, but no cigar.

I also predicted the Silver and Black would beat the St. Louis Rams in order to win the title.

Not so close.

Do I think Oakland, or even the formidably ring-laden Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be back in the Super Bowl this season?

Not a chance.

On the contrary, I think that the aforementioned Rams, coming off of a 7-9 campaign, have a much better shot at fighting for the hardware this year than either the defending champs or runners-up, not because I particularly like Moody Mikey Martz and his funky bunch, but because champions do NOT repeat in the NFL. Since the establishment of NFL free agency after the 1992 season, only the Cowboys, Bills, Packers and Broncos have played in back-to-back Super Bowls. The first two accomplished the feat in the period of 1992-95, when teams, players and agents were still figuring out the NFL’s complex salary rules. So we can rule them out. Since the system has been in full swing, only the Broncos and Packers, behind John Elway’s retirement threats and Brett Favre MVP three-peat, have managed to keep their team together AND get the necessary breaks during the season. Flukes, if you ask me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think both the Raiders and Bucs stand to have very solid seasons, and likely make the playoffs. But they won’t be back on football’s biggest stage. Not this season, anyway.

2. The Buffalo Bills will keep getting better.

After going 3-13 in 2001, the Bills improved to 8-8 under the guidance of Drew Bledsoe in 2002. I actually expected more, predicting before the season that they would make the playoffs. But with their defensive Achilles heel receiving some much needed first aid in the form of Sam Adams, Takeo Spikes and Lawyer Milloy, the Bills won’t disappoint in 2003. And though Bledsoe lost perhaps his favorite target in Peerless Price (who signed with Atlanta), he retains Pro-Bowl pass-catcher Eric Moulds and promising sophomore wideout Josh Reed. Having the continually improving Travis Henry in the backfield can’t hurt either, especially now that the offensive line is a year older. The special teams also received a much-needed overhaul. All signs point towards a deep run into the playoffs.

3. The 49ers will take a step back. Then two more.

Dennis Erickson, by all accounts, is a very good college coach, having led the Miami Hurricanes to a national championship in 1991 and guided the perennially terrible Oregon State Beavers to a 11-1 season in 2000. But, as the Seattle Seahawks will attest, he is not a very good pro coach. Not terrible — he was 23-27 in three years in Seattle — just not very good. And while the 49ers have some amazing talent on their team, mostly in the form of Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia, they are also a very volatile mix. The defense is young, the runningbacks inconsistent and the special teams shaky. Steve Mariucci did a valiant job jury-rigging things in order to get the team into the playoffs last year. But now that Mooch has taken his act to the Motor City, the 49ers are left with Erickson, a man much more likely to guide this team into mediocrity than the playoffs.

4. Kordell Stewart will cost Dick Jauron his job.

Two years ago things were looking bright for former Elis in the pro ranks. In one epic overtime battle in 2001, Eric “EJ” Johnson ’01 started at tight end for the playoff-bound San Francisco 49ers in a game against the playoff-bound Chicago Bears, coached by Dick Jauron ’76. Now EJ is facing stiff competition at tight end in San Francisco from free-agent acquisition Jed Weaver. And Jauron, well, let’s just say it’s a good bet he needs a winning season in order to keep his job. Unfortunately for him, the Bears went out and acquired the continually disappointing Kordell Stewart to be their new signal caller. Here’s guessing Stewart, and thus Jauron, do not spend a lot of time in the Windy City after this year.