NFL SEASON TO BEGIN – HERE’S WHAT WE CAN EXPECT

01Sep13

Now that the summer camps and pre-season games are behind us, we can finally look forward to the upcoming season.  I’m sure you’d agree with me that predictions of playoff contenders and Super Bowl champions at this point in time are, at the very least, educated guess work.  At the very most, they are ridiculous and should not be considered carved in stone.

You didn’t think that would stop me from joining the party, did you?

Okay, having made the statements above, it may seem strange that I’m going to give my two cents worth about the upcoming season.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sticking with my opinion about the validity of projections on Labor Day weekend.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion about which teams are strong and which teams are not.

You can read anything you’d like into the comments to follow.  I’m not predicting division winners or Super Bowl contenders.  I’m merely letting you know which teams I expect to be in the race on Thanksgiving and which teams will be gone by Halloween.

I’ll start with AFC first.

TEAM TO BEAT – Denver Broncos

While last year’s top teams, for the most part, took a step down, the Broncos appeared to move up.  They’ve built a solid offensive line and are deep in talented receivers and running backs.  Look for them to light up the scoreboards week after week.

On the other side of the line, they have added to an already solid defense.  When Miller finishes serving his suspension, opponents will find it nearly impossible to beat this team.

TOP CHALLENGERS – Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans

Houston has been getting a little bit better each year for the past couple of seasons.  They just might be there this year.  If they stay healthy, something they haven’t been able to do the last two years, they should finally be in the AFC championship game.

The key for the Texans is keeping Schaub and Andre the Giant both healthy all season.  This will take some of the pressure off Arian Foster to carry the team.  It will also keep the defense off the field, allowing them to perform as the top five unit that everyone believes they are.

Right behind the Texans are the Bengals, a team that has taken giant steps over the past couple of seasons.  While the Ravens and Steelers have failed to move forward, Cincinnati has quietly jumped past them in the talent pool, becoming the favorite to win the AFC Central division.

Granted, Dalton’s numbers took a nose dive during the second half of last season.  But with a solid offensive line protecting him, and a legitimate running game to compliment a solid receiving corps, look for him to have a much more consistent season.

DARK HORSE – Indianapolis Colts

The Colts took a mighty leap last season, rebounding from a 2-14 record in 2011 to an 11-5 record in 2012.  A big chunk of the reason was the drafting of Andrew Luck.  Another reason was the incredible leadership of interim coach Bruce Arians.

But let’s not overlook that fact that the rest of the team has been upgraded from top to bottom.  Adding to a much improved offensive line is depth at the running back and receiver positions.  Ahmad Bradshaw has added a solid punch at running back, while Darrius Heyward-Bey should finally be able to show off his skills, now that he’s out of Oakland.

CONTENDERS – New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens

It seems strange to have these three teams in this category, given their level of success over the past decade.  But facts are facts.  Baltimore has been decimated by salary cap issues. Pittsburgh has been trying to bail water faster than the hole in their boat has been leaking for a couple of years.

New England…well I don’t need to go into detail here, do I?  If they can survive the loss of talent and the turmoil on and off the field, they would be the surprise team of the season.  Even if they don’t, they will still win the AFC East, since it has quietly become the worst division in football.

LONG SHOTS – Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns

All four teams have been picked by one or more experts to break into the playoffs this season.  I don’t see it.

Yes, Miami has bolstered their receiving corps by grabbing Mike Wallace from the Steelers.  But a very average quarterback will still be throwing to him on those rare plays that they are not running the ball.

Buffalo has a potentially powerful defense and a monster running back.  However, with a rookie quarterback at the helm, don’t look for them to be competing in too many fourth quarters.

Every year we hear that this will be the season for the Titans.  But as long as they continue to put their money on a self-centered running back to consistently put up the big numbers, they are never going to succeed.

Of these four teams, Cleveland has done the most to improve from last season.  Unfortunately, they are in the toughest division in the AFC and they are not quite there yet.  Watch for them next season.

NO CHANCE – Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars

Lots of people are raving about the Chiefs, with a new quarterback and new coach.  I’m a big fan of Andy Reid and I’m confident he will eventually make this team a contender for a playoff spot.  But this is not the year it’s going to happen.  And not with Alex Smith running the offense.

The Jets are not much better off this season than they were last season.  If they average more than 14 points per game, I’ll be shocked.  The only thing they will be in contention for this season will be the number one pick in next year’s draft.  Look at the bright side.  They may finally end up with a quarterback!

The Chargers will get their typical six-to-eight wins, while the Raiders and Jags will compete with the Jets for the number one pick.

 

Now for the NFC.  With the talent in the league clearly overloaded in the NFC, don’t look for any 15-1 teams this season.  But look for several 10-6 teams not making the playoffs!

TEAM TO BEAT – Seattle Seahawks

I know, I know, I was supposed to say the 49ers.  And I won’t be shocked if that’s how it turns out.  But right here, right now, I think Seattle is the team to beat.  They have had a healthier pre-season than the 49ers and I have a gut feeling that Wilson will improve more this season than Kaepernick.  Add to that a defense that will control ball games, and you have a monster team.

And let’s not forget that locomotive they have in the backfield.  Marshawn Lynch has the ability to make middle linebackers consider a career change.  As long as he stays healthy, I don’t see any team finishing ahead of them.

TOP CHALLENGERS – San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons

Okay, the 49ers are less than a half step behind the Seahawks.  They have a great defense and a bull for a running back.  They picked up several good receivers in the off-season, only to see half of them go down with injuries.

If I am wrong about the quarterback situation, and Kaepernick improves from last year’s breakout season, look for them to take home first place in the best division in football, the NFC West.  (Sounds strange saying that, since they were the worst division in football only five years ago!)

The Falcons have been a top contender in the NFC for the past several years, and they will surely be there again this year.  The addition of Stephen Jackson at running back may be the piece of the puzzle they’ve been missing.  Assuming he can stay healthy, he will be able to give them a full season, as compared to Michael Turner’s annual fizzle around week 13.

They have one of the best one-two punches at wide receiver with Julio Jones and Roddy White.  The fact that Tony Gonzalez decided to put off retirement for one more year shows that there is still something special with this team.

DARK HORSE – New York Giants

Even though they are not picked to win their division by anybody, nor make the playoffs by most experts, I think they have the potential to be the surprise team of the league.  They are not lacking in skill, with Eli at quarterback, a very explosive David Wilson at running back and Cruz and Nicks at receiver.

If they can have a legitimate defense and stay healthy on offense, they could very well walk away with the NFC East division title.

CONTENDERS – Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams

The Packers should walk away with the NFC North division, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to compete with the likes of the Seahawks, 49ers or Falcons come playoff time.  Nobody can deny the talent on offense, but their defense will need to show they can make stops.  They can’t rely on scoring 40 points a game every week.

The story with the Redskins is simple.  If RGIII can come back healthy and stay healthy, they will win their division and make some noise in the playoffs.  If not, they will be lucky to be in the playoff race at all.

There is no question that the Saints can score points.  The question is — can their defense come back after taking last season off.  I think they’ll be better, but not good enough to make the playoffs.

The Vikings and Rams are both improving from the last two seasons.  Don’t look for Peterson to have the superhuman season that he had last year.  But if Ponder can play consistent and smart, keeping the turnovers down to a minimum, the Vikings will be a legitimate threat come playoff time.

The Rams have the misfortune of playing in the toughest division around.  If they can play .500 or better within their division, they should finish with 10 wins, giving them a real chance to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

LONG SHOTS – Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals

The Cowboys and Bears enter the season in the same fashion as the last few seasons – with potential!  The Bears have talent with Forte at running back and Marshall at wide receiver.  Cutler will need to step up to the pressure and play smart football all season.  In addition, if their defense can play up to expectations, they might actually have a chance at grabbing a playoff spot.

The Cowboys are loaded with potential stars, including Dez Bryant at wide receiver and Tony Romo at quarterback.  But year after year, this team seems to find ways to give games away.  Until they show that those days are behind them, look for them to finish in the middle of the pack again.

The Lions are loaded for bear (no pun intended) on offense.  The addition of Reggie Bush may prove to be the steal of the season.  There’s no question about their ability to put points on the board.  The real question is on the defensive side of the board.  They have a great one-two punch on the defensive line with Suh and Ansah.  The secondary will need to step it up and help them prevent the big plays.  The Lions will finish with somewhere between three and ten wins.  Makes it kind of tough to predict any level of success.

The Cardinals finally addressed the two positions that the old regime refused to take care of for the last three years – quarterback and offensive line.  In Carson Palmer, they have secured a good quarterback that will help them for a couple of years.  They put together a good, not great, offensive line with the addition of first round draft pick Jonathan Cooper and free agent Eric Winston.  Unfortunately, Cooper went down for the season with a broken leg.  Their defense should be above average and their offense should be able to score a lot better than last year, but they’re still another year away from contending for the playoffs.

NO CHANCE – Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers

Chip Kelly will try and fail to bring in the offense that worked so well with Oregon Ducks for the past few seasons, for two very real reasons.  Number one — it will rely on Michael Vick staying healthy all season long, which will never happen.  Number two — this is the NFL, not the NCAA.

The Bucs and Panthers will enter the season the same way the Cubs do every April.  They believe they have a chance to go all the way, but will be out of the race by week 12.

 

So there you have it.  My two cents worth says that the Broncos will meet either the Seahawks or 49ers in the Super Bowl.  This is not a prediction by any means.  I know as well as anyone that this is the NFL.  Injuries and suspensions can and will alter the outcome of the season for many teams.

We’ll talk again at the midway point of the season, and then, maybe, we’ll start making predictions!

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