2013 NFL Season Preview

With the 2013 NFL season just a few short days from kicking off, it seems appropriate to break the seal on the season and begin analyzing all 32 teams in the league.  Below I have listed my top 10 story-lines to look forward to going into the year as well as what I think the final standings will look like with a brief description as to why the teams are ranked where they are.  This article is intended to wet your appetite for the 2013 season.  Be sure to check back here later this week (before the Thursday night game between Baltimore and Denver) for a full Week 1 preview.  Until then, enjoy the buildup and try to contain your excitement as the brink of another exciting season of football is upon us!

Top 10 Story-lines going into the 2013 season

1) New faces in control- When September 5th rolls around we will officially be starting the season.  With that proverbial flip of the page to a fresh year comes a new outlook for eight new teams in terms of head coaches.  Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City Philadelphia, and San Diego will all be experiencing what life is like for a new man at the controls.  The catch here is that seven out of the eight new head coaches are getting their first opportunity at a full time job as a head coach at the NFL level (with Andy Reid being the only exception).  Doug Marrone (Buffalo) and Chip Kelly (Philadelphia) come to the pros after successful careers in college.  Marc Trestman brings his new breed of ideas from the Canadian Football League to Chicago (a team that has long been in search of a successful season on that side of the ball).  Change is welcome in the cities of Arizona, Cleveland, and San Diego as these three teams hire long time offensive coordinators Bruce Arians, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike McCoy to try and generate a spark.  Finally, former successful defensive coordinator Gus Bradley takes his knowledge with him to Jacksonville to try and rebuild the Jaguars.  In short, for seven of these teams, they will be dealing with a bit of a honeymoon as the 2013 season begins due to their head honchos getting their first crack at coaching full-time in the NFL.  It should be interesting to see how they adjust to the demanding job and how their teams respond throughout the year.

2) A shift in superpowers in the NFC- For the first time in a while, the NFC West looks like it is the best division in all of football.  Super Bowl favorites Seattle and San Francisco look to jockey for positions in the playoffs as both figure to play a factor in seeding come playoff time.  The 49ers have been improving ever since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011 and now are among the elite in the league.  Their cold war that went on this past off-season with Seattle will be one to remember for years to come.  Many can make the case that the Seahawks won the war with the signing of Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett.  However, Harvin looks as if he is done for the year so he is virtually a non-factor.  The 49ers took a chance with Nnamdi Asomugha this spring and also signed Anquan Boldin to their roster.  This signing proved to be incredibly important because it is believed that both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham will miss the entire season.  That said, each of these teams may lack firepower at wide-out, but each can still pack enough punch with their running games and defenses to remain in the Super Bowl conversation.  It also seems appropriate to point out that for the first time since about 2010, the Packers are not the team that is expected to dominate the NFC.  Additionally, the NFC East is a division that could be won by any of their four teams (seeing as how each has glaring strengths and weaknesses).  Atlanta and New Orleans will be going back in fourth to dominate the Southern division, therefore it could possibly be a two horse race to the title of best in the conference between San Francisco and Seattle.  Times are changing and it is fun to lay witness to it.

3) The college influence in the pro game- Last year the read-option dominated the league as Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco rode that train right into the playoffs.  They weren’t the only ones running that type of offense though and certainly won’t be this year.  Chip Kelly is bringing that system to the pros in Philly, as well as Nathaniel Hackett (offensive coordinator of the Bills).  Marc Trestman has also alluded to running some read-option in Chicago.  In addition, the pistol formation is beginning to take up space on play-sheets among the league.  Heck, we even saw each of the Manning brothers line up in it during the preseason.  Also, the no huddle approach is going to dominate the league.  Whether or not it is a gimmick is for time to decide, but for right now teams like New England, Denver, and Philadelphia look to push the tempo this year.  Jacksonville and Bufflao are two other teams that look to increase the amount of plays their teams have on offense in order to conduct more success on that side of the ball.  The offenses in the NFL are moving at faster paces than ever before, and they are simply giving the defenses more to think about when trying to stop them.

4) The sophomore circle- The 2012 draft class is going to be one that is remembered for a long time to come.  It produced three great quarterbacks (the jury is still out on the others selected) as well as a promising crop of talent at the running back position.  While most people focus on the quarterback class of that year, I would like to shine the light on some of the backs that have a chance to star this year.  Of course we have the Alfred Morris and Doug Martins of the world who absolutely tore it up last year and are primed to have even bigger seasons as they now have a full season of experience under their belts.  Trent Richardson is another beast in the making.  His rookie campaign was hampered with injuries and he still found paydirt an astounding eleven times.  A fully healthy T-Rich could mean a spike in TDs and yards (after producing “only” 950 in 2012).  An interesting name included in this list that most people probably forget is the Giants’ David Wilson.  He will get a chance to shoulder the load in an offense that likes to utilize a power-run game in order to set up play action passes.  In layman’s terms, he will get a lot of carries this year.  His explosive nature also pays dividends in the return game as well.  All and all, the running backs from last year’s draft class get over-looked because of how well the quarterbacks played.  It is common to think about Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson when it comes to sophomores primed to perform this year, but do not overlook the equally talented group of running backs that came up in the same draft.

5) AP 2.5K?- Adrian Peterson was nothing short of incredible last year coming off of a gruesome injury suffered in Week 16 of the 2011 season (a torn ACL and PCL).  It is well documented how close the 2012 MVP came to breaking Eric Dickerson’s record, and now he has gone on record to say that he is shooting for a 2,500 yard season.  While a feat like this would be spectacular, Vikings fans should hope that their chances at a successful season shouldn’t hinge on A.D. reaching this plateau.  Despite his wishes, it would be a more welcome sight to see Christian Ponder take off his training wheels and take command of that offense.  I guess the real question here is this: Will the Vikings be able to make the playoffs in 2013 if Peterson cannot duplicate (or at least come close to) his numbers from last year.  That is just one of the many things to watch for as this season begins.

6) The new Brady Bunch?- As we all know, the tide is low in New England going into this season as the off-season losses of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez have Patriots fans a bit apprehensive.  Plus, the Rob Gronkowski injury situation throws a big monkey-wrench in the offense’s plans for this season.  For now, Tom Brady can look forward to throwing the ball to Danny Amendola (who is often referred to as a poor-man’s Wes Welker), rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and a tight end tandem of Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui (a far cry from the Gronk-Hernandez combo from a year ago).  The receivers are all so young that someone like a Shane Vereen (a running back by trade) will have to step into the wide receiver role.  Will the New England offense operate as successfully as they had in the past or will Tom Brady prove to the world that he is one of the all-time greats and put the team on his back?

7) Super Bowl hangover?- Losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on defense stings the Ravens a bit.  However, they also lost Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Cary Williams; all of whom were big-time contributors to the team.  In their places step K-State’s Arthur Brown (at LB), Safety Matt Elam, and Gino Gradkowski at center.  As far as corners and wide receiver go, the team didn’t address these positions until the seventh round in the 2013 draft, so they are looking to re-order the depth chart this year.  Also, gone are Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.  In steps Dallas Clark who has pretty big shoes to fill (as do all of the other replacement players).  Throughout all of this turnover, will the Ravens fall off a bit this year?  Or will they persevere and make their NFL-high sixth straight playoff appearance?

8) Super RGIII?- How will Robert Griffin III bounce back after enduring damage to his knee ligaments in the 2012 playoffs?  He is has been cleared to play Week 1 vs. Philadelphia, but will he be able to do the things he did in his outstanding rookie campaign?  Let’s face it, if you take away his legs you cut his game in half.  He is a very accurate passer last year (largely due to the system installed by Kyle Shanahan), but if he doesn’t scare you enough with his legs, teams will be more willing to drop seven guys into coverage and just contain him in the pocket.  It seems unlikely that Griffin will run as frequently as he did last year so now the world will see if he can pick apart a defense like a traditional pocket passer would.  There is also the possibility that he comes back even stronger this year and becomes the 2013 version of the Adrian Peterson story.  We shall see.

9) The quarterback carousel in New York- Why not right?  No matter what Rex Ryan does he can’t shake the media off of his or the team’s leg.  Since everybody else is aboard this merry-go-round I’ll hop on too.  Geno Smith is supposed to be the starter Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay but if he struggles things could be really ugly.  Would Rex then relapse and throw the inconsistent Mark Sanchez back into the fire or does he call up someone like Matt Simms.  Greg McElroy is currently hurt as well so his status is up in smoke but he will be a factor later on in the year.  It does seem highly unlikely that Geno Smith will be the starter all year long (due to his injury history/possible consistency problems/character issues).  So in the case that he won’t start the next week, who will Rex Ryan go with?

10) Coaches on the hot seat- Every season there are always a few coaches who face pressure, and this year is no exception.  The aforementioned Rex Ryan is possibly the coach on the hottest of hot seats (as he also reaches the final year in his contract), but there are other coaches who need to win to keep their jobs in tact.  Jim Schwartz of Detroit can ill-afford to produce another sub .500 season given the amount of talent on his team.  Ron Rivera of Carolina needs to get his team some victories in September and October in the worst way this year.  He may have only held on to his job this year because of the fact that the team won five of its final six games last year.  Another coach who is under the microscope this year is Dallas’s Jason Garrett.  Every year the Cowboy’s are expected to be in the playoff picture and contending for a Super Bowl.  With the Giants suffering injuries at key positions, the Eagles in transition, and the Redskins situation with RGIII this season is the best chance he has for the team to return to the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl.  If the Cowboys do not come close to winning the NFC East, it is possible that Garrett will be shown the door.  Lastly, Tennessee’s Mike Munchak may have a short leash.  Owner Bud Adams isn’t getting any younger and he would like to see his team get into the playoffs pretty soon.  This is now Munchak’s third year as the head coach, so his honeymoon is over at this point.  He needs to turn the Titans into a winner or he too may be looking for work elsewhere.

Now that we have established some of the more interesting story-lines of the 2013 season, let’s dive into the team rankings.  These standing predictions are current (meaning after all four weeks of the preseason).  This means that all injuries leading up to the first week of play have been accounted for.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots (11-5), 1st Place, #2 Seed in AFC

Despite the turnover on offense, you should expect this team to be in the running for the Super Bowl.  Not only do they have a weak division to beat up on, but they also have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as well as an improving defense.  Also, do not forget about the running game.  On paper the combo of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount is quite the 1-2 punch.

Miami Dolphins (7-9), 2nd Place

Jeff Ireland wants winners now.  Hence the signings of Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, and Dustin Keller (who was unfortunately injured vs. Houston).  The one thing that stands in the way of the Dolphins and the playoffs is their pretty daunting schedule.  In a stretch of games during September and October they have to face the Colts, Falcons, Saints, Ravens, Patriots, and Bengals.  Looking at this schedule would make you think that someone in the Dolphins organization angered the schedule makers.

Buffalo Bills (4-12), 3rd Place

The Bills are expecting to push the tempo a bit on offense.  This should cater to C.J. Spiller’s skill set as he is the focal point of this offense.  The E.J. Manuel/Jeff Tuel combo at quarterback may not light up the scoreboard on any given Sunday but they can be effective.  The thing that holds this offense back is their lack of firepower at receiver.  Besides Stevie Johnson the wide-outs are young and raw and will need to prove themselves before anybody can consider them threats.  The defense also leaves much to be desired as the back seven is very inconsistent.

New York Jets (4-12), 4th Place

If you don’t have a solid quarterback in this league, your team isn’t going to get very far.  To make matters worse, the Jets don’t exactly have the greatest weapons at wide receiver to help out whichever QB is under center for that week.  With a lack of talent on offense and a secondary that isn’t feared as much without Darrell Revis, this New York team could be headed for some hot water.

AFC NORTH

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6), 1st Place, #4 Seed in AFC

Cincinnati quietly boasts one of the leagues best front sevens.  The combo of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson was lethal last year and could get even better (which is a scary thought).  Offensive additions in the 2013 draft (TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovanni Bernard) gives this offensive bunch some additional firepower to go along with the already great A.J. Green.  In short, the Bengals have a chance to be among the leagues best in offense and defense this year.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6), 2nd Place, #6 Seed in AFC

The off-season losses may seem like a punch in the gut, but additions of Elvis Dumervill, Marcus Spears, and Chris Canty on defense revives a bit of the veteran presence that was lost when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left town.  Although Joe Flacco doesn’t have the greatest of options to throw the ball to on offense (at least not compared to last year), he can still feel confident in his ability to throw the ball deep and spin around to hand it off to Ray Rice.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8), 3rd Place

An aging defense and a loss of Mike Wallace on offense may only be part of the problem for Pittsburgh going into this season.  Since Jonathan Dwyer was cut and Le’Veon Bell isn’t expected to be ready to play for a few weeks, the team is in serious need of an answer at running back.  Isaac Redman, LeRod Stephens-Howling, and Felix Jones won’t back anybody off the ball.  Plus if Big Ben can’t stay healthy the team may have trouble moving the ball at all.  With all this being said, this is still one of the best coached teams in the league and its a good bet that Mike Tomlin will have his team ready to play each and every week.  The fact that they have a light schedule doesn’t hurt either.

Cleveland Browns (7-9), 4th Place

The Browns are a lot more talented than people think.  Brandon Weeden has shown signs of improvement during the 2013 preseason and a healthy Trent Richardson could provide a spark that this team hasn’t seen for a while.  Defensively that have the personnel to hang with the best of teams out there, the only question is this: How will the team jell under first year head coach Rob Chudzinski?  With all of the turnover in this franchise (new owner/coaching staff), it will be hard to establish a rapport early.  2013 will serve as a small step forward for Cleveland rather than a giant leap.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans (10-6), 1st Place, #3 Seed in AFC

Houston figures to be in the conversation for best team in the AFC again this year.  They have most of their key players returning this year as well as some great additions on each side of the ball.  The loss of safety Glover Quin Jr. was quickly aided with the addition of Ed Reed and on offense Andre Johnson finally has a legitimate #2 receiver to work opposite of him.  The offense looks to factor in Ben Tate a lot more to reduce the workload of Foster, thus keeping him fresher.  Houston has another good team going into 2013.  They just need to win the big games when they count and they will be tested Week 13-16 with games against New England, Indianapolis, and Denver.

Indianapolis Colts (10-6), 2nd Place

The Colts won eight of their games last year in come-from-behind fashion.  Asking Andrew Luck to do that again may be unrealistic.  Indy could have been something like 5-11 last year had Luck not been so stellar in the fourth quarter.  But still, now that Luck has had a full year to work with the offense, he could improve upon his 4,374/23 season from a year ago.  And on defense the team won’t intimidate too many people, but they have some tackling machines with LaRon Landry, Pat Angerer, and Jerrell Freeman.  Don’t expect the Colts to give up easy yards like they did at times last year.

Tennessee Titans (5-11), 3rd Place

This offensive line has the chance to be great with the addition of Chance Warmack at right guard.  Chris Johnson and Shonn Green is quite the 1-2 punch, but unfortunately this team can only go as far as Jake Locker’s right arm will take them.  At this point we need to see it to believe it with the Titans QB, so until Locker can prove he can lead the team on a weekly basis the Titans won’t be that great.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13), 4th Place

 Blaine Gabbert remains the starter and is under heavy pressure this year to perform.  The team will be expected to push the tempo on offense with Jedd Fisch calling the plays.  Expect Maurice Jones-Drew to be the focal point and the key to this offense’s success.  On defense the unit isn’t anything special but it could be a lot worse.  All and all the Jags are still in a state of rebuild.  It is awfully tough to win games when you are in that situation.

AFC NORTH

Denver Broncos (12-4), 1st Place, #1 Seed in AFC

This one is pretty obvious.  Any Peyton Manning lead team will always be relevant in December and January.  Now he has one of the greatest slot receivers of all time to work with in Wes Welker.  The former Patriot will be teaming with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.  This trio of receivers is an unfair match for any defense in this league.  On defense the team could be hurting with the six game suspension handed down to Von Miller and the loss of Elvis Dumervill.  Getting a consistent pass rush could be a problem.  Nevertheless, the Broncos have an insane amount of talent and it is very possible that most of this teams losses (if any) will come in the first few games of the season.  Expect another Denver run in the second half of the year.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6), 2nd Place, #5 Seed in AFC

The Chiefs have always had a sufficient amount of talent to work with.  Now they have an equally talented head coach to help them put it all together.  Plus the addition of Alex Smith is an instant upgrade over the Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn turnover train from last year.  New coach Andy Reid’s west coast system could be a match made in heaven for Smith as he looks to rebound on his new team.  It will be interesting to see how Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster are used in this new offense.  On the defensive side of the ball, there are great players such as Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, and Eric Berry.  Don’t sleep on the Chiefs this year.  They should be in the hunt for a wild card spot.  Also, since they finished last in the AFC West last year, they draw one of the leagues easiest schedules.

San Diego Chargers (10-6), 3rd Place

Although Philip Rivers takes a lot of the blame for this teams recent failure, you can make the case that it is not entirely his fault.  The San Diego offensive line has not been good over the last couple of years and he does not have a consistent go-to guy at wide receiver.  Call this a hunch but new head coach Mike McCoy may be able to reignite the flame under Rivers (he was able to do some good things with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton in Denver after all).  The Danario Alexander ACL injury hurts so look for someone like a Vincent Brown to step up on offense.  Defensively, this unit can be much better under the direction of John Pagano.  The addition of Derek Cox should work wonders for a defense that lost both corners Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer in the off season.

Oakland Raiders (4-12), 4th Place

 The Raiders have looked like a hot mess on offense in the preseason.  This is partially due to the loss of left tackle Jared Veldheer.  Matt Flynn was absolutely harassed by both the Saints and the Bears in August.  Since he is not super mobile and the offensive line has proven to be this teams greatest weakness, Oakland may look to the more fleet-of-foot Terrell Pryor to lead the offense.  Either way this team will go nowhere if Darren McFadden doesn’t return to form and stay out of the trainers room.  This is especially true since their defense looks very weak.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7), 1st Place, #4 Seed in NFC

The Eagles have the potential to be the dark horse of the NFL this year.  It sure helps that they play in a division with three other quality teams that will tear into one another.  The thing that makes Philly such a trendy pick is the fact that their offense has a chance to do something in the NFL that has never been seen under new coach Chip Kelly.  Defenses in the NFL are struggling to adjust to the read-option style of play and the Eagles use this to their advantage.  In the preseason their offense has looked solid so they shouldn’t have any problems moving the ball.  Their only problem is the fact that opposing offenses are not having much trouble moving the ball against their newly structured defense.  Regardless, the Eagles could finish first in the same division that saw another read-option college style offense dominate it it a year before.

New York Giants (9-7), 2nd Place

Most people would pick the Giants to win the NFC East by default because they are the most “consistent” team (for NFC East standards).  Their bugaboo is a bunch of injuries to key players.  Stevie Brown is going to start the year on IR, backup running back Andre Brown has fractured his leg, and RT David Diehl will miss time with a hand injury.  In Diehl’s place step’s the team’s first round draft pick Justin Pugh.  It remains to be seen just how good the former Syracuse product can be at the pro level.  Eli Manning is the centerpiece of this offense but he may have to deal with his two go to guy’s (Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks) swapping time in and out of the trainers room this year.  Due to the injuries and the occasional dud by Manning, it could be hard for the Giants to win this division.  However, do not be surprised if they do string together a few wins towards the end of the year and make a little noise down the stretch.

Washington Redskins (7-9), 3rd Place

This team’s success clearly hinges on the ability of Robert Griffin III to get healthy.  As of now he is cleared to play in the ‘Skins’ home opener but nothing is guaranteeing that he won’t re-aggravate the injury some time down the line.  Be prepared to see a more conservative, pocket passing RGIII as the team looks to save him for later in the year.  The downfall of this team will be the defense, despite the fact that they are getting Adam Carriker and Brian Orakpo back.

Dallas Cowboys (7-9), 4th Place

 The Cowboys are one of the most unpredictable teams in the league.  You have here a team that is capable of lighting up a defense on any given week with a rock solid defense to boot under the direction of Monte Kiffin.  However, for various reasons Dallas has trouble scoring a lot of points.  This will eventually hurt them against the better teams in the league.  They have dates with Denver, New Orleans, and Green Bay this year as well as six divisional games on the slate.  For whatever reason, the Cowboys don’t always play well vs. their foes in the NFC East.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons (11-5), 1st Place, #2 Seed in NFC

Since this division was finalized in 2002, no team has won it in back-to-back years.  The Atlanta Falcons have a good opportunity to be the first of the four teams to accomplish this feat.  They have an electric offense with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, and the ageless wonder Tony Gonzalez.  The addition of Steven Jackson could serve as an upgrade over Michael Turner if for no other reason than the fact that Jackson provides a great set of hands out of the backfield.  The Atlanta defense has always been a bend but don’t break type of unit.  The allow teams to drive down the field but they do not give up a lot of points.  This formula has been a proven success as the Falcons have not had a losing season under Mike Smith.  This team is one of the most fundamentally sound squads across the league, hence the first place finish.

New Orleans Saints (10-6), 2nd Place

It is entirely possible that this 10-6 record is too low for a team that gets their head coach Sean Payton back.  Simple logic: in 2011 this team finished 13-3.  In 2012 they finished 7-9.  So record wise they can split the difference and go 10-6.  Offensively the Saints should have no trouble moving the ball.  It is their defense that, although improved under Rob Ryan, will be the weak spot of this team.  Dates with New England, San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta (x2) may not help this team.  So for now, the safe pick is to say the Saints finish second in a highly competitive division.  It will be hard to place them any higher until we see how the team bounces back under Sean Payton.  For now let’s take a wait and see approach.

Carolina Panthers (6-10), 3rd Place

The Panthers’ defense was surprisingly effective last season.  They have one of the strongest front-sevens in all of football and do have some great play-makers (Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy, Jon Beason, and Charles Johnson to name a few).  On offense, Carolina still has the ability to tear into a defense like it’s nobody’s issue.  The problem is the consistency of Cam Newton.  It is very possible that he gets it all right in his third year, but it is hard to place the Panthers any higher than either Atlanta or New Orleans because they just don’t seem like a team that could go into, say, Green Bay in December and put up a fight.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11), 4th Place

 The Buccaneers have taken great strides of improvement this off-season and have a much more talented team working under Greg Schiano.  Their biggest weakness from last year, pass defense (ranked 32nd in the league), was addressed with the additions of Darrell Revis and Dashon Goldson at strong safety.  Leonard Johnson and Jonathan Banks will be under heavy fire as quarterbacks take shots at them in an attempt to stay away from Revis.  And oh by the way, the Bucs will be facing the likes of Matt Ryan x2, Drew Brees x2, Cam Newton x2, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Matt Stafford, and Colin Kaepernick this year.  That sure is a heavy challenge.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers (11-5), 1st Place, #1 Seed in NFC

Aaron Rodger is arguably the best quarterback in the business today.  The off-season loss of Greg Jennings does hurt, but it won’t kill them.  This is partially because the Packers have a chance to have a solid running game for the first time since 2009.  Eddie Lacy has looked strong this preseason and could aid in taking pressure off of Rodgers.  Not to mention the third down back Jonathan Franklin is a superb pass protector.  In addition, Dom Capers has had a full off-season to study what Colin Kaepernick did to them in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs.  In the Week 3 dress rehearsal, the Packers “D” looked good vs. Russell Wilson, so it is fair to expect great improvement on that side of the ball.  Basically, the Packers have too talented of a team to not finish first in a division in which they normally dominate.

Chicago Bears (10-6), 2nd Place, #6 Seed in NFC

Chicago has long been in search of a guru that can turn Jay Cutler into a dominant QB and the offense as a whole into a threat.  They may have now found that guy in Marc Trestman.  The Bears still have a respectable, opportunistic defense and now their offense has a chance to compliment that and turn this team into a real threat.  Matt Forte looked amazing in the preseason and should return back to 2010 form this year (provided he stays healthy).  Although this team isn’t on par with the Packers just yet, they will make life tough on their rivals as well as other teams in the NFC as they push for a wild card spot.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9), 3rd Place

Asking Adrian Peterson to do what he did in 2012 again in 2013 is asking too much.  This team could go places if they didn’t need to rely so heavily on #28.  It is still yet to be seen whether or not Christian Ponder can carry this team and until he proves he can it is hard to see this team finishing any better than third.  Plus, remember that last year both Minnesota and Chicago finished 10-6.  Chicago has improved quite a bit since last year and the Vikings have not done as much.  For that reason alone it is easy to say that the Vikings finish in the bottom half of the NFC North.

Detroit Lions (5-11), 4th Place

In steps Reggie Bush.  This still does not mean that the Lions are going to have a good ground game though.  Let’s face it, Detroit can only go so far with Matthew Stafford throwing it to Calvin Johnson every down.  Their defense simply isn’t good enough to hold opposing offenses back and Megatron can only do so much.  If the other receivers get hurt this year, teams can get away with doubling or even tripling up on Johnson.

NFC WEST

San Francisco 49ers (11-5), 1st Place, #3 Seed in NFC

Sure, the Niners don’t have the greatest options at wide receiver with both Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree on the PUP list.  But this should not matter with a team that has such a strong defense and running game.  It’s not like Colin Kaepernick has nobody to throw the ball to either.  He still has Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, as well as the addition of Jonathan Baldwin.  Even if Crabtree and Manningham were healthy, this team was going to pound the rock with Frank Gore.  That is the strength of this team behind one of the most physical offensive lines in football.  San Francisco and Seattle are teams that have virtually the same strengths and weaknesses.  Because they have proven to be two evenly matched teams the tip of the cap goes to San Fran simply because most of their big games will be coming at home this year (vs. Green Bay, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Houston).  Those games for Seattle take place on the road (just replace the Packers with the Giants).

Seattle Seahawks (11-5), 2nd Place, #5 Seed in NFC

For the reasons stated above, this team will finish second, but not by much.  It can come down to as much as a coin flip to determine which of the two NFC West superpowers will run the division.  While San Francisco boasts a better linebacker corps. the Seahawks have one of the (if not the) best secondaries in the league.  Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will rough you up a bit, Cam Chancellor can kill a team’s running game before it gets going, and Earl Thomas is one of the greatest ball-hawks in the league.  Offensively the team is well off with a solid offensive line littered with pro-bowlers as well as the lethal combo of Russel Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.  Seattle will be a fun team to watch this year, and they are almost unbeatable at home.

St. Louis Rams (6-10), 3rd Place

Jeff Fisher did some nice things with this team last year and he looks to replicate that as the Rams head into 2013.  The major question that surrounds this team is this: Have we seen the ceiling for Sam Bradford, or is their still room for him to grow?  The addition of Jake Long at left tackle will sure up protection on his blindside and Tavon Austin adds a vertical threat that has not been seen in St. Louis since the days of Torrey Holt.  Defensively the Rams have two of the most dominant ends in football in Chris Long and Robert Quinn.  Overall they are a solid unit.  The thing that holds St. Louis back is the development of Sam Bradford and the fact that this team plays in a rough division with three other equally tough defenses.  Their start to the year could be brutal with games against Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco and Houston all in the first six weeks.

Arizona Cardinals (6-10), 4th Place

 Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer are two guys who should mesh immediately.  Arians loves to have his QBs throw the ball deep and Palmer is willing to throw it deep regardless of the coverage.  For the mere fact that Carson provides a huge upgrade over the QBs from a year ago, Arizona should improve.  They are still weak on the offensive line though and the loss of their first round pick Jonathan Cooper could prove to be costly.  The weapons are present for the Cards to do some nice things this year, but 2013 should serve as more of a feeling out process for a team that is moving in a new direction.

The likelihood that all of the above picks pan out exactly the way I predicted them is highly unlikely.  But that is the beauty of the NFL season.  There are always unexpected twists and turns that were unforeseen in the months leading up to the real action.  Over the next 21 weeks we will all witness some great on-field action.  It is great to have football back and I am looking forward to watching and covering it!

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