Parity has ruled the NFL for over a decade but this might be the most up-for-grabs season in recent memory. There doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut favorite for several divisions and while the NFC is somewhat top-heavy, the AFC is a crapshoot.
Having said that, let’s make some predictions for the 2013 NFL season.
The Patriots will open the season without Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their receiving corps is young and inexperienced. But as long as they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the controls, they shouldn’t have much difficulty winning this soft division. The Dolphins have more talent than they did a year ago and Ryan Tannehill appears set to take that next step in his development. But questions remain about whether or not all of those new changes will mesh in time for this team to make a run at a wild card berth. They’ll certainly be better than the talent-starved Bills and the circus that is the Jets, but the Dolphins appear to be a year or two away from challenging the Patriots for the division crown.
The Bengals have had their issues with the Steelers and Ravens over the years, but 2013 is their time to shine. Their defense is legit and possibly the most underrated unit in the league, and they added Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard to an offense that already features A.J. Green. If Andy Dalton can continue to limit mistakes and keep the chains moving, Cincinnati will host a playoff game this season…The Ravens lost a ton of experience when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed departed this offseason, but they’re younger and more talented on that side of the ball. Terrell Suggs and Ladarius Webb are both healthy, and the addition of Elvis Dumervil will improve their pass rush. The question is whether or not losing Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta will sink their passing game. That said, Jim Caldwell’s no-huddle attack will keep opponents off-balance and they still have a talented trio in Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith…As for the Steelers, their running game took a massive hit with the loss of Le’Veon Bell (although it looks like he could be ready as soon as Week 2), but the biggest question is always health. If Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu stay upright for a full season, this team traditionally bounces back after down years. Despite all of their question marks, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Steelers qualify for the postseason…Believe it or not, the same statement applies for the Browns, who have improved dramatically on paper and who are coming off an impressive preseason. Brandon Weeden is a much better fit for Norv Turner’s offense than he was for Pat Shurmur’s system, and Ray Horton is an outstanding defensive playcaller. This team has definitely closed the gap in the division. The only question is whether or not Weeden can succeed over the course of an entire 16-game schedule.
The Texans remain the class of this division. If they didn’t suffer so many injuries on defense last year, chances are they would have had home field advantage throughout the entire postseason. Besides Arian Foster’s health status, the question is whether or not Matt Schaub can be more than just a game manager when this team inevitably qualifies for a playoff berth. The addition of DeAndre Hopkins, if he can stay healthy, will help complement a passing game that already features Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. But Schaub needs to elevate his game in January if Houston is to reach February…With Andrew Luck taking snaps behind a re-built offensive line, the Colts will remain competitive. But it’s hard to envision this team racking up 11 victories again this season after winning so many close games a year ago. Their point differential of -30 indicates that they were fortunate not to have more losses than they did in 2012, but let’s not diminish what Luck was able to accomplish as a rookie. He was exceptional and should continue to grow as a signal-caller…Jake Locker is the key for a Titans team that dramatically improved the interior of their offensive line with the additions of Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. Locker has improved as a pocket passer but he must his accuracy and decision-making remain a problem. Tennessee isn’t without talent (Chris Johnson looked great in preseason), but Locker will be the difference between a 5-11 season and a potential wild card berth…It’ll take years before Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell fix the mess that is the Jaguars. At least they’ll be drafting in the top 5 again next year.
Pundits are high on the Chiefs but this is still the Broncos’ division to lose. The addition of Wes Welker will help an already explosive offense that features Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The loss of Von Miller will hamper Denver’s defense, but in six weeks the unit will be back to full strength and firing on all cylinders. Manning knows that this is one of this final opportunities to win a Super Bowl and he won’t allow the Broncos to underachieve…The Chiefs have slowly become media darlings thanks to the additions of Andy Reid and Alex Smith. This team had six Pro Bowlers make the AFC squad last year, so clearly coaching and leadership were a problem – talent wasn’t. But while Reid will fix those issues, questions remain about Smith. He’s a perfect fit for Reid’s offense when he can dink-and-dunk his way to turnover-free victories. But when he has to go mano-y-mano with better quarterbacks or top defenses, he struggles. Still, this team is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and should challenge for a wild card spot…The Chargers have a brutal offensive line and limited playmakers on offense. Philip Rivers has proven that he can’t win games on his own and the defense isn’t as dominant as it once was. There’s just not enough talent on both sides of the ball for San Diego to compete this season and it’ll be interesting to see if this team eventually moves on from Rivers…The Raiders have one of the least-talented rosters in the NFL and will challenge for the No. 1 spot in next year’s draft.
This division is the ultimate crapshoot. The Giants aren’t without their issues but they might be the most stable team among the four. Nobody knows if RGIII is going to be healthy enough to make it through a full 16-game season and even if he does, will his knee allow Kyle Shanahan to use him to his full capabilities? Monte Kiffin was an outstanding playcaller for years in Tampa but he lost his fastball last season with USC and it was surprising to see him hired as the new DC in Dallas. Will the transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 be rocky in “Big D?” Will Tony Romo finally turn those outstanding regular-season numbers into playoff victories? Meanwhile, the Eagles are in the midst of a complete facelift under Chip Kelly and it remains to be seen if Michael Vick can stay healthy enough for Philly to surprise. At the very least, the Giants will enter the 2013 season with the same quarterback, head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator as they did when they won the Super Bowl two years ago. Again, they’re far from perfect but their warts aren’t as exposed as the other three teams in this division.
Call the Lions my sleeper of 2013. Over the past 10 seasons at least one team has gone from last to first in the matter of a year. The Lions aren’t as talented as the Packers, but I think people are underestimating how valuable Reggie Bush will be for that offense. Matthew Stafford had to throw every down the past two years because the running game (and thus, playaction) was non-existent. But with the addition of Bush, opponents will at least have to pick their poison between containing Bush in open field or blanketing Calvin Johnson in coverage. (Even when double covered, “Megatron” has proven to be difficult to stop.) The defense remains the biggest question mark but Glover Quin was an underrated pickup and the interior defensive line duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nicky Fairley will be a headache for opposing quarterbacks. Even if they don’t wind up shocking the masses and winning the division, I like the Lions to at least qualify for a wild card berth…As for the Packers, many still believe that this is their division to lose and maybe it is. Aaron Rodgers is sensational and is one of the truly elite quarterbacks in this league that can elevate those around him. The addition of Eddie Lacy should only help and if Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb can stay healthy, the receiving corps will be fine. The question is whether or not the offensive line will wind up killing Rodgers at some point during the season, and if Dom Capers’ defense can rebound from an ugly effort in 2012 (particularly in the Divisional Round when Colin Kaepernick nearly destroyed them single-handedly). Still, this is a playoff-caliber team, if not Super Bowl-worthy…Many pundits believe that the Bears will qualify for a postseason berth thanks to the additions they made to their offensive line. But Brandon Marshall’s hip scares me and while I have defended Jay Cutler over the years, something tells me he remains as combustible as ever. While Jon Bostic is a serious Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in the middle, the defense continues to age as well…The Vikings were the surprise of the NFC last season and while I hate doubting anything Adrian Peterson can do, I question whether or not he can be as good as he was in 2012. With Christian Ponder leading the way, I’m willing to bet against a repeat performance by this Minnesota team in 2013.
The Falcons continue to be the most over-looked team in the NFL. Since Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff took over in 2008, they’ve built one of the most talented offenses in all of football and the addition of Steven Jackson should only help Atlanta become more explosive. The offensive line is a question mark (they have three new starters from a year ago), but Matt Ryan is highly adept at getting the ball out of his hand quickly and into the hands of playmakers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. And while the defense has issues (specifically the pass rush), Mike Nolan did an outstanding job scheming against the likes of Peyton Manning (3 INTs), Eli Manning (2 INTs) and Drew Brees (6 INTs) last season…Speaking of defense, that’s the only thing that will hold the Saints back in 2013. The hiring of Rob Ryan will help, but he simply doesn’t have the pass rushers in order to fix a defense that was historically bad a year ago. His units have also been known to give up big plays, which will be an issue playing in a division that has plenty of offensive firepower. That said, with Sean Payton back to call plays for Drew Brees, this offense is capable of scoring 30-plus points every game. The problem is they may have to outscore their own defense if they’re going to make a postseason run…The Bucs are an underrated group, capable of even winning this division due to an improved defense and an offensive trio of Josh Freeman, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. That said, this team will only go as far as Freeman. He’s proven that he can win and lose games on his own and if he doesn’t play with consistency from week to week, Tampa will be left on the outside looking in and maybe Freeman will be searching for work next offseason…The Panthers are a sleeper thanks to Cam Newton but the offense looked so dreadful in preseason that it’s hard to envision them succeeding in Mike Shula’s first year as offensive coordinator. The secondary is still a major issue as well, and that’s a massive problem with Carolina having to face Atlanta and New Orleans four times this season.
The 49ers are led by a physical defense, an outstanding running game and a quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who has a unique skill set. That said, I think people are underestimating what Michael Crabtree meant to this offense. He was one of the best playmakers in all of football in the second half last year, and it remains to be seen if Kaepernick can build the same kind of consistent chemistry with Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. That said, this is still one of the top teams in the NFC, if not they best that the conference has to offer. It wouldn’t be surprising if they won another division title and eventually, the Super Bowl, but the loss of Crabtree is significant…Now, some will ask: What about the loss of Percy Harvin in Seattle? Harvin wasn’t there a year ago and the Hawks were dangerous thanks to their terrific rushing attack and the freelancing style of Russell Wilson. If nothing else, this offense will revert back to the same unit it was in 2012, which was pretty good. Pete Carroll realized halfway through the season that his team could use Wilson in a similar manner as the Redskins used Robert Griffin III, and Seattle’s offense took off. Imagine what Wilson will do running the read option for a full season? Coupled with an outstanding defense and a unique home field advantage, I like the Seahawks to pull off a small upset and win the West…The Rams will likely be the most improved team in the league, even after winning seven games last season in Jeff Fisher’s first year. The team has finally given Sam Bradford some real weapons in Jared Cook and Tavon Austin, and the spread philosophy that Brian Schottenheimer will utilize fits Bradford well. On defense, the pass rush remains one of the best in the league and the veteran leadership that James Laurinaitis, Chris Long and Cortland Finnegan offer will go a long way in helping this young team compete. That said, overall inexperience as well as a questionable rushing attack and run defense will cause the Rams to come up just short of a playoff berth…The Cardinals will also be immensely improved thanks to head coach Bruce Arians and an upgraded quarterback situation. That said, losing Jonathan Cooper is a killer and the running game will rely on the health status of Rashard Mendenhall, which isn’t good. Playing in one of the toughest divisions in football also won’t help, although this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago.
AFC Playoff Picture:
Why Chiefs and Ravens over Steelers: The Chiefs will have an opportunity to feast on the Chargers and Raiders in the AFC West, while the Steelers will have to battle through a tough AFC North schedule. That said, I gave considerable thought to replacing the Ravens with the Steelers for that sixth playoff spot, but I just don’t trust Pittsburgh to stay healthy collectively all season.
NFC Playoff Picture:
Why not the Saints or Bears: I don’t trust the Saints’ defense and believe it or not, I have more questions about the Bears than I do the Lions. We know that Detroit’s offense is going to be able to score points – we don’t know what Chicago will be under Marc Trestman. They could be highly potent or combustible thanks to Jay Cutler’s irratic play and Brandon Marshall’s hip.
Wild Card Predictions:
Bengals over Chiefs
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over Giants
49ers over Lions
Divisional Round Predictions:
Texans over Bengals
Broncos over Ravens
Falcons over Packers
Seahawks over 49ers
Broncos over Texans
Falcons over Seahawks
Super Bowl Prediction:
Broncos over Falcons