NFL Season Preview: 2013-14

I would have liked to have had more time to devote to this post, where I could detail each team in more detail, but there was simply too much to do upon arriving in Ireland to allow me the time to do so. Instead, I will give you my predictions for each team’s final record (by division) with a brief note for each, as well as my playoff predictions near the end. Given the time, I will be writing more about the NFL season as it goes…

NFC East:

1. Washington Redskins (10-6)

2. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

4. New York Giants (7-9)

Redskins have a good a chance as any to come out of the competitive NFC East, although any further injuries to RGIII would open the door. The Cowboys also have a lot of talent, and Tony Romo seems to be getting a lot of heat for an above average QB (he threw for 4,903 yards last year!) with a good number of skill players around him. The Eagles are the unknown, with Chip Kelly’s new offense being implemented, but they seem to be underrated among many (the same people who got burned picking them to make the Super Bowl last year). Meanwhile, the Giants are the Giants. They are undoubtedly the most boring team in the division, which is why they are overlooked year after year. I’m probably guilty of it too, but I just don’t see it with the Giants this year. I have them with a losing record for the first time since 2004, so, naturally, they’ll probably somehow end up destroying the Patriots in the Super Bowl again.

NFC North:

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

2. Detroit Lions (9-7)

3. Chicago Bears (8-8)

4. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

The NFC North is all about the Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL, period. Forget those pistol QBs, forget Manning and Brees…it’s Aaron Rodgers, and it’s not close. The Packers real questions lie on defense, although I don’t expect those holes to be truly exposed until the playoffs. I also see the Lions bouncing back after last year’s 4-12 record (a season in which they were 3-8 in games decided by a TD or less, and had the 2nd lowest fumble recovery percentage). Reggie Bush should be the best RB they have had under Schwartz, and I expect their defensive front of Suh, Fairley and Ansah to be among the league’s best. If they sneak into the playoffs, they will be dangerous. The Bears are giving Jay Cutler all the tools he needs to succeed this year to see if he is their guy, and I expect them to do just well enough that they have no option but to bring Cutler back next year. The Vikings are just an average team in a great division, and I see them being the odd team out, falling to 7-9.

NFC South:

1. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)

4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)

The New Orleans Saints have Sean Payton back in the fold after last year’s 7-9 season, in which they had one of the worst pass defenses ever. This year, they are moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3, and have upgraded their secondary, most notably replacing the corpse of Roman Harper with Kenny Vaccaro. I see them coming out of the NFC South with an 11-5 record on the shoulders of Drew Brees. The Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile will take a step back behind an offensive line with some issues. Although they have a great group of receivers (White, Jones, Gonzalez) and Steven Jackson this year, their pass rush without Robinson (Trufant replacing him) and pass defense without Abraham (Umenyiora replacing him) will be questionable. Another strike against the Falcons is the fact that they went 7-2 in games decided by a TD or less last year, a stat that is almost random from year to year. I see them losing shootouts on the  way to a 10-6 record and early playoff exit. The Buccaneers will have a very good offense and secondary this year, but lost some key run defenders from the leagues best run defense a year ago. Their record will come down to Josh Freeman and how good he can be with all the tools at his disposal. Much like Cutler, I see him being good but not great, leaving the Buccaneers on the outside looking in come January. Finally, the Carolina Panthers. I’m down on them more than most, but I don’t think their receivers are good (aside from Steve Smith) and their secondary will be horrendous.

NFC West:

1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

2. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)

3. St. Louis Rams (7-9)

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

This division has what could be the best two teams in the NFC, and I look forward to enjoying the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry blossom this year. I could see either team winning the division, and expect (hope) to see them to meet in the playoffs. The Rams will be better than many expect, and better than their record, but play in the wrong division to make the playoffs. Finally, the Cardinals. They have made improvements, and should be better than last year, but also have a real shot at going 0-6 in the division.

AFC East:

1. New England Patriots (11-5)

2. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

3. Miami Dolphins (4-12)

4. New York Jets (2-14)

Not much to say here…the Patriots will be the Patriots, despite Hernandez being locked up, Gronk being injured, and question marks just about everywhere. The division is too weak for them to not win 10 games with Brady and Belichick, so they’ll win the division and have more playoff disappointment. The Bills will be the best of the rest, behind the EJ and CJ core.

AFC North:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

4. Cleveland Browns (7-9)

The Steelers are the most criminally underrated team in all of the NFL. They have the best drafting and development guys in the league, and their DC is Dick Lebeau. The Steelers went 8-8 last year, with five of their losses by 3 points (!), and one of those being in OT…and that’s not even mentioning their horrible injury luck last year. Pittsburgh still has Big Ben, and despite a lot of questions on defense, they drafted Jarvis Jones out of Georgia (in the pick with the best player-team personality fit in entire draft). In the offseason, Wallace walked, but Brown and Sanders are good enough as replacements. The only thing that could slow them down (like last year) is injuries.

The Bengals will also be good (or maybe I’m just reading into Hard Knocks too much), with a dominant defense and good signings/draft picks this offseason. AJ Green is great, and their pass rush is good too. This will be one of the best Bengals teams since Boomer Esiason played…speaking of which, their only hole is at QB. Andy Dalton should be better than his “rookie” year (quotes because he’s older than Dick Lebeau), but they will need a better QB to be a serious contender in the conference. The Ravens will take a step back after their Super Bowl win. The Browns will be better than expected behind a strong defense and good receivers, but their real goal should be to get Teddy Bridgewater in the draft, dump Weeden, and come back next year looking to win.

AFC South:

1. Houston Texans (11-5)

2. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)

3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

The AFC South is the Texans’ division to lose, and I can’t see them doing that. They will be just like last years team, with Foster and Schuab leading a high scoring offense, while JJ Watt will lead the team on defense. There’s a lot of talent beyond these guys as well, with Antonio Smith, Jonathon Joseph, and Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin, Dwayne Brown (one of the best LTs in the league), Andre Johnson, and beyond (not to mention the fact that they missed Brian Cushing in the middle of their defense last year). Even if Watt regresses, he had one of the best defensive seasons ever last year, and I expect him to be a star. Foster might start slowing down as well, but none of that will really matter, as I don’t see them ever making a Super Bowl with Schuab at QB. Elsewhere in the division, I see the Colts taking a step back after last year’s unexpected playoff run. The numbers back this up, as they were the only 11 win team to ever have a negative point differential (they had the point differential of a 7 or 8 win team). Their wins last year came against poor teams (9-2 in the last 11 were against CLE, TEN, MIA, JAX, BUF, DET, TEN, KC, HOU), so don’t expect the same record with their tougher schedule (after the first few weeks) this year. The Titans, meanwhile, are running the same QB test as the Bears and Lions, this time with Jake Locker. They had the worst defense in the league last year, but still chose to aim their offseason moves at improving the offense, signing Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack to their offensive line. This can either mean that they really, really want to give Locker all the tools to succeed and see what happens, or the Tennessee front office is just inept (I lean toward the latter). Finally, the Jaguars are the Jaguars, regardless of the uniform change. Seriously, though, Blaine Gabbert will be out of the league next year (I hope).

AFC West:

1. Denver Broncos (12-4)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9)

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

The Broncos should win the AFC West behind Jack Del Rio’s strong defense (despite Von Miller’s suspension), Peyton Manning, and improved receivers. Their biggest loss of the offseason was due to a paperwork snafu, losing Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens. They should still have a very good secondary and an above average defense though, and this, along with additions of Welker and Terrance Knighton (nose tackle), should be enough to get them to a strong finish in the AFC. The only thing that could be a nightmare for Broncos fans is the small chance Peyton Manning goes down or falls apart at some point. [Fun fact from Broncos research: they have a player named Manny Ramirez…and he will actually be important since he will be converting from guard to center to replace Dan Koppen, who tore his ACL in training camp]

I also see the Kansas City Chiefs sneaking into the payoffs out of the AFC West, after getting a huge facelift at QB with Alex Smith. How big is this upgrade at QB? Let’s just say that after Brady Quinn took over, they scored only five touchdowns in seven games, with two of those coming on 80 and 86 yard runs from Jamaal Charles (sorry, fellow Irish fans). Alex Smith’s competence is as big an upgrade as any from that train wreck. Kansas City also has a lot of talent around Smith, with Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, and a good line. The Chiefs have a talented defense as well, with Tomba Hali and Justin Houston having a chance to be one of the best pass rush combos in the league. In the offseason, they brought in Andy Reid, who (despite his lack of clock management skills) is a good coach. Meanwhile, in San Diego, they have an above average QB in Rivers, some good pieces on defense, and an upgrade at coach. They have a lot of questions on their line (which may negate Rivers’ effectiveness) and in other places, leaving them outside the playoffs. Oakland would be lucky to be in such a situation, as they had little talent even last year, and they lost some players in the offseason (most notably Michael Huff, who went to Chicago). The only way they have a chance to do anything is if Flynn and McFadden are as good as they possibly can be, they have no injuries, AND Peyton Manning gets hurt. It’s safe to say they’ll have a high draft pick next year.

Playoffs:

AFC: 1. Denver Broncos (12-4), 2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5), 3. Houston Texans (11-5), 4. New England Patriots (11-5), 5. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6), 6. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
NFC: 1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4), 2. Green Bay Packers (11-5), 3. New Orleans Saints (11-5), 4. Washington Redskins (10-6), 5. Seattle Seahawks (11-5), 6. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Wild Card Round: Texans (3) over Chiefs (6), Patriots (4) over Bengals (5)…Saints (3) over Falcons (6), Seahawks (5) over Redskins (4)
Divisonal Round: Patriots (4) over Broncos (1), Steelers (2) over Texans (3)…49ers (1) over Seahawks (4), Packers (2) over Saints (3)
Conference Championships: Steelers (2) over Patriots (4)…Packers (2) over 49ers (1)

Super Bowl: Pittsburgh Steelers over Green Bay Packers, 31-27

Aftermath: Big Ben earns his place among the greats with 3 rings, Tomlin earns coach of the year, Dick Lebeau retires and rides off into the sunset, and analysts wonder if the once-thought-to-be-revolutionary Pistol can ever win you a championship.

Note: The Steelers would immediately go on to lose Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey (torn ACL and MCL) and ILB Larry Foote (ruptured biceps) for the season. I’m sorry, Pittsburgh.

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