As the NFL season approaches, I turn to my Acme Crystal Ball to find out how the final standing may look. Did I say "MAY?" What stuff and nonsense! I bought crystal ball insurance, for a mere $1.83, so there's simply no way it can be wrong...
Just as the sun is about to flip its poles, the NFL has followed suit. Powerful teams of past seasons are not so much on the wain, as they are in flux. New England is still led by Tom Brady, but the weapons array he's had in the past is suspect for the coming year. The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens will carry the same doubts into this season as they did in 2012, but injuries are taking their toll early on. The San Francisco 49ers head most power rankings this year, though age is catching up to them with running back Frank Gore and defensive tackle Justin Smith.
The big flip-flop this year is in the divisions themselves. Once maligned, the NFC West is no longer the extra by-week for their opponents. The NFC East is looking weak, and the AFC East is looking like a jump ball at best. The AFC North has to be considered one of the top divisions in the NFL, and those who take Cincinnati and Cleveland for granted this year do so at their peril. The NFC North looks like it's going to be a cat fight, while the NFC South may very well host the conference's Super Bowl heir apparent in the Atlanta Falcons.
OK, while I've been writing this little lead in, I've been following the instructions for my new crystal ball. It's written in an ancient Romanian dialect, so Brandon "DC" Bate has been doing the translation for me. Few know this about Brandon, but he's a descendant of Brandonicus Confusicus, one of the great Romanian philosophers of his day. His famous quote, "What comes aroundium, hitus in the headium", always gives me pause... Anyway, it says here I'm supposed to rub sacred and rare herbs on the crystal ball to make it work. Being fresh out of sacred anything, I've mashed together some chili peppers, a finely diced picture of Peter King and crushed Cheetos. It seems to be working? The first image up is one involving Olivia Munn, and she appears to be waving what looks like a restraining order at me? Hmm... So my love life is about to take an interesting turn? Check! Next up, I see the NFL logo and what could be the final standing for the 2013 regular season...
The NFC East
New York Giants: 10-6
Washington Redskins: 8-8
Dallas Cowboys: 6-10
Philadelphia Eagles: 4-12
Looks like a tough year in the NFC East? In one of the most powerful division in recent years, the drop off this season shouldn't surprise many. The Giants are the only team with a solid roster, and Eli should be the best quarterback in this division. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks head a solid receiving corp, and the New York defense should be up to the challenge.
Dallas has serious issues on the offensive and defensive lines, and budding problems at safety are going to haunt them. Washington has too many eggs in its RGIII basket, but their defense - with the return of Brian Orakpo from a shoulder injury - should be stout. It's their secondary that'll be their Achilles heal: very thin across the board at corner back and safety. The Philadelphia Eagles have a new coach and are banking on his offensive college success to see them through. I have my doubts, in that an offense predicated on being faster needs to have the overall tools to do so. I just don't see their current roster having the weapons to make the Chip Kelly's vision work after the loss of Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn, let alone the host of other injured players you can read about here.
Chicago Bears: 11-5
Green Bay: 10-6
Minnesota Vikings: 7-9
Detroit Lions: 5-11
Can it be so? Well, if you look at the Green Bay offensive line, I think this isn't far off. The most sacked quarterback in the NFL for 2012, Aaron Rodgers ate the turf 51 times. No stranger to being sacked, Rodgers has been "defensive meat" 202 times since 2008. Call me stupid... Wait, don't call me that! It's rude, and I was tested for stupidity when I was young. The test came back "Stupidity doesn't even cover it...", so I have that going for me... Anyway, I have my doubts Rodgers can make it through the 2013 season with 21 year old Ryan Bakhtiari at left tackle guarding his blind side. It also means the Packers will need a tight end to spend time blocking, instead of running pass patterns. The Green Bay offense is predicated on the number of weapons it has for Rodgers to choose from down field.
Chicago has a new look to their team on offense, and a healthy Matt Forte will lead the way. Jake Cutler should have a career year passing to a talented wide receiver group headlined by Brandon Marshall. The Vikings are searching for someone - anyone - to take some of the heat off of Adrian Peterson. Christian Palmer is a mid-line quarterback at this stage of his career, and the Percy Harvin-less wide receiver corps won't instill much fear in opposing defenses. Detroit was the most underachieving team in the NFL last season, and I just don't see the situation changing in 2013. They've added a confident Reggie Bush to the back field, but this team's offense will live or die on the Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson connection. The best receiver in the NFL - and near guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famer - needs to score more touchdowns for the Lions to have any chance at all. The Detroit defense is an out of control unit, and it'll cost head coach Jim Schwartz his job if they don't drastically come together as a unit.
Seattle Seahawks: 11-5
San Francisco 49ers: 10-6
St. Louis Rams: 10-6
Arizona Cardinals: 5-11
The NFC West with three teams headed to the post season? It could happen if the NFC South and AFC South crumble before the West's defenses. That's what it will take too, because the competition within the division is going to be down right fierce this year. I have no problem at all envisioning 3-3 records for each NFC West team within the division. The very real possibility of all four teams splitting their two inter-division meetings is out there, and I have little doubt at least one team will be a spoiler for post season seeds.
My top two finishers - Seattle and San Francisco - could easily switch final positions, but I'm playing the age card with the 49ers, and the loss of Michael Crabtree meaning more than the loss of Percy Harvin to the Seahawks. Do I think Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson will have banner years? Yup, I think they take the next step along the way to being considered true franchise quarterbacks. But don't discount the fact each of them is only in their second year as a starter. Experience is still the asset both must chase, and they have excellent coaching staffs to see them through.
The St. Louis Rams are the biggest "Boom or Bust" team in the NFC this season, and go easy on the "bust" part. I think they have a floor of 7-9, and if the youth the team currently serves steps up, the sky is the limit. But how often does this kind of situation happen? For the Rams to scream to the top of the NFC West, they'll need not just a few of their rookies and second year players to perform, but every one of them. They'll also need their offensive line to stay relatively healthy all year, which is something this team hasn't seen in at least the last six seasons.
Arizona is going to be my choice as the division spoiler. New head coach Bruce Arians is a rambler and gambler. He showed his ability to challenge a quarterback when he brought Andrew Luck through his rookie year. One of the things I took away from how Luck progressed, is how expanding what you allow a rookie to be able to do can work to his advantage. If you relegate a guy like Luck to the pocket, you remove his options. You also shrink what an opposing defense needs to deal with too. It's like sticking a young quarterback in an unending "third and long" situation; defenses can pin their ears back and come after him because they know where he'll be. Arizona will need Carson Palmer to "play young". He'll need to remove some of what his career experience has taught him to be successful in Arizona. Palmer needs to think back to a time when he had fun playing the game of football, and if he does, guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts will make him look great. "Defense" is going to be the load-stone for the NFC West. There's little doubt in my mind the division will have at least three Top 10 defenses by season's end.
Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6
New Orleans Saints: 8-8
Carolina Panthers: 4-12
If anyone doubts the Atlanta Falcon's capabilities this season, you need to step back and breathe deep. Yes, they have to face the NFC West this year, but look how great the way their foes are spaced out and where they'll be playing: Weeks #2 and #10 at home against St. Louis and Seattle, and away against Arizona (week #8) and San Francisco (Week #16). They have some serious business to do against a much improved Tampa Bay though, whose only weakness - in my opinion - is their volatile, ham-fisted head coach Greg Schiano. Make no mistake, Atlanta is the team to beat in the NFC South.
Carolina and New Orleans just won't be challengers. Drew Brees will give Saints fans pass happy stats, but their defense - under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan - doesn't have the pieces-parts to compete. Carolina is a mixed bag on offense, but I like where their defense is headed. Cam Newton has a new offense to learn, and an aging Steve Smith as his only proven weapon. They feature injury plagued and over paid running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, behind an offensive line that's in a state of flux. The South will be about roster depth, and Atlanta and Tampa are the only teams with this vital asset.
Miami Dolphins: 10-6
New England Patriots: 10-6
Buffalo Bills: 5-11
New York Jets: 2-14
"Oh no you didn't!" Yes, I'm afraid I did, and it's Miami's time to peek out from behind the Tom Brady curtain in 2013. First, I reeeally like the way second year head coach Joe Philbin is bring this team along. While they lost a few key assets on defense, they moved up in the NFL Draft to get Dion "Aldon Smith Who?" Jordan. This team is going to make rushing the quarterback its mainstay, with Cameron Wake and Jordan coming off the edges. One of the best defenses against the run in 2012, they'll be top 5-ish in sacks this season. Young Ryan Tannehill has some great weapons to play with, and proved his toughness as a rookie. I would've liked to have seen the Dolphins do more at tight end in the off season, but given the competition in the AFC East, they have the team to unseat New England.
The Patriots are in trouble. Known as the premier "two tight end offense" in the NFL for a couple years now, they've lost Aaron Hernandez to Massachusetts' penal system and Rob Gronkowski will be hobbled by nagging injuries. Daniel Fells is an able replacement, but he doesn't have the receiving C.V. to inspire. At running back, Stephan Ridley represents the best weapon available for Bill Belichick's offense. The wild card will be Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. If he can rise to the occasion, Brady will write a page in NFL lore second to none. The rising star for New England is their defense, and they'll need to keep opposing teams' point totals to the barest of minimums.
Buffalo is an enigma. Splattered across their roster are some truly great players - both proven and in potential. But therein lies the proverbial rub: Can the pieces become a proven whole? With rookie E.J. Manuel taking over the quarterback helm, we could be looking at Kaepernick-Wilson 2.0, or a year of struggling transition. The Bills' defense is underachieving on par with Detroit, though they could boast one of the best secondaries in their conference. Next, is the Jets... No, I just can't go there...
Baltimore Ravens: 11-5
Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7
Cleveland Browns: 7-9
Pittsburgh Steelers: 7-9
If any of these teams wins a game by more than 10 points this season, it will be the exception and not the rule. Say what you will, but Baltimore is still the class of one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Like the NFC West, this division will be ruled by their defenses shutting down opponents. The Raven have "won ugly" for quite a few years now, and this season will be no exception. This team's greatest strength is their front office - led by Ozzie Newsome. If there's ever been a two time inductee to the NFL Hall of Fame - as a player and then as a front office guy - let me know, because Ozzie would be my candidate. The man knows talent. The emotional asset of retired Ray Lewis will be felt, and Ed Reed leaves some tough shoes to fill at safety, but the Ravens will be just fine, thanks. Joe Flacco - if he's "elite" or not, it doesn't really matter. Whether he pushes this team like a bag-man does his shopping cart full of aluminum cans through the snow, or sails the Ravens like an America's Cup yacht, they'll be there in the coming post-season.
Cincinnati was my upset pick last season to win their division. I've lost some of my enthusiasm for the Bengals, and the why of it really isn't clear to me. A.J. Green is superb, but I'm having some lingering doubts about quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals defense looks great on paper, but there's a few key holes I don't like. The bottom line: I don't see them making a viable move to the post season, let alone the division championship.
Cleveland is an interesting team, and that's not the first time people have said this about them, only to be let down. What I can definitely say, is the Browns are moving in the right direction. The bad thing is they're doing so at a slow pace. Once their greatest asset, the offensive line - headlined by left tackle Joe Thomas - is showing some cracks in what used to be a pretty decent wall. Offensive guard is a serious position concern for the Browns going into this season. Their defense is a bright spot, with one of the better secondaries you'll find. My big problem is with the oldest second year quarterback in the NFL - Brandon Weedon. If he'd come into the league at 22 or 23, I have little doubt we'd be talking about him as an elite quarterback by now. But at age 29, his NFL learning curve just doesn't have the time to straighten out.
Still, I think the Browns make a move out of the AFC North cellar in 2013, while perennial powerhouse - the Pittsburgh Steelers - go into reset mode. This team is old in all the wrong places. Ben Roethlisberger will be in his 10th season, and while I admire his determination and guts fighting through injuries, time is taking its toll. If there's a bright spot for the Steelers in 2013, it's at running back. Rookie LeVeon Bell is going to turn some heads.
Denver Broncos: 13-3
San Diego Chargers: 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs: 6-10
Oakland Raider: 3-13
The Denver Peytons are the class of this division. It won't matter how they mix and match their defense to make up for the loss of Elvis Dumervil and the four game suspension of Von Miller. This team has depth galore, and a high powered offense led by Peyton Manning. There simply isn't a team in the AFC West to challenge them.
San Diego is a sleeper team of mine. Forget about Phillip "INT" Rivers, this team is going to run the ball, and then run it some more. Pound-pound goes the ball, and it will be enough for the Chargers to win some surprise games this season. The Kansas City Chiefs own my highest "boom or bust" factor in the AFC. You have to respect any Andy Reid team, and on paper this team should flourish, BUT... Yep, hanging in the air is the lack of depth that's going to strangle this team as injuries take their inevitable toll. Jamaal Charles is one of the best running backs in the NFL - when healthy. Dwayne Bowe is as talented a wide receiver as you could ask for - except when minor dings slow him. Their defense? It's good, but not good enough to carry this team. So while they win more than they did in 2012, this year is one of building.
The Oakland Raiders are the Winchester mansion of the NFL: Always building, with stairways leading to no where. This team has been incomplete forever, or at least it seems that way? There isn't a part of this team you can't doubt. They'll be in the hunt for the Clowney sweepstakes in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Houston Texans: 12-4
Indianapolis Colts: 10-6
Tennessee Titans: 7-9
Jacksonville Jaguars: 0-16
Yup, I have an "O-fer" for you, and Jacksonville is it. If you look at their schedule, there really isn't a game the "should" win. The one game they "could" win - against the Oakland Raiders in week #2 - is away. The Jaguars are going to get slapped around, which is made sadder by the fact they have some great fans. Add in their game in London against the San Francisco 49ers in week #8, and they'll be in the awkward, hushed tones discussions on two continents.
The Houston Texans are the class of this division. Strong defense, and a potentially powerful offense, makes this the team to beat in the AFC South. This entire division gets to face the NFC West, but Houston looks like the only team who can handle the load. The Texans have one of my candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year in DeAndre Hopkins, so get ready for his highlight reels.
Indianapolis has a big "boom or bust" factor this season, but I'm leaning toward "boom". Last season was an emotional one, inspired by the story of head coach Chuck Pagano's successful battle with cancer. They lost Bruce Arians to Arizona, and I think the hole he leaves can't be understated. If the Colts stay aggressive, they'll be in every game they play in 2013 up to the final gun. Andrew Luck is "The Guy", and if he can build on his stellar rookie year, this team will do well enough to make a wild card move into the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans made some great off season moves shoring up their offensive line. Chris Johnson needs to carry this team more than he should, and quarterback Jake Locker doesn't inspire thoughts of victory. Look for the Titans to go hard at the 2014 NFL Draft for a top quarterback.
Damn! Did you know crystal balls run on batteries? I wondered why the base was two feet high, and on closer inspection it would appear I need to replace all 144 AAA batteries before I can ask the really serious questions? I, for one, can't wait to find out if Game of Thrones will be spun off into "The Game of Fiefdoms", or whether Kim Kardashian's baby is really Justin Bieber's love child. Then there's the whole Olivia Munn restraining order. Crystal balls have a sense of humor, right?