On Thursday night, the 2013 NFL season kicks off with the champion Baltimore Ravens traveling to the Denver Broncos, in a rematch of the AFC Divisional round game from last January. In recent years, the first game of the season has seen the Super Bowl winners from the previous February play at home, but this time they have been forced to open on the road because of a clash with the Baltimore Orioles, with whom they share a parking lot and who have a meeting with the Chicago White Sox that night, which could not be moved to accommodate the Ravens. While last year’s championship game was played in the indoor comfort of the New Orleans Superdome – albeit a venue which lost power for half an hour during the third quarter – this year the 32 teams are aiming to make the Super Bowl next February that will be played in the potentially snowy and cold conditions of East Rutherford, New Jersey, as MetLife Stadium – home of the New York Jets and Giants – plays host to the NFL’s showpiece for the first time. The question is, which teams will be sitting in the dressing room, waiting for the way too long half time show to finish? (Although it is yet to be confirmed who will be performing, I’m guessing that a Jersey Bowl will almost definitely feature Bruce Springsteen, maybe with a cameo from Jay Z to sell the New York angle.)
As I did last year, I will start my preview for the season with the team I am a fan of, the Green Bay Packers. In January, the Packers were dismantled by Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, as they were completely unable to contain the young quarterback either on the ground or in the air, giving up 579 yards and 45 points, which saw them crash out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round for the second consecutive year. Their main asset is Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the best QBs in the league and makes them contenders in any given season but also, through the draft, they have upgraded in areas they were particularly weak last season: pass rush, by adding Datone Jones in the first round; and at running back, by selecting Eddy Lacy (2nd round) and Jonathan Franklin (4th round), both of whom should get plenty of carries. If the Packers can open up other teams on the ground, then it should increase the time Rodgers has to pick teams off with his superb passing game. Nevertheless, regardless of how good the offense is, it is the defense that must improve to give Green Bay a chance of making it to the Super Bowl in New Jersey next February. In order to improve their closing down of opponents who use the read option offense (which the Packers will face in both of the first two weeks, against San Francisco and Washington), head coach Mike McCarthy sent his staff to Texas A&M to learn how to defend this tactic, which is more prevalent at college level than in the NFL. In a tough division, Green Bay should still have enough to come out on top, but they will need to improve dramatically against the best teams – like the 49ers – if they are going to make it back to the Super Bowl after being absent the last two seasons.
Also in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears both ended last season with 10-6 records, but the latter missed out on a playoff place due to the Vikings’ superior win percentage in divisional matchups. Chicago had started the campaign by winning seven of their first eight games and the manner in which they collapsed led to the firing of Head Coach, Lovie Smith, who has been replaced by Marcus Trestman, formerly of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. The big question for the Bears will be whether or not the defense can remain one of the best in the league following the retirement of their star linebacker, Brian Urlacher, and if QB Jay Cutler can adapt to the new West Coast style offense that Trestman has instituted. Cutler is in a contract year and so there will be a big incentive for him to succeed but should things not go well in the early part of the season, he might find himself benched and looking for a new team come next January. For the Vikings, they will again be dependent on their premium running back, Adrian Peterson, who ran for the second most rushing yards in NFL history last season, despite having had ACL surgery the previous winter. At quarterback, Christian Ponder will now have former Green Bay wide receiver, Greg Jennings to aim for, alongside his former backup, Joe Webb, who has been converted to a WR during the offseason and who represents a wildcard option for Minnesota. If Ponder fails to improve on his performance in recent years, he may find himself replaced by Matt Cassel, who performed well with the New England Patriots in 2008, when he got his chance due to an injury to Tom Brady, but never achieved similar success with the Kansas City Chiefs over the next four years. Whoever is starting under center, if Peterson has only an average year compared to his outstanding one in 2012, the Vikings are unlikely to be returning to the playoffs.
The other team in the division are the Detroit Lions, who ended 2012 with a disappointing 4-12 record despite having shown signs of improvements over the last few years since ending their 2008 campaign winless. There are still reasons for hope for a team from the largest city in the United States to have declared bankruptcy: in 2011, they made the playoffs with a 10-6 record; of their 12 defeats last year, 7 were by 8 points or fewer; Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the league; and QB Matthew Stafford has thrown for 10,005 passing yards over the last two seasons. With the forced retirement due to concussions of their running back, Jahvid Best, the Lions have turned to former Saints and Dolphins player, Reggie Bush to be their main rusher. Detriot’s defensive line will continue to be strong, with first round draft pick, Ziggy Ansah joining Jason Jones, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh in the front four, but they will need to maintain their discipline and not give up too many free yards to opponents – last term they reduced their average penalties per game to 6.4, down from 7.9 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2010.
Predicted Standings: 1. Green Bay Packers 11-5; 2. Chicago Bears 8-8; 3. Detroit Lions 7-9; 4. Minnesota Vikings 6-10
In my 2012 season preview, I predicted that the Baltimore Ravens would lose to the Washington Redskins in Week 14, then go on to win the Super Bowl – following on from the Redskins beating the eventual champion Packers in 2010, and the Giants (twice) in 2011. Will this trend continue or can Washington, who improved dramatically with Robert Griffin III as their rookie QB last year, actually be contenders themselves? RG3 has been cleared for action and should be ready for the new season, having had surgery to repair his ACL and LCL following the Redskins playoff loss to the Seahawks last January. If Griffin can stay healthy and Alfred Morris, Washington’s running back, who is also entering his second year in the league, can remain productive – he ranked second in rushing yards in the NFL in 2012, behind only Adrian Peterson – then the offense should have enough to compete for the NFC East title once again, which they claimed last year for the first time since 1999. However, last season the Redskins’ defense ranked 28th overall and 30th against the pass, unless there is a significant improvement on that side of the ball, it is hard to see them going deep in the playoffs.
The New York Giants are another team who were hindered by their defense in 2012 and with their best rusher, Jean Pierre-Paul, still struggling with back issues, it is unlikely things will improve much for them this season. On the offense, in Eli Manning they have one of the most enigmatic starting quarterbacks in the game: in 2007 and 2011, he has taken the team on a hot streak towards the end of the season and into January that has led to two Super Bowl rings for the Giants; but he is just as likely to throw off his back foot in the face of pass rush and be picked off at a crucial point in a game. Manning will still have his two favorite targets to throw at, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, after the latter was handed a five-year contract extension in the summer; but he will no longer have Ahmed Bradshaw, the team’s leading rusher in 2012, to hand off to, as Bradshaw was cut in the offseason. Replacing him will be the second year running back, David Wilson and New York will need him to gain plenty of yards on the ground to help open up the aerial game if the Giants are to have any chance of being in the Super Bowl in their own stadium come next February.
In the last two seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have missed out on the playoffs in the final week by losing to the Redskins (in 2012) and Giants (2011), so they will be hoping to avoid another winner-takes-all matchup in Week 17 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys will be expecting a lot from their franchise quarterback, Tony Romo, who was given a new contract in the offseason, despite the team’s failings and his tendency to throw interceptions in 2012, when he was picked off 19 times – joint most in the NFL with Drew Brees, but the Dallas QB threw 15 less touchdown passes than his New Orleans counterpart. If Romo is going to have any chance of leading a resurgence for his team, he will need his offensive line to get healthy, with six different players going down with injuries during the pre-season and his total of being sacked 72 times in the last two years could be added to once again. Meanwhile, the Eagles have replaced Andy Reid with the former Oregon coach, Chip Kelly and his new rush-first offense should see LeSean McCoy have a stellar year at running back. If Philadelphia are going to make a marked improvement on their 4-12 record of 2012, then they will need their quarterback Michael Vick to not only stay healthy, but also improve his decision-making and release the ball quicker than he did last year.
Predicted Standings: 1. Washington Redskins 11-5; 2. Dallas Cowboys 10-6; 3. New York Giants; 4. Philadelphia Eagles 8-8
Last January, the Atlanta Falcons led the San Francisco 49ers 17-0 in the first half of the NFC Championship game and, despite having blown that lead, had a chance to go to the Super Bowl with their final drive, but came up ten yards short. With quarterback Matt Ryan having Julio Jones and Roddy White to target at wide receiver, plus the addition of Steven Jackson to help their rushing game, which ranked a lowly 28th in the league last season, the Falcons offense should have enough to get them into the playoffs once again. However, if they want to go that one step further, they will need their defense to improve and shut teams down when Atlanta have the league – they had also blown a 20 point lead in the Divisional Round against the Seahawks before the loss to the 49ers and only progressed thanks to a last second Matt Bryant field goal. The Falcons’ pass rush should be improved by the addition of the British-born defensive end, Osi Umenyiora, who brings with him the experience of winning two Super Bowls during his time with the New York Giants.
In 2012, Atlanta were the only team in the NFC South to end up with a winning record as their main rivals, the New Orleans Saints, were dealing with the fallout of the bounty scandal and were without their head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the whole campaign. Payton is back now and will be more determined than ever, so expect Drew Brees to have another monster year in terms of passing yards and touchdowns, but the most important thing that needs to be improved by New Orleans is the defense. Rob Ryan has been brought in from the Dallas Cowboys to be the defensive coordinator and he will have his work cut out – the Saints ranked 31st in opposition passing yards allowed and 32nd against the rush.
The other two teams in the NFC South are unlikely to be in with a shout of the division title: the Carolina Panthers have attempted to convert Cam Newton into a more conventional pocket quarterback, but they face the statistically hardest schedule in the NFL in 2013 and do not have the defense to win enough of those games to be in a chance of the playoffs; while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still a young team who are developing under Greg Schiano, but they may not be ready this year. QB Josh Freeman is entering a contract year and thus his play could be elevated as he attempts to secure himself a good deal either from Tampa Bay, or another team in the league, but there is also a chance that a poor performance could see him benched as Schiano looks to the future.
Predicted Standings: 1. Atlanta Falcons 13-3; 2. New Orleans Saints 10-6; 3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10; 4. Carolina Panthers 6-10
Despite ending up on the losing side in last year’s Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers enter the 2013 campaign full of confidence, nobody more so than their quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who heads into a new season as the team’s starter for the first time. With Alex Smith now plying his trade in Kansas City, Kaepernick’s main concern will be who is out there to be on the receiving end of his passes, with wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree likely to miss most or all of the year following ACL and Achilles surgery respectively. Vernon Davis at tight end will represent the 49ers most reliable pair of hands, but Kaepernick’s ability to take off with the ball himself – as he did so effectively against the Packers in last year’s playoffs – mean that the offense will still be a force to be reckoned with. On defense, San Francisco’s front seven – led by Justin and Aldon Smith – is among the strongest in the NFL, plus they have added Nnamdi Asomugha at cornerback, who was considered elite at his position during his time with the Raiders, but has spent a couple of unsuccessful seasons in Philadelphia, during which time his perceived value dipped.
In a division that not so long ago was considered the weakest in football – all four teams finished with losing records as recently as 2010 – there are now two teams considered strong contenders with for a potential Super Bowl berth, with the 49ers main challenge in the NFC West coming from the Seattle Seahawks. Last year, the Seahawks surprised many – except for Bill Simmons at Grantland, who had them going all the way – by making the playoffs with their rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, being the standout performer. Now he is entering his second year in the league and should be even more confident leading the offense, while Pete Carroll’s defensive setup is likely to make Seattle tough to beat once again. In 2012, the Seahawks posted an 8-0 home record – albeit with one of those victories being the controversial win over the Packers in week 2, with the so-called Fail Mary touchdown when the replacement refs awarded a score to Seattle, even though replays showed that Golden Tate had clearly not caught the ball and had stripped it from M.D. Jennings’ hands – and they will need to do so again, or improve their away form, if they are to challenge the 49ers for the NFC West title.
Last September, I predicted that the Arizona Cardinals would end up with a 2-14 record for 2012 and, before the month was out, they had doubled that win total and stood at 4-0. Luckily for me, their success ended their and they ended the season at 5-11, leading them to recruit Carson Palmer – who can make Jay Cutler look like a good decision maker – as they starting quarterback for 2013. Palmer does represent an upgrade on the committee of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer – all of whom spent time under center for the Cardinals last year – and with Larry Fitzgerald to aim for, Arizona will once again have a deep threat for the first time since Kurt Warner retired. If the offense can click, then the Cardinals’ defense – it was ranked in the top ten last year, according to Football Outsider’s DVOA ratings, which adjusts for game situation and does not just use raw numbers – could make them a playoff contender, but it will be hard for them to pass either or both of the 49ers or Seahawks.
The one team in the NFC West that might cause an upset is the St. Louis Rams, who continue to believe in Sam Bradford as their quarterback and who have been amassing talent through the draft over the last couple of years. In 2012, the Rams traded their number two pick to the Redskins, who then selected RG3, but the deal may work out well for both teams, as St. Louis was able to add more talent with the picks they received in this year’s draft. Bradford now has a plethora of targets to aim for, including the notable rookie recruits of Tavor Austin and Stedman Bailey, as well as the tight end Jared Cook, who was signed as a free agent by the Rams during the offseason. If St. Louis can win more of their home games – where they have been only .500 over the last two seasons – then this young team could make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Predicted Standings: 1. San Francisco 49ers 12-4; 2. St. Louis Rams 10-6; 3. Seattle Seahawks 8-8; 4. Arizona Cardinals 4-12
NFC Playoff Predictions: Seeds 1. Falcons; 2. 49ers; 3. Packers; 4. Redskins; 5. Saints; 6. Rams
Wild Card Round: Packers over Rams; Saints over Redskins
Divisional Round: Falcons over Saints; Packers over 49ers
Championship game: Packers over Falcons
NFC Champions: Green Bay Packers (Like I said, I am a fan!)
Click here for part 2, with my predictions for the AFC, Superbowl Winner and Week 1 Against the Spread Picks