Click here for Part 1, featuring my predictions for the NFC
Seven months after winning the Super Bowl, there are plenty of signs that 2013 could be a down year for the Baltimore Ravens, who have been revamping their roster during the offseason. One of the biggest moves they made was giving a big contract to their quarterback, Joe Flacco, whose performance in Denver and then New Orleans may have paid off the new deal in advance, but may not repeat that performance now that he has guaranteed money and is not playing for his future. There is a big question over who Flacco will be able to rely on to throw to, as he has lost one veteran target in the form of Anquan Boldin, who is now with the 49ers, and the receiving corps is made up of unproven youngsters. In Ray Rice, the Ravens have one of the best running backs in the league, but they have lost tight end Dennis Pitta for most of the season (at best) after he needed hip surgery. On the defensive side, Baltimore will no longer have Ray Lewis leading the line following his retirement, but his skill and influence over games was deteriorating in recent years anyway, while safety Ed Reed also left in free agency. Lewis will be replaced by the former Jaguars outside linebacker, Daryl Smith and the Ravens will also have Terrell Suggs back, who missed most of last season through injury. While a return to the playoffs is not beyond Baltimore, it would be a big surprise if they were able to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it eight years ago.
The Ravens face a tough division, as both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals will be challenging them for the AFC North title. While the Steelers have lost veteran linebacker James Harrison – who moved to the Bengals in free agency, and safety Troy Polamalu is showing the effects of age, they have drafted well and their offensive line should provide good protection to Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh will also be without their best wide receiver from recent years, as Mike Wallace moved to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, but the young rookie running back, Le’Veon Bell has good potential upside, though he will miss the start of the season with a foot injury. The Steelers secondary may appear to be somewhat suspect, but their defensive line is still among the best in football and they allowed the fewest opposition yards in the league last year. While Pittsburgh has been coping with an aging roster, Cincinnati’s is looking like they are starting to come of age and have one of the best squads in the league. The big question is not whether they will make the postseason, but whether quarterback Andy Dalton has the ability to take them on a long playoff run. His main target for the last couple of seasons has been AJ Green and the wide receiver will again be the main threat for the Bengals, but draft pick Giovani Bernard should improve their rushing game and keep their opponents guessing. Cincinnati’s defense is projected to be one of the best in the NFL in 2013, so even if the offense does struggle to rack up points, they will still win many games just from keeping their opponents to low scores.
During the offseason, the Cleveland Browns underwent several personnel changes and have brought in Mike Lombardi as their new general manager, Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Norv Turner – who had spent six seasons as the main man in San Diego – as their offensive coordinator. While there is a hope for Cleveland fans that their team will be heading in a new, positive direction, they are unlikely to see a dramatic improvement this year; especially in a tough division and while Brandon Weeden is still their starting quarterback.
Predicted Standings: 1. Cincinnati Bengals 10-6; 2. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7; 3. Baltimore Ravens 8-8; 4. Cleveland Browns 7-9
A year ago, the New England Patriots were heading into the season with two outstanding tight ends who gave opponents matchup nightmares and provided the Pats with an advantage which made them clinical in the red zone. Fast forward twelve months and one of them, Rob Gronkowski, is recovering from forearm and back surgeries, while the other, Aaron Hernandez, is in prison charged with the murder of semi-professional player, Odin Lloyd. There is a chance that Gronkowski will be back within the first six weeks of the season – the Patriots kept him on the roster to maintain that option if he should be fit – but with Tom Brady at quarterback, New England should have a strong offense whoever makes up their receiving corps. However, they are not a pass only team any more and last season they ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards with expectations that they will be even stronger this time around. On defense, the Patriots have forced more turnovers than any other team in the last three years, but it still remains their weakest point, a fact that was highlighted by the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game in January.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for New England in their hopes of retaining the AFC East title is how poor their opponents will be once again. In 2012, the Patriots won all six of their divisional matchups and could well do that again this year. The Miami Dolphins added former Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace in free agency, but they will still have Ryan Tannehill throwing to him, a quarterback who threw more interceptions in his rookie season (13) than touchdowns (12) and who managed to break 300 passing yards just once last year. At running back, Reggie Bush, who had enjoyed a productive two-year spell in South Florida, is now with the Lions, so the Dolphins will need Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller to fill that void.
The other two teams in the NFC East – the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills – are going to enter the season with first round draft picks as their starting quarterbacks; the Jets will place their trust in Geno Smith, who will fill in at least temporarily for the much maligned Mark Sanchez, while the Bills cut Ryan Fitzpatrick, a little more than a year after handing him a big contract extension, and will now have EJ Manuel under center. Of the two, Buffalo look the best equipped to cause a surprise this year, but both teams are looking towards 2014 as a more likely time when they can begin to contend once again.
Predicted Standings: 1. New England Patriots 10-6; 2. Miami Dolphins 6-10; 3. Buffalo Bills 5-11; 4. New York Jets 4-12
The Houston Texans have claimed the AFC South for the last two seasons and look likely to do so again this term. On offense, they have a solid player in each of the major three positions: Matt Schaub at quarterback; Arian Foster at running back; and Andre Johnson as their main wide receiver. However, the outstanding man on the roster is on defense in the shape of JJ Watt, who last year led the league in sacks with 20.5 and knocked down 16 passes at the line of scrimmage. Despite Watt’s dominance, the Texans only ranked 16th against the pass in 2012, but they added former Ravens safety Ed Reed to their secondary during free agency and his leadership should help them improve in that area. Simply making the postseason is not enough for Houston now – they should comfortably win the AFC South – with the talent they have on the roster, the Texans will believe they should be genuine Super Bowl contenders when the playoffs come around in January.
On the field, everything went right for the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and they made the playoffs thanks to an excellent rookie season from their new starting quarterback, Andrew Luck, as well as some incredible comebacks in games which appeared to be beyond them. However, that type of success/good fortune is unsustainable and their 24-9 loss in the playoffs to Baltimore exposed how far they have to go to be considered among the league’s better teams. If Luck can progress in his second year and Chuck Pagano can inspire the team from the sidelines as well as he did with his successful fight against cancer last year, then the Colts could be in and around the playoff picture, but they are unlikely to match the 11 win total they claimed in 2012.
Both the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are entering the new season with third year quarterbacks – Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert respectively – who will be playing for their jobs in 2013 after both have had uneven starts to their NFL careers. Both have potentially elite running backs to hand the ball off to in Chris Johnson (Titans) and Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), but it remains to be seen if they can return to the form they showed earlier in the careers following both down years and injury. In Jacksonville, a revamped offensive line should offer Gabbert more protection in the pocket and, when he has been afforded more time, he has shown signs of competency at least, but he will not have Justin Blackmon available to target for the first four weeks, as the wide receiver has been suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. Tennessee have a run of three consecutive home games against the Chargers, Jets and Chiefs starting in Week 3 and, if they are going to have any chance of posting a winning record, they will need to win all three of those fixtures.
Predicted Standings: 1. Houston Texans 12-4; 2. Indianapolis Colts 9-7; 3. Tennessee Titans 6-10; 4. Jacksonville Jaguars 3-13
With Peyton Manning proving to everyone last season that he had fully recovered from the multiple neck surgeries he had required, the Denver Broncos will enter this campaign as many people’s favorites to win the Super Bowl. Although their playoff run in January ended with the gut-punch loss against the Ravens – who tied the game up with a 70 yard touchdown pass in the final seconds, then won in double overtime – the Broncos will be confident that all of the pieces, centered around Manning, are there for them to go further this time around. One of the veteran quarterback’s new favorite targets is likely to be Wes Welker, who has moved over from New England during the offseason, providing Denver with a reliable slot receiver. On defense, they will be missing Von Miller for the first six games while he serves a suspension for a violation of the NFL’s drug policy, but a weak division and Peyton’s influence on the offense should see them easily return to the playoffs in 2013.
While the Broncos have become a consensus pick as potential Super Bowl winners this season, the Kansas City Chiefs are the bandwagon choice as the team that breaks out and massively improves on their performance from the year before. The reason for this is that they have a new head coach, Andy Reid, who had a good record during his time in Philadelphia up until the last couple of years when the Eagles appeared to quit on him, and a new starting quarterback in the form of Alex Smith, who was performing well under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco until he lost his job to Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion. Because of their struggles in recent seasons, the Chiefs have also been able to amass young talent through the draft, including this year’s number one pick, right tackle Eric Fisher, who will strengthen an offensive line that should give Smith good protection. Much of Kansas City’s hopes for 2013 will be dependent on the health of their running back, Jamaal Charles, who suffered a foot injury during pre-season but he looks likely to start in Week 1.
The other two teams in the AFC West are likely to be among the worst in the NFL – the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. The Raiders will have Terrelle Pryor starting at quarterback, in favor of Matt Flynn, who left Green bay to no longer be a backup but has found himself in that role ever since, first in Seattle and now in Oakland. They made a change at offensive co-ordinator during the offseason and the switch from Greg Knapp’s schemes to the play calling of Greg Olson should help Darren McFadden get back to being an effective back. Nevertheless, the Raiders will have nine new starters on defense and 38% of their cap space – the amount they are allowed to spend each year on player salaries – is dead, being spent on players who are no longer on the roster; neither of which indicate anything other than a long year for Oakland fans. It will be a similar story in San Diego; although the Chargers no longer have Norv Turner as head coach – whose tenure had become stale and it seemed in recent years the team no longer wanted to play for him – there is little cause for optimism in Southern California. Early in his career, Phil Rivers looked like being among the best quarterbacks in the league, but over recent seasons he has been inconsistent and will now be relying on a new offensive line to offer him protection in the pocket, with the hope that it will help him rediscover his best form. Like Raiders fans, supporters of the Chargers will not have much to look forward to this year, I’m just glad that (second round draft pick) Manti Te’o’s girlfriend will not be around to see it.
Predicted Standings: 1. Denver Broncos 13-3; 2. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6; 3. Oakland Raiders 3-13; 4. San Diego Chargers 2-14
AFC Playoff Predictions: Seeds 1. Broncos; 2. Texans; 3. Patriots; 4. Bengals; 5. Chiefs; 6. Steelers
Wild Card Round: Patriots over Steelers; Bengals over Chiefs
Divisional Round: Texans over Patriots; Broncos over Bengals
Championship game: Texans over Broncos
AFC Champions: Texans; NFC Champions: Packers
Super Bowl Champions: Green Bay Packers (but this time, they will beat the Redskins in Week 2)
Week 1 Predictions
Each week I will be picking all of the games against the spread – as laid out by ESPN’s Pickskin Pick’em. For an explanation of how the point spread work – see my first post from 2011 here. 2011 record: 134-122; 2012 record: 135-121
Home teams in bold
Ravens +8.5 over Broncos
Saints -2.5 over Falcons
Bills +6.5 over Patriots
Bears -3.5 over Bengals
Browns +0.5 over Dolphins
Lions -3.5 over Vikings
Steelers -6.5 over Titans
Colts -6.5 over Raiders
Chiefs -2.5 over Jaguars
Jets +1.5 over Buccaneers
Panthers +2.5 over Seahawks
49ers -4.5 over Packers
Rams -5.5 over Cardinals
Cowboys -2.5 over Giants
Redskins -4.5 over Eagles
Texans -2.5 over Chargers
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