With the new season slated to get underway tomorrow with the defending Superbowl champions Baltimore heading to Denver, the time has come for me to offer my predictions for the upcoming campaign. I’ve broken the preview into two parts, AFC and NFC (the latter will be published tomorrow), offering a brief summary of where I think each team is heading into the season. I’ve also included a rookie of the year for each conference, along with who I think will progress to Superbowl XLVIII in February. Without further ado, lets get started..
(* Denotes wild card)
The Broncos are about as much of a lock to win their division as you’ll see in the NFL this year, thanks in equal part to their stellar roster and the weak teams surrounding them. Peyton Manning was excellent in his first year in the Rocky mountains and there’s no reason to expect anything different this time round, especially with Wes Welker in tow alongside Demetrius Thomas. The defense will miss Von Miller as he serves a six game suspension, but when it’s all said and done the Broncos should find themselves as one of the conferences top two seeds.
Kansas City Chiefs*
New coach Andy Reid immediately traded for Alex Smith from San Francisco, and the QB will give the Chiefs their best signal caller since Trent Green. Jamaal Charles is a top tier running back but I have doubts that the pass happy Reid will bring the best out of him. The defense is also a work in progress, and while it shouldn’t be terrible there are no difference makers on the roster and as a result I’d be surprised if Reid led his new squad to anything more than a 8-8 record. That could, however, still be good enough to make the post-season in a weak conference.
San Diego Chargers
Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates remain from a formerly prolific offense, but Darren Sproles absence has been felt since his departure in 2011 and the D is a weakness. Norv Turner paid the price for a terrible 2012 season and Mike McCoy, formerly the offensive co-ordinator of the rival Broncos has taken the reigns. He’ll be charged with returning Rivers to his former self and reigniting a stagnant offense. Don’t expect an immediate turnaround, rather signs of gradual improvement in 2013.
Oakland haven’t been relevant since they made the AFC championship game in 2002, and that doesn’t figure to change this season. Terrelle Pryor was named their starting QB yesterday and his progress will bear following, especially as the team traded for former Seahawk and Packer Matt Flynn.
The reigning champs probably aren’t as strong as they were last season following the loss of stars such as Ray Lewis (retired), Bernard Pollard (Titans) and Ed Reed (Texans). However they were able to sign QB Joe Flacco to a lucrative contract extension and Ray Rice remains one of the leagues best running backs. Anquan Boldin has also departed following a trade to the 49ers while Tight End Dennis Pitta will miss the season after he tore knee ligaments in training camp, so while another Superbowl title seems unlikely I think there’s just enough talent on a well coached roster to retain the AFC north crown.
Bengals wide receiver A.J Green could well be the best player at his position in the league, and the defense benefits from the presence of thumping linebacker Ray Maluagua in the middle. However the rest of the team isn’t quite so talented and QB Andy Dalton is yet to convince many, myself included, that he’s the man to lead the franchise over the next decade or so. However I’m willing to give him and the rest of the team the benefit of the doubt and predict that Cincy will be playing into January once again come 2014.
Mike Tomlin’s men limped to an 8-8 record last season, in large part to an ageing defense that couldn’t perform well enough to mask the teams offensive deficiencies. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is around they should be competitive, but a lack of a running game and Mike Wallace’s departure for Miami won’t help the veteran QB as he attempts to carry the team on his broad shoulders.
Much like last year, the Browns should bring up the rear in the AFC north. Brandon Weeden actually looked fairly impressive as the season wore on and Trent Richardson has the potential to be a top five running back in the league. Unfortunately that probably won’t be enough to produce a memorable season for long suffering Browns fans in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions, even though they’re every so slowly improving towards relevancy.
New England Patriots
If the Broncos are the biggest locks to win their division in 2013, the Patriots aren’t too far behind. Tom Brady looked sharp in the pre-season despite Wes Welker’s departure and Aaron Hernandez’s, ahem, legal wranglings. The clubs +226 points differential in 2012 was the biggest in the league by some margin. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo lead a stellar D, and with Bill Belichick at the helm don’t expect anything less than another deep Patriots play-off run.
Spring additions Mike Wallace and Darnell Ellerbe give head coach Joe Philbin two solid veterans on both sides of the ball, and Wallace in particular should help QB Ryan Tannehill mature in his sophomore season. I don’t think the ‘phins will be particularly great, but the rest of the division bar the Pats won’t be either and as a result it would be disappointing for Miami fans if they didn’t retain their second place ‘title’ this season.
New head coach Doug Marrone earned rave reviews for his work with Syracuse in the college ranks, and while I don’t expect him to pull up any trees in his first NFL season as a coach it should be exciting to watch him bring his fast tempo offense to the pro’s. E.J Manuel was his QB of choice in the draft and he’s been slated to start week one. Keep an eye on Buffalo, as I have a feeling within two seasons they’ll be one of the leagues up and coming teams.
New York Jets
Rex Ryan is currently living on borrowed time, time that could very well be up before the season is out. Mark Sanchez was his chosen QB and he stunk, and then to make matters worse HE PLAYED HIM IN THE FOURTH QUARTER OF A MEANINGLESS PRE-SEASON GAME WHEREUPON HE GOT INJURED. Sorry for the caps, but I just felt like I needed to really emphasis the idiocy of Ryan’s inexplicable decision. Geno Smith will be fun to watch, but don’t bet on him being much better than the man he’s replacing, whether it’s temporary or permanent gig.
The Texans are the best team in the AFC not quarterbacked by someone named Manning or Brady, and while Matt Shaub isn’t in either of those two’s league the rest of the Texans roster is fairly stacked. Arian Foster remains a very good back and Andre Johnson, when healthy, is a monster out wide. Brian Cushing yesterday signed a six year contract extension which will keep the teams best defensive player in town for a while yet. If, if Shaub can find another gear from somewhere the Texans could find themselves playing in the first ever cold weather Superbowl this January in New Jersey.
Andrew Luck was phenomenal last season as a rookie as the team rallied around each other in the absence of ill coach Chuck Pagano. The Colts appeared to have an incredible team spirit as everything came together in a somewhat magical season, something which I’m not sure can be repeated . The other red flag for me when I look at Indy is their -30 points differential in 2012, contradictory to their 11-5 record. This would appear to indicate they got a little lucky and their convincing loss in the playoffs to Baltimore convinced me that they may be in line for some regression.
The Jags mustered just two wins a year ago, but new owner Shahid Khan looks like he could be a great owner for the team and his energy is infectious. New uniforms, new head coach (Gus Bradley) and a new attitude should see Jacksonville get up off the AFC south floor. Blaine Gabbert now has second overall pick Luke Joeckel to protect his blindside and though receiver Justin Blackmon is suspended for the first four games of the season Maurice Jones Drew gives Gabbert another weapon to lean on in the mean time.
Unfortunately I don’t see much to get excited about when analysing the Titans, and as a result I think they’ll sink to the bottom of a fairly tough division. Jake Locker isn’t a very good quarterback, and while Chris Johnson may well bounce back from a terrible 2012 he’s about the only weapon Tennessee has on offense.
Rookie of the Year
I think Manuel will excel in Marrones system, despite his limited weapons, and he should benefit from the rise of mobile QB’s around the league such as RG III and Russell Wilson. The top three picks from the draft are all in the AFC and are also contenders for the award, although numbers one and two Eric Fisher and Joeckel will suffer from playing an unglamourous position such as offensive tackle. Dion Jordan could challenge if he racks up double digit sacks for the Dolphins, which would be an impressive feat.
Conference Winner – Denver Broncos
Thanks for reading, let me know what YOUR predictions are in the comments or on twitter @fredjstanley and I’ll be back tomorrow with my NFC preview.