How was your summer? Good? Great. Let’s get right to it — the playoff picture for 2013.
With all due respect to my man Elliot @Harrison_NFL (whose weekly Power Rankings make for great reading during the season), this isn’t college football. The all-32 rankings are fun for debate but, here in the NFL, all that matters is which 12 teams will make the postseason and how they’ll be seeded. And as tough as it’s been to define those answers over the last few years, correctly defining what’ll happen in 2013 seems like more of a prayer than Joe Flacco’s bomb in Mile High last January.
Commish Goodell is no doubt the envy of his peers these days. Why? Because the commissioner of any pro sports league wants parity and, here in 2013, parity reigns in the NFL. Every preseason every player on every team in every pro sports league declares this year is his team’s year… which, for the most part, is a bunch of empty hooey and applesauce. Hubris aside, at least half the NBA and MLB teams know before the season’s first game that they aren’t gonna be good… let alone win it all.
Going into this NFL season, though, it’s pretty hard to identify those teams that’ll definitely stink. Go ‘head, give it a try. The Jets? Check. The Raiders? Check. The Jags? Okay, but put that one in pencil. I’ll defend their chances thanks to some interesting pieces, not the least of which is new coach Gus Bradley, the architect of that great Seattle D. (I won’t, however, attempt to defend those uniforms. Blech.)
Meantime, over in the NFC, the guaranteed bum teams are… who, exactly? I don’t ask that rhetorically. Seriously, think about it: Who’s definitely going to be bad? Would it really be that big a shock for Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians — last seen leading the Colts to the playoffs — to guide a talented Cardinals team to the playoffs? Uber-talented Cam Newton – now in Year 3 and supported by an emerging defense – stands a reasonable chance of turning the corner. I know everyone’s decided last year was a fluke for the Vikings, but the skill they’ve got all over the field suggests otherwise. Sure, any of the four teams in the NFC East might fall on their face… but, then again, any of ‘em could win the division, too.
It’s amazing, really. Thirty of the 32 teams – and all of the NFC teams – appear to have a fighting chance at playing in January. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of parity. If everyone’s more or less equal, where’s the drama? ”Star Wars” needs Darth Vader; Walter White needs Gus Fring; baseball needs the Yankees. In other words, a bad guy (or two or five) who scares you is essential to the storyline. Parity usually equals an even playing field… which, to me, would be like 32 scoops of vanilla.
Fortunately, this NFL season promises a variety of flavors to keep things interesting. Revolutionary young QBs chasing their first rings. Thirty-something future Hall of Fame QBs chasing what might be their last rings. New-wave coaches like Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman. The pistol. Sean Payton back in NOLA. Revis down in Tampa. Reid & Smith in Kansas City. Oh, it’s gonna be juicy, even for a cynic like me.
But enough prologue… time to for the official preseason Pro-Shek-tions for 2013, guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate (until they aren’t):
1. HOUSTON TEXANS – Don’t worry about Arian Foster’s health. The league can require four preseason games, but it can’t force teams to play their stars. Kubiak & Co. (the AFC’s best team for much of the last two seasons) is a veteran bunch, informed by last year’s fade, ready to peak in December/January instead of October/November. By the way, two words if you don’t believe Matt Schaub can win it all: Joe. Flacco.
2. CINCINNATI BENGALS – The most talented team in the AFC, save perhaps at QB. Unless Andy Dalton is Mark Sanchez-level bad, though, the Bengals are a lock to be good.
3. DENVER BRONCOS –Manning & Co. have what should be an almost-unstoppable offense. Look for 35 to 40 points per game. However, a shaky secondary will get exposed by the lack of a pass rush.
4. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – I’m tempted to take the improved Miami Dolphins or Buffalo Bills here, but the Pats will hold on … for one more year. That doesn’t mean Brady’s got enough around him for a Super Bowl run. This team is barely above average. Period.
5.TENNESSEE TITANS – Explosive offensive players all over the field, including QB Jake Locker. If he can just stay healthy, a big year awaits.
6. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS – Chuck Pagano’s rookie season 2.0 (remember, Arians steered the ship for most of ’12) hinges on the former defensive coordinator’s ability to give his gangbusters offense some help by holding down the opposition a little. Watch out for Ahmad Bradshaw, by the way. An under-the-radar addition, he’s only 27 and a nice banger added to new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s unit.
Near misses: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS; BALTIMORE RAVENS; MIAMI DOLPHINS
1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS – Tough schedule, some big personnel losses, a brutal division … but Jim Harbaugh (aka the NFL’s reigning best coach) and the Niners are loaded all over the field. Debate it all you want, the pistol is still just about unstoppable, and no one does it better than Kaepernick. (I think. I mean, the guy’s barely played!)
2 .ATLANTA FALCONS – The defense isn’t dominant, but it is upgraded. The offense is dominant — and by the end of this season, we’ll rank it among the very best of the Super Bowl era.
3, WASHINGTON REDSKINS – QBs having sophomore slumps is a myth (Ben Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl in his second season; Dan Marino broke every record in his). RGIII keeps it rolling in Year 2 (but Chip Kelly’s offense will push the ‘Skins for the top spot).
4. GREEN BAY PACKERS – As I’ve said for three years now, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL. The defense is gonna be sneaky good, too. The problems: the NFC North is the toughest division in football, and they’ve got the league’s most brutal schedule (first three games: @SF, WAS, @CIN; last four: ATL, @DAL, PIT, @CHI). Yikes.
5. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS – Percy Harvin might be a nice add if/when he returns. The heart of the team, though, is a great D and a dominant running game that’ll be able to pound week in, week out.
6. ST LOUIS RAMS – Jeff Fisher’s presence is one of the more under-covered stories in the league, but the Rams made a big improvement last year, and now they’re ready to get to the playoffs. Between the famed ’04 & ’12 QB draft classes, there was Sam Bradford. He’s finally got some weapons to target and a good defense to support him.
Near misses: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS; CHICAGO BEARS; MINNESOTA VIKINGS
COLTS over BRONCOS
PATRIOTS over TITANS
RAMS over REDSKINS
SEAHAWKS over PACKERS
TEXANS over COLTS
BENGALS over PATRIOTS
RAMS over NINERS
FALCONS over SEAHAWKS
TEXANS over BENGALS
FALCONS over RAMS
SUPER BOWL XLVIII
FALCONS over TEXANS
Congratulations, Atlanta… you did it, you really did it! Enjoy the season, everybody. Good luck to your team. Unless you’re playing my team.