“I don’t think they’re going to be able to run (Colin Kaepernick) like that. He takes one good hit, there goes their season.” — Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones.
Out of the mouths of babes.
Before we write off the Green Bay rookie’s remark as a bit of youthful exuberance, though, let’s harken back six months ago to those halcyon days of November of 2012. Kaepernick, having replaced the incumbent Alex Smith earlier in the month, was dominating defenders around the NFL. Same goes for rookie phenoms Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. Cam Newton, after stumbling out of the gate in his second season, got his groove back in Carolina. The dawn of a new day had arrived. By any name, the run/read/pistol/spread option was revolutionizing pro football before our eyes … or at least we thought it was until a large percentage of curmudgeonly experts told us it was just a fad the league’s defensive coordinators would solve in the offseason.
Well, in case you haven’t noticed, the offseason has arrived, which naturally begs the question: How’s it going, defensive coordinators? Have you figured out how to negate — or at least marginalize — the spread option?
The answer to this question naturally goes a long way toward determining who’ll thrive come September. Those who believe in the endurance of the spread option likely favor the 49ers or Seahawks to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII next February. Those who think it’s a Wildcat-level gimmick are probably leaning toward the Packers or Falcons.
Fact is, here in May, no one knows the answer. Not Colin Kaepernick, not the defensive coordinators, not even Datone Jones. In other words, the only option is reckless speculation, or for our purposes today, “The Pro-Shek-tions.” Yes, it’s time to share my updated picks for the teams and their seeds for the 2013 AFC and NFC playoffs, the accuracy of which I absolutely, positively guarantee*.
*Unless my internal devil’s advocate – Devil’s Dameshek – changes my mind before Week One.
1. Houston Texans — Are they the conference’s best team? No, but they’re close. Alright, so they looked a little out of their depth in Foxboro last January, but remember: that divisional-round loss to the Pats was the first road playoff game (and second playoff game overall) in Matt Schaub’s entire career. Now he’s got some seasoning and rookie DeAndre Hopkins, who might be the first Texans WR not named Andre Johnson worthy of the opposing secondary’s attention.
Devil’s Dameshek: Seasoning a flank steak won’t turn it into a filet mignon. Know what I mean, Schaub?
2. Denver Broncos — Between Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs and the Norv-less San Diego Chargers, the West won’t be the same cakewalk it was last season. Then again, Denver didn’t exactly stand pat themselves. Wes Welker and Montee Ball are nice adds to an already high-functioning offensive machine, and DT Sly Williams might prove to be a late-first-round steal.
Devil’s Dameshek: There’s a reasonable chance Peyton Manning plays like a 38-year-old man with a bum neck. There’s an even better chance Welker performs like most free agents who leave New England (read: not very well). There’s an excellent chance the defense regresses with an over-the-hill Champ Bailey and without Elvis Dumervil.
3. Cincinnati Bengals — The Ravens-Steelers rivalry might get the headlines in the North, but make sure you read the fine print. The Bengals are now the division’s (and maybe the conference’s) most talented team. The offense can grind it out old-school behind a stout o-line, or shoot it out with A.J. Green (the upper-middleclass man’s Calvin Johnson) and a gaggle of electric young playmakers. Oh, yeah, and Mike Zimmer’s underrated defense is even deeper and nastier than it was a year ago.
Devil’s Dameshek: It’d be the height of irony if the one thing that kept this team from achieving its full potential is a big-armed QB like, oh … I don’t know … Carson Palmer.
4. New England Patriots — The emperor has no clothes. Well, alright, he has clothes — they’d just look more appropriate on a hobo. Either way, Emperor Belichick’s mojo seems to be on the fade. The defense does a fine job of turning the ball over, but it plainly hasn’t been good enough over the last few postseasons against the likes of Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and even Mark Sanchez. I was sure the 2012 return of a long-absent running game would make the difference in tight playoff games. I was wrong. Tom Brady — a.k.a. the truly indispensible figure in the Pats’ remarkable run — will be good enough to win the East again, but it’ll be tight.
Devil’s Dameshek: Like his pal Peyton, Brady has benefitted from playing in a crummy division most of his career. That won’t be the case in 2013 with the improved Dolphins and Bills, and even the Jets, who give the Pats (at least) one tough game every season.
5. Kansas City Chiefs — Don’t be swayed by sour Philly fans: Andy Reid knows how to coach, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. After making guys like A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb look like viable starters, how can anyone doubt what Reid will do for a first-overall talent like Alex Smith … especially with a nice collection of skill position guys and an upgraded o-line? On the defensive side, the cupboard is full of fancy pieces like Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry. Take note, denizens of the Mile High City: Winning the West might not be like climbing a mountain, but it’s more of an uphill fight now that KC’s biggest weakness — Romeo Crennel — has rolled away.
Devil’s Dameshek: The Branden Albert melodrama goes off the rails; Eric Fisher moves to the left side and fails. (Rick Reilly’s not the only person who knows how to rhyme!)
6. Miami Dolphins — As our Around The League pal Dan Hanzus put it, “If Jeff Ireland is done for, at least he’s going out like Tony Montana.” Yes, the Fins’ GM has pushed all his chips into the middle of the table, and it says here the gamble will yield a wild-card berth. At least. But for all the offseason moving and/or shaking, the most important acquisition came in the previous draft when Ireland took Ryan Tannehill, who’ll build on what would’ve been a Rookie of the Year-worthy season had 2012 not been the all-time greatest QB class.
Devil’s Dameshek: The big-ticket moves are undermined by a dicey o-line and secondary.
Close, but no cigar …
Tennessee Titans. Tough leaving the Titans out of the playoff mix, but one too many analysts have told me Jake Locker just isn’t accurate enough to make the offense consistent. Baltimore Ravens. Ozzie Newsome filled the holes as well as can be expected, but the Ravens will find out what the Steelers learned in 2012: A lack of locker-room leadership makes the post-season a bridge too far. Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck is gonna make Darrius Heyward-Bey look like a seventh-overall pick, but there are just too many questions about that defense. Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin’s “next man up” rhetoric is inspiring, but a franchise that eschews free agents in favor of drafting well has to, y’know, draft well. Every one of Pittsburgh’s ’08 picks has now either washed out or moved on. So, yeah, not well.
1. San Francisco 49ers — One near-Super Bowl visit, one near-Super Bowl win, and one gutsy midseason QB change. It’s only been two seasons, but Jim Harbaugh might be the best coach in the NFL. The players are good, too. In fact, they might collectively be the best in the NFL. The dominance of the defense is old news. The offense is newfangled dynamism. Imagine the nightmare of game-planning against Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Frank Gore and LaMichael James. Oh, yeah, and that Kaepernick fella, who might be the only NFL player capable of outrunning one of his football-shaped fastballs. Like every other team, the Niners lost some players at key positions in the offseason. Unlike almost every other team, they seem to have upgraded themselves at those positions.
Devil’s Dameshek: Best in the NFL?! They aren’t even the best in their own division (and the Rams ain’t bad, either).
2. Green Bay Packers — Swoon over the callow purveyors of the spread option all you want. Wax poetic about the greatness of Brady and Peyton if that’s your thing. I’ll take Aaron Rodgers, who’s been better than the league’s second-best QB for so long it’s become something most of us take for granted. Not Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, though. They finally took at least a little of the weight off of Rodgers’ shoulders with the threat of a running game in the persons of rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. And don’t look now, but that defense continues to add intriguing pieces every offseason.
Devil’s Dameshek: Have you seen their schedule? Road games at San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincy, Dallas and the N.Y. Giants. Home games against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philly and Washington. Yikes.
3. Atlanta Falcons — The Saints were my pick to take the South a couple months ago, but I’m now giving it to the reigning champs thanks to the return of Tony Gonzalez, the signing of Osi Umenyiora, the drafting of two cornerbacks in the first two rounds, and the Saints’ hiring of Rob Ryan to fix the crummy D. Borderline Hall of Famer Steven Jackson is an upgrade from Michael Turner, which oughta open up things even more those twin No. 1 WRs.
Devil’s Dameshek: Performing like they did in 2012 will not be enough for the Falcons to win a much-improved South in 2013. Revis!
4. New York Giants — I’d flip a coin, but it’s only got two sides and all four teams could win the East. (The previous statement applies to every season until otherwise notified.) My Cowboys optimism has dimmed after a draft that did little to fix defensive soft spots. The Redskins’ defense will be better, but we don’t know yet about RGknee. The Eagles are intriguing, but the starting QB might change six times before the regular season arrives. That leaves the Giants, whose continuity has to be worth something, right?
Devil’s Dameshek: What continuity? Umenyiora, Ahmad Bradshaw and Kenny Phillips are gone, and the team still hasn’t inked Victor Cruz! Forget flipping a coin. Anybody have a dreidel with the emblems of the NFC East teams on it?
5. Seattle Seahawks — Depending on a Seattle fan’s perspective, it’s either exciting or frustrating to think the ‘Hawks are talented enough to win any division in the NFL … with the possible exception of the one they’re in. Let’s take the glass half-full side: Last January the team was a play away from an NFC Championship showdown against the 49ers, who they’d dominated just a few weeks prior. Now they’ve added Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield to the defense and Percy Harvin to the offense? It’d be downright unfair … if San Francisco hadn’t specifically countered those moves with Anquan Boldin and Nnamdi Asomugha. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the two teams are aware of their rivalry.
Devil’s Dameshek: Russell Wilson and Co. had to pull too many fourth-quarter miracles last year. (You might recall a certain specious Hail Mary, to name one.) Those things have a way of balancing themselves out.
6. St. Louis Rams — Think you had it tough last year, Dolphins fans? Rams lovers have been lamenting the lack of targets for Sam Bradford since Ryan Tannehill was a college wide receiver. Lament no longer, St Louis. Now with the addition of two ‘eers (West Virginia, that is) named Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. More exciting (at least for Jeff Fisher and all lovers of great defense), the Rams have high-pedigree talent at all three levels.
Devil’s Dameshek: Bradford’s 2010 ROY proves to be the anomaly; Snead eyes a new QB in 2014 draft.
Close, but not cigar …
New Orleans Saints. Darren Sproles is nice and all, but it’s time for Mark Ingram to provide tough yards in tight second-half games to limit other teams’ snaps against what figures to be another mediocre-to-bad defense. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That all-world secondary, the talented defensive front, and a strong running game make the Bucs relevant, but Josh Freeman needs to make ‘em a winner. The South is suddenly a tough division in which to do that. Carolina Panthers. Speaking of the South, the Panthers defense is looking less atrocious all the time, but when is Cam Newton gonna get a wide receiver besides Steve Smith already? Detroit Lions. The good: There’s lots here for a Lions fan to like. The bad: There’s lots here to make a Lions fan shudder. The ugly: Jim Schwartz isn’t proving he’s the guy to mold the clay into a winner.
So … how’d I do? Agree or disagree with my pro-Shek-tions? Speak now or … don’t. Either way.