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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

NFL Preview 2013 – NFC

The NFL season kicks off in two days! It's like the start of spring for sports fans in America. Every year, the Hat Trick gives you its projections and every year, about half of them are...WRONG! That, of course means I am right half of the time. Read with a grain of salt or at your own risk! Teams are listed in expected order of finish in their divisions.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers – About the only "easy" projection in this division is who will finish first. The North has a ton of talent and timeless rivalries. But the team in green is still the toast of the Black and Blue Division. As long as Aaron Rodgers is under center in this division, there is no compelling reason to expect another team to finish first until it actually happens or Rodgers suffers some type of injury. 

Chicago Bears – Speculating on the second through fourth place finishes in this division amounts to little more than educated guessing. I think the Bears made a huge mistake in firing Head Coach Lovie Smith last season, but I do like the glimpse of the 2013 Bears under rookie Head Coach Marc Trestman. His experience and offensive mind is going to go a long way in further developing the very talented and, in my opinion, underrated Jay Cutler. The defense, in the first year without future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, looks aggressive and full of swagger as usual. 

Detroit Lions – Detroit had one fatal flaw in 2012: the Lions could not run the ball, especially when running the ball counted most. I expect that to change this year with the acquisition of Reggie Bush via free agency. Aside from being one of the most dangerous backs in the league when in space, Bush proved he could pound the rock through the line during his time in Miami. The defensive line is as good as any one in football. Matt Stafford appears to be healthy, a key indicator of success or failure for the Lions. By the way, they have some Megatron guy lined up wide. 

Minnesota Vikings – Just because I expect them to finish last doesn't mean they will. But I see few significant upgrades to an absolutely anemic passing game with the exception of the acquisition of veteran wideout Greg Jennings. They also sent star WR Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks (Harvin may miss the entire 2013 season with a hip injury). This team has Jared Allen rushing the edge and a group of linebackers that is tough against the run. They also have Adrian "All Day" Peterson who is healthy and coming off of a 2,000 year rushing season. The Vikings will have a chance in every game. But if you can't throw downfield and can't force turnovers, it is tough to win more games than you lose.

A.P. leaving a rival defense in the dust. Get used to it. 1

NFC South

New Orleans Saints – Last season, I all but admitted to expecting this team to finish second in the NFC South but picked them first because I was looking at them through black and gold colored lenses. I was correct; they finished in a three way tie for second with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. They were also 7-9, so that was not a positive outcome. 

This year, my gut tells me the Falcons will win the division, but I am going to wear my Who Dat shades with a little more confidence this year. Brass tacks: the offense under Drew Brees and the returned-from-exile Head Coach Sean Payton is going to be ridiculously good. Beyond the elite play calling and signal calling talent, the Saints have an embarrassment of riches and depth at all of the skill positions. My only reservation was the left tackle position given the departure of Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod. However, former second round draft pick Charles Brown appears to be over his lingering injury issues that have plagued his career and appears to be ready to fulfill the promise he showed out of USC.

My concern with this team is its defense, the worst total defense in NFL history in 2012 (first ever to surrender 7,000 total yards). It has pass rushing talent, but took a blow when veteran Pro Bowl outside linebacker Will Smith was lost for the season with a knee injury. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma had yet another surgery on the same knee that has dogged him for three years running, though he is expected to not miss any games. I see no personnel improvements for stopping the run. However, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, with his 3-4 scheme, might have cracked the code to get this group of defenders to the level of forcing turnovers at the level of the 2009 Super Bowl champion Saints defense. 

Time will tell. If this team plays up to its ability and Drew Brees takes care of the football better than last year, I do expect the Saints to win the division. 

Atlanta Falcons – If you read this blog with any kind of regularity, I need not explain the contempt of my fanhood toward the Falcons. That said, I cannot let my biases blind me. The Falcons are a very good team and this is a "Super Bowl or bust" year for them. Matt Ryan is approaching the ranks of an elite NFL quarterback and a Super Bowl win, possibly just an appearance, will vault him into that top tier.

The addition of running back Steven Jackson is going to give this team a boost. The future Hall of Famer is on the "wrong side of 30", entering his 10th year in the NFL. However, two common threads I have noticed in older running backs performing at an elite level are good health and consistency. Jackson has played in 14 or more games in all but two years of his career and never missed more than four games in any season. Excluding his rookie year, Jackson has run for 1,000 or more yards every year on an abysmal St. Louis Rams team. I am unaware of any health issues so I expect Jackson, in a pass oriented offense, to be a headache for opposing defenses.

The Falcons' D left much to be desired last season and, in my opinion, is the reason it failed to win the NFC Championship last year. They addressed that in the draft, thoroughly. I like the additions of cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant. The Falcons drafted a total of six defensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft. I cannot imagine them not improving on that side of the ball, barring injuries.

Carolina Panthers – This team's rise or fall will depend entirely upon the progress of quarterback Cam Newton. Statistically, Newton had a slight improvement over his impressive 2011 rookie season. Some of his comments in the media drew speculation about his ability to lead a team. 

Personally, I think a lot of the "concern" over what Newton did or did not say after tough losses is a story for the sake of the media wanting to promote a story. But the bottom line is that the Panthers' defense is good enough to win a lot of games and the offense can put up yards. 

The Panthers need to start putting games away. While the D had some late game lapses, with the exception of Head Coach Ron Rivera, the responsibility for winning or losing close games ultimately falls at the feet of Newton, the quarterback. I don't know if this team can reach the playoffs, but I think a winning season is not an unreasonable expectation for the Panthers and Newton in his third year out of Auburn.

Tampa Bay Buccaneeers – This team could not stop the pass last year. They were so porous that it was almost unbelievable, with the second worst passing defense in NFL history (2011 Packers). That will almost certainly improve with the acquisition of former All-Pro cornerback Derrelle Revis. The big question mark is quarterback Josh Freeman. He's an enigma. Year in and year out, Bucs fans don't know which Freeman is going to show up. One would expect him to improve with coaching stability under second year Head Coach Greg Schiano but I won't believe it until I see it.  

It's a two team race in the NFC South again. 2

NFC East

New York Giants – Wholesale injuries on defense forced quarterback Eli Manning to press more on offense which led to more turnovers and more losses. I expect the Giants to be back in the playoffs next year. Injury lightning like that does not strike many teams twice, especially a well run Tom Coughlin coached team like the Giants. When the players on this team are in sync, they have no major weaknesses. The same cannot be said for the rest of the NFC East.

Washington Redskins – The elephant in the room on this team is the health of quarterback Robert Griffin, III's surgically repaired knee. The world will find out this coming Monday night when the Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Washington's pass defense was bad. The pass rush has to improve. The Redskins, while near the top of the league in defensive interceptions, was in the lower third of the league in quarterback sacks and as a result they were third from last in total passing defense. 

The Redskins picked four defensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft and resigned former Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall in the offseason. In addition, some of those passing yards can be accounted for by opposing teams trailing and attempting more passes. Still, the pass defense from the front four through the secondary has to tighten up for this Redskins team to make a serious playoff run.

Dallas Cowboys – I expect the Cowboys to be really bad and I expect John Q. Fan to blame quarterback Tony Romo. It will not be Romo's fault though his stat line might suggest so. This team has zero depth at running back. I see the firing to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who was over a gradually improving defense, as a big mistake. You can't make chicken salad out of chicken feed and the fact that neither the Pokes' running nor passing defenses were in the bottom ten (given the personnel and their standing when Ryan arrived in Dallas) would be a compelling argument to retain Ryan. Still, what owner Jerry Jones wants, Jerry Jones gets, logic and facts be damned. I think it is going to be another underwhelming year in North Texas.

Philadelphia Eagles – I think the Eagles are going to have a lot of growing pains under first year Head Coach Chip Kelly. Quarterback Michael Vick's health is going to determine how viable this Eagles team is. Kelly's offense is custom built for Vick's skill set. However, Vick playing an entire 16 game season is a rarity. The loss of starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for the season is going to be a significant setback. While I really like the addition of Connor Barwin as a linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme, I don't see the improvement to the defensive line to suggest that there will be a major improvement, especially against the run. I've been wrong before, though. 

Some critics argue that Tony Romo (flat on his back, right) was overpaid when he signed his recent contract extension with the Cowboys. Having to face the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul (body-slamming Romo, left) with the supporting cast he's been given, I don't think he was paid enough.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers – The rise of quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a game changer in San Francisco last season. I don't think they reach the Super Bowl without him. Still, there is a risk of a sophomore slump. The 49ers brass brought in a solid reinforcement in wide receiver Anquan Bolin, acquired via trade from the Baltimore Ravens that beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Unfortunately, the football gods giveth and the gods taketh away. 

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason. Optimistic projections have Crabtree coming back in November. Still, the 49ers are a team with zero glaring weaknesses and as long as Kaepernick stays healthy, I expect the 49ers to be in the NFC Championship Game with the strongest chance of reaching the super Bowl of any NFC team. 

Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks' success caught me completely by surprise last season. There are no surprises this year. The only surprise for Seahawks fans is the hip injury to coveted offseason acquisition wide receiver Percy Harvin. How that affects second year quarterback Russell Wilson's ability to bring the Seahawks to the next level remains to be seen. But this team is solid on defense, solid on the ground, and is capable of winning any game with Wilson under center. 

St. Louis Rams – The Rams have put the necessary pieces around quarterback Sam Bradford, on both sides of the ball, to enable him to lead this team to a winning record. What Sam Bradford can do depends on Sam Bradford. In his fourth NFL season, it is time for him to poop or get off of the pot if he is going to be the future if this franchise. Picking up All-Pro left tackle Jake Long should help Bradford sleep a little more easily at night before a game. The big hole left at running back by the departure of Steven Jackson to the Falcons may require the occasional No-Doz (unless it is a substance banned by the NFL). The Rams could either be a surprise sleeper team in 2013 or just put people to usual.

Arizona Cardinals – Adding quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Rashard Mendenhall in the offseason will improve an offense that could not have been much worse in 2012. Their defense can hold its own and has talented players. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is a stud by any standard and I am looking forward to seeing how fellow former LSU player Tyrann Mathieu (A.K.A. the "Honey Badger") performs at free safety in his rookie season. I don't expect much more than a mediocre season from the Cardinals in 2013, but mediocre with some competitive closely contested losses is a step in the right direction for the Cards' rookie Head Coach Bruce Arians, the 2012 Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year as an interim coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

Sam Bradford's ex-girlfriend Karlie Kloss bolted off of the Cherokee quarterback's reservation. Was it addition by subtraction? And did she really have to wear a Native American tribal headdress at the Victoria's Secret fashion show to take a swipe at Bradford? What a BITCH!
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