I must admit: last season I didn’t really give you much in terms of an NFL primer. And lo and behold if my prediction powers failed tremendously. (I had Peyton Manning winning the MVP after making a miraculous comeback to the Colts!). So let me make up for that by shifting the format a bit and giving you a bit of info on each team in the National Football League. While I’ll separate teams in various sections, there’s going to be a lot of flexibility as to where teams end up.
The Matt Barkley Contenders: These are the teams that will likely lose a lot of games and be in contention for the first overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Right now, that #1 prospect is USC QB Matt Barkley but, as we’ve seen in years past, the top prospect can change as the college football season progresses.
Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson is the beginning, middle and end of their offense. They need him and Joe Thomas to fire on all cylinders in every game. Meanwhile Joe Haden is likely absent for 4 games. Not good for that defense.
Miami Dolphins: They’re starting Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill this season – the first time a rookie QB will have started for the Dolphins. Any points will depend on him and Reggie Bush. They’re the preseason favorites to end up with the #1 pick but would they draft Barkley?
Jacksonville Jaguars: If Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon can sync up early and if Maurice Jones-Drew has no lag from his offseason holdout, maybe the Jags will make some noise. They’re serious underachievers though.
St Louis Rams: Can Jeff Fisher keep Sam Bradford, Danny Amendola and Steven Jackson healthy? The NFC West is winnable but only if Bradford isn’t on the sidelines again. Meanwhile, Fisher will have to do a lot of work on that defense.
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb vs John Skelton is the less sexy “Sanchize v Tebowmania”. At least they got Larry Fitzgerald to throw it too. It’s a long, long way from their Super Bowl days but, again, who can’t win the NFC West?
Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been spending money the last few months – new deals for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson and signing Mario Williams. Too bad they can’t pay to get out of their division.
Indianapolis Colts: The point of this season for the Colts is for new coach Chuck Pagano and new QB Andrew Luck to learn and to keep Luck alive. There’s every chance Luck has a 25 TD/25 INT season.
Kansas City Chiefs: This is a make-or-break year for Matt Cassel. Another disappointing year could cause a clear out of Cassel, coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli. There’s too many highly-drafted/signed underachievers here.
Minnesota Vikings: Year 2 of Christian Ponder and here’s hoping he looks as good in the regular season as he did in the preseason. Adrian Peterson will look to rebound and Percy Harvin is hopefully healthy. But is their pass defense improved? With Green Bay and Detroit lurking, it better be.
New York Jets: That this entire offseason has been spent dissecting the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow QB “battle” tells you how dire the situation is for Gang Green. IF the defense can keep them in games and IF Shonn Greene steps up and IF Sanchez is average or better, there might be hope.
Oakland Raiders: Quick. Name the Raiders’ head coach. They have a QB corps made of Heisman winners (Palmer, Leinart and Pryor) and a defense that should be nasty and dangerous – and that’s just Rolando McClain. But a tough division will likely mean a poor year. (Answer: Dennis Allen).
Seattle Seahawks: Traded for Matt Flynn, but they’re starting Russell Wilson. Many pundits are looking at Pete Carroll to make the first move towards the Escape Pod back to College but there’s talent and a chance to do some damage – IF Wilson doesn’t have the rookie QB jitters.
Tennessee Titans: Gone is Jeff Fisher, the longest-tenured/best-mustachioed head coach the team has had. In his place, comes Mike Munchak. QB Jake Locker appears ready to step up, RB Chris Johnson should be ready and refocused. Their division could come down to their games vs Houston.
Washington Redskins: The RG3 Epoch Begins! Unfortunately, he’s going to be running for his life thanks to a bad offensive line. At least he doesn’t have Brian Orakpo chasing him. He could use a good running attack, but they don’t have that either.
Middle of the Road: These are the teams that should be battling for a playoff spot come the fall but will likely fall short of their goal when Christmas is over. At least, they won’t have to start rebuilding next year…
Atlanta Falcons: Last year they were the media’s darlings to finally put it all together. Then they didn’t. Now that everyone’s Cam Crazy, maybe the Falcons can put it together. Julio Jones and Roddy White are ready. It’s down to their front seven to put pressure on QBs and create turnovers.
Carolina Panthers: Everyone has been high on the Panthers and Cam Newton this preseason. And there’s every expectation of a leap happening. Which is usually a sign of a stall somewhere along the way. Oh look, Jonathan Stewart is injured.
Dallas Cowboys: They just beat the Giants and people will start penciling them into the playoffs, despite that they are always one play away from imploding. I think they’ll end up 8-8 and just miss out because that’s what they find a way to kill hope when their fans don’t expect it.
Detroit Lions: They keep making headlines for all the wrong reasons. That said, they still have Megatron and they still have Matt Stafford. That should be enough to get them to .500 this season. But as we’ve seen before, offseason headaches can disrupt season plans.
Pittsburgh Steelers: By now the offensive line woes of the Steelers have become a yearly fixture. As much as I like the passing attack and the defense and the running game, until that o-line proves it can keep Roethlisberger alive and intact for 16 games, I can’t pick them to go any farther than this.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The other-other chic pick of the NFL preseason. I get that Josh Freeman looks good and that adding Dallas Clark and Carl Nicks ought to make that offense even better. And that the defense looks ready to explode. But I want to see Greg Schiano do this at this level first.
Playoff Contenders: And here are the teams that should make it into the NFL’s postseason soiree. Some I have good reasons to pick. Some I have none. Did I say expect any reason in this?
Baltimore Ravens: The offense is loaded. The defense is ready. And John Harbaugh should be good to go. They could and should dominate their division this year. The question becomes: can they not stumble in the first game of the playoffs this year?
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton to AJ Green should continue being a potent combination. And the defense should be improved enough that they could wrest a wild card spot. At this point, how high they go will be down to bringing all these pieces together – and their running game.
Chicago Bears: I told you I’d have no reason. This is down entirely to their offensive line. If they can open up holes for Matt Forte and protect Jay Cutler so that he can find Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, then they should at least fight Detroit for a wild card spot.
Denver Broncos: The reasoning here goes “If they made the playoffs last year with Tim Tebow at QB, imagine what they’ll do with Peyton Manning, who knows what he’s doing!” Thing is it was the defense (led by Elvis Dumervil) that carried that team. Manning may not need to do much, but he will.
Houston Texans: The AFC South should be a quieter, easier place for the Texans to rule now that Manning and Fisher are gone. Matt Schaub and Arian Foster shouldn’t have a problem dominating this year and JJ Watt ought to take Mario Williams’ place. Still, the Texans and expectations….
New Orleans Saints: Forget the B word or Sean Payton. This team is all about Drew Brees, who is back. They’ve revamped the LB corps and the offense looks capable of scoring 40 at any time. Can they put behind everything that’s happened and focus on a hometown Super Bowl?
New York Giants: Last year’s Champs started by losing to the Cowboys. If this was any other team, I’d be worried. But the Giants seem capable of going 9-7 and running through the playoffs once again. Eli Manning and this veteran team won’t be fazed by an early season loss.
Philadelphia Eagles: Everything for the Eagles hinges on Mike Vick’s health. They can win the NFC East with 9 wins – likely the magic number in that tough crowd. But if Vick goes down for any significant amount of time, it’s tough to see them leaping the Giants and Cowboys.
San Francisco 49ers: I do expect some slight comedown for the Niners. They do travel to Lambeau, the Superdome and Foxboro this year. But their division should be easy pickings for them and anything above 9 wins is to get a first-round bye. They’re not surprising anyone this year.
San Diego Chargers: For years, they were the sexy AFC pick. Now, they’re likely getting overlooked by the work Denver and Houston are doing. They still have Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. A lot will depend on Ryan Mathews’ health and how they deal with his absence.
Green Bay Packers: Last year’s playoff loss to the Giants in Lambeau better have been an aberration. Given their talent on each side of the ball and the expectations that Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews bring with them, anything less than a Super Bowl berth will be seen as disappointment.
New England Patriots: It might be getting old picking the Pats to reach the Super Bowl, but they still have Tom Brady and are still coached by Bill Bellichick. They’ve proven they can win at home and on the road come playoffs-time. Here’s hoping Giselle doesn’t throw any of Tom’s teammates under the bus again.
And just a quick recap of what I’m saying will happen:
East: New England Patriots
North: Baltimore Ravens
South: Houston Texans
West: Denver Broncos
Wild Cards: San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals
East: Philadelphia Eagles
North: Green Bay Packers
South: New Orleans Saints
West: San Francisco 49ers
Wild Cards: New York Giants, Chicago Bears