Hello, and welcome to one of 50,000 NFL previews currently circulating around the Internet. My name is Rich, and I wrote this because I very much enjoy professional football. Also, because I need the money to pay for the elaborate “WELCOME BACK” bouquet that I just sent to Scott Hanson’s house.
What you’re about to read is NFL Preview: Part 1. Part 2 comes later today. Part 3 comes Friday morning and then Part 4 on Friday afternoon. At least that’s the plan for now. (I might post Part 4 on Friday morning just to keep you on your toes.)
When we left the NFL seven months ago, God had just named Ray Lewis MVP of civilization, and the league was about to embark on a tumultuous off-season: Lawsuits, concussions, Aaron Hernandez, HGH, that topless photo of Andy Reid. It was non-stop. And at this point, it’s hard to write an overarching take on the league without at least mentioning that stuff. So I just did. But that’s it for now. There will be plenty of time to expand. For the rest of the preview, it’s only football. Football and maybe one more Andy Reid joke.
I’m not going to spend too many words handicapping the field either, because the truth is that I have no clue. Regardless of what they tell you, no one does. That’s what makes this sports thing so much fun.
But, if you’re looking for a few quick predictions so that you can dig them up and mock me after the season —
The Patriots will win the AFC East for the 10th time in 11 years, with the Dolphins and breakout running back Lamar Miller posing the only real threat. The Bills will miss the playoffs for 14th straight season, but thanks to EJ Manuel there will be hope for the future. That might not be much, but it’s more than you can say for the Jets.
Denver will run away with the AFC West. Behind them, the Chiefs (with Andy Reid on the sidelines and Alex Smith under center) will be slightly better than the Norv Turner-less Chargers, but neither team will be all that good. As for the Raiders? If Darren McFadden can’t stay healthy, they’ll be the worst team in the league. If McFadden does stay healthy? They’ll be one of the worst teams in the league. Flip a coin on the Matt Flynn/Terrelle Pryor battle, but you’re better off if the coin lands on its side.
Houston will win the AFC South for the third straight year (and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl), followed by Indianapolis, who will be competitive, but suffer a slight hangover after last year’s magic. Congratulations to the Jaguars . . . you might not be the worst team in your division! But you probably are. Either way, neither Jacksonville nor the Titans will be relevant by Thanksgiving. Scratch that. Columbus Day.
Both AFC Wild Cards will come out of the North, which is one way of saying that the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals will all make the playoffs in some way, shape or form.* The Browns will be fun with Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon but they aren’t in the conversation yet. (*Most likely in the form of a football team. Also, I’m picking the Ravens to finish first).
The NFC West will be a two-team race between the Seahawks and 49ers, as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick build on what has the potential to be the coolest QB rivalry in the league. Seattle wins the division, but both teams make the playoffs. In third place, it’s the St. Louis Rams, with Sam Bradford ready to make a leap* in his second year playing in Brian Schottenheimer‘s system. (*By leap, I mean the Rams finish 8-8)).
And finally, the Cardinals. First-year coach Bruce Arians pulled off a miracle last season in Indianapolis, but it will take more than that for Arizona to make the playoffs with Carson Palmer at quarterback. That said, the idea of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the same secondary is barely legal football porn.
The NFC South will be more competitive than last year, but the Falcons will win their third division title in the last four. They’ll also win the Super Bowl. The fate of the division’s other three teams lie with the quarterback: Has Cam Newton matured in Carolina? Yes, but not enough for more than eight wins. It’s another last place finish for the Panthers, and Ron Rivera’s out of a job. Is Josh Freeman ready for the next level in Tampa Bay? Yes. The Bucs have 10 wins in them, and you can count on Greg “Belichick Jr.” Schiano winning over as many people in Tampa as he pisses off around the league. Finally, how far can Drew Brees carry the Saints? It’ll be better than last year’s 7-9 record, but even with the return of Sean Payton, the D isn’t strong enough to earn a spot in the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers will carry Green Bay to another AFC North title, but there will be another playoff team coming out of this division: Jay Cutler and the Bears. Maybe that’s asking too much from first year coach Marc Trestman, but Cutler’s ready, and despite Brian Urlacher’s retirement, the Bears D is still the Bears D. One concern: Brandon Marshall’s health. He underwent the second hip surgery of his career this offseason and he’s still not completely recovered.
The Lions will make some noise, but do too many stupid things at too many critical moments and cost Jim Schwartz his job. The Vikings have the Best Player On The Planet, but not enough pieces around him to survive in this quality division.
As usual, the NFC East will be a mess. You might as well pick the winner out of hat. Actually, take the Eagles out of the running. Chip Kelly is going to have his hands full, at least in year one. OK, now pick the name . . .
The Dallas Cowboys!
OK, that works. The offense has all sorts of potential. If Dez Bryant keeps his head on straight, he’ll emerge as the best receiver in the league. If DeMarco Murray stays healthy there are few more explosive running backs. Tony Romo might not be perfect but if you give him those first two guys, plus his binky (Jason Witten), the Cowboys will score. The question is whether the defense responds to new coordinator Monte Kiffin (72 years old!) better than they did to Rob Ryan.
Robert Griffin III will be a star in Washington, and if Alfred Morris lives up to the precedent set last season and Pierre Garcon stays on the field, the Redskins will compete with anyone. But there’s too much drama in DC. Last season’s injury controversy still lingers, and it will become an issue. Finally, the Giants will be as inconsistent as ever. They’ll have as many impressive wins as they will pathetic losses. But in the end, their defense will let them down, and then Tom Coughlin will step down.
Six AFC Playoff Teams (in order of seed)
1. Denver (13-3): Weak AFC West gives them the edge.
2. Houston (12-4): Still hungry, won’t sleep on the regular season
3. New England (12-4): They lose home field to Houston in Week 13.
4. Baltimore (11-5): And no one wants to see them in the playoffs.
5. Cincinnati (11-5): Lose the division after Week 17 loss at Baltimore.
6. Pittsburgh (10-6): Haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2000.
New England loses in Houston.
Houston wins in Denver.
Texans to the Super Bowl.
Six NFC Playoff Teams (in order of seed)
1. Atlanta (13-3): As long as Mike Smith stays out of his own way.
2. Seattle (12-4): Russell Wilson becomes a star; Seattle can’t lose at home.
3. Green Bay (11-5): Aaron Rodgers is a talented football player.
4. Dallas (11-5): The Boys are back in the playoffs; Jerry Jones smiles so wide that his face bursts
5. San Francisco (10-6): No receivers, but Jim Harbaugh will figure something out.
6. Chicago (10-6): They beat out Tampa in a tie-breaker. Cutler celebrates with a cigarette.
Seattle beats Green Bay
Atlanta beat Seattle
The Falcons beat the Texans amidst a Super Bowl blizzard at MetLife Stadium.
And that’s that.
I’ll back later today with a look at what’s on the line for a collection of future NFL Hall of Famers.