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It's that time of the year again.  Back to footballTogether we make football.  Tonight the season kicks off.  We've waited through a long offseason for what should be another epic NFL season.  There are so many things that happened this offseason.  Aaron Hernandez was indicted for murder.  Tim Tebow went to New England...and was cut.  The Jets are still a circus, the Cowboys paid Tony Romo handsomely for whatever reason considering he's won only one playoff game.  Philadelphia landed Chip Kelly from Oregon and his fast paced offense has people buzzing.  RGIII watch was alive and well not just in the nation's capital, but around the country.  Seattle and San Francisco jarred back and forth and have the makings of one of the best rivalries in the country (not there yet though).  Enough though with that offseason happenings! It's time to get down to business.  We'll go through some of the early season storylines, preview each division, pick the standings of every division, pick playoff teams, MVP, ROY, comeback player of the year and of course the Super Bowl winner.  Enough ****-chat.  Let's get right to the 2013-14 NFL preview in "the stack" for today, Thursday, September 5:

NFL Storylines

So many storylines as we enter the 2013-14 NFL season.  Where to begin? 

  • How about first in New England where the Patriots will try and regroup after a tumultious offseason that saw star tight end Aaron Hernandez get arrested and later charged with murder of 27-year old Odin Lloyd.  The team absolutely did the right thing by releasing Hernandez as soon as he was arrrested.  There are certainly more important aspects to this case, but as it pertains to the Patriots on the field, the loss is big.  Rob Gronkowski is recovering from several arm and back surgeries this offseason.  Who knows if he will stay healthy?  They lost Wes Welker to Denver.  Who will Tom Brady throw to?  Fear not though.  These are the Patriots led by head coach Bill Belichick.  They will do just fine and breeze through their division...one would think.
  • Staying in the division, the Miami Dolphins certainly went on a spending spree this offseason.  Probably an attempt to get fans back in the seats and buy season tickets, but they potentially see weakness in the Patriots.  Or it could also be a ploy for the powers that be in the state of Florida to build owner Stephen Ross a new stadium.  Either way, we've seen this before.  The Philadelphia Eagles tried it and it didn't work out.  And say, didn't a team in Miami try to do this only to see the whole thing blow up in less than a year?  No not the Heat.  The Marlins!  Things could turn out bad for Miami or they could get a wild card.
  • Of course we all know about the Jets as the team puts the word "fun" into dysfunctional.  The quarterback situation is a joke.  Head coach Rex Ryan is a lame duck and the team will be lucky to win four games this year.
  • Speaking of teams with what appears to be no hope this year, who will get the first overall pick in next year's draft and land coveted South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney.  It would seem that three teams have the best shot and they all reside in the AFC with the Jets joining the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars as teams sure to be in play for the number one pick.  Could be a long year if you're a fan of one of these teams. 
  • The Baltimore Ravens are your Super Bowl champions, perhaps we forgot about that, but they have lost a lot in guys like Ray Lewis and EdAnquan Boldin is gone as well.  A repeat certainly seems like it will be much more difficult to do this year.
  • Are the Cincinnati Bengals ready to take that next step towards elite status?
  • Should the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning be considered the favorites to win the AFC and the Super Bowl?
  • On the NFC side, (no I did not forget), the most compelling division race appears to be in the NFC West where San Francisco and Seattle appear to be 1A and 1B.  Both have tremendous defenses and mobile second year quarterbacks.  What a fun year it's going to be watching these two go head to head, especially the two weeks where they will play each other.
  • How will reigning MVP Adrian Peterson fare this year in his quest to set the NFL rushing record?  He was nine yards shy of breaking it last year and history says he's in for a rough year.
  • Will new head coach Marc Trestman bring a balanced approach to the Bears that leads to a playoff birth or will they take a step backward to move forward next year?
  • What will Sean Payton's return do for the New Orleans Saints?  My guess is a lot and that they will be back in the playoffs.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles under new head coach Chip Kelly and that spread offense.  It's going to be very interesting to see if what Kelly did at Oregon will work in the NFL or how long it takes before other teams catch on.
  • And of course, the RGIII watch has been dominating airwaves for much of the offseason, but now we get our first look at the quarterback coming off of a torn ACL when the Redskins play the Eagles Monday night.

These of course are just a few of the many storylines as kickoff weekend begins.  We're sure to find hundreds of great stories as the season unfolds.  What a year it's going to be.  Now onto the AFC picks going division by division

 

AFC

East

There is no reason not to pick the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.  The other three teams in this division are so much further behind New England it's ridiculous.  Ne England has lost a lot so their grasp on the AFC itself is certainly not as strong, but in terms of their own division, they're just fine.  Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are great together.  The defense is good and Brady and company might rely more on the ground game this year, great news for Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.  New England will once again record double digit wins this season.

There is one team that was hard out work this offseaon to close the gap between themselves and the Patriots.  That would be the Miami Dolphins who went out and spent, spent, spent on some pretty high priced free agents.  They got wide receiver Mike Wallace from the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They took linebacker Darnelle Ellerbe from the Baltimore Ravens.  Cornerback Brent Grimes, formerly with the Falcons? Come on down.  The Dolphins signed tight end Dustin Keller too, but he is out for the year with a bad knee injury suffered in preseason.  The Dolphins have a lot riding on the shoulders of second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but they seem confident that they have pieces in place for a run this year.  The offensive line is a concern, but the defense shouldn't be.  Anchored by Cameron Wake, the Dolphins have new weapons in Ellerbe and rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan.  The Dolphins are a compelling time as the season begins, a team that ceratinly has playoff aspirations and could find themselves playing football in January.

Hope springs eternal in Buffalo where once again, the only team in the NFL that hasn't made the playoffs this decade looks to start fresh.  New coach Doug Marrone came over from Syracuse and he has tried to renew excitement into the Bills organization and fan base, but it will take time.  The team surprised many when they took quarterback E.J. Manuel off the board at number 12 in this year's draft, making him the future of Bills football.  The only way Buffalo will be successful this year is if they get the ball into running back C.J. Spiller's hands as much as possible.  He is electrifying with the football and Buffalo has said they want to give Spiller the ball until he "throws up."  Issues remain though on this team and while they will be competitive this year, they still have a few years before they will fight for this division.

Finally, we turn to the circus that is the New York Jets.  They certainly know how to do it, don't they?  Who's running that organization?  Start with a very depleted roster and a team that looks like it is "rebuilding", but won't say that they are, and Jets fans are wondering if a number one pick is headed their way.  Rex Ryan's handling of the quarterbacks has been head-scratching at best.  Getting Mark Sanchez hurt by putting him in late in the fourt quarter against the Giants in the third preseason game may be one of the most boneheaded decisions we've seen from a coach in quite some time.  Now the Jets are riding on rookie Geno Smith, at least for two games.  It's unfair what has happened to Sanchez, but this seems like the way the Jets are going to go.  A bad year lies ahead.  May as well try and give the fans something to hold on to in terms of a bright future.

 

Predicted AFC East Standings

*1. New England Patriots 11-5

2. Miami Dolphins 9-7

3. Buffalo Bills 5-11

4. New York Jets 4-12

*= playoffs

 

North

The defending Super Bowl champions reside in the AFC North, that being the Baltimore Ravens.  They have lost a few key pieces that took them on their Super Bowl run.  Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin are gone.  Tight end Dennis Pitta is out for a significant amount of time.  To replace some of the guys they've lost, the Ravens went out and got defensive lineman Chris Canty and linebacker Daryl Smith.  For those that think all of the losses will cause Baltimore to bow out of the AFC North race, think again.  They will be just fine in large part because they have a guy to lead them in quarterback Joe Flacco.  This is his team now that Lewis retired.  Guys will look up to him.  He's going to have a good year and help lead the Ravens.

A lot of people are on the Cincinnati Bengals bandwagon.  Head coach Marvin Lewis has assembled quite the team on both sides of the ball.  The offense is good and they may have a great new weapon in rookie running back Giovani Bernard.  This guy is special.  They will get him the ball multiple ways.  And the Bengals have a sneaky good defense led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins who may be the best defensive tackle in the league.  They've made the playoffs the last two years, but expectations are higher this year in Cincinnati than they have been in a really long time.  The Bengals are going to be a fun team to watch.  Can they handle the expectations?

The Pittsburgh Steelers struggled last year, in part due to injuries.  Unfortunately, injuries have hit the Stellers again this year early in training camp at the tight end position and at running back.  While guys like Heath Miller and La'Veon Bell will be back at some point, the injuries are not good for a team that isn't exactly overflowing with weapons.  They lost wide receiver Mike Wallace to Miami.  Didn't really replace him with anyone.  Last year the offensive line was bad due in large part to injuries.  That may be the key to the Steelers success this year is if the offensive line can stay healthy.  The defense is good, but they are getting older at several key positions.  You can never count the Steelers out, but just looking at the team, it doesn't look like the Steelers have enough parts to come back this year and make a playoff run.

The Cleveland Browns should be better this year than last year.  New head coach Rob Chudzinski is excited to work with this bunch.  The defense is better than people think, but it comes down to Brandon Weeden.  He struggled last year and this may be his final chance to impress the new brass in Cleveland that he can play and he should be the team's starting quarterback next year and beyond.  The Browns are still a year or two away from competing for the division, but things are looking up in Cleveland.

 

Predicted AFC North Standings

*1. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5

*2. Baltimore Ravens 10-6

3. Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8

4. Cleveland Browns 6-10

*=makes playoffs

 

South

Clearly the division comes down to two teams, Houston and Indianapolis.  The Houston Texans have won the AFC South each of the last two seasons.  They've advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs in each of the last two years.  They want more though.  They expect more as do their fans and the media as well.  They have a team that can win the Super Bowl.  Star running back and wide receiver in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.  A sensational defensive lineman in J.J. Watt not to mention a stellar defense overall run by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.  The Texans had a bye week pracitcally sewn up last year, but faded in December.  They need to remember that this year so they can avoid the same mistake.  There is no doubt the team can make the Super Bowl, but they need to put the pedal to the metal each and every week to make sure they don't lose their edge.

Indianapolis surprised a lot of people last year in their run to the playoffs.  Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck looked like his predecessor Peyton Manning.  The fought through adversity with head coach Chuck Pagano leaving the team to fight a cancer battle.  Bruce Arians did a marvelous job filling in.  They'll put up a fight again this year, but the defense must improve and that is the side of the ball that has people most concerned that this year won't be good for the Colts.  On offense, the Colts added Ahmad Bradshaw and assuming he can stay healthy (dealing with a foot injury right now), the Colts will have more balance on offense than they did last year.  No one should take the Colts lightly or it will be like last year all over again.

The Tennesee Titans have a lot riding on this season.  Quarterback Jake Locker needs to prove that he can be a successful quarterback in the NFL.  Head coach Mike Munchak may be coaching for his job for next year.  In looking at what this team has though, they don't have the talent of the Texans or Colts.  Locker will have to play very good for the Titans to be competitive in a playoff push.  The defense has some good parts, but they are definitely not a top half of the league unit.  All in all, it speaks to a third place finish.

New head coach Gus Bradley has gotten Jacksonville Jaguars fans excited about Jaguars football again as evidenced by the 19,000 fans that showed up for a scrimmage during training camp.  That excitement better last throughout the year and into next year as it is going to be a rough one for Jacksonville.  They have the worst quarterback situation in the league.  Hmmm, Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne?  So difficult to pick which one I'd rather have.  A healthy Maurice Jones-Drew will be a big plus for the team, but overall, expect a long year in Jacksonville that may result in the number one overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

 

Predicted AFC South Standings

*1. Houston Texans 12-4

*2. Indianapolis Colts 10-6

3. Tennessee Titans 6-10

4. Jacksonville Jaguars 3-13

*= playoffs

West

How will the west be one?  By Denver obviously.  The Broncos have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Peyton Manning and a lot of weapons at his disposal.  They had an eleven game win streak last year to end the regular season before a collapse in the playoffs against the Ravens.  They'll remember that from last year when they're back in the playoffs this year.  The defense is going to fight through adversity with losing linebacker Von Miller for six games due to suspension and they will be without cornerback Champ Bailey.  Oh yeah, Elvis Dumervill is gone too.  It's next man up and that's what they'll do.  If they can survive the first six games without Miller, they'll be just fine the whole season.  This is a team with Super Bowl aspirations and a team that a lot of people think can win it all.  Their division won't offer much resistance.

The Kansas City Chiefs definitely have a new vibe and energy about them.  Andy Reid has come over from Philadelphia and has fans excited.  He was very successful during his tenure in Philadelphia and there is no reason to think that the Chiefs won't be marketably better than last year.  They still had six Pro Bowlers from last year.  Getting Alex Smith to stabilize the quarterback position.  Jamaal Charles is a great running back.  They have good players on defense.  This is a team that can make the playoffs this year.

In San Diego, which direction are the Chargers going?  New head coach Mike McCoy has a long road ahead of him.  Philip Rivers has struggled the last couple of years at quarterback, but a healthy Antonio Gates will certainly help.  Gates looks more fit this year and he says that will help him against injuries.  Still though, the Chargers don't have a whole lot going for them in this first year of the McCoy era, at least in the opinion of many.

Things are better in San Diego though than in Oakland.  The front office has gutted the team to help them get rid of all of the bad contracts handed out by the late Al Davis.  It's de ja vu for quarterback Matt Flynn who has once again gone into the offseason and preseason as the starting quarterback only to see someone jump him.  Last year it was Russell Wilson.  This year, it's Terrelle Pryor.  Not a whole lot of good in Oakland.  They need to land the number one pick next year to get some talent on the team.  They just may.

 

Predicted AFC West Standings

*1. Denver Broncos 13-3

2. Kansas City Chiefs 8-8

3. San Diego Chargers 6-10

4. Oakland Raiders 3-13

*=makes playoffs

AFC Playoff Picture

1. Denver Broncos 13-1

2. Houston Texans 12-4

3. New England Patriots 11-5

4. Cincinnati Bengals  11-5

5. Baltimore Ravens 10-6

6. Indianapolis Colts 10-6

Miami and Kansas City will make a run at the playoffs, but I think just fall short.  It won't be surprising if either of those two teams take the place of Baltimore or Indianapolis in the playoffs.  In the end, Denver is out on a mission this year.  They'll represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

AFC Champion: Denver Broncos

 

NFC

East

Once again, we are in for a wild race in the NFC East.  Every team has a chance to win the division.  The Washington Redskins won the division last year in large part thanks to Robert Griffin III and RGIII's torn ACL is going to make or break the Redskins this year.  He's going to play in the season opener, but you have to wonder how rusty he's going to look early in the year having not played at all during the preseason.  Will he run as much as last year?  Certainly not.  Good thing he has such a good running back in Alfred Morris who is hungry to do more this year after a fantastic rookie campaign.  The problem for the Redskins is that they haven't surrounded RGIII with a ton of weapons.  Pierre Garcon says he's healthy this year after dealing with a foot injury all last year.  That's a good thing.  It will make the offense more explosive.  The Redskins defense will be good, but they need someone outside of Brian Orakpo to step up and lead the charge.

Another team in the division that has people talking is the Philadlephia Eagles.  Head coach Chip Kelly came over from Oregon and is installing an offense similar to the one at Oregon.  You'll be tired watching them run all over the field.  This could be a very explosive offense, but NFL defenses aren't dumb.  They'll catch on fairly soon, but by the time they do, the Eagles may have surprised enough people that they'll be in a prime spot for a playoff spot.  Michael Vick is the right man to quarterback Kelly's offense.  He's poised for a big year if he can stay healthy.  That's a big if.  The defense will be good, not great.  The Eagles are easily one of the most interesting teams to watch this year.

The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of pressure on them.  Jerry Jones says they can win the Super Bowl this year.  Then again, when doesn't he say that?  Tony Romo got paid this offseason and he needs to reward that good faith with a playoff run.  Offensively, the Cowboys need running back DeMarco Murray to stay healthy and provide balance to the offense.  The defense could be better this year under new coordinator Monte Kiffin.  This would appear to be the year the Cowboys put it all together.  However, we haven't seen that happen in a long time.  They've won only one playoff game this century.  If the Cowboys don't succeed this year, there could be a lot of change coming to big D.

The team quietly flying under the radar is the New York Giants, surprising since they are in the New York market.  They have the compenents of a great offense with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and running back David Wilson will now get his chance to show what he can do.  Of course they're quarterbacked by Eli Manning.  They've suffered injuries to the offensive line and defensive side of the ball that could hurt them.  Jason Pierre-Paul is not 100 percent and the Giants need him to anchor the defensive line.  If they struggle with both lines, the Giants won't have success this year.

 

Predicted NFC East Standings

1. Dallas Cowboys 10-6

2. New York Giants 9-7

3. Washington Redskins 8-8

4. Philadelphia Eagles 8-8

 

North

The NFC North is definitely one of the best divisions in football.  The Green Bay Packers were spanked in the playoffs last year by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the playoffs last year.  They're out for revenge this year.  But they have lost some weapons for quarterback Aaron RodgersGreg Jennings is gone.  Donald Driver (I know he didn't play much last year) retired.  They really didn't upgrade the wide receiving group.  They're more hoping that the young guys can step up.  Already there are concerns though with Jordy Nelson dealing with injuries in camp and Randall Cobb has had a problem dropping passes in camp.  All those concerns should be gone though come the regular season.  The team hopes that by adding running backs Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin in the draft that they will have balance on offense.  The defense was decent last year before getting shredded in the playoffs.  They need to take that next step this year.  The team is still the best in the division.

The Chicago Bears are an intriguing team.  New head coach Marc Trestman comes from the CFL and hopes to bring his ideas to the NFL.  The defense will once again be a dominant force, but it's the offense that may take a little while to get going.  Will Jay Cutler find success in the offense?  The Bears need running back Matt Forte to stay healthy this year.  If healthy, he will be a big weaponin Trestman's system.  There are still a few more ifs though than sure things with this team which is why they may take a step back this year.

Last year, the Minnesota Vikings shocked people by making the playoffs.  They rode MVP Adrian Peterson to get there and if they want to return to the playoffs, they can't do that again.  Christian Ponder is they key to the Vikings success this year.  They have surrounded him with weapons adding Jennings from Green Bay and drafting Cordarrelle Patterson.  He has shown some signs of progression, but he still makes too many bad plays.  He can change a lot of people's minds if he can improve his play this year.  The secondary is young which scares people about the defense, but the Vikings will make the playoffs this year if Ponder's play improves.

The Detroit Lions suffered through a bad year last year and things can only get better this year.  Adding Reggie Bush is a big time move.  The defensive line is good, but the rest of the unit behind them needs to improve.  Someone else also needs to step up and be a target besides Calvin Johnson.  Megatron can't do it alone.  They'll improve, but not enough to make a playoff run.

 

Predicted NFC North Standings

*1. Green Bay Packers 11-5

2. Minnesota Vikings 9-7

3. Chicago Bears 8-8

4. Detroit Lions 6-10

*= makes playoffs

 

South

The Atlanta Falcons missed the Super Bowl by one play last year.  They had the San Francisco 49ers on the ropes and couldn't finish the deal.  They're close enough though that they were able to persuade tight end Tony Gonzalez to come back.  The offense is dynamic with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White and they added running back Steven Jackson who should have a lot of opportunities at touchdowns this year.  The question is on defense.  Young secondary will have plenty of chances to make a name for themselves going against Drew Brees and Cam Newton.  That's going to be the difference for the Falcons this year.

The New Orleans Saints may have gotten the biggest acquisition this offseason when they got head coach Sean Payton back from suspension.  The team struggled last year in his absense.  Drew Brees can go back to quarterbacking the offense and putting all of his time, focus and energy into that.  The defense can only get better after a historically bad year last year.  The Saints can win this division.  If not, they're making the playoffs barring injury.

Carolina is a sneaky pick this year at making the playoffs.  We're all watching to see Cam Newton take that next step and there are those on the team that believe the offense will be much better not doing a read option offense.  The first team offense didn't look spectacular during the preseason, but they have a good defense anchored by young linebacker Luke Kuechly and with that offense, Carolina may surprise this year.

Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, they're in a very difficult division.  Doug Martin had an amazing rookie year running the ball, but the Bucs as a whole just don't have enough to compete with the big boys in the division.  This may be Josh Freeman's last year as Tampa Bay's quarterback.  They improved last year, but given the difficult division they're in, it's going to be more difficult to take that next step and unfortuately, I see them regressing.

 

Predicted NFC South Standings

*1. Atlanta Falcons 12-4

*2. New Orleans Saints 11-5

3. Carolina Panthers 9-7

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10

*=makes playoffs

West

Best race in football is resides in the NFC West.  San Francisco or Seattle.  Take your pick.  Both teams have stellar young quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Phenominal defenses.  Seattle looked like it was making a big jump when they landed Percy Harvin from the Vikings, but his hip injury and subsequent surgery has pushed his debut back to November most likely.  Still Seattle has Marshawn Lynch running the ball and the 12th man is very difficult to overcome.  Kaepernick needs to have more weapons around him to throw to outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon DavisMario Manningham and Michael Crabtree won't be playing at least the first six games as they recover from injuries.  He's going to need to rely on Frank Gore then.  This race is the most compelling and will go down right to the final week.

St. Louis will be better this year and if you remember, they didn't lose to San Francisco last year (1-0-1).  Offense will be better adding weapons for Sam Bradford like tight end Jared Cook and rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin.  The defense as an overall unit is very strong, but they lack the firepower at this point to truly compete with Seattle and San Francisco.

Arizona, sorry, you're last in this division.  Carson Palmer makes the quarterback situation stable unlike last year.  It was awful.  Larry Fitzgerald is happy to see Palmer come in.  The defense will be good and I'm very interested to see Patrick Peterson and how/if the Cardinals use him on offense.  He may be the best defensive player in football.  Still the Cardinals don't have enough in the division this year.

 

Predicted NFC West Standings

*1. Seattle Seahawks 12-4

*2. San Francisco 49ers 11-5

3. St. Louis Rams 7-9

4. Arizona Cardinals 6-10

 

NFC Playoff Picture

1. Seattle Seahawks

2. Atlanta Falcons

3. Green Bay Packers

4. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

6. New Orleans Saints

There are so many teams that could make the playoffs this year at the NFC.  It is so much more competitive than the AFC.  What a compelling race this will be all year long.  And the team that comes out on top is the Seattle Seahawks.  The 12th man will be a big difference in the playoffs and assuming Harvin comes back healthy, the Seahawks will be a feared team.   They narrowly escape the Atlanta Falcons.

 

Awards Time

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Giovani Bernard-RB Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Alec Ogletree-LB St. Louis Rams

Coach of the Year:  Chip Kelly-Philadelphia Eagles

MVP: Peyton Manning-QB Denver Broncos

 

Super Bowl Prediction:

It's going to be an all west Super Bowl played at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, February 2, 2014.  Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks.  Great game, but Denver is on a mission this year after what happened last year.  Peyton Manning wins his second Super Bowl tying little brother Eli.

Super Bowl winner: Denver Broncos

 

Enjoy the 2013-14 NFL season everyone.  It kicks off tonight between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens.  I'll take Denver.  More picks tomorrow on all week 1 NFL games.  Here's to a great NFL season.  

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