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The Houston Texans may have hit the lottery by drafting receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a rookie that sports playmaking ability to play on the opposite side of star receiver Andre Johnson, a key element that could help quarterback Matt Schaub take the Texans deep into the postseason
Last season, I began my NFL Preview by taking a trip back to the year 2000, a season that started a reign of dominance by three organizations that captured the Lombardi Trophy more than the rest of pack for twelve seasons. Those three organizations that started the reign were the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants. And during this time-frame, the Patriots have made five trips to the Super Bowl winning three of them. The Steelers and Giants have made three trips winning two each. Now we need to add another franchise to the mix after winning its second Super Bowl title in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens and Giants began the new millennium when they squared off for the Lombardi Trophy, a game that was won by the Ravens in dominating fashion. So make it a total 4 teams that have dominated the landscape of the NFL from 2000 to 2012 in the realm of Super Bowl appearances and wins. Between these four franchises, we have nine Super Bowl titles and thirteen appearances over the last thirteen seasons. The Patriots are 3-2, the Giants and Steelers are 2-1 and the Ravens are 2-0 on Super Sunday.
And what’s made these four organizations successful throughout the years? They tackle free agency and draft well keeping the system intact with the proper personnel that fits the philosophy and approach that’s kept the level of success in the mix of the upper echelon groups of the league.
The storyline of last year ended with legendary linebacker Ray Lewis ending his illustrious career as a Super Bowl champion, a story that overshadowed the red hot Joe Flacco who displayed arguably the best postseason performance by a quarterback in the history of the game, closing things out with a Super Bowl MVP.
This year, the defending Super Bowl champs will be without the heart and soul of the team Ray Lewis, the greatest leader ever to step foot on a football field. They’ll also be without one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game Ed Reed as the veteran has departed Baltimore by signing with the Houston Texans in the off-season. And after capturing the gold, quarterback Joe Flacco became a rich man by signing a 6-year $120.6 million extension with $52 million guaranteed. And with that big-pay, he now has to prove that his outstanding performance in the 2012 postseason isn’t going to be a one-year wondrous-ride that will end up disappearing into the deep blue sea of forgotten brilliance.
The 2013 offseason was full of media-frenzy with Tim Tebow leaving New York to New England joining Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the most heated story that took the nation by storm, tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with first degree murder. So with all the hoopla and rain going on outside of the football field, it’s that time of year again, the time for me to pick my division winners, wild cards from each conference and the two teams that I think will represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2, 2014 at MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey to determine the champion for the 2013 season.
American Football Conference
AFC East: New England Patriots – Wow, what an unusual turn of uncharacteristic events in the life of New England Patriots football. Tim Tebow in town, Brady’s main squeeze and security blanket Wes Welker gone to catch passes from rival Peyton Manning in Denver, tight end Aaron Hernandez released by the team and charged with first degree murder, and tight end Rob Gronkowski undergoing back and forearm surgery leaving many skeptic if the star tight end will ever get back to 100 percent as a key asset of Brady’s bunch. I understand the Concern at receiver with the departure of Wes Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski’s health, but Danny Amendola has the skill-traits of a receiver that could play the role of Wes Welker running the same routes Welker did in the Patriots system. Amendola just needs to avoid a nagging issue of injuries. With Amendola expecting to be Brady’s new go to receiver, the rest of the group, Michael Jenkins, Julian Edleman, rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins remain the uncertain group of Brady’s new weapons at his disposal. Dobson is one to keep an eye on, and the secret weapon of this new crew is Thompkins, a potential diamond in the rough. Defensively, I like the addition of veteran safety Adrian Wilson even though he’s upping in age, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s made four consecutive Pro Bowls in his career. Being in a better situation for a contender could do him better than his days of losing in Arizona. Bottom line, I just can’t see a Tom Brady quarterbacked offense and a Bill Belichick coached team going down in the dumps without a true contender to breathe down their necks in the AFC East.
Prediction: 11-5, (3rd seed)
Who They Added – Signed RB Leon Washington, WR Danny Amendola, WR Michael Jenkins, OT Will Svitek, DT Tommy Kelly, S Adrian Wilson; drafted OLB Jamie Collins, WR Aaron Dobson, CB Logan Ryan
Who They Lost – RB Danny Woodhead, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Wes Welker, TE Aaron Hernandez, G Donald Thomas, DT Kyle Love, DE Trevor Scott, S Patrick Chung
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals – With the tight end position that has been on the upswing in recent years in the league as a valuable target that can stretch the field, the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert, a tight end that could lineup anywhere. Quarterback Andy Dalton already has a reliable target at tight end with Jermaine Gresham who’s coming of his best season reception and yard wise. Drafting Eifert at least gives Dalton another option even though the team hasn’t really found another threat on the opposite side of star receiver A.J. Green. Plus, rookie running back Giovani Bernard, known as a solid runner that could catch out of the backfield in his days at North Carolina, could also be used as a receiving option, and more importantly could be a solid change of pace back behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis. On the defensive side of the ball, it all starts upfront with a physical monstrous d-line led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko and Michael Johnson that should continue to stuff the run and get after quarterbacks like a bunch of wild pit-bull dogs. At linebacker, they added James Harrison that seems to be declining and had to make adjustments to a new scheme unlike his days in Pittsburgh. Harrison will still be a player they’ll use to rush the passer, and just imagine if it works for him on an already solid defense. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga needs to step things up in 2013 after having a quiet 2012 outing. Ultimately, I don’t see the Bengals heading on the downside of things. There’s lots of young talent on this team. I believe this is the season they take things a step further with the better all-around team in the AFC North. I only question if they can go deep in the playoffs.
Prediction: 10-6, (4th seed)
Who They Added – Signed OLB James Harrison, QB Josh Johnson; drafted TE Tyler Eifert, RB Giovani Bernard; DE Margus Hunt, S Shawn Williams
Who They Lost – OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, S Chris Crocker
AFC South: Houston Texans – There’s no reason why the running game should take a backseat in 2013. Arian Foster will still be his usual self carrying the load, setting the tone and making big plays in the Texans backfield with Ben Tate to spell him. The problem has been trying to find a solid receiver on the opposite side of the well-polished Andre Johnson. I think they found one by drafting DeAndre Hopkins, a 6 foot 1, 207 lbs. receiver with a good deal of athleticism and ability to make big plays by stretching the field. Hopkins caught a tremendous 18 touchdown passes last season at Clemson, and should take some heat off of Johnson and give quarterback Matt Schaub a valuable second read. Hopkins could be to Houston what Julio Jones was to Atlanta last season. Losing linebacker Brian Cushing due to injury last season was a punishing blow to the defense that still finished as a top 10 unit. J.J Watt anchors the defensive line coming off an amazing season registering 20 sacks, but the defense needs Cushing healthy in the middle at linebacker, a ball hawking player at his respective position. Adding Ed Reed at safety will be huge if Reed doesn’t miss a good chunk of time following hip surgery. Second year outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus recorded 6 sacks in his rookie campaign, and with Connor Barwin gone, he becomes the starter. This could be the year Mercilus’ expectations go hand and hand with more playing time to showcase his talents. The Texans have been knocking on the door, and maybe that one key player can get them to the promise land. Hopkins could be the guy that helps them get over the hump.
Prediction: 12-4, (1st seed)
Who They Added – Signed FB Greg Jones, S Ed Reed; drafted WR DeAndre Hopkins, S D.J. Swearinger, OT Brennan Williams, OLB Sam Montgomery, OL David Quessenberry
Who They Lost – WR Kevin Walter, TE James Casey, OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin
AFC West: Denver Broncos – Star linebacker Von Miller has been suspended for the first six games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. This is a vital blow to the defense. Not to mention the fax gone wrong that led to Elvis Dumervil’s departure in March. Miller at least will play for the Broncos this season, but losing his sidekick on the opposite side can end up hurting the defense as teams could now draw double teams towards Miller with no one else to account for. Offensively, they got better, particularly at receiver. Adding Wes Welker to an already well-rounded receiving core spells bad news for defenses across the league. 4th year receiver Demaryius Thomas is coming off a breakout season catching 94-passes for 1,434-yards and 10-touchdowns. Eric Decker is also coming off his best season with 85-catches for 1,064-yards and 13-touchdowns. Now they add Welker, a receiver that’s caught more passes than any receiver since 2007 to the mix, only makes the passing game a living nightmare with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever Peyton Manning hitting them between the numbers. The Broncos drafted Montee Ball in the second-round in April’s draft, and cleared up their backfield in the process. Willis McGahee is gone, and Knowshon Moreno is returning from a (Knee Scope) to a backup role. Ball is a work-horse as a carrier. His workload at Wisconsin proves it. Ball had nearly 1,000 touches for Wisconsin’s offense, and should be a valuable asset in the redzone as a runner that can punch it in. Ronnie Hillman will be a factor as well as a shifty style of runner, especially in passing situations. It’s plain and simple to see, no defense in the AFC West can put a halt to Denver’s offense.
Prediction: 11-5, (2nd seed)
Who They Added – Signed WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vazquez, NT Terrance Knighton, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; drafted RB Montee Ball, DT Sylvester Williams, DE Quanterus Smith
Who They Lost – RB Willis McGahee, WR Brandon Stokley, DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil, DT Justin Bannan, LB Keith Brooking, LB D.J. Williams, CB Tracy Porter
AFC Wild Cards
Baltimore Ravens – The offense still centralizes around one of the top running backs Ray Rice, a runner that can do so much for an offense. Does anyone know that quarterback Joe Flacco has completed more passes to Rice than anyone since he’s been under center? They’ve connected 311 times. Defensively, they added more depth upfront with the addition of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, and luckily were able to land Elvis Dumervil to play on the opposite side of Terrell Suggs, a tandem that could be one of the best in football. I think the offense will be fine, but losing Anquan Boldin, Flacco’s main possession receiver and losing tight end Dennis Pitta (Hip) for the season hurts them slightly. This team is still a hard-nosed well-coached team that I expect to be in the postseason.
Prediction: 10-6, (5th seed)
Indianapolis Colts – Second year quarterback Andrew Luck is only getting better and the offense has a better outlook. Adding hard-nosed running back Ahmad Bradshaw and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey gives Luck more weapons at his expense. The Colts could challenge Houston in the AFC South, but on the defensive side of things, losing Dwight Freeney’s presence will be hard to replace. I do like the defensive approach of being an opportunistic defense, but talent is lacking somewhat here. Ultimately, the offense has enough mustard and ketchup on the hot dog to will this team into the postseason.
Prediction: 10-6, (6th seed)
National Football Conference
NFC East: Washington Redskins – I guess you could say that I’m banking on quarterback Robert Griffin III (Knee) being able to stick it out for the most part with not too many setbacks by taking Washington to win this division? Well, I think he will, but that’s not the main reason why I like the Redskins to come out on top. Look, when you control the line of scrimmage with a solid running game behind a bruising running back like Alfred Morris, you control the tempo, and in this non-traditional offensive system, when you have that, it dictates the passing game by giving you the luxury to keep defenses guessing all game long with the triple-threat option. And having a key piece the defense didn’t have last season Brian Orakpo back from injury, gives them a true threat to rush the passer. Coaching wise, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is one of the best in the business when it comes to breaking down the opposition’s protection schemes, and head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have been masterful installing an offense that keeps defenses on their toes. That’s what made me come to this decision, a coaching staff that has everyone aligned within their personnel that’s in tuned with the system.
Prediction: 10-6, (3rd seed)
Who They Added – WR Devery Henderson, WR Donte Stallworth, OT Jeremy Trueblood, LB Bryan Kehl, OLB Darryl Tapp, CB E.J. Biggers; drafted CB David Amerson, TE Jordan Reed, S Phillip Thomas, S Baccari Rambo
Who They Lost – OLB Lorenzo Alexander, S Cedric Griffin, S Madieu Williams
NFC North: Green Bay Packers – Fantasy Football lovers are eying on third year receiver Randall Cobb, a player on the upswing that’s becoming a prime player at his position. Cobb led a consistent prolific Packers passing attack in receptions with 80 as arguably the games best quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ prime target. Expect his numbers to increase in 2013. Drafting defensive end Datone Jones, a vicious defensive player that caught the attention from a wide-load of pro scouts when at UCLA, gives a Packers defense that struggled in 2012, another dynamite player that can create havoc upfront defensively other than Clay Matthews. Pass protection on the offensive line is still a concern, and losing left tackle Bryan Bulaga (Achilles) doesn’t help the cause. What I do like is the fact that the Packers drafted two running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Lacy could help the Packers on short yardage situations as a power back. Franklin, on the other hand, has struggled not looking comfortable within the system. DuJuan Harris was the projected starting running back, but after suffering a season ending (Knee) injury, it looks like Lacy will be the starter. Some rookies don’t pick up on things as quickly as expected, but hold onto Franklin, I think in due-time, he’ll pick things up and could be a valuable catcher out of the backfield in a passing system. Luckily for Green Bay, having a quarterback that can do so much with a good amount of ammunition in the passing game, the offense will still move the football and produce more touchdowns than field goals. If I’m a Packers fan out there, you better thank the Lord Almighty God for having Aaron Rodgers.
Prediction: 10-6, (4th seed)
Who They Added – Drafted RB Eddie Lacy, RB Johnathan Franklin, OL David Bakhtiari, OL J.C. Tretter, DE Datone Jones
Who They Lost – RB Cedric Benson, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, C Jeff Saturday, OLB Erik Walden, LB Desmond Bishop, S Charles Woodson
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons – Their recent best player on the defensive line John Abraham is gone, and in his replacement, the Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora, a vital part of the Giants two Super Bowl runs, recently. The defense has had their lapses, and they’ll need a healthy Umenyiora to get back to his ball-hawking, sack-eating ways to provide pressure upfront, something the defense has been inconsistent at doing so, including the postseason when squandering a comfortable halftime lead against the Seahawks in the divisional round, even though the team won to move onto the conference championship. But in the conference championship, the defense letup and threw away a 17-0 lead in a 28-24 loss to the 49ers, ending their Super Bowl aspirations. Clearly, the defense needs to be better. So how can this work for the better? Well, they upgraded at running back by signing Steven Jackson, a consistent 1,000-yard rusher. Being on a contender that has arguably the best receiving core in the league with receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, is a major part of the offense opposing defenses need to account for. Just like the running game opens up the pass, the pass can also open up the running game. With a subpar running game when leading late in games, it makes things more difficult to close out games when you need wear defenses down in the fourth quarter. With Jackson in the backfield, they have a much better runner that has that bruising style to ground and pound the rock when leading late in games to close things out. Sure, the passing game is tremendous with quarterback Matt Ryan running the ship, but he needs a more effective running game, and he has one in Jackson that defenses need to respect as well as the passing game. Running the football better will control the tempo and keep your defense fresher in the fourth quarter. The offensive line is where things are a little rocky, particularly on the right side of the line with Tyson Clabo gone. Lamar Holmes will take Clabo’s spot on that side of the line, something Clabo was solid at. Although that part of the offense has question marks, name me a defense that can slow down the Falcons offense in this division?
Prediction: 11-5, (2nd seed)
Who They Added – Signed RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora; drafted CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, DE Malliciah Goodman, TE Levine Toilolo
Who They Lost – RB Michael Turner, OT Tyson Clabo, C Todd McClure, DE John Abraham, DT Vance Walker, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta Robinson, S Chris Hope
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks – Running back Marshawn Lynch is the workhorse of the Seattle offense. Lynch is heading into his seventh year coming off his best sported season by tallying 1,590-yards on 311-carries and 12-total touchdowns, 11-rushing and 1-receiving. Lynch’s performance was overshadowed by quarterback Russell Wilson’s stellar rookie season, however. In his rookie season, Wilson showed poise and confidence and ran the Seattle offense like a veteran by completing 64.1 percent of his passes with a QB Rating of 100. And with a solid offensive line that features one of the league’s best left tackles, Pro Bowler Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger, things look like they can only get better for the young and talented Wilson to have success at the pro level. To win a championship, you need some part of the team that either has the best individual player at a certain position or on a certain area of the team, and Seattle clearly has the most dominant secondary in all of football. Cornerback Richard Sherman is one of the best in the game with his feisty approach, and always a threat to any quarterback throwing towards his side of the field, because of his quick instincts and ability to intercept balls in his area. Brandon Browner is one of the more physical cornerbacks with a 6 foot 4, 221 lbs. frame that delivers bone-crushing hits and installs fear into the minds of opposing receivers. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are a dynamite dual on the backend of the defense that covers so much ground. Rarely, will you ever see them get beat over the top. The big trade they made to acquire one of the games most electrifying all-around players, receiver/kick and punt returner Percy Harvin took a backseat when Harvin suffered a (Hip Labrum) earlier this summer. Harvin will miss a good period of time, but could return in the later stages of the season to give the offense a serious big play threat. Harvin can do so much, line up at receiver, in the backfield, return kicks, etc. And with Seattle likely to be in the thick of things around his time-table for return, this could only add more sugar to the punch on a clear-cut contender.
Prediction: 11-5, (1st seed)
Who They Added – Signed QB Brady Quinn, QB Tarvaris Jackson, DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, DT Tony McDaniel, CB Antoine Winfield; traded for WR Percy Harvin; drafted RB Christine Michael, WR Chris Harper, DT Jordan Hill, DT Jesse Williams
Who They Lost – QB Matt Flynn, RB/KR Leon Washington, DT Alan Branch, DT/DE Jason Jones, OLB Leroy Hill
NFC Wild Cards
San Francisco 49ers – The trade to acquire Anquan Boldin from Baltimore just might be the best thing that’s happened for a team that was already thin at receiver. Michael Crabtree suffered an (Achilles Heel) that most likely ends your chances of playing football for the season. But the 49ers are optimistic with Crabtree’s rehabilitation process going smoothly, and are giving indication that he may return by week 12. If Crabtree does return later this season, he and Boldin will be a solid duel as a one-two punch for second year talented quarterback Colin Kaepernick to throw to. Rookie safety Eric Reid has good upside, but needs to perform at least to the level of the departed All-Pro Dashon Goldson. The offensive line is arguably the best in the league that should continue to open running lanes for bruising running back Frank Gore, and change-of-pace backs LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter. The key part of the defense is how Justin Smith’s health plays out. Last season when Smith was healthy, he was his usual bull-dogging self, by getting a bull-rush at the line of scrimmage. That freed up Aldon Smith who finished the season with 19.5 sacks. But when Justin Smith was hampered by injury, Aldon’s production disappeared in the later stages of the season. I expect them to control the line of scrimmage on both ends this season again, and that’s a major key pedigree to make you a contender.
Prediction: 11-5, (5th seed)
Dallas Cowboys – I fiddled with this over the last two weeks. I see the changes the Cowboys made within their coaching staff, especially on defense with Monte Kiffin coming along to switch the 3-4 to the 4-3 that could benefit arguably the games best pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. And why will this benefit Ware? He doesn’t have the same responsibilities as he had when as a standup outside rusher, and being caught in coverage. Ware can now just focus more on rushing the passer as a down-lineman, something he does at an extreme high level. A vital part of the defense that needs to avoid injuries, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, linebacker Sean Lee and weakside linebacker Bruce Carter need to be in full-flight for this defense to work. Ratliff and Lee have shown flashes of brilliance, but it’s Carter that was looking to hit the scene a year ago before he went down with an injury that sidelined him for the entire season. With him healthy, he and Lee potentially can be a top solid tandem at linebacker. The offensive line remains an ongoing concern. Rookie center Travis Frederick has had some solid moments in camp and the preseason, but he needs to prove that he’s better than a third round pick he was projected to be. I see the body of talent on this team at the skilled positions, and that quarterback Tony Romo and emerging star receiver Dez Bryant can become one of the best QB/WR connections in the game. But I asked myself this: Will this team get over the undisciplined things that have stumped them from winning a game or two more a season like they’ve done recently? Penalties, turnovers and all the other undisciplined factors have derailed the Cowboys from being a true contender. I think they will sneak into the postseason, but after that, I don’t feel anything majorly special happening.
Prediction: 9-7, (6th seed)
AFC Playoff Predictions:
AFC Wild Card Round
New England (3) over Indianapolis (6)
Cincinnati (4) over Baltimore (5)
AFC Divisional Round
Houston (1) over Cincinnati (4)
Denver (2) over New England (3)
AFC Championship Round:
Houston (1) over Denver (2)
NFC Playoff Predictions:
NFC Wild Card Round
Dallas (6) over Washington (3)
San Francisco (5) over Green Bay (4)
NFC Divisional Round
Seattle (1) over Dallas (6)
San Francisco (5) over Atlanta (2)
NFC Championship Round
Seattle (1) over San Francisco (2)
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle 27, Houston 20 – Super Champion, Seattle Seahawks
Super Bowl MVP, QB Russell Wilson