Predicting the Records of All 32 NFL Teams in 2013

2013 nfl 560x314Football is back! All is right in the world of sports. Another season means another round of predictions. Last year’s forecasting didn’t go so well for me. It took weeks to wipe all the egg from my face after declaring the Raiders, Titans, and Eagles would reach the playoffs. Point and laugh if you must, I deserve it. But I’m all about redemption in 2013. I’m fully confident I have the pulse of the league. Here goes nothing.

AFC East

afc east 560x379New England Patriots (10-6)

The Pats underwent an offensive makeover in the off-season. Some of it was planned, like letting Wes Welker flee to Denver and signing Danny Amendola to fill Welker’s slot. Some of it wasn’t by design, like cutting Aaron Hernandez after he was arrested for being a straight up gangster. The backfield is stacked with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and with Gronk doubling as a med school cadaver since February, it’s possible Bill Belichick could shift to a more run oriented attack. Don’t bet on it, though. Golden Boy Brady will still find a way to toss at least 25 touchdowns. The defense is meh once again, but it hardly matters in such a weak division. With Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Denver, Baltimore, and Houston on the schedule, there are few gimmes.

Jersey to own in 2014: Chandler Jones – I pegged Jones to be stud as a rookie, but he didn’t have a sizable impact. Look for that to change in his second season.

Buffalo Bills (7-9)

A new coaching staff and front office regime was long overdue in Buffalo. Head coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley are steering the franchise in the right direction. They reached for quarterback E.J. Manuel in April’s draft, but the kid took little time establishing himself as the best signal-caller in training camp. Staying healthy will be his biggest obstacle. C.J. Spiller is in store for a monster campaign; he has Marshall Faulk skills. The defense remains a work in progress and losing cornerback Stephon Gilmore for 6-8 weeks will be costly. If they elevate the defense to middle of the road, they could make some noise. That said, this team is a year away from playoff contention.

Jersey to own in 2014: E.J. Manuel – The Bills haven’t had a legit franchise QB since Jim Kelly. Manuel isn’t on Kelly’s level, but his skill-set is ideal for modern-day offenses.

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

General Manager Jeff Ireland opened up the checkbook in free agency in hopes of saving his job. Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, and Brent Grimes all got paid. Whether or not any of these players were sound investments remains to be seen. And none of the moves will matter if Ryan Tannehill isn’t the real deal. He was adequate as a rookie, but with Wallace stretching the field, expectations are higher. Pass rush is also a concern after Cameron Wake. Can Lamar Miller carry the load? Who replaces the injured Dustin Keller? Is Jonathan Martin really an upgrade over Jake Long? Does the secondary have enough talent? There’s just too many questions for the Fish to bite in 2013.

Jersey to own in 2014: Lamar Miller – By default, it’s Miller. I don’t think he’s all that good, but who the hell else is going to tote the rock?

New York Jets (4-12)

It will be a miracle if Rex Ryan survives the season. The entire organization is in disarray. Geno Smith has the stink of a bust and Mark Sanchez is in need of a new address. Swapping out Shonn Greene for Chris Ivory is akin to putting pimento loaf instead of bologna on your sandwich. They both kinda suck. The defense waved goodbye to perennial All-Pro Darrelle Revis and drafted ex-Bama corner Dee Milliner, who is experiencing growing pains. Calvin Pace is old, the safeties are subpar, and Quinton Coples is out indefinitely after ankle surgery. Besides all that, the Jets are sitting pretty.

Jersey to own in 2014: Muhammad Wilkerson – Has All-Pro skills and is improving every year.

Bottom line:

The Patriots aren’t the force of nature they were five years ago, but they don’t need to be in this lousy division. Make it five consecutive AFC East crowns.

AFC North

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Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

Top to bottom, the Bengals own the most talented roster in the conference, let alone the division. Andy Dalton folded once again in the playoffs, but that had more to do with a lack of weapons other than A.J. Green. Enter a pair of oozing with talent rookies in running back Gio Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert, and the offense has a chance to be special in 2013. Couple this with one of the league’s most dominant defenses led by tackle Geno Atkins, quarterback killa’ Michael Johnson, and cornerback Leon Hall, and the Bengals are poised to make a Super Bowl run.

Jersey to own in 2014: Giovani Bernard – This kid could be special. He has hands, moves, speed, and deceptive power between the tackles.

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

An aging defense and an offense without a number one back that lost speedster Mike Wallace in free agency has many pundits forecasting a second straight non-playoff season. Pump the brakes, folks. Mike Tomlin is one helluva of motivator and Big Ben knows how to produce when the game is on the line. The defense said goodbye to James Harrison and Keenan Lewis, but welcomed first-round pick Jarvis Jones, who should make an impact once he acclimates to the professional pace. If rookie running back Le’Veon Bell returns sooner than later and can stay healthy, the backfield will be solid. With the Titans, Jets, Raiders and Bills on the schedule, the Steelers will be angling for a Wildcard berth.

Jersey to own in 2014: Markus Wheaton – Wheaton is a Mike Wallace clone, who already appears to be a little more versatile.

Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

The departures of veteran leaders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Anquan Boldin shouldn’t be underestimated. All three were critical to the Ravens surprising ascension to Super Bowl champions. The good news is Lardarius Webb is healthy, and ex-Bronco Elvis Dumervil brings edge heat opposite Terrell Suggs. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think this defense will finish higher than the 2012 unit that ranked 12th. However, the offense has been downgraded due to Boldin’s exit and Dennis Pitta’s season-ending hip injury. Torrey Smith must become a reliable and consistent target for Joe Flacco or the passing game will suffer. Ray Rice is still a beast, but he can’t carry the offense by himself against the AFC’s élite. This is a tough call, but I think the defending champs find themselves on the outside looking in come January.

Jersey to own in 2014: Matt Elam – He’s not listed as the starter at strong safety, but he brings the pain and can turn and burn. He’ll make an impact from the get-go.

Cleveland Browns (7-9)

Along with Miami, Cleveland is a trendy pick to flirt with playoff contention in the AFC. It makes sense when you scan a roster chock-full of young talent capable of becoming stars. Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron, Joe Haden, D’Qwell Jackson, and T.J. Ward all possess Pro Bowl skills. Head coach Rob Chudzinki and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have plenty of toys to play with, but quarterback Brandon Weeden has to be Buzz Lightyear, not Charlie-in-the-Box. Learning to win inside the Sunday pressure cooker takes time. With Green Bay, New England, Chicago, and Minnesota on the schedule, in addition to a rough ‘n’ tumble division slate, the Browns will have to wait another year.

Jersey to own in 2014: Josh Gordon – He’s an immature headcase, but so was Terrell Owens. Browns fans will love watching him catch long TDs.

Bottom line:

The North is the conference’s most competitive division. All four teams have hopes of booking postseason reservations. That said, only the Bengals and Steelers will make the rip.

AFC South

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Houston Texans (11-5)

We’ll find out what kind of moxie the Texans have when they face Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco in Weeks 3-5. If that stretch doesn’t give us any clues, a December calendar that includes New England, Indy, and Denver should reveal a lot. The drafting of DeAndre “Nuke” Hopkins should provide Matt Schaub his first real threat opposite Andre Johnson. Arian Foster’s long-term health is worrisome, but the fresh legs of Ben Tate are lying in wait should a calamity befall Foster. It’s hard not to like this team, but they seem to lack the edge needed to hoist Lombardi. The defense is stout, although the unit came up small against New England back in January. The window for this team is closing fast, so it looks like Super Bowl or bust.

Jersey to own in 2014: DeAndre Hopkins – Two words: real deal. The Texans faithful can put the nightmares of Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter behind them.

Indianapolis (8-8)

Let’s face it, the 2012 Colts were, well, lucky. Andrew Luck(y). The wunderkind number one overall pick exceeded expectations by steering a talent depleted roster into the playoffs. The scary thing is, he’s only going to get better. His Stanford offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, was hired after Bruce Arians fled to Arizona. Don’t be fooled by Pep’s rep as a run heavy schemer, because he will play to Luck’s strength, which is attacking down the field. Reggie Wayne is timeless, T.Y. Hilton is dangerous, and Dwayne Allen has the tools to be an élite tight end. The defense needed help, but it’s not clear how much free agent additions Erik Walden, Greg Toler, LaRon Landry, and Ricky Jean Francois will provide. At the very least, they should be serviceable upgrades. A difficult schedule and an increase in failed comebacks means a step back in 2014. Then again, counting out Luck is probably a stupid thing to do.

Jersey to own in 2014: T.Y. Hilton – If you thought he was dynamic as a rookie, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Tennessee Titans (6-10)

If the Titans had a marginally competent quarterback, they could find success in 2013. Alas, they still have Jake Locker, who looks like atrocious Tebow more than just plain bad Tebow most weeks. The offensive line should be stouter with the addition of first-round right guard Chance Warmack and free agent left guard Andy Levitre. For Chris Johnson’s sake, they better be, because he and the coaching staff are running out of excuses for the man formerly known as CJ2K’s frequent disappearing acts. The defense is adequate and would likely improve if the offense could sustain drives and control the clock. Shonn Greene is a plodder, but he will help spell Johnson in an attack that plans to run a lot. If only Kenny Britt could live up to his immense potential, things might be different in Music City. Instead, expect more of the same.

Jersey to own in 2014: Chance Warmack – A guard? Yup. Warmack is no ordinary offensive guard.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

Fortunately, MJD is back. Unfortunately, so is Blaine Gabbert. New head coach Gus Bradley is giving Gabbert one final shot to prove he belongs on an NFL roster. It’s doubtful the former first-rounder will seize the opportunity and run with it, which leaves inaccurate journeyman Chad Henne as the team’s best chance to win. And that won’t be easy without budding wideout Justin Blackmon, who will sit the first four games for being a moron. Bradley will employ an attacking, physical defense like the one he had in Seattle, minus the glut of Pro Bowlers. At the very least, the Jags should play under control and with effort. That won’t translate into many victories, but it offers a glimmer of hope that the franchise is heading in the right directions after years of floating adrift at sea.

Jersey to own in 2014: Cecil Shorts - The playmaking receiver set the league ablaze in 2012 with several long touchdowns. Stay tuned for an encore.

Bottom line:

The Texans are still the class of the division, but the Colts are closing fast and could supplant the top dogs if everything breaks their way. I just don’t see that happening this season.

AFC West

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Denver Broncos (12-4)

Adding Wes Welker to an already vicious attack doesn’t seem fair. Fantasy enthusiasts are salivating to own a piece of this high-flying group. However, as we witnessed a season ago, Manning playing sand lot ball with his pals isn’t a recipe for championships, especially with such an unsettled backfield. John Fox hinted that the trio of Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno will “alternate drives” to start the season. This sounds ridiculous and probably won’t last once Hillman fumbles, or Ball breaks off a long touchdown scamper. Regardless, points won’t be a problem. The defense is another story. Elvis Dumervil faxed his way out of town, and Von Miller is suspended for the first six games because he’s an idiot. In addition, the normally reliable Champ Bailey appears to be on his last legs. Denver will be one of the league’s finest, but won’t be “super” unless they learn how to stop opponents.

Jersey to own in 2014: Montee Ball – It’s only a matter of time before Ball becomes the bell cow back. It might take a few weeks, but it will happen.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

As a long-suffering Eagles fan, I am well aware of Andy Reid’s strengths and weaknesses. Oh sure, his offensive philosophy toes the line of insanity and he is a master at clock management butchering, but the one thing he excels at is building teams from the ground up. Reid took over a moribund Eagles franchise in 1999 and transformed them into a legit contender within two seasons. He is capable of sapping talent from otherwise average players, and the Chiefs are loaded with Pro Bowlers on both sides. Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, and Alex Smith are a solid trio for Reid to exploit. The back seven on defense is excellent, but the front three is questionable. Dontari Poe must prove he can anchor the line following an underwhelming rookie season. There’s enough in place for Reid to earn a Wildcard spot.

Jersey to own in 2014: Justin Houston – A Pro Bowler in 2012, Houston is angling for All-Pro in 2013.

San Diego Chargers (5-11)

The A.J. Smith/Norv Turner era is mercifully over in San Diego. Philip Rivers is trapped in a downward spiral. Ryan Mathews is made of glass. Danario Alexander is out for the year. Antonio Gates is in jeopardy of breaking down at any time. The news is less disturbing on defense; Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes are two of the best young 3-4 ends in the league, and rookie Manti Te’o is penciled in to start from day one, if he’s healthy. More negative waves are floating through a secondary that finished 24th in 2013. Overall, there just isn’t much juice on this roster. Newbie coach Mike McCoy is a creative offensive designer, but a declining quarterback with substandard receiving options behind a terrible line equates to more losses than wins.

Jersey to own in 2014: Corey Liuget – Made a significant jump from year 1 to year 2. Expect another jump in year 3.

Oakland Raiders (2-14)

Hoo boy, where to begin. They have no quarterback, a woeful offensive line, a brittle running back, gimpy wide receivers, and a defense that will be worse than the unit that ranked 28th last year. Dennis Allen is a dead man walking and the same can be said for general manager Reggie McKenzie. There is literally nothing hopeful about this franchise, unless you believe owner Mark Davis is in reality triggering an implosion before enacting a sound rebuilding plan. Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater will be sitting in the cue next May. Either one could be the foundation for a long-awaited turnaround, but until ownership, management and coaching are working in unison, da Raiders will remain a laughable bottom dweller.

Jersey to own in 2014: #1 draft pick – Whomever they peg number one overall will immediately be their best player, as long as it’s Clowney or Bridgewater.

Bottom line:

The Broncos are the class of the West, but Kansas City will go from worst to Wildcard.

NFC East

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Washington Redskins (9-7)

RG III and his healing knee was the talk of the offseason and said knee will continue to be a topic of conversation as the regular season unfolds. Is he really healthy enough to do all the things that made him so special as a rookie? Will the Shanahans alter their read-option scheme to protect their prized commodity? Was Alfred Morris a one-year wonder? Can Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis play 16 games? Is the defense capable of slowing down differing and potentially explosive division opponents? Answers: yes, probably, no, no, and no. None of the East can play defense, but the ‘Skins will do it the best. As long as Griffin starts 14 games and has zero setbacks, the division will be Washington’s for the taking.

Jersey to own in 2014: Aldrick Robinson – The offense needs one of their young wideouts to separate from the pack of mediocrity. I like Robinson to be that guy.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Forget about Tony Romo’s penchant to gag, or DeMarco Murray’s penchant to spend game days soaking in a tub of ice, or Miles Austin’s baby-sized hamstrings. Dallas will fail in 2013 because they have a deplorable offensive line and bargain basement safeties. The Ravens and 49ers didn’t reach Super Bowl XLVII with shoddy lines and secondaries that left gaping holes for pass catchers to run through. Jason Garret is a mere figurehead; I find if hard to believe players look at him as an authoritative voice. He was stripped of playcalling duties and the only reason he wasn’t canned by Jerry Jones is because no coach of merit wants anything to do with Leatherface’s dysfunctional sanitarium. Montee Kiffin will plug some of the holes Rob Ryan couldn’t, but the ‘Boys are the definition of average.

Jersey to own in 2014: Dez Bryant – If you don’t own one already, the price will spike after he spends the seasons destroying cornerbacks and safeties.

Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)

Chip Kelly is attempting to succeed where so many other college coaching wunderkinds have failed. He is the quintessential read-option architect and has the exact offensive personnel to do severe damage in a league with few dominant defenses. Michael Vick, Shady McCoy, Bryce Brown, DeSean Jackson, a trio of move tight ends, and a healthy, athletic line is what Kelly needs to create the mismatches that fuel his up-tempo machine. On the other hand, a defense struggling to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is going to be awful. Coordinator Billy Davis won’t get much sleep the next four months. I anticipate a flurry of shootouts for Philly, the majority of which they will end up on the losing end. That said, if you favor football that’s never dull, tune in to the Eagles in 2013.

Jersey to own in 2014: Vinny Curry – This is a bit of a reach, but Curry tore it up in the preseason and it’s only a matter of time before he’s elevated to starter.

New York Giants (6-10)

I realize that preseason results mean jack squat, but Big Blue looked terrible in August. Much of their troubles can be attributed to injuries to key players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Andre Brown, and Stevie Brown. However, age and a glaring lack of depth all over the roster doesn’t bode well for the future. The linebackers are pedestrian, the secondary is below average, and the front line is searching for pass rushers. David Wilson brings explosiveness as a running back that has been lacking for years, and Rueben Randle is primed to make an impact in his second season. However, the Giants (like a lot of teams) are two or three injuries away from disaster. Welcome to the cellar, Tom and Eli.

Jersey to own in 2014: David Wilson – He’ll be a first-round fantasy pick next summer.

Bottom line:

RG III, Dez Bryant, and Chip Kelly will make this one of the most entertaining divisions in football. None of them are a threat to play in February, but each of them will have their moments of greatness.

NFC North

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Green Bay Packers (10-6)

Aaron Rodgers is good enough for 5 wins by himself. That means all the defense and special teams have to do is win 5 more. Easier said than done. Check out this three-game stretch to start the season: @ SF, vs WAS, @ CIN. Yikes. If the Pack goes 0-3, the entire state of Wisconsin might fall into a sinkhole. An extremely shaky offensive line coupled with a beat up receiving corps won’t do them any favors, either. That said, cheeseheads have no need to panic. The schedule gets more forgiving in October, and by then Eddie Lacy should be finding his legs. This isn’t Mike McCarthy’s best assembled team for sure, but they seem motivated to show the rest of the conference they are still a contender.

Jersey to own in 2014: Eddie Lacy – He’s a thumper who will make fans forget all about Brandon Jackson, James Starks, and Alex Green.

Detroit Lions (8-8)

The addition of Reggie Bush might end up being one of the most significant moves any team made in the offseason. Another offensive threat not named Calvin Johnson will do this offense wonders. Bush isn’t Marshall Faulk, but he is a stellar receiver who proved himself a capable inside runner during his two seasons in Miami. The problems with the Lions remain on defense, where the secondary is held together by overpaid and overrated free agents, none of whom can slow down the league’s top wideouts and tight ends. So, it’s the same ol’ situation in 2013, i.e. lots o’ shootouts. Matt Stafford will fire way more than 20 TDs and Calvin will snag way more than 5. The playoffs are out of reach, but expect a bounce back after last year’s 4-12 debacle.

Jersey to own in 2014: Nick Fairley – All this guy needs to do is grow the fuck up and he’ll be a Pro Bowler.

Chicago Bears (8-8)

Marc Trestman is one of those offensive gurus who can pump life into a stagnant attack. And that’s why the Bears hired him. Jay Cutler has been borderline terrible the last two seasons. If Trestman can’t turn him around, Cutler probably won’t be back in 2014. Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte might catch 200 balls between them. But who else will join in on the fun? Alshon Jeffery? Martellus Bennett? Curtis Conway? Anyone? The defense will once again be stout, although Brian Urlacher’s steady presence will be missed. All the offense has to do is score 20-24 points and most weeks Chicago comes out on top. I’m just not sold on either Trestman or Cutler.

Jersey to own in 2014: Jon Bostic – The ex-Gator will be a fixture at Mike linebacker for years to come.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

In case you hadn’t noticed, the NFL is now a passing league. Sure, the Niners and Ravens are run based offenses, but it was Joe Flacco’s arm that won Super Bowl XLVII, and Colin Kaepernick’s arm that led a comeback in XLVII. If a quarterback can’t chuck it down field he won’t be around for long. Christian Ponder doesn’t look to throw the ball vertically and doesn’t appear capable of doing do. Adrian Peterson is superhuman, but even he can’t reel off 2000-yard campaigns year in and year out. All an opposing defense has to do is limit Peterson and the Vikings are in trouble. Making matters worse, their secondary is very suspect. Finally, every mistake Ponder makes will be magnified, which is bad news for a team with playoff aspirations.

Jersey to own in 2014: Cordarrelle Patterson – If he can’t beat out Jerome Simpson for a starting job, he’s a bust.

Bottom line:

All four teams have glaring weaknesses, but Green Bay has the fewest.

NFC South

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New Orleans Saints (11-5)

If you don’t think coaching is important, see the 2012 Saints sans Sean Payton. Well, he’s back, and no coach maximizes a quarterback’s skill-set like Payton does Drew Brees. They will throw and throw and throw, and once in a while hand it to Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. The defense will once again be horrendous, but overrated coordinator Rob Ryan should get them to at least play hard on a weekly basis. The “chip on their shoulder theory” is at work here. I see the Saints waving their collective middle finger at the rest of the league and du Fuhrer Goodell all season long. They’ll win every game 38-34, but they will win nonetheless.

Jersey to own in 2014: Kenny Stills – Number three receivers in this offense are usually a dime a dozen, but Stills looks like a keeper.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

A step back? Yes. The offensive line is scary bad and the defense is teetering on the precipice of being a liability. Osi Umenyiora replaces John Abraham’s role as the lone pass rusher. A pair of rookie cornerbacks could be starting by midseason. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and new arrival Steven Jackson will pile up plenty of points, but the vibes surrounding this team appear to be off. Talent will carry them back to the playoffs, but an injury to one of the above five players could send them spiraling below .500. I will be shocked if this Atlanta team climbs further than the 2012 gang. If they do, it will be because Matt Ryan wins the MVP by a landslide.

Jersey to own in 2014: Robert Alford – They better hope either Alford or fellow rookie Desmond Trufant is legit.

Tampa Bay Bucs (8-8)

The additions of Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson and second-round pick Johnthan Banks should end the nightmares of the 2012 secondary that ranked dead last. Doug Martin is a stud. Vinnie Jackson and Mike Williams are a quality receiving duo. And then there’s Josh Freeman, who might not even be the starting quarterback by November. Methinks Greg Schiano is running thin on patience in regards to Freeman. Mike Glennon clearly isn’t ready to take the reins, but the image of an enraged Schiano screaming at Freeman after a third first-half interception, then calling the rook’s number keeps popping up in my crystal ball. I want to like this team, I really do. However, just like Atlanta, something smells rotten.

Jersey to own in 2014: Mark Barron – With Revis and Goldson doing their thing, Barron will reap the rewards.

Carolina Panthers (6-10)

For the second straight offseason, the front office did nothing to bolster the weapons surrounding Cam Newton. Sorry, Ted Ginn doesn’t count. Steve Smith is a year older. Ditto DeAngelo Williams. Jonathan Stewart is hurt, again. Brandon LaFell is, well, Brandon LaFell. On the plus side, a defense led by Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, and Greg Hardy is approaching dominant status. Like Minnesota, the ‘Cats are relying on one player to carry the water. Cam Newton is amazing, but if gets hurt, this team is doomed. They want to be Seattle, but there is no Beast Mode and the defense is a notch below. On the bright side, a lost season could yield Marqise Lee in next May’s draft.

Jersey to own in 2014: Luke Kuechly – Buy one now if you haven’t already.

Bottom line:

I’m all in on the Saints and punting on Atlanta. That said, if Freeman regains his mojo, Bucs win the division.

NFC West

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San Francisco (11-5)

Here’s the first five weeks for the Niners: vs GB, @ SEA, vs IND, @ STL, vs HOU. Schedule makers are evil. If they survive that stretch at 3-2 or 4-1, they’ll be in prime position to seize the conference’s top seed. The Michael Crabtree injury is worrisome, as is Frank Gore’s advanced age. But Colin Kaepernick’s unlimited potential and a top 3 defense is a deadly combination. Jim Harbaugh coaches with old school bravado and his players have adopted a similar attitude. Dropping a Super Bowl often deflates the following season’s efforts, but the Niners are too hungry to let that happen. Besides, when Seattle and a much improved Rams team are nipping at your heels, there isn’t time to breathe easy or lose focus.

Jersey to own in 2014: Quinton Patton – With Crabtree out, someone has to be a playmaker.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5)

Percy Harvin was supposed to give the Seattle offense and quarterback Russell Wilson a go-to option in the passing game. That plan was derailed once Harvin (never a picture of health) tore a hip labrum. He might be back by November, but he’s the opposite of reliable. Is this the year Golden Tate becomes a low-end number one guy, or will Wilson have to spread it around again to move the chains? The defense will be tested early due to injuries and suspensions, which could be tricky to navigate with a trio of 2012 playoff teams in the first five weeks. However, the best secondary in football is intact, making the outlook a little more promising. As long as Marshawn Lynch is punishing defenses, Seattle will remain a trendy Super Bowl pick.

Jersey to own in 2014: Russell Wilson – Despite his less than ideal height, Wilson is a top flight signal-caller.

St. Louis Rams (9-7)

Lest we forget, the Rams went 2-1-1 versus San Fran and Seattle in 2012. They boast a rising defense and a retooled offense designed to play to Sam Bradford’s strengths. The ’13 draft haul produced a pair of potential keepers in shifty wideout Tavon Austin and rangy linebacker Alec Ogletree. In addition, Jeff Fisher knows how to field a competitive team without a bevy of star players. Running back is still a question mark now that Steven Jackson is in Atlanta, and one of their young receivers — Chris Givens, Austin Pettis or Brian Quick — must develop into a consistent threat that defenses gameplan for. The key to their season is Bradford, who showed signs a year ago of elevating into the category of above average quarterbacks.

Jersey to own in 2014: Chris Givens – Has the talent to be an 1100-yard, 8 touchdown receiver.

Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

Carson Palmer represents a major upgrade over the quarterbacking clown car the Cards rolled out in 2012. Larry Fitzgerald must be ecstatic. The backfield is still a mess. Jettisoning the brittle Chris Wells was smart, but replacing him with the equally injury prone Rashard Mendenhall was dumb. With the worst RB situation in the NFC, newbie head coach Bruce Arians will be tossing the ball all over the yard and he’ll have to hang in the league’s toughest division. Daryl Washington’s four-game suspension hurts an underrated defense, and the season-ending broken leg suffered by first-round pick Jonathan Cooper dealt a significant blow to a challenged offensive line. If Arizona was in the NFC East, they would be division contenders, but having to face three of the top 10 defenses six times will be a difficult obstacle to leap.

Jersey to own in 2014: Michael Floyd – His 14 catch, 166 yards, 1 TD effort in the 2012 finale was no fluke.

Bottom line:

Hard to fathom that three years ago this was the worst division in football. Not anymore. Niners and Hawks are the class of the conference, but don’t sleep on the Rams.

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