When it comes to the NFL, I’ve learned never to pick repeats.
There is seemingly a new champion every year. The days of the dynasty are supposed to be over. Free agency and the allure of the big money grab have seen to that.
So naturally when I set out to handicap this year’s NFL outcome, Seattle and Denver had to be excluded.
But the more and more I evalutated all the teams, I couldn’t make an argument for anyone better than Denver in the AFC and Seattle in the NFC. The only twist I had was picking Denver to beat Seattle this time in the Super Bowl. All the breaks in last year’s Seahawks rout of the Broncos went Seattle’s way and things have a way of evening out.
Who’s better than Denver in the AFC? New England and old Tom Brady? The Colts and the newest big thing, Andrew Luck? I don’t see that many teams out there capable of winning more than 10 games.
What about the NFC? San Francisco has been tantalizingly close, but can’t keep its nose clean. Green Bay’s defense can’t support its offense. Does anybody remember that the Dallas Cowboys used to be “America’s Team?”
Honestly, the NFL is becoming quite pedestrian. While it’s still the most wildly popular sport in America — and nothing else is even close — the product has become watered down. There’s so much parity now and while it keeps a lot of teams’ fans on the edge of their seats to the end, the fact of the matter is I miss those 49er, Steeler and Cowboy teams that used to dominate. They set the bar high and everybody else tried to reach it. Now there’s not enough room on the bar for everybody.
The way Seattle finished last season, I had to wonder if maybe it was going to be the new dynasty. It has a dynamic young quarterback and a brash, intimidating defense than can defend the pass like no other, which is what you have to do in this era where passing rules and running backs are just so yesterday. Quarterbacks and secondaries win championships. Gone are the days of the 1,500-yard back and ball control to eat up the clock. Now it’s tee it high and let it fly.
Here’s how I see the races:
• AFC EAST •
1. New England — The Patriots have fallen off considerably, but as long as Tom Brady is there they’re still the team to beat.
2. Miami — The Dolphins are at best 8-8, but that’s good enough for second in this uber-weak division.
3. New York Jets — Rex Ryan probably will be looking for a new job.
4. Buffalo — This team is a mess. Quarterback woes point toward a 3-13 season.
• AFC NORTH •
1. Baltimore — I’m always a big believer in the Ravens because of their defense.
2. Cincinnati — Hopefully Tanner Hawkinson will get more time this year in the offensive line. The Bengals are starting to become a consistent playoff qualifier.
3. Pittsburgh — You have to wonder about the Steelers when their top two running backs get busted for weed.
4. Cleveland — The Browns rival Buffalo as the AFC’s worst team. How many games before Johnny Football takes over and proves he’s a bust?
• AFC SOUTH •
1. Indianapolis — From an 0-4 preseason to a possible Super Bowl berth.
2. Houston — Look for a huge turnaround from last year’s disaster.
3. Tennessee — Another team with huge quarterback problems.
4. Jacksonville — The Jags won’t be the gimme win on the schedule, but need a running game.
• AFC WEST •
1. Denver — The window is closing for Peyton Manning.
2. San Diego — The Chargers are starting to close the gap.
3. Kansas City — Big falloff season. Inept offensive line and receivers will lead to one of the NFL’s worst offenses.
4. Oakland — The Raiders could actually past Kansas City, but they always seem to self-destruct.
Wild-Card teams — Cincinnati and San Diego.
Super Bowl finalist — Denver.
• NFC EAST •
1. Philadelphia — Nine wins can take this division. The Eagles are fun to watch because of their intricate offense.
2. New York Giants — Another year like last one and big changes will be made.
3. Dallas — Best offensive line in football, maybe the worst defense in football.
4. Washington — RG III might have peaked in his rookie year. Looks like a shell of his former self.
• NFC NORTH •
1. Green Bay — The Packers have the pass-run balance that most teams don’t have.
2. Chicago — Keep an eye out for the Bears. All depends on Jay Cutler’s mood.
3. Detroit — This team has underachieved the last couple of years.
4. Minnesota — Adrian Peterson is the best back in the NFL, but former Chief Matt Cassel is the quarterback. Enough said.
• NFC SOUTH •
1. New Orleans — Drew Brees is getting near the end, so this is an urgent team.
2. Tampa Bay — Surprise team of the NFL. Lovie Smith will coach them up.
3. Atlanta — What in the world happened here last year? Look for a much better year.
4. Carolina — This is the team that will have this biggest turnaround — but in the wrong direction.
• NFC WEST •
1. Seattle — I was going to pick San Francisco until the 49er players became regulars on the police blotter.
2. San Francisco — Off-the-field problems will keep this team from maximizing its talent.
3. Arizona — I would love to see the Cardinals win 10. Always had a soft spot from their St. Louis days.
4. St. Louis — Starting quarterback Sam Bradford is already gone for the year. Not even one of the NFL’s top defensive front fours can overcome that.
Wild-Cards — San Francisco, Chicago
Super Bowl finalist — Seattle
Super Bowl champion — Denver