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SPORTS

SIDELINE
Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
September 5, 2013



The Eve of War
Football's Eve predictions for the AFC ...and now with added NFC!

So, you've been wondering where the online capsules were? Well, beautiful monthly magazines don't design themselves, but in case you're staring down the barrel of the new NFL season and you just need to get caught up, here we go. Here are the notable hirings, firings, promotions and demotions, and my best guess at what the fans are expecting and what the teams will likely attain. And because this is the internet, I apologize not one jot for any variations between here and what I committed to print a couple of weeks ago. The idiocy of these predictions is the unrepentant upgrade on last month's idiocy.

By the way, you won't find predictions for win-loss here. While half of each year's let-downs (whether losing seasons or anticlimactic records) are down to poor play or underwhelming coaching, the other half are usually down to injury. Right now I'm thinking about how good these teams are without injury, and that means everybody winning more games than will ever happen …because injuries happen. Yeah, I could mark down the teams with less quality in the rotation or off the bench, but I've factored such things into my thoughts on position within the division. Do you downgrade the Colts a specific number of wins because Andrew Luck's backup isn't Luck? (…in which case the Colts can never be picked to win the division in any year). And predicting which specific franchise player is going to get injured is somewhere between a crap shoot and a Victorian parlor game (plus the average medium is usually much better at contacting 'a relative beginning with J' than they are seeking out the finer points of football. Seriously, when was the last time you heard Derek Acorah possessed by the ghost of… well, the Galloping Ghost?)

Scroll down to the end for playoff predictions...

DALLAS COWBOYS
Getting Caught Up: There's very little top-of-the-tree change at the Cowboys, much as frustrated fans and perennial non-fans might take pot-shots at head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo. In fact, Romo received a big new contract in the offseason, though reading between the lines, the contract may have included a 'less golf, more film room' inference. Romo indicated heavily that he wanted some line improvements before he'd sign (they added Wisconsin heavy Travis Frederick to the mix in the draft). Rob Ryan was replaced by veteran coach Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, and Garrett will hand play calling duties to OC Bill Callahan. Expect more rushing. The preseason answers reservations that Frederick was overdrafted in the first round as the rushing game at least looked much improved. Joseph Randle was drafted from Oklahoma State to pair with the too-often injured DeMarco Murray in the backfield, but third-stringer Phillip Tanner – barely visible the last two years – was running strong in preseason, suggesting the whole running game will be a force to be reckoned with. That may be all Romo needs – he threw for almost 5000 yards last season, while no Cowboys runner managed more than 700 yards. RB Felix Jones left the team in the offseason along with CB Mike Jenkins and S Gerald Sensabaugh, but there were no painful departures. Safety Will Allen will be a new starter in the secondary. If rookie JJ Wilcox and Achilles-hit Barry Church are a big part of 2013, safety will become a strength. In fact if the defense can avoid the injury bug – LBs Bruce Carter and Sean Lee were victims last season – and DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer hit top form as 4-3 DEs, the Cowboys could become major players in the NFC. It's a lot of ifs … the DEs, the lack of injuries, the O-line, plus WR Dez Bryant continuing on the road to maturity, but they are all credible ifs.
The Season is a Success If... They make the playoffs after two close misses
Best Guess: I believe it could come down to a field goal difference between the Cowboys and Giants, and before preseason I was still tweeting an edge for the Giants. But I'm aboard now.

NEW YORK GIANTS
Getting Caught Up: The Giants have been making changes on the defensive line. Out went DT Chris Canty and DE Osi Umenyiora, in came Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, and two more Dls were drafted, while LB Michael Boley left in favor of Dan Connor. There's still veteran familiarity at DE, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Matthias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck... it isn't like we won't recognize the Giants. But the defensive front needs to dominate again. The Giants' identity is aggressive defense, hard running and a quarterback who makes winning plays when they're needed. Eli Manning does so much more than that, but the middle part of that equation was missing last year, Ahmad Bradshaw's bare 1000 yards sending no fright into anyone. Andre Brown's 8 TDs have headed to Indianapolis, and the rushing average was around 5 yards a pop last year, so all the Giants need to do is run the ball hard, a lot, and protect Eli Manning when he needs to throw it. In an ideal world, David Wilson sees a lot more carries this year, but he's shown a weakness at pass protection. OT Justin Pugh was drafted to take over somewhere along the line this year, but we won't call the protection situation solved yet. Right now, Curtis Painter is Manning's back-up (a sentence that should cause some painful flashbacks for any Indianapolis fans).
The Season is a Success If... They make the playoffs, because you know what happens when they do.
Best Guess: They're right on the cusp. I can just taste the Cowboys' 'IF' formula that little bit easier than the Giants pass protect solution.

WASHINGTON
Getting Caught Up: Robert Griffin III was a revelation last season, and RB Alfred Morris wasn't far behind as the two rookies reinvented Washington's fortunes overnight. Griffin (lest we see style over stats) threw just FIVE interceptions last season, with 20 TDs and 3,200 yards through the air, while he and Morris combined for over 2,400 yards on the ground. That gave Washington a balanced offense the Cowboys could only dream about. But Griffin also ended the season injured and had knee surgery in January. There remain concerns about his fitness going into game one, and after coach Mike Shanahan faced criticism for exposing and worsening Griffin's playoff injury, there was a chilliness in the air, and Griffin seemed frustrated to be held out of preseason. A storm in a teacup, perhaps. It isn't as if this is the RGIII and Alfred Show; the team is strong in most phases, with the defensive front and secondary the only question marks. Former Buc EJ Biggers and draftee David Amerson were added at corner, but if the Giants and Cowboys get in shape at receiver – not to mention what the Eagles' new offense could do to them – Washington may need RGIII to put up even bigger numbers in 2013.
The Season is a Success If... RGIII plays exactly the way he did last season ...only more so.
Best Guess: The difficulty picking this team to repeat in a division so tight it squeaks is you have to buy into RGIII and Alfred Morris having as good a year in 2013. Griffin’s history suggests an ongoing fragility factor that, despite a (too?) mature defense has me nervous to assume 2013 won’t be a little ham-strung.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Getting Caught Up: This is the team that could turn the NFL season on its head. Factoring in the old asterisk about college coaches trying to transition to the NFL, Chip Kelly still represents the foremost proponent of an up-tempo scheme that is coming to the NFL sooner or later. What's more, in Michael Vick – now confirmed as the starting QB – he has the perfect QB for the system, albeit a little past his prime. Statistically Vick may look like he's hit his prime in this system. He's not the only player here who suits the system: this roster is packed with skill position players who suit it, not least LeSean McCoy, who rushing and receiving skills are the X-factor the offense needs, but which this offense showcases. That offense scheme is getting all the attention, but the defense is where more of the roster changes have happened, with Cbs Nnamdi Asomugah and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie slung out in favor of ex-Raven Cary Williams and ex-Ram Bradley Fletcher. Patrick Chung is one of the new safeties having failed to prove himself in four seasons with the Patriots, and Nate Allen, benched at one point last season will have another shot at a start role. It isn't a line-up to inspire confidence, and up front (where the secondary needs some assistance in pass defense), the Eagles are switching from a 4-3 to 3-4, and much of the personnel is new there (ex-49ers NT Isaac Sopoaga, ex-Colts DE Cedric Thornton amongst them). LB Connor Barwin's leadership will be important as he arrives from the Texans.
The Season is a Success If... Everybody starts copying Chip Kelly's offense in 2014.
Best Guess: They'll cause upsets from time to time because they're climbing from a 4-12 mark, but there is so much more transition going on here than the offensive scheme, it's hard to think it all straightens out in one season.


GREEN BAY PACKERS
Getting Caught Up: There simply weren't many changes in the offseason for a team that felt they deserved to be in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is in the conversation for best QB in the league, the departure of Greg Jennings isn't that big a deal statistically, and the coaching staff is intact. They even addressed one of their weaknesses when Alabama's Eddie Lacy was drafted to be the new franchise back after being without a franchise back – or indeed any back with better than 500 yards – last season. In fact, the Packers' running game was hopeless last season. Thankfully, the Packers also drafted RB Johnathan Franklin out of UCLA, because DuJuan Harris, who they had high hopes for in 2013, is out for the season. Cedric Benson is long gone, as is RB Ryan Grant, C Jeff Saturday, DB Charles Woodson and WR Donald Driver. Those are big names, but the changeover was limited in number, so this is a cohesive household. They know their strengths (corner, despite the departure of Woodson) and weaknesses...
The Season is a Success If... the Packers win the Super Bowl.
Best Guess: ...and their weaknesses are many – a shocking number given the faith everybody has in them winning the division and going deep into the playoffs. Beyond TE Jermichael Finley (wow, is he going to have some big stats this year!), this receiving corps is only what Rodgers makes it, the iffy offensive line has already lost Brian Bulaga for the year – he was central to the reshaping of the line – and the defensive line must have end Datone Jones make an impact year one to make up for the injury-recovering Jerel Worthy. How many times can the Packers ride out the injury bug and win the division anyway, or ask Rodgers to shrug off their glaring inadequacies?

CHICAGO BEARS
Getting Caught Up: Former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman has more NFL experience and is a better football mind than most NFL fans yet realize. If you think the only thing holding back the Matt Forte- Michael Bush- and Brandon Marshall-highlighted Bears is Jay Cutler and his expression, then the savior is here in Trestman, who has that 'quarterback guru' tag on him. Having TE Martellus Bennett come to town and WR Alshon Jeffery stay healthy will also help. If you think what's ailing the Bears is their defense now that Brian Urlacher was cut and retired, well I understand how you feel, but Lance Briggs, former Bronco DJ Williams, ex-Panther James Anderson and rookie Khaseem Greene all help soak up the absence; the sky has not fallen. If the third theory is that the Bears offensive line is too dang terrible for Cutler to ever play like an elite passer, you must have missed Chicago restyling their left side with the addition of Drew Brees' chief protector Jermon Bushrod and ex-Jet Matt Slauson, and drafting Kyle Long at the top of their draft at right guard.
The Season is a Success If... they beat the Packers.. everything else flows from there.
Best Guess: I'm not buying the Bears as the third best team in the division, and considering the injury bug that seems to afflict the Packers, who knows how this ends. Last season, considered a disaster, they went 10-6, and they are surely better now, regardless of Urlacher's departure. Not only do I think they'll be on the Packers' tails, I think that this year they grab a wildcard into the playoffs.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Getting Caught Up: Adrian Peterson is unstoppable. Even if he has a down year, he'll run for 1,700 yard and when somebody does that, it's real easy for a quarterback to flourish. So... what happened with Christian Ponder? Last year, Peterson ran for almost 2,100 yards, and Ponder still only managed 18 TDs to 12 interceptions. The criticism – not loud after a 10-6 record, but there nonetheless – is that Ponder needs to do more. Nobody's sure that 2012 wasn't a fluke, including Vikings ownership, which allows coach Leslie Frazier to enter the extension year of his contract without any new deal. The Vikings added WR Greg Jennings from the rival Packers, and drafted the explosive Cordarrelle Patterson (who will also return kicks), but lost Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins. At this stage in the careers of all involved, that's not an upgrade. On defense, while some may feel that the Vikings line of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion and Brian Robison is as good and more proven than Detroit's, the linebacking corps is a bunch of back-ups beyond the versatile Chad Greenway.
The Season is a Success If... last year's 10-6 record was just the beginning rather than an aberration. Best Guess: The Vikings are good, but they're not 10-6 good this time, the passing game isn't going to get better and there are times when Adrian Peterson isn't enough.

DETROIT LIONS
Getting Caught Up: Yeah, we get it: Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. What else you got? Maybe Reggie Bush’s versatility can shake things up on offense – it's certainly an improvement on waiting for Mikel Leshoure to be the answer, although he did penetrate the endzone nine times. And they have that Suh-perb [ouch!] defensive line, even if some of the components have changed (Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch out, Jason Jones and rookie Ziggy Ansah in). Safety Glover Quin and the return from injury of CB Bill Bentley could be reasons for progress there. Offensive line has to be the area of concern this year after Jeff Backus retired and Gosder Cherilus left via free agency – both starting tackles. Whereas we normally point at the quarterback and say it begins and ends with him, here the progress of last year's first rounder LT Riley Reiff could be central to how well they can maintain the deep ball to Johnson.
The Season is a Success If... Megatron and that defensive line don't get squandered for yet another year Best Guess: Jim Schwartz has enough talent to be doing better than 4-12. Another one like that – and it's more likely than the playoffs – and the Lions could be headed for another coaching change.


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Getting Caught Up: The perfect storm of suspensions and contract distractions resulted in an 0-4 start for the Saints and still they almost made it back to .500 by season's end. The offense was epic, but the defense, because of suspensions of both players and coaches was epically bad. Or maybe they just were bad. Enter round one pick safety Kenny Vaccaro and R3 DT John Jenkins, plus CB Keenan Lewis from the Steelers, DE Kenyon Coleman, just to solidify things. The defensive staff were culled, with Rob Ryan as the DC, with a 3-man front being installed. Offensively, Drew Brees threw a ton of touchdowns, and will do again, it is time for Mark Ingram and the running game to pull its weight (I'm getting flashbacks of Rob's defensive coordinator father Buddy Ryan getting into a fight with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the Oilers sideline after Houston's run'n'shoot offense proved incapable of eating up the clock) (..yeah, I'm that old). The loss of LT Jermon Bushrod worries me.
The Season is a Success If... They carry on right where they left off before Bountygate.
Best Guess: Critics of Rob Ryan claim he never produced a top ten defense. Well, he doesn't have to. After the Saint surrendered over 7,000 yards of offense last season, he just has to oversee SOME defense. Some simple maths to justify this pick: If a team can go 7-9 without its outstanding 67-37 head coach allowed even to make contact with a team member, how will they go now that Sean Payton is back?

ATLANTA FALCONS
Getting Caught Up: Bearing in mind this is a columnist throwing out some predictions and not a bumper preseason annual priced £9.99 from all good newsagents, I'm going to take a moment to name check another publication, because if the Football Outsiders Almanac isn't amongst your offseason reads, you're really missing out on the opportunity to challenge some of those hard-to-shift presumptions we all like to cling to. Case in point: The Atlanta Falcons. History tells us they went 13-3 last season, so we're predisposed to consider just how big a contender they are, rather than if they are a contender at all. The maths boffins at Football Outsiders offer a different take, and I quote: "The Falcons weren't just beating bad teams. They were barely beating bad teams." This season the Falcons don't have one of the easiest schedules, they have one of the hardest, and the FO number-crunchers expect last year's good fortune with fumbles to swing back towards average. I take their points. I also can't ignore Matt Ryan's quiet efficiency (32 TDs, 14 picks, 4,700 yards) like games were played against kids, or that the receiving corps is Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, that Michael Turner's departure was countered by Stalwart Rams back Steven Jackson now alongside Jacquizz Rodgers, or that a suspect secondary has been bolstered by four draftees including CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. 
The Season is a Success If... They win the division and the conference at least. Fair? No. But that's the way it is.
Best Guess: Look to the lines. That easier schedule last year included teams that couldn't put pressure on Ryan, and teams that couldn't get their own QB comfortable. Atlanta's leading sacker (most years for several years) was John Abraham and he's now gone. Osi Umenyiora arrives from the Giants, but they were amongst the worst in the league for crushing opposing passers anyway. Their own O-line didn't get better by losing RT Tyson Clabo. If the Falcons were a mirage last year, they didn't solidify in the offseason, and the Falcons got away with winning an uncontested division last year with the Saints out of whack. Reality will bite some, but they'll still be on the playoff picture periphery in late December.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Getting Caught Up: How caught up do you need to get? If your era of the Buccaneers was that of the terrifying defense and the decent, versatile running game, they at least have the last part again in the form of Doug Martin, their best running back since Warrick Dunn (and they added all-rounder Brian Leonard as a latter-day Alstott). If your memories date back to tall, promising young quarterback Vinny Testaverde and Tampa's failure to turn the talent into a positive record, the latest vintage will conjure a flicker of recognition. It's time for these Buccaneers to establish their own era, however. One of their defining characteristics last year was a league-worst pass defense. That required some personnel changes, especially with the retirement of safety Ronde Barber, the last link to their Superbowl year. Enter some new identity, not least superstar corner Darrelle Revis, whose injury concerns are covered by second round pick Johnthan Banks, with ex-49er Dashon Goldson now paired with Mark Barron at safety. However, the front seven remains mediocre, and in the NFL mediocre means poor.
The Season is a Success If... they emerge with a winning record. They went 7-9 last year.
Best Guess: Lost in all the criticism of Josh Freeman is the fact that the offense purrs, even if it doesn't growl. Freeman tossed 4000 yards and 27 TDs, Martin ran for 1450 yards and 11 scores, and they were one completion from WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams both posting 1000-yard seasons. Tight end is something of a blank after Dallas Clark left town, however, and they lost their best pass rusher, Michael Bennett. It isn't a fully stocked team, but there's enough. If new QBs coach John McNulty can keep Freeman from trying to do too much in games (8 of his 17 interceptions came in just two games) and connect the dots as a quarterback, and the offensive line can spring Martin for even more yardage (he could end the year with the most yards from scrimmage in the league), the Buccaneers could turn this division upside down. I don't have them in the playoffs or even on the doorstep, but no team worries my predictions more than the Bucs.

CAROLINA PANTHERS
Getting Caught Up: The story here is much the same as it was last year - they are very deep in the running game (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner and FB Mike Tolbert), they have a quarterback who puts a smile on fantasy football coaches' faces, and they have bookend defensive ends (Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson) who tallied 23.5 sacks last season. But each of the past two years they've proven they can't win the close ones, and that's why they're in the 6-10 range rather than the 10-6 range. QB Cam Newton has taken some flack for that - there's a nagging impression that he's more focused on his stats line than the final scoreline. However if he can play the whole season the way he played the second half of last season (like an All-Pro, 6-3 record), that'll help. It's down to coach Ron Rivera and newly promoted OC Mike Shula to press whatever buttons are necessary to ensure Newton plays like that from week one. But that was only half the problem. The rest is personnel plain and simple. As with the Buccaneers, they were weak in the secondary in a passing league, and an excellent defensive line that added DT Star Lotulelei in the first round of the draft isn't enough to cover for it. Free agent DBs Drayton Florence (Lions), DJ Moore (Bears) and Mike Mitchell (Raiders) were added to the mix, predicting any shape to that is tough. Those are more cast-offs than acquisitions. At linebacker too, stud MLB Luke Kuechly (possibly the best in the league) is all that's really worth mentioning. There are hopes that Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon will offer more targets for Newton, but the changes across the board are speculative rather than a guarantee of improvement.
The Season is a Success If... They make the playoffs.
Best Guess: In this case, I don't believe. I do believe Newton can have success, but there is something missing in the Xs and Os and in the locker room. The necessary push, the necessary leadership doesn't seem to be coming from the coaches and it may not come from Newton. Somebody needs to bring the fire and if that person isn't on the payroll now, another season will slip by, with another sub-.500 result.


SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Getting Caught Up: The Seahawks, with rookie QB Russell Wilson the unexpected catalyst, put themselves among the NFL's elite last season. It started quietly, with a loss to lowly Arizona, and an illigitimate win over Green Bay did nothing to convince doubters (count me among them). A narrow loss to the Rams and narrow wins over the Panthers and Patriots followed, then a loss to San Francisco, another to Detroit. From that point on they played great football, and looked like a team possessed during December with back-to-back 50-point games, looking every bit as dominant as coach Pete Carroll's USC teams. Wilson bested RGIII in the playoffs before Atlanta barely finished their run. The task then: get a little bit better and don't lose anything that counts. The offseason worked out pretty well, aside from acquiring Percy Harvin from the Vikings at the cost of a first round pick, and then losing him to injury for the year. RB/KR Leon Washington left, but WR Golden Tate looks ready to break out as a returner and as a receiver (and it's a contract year for him). As if the Seahawks didn't have enough power in the pass rush with Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin (suspended the first four games), they added ex-Lion Cliff Avril and ex-Buc Michael Bennett. While the linebackers are nothing special, the secondary is so young and talented, it hardly seems fair: Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman may be the best and biggest secondary in the league. At the coaching level, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley now coaches the Jaguars, and DL coach Todd Wash went with him. Dan Quinn is back for a second stint as DC after a spell at University of Florida.
The Season is a Success If... They make the Super Bowl.
Best Guess: It isn't whether the Seahawks or 49ers can make the playoffs, but which can secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. 64% completion, 26 TDs, 10 picks as a rookie... Russell Wilson is for real, and if a rash of suspensions don't prove otherwise, so are the Seahawks. A December 8 meeting with the 49ers could be season-defining.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Getting Caught Up: Some notable names left the organization during the offseason – not deal-breakers for the 49ers being a Super Bowl team, but known commodities so excuse me listing them: OG Leonard Davis, kicker David Akers, KR Ted Ginn, LBs Clark Haggans, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, DT Ricky Jean Francois, QB Alex Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, WR Randy Moss, TE Delanie Walker. That's a lot of experienced play going out of the door. Being a conference champion is not without benefits, however, and the quality of arriving free agents wasn't so bad, DE Glenn Dorsey, CB Nnamdi Asomugha and kicker Phil Dawson amongst them. Asomugha and rookie Eric Reid will be part of the 49ers' arms-race response to Seattle's own secondary, but at both DB and wide receiver, the Seahawks may be winning that war. San Francisco signed WR Anquan Boldin who hurt them so badly in the Super Bowl, from the Ravens, and it was a good job they did: the rest of the receiving corps could be in better shape – Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree are on the Reserve/PUP list, and RB LaMichael James, an excellent target in space, is out for the first three weeks. The team strengths remain at linebacker, led by Patrick Willis and on the offensive line. Frank Gore remains a solid runner, and of course, there's Colin Kaepernick, although with Colt McCoy and BJ Daniels now his backups, the drop off in case of injury is precipitous.
The Season is a Success If... They win the Superbowl.
Best Guess: I spent most of the offseason convinced that the 49ers were going back-to-back as NFC champs. But those skill position injuries are enough for me to shift the slight edge to the Seahawks.

ST LOUIS RAMS
Getting Caught Up: The Rams offseason was dominated by one departure and one arrival. The departure was RB Steven Jackson, the heartbeat of this team for so many years, and though Daryl Richardson is installed as his replacement, it's hard to see him as an emotional replacement. 'We're not phasing out Steven' coach Jeff Fisher told me at mid-season when it was statistically unavoidable that was the case. The Rams seemed lost when he wasn't on the field, and the less touches he got, the worse the losses. His touches increased thereafter (the trade deadline passed – I don't actually believe Fisher reflected quietly on my enquiry and learned the error of his ways), and they looked a lot better down the stretch. So, I'm wary of what the Rams will be like with no Steven Jackson at all. In their favor, they did sign offensive tackle Jake Long, an acquisition that must have had QB Sam Bradford punching the air. And after losing their top two leading receivers, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, they used the draft to restock with two West Virginia products, Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey. Last year's rookie receiver Brian Quick is expected to do much more this year and their top returning WR is Chris Givens (42 catches). If Sam Bradford doesn't become a franchise quarterback this season, and above all a vocal leader, this could be a messy transition year rather than a breakout.
The Season is a Success If... They tally up a winning record for the first time in ten years.
Best Guess: It's my favorite stat, so I'll say it again: in divisional play, the Rams rocked. That was last year. This year, they're on the outside looking in. Now it's all 49ers-Seahawks.

ARIZONA CARDINALS
Getting Caught Up: Total change time... Bruce Arians follows his interim success with Indianapolis with a gig in his own name, and brings a veteran staff. The quarterback position went through more incarnations than Doctor Who last season, so Carson Palmer arrives to settle things down. As for other free agents, the door's still spinning from the force of change, so I'll stick with the new arrivals which include S Yeremiah Bell, CB Antoine Cason, CB Jerraud Powers, CB Javier Arenas (are you seeing a pattern here?) and RB Rashard Mendenhall, who again doesn't define his position but solidifies the situation. Back to that secondary for a moment though, because the draft weekend selection of Tyrann Mathieu, the lost boy of LSU, and the continuing presence of former teammate Patrick Peterson (seemingly already a great in the making) means that if you follow the Cardinals for no other reason this season, the development of the secondary will be the story that matters. It's a pretty good defense all round with the three-man front of Darnell Dockett, Calias Campbell and Dan Williams. WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd mean that the Cardinals look talented in many places.
The Season is a Success If... Anybody notices they exist.
Best Guess: 2014 is going to be a blast in this division. Now that the headlessness of 2012 has passed, the Cardinals could emerge as a very solid team in need of just a few parts, while the Rams also have aspirations for contending. I don't think the other three teams in the division will take their foot off the Cardinals' neck just yet, but sanity has returned to Arizona.


NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Getting Caught Up: There's no avoiding the obvious. The Patriots haven't just been hit at receiver, they've been pummelled relentlessly all offseason. Wes Welker, Brady's favorite target last year and for several years, is now a Bronco. Gronk is fighting back from complications to surgery. Their other outstanding tight end, Aaron Hernandez, will be going on trial for murder (and has been cut). Brandon Lloyd was also cut… Look, if there was a Patriots receiver you'd heard of, he won't be fully fit, or nearby, or anywhere near the conversation Week One, when the starting receivers look like being ex-Ram Danny Amendola, catch-virgin Kendrell Thompkins, and Michael Hoomanawanui. Okay, maybe Julian Edelman. If ever there was a time when the Patriots were underpowered enough, and distracted enough to surrender the division or break their string of winning records for the first time since Brady and Belichick first met across a crowded training camp, this is it. But this is the AFC West, and you need somebody to reach up and claim their crown. The Patriots aren't giving it up that easily. Preseason confirmed that just as the wide-open offensive team segued into a two-TE-dominated scheme, so New England is prepared to become a running team. Stevan Ridley was a 1260-yard rusher last year, and Shane Vereen could become a more dangerous threat out of the backfield. LeGarette Blount arrives from Tampa Bay and he was a 1000-yard back in 2010. It'll be a capable committee. Dante Scarnecchia's line will be as good as ever, the kicking is solid, and most of the defensive starters are back - not that it was special, but it's rare continuity. Belichick's machine is three-phases-safe and even if something special will be difficult to locate - fantasy coaches must have been having kittens trying to evaluate them - no division rival has blown the trumpet of attack.
The Season is a Success If... they win the division despite everything that happened in the offseason
Best Guess: 1st in the Division. It could be as bad as 9-7, but I'd still give them the tie-break. They find a way. 

MIAMI DOLPHINS
Getting Caught Up: When the Patriots were going through their lumps, there was a moment when I entertained the idea of the Dolphins being in position to sneak ahead of the Patriots. After all, Ryan Tannehill looked like a quarterback firmly, effectively (if unspectacularly) following the learning curve in year one, everyone seems agreed that Lamar Miller has the chance to be a break-out runner (although there's the shadow of Dan Thomas threatening to tag-team the role), and received Mike Wallace was signed from Pittsburgh alongside a slew of free agents: LB Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens); TE Dustin Keller (Jets); OT Tyson Clabo… Problem is, the Dolphins leaked free agents with a carefree whistle - out went leading rusher Reggie Bush, second-leading receiver Davone Bess, top tacklers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, and said goodbye to both Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long and CB Sean Smith. Forsaking one to secure the other would have made sense, but losing both was guileless. If Mike Wallace's speed was meant to stretch the field, the loss of Long suggests Tannehill won't have time to go that deep anyway. Keller is already lost for the year. So… where is the improvement coming from again?
The Season is a Success If... they show further progress and log at least a positive record.
Best Guess: 2nd in the Division. This is one of those times when things are so close (between the Dolphins and Bills, not Dolphins and Patriots) that I look to the depth chart. The Dolphins have the edge in being steady and the three-deep of Tannehill, the experienced Matt Moore and the preseason-flashy Pat Devlin certainly grants them an insurance policy divisional rivals lack. I also like the DE rotation of Cameron Wake, Jared Odrick, top pick Dion Jordan, and Olivier Vernon. That's a lot of pressure on inexperienced opposing QBs. The Dolphins record may end up only a sliver behind the Patriots, but while I've flip-flopped like a Democrat over who comes second to the Patriots (hey, it's called 'reassessment'), the Dolphins preseason never convinced me they're ready to ascend rather than amble around the .500 plateau.

BUFFALO BILLS
Getting Caught Up: Plenty of change here. New head coach: Doug Marrone, formerly of Syracuse University, so didn't even need to move house. After everyone thought he would draft his old college QB Ryan Nassib, he took FSU's EJ Manuel instead, but beyond that added other offensive wake-up calls such as USC WR Robert Woods and Texas WR Marquise Goodwin, earning rave reviews in The American's draft report. Signing ex-Bengals LB Manny Lawson and drafting Oregon LB Kiko Alonso also shakes things up on defense, while the secondary of Jairus Byrd, Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore and either Aaron Williams or Da'Norris Searcy should again exploit the pressure being brought by Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus et al on the defensive line. It's a shame they had to part with OG Andy Levitre and LB Nick Barnett, their leading tackler. EJ Manuel's appearance in the first two preseason games seemed to energize the Bills, and with Kevin Kolb on injured reserve, the future starts right now (with another rookie, Jeff Tuel as Manuel's backup). The wins and losses run through running back CJ Spiller, however. He'll be fantasy gold this season.
The Season is a Success If... they go 8-8 with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach.
Best Guess: 3rd in the Division, but the excitement factor or EJ Manuel, Robert Woods and CJ Spiller could create optimism thermals to carry Buffalo higher. If ticket sales aren't radically better this season - even in Toronto - then Bills fans have no pulse. The playoffs seem a shade too high a goal, but rookie quarterbacks don't seem the universal liability they used to be.

NEW YORK JETS
Getting Caught Up: On the other hand… The Jets preseason has been borderline hilarious, Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith battling for the role of most unconvincing starting quarterback (Tim Tebow is no longer in town, or as I write this, the NFL, after blowing through New England). Eventually the job was won by… well, nobody really. Geno Smith still illustrated a weakness with his progression, Sanchez' decision-making seems unimproved, and after any free agent in cleats seemed as likely a solution as either of them, Sanchez suffered an injury - being sacked - and Geno Smith was handed the week one start. Coach Rex Ryan has dodged the stench a little by concentrating on the defensive side, drafting mostly to that side of the ball. The turnover of starters and the new quarterback suggest a team looking to the future rather than immediate considerations. They lose Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis, S Yeremiah Bell, RB Shonn Greene (their leading rusher)… There's simply no reason to expect the Jets to contend.
The Season is a Success If... Geno Smith plays at any point like the successor to Sanchez, rather than the best non-Sanchez.
Best Guess: 4th in the Division by some margin. The offensive roster is stunningly uninspiring. Rex Ryan seems like a sacked coach who just doesn't know it yet. The Bill Cowher rumors have already begun, and that hot seat is going to be the story for 2013 the way Sanchez-Tebow was in 2012.


BALTIMORE RAVENS
Getting Caught Up: There were enough All-Pro defections that when the Ravens meet the Broncos in Thursday night's season opener, the Super Bowl champs will be considered underdogs. The losses were particularly pronounced at linebacker. with the retirement of the great Ray Lewis, the departures of Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and the release of Brendon Ayanbadejo. They also lost safety Ed Reed, WR Anquan Boldin, C Matt Birk, but the hole at LB looked insurmountable in the early stages of free agency. Then came the fax debacle of Elvis Dumervil at Denver, allowing a marquee pass rusher to fall into their laps, and the draft brought Kansas State's Arthur Brown, a busy inside tackler who fits like a glove. With Terrell Suggs still around and Courtney Upshaw in the mix, all is not lost. The arrivals of DE Chris Canty and safety Michael Huff show Baltimore's still a free agency destination of choice. They appear to have ridden out the storm of departures, but with TE Dennis Pitta out for the first half of the season and Ed Dickson also starting gimpy, keep one eye on depth as a chink in their armor.
The Season is a Success If... the Ravens lose that many leaders and still storm the playoffs.
Best Guess: The Ravens made the playoffs the last five years. With Joe Flacco under center, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in the backfield, they'll tough and stuff their way to another division title. It won't be pretty, but it rarely is.

CINCINNATI BENGALS
Getting Caught Up: If you want a pretty team in the AFC North, that would be the Bengals. History suggests backing the Bengals offers dubious returns year-on-year, but it's hard to resist their relentless commitment to giving QB Andy Dalton new targets - the latest is blue chip Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert to put alongside Jermaine Gresham as the AFC's new best receiving TE tandem - essentially turning a better-than-average young quarterback into a rock-solid starter. The draft also garnered RB Giovani Bernard, who has explosion enough to make a real impact when spelling BenJarvus Green-Ellis (although he'll soon do more than spell). There's no doubting the offensive pop. The secondary lost a few things in the offseason - CB Nate Clements, S Chris Crocker - and LB Manny Lawson was a worker, but CB Leon Hall looked hot in a return to action from achilles injury, and ex-Cowboy Terence Newman is hoping for second wind here. Brandon Ghee's wrist injury last season put him into the shadows, so cornerback could be comeback central. Linebacker sees team tackle king Vontaze Burfict joined by ex-Steeler James Harrison and ex-Jet/Bill Aaron Maybin (Ray Maualuga still patrols MLB less than convincingly), while a good defensive line (DT Geno Atkins is a beast) added end Margus Hunt in the draft.
  The Season is a Success If... they make the playoffs for the third straight year… for the first time in franchise history. 
Best Guess: This team makes enough plays on both sides of the ball to be considered a legitimate wildcard regular, and if the Ravens slip, it is Cincy, not the Steelers that must be considered next in line. 2nd in the division and the margin is slight.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Getting Caught Up: The tagline is something along the line of 'Can the wizened stars crank out one more season?', but as last season was an 8-8 ho-hum, it's hard to think that DBs Ryan Clark (12 seasons) Troy Polamalu (11 seasons), Ike Taylor (11 seasons), LB Larry Foote (12 seasons), DL Brett Keisel (12 seasons, and his beard's played 15) and QB Ben Roethlisberger (10 very accident-prone seasons) have more in the tank than last time. And a lot of the old crew departed: safety Will Allen, backup QB Charlie Batch, OG Willie Colon, OT Max Starks, NT Casey Hampton, WR Mike Wallace…and on and on. The good news is that the Steelers have the next generation in the building, especially on the offensive line, that preseason suggests that Markus Wheaton may figure soon at receiver, and that the loss of RB Rashard Mendenhall will be covered by a committee until Le'Veon Bell emerges with some pass protection added to his repertoire. But the transition won't be seamless, and the win-loss make take a few stingers again.
The Season is a Success If... they make the playoffs. Anything less is considered un-Steeler-like.
Best Guess: For one more season, expect the Steelers to be third in the division, but they may be only one draft away from another string of postseason appearances. You don't start the season with Isaac Redman as your starting RB and declare yourselves ready to contend.

CLEVELAND BROWNS
Getting Caught Up: The biggest offseason change for the Browns was the coaching. Rob Chudzinski is the new guy at the helm, and though his previous gig as offensive coordinator of the Panthers does little to entitle him to an NFL shot, his previous stint as OC in Cleveland means the organization knows what it is getting. Perhaps more notably at this stage are the coordinators. As I have said repeatedly, Norv Turner is a real good offensive coordinator, no matter how much I was up there with the tomato-throwers during his overly-long stint in San Diego. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton is installing the 3-4, and he and holdover special teams coordinator Chis Tabor have some new toys to play with. The new toys are the exact evidence that the Browns have the arrow in the right direction. In the draft, they close to ignore the impatience with Brandon Weeden, didn't grab a rival, and even parted with Colt McCoy in the offseason. That allowed them to concentrate on a pass-rushing LB, Barkevious Mingo, a new corner in Leon McFadden, while free agency delivered ex-Raven LB Paul Kruger, WR Davone Bess and kicker Shayne Graham. None of which is reason to expect massive strides from the Browns – Weeden, RB Trent Richardson, receivers Travis Benjamin and Greg Little (plus Josh Gordon after suspension) don't add up to anything the division's traditional powers are going to worry about, but you can see the foundations being laid down, and Weeden and crew will cause the occasional upset.
The Season is a Success If... they're still in touch in week 16.
Best Guess: Miracles, such as 6 wins, are not impossible.


HOUSTON TEXANS
Getting Caught Up: They have a 4000-yard passer (Matt Schaub), a 1500-yard receiver (Andre Johnson), a franchise back (Arian Foster), a good line, the defensive player of the year in DE JJ Watt (20.5 sacks, 16 pass deflections), a LB corps that will be at least as good as last year, and a secondary that, while losing safety Glover Quin, gains Ed Reed. So why the consensus that the wind is sagging in the Texans’ sails? As usual, other teams came raiding winning talent, and they lost LB Connor Barwin, which knocks them at the leadership level (again, Ed Reed compensates). In fact, the fragility may be away from the first 22, with safety relief Quintin Demps, LB Jesse Nading, CB Stanford Routt, LB Barrett Ruud, WR Kevin Walter and both their kicker and punter (Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones) gone. The headliners are the same, but the top rookies - WR DeAndre Hopkins, safety DJ Swearinger and OLB Sam Montgomery need to perform out of the gate. Montgomery injured his ankle in the summer, and was reportedly out of shape in training camp, while Hopkins suffered a concussion in preseason, and with literal niggling doubts about Foster, Reed, OLB Whitney Mercilus and others, it's easy to see how things could get out of shape.
The Season is a Success If... they make the AFC Championship Game. Anything else is treading water.
Best Guess: With games against Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco in the first five weeks, I'm feeling real wobbly about picking them in the division. But the roster is still the best in the AFC South and that 'Broncos South' coaching crew isn't going to let things tumble.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Getting Caught Up: Chuck Pagano is back from leukemia, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who excelled as interim head coach, is now in charge in Arizona. Stanford OC Pep Hamilton takes over that role; note the Andrew Luck connection, but he may have more impact with TE Coby Fleener. It's hard to look at the roster and predict an area of obvious improvement, but additions like DTs Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois, and safety LaRon Landry go a long way to focusing the equally inaccurate portraits painted by Indie's 2-14 and 11-5 campaigns.
The Season is a Success If... they can show that there was more to last season than Luck and emotion.
Best Guess: Last season was special – coach Chuck Pagano fighting off leukemia, interim Bruce Arians as Coach of the Year, Luck fulfilling all prophecies as the cast-iron guaranteed franchise quarterback. But the line is still building, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw will share the backfield and the kicking game is the only other area of high quality. In print I said that wasn't enough to start doubting Houston’s divisional dominance, but with injuries buzzing around the Texans, the reality gap is closing. A December run at Cincy, home to Houston, then away to Kansas City should define the season as a near miss, wildcard, or division champ.

TENNESSEE TITANS
Getting Caught Up: It's all about the offensive line. It was a blur of change during last season, and it was overhauled in the offseason, with LG Andy Levitre signed from Buffalo and FSU's Chance Warmack drafted at RG. RT David Stewart will be returning from 2012 injury. They've just cut last year's starting center, meaning ex-Ram Rob Turner and ex-Bear Chris Spencer are the experienced two-deep there. All of which, it is hoped, invigorate former 2000-yard rusher Chris Johnson (it was four years ago), and QB Jake Locker who threw a disappointing 10 scores and 11 picks last season. Ex-Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick is loitering with intent to create the NFL's least interesting quarterback controversy. Elsewhere some useful free agents came aboard – ex-Jet RB Shonn Greene, safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, TE Delanie Walker. But for once the pressure on the starting quarterback is justified. The roster's good enough to jump from 6-10 to 10-6. Locker has to show the world something.
The Season is a Success If... they hit .500 or better.
Best Guess: Jake Locker must prove he hasn’t hit a low ceiling. They won't get overtaken by the Jaguars this year, but if they don't reach 8-8, expect the coaching team of HC Mike Munchak, DC Jerry Gray and OC Dowell Loggains to be gone.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Getting Caught Up: Shad Khan sees something that needs change and he changes it. The logo has been refreshed, the uniforms have been altered, they're London's team for one week of every year from now to 2016, David Caldwell is the new general manager and Gus Bradley is the new head coach. In the draft, they went for Luke Joeckel, an offensive tackle who echoes the franchise's first ever pick, Tony Bosseli, so closely that it's like Khan slammed his fist down on the reset button. Of course, that debut Jaguars squad went 4-12 before making the playoffs the following year. That's a improvement curve their owner would accept, I suspect. After a 2-14 season, worrying about any of the departing army of players would be pointless, but the free agent acquisitions suggested the Jaguars are resigned to building this thing slowly and solidly. That includes relying on the passing of Blaine Gabbert, poster-boy of hot-seat quarterbacks now that Mark Sanchez has given way (however temporarily) to Geno Smith. I like that Gabbert gets another shot. He's no worse a quarterback than rival Jake Locker, and if Joeckel can in any way improve the line play, Gabbert's receivers – WR Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon and TE Marcedes Lewis - will certainly take advantage. With a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield – he lasted just six games last season – Gabbert's play could change considerably.
The Season is a Success If… (a) They're still in the Wembley game after halftime, (b) Blaine Gabbert either proves or disproves himself, or (c ) they go 6-10.
Best Guess: The bar is set very low, and the timescale for all except Gabbert is not urgent. A winning record seems unlikely, to put it mildly, but the city of Jacksonville will still be following their progress when the return from London. 4Th in the division, but not by much.


DENVER BRONCOS
Getting Caught Up: The signing of Wes Welker, a receiver who has averaged 112 catches a year the past four years, is clearly the league's player move of the off season, and has plenty of people expecting the Broncos to go to the big game this year. But since then, the mojo hasn't been so sweet. DE Elvis Dumervil (or at least his agent) cut it too fine faxing over a contract extension, resulting in the Broncos having to cut him for financial reasons. LB Von Miller is suspended the first 6 weeks of season. Between them, that's a massive 29.5 sacks off the board, 11 sacks over a 6-game spell, and causes a shuffling at linebacker with Nate Irving moving back from the planned MLB to OLB, Wesley Woodyard into the middle and Danny Trevathan to the right side. CB Champ Bailey would seem out for the season opener against Baltimore (cancel that 'revenge' talk for last season's playoffs), though they did add Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during the offseason. Week two is an away trip to the Giants.
The Season is a Success If... They make the Superbowl.
Best Guess: Von Miller will be with the team for most of the season, and though they lost offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to the Chargers, nobody really thinks anybody but Peyton Manning's making the calls here, do they? The Broncos just have to keep the division in the rear view mirror. By and large that shouldn't be a problem, though the home-and-away against KC is wrapped around a trip to New England. Where once the Broncos seemed like a certaintly, it's more likely late December before they can relax.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Getting Caught Up: Last year, despite predictions of better (much better), the Chiefs ended with the worst record in the NFL. There have, to put it mildly, been some headline changes. Former Eagles head coach Andy Reid arrived, and made quick work of signing former 49ers starting QB Alex Smith. Notable other signees included CB Sean Smith from Miami and a notable loss was offensive tackle Eric Winston, but the Chiefs didn't have to change much below the headlines. The roster was good. Alex Smith + 1,500-yard RB Jamaal Charles + WR Dwayne Bowe are fantasy grist to the mill, while the linebacking corps (Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and newbie Nico Johnson) could be the best in the AFC. Fellow rookies OT Eric Fisher and TE Travis Kelce should figure immediately.
The Season is a Success If... They finish at least second in the division, despite being worst in the league last year.
Best Guess: The Chiefs are in with a shot of the playoffs. If anything happens to Peyton Manning, they become the division favorites, such is the solidifying influence of both Reid and Smith. If the team is halfway decent, the raucous homefield advantage of Arrowhead Stadium will also reassert itself after a spell of subdual.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Getting Caught Up: Finally, FINALLY, general manager AJ Smith and head coach Norv Turner are gone, and we find out if the Chargers' player talent was really dragging anchor with Norv around. Mike McCoy, formerly OC in Denver, is the new head coach. Of course, we may discover that several years of steady decline reveal a roster incapable of approaching the playoffs. Anyone who witnessed the Monday Night meeting between the Chargers and Broncos last year saw all they needed to know about Philip Rivers' decision-making. Rivers sometimes seems like he isn't quite 'as sold', much as running back Ryan Matthews is no LaDainian Tomlinson. Projected starting WR Danario Alexander is already out for the year, Eddie Royal has a bruised lung, TE Antonio Gate is showing some slow-down. The rookies – OT DJ Fluker, LB Manti Te'o, WR Keenan Allen will have to produce quickly for the Chargers to stay in the divisional hunt. With a rookie head coaching crew, that may be a bit much to ask.
The Season is a Success If... They prove it was all Norv's fault.
Best Guess: The opener between the Texans and Chargers – neither of them in perfect shape to start the season – should be interesting. The record might look pretty competitive early, but a shade below .500 seems realistic, as it was last year. A lot may have changed, but not that.

OAKLAND RAIDERS
Getting Caught Up: The genuinely worst team in the AFC. Maybe not as funnily disfunctional or entertainingly inept as they used to be, but there's still no area of the team beyond kicker Sebastian Janikowski that is beyond adequate. And they still managed to lose punter Shane Lechler. Brandon Myers was their leading receiver (79 catches, 4 TDs), Darrius Heyward-Bey (now a Bronco) their leading scorer. RB Darren McFadden has yet to prove he can make it through a season, and the big offseason signing, QB Matt Flynn is already playing backup to Terrelle Pryor (Carson Palmer is now a Cardinal). Coach Dennis Allen needs to keep working on the defense, so Greg Olson replaces Greg Knapp as offensive coordinator. Pryor is going to have to be special and McFadden is going to have to be a work horse if the Raiders are to climb out of the cellar.
The Season is a Success If... They're not one the three worst teams in the conference.
Best Guess: For once, I'll put a number on it: 3-13.


FINAL PICKS

Based on which teams I believe will have the best records, Seattle trumps San Francisco for the best record in the NFC. San Francisco's path becomes a wildcard route, but I still think they face off in the NFC Championship. The Bears sneak in as the other wildcard. In the AFC, that season opener between the Broncos and the Ravens could be the AFC Championship matchup preview. Records better than 10-6 could be tough in a very tight conference, and those two may have the best. Whichever wins the AFC, they face down the Seahawks in the Super Bowl to no avail. This is Seattle's year.

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