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The 2013-2014 NFL Season Preview - Part II

Anokh Palakurthi

For the sake of no other introduction needed, let’s jump right to the preview.

NFC East:
Philadelphia Eagles: 10-6
Washington Redskins: 8-8
Dallas Cowboys: 7-9
New York Giants: 7-9

Philadelphia is a prime candidate to be this year’s surprise team for a multitude of reasons. Last year, just about everything went wrong for them. They finished 4-12, despite finishing 30th in the league in point differential, 29th in PPG, 30th in points allowed per game, and 31st in a turnover differential. But one cannot deny the talent on their offense, even with wide receiver Jeremy Maclin out with a torn ACL. Quarterback Michael Vick, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and running back LeSean McCoy, despite disappointing seasons last year, should bounce back and thrive in head coach Chip Kelly’s fast paced offensive system. Though turnovers may be a lingering concern - and they are; the Eagles have been near the bottom of the league in turnover differential for two years - they are game changing variables in a football game and inconsistent in who they benefit. The type of bad luck they have had in the last two years is unlikely to happen again. Add in a defense that just added new pieces in linebacker Connor Barwin and vaunted defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga - you have your surprise team of 2013.

Can quarterback Robert Griffin III stay healthy? There; now that we got that question out of the way, we can talk about the rest of the team. Last year, they were terrible as a secondary, allowing the third most passing yards in the NFL. Despite having a rush defense that finished in the top half of the league, their secondary really hurt them and Washington ended up finishing 22nd in the NFL for points allowed. Thus, it should be no surprise that Washington’s offense was the cause of most of their victories, having finished fourth in the NFL in PPG. But are we to really expect another season where Washington finishes third in turnover differential? Or should we not be surprised when a non-100% RG3 goes through a sophomore slump, when Washington’s read-option system gets figured out by the rest of the NFL, and when their rookie defensive backs struggle in their first seasons? Another key issue: can linebacker Brian Orakpo also stay healthy?

This year may be the Cowboys’ last year to show the NFL that they are not a punchline. Quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant are certainly a duo to be feared in the NFL, but injury concerns regarding their offensive line and running back DeMarco Murray still exist. The Cowboys defense also disappointed many last season and injuries still remain a concern - though with the addition of the respected Monte Kiffin as their defensive coordinator, there still remains hope. Here’s the main problem though: head coach Jason Garrett. Over the last two years, the Cowboys have missed the playoffs and have lost games because of hilariously inept play calling from Garrett. Who can forget his infamous “icing” of his own kicker just two years ago? Though he has reportedly given up play calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, I do not think that this will make a significant difference because Callahan has not had that type of responsibility in years. Ultimately, Dallas has all the talent, but I don’t think any of the discipline to be successful.

It seems blasphemous to put an Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin led team last. But their defense, despite finishing 12th in the NFL in points allowed, has only gotten worse and last year were bailed out of a lot of games by their offense, and the Giants’ uncanny ability last year to win the turnover battle. I don’t expect them to be that lucky this season; their linebacking core, secondary, and even their once vaunted pass rush, all have question marks and their defense actually allowed the second most yards in the NFL last year. A few more fumbles on offense and less luck for them this year should spell a little more doom for New York than it did last year and I think in order to be successful in this league, you need a little more than just a nice passing team. Then again, knowing how the Giants have played over the last few seasons, they’ll probably end up proving me wrong just when I counted them out...only to prove me wrong again when I call them contenders.

NFC North:
Green Bay Packers: 13-3
Chicago Bears: 8-8
Minnesota Vikings: 6-10
Detroit Lions: 4-12

There’s not a lot to talk about Green Bay- what you see really is what you get. They are a team that is all about outscoring their opponents and keeping turnovers down on their offense. However, one of the most underrated aspects of their team has to be their defense, which finished 11th in the NFL in points allowed. I think another season with a healthy Clay Matthews will help elevate their defense to above the Top Ten and of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the NFL’s best player, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on your team.

With the addition of tight end Marcellus Bennett and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, Chicago’s offense looks to be a lot better. Quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte should thrive in a new, loaded, and talented offensive core. So why, despite having the league’s 3rd best defense in points allowed last year, and an extremely good special teams unit, do I have the Bears having a worse record this year? Turnovers. Chicago finished 2nd in the league in turnover differential, which as I previously mentioned, usually is hard to keep consistent. Though credit has to be given for their defense, how many times can maintain that type of consistency? I don’t expect the Bears to stay lucky again for 16 games of the year and though their offense may be better on paper, one has to wonder when their aging defense is finally going to collapse.

Minnesota screams “crash back to earth” in so many different ways, but perhaps the biggest reason they will drop from 10-6 to 8-8 is because of their star running back. Wolverine - er, I mean Adrian Peterson may have just had the greatest individual season by a running back in NFL history, but it is extremely unlikely that he maintains that level of production for another season. Even assuming he stays as “merely” the best running back in football, that is still not enough. The difference between running for 2000 yards and being the league’s MVP and running for 1500 yards is massive. Last year, the Vikings were able to beat teams off of the sheer willpower of Wolverine Peterson in close games. In order to go 10-6 or have a chance at making the playoffs, they need to either see an unexpected improvement in quarterback Christian Ponder, or they need another godly season from AP. Unfortunately for them, I don’t see either of them happening.

Detroit is not only financially bankrupt, but it looks like their chances of making the playoffs in the NFL are bankrupt as well. Yes, they have the best receiver in football in Calvin Johnson, as well as a franchise quarterback in Stat Padford - erm, I mean Matt Stafford. Their recent signing of running back Reggie Bush should also help them create a running game which they desperately need, provided that he can play with a heavier workload. But their defense, which finished 27th in the league in points allowed, has too many question marks and made minimal improvements this offseason. I don’t think their offense is good enough to make up for that and I think this year may be coach Jim Schwartz’s last one as a Detroit Lion.

NFC South:
Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6
New Orleans Saints: 7-9
Carolina Panthers: 5-11

The Falcons are really good with taking care of the ball, having finished 3rd, 5th, and 5th in turnover differential in the last three seasons. Though I do not think they will be so fortunate again this year, I still think that their record in close games isn’t a fluke - but rather a virtue of having one of the league’s five best quarterbacks and having one of the better coaches. On paper, Atlanta seems to have it all on offense, especially with running back Steven Jackson as a new addition to their rushing game. On defense, they were actually pretty good last year, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon looks to have a breakout year. So with such good talent, one has to ask: can these guys stay consistent for another season and just make that extra push to the Super Bowl? Tampa Bay should have an even better offense this year, with another year of experience for quarterback Josh Freeman and their new franchise running back Doug Martin. They finished 13th in PPG last year and look to crack the Top Ten this seaso. However, what may have elevated Tampa’s status to a legitimate wild card threat is their secondary. Last year they finished with the worst pass defense in the NFL. But now they may have just added the league’s best shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis, as well as safety Dashon Goldson. Add in the NFL’s best rush defense last year, and you have a team with a ceiling as high as any other wild card team. I originally had them as division winners, but Tampa still needs to generate a pass rush. Their team leader in sacks last year, Michael Bennett, left and with minimal improvements on that front, the Bucs need to realize that a secondary only has so much time with a poor pass rush that finished 29th in the NFL in sacks last season.

The Saints had the league’s 31st ranked defense in points allowed per game, the league’s worst rushing defense, and the league’s second worst secondary. Not to mention, the worst yardage defense in NFL History (!!!!!!!), at about an estimated bajillion yards a game. By all means, they are a one sided football team and their only chance of winning games will be in shootouts. Even with newly added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who is known more for his mouth and less for actual results as a coordinator, they have not made enough player changes to fit his 3-4 scheme. I don’t think the addition of Sean Payton will be enough to turn this squad into contenders; he is an offensive coach and as we all know, that is not the problem. All that said, you can never count a Drew Brees led team out. He is one of the four best quarterbacks in the NFL and it’ll be interesting to see if he and the New Orleans’ offense can carry his team to the playoffs.

I don’t think Carolina will have a good year. They are a mediocre squad that finished 18th in PPG, points allowed per game, point differential, and 16th in turnover differential. They still have a head coach that was a weekly joke in Bill Barnwell’s “Thank You For Not Coaching” columns on Grantland. The Panthers also lost their best cornerback Chris Gamble to a sudden retirement; they have also barely made any noticeable moves this offseason. However, their biggest problem may be that they play in a division that is too difficult for them to succeed in. While Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and even New Orleans will be fighting for a playoff spot, Carolina will be left as the odd man out. At least Cam Newton is really fun to watch, right?

NFC West:
Seattle Seahawks: 12-4
San Francisco 49ers: 11-5
St. Louis Rams: 9-7
Arizona Cardinals: 4-12

Seattle had the best defense in points allowed last year and also had a Top Ten offense. They might be the best rounded team in the NFL on paper - they do not have any legitimate weaknesses other than playing in a tough division. On offense, they are set with a group of good wide receivers led by Percy Harvin (Who despite an injured hip, should be back in time for the playoffs) and Sidney Rice, an elite running back in Marshawn Lynch, a great offensive line, and not to mention perhaps the NFL’s future top dog Russell Wilson. Their defense barely changed from last year and look to be just as dominant - especially with added pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help an already dominant line. So here’s the only question: can they put it all together in the playoffs against teams with more experience? San Francisco is another well rounded team that is led by perhaps the NFL’s best young head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Like Seattle, they have an explosive offense led by stud quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a similarly great rushing game, and good pass catchers in elite tight end Vernon Davis and ultra talented receiver Anquan Boldin. The 49ers defense, despite losing vaunted safety Dashaun Goldson, looks to be just as elite this year, having added the talented, but inconsistent Nnamdi Asomugha, as well as a lot of good value defensive lineman to play alongside defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith - perhaps the best pass rusher in the NFL. They don’t really have question marks anywhere, and they have just as good of a chance of winning the division as Seattle. I just wonder if they are doomed for a post-Super Bowl loss hangover. The last Super Bowl loser to win in the following year were the 1972 Dolphins after losing to the Cowboys in the preceding year.

Guess who had the best division record last year? St. Louis finished 4-1-1 in facing their division rivals, but barely missed the playoffs at 7-8-1. This is all with an offense that finished 25th in the NFL in PPG. Now that the offense has improved with new additions of star lineman Jake Long, talented tight end Jared Cook, wide receiver Tavon Austin, and new running back Zac Stacy, they should perform a lot better in games where their defense cannot bail them out. Another fun fact about St. Louis: their best defensive end, Chris Long, led the league in sacks+hurries on opposing quarterbacks. Not to mention, the Rams led the league in sacks last year. The biggest question, however, is still Sam Bradford. With a supporting cast on offense that finally qualifies as decent, it’s the former No. 1 pick’s final chance to show his doubters that he was worth it. That might be a little bit difficult to do in the hardest division in football.

The Cardinals are a lot better than last year, when their merry-go-round at the quarterback position in the second half of the year may have been the most painful thing to watch since the final season of Scrubs. Their new addition of veteran quarterback Carson Palmer should add a bit of decency to a team that ranked 31st in the NFL in PPG despite having arguably a Top 5 wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald. With new offensive minded coaches in Bruce Arians and a well respected coordinator, Tom Moore, the Arizona offense should be a lot more creative and less one dimensional in passing the ball. Though the defense finished only 17th in PPG last year, they should be a lot better this year because now their offense can actually move across the field. Despite all of this, it is very possible that the Cardinals lose six or five games within their division. They are not as bad as they were last year, but playing in a rough division and their brutal schedule  hurts a lot. At least it’s a step in the right direction though.

Individual Awards MVP: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons
Coach of the Year: Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
Comeback Player of the Year: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
Executive of the Year: Mark Domenik, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

My Final Super Bowl Prediction

New England over Seattle: 34-28.Super Bowl MVP: Tom Brady.

5 Quick Winners
1. Shikhar Dhawan - 248 runs in  against South Africa to beat them and bring India to the tri series finals against the Aussies. Perhaps what was most shocking was that his 162 out of his 248 runs came in only 37 scoring strokes. Truly a performance for the ages.

2. Bill Parcells - Who, along with several other greats, was inducted recently into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Listen to his speech, if you have the chance. Truly remarkable and gives an insight into a man that knew greatness and how to get to it.

3. Michael Vick - Nice preseason game. Under Chip Kelly’s new offensive system, it looks like Vick on the rebound for a good season - something he desperately needs if he wants to keep his job in Philadelphia. Still a small sample size, but that bomb to DeSean Jackson looked perfect and four out of five for a perfect QB rating isn’t too shabby.

4. The Texas Rangers - As of Tuesday, they have won eight games in a row. They are now in control of the AL West and just a game and a half behind the Red Sox for the No. 1 spot in their conference.

5. My fantasy football team - It’s amazing what the value of Calvin Johnson is in a keeper league. All my opponents fear the wrath of Megatron and are all trying to offer me crazy trades for him. Of course, knowing my luck, I have probably just jinxed myself.

5 Quick Losers

1. Australian cricket team - Seven defeats in eight test matches. Shane Watson seems to at least be doing decent Killers covers. Maybe he should go into music and not cricket, from the way he has been playing lately.
2. Jets quarterbacks - Mark Sanchez actually had a really good preseason game, but no one is forgetting that first pick six to defensive lineman Ziggy Ansah. It’s not as if rookie Geno Smith is doing much better either, having finished with similar statistics, but not showing much promise outside of playing just well enough to not screw up. Nobody knows who is going to be the top dog at quarterback for the Jets.

3. Tiger Woods - After reclaiming the No. 1 position, he disappointed many with his performance in the PGA Championship, tying for 40th place. I never thought I’d say the following: it’s been forever since Tiger has won a major.

4. The Houston Astros - As of Tuesday, they made me question my over under. I should have set the bar at two - the exact number of games that Houston won in the last two weeks. Why is this team allowed to play in the MLB again?

5. My cousin’s fantasy football team - His two 'sleeper' receivers, as brilliantly recommended by me during his draft, in Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin both got injured for significant periods of time. Ouch.

1 Over/Under for the next two weeks:

Two more Johnny Manziel scandals. I’ll take the under. Two weeks is a long time for a lot of things to happen in professional sports, but Johnny Football has been in the public eye for a while and I don’t think he’ll do anything to get even more negative publicity. The autograph controversy should be the tip of the iceberg.

Statistics and news from ESPN, AP, Sports Illustrated, Pro-Football-Reference, Grantland, and Cold Hard Football Facts.

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