The season opener of the 2013 NFL season is one day away, and as the Denver Broncos and the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens prepare for their rematch from the AFC Divisional playoffs, speculation surrounds how each division will play out, and which teams will move on to the postseason.
The 2013 campaign could be remembered as a season of redemption. The New Orleans Saints are expected to be back into the playoff picture now that head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are back together. The Saints finished six games behind the Atlanta Falcons in a 2012 season marred by a bounty scandal. New Orleans should benefit from a fresh start with players and coaches who want to put a painful season behind them.
Traditional powers should stay competitive despite aging quarterbacks. Tom Brady, 36, and Peyton Manning, 37, are still among the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and there is no evidence to believe they will not continue their success. The New England Patriots and the Broncos should dominate their rather weak divisions in the AFC, and Brady and Manning can expect to be near the top of the passer-rating category at season's end.
Several elite teams from 2012 could slip out of the playoff picture in 2013, with Atlanta, Green Bay, and Seattle in danger of being overwhelmed by tougher competition. The NFC is loaded with talented teams that improved from last year, and the road to the postseason is expected to be much more wide open. Detroit should rise in the NFC North with Reggie Bush balancing out the Matt Stafford - Calvin Johnson connection.
New coaches mean new systems and attitudes for a couple of teams. Andy Reid should have an immediate impact on the Kansas City Chiefs, and so will Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. Both teams are in position to rebound from dreadful seasons, and an infusion of new faces should prompt understandable optimism.
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Two of the most storied teams in the league, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, are in legitimate jeopardy of missing out on the playoffs for a second straight year. Very little improvement during free agency and injuries have triggered major concerns on both sides of the ball for the Giants and Steelers.
The Carolina Panthers enter the season with a strong opportunity to reverse their fortunes. A healthy defense led by second-year linebacker Luke Kuechly, and a monster year from quarterback Cam Newton should be enough for head coach Ron Rivera to keep his job after a lackluster 7-9 record in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of 2013 might be in Lone Star state. Tony Romo will get another shot at the playoffs as the Dallas Cowboys look to rebound after consecutive 8-8 seasons. The Cowboys defense should step up under Monte Kiffin, and the running game and offensive line has nowhere to go but up. While Dallas may finally get over the hump, the Washington Redskins could struggle behind a sophomore slump from Robert Griffin III, who failed to play one down in the preseason.
Individual awards are always a hot topic throughout the season. The Indianapolis Colts, led by star quarterback Andrew Luck, appear poised to unseat the Houston Texans in the AFC South. A big season from Luck would mean serious consideration for the MVP award.
No one has won the Defensive Player of the Year award in back-to-back years since Lawrence Taylor in 1981 and 1982, but Texans defensive end J.J. Watt might be poised to be repeat. The 24-year-old dominated opponents with his ability to block passes and terrorize quarterbacks with 20.5 sacks.
MVP: Andrew Luck
Defensive Player Of the Year: J.J. Watt
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Kenny Vaccaro
Coach of the Year: Chip Kelly
NFC East NFC North NFC South NFC West
Philadelphia Detroit New Orleans San Francisco
Dallas Green Bay Carolina Seattle
New York Chicago Atlanta St. Louis
Washington Minnesota Tampa Bay Arizona
NFC Wild Cards: Dallas, Carolina
Championship: New Orleans over Dallas
AFC East AFC North AFC South AFC West
New England Cincinnati Indianapolis Denver
Buffalo Baltimore Houston Kansas City
Miami Cleveland Tennessee San Diego
New York Pittsburgh Jacksonville Oakland
AFC Wild Cards: Baltimore, Kansas City
Championship: Denver over New England
Super Bowl: Denver over New Orleans