Twenty bold predictions for 2013 NFL season
When it comes to preseason predictions, no one remembers anyone's but their own, because those are the only ones they really care about. Which is why honesty compels a brief summation of my hits and misses from last year's dose of late-August prognostication, illuminated by the perspective of hindsight:
• I certainly nailed my first attempt, that the still-recovering Peyton Manning, after a year off, would lead his new Broncos teammates to the playoffs while little brother and defending Super Bowl champion Eli Manning would fail to do the same with his Giants. New York was indeed the first NFC champion that failed to return to the postseason in five years.
• But not so accurate was my forecast of Buffalo and free-agent addition Mario Williams riding the Bills' 4-3 defense all the way to a wild-card berth, snapping the franchise's league-worst 12-year playoff drought. Another midseason swoon cost Buffalo its postseason hopes, and head coach Chan Gailey his job.
• I was right about Tim Tebow not starting a game at quarterback for the Jets all season, despite all the contrived silliness about his QB "competition'' with Mark Sanchez. But I was completely off base in projecting Tebow to challenge Shonn Greene for the team rushing lead for most of the year. Tony Sparano had other ideas. We'll call it a push.
• Almost obscenely prescient was the prediction that Seattle would feed off the energy of Russell-mania and emerge as one of the surprise teams of the year, challenging San Francisco for supremacy in the NFC West all season before settling for a wild-card slot. What can I say? I have a gift ...
• ... which occasionally deserts me. As it did when I divined that the hiring of former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as Saints defensive coordinator would boost New Orleans' defense into the league's top 10. I even went so far as to project that Spagnuolo's arrival would help the Saints more than Sean Payton's suspension-caused absence would hurt, a laughable notion in the span of time, given that New Orleans' defense gave up an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season and Spagnuolo was summarily fired.
And here's another guarantee: There will doubtless be more of the same this year, some notable spot-on calls, and some glaring cringe-worthy displays of inaccuracy. So, now, here goes. Another 20 bold predictions as we approach the start of the NFL's 2013 season. As always, your results may vary:
1. Tony Romo has been rewarded lavishly for that one career playoff win, but this is the year he finally sheds his reputation for losing in the biggest games, helping Dallas earn the NFC East crown it has narrowly missed out on the past two years. Nothing will come easily for these Cowboys, but Romo will make the difference between victory and defeat in key situations, helping save Jason Garrett's job and delivering at least one playoff win in the house known as Jerry World.
2. Of the many quarterbacks facing prove-it seasons in the NFL -- Chicago's Jay Cutler, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert among them -- it will be Freeman who most resoundingly answers the challenge and secures his long-term future with the Bucs. I'm not quite forecasting a playoff season in Tampa Bay, but the Bucs will be in the NFC hunt until the very end, and Freeman will deliver consistent production en route to the franchise's first winning season since 2010, earning himself a contract extension.
3. When all is said and done, Tom Brady's new security-blanket receiver, Danny Amendola, will wind up with slightly better statistics than his old security-blanket receiver, Wes Welker, accumulates in Denver. Both will have busy and productive years for playoff-bound teams, but I foresee Welker's and Peyton Manning's acclimation to one another's games being slightly behind Brady's and Amendola's learning curve.
And in case you were wondering, yes, Amendola will stay healthy and on the field in Foxboro this season.
4. The Eagles' Chip Kelly, with his fast-break football on display in Philadelphia, will be the most exciting and talked about new coach among the eight offseason hires in the headset fraternity. But it will be "Big Red,'' now wearing red in Kansas City, who gets the last laugh. Former Eagles coach Andy Reid was the only guy to jump from one full-time gig in the NFL coaching ranks to another this offseason, and he'll show that experience really does count for something, leading the talented and vastly improved Chiefs from 2-14 to an AFC wild-card berth.
As I recall, I didn't review his re-tread hiring in Kansas City all that positively. But I'll wind up eating those words.
5. Proving that money can't buy you a deep game, Miami won't find receiver Mike Wallace to be the perfect match with the arm of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Wallace will help the Dolphins but he won't be an elite difference-maker for them, and his first year of work in South Florida will look a lot like Brandon Marshall's first season with the Fish, in 2010, which produced 86 receptions for 1,014 yards, with just three touchdowns, an 11.8-yard average catch and a long gain of 46 yards.
This year at least, it simply will not be enough bang for the major bucks Miami paid.
6. Hailing from two collegiate powerhouse programs that swear allegiance to the wisdom and effectiveness of the running game, Wisconsin and Alabama, second-round picks Montee Ball in Denver and Eddie Lacy in Green Bay will be the NFL's two best rookie running backs. Both will lead their teams in rushing, crack 1,000 yards and take considerable pressure off the glamor quarterback-driven offenses within which they play. Did I mention we'll see both of them in the playoffs come January?
7. Realize I'm considerably out of the mainstream on this one, but by the end of the season, the Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler will both be ready to move on from each other, deciding a five-year relationship is long enough. With new Bears head coach Marc Trestman energizing his game, Cutler will have some dazzling moments in 2013. But doesn't he always? In the final analysis, Cutler will play a lot like Cutler plays, with some great, some bad and some ugly. And Chicago will once again be in that 8-8 neighborhood.
8. Rob Ryan won't perform any miracles with his new 3-4 defense in New Orleans, but with Drew Brees and the firepower of the Saints' offense, he doesn't have to. A legit middle-of-the-pack showing by the Saints' defense will lead to three more wins in New Orleans, and a return to the NFC playoff field after the debacle of last year's bounty saga. With a vastly improved secondary that draws on the energy and aggressiveness of fly-around rookie strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, and the well-honed coverage skills of veteran free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, the Saints' defense has its attitude back.
9. After a relatively promising start to the season, the Carson Palmer era in Arizona will remind us more of Boomer Esiason's time in the desert than Kurt Warner's. Palmer will throw for his share of yards and touchdowns, but as the story unfolds he'll look more and more like the inconsistent passer who hasn't been in playoff-season form since 2009.
10. Injuries, age and underachievement will combine to produce Pittsburgh's worst season since the Steelers plummeted to 6-10 in 2003. A last-place finish in the AFC North is my forecast for Mike Tomlin's team, and it'll mark the first consecutive non-playoff seasons in Pittsburgh since Bill Cowher's guys missed three years running from 1998-2000.
11. Last year there were only four new playoff teams in the 2012 postseason field, snapping the league's streak of having at least five newcomers in the Super Bowl tournament every year since 1996. Only the Colts, Vikings, Redskins and Seahawks held that distinction last season.
And this season, the status quo will again dominate, with nine holdovers making the playoff field and only three new faces getting an invitation: Dallas and New Orleans in the NFC, and Kansas City in the AFC. Who said everybody has a chance to win every year in the NFL?
12. Blame it on the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but exactly half of the four quarterbacks featured on the cover(s) of the magazine's NFL preview issue -- now on newsstands everywhere -- will not return to the playoffs this season after their break-through and breath-taking 2012 seasons.
It says right here that San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson will make it back to January, but Indy's Andrew Luck and Washington's Robert Griffin won't. Luck and Griffin won't tank it this season, but they won't experience the same beginner's, uh, good fortune, either. The second time around will be tougher ride for the quarterbacks who lead the Colts and Redskins.
13. Keep taking deep gulps of that thin, Rocky Mountain air, Broncos fans. Your guys, the ones with the horse head on their helmets, are going to be fine. Even with Elvis Dumervil and the fax machine, the Von Miller suspension, the Dan Koppen season-ending injury and the front-office legal issues. No, another 13-3 magic-carpet ride isn't on the way. But 11 wins, a division title and a top-three AFC seed are your destiny.
OK, maybe not the boldest call, but I thought it needed saying.
14. Although everyone from Emmitt Smith to Eric Dickerson hyperventilated about its change-the-game-of-football impact when it was passed at the NFL's annual meeting this spring, not five times this year will the new crown-of-the-helmet rule prompt any real controversy or consternation. Running backs can still lower their head near the line of scrimmage to get those tough yards. It's only in the open field where they won't be allowed to use their headgear like a weapon. Excuse the bad pun, but it's a no-brainer of a rule in the age of player safety concerns.
15. I know the Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990. I know they've been to the postseason four times in the past eight years and come up empty each time in the Marvin Lewis era. And I know they've never posted three consecutive playoff trips in the franchise's 45-season history.
But with Andy Dalton taking a third-year step at quarterback, and a superb defense to rely on in Cincy, all of that goes away this year, and then some. I could offer a teaser for my Super Bowl pick, which will post next week at SI.com, but I think you're feeling the AFC half of my matchup right here, right now.
16. Jacksonville won't be a factor in a deep AFC South race, and anything north of five wins will register as over-achievement for the rebuilding Jaguars. But with new head coach Gus Bradley teaching his team to trust his glass half-full approach, and new general manager Dave Caldwell bringing a clear-eyed talent evaluation to the team's personnel department, Jacksonville has a chance to be pesky this season. If nothing else, with an offense that will have some variety and versatility for a change, the Jaguars will field their most interesting and intriguing team since they last went to the playoffs in 2007.
17. At the six-week mark of the season, the Cleveland Browns will be one of the surprises of 2013, winning two-thirds of their games and holding a share of first place in the AFC North. Alas, the good times won't last the whole season, but the Browns won't be flukes either. The defense is still considerably ahead of the offense in Cleveland, but that's OK; that approach has worked before in this division. The Browns offseason spending spree will offer real help, but the acquisition of offensive coordinator Norv Turner will prove the best move of all.
18. Not just any NFL franchise was in the position to add pariah-like former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to their staff after his year-long suspension from the game, but the Titans and head coach Mike Munchak will wind up very thankful that they were willing (or desperate enough) to make that hire. Williams will bring his signature intensity and blitz-centric attacking approach to a Tennessee defense that gave up an NFL-high 29.4 points per game last year, and his presence as a senior assistant to defensive coordinator Jerry Gray will instill some much-needed edge and identity to a Titans team that lacked both.
19. Sorry, no embarrassment of rookie quarterback riches this season. But then we all knew that. In Buffalo, however, E.J. Manuel will heal up and make the Bills look smart for making him the only first-round QB of 2013. He'll lack the polish and wow factor of Griffin, Luck and Wilson, but he'll give Buffalo it's most consistent threat at the game's preeminent position since early in the Drew Bledsoe era. As for the Jets' Geno Smith, all of my instincts say that Gang Green should hold on tight for repeated bouts of turbulence. It's the wrong team at the wrong time for Smith.
20. It's not the loss of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams on defense that will be a season-long storyline for defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore. Instead it's a question of how quickly can the Ravens' offense figure out a new identity for itself with receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta no longer available due to a March trade and a late-July injury. The bottom line is that what's old is new again in Baltimore: This is a defensive-led team that may have to carry the offense for significant stretches of the season.