Banks The QB-driven Redskins are still dangerous and will remain in the NFC East playoff hunt the whole way, but with a brutal second-half schedule, their late-season magic of 2012 will not make a comeback.
Burke Drew Brees will have a monster year, but that defense ... I have Kenny Vaccaro tabbed as DROY in part because I expect him to make about 100 tackles behind a shaky front seven. The D was in trouble, even before losing multiple LBs for the season.
Eagle Sean Payton's return will help New Orleans improve on a 7-9 record, but injuries across an already leaky defense (Will Smith, Kenyon Coleman, Victor Butler) ensure the Saints will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Farrar While new head coach Marc Trestman has what it takes to get Jay Cutler's mechanics under control, the Bears' defense may regress without Lovie Smith around. Look for RB Matt Forte to be the difference if the Bears hit the postseason.
Mantzouranis In the AFC, they'd probably be the No. 1 seed. Jeff Fisher is building something very good in St. Louis on both offense -- where I think Sam Bradford will be just fine -- and defense, but the stars are just not lining up this year. The NFC as a whole is ridiculously stacked, and the conference's two Super Bowl favorites reside in the Rams' division. In a vacuum, St. Louis has a 12-win roster. In reality, I think 9-7 or 10-6.
Murphy Erratic play from a banged up offensive line equals problems for Aaron Rodgers (sacked a league-leading 51 times last season) and an unreliable ground game. Green Bay's schedule is tough, and the Bears and Saints have come up in the world.
Trotter The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens might be more talented than last season, but the year-long grind of being the hunted instead of the hunter -- not to mention playing in one of the league's tougher divisions -- will leave them out of the playoffs.
Team With the Worst Record
Banks And to think those twin 8-8 finishes of 2010 and '11 under Tom Cable and Hue Jackson are now fondly recalled as the glory days in Raiders Nation. Will the tandem of GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen even get a crack at a third season in Oakland? The odds are against it.
Burke Maybe Terrelle Pryor wins the QB job, delivers a little magic and sparks Oakland to a couple wins. That feels like the ceiling for this year, in what has developed into a massive rebuilding project for the Raiders.
Eagle Hard to make a case for any other team here. The Raiders have question marks at every position and the AFC West is poised to be much more competitive this season. The No. 1 overall pick in 2014 is just what Oakland needs to jumpstart a massive rebuild.
Farrar There have been many expansion teams in NFL history with more talent. The offensive and defensive lines are terrible, there are no sure playmakers on either side of the ball and the choice at starting quarterback between Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor isn't a choice at all. This will be the nadir of GM Reggie McKenzie's rebuilding era.
Mantzouranis The Black Hole is gonna love Jadeveon Clowney.
Murphy The tie will be broken on Dec. 8, when woebegone Oakland visits the bad-beyond-belief Jets. New York wins the game, Raiders win the Jadeveon Clowney Sweepstakes, finishing 2-14.
Trotter The Raiders haven't had a winning season since 2002. Don't look for that to change. There simply are too many question marks, from quarterback to the offensive line. Losing left tackle Jared Veldheer indefinitely to a torn triceps is a significant blow.
Banks Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Big Ben finished last season with a costly flurry of turnovers when a playoff berth was on the line, and the story this year isn't going to be whole lot rosier. The Steelers look like an aging team trending in the wrong direction. Burke Greg Jennings, Vikings: The 29-year-old WR may have lost some of his "star" status following an injury-plagued 2012. He might see the rest of it fall by the wayside this season. Jennings reportedly has struggled to find a connection with embattled QB Christian Ponder this season, and with Cordarrelle Patterson capable of big things, Jennings may take a back seat. Eagle Joe Flacco, Ravens: The elite QB debate aside, Flacco raised his profile in a big way last season, putting together a postseason for the ages en route to a Super Bowl title. Look for him to be more of an Average Joe in 2013. Gone are safety nets Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, and the Ravens face one of the league's toughest schedules. Flacco may have been paid like a star this summer, but his performance on the field may fall well short. Farrar Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: For the last few season, Big Ben's gameplan has been fairly simple -- make "wow" throws downfield with defenders hanging all over him due to a leaky offensive line. At some point, that idea will come to an end, because one's body can only take so much abuse. His running back committee is less than impressive to start the season, Mike Wallace is gone and TE Heath Miller may not be ready for the opener. Mantzouranis Arian Foster, Texans: The Texans can downplay Arian Foster's medical woes -- and it's not like he really needs camp or the preseason to be ready for Week 1 -- but lingering calf and back issues are obviously never good for a running back. Especially one with 957 carries in the last three years, a whopping 99 more than the next most active back over that time. Especially when that back's YPC has fallen in consecutive seasons. Especially when that back also has a backup (namely, Ben Tate) who is more than capable of being a No. 1 guy, and one who the team has promised to get more involved. Murphy Mike Wallace, Dolphins: Wallace may not be a bona fide star (just eight TDs as a Steeler last season), but he sure got paid like one (5 years, $60 mill) this offseason. The 27-year-old burner was signed to stretch defenses. But with Wallace missing a week and a half of training camp, he and Ryan Tannehill were slow to develop a chemistry, with the quarterback targeting almost every other receiver on the roster more frequently than his expensive new teammate. Could be a problem. Trotter Von Miller, Broncos: It's hard to flip the switch, so it will take time for Miller to get his legs after returning from a six-game suspension. The loss of Elvis Dumervil will also allow defenses to slide protections toward him.
Banks Danny Amendola, Patriots: Amendola never topped 689 yards receiving or three scoring catches in his four seasons in St. Louis, but he'll have those numbers beat in the Patriots' first eight or nine games with Tom Brady throwing him the ball. Remember what No. 12 did for Wes Welker's production. Burke Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers: Antonio Brown's presence is not the only reason Pittsburgh was more than OK with letting Mike Wallace walk. Sanders, in his fourth NFL season, is primed to take his game up a few notches -- don't be shocked if he comes close to doubling the 44 catches he had last season. He'll be even more of a factor with Heath Miller on the mend. Eagle David Wilson, Giants: A fixture in Tom Coughlin's doghouse in Year 1, Wilson will take NYC by storm in Year 2. He was already in line for more work this season with Ahmad Bradshaw in Indy, and Andre Brown's preseason injury only further opens the door. An elusive back who is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, Wilson will join Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and others in the young running back elite this season. Farrar Golden Tate, Seahawks: To watch Tate in training camp practices was to see a player finally living up to the promise expected of him when the Seahawks took him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He can beat defenders outside or in the slot, he's established himself as an underrated deep threat and he'll get all kinds of throws from Russell Wilson with Percy Harvin injured. Mantzouranis Randall Cobb, Packers: Cobb may not be a household name to anyone but true football lovers, but his brand awareness will explode this year. He can play outside, in the slot or even line up in the backfield. He took a major step forward in all facets of the game in his sophomore season, and enters his third year as the unquestioned man in what should be a prolific passing attack. You know how good Percy Harvin is? Imagine a player just as good, if not better, without the injury woes. Murphy Sean Lee, Cowboys: The Cowboys' second-round pick in 2010, Lee has spent the last two seasons on the cusp of stardom, with injuries preventing him from crossing over. This year, he moves to the "Mike" spot in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. From that command post, Lee will call defenses, cover tight ends, stuff the run and have the opportunity to make more plays than ever. Lee "could be better than Urlacher," Gil Brandt told me during the Cowboys' training camp. "If he stays healthy." Trotter T.Y. Hilton, Colts: The second-year Colts' receiver is hungry to make a name for himself, and QB Andrew Luck says he noticed a heightened sense of urgency with Hilton during offseason workouts.
First Coach To Get Fired
Rex Ryan:: Julio Cortez/AP
Banks Rex Ryan, Jets: A holdover head coach who was required to be retained by a new general manager almost always works out. Check that, I meant almost never. Ryan's fate already seems sealed, and this season will play out like a long, slow unavoidable train wreck in Gotham. Burke Ron Rivera, Panthers: In all honesty, I think the Panthers will be very competitive this season -- especially on offense. But they've also been a second-half club in Rivera's tenure, and another two- or three-win first half won't cut it. Eagle Rex Ryan, Jets: The preseason should have tempered expectations for the Jets, but they still play in the media circus that is New York. The backpages will be calling for Ryan's head early and often as the Jets struggle through a brutal first nine weeks. A new regime under GM John Idzik will be all too happy to wash its hands and move on. Farrar Rex Ryan, Jets: It's hard to estimate anybody but Rex Ryan, isn't it? The Jets' quarterback situation is a disaster and looks to continue in that regard into the season, the formerly powerful run game is anemic and Ryan's defense is not what it used to be. The 2013 season will mark Rex's adios from the Meadowlands. He'll go back to being a defensive coordinator, which is as it should be. Mantzouranis Mike Munchak, Titans: This is a bit of a darkhorse pick. But I really don't think Reggie McKenzie is going to make a move on Dennis Allen, as bad as the Raiders will be, and John Idzik seems determined to let the Jets rot under Rex Ryan this year for 16 games. Ryan absolutely won't be the Jets' coach in 2014, but I don't think he gets fired during the season, which is more than I can say for Munchak. The Titans are a mess of personnel, scheme and philosophy and seem destined for 3-5 wins, meaning Munchak will have led a steady regression from 9-7 in 2011 to whatever disaster unfolds this year. That won't sit well with owner Bud Adams. Murphy Jim Schwartz, Lions: With the sword of Damocles mere millimeters from the nape of Rex Ryan's neck, I'll take the road less travelled ... as has Lions head man Schwartz, a bright, likeable guy with a penchant for sabermetrics and an econ degree from Georgetown. After taking over an 0-16 team in 2009 and getting it to the playoffs in three seasons, Schwartz backslid last season: the Lions won only four games in 2012, losing their last eight. If Schwartz starts this season as abysmally as he finished the last one, he could be joining the ranks of Detroit's unemployed. Trotter Rex Ryan, Jets: If the regular season is as circus-filled as the offseason and preseason were, Rex should ask to be fired so he can escape an environment he helped to create.
Game I'm Looking Forward To Most
Russell Wilson :: John W. McDonough/SI
Banks Seahawks at 49ers, Week 14: If the NFC West really is the beast that it appears to be, then this December showdown of division superpowers could be a classic, with first place and a first-round playoff bye perhaps there for the taking. With a backdrop of the young-gun quarterbacks, the rivalry between the coaches and the final month of Candlestick Park's existence in 49ers history, how can this not be a Game of the Year candidate? Burke 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2: The winner of the NFC West may stand as the Super Bowl favorite heading into the playoffs, so the two San Francisco-Seattle showdowns loom large. This one gets the nod over the Week 14 rematch due to the bonus points I'm awarding for the CenturyLink Field atmosphere. Eagle Denver at Indianapolis, Week 7: Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis for the first time as a Bronco. Andrew Luck faces the former face of the franchise. Oh, and Von Miller returns to the Broncos' lineup following a six-game suspension. Storyline-wise, there isn't a better game on the schedule. Farrar 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2: Either one of the games between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks -- there's the Week 2 game at Seattle, and the Week 14 turn in the Bay Area. These division rivals are built very similarly -- young quarterbacks, powerful run games and constricting defenses -- but what makes this the league's best current rivalry is that head coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have a beef that dates back to their days in the Pac-10. Mantzouranis Seahawks at 49ers, Week 14: If I really need to explain this, welcome out from the under the rock you must have been living under for the last year. Murphy 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2: What's not to like? This one has two very good teams and plenty of bad blood between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, dating back to their days at Stanford and 'SC, respectively. Even though the 49ers got deeper into the postseason, you know Harbaugh is smarting over the 42-13 beatdown Seattle administered last December -- his worst loss as an NFL coach. Trotter 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2: Physical defenses, punishing running games, talented young quarterbacks, coaches with grudges against each other -- what more could you want?
How will Patriots respond to tumultuous offseason?
Tom Brady :: Elsa/Getty Images
Banks In trademark New England fashion, by winning the AFC East for the 11th time in 13 years, comfortably at that. The re-tooled Patriots' passing game may take a month or so to find its footing, but it actually has more versatility this season, and New England is still playing chess while most of the league dabbles with checkers. Burke Well, I've got them with a division title, first-round bye and AFC championship game appearance. Two reasons for that thinking: 1. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are at their best when motivated; and 2. People are overlooking how good the offensive line, run game and defense could be. Eagle The last time the Patriots were embroiled in this much muck, they responded with a perfect regular season. But the loss of Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker and a gimpy Rob Gronkowski are much more insurmountable than Spygate. New England will still win a weak AFC East, but they are unlikely to rise to the level of a true Super Bowl contender. Even with an improving defense, this looks like a one-and-out playoff team. Farrar On offense, they'll deal with change as they have before -- by putting an undefined group of targets in Tom Brady's good graces and hoping for the best. Rookie undrafted TE Zach Sudfeld may replace Aaron Hernandez in the offensive system, and receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins might surprise. But now, more than any time in the last decade, the Pats will require their defense to step up. Mantzouranis They'll be fine. The loss of so much offensive weaponry will hurt them slightly, and this is going to be a much different looking Pats offense this year, but from a production standpoint I don't expect a disastrous drop-off. Though Buffalo and Miami will pose more of a threat, the Pats will still win the AFC East and be among a handful of Super Bowl favorites in early January. Murphy As long as Tom Brady takes the field, we are told, it doesn't matter to whom he's throwing. That bit of received wisdom is about to be sorely tested, as New England starts the season minus five of its top leading receivers from 2012. TE Rob Gronkowksi will be back in September, but he and new slot receiver Danny Amendola are injury prone. The Pats can run, and will be better on defense, but they'll be one-and-done in the playoffs. Trotter Like they always do: with another AFC East title. Part of that has to do with the lack of competition in the division.
Banks Andrew Luck, Colts: There will be no legitimate sophomore slump among the Fab Four, but Luck's pass protection still won't be up to snuff, and the pounding will take its toll on his game as the season unfolds. Burke Robert Griffin III, Redskins: Don't bet the farm on any of them falling apart. Griffin may be "most likely" to drop off a bit in production, if only because Washington may utilize him more judiciously than it did in 2012 en route to that terrible knee injury. Eagle Robert Griffin III, Redskins: The fate of the Redskins lies with RGIII's surgically repaired knee, so look for Mike Shanhan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanhan to be extremely cautious with their young star. It's a smart call, but one that will bring Griffin back to earth in Year 2. His production won't fall far, but it'll be enough to put him firmly behind Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Farrar Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: Kaepernick busted out in 10 starts, but in 2013 he'll be dealing with defenses who have had all offseason to deal with his unique style. In addition, he'll be without a lot of his 2012 targets -- Mario Manningham is on the reserve/PUP list, Delanie Walker is in Tennessee, Randy Moss is at FOX Sports and Michael Crabtree will be out for most of the season. The replacements are uncertain. Mantzouranis Robert Griffin III, Redskins: Note that a step back doesn't mean a step off the cliff; I just think RGIII set the bar entirely too high in his rookie year, and he's bound to come back to earth a little. It goes beyond the obvious concern about his knee, and skepticism about him staying healthy long-term even though he looks ready to go for Week 1. Kyle Shanahan put him in good positions to succeed last year, but I can see defenses catching up to that more in 2013. Murphy Robert Griffin III, Redskins: Griffin is the most at risk, coming off surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his right knee. While offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan points out that the biggest hits RG3 took last season came on pass plays, rather than zone reads, the fact is, head coach Mike Shanahan has little choice but to be cautious and conservative with the franchise's most important player. Even healthy, it'll be tough for Griffin to match last year's production Trotter Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: Has nothing to do with his ability. Injuries and inexperience at wideout could hinder his development as a passer.