How great it is that the NFL season is upon us as the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants square off against NFC East foe, the Dallas Cowboys.
Week 1 of the NFL has a lot of storylines that can get every fan excited about the upcoming season and start thinking playoffs. Here are some of the big headlines:
- Peyton Manning makes his Denver Broncos debut.
- Five rookie quarterbacks will start Week 1, an unprecedented amount.
- And of course, there are the replacement officials.
With those storylines comes the big anticipation for all 32 NFL teams. And even though there hasn't been a game played, it's never too early to predict who'll win each division and win the Super Bowl.
Everybody has the Green Bay Packers favored to win the NFC North and they very easily could. But people forget just how good the Chicago Bears were up until Jay Cutler got hurt.
The Bears jumped out to a 7-3 record and then it fell apart after the Cutler injury and they finished 8-8. To make matters worse, Matt Forte went down with an injury and the Bears had no offense to compete in a division with potent offenses.
The Bears have always had to rely on the defense to win games, but this year, the Bears have given Cutler weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They brought in Brandon Marshall via a trade with the Miami Dolphins. Marshall was Cutler's favorite target while they were together with the Denver Broncos.
Marshall caught 206 passes for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns from Cutler in Denver.
Not only did the Bears add Marshall, they drafted Alshon Jeffery from the University of South Carolina in the second round of the NFL Draft.
The Bears also re-signed Forte to a new deal worth $32 million over four years.
The key to the Bears will be the health of All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher. If Urlacher is healthy, he leads a tough defense that can keep the team in any game, which is key in the NFC North.
The Atlanta Falcons have become one of the most consistent teams in the NFL since Matt Ryan took over as quarterback and Mike Smith became the head coach. The only problem, they can't win a playoff game.
This is the Falcons' division to lose. The New Orleans Saints will have serious mental issues, at least people would think, dealing with the bounty suspensions.
The up-and-coming Carolina Panthers are a sleeper team in many people's book with Cam Newton leading the charge, but I believe they're another year away.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have their own issues to deal with.
So this division is the Falcons' to lose.
Atlanta needs Michael Turner to return to his old form and carry the offense instead of Ryan throwing the ball 40+ times. But if the Falcons don't get the help from Turner, Ryan has a great group of receivers.
Led by Julio Jones and Roddy White, the passing attack for the Falcons can keep up with any offense as long as Ryan is throwing them passes. Throw in future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and the offensive fire power is there.
They brought in Asante Samuel to help bolster the secondary. The defense needs production up front by John Abraham and company so they don't need to blitz as much facing the offenses of the NFC South.
There has been a lot of talk of how great the Philadelphia Eagles can be. That talk is coming from their own team.
Last year, it was the "dream team" talk and now it's a "dynasty" team.
Everybody is waiting for the Eagles to stop talking and just play football. They are immensely talented, but there is absolutely no reason to put added pressure on the team.
Michael Vick will be the key for the Eagles. If Vick can stay healthy, and that is a big if, the Eagles might have the most explosive offense in football.
The Eagles gave new contracts to DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy. The new deal to Jackson was especially big because now Jackson has no excuse to stop playing.
McCoy is coming off a 20-touchdown year, 17 on the ground and three receiving, and Vick needs to continue to let McCoy take the brunt of the pressure.
Now if Vick is healthy, the problem with the Eagles could be the defense. This was supposed to be fixed last year, but another year should help them out. The addition of DeMeco Ryans at inside linebacker should help the middle of what was the weak point of the Eagles defense a year ago.
Winning the division won't be an easy task for the Eagles, but if they just play football and stop talking, they have the personnel to do it.
Talk about a team that came out of nowhere a year ago. The San Francisco 49ers were just that team. They went from 6-10 to 13-3 and were a couple of secured punt returns from the Super Bowl.
When Jim Harbaugh became coach a year ago, there wasn't any real expectations for the once historic and proud franchise. But now, there are expectations and pressure.
The 49ers bring in one the league's best defenses. A defense that is led by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and returning all 11 starters for the 2012 season.
Where the 49ers have changed is the offense. Alex Smith had a resurgent year under Harbaugh and saved his job as a NFL starting quarterback. But last year, besides running the ball with Frank Gore, which was really productive, and throwing the ball to All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis—also very productive—the 49ers had no other help on offense.
Michael Crabtree hasn't lived up to his potential thus far in his career, so the 49ers made a splash to help out Smith.
They brought in Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, drafted A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois and also drafted LaMichael James out of Oregon. Now if Smith can work with what the 49ers have put around him, the 49ers can do some serious damage.
The AFC North is consistently the hardest division to predict. You have the Pittsburgh Steelers who are always in contention. Then there's the Cincinnati Bengals who have found their forté. Of course, there's the Cleveland Browns, who unfortunately for them, haven't been in contention in a while. Then there is the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens are my prediction to win the AFC North, but in a 12-round bout and depending on the scoring official, a two-point winning margin.
For a decade, the Ravens have consistently been one of the league's best defenses. This year, they will still be as a good. But, yes there is always a but, how do the Ravens replace Terrell Suggs and does father time catch up to the Ravens?
Suggs tore his Achilles tendon during the offseason and has said he will play this year. I don't know if he will or not, but if he doesn't, that's a big void to fill. Suggs was named the AP Player of the Year last season after a solid campaign: 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Then there is the age issue. Ray Lewis has led the Ravens defense for 16 years. He is still playing at a remarkably high level. Then there is Ed Reed, who was unsure whether or not he was going to retire during the offseason. For the first time in a while, there are questions about the Ravens defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, they are led by Ray Rice. Rice was the league's second leading rusher a year ago with 1,364 yards and he also had 12 touchdowns.
Joe Flacco will once again be the quarterback for the Ravens. Flacco has said time in and time out that he is an elite quarterback. I'm not sold on it, but he's good enough to help the Ravens win the division and advance in the playoffs.
Out of all the divisions, the Houston Texans seem to have the easiest and most secure chance of winning their own division.
The Indianapolis Colts are going to be better than last year, but with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck getting his first crack in the NFL, expectations can't be high for the Colts.
The Tennessee Titans should be better, but question marks with Jake Locker taking over at the helm could cost them the division. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars could easily finish the season with the worst record in the NFL.
But having a weak division shouldn't mean the Texans don't deserve what they can achieve.
After losing Matt Schaub and then backup quarterback Matt Leinart, T.J. Yates was in charge of the offense. Take nothing away from what Yates accomplished being a rookie fifth-round pick and being sprung into the starting scene. He led the Texans to the playoffs and into the divisional round.
But many have to wonder if Schaub was at quarterback when the Texans faced the Baltimore Ravens, would that outcome be different and would we be talking about the Texans being Super Bowl Champions, or at least AFC Champions?
We won't ever know, but with Schaub healthy, the Texans can do serious damage. Andre Johnson needs to stay healthy, as well, to give Schaub his favorite target each week.
Luckily for Schaub, he has one of the best running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster so the pressure isn't squarely on his throwing arm.
The Texans are no slouch on defense either. Despite losing Mario Williams to the Buffalo Bills during free agency, this defense is loaded. J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing lead one of the best defenses.
And the winner of the AFC East will be the New York Je...wait, never mind.
The New England Patriots are the superior team in their division. Let's face it, the New York Jets have a lot of issues. The Buffalo Bills will be a lot better, but I'm not completely sold on Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Miami Dolphins are starting a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and have essentially traded away all of their key players.
So, much like the Texans, the Patriots are heavily favored in their division. The Patriots have their own question marks, most of them lie on the defensive side of the ball. But drafting Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower should help the defense.
But then there is the protection of Tom Brady. Brady has been hit hard during the preseason so the line needs to do a better job of protecting him.
Luckily for Brady, he has a complete arsenal. They have two of the best tight ends in football in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Newly-acquired Brandon Lloyd should give Brady the deep threat he has desperately wanted over the past few seasons.
Can people expect Brady to put up the same stellar numbers he did a year ago? He had 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. I don't think he'll put up those types of numbers, but is 4,700 yards and 34 touchdowns really all that much worse?
Right now, the only thing that can stop the Patriots from winning their division is the Patriots.
The AFC West is one of the toughest divisions to predict.
I love what the Kansas City Chiefs can bring to the table if everyone is healthy, but I'm not going to rely on Matt Cassel leading a team. The San Diego Chargers are always in the mix, it's just a matter of when they are. They either start out slow and finish strong and end up in the mix or vise versa. Then the Oakland Raiders should be much improved with Carson Palmer getting a full offseason with the Raiders.
But the Broncos brought in Peyton Manning to win. Manning has produced more than any other quarterback during the regular season and led the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs 11 times and won the AFC South seven times. And on a lot of those rosters, Manning had to do a lot of the work to make the team that good.
Well, Manning comes to a team that has talent. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are going to have explosive years with Manning throwing the ball.
Willis McGahee could have an even better year than last year when he rushed for 1,199 yards and four touchdowns. He won't be seeing as many eight-man boxes and the holes could be bigger than he's accustomed to.
The Broncos defense has improved and will look to continue to grow. This will be one of their first chances to consistently play with a lead, which will allow the Broncos do what they do best—rush the passer.
Von Miller is coming off his NFL Rookie of the Year performance and Elvis Dumervil will look to continue to play at a top level and give a great pass rush from the edge.
The secondary should be better with Tracy Porter lining up opposite of Champ Bailey. But the safeties and linebackers could pose as huge question marks for the Broncos.
But let's face it, the Broncos won the division a year ago with Tim Tebow at the helm, surely they can do it with Manning.
The Green Bay Packers will make the playoffs despite the Bears winning the division. The Packers could have the second- or third-best record in their conference but will be looking at a Wild Card spot.
Aaron Rodgers will lead the high octane offense, but if he has a bad game, the Packers do too. The defense should be better, but not good enough to win their division.
I know I said the Saints are going to have huge mental issues to deal with, but who really can stop the video game offense in the Superdome when Drew Brees is throwing the ball?
Brees is coming off a record-setting 5,476 passing yards and the leadership that he brings will be enough to edge out the others fighting for the second Wild Card spot.
Those who just miss the playoffs:
Detroit Lions: There is no defense and the health of Matthew Stafford continues to be a concern.
Carolina Panthers: I don't expect Cam Newton to have the same success to the extent he had a year ago.
Seattle Seahawks: I was tempted. I love what Russell Wilson did at NC State and Wisconsin, but not this year for the Seahawks.
New York Giants: Last season, they barely made it to the playoffs with a 9-7 record. If they don't win their division, they can't get the Wild Card spot.
Dallas Cowboys: Much like the Giants, they have to win their division to get into the playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals are an up-and-coming team and I believe they continue to grow with Andy Dalton at quarterback. Throwing to AJ Green is always a bonus. One problem I do have, who is going to carry the ball?
But even without the run game, the defense is good enough and the offense can score some points.
I said earlier how much I love the Kansas City Chiefs. It's hard to argue against the talent that they have. Jamaal Charles coming back from an ACL injury will be huge. Plus they have a legitimate backup in Peyton Hillis.
The defense will be good, but their corner play scares me a lot. If Matt Cassel can avoid mistakes, this team can make a run at, and possibly through, the playoffs.
Those who just missed the playoffs:
Pittsburgh Steelers: It's tough to keep out the team that has been one of the best in football. But the injuries and lack of depth on the line, not to mention the age on defense, has to start catching up to the Steel City.
Buffalo Bills: The defense is going to be a lot better with Mario Williams, but can Ryan Fitzpatrick play consistent for every week of the season? We haven't seen him do so yet.
New York Jets: Only reason they have a chance at the playoffs is their defense. Better hope they get a couple defensive touchdowns to help out the offense.
San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers always has the Chargers looking at the playoffs. This year, he has a tough task, especially in his own division.
In the NFC Championship game, the San Francisco 49ers will face the Chicago Bears on the frozen turf at Soldier Field.
It's a surprise pick to select the Bears to go on to the title game, but it's hard to overlook everything they can bring to the table. The 49ers on the other hand, are favorites to go.
The game between the 49ers and Bears will be a close one. One that'll come down to which offense can move the ball on the opposing defense.
I'll put more faith in Jay Cutler to move the ball than Alex Smith. This game, however, won't necessarily be won on the arm of the quarterbacks, but rather with the ground game.
The 49ers will be looking for Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James to be the workhorses. While the Bears will lean on Matt Forte and Michael Bush to pound the defense.
One key to this game could be Devin Hester. If he can get his hands on a punt, the game could completely change.
The Bears find a way to win 13-10 and advance to the Super Bowl.
In the AFC Championship game, the Houston Texans walk into Foxboro, Mass., and face the New England Patriots.
The two teams are completely different from one another. The Patriots rely on outscoring everyone with a potent passing attack from Tom Brady. Whereas the Texans will look to exploit teams with Arian Foster and then play-action passes.
It's crazy to think the Texans would actually have a shot when history is told, but the Texans are a more complete team.
I kept debating whether or not the Patriots would make the Super Bowl, but it's the defense that gets the Patriots an early exit.
Yes, they have solidified their defense with their 2012 draft picks, but that is all on paper. Arian Foster will run wild and the Houston Texans win the AFC Championship and advance to their first Super Bowl with a 34-24 victory.
And the winner of Super Bowl XLVII is: The Chicago Bears.
The Bears will have a top-10 defense and the play of Jay Cutler and Matt Forte allow the Bears to find their way back to top of the food chain.
Arian Foster will keep the Texans in the game and Andre Johnson will have a huge game exploiting the outside of the Bears defense. The place where the Bears get the edge? Special teams.
The last time the Bears were in the Super Bowl in 2006, Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. He won't get a chance to do that this time, with the new rules, but look for Hester to return a punt for a touchdown and completely change the complexion of the game.
Throw in a couple of turnovers caused by the Bears defense late in the game, and give the Windy City the Lombardi Trophy.
The Bears win their second Super Bowl 38-24 over the Texans.