Are John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens a better team this season than they were when they won the Super Bowl in 2012?
We are almost there.
The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos will kick off the NFL’s 94th season on Thursday.
Three days later, the majority of the teams swing into action. Then next Monday night, the Philadelphia Eagles visit the Washington Redskins and the San Diego Chargers host the Houston Texans.
But you knew that already. What you may or may not know is the direction each club is headed in.
What is the basis? We are considering how all the teams finished a season ago and combining that with a look at what the last seven months or so have brought about.
Hence some teams are headed in the right direction, some may be headed backwards and a few may be in the same position from a year ago.
Then again, all of this could look incredibly different by the time Tuesday morning, Sept. 10 rolls around.
Let the educated guessing game begin.
Some may forget that the Arizona Cardinals' disappointing finish of a year ago followed what looked like a strong turnaround by the team.
Following a 1-6 start in 2011, the club won seven of its final nine games. The Cards got off to a strong 4-0 start last season before dropping 11 of their final 12 contests.
This summer, new head coach Bruce Arians has stressed running the football in order to protect his quarterback. And the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year is confident his new-look offensive line can get the job done, despite the recent loss of promising rookie left guard Jonathan Cooper to a broken leg.
Defensively, the Cardinals were among the league leaders in takeaways last season and figure to be one of the tougher units in the NFL once again.
This is a team headed in the right direction. But playing in the tough NFC West these days may mean that improvement might not come in terms of wins and losses.
Winners of the NFC South and the conference’s top seed in 2012 with a 13-3 record, last season had a familiar feel to it if you were the Atlanta Falcons.
That was the same scenario for the team in 2010. In both years the franchise fell short of the Super Bowl despite home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
So following a 0-4 yawner of a preseason, is Mike Smith’s team prepared to defend its division title and take the next step?
The Falcons figure to score plenty of points with quarterback Matt Ryan at the helm. The five-year pro threw 32 touchdown passes last season and has wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez at his disposal. The addition of running back Steven Jackson is expected to help a ground game that ranked 29th in the NFL a year ago.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora comes over from the New York Giants, but John Abraham is gone. Abraham totaled 10 of the team’s less-than-imposing 29 sacks in 2012. Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant joins Umenyiora as one of the new starters on the defense.
Are the tweaks made by the club enough to get them to a Super Bowl? The jury remains out for now.
How does a team do better than winning a Super Bowl? Making sure the club avoids another December slump that made the journey to the championship a whole lot tougher.
The Baltimore Ravens dropped four of their final five regular-season games last season before getting hot in the playoffs. Some of that can be blamed on the erratic play of the offense, which got noticeably better once Jim Caldwell was put in charge.
Don’t be surprised if the defense is significantly better than last season. That wouldn’t necessarily be a huge surprise considering the Ravens were in the middle of the pack league-wide in terms of yards allowed and gave up the most rushing yards in a season in team history.
Additions such as outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, inside linebacker Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty and free safety Michael Huff are amongst the newcomers on defense. On the other side of the ball, quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco is in command of a unit that has running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce at its disposal.
And while the losses of wideout Anquan Boldin (traded) and tight end Dennis Pitta (injured) certainly hurt, the recent additions of Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark will supplement big-play wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
This is a dangerous defending champion that could be a lot more consistent in 2013.
You have to like the direction the Buffalo Bills are headed on the field.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has the makings of an aggressive unit. Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso joins a talented group that includes defensive linemen Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Veteran free safety Jairus Byrd anchors the secondary.
Apparently, we know who head coach Doug Marrone’s starting quarterback this Sunday against the New England Patriots will be, according to Fox Sports' Peter Schrager. With the EJ Manuel era set to take flight, the Bills franchise is now in the hands of an unproven rookie who was inconsistent in college.
At least for now, that uncertainty puts the Bills’ stock down…with the emphasis on for now.
Stock up? For a team which had its offensive issues throughout the preseason?
As we all know, there is more than one way to skin a cat, apropos considering we are talking about the Carolina Panthers.
The team has put together quite a defensive unit, especially when it comes to the front seven. The linebacking corps features productive middle man Luke Kuechly and veterans Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei make for a productive and very promising front four.
On offense, Cam Newton is a playmaker. But head coach Ron Rivera can’t afford to have his quarterback lead the team in rushing for a second straight year.
But can the team avoid another 2-8 start, which has been the case the previous two seasons? Last season’s 5-1 finish was promising. But like the team’s 4-2 record in the final six games of 2011, it’s a moot point when you dig yourself that big of a hole early.
Thanks to the defense, don’t look for the Panthers to stumble out of the gate this time around.
In 2010, the Chicago Bears were a win away from going to the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. But they fell to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game.
In each of the last two seasons, the club got off to 7-3 and 7-1 starts, only to have something go somewhat wrong which resulted in them missing the playoffs each time.
Now it’s Marc Trestman’s turn to get the team back to the postseason. But are these Bears any better than their recent predecessors?
We may have to wait to find out. That means seeing if a new-look offensive line has truly jelled and if the defense keeps its opportunistic touch throughout the season.
Still, that’s not to say that the Bears aren’t capable of winning the NFC North. Although they failed to reach the playoffs last season, they finished with a 10-6 mark and just one game out of the top spot owned by the Packers.
Ah yes, the Packers. At least one win over their longtime division rivals could change the fortunes of Trestman’s club.
With the opportunity to reach the playoffs for a team-record third straight season, don’t look for the Cincinnati Bengals to squander the opportunity.
Head coach Marvin Lewis begins his 11th season in the Queen City. Spearheaded by one of the best defenses in the league, the Bengals appear to be a formidable threat to the Baltimore Ravens’ two-year run as AFC North champions.
Third-year quarterback Andy Dalton, who has had his struggles in the playoffs, now has a few new weapons in rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. The tight end and running back, respectively, supplement Pro Bowlers in wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Add in reliable runner BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Dalton is set up to succeed in 2013.
And as the expression goes, all bad things must come to an end. Meaning Lewis’ team is expected to win the franchise’s first playoff game since the 1990 season.
Much like the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West, the Cleveland Browns face the daunting task of moving up in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
But don’t bet against them. What raises the stock of the Browns even more this season is the addition of coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense). The former appears to have already had an effect on second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden, who had his ups and downs as a rookie.
Running back Trent Richardson certainly helps, and Weeden will be happy to get wide receiver Josh Gordon back after he serves a two-game suspension.
The Browns’ defense showed promise a year ago and should be even better under Horton. Last season, despite the team’s 5-11 record the Cardinals totaled 38 sacks and forced 33 turnovers under his guidance.
Numbers like that for Rob Chudzinski’s team could mean the team’s first playoff berth since 2002.
Here’s a vote for the new-look Dallas Cowboys defense and what it could do to make life easier for quarterback Tony Romo.
Veteran coordinator Monte Kiffin brings his 4-3 design to Dallas, and with performers such as defensive end DeMarcus Ware, middle linebacker Sean Lee and cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, look for this unit to succeed.
On offense, Bill Callahan will be calling the plays in place of head coach Jason Garrett. Look for the Cowboys to stress the run even if DeMarco Murray is unable to stay on the field for all 16 games.
As for Romo, his rapport with his receivers, most notably wideout Dez Bryant, has never been better. Now let’s see if the team can avoid yet another late collapse. The team has squandered chances to win the NFC East the final week of the season each of the last two years.
For Garrett and company, it may not even come to that.
While the games are not played on paper (a horrendous surface for sports), the Denver Broncos seemed to be a team many have written at the top of their list when it comes to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Not so fast.
The organization has suffered through a forgettable offseason which has extended from the front office to the team’s personnel on the field. Quarterback Peyton Manning returns for his second season in Denver and now has prolific receiver Wes Welker at his disposal to go along with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
But let’s just fast forward to this Thursday night and the showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. The Broncos are expected to best the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season. The defending Super Bowl champions will have to travel to Denver for this tilt.
Keep in mind that in last year’s double overtime playoff game, the Broncos sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco just once and that was with outside linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil on the field. Only one of them will be around on Thursday night. Miller is serving a six-game league suspension and Dumervil is now a member of the Ravens.
If the Broncos fail to exact their revenge in this contest, the effects could be felt all season.
If there’s any team that has had a tendency to fool us during the preseason, it is the Detroit Lions.
In 2008, the club finished 4-0 during the summer then went an unprecedented 0-16 when it counted.
In 2011, the Lions once again went 4-0 during the preseason and wound up reaching the playoffs with a 10-6 mark.
So what do we make of the team’s 3-1 record this summer, which included scoring a combined 75 points in their final two outings?
Who knows? But what we do know is that there were numerous changes along the offensive line this offseason. And on the other side of the ball, there are new defensive ends Jason Jones and rookie first-rounder Ziggy Ansah.
More importantly, the Lions still have to prove they can beat someone in their own division (0-6 last season), as well a win a game in general (losers of eight games in a row to end the season).
We all know what Aaron Rodgers can do. Few quarterbacks have put up his kind of numbers in their first five seasons as a starter.
But how will his supporting cast be in 2013, especially when it comes to the defensive side of the ball? In 2011, the Packers couldn’t stop anyone through the air and allowed the most passing yards in a season in NFL history.
Last season, Dom Capers’ unit had its issues against the run, and that aspect was exposed greatly in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
To counteract that, as well as an attempt to keep pass-rushers out of the Green Bay backfield, the club drafted running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in April. Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season and left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the season.
Hence, there are still a few too many questions in “Titletown” to elevate their status.
The Houston Texans didn’t require a lot of help via free agency this offseason.
And the team did a good job in the early rounds of April’s draft. The additions of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and free safety D.J. Swearinger will pay immediate dividends.
As for the rest of the team, the Texans boast some of the league’s best players at their positions in running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end J.J. Watt (the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year), to name a few. And inside linebacker Brian Cushing returns after missing the majority of 2012 with a knee injury.
Now all Matt Schaub has to do is avoid another late-season slump, as was the case a year ago. This is a team primed for a Super Bowl run but could be derailed if the quarterback fails late in the season once again.
With a lot of Luck and even more heart, the Indianapolis Colts won 11 games in 2012 and grabbed a playoff berth. That following a forgettable 2-14 campaign a season earlier with Peyton Manning forced to sit out with a neck injury.
The Luck, as in quarterback Andrew Luck, is a big reason some believe that Chuck Pagano’s team will push the Houston Texans in the AFC South once again.
But we’re not so sure. Despite last season’s record, the Colts allowed more points (387) than they scored (357). And despite additions such as outside linebacker Erik Walden, defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and free safety LaRon Landry, there’s still not enough evidence that this Indianapolis team is any better than the 2012 edition.
That is, unless the Colts find a reliable running game along the way to ease Luck’s burden.
The good news is that third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert is starting to look the part of a reliable quarterback. Add a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew at running back and receivers such as Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon (suspended the first four games of the season) and things are looking up for the Jacksonville Jaguars on offense.
However, the defense may be another issue, as this unit was one of the most disappointing in the league in 2012.
New head coach Gus Bradley has a defensive pedigree but even he may have his work cut out for him this season.
And there’s also this little matter of the powerhouse Houston Texans in the division.
Safe to say it is going to take more than one season for the Jaguars to rebound from the worst showing in franchise history.
Once head coach Andy Reid arrived in Kansas City this offseason, the stakes were immediately raised for the Chiefs.
Given the Pro Bowl talent on this roster along with the additions of veteran quarterback Alex Smith, cornerback Sean Smith and first overall pick Eric Fisher at right tackle, the Chiefs should be back in the AFC West hunt. The team was a division champion as recently as 2010.
As was the case last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City totaled an NFL-high 37 turnovers and came away with a league-low 13 takeaways. Significant improvement in both categories must be made if the team is to rebound from its second 2-14 finish in five seasons.
The feeling here is that Reid is the right fit for this talented but perplexing squad.
For a change, expectations are high for the Miami Dolphins.
And considering they are in the same division as the New England Patriots, that is saying a lot.
But these Dolphins do have the look of a playoff contender.
Promising second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill has new targets in wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. Lamar Miller becomes the main man in the backfield due to the free-agent departure of Reggie Bush.
Only six teams in the league gave up fewer points than Miami a year ago, and the defense could be even better if defensive end Cameron Wake and company improve on the team’s 16 takeaways.
Is Joe Philbin’s club ready to take down the Pats in the AFC East? That’s uncertain. But a winning season for the first time since 2008 would be a huge step.
Enjoy the enclosed video of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player in 2012.
Last year, the powerhouse performer ran for 2,097 yards, the second-most rushing yards in a season in league history. His play was a big reason the team improved from three wins in 2011 to 10 victories and a playoff berth in 2012.
As far as the rest of the team, it appears to be status quo for the most part. Youth will eventually be served by a trio of first-round draft choices. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson figures to make the most immediate impact, especially on kickoff returns.
But are the Vikings any closer to unseating the Green Bay Packers in 2013?
Quarterback Christian Ponder still lacks consistency, although the addition of wide receiver Greg Jennings is a big help. And despite the presence of defensive end Jared Allen and one of the best pass rushes in the league, the Minnesota defense has had its ups and downs. Both of these aspects must improve if Leslie Frazier’s club is to take the next step.
Those looking for a reason to discount the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl chances in 2013 will be very disappointed.
This will be a different-looking team this season, one that may rely on the run even more than the pass. Regardless of what the Patriots do on offense, quarterback Tom Brady is the perfect man for the job. And the three-time Super Bowl champion will have running back Stevan Ridley and company at his disposal.
Youth will be served when it comes to the passing game as rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce join Julian Edelman and free-agent addition Danny Amendola.
Defensively, this should be a better unit with newcomer Tommy Kelly up front and cornerback Aqib Talib around for a full season. This group has a nice mix of youth and experience.
As for the AFC East, a fifth straight division title appears inevitable. But it’s what the team does deep into January that matters the most in Foxborough.
You have to say "stock up" when it comes to the New Orleans Saints. Things couldn’t get much worse than they were in 2012.
Sure, a 7-9 record is a huge disappointment, but it's far from unforgivable. But when you add in all of the variables regarding “Bountygate” and the fact that no team in league history gave up more total yards per game in a season, there really is nowhere to go but up.
The arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan certainly brought some positives to the Saints’ play during the preseason. Even a little improvement would be a big step following last season’s debacle.
We know with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, the team will score points. And the offense will have a different feel this season with head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines.
Now, whether the Saints' stock is up enough to dethrone the Atlanta Falcons as NFC South champions is a topic for another time.
If anyone can figure out the New York Giants, please step forward and raise your hand.
In recent seasons, the team has finished 9-7 and 10-6 on numerous occasions. Twice, that resulted in Super Bowl titles in 2007 and 2011. Twice, that resulted in a failure to reach the playoffs, including last season.
The team still has quarter back Eli Manning, entering his 10th season, as well as wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Second-year running back David Wilson may be among the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage.
But the team’s bread and butter in recent years, the defense, was toast in 2012. And unless Tom Coughlin’s club can recapture that magic on the defensive front, moving the football on Perry Fewell’s unit won’t be much of a problem.
The NFC East will always be a dogfight. But the Giants may not have the horses to get the job done.
What were you expecting?
There is less than a week before the New York Jets host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and head coach Rex Ryan is still trying to figure out his quarterback situation (maybe), at least for this upcoming weekend.
And whether it is Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Matt Simms or Richard Todd (just wanted to see if you were paying attention), does this Jets offense have enough tools for a quarterback to be successful?
On the plus side, the team’s offensive line looked better during the preseason, and running backs Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory could do some damage.
On defense, head coach Rex Ryan has plenty of young talent. However, second-year pro Quinton Coples, the team’s best pass-rushing threat, is on the shelf temporarily.
It is safe to say that another long year for the Jets could make Rex an "ex"…as in head coach.
Silver and Black? Or Silver and Bleak?
We haven’t seen the Oakland Raiders on the plus side of the win-loss ledger since 2002, when they reached Super Bowl XXXVII.
It’s been a long 10 years, and 2013 could be shaping up as another frustrating season.
Second-year head coach Dennis Allen has his hands full for the second straight year. Speaking of full, it would be nice to see running back Darren McFadden on the field for all 16 games in 2013.
Yes, the chances of the Raiders being in the black are bleak and high indeed.
Perhaps it is only right that Michael Vick will be running Chip Kelly’s offense. The former Atlanta Falcons and current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback will be at the helm of an attack once run by the Oregon Ducks.
Fitting, because in recent years, Vick’s play has been for the birds. His penchant for turnovers has been disturbing, and his inability to stay healthy has been an issue. Still, he’s the choice behind center to usher in the Kelly era.
But the sense is that these Eagles will be just as exciting on offense as they will be on defense. A season ago, Philadelphia gave up a team-record 444 points, and new defensive coordinator Billy Davis has installed his version of the 3-4.
So the "D" word won’t be dynasty or dream (team) in Philadelphia this season. But it may stand for daring.
All was not right for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012. And you could take the word “all” literally.
Injuries and inconsistency plagued the entire team a year ago. It was rare that we saw the Steelers as we've known them in recent seasons in any one week last season.
And that could very well be the case again in 2013, at least when it comes to the offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger comes off a solid season, and wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders could have big years. The running game figures to be better once rookie Le’Veon Bell is ready to go.
Defensively, first-round pick Jarvis Jones should put the big play back in the Steelers defense. The team has forced only 35 turnovers in their last 32 regular-season games.
Back to the offense—in particular, the line. That group suffered through a troubled season in 2012 and hasn’t looked much better this summer, especially in terms of pass blocking.
And in the hard-hitting AFC North, that alone is enough to derail a season in a hurry.
While the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks continue to garner all the attention when it comes to winning the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams lie in wait.
But does Jeff Fisher’s team have what it takes to post the franchise’s first winning season since 2003, which is also the last time St. Louis captured the division?
There are a lot of signs of progress for a team that won just two games in 2011. And no team in the NFC West fared better within the division (4-1-1) a year ago.
Buoyed by a young receiving corps and free-agent addition Jared Cook at tight end, quarterback Sam Bradford could be on the verge of a breakout year.
Defensively, no team in the league totaled more sacks than the Rams last season.
Still, this was a club that was 3-7 outside the division in 2012. But look for that to change as well this season.
After years of frustration, the San Diego Chargers finally opted to go in a different direction in terms of a head coach and a general manager.
Now they hope to go in a different direction than they are currently headed following the last few seasons. Following four straight AFC West titles, the Chargers have won nine, eight and seven games, respectively, the last three seasons.
Former Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers is looking like an old man rather than his old self, and it will be interesting to see if a revamped offensive line, featuring rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker, makes significant improvement. The loss of wideout Danario Alexander to knee surgery was significant.
Defensively, the Bolts are better than advertised, especially against the run. And this unit may have to carry the load until the offense gets back on its feet.
How long that takes is anyone’s guess.
The San Francisco 49ers have made two straight trips to the playoffs following an eight-year absence from the postseason.
And barring some unforeseen circumstances, Jim Harbaugh’s team should be making plans for January and perhaps February football once again.
The defense is top-notch, and third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick should blossom in his first full season as the starter. Add in arguably the best offensive line in the league and some intriguing new faces at wide receiver (veteran Anquan Boldin and rookie Quinton Patton, to name a pair), and a second straight trip to the Super Bowl would hardly be a surprise.
Considering that the Niners are in one of the toughest divisions in the league, this will once again be a battle-tested team playing with an edge all season. Just take a look at how they toyed with the San Diego Chargers in both teams' preseason finale.
Are the Seattle Seahawks primed to unseat the San Francisco 49ers as NFC West champions in 2013?
All the pieces appear to be in place. Head coach Pete Carroll has one of the deepest backfields in the league and second-year quarterback Russell Wilson at the controls.
We know what the defense can do, even if the pass rush may be a question mark in the early stages of the season. A year ago, the Seahawks allowed a league-low 245 points, and only three clubs in the NFL gave up fewer total yards per game.
Watching Carroll’s club during the summer (4-0) had you thinking this was a team with a purpose, regardless of the games' exhibition status.
We all know that no team has won back-to-back NFC South titles since the division was created in 2002.
On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have finished last in the NFC South two straight years, the first time a team managed that feat.
Quarterback Josh Freeman ended on a low note in 2012, but the potential is there. The former first-rounder just needs to put together back-to-back standout years. Running back Doug Martin comes off a dynamite rookie season, and Freeman has a pair of standouts at wideout in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
It’s on defense that there are some questions. And perhaps they’ve been answered by the additions of cornerback Darrelle Revis and free safety Dashon Goldson. But their presence will become a moot point if the Bucs can’t find that pass rush.
And so far, there’s been no indication that Greg Schiano’s team has.
It wasn’t necessarily a great preseason for the Tennessee Titans, but it was a solid offseason in terms of free agency and the draft.
The interior of the team’s offensive line was revamped via the additions of center Rob Turner and guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, the latter the team’s first-round pick in April. He figures to learn a lot in his debut NFL season.
Don’t be shocked if both Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene put up big numbers this season in terms of rushing yards.
On defense, the 2012 Titans will be remembered for giving up the most points in a season in the franchise’s 53-year history. But some young talent in the front seven and the addition of safety Bernard Pollard should correct that.
Don’t be surprised if Mike Munchak’s club is the division’s second-best club by the end of 2013.
All four teams in the NFC East have taken a turn winning the division the last four seasons.
That doesn’t play in favor of the Washington Redskins, who had to wait 13 years before winning a division title a season ago.
Will Mike Shanahan’s club be in position to defend their NFC East crown? That is almost a certainty considering no club has run away with the division in recent years.
Speaking of running, Washington ranked first in the NFL a year ago in that very category. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was a big part of that (as was rookie running back Alfred Morris), but when exactly will we see the 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year in 2013?
On defense, the Redskins looked much better due to the fact that they were healthier than they were in 2012. Let’s see where this unit winds up by season’s end.
First things first, and these days, that means the “third” quarterback.