By Jason Keidel
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Rather than plod, let’s plow through the NFL season and pick some playoff teams and beyond…
In case you wonder why they won the Super Bowl, they reminded you on Thursday night, shredding the Green Bay Packers in a flawless, football sonata on opening night.
They lost some starters on defense and Golden Tate on offense. But that’s pro forma in pro football. Because of the salary cap, Super Bowl champions are stripped to the bone like a carcass during the offseason.
Talent isn’t an issue as much as temerity is. Does Seattle have the requisite hunger to repeat? It’s easy and typical for teams to get fat off that first Lombardi Trophy. But if anyone can inspire a lethargic locker room, it’s Pete Carroll.
San Francisco 49ers
As WFAN host Mike Francesa implied on Thursday, fans are leaping off the San Fran bandwagon as though it were on fire. Their best defensive player, Navarro Bowman, is still recovering from that gruesome knee injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs. Their other best defender, Aldon Smith, is also a mess — off the field. They’ve also lost defensive stalwarts Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson over the last two seasons.
Their GM tried to trade coach Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland. The field in their new stadium is in worse shape than a Civil War battlefield.
But they still have studs on both sides of the ball, and they have reached the NFC title game the last three years. They won one of them, of course, then lost the “Harbowl.”
Despite the losses to injury and free agency, it’s hard to imagine San Francisco dropping off the playoff map, especially since it still has the requisite desire to win its first ring in 20 years. How far the Niners go will depend on the progress of Colin Kaepernick, who will be more vital than ever in light of their newfound shortcomings on defense.
New Orleans Saints
As long as Drew Brees can short-circuit scoreboards and Jimmy Graham remains healthy, the Saints will go at least 7-1 at home and split their road games, making them almost automatically 11-5. And while they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in January, their reputation as a dome team is still intact.
So the Saints have two options: Win enough games to garner home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or change their identity on the road. Either way, there’s enough talent to at least make a winter cameo.
Green Bay Packers
Sure, they got stomped on Thursday night, but so does everyone who plays in Seattle. With all due respect to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers is the best football player on the planet.
Rodgers needs his receivers and Eddie Lacy to avoid long trips to the trainer’s table. While Packers fans are drooling over the idea of Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews bull-rushing quarterbacks over 16 games, the loss of B.J. Raji rips a hole in their run-defense, which means Mr. Rodgers will have to outscore the opposition.
Much like the Saints, the Packers need home-field advantage to win the NFC title. And they have to pray that the 49ers somehow lose long before a possible playoff matchup.
The Bears are now inverted — all offense and no defense — which throws our traditional football sensibilities into chaos. No more Monsters of the Midway. No more Butkus or Singletary or Urlacher.
No, the Bears are now an orchestra on offense, with Jay Cutler’s howitzer arm slinging leather all over the Midwest, through the Windy City and into the muscular arms of the best pair of receivers in the sport.
Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are about 13 feet of wide receiver, good for 200 catches and 30 touchdowns. Matt Forte isn’t quite Shady McCoy, but he’s close enough.
While Detroit has become the trendy pick to rebound from last season’s plunge down the standings, the Bears have more stability. And if you can adjust your eyes to the nouveaux brand of football being played in Chicago, then you should see just enough wins to make the playoffs.
The NFL East is just a whisker above the AFC South as the worst division in pro football. I guess you can make a case for a healthy RG3 leading the Redskins to the title, Tony Romo putting up epic numbers or, more likely, Eli Manning reestablishing his Super Bowl form. But all three are too flawed to pick now.
Until then, the Eagles are the pick of the division. Chip Kelly has another year to work his wizardry on offense, and another season with Nick Foles. And while no one can expect Foles to repeat as the Robo QB he was last year — a touchdown machine with an acute allergy to interceptions — LeSean McCoy is the Swiss Army Knife of running backs who can singularly change an entire season and rewrite an opponent’s game plan.
And if you’re looking for a silver lining on defense, consider the rarely mentioned Brandon Boykin, a small cornerback who put up a robust six interceptions in 2013.
New England Patriots
If you’ve watched football the last 15 years, you know why we pick the Pats to win the AFC East every year. The question isn’t whether the Patriots will make the playoffs, but rather how many playoff games they will win.
And that will depend largely on Rob Gronkowski, who brings sunshine to the fans and swaths of stats to Tom Brady. The numbers are obscene. Over his first two seasons, Gronkowski caught more touchdowns (27) than any tight end in NFL history. Brady has a Total QBR of 78 with Gronkowski on the field, and a Total QBR of 60 without the party-hearty TE. If that weren’t enough, Brady has thrown 33 TDs and eight INT with Gronk, but 26 TD and 11 INT without him. Last one, I promise. Over the last four years, Brady has thrown 42 TD and just six INT when targeting his TE.
It doesn’t hurt that Bill Belichick can now work his magic with Darrelle Revis.
The Bengals are young, talented and hungry, which is a good combination.
But the most important combo in football is kind of a question mark for the Bengals. Between head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals have zero playoff wins, which is one of the reasons fans had some pause over Dalton’s recent robust contract. Granted, it’s a six-year deal that’s only worth two or three years of real commitment, but how will The Queen City react if the Bengals win 11 games again and then gag at home in the playoffs, like they did last year against the Chargers?
The good news, at least, is that the Bengals should be there again in January. How far they go is another matter.
Not a total homer pick.
Yes, my beloved black and gold went 8-8 and missed the playoffs last year. But last I checked we had a coach with a Super Bowl ring and a quarterback with two.
Granted, the fact that our two starting running backs decided to go on a joyride with a bag of weed in the car was not a genius move. But we got exponentially younger on defense, which was a slow drip on our soul the last two years, hanging onto players well past their primes.
If Le’Veon Bell can stay healthy and sober, he and LeGarrett Blount can help offset the loss of WRs Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders over the last two seasons. Big Ben still needs a Big Season.
Former NFL lineman and three-time Super Bowl champ Mark Schlereth said the Colts are an average team with a great quarterback. Fair enough.
But that’s also enough. Especially in the emaciated AFC South, which is the worst division in the NFL.
Andrew Luck is the next great quarterback, the face of the Colts and the NFL for the next decade. The man has no weaknesses. And he’s still just a pup.
Yes, losing sack leader Robert Mathis for the first four games hurts an already weak defense. But if T.Y. Hilton keeps improving and Reggie Wayne can be, well, Reggie Wayne again, then the Colts can mail in 11 wins.
Pick a reason. Peyton Manning’s Matrix season last year? The 55 — yes, 55 — touchdown passes? The fact that he has another year to work with his wildly talented receivers?
The fact that Von Miller is due for a big year? The acquisition of DeMarcus Ware? Signing Aqib Talib? The altitude and the attitude after getting vaporized in the Super Bowl?
Denver can sleepwalk to 12 wins. It’s just a matter of whether it gets to play at home throughout the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers
With all due respect to Andy Reid and the Chiefs, I just respect Philip Rivers more than Alex Smith. Sure, Smith has an obscene winning percentage, but he is the quintessential game manager.
I’ll take the more talented Rivers, who can win games with his divine right arm, and has another year to connect with rising star Keenan Allen.
Of course, you could just omit my homer pick of Pittsburgh and see a 2013 redux, which had both AFC wild-card teams come from the AFC West.
AFC title game
Patriots over Broncos
NFC title game
Seahawks over Packers
Seahawks over Patriots
For our two locals…
Yes, I have sung the praises of the Manning-Coughlin combo, which Giants fans too quickly forget as two-time Super Bowl champions.
They have gotten younger, but are they better? Their secondary surely is. But key losses at wide receiver, the variable that is Odell Beckham, Jr. and the absence of David Wilson will weigh heavily on Big Blue this year.
There are just too many variables on both sides of the ball to safely assert their place as NFC East champions. If the Bears don’t play as expected, and the Lions remember that they are the Lions, then Big Blue could sneak in as wild-card contenders. Don’t be stunned to see the Giants finish 9-7.
The Jets finished strong last year and are better this year. But it’s hard to trust Geno Smith, or Rex Ryan when it comes to offense. Some of us wanted Michael Vick to start the season at QB. But our wishes went unheard.
So, as always, the Jets will have to win with defense. Which means they need their formidable front four to harass the opposing quarterback. Often. If not, their back seven could be singed. Often.
The Jets have a savage schedule, which will keep them from the playoffs. But there’s enough talent to repeat last year’s 8-8 mark. Will that be enough to save head coach Rex Ryan’s job? That’s a far more interesting debate.
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