Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2013 NFL Preseason Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Preseason predictions are intimidating. Since the NFL's expansion and realignment in 2002, only half the playoff field from the previous year reaches the postseason again.

Chart

That averages out to 6 teams, so if you're using the previous season to make predictions, a lot of those predictions will be wrong. This season, I'm picking eight playoff teams to repeat, which is high but still in the normal range.

The numbered rankings below are for right now, beginning-of-season strength, and not necessarily a forecast of each team's success over the course of the whole year. However, the brackets show predicted regular-season record, and you'll find postseason predictions at the bottom.

1. San Francisco 49ers [10-6] — A popular Super Bowl pick, but the odds are against them. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams (1990), only seven teams (out of a possible 46) have appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls, about one team every three years. But it's only happened once since 1998, and even that (2003-04 Patriots) was a decade ago. I don't think the success of the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills should lead anyone to believe San Francisco can stay healthy all season and return to the Super Bowl. I agree the 49ers are a great team, but I think the short offseason is going to catch up with them, most noticeably in the form of injuries.

2. Houston Texans [14-2] — Last season, I wrote that "Matt Slauson may have cost Houston the Super Bowl" by diving at Brian Cushing's knees. Cushing, the best linebacker in the NFL, missed the rest of the season. Houston had started 5-0, winning three of the five games by 20+ points. The team went 7-4 the rest of the way, with only one more 20-point victory, and lost in the playoffs. If Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, J.J. Watt, and Cushing all stay healthy this season, the Texans will have a good shot to win the Super Bowl they missed out on last year. Foster and Cushing are particular injury concerns. Ed Reed steps in to replace Glover Quin, who left for Detroit in free agency.

3. Seattle Seahawks [11-5] — Their most aggressive offseason move, trading for Percy Harvin, backfired when Harvin got injured for the 3,000th time. But this is a great team that played its best football at the end of last season, and the acquisition of former Lions DE Cliff Avril, joining Chris Clemons, gives Seattle a potent pair of bookends on the defensive line. Most of last year's team remains intact, and the Seahawks are on the short list of NFC Super Bowl contenders. They have a really tough schedule.

4. Denver Broncos [12-4] — They went 13-3 last year, and as if they need any more advantages, three of the first four games are at home. The lone road game follows the Thursday night season opener, so the Broncos will get 10 days' rest leading up to it. The team lost offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who accepted a head coaching position with division rival San Diego, but it added guard Louis Vasquez and wide receiver Wes Welker, while the defense brought in LB Shaun Phillips and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Peyton Manning is a year older, no one's sure who's going to play running back, and star LB Von Miller is suspended for the first 6 games, but it's hard to imagine the Broncos won't repeat as AFC West champs, and it's easy to understand why they're a popular Super Bowl pick.

5. Atlanta Falcons [10-6] — Matt Ryan is underrated. Everyone recognizes that he's a good quarterback, but unless you divert a ton of credit to his teammates, "good" is the wrong word. Great. Last season, Ryan ranked among the NFL's top five in passing yards, TDs, and rating. He had more yardage than Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, a higher rating than Tom Brady or Drew Brees, and more TDs than anyone besides those four. Atlanta continues to lose defensive contributors, like John Abraham and Brent Grimes, but the offense is so explosive that the Falcons should remain among the best teams in the league. The September schedule is brutal, so don't lose faith if they start 2-2.

6. Cincinnati Bengals [11-5] — Made the playoffs in both of the last two seasons, but they're a young team that's still on the way up. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green continue to impress, and the team used its first two draft picks on offensive "skill" players to upgrade the run game and provide more weapons for Dalton. The defense led the NFL in sacks last year, and figures to be among the league's best once again. Cincinnati signed James Harrison from Pittsburgh, signed star DT Geno Atkins to a big extension, franchised Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks), and drafted Margus Hunt. No one's mentioning the Bengals as a Super Bowl contender, but I think they have to be part of that conversation.

7. Green Bay Packers [11-5] — When Green Bay went 15-1 two years ago, the team actually allowed more yards than it gained. But the Packers combined superb red zone play, mistake-free offense, aggressive takeaways on defense, the fewest penalties in the league, and terrific special teams. That's what they need to get back to this year, and the erratic play of kicker Mason Crosby needs to solidify. With Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, this team has playmakers to build around, and it should be among the better teams in the league. If Super Bowl XLVIII is the goal, the team needs to excel on fundamentals the way it did in 2011. And don't rest starters in Week 17 if you have a first-round bye in the playoffs. Seriously.

8. New England Patriots [10-6] — The story is their depleted receiving corps. Seven players caught double-digit passes for the Patriots last season. Five of the seven are no longer with the team, including Pro Bowlers Wes Welker (Denver) and Aaron Hernandez (jail). The other two, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, both present injury concerns. Gronkowski can't stay healthy, and he begins 2013 on the injured list. Edelman broke his foot in December and his status for the beginning of the season remains in question. I think the Patriots have enough left to win the AFC East, but not as easily as in the past.

9. New Orleans Saints [10-6] — Last year, they shattered the record for defensive yards allowed. This season, the team faces substantially less turmoil. Bounty-gate is behind them and head coach Sean Payton is back. The offense should remain explosive: 4,000 yards and 30 TDs is probably the floor for Drew Brees. This season, the Saints need to establish their ground game, tighten up the defense, and force a few more turnovers. Small tweaks could turn them back into a contender.

10. New York Giants [9-7] — Quietly put together some nice offseason moves on defense, not big names, but solid players who can contribute. A young secondary remains the biggest concern, especially after the loss of safety Stevie Brown (injured reserve). Ahmad Bradshaw is gone, and the running game has been turned over to second-year back David Wilson. In the doghouse last year due to fumbling issues, he showed explosive play-making ability and should complement the Giants' passing game as long as he stays healthy. Offensively, the biggest concern is probably depth on the offensive line. I'm not sure the team is prepared to deal with injuries.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers [9-7] — Their 2012 campaign was derailed partially by injuries to David DeCastro at the beginning of the season, and pretty much everyone else later. Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, and Ike Taylor all missed at least three games. Troy Polamalu missed half the season. Heath Miller lasted until December, then tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL. 2013 is off to an equally discouraging start, with both of the top two draft picks, pass rusher Jarvis Jones and running back Le'Veon Bell, injured during preseason, though both are expected to play in 2013. The Steelers are getting old, but there are good players on the roster, and if they can stay healthy, they've got another run in them. The bet here is they don't stay healthy.

12. Baltimore Ravens [8-8] — The Ravens, defending Super Bowl champions, are 9-point underdogs in Week 1. They enter the season having lost both starting safeties (Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard), both inside linebackers (Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis), their leading sacker (Paul Kruger), their three most experienced veterans (Lewis, Reed, and Matt Birk), and one of their best players on offense (Anquan Boldin). As if losing Boldin weren't enough, starting tight end Dennis Pitta, another of the team's top three receivers, will miss the season on injured reserve. I'll be impressed if Baltimore wins half its games in 2013.

13. Carolina Panthers [9-7] — Ended last season with four straight wins, and scored at least 30 points in three of them. Cam Newton anchors a high-powered offense, but he needs to settle in and play consistently. The Panthers lost a lot of close games last year, and while much of the blame fell on Newton (who probably didn't deserve it) and Ron Rivera (who did), the biggest culprit was a defense that couldn't hold leads. Their best defensive players all return for 2013, including star LB Jon Beason, who missed 12 games on the injured list. Early draft picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short could give Carolina one of the best defensive lines in the league. The NFC South is a tough division, but the Panthers should challenge for a playoff spot.

14. Chicago Bears [8-8] — Head coach Lovie Smith and defensive captain Brian Urlacher are gone. New coach Marc Trestman brings a different scheme to the offense, but the quality of line play remains the biggest concern. Last year's 10-6 Bears thrived on takeaways, leading to 10 defensive touchdowns. That's not repeatable, and I question whether Chicago will consistently score enough points to win. Key players like Julius Peppers (33), Lance Briggs (32), and Charles Tillman (32) may slow down in the near future.

15. Washington Redskins [8-8] — Backup QB Kirk Cousins has shown promise, but their season probably hinges on the health of Robert Griffin III. His running ability is part of what makes RG3 special, so you don't want to limit him too much, but he's got to make the smart play when it comes to protecting himself — as well as knowing when he needs to sit out and recover. Beyond Griffin, Washington's biggest concerns are probably a lack of depth (especially on offense), an aging defensive core that is already facing injuries and multiple suspensions, and a suspect secondary. The NFC East looks very even this year, so playoff status could easily hinge on a handful of plays in close games.

16. Miami Dolphins [9-7] — Extremely aggressive in free agency, they let Reggie Bush leave and lost Jake Long, but added the deep threat Ryan Tannehill so desperately needs when they signed former Steeler WR Mike Wallace. The biggest additions are on defense: Dannell Ellerbe was the Ravens' best linebacker; Brent Grimes missed most of 2012 with an injury, but played at Pro Bowl-level in 2010-11; Philip Wheeler started all 16 games for the Raiders last year, with over 100 tackles (78 solo) and 3 sacks; rookie Dion Jordan should benefit from the attention opponents give to Cameron Wake. Expectations are high, and I believe the Dolphins will challenge for a playoff spot — maybe even a division title — in 2013.

17. Minnesota Vikings [7-9] — Had a nice draft, with three first-round picks. But Adrian Peterson won't rush for 2,000 yards again — I'll give him an over/under of 1,475 — and Christian Ponder left a lot to be desired last season. The biggest concern has to be Ponder's failure to throw downfield. In 2012, he averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, one of the lowest marks in history. Of the top 32 passers last year, 27 were between 11-13 yds/comp, with three over 13. Philip Rivers checked in at 10.7, and Ponder 9.8. For those of you into math, Ponder was more than a full standard deviation below 31st place. For those of you not into math, he never threw downfield. The Vikings added Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson this year, so Ponder has no excuse to keep everything underneath in 2013.

18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [7-9] — In 2012, the Bucs' defense allowed the most passing yardage in the NFL. This year, the team upgraded its secondary with Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, plus 2nd-round draft pick Johnthan Banks. That's a huge hole the team worked hard to address, and it gives Tampa Bay a chance to win. But it's hard not to think Tampa's season will turn on the play of up-and-down quarterback Josh Freeman. He's been Jekyll-and-Hyde throughout his four-year career, but if he's mostly Jekyll, and the key parts stay healthy, the Bucs could surprise people with a serious playoff run.

19. Detroit Lions [7-9] — Lost their last eight games in a row, but there's talent on this team. An offense with Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, and Calvin Johnson threatens any opponent, and Bush's versatility should be a great fit for their pass-heavy scheme. Bush isn't Marshall Faulk, but he could realistically fit into a Brian Westbrook-type role with the Lions. The defense is mostly solid, and when his head is on straight, Ndamukong Suh is a legitimate star.

20. St. Louis Rams [8-8] — Biggest news this offseason came in the form of two upgrades to their offense: free agent Jake Long and first-round draft choice Tavon Austin. This will be Sam Bradford's fourth NFL season. With Long and a developing receiving corps that includes Austin, deep threat Chris Givens, and tight end Jared Cook, Bradford should have a big year. The Rams probably won't post a great record in the competitive NFC West, but the team has a promising collection of young players to build on.

21. Dallas Cowboys [8-8] — New offensive and defensive coordinators, Bill Callahan and Monte Kiffin. Callahan inherits a talented unit that needs to stay healthy and find a balance between run and pass. Kiffin, converting the team to a 4-3 scheme, has less to work with. If Tony Romo limits mistakes, and DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant live up to their explosive potential, the Cowboys could challenge for a division title. If the offense commits a lot of turnovers or suffers major injuries, this team could collapse in a hurry.

22. Philadelphia Eagles [8-8] — No one knows what to expect from Chip Kelly's offense. Will it mostly look like a standard NFL offense, will it resemble the spread offense Kelly used at Oregon, or will we see some combination of the two? Michael Vick begins the season at quarterback, and although the team lost leading receiver Jeremy Maclin, he should have some help from LeSean McCoy and Jason Peters, both healthy. The defense saw significant turnover, including the departures of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, as well as a transition to the 3-4. A lot broke wrong for the Eagles last year — injuries to Vick, McCoy, and Peters; a -24 turnover differential, including many in the red zone — and with a few fixes, they could probably be a great team. But with so many question marks, this is probably a rebuilding year.

23. San Diego Chargers [7-9] — New head coach Mike McCoy will try to reverse the team's failing fortunes, but he's dealing with a lot of turnover on defense. The team lost both starting cornerbacks and leading sacker Shaun Phillips, but the defense faces a fairly soft schedule, and if young linemen Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget continue to develop, it could be a valuable backup in fantasy leagues. Offensively, the team looks to improve its line play, keep fragile RB Ryan Mathews off the injured list, and get Philip Rivers back to the form he showed from 2008-10. That's a long list of goals, and it's unlikely the Chargers can accomplish all of them.

24. Kansas City Chiefs [7-9] — Last season, five QBs had 6+ games throwing more INTs than TDs; two of them played for the Chiefs. This year, the team will start former 49er Alex Smith, whose combined passer rating over the last two seasons was 95.1. We're about to find out whether Smith suddenly flipped the switch in 2011, or whether his success was just a product of the talent around him in San Francisco. Despite last year's disappointing results (2-14), there's a promising young defense in place, so if Smith plays well, the Chiefs could be competitive in 2013.

25. Indianapolis Colts [7-9] — Coming off a charmed season in which they improved from 2-14 to 11-5. But in 2012, the Colts faced the easiest schedule in the NFL, and they won't have the same luck this time. Other than a meaningless Week 17 game, they only won by more than a touchdown once; nine victories were one play from going the other way. Bruce Arians and Dwight Freeney are gone, while Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are a year older. That said, there's every reason to expect progress from Andrew Luck in his sophomore campaign, and Ahmad Bradshaw should improve the running game. The Colts play in an easy division and should finish in the neighborhood of .500.

26. Cleveland Browns [5-11] — I don't have a problem with Brandon Weeden, but I don't know how he's going to succeed with such a limited receiving corps. Davone Bess was a nice addition, but he's not a game-breaker. The defense added pass rushers Paul Kruger (from Baltimore) and Barkevious Mingo (first-round draft pick), but Cleveland's biggest problems are on offense. Trent Richardson seems like a good player, but he averaged under 3.6 yards per attempt as a rookie, and the team hasn't really done anything to help him out. The AFC North is a tough division, and it looks like another rough year for the Browns.

27. Arizona Cardinals [3-13] — They're set for another really rough season. Carson Palmer should dramatically improve their passing game, but any quarterback is going to struggle behind that offensive line. First-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper, a desperately needed addition, broke his leg late in preseason and has been placed on injured reserve. Last year's defense, which I repeatedly raved about, lost 5 of its 8 leading tacklers, 6 if you count Daryl Washington. He's suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season, and he has an (unrelated) assault trial scheduled for October.

28. New York Jets [5-11] — The NFL's reality show, with neverending, seemingly scripted drama. Everyone fusses about the quarterbacks — Geno Smith probably isn't NFL-ready and Mark Sanchez is a proven failure — but they also face the loss of their best player, cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Jets have overachieved in the past (2009-10), but they've underachieved as well (2011-12), and for this season they've got less talent and more drama than ever. I wonder which team will hire Rex Ryan as its defensive coordinator in 2014.

29. Tennessee Titans [6-10] — Last year, they allowed the most points in the NFL, but fantasy owners in deep leagues may want to consider the Titans as a backup defense. They've added Bernard Pollard from the Ravens, but more importantly, they face an easy schedule, including home games against the Jets, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Cardinals, all of whom ranked among the bottom five in scoring last season. Tennessee also has special teams upside. Expectations for the offense remain low, but free agent Andy Levitre and first-round draft choice Chance Warmack should help stabilize the offensive line.

30. Buffalo Bills [3-13] — The big story is their unsettled QB situation. They drafted E.J. Manuel in the first round, and veteran Kevin Kolb was available as a backup or in case Manuel wasn't ready. Well, a concussion put Kolb on IR and maybe on the path to retirement, while Manuel is nursing a sore knee. That leaves undrafted Jeff Tuel as a possible Week 1 starter against the Patriots. The best player on their offensive line, guard Andy Levitre, left in free agency, so whoever the QB is, he'll probably have to make quick decisions. Defensively, their top three tacklers all left in free agency, and the fourth, play-making safety Jairus Byrd, is dealing with plantar fasciitis.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars [5-11] — This is what I wrote a year ago: "With Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson on the field, Blaine Gabbert has no more excuses. Even with Maurice Jones-Drew potentially rusty from his long holdout, this needs to look like a real offense this year." It didn't. The Jaguars ranked 30th in scoring and 29th in yardage. The Jags open 2013 with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne as the quarterbacks, again. There's only so far this team can go without a passing game.

32. Oakland Raiders [4-12] — Their defense sucks. Last year, no Raider had more than 4 sacks or 2 interceptions. Charles Woodson is back, but he's about to turn 37, and he's obviously slowing down. I know some people really like Tracy Porter, but I just don't think he's an impact player. The offense starts over with a new QB, either former Packer and Seahawk Matt Flynn, or (more likely) Terrelle Pryor, but the team lost its leading receiver, tight end Brandon Myers, in free agency. Darrius Heyward-Bey is also gone, which I guess could be good or bad depending on how you look at it. This has to be a rebuilding year, because there doesn't appear to be a lot of talent on the roster.

AFC Playoffs

Wild Card: NEW ENGLAND def. Miami, CINCINNATI def. Pittsburgh
Divisional: HOUSTON def. New England, DENVER def. Cincinnati
Championship: HOUSTON def. Denver

NFC Playoffs

Wild Card: NEW ORLEANS def. Atlanta, San Francisco def. NEW YORK GIANTS
Divisional: SEATTLE def. San Francisco, GREEN BAY def. New Orleans
Championship: SEATTLE def. Green Bay

Super Bowl XLVIII

Houston over Seattle

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