And they’re (almost) off!

AFC East

Still the man, but for how much longer?

Still the man, but for how much longer?

1. New England Patriots (11-5) Brady’s arm, strong running game and elite coaching enables Pats to feast on shallow division once more.

2. Miami Dolphins (8-8) Improving, but porous O-line could derail season. Liked this team a lot more in July.

3. Buffalo Bills (5-11) You want to believe, but where’s the evidence?

4. New York Jets (4-12) The circus is already underway. Dig in, Jets fans. 

AFC North

Absolute beast, and only getting better.

Absolute beast, and only getting better.

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) Most talented roster in AFC must take the next step: playoff success. I’m confident they will.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7) Proud champions will not go as quietly as some think.

3. Cleveland Browns (7-9) Ascending, but not fast enough. Still, the Brownies could catch a few quality teams napping.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10) Descending, but proud. The logo stands for something, always has. Will it be enough to avoid the basement?

AFC South

Year 2 of the "Luck Era."

Year 2 of the “Luck Era.”

1. Houston Texans (11-5) Plenty of divisional wins in forecast, but how far can you truly ride Schaub? Not sold.

2. Indianapolis Colts (9-7) Luck’s efficiency improves, while the overall W/L record takes a baby step back.

3. Tennessee Titans (7-9) The absolute definition of irrelevant: good enough to avoid # 1 overall pick talk, nowhere near good enough to further the conversation toward anything pertinent.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14) Yikes. Hello, blackouts. Again.

AFC West

Plenty of regular season wins, but plenty of January blemishes for Peyton.

Plenty of regular season wins and plenty of January blemishes for Peyton.

1. Denver Broncos (11-5) I like Denver, but not nearly as much as others. Good team, but far from dominant. Could be bumpy at points, particularly the first 5-6 weeks.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) Andy Reid slowly cleans up the stench from last season as Alex Smith dinks and dunks KC to a winning record. Barely.

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9) Crossroads for Rivers, which way will he turn? Very tough team to gauge. Show me.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14) Pryor adds intrigue, but the trenches are pitiful. Overall dearth of talent leads to another coaching change in Oakland. This team is B-A-D.

NFC East

No greater unknown in the NFL. Is he ready?

No greater unknown in the NFL. Is he truly ready?

1. Dallas Cowboys (10-6) I’ve played this game before and been burned. But really, working in definitive terms, who’s better?

2. Washington Redskins (9-7) It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure.

3. New York Giants (8-8) Poor LB’er play and decaying pass rush will force Eli to win shootouts every week. He’s good, but he’s not that good. Let’s be honest: he was spotty last year.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11) I believe in Chip Kelly, just not immediately.

NFC North

Will the leader of the Pack once again lead his team to a divisional crown?

Will the leader of the Pack once again lead his team to a divisional crown?

1. Green Bay Packers (10-6) Defense was sliced up at the ‘Stick last January. Good team, but not a lock for divisional supremacy. 

2. Chicago Bears (9-7) If Cutler clicks with his new HC, this division goes thru the Windy City.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8) Bush helps, but there’s something about this team…not sold.

4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10) Playoffs last season, this season, not so much.

NFC South

Truly elite?

Truly elite? I believe so. Matty “Ice” has arrived.

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Class of an interesting division. Championship balance?

2.  New Orleans Saints (10-6) Welcome back, Sean Payton. Welcome back, playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) How will Freeman respond? Is Revis 100% healthy? Is Schiano the right man for this job? Lots of questions, are there enough answers? Could go either way.

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9) Exciting, but flawed.

NFC West

Flip a coin for divisional supremacy.

Flip a coin.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4) Super Bowl talent, athleticism and depth. Best team in the NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6) Second best team in football’s best division. Love Kaepernick, but he’ll miss Crabtree. Secondary issues, too.

3. St. Louis Rams (8-8) They’re coming, but in all probability, remain a year away. Still, buckle that chin strap when Fisher’s team rolls in.

4. Arizona Cardinals (6-10) With a little luck, the Cards might hang around into December. Can Patrick Peterson make an impact at WR? Bruce Arians inherits decent talent in the desert.

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Coinage!

The race for the "Big Apple" should yield plenty of twists and turns. Buckle in!

The race for the “Big Apple” should yield plenty of twists and turns. Buckle in!

ARIZONA CARDINALS: (5-11) 2013 O/U: 5.5 Will a brutal division offset a new head coach, new philosophy and new QB? Close call. I watched Carson Palmer up close with the Raiders, and the former #1 pick can still spin it. Larry Fitzgerald, enjoy your respite from your recent tortured past. Good enough to win more than 5.5 games? Yes. Good enough to matter from late November on? No. Verdict: OVER.

ATLANTA FALCONS: (13-3) 2013 O/U: 10 Previous playoff failures aside, Matt Ryan is entering a stretch in his career that will produce gaudy stats and plenty of wins. Enjoy the ride, Atlanta. This team is loaded, and SHOULD have been in New Orleans playing Baltimore last February for the Lombardi Trophy. Verdict: OVER.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: (10-6) 2013 O/U: 8.5 Speaking of Baltimore, congrats to a great organization and terrific fan base on an amazing run towards glory. Now, hold on to that feeling when things go awry this season, because they will. Too many injuries and other defections to overcome. Verdict: UNDER

BUFFALO BILLS: (6-10) 2013 O/U: 6.5 The Bills last winning season came in 2004. The perpetual rebuild continues: new HC, new QB’s, etc. I’m rolling Missouri-style when it comes to this team: SHOW ME. They’re intriguing, but until they actually crack thru, I’m not buying anything Bills related. Verdict: UNDER, but close and by all accounts, they’re slowly emerging from the abyss. SHOW ME. 

CAROLINA PANTHERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7 I’m a Cam Newton fan, period. Verdict: Over, 8-8.

CHICAGO BEARS: (10-6) 2013 O/U 8.5 Jay Cutler, meet Marc Trestman. You’re going to like this guy, trust me. Verdict: OVER

CINCINNATI BENGALS: (10-6) 2013 O/U 8.5 On paper, Cincy has as much balance as anyone in the league. Vertical weapons at TE should make life easier for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to connect on some quick strikes. Tough early schedule gives me pause, but this team is still ascending, and they were pretty good last season. Verdict: OVER.

CLEVELAND BROWNS:  (5-11) 2013 O/U 6 See, Buffalo Bills. Verdict: UNDER, but improving.

DALLAS COWBOYS:  (8-8) 2013 O/U: 8.5 New contract, new play-caller…same old Tony Romo? Tough division, and given RG III’s injury and questions for Big Blue on defense, I’m expecting a revival in Big D. Verdict: OVER, but tread lightly.

DENVER BRONCOS: (13-3) 2013 O/U: 11.5 Peyton Manning + Wes Welker + Oakland + San Diego = wins. Verdict: OVER.

DETROIT LIONS: (4-12) 2013 O/U 8 Better balance for Matthew Stafford with Reggie Bush on the scene, allowing more methodical drives, which in theory, should keep the defense off the field more than last season. Last year was a disaster, but clearly, this team has the talent to win double figures. Verdict: OVER, barely. 9-7, 10-6 feels right for this squad. 

Leader of the Pack.

Leader of the Pack.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Are they getting better or are they beginning to level out? Tough call. This is one I’d probably stay away from given the conflict between my brain and my eyes. The last time I watched this team play, they couldn’t tackle a QB. Granted a very, very fast QB, but a QB nonetheless. They were shredded at the ‘Stick, yet my brain says Aaron Rodgers will once again dominate the regular season. Verdict: Over, with sincere hesitation. Translation: stay away.

HOUSTON TEXANS: (12-4) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Plenty of horses, but last season’s swoon should be reason for slight concern as the Texans dropped 3/4 to close out the regular season. Are you truly a Matt Schaub believer? I’m not. Verdict: UNDER, but close. 

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 8.5 Seamless transition for Andrew Luck, who never stopped winning after leaving beautiful Palo Alto. However, there were more than a few charitable bounces that Indy cashed in. What happens if they bounce the other way this season? Are they good enough to close the gap. If it’s my money, I’m leaning towards no. Verdict: UNDER.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: (2-14) 2013 O/U: 5 Would you risk a penny on any team with real, legitimate QB concerns? Of course not. Verdict: UNDER, as the Blaine Gabbert “era” officially ends.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: (2-14) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Plenty of talent for Andy Reid, and Alex Smith should stabilize the circus that emerged under center last season. How bad was Matt Cassel? Wow. As long as they don’t ask Smith to shoulder too much, the Chiefs should be much improved. I watched Smith mature with my own eyes in the Bay Area, and while I recognize some obvious physical limitations, he’s smart and tough. Exactly what this franchise needs right now. Verdict: OVER, Wild-Card threat in AFC.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: (7-9) 2013 O/U 8 Very, very tough call. All summer I’ve positioned Miami as a Wild-Card threat in the AFC, but O-line issues might be too big to overcome. One thing working for Miami (aside from a fair amount of talent) is the dearth of talent in their own division. They should bag enough wins to push the number past 8. I’m sticking with my instincts here. Verdict: OVER

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: (10-6) 2013 O/U: 7.5 I could be wrong, but the 2012 Vikes felt and looked like a team that somehow stumbled upon 10 wins. While that might be unfair and a 2.5 drop in wins represents a radical twist, I think they are “capable” enough to do just that. Verdict: UNDER, not sold at all. 

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: (12-4) 2013 O/U: 11 I’ll just save everyone the trouble: it’s over. The league has changed quite a bit since ’05, the last time the Pats hoisted the big one. Respect Brady immensely, and they should once again win the division, but the erosion is obvious. Why is everyone so afraid to say it? Prediction: UNDER, 10-6.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 9 They won 7 games without Sean Payton, which means they’ll win at least 2 more with Sean Payton. Love the fact that it’s an even 9. I like this play quite a bit. Prediction: OVER.

NEW YORK GIANTS: (9-7) 2013 O/U: 9 I like the fact that the 9 stands alone here as .5 would probably force me to go the other way. Terrific coaching, team pride and QB play should push the number north of 9. If not, a push looks more likely than a loss here. This team always bounces back under Coughlin. Right? Verdict: OVER. I think.

NEW YORK JETS: (6-10) 2013 O/U: 6.5 I like the Jets defense quite a bit and if Chris Ivory stays healthy, along with Bilal Powell they should be able to run the ball with enough efficiency to surprise a few teams. The sooner Mark Sanchez disappears, the better. Is Geno Smith the real deal? Regardless, an overall dearth of talent at the skill positions makes this offense pedestrian, at best. Verdict: OVER, BARELY (or complete implosion)

OAKLAND RAIDERS: (4-12) 2013 O/U: 5.5 GM Reggie McKenzie is gutting the roster, and understandably so. Things are real bad in Oakland. By deleting bloated contracts and underachieving, lazy veterans the cupboards will slowly fill with hungry, viable NFL talent. The question is, will Dennis Allen be around to enjoy the fruits of his GM’s purge? My gut says no. This team is terrible.  Al Davis was lost for a decade, and it shows. Verdict: UNDER

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: (4-12) 2013 O/U: 7.5 By early October, Chip Kelly will be reaching into his own pocket, hoping to book Bowling Green for a layup win. Tough camp for Philly as injuries and Riley Cooper’s stupidity have dominated the NovaCare Complex. Who’s playing QB, by the way? Verdict: UNDER

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: (8-8) 2013 O/U: 9 I want to respect the logo, they’ve earned it. The Raven’s stumble could open the door for a revival in Pittsburgh, and at the very least, inspires enough to lay a little wood on the Steel Dawgs. Verdict: OVER, barely.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7.5 What the heck happened to Phillip Rivers’ career? He should rebound, but not enough to invest any real coin in the Bolts. Tough call. Verdict: UNDER

Less posing minus Crabtree?

Less posing minus Crabtree?

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: (11-4-1) 2013 O/U: 11 They’ll miss Crabtree and Dashon Goldson, but Jim Harbaugh is a brilliant head coach, and he has a great locker room. This team loves football, and has strong interior play on both sides of the ball. Love Kaepernick, but Boldin’s odometer is running high and the division is getting better. They desperately need a young WR to emerge. Verdict: UNDER, but a playoff lock and viable threat for the title. 10-6 sounds right.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: (11-5) 2013 O/U: 10.5 Last time Seattle played the 49ers, they beat them to a bloody pulp. It’s the kind of loss that empowers one franchise and possibly raises question for another. Another playoff lock, I think they edge out SF for the division by a game. Verdict: OVER, legit.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: (7-8-1) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Ignore the sub-500 mark from 2012 for a moment, as it doesn’t tell the entire story. This team improved as the year progressed, and oh yeah, by the way, also had the best divisional record: 4-1-1. Sam Bradford remains the key, but Fisher will have this team ready to roll after laying the foundation last season. Ascending. Verdict: OVER.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: (7-9) 2013 O/U: 7.5 Interesting offseason for Tampa, as Greg Schiano and ownership drew a line in the sand for Josh Freeman: it’s time. I like Freeman, always have, and think he responds nicely. Improved field position courtesy of a revamped secondary will help. I’m buying the Bucs. Verdict: OVER, and playoffs.

TENNESSEE TITANS: (6-10)  2013 O/U: 6.5 Aggressive play by Tennessee in FA tilts the needle in the right direction, and given the small bump in wins, I’m inclined to roll the dice and push the number to 7, possibly 8. They’re not as bad as most people position them to be. Verdict: OVER, barely.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: (10-6) 2013: 8.5 RG III is great for football, and like everyone else, I’m rooting for a quick and full recovery for the second year star from Baylor. That knee, however, has been problematic for quite some time. When it comes to green, I’m rolling with my head over emotion and sentiment and I’m simply not convinced he’ll hold up for the  duration of the season. Plenty of holes on the roster. Verdict: UNDER

*Team record from 2012 in ( ), followed by updated Vegas Over/Under projected win totals in ’13.

***If you take this too seriously, you’re insane.

Prove it!

Quick, name an NFL QB without pressure. Impossible. Whether it’s aging icons like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning or developing neophytes like Luck and and Wilson, when it comes to the shield, no one one’s safe from the unrelenting spotlight. Had a good season? Great, have a better one this year. Finally brought your franchise back to the playoffs? Terrific, now get to the conference championship.

In attempting to quantify the pressures certain QB’s face entering the ’13 season, I used one pretty simple gauge: which players could have the course of their careers permanently altered if they stumble badly beginning in September? With that in mind, I automatically disqualified last season’s rookie crop: Luck, RG III, Wilson and Tannehill are safe. Regardless of what this season yields, they’re already locked in as starters for the ’14 season.

Immediately, Tony Romo came to mind, but let’s face it: I could have written this piece three years ago with the same result. Even with all of his miscues, in Dallas, his armor is impenetrable. Win, lose or draw there never appears to be any real consequence for Romo, unless of course you count contract extensions. His head coach of course, is another story.

With all of the whispers coming from Tampa, it’s impossible not to study Josh Freeman. I believe in Freeman and expect his play to mute the groans and silence his critics, so I eliminated him.

Sure, I’d like to see Andy Dalton take another step forward, particularly with his deep routes, and with another weapon at TE, the microscope is out, to an extent. Is he merely very good, or is he a superstar? Either way, safe. The Jaguars simply drafted the wrong guy in Blaine Gabbert as did the Vikes with Christian Ponder, so I won’t waste anyone’s time there. Eli and Big Ben, multiple rings, safe regardless. Philip Rivers’ implosion the last two seasons is a head scratcher, but I attribute that to other factors and for the most part, exonerate the former NC State star. He still resonates enough, barely, for him to avoid the heat of this column.

I’ve never truly been a huge Matt Schaub fan, and while I’ve always gone against the grain and supported Jay Cutler, his talents alone will keep him around, somewhere, for a while. Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford, armed with new deals and lofty expectations, will invariably have to fend off a few detractors at certain points this season, same with Cam Newton in Carolina, who by the way, will deliver. As always, there’s a revolving door under center in Buffalo and Oakland, and while the Bills situation is less intriguing to me, I strongly considered Matt Flynn, before ultimately passing. We know Matt, you tossed 6 TD’s a few years ago in a meaningless game, cashed out and haven’t been heard from since. Wake me when he’s actually relevant, which quite frankly, will probably be never.

Aaron Rodgers remains the best all-around QB in football and until one of the kids fully ripens, that title appears safe for another few seasons. Is Drew Brees still a Hall of Fame QB, or will there be a trace of attrition? Can Matty Ice take the next step? I’ll keep an eye on Carson Palmer in Arizona, now that he’s finally paired with an elite WR again, and while they could surprise, there’s not enough happening in Tennessee or Cleveland to make me loook twice, not yet anyway.

Michael Vick could easily headline my short list of QB’s facing the most pressure entering September, but quite frankly, it’s 50/50 that he departs Lehigh’s campus with a starting job, so he gets a reprieve for now. That ship has sailed.

For a select few, it’s less about money and glory, and more about salvation. Can they regain the wheel of their career or veer off into a very undesirable exit on the NFL Freeway. It’s called Obscurity Avenue.

sam-bradford

Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: I like Bradford quite a bit. Talented kid, but there’s one very important stain on the former #1 overall pick’s resume: his W/L record. While the NFC West is now undeniably the strongest in football, for most of his career, it was irrefutably among the worst. Yet, entering his 4th season, Bradford’s career mark is a ghastly 15-26-1. While his TD/INT ratio is relatively solid, his overall efficiency lags behind many of his peers. Franchise QB’s connect on more than 60% of their pass attempts, plain and simple. The kid has the requisite tools, and he still has my support, but it’s time. He finally has the coach and a nice toy in 1st round stud Tavon Austin, plus with FA import Jake Long locking down his blind side, he’ll have time to throw. At the end of the day, QB’s are judged on how many games they win versus how many games they lose. He needs to start stuffing a more W’s in the left-hand column. Simply put, Bradford needs to prove that he’s not a bust. Will the real Sam Bradford stand up? Or perhaps, he already has?

Can Smith win without Harbaugh? We'll find out soon.

Can Smith win without Harbaugh? We’ll find out soon.

Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: Since being drafted #1 overall by the 49ers in 2005, two Alex Smiths have emerged: Alex Smith without Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith with Jim Harbaugh and boy, they are two very, very different players. Without Harbaugh maniacally patrolling the sidelines, Smith’s first five seasons in the Bay yielded the following results: 2-5, 7-9, 2-5, 5-5 and 3-7. Following Dr. Jim’s rehabilitation, Smith rallied to win 19 of 25 games before having the plug pulled in favor of Colin Kaepernick last season. Yet, plenty of questions linger. Can Smith win without an elite defense? Remember, short fields equal fewer risks and fewer risks equate to fewer turnovers. What happens when he has to fling it 35-40 times on the road? He’s a smart kid, and a lot tougher than people give him credit for, but can he win without Harbaugh holding his hand? The training wheels are off, and Alex Smith needs to prove that he can play. I wouldn’t bet too much on Smith, personally. 

Fewer butt-encounters and more TD's must he on the menu for Sanchez to remain in New York.

Fewer butt-encounters and more TD’s must be on the menu for Sanchez to remain in New York.

Mark Sanchez, New York Jets: I have to admit, Sanchez tricked me. Looked the part, won a few games early, made some big throws on the road, in tough venues, in the playoffs. The problem with the former USC star, is that not a single part of his game is clearly above-average. His arm is solid strength, but he doesn’t have a blaster. At one point, his accuracy was developing nicely, but his mechanics dissolved and he now resembles a helpless pitcher aiming the ball. He’s a good athlete, but not nearly dynamic enough to actually have to game plan against outside of the pocket. But most disconcerting to the organization is his inability to lead other grown men, which at this level, is paramount. Santonio Holmes and others poisoned a winning culture, and Sanchez did nothing to stop it. At the end of the day, he’s an average QB with poor leadership skills. The Jets drafted Geno Smith for a reason and with Rex Ryan’s rope fraying to the core, Sanchez is out of chances. Stand up, put up and deliver, or get bounced from New York. Mark Sanchez needs to prove that he’s more substance than show. Simply stated, he needs to prove that he’s a starting QB in the NFL. My opinion? He trips early and stays on the canvas.

Prove it.

The race is on!

EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) Like a rough Saturday night, I’ll probably regret this pick in the morning, but it’s impossible to ignore their talent. I’m not a big Michael Vick fan, but with immense pressure on Andy Reid to win, I’ll give the edge to a man who’s battled adversity his entire life, and more times than not, found a way to survive the flames of fandom in Philly. They can beat you on the ground, in the air, and after last season, should be starving for redemption.   Add it all up, and they’re the top dog in the East when the smoke clears.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7) Pretty fitting that “America’s Team” mirrors America itself, given it’s volatile and underachieving ways the past few seasons. The one area they needed to shore up was CB, and they did, signing FA Brandon Carr away from the Chiefs and drafting LSU stud Morris Claiborne. I think they drop the opener to the Giants, but should bounce back with wins in Weeks 2-3 against Seattle and Tampa. It’s always an adventure in Big D, but this year, the road finds the playoffs.

3. New York Giants (9-7) Yes, Eli Manning is officially entrenched as one of the best QB’s in football, and while Cruz and Nicks remain great targets, quietly, the Giants will miss Mario Manningham, who had a TD reception in all 3 playoff games leading up to the SB. Their pass rush is fierce and they are very well-c0ached, but the talent base is a bit overrated. They clawed their way into the playoffs after losing 7 regular season games. I can’t completely ignore that.

4. Washington Redskins (7-9) Looking forward to watching RG III transition to the NFL, and for the most part, I expect a pretty smooth ride for the former Baylor star. While the secondary remains suspect (not a good thing in this division), Washington’s front 7 is stout. They remain a year or two away, but you better tie your laces before kickoff against this team, otherwise, they’ll pick off a few decent teams.

NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) Think they learned their lesson by sitting Aaron Rodgers in the regular season finale? They were stale and flat against the Giants, and it destroyed their season. Not sure if 15 wins is realistic again, but the Packers are the team to beat in the NFC, even though the Lombardi Trophy rests comfortably in New Jersey. Can Rodgers blow past 50 TD’s this season?

2. Chicago Bears (11-5) Absolutely love the way this team looks on paper headed into the season. Michael Bush was a nice addition behind RB Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have undeniable chemistry. This team is legit, and if healthy are a lock to win double digit games and make life miserable for someone come playoff time. DANGEROUS.

3. Detroit Lions (9-7) Personally, I’m not sold. They’ll flip the scoreboard with Stafford to Mega Tron, but the Lions are a little too one-dimensional to reside in the upper-tier of a monster division. They ranked 22nd against the pass last year and 23rd stopping the run. Mix in some immaturity and off-field chaos, and I’ll pass on the boys from Motown this season. Elite? Hardly.

4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12) Here’s a great idea: even though we pretty much suck, let’s rush Adrian Peterson back! I’m sorry, but sometimes an organization needs to protect a player from himself, and the Vikings are failing to do that with AP. To be fair, I was initially lukewarm on Christian Ponder, but am slowly becoming a fan. Bottom-line: this is no division to rebuild in.

SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Simply put, it’s time for Matt Ryan to erase the donut in the column entitled “playoff wins.” This team has terrific balance, combining vertical explosion with the ability to stop the run (6th overall last season) How they react to two new coordinators very well should determine whether Atlanta is merely good, or legitimately in the mix come mid/late January. I’m leaning towards the latter.

2. New Orleans Saints (9-7) Yes, Drew Brees is great, and yes, Drew Brees runs the huddle like a coach, but there is a fine line between having coaching characteristics and actually being a coach. Mix in suspensions and free agent defections and the Bayou will lack the energy of the last few football seasons. The window has shut, my friends.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8) Raise your hand if you ever encountered an athlete like Cam Newton in the schoolyard growing up? Didn’t think so. Good God, what laboratory was this prodigy created in? Yes, he’s really that good. Here’s something else that’s pretty good in Carolina: the LB’ers. Still a year or two away, but you just know that eventually, Newton and Carolina will be hosting a few NFC Title games.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10) On one hand, I really like the addition of Vincent Jackson. Smart move getting Josh Freeman a sorely needed weapon. However, given Greg Schiano’s penchant for running the ball, I’m not sure how much they’ll actually utilize him. Seems like a strange fit, no? As for Freeman, the kid can play, and in my opinion, last season’s step back is a temporary trip, not a foreshadow of his career arch. Rebuilding.

WEST

1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6) The Niners were pretty damn good last year, and the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham should create better balance on offense. Defensively, this is the best unit in football, and special teams remains one of the elite units in football. There are very few holes, but for this team to take the next step, they’ll need better QB play and personally, I’m not sprinting to the window in Vegas to lay money on Alex Smith. The red zone and 3rd stats need to improve significantly. The real pressure begins now for # 11. The Niners could win the SB or regress significantly from 13 wins. I reside somewhere in the middle. 10 wins and capable of beating any team in football.

2. Seattle Seahawks (9-7) Personally, I thought Pete Carroll did a fantastic job last season, turning over a roster and improving greatly as the season progressed. The team that showed up at the ‘Stick for Week 1 was a shell of the inspired unit that finished the season. In December, Seattle knocked off Philly, St. Louis and Chicago in succession, lost by 2 points vs SF and lost in OT at Arizona. No one knows what to expect under center the first month of the season, but Seattle is definitely on the way up. Russell Wilson, please report to the front desk…

3. St. Louis Rams (8-8) Remember when the Rams were the trendy pick for many entering last season? Injuries quickly destroyed any chance for a semblance of a season, which lead to a change at the top: enter, Jeff Fisher. Absolutely love the hire. The Rams were actually picking CB’s up off the street last season, that’s how far down they were forced to reach on the depth chart. Impossible to compete that way. Still, Sam Bradford needs to reestablish himself as one of the premier young QB’s in the league. If he does, the arrow for this team is pointing north. They’ll be much, much better.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12) When your best player is a WR, yet, you begin the summer with an uninspiring and at times perplexing QB battle, you know things are rough. They remain athletic on defense, but this team is going nowhere, even in a division looking to define itself.

BT’s “6 pack of picks” Version 14.0

back on track, for the stretch run...

Week 13: 4-2 ATS

Season to date: 35-29-1

Week 14: (home team in CAPS)

GREEN BAY PACKERS (-11) over Oakland Raiders: The Packers rank 1st in scoring, while the Raider’s defense remains dangerously close to the bottom (27th) in PPG allowed. That, combined with a ridiculous amount of injuries for Hue Jackson’s team amounts to a very, very long day at Lambeau. Tough to even imagine Carson Palmer keeping Oakland within shouting distance. The march toward perfection continues–without much resistance from the Silver and Black.

NEW YORK JETS (-9) over Kansas City Chiefs: Who in their right mind willingly invests a dime in Tyler Palko? Exactly. The Jets, poised for a 3rd straight win, remain in the mix in the AFC despite an inconsistent season. Expect Gang Green to punish KC on the ground, setting up some big plays downfield for Mark Sanchez. Shonn Greene is coming off a career-best 3 TD’s in last week’s win at FedEx Field, and the porous defensive front for Todd Haley’ s team will get pushed around on the road. Lay ’em!

brought the jersey out west...

Buffalo Bills @ SAN DIEGO CHARGERS, OVER 47.5: Two teams going nowhere, but with plenty of offensive weapons on both sides to play with, expect a wide open, high-scoring game from the opening kick.

DENVER BRONCOS (-3.5) over Chicago Bears: #Tebow

San Francisco 49ers @ ARIZONA CARDINALS, OVER 40: Slowly but surely, the 49ers have opened the playbook a bit under Greg Roman,  and it’s paying dividends. They are no longer predictable, with Alex Smith developing chemistry with Michael Crabtree and gaining trust with HR hitter Kyle Williams. Red-zone efficiency will be an issue the rest of the season, but this number appears very, very attainable as the Cards contribute multiple TD’s to reach the number.

Amazing turnaround at the 'Stick...

New York Giants (+3.5) over DALLAS COWBOYS: Speaking of the Cards, Dallas is still licking their wounds after last week’s brutal OT meltdown in Arizona. Expect the unexpected in this rivalry, which is why the Giants will probably win (and certainly keep it close in Big D) with the ‘Boys returning the favor in a few weeks at Met Life Stadium. Bottom line? I trust Eli more than I trust Romo. Roll with Big Blue.

BT’s “6 pack of picks” Version 13.0

Wake up Santa, I have some winners for you!

Week 12: 3-3 ATS

Season to date: 31-27-1 ATS

Week 13:  (home team in CAPS)

New York Jets (-3) over WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Consecutive trips to the AFC Title game, without a single home playoff game? Yup, for whatever reason, these guys function best when things get dicey. It’s been a bumpy ride thus far, but they found their way last week, and in the process, buried the Bills. Rex Ryan’s club has always been solid on the road, and that trend continues here. Still don’t view them as a SB contender, but the late season push continues in D.C. Jets, easy.

Atlanta Falcons @ HOUSTON TEXANS, OVER 37.5: This number is simply way too low given the surplus of elite offensive weapons playing in this game, regardless of Houston’s QB situation. Free money.

Denver Broncos +1.5 over MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Funny thing about this Tebow character. He throws ducks on 7- yard curl patterns, but when someone has a step deep, suddenly his ball is tight and on point. Oh yeah, Denver’s D is legit, and minus a healthy Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder and Co. will be hard pressed to move the chains enough to win.

I'm officially rooting for this kid...

Dallas Cowboys @ ARIZONA CARDINALS, OVER 46: It’s December, which means the time is ticking on Tony Romo. Historically, anyway. Still, the NFC East is Dallas’ to lose, and the Cards simply lack the horses to slow them down. 34-17, ‘Boys.

San Diego Chargers (-3) over JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: This goes one of two ways: the Jags are either razor-sharp following the dismissal of HC Jack Del Rio, and ride that emotional wave to victory, or, they’re flat after a few lifeless practices, and the Chargers take advantage. I’ll bank on the latter happening. Take the ‘Bolts.

Green Bay Packers @ NEW YORK GIANTS, OVER 52: The Packers are really, really good while the Giants are really, really…12 weeks in, and I’m still not sure. Let’s place them somewhere between dangerous and disappointing. Should be a fun game, as the scoreboard gets a good workout from both sides. Much to Perry Fewell’s chagrin.

BT’s “6-PACK-OF-PICKS”

Strap in, ride the wave.

If you jumped out to a quick start last week, by all means, flex that extra juice, and let it ride. Stay aggressive. If you’re playing catch-up, and already counting your nickels, proceed with caution. Tread lightly. Especially given the interesting tidbit that for the first time in the regular season since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, there are no division games scheduled  for this coming weekend. That alone, should frighten you. Plus, until we find out for sure if the Colts will truly be in the “Andrew Luck Sweepstakes” and the Steelers defense is decaying a little more than most will admit, there are bound to be a few potholes along the way.

Mix in the condensed offseason due to the lockout, and things could be a bit unpredictable.

Luckily, you have me.

Last week: 4-2 ATS

Season to date: 4-2 ATS

It's there--you just have to find it.

Week 2: (home team in CAPS)

NEW YORK JETS (-9) over Jacksonville Jaguars: Jags have actually covered 6 straight against Gang Green. It’s time, however, to reverse that trend. Luke McCown, meet your worst nightmare: a stout run-defense, and Mr. Revis. Jets roll.

Dallas Cowboys (-3) over SAN FRANCISCO 49’ers: Some optimism in the Bay Area following last week’s 33-17 win over Seattle. However, upon further review, two things jump out: Seattle is simply morbid, and the Niners received 14 points from Ted Ginn Jr. As long as Dallas is buttoned-up on special teams, no way Alex Smith survives a small army of 3rd and 7’s…which is exactly what he’ll see. The number hasn’t moved since Sunday night, which is worrying some. To be safe, buy 1/2 point. No way Dallas loses this one. Right?

Green Bay Packers / CAROLINA PANTHERS (Over 46.5): Cam Newton was phenomenal last week in Arizona, but the task gets much tougher on Sunday. The Packers are well rested and Dom Capers should dial up enough blitzes and creative fronts to confuse the rookie QB. Bank on a sloppy TO’er  in his own territory by the # 1 pick leading to an easy TD for GB–and watch Aaron Rodgers do the rest to cover the number.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS  (-3.5) over Arizona Cardinals: For the first in nearly a decade, the Redskins appear somewhat…normal. The dysfunction is melting away, and when stripped down to the core, they’re actually a decent team. A decent team who should be able to jump on a Cardinals team destined for 7, 8 wins. How does Arizona allow a rookie QB playing in his first game, to throw for 420 + yards? In your house? Shouldn’t happen, which speaks to deeper issues. Lay the points, and hope like hell the Skins don’t revert to…being the Skins.

Oakland Raiders (+3) over BUFFALO BILLS: During the summer, I pointed to the Raiders as a potential player in the AFC IF and ONLY IF they jumped out to a 2-0 start. After Monday’s win in Denver, they’re  halfway home. Sure, a cross country flight to a tough venue against an improved team is a dangerous mix, but I’ll take the points and watch RUN DMC go bonkers on the ground and the Silver and Black D bring the heat against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Up next for Oakland? The Jets, Pats and Texans. They better win–and they will. Think MONEY-LINE here as well for additional value.

NEW YORK GIANTS (-6) over St. Louis Rams: Last week, Tim Hasselbeck, an analyst I have great respect for, dropped a small bomb on my show: the Rams will win 11 games. Well, with 15 to go, they currently have zero, and the percentages are dropping daily. Mix in Steven Jackson’s nagging quad injury and delete Sam Bradford’s safety valve Danny Amendola (OUT, dislocated elbow) and the Rams will be hard pressed to score multiple TD’s. I don’t like the Giants this year, but they should be fired up for the home crowd, coming off a sloppy divisional loss to Washington. Giants, big.

 

Pick like a champ, live like a pimp

A Bunch for Brady

So, you think this kid Brady might make it in the league someday, huh?

Amazingly, Tom Brady is on pace for 8,272 yards and 64 TD’s. That’s EIGHT-THOUSAND-TWO-HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-TWO-YARDS-AND-SIXTY-FOUR-TOUCHDOWNS.

What’s even more amazing, is that I didn’t even flinch when typing those numbers, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t either when reading them. Remember, this is the same QB who effortlessly tossed 50 TD’s a few years ago, and with four already in his back pocket, and the Dolphins on the schedule again, hey, why the hell not?

While 8 large surely is a stretch, is 6000 yards possible?

Absolutely.

Twice, in league history has a QB surpassed the magical 5K mark: Dan Marino in 1984 (5,084) and Drew Brees in 2008 (5,069). One all-time great, and the other quickly working his way up the ladder. Unlike baseball’s (once) cherished single-season HR record, this number will only be reached by icons.

Roger Maris was pretty good. Actually, for a few seasons, he was really good.

Tom Brady is an icon.

Big difference.

Look at it this way: if Tom Brady lights up the Chargers like he did Miami, he will already have roughly 1,000 yards passing for the season.

24 Z Slot hook....ahhh, screw it, just run somewhere, I'll find you. On two, break!

On September 18th.

Need some additional context?

Donovan McNabb will need 4 seasons to catch Brady’s potential two-week output.

Clearly, the reason Brady even has a chance to crack the Y6-K is pretty simple: he’s simply too good for this league.

Yes, the league with 220 pound corners with 4.3 speed and LB’ers seemingly built in laboratories, this guy continues, really, to do whatever the hell he feels like.

Which brings us to another integral piece of the puzzle: his coach.

Forget the defensive background, it’s an act. Bill Belichick takes perverse pleasure in beating the crap out of people. The more the scoreboard flips, and the higher the numbers go, the better. It’s almost like a drug. I mean, really, this guy just loves emasculating professional athletes.

In the pursuit of the 6,000, that’s a key component. Up 20 + in the 3rd quarter? Let’s run a go route!

And, as if the guy needs any more help, well, here it is:

The lockout has left secondaries in shambles, creating yet another competitive advantage for teams with offensive chemistry and consistent roster personnel.

Check.

The amount of 300+ yard passers in Week 1 was eye-opening, and alarming to the point where a little research was in order.

Compare the 1st Week of 2002, and how many QB’s tossed the football around so freely:

Kerry Collins, 342 yards (Giants)

Shane Matthews, 327 yards (Redskins)

Kelly Holcomb, 326 yards (Browns)

Kurt Warner, 315 yards (Rams)

How about five years ago, for a more recent snap shot?

Chad Pennington, 319 yards (Jets)

Donovan McNabb, 314 yards (Eagles)

Kurt Warner, 301 yards (Cardinals)

This past weekend?

How much time ‘ya got?

Brady, 517 yards (Patriots)

Cam Newton, 422 yards (Panthers)

Drew Brees, 419 yards (Saints)

Chad Henne, 416 yards (Dolphins)

Tony Romo, 342 yards (Cowboys)

Phillip Rivers, 335 yards (Chargers)

Mark Sanchez, 335 yards (Jets)

Matt Ryan, 319 yards (Falcons)

Aaron Rodgers, 312 yards (Packers)

Jay Cutler, 312 yards (Bears)

Kevin Kolb, 309 yards (Cardinals)

Rex Grossman, 305 yards (Redskins)

Matthew Stafford, 305 yards (Lions)

Kyle Orton, 304 yards (Broncos)

Basically, everyone’s doing it, which means Tom Brady will do it a gazillion times better than everyone else.

Basically, everyone.

6000 yards.

It’s coming.

As much as I want to hate the guy, it’s tough. He’s really THAT good.

Jordan good.

The rest of the league better pray he doesn’t get greedy in the next few years.

Imagine Tom Brady on steroids?


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