(* Note: Our preview is broken up into four tiers for clarity. The teams in Tier 3 have a ceiling of around 8-8. Making the playoffs would be a great season, even if they lose in the first round. They have a couple of really good players, but not enough stars. Here is Part 1)
The Truth: Had to break out the Digital Underground classic “Same Song” to describe the Panthers. The franchise simply asks too much of Cam Newton, Steve Smith and stud LB Luke Kuechly. They’ve mostly drafted poorly and haven’t exactly made any power moves in free agency. The fans and local (and probably nationa) media will blame Newton for the teams struggles. He’ll get salty, repeat and wash.
The Difference: HC Ron Rivera. Defensively, the Panthers were supposed to be in the hands of point-stopping guru Rivera, who made his rep coordinating defenses around the league. Problem is, none of his schemes here have resonated. Last season they were 18th against the run and 13th against the pass. They had seven games where they gave up at least 27 points last year, and they’re poised to repeat that in 2013.
The Outlook: There’s always next year.
The Truth: Chip Kelly’s regime is already up and running here in Eagleland. A lot of the national talk and buzz this off-season has centered on the new coach and his next-level offensive schemes. At Oregon his inventive "Blur" offense put lottery numbers on the board, and whether he can transistion to the NFL is being closely monitored. Scoring wise, there’s potential, however, the defense has major problems in the secondary. On the plus side, with the return of all world tackle Jason Peters and the so far impressive talents of rookie Lane Johnson, the offensive line may actually be a strength this year.
The Difference: While Mike Vick and his supposed newly gained “muscle” gets all the beat writers in a tizzy, RB LeSean McCoy will be the team’s most important player. If the Eagles are able to maximize his abilities, they could challenge for a postseason spot. A career year for McCoy is very likely.
The Outcome: They’ll be better than last year, but this is not a playoff team. In other words, Matt Barkley will be starting games in December.
Tampa Bay Bucs
The Truth: First thing of note is that the secondary is highly improved. The caveat with being amped on that information is that last year they were ranked 32nd against the pass, so they couldn’t get any worse. Bringing in all world CB Darrelle Revis and former Niners safety Dashon Goldson, to pair with budding talent Marc Barron turns what was a weak point on the roster, to one of the better units in the game. To do that in one off-season is impressive. They’ll get decent interior push by DT Gerald McCoy and they have some other intriguing talent on the defense as well. Offensively, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Doug Martin are all capable of big moments. Plus the O-Line is decent, led by Carl Nicks (assuming his MRSA infection is resolved.) Point is, this ain’t no scrub squad.
The Difference: That the Bucs drafted a QB (former NC State signal caller Mike Glennon) tells you all you need to know about their faith in current QB Josh Freeman. He’s from that Forrest Gump, box of chocolates school of thought, when it comes to consistency. In order to keep his job, he’ll have to show marked improvement in this division of high caliber QB play.
The Outcome: Tampa Bay challenges late and grabs a playoff spot on the last game of the season.
St. Louis Rams
The Truth: Sam Bradford has reached the "nut up or shut up" phase of his career. He’s had moments, but four seasons in, teams usually want to see whether or not their guy can actually play for real.
The Difference: Rookie WR Tavon Austin must be out there walking on water in training camp or something, because the reviews of his ability have been extraordinarily positive. If the chemistry with Bradford is there, watch out.
The Outcome: That NFC West is filled with savages and the Rams aren’t there yet. But positive steps will happen this year.
The Truth: Teams last year put seemingly all 11 men in the box sometimes in a fruitless effort to curtail Adrian Peterson. QB Christian Ponder still couldn’t take advantage and that’s a bad sign. Their playoff run last year had some flashes of fool’s gold in it, and with a stronger NFC this year, I don’t see them making it back. That light at the end of the tunnel, is actually an oncoming train, Vike fans.
The Difference: If rookie WR Cordarelle Paterson and former Packer Greg Jennings can combine for at least 1500 yards, then raising the Vikes ceiling can enter the conversation.
The Outcome: I expect Peterson’s numbers to drop a little and when that happens, the offense is going to implode. No playoffs here.
San Diego Chargers
The Truth: This team barely made it into Tier 3. Some of that is due to injuries (SD has had more than its share) and some is due to the fact that they just aren’t that good. That the Chargers are trending down shouldn’t come as a surprise to NFL fans, but how far down they’ll go might catch a few people off guard. Antonio Gates is still better than most TEs, but he can only do so much at this point in his career. Philip Rivers is still a top 20 QB and he alone will scratch out an extra win or two, but make no mistake, he’s not an elite QB and never has been. The epitome of a guy good enough to get you beat.
The Difference: Safety Eric Weddle’s career has been lost playing on a bunch of middling Charger teams recently, but he’s one of the better defensive backs in the league. Solid in coverage and great against the run, he’s the only guy on defense that this team can count on consistently.
The Outcome: Best case scenario they win 5 or 6 games and someone like Manti Te'o emerges. Worst case, they throw up a 3-13 campaign and the sun sets on the Rivers/Gates era.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Truth: The Chiefs went 2-14 last season and yet, somehow sent six players to the Pro Bowl. Meaning, the talent pool isn’t shallow, the previous coaching staffs ingenuity was just lacking. So Andy Reid is here to save the day or at least try to get the players here to reach their potential.
The Difference: Alex Smith’s departure from the 49ers could have ended a lot worse than ending up marshaling the ship in KC. He’s had a up and down career to say the least, but he’s the most talented QB the Chiefs have had in years. Making it better is a team with balance on both sides of the ball. RB Jamaal Charles, LB Tambi Hall and Safety Eric Berry are all difference makers and don’t forget, the Chiefs brought in No. 1 overall draft pick Eric Fisher to help strengthen the O-Line.
The Outcome: In a weak AFC, they're gonna grab a Wild-Card spot.
The Truth: New HC (and reigning COY) Bruce Arians is something of an offensive genius. His play designs, especially in the passing game, are intelligent, aggressive and complex. He takes QBs to their highest level. Ask Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck if you think I’m joking. With Carson “Pick-Six” Palmer, he’ll have his greatest challenge yet. Palmer has gotten over for years because he looks like the quarterback on all those late ‘90s sports movies, but the truth is, his career has been average. His decision-making is especially suspect, but here he is again, standing in the huddle of a new team with the “One More Chance” remix blaring in the background.
The Difference: At some point in the very near future, Patrick Peterson is going to challenge for and, if his teammates can do their jobs, win an MVP Award. He’s that good.
The Outcome: Picking a team with Palmer to go to the postseason is hard to do. I just don’t trust him. That defense could be special, but per the usual, the Cards QB play will end up costing them a postseason spot.
The Truth: The Cowboys are like a tired sitcom that everyone hates, but because simpletons keep their ratings high, the rest of us have to acknowledge them. So "Team Two And Half Men" are back again to try and prove that this is the year when it all comes together for Tony Romo and company.
The Difference: Romo’s numbers are always impressive (he threw for nearly 5K yards last year), but his ability to make high-stakes mistake at this point is his legacy. I’ve seen no reason to think it won’t change now. Dallas was pretty horrible defensively last year, so if there are strides to make, it’s here. DeMarcus Ware is still one of the best defenders in the game and DT Jay Ratliff is a brick wall. The LBs are solid, but the secondary messed up things last season. They have to get better.
The Outcome: Injuries and crucial mistakes have defined the Cowboys for the last couple of years. Look for a repeat performance and another 8-8 type of campaign.
The Truth: The defensive line, led by Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby and rookie Dion Jordan is going to have to carry them. They also grabbed Dannell Ellerbe from the Ravens, who gets after people. This is a defensive team first and foremost, as long the Dolphins stay in their lane, they’ll be solid.
The Difference: Ryan Tannehill is young and still learning how to play, adding former Steelers WR Mike Wallace accelerates his education.
The Outcome: Not a playoff team, but trending upwards.