By weeks end, all 32 NFL teams will be back on the field in pursuit of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. With the anticipation mounting and the regular season still seven weeks away, here are the top storylines to ponder as you wait for kickoff.
Is This The Beginning Of The Demise Of The New England Patriots?
Tom Brady has lost two of his top three targets from last season. Aaron Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial after being indicted on murder charges, Wes Welker is now one of Brady’s rival’s (Peyton Manning) key threats with the Denver Broncos. Don’t forget his top target Rob Gronkowski is on the mend from a broken forearm that has been broken twice and back surgery. Lastly, the entire organization seems to be underfire again after Hernandez’s legal troubles, as well as cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s DUI arrest.
So who are the Patriots? We will learn this season. This will likely be the most scrutinized and challenging season since Spygate and the 2008 season when Brady tore up his knee on the first play of the season. However, until another team defeats them for the AFC East title they’ll always be the favorite, but their reign may end soon with the moves the Miami Dolphins have made bringing in wideout Mike Wallace from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. Can the Pats use some Tebow magic? I can’t believe I just said that, I won’t go there.
Will RG III, Be RG III?
Sophomore slump isn’t even the biggest concern for last season’s Rookie of The Year. Coming off a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks, where both his ACL and LCL needed surgery in the offseason, many are wondering if Robert Griffin will make an Adrian Peterson comeback or be like other mere mortals who have taken close to a full year to return to form.
The NFC West, The NFC’s Best?
There was a time recently when this division was known by many as the NFC worst. The San Francisco 49ers will begin their season with Quarterback Colin Kaepernick having his first full training camp as the starter. The reigning NFC Champions are all in for not only a return to the Super Bowl, but winning it all. Shortly after losing to the Baltimore Ravens, they traded for wide receiver Anquan Boldin from the reigning Champs. At the time it was seen as just a shrewed move for insurance purposes, but after the leading receiver Michael Crabtree blew his ACL in the offseason, the Boldin move is now even more important. If they have any shot of getting to Super Bowl 48 in New York, Boldin will have to be Kaepernick’s go to guy like he was for Joe Flacco.
The Seattle Seahawks are much improved as well, adding triple threat wide receiver Percy Harvin to their arsenal after making a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. Quarterback Russell Wilson will come into the season with a full training camp as the starter after battling and beating out Matt Flynn last season. Wilson is expected to be better and lead an offense that is more high powered than last season’s when they surprisingly made it to the Divisional Playoff round.
The St. Louis Rams went 4-1-1 in the division. This will be their second year under Head Coach Jeff Fisher and are expected to be improved on offense, especially with the addition of do it all weapon Tavon Austin. The Rams will need to find an answer at running back after losing Stephen Jackson to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Arizona Cardinals shouldn’t be totally inept at the Quarterback position after bringing in former Pro Bowler Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders. Palmer should be able to jump start an offense that let their defense down after getting off to a 4-0 start in 2012. If he can regain any of his old form he had with the Cincinnati Bengals, he should be able to help wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald revitalize the offense.
The winner of this division could very well be the NFC representative in Super Bowl 48.
What Defending Champions?
The Baltimore Ravens lost 9 starters from their Super Bowl winning team including Iconic leaders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, as well as Danell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger; that’s just on defense. As mentioned previously, they traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to their Super Bowl 47 opponent. Can we really call them the defending champions?! The AFC North which is widely regarded as the best division in the NFL looks to be headed for a down year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost key Receiver Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins, former Defensive Player of The Year James Harrison now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, also the Steelers top ranked Defense from a year ago is another year older which has been the knock on them for the past three seasons. Don’t be surprised if this division will have a throwback to the late 1980s and come down to the battle of Ohio for the title.
Will Matt Ryan And The Dirty Birds Fly North For The Winter?
Matty Ice and the Atlanta Falcons were 30 minutes away from representing the NFC in Super Bowl 47 before they collapsed to the 49ers. The Falcons have talked Tony Gonzales into postponing his time on the Hall of Fame clock for enshrinement, to return for a 17th season and another shot at an elusive Super Bowl. Running back Stephen Jackson brings his 10,135 rushing yards from St. Louis to the ATL to help balance out one of the best aerial attacks in the NFL. After winning his first playoff game in 4 season, it all falls on Matt Ryan. Can he be like Joe Flacco and EARN his place on the list of NFL elite QBs?
There is no Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson in this class. There was only one QB taken in the 1st round of the 2013 NFL draft. After last season’s class rivaled the one of 2004 with Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, not many are expecting much from this group of signal callers. However, there will be plenty of intrigue from the group. Will Geno Smith end the Mark Sanchez era with the New York Jets? Will Buffalo’s EJ Mannuel justify being selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Bills? Most had him pegged as a third rounder, second rounder at best. If the Philadelphia Eagles struggle early in Head Coach Chip Kelly’s first season, will he pull Michael Vick and look to the future in Matt Barkley out of USC? Barkley was said to be headed towards being a #1 pick whenever he decided to leave So Cal before an injury and unexpected down senior season.
When is America’s team not a storyline? Tony Romo got paid this offseason to the tune of 6 years $108 million, $55 million guaranteed. The expectation is now he’ll have more of role in the offensive game plan. Jerry Jones raised eyebrows when he said Romo will have “Peyton Manning like” responsibilities. Can Romo in his 10th season, finally get over the hump and restore glory to one of the most glamorous positions in all of sports?
Records Are Made To Be Broken
Last season Minnesota Vikings Running back Adrian Peterson did the unthinkable for everyone but him and returned from a gruesome knee injury at the end of the 2011 season to fall 9 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record in 2012. AP is on record as saying he wants to rush for 2,500 yards this season, which will shatter Dickerson’s record of 2,106.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson overcame the EA Sports Madden cover jinx to break Jerry Rice’s single season receiving yards record that stood since 1988. Megatron is already predicting he’ll be the first to receive over 2,000 yards in a single season.
Good luck to both of them. Every Defensive coordinator will have 8 in the box against the Vikings and triple coverage against the Lions planned all season. Either way, i’ll be watching to see if they can come through on their predictions.
Ice Bowl, I Mean Super Bowl 48.
Most people are looking forward to the Super Bowl not because of who will be playing in it, but because of the elements the game could be played under. The big game will be played outside in a cold weather city for the first time when the AFC and NFC champions take the field in MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014. In 2013, the temperature in the New York, New Jersey area on was 19 degrees on the same day. Will 2014 bring the same? Will a successful game in Super Bowl 48 open doors for other cold weather cities with outdoor stadiums like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago or Philadelphia to get a Super Bowl in the future?
I reserve the right to change this after the preseason before the opening game of week one. I’m confident in these picks barring MAJOR injuries.
Regular Season Awards:
Most Valuable Player: Quarterback, Matt Ryan (ATL)
Rookie of The Year: Running back, Monte Ball (DEN)
Defensive Rookie of The Year: Linebacker, Jarvis Jones (PIT)
Defensive Player of The Year: Linebacker, DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
Coach of The Year: Pete Carroll (SEA)
AFC East: Miami Dolphins
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
AFC South: Houston Texans
AFC West: Denver Broncos
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
Conference Championship Games:
NFC: Atlanta Falcons Vs. Seattle Seahawks. Winner: Atlanta Falcons
AFC: Houston Texans Vs. Denver Broncos. Winner: Houston Texans
Super Bowl 48: Atlanta Falcons vs. Houston Texans; Champion: Atlanta Falcons
Getting Tony Gonzales to return and signing Stephen Jackson will keep the continuity of the most high powered offense in the NFL. This is what Matt Ryan needs in addition to getting the playoff monkey off his back to lead this team to its first Super Bowl title. 15 years after their first and only Super Bowl appearance, the Dirty Bird returns to dance at the 50 yard line in the New Meadowlands.