The start of the NFL regular season is at hand and it all begins with a compelling rematch of last season’s AFC Divisional round game that sent Denver to the sidelines and propelled the Baltimore Ravens to an improbable victory in the Super Bowl.
Recall that the Ravens were all but eliminated from even making the playoffs when Ray Rice converted that fourth-and-29 play in San Diego. The Ravens then took advantage of a defensive coverage lapse in the waning moments of regulation in that playoff game in Denver, tying the score and ultimately winning in overtime.
After then winning the AFC Championship in New England the following week the Ravens took firm control of the Super Bowl in the first half against San Francisco. After returning the second half kickoff for a 28-6 lead a power outage interrupted play for just over a half hour. After play resumed momentum seemed to shift dramatically and the 49ers staged a heroic comeback that just fell short as the Ravens held on for a 34-31 win.
Although it may seem if not like this happened yesterday or perhaps a month ago it’s hard to believe but it has been seven full months since Joe Flacco and his teammates hoisted the Super Bowl Trophy.
The regular season gets underway with a rematch of that amazing game between the Ravens and Broncos but, due to the Baltimore Orioles’ refusal to reschedule their baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, the defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens are forced to open at Denver.
Overall the AFC East is down this season but the New England Patriots are still the best of the division and should win rather easily. It’s hard to envision Buffalo, Miami or the New York Jets threatening to even earn a wild card as all three are projected to win fewer than 8 games.
Cincinnati is a fashionable team to win the AFC North and with good reason. The Bengals have made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 seasons, boasting one the best defenses in the NFL and a balanced offense. Baltimore will be hard pressed to repeat as champs but coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco have made the playoffs in each of their five seasons. Pittsburgh should continue to feel the effects of age on both sides of the football. Even the outstanding coaching of Mike Tomlin might not prevent the Steelers from falling further in the standings. Cleveland’s assembling of talent in recent seasons has narrowed the gap with the other three in the division.
Houston is deservedly favored to win the AFC South with Indianapolis expected to finish second. Almost everything fell into place for the Colts last season and they could suffer one of the more dramatic reversal of fortunes this season. Tennessee appears improved but unlikely to contend for the playoffs. Jacksonville may have bottomed out but should still struggle to exceed the low expectations.
Denver is the obvious choice to win the AFC West with Kansas City the team most likely to challenge. With new coach Andy Reid and new QB Alex Smith the Chiefs are a talented team but one that failed to live up to similar hype last season, finishing a dreadful 2-14. San Diego appears to be regressing while Oakland has the talent to outperform last season but whether the leadership is there to do so remains questionable.
The NFC East looks very evenly matched with no outstanding team, but no easy victim either. Dallas and the New York Giants would seem to be the most talented with Washington not far behind. Perhaps the most surprising result in this division would be if the winner has more than 10 wins.
Green Bay remains the class of the NFC North but the gap has been narrowed. Both the Bears and Lions have the talent to challenge and should at the least be in contention for a wild card. Not so for Minnesota, which should take at least a couple of steps backwards this year. RB Adrian Peterson will be a pleasure to watch.
The return of coach Sean Payton immediately makes New Orleans a contender in the NFC South even as significant defensive concerns remain. Those concerns are what might allow Atlanta to claim a second straight division title as the Falcons have the most balanced roster in the division. Carolina is well positioned to follow up its strong finish of 2012 when they closed 4-0 and could be a contender for a Wild Card. Tampa Bay has too much ground to make up.
The two best teams in the NFC – if not all the NFL – may reside in the NFC West as both Seattle and San Francisco are projected to win more than 10 games. And what a treat it has been to see the college rivalry that developed when Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was coaching USC against Jim Harbaugh and Stanford has carried over to the NFL. Barring key injuries the ‘Hawks and Niners should distance themselves from the rest of the Division. And whereas both Arizona and St Louis will be improved, neither is expected be a playoff contender.
Prediction: New England, Cincinnati, Houston and Denver to be Division winners; Baltimore and Kansas City to earn Wild Cards in the AFC. Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta and San Francisco the projected division winners in the NFC with New Orleans and Seattle earning Wild Cards.
The call is for Houston to oust Cincinnati to win the AFC Title and for Atlanta to defeat San Francisco for the NFL crown, validating long time TE Tony Gonzalez decision to forego retirement just one more season in an attempt to make it to his first Super Bowl.
Super Bowl: Houston, 27-20.
Ravens +9 at Broncos (48): In the playoff game last season the Broncos were favored by 9½ points and if that miracle pass was not completed they’d have won by 7 but the Ravens would still have covered. RAVENS.
Patriots -10 at Bills (49½): Undrafted Jeff Tuel gets the honors of facing New England. There’s just too much missing in so many other areas to expect the Bills to be very competitive at least this early in the season. PATRIOTS.
Titans +7 at Steelers (42): The gap between these teams is still great but clearly narrowing. A comfortable victory by the hosts should not be taken as a sign that all is well in the ‘Burgh. STEELERS.
Falcons +3 at Saints (54): The Saints, even with questions about their defense, should open this season in impressive fashion and expunge all the negativity from last season. SAINTS.
Bucs -3 at Jets (39½): Rookie QB Geno Smith gets the start while erstwhile starter Mark Sanchez recovers from an injured shoulder. The Jets do not figure to have many days of success going forward. JETS.
Chiefs -4 at Jaguars (41): This game could well feature more running than passing which could shorten the game and lessen possessions. UNDER.
Bengals +3 at Bears (42): Getting points in what shapes up as a very physical game between a pair of evenly matched teams is the preference. BENGALS.
Dolphins PK at Browns (41): Cleveland also has the edge on defense and it’s that edge that suggests they’ll come out on top. BROWNS.
Seahawks -3 at Panthers (45½): The Panthers are a dark horse candidate to make a real run at the Playoffs. But until proven otherwise it is dangerous to go against the Seahawks. Rather, let’s look for an entertaining game marked by great quarterback play. OVER.
Vikings +4½ at Lions (46½): Detroit’s acquisition of Reggie Bush may be the single most important personnel addition in the league as it gives the Lions tremendous offensive balance. Although the Lions won’t be able to totally contain Peterson they will challenge Vikings QB Christian Ponder to beat them. LIONS.
Raiders +9½ at Colts (47): Both teams could be improved this season but once this line rose above a touchdown it made it very tough to make a case to play the favorite. Only 2 of the Colts’ 11 wins last season were by more than a TD. RAIDERS.
Cards +4½ at Rams (41): Eight of their last 10 meetings have stayed UNDER with half of the meetings producing 34 or fewer total points. This one handicaps along similar lines. UNDER.
Packers +4½ at 49ers (48½): Last season these teams opened the season in Green Bay where the Niners upset the Pack as 6 point underdogs. Turn about fair play?
Giants +3 at Dallas (48½): The fundamentals favor the hosts and a loss here might allow for some plays against Dallas over the next month. COWBOYS.
Eagles +3½ at Redskins (51): Washington’s defense should be as well prepared as will any foe this season. The Redskins will have an above average offense with Robert Griffin III back. REDSKINS.Texans -3½ at Chargers (44): Houston will be playing with confidence and should fare well when laying short prices on the road to average and below average teams as is the case this week at San Diego.TEXANS.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]