The pro football season kicks off this week when the defending champion Ravens travel to Denver, a rematch of an epic playoff comeback in January, a revenge game for the Broncos.
Despite the fact the NFC has won three of the last four Super Bowls, the AFC has won 10 of the last 16, including last year. Here is a look at some of the best of the NFL.
Broncos: At 37, Peyton Manning is back after throwing for 37 TDs, 11 INTs, 4,659 yards and only 21 sacks. The offense finished fifth in passing with 283 yards per game, 16th in rushing, and gets better with the addition of Wes Welker in the slot, stolen from the Patriots. This offense is loaded with WR Demaryius Thomas (1,434 yards) and Eric Decker (1,064 yards).
The defense was third against the run and pass, although the numbers were skewed a bit because of a weak schedule. They only lost 4 games, but gave up 27 in a loss at Atlanta, a 31-21 loss at New England, a 31-25 home loss to Houston and then the playoff collapse to the Ravens. They signed CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to bolster the secondary add veteran LB Shaun Phillips from the rival Chargers. Denver is on an 11-5-1 run OVER the total.
Packers: The Packers were ninth in passing with 253 ypg behind QB Aaron Rodgers (39 TDs, 8 INTs, 4,295 yds), TE Jermichael Finley (667 yards), WR Jordy Nelson (745), WR Randall Cobb (954) and James Jones. The only concern is the offensive line, with Rodgers sacked 51 times and the ground game 27th and 20th in rushing the last two years.
Green Bay took Alabama RB Eddie Lacy in the second round. A young defense made great strides and they carry a 6-3 run under the total into the new season, as well as a 7-3 ATS run.
Bears: Chicago won 8 and 10 games the last two years but it didn’t save Lovie Smith’s job. Chicago brings in former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman to run the team. He led the Alouettes to CFL championships in 2009 and 2010 and twice coordinated the No. 1 NFL passing offense (49ers in 1995, Raiders in 2002). Folks in the Windy City are excited to see his wide-open offenses teamed with QB Jay Cutler (19 TDs, 14 INTs), star Brandon Marshall (1,508 yds) and second-year WR Alshon Jeffery.
The offensive line is still a concern with the QBs sacked 44 times last year despite being more run-oriented, which is one reason they drafted Oregon guard Kyle Long with the 20th overall pick. The defense loses LB Brian Urlacher to a unit that was eighth in both defending the pass and run. Chicago carries a 3-8 ATS run into the new season.
Patriots: Despite plenty of flaws on a defense that has been a sieve, Bill Belichick’s team has made it to the AFC Championship game the last two years, winning once. Big Bill has loaded on defense, grabbing DE Chandler Jones and LB Donta Hightower in the 2012 first round then traded for CB Aqib Talib, a former first-round pick who is on a one-year contract this season.
The offense still has QB Tom Brady (34 TDs, 8 picks), but loses Welker while TE Rob Gronkowski has all kinds of injury problems. They will need production out of newcomer WR Danny Amendola. The Pats were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring with 34.8 ppg, but might have to cede the scoring title to Denver. The Patriots went 12-6 OVER the total after going 12-7 over in 2011.
49ers: The emerging NFC power! Jim Harbaugh’s team came out of nowhere in 2011 with a sensational defense and power running game to host the NFC championship game and broke through last season, losing the Super Bowl in the final seconds. The defense is the backbone, fourth in the NFL against the run and the pass, led by All-Pro DT Justin Smith, 23-year-old Aldon (14 and 19.5 sacks the last two years). They have tremendous LBs with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, plus pick up safety Eric Reid (No. 18, LSU).
The offense was 4th in rushing, 23rd in passing behind B Frank Gore (1,214 yards, 4.7 ypc) and QB Colin Kaepernick (10 TDs, 3 picks), who ran for 415 yards, 6.6 ypc, a versatile weapon. The passing game adds WR Anquan Boldin from the champion Ravens alongside super TE Vernon Davis (548 yards, 5 TDs). The loss of WR Michael Crabtree (1,105 yards) is a concern, rehabbing from a serious summer injury. They carry a 9-1 run over the total into the new season and are 22-13-2 ATS under Harbaugh.
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Follow him on twitter: @JimFeistSports . Reach him at [email protected]