1. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
I’ve been bullish on the Eagles since Vince Young called them the “Dream Team.” Their dream turned nightmarish quickly as Michael Vick fell apart, Andy Reid was run out of town, and Nnamdi Asomugha went from free agent grand prize to the goat of Philadelphia (although, it looks like he started dating Kerry Washington around that time, so I understand if he was distracted).
That summer, along with Nnamdi the Eagles added Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Vince Young and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, all considered top of their position. Now all are out of town, and have been replaced by a roll of the dice... Chip Kelly. No coach has ever come into the NFL with a wider range of projected outcomes. Either his lightning fast offense with the wacky picture sideline pictures will work like magic with the speedy Vick and McCoy at the helm, or it will be completely snuffed out by more talented (and in shape) professional defenses.
The Eagles offense shows promise of living up to Chip Kelly’s hype. The lightning quick skilled players (Vick, McCoy, Desean Jackson) are what’s gotten everybody excited, but the improvements on the interior will be the most significant upgrade for the Eagles. After missing the entire 2012 season with a twice-torn Achilles, Pro-Bowler Jason Peters returns. The right tackle spot shows limitless promise with fourth overall pick Lane Johnson stepping in, but the question is whether he will be effective immediately or suffer growing pains. Running the show is Michael Vick, who has been the target of criticism since his messy departure from Atlanta. But in a fast paced offense with quick throws and roll outs, Vick could be one of the better options.
While the promise of the 20s between-play-offense is creating all the buzz, the defense will be more germane to the team’s success. Gone is Juan Castillo, the ill advised offensive line coach turned defensive coordinator, replaced by Billy Davis, an NFL nomad and a huge proponent of the 3-4 “Blitzburgh” defense. To augment the shift, the Eagles have brought in LB Connor Barwin (Houston) and giant DT Isaac Sopoaga (San Francisco). Filling in the revamped secondary are Patrick Chung (New England), Cary Williams (Baltimore), and Bradley Fletcher (St. Louis) who have all shown flashes of greatness in previous lives.
There’s a chance the roll of the dice shows up snake eyes, but I’m going all-in on this years Eagles.
2. New York Giants (9-7)
While the Eagles have made me look stupid in the regular season predictions, the Giants have at least waited until the playoffs. The Giants have developed a habit of finishing a smidge above .500 and either missing the playoffs entirely or winning the Super Bowl.
This season they’ll have to do it with lots of question marks on the defense. Jason Pierre-Paul (the Freak 2.0) battled back injuries all last season, but still had 24 hurries and 6.5 sacks. Expect that sacks number to get closer to the hurries, as additions to the defensive line (Mathias Kiwanuka replacing an aging Umenyiora, Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, and second-round pick Johnathan Hankins) should limit the amount of double teams JPP has to deal with. They’ll have to create a lot of pressure to protect a shaky secondary. Corey Webster was so bad last year, the Google result after his Wiki page is a Daily News article titled “Corey Webster is still full of swagger for NY Giants despite awful 2012 season.” That pretty much explains itself. Safety, Stevie Brown, tore his ACL and is out for the season and will be replacing him with Terrell Thomas, who is coming off his third ACL tear.
If this team is going to make noise, it will be because of the heroics of Eli Manning. Last year, Eli threw the least amount of touchdowns since his 2008 season along with 15 ints (bottom 10 in the league). When healthy, Hakeem Nicks supplants Victor Cruz as the best receiver on the team, and he is back full force this season. The continued growth of Reuben Randle should be another nice complement at wide receiver. And with David Wilson adding the big play element to the backfield, Eli should have more opportunities to drop back comfortably. Overall, I’m picking the Giants to do what they always do, but miss the playoffs in 2013.
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
I hate talking about the Dallas Cowboys. Every year there’s a lot of hype, Jerry Jones says something brash, people think it’s their year, then, inevitably, it’s not. Sometimes, if you ignore history, you can understand the hype. The Cowboys have a franchise quarterback in Tony Romo, a trio of great wide receivers with Bryant, Austin and Witten, and some dominant defenders with Ware, Sean Lee, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. To the Cowboys credit, their top guys typically perform well.
Except for some inexplicable reason, somebody always inevitably screws it up. Jason Garrett has a propensity for blowing timeouts. Role players make costly mistakes in the waning moments (remember the missed block that shattered Romo’s collarbone or the blown coverage that let Victor Cruz free to lose the wildcard spot in Week 17). And, a lot of the time, even the stars screw up. Romo throws the ball a little too far or into the wrong jersey color’s hands or Dez Bryant has a finger just long enough to go out of bounds.
It’s tough to make arguments against the top talent on the Cowboys roster, but I’d be a fool to ignore the history. The Cowboys put up another mediocre season without the playoffs and Jerry Jones burns Jason Garrett as the sacrificial lamb.
4. Washington Redskins (7-9)
People forget that the Redskins trip to the playoffs last year was a miracle. They began the season 3-6 going into the bye week and finished with seven straight wins. The late season surge was bolstered by poor competition (Philadelphia twice, Dallas twice, and Cleveland) and that one ridiculous game against Baltimore. The Redskins had a lot of fortune last year. They recovered 67.4% of fumbles lost, which with an oblong ball is completely random. Along with their offense’s irregular ability to avoid turnovers in 2012 (Washington’s 14 turnovers was the 7th least amount since the AFL NFL merger), I forecast an erosion in their turnover margin as these things, like always, tend to regress toward the mean.
Then there’s the issue of RG3, their savior. Nicknamed the Black Jesus, the Redskins’ fans believe RG3 can heal from anything. After a year when Adrian Peterson nearly broke the rushing record after an ACL tear, who could blame them? I have more hesitation about Griffin’s knee than others. If he struggles, Kirk Cousins was more than competent in filling in last year, but, then again, he’s getting a lot of credit for one drive against Baltimore and one game against Cleveland.
Washington is on its way back, but this year should be a restful one for their ascension and RG3’s knee.