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ATPF Preview Divisional Round

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Wildcard weekend proved to be a thriller. The Colts started the ball rolling with a 28 point comeback against the Chiefs in which they had plenty of luck and plenty from Luck. The Saints then got over their road woes to beat the Eagles. Andy Dalton’s postseason struggles returned and he was pretty abysmal as the Chargers made light of the cold weather to beat the Bengals and the weekend concluded with the 49ers continuing their recent dominance over the Packers in a game that was tense and close throughout.

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks

When these two NFC powerhouses met earlier in the season in the same stadium the Seahawks completely dominated proceedings winning by 27 points. What was most surprising that day was the way Seattle’s defense completely stifled the Saints offense with Drew Brees averaging less than 5 yards per pass attempt. Seattle meanwhile moved the ball with consummate ease with Russell Wilson averaging over 10 yards per attempt as the turnover free Seahawks racked up over 400 yards against Rob Ryan’s defense which has been excellent on the whole this year.

The Saints were only 3-5 on the road in the regular season but did manage to win in Philadelphia last week. They will need two more road wins if they are to be NFC Champions which looks a tall order. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home and there are few louder or more hostile stadiums around than Centurylink field. The Seahawks defense was the best in the NFL during the regular season and the unit is ultra disciplined yet able to make big plays as well. Their offense led by the relentless running of Marshawn Lynch and dual threat of quarterback Wilson can beat you in a variety of ways and they will hope to make big plays when Ryan takes his big gambles. The Saints need their defense to get pressures, hits and sacks on Wilson and to limit Lynch’s effectiveness to have a chance. Their offense is almost certain of a bolder showing and they will hope that Mark Ingram can be productive as he was last week to take a Seahawk out of coverage.

It was a surprise to everyone that the first meeting was so one sided but we expect the Saints to make a game of it here although we still think Seattle will prove too strong.

ATPF PredictionThe Seahawks advance to the NFC Championship with a 27- 24 win.

Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

The Colts were dead and buried when they fell 28 points behind against the Chiefs last week but Andrew Luck suddenly found his rhythm and led his team to a thrilling comeback. Luck has been a little more reserved than we expected in his sophomore year but he threw for 443 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in a true gun slinging performance. T.Y. Hilton is one of the more underrated receivers in the league and despite the lack of a viable receiver opposite him he had 224 yards receiving and two (including the game winner) touchdowns.

The Patriots have had plenty of problems this year and have been decimated by injuries so to get a first round bye was remarkable and it should have helped heal a few of the stricken. Unfortunately though it won’t heal Rob Gronkowski, their superstar tight end who is one of the most feared weapons in the league and it won’t heal Vince Wilfork their man mountain nose tackle who has been sorely missed since his season ending injury. Tom Brady minus Gronkowki for most of the year and with both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez gone has not put up nearly the numbers of years past and there is no getting away from the fact that his receiving corps is substandard.

Both teams are pass first teams here and both have average defenses but both groups are capable of making big plays. It should be quite close but Luck seems to be the man with the Midas touch and he and main man Hilton can be crucial. Tom Brady’s legacy was set long ago but he has struggled in the playoffs in the last few years and he looks short of targets here so we favour a road win for Indianapolis.

ATPF PredictionThe Colts take another major scalp as they beat the Patriots 31- 27.

San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers

These two teams met in week ten when the Panthers won 10-9 in San Francisco. There may be a few more points scored here but expect defenses to dominate again. The hosts Carolina led by brilliant young linebacker Luke Kuechly won twelve of their last thirteen games and only once in that stretch allowed over twenty points. San Francisco were just as stingy, allowing over twenty just once in their last thirteen games and they have two superstar linebackers in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman as well as superstar pass rusher Aldon Smith and consistently dominant lineman Justin Smith.

Both teams will look to lean heavily on their run games with San Francisco sure to offer a heavy dose of bruising Frank Gore and plenty of read option looks to try and get the speedy Colin Kaepernick to the edge where he is so dangerous. Carolina aren’t too dissimilar with veterans DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert all effective runners and Cam Newton an even bigger danger on quarterback keepers. The difference maker for this game in our view is San Francisco’s receivers. Michael Crabtree is back and has been lauded by his head coach for his catching ability while Anquan Boldin is as tough as they come and has bucket loads of playoff experience including one winning and one losing Superbowl appearance. Vernon Davis remains one of the fastest tight ends in football and he will be a real threat running the seams between these two receivers. Carolina still have veteran Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen has had a nice season but there is little doubt San Francisco is stronger in this area and we think it will be key in a game where points will be at a premium and touchdowns like gold dust.

ATPF PredictionThe 49ers make a third straight NFC Championship, we think the score will be something like 17-13.

San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos

The Chargers seem to have the football gods smiling on them of late but make no mistake they are playing some good football as well. A whole catalogue of events got them into the playoffs at Pittsburgh’s expense two weeks ago and they rode a catalogue of Andy Dalton errors to victory at Cincinnati’s expense last week. Their next game may on the face of it a daunting one but the Chargers were the lone team to beat Denver in this stadium this year so they won’t be overawed.

The Broncos have been the most entertaining team in the NFL this season with their league best offense scoring over thirty points in thirteen of their sixteen games. Crucially they managed just twenty in that shock defeat to the Chargers which was all the more surprising given the Chargers defense is pretty average and their secondary short on top level talent apart from safety Eric Weddle. Denver’s orchestra of offense has been led sublimely by veteran Peyton Manning who has had a career year. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both had 1000 yards season for the second straight year and both Wes Welker and Julius Thomas would have gotten really close but for injuries. Running back Knowshon Moreno has had a fine year also as an every down back whose rugged style is perfect as a change of pace to the much feared passing game.

The Chargers offense ended the year a top five unit also with Philip Rivers enjoying a remarkable career renaissance under new head coach Mike McCoy, formerly of the Broncos of course. McCoy is an expert in teaching quarterbacks and has again excelled with Rivers. Veteran tight end Antonio Gates, breakout rookie Keenan Allen and journeyman Eddie Royal have been among Rivers favourite targets and talented running back Ryan Mathews has finally stayed healthy. The Chargers defense will have its work cut out; Manning and co won’t fall for the same tricks as in their last meeting so it will be interesting to see the Chargers defensive game plan. When the Broncos won these two teams first clash in San Diego the Chargers too often had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. They must find the end zone on drives here because the Broncos defense is significantly weakened by the loss of explosive edge rusher Von Miller.

The Chargers have performed admirably to get this far but we expect a different Broncos team to the slightly complacent one they beat a month ago. It’s hard to see the Chargers secondary coping with all the talent at Manning’s disposal although both offense should have plenty of success.

ATPF PredictionThe Broncos offensive juggernaut leads them into the AFC Championship; our score prediction is 41-31.

 

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ATPF Preview Week 11

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Week 10 in the NFL proved to be one of the most surprising in terms of results yet. Who thought the Rams could beat the Colts? And by 30 points? What about the winless Jaguars and Buccaneers both winning? We predicted the latter but both? It was a tough week to predict and ATPF’s first losing week of the season, 6-8 was pretty disappointing. The Bengals, our bogey team were incredibly naive in overtime, leading to their loss having been given a second chance and that loss hurt the most.

Moving on swiftly to week eleven and this may be the most exciting round of fixtures so far. Obviously the 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs back after their bye visiting the 8-1 Denver Broncos headlines the fixtures but the 49ers visiting the Superdome and Monday night’s clash of New England and the hugely improved Carolina Panthers are just as big. Crucial games such as Thursday Night’s AFC South clash, the Browns @ Bills game and Redskins @ Eagles will all have major impacts on the shape of the team’s seasons; it’s now or never this season for many.

Indianapolis Colts @ Tennessee Titans

Did both teams have one eye on this fixture when they were both upset last week? Hard to think they didn’t because both were pretty unimaginable failures. The Colts were humbled 38-8 at home by the Rams who arrived in Indianapolis at 3-6 and with a backup quarterback starting. Tennessee meanwhile handed the lowly Jaguars their first win and lost oft-injured quarterback Jake Locker for the season too.

Had the Titans been able to win that week 10 game they would have been able to top the division with a win here, instead they are staring down the barrel of 4-6 which would be the end of their season. Tennessee truly shot themselves in the foot by gifting the Jaguars four turnovers. Their ninth ranked defense allowed just 214 total yards but was powerless againt the four turnovers. Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t the man responsible, the backup quarterback threw two touchdown passes and ran one in himself, he isn’t a big drop off from Locker. Chris Johnson returned from a season in the wilderness in week nine but disappeared again last week. Whether he needs a change of scenery or is simply running on empty now remains to be seen but as much as the Titans need him he can’t be relied on any more.

The Colts thirty point humbling may have been the biggest shocker of the season so far. The Colts committed five turnovers and allowed Tavon Austin, a rookie who was already hearing the dreaded word ‘bust’ whispered to take in a long return and two long touchdown passes. It will have been an uncomfortable few days in Indianapolis and nobody will escape blame. Everything went wrong that has been going right really, the Colts have consistently won turnover battles this year but lost by four to St.Louis. Andrew Luck has generally been pretty conservative in games this year but asked to really force it he made mistakes. The Colts defense has allowed yards but always made big plays to make up for it, on Sunday they were exposed by Austin’s blazing speed and ability to run after the catch.

Both teams were pretty poor last week and turnovers were the common theme. Neither has made a habit of losing the turnover battle previously so we can expect a cagey start here with both looking to protect the ball better. If Ryan Fitzpatrick can compete with Andrew Luck his defense may give his side the edge but Luck has been pretty cerebral on the whole this year and we would rather take our chances on him bouncing back than on Fitzpatrick whose inconsistency is the reason he is now a backup rather than a starter.

ATPF PredictionIn a low scoring, tense affair the Colts edge to victory by three or four points.

Baltimore Ravens @ Chicago Bears

Defeat for the Bears last week saw them again slip behind the Lions in the fiercely competitive NFC North while the Ravens survived an overtime forcing hail mary to eventually overcome the Bengals; the win keeps them just about in the playoff hunt.

For Baltimore the season has been as tough as you would expect for them having lost two future hall of fame defenders their starting center and a starting wide receiver. Jim Harbaugh’s team know what it takes to make the playoffs and as reigning Superbowl champions they know how to win in the postseason. The Ravens have struggled to 4-5 and realistically can probably only lose one more game if they want to play on into January. Their offense and particularly its lack of firepower has been the biggest issue, only three teams have less yards and the Ravens average just 20 points per game. Defensively Baltimore still have their share of talent minus Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. They have given up just one rushing touchdown but the secondary is vulnerable when the rush can’t get home.

Chicago got within a two point conversion of overtime against the Lions but saw Matt Forte stuffed by Nick Fairley. Returning quarterback Jay Cutler put the Bears ahead early but again left the game injured; he continues to frustrate in the windy city. Cutler will miss this game with a high ankle sprain; his backup Josh McCown is a smart veteran but lacks the playmaking skills of Cutler. In Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery McCown has two big productive receivers but with the Ravens so good against the run can he get it into the end zone enough times to beat the Ravens? The Bears defense is ailing, linebacker Lance Briggs and corner Charles Tillman are both out and they are two of the Bears top three defenders so Baltimore shouldn’t find this unit as tough as normal Chicago defenses.

A tough one to call this; the Bears season is in danger of collapsing behind the weight of key injuries they have suffered yet they have been the better of these two teams so far. Baltimore didn’t inspire even in winning last week but they could be ready to finish the season strongly. The Ravens defense needs to make some big plays in the passing game but if they can do so the Ravens can edge this one.

ATPF PredictionThe Ravens superior defense inspires the win; again it’s by just a field goal.

Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals

After their call to Mary was answered the Bengals managed an eleven yard loss on fourth down in overtime to setup Baltimore for the game winning drive. Such plays seem to be too common in Cincinnati and a supremely talented team like they are should be better than 6-4. Cleveland beat the Ravens in week nine and had their bye week to prepare for another AFC North war. At 4-5 the underdog Browns know that back to back wins could see them join Cincinnati atop the division.

Cleveland snapped a losing run just in time when they edged the Ravens in week nine. Their defense has been one of the league’s most impressive units through ten weeks, they rank fifth in yards allowed but could improve by creating more than the eleven turnovers they have so far. Their offense has seen three different quarterbacks start and all have at least one win. Journeyman Jason Campbell, a physically gifted underachiever is now under center and his play in two starts has been the best the Browns have seen at the position this year. Wide receiver Josh Gordon and rookie tight end Jordan Cameron are both having fine seasons and both could have very bright futures in Cleveland but the Browns do need more from their rushing attack which averages a paltry 3.7 yards per carry.

Cincinnati rank in the top ten both offensively and defensively. Losing all-pro tackle Geno Atkins was a blow to the defense yet in their first game without him the Bengals allowed less than 200 yards in four and a half quarters in Baltimore. Offensively Cincinnati will go as far as inconsistent third year quarterback Andy Dalton can take them; Dalton has thrown nine picks in his team’s four losses including six in the last two. In their six wins Dalton has managed to restrict it to just four interceptions and is in pace for a 4000 yards, 30 touchdown season.

The Browns defense saw them take the first battle of Ohio but at home the Bengals and their superiorly talented offense look to hold the aces this time around.

ATPF PredictionCincinnati get back on track, win by ten.

New York Jets @ Buffalo Bills

Inconsistency is the theme to these two AFC East rivals. Defeat for Buffalo in week ten saw them slip to 3-7 but the Jets who beat the high flying Saints in week nine return from their bye ready to make a real push for the playoffs.

Gang Green are enjoying a bounce back season under inspirational coach Rex Ryan and rookie quarterback Geno Smith. With the Tim Tebow sideshow gone and Mark Sanchez’s embarrassing glamour shoots no longer at the forefront the Jets have got back to doing what they do best; playing hard, physical, smart football. Ryan’s defense rank eighth in yards allowed with their defensive line the basis for their success. Geno Smith’s thirteen interceptions have put the defense under pressure but the Jets top ten rushing attack keeps Smith from being asked to do too much too often.

The Bills like their state rivals are a run first team with a rookie quarterback under center. E.J. Manuel returned from injury to start in Pittsburgh but managed just 155 yards passing. Explosive runner C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the power back are a feared tandem but injuries and lack of a passing threat have hampered them and after getting almost 200 yards between them against the Chiefs they could muster just 78 against the Steelers. Like Pittsburgh the Jets will focus first on stopping the run and take their chances with Manuel. Defensively the Bills have been pretty bad, they have given up 21 touchdown passes and all ten of their rivals so far have scored over twenty against them.

The Jets edged the first game at home, winning by seven. Since then the Bills form has slipped so it’s hard to see a reverse here.

ATPF PredictionLike the first battle the Jets win by seven.

Atlanta Falcons @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay finally got their first win on Monday Night but for their NFC South rivals there was more misery in a beat down by the NFC leaders Seattle. Both would have thought this could be a pivotal game before the season but with both so disappointing it is for little more than divisional pride now.

Morale will be high in Tampa after that first win against their state rivals Miami. The Buccaneers have played better than 1-8, several close games have gone against them and they could easily be around .500. Nevertheless they found a way to win such a close game at last against the Dolphins and should have gained some confidence from it. A crucial interception from big money acquisition Darrelle Revis was the key play in that win and he is starting to come back to something like his best after knee surgery. The Buccaneers defense, a respectable fourteenth in yards allowed has the talent to improve and push for a top ten end of year spot. They have been helped by rookie Mike Glennon who has limited turnovers since being handed the starting job and is starting to find chemistry with star receiver Vincent Jackson.

Atlanta have been so consistent over the last 5 years that a 2-7 season has been a huge shock. As we have continually mentioned injuries have plagued them but a porous defense and now a quarterback who has finally imploded as all those around him have has seen them become in grave danger of being the NFC’s worst team. Since beating the Buccaneers in week seven the Falcons have lost all three games and managed just one touchdown in each. Their offense minus Julio Jones seems to have lost all belief. Defensively Atlanta rank 25th in yards allowed and their inept pass rush has seen their secondary picked apart all too often.

The Falcons have taken three consecutive hammerings; their offense is as poor as their defense. Tampa Bay have a real chance to win this game if they play smart football.

ATPF PredictionBack to back wins for the Bucs who prevail by a touchdown.

San Diego Chargers @ Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are a strange team. With their season spiralling out of control they beat the high flying Bengals in week nine only to lose to the 0-8 Buccaneers ten days later. The Chargers make the long journey East on the back of consecutive defeats since their week eight bye.

Defeat by eight to the Broncos was not the end of the world for San Diego. The Chargers were too conservative in their offensive play calling early on and ended up chasing the game. With the Broncos so hard to slow down it was a bad idea to settle for field goals early on. Now at 4-5 and four behind the top two in the AFC West the playoffs look out of reach to first season head coach Mike McCoy. There is plenty to build on however in San Diego. Philip Rivers has had a bounce back year and can now again be considered an upper tier starter. The Chargers heavily retooled defense has improved dramatically as the season has gone on also.

Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill is still inexperienced and even as a sophomore is making rookie mistakes. His development from year two to three is as critical to the Dolphins as it is to his own career. With big money targets Mike Wallace and Dustin Keller signed things looked promising for Miami but the former hasn’t produced and the latter landed on Injured Reserve before a ball was thrown. The already struggling offensive line has been hit hard by the Incognito- Martin issues so Tannehill could have more of the same having already been sacked 37 times. Defensively the Dolphins are a middle of the pack team who still need more help in the secondary.

Miami’s off field crisis left them ripe for the pickings against Tampa Bay. San Diego are significantly more talented and may be the best team in the league with a losing record.

ATPF PredictionIn a battle of 4-5 teams San Diego cruise past Miami, win by over ten.

Washington Redskins @ Philadelphia Eagles

A crucial battle in the NFC East which looks set to be won by the least flawed rather than most talented team; we aren’t sure who is the least flawed at this stage. For Washington defeat would surely end their chance, 3-7 is terminal. Philadelphia have gotten back to back wins and can take the division lead with a win here.

Nick Foles return from concussion coincided with Michael Vick’s latest injury and how crucial it proved to the Eagles. Foles is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league and has thrown ten touchdowns to no interceptions in two games since his return. Ball security was the issue with Vick but it is one of Foles’ strong points along with his deep ball which has terrorised the Raiders and Packers. With Riley Cooper becoming a favourite of Nick Foles and DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy both having bounce back years the Eagles offense suddenly looks pretty scary. Defensively the Eagles are still very weak, only their NFC East rivals Dallas have given up more yards.

Washington couldn’t afford to lose to the toiling Vikings as they did in week ten. They are now on life support at 3-6 and don’t look a team capable of going on a winning run. Once again they dominated the game in Minnesota. They had far more possession, far more yards and won the turnover battle but again just couldn’t turn yards into points. Their defense has barely made a stand all year and again it has been down to their offense to win games. Last year the mercurial RG3 and battering ram Alfred Morris were able to make up for their defensive ineptitude but with team’s more aware of the duo they have struggled to do so in 2013.

Both teams are considerably better offensively than defensively and a shootout could be in store. The Redskins must control the clock with Morris to slow down the Eagles high octane offense if they are to have a chance. The Eagles won in Washington in the first clash so at home they should take some beating and their superior receivers can be the difference.

ATPF PredictionPhiladelphia takes control of the NFC East, wins a shootout by seven.

Arizona Cardinals @ Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags finally got a win in week ten, riding the Titans turnovers to the victory. The Cardinals, a team supposed to be rebuilding are having a great season and in a weaker division than the brutal NFC West they would still be contenders.

The 5-4 Cardinals have had a brutal schedule; they have beaten the Lions and Panthers but fallen to Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans, that’s five likely NFC playoff teams. Their offense hasn’t been hugely effective but in veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald and rookie running back Andre Ellington they have a couple of playmakers. Defensively the Cards are just outside the top ten but have forced twenty turnovers and in cornerback Patrick Peterson they have arguably the most talented cornerback in football.

Jacksonville are dead last in total offense and just one place better in rushing. Maurice Jones-Drew was a factor in their win but he is a long way off his form when the NFL’s leading rusher in 2010. With Justin Blackmon suspended for the foreseeable future Chad Henne has few targets and the stop gap isn’t likely to improve greatly on his three touchdowns to seven interceptions ratio anytime soon. The Jags defense are allowing almost 400 yards and over three touchdowns per game, way too many for their feeble offense to overcome.

The Jags had their day in the Sun but that one win may be it. Arizona have faced some tough opponents so far so will welcome this easier task.

ATPF Prediction- The Cards success continues, they beat the Jags by two scores.

Detroit Lions @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Lions defense finally came to the aid of their ultra-productive offense when twice denying the Bears a game tying two-point conversion in the final minute at Soldier Field. Pittsburgh’s 0-4 start put them in a huge hole but they are 3-2 since and beat the Bills comfortably a week ago.

The Steelers are not the sort of 3-6 team that playoff teams like the Lions will fancy playing, especially at Heinz field. Since they regrouped during their bye the Steelers have returned a much better and much harder to beat team. Their defense had an aberration in New England but has otherwise been sound if some way off Steelers teams of the past. Offensively rookie running back Le’Veon Bell has given them some balance and the Steelers are up to fifteenth in offensive yards. Journeyman Jerricho Cotchery is proving a go-to-guy in the red zone for Ben Roethlisberger and Bell has four touchdown runs; no other back on the roster has scored this season.

Detroit can be unstoppable at times; Matthew Stafford is a real gun-slinger but his huge arm and unshakable self confidence teamed with the league’s best receiver Calvin Johnson and playmaker Reggie Bush makes this a unit which can terrorise even the league’s better defenses. The Lions defense has two dominating defensive tackles in bad boy Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley who came up with the potentially season defining play for the Lions last week. The secondary of the Lions can be gotten at but Suh and Fairley will hope to collapse the pocket against a poor Steelers offensive line.

The Steelers are a team lacking talent at a number of positions and playmakers are few and far between. The Lions meanwhile are stacked with playmakers and have better talent in every position offensively. Last time Pittsburgh played a top tier offense they conceded 55, that won’t be repeated but reflects their weakness against the very best.

ATPF Prediction The Lions strong run continues, they win on the road by ten.

Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans

Two teams in woeful form match up here and picking a winner isn’t easy. The Raiders were going along ok until they were torn apart by the Eagles and beaten by the Giants. They are now at 3-6 and easily the worst team in the AFC West. Houston’s record is even worse, they stand at 2-7 and could or maybe should have won all of their last three games, instead they have lost them all.

The Texans have been a big disappointment, last year they narrowly lost out on homefield advantage but still won a playoff game but this season has been a disaster. Head coach Gary Kubiak had a stroke two weeks ago, assistant head coach\defensive coordinator Wade Phillips lost his father the week before that and on the field quarterback Matt Schaub imploded and was benched and star running back Arian Foster is on injured reserve. If it could go wrong in Houston it has done. With three straight home games now Houston desperately needs to regain some pride. To have the league’s stingiest defense and a top ten offense and be 2-7 is unheard of.

The Raiders have enjoyed the play of dual threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor leads the team in passing and rushing and while he has a lot to learn he is a regular on the highlight reels. With oft injured Darren McFadden again out in week ten Pryor struggled and completed less than half of his passes against the Giants. Teams are starting to direct their focus to keeping him in the pocket and from there he isn’t effective. The Raiders inexplicable defensive no-show against Philadelphia has spoilt an otherwise satisfactory season by the heavily retooled unit.

The Texans will be the death of us but again we are on their side. Statistically they are streets ahead of their rivals and at home surely can at last win one.

ATPF PredictionTexans defense strangles the ineffective Raiders and Houston wins by ten.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Denver Broncos

 The game we have been waiting for. The unbeaten Chiefs have had a week to prepare for their visit to Mile High and they are fully aware that a win would not only make them odds-on favourites for home field advantage but would also make a perfect season a real possibility. Denver have just a single blip on their record and have been irresistible at times. This is the best two teams in the AFC squaring off and when you throw in the divisional rivalry you have a game to savour.

The Chiefs turnaround from league’s worst to league’s best has been unbelievable. Andy Reid is a lock for coach of the year for his turnaround of this team after he was sacked in Philadelphia. We knew the Chiefs had talent but Reid and his coaching staff have added to what was already in place and then maximised what the Chiefs have to build a truly formidable team. Defensively Kansas City have as much talent as anyone, they have seven or eight players who have played at a pro-bowl level so far. The 23 turnovers and 33 sacks so far show the big play ability of this defense led by unstoppable pass rush duo Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. The offense is centred around Jamaal Charles, a running back who is still underrated around the league, make no mistake this guy is a genuine contender for Adrian Peterson’s best in the business tag. The Chiefs west coast passing attack which relies on short, accurate passes and receivers gaining yards after the catch has been perfect for quarterback Alex Smith who is having a career year in KC.

The Broncos are a far more open, attacking team. Their league leading offense led by soon to be MVP again Peyton Manning averages over 450 yards per game and Manning has already thrown a staggering 33 touchdown passes; he is set to break all sorts of records. Manning has four genuine playmaking receivers each with different skill sets and a running back as reliable as any in short yardage and goal line situations. The Broncos defense has gotten in its share of shootouts and is vulnerable to the deep pass but with Von Miller back they were far better against the Chargers this past Sunday and the talent on Jack Del Rio’s unit is not of a team in the bottom half of the standings.

The Chiefs wonderful run could come to an end here and if it does there is no discredit in losing to the Broncos on the road. As good as the Chiefs defense is it’s hard to see them stopping Manning and co doing their thing and the Chiefs simply won’t be able to keep pace if their defense can’t force turnovers.

ATPF PredictionThe Broncos end the Chiefs streak at nine, win by ten.

San Francisco 49ers @ New Orleans Saints

Defeat for the 49ers after an abject offensive display against the Panthers has put them two behind the Seahawks and also a game behind the Saints who now hold second position in the NFC. New Orleans bounced back from a shock defeat to the Jets by dismantling the Cowboys.

The Saints offense is always among the league’s best and against the Cowboys they were irresistible, scoring seven touchdowns. Drew Brees is the catalyst behind the league’s second best offense and second best passing offense. Brees already has twenty five touchdowns and over 3000 yards but against the Cowboys the running game showed up also as three different backs rushed for a touchdown. New Orleans defense was the league’s worst a year ago but has been turned around under Rob Ryan and is now seventh in yards allowed. If Ryan’s unit continue at that level the Saints are major contenders for the Superbowl.

San Francisco’s five game win streak was ended when they lost a brutal game 10-9 at home to Carolina on Sunday. The 49ers, the preseason NFC favourites had looked to be coming good after a slow start but couldn’t find a way to breach the Panthers excellent defense a week ago, managing just three field goals and not scoring a point in the second half. Colin Kaepernick couldn’t even muster 100 yards passing and was intercepted as the Panthers defense overwhelmed him. The 49ers were excellent themselves defensively, forcing two turnovers and holding Carolina to just 151 yards. With Aldon Smith back there is little doubt that they are a top five defense.

An intriguing battle between the Saints multi-dimensional offense and the 49ers hugely talented defense. As good as they are the 49ers won’t be able to totally shut Drew Brees down but can Kaepernick and the defense bounce back against another sound unit? Home field advantage is said to be worth around three points but the Superdome is surely worth more. The 49ers are too good to write off but beating New Orleans here is near impossible.

ATPF PredictionA really close game but the Saints can score last, win by a touchdown.

Minnesota Vikings @ Seattle Seahawks

The Vikings season ended long ago but they have improved of late and after just failing in Dallas they beat the Redskins in the Metrodome in week ten. Seattle bounced back after a couple of uninspiring efforts to overwhelm the struggling Falcons and improve to 9-1 and remain the team to beat in the NFC.

Minnesota’s second win of the season and first in North America was inspired by a second half comeback where their defense held Washington to just three points. Quarterback Christian Ponder is back under center and may just about be the best of a bad bunch in Minnesota. Adrian Peterson is hot again now and seems to be better with Ponder at quarterback. The Vikings defense has on the whole been poor, only two teams have given up more yards but after a strong second half showing last week they could be ready to improve down the stretch; plenty of jobs depend on it.

Seattle’s defense conversely is consistently excellent and even more so at CenturyLink Field where the ‘12th man’ plays a big part. They are third in yards allowed and should cause Ponder fits if they can get the lead and force him to pass. The Seahawks offense is still waiting for the energy and playmaking skills of Percy Harvin but behind the relentless Marshawn Lynch they now rank eleventh overall and second in rushing.

Nothing is ever certain in football but the Seahawks on all known form will win this comfortably. Their defense should come up with a few big plays as usual and they will have little problem scoring points against the Vikings 30th ranked defense.

ATPF PredictionSeahawks win by twenty in a one sided game.

Green Bay Packers @ New York Giants

The Giants are really making a go of it after their 0-6 start and won a third straight game on Sunday. Green Bay minus Aaron Rodgers were comfortably beaten at home by the Eagles and without their star quarterback looked a shadow of their usual selves. Rodgers injury looks sure to cost the Packers the NFC North but they may even miss the playoffs altogether.

The Giants undoing early in the season was turnovers. They crept back in against the Raiders and the three they had there will have been a warning to Kevin Gilbride’s unit that ball security has to remain a focus. Eli Manning has weapons, Reuben Randle, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are a talented trio but Manning has to make better decisions when throwing to them. The Giants defense has improved greatly in recent weeks and bailed them out against Oakland. Early in the season they would have lost that game.

The Packers drafted in former backup Matt Flynn who has failed to hold down a starting job since leaving the Packers two years ago this week. Flynn knows the system and will likely start ahead of Scott Tolzien who threw two interceptions against the Eagles. Flynn has plenty of targets and if he isn’t too rusty he should score points here. Running back Eddie Lacy was quiet against the Eagles but if the passing game can have success he could get back to his rookie of the year audition. Green Bay will have to play solid defense if they are going to win without Rodgers, Dom Capers unit gave up over 400 yards to the Eagles and are at best a middle of the road unit. The paltry eight turnovers the unit has forced can be hidden when Rodgers is tearing teams up but when he isn’t around such big plays become really needed.

The Giants have a great chance to win a fourth straight game here, their turnover prone offense faces a decidedly inopportune defense which helps. Their improving defense has a nice matchup also against the Rodgers-less offense.

ATPF PredictionThe Giants make the most of their opportunity, win by ten.

New England Patriots @ Carolina Panthers

The Patriots flexed their offensive muscles two weeks ago by scoring no fewer than 55 points against the Steelers. Their offense was already getting healthy and has now had a bye week to further heal. Carolina meanwhile are red hot, they have won five straight and beat the 49ers in San Francisco last week.

The Panthers defense has a real case for being the league’s best. They haven’t given up two touchdowns in a game since week five and held the 49ers to just three field goals last week. Rookie Star Lotulelei has rounded out a front seven which was already excellent but is now outright dominant. Cam Newton has learned that he can be a star on the team rather than the star on the team and he is doing a nice job of taking what is available rather than trying to always create big plays. Running back DeAngelo Williams had the only touchdown in San Fran and remains a productive player for the Panthers.

The Patriots leant on their defense early in the season with their offense so banged up. Since Vince Wilfork and Aqib Talib went down however the defense has unravelled but at the same time the offense got players back. With the unstoppable Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola both fit and joining Aaron Dobson they looked like the Patriots of old against Pittsburgh. Running back Stevan Ridley has also worked his way back to full health and has been a major factor in the last few games also. Tom Brady once again has an arsenal of weapons to go to war with; he will need them all against this defense.

What a matchup we have between the Patriots offense and Panthers defense. We normally favour a great offense but the Patriots have only been great once, the Panthers defense has been great for weeks now. Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams should both have room to manoeuvre and can guide the Panthers to another huge win here.

ATPF PredictionThe Panthers edge a close one, a field goal is the approximate margin of victory.

 


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ATPF Preview Week 2

With the first week out of the way teams have already been anointed with the titles not given out until December and January. Fans have given up on their entire season and or regimes, general manager’s are already looking at head coaches, head coaches are looking at quarterbacks and we already can vote all 32 teams in power rankings and read experts describing why certain teams and players are failures. All of this tells us that the NFL is back!

Across the pond football gave out our pre season opinions and after one week we haven’t jumped off or onto too many bandwagons but we are looking ahead to week two with the information provided to us a week ago still fresh in the memory bank. Below is our prediction for each game

New York Jets @ New England Patriots

In the legendary words of Herm Edwards ‘they are who we thought they were’. The Patriots are indeed who we thought they were. They are still a tough team to beat but they have lost some firepower and struggled to a late victory against the Bills. It was the sort of game where knowing how to win carried the Pats to success against a team who is trying to learn what that requires.

The Jets meanwhile rode rookie Geno Smith’s 300 yard debut and let their stingy defense grind Josh Freeman and the Bucs into submission. Ultimately a Nick Folk field goal with 15 seconds remaining gave the Jets the 1 point win. When the Jets were successful and able to give the Patriots a run for their money under coach Rex Ryan they played hard, physical defense, ran the ball well and won the close ones, running the ball still needs more commitment but otherwise the Jets practised what Rex Ryan preaches in that week one win.

Looking ahead to week two and everyone has the Patriots cruising to success, Vegas gives the Jets a 12 point start. Don’t be fooled however, this will be a close one. The Jets need to run the ball better; they need to give Geno Smith a chance on third down to put points up but this Patriots defense is still susceptible against the pass, particularly the play action pass. Rex Ryan will have his team right up for this and expect the defense to get in Tom Brady’s face.

ATPF Prediction- Patriots win by less than a touchdown

Carolina Panthers @ Buffalo Bills

The Panthers were desperate offensively in their season opener but the Seahawks may have the league’s strongest defense so things should get easier here. The Bills had the Patriots on the ropes but a heartbreaking late field goal saw excitement turn to the usual despair in upstate New York.

Carolina may have only put up seven points but their defense gave reason for hope. CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are meant to be a dynamic duo out of the backfield but were stifled by the Patriots. The Panthers are excellent in the front seven and will hope to again frustrate the duo. Rookie EJ Manuel will then be pressured to make things happen but the Panthers will take their chances with the developmental prospect. Cam Newton should have some joy against the Bills if his line can protect him and more rushing production should help him and the team further.

ATPF PredictionPanthers win this one by around a score

Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens

The Superbowl Champion Ravens came down to earth with a bump in Denver but a tougher game this season they won’t have. As it turned out all four teams lost in the AFC North, a very rare occurrence but a bonus for the Ravens. The Browns meanwhile hung with Miami for a while until Brandon Weeden self destructed, his days as the starter look numbered.

The Ravens are still well coached, disciplined and above average in talent, the Browns have none of those attributes and a one sided game should occur. The Browns are unlikely to score many more than their 10 points in week one and the Champs should get back on track here,

ATPF PredictionThe Ravens take this one by at least 10

Dallas Cowboys @ Kansas City Chiefs

A pair of teams who got a W to kick off go head to head here. Andy Reid’s debut saw the Chiefs pummel a woeful Jacksonville side while Dallas won on the back of six Giants turnovers.

Key to this one could be Kansas’ excellent pass rushing duo Justin Houston and Tamba Hali teamed with the raucous Arrowhead faithful. Dallas’ offensive line was better than advertised in the opener but a year ago in a similar early season game the Cowboys were overwhelmed by crowd and pass rush in Seattle, a repeat is very much on the cards here. The Cowboys defense will struggle to match such opportunism as their opening win against an Alex Smith led offense which will concentrate on short passing and a heavy dose of electric rusher Jamaal Charles.

ATPF PredictionThe Chiefs get to 2-0 and win this one by between 3 and 7 points.

Miami Dolphins @ Indianapolis Colts

Both of this duo made the most of very friendly starts to the schedule with wins and both will fancy doubling up. The Colts got a bright start but then were under the cosh against the Raiders and had to come back under Andrew Luck in the fourth quarter while Miami only shook off the Browns in the fourth quarter.

Ryan Tannehill will be keen to show he is ascending closer to an excellent group of quarterbacks drafted last year, led by his rival here Andrew Luck. He received virtually nothing from his run game in the opener and if the Colts can stifle the rushing attack they will fully expect Andrew Luck to guide them to victory.

ATPF PredictionColts win this one comfortably

Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears

A pleasant surprise last year, the Vikings lost an important divisional game to the Lions in week one. The Bears got a huge win over the talented Bengals meanwhile. Adrian Peterson still ran wild for the Vikings but he can’t do it alone, with Christian Ponder having a nightmare the Vikings came off the tracks in the second half and without a playmaker like Percy Harvin he could struggle this year.

The Bears are perennially excellent defensively and will be a match for Peterson; he will certainly be their main focus. If the Bears heavily revamped line can keep Jay Cutler upright he should again be able to lean heavily on star man Brandon Marshall and put up plenty of points for the Bears.

ATPF Prediction- Bears build more momentum with a comfortable win

San Diego Chargers @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Chargers blew a huge lead to the Texans in week one while the Eagles got a crucial win against NFC East rivals Washington. Chip Kelly’s high speed offense crucially got more out of running back LeSean McCoy, his best weapon and he will look to him again here. Phillip Rivers had less than 220 yards passing but four touchdowns, crucial to the Chargers inability to put the game away was their lack of success on the ground, a recurring theme since LaDainian Tomlinson’s departure.

The Eagles forced three turnovers from the usually careful RG3 in that opening win and Phil Rivers has a penchant for turning it over so that could be decisive here. With the Chargers secondary heavily rebuilt this offseason they could struggle with the tempo and diversity of the Eagles offense.

ATPF PredictionEagles put up some big numbers en route to victory

St. Louis Rams @ Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons couldn’t punch the ball in on their final drive to beat the Saints in week one but the Rams came from the dead to beat the Cardinals in a thriller. The gulf in class between the two’s respective opponents in those matches however is huge so expect a different story here.

The Falcons lost Roddy White to injury but former Ram Steven Jackson had an impressive debut and will be up for this. Jared Cook had a huge debut for the Rams but the Falcons will be ready for him. Key to this game will be quarterback Matt Ryan who is virtually unbeatable at home and should have success against a defense who impressed last year but struggled against the less talented Cardinals last week.

ATPF PredictionFalcons too strong for the Rams and win by around a touchdown

Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans

The Texans performed a miracle comeback against the Chargers whilst the Titans revamped defense overwhelmed the Steelers offense in a week one win. The Titans know this is a big one for them, losing at home to the superior Texans would already put them behind the 8 ball. Houston meanwhile want to right last year’s wrong and get a bye in the playoffs so winning has to be a habit.

The defenses of these teams will be key but Houston’s more potent offense will put points up and they have a way where somebody always beats you. If it’s not superstar runner Arian Foster or superstar receiver Andre Johnson its quarterback Matt Schaub and tight end Owen Daniels as we saw last week. The Titans and quarterback Jake Locker don’t have such diverse talent and if running back Chris Johnson doesn’t come up big the Texans will fancy their chances, patience could be key in a likely defensive battle.

ATPF PredictionTexans win by around a score on the road here

Washington Redskins@ Green Bay Packers

The Packers were left with little doubt that the 49ers remain the team to beat in the NFC as they again found them too strong in week one. The Redskins meanwhile found the new look Eagles a tougher foe as a rusty RG3 took time to get going.

Green Bay needs to keep pace with the Bears and Lions so a home win here is essential. The Redskins ground teams out with battering ram Alfred Morris last year and used the magic of their quarterback to provide the x-factor. With Morris struggling in week one and RG3 still short of full pace the Pack will fancy limiting the Redskins offense and their potent Aaron Rodgers led passing attack should do the rest against an average defense.

ATPF PredictionThe Redskins can’t keep pace here and lose by at least ten

Detroit Lions @ Arizona Cardinals

The Lions offense came up big in an opening win over Minnesota while the Cardinals blew what could be a rare chance to win in week one.

The high powered Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush trio could wreak havoc on a rebuilding Cardinals defense missing star linebacker Daryl Washington. Carson Palmer showed himself to still be capable against a Rams defense at least as strong as the Lions so points are likely in this match.

ATPF PredictionThe Lions could put up big points here and win by upwards of a touchdown

New Orleans Saints @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A crushing, narrow defeat for the Bucs and a joyous goal line stand for the Saints sees the two meet in complete opposite moods here. Josh Freeman’s woes against a strong Jets defense and the Saints ability to make a stand on defense under Rob Ryan were the back page headlines but things may be a little different here.

With the Falcons so dominant in the NFC South of late the Saints looked like they had spent an entire nine months preparing for them and with a deafening Superbowl behind them they got the win. The offense is always potent but can they keep the ball rolling defensively in an equally important road game here? Tampa are dominant against the run and if Darrelle Revis can keep one target quiet they can hold the Saints juggernaut to reasonable totals. The Bucs meanwhile will look to star runner Doug Martin to earn them the time of possession battle and will expect Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams to cause the Saints secondary fits.

ATPF PredictionThe Bucs have to win this one and narrowly, they do

Denver Broncos @ New York Giants

The Broncos looked unstoppable in week one, annihilating the superbowl champions Baltimore, the Giants outplayed the Cowboys but six turnovers can’t be overcome. The Manning sons face off here with younger brother Eli needing a home win badly, Peyton meanwhile will look to guide his team to beating both of the last two Superbowl winners in as many weeks.

An offensive cast which looked deadly was all that and more in week one as Peyton Manning threw seven touchdown passes. The juggernaut rolls into the big apple against a defense no longer the force of old and it’s tough to envisage the Giants making many stands. New York’s offense put up huge numbers themselves against the Cowboys with three receivers having 100 yards and Victor Cruz scoring three touchdowns. This promises to be a pass fest between two high powered offenses but Denver’s defense are a solid unit even without Von Miller whereas the Giants have plenty to prove on that side of the ball.

ATPF PredictionDenver win an aerial dogfight by around a touchdown

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Oakland Raiders

Both minnows were beaten in week one but the Raiders showed some life, the Jags however were dire. With an extremely long journey out west things may not get much better for them here.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert was injured for Jacksonville, journeyman Chad Henne steps in, little difference there. Terrelle Pryor has taken the start in Oakland, the dual threat had a nice game in week one and teamed with star rusher Darren McFadden could give the Raiders a dangerous run game. A defense likely to be spurred on by the ever passionate Black Hole can again pour misery on probably the worst offense in football.

ATPF PredictionRaiders win, yes you read correctly, infact they win comfortably

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

The niners proved their worth with a repeat victory over the Green Bay Packers in week one, Seattle got in a battle with Carolina but they won it. One of the most eagerly anticipated rivalries of the season will be hugely affected by the two head to head clashes.

San Francisco had almost 500 yards of offense and 40 minutes possession in that opener. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is emerging into an absolute superstar, the dual threat quarterback had almost 200 yards rushing against the Pack in the playoffs and 400 yards against them passing in week one, pick your poison with him. Seattle’s defense is amongst the league’s toughest, no way will Kaepernick get close to either of those stats nor will receiver Anquan Boldin match the 200 yard debut he had last week against dominant corners Richard Sherman or Brandon Browner, Sherman v Boldin will be unmissable. The Seahawks offense struggled in week one and without Percy Harvin and possibly Sidney Rice the focal point will again be Marshawn Lynch, he couldn’t get going in the opener and the 49ers will no doubt make stopping him their first priority. The twelfth man of Seattle is always important but the talent of San Francisco’s offense makes them favourite nevertheless.

ATPF PredictionThe 49ers wear down Seattle’s defense en route to a hard fought victory

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

Both teams lost their openers but Baltimore’s defeat softened the blow. The Steelers were awful offensively against Tennessee, the Bengals lost a topsy turvy battle with the Bears. On that form there is little doubt that Cincinnati, at home, should be favourites here.

Two picks from Andy Dalton in that defeat did little to quieten his detractors and the Steelers at least in Ben Roethlisberger have the better quarterback. The Bengals gave up 24 points to Chicago but their defense is still among the league’s best and considering the way the Steelers struggled against Tennessee, one of the league’s worst defenses a year ago this could again be a long night for Roethlisberger and co.

ATPF PredictionThe Steelers make this a game but the Bengals outlast them


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ATPF Division Preview- NFC South

Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons have emerged as one of the best and most consistent teams in the NFL under head coach Mike Smith and ambitious, enterprising GM Thomas Dimitroff. 57 wins in the last five years, 37 in the last three is a staggering effort. Their postseason improvement has been steady, last year they came up agonisingly short of the Superbowl, in 2013 anything but a trip to the New York showpiece will be a disappointment. The Falcons have the talent, experience, hunger and leadership to be a major contender again, the AFC South looks stronger but so do Atlanta.

The Falcons have no obvious weaknesses on offense. They overhauled a decent offensive line; decent doesn’t cut it in Atlanta. Second year center Peter Konz and fellow sophomore Lamar Holmes move into starting spots as does right guard Garrett Reynolds, a fifth year pro. Sam Baker and Justin Blalock the only two remaining starters on the line are both gritty blue collar blockers. The infusion of new talent brings more size and athleticism to the line and this is the area the Falcons have looked too to bring improvement to their offense. The skill positions could hardly be improved, quarterback Matt Ryan is a calm, composed pocket passer who makes all the throws and is no longer questioned for lack of playoff success. Wide receiving duo Julio Jones and Roddy White are similar, big physical presences and both are threats on any down and distance. They may be the best receiving duo in football but future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is just as important, his return after planned retirement avoids a hole on the roster and expect another productive year from a man desperate for a shot at the Lombardi trophy. The Falcons expect veteran Steven Jackson, coming off a ninth straight 1000 yard season to upgrade Michael Turner who never seemed to have a run of over 10 yards last season. Jackson is a powerful runner but has excellent vision and is a better receiver than Michael Turner. Veteran Jason Snelling and small but powerful Jacquizz Rodgers are both capable players who will get touches of the ball. This is an offense that is destined for success once more; if they get better play from the young line as expected they could easily be a top 5 offense and be even better than the 26.2 points per game they averaged last year.

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan

Defensively the Falcons surrendered yards to team’s chasing the game but not points, the sign of a good defense. Veteran John Abraham left, he is no longer an elite end, Osi Umenyiora takes his place but he isn’t the force of old either, the fact that both Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann can be pushed around in the run game is a worry. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux wears down offensive linemen with his relentless style; he plays bigger than his size and is the Falcons best lineman. Alongside him Corey Peters and underachiever Peria Jerry will split time. Linebackers Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are reliable players but Sean Weatherspoon is one of the leagues very best. Weatherspoon has the speed to chase down plays all over the field and can take over a game at times. The Falcons couldn’t afford to re-sign corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson but drafted rookies in the first two rounds to compensate. First rounder Desmond Trufant is a big powerful corner expected to start alongside veteran Asante Samuel. Samuel gives up big plays and makes big plays, he is a gambler by nature but the Falcons believe that they are good enough offensively to take a few chances on defense. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are both underrated, they form a fine partnership, both have range and hit hard. The defense isn’t as strong as the offense but perhaps it won’t need to be. In Weatherspoon and Babineaux the Falcons have two excellent players but there are question marks over the defensive ends and corners. They will struggle to match just 18.7 points per game allowed with a tough schedule but this is a well coached, disciplined unit that rarely give up big plays.

2013 Predicted wins12-13

Playoff PredictionAtlanta will surely return for a fourth straight season, they may now be ready to go all the way as they expect too.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers– The Buccaneers haven’t been to the playoffs in five years. The Glazer family got the chequebook out in the offseason to try and Holt that run. A 1-5 collapse saw the Bucs unable to stop anyone down the stretch, only the resting Falcons failed to score over 20 on the Bucs in the last 10 games. Signing the league’s best corner Darrelle Revis and pro bowl safety Dashon Goldson is expected to put a stop to such free for alls at Tampa’s expense and instead it will be on the offense to take the Buccaneers back to the postseason.

 Quarterback Josh Freeman had a career year but major doubts still surround him and in a contract year he must play well or second round pick Mike Glennon could get a look. Centerpiece of coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense is running back Doug Martin who had almost 2000 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in a fantastic rookie year. Martin is small but stocky and powerful, he showed explosiveness, vision and consistency and his pass catching ability gives him the potential to join the elite very quickly. Vincent Jackson was a huge success and the tall receiver was Freeman’s favourite target en route to a 1300 yard, 8 touchdown season. Mike Williams was a catch shy of 1000 yards himself and hauled in 9 scores, the size of this duo causes team’s real matchup problems. Depth at receiver is an issue and tight end Luke Stocker looks little more than a stop gap. The line was hampered by Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph both sustaining injuries last year, unfortunately for Tampa, Nicks, the highest paid guard in football and one of the best will miss the start of the season again. Giant tackles Donald Penn and Demar Dotson and center Jeremy Zuttah complete a line that was significantly better when it had two healthy guards last year. With two big skilled playmakers on the outside and the outstanding Doug Martin in the backfield offensive success is dependent on Freeman. He led the Bucs to top 10 finishes in passing and overall yards last year and has the talent around him to repeat. He must improve on the 17 picks he threw a year ago to keep his team from facing an uphill battle.

A bigger contrast you could hardly find than Tampa’s defense in 2012. They were excellent against the run, ranking top overall but woeful against the pass, ranking last overall. They gave up nearly 25 points per game and got worse as confidence evaporated after a narrow home defeat to Atlanta in November. Signing Darrelle Revis was a huge move, if he returns at 100% they can forget about Julio Jones and Marques Colston for years to come, they like many before will become stranded on Revis Island. The other big move was of course for Goldson the instinctive, playmaking free safety who will make chancers pay for errant passes. Mark Barron, Tampa’s first round pick a year ago had rave reports coming out of college; he could form a formidable duo with Goldson. Second corner Eric Wright has had off the field issues and the Bucs will hope rookie Johnthan Banks can beat him to a starting role sooner rather than later. Third year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are the starting defensive ends, both have upside and the defense needs more from each. Gerald McCoy was healthy for a full season for the first team and went to his first pro bowl after a season where he was easily the Bucs best defender. Rookie Akeem Spence should start with McCoy but he is purely a run stuffer. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster each had over 100 tackles last year as part of the Bucs successful run defense, Jonathan Casillas is favourite to step in and round out the starters. There is reason for hope on a defense that was woeful late last year, with the two big name defensive backs coming in and two more young talented players in the secondary they should be a different proposition this year. Getting more from ends Bowers and Clayborn is very important, if they do the Bucs could climb from 29th overall to a top 16 finish.

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Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis

2013 Predicted wins- 8-9 wins

Playoff PredictionHard to see anyone living with the Falcons in the South but the race for second is wide open, the Bucs will hope to win it and sneak into a wildcard spot.

New Orleans SaintsThe Saints offensive juggernaut wasn’t enough to offset a historically bad defense last year. Losing one of the game’s best head coaches, assistants and players to the bounty scandal wreaked havoc on the Saints last offseason. Brees still led the Saints to the second most yards and third most points in the league but the defense gave up the most yards all time in a single season, no team can surrender 440 yards per game and have success. In 2012 new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will try and make this defense competitive but while his record is poor it would be hard for him to not improve this unit.

Drew Brees returns for his seventh year in Louisiana and is the leader of this team in every sense. He continues to play at elite level, rarely has he had much help on defense in his time in New Orleans but he still has a Superbowl ring and can look forward to joining the hall of fame one day. With Brees the Saints are never beaten, his ability to tear even the best defenses apart makes him one of the most feared players in the league. Brees top receivers are tight end Jimmy Graham, 6 feet 7 tall and with wide receiver speed and Marques Colston, a tall if slow receiver who is one of the league’s best catchers. Lance Moore will move into a starting spot opposite Colston and he is at his best in the red zone. Brees like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can transform ordinary receivers into playmakers so expect more from speedster Joe Morgan and big target Nick Toon and don’t discount Ben Watson from seeing success as the second tight end. The Saints always have been and always will be a pass first offense with Brees at the helm but Sean Payton realises he has a talented trio of running backs and wants much more from them. Former first round pick Mark Ingram hasn’t made a real impact yet but this could be his year, his powerful style could help wear down pass rushers and he will split time with Pierre Thomas who like Ingram is tough to bring down. Darren Sproles is the x-factor on this offense, equally dangerous carrying or catching the ball, once he has the ball in his hands the opposing defensive coordinators heart stops. Losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod to free agency was an expected blow but this team is used to losing starting linemen, Charles Brown takes Bushrod’s place on an always impressive line. Teams are too scared to blitz Brees on a regular basis so they will hold up fine regardless of who is in the lineup. An offense that has been in the top 2 overall in five of the last 7 seasons is a lock for a top 5 ranking and certainly amongst the favourites to be the best offense in the NFL again.

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New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan

Rob Ryan has his hands full taking over a unit devoid of talent. Upfront injuries have already bitten and there is a heavy responsibility on former first round pick Cameron Jordan to excel at defensive end. Enormous rookie John Jenkins could win the nose job, his size will cause opposing linemen all sorts of problems and he will clog up running lanes. Veterans Jonathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton are the Saints most reliable players at inside linebacker but finding anyone likely to rush the passer in New Orleans is hard. Unproven duo Martez Wilson and Junior Galette are favourites to play the key outside linebacker spots but it is likely to be Rob Ryan’s complex, blitz heavy scheme rather than their talent that gets the Saints pressures. Former Steeler Keenan Lewis can help at corner; he will replace Patrick Robinson who was dire in 2012. Jabari Greer was little better but will retain his place; he at least has past form as a productive starter. Rookie Kenny Vaccaro should take Roman Harper’s place at safety next to Malcolm Jenkins. Vaccaro is an athletic playmaker charged with cutting down some of the big plays the Saints give up. The defense Ryan inherits are low on talent and confidence, he is an inspirational if close to insane leader and must repair all sorts of issues. You can only go one way from last but don’t expect this Saints defense to be outside the bottom five at year’s end.

2013 Predicted wins7-8

Playoff PredictionOvercoming this defense will be tough for Brees and his offense but if anyone can it’s him. If the Saints were to sneak in as wildcards nobody would want them in the first round of the playoffs.

 

Carolina PanthersAfter a dazzling rookie season the time is now for Cam Newton to take the next step. Likewise head coach Ron Rivera, an average coordinator in San Diego who is 13-19 after two full seasons in charge. A strong finish to 2012 and a linebacker who could become the leagues best however offer Rivera hope. For Rivera to survive the Panthers probably have to make the playoffs but they face an uphill battle to do so.

Leadership and team ethic are the question marks surrounding Newton, nobody doubts his talent. Newton passed for almost 4000 yards last year and accounted for 700 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground, he is learning to be more patient when dropping back to pass and the less he runs it the less he is at risk. Newton shouldn’t lead the offense in rushing again this year, a three headed monster of speedy DeAngelo Williams, abrasive Jonathan Stewart and goal line specialist Mike Tolbert should all get yards and realistically they should be a top 5 rushing unit with Newton’s additional yards thrown in. Carolina’s best receiver by a mile is still Steve Smith who has reinvented himself as he has lost a step at age 34. Tight end Greg Olsen is almost exclusively a receiver and an effective one at that, he is Newton’s only other viable target on a team which has no young talent coming through at the receiver positions. Journeymen Ted Ginn Jr and Domenik Hixon will challenge uninspiring Brandon LaFell for playing time but none will worry opposition. Protecting Newton and allowing this talented stable of backs to flourish has been beyond the Panthers in the last couple of years. Ryan Kalil is one of the league’s best centers and crafty veteran Jordan Gross is still a capable left tackle but beyond them there is plenty to worry about for Panthers fans. Right tackle Byron Bell has slow feet and gets beaten at the snap and there are a whole host of players competing for the guard spots. Second year pro Amini Silatolu should win one job; rookie Edmund Kugbila will have every chance to win the other. Newton led Carolina to a respectable 12th overall last year but to continue to progress this offense needs improved play upfront and a viable third target to emerge in the passing game.

The Panthers front seven looks amongst the league’s best, rookie nose tackle Star Lotulelei will start with Dwan Edwards and second round pick Kawann Short will get plenty of time as a better pass rusher than either starter also. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson both had double digit sacks last year and should be helped by the improvements inside them. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since Patrick Willis in 2007. Willis has long been considered the league’s best linebacker but that is another title Kuechly can take from him. The defensive rookie of the year’s speed, instincts and tackling ability stopped rushing attacks in their tracks and adding Jon Beason back into the mix after injury gives Carolina another fast, productive linebacker. Eight year vet Thomas Davis completes the group and had over 100 tackles himself last year. What will likely cost the Panthers and Rivera this year will be a shaky secondary, with the passing talent in the NFC South they will surely be found out. 11TH year career backup Drayton Florence arrives ready to start opposite Josh Norman who started ten games as a rookie at corner while former Raider Mike Mitchell arrives to play safety along with Charles Godfrey, the Panthers best defensive back. A dynamic pass rushing unit can help the secondary but the likes of Brees and Ryan will quickly find ways to attack this unit and a defense that ranked 10th overall last  year are likely to level out somewhere between that finish and their 28th overall in 2011.

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Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly

2013 Predicted wins4-5

Playoff PredictionThere is no let-up in the schedule for Carolina and while making the playoffs may be Ron Rivera’s target for survival his team has too many holes to expect a serious challenge.