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ATPF Preview Wildcard Round

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What a crazy week to finish the season. The Steelers mustn’t be able to comprehend how the Chargers ‘won’ their game against the Chiefs backups. The Bears must also be hurting, they had their winner takes all game in their grasp, Julius Peppers had Aaron Rodgers in his grasp, Rodgers escaped, Green Bay escaped and piled more misery on their deadly rivals. There was a familiar theme even minus Tony Romo in Dallas as for the third straight year the Cowboys lost a winner takes all NFC East clash; all three teams have beaten them in the three year skid. The coaching carousel is in full swing too, Gary Kubiak’s position was untenable, Mike Shanahan and Greg Schiano had lost their locker rooms and both Leslie Frazier and particularly Jim Schwartz had failed to meet expectations relevant to the talent level on their rosters. I do feel most for one year head coach Rob Chudzinski, fired by the Browns. Chudzinski inherited a woeful roster and organisation which knows only how to lose, admittedly they fell apart once the season was lost but if Michael Lombardi thinks anyone is making this team competitive in one season he is very much mistaken.

Anyway to look back, we went 13-3 in our condensed week 17 preview, our best week of the year. In our first season we went 151-87 on predictions; we have had plenty of fun and a few headaches along the way but turned out reasonable numbers. Onto the playoffs now and the stakes are raised, we are excited about the next month but hope it doesn’t go too quick.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts

A fortnight ago the Colts beat the Chiefs 23-7 in this stadium so will certainly enter this game with confidence. They have been giant killers in an 11-5 AFC South winning season, San Francisco, Denver and indeed Kansas City were all favoured but all beaten by the Colts. The Colts are not without their flaws but they certainly have the winning knack. Their defense ranked 20th in yards allowed but eighth in scoring, allowing just 21 points per game and the 27 turnovers forced by the unit were vital. Offensively the Colts haven’t been ultra dynamic, Trent Richardson has disappointed on the whole but showed a few signs down the stretch and the loss of Reggie Wayne has put a lot on the shoulders of T.Y. Hilton who has had a solid sophomore year. Andrew Luck hasn’t yet reached the pantheons of the likes of Manning, Brees or Rodgers but is smart, accurate and more athletic than many realise.

The success of the Chiefs, 2012’s worst team has been surprising but not completely shocking. They have a lot of talent; we already knew that and in Andy Reid brought in a highly respected, experienced and successful coach. Reid has got the best out of a team that past managements got the least out of. Kansas City have been led by Jamaal Charles, their superstar running back who was deprived of a 2000 yards from scrimmage season by being rested for the final game and had nineteen total touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Smith’s accurate short and intermediate passing has been an ideal fit for Andy Reid’s west coast offense and Smith has had arguably the best year of his career. Kansas’ defense is laden with stars and boasts one of the league’s most feared pass rushes and most talented secondaries. Few teams in fact can boast the talent that K.C. can on defense with playmakers throughout the starting eleven.

In the first meeting Kansas uncharacteristically committed four turnovers, couldn’t complete on third down and lost the time of possession battle by almost seventeen minutes. They are a team built to not turn it over, not get in third and long situations and to control the clock so the game went all wrong. Andy Reid will want to shut down the Colts run game here first and foremost and allow Jamaal Charles to both control the clock and make big plays. The Colts will hope to do a better job on Charles than in the last meeting but he can make plays in so many ways. Kansas defense is entirely reliant on pressure but they couldn’t get at Luck nearly enough last time and when their blitz doesn’t get home they can be vulnerable.

ATPF PredictionThe Colts finished the season strongly including a verdict over the Chiefs. Kansas City are more solid as an all round team but the Colts were able to exploit all of their weaknesses last time out. Reid will want to correct many of these issues but the Colts won comfortably that day so have to get the edge. It will be closer however this time; we predict the Colts win by a score of 27-20.

New Orleans Saints @Philadelphia Eagles

All credit to Chip Kelly who took the Eagles from worst to first in the NFC East behind one of the league’s most feared offenses. The Eagles finished the season 7-1 to power past the Cowboys and will enter the playoffs with great confidence. Their offense went from explosive but self destructive under Michael Vick to just flat out explosive under Nick Foles. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and DeSean Jackon came back to his best as the dynamic deep threat that terrified defensive coordinators in his first couple of years in the league and a word must be said about the offensive line which paved the way for McCoy’s great season at a tempo which is hardly comfortable to men weighing around 300 lbs. The Eagles have languished in the bottom five of the defensive rankings all year yet they have allowed over 22 points just once in their last 12 games.

The Saints finished the season with an 11-5 record but lost the NFC South to the shock success story of the Carolina Panthers. The Saints are imperious at home but won just three of their eight road games this season and none of those were convincing. Defeats to the substandard Jets and Rams on the road, a crucial loss to the Panthers and a whipping in Seattle further backup the view that this team needs the comforts of home to be at their best. Their best is however arguably better than the Eagles best so there is hope if they can find their best form. The Saints always prolific offense ranked fourth in the league and Drew Brees’ pass attack was good for second best overall. The biggest difference for New Orleans this year was their fourth ranked defense which was second best in the league against the pass. Rob Ryan’s defense uses many different formations, sub-packages, coverages and blitzes and he will hope to disguise his plays from the relatively inexperienced but usually unflappable Nick Foles; it will be an interesting battle.

Offenses grab the headlines in these two cities but don’t be fooled, the Saints defense is the best we have seen for years and I include their Superbowl year in that and the Eagles are way better than the stats suggest too. The Eagles have great momentum, are at home and will find conditions much more to their liking than their opponents. The Saints are a very experienced postseason team and can go toe to toe with anyone but their away form just doesn’t add up to the same as their home form.

ATPF PredictionThis game won’t be an offensive shootout like some are suggesting but nor will it be dull. The Eagles were brilliant in the snow against Detroit a month ago so minus 6 celsius (21 Fahrenheit) temperatures shouldn’t be an issue. The Eagles have enough in their favour to upset the better side here and we see something like Philadelphia 34 New Orleans 28.

San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals

As we spoke of earlier San Diego winning their decisive week 17 game wasn’t far short of miraculous. I have heard a few cynical whispers but the Chiefs did not want their AFC West rivals in the playoffs so such talk is ridiculous. The Chargers have been behind the eight ball all year as their West rivals Denver and Kansas City blazed such a trail yet beating both in their own backyards gave them hope and their win last week saw them in against the odds. They look the most flawed team in the playoffs but their schedule has been brutal so a 9-7 finish was no mean feat and they have one major thing in their favour here. That is quarterback Philip Rivers who has led them to a top five ranking in total offense and in passing. Defensively the Chargers are in stage one of a major revamp and there are some obvious holes particularly in their secondary.

The Bengals at last won the NFC North from perennial Lombardi trophy contenders Pittsburgh and current holders of the trophy Baltimore. In their third straight year in the playoffs they need to win at least one postseason game and with a home game in the cold against the Southern Californians they will fancy their chances. Few teams are as strong on both sides of the ball as Cincinnati; their defense has been strong for a few years now and despite some big name injuries they ended the season as the third ranked unit in the league. Their offense is full of talent too; superstar receiver A.J. Green is among the league’s elite and Marvin Jones has emerged as a valid number two. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert are both good pass catchers and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard form an effective one-two. The lone issue on this team is quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton enters his third straight postseason needing a win and needing to prove that he is capable at this level. Dalton passed for a seventh best in the league 4296 yards and a third best in the league 33 touchdowns but his 20 interceptions is the most of any quarterback to make the playoffs. If Dalton can hold it together and use his weapons the Bengals will be tough to beat.

The Chargers need Phil Rivers to be at his best as he has been for much of the year here against a very stout defense capable of constant pressure from just their four man rush. The Chargers will also hope that Dalton errs as he has in the last two postseasons.

ATPF PredictionThe Bengals shouldn’t struggle against the Chargers defense and should score plenty of points. San Diego will score points also despite the Bengals defensive strength but we can’t see them matching their rivals on the scoreboard. Our prediction is Cincinnati 34 San Diego 24.

San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers

There is history here and it favours the 49ers but the Packers will be ready for Colin Kaepernick this year but minus Clay Matthews they may still struggle to contain him. The bitter weather of Lambeau Field may have been a problem to 49ers teams of the past but strangely the blue collar 49ers ought to be more suited by it than the dynamic Green Bay Packers. San Francisco are a run first, ground and pound offense and veteran Frank Gore sets the tone. The Niners ended the year with the third ranked ground game in the league but they will need more from their passing attack. Michael Crabtree stepped up on their run to the Superbowl last year and they will need more of the same from him having missed the majority of the year. The 49ers ended the year ranked fifth in total defense and haven’t given up thirty points once this season.

The Packers scored 28 against that stingy defense in week one but it wasn’t enough. Their offense has struggled on the most part this season with Aaron Rodgers missing more than half of the season but we all know how dangerous they can be with him at full speed. He was slow to get going on his return last week but typically made a brilliant game winning throw inside the final minute. Randall Cobb is back also and caught two touchdowns against Chicago, Cobb, speedy James Jones and Rodgers favourite target Jordy Nelson are a formidable trio especially when you consider that the Packers have run the football the best that they have since their Superbowl campaign of three years ago. Their defense is one of the weaker units in the playoffs and injuries to their front seven will certainly give Dom Capers some headaches when you think back to the way Kaepernick consistently got to the edge in the playoffs last year and then picked up huge chunks of yardage en route to a quarterback rushing record.

The Packers are a team everyone will fear now but perhaps less so San Francisco who have such a fine recent record against them. The Packers must pick their poison with San Francisco’s multi faceted offense but the matchups seem to largely favour the 49ers.

ATPF PredictionThe Aaron Rodgers factor will be big here but the 49ers are a more talented all round team so they again hold the edge in this matchup. It was 34-28 last time and a similar score is likely. We are going to say 30-28 this time.

 

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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 Divisional Preview- AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals- Since drafting superstar receiver AJ Green and quarterback Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft the Bengals have become relevant in a division long dominated by the Steelers and Ravens. Since the duo became the focal points of the offense Cincinnati has won nineteen regular season games in two years but twice been out in the first round of the playoffs at Houston. The first year they were just happy to have made the playoffs, last season a little disappointed by not going one better but this year they must make a deep run at the playoffs and there is even encouragement to believe they can contend for the AFC Championship. The AFC North will again be brutal, the superbowl winning Ravens and the Steelers just two seasons removed from a superbowl appearance and five since last winning it all make Cincinnati’s job tough but their roster now looks the best in the division and with continuity throughout the organisation they look ready to assert.

Offensively all eleven starters return and the Bengals added skill players in both of the first two rounds to further add to Dalton’s arsenal. Dalton himself is probably the biggest question mark next to the Bengals as serious contenders. He has struggled in his two postseason appearances to date and compared to the elite quarterbacks in the league he doesn’t measure up well. Prolific at Collegiate level, Dalton was a pretty polished player when he entered the league but the question now is has he any upside or is he already as good as he can become. Dalton’s strengths are his accuracy, decision making and football IQ. His weaknesses are lack of arm strength and lack of athleticism, essentially he is a pocket passer who excels in the short to intermediate passing game but struggles to stretch the field, the worry for the Bengals is that the quarterbacks who usually play for championships excel in their ability to make deep throws. Daltons’s favourite target is AJ Green, fast emerging as a serious contender to Calvin Johnson as the best wide receiver in the league. Green is unstoppable matched up one on one and wins more than his share when double teamed, at 6 foot 4 with amongst the best hands in the league he is a defensive coordinators nightmare. Opposite him is likely to be Mohammed Sanu another tall receiver who the Bengals need to step up in his second year, he has reportedly impressed in the offseason. Undersized Andrew Hawkins and another second year receiver Marvin Jones will also see plenty of playing time and look booked for the third and fourth receiver slots. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is the Bengals second best receiver but dropped too many passes last year, first round draft choice Tyler Eifert will pressurise Gresham and both should see plenty of playing time in two tight end sets, having two 6 foot 5 plus tight ends who can run on the field will give defensive coordinators fits. The running game will again see the law firm BenJarvus Green-Ellis get the start, he quietly had a 1000 yards rushing last year but his power style should be complemented by rookie Giovanni Bernard. The undersized Bernard is the lightning rod rusher, receiver and returner that the Bengals have been searching for. The offensive line of the Bengals whilst largely unheralded is solid and has experienced players throughout the depth chart.

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Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton

The sixth best defense in the NFL in 2012 and the one with the third most sacks is largely down to one of if not the best defensive lines in football. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is an elite player, maybe the best in the league at his position and he alone wreaks havoc, his combination of power and quickness is too much for overmatched offensive linemen and the only hope is to double team him. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both gifted athletes who thrive on the one on one rushing situations Atkins creates. Man Mountain Domata Peko rounds out the starters whilst Devon Stlll, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry add quality depth. Signing free agent James Harrison from the Steelers brings a man with two Superbowl rings to the defense, Harrison a nasty hard hitting player brings a bad attitude with him. He was poor last year by his own standards but will have a chip on his shoulder after release, particularly with those two Steelers clashes surely paramount to him. Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict complete the linebacking starters, the worry is that none are great in coverage and teams could find joy throwing to running backs coming out of the backfield and using multiple tight ends also. At corner, veteran Leon Hall is one of the better and more underrated corners around. Opposite him, former Cowboy Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s first round pick who had an injury plagued rookie season will battle for the starting job; the Bengals will hope the younger Kirkpatrick can win it. Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones has behaved himself in Cincinnati and is an excellent slot corner. Reggie Nelson is the team’s best safety but opposite him athletic but disappointing Taylor Mays will have a fight on his hand with third round draft choice Shawn Williams likely to contend for his job. This looks set to again be a top 10 defense behind its dominant line.

2013 Predicted wins10-11

Playoff Prediction– A third straight playoff appearance looks likely which in itself is an achievement for the Bengals but this year they must win at least one playoff game and I believe they will.

Baltimore Ravens- The Superbowl champions have the daunting task of trying to repeat last year’s success, the loss of key starters, including a couple of future hall of famers makes things even harder. Head Coach John Harbaugh is an astonishing 54 wins 26 losses and five straight playoff appearances since taking the helm plus of course now a Superbowl ring. Harbaugh and assistants Jim Caldwell and Dean Pees will again expect a deep playoff run but they only beat the Bengals to the AFC North title last year on tiebreakers so they can’t get ahead of themselves, especially with the Steelers never far away either.

Key to the offense are two men, quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith. Flacco took the next step in an inspired playoff run last year, his eleven touchdowns with no interceptions was one of the finest playoff runs by any quarterback in postseason history. The question mark now is can the strong armed Flacco produce at that level consistently in the regular season to become an elite Quarterback, the Ravens need him to. After starter Anquan Boldin departed to Superbowl runners up San Francisco and tight end Dennis Pitta got a serious hip injury the need for Smith to step up was magnified. Not that Smith hasn’t been a success in his first two seasons in the league but he has been predominantly a deep threat and will need to be more of an all round receiver in 2013. Opposite him Jacoby Jones should get the start after his special teams heroics of 2012, particularly in the Superbowl. Tanden Doss looks best of the rest but there isn’t great depth at the wide receiver position. Pitta’s injury is untimely as he ascended to become a top 10 tight end last year; his replacement is experienced Ed Dickson, a solid blocker but not the receiving threat of Pitta. Running back Ray Rice is one of the league’s best and hardiest players, he hasn’t missed a game in four years and has over 1000 yards rushing in each, a further 2500 yards receiving in that spell shows his value and quality. Backup Bernard Pierce is a bigger, power runner who impressed in his rookie season while fullback Vonta Leach is the league’s best. Four of five offensive linemen return with retired center Matt Birk to be replaced by Gino Gradkowski. The rest of the unit have shuffled around a bit but found their best positions and overall this is now a solid line. The Ravens ranked 16th overall in 2012 and look set to be in a similar position in 2013.

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Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco and Wide Receiver Torrey Smith

Traditionally the Ravens defense has been one of the most feared in the league but in 2012 they didn’t strike fear into anyone in the regular season but by contrast were much better in the playoffs. The major talking point on the Ravens defense is losing both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The inspirational Lewis retired while the playmaking Reed moved onto Houston. The defensive line again look a strong unit, all-pro end Haloti Ngata is the key man, his bulldozing style wreaks havoc on offenses but injuries have been an issue in recent years. Improving fourth year man Arthur Jones should start opposite but veteran pickups Chris Canty and Marcus Spears are both capable starters who should push him. Terrence ‘Mount’ Cody as the nickname suggests is a behemoth nose tackle but has underachieved and will be pushed by rookie Brandon Williams, if Cody loses the job he could find himself cut. The linebacking corps not only has to deal with the loss of Lewis but also improving Dannell Ellerbe who had quietly become a key member of the defense. Rookie Arthur Brown is a speedy linebacker charged with filling Lewis’s shoes and should start inside with Jameel McClain who was lost to a back injury in 2012. Their pass rushing duo of Terrell Suggs who was never 100% after preseason injury last year and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil should be one of the top outside linebacking duos in the league. Ed Reed’s place in the secondary goes to former raider Michael Huff while first round rookie Matt Elam is slated to be the starter at strong safety. Lardarius Webb is a top 10 corner but was lost to a torn ACL last year, opposite him the gifted Jimmy Smith could oust Corey Graham but both will see plenty of the field anyway. This unit has few weaknesses despite losing two future hall of famers, rookies Elam and Brown must hit the ground running but are in the right organisation to do so.

2013 Predicted wins9-10

Playoff PredictionThe Ravens should continue John Harbaugh’s run of making the playoffs and if doing so are dangers to all with their playoff experienced roster.

Pittsburgh Steelers- The Steelers struggled to 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2012 but haven’t gone consecutive years without a playoff appearance since missing in 1997, 1998 and 1999, an incredible stat. On paper however they don’t look to have closed the gap on the Ravens or Bengals but will certainly compete hard for a playoff spot, their best hope may be three teams from the NFC North getting in as they did in 2011. There was a lot of change in Pittsburgh in the offseason and they are making a concerted effort to get younger but it may be a couple of years before they are ready to be Superbowl contenders once more.

In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers still have arguably the best Quarterback in the division but weapons to a Quarterback are what wheels are to a car and Big Ben’s look substandard. Talented underachiever Mike Wallace got overpaid by Miami, the Steelers are too smart to match such deals but his departure leaves Pittsburgh thin at Receiver. Antonio Brown had a poor 2012 after a breakout 2011, he must return to top form and Emmanuel Sanders must stay healthy opposite. Journeyman Jerricho Cotchery and declining Plaxico Burress will fight for time with speedy rookie Markus Wheaton. Fan and Quarterback favourite Heath Miller is a fine all round tight end but could miss the start of the season through injury which would further hurt the passing game. Rookie Le’Veon Bell could start at tailback, with Rashard Mendenhall gone the Steelers are left with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer and free agent acquisition LaRod Stephens-Howling but while all three should get touches Bell won’t have to be anything special to win the job. The Steelers line is an oft maligned group but with Ben Roethlisberger’s live by the sword, die by the sword style of never giving up on a play they have a thankless task at times.  The 2013 unit is a young group made up of high draft picks and anchored by pro-bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, last year’s first round pick Dave DeCastro should help after missing his rookie year through injury whilst tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams should improve and certainly possess the physical tools for the job. Overall an offense that ranked 21 last year wasn’t good enough but even with the prospect of an improved line the Steelers don’t look to have improved a great deal, their best hope may be rookie Le’Veon Bell upgrading a rushing attack which ranked 26th last year.

Defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau again produced the best defense in the NFL in 2012, ranked 1st in overall defense and against the pass and second against the run it was a championship calibre unit that should have been enough to make the postseason. On the defensive line long time starting nose tackle Casey Hampton moves on, undersized Steve McLendon and second year pro Alameda Ta’amu will battle for the job, both should see playing time. Former first round picks Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood should start at defensive end although veteran Brett Keisel outplayed both last year so a three way battle is on, all three will get playing time. With former defensive player of the year James Harrison gone first round pick Jarvis Jones and fourth year pro Jason Worilds should compete for playing time opposite Lamarr Woodley who must step up in Harrison’s absence. Inside, Lawrence Timmons, yet another first round draft choice of the Steelers has become the replacement for James Farrior they hoped he would be and he starts next to Larry Foote, an eleven year veteran in his second stint in Pittsburgh. The secondary will hope to provide more takeaways and key to that is all-world safety Troy Polamalu who has been little more than a spectator in the last couple of years. The hard hitting, field roaming ballhawk is a big play machine but at 32 years old must prove he can stay healthy. Free safety Ryan Clark has only begun to get the credit he deserves in Polamalu’s absence; he is an excellent football player. Cornerback Ike Taylor missed most of 2012 with injury but is still a very solid cover corner, with starter Keenan Lewis departing the impressive Cortez Allen is now slated to start opposite Taylor. Returning William Gay and third year pro Curtis Brown provide depth. Once again Dick LeBeau’s unit will be one of the league’s best, getting more from the likes of Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood and Jason Worilds will be a priority while getting a healthy Polamalu back could transform a top defense back to the steel curtain.

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Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu

2013 Predicted wins8-9

Playoff Prediction– Only a fool would say the Steelers can’t make the playoffs but to do so several offensive players will have to step up and the unit collectively must improve. Pittsburgh knows how to win postseason games and if playing on into January will be feared by all.

Cleveland BrownsNobody can accuse the Browns of being mediocre since returning to the league in 1999, they have been a lot worse than that. Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam after last season and within months Haslam was being investigated by the FBI for fraud; typical Cleveland Luck. Former NFL network analyst Mike Lombardi is the new GM, Rob Chudzinski who has held five NFL jobs gets his first head coaching stint and former Chargers head coach Norv Turner takes the reins of the offense. So, yet again, its start again in Cleveland, ask me if they have the right men this time and in every position I will say no, for the long suffering Browns fans I hope I am wrong.

Brandon Weeden looks set for a second year as starting quarterback but will turn 30 during the season, another genius move by the Browns drafting him a year ago in the first round. A new scheme will see Weeden play more from the shotgun, he was average at best in 2012 and his age dictates that he must improve this season or the Browns may yet again be delving for that elusive franchise quarterback in the draft. Running back Trent Richardson had a solid if unspectacular debut year but he played hurt and could breakout this year, he was talked of as an elite prospect coming out of college. Receiver Josh Gordon had a nice rookie season and Greg Little is improving, free agent pickup Davone Bess looks good value and is a solid slot receiver. Jordan Cameron looks favourite to start at tight end but the jury is still out on him. The offensive line gives Weeden and Richardson a chance, left tackle Joe Thomas is the best in the business and is ably supported by experienced Alex Mack, John Greco and Shawn Lauvao inside, second year pro Mitchell Schwartz will play right tackle. The Browns ranked 25th on offense last year, for Weeden’s sake they have to do better, Richardson, Gordon and Little give them a chance to do so but this is still an offense unlikely to strike fear into opponents.

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Browns Running Back Trent Richardson

The Browns defense played better than the 23rd position that they ranked at season end but had little help from the offense. Unfortunately for a unit that fought hard to the end they are asked to go back to a 3-4 defense just two years after changing from 3-4 to 4-3, more senseless upheaval in Cleveland. That said the Browns have some strong players and emerging talent on defense, an enormous defensive line of Phil Taylor, Ahtya Rubin and Desmond Bryant should be a disruptive force whilst their linebackers are a strong group also. Jabaal Sheard will change position to become a rush linebacker, free agent pickup Paul Kruger had a career year in Baltimore and will start opposite while first round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and former Cardinal Quentin Groves are quality situational rushers. Inside, veteran D’Qwell Jackson and 2012 rookie free agent find Craig Robertson should start. At cornerback, Joe Haden is one of the league’s best and is virtually considered a shutdown corner but opposite him a battle between rookie Leon McFadden, journeyman Chris Owens and third year vet Buster Skrine is wide open, team’s will target whoever wins the job early and often. At Safety TJ Ward will start with either Eric Hagg or Tashaun Gipson. The front seven is strong and has quality depth while Joe Haden is a top tier cornerback, the key to this defense being a top 10 unit which it could be is how the other corners play and not just the starter, if the Browns can get solid play from largely unknown quantities this defense could really be a force to be reckoned with.

2013 Predicted wins4-5

Playoff PredictionIf absolutely every question mark was answered with a huge tick they could be thereabouts but this is Cleveland and realistically another losing season looks a formality.