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ATPF Preview Conference Championships

 

So here we are, the conference Championships, for every player this is the big one, they are on the cusp of the Superbowl and the game they have dreamed of for so long. Of course this is hardly alien territory to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick or indeed any member of the 49ers who of course lost the big game itself a year ago.

New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos

Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning for the AFC title. It’s a script we’ve all read before but this time Manning is clad in orange not blue. In his second year in Denver Manning has had one of the greatest years in NFL history, breaking virtually every single season passing record along the way. Of course Brady’s historic 16-0 season of 2007 saw play of a similar calibre and the two best quarterbacks of this century will once again do battle here, maybe for the final time.

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Brady took a backseat as the Patriots pummelled the Colts on the ground last week. It was a win that will have inspired confidence in New England considering the Colts were one of just three teams to beat the Broncos in the regular season, of course New England were one of the trio too, downing the Broncos in overtime nearly two months ago. LeGarrette Blount led the way as the Patriots scored six rushing touchdowns against the Colts and ran for 234 yards total. The Patriots lack of a superstar receiver minus Rob Gronkowski was easily overcome with Blount in particular’s big day but if the Broncos can tighten up against the run it will be interesting to see how Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman fare against a secondary that gives up too many big plays. The Patriots defense scooped up four interceptions from Andrew Luck last week and the unit tries to mix up coverages and give opposition signal callers a variety of different looks to cause confusion. Manning will enjoy such a battle and his excellence at changing plays at the line of scrimmage could tie the Patriots in knots. The defense of New England has to have some success up front to give them a chance here. If they can attack running back Knowshon Moreno at the line of scrimmage and get some pressures on Manning they should be able to force a few punts but if Manning has time and a viable check down run game to audible to the Broncos dominant offense could be unstoppable.

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Denver’s offense is not just about Manning, the arsenal of offensive weapons at his disposal is what terrifies opponents. Demaryius Thomas is their number one; he is the big bodied dynamic deep threat. Eric Decker runs fantastic routes, catches well and is a danger with the ball in his hands. Wes Welker faces up to his old team here and remains the premier slot receiver in the game, his ability to find a small crease in the center of the field to get open is unparalleled. Julius Thomas has been the surprise of the year; the tight end is a real threat in the red zone and his combination of size and wide receiver speed causes matchup nightmares. Running back Knowshon Moreno is also having a career year, the former first round pick is a tough inside runner who excels near the goal line. The Broncos defense has been up and down throughout the year but seems to have a knack for making big plays just when they need them. They held the Chargers top five offense to just 17 points last week but couldn’t cope with Keenan Allen. Star pass rusher Von Miller’s season ending injury could yet haunt the Broncos and in this game they could really do with him. New England do a great job of keeping Tom Brady upright so minus the superb Miller it will be interesting to see if and how they pressure him.

Both defenses are flawed here so this one will come down to which defense can make a stand every now and then because we suspect the majority of drives will result in points. Expect the Broncos to priorities stopping the Patriots running game after last week and try to turn this into a shootout. If that becomes the case Manning’s superior weapons will be key and for that reason we expect Denver, the AFC’s best team to indeed win the AFC.

ATPF PredictionBroncos 38 Patriots 27

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

These two NFC West powerhouses hate each other and on the field blood is always spilled when they do battle. The two teams are very similar and that’s what makes their contests so fascinating. They both won their home clash against each other with Seattle beating San Francisco surprisingly easily here early in the season.

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The Seahawks only lost once at home this season and their 13-3 record was the best in the NFC. They built their success around the league’s number one ranked defense and the unit gave up just one touchdown in two meetings with the 49ers. The Seahawks are dominant and deep upfront with giant Red Bryant playing over the strong side tackle and speedy pass rushers Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett all rotating in to get after quarterbacks. Cornerback Richard Sherman has gained virtual shutdown status, his physical style and ability to intercept passes strikes fear into opposing quarterbacks. Playmaking strong safety Kam Chancellor and center field hawk Earl Thomas are easily the best duo in the league and round out a fantastic defense. Seattle’s offense isn’t far behind, sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has climbed to the top of an extraordinary quarterback draft class of 2012 with his brilliant play this season. Wilson is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm but even when he sets off he keeps his eyes downfield looking to throw rather carry the ball and his accuracy on the move is as good as anyone in the league. As good as Wilson is veteran running back Marshawn Lynch remains the bread and butter of the offense. Lynch is a relentless battering ram who has a knack of making people miss and is as tough to tackle as anyone in the league. Lynch’s inside running opens up lanes for Wilson to scramble to the edge and make plays. The Seahawks look like missing playmaker Percy Harvin again but he has barely been sighted all year and that hasn’t stopped them.

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San Francisco are in their third straight NFC Championship under head coach Jim Harbaugh and after making the Superbowl at the second attempt they only have eyes on winning the Lombardi Trophy this time around. Like their rivals defense is the strength of the team and after a slow start they ended up as the fifth best unit in the league. A week ago against the Panthers two interceptions of Cam Newton were vital in a game that was considerably closer than the final score suggested. Linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Donte Whitner were the two interceptors and both are top drawer defenders. Willis’s partnership with Navorro Bowman is the heart of this unit with both undoubtedly in the top five inside linebackers in the league and as a unit the two can take over a game at times. Upfront the relentless power of defensive end Justin Smith sets the tone and defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith is one of the most physically gifted pass rushers in the league.  Continuing the similarities between the two teams the 49ers offense revolves around their power running game. Veteran Frank Gore has been a fine player for the 49ers for a long time and he sets the tone. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be the most explosive runner at his position in the league and his speed off the edge makes him a big play threat every time he tucks it and runs. The 49ers passing offense languished near the bottom of the rankings all year but Kaepernick’s favourite target Michael Crabtree’s return has given them a jolt. Hardnosed veteran Anquan Boldin and lightning fast tight end Vernon Davis combine with Crabtree to give Kaepernick a strong arsenal of weapons.

These two know each other so well and such games tend to come down to turnovers. Who will make the crucial error when it matters, who will make the big play that swings the game in his teams favour? We can’t split the two on paper but they reckon home field advantage is worth three points and at deafening CenturyLink Field it may be worth a little more so we are going to give Seattle the edge.

ATPF PredictionSeahawks 17  49ers 13

 


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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 Divisional Preview- AFC East

New England PatriotsThe Patriots look good for a fifth straight divisional title in the AFC East which lacks any other serious playoff contenders. They suffered a reverse at the hands of an inspired Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship last year having lost the Superbowl the previous year. Once again they look to have too much for their divisional foes although whether they have improved on last year’s team has to be in serious doubt.

Offensively the Patriots led the league in both scoring and offensive yards in 2012 but their arsenal of weapons looks severely depleted in 2013. Losing 100 plus catches a year from Wes Welker hurts, his ability to get open is unparalleled and although replacement Danny Amendola is a similar type of receiver his health and overall production both leave something to be desired by comparison. Another huge loss was jailed Aaron Hernandez, his murder charge has surely hurt the whole organisation and the Patriots dynamic duo of tight ends is no more. With all-pro Rob Gronkowski struggling to overcome a slew of injuries it appears Brady may have to lean heavily on rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and will also need more from versatile Julian Edelman. Bruising LeGarrette Blount comes in to help Stevan Ridley who had a breakout 2012 and Shane Vereen who emerged in the playoffs, the loss of pocket rocket Danny Woodhead will hurt on third downs although Vereen has potential for that spot. Anchored by one of the league’s best offensive lines the Patriots should again be amongst the team’s best offenses but whether they are quite the force of old is in doubt.

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Patriots Receiver Danny Amendola

It is obvious after two defense heavy drafts that Bill Belichick believes the Patriots defense is their weakness and he is actively trying to address a unit that hasn’t been championship calibre in recent years. Vince Wilfork remains one of the premier defensive tackles in the league but his new partner in crime Tommy Kelly is a questionable acquisition from Oakland. Breakout candidate Chandler Jones and underrated Rob Ninkovich lead the pass rushers and should get help from rookie second rounder Jamie Collins. On the face of it a quartet of Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty and newly acquired Adrian Wilson shouldn’t rank as low as 29th against the pass again. Rookie Logan Ryan adds depth but the secondary will again need more help upfront to hold up, particularly against the league’s more potent passing attacks. The unit on paper looks better than last year’s 25th ranked squad but make no mistake, they will give up plenty of points and yards.

2013 Predicted wins 11-12

Playoff PredictionAgain likely to reach the AFC championship but don’t look as strong as the likes of Denver so can’t see them making the Superbowl.

Miami DolphinsMediocrity has become the norm in Miami although owner Stephen Ross and General Manager Jeff Ireland are doing their very best to end that. Big money acquisitions Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe and Dustin Keller are joined by third overall pick Dion Jordan on a roster which appears far more blessed with top end talent than in recent years. Of course second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s progression will be all important although the old cliché ‘they will go as far as he takes them’ isn’t quite accurate.

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Dolphins Quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Ranked 27th in total offense last year former Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman’s unit should be improved and have to be if the Dolphins are to get anywhere near the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill is vital to that improvement, he was uneven as you would expect from a very inexperienced rookie last year (just one season as a college QB). He does possess all the physical attributes required for the position and his attitude is impressive. If he can take the expected step forward this could be a vastly improved offense in 2013. He should certainly be helped by the free agent addition of Mike Wallace, one of the league’s fastest wide receivers. Wallace should form an effective tandem with Brian Hartline who had a career year in 2012 and seemed to have great chemistry with Tannehill from the start; they look the ideal duo of the possession receiver in Hartline and the playmaker in Wallace. New tight end Dustin Keller should also be an upgrade; he often flattered to deceive in New York but has the athletic ability to breakout. Losing the dynamic Reggie Bush is a blow so second year man Lamar Miller looks set to get the majority of carries although Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee should both get plenty of touches also. On the offensive line, the loss of former first overall pick Jake Long will be evaluated by how well second year man Jonathan Martin plays in his spot. Veteran Tyson Clabo will move into the right tackle spot whilst a young interior is led by third year pro bowl possible Mike Pouncey. The offense must be improved and they are banking on their big money free agent additions along with improvement from Tannehill to make it happen. Enthusiasm is tempered by a pair of new tackles and the lack of a proven playmaker in the backfield however so I don’t see a top 16 offense.

Defensively the Dolphins bend but don’t break style has been pretty effective in the past couple of seasons. Ranking sixth and seventh in points allowed is an excellent return but their 327 yards per game allowed last year along with just 10 interceptions showed improvement was still needed. All-pro pass rusher Cameron Wake is the star man and should at last get some help in the form of rookie Dion Jordan. A dynamic Jason Pierre-Paul type athlete, Jordan could easily be a rookie of the year candidate. Inside, the enormous Paul Soliai and underrated Randy Starks are an excellent tandem. With Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett gone and replaced by versatile Phillip Wheeler and improving Dannell Ellerbe the Dolphins again have a decent linebacking unit.  The weakness of the defense looks to be corner, Brent Grimes replaces Sean Smith but the team needs rookie Jamar Taylor to start and produce from day one, there is little depth so team’s will attack with spread offenses and pressurise this group. Safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones provide stability but the secondary is still a concern. Defensively Miami have a strong front seven and if Jordan can be effective they could have one of the league’s best pass rushing tandems but their secondary could be found out by New England, New Orleans, Atlanta and Baltimore.

2013 Predicted wins7-8

Playoff PredictionWould need to win all the close ones to make the playoffs but realistically don’t look ready to make it there this season.

 

New York Jets- The Big Apple’s best known soap opera looks set to continue at pace in 2013. Tim Tebow leaves his starring role but rookie Geno Smith can take his place. Brash, abrasive head coach Rex Ryan enters the final year of his contract and his team has been in steady decline the past couple of years. With star player Darrelle Revis gone the team is extremely light on pro-bowl talent and is set for another year of quarterback conundrums and catastrophes. New general managers normally mean new head coaches and barring a big turnaround this looks set to be Ryan’s last season of a head coaching stint that promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver.

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Head Coach Rex Ryan and Quarterback Mark Sanchez

The only place to start when looking at the Jets is the quarterback position. Former first round pick Mark Sanchez has been a bust considering what the Jets traded to get him. In his first couple of seasons as a game manager he was able to get by but under pressure he has been shown up time and again. Even so he is the clubhouse leader at the position over Geno Smith who was the second quarterback drafted in a much maligned class. Much like last year the volatile Jets fans will soon start to scream for Sanchez out when times get hard and Smith will take Tebow’s place as the reputed saviour. He is likely to get game time this year but in reality isn’t ready for a starting role. Whoever is under center will struggle for targets, talented trouble causer Santonio Holmes is recovering from season ending foot surgery while second year man Stephen Hill is still a raw talent rather than a reliable target. Jeremy Kerley is a solid if undersized target while Jeff Cumberland looks set to get the starting tight end role despite ability wise looking no better than a backup. Last year’s leading rusher Shonn Greene is gone but similar styled Chris Ivory arrives from New Orleans via trade. Ivory, a big bruising runner is favourite to start. Another new addition Mike Goodson is more versatile and should at least get third down duties if not the starting role. Left Tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Center Nick Mangold are both amongst the league’s best but the rest of the line is in transition. An offense that ranked 30th overall last year and the same in passing again looks woefully devoid of talent and teams are sure to focus hard on the running game with eight in the box.

The Jets defense perennially carries the offense as it did in 2012 and will again be expected to be elite. Unfortunately being the solid unit that it was in 2012 won’t be enough, Rex Ryan needs to return his defense to being a real elite group but with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis gone they have lost a huge part of Ryan’s better defenses. His place goes to ninth overall pick Dee Milliner out of Alabama, a big corner who excels in man coverage although not quite to Revis level. Antonio Cromartie had his best season for many a year in 2012 and should again be a strong presence opposite Milliner. Free agent acquisition Dawan Landry and second year man Josh Bush look to be the starters at safety but neither inspire confidence. Antwan Barnes was a nice acquisition from San Diego who should help a workmanlike linebacking corps. A steady flow of new, high draft picks on the defensive line has left plenty of talent there with Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and rookie Sheldon Richardson all set to get time at defensive end and Kenrick Ellis likely to take over the starting nose tackle job from departed Sione Pouha. With Ryan back calling the defense this unit will as usual be a strong one but lack of an elite pass rusher hurts and they won’t likely get much rest either.

2013 Predicted wins– 5-6

Playoff PredictionRyan’s defenses have led the Jets to the playoffs in the past but with so little offensive talent it is hard to envisage a repeat.

Buffalo Bills It seems the Bills latest rebuilding process starts every year and 2013 is no different. Former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone is the latest new head coach but talk of superbowls is hardly likely to excite a Bills fanbase used to big promises and small performance. With a three way quarterback battle and a whole slew of veterans released to be replaced by rookies this team is once again back to the start of a rebuilding process. Hopefully for their long suffering fans the Bills will finally come good and start to build something of promise for the future in 2013.

The aforementioned three way quarterback battle is between former Philadelphia backup and brief Arizona starter Kevin Kolb, journeyman veteran Tarvaris Jackson and EJ Manuel, the only quarterback taken in the first round of the 2013 draft. Manuel is the future but Kolb looks the favourite for now, he was viewed as a certain starter back in his Philly days but took an almighty beating in his two years in Arizona. A pocket passer lacking Manuel’s physical tools, I would expect Kolb to start but Manuel to come in in the second half of the season for Buffalo to see what it has. The strength of the Bills offense is the running game led by CJ Spiller who had a breakout year in 2012 despite injuries. Veteran Fred Jackson is a good compliment to the explosive Spiller but what is on the face of it one of the league’s strongest duos is weakened by the fact that both are injury prone. Stevie Johnson is far and away the Bills best receiver and should again comfortably top 1000 yards receiving. With eyes on the future second and third round draftees Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin and second year wideout TJ Graham will all get plenty of playing time and battle for the second receiver slot, Buffalo has to hit on at least one of this physically gifted trio. Big bodied tight end Scott Chandler is an endzone target but not a dynamic playmaker by any means and he is recovering from a major knee injury. The offensive line is one of the league’s better units, tackles Cody Glenn and Erik Pears, center Eric Wood and guard Kraig Urbik are a strong quartet, they must replace the departed Andy Levitre (Tennessee) but have several candidates to do so. A much changed unit and with eyes on the future the Bills offense isn’t expected to be a major force although both Johnson and Spiller are dynamic playmakers likely to make their share of highlight reels again.

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Bills Running Back CJ Spiller

Defensively Buffalo appointed former Jets coordinator Mike Pettine to try and turnaround a woeful unit. Six veteran starters departed, just two came in plus three rookie draft picks. $100 million dollar man Mario Williams is again faced with the same 3-4 scheme which saw him as an  inbetweener in Houston and led to his departure. Kyle Williams, former Seahawk Alan Branch and Marcell Dareus form an impressive looking defensive line with Mario Williams likely to rotate his position but basically just get after the quarterback in a scheme where blitzing should be heavy and often. It is to be hoped that free agent acquisition Manny Lawson (Cincinnati) and rookie Kiko Alonso can breathe life into a distinctly average group of linebackers. Second year corner Stephon Gilmore impressed as a rookie and Leodis McKelvin is also pretty solid. Safety Jairus Byrd is one of the league’s best and a real ballhawk, Aaron Williams looks likely to move into the spot alongside but must prove his physicality for the role. This unit boasts some elite talents but must fill some holes also, particularly in the linebacking corps. They can’t afford to rank 31 against the rush again and must also improve their pass rush but a strong secondary and new scheme give them hope.

2013 Predicted wins4-5

Playoff PredictionInconceivable that Buffalo play on into January.