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ATPF Preview Superbowl XLVIII

 

So finally Superbowl XLVIII is upon us and for the first time since Superbowl XLIV in 2009 the NFL’s best two teams by regular season record have made their way to the sport’s ultimate showpiece the Superbowl. There would be few who would deny that we have the best two teams in football facing off here. Fans of the 49ers will point to how little there is between them and bitter rivals Seattle, Patriots fans will point to the losses of Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski and there are probably a few other loyal fans around the league who believe their favourite team is as good as either of these two but truthfully and quite unusually we have the two teams who have dominated their conference from the first whistle nearly 5 months ago.

To try and find the winner of what looks to be a very close match on paper we decided to breakdown the matchups of offense versus defense of the two, then we will look at special teams and coaches to see if we can pick out any more edges.

Broncos Offense versus Seahawks Defense

The matchup we have all been waiting for. Peyton Manning and the Broncos record breaking offensive juggernaut facing off against the Seahawks ultra talented, brilliantly coached league’s best defense.

Before a ball was thrown this season the Broncos looked to have one of the most dangerous offenses in the league but as it turned out their offense broke virtually every major record during the regular season. The 606 points they scored was an all time high, as was the 5477 yards gained as was the 76 touchdowns scored. Put simply the Broncos may have the finest offense in football history right now. In Peyton Manning they have the smartest quarterback in all of football. Manning who won Superbowl XLI back in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts is now 37 years of age and is a certain first ballot hall of famer. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a serious neck injury requiring multiple surgeries before leaving for Denver in 2012. In 2012 the Broncos lost one of the most riveting games ever seen as eventual Superbowl winners Baltimore downed them in a second quarter of overtime.

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Manning had a fine season in 2012 despite the injuries clearly taking some velocity off his throws. In 2013 Peyton’s arm has been much stronger and his throws have been pretty close to what we saw during his glorious career with the Colts. Manning is of course very accurate at all distances but it is his ability to dictate to a defense that is so good. On each play offensive coordinator Adam Gase dials in two plays and Manning chooses his preferred one. Even then Manning regularly checks out of the play or changes his protection depending on what he sees. At times you would think one of the defenders had the play written on their helmet such is his ability to see what is coming. The Seahawks base defense is a relatively simple 4-3 scheme which rotates the pass rush heavily and relies on their corners to cover man to man with Earl Thomas’s closing speed deep field just in case. The Seahawks won’t be pushed around by Manning constantly changing formations and changing plays at the line of scrimmage. They believe in themselves 110% and that isn’t just Richard Sherman. They stay in formation and instead back their guys to be too good for the opposition’s guys and nine plays out of ten they are. Corner’s Byron Maxwell and of course Sherman and nickel corner Walter Thurmond will play press coverage on Denver’s top three receivers and they will then expect their pass rush to get home before Manning can find a receiver who has broken from the shackles. Manning won’t be able to routinely find a receiver just getting open as he has all year against this defense. He will probably have to hold onto the ball a half second longer than usual and will probably have a half second less with the Seahawks pass rush closing in. He might have to take a few chances, back someone one on one, fit a few into tight coverage etc. because this defense covers so well.

Denver’s incredible season has of course been made possible by the supreme yet diverse talents of their receiving corps. In 2012 both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had over 1000 yards receiving and double figure touchdowns and both repeated the feat in 2013. Diminutive slot receiver Wes Welker had his fewest season yards in eight years in his first year in Denver but did miss three games, even so he still had ten touchdowns on the year, a career high. Tight end Julius Thomas was the surprise of the bunch. In his first two years in the league he had just one catch, in this his third year he was just shy of 800 yards receiving and was the fourth Denver receiver to have double digit touchdowns, twelve to be precise. Other receivers to note on the Broncos roster are running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, fourth receiver Andre Caldwell and backup tight end Jacob Tamme a long time Manning associate. As talented as this group is their opposition on Superbowl Sunday will be just as good.

Seattle’s defense is the best around but it is their secondary that really stands out. Cornerback Richard Sherman makes all the headlines for a variety of reasons but make no mistake; he is the best cornerback in football. Sherman has gained near shutdown status now but loves to goad a quarterback into challenging him. Sherman will face up to Demaryius Thomas here and it will be a fascinating battle. Sherman is aggressive at the line of scrimmage and will get his hands on Thomas to slow him down and then follow him when he looks to go deep. Thomas is both faster and bigger than Sherman but Sherman has faced both deficiencies on a regular basis and won this season. Opposite Sherman is Byron Maxwell who stepped on for suspended Brandon Browner in week 10. Maxwell was briefly looked at as a potential weakness as a little known dime corner moving up two spots on the depth chart to replace a pro bowler but that perception quickly changed. One would expect Maxwell to largely shadow Decker on the Broncos left side but Denver may look to switch their receivers to see if Maxwell can deal with the elite Demaryius Thomas. Walter Thurmond is a reliable slot corner who is one of the best in the game but in Wes Welker he faces one of the finest and most elusive inside receivers in NFL history. Welker is so hard to cover and Manning will be bargaining on him getting open regularly for first downs here. What interests me most here is how the Seahawks cover 6-5 tight end Julius Thomas. It would appear that pro bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor or outside linebacker K.J. Wright will have the role but both would see Thomas favoured. Thomas has the speed and catching ability of an NFL wide receiver so to cover him with a good but not overly athletic linebacker like Wright could be disastrous. Chancellor is faster but he would be giving up a huge size advantage and if the Broncos realise he is covering Thomas they will pull him around the field to open up the run game. To cover all four of Denver’s double digit touchdown receivers is extremely tough; expect the Seahawks to have their share of success here but the Broncos to edge the battle.

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The running game of the Broncos has been surprisingly successful with so much attention on their passing game. Knowshon Moreno has been the chief benefactor and the former first round pick has finally stayed healthy to shed his bust tag. Moreno had over 1500 total yards and thirteen touchdowns on the year and his bruising inside running complements Denver’s passing game brilliantly. Rookie second round pick Montee Ball is a similarly big punishing back who will get carries but third rusher Ronnie Hillman has spent too much of Superbowl week in strip clubs to be a factor. Seattle allowed just four rushing touchdowns during the regular season and opposing rushers managed less than four yards per carry so while Moreno will have some success and will be heavily used in short yardage and goal line situations we expect that Seattle contain Denver to well under 100 yards rushing on the day.

Finally in this battle we look at the line of scrimmage. Denver’s offensive line versus Seattle’s defensive line. Peyton Manning is very hard to sack but if you can pressure him and get hits you can force errors, the Saints despite some questionable motives managed it in Superbowl XLIV and it affected Manning, no more so than when he threw the late pick six that all but sealed the New Orleans win. The Broncos offensive line allowed just 20 sacks and 54 quarterback hits during the regular season both league lows. Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly and his receivers are open in a flash so defenders have little chance to get their hands on him and defensive coordinators are all too aware of the consequences of an unsuccessful blitz against this team. Denver’s line paved the way for a sixth best in the league sixteen rushing touchdowns and a healthy 4.1 yards per carry also so they are strong going forward as well as in protection.

The Seahawks got 44 sacks in the regular season, good for eighth in the league and their defensive line got the lion’s share. Former Buccaneer defensive end Michael Bennett’s 8.5 sacks leads the team but Cliff Avril opposite him has eight despite being a pass rush specialist rather than a starter and Chris Clemons has 4.5 despite missing half of the season. Clint McDonald is the top pass rusher inside but again he only comes in on passing downs with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel the tackles in the Seahawks base 4-3. Mebane, McDaniel and giant run stuffing end Red Bryant form a hugely powerful front which was seventh best in the regular season against the rush and held San Francisco’s runners to a pitiful 31 yards on sixteen carries in the NFC Championship. We think Seattle’s defensive line will win this battle but Manning’s quick read and release may nullify it and as good as the Seahawks are against the run they will likely only see it when their chief run stoppers are on the sidelines which will further halt any sort of dominance upfront.

So to summarise this mouth-watering battle we think in boxing terms it will go to the judges. Denver we believe will shade it due to the firepower at their disposal and Manning’s ability to find matchups he can win but if Seattle can grab a turnover or two they will give their offense a real chance to win this game. We are looking at Denver scoring three touchdowns and three field goals in total to get 30 points on this stingy defense.

Seahawks Offense versus Broncos Defense

The headline acts on the other side of the ball have seen these two units almost forgotten by the media in the run up to the big game.

The Seahawks offense was ample complement to their defense during the regular season as they averaged 339 yards per game, good for 17th in the league but scored 417 points, eighth most in the league. Short fields helped the points total but hurt the yardage, realistically this was probably a unit just outside of the top ten overall but injuries were a major factor. Sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has been an incredible success story and threw 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions during the regular season. He has just one touchdown pass in his two postseason games this year but is yet to throw an interception although he did fumble on the opening play in the NFC Championship. Wilson isn’t quite a dual threat quarterback like great rival Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton but he is still very capable of using his legs to make a play. Where Wilson is pretty unique is in his ability to use his speed to create space, buy time and create throwing angles to receivers. The likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are renowned for their ability to keep plays alive and make improvisatory throws off the back of it and Wilson is joining them in this category. Teams generally try to pack their defense in tight to try and shut any holes for Marshawn Lynch but this allows Wilson to run bootleg plays where he gets to the outside and looks downfield. He is a great passer on the move so the Broncos need to stay in coverage until the whistle; a pass play is never dead with Wilson under center.

The Broncos defense was up and down during the regular season, at times they looked pretty dire at other times they looked ready to come good but ultimately the unit ended the season ranked 19th overall and 22nd in the league in allowing 399 points. In the playoffs they have improved, they held the Patriots to just 16 points and 320 yards in the AFC Championship and the Chargers to just 17 points and 269 yards in the divisional round. Considering both of those were top ten offenses the improvement is obvious but both Tom Brady and Phil Rivers are pocket passers, Wilson will offer an altogether different test with hid mobility. You have to go back to the early weeks of the season to see the last time Denver faced a quarterback of Wilson’s athleticism. They completely suffocated Robert Griffin III as Washington had five turnovers against them and they kept Michael Vick from having a major impact on the ground also going all the way back to week four.

Seattle’s offense is built on the solid foundation of their relentless battering ram running back Marshawn Lynch who rushed for over 1200 yards and double digit touchdowns for the third straight year in Seattle having left the Buffalo Bills. Lynch led the Seahawks to the fifth most rushing yards in the league and the team averaged almost 32 rushes per game in total, the second most in the NFL. Lynch has been just as effective in the postseason; he rushed for 140 yards at 5 yards per carry and had two touchdowns against the Saints in the divisional round and in the NFC Championship he finally broke a 40 yard touchdown having been frustrated for long periods by one of the best defenses in football. The Broncos will likely make Lynch their main focus here to try and make it Wilson versus Manning, a battle Wilson simply can’t win.

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Denver were good against the run in the regular season, only six teams allowed less than the 1626 rushing yards they did and they were tied sixth for yards per carry by opposing rushers. In the playoffs they haven’t faced a top running team like Seattle but they held San Diego to 65 yards rushing and New England to 64 and in neither game did a running back find the end zone. In this key battle Lynch will have success, it is basically impossible to shut him down for a full game but he certainly won’t be able to take over the game as he can do at times. Expect Lynch to find the end zone at least once and manage around 100 yards on over 20 carries.

The Seahawks were optimistic about their receiving corps pre-season largely down to the capture of the biggest prize in free agency, Percy Harvin. Harvin, formerly of Minnesota is an explosive athlete and one of the fastest players in the league; he is a threat every time the ball is in his hands. The Vikings lined him up outside, in the slot and even as a running back and he also returned both kicks and punts. But in his first year in Seattle Harvin has been on the field for just 40 snaps, that less than a full game. An injury enforced hip surgery kept him out until week 16 and concussion kept him out of the NFC Championship but make no mistake, Harvin is one of the most feared playmakers in the game and with no clue as to how the Seahawks are likely to use him the Broncos will be terrified of his potential to torch them here. Seattle’s other starter on pre-season depth charts was Sidney Rice who was lost to a torn ACL in midseason and may have played his last game for the Seahawks. With Rice down and Harvin barely seen Golden Tate (898 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Doug Baldwin (778 yards, 5 touchdowns) have been the starters for most of the season. Tate is an underwhelming athlete but has excellent hands, is a fine blocker and displays a nasty demeanour on the field. Baldwin in his third year out of Stanford where he went undrafted into the NFL is another steady rather than spectacular receiver but is having career year. Tight end Zach Miller is a seventh year pro who was productive in his time in Oakland but has never become a major part in the passing game in three years in Seattle. Third or maybe fourth now Harvin is back receiver Jermaine Kearse has been the team’s deep threat as we saw with his ultimately overshadowed game winning 35 yard touchdown in the NFC Championship. Denver’s secondary is headlined by future hall of famer Champ Bailey who finally gets his shot at the Lombardi trophy in the twilight of his career. Opposite him is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a tall, fast, hugely talented corner who has underperformed in his career given his physical gifts but who at his best can be outstanding. Bailey struggles with elite speed now but neither Baldwin nor Tate should have the afterburners to hurt him and against receivers who can’t get behind him his knowledge and technique generally allow him to dominate individual battles. The Seahawks will look to get Tate against Rodgers- Cromartie who is a poor tackler and who lacks the lower body strength to wrap up runners, in space the tough, physical Tate could be too much for his opponent. Overall this one is close; I would say the Broncos secondary despite being a pretty average unit could probably win the battle if it wasn’t for Percy Harvin. We don’t know what to expect from him but I have a suspicion he will have a big influence in this game.

Seattle’s offensive line paved the way for Lynch to again have a big season but they can struggle in pass protection. Russell Wilson was sacked 44 times and hit 94 times in the regular season and has been sacked seven times in two postseason games, more than any other quarterback in the playoffs. Denver’s defense has been inspired by the dominant play of former Jaguar Terrance Knighton. The 335 lbs defensive tackle has become the Broncos star defender in his first year in Colorado with Von Miller spending almost half the season suspended and then going down to a knee injury soon after. Ten year veteran Shaun Phillips, a long time rival with San Diego had ten regular season sacks in his first year with the team and will look to expose Seattle’s pass protection deficiencies. This battle will be pivotal to the game and we think the form of ‘pot roast’ Terrance Knighton can be huge. Knighton’s ability to overwhelm offensive linemen and collapse the pocket could really hurt Marshawn Lynch’s impact on this game and force Wilson from the pocket although that doesn’t necessarily impact his game negatively.

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This battle despite its lack of hype by comparison will be close like that on the other side of the ball. Lynch is irrepressible but won’t have it all his own way so Russell Wilson will be tested on the grandest scale of them all. We believe in Wilson and think he can step up but barring Harvin who may not even be 100% would any Seahawk receiver even make the Broncos roster as a backup? Denver’s defense however is far from bombproof and is especially vulnerable to the deep ball. We think the Seahawks manage two touchdowns and two field goals to score twenty points in this game.

Special Teams

It is far from rare to see a big special teams play in the Superbowl. Think of the onside kick by the Saints, Devin Hester’s touchdown to open Superbowl XLI or ‘Mr Clutch’ Adam Vinatieri’s two Superbowl winning field goals.

With Vinatieri in mind we will first compare the two kickers, Denver’s Matt Prater and Seattle’s Steven Hauschka. Prater’s headline moment came when breaking the record for longest ever NFL field goal as he booted a 64 yarder over against the Titan earlier this season. On the season Prater was 25 of 26 for an offense which scores far more touchdowns than field goals. Hauschka was 33 of 35 and also showed a strong leg, converting all three of his attempts of over 50 yards. In the playoffs Hauschka is 6 of 6, Prater 5 of 6. Both have missed two on the season both have big legs, the two can’t be separated.

Of the punters Jon Ryan had a better season and has a bigger leg than Dustin Colquitt. More notable however is punt coverage, Seattle allowed returners just 3.9 yards per return but Denver for all they didn’t punt that often allowed nearly ten yards per return. Seattle’s punt returner is Golden Tate, his longest return of the season was 71 yards and he averaged over eleven yards per return. Expect to see the explosive Percy Harvin get a look in this department also. Diminutive but explosive Trindon Holliday is one of the most feared returners in the game and gives the Broncos yet another scoring threat. Holliday’s average was less than Tate’s at 8.5 per return but he did have an 81 yard touchdown return. With Seattle having the stronger punter, being better in coverage and having a higher return average they get the edge here. Can they get a crucial big return here? Maybe even return one for a touchdown?

On kick returns for Seattle is usually Jermaine Kearse although again Harvin may get a look. Kearse’s longest return of the year was 40 yards and he averages 21.8 yards per return. Holliday averages an excellent 27.7 yards per return for Denver and had a 105 yard touchdown against the Eagles, matching his 105 yard career long against the Bengals a year ago. Holliday is one of the top two or three returners in the league so he is a huge weapon here and against Kearse, a fairly average returner he certainly is the more likely to break one.

We can’t find an obvious edge on special teams. Seattle are the all round better special teams group but Holliday is so explosive that he alone levels the playing field.

Coaches

Veteran head coach John Fox is in his second Super Bowl having led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVII where they lost to the Patriots. The guarded cautious veteran is the polar opposite to Seattle’s Pete Carroll. Carroll lives every moment, bouncing around on the sidelines, furiously chewing gum, cheering every play. The former college standout has become a first rate head coach in his time in Seattle. John Fox meanwhile has coached football for 34 years with the last dozen in the NFL and is highly respected in the game.

Denver Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, former head coach of the Jaguars is again coveted by teams as a head coach and Seattle’s Dan Quinn, now in his second stint after two years at the University of Florida has continued the excellent work of Gus Bradley who left last year to become head coach of Del Rio’s former team Jacksonville. Offensive coordinators Adam Gase Darrell Bevell are both being linked with head coaching jobs also after stellar seasons.

The old school Fox and modern ‘player’s coach’ Carroll are both excellent and they both have staff ready to step up to the next level too. We can’t fault the coaching of these two excellent teams so can’t give any edge here.

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Verdict

The two teams look closely matched and both are outstanding football teams. There must be a winner and a loser though and we think Denver’s experience and irrepressible offense will triumph over a young Seahawks team that looks to be capable of making many more appearances in this game in the next decade. We predict the final score is Denver 30 Seattle 20.

For added interest………

We like to have a few bets for a bit of added interest on Superbowl Sunday and this year we are going with the following-

Peyton Manning Superbowl MVP- best price 11/10

Percy Harvin to score a touchdown- best price 23/10

Marshawn Lynch over 87.5 yards- best price 10/11

Bruno Mars first song- Locked Out Of Heaven- best price 8/13

Across the pond football

Thanks for making our first season great and our popularity swell. Stay tuned during the offseason for a variety of subjects from draft to free agency to the 2014 season.

 

 

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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.