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Extra Points: Your 2013 NFL Primer
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Scott Hanson might want to take a proactive approach this season and start pricing catheters.
The host of NFL Network's extremely popular RedZone channel isn't likely to get a lot of breaks while bumping back and forth to the scoring action around the country.
A record 11,651 points were scored in the NFL in 2012, with games averaging 45.5 points, the highest average in 47 years (46.1 in 1965).
Meanwhile, a high-water mark of 139 total return touchdowns were scored and nine different teams scored at least 400 points -- New England (557), Denver (481), New Orleans (461), Washington (436), Green Bay (433), the New York Giants (429), Atlanta Falcons (419), Houston (416) and Seattle (412) -- equaling the previous record set in 2008.
With everything from rule changes to coaching philosophies trending toward offense, don't expect those kinds of numbers to be scaled back this time around.
The up-tempo offenses Tom Brady and Peyton Manning run with New England and Denver, respectively, are the templates copycats around the league are looking at in an attempt to keep defenses from substituting, a tactic only enhanced by the fact defensive coordinators began going to rotational fronts in order to keep their rushers fresh for the fourth quarter.
Fewer and fewer defensive lineman have the conditioning to play 80 or 85 snaps a game and the innovative offensive minds have figured that out and exploited it.
SURPRISE ... DON'T EXCEPT A LOT OF SURPRISES: Conventional wisdom says there is always a worst-to-first scenario in the NFL, but the heavyweights are pretty apparent in 2013, so don't expect a real topsy-turvy playoff race.
The Washington Redskins rebounded to win the NFC East in 2012 after finishing in last place the prior season, marking an NFL-record 10th consecutive season that at least one team went from worst to first in its division.
"The credit goes to our head coach (Mike Shanahan)," said Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker London Fletcher. "Coach Shanahan, the way he laid out the plan for us, told us what we had to do and got us ready each and every week."
That said, only four teams who failed to qualify for the postseason in '11 turned the trick a year later (Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle and the 'Skins).
The four new playoff teams a year ago were the lowest number since 1995 and that lack of playoff diversity will likely continue moving forward.
With that in mind, here's The Sports Network's predictions for the 2013 NFL season:
NFC East champs: New York Giants - A somewhat renewed pass rush highlighted by Jason Pierre-Paul and impressive rookie Damontre Moore should vault "Big Blue" back to the top of what figures to be an uncharacteristically soft year for a traditionally tough division.
NFC North champs: Minnesota Vikings - Rick Spielman has put together a championship-level roster around Christian Ponder and it's time for the third- year quarterback to start holding his own water.
NFC South champs: Atlanta Falcons - Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson form the best skill position group in all of professional football.
NFC West champs: San Francisco 49ers - From one through 53, the Niners are the most talented team in football with the offensive line and linebacking corps really standing out as two of the best three positional groups (along with Seattle's secondary) in the entire NFL.
NFC Wild Cards: Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints - The Pack will need to answer the now annual questions about the offensive line and running back situation, but any time Aaron Rodgers is under center, you are probably have a baseline of 10 wins. Down in the Bayou, Sean Payton is back to reform his tag- team with Drew Brees, the best coupling since Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith were flying off the top rope at Madison Square Garden.
AFC East champs: New England Patriots - "Tom Terrific" gets it done for "Team Turmoil" in what looks like a dreadful division.
AFC North champs: Baltimore Ravens - Yeah, there was a ton of turnover in Baltimore, but don't sleep on what Ozzie Newsome brought back in. If anything, the Ravens' highly regarded personnel chief has upped Baltimore's talent level on the field. The leadership will be tough to replace, though.
AFC South champs: Houston Texans - Start with the best defensive player in the game, J.J. Watt, mix in the returning Brian Cushing, and add a little Ed Reed and you come up with another 12-win season in South Texas.
AFC West champs: Denver Broncos - Chalk up a third straight crown for the Broncos in what shapes up to be a dismal division, but that's not what this season is about in the Rockies. Denver must weather the storm without Von Miller early, keep Manning healthy and make sure it's set up for a deep run come January.
AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs - The Bengals are old-school tough under Marvin Lewis, and the Chiefs are primed to turn a shaky schedule into a big leap under former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid.
NFC champions: San Francisco
AFC champions: Houston
Super Bowl XLVIII winners: San Francisco - Everyone is a winner in my home state of New Jersey, but the Niners will leave the Garden State with the Lombardi Trophy after coming up just short last season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota - The reigning MVP's goals are 2,500 yards and 20 TDs. Normally, I would chuckle at bravado like that, but with Peterson, you just say it's unlikely and enjoy the 1,800 yards and 15 scores you will get.
In the mix: Rodgers; Chris Johnson, Tennessee; Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Ryan; Brady; Manning
Defensive Player of the Year: Watt - J.J.'s goals are a little more pedestrian than Peterson's. He wants to be the first 20-20-20 player, 20 sacks, 20 knockdowns and 20 tackles for loss.
In the mix: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati; Terrell Suggs, Baltimore; Luke Kuechly, Carolina; Jared Allen, Minnesota
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Tavon Austin, St, Louis - He's raw, but Austin will make his share of big plays down in the field in the passing game as well as a returner.
In the mix: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston; Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota; Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Star Lotulelei, Carolina - Early returns on Lotulelei have been great in Charlotte and he should be a fairly significant disrupter early on.
In the mix: Matt Elam, Baltimore; Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona
Coach of the Year: Payton - The Saints mentor is almost as good as he thinks he is.
In the mix: Reid
Comeback Player of the Year: Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay - Let's remember when Robert Griffin III takes the field Monday night against the Eagles, it will be official -- he didn't miss one game so much like Peterson in 2012 (A.P. did miss one contest), how can RG3 even be up for this award? Revis returns from the torn ACL to take the best-cornerback-in-football crown back from Seattle's Richard Sherman.
In the mix: RG3; Cushing; Alex Smith, Kansas City
MVP: Rodgers - A-Rod will pilot the Packers back to the postseason again despite Mike McCarthy's apparent disdain for the running game and the fact he will be playing behind a rookie left tackle who wouldn't make half the rosters in football.
In the mix: Peterson, Brady, Manning
WINNING IS A HABIT: There are two ways to look at the preseason. You can take the Marv Levy approach and use the games to find four or five hidden gems for the back end of your roster or you can use the Dennis Green mentality, who once told me "winning is a habit" when he was a rookie head coach with the Minnesota Vikings.
So discount the preseason all you want, but understand 36 of the 47 (76.6 percent) Super Bowl champions finished their exhibition slates with a winning percentage of at least .500 or better. Since the turn of the century, the 13 Super Bowl kingpins have combined for a 32-20 (.615) preseason record during their title seasons.
Translation? You better find a way to win a few meaningless games if you plan on going anywhere.
TUCK THIS: A number of rules changes were approved by NFL clubs during the spring with the most notable change being the elimination of the "Tuck Rule," something that came 12 years too late for the Oakland Raiders.
Other tweaks include limiting the defense to six players on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper during kicking plays, making thigh and knee pads mandatory (something skill position players detest) and the "Jim Schwartz rule," stating that plays may now be reviewed even if a head coach erroneously throws the challenge flag during a play subject to automatic review.
There also will be points of emphasis on several existing rules this season, including a continued emphasis on player safety and a much tougher stance on taunting.
QUICK STARTERS: If you are looking for that one team that will burst out of the starting blocks faster than any other look, to North Texas and the Dallas Cowboys, who own a gaudy .673 winning percentage (35-17-1) on Kickoff Weekend. Of course, the 'Boys' opening day opponents -- the Giants -- haven't been known to stumble out of the gates, either, and are 49-34-5 (.590) in their inaugural appearances over the years.
John Harbaugh is the one coach to look at. The mentor of the reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens is 5-0 in kickoff games. Meanwhile, Washington's Shanahan will be starting his 20th season as an NFL head man and he generally hits the ground running at 15-4.
Indianapolis is 23-9 during September over the past 10 years, but most of that damage was done with Manning under center. Dallas and New England are both 21-10 in the fall's first month over that same period, while Harbaugh's Ravens are just a tick behind at 21-11.
GET THAT EKG: Be wary of watching your favorite NFL team if you are having any heart problems. Nearly 65 percent of NFL games were within one score in the fourth quarter last year and with all the high-powered offenses around the league these days, it's very hard to run any opponent off the field.
"A lot of real close, competitive games come down to the last possession, the last play or one key play right at the end of the game," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "The league is very competitive all the way across the board."
UNPREDICTABLE: In the 11 seasons since the NFL's realignment in 2002, 28 different teams have won division titles. Last season, it was the Redskins winning their first division crown since 1999.
"This league is so crazy, and that's the beauty of it," said Ravens star running back Ray Rice. "You never know what's going to happen."
Well, that's partially true. The one constant is solid quarterback play. New England and Brady have won nine division crowns since '02 and Indianapolis took seven before Manning took his act to the Rocky Mountains.
Try Rodgers and the Packers with six NFC North pelts on the wall.
WELL-RESPECTED: The NFL awarded 45 players to other teams via the waiver system following Saturday's initial cutdown to the 53-man roster limit.
It's no surprise that a league-high five players were claimed from the Green Bay Packers, running back Alex Green (New York Jets), tight end D.J. Williams (Jacksonville), center Patrick Lewis (Cleveland), outside linebacker Dezman Moses (Kansas City) and inside linebacker Terrell Manning (San Diego).
Green, a former third-round pick out of Hawaii, actually led the Packers in rushing last season with 464 yards but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. He's still trying to regain his explosiveness after an ACL tear four games into his rookie season but is a legitimate NFL player.
As is Williams, an athletic but undersized 6-feet-2, 238-pound slot tight end, who flashed every now and again but never produced consistently in Titletown.
None of the Packers' retreads are going to be difference-makers elsewhere, but their new addresses speak to the respect other personnel people around the league have for Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson, reverence which may be a little misguided because Thompson's current roster isn't really anything to write home about.
OLD FACES, NEW PLACES: There are eight new head coaches in the NFL -- Bruce Arians in Arizona, Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Doug Marrone in Buffalo, Mike McCoy in San Diego, Reid in Kansas City and Marc Trestman in Chicago.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of well-known players who filed change of address forms in the offseason, including quarterbacks Carson Palmer with Arizona and Smith with the Chiefs.
Running back Reggie Bush relocated to the Lions while Jackson now calls Dixie home. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin moved on to the 49ers, while Greg Jennings jumped from the Pack to the division-rival Vikings, Mike Wallace took his talents to South Florida and the Dolphin and Wes Welker went from Brady to Manning and Broncos.
On the other side of the ball, defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Revis both went to the Buccaneers and Reed is now with the Texans. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil is with the Ravens, Dwight Freeney went to San Diego and James Harrison changed loyalties from the Steelers to the Bengals.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN 2013:
- The Packers need 10 regular-season wins to become the second team in NFL history with 700 regular-season victories, joining their arch-rival Chicago, which has 722.
- The Steelers need one victory to become the first AFC team in history with 600 total victories.
- The Pittsburgh defense can become the third team to lead the league in fewest net yards allowed for three consecutive seasons. Boston/Washington (1935-37) and Chicago (1984-86) are the only teams to accomplish the feat previously. The Steelers have led the league in fewest net yards allowed in 10 different seasons, the most of any team in NFL history.
- If Brees throws 30 TD passes again, he will become the first player in NFL history with six consecutive 30-TD seasons.
- Brady needs to throw a TD pass in each of his first seven games for the longest such streak in NFL history (54), besting Brees.
- Peterson needs two 200-yard rushing games to tie for the most in NFL history with six.
- If Jackson rushes for 1,000 yards in his first season in Dixie, he will become the fourth player in NFL history to do it in nine consecutive seasons.
- Johnson will become the first player in NFL history with three consecutive 1,600-yard receiving seasons if Megatron turns the trick this year.
- Gonzalez needs 58 receptions to join Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with 1,300 catches.
- Oakland defensive back Charles Woodson needs one interception-return TD to tie Rod Woodson for the most all-time with 12.
- Chicago's Devin Hester needs one return TD to tie Deion Sanders' 19 for the most in NFL history.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/2cjp9l8
THE GAMES (All Times Eastern) - WEEK 1
Baltimore at Denver, Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: To those in the Charm City, it's called the "Mile High Miracle." To others in the Rocky Mountains, it's the "Denver Debacle." No matter the title, however, the sequel starts filming Thursday when the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens return to the scene of the crime.
The Ravens, of course, stunned Denver on the same field back in January in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, taking the fourth-longest game in NFL history by a 38-35 score in double overtime en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII, highlighted by the now famous Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones desperation heave which turned into a 70-yard score and tied the game at the end of regulation.
Revenge is a powerful tonic and the Broncos will be looking to right the wrongs of last January. This contest will likely mean more to Denver and the Ravens have undergone a few too many changes to hit the ground running.
PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Ravens 20
New England at Buffalo, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Pats by 9 1/2
THE SKINNY: Aaron Hernandez is in jail, Wes Welker is in Denver, Danny Woodhead is in San Diego, Brandon Lloyd is on the unemployment line and all- world tight end Rob Gronkowski remains sidelined after multiple surgeries on his forearm and back. And as they say, the cavalry isn't coming through the door. That's 338 of New England's 402 total receptions from a year ago that won't be in western New York, but does anyone really want to bet against Brady and take E.J. Manuel?
Didn't think so.
PREDICTION: Patriots 30, Bills 13
Seattle at Carolina, Sunday. 1 p.m.
Line: Seahawks by 3
THE SKINNY: Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson tries to build on his 26-TD rookie season, tied for the most passing TDs by a rookie in NFL history. The Seahawks won their final five regular-season games a year ago and advanced to NFC Divisional round before bowing out in Atlanta, while Carolina ended 2012 on a four-game winning streak.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 24, Panthers 20
Cincinnati at Chicago, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bears by 3
THE SKINNY: Forget out of the box, the Chicago Bears went north of the border in an effort to get the most out of their enigmatic but extremely talented quarterback Jay Cutler, hiring ex-Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman.
GM Phil Emery was just the latest NFL executive to subscribe to the theory that most of the innovation in football, especially offensive football, is taking place outside the league in places like college, the Arena Football League and Canada, where Trestman was a two-time Grey Cup winner as the head coach of the Alouettes.
Cutler, Trestman and the Bears will be tested early against a Bengals team with a very physical front seven in search of a third straight postseason bid.
PREDICTION: Bengals 23, Bears 17
Miami at Cleveland, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Pick 'em
THE SKINNY: The Browns will be aiming for their fourth consecutive win at home versus Miami in what will be Rob Chudzinski's head coaching debut. The Dolphins will be working in a host of new players, including prized free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, who have averaged 20.8 yards per catch against Cleveland during his career (16 receptions, 333 yards).
PREDICTION: Browns 17, Dolphins 16
Minnesota at Detroit, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Lions by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: The only way Detroit wins this one is in a shootout and it certainly has the offensive firepower to do so, but it's hard to imagine the Lions back seven on defense stopping Peterson on a consistent basis. In 11 career games against the Lions, the reigning NFL MVP has rushed for 100-plus yards seven times and amassed 36 different rushes of 10-or-more yards.
PREDICTION: Vikings 24, Lions 20
Oakland at Indianapolis, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Colts by 9 1/2
THE SKINNY: Former Green Bay and Seattle backup Matt Flynn was supposed to be the man at quarterback for the Raiders ,but a poor preseason performance put Terrelle Pryor into the mix and the Ohio State product took the baton.
It makes sense because the Raiders don't have the type of talent to compete on a consistent basis, so they are going to need some unconventional plays to win games, something Pryor can make happen with his athleticism.
Good West Coast teams tend to have trouble traveling across the country and playing early games. The Raiders may be the least talented team in football and this shapes up as a fairly easy second-season opener for Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano.
PREDICTION: Colts 27, Raiders 10
Kansas City at Jacksonville, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Chiefs by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: It's rare that a team which finished 2-14 the year prior is a favorite on the road in Week 1 but that's the position Kansas City finds itself in as the Chiefs begin the Andy Reid era in Jacksonville. Since 2011, new K.C. QB Alex Smith is 19-5-1 as starter with 30 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a solid 95.1 passer rating.
The Jags start over with Bradley, the former Seattle defensive coordinator, running things and the banged-up Blaine Gabbert getting one last mulligan as the game's most important position. Jacksonville is 11-7 (.611) overall on Kickoff Weekend, the third-best winning percentage in the NFL.
PREDICTION: Chiefs 21, Jaguars 20
Atlanta at New Orleans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 3
THE SKINNY: The Saints and their NFC South rival Falcons will be meeting for the seventh time in a season opener. New Orleans holds an 11-3 advantage over Atlanta since 2006, when Sean Payton was hired as the head coach in the Bayou. Meanwhile, since 2003 the Saints have only lost once to the Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Atlanta has made playoffs in four of five seasons under head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan has 56 career wins as a starting signal caller, the most ever through five seasons.
PREDICTION: Saints 34, Falcons 27
Tampa Bay at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bucs by 3
THE SKINNY: The Jets hope Sunday's game with Tampa Bay doesn't turn into Darrelle Revis' revenge. The former Jets cornerback, who was selected by the club in the first round of 2007 Draft and named to four Pro Bowls during his six years in North Jersey, will return to MetLife Stadium in an attempt to turn Geno Smith's first NFL start into a nightmare. New York, though, is 6-0 all-time against the Bucs at home.
PREDICTION: Bucs 24, Jets 14
Tennessee at Pittsburgh, Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Steelers by 7
THE SKINNY: The Steelers have won 10 straight home openers, the longest active streak in the NFL. Head coach Mike Tomlin is a perfect 6-0 on Kickoff Weekend and Pittsburgh will be aiming for a fourth straight home win over Tennessee. Titans coach Mike Munchak starts his 32nd consecutive year with the organization and will look to third-year quarterback Jake Locker as his barometer. Tennessee has won three straight when Locker records a passer rating of 90 or above.
PREDICTION: Steelers 23, Titans 14
Arizona at St. Louis, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Rams by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Cardinals travel to St. Louis for the debut of Arians, their first-year coach. Following an offseason overhaul, the new-look Cards enter Week 1 with a projected starting lineup that features 14 players who were not starters for Arizona in 2012. The Rams, meanwhile, helped out Sam Bradford by adding rookie playmaker Austin and veteran left tackle Jake Long.
QBs Carson Palmer and Bradford, both former Heisman Trophy winners drafted No. 1 overall, face off for the first time as professionals. . PREDICTION: Rams 21, Cardinals 17
Green Bay at San Francisco, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: The reigning NFC champion 49ers knocked the Packers out of the playoffs last season during the divisional round when Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, the most by QB in NFL history. Green Bay will need to find a way to slow Kaepernick down while relying on QB Aaron Rodgers offensively. Rodgers has recorded a 100-plus passer rating in four consecutive seasons, tied with Hall of Famer and ex-49er Steve Young for the longest streak in NFL lore. . PREDICTION: 49ers 30, Packers 24
New York Giants at Dallas, Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Cowboys have yet to beat the Giants at AT&T Stadium but have an imposing 36-17-1 record on Kickoff Weekend. "Big Blue" is 4-0 at Jerry Jones' Palace just outside of Dallas and will sport Eli Manning at QB for the 135th straight time, the longest active streak by any pilot in the NFL. Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who has 111 sacks since entering the league in 2005, will be trying to harass Manning. Ware has 4 1/2 sacks in his past three efforts versus New York. . PREDICTION: Cowboys 21, Giants 20
Philadelphia at Washington, Monday, 6:55 p.m.
LINE: Redskins by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: RGIII will be under center for the Redskins as they open the 2013 NFL season by hosting NFC East-rival Philadelphia on "Monday Night Football." The reigning NFL Rookie of the Year, of course, spearheaded Washington's 2012 revival, but was knocked out of a wild card game versus Seattle with tears to both the lateral collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee on Jan. 6. Philadelphia starts its new era with Kelly, the former Oregon coach, running things and a familiar face at QB, veteran Michael Vick, the only player in NFL history with 20,000-plus passing yards (20,274) and 5,000-plus rushing (5,551) yards. Vick has won his past three starts against the 'Skins. . PREDICTION: Redskins 23, Eagles 13
Houston at San Diego, Monday, 10:20 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Chargers have never lost to the Texans, compiling a 4-0 all- time mark against Houston. New San Diego coach Mike McCoy may have a tough time living up to that, however, because the Texans have won four straight road openers and are coming off a season in which they piled up the most wins in franchise history with 12. . PREDICTION: Texans 31, Chargers 20
09/04 13:40:45 ET
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