Ryan Bradley finishes his 2013 NFL preview with the NFC South and West.
The Atlanta Falcons may be the Houston Texans of the NFC. They have the almost-right stuff. There are many who think Matt Ryan another version of Joe Flacco, but he may be another Matt Schaub, a good quarterback who can’t take that final step. The Falcons improved their running game, and they drafted a few quality guys, but they don’t look like a team of destiny. Instead, they may be a team sliding toward mortality.
The 13-3 finish of last year looks great, but they fell short of their ultimate goal—the Super Bowl—which gives them a rallying cry coming into this season. It just doesn’t look like enough to get them where they want to be.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some pleasure in predicting Cam Newton’s sophomore slump. I didn’t believe a thing about his rookie campaign, and I see him going the way of so many other highly touted quarterbacks who end up journeymen. (Seriously, give it a few years). The Panthers did little to reverse their fortunes in the off-season, and they had just five draft picks, only two of which were used well.
Carolina was upset with a 7-9 season last year, and they’ll be just as frustrated this year.
New Orleans Saints
After a tumultuous year on and off the field, the Saints would like nothing more than a quiet return to their old winning ways. And they might be on the right track, though I think more is being made of the redemption angle than is actually warranted. The Saints have brought in Rob Ryan, who I expect to improve the defense, but they had a largely uninspiring offseason and draft. They may be on their way back, but they aren’t where they want to be yet.
It was almost like a mirage, seeing the Saints end 2012 with a 7-9 record. They’re coming back into focus, but slowly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Remember a few years ago when Tampa Bay was a young team led by a young quarterback (Josh Freeman), poised to rise to the top of the league? Those expectations look silly now. The offseason signing of Darelle Revis won’t be enough to change things, and the only reason Freeman might keep his job for the duration of the season is because throwing in one of their backups would be akin to finding a ball boy to play.
As surprised as people were to see the Saints win only seven games last year, it was even more surprising to see the Bucs only lose nine. Don’t expect that this year.
The Arizona Cardinals may be the only ones surprised they finished in the cellar in the NFC West last season, and they certainly took steps to improve, but they are playing in a division where it will be hard to finish better than third. I expect the signing of Carson Palmer to pay off, at least in the way of better production than they had last year out of the quarterback position. And I liked their draft; they may have scored the biggest sleeper of the entire seven round affair with Tyrann Mathieu.
I expect improvement over last year, but they’re unlikely to challenge the real powers in the division.
San Francisco 49ers
Last year I predicted that Colin Kaepernick would take over the starting job before the end of the season, and was pleased to see him perform the way I’ve expected he would since his days at Nevada. I don’t expect much to change for the 49ers this year. I never liked Jim Harbaugh when he coached at Stanford, but he’s won my respect in the NFL. The biggest worry is whether Frank Gore can stay healthy. Luckily they’ve got a solid running game with or without him. They don’t have an easy road this season, but I expect them to continue to be one of, if not the top team in the league.
The 11-4-1 run to the Super Bowl is the kind of thing that can be hard to repeat, but I’m going out on a limb and predicting a big 2013.
The Seahawks have turned into the kind of team that people will soon love to hate. They have loud obnoxious players, a loud obnoxious coach, and a loud obnoxious fan base. They are Raiders nation as owned by Starbucks. Still they have a lot of talent, not the least of which comes at the quarterback position (Russell Wilson). But they wasted a lot of draft picks, and some of their key players are injury prone.
Last year’s 11-5 finish thrilled fans. Though they’ll be good again, I don’t expect them to quite equal last season’s success.
St. Louis Rams
Let’s be honest, the Rams are a disaster. They hinged their future on Sam Bradford and one good season, but he’s unlikely to have more of those, even with the new pieces that have been installed around him. Tavon Austin has the ability to become a great wide receiver in the NFL, but he’ll get overlooked as long as he’s on the Rams. It won’t help that the Rams have one of the toughest schedules in the league this year. There’s little to look forward to for St. Louis. And though they’ve at least they’ve played the 49ers well in the past. . . how long can that hold up?
The Rams may have been disappointed with their 7-8-1 finish last year, but it’ll look good in hindsight.
Photo: AP/Ben Margot