Making projections for 2013 prior to free agency and the draft is like throwing darts. Well, throwing darts with a blindfold on and without an actual dartboard in the vicinity.
But it’s early February — that dark, scary time after the Super Bowl when football fans are heading into withdrawal — which is why looking ahead to the 2013 season can always help cure such maladies.
Prior to the 2012 season, the staff at PFW debated which division would be the best, and the NFC East and NFC North got the most love. The North lived up to its billing with the most collective wins in the league (35). Even though the projected last-place team, the Redskins, finished in first, the NFC East disappointed in 2012 (31 wins).
Looking ahead to 2013, the power in the NFL is clearly in the NFC. Projecting potential roster overhauls in the coming weeks because of salary dumps, some teams may be taking a step back next season. Here’s a valiant attempt to rank the top divisions for the 2013 season — one key is the idea that a division is only as strong as its weakest link, as depth is emphasized.
1. NFC South
Shot in the dark here after three teams went 7-9 in 2012, with a lot of emphasis on the potential of this division. The Falcons had the best record in the NFC in 2012 and there’s no reason they won’t be in the thick of it in 2013. The Saints get Sean Payton back and still have the best quarterback in the division. The Panthers quietly won four in a row to end last season and, with some improvements on defense, could make that jump in Cam Newton’s third season. The Buccaneers looked primed for a wild-card spot before a midseason losing streak. They had a great rookie class last year and if Josh Freeman finally takes that step, the Bucs will be a big factor.
2. NFC North
This is one of the tougher divisions to predict — heck, no one pegged the Vikings to make the playoffs in 2012, but can they do it again with Christian Ponder at quarterback? The Packers are still the class of the division, but they need to figure things out on defense and at wide receiver. Aaron Rodgers is plenty, though, to keep Green Bay the favorite. The Bears got off to a hot start before falling off last season. The hope in Chicago is that the offense will turn it up enough with new coach Marc Trestman to get Chicago back to the playoffs. The Lions took a huge step back in 2012 after a breakout 2011 campaign. The Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson combo and a strong D-line should help Detroit climb back up in 2013.
3. NFC West
The hands-down worst division in football in 2010, the NFC West sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl and almost had an all-division NFC title game. The Niners have a deep, young nucleus that should contend for the playoffs for the next several years, as do the Seahawks and Russell Wilson. Seattle’s defense proved to be one of the league’s best. The Rams went 4-1-1 in the division and appear on the uptick. If Sam Bradford has a strong season, they’ll be a playoff contender. As bad as the Cardinals looked in the last two months of the season, they did have a strong defense, but Bruce Arians has a lot of work to do on offense.
4. AFC North
The home of the Super Bowl-champion Ravens, the AFC North has been the top division in that conference the past two seasons. The Bengals have made back-to-back playoff appearances and Andy Dalton should keep getting better. The Steelers disappointed in 2012 and have some salary-cap decisions to make, but with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, they will still be a factor. The Ravens have big decisions to make with Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin and other key players, but Joe Flacco clearly asserted himself as one of the game’s top quarterbacks. Paired with Ray Rice, the duo makes Baltimore a division favorite. The Browns have been in the cellar for a while, but their top players on offense last year were rookies and get two respected coordinators (Norv Turner, Ray Horton) to join new coach Rob Chudzinski.
5. NFC East
This one can be argued anywhere in the top five, but we’ll aim low because of a few reasons, starting with uncertainty in Philadelphia after an awful season and a head coach in Chip Kelly with no NFL experience. The quarterback question also looms large with the Eagles. Robert Griffin III’s injury keeps expectations tempered for Washington and the NFC East, as do the changes we’re starting to see in New York, with the Giants already cutting Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Canty. The Cowboys are often a wild card, with the personnel on both sides of the ball to contend, but too many struggles in crucial situations to break through. On talent alone, the NFC East is a top-three division, but recent history tells us that this division is no stranger to disappointment.
6. AFC East
The Patriots may be considered a top-three team in the AFC next season, and it helps that they are likely to go 6-0, again, in the AFC East. The Dolphins could be the 2013 Colts — with the potential for big moves in free agency and the draft, Miami is one team to keep an eye on after showing promise in Ryan Tannehill's first season. The Bills were supposed to end their drought last year, but they fell flat. The Jets were a disaster in 2012, and with salary-cap problems and questions at quarterback, it’s hard to envision a playoff contender from Rex Ryan’s crew in 2013 at this juncture. What keeps the East a slight nod ahead of their AFC divisional counterparts is that the Bills and Jets should still be competitive, at least more so than the bottom of the conference.
7. AFC South
With two playoff teams, the South should have moved up the ranks, but there are plenty of doubts about the Texans after a brutal playoff exit. The Colts, the feel-good story of 2012, may find it difficult to repeat their success with teams getting a year of Andrew Luck tape to watch. The Titans and Jaguars keep this division near the bottom of the rankings, mainly with big questions at quarterback. Jake Locker didn’t answer many in his first full season as a starter, and the defense was miserable in certain games. The Jaguars have a lot of work to do, starting with Blaine Gabbert — is he the future? — but also improving a defense that finished 30th last season.
8. AFC West
Last year, the AFC West went 26-38 and had five fewer wins than the next worst division. The Broncos will remain the best team in the division, by a lot, in 2013, though they did benefit from an easy schedule in 2012 and may be hard pressed to get 13 wins again. The Raiders still have residual salary-cap issues to work through and holes all over the field, especially on defense. The Chargers could be in rebuilding mode with several defensive and O-line starters up for new contracts, though a return-to-form season from Philip Rivers would put them back in contention. The worst team in 2012, the Chiefs, get a new coach in Andy Reid and the No. 1 pick. They have talent — as evidenced by a disproportionate amount of Pro Bowl selections — but questions at quarterback.
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