In doing some preliminary work for my 2013 NFL projections, there was a major trend that kept showing up on a division by division basis that will shape the landscape of the NFL season and should have an (positive?) effect on the Redskins, who on their own merits look a lot like last year's team. What I found was that the traditional NFL powers have some issues on their rosters that would threaten their status as the best teams in the sport. And while it makes more sense to bet on teams with a track record than those trying to establish one, I didn't feel when I was studying it that the traditional superpowers were traditionally strong.
Let's go around the league and look at some of the key issues for key teams.
New England Patriots
The Patriots rebuilt their offense in 2010 to feature tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, but both players have run into injury issues early in their careers. And the Patriots have turned over the roster at wide receiver to the point where quarterback Tom Brady may not recognize anyone he's throwing to in Week 1 if he does not play in the preseason. Brady himself has stayed remarkably healthy in the last four seasons, which alone will keep the Patriots as favorites in the AFC East.
The Patriots have mostly rebuilt the front seven of their defense, but the unit is still very much a patchwork operation, mixing stars in with players who haven't developed yet, and the results have been less than encouraging since the 2007 season.
For New England, it's not a question of them being near the end of their run, because the resources (money and draft picks) are still there for them and it's not like Tom Brady's retirement is imminent. The question for New England is whether there is enough under contract to make a real run at a championship because if the team has to start running between the tackles to sustain drives (something they know they can do), the Patriots are not the team we've seen over the last five years. They may still be a very good team, but not a powerhouse.
The Broncos loaded up to make a run this year while Peyton Manning is still an impact player in the NFL, and on the surface, the Broncos do appear to be loaded. Any Peyton Manning offense is based on it's precision, but the Broncos sure appear to have the weapons that the Patriots are lacking from Demaryius Thomas to Eric Decker to Wes Welker.
It's worth pointing out before we laud the Denver receivers too aggressively that none of the above players were particuarly productive prior to playing with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, at which point it makes sense to stress that since the entire offense is built on its precision, we should not confuse great efficiency for great talent.
And this has always been the fueling factor behind the myth that Manning struggles more in the playoffs than in the regular season. The machine that is Peyton Manning built the best statistical record of any quarterback in the history of the game off the back of being so much better than his opponents on a week to week basis that it was easy to miss the pure genius in the simplicity of what Manning is doing. What has always been the case is that when Manning's opponents are more complete teams, you don't see the dominance you see from Manning on many NFL sundays, instead you see a lot of the issues that were there in the roster the whole time.
The Broncos are very much the same team that went 4-12 with Kyle Orton at QB in 2010 and .500 with Tim Tebow at QB. Manning brings a rare level of dominace and precision to the offense, but when Baltimore beat Denver in the playoffs and went on to win the Super Bowl, the similarities between the playoff performance Manning got from his receivers and defense reminded you in many ways of the Indianapolis days.
The AFC West isn't going to give Manning much of a challenge for it's playoff spot, but the Broncos are again going to have an issue against the best competition in the conference because the roster has many of the same holes from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons in the offensive backfield behind Manning and on the defensive side of the ball.
Were the Texans exposed at the end of last year? Maybe a bit. Everything the Texans do offensively is built off the running game. That running game is as good as it's ever been, and in that sense, the Texans are just fine. Adding DeAndre Hopkins to the offense is going to give the Texans an extra dimension. But Matt Schaub looked like a weakness on the team for the first time last season, as we're at the age when his physical skill set starts to come into question a bit.
The bigger issue with Houston causes us to think back three years to the last time the Texans defense wasn't the strength of the team. In 2010, they had one of the worst defensive units that pro football has ever seen, going a very disappointing 6-10. News that the Texans signed Ed Reed without knowing about an injury that would need surgery, combined with the knowledge that the Ravens were not all that serious about bringing back their best defensive back leads one to believe that the Texans may not get much out of a critical defensive investment. The Texans should get Brian Cushing back off injury, JJ Watt is awesome, and Wade Phillips is an excellent defensive coordinator, but the Texans defense has more questions to answer than at any point since their 2011 breakout.
And we know from early on in the Gary Kubiak era that without a strong defense, the Texans are going to lose a lot of games. If Reed and Cushing are healthy, that shouldn't be an issue, but you can't ever rely on good health in football.
I debated not even placing the Ravens on this list because they have generally made very good moves this offseason, and the weaknesses are obvious: if they cannot get Joe Flacco to play like he did in the postseason last year and get just an average player at quarterback, the defense already declined a lot last season after a decade of great performance, and replacing what Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gave you, not last year, but two years before, is not the kind of thing that happens naturally. That they won a super bowl without that contribution tells you a lot about their ability to rebuild on the fly.
I think anyone who saw the playoff run knows this all comes down to Flacco (and Bernard Pierce/Ray Rice/Torrey Smith/Dennis Pitta) to replace that production. So far, so good. But Flacco's career stats have been very spotty, and while he's being paid like the player the Ravens need, he also needs to play like the player he is being paid to be.
The Steelers did not go to the playoffs last season, and this is a team that isn't going to turn around without something giving them a boost, likely from the outside. Something like OLB Jarvis Jones making the AFC North offenses look like those out of the SEC. It's always hard for me to tell when a team is about to crash, and if I had to guess, I would bet on marginal improvement from the Steelers over a drop to the dregs of the league. In full disclosure, I thought the Steelers would win the AFC last season, and they were an average team.
But one thing that has played out in the last couple seasons is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — playing the best football of his career — hasn't been able to keep a hurt, injured, old team from bad losses the way that the Peyton Manning Colts or Drew Brees Saints have been able to. So as Roethlisberger ages, it's hard to look at him as a possible reason that the Steelers will stay on top. When Pittsburgh is done, they'll be done.
A study of the Atlanta Falcons roster shows that the five best players on this team would make up a heck of a fantasy football roster: QB Matt Ryan, RB Steven Jackson, WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White, and TE Tony Gonzalez. Beyond those offensive skill players, this is not a good team. In fact, it's two highest rated defensive players by Pro Football Focus in 2012 were DT John Abraham and DT Vance Walker. Neither will be back next season. It's best offensive lineman, Tyson Clabo, and best DB in 2011, Brent Grimes, are both with the Dolphins. Center Todd McClure retired. And the Falcons had a major problem with tackling last season.
Now, this is a team that has been the NFC's top seed twice in the last three seasons, so you don't want to completely write off the Falcons, but it is difficult to see them back in the postseason without great production from ALL the offensive skill positions because that is where the strength of this team is built around.
New York Giants
The Giants have been the NFC's premier team in the Eli Manning era, a designation they earned with two super bowl titles, as well as given by the consistent failures of the Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins. But I do think we've reached a point where they are no longer the NFC's premier franchise, and probably lack the horses to compete now that we are six years removed from the transistion of power from the old school Ernie Accorsi, to the slightly less old school Jerry Reese.
Reese has made some really good draft picks, most notably Jason Pierre-Paul and Hakeem Nicks in consecutive years, but getting Victor Cruz into the receiver rotation in 2011 may have been more desperation than anything brilliant, and the Giants' talent level has been steadily whittled away since they won the Championship two years ago, particularly on defense. Eli Manning has played championship-level quarterback in years the Giants have struggledd on defense before, and he can do it again, but if everything goes right for the Redskins, that shouldn't matter. They have more horses in the stable, particularly on the defensive side of the football, than the Giants do.