Analysis  

 

Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers among divisional threats

Turnover. It's a gnarly word in the confines of Corporate America, with its lousy aftertaste sparking some misguided diatribe about "capitalism."

Yet, there is nothing misguided, or off the mark, about turnover when it comes to NFL standings. It's a descriptive word with positive overtones. Without annual turnover among playoff participants, watching the NFL just wouldn't be as fun.

That starts with each division. Over the past five years, there have been 26 new champs out of 40 possible divisional winners. That astounding 65 percent turnover rate is part of what keeps us coming back for more. Basically, every fan base has hope.

In honor of that unique facet of pro football, we took a shot at guessing which team in each division has the best chance to unseat last year's champ. You might be surprised.

AFC EAST

2012 champs: New England Patriots
Likeliest threat in 2013: Miami Dolphins

Why Miami?

There's no reason Miami can't compete in the AFC East. Don't laugh. My colleague Bucky Brooks just penned (OK, typed) an excellent piece on the potential of the Dolphins' offense in 2013. The addition of receiver Mike Wallace gives this club a vertical presence that will force teams to play the whole field. You can bet that Miami -- which is very high on running back Lamar Miller -- will run the football. Defensively, new acquisitions Dannell Ellerbe, Brent Grimes and top draft pick Dion Jordan should give the Dolphins a top-10 unit.

How it can happen:

» The Dolphins must beat the Patriots, at least in Sun Life Stadium. Miami has dropped five of its last six HOME GAMES versus New England.
» Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has to double his 2012 touchdown output. If he throws just 12 touchdown passes again, that will indicate trouble in the red zone -- and lead defenses to tighten up the box against the run.
» The Patriots, who lost receiver Wes Welker and are dealing with an injured Rob Gronkowski, figure to be vulnerable in the passing game. If Grimes can make an impact, the Dolphins will be tough for New England -- or anyone else -- to throw on.

AFC NORTH

2012 champs: Baltimore Ravens
Likeliest threat in 2013: Cincinnati Bengals

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Why Cincinnati?

Cincinnati has the best team -- on paper -- in the division. The defense is loaded with young, talented players in Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict and the oft-forgotten Michael Johnson. Did you know that the Bengals allowed the fewest points in the NFL (102) over the last eight games? That's under 13 points per game. On the other side of the ball, the parts are in place with quarterback Andy Dalton, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, receiver A.J. Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham and a viable offensive line. Don't forget the rookies, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Gio Bernard. They might not all be superstars, but no position represents a weakness -- and they're all so youthful.

How it can happen:

» Dalton must take a step forward, particularly in the vertical game. His passer rating was below 60 on throws that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage last season. He needs to make defenses play the whole field.
» Getting receiver Mohamed Sanu back healthy -- and a year smarter -- should make a huge difference. The Rutgers product caught four touchdown passes in his last three games as a rookie in 2012.
» If Bernard wins the starting running back job, this could be an 11- or 12-win team. As a threat who will open up the air attack, Bernard can bring the kind of juice that The Law Firm lacks.

AFC SOUTH

2012 champs: Houston Texans
Likeliest threat in 2013: Indianapolis Colts

Why Indianapolis?

Indy is listed for a simple reason: quarterback play. If we were going 21-on-21, then the Tennessee Titans certainly could stake a claim, what with the improvements they've made this offseason. Nonetheless, Andrew Luck > Jake Locker. Acquiring veteran back Ahmad Bradshaw only helps the Colts' cause here; if their young quarterback gets some ground support, he won't have to put the whole game on his shoulders. Defensively, Indianapolis re-tooled its roster with mid-tier free-agency acquisitions in Ricky Jean Francois, Erik Walden, LaRon Landry and Greg Toler, as well as top draft pick Bjoern Werner.

How it can happen:

» Toler and Landry need to ball out. The Colts' defense finished 21st in passing yards allowed and tied for 20th in interceptions, while producing just 32 sacks. A few "coverage" sacks would help. So would more pass rush. Hello, Mr. Werner.
» New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has to pick up where the departed Bruce Arians left off, building on Luck's growth while developing a consistent running game.
» Reggie Wayne has to avoid pulling an Andre Rison/Hines Ward -- that is to say, he has to avoid hitting the wall. Wayne turns 35 in November.

AFC WEST

2012 champs: Denver Broncos
Likeliest threat in 2013: San Diego Chargers

Why San Diego?

The chic pick in the AFC West is the Kansas City Chiefs, mostly due to the trade for quarterback Alex Smith and the arrival of coach Andy Reid. It's interesting that no one is considering how much Smith struggled prior to Jim Harbaugh becoming his coach in San Francisco. Smith will have a new offensive coordinator in Kansas City -- and, if you remember, the constant changing of offensive coordinators was blamed for all of Smith's struggles over his first six years in the league. Here's a vote for Philip Rivers resuscitating his career in 2013. Bear in mind that the Chargers went 7-9 last season, whereas the Chiefs fell to 2-14. The Bolts also allowed nearly five fewer points per game.

How it can happen:

» Chargers head coach Mike McCoy needs to improve the passing game by creating higher-percentage shots on intermediate routes. Rivers averaged less than 7 yards per throw last year.
» Receiver Vincent Brown and running back Ryan Mathews MUST stay healthy.
» Manti Te'o has to show that his football IQ is as high as talent evaluators like Mike Mayock say it is. Not only must he anticipate what opposing offenses will do, he also must help get teammates in position to make the plays he doesn't.

NFC EAST

2012 champs: Washington Redskins
Likeliest threat in 2013: Dallas Cowboys

Why Dallas?

The Redskins and Cowboys played their butts off for the NFC East on the last Sunday-nighter of the regular season in 2012. Some Tony Romo interceptions and a shoulder injury to DeMarcus Ware sealed the deal. Expect this division to be up for grabs in 2013. Romo is coming off of a fine campaign, considering the poor play of his line and DeMarco Murray's injury concerns -- and the essential elimination of the Cowboys' running game. Defensively, the Cowboys are switching to a 4-3 under former Tampa 2 guru Monte Kiffin. The thought is that the new-look unit will keep plays in front of itself and create more turnovers. Except for at safety, Dallas has the personnel.

How it can happen:

» It starts with a bit of redundancy: create more turnovers. Can't hammer this home enough. In 2012, Dallas finished tied for 28th with 16. Washington had 31. Think about that.
» The offensive line can't play any worse than it did last year. Subtle improvement, starting with the arrival of first-round draft pick Travis Frederick, could go a long way.
» Everyone I've spoken with thinks Murray is a special talent. However, a player's best ability is his availability, and Murray hasn't been -- available, that is.

NFC NORTH

2012 champs: Green Bay Packers
Likeliest threat in 2013: Chicago Bears

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Why Chicago?

The Bears and Minnesota Vikings are pretty tight. Chicago's defense is stronger, as is its receiving corps (for now). Going further, the Vikes just can't expect Adrian Peterson to rack up 2K again, and Christian Ponder certainly is no Jay Cutler -- at least not yet. So Chicago gets the vote here as Green Bay's toughest challenger. Of course, the Bears' offensive line is still a work in progress. And the defense lost its sideline leader (former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli) and on-field general (retired linebacker Brian Urlacher). Would love your thoughts, RE: CHI vs. MIN ... @Harrison_NFL is the place.

How it can happen:

» The offense can't be chuck and duck. Poor Cutler. Only Cardinals QBs and Tony Romo were seen running for their lives more in 2012. Free-agent acquisition Jermon Bushrod and rookie Kyle Long should make a huge difference on the line ... we hope.
» As we detailed in our look at the NFC's summer storylines last week, Chicago's passing game as a whole should take a step forward. New coach Marc Trestman has been tasked with getting the most out of second-year man Alshon Jeffery and free-agent signee Martellus Bennett.
» The Bears must split with the Packers. No dropping of touchdown passes (Brandon Marshall) or interceptions (Lance Briggs) this year.

NFC SOUTH

2012 champs: Atlanta Falcons
Likeliest threat in 2013: New Orleans Saints

Why New Orleans?

The Carolina Panthers ended last season by winning five of six. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers added Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis to their secondary. Yet, the gut play here is still to go with those New Orleans Saints. Despite all of the success that Atlanta has had in the Mike Smith era, he's led the Falcons to a 3-7 record versus the Saints. New Orleans added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and a quality corner in Keenan Lewis to shore up a defense that gave up 85 plays of 20-plus yards (the most in the NFL last season). The club also drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro. Meanwhile, Drew Brees and the offense have proven consistent through both personnel changes and Sean Payton's suspension. Don't expect a huge drop-off.

How it can happen:

» Ryan will have to play it conservatively at times, as he doesn't have the horses to do much more ... at least not yet.
» Left tackle Charles Brown has Jermon Bushrod's shoes to fill. Protect the franchise, man.
» The three kids up front on defense -- Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins and Cam Jordan -- were taken in the past three drafts. Their growth could make all the difference.

NFC WEST

2012 champs: San Francisco 49ers
Likeliest threat in 2013: Seattle Seahawks

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Why Seattle?

Admittedly, this is the easiest of the eight divisions in which to recognize a threat. Seattle has put together a tremendous football team, especially considering the offseason acquisitions of Percy Harvin and Cliff Avril. The club also produced a nifty draft class and an under-the-radar signing in Michael Bennett. Along with Avril, Bennett should really boost the defensive line. Sure, the PED stuff is a concern. However, it's encouraging that the Seahawks destroyed the 49ers at home last season -- and could have taken the other meeting, too. NFL.com users are in agreement with Seattle's status here, seeing more than just an NFC West title.

How it can happen:

» The Seahawks could have won at San Francisco, if not for six drops. Seattle's receivers as a whole need to be more reliable and clutch than they were in 2012.
» The PED suspensions and allegations cannot be a distraction. Pete Carroll won't let them be.
» Tackle Breno Giacomini is one of the weaker links on a Super Bowl-contending club. If he plays well, the sky's the limit for Russell Wilson and the 'Hawks.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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