Try as we might to successfully predict each NFL season, the nature of this league is that some teams will outperform analysts' forecasts while others will underwhelm. With that in mind, which overlooked team has sleeper potential, and which widely praised club could take a step back in 2013?
Jags boast some swag; Packers have numerous areas of concernExpectations are low for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but this team could come closer to .500 than a lot of people think -- with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. Although they won't have Justin Blackmon for four games, there are pieces on the offense. Maurice Jones-Drew, Cecil Shorts III, Ace Sanders, Denard Robinson and a decent offensive line could do some damage.
The team that could fall short of expectations? The Green Bay Packers. I still think they're the favorites to win the NFC North, but depth on the O-line and at receiver is thin, and I'm not sure how long they'll stay committed to the running game. The repeated injuries in the secondary can't be overlooked. That defense hasn't been the same since a neck injury derailed safety Nick Collins' promising career.
Chiefs primed for massive improvement; Patriots will struggle to reach high standardThe good news for the Kansas City Chiefs is that it can only get better than last season. But things might get much better, and in a hurry. Former general manager Scott Pioli left a roster stocked with plenty of young talent, and when Andy Reid arrived, the highly accomplished coach got the big missing piece in quarterback Alex Smith. A glance at their schedule makes the Chiefs a surprise playoff contender. They should be better than the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders in the AFC West, they have games against the rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, and they also face the NFC East -- where Reid's familiarity with the opponents should help. Getting to at least nine victories -- seven more than last year -- is entirely plausible and could give Kansas City a wild-card berth.
With the losses of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and the questionable health of Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots are supposed to be vulnerable this year. But vulnerable to what, exactly? Not to the rest of the AFC East, where the Miami Dolphins look like the only viable competition. As long as Tom Brady is upright, the Pats still get the nod in the division. But New England doesn't play to win divisional titles. Anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will feel like a letdown as Brady's remaining years leak away. And with Brady fashioning his offense from a bunch of new weapons, this doesn't look like the year he gets another shot at number four, because the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos look more well-rounded in the AFC. It is a ludicrously high standard for any team, but in that narrow zone of expectations, the Patriots will fall short.
Don't overlook the defending Super Bowl champs; Indy's win total is bound to shrinkAs strange as it sounds, the Baltimore Ravens will exceed expectations. While they have lost a lot of players and face the burden of defending their Super Bowl title, I think the Ravens' defense will be better. They are stronger up front to stop the run and can rush the passer more effectively than they did last year. They have taken enormous hits at tight end and receiver, due to injuries and the Anquan Boldin trade; Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark will prove to be brilliant signings, though. Joe Flacco is for real, and we know Ray Rice is outstanding. Bottom line: The offense will still be good, and the Ravens will win their third straight AFC North title.
Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts will struggle to match last year's 11 wins -- even though, on paper, they will be a better team. Andrew Luck pulled out too many games for them last season -- that will be hard to replicate. The Colts will miss the playoffs in 2013.
Eagles will rise under Chip Kelly; Falcons could fall back to .500I like the Philadelphia Eagles to turn things around after two disappointing campaigns. They had more talent than their record suggested last year and they play in a weak division. Throw in the Chip Kelly factor, and the Eagles can win 10 games.
The Atlanta Falcons were one of the luckiest teams in recent NFL history during the regular season last year. Their defense is ordinary -- at best -- and they are stuck in a very difficult division. A fall back to .500 would not be a shock.
Cardinals will soar under Bruce Arians; Carroll's Seahawks will take a step backThe Arizona Cardinals will far exceed expectations this year. Bruce Arians is the reigning Coach of the Year, and new quarterback Carson Palmer will flourish under his direction.
On the flip side, the Seattle Seahawks will take a step back. I saw this from Pete Carroll way too many times at USC; the Trojans played their best when expectations were low, but once they became a title contender, losses to Oregon State and Stanford always derailed them. Good news for Pete: Mike Riley is still at Oregon State. Bad news for Pete: Jim Harbaugh is still in San Francisco.
St. Louis will contend for wild card; don't believe the hype around MiamiI like everything the St. Louis Rams have done in the offseason. They've gotten faster on offense, finally adding the playmakers Sam Bradford has needed for years to be competitive. They play in an extremely tough division, but they already have an underrated defense with a couple of great corners and a very good pass rush. Building off an encouraging 7-8-1 mark in Jeff Fisher's debut season, the Rams will compete for a wild-card slot.
Hopes are high for the Miami Dolphins to unseat the New England Patriots in the AFC East this season, but Joe Philbin's squad looks better on paper than it does on the field. Talent-wise, Miami is much thinner than you think, and Lamar Miller hasn't carried himself like he's about to be a breakout running back in 2013. The Dolphins are going to have a ton of games in which they have no choice but to throw the football 40 times in an effort to keep up with their opponents. And you know how that turns out -- just ask the 2012 Detroit Lions. The 'Fins will struggle just to get to eight wins -- six or seven might be more like it. But then there's the sunny side: That still might be good for second in the division!