Analysis  

 

Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks still on Super Bowl path

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Cincinnati Bengals disembarked from their flight here Wednesday night with a bounce in their step, flying high from a four-game winning streak that most recently included a comprehensive destruction of Rex Ryan's defense in a 49-9 thrashing of the New York Jets.

Midway through the 2013 NFL season, as they prepare for their "Thursday Night Football" matchup with the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals are starting to resemble the team I expected them to be back in August when, shortly after arriving at NFL.com, I offended football fans from the Rockies to New England by picking Cincinnati to win the AFC.

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Looking back on my preseason predictions, including the biggie -- that the Seattle Seahawks would defeat the Bengals in Super Bowl XLVIII -- I'm somewhat stunned that, for the most part, they don't seem uniformly foolish in retrospect.

After all, NFL picks are like "Breaking Bad" episodes: so much well-crafted thought behind them, so much potential for humiliation and heartbreak. Even a proven prognosticator like yours truly typically needs to reassess his sensibilities by midseason, at which point I am mercilessly clowned for my prior miscalculations, as Google's existence becomes my mortal enemy.

Hey, I have a great job. This merely is an occupational hazard.

Because football is a brutal sport with 22 moving parts on every play, seeing the future is trickier than it seems. Seasons are routinely altered -- or ruined -- with one hellacious hit or awkward landing. Put it this way: If you'd known before Week 1 that impact players such as Ryan Clady, Julio Jones, Reggie Wayne, Sam Bradford, Randall Cobb, Jay Cutler, Maurkice Pouncey, Leon Hall, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo (not to mention Aldon Smith) would be lost for all or much of the 2013 season, how different would your mindset have been?

It's not just the injuries, either: Predicting how 53 men will behave in an endeavor that measures commitment by a collective willingness to defy rational thought (i.e., allowing one's arm to be bent at an unseemly angle in the hope of keeping a ball carrier from gaining an extra yard) hardly is an exact science.

So, given those caveats, how am I feeling about my preseason predictions, including those made in conjunction with other NFL.com experts?

Let's revisit and (if necessary) revise:

Drew Brees will lead the Saints back to the playoffs -- and win his first regular-season MVP

In theory, I'm feeling pretty good about this one: The Saints (6-1) are a half-game behind the Seahawks (7-1) in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and given the way these two teams in particular perform in their respective home stadiums, that actually might mean something come January.

I was right about the immediate and comprehensive impact Sean Payton's return would have on the Saints, about the monster year being put down by peerless tight end Jimmy Graham, and about new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's positive effect on a defense that was historically bad in 2012. If anything, I understated Ryan's importance -- he's the current front-runner for NFL Assistant Coach of the Year.

And Brees, who threw 19 interceptions in 2012 and saw his completion percentage plummet from 71.2 percent in 2011 to 63.0 while Payton was exiled, is lighting it up (19 touchdown passes, five interceptions, 67.5 completion percentage, 109.2 passer rating), as predicted. Like the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Lions' Calvin Johnson, Brees is going to make a very legitimate case for league MVP -- and he's going to be fighting for second place.

Two words: Peyton Manning. Unless the man gets hurt, you can go ahead and inscribe his name on the trophy for a record fifth time.

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Rex Ryan won't make it through the season

Oops. The Jets -- last Sunday's brutal showing notwithstanding -- are 4-4 and in the playoff hunt, and Rob Ryan's twin brother might well survive as coach into 2014 and beyond.

Two things: I underestimated Sexy Rexy's ability to coach his way out of a tough situation, something that occurred to me as early as Week 2, and I was wrong about rookie quarterback Geno Smith who, while far from perfect, has demonstrated a poise and proficiency that defied the proclamations of many pre-draft assessments.

On that note, it's time to channel The Fonz and admit that I was wr-rrr-rrrr ... which actually leads us to our next prediction ...

The Raiders will pick first next May

Oops, Part II. At 3-4, they probably shouldn't bust out the Bernie Lean in Oakland just yet -- but given that the Raiders clearly are more competitive than I ever thought they'd be, some apologies are in order:

First, to Terrelle Pryor: You've got a long way to go, but you're a playmaker and a gamer -- and I'm impressed by the way you've handled a potentially daunting set of circumstances. Make sure to hug your offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, who is adapting on the fly and finding creative ways to make it work.

Secondly, to defensive coordinator Jason Tarver: Nice work with your guys as well. Your resume might say "molecular biologist," but your middle fingers say Born to be a Raider.

Finally, to the proud inhabitants of Raider Nation: The fact that I even placed your team in the same category as a sorry outfit like the Jaguars is embarrassing. The Jags are at a whole separate level of inferiority, and they will be in position to draft the quarterback of their choice in May. My bad.

Michael Vick will rise again

This one looks bad, but in fairness, Vick came out on fire in the Eagles' season-opening upset of the Redskins, and hamstring injuries have been partly to blame for his subsequent struggles. That said, some steady performances by Nick Foles could keep Vick on the bench once he's healthy, and right now Chip Kelly's high-speed offense looks more revolting than revolutionary, no matter who's running it.

Vick has fought back from far tougher circumstances before, however. I still believe.

The Cowboys will win the NFC East

Bingo, baby! How smart am I?

Well, maybe not that smart: The Cowboys (4-4) have squandered chances to win close games, including last Sunday's heartbreaking defeat in Detroit, and seem to be stuck in their perpetual .500 rut for the foreseeable future.

And yet the NFC (L)East is an abomination, with Kelly's wounded-wing Eagles (3-5) one game behind Dallas, while Washington (2-5) and the Giants (2-6) alarmingly are still in the hunt.

If the Cowboys can escape self-implosion, this division is theirs for the taking, which should give Dez Bryant plenty of opportunities to engage in "positive" sideline tirades between now and January.

Wes Welker will have a bigger year than Danny Amendola

While riding to Gillette Stadium with NFL Media colleagues en route to the "Thursday Night Football" opener between the Jets and Patriots in September, our quarterback, perennial All-Pro Rich Eisen, brought up the fact that Amendola already was down and out (with a groin injury) after the receiver's first game with New England.

"He's becoming the Bob Sanders of offensive players," I blurted out.

I didn't mean for it to sound so mean: Sanders, the undersized and incredibly physical ex-Colts safety who was the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, played at an elite level when healthy. Unfortunately, he was seldom able to withstand the punishment of an NFL season, and he appeared in just 50 games over eight seasons.

Unlike Welker, who typically takes a licking and keeps on ticking (and has taken his already impressive game to another level with Manning in Denver), Amendola spends a lot of time in the shop. Anyway, that Sanders line sounded a lot smoother when Eisen quoted it during the "NFL Total Access" pregame show that night -- though I'm pretty sure Tom Brady wouldn't have found it amusing.

Jay Cutler will be this year's Joe Flacco (minus the ring)

OK, maybe not -- even before Cutler went down with a torn groin muscle two Sundays ago, the Bears quarterback wasn't lighting up the league the way I thought he would while running coach Marc Trestman's innovative offense, though he had made plenty of positive strides.

While Cutler could, in theory, get paid next offseason like Flacco (and Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Rodgers) did in 2013, there's a decent chance that payday won't come from the Bears. Chicago might look for a lesser-armed, Rich Gannon-style of quarterback -- or lock in on one of the many promising passers who'll possibly enter the 2014 NFL Draft -- as a cheaper, more efficient alternative.

That would free up Cutler to cash in elsewhere. Perhaps he'll look to return to Nashville, where the former Vanderbilt star might prove attractive to the Titans.

In the meantime, we'll see if Cutler can get back into the Bears' lineup and jack up his value. To do so, he'll likely have to emulate Flacco's postseason performance from last season, assuming Chicago can stay in playoff contention while he's healing. That's not necessarily a safe assumption, though, because the Packers and Lions will make life tough in the NFC North.

The Bengals will win the AFC in spite of Andy Dalton (and lose to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl)

OK, we've come full circle. This is my chance to reboot and attach myself to a golden arm belonging to Manning, Brady or Rodgers -- or roll with a young, promising passer like Andrew Luck or Colin Kaepernick.

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Instead, I'm sticking with Andy Dalton -- ride or die.

The Bengals looked lackluster early on, losing their opener to the Bears and getting beaten by the Browns three weeks later, while letting inferior foes like the Steelers and Bills hang around before coming away with victories. A month ago, despite this team's ultra-talented roster, I was very shaky in my faith, largely because I questioned Dalton's adequacy.

Lately, however, Dalton has looked like a productive, confident leader -- and the Bengals have started to develop a swagger that will serve them well come January. (And I say this even as I pick the Dolphins to pull a Thursday night upset -- with a 2½-game lead over the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in the AFC North, Cincinnati can afford a couple of hiccups.)

It's tempting to switch, of course. The Broncos have looked unbeatable for much of the 2013 campaign, though as the Colts reminded us two Sunday nights ago, when you can pressure Manning and get his offense out of rhythm, it can all fall apart in a hurry.

The Chiefs, as the NFL's lone undefeated team, have to be taken seriously (and I certainly won't be taking back that Andy Reid Coach of the Year prediction). I believe they're legit, but given that they have yet to beat a team that currently owns a winning record, I'm going to hold off on crowning them, for now.

The collective ability of Bill Belichick and Brady to keep the Pats afloat amid clear talent deficiencies in vital areas never should be underestimated, and anything -- including a sixth Super Bowl trip -- certainly is possible when these two are involved. That said, the middle of the defense took two huge hits when Wilfork and Mayo went down with season-ending injuries, and in the end, I believe that'll be too much to overcome.

The team that truly intrigues me is Indy, which owns victories over the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers and is tougher and more talented than most people realize. Yet I believe that when the playoffs arrive and things get tight, Wayne's absence might keep the Colts' offense from keeping up with high-powered opponents -- though I'd be happy to see Luck and friends prove me wrong.

That brings us back to the NFC, where the Seahawks, Monday night's tame performance against the Rams notwithstanding, have done nothing to convince me I should change my pick.

"Don't worry," Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas told me after the team's 34-22 victory over the Cardinals earlier this month. "We got you."

I believe him, especially with the already sublime Russell Wilson making huge strides in his sophomore season and the team's key offseason acquisition -- the ever-dangerous Percy Harvin -- nearing a return from offseason hip surgery, which should inject some life into Seattle's offense.

Thomas and his fellow Seahawks defenders, particularly those in the Legion of Boom, fear no one. They certainly aren't sweating the 49ers, having defeated their NFC West rivals by a collective 71-16 score over their past two meetings.

So even though San Francisco is lurking a game behind Seattle in the division -- and give the Niners credit for going back to basics and winning with a physical, run-oriented attack after some early-season struggles -- I believe the 'Hawks will carry a huge psychological edge into the rematch, and possibly a third meeting in the playoffs.

Anyone else? The Packers, who have won four straight after a 1-2 start, have upgraded their running game and defense from 2012 and are capable of riding Rodgers' all-field mastery to another title. He is a bad, bad man. So is Brees, whose Saints, as previously addressed, are bona fide contenders who'll be very tough to beat anywhere, and especially in the Superdome.

When all is said and done, I still expect the Seahawks to be large and in charge -- and headed for New Jersey to represent the NFC. And if the Legion of Boom plays Tony Soprano to Dalton's Ralphie Cifaretto, well, my faith will have been rewarded. Twice.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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