(*Note: Our preview is broken up into four tiers for clarity. Teams in this tier are quality franchises that could contend if they overachieve or get hot at the right time. They have two or three stars and several good players, but a major flaw. You can find parts 1 and 2 here.)
Green Bay Packers
The Truth: If football were like basketball, then picking the Green Bay Packers as a final four team would be a lot easier. When you have the best player in the world on your team, you figure, there’s a real shot at SB contention. However, once you think about that O-Line, you start to hesitate. Rodgers got sacked 51 times last year — FIFTY-ONE — and there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again. They were already just plugging holes before LT Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL...now they’re in for it.
The Difference: Randall Cobb is going to be a brand name player by the end of the year. He’s been flirting with star status for the last two seasons now, and this year he’ll get it. Paired with Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the Packers have a top three receiving corps.
The Outcome: They’ll be in the playoffs, but that offensive line just won’t allow them to be great.
The Truth: The roster is stacked on the defensive side of the ball. Brian Cushing, JJ Watts and CB Johnathan Joseph are all difference makers. They also brought in Ed Reed to help round out the unit. Having the best D in the game is seriously on the table -- meaning, a lot of what happens here depends on the offense. They’ve been looking for a WR compliment to Andre Johnson forever, and may have finally found one in rookie DeAndre Hopkins. After consecutive seasons with playoff wins (albeit against the Bengals, but still), this is a mature and confident team. The title window is wide open.
The Difference: Matt Schaub plays behind a solid O-Line and with the very elite Arian Foster. Schaub doesn’t have to be great, just merely good at crucial moments. If he goes up, say, ½ of a notch, they’re good money.
The Outcome: AFC title game.
The Truth: It’s hard to accept the Bengals as a real contender, decades of mediocrity have established them as an impulse-reflex “loser” team. But these aren’t you estranged father’s Bengals. Stars like AJ Green and Geno Atkins are just the beginning. They are legit.
The Difference: I’m generally against cliché QB obsessions. It’s not a lie that it’s the most important position, but the attention it receives relative to the rest of the roster is overestimated. Its importance is dumbed down by the media, so that an "unable to digest solid foods" populace of Cro-Magnon types can understand what’s happening. Winning and losing rarely -- and I mean rarely -- comes down to just the QB. However, in Cincy, this is actually the case. Andy Dalton doesn’t have to be extra-terrestrial to win big here, he just has to be good enough.
The Outcome: They are absolutely going to battle the Ravens for the AFC North title. Either way, they’re making the playoffs.
The Truth: RG3 (or "Bob" as we call him at TSL HQ) is bordering on deity level down in “the Urrea,” and for good reason. However, last year, this team overachieved a bit, and a drop seems possible. We don’t know how well Griffin is going to be one year back from major surgery, but people are acting like an AD-like bounce back is a sure thing. The WRs are solid (Pierre Garcon is recovering from injury as well,) yet not special. Same deal for the running game. Lots of people have penciled Washington in for a playoff spot, but, tell me, where on this offense do you see game changers?
The Difference: That LB London Fletcher never became a brand name player is the fault of all of you who blog when random players dye their hair blonde. Fletcher just goes out there year after year and goes to work out of the limelight. His ability, paired with Barry Cofield -- plus the return of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo -- will anchor this defense.
The Outcome: Are they one of the six best teams in the NFC? No, they aren’t. They get into the postseason only if a better team falters.
The Truth: I don’t understand the Lions. That roster says one thing, but their play says another. Who’s at fault? I blame Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff for their in-game adjustments, pre-game formation sets and for allowing a culture of irresponsibility to permeate. We all know this team should be on the way up and yet, we have no idea what to expect here.
The Difference: What else can be said in regards to Calvin Johnson. The best WR in the game went out last year and brought Madden stats to life. But the truth is, QB Matt Stafford is over-reliant on Johnson and the Lions lack of other high caliber pass catchers is a major issue. Their TEs are decent and Reggie Bush’s dual-threat skill set will pay dividends, but ultimately that’s not enough. As far as the defense, Ndamukong Suh was supposed to be the future and his rookie year spoke volumes to that notion. Since then, he’s been practically shoulder shrug worthy. Until he (and Nick Fairley) get to the next level, the D in “The D” will be milk box material.
The Outcome: You read what I wrote right? No way they’re making the playoffs.
The Truth: Indy had a best-case scenario season last year and the law of averages, especially when only moderate upgrades are added, usually levels things out. QB Andrew Luck was everything Colts fans could have hoped for and is likely to make a hellified jump this season. His takeover was bolstered by a dope mix of young guys (TY Hilton), crafty vets (Reggie Wayne) and the next level thinking of OC/HC Bruce Arians who subbed in for Chuck Pagano while he recovered from illness. They went 11-5 (albeit with a weak schedule) and messed up everyone’s predictions. Hard to repeat that magic.
The Difference: The defense is underwhelming. Not horrible or anything, but nowhere near stout. They brought in some rooks (Florida St DE Bjorn Werner) and a few free agents (LaRon Landry) to team with stalwarts Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea, but I can see them struggling against the better teams.
The Outcome: Luck avoids the sophomore slump, but they drop a bit, finishing with a winning record but out of the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
The Truth: HC Sean Payton returns to the scene of the crime, after his year-long Bountygate suspension. No doubt he’ll be looking to reaffirm his rep and the Saints offensive prowess. He brought in Rob Ryan to shore up the defense, which was abominable last year, giving up 440 yards per contest. There are a couple of new faces, but the issues will persist all season.
The Difference: Drew Brees, same as always. That the Saints went 7-9 last year with the futility that exists on defense is a testament to his ability. Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles will contribute per their usual, but what they really need is a quality power back to help keep the defense fresh. They don’t have that player on this current roster.
The Outcome: That defense keeps them out of the playoffs.
The Truth: The Steelers, the real “America’s Team,” are looking vulnerable right now. Free agent departures, an aging roster and injuries are conspiring to knock them down to regular team status. As much as HC Mike Tomlin is trying to fight back, the “R-word” is being whispered in regards to this team.
The Difference: As long as Dick LeBeau is here, the Steelers defensive scheme will always move mountains. They still have LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu on board. Plus their rooks, safety Shamarko Thomas and linebacker Jarvis Jones are poised to make immediate impacts. They’ll be fine on this side of the ball.
The Outcome: Where they have problems is on offense. Ben Roethlisberger will continue in his unique greatness, but they’re weaker in the passing and running games. That’s a tough combo. Still, Pittsburgh is one of those “just when you thought it was safe” teams that don’t respond well to underestimation. I wouldn’t bet on them playing in January, but it’s not inconceivable if Ben has a career year.
The Truth: It’s not wise to doubt Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin too often. They seem to do well, when counted out, and this season looks to be one of those types. They’ve been beset by injuries all over the field, with the biggest blow being RB Andre Brown, who was going to be counted on for big plays. At least the WRs are set.
The Difference: The Giants of recent memory have been defined by their D-Line, with guys like JPP and Justin Tuck wrecking havoc on offensive playbooks. Those guys have to have bounce back seasons. A big deal, because the line helps hide the deficiencies in the secondary, where the Prince Amukamara’s of the world have been inconsistent.
The Outcome: For the Giants it’s mostly about health. They’ll be competitive enough, and I could see them backing into a weak NFC East crown.
The Truth: If Jay Cutler didn’t come off as such a prick, he’d get more sympathy for the issue’s he’s had in Chicago. Every year his offensive line stinks (he’s been sacked 148 times in his 56-game Bear career,) but he still produces enough for the team to stay competitive. The Bears finished 10-6 last year, which is easy to forget, since they didn’t make the playoffs. New HC Marc Trestman is here now and he’s pretty much put Jay Cutler on the audition circuit. If doesn’t improve his decision-making, he’s gone next year.
The Difference: Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery (watch out for this kid), Devin Hester and Brandon Marshall. That’s a strong core full of talented players with a lot to prove. You could envision this team equaling last year's win total or falling slightly under. A lot of it depends on how Trestman reacts to a potentially combustible locker room.
The Outcome: The Bears are going to battle for a playoff spot all the way up until the final week of the season, but may fall just short.