Chad Pemberton: Bengals to take AFC N.; NE to take it all
From division winners to Super Bowl champion, following are my picks for the NFL season.
AFC North: CINCINNATI BENGALS
Cincinnati started cleaning house after they bottomed out in last place during the 2010 season, getting rid of the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens. They drafted quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green and they've made the playoffs ever since, finishing third in the division in 2011 and second in 2012. This pattern says they'll win the division this season.
AFC East: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Since 2001, the Patriots have won their division every year except for twice (2002 and 2008, the year Tom Brady tore his ACL). Until Tom Brady retires, this is where you put all of the money.
AFC South: HOUSTON TEXANS
For a long time, the Texans were simply trying to compete, to prove their legitimacy as an expansion team, in hopes of one day winning the division. That has finally happened. They've won the AFC South two years in a row, but a third one won't mean much at this point. Houston is playing for more than a division title now, which is a fortunate place to be, but the hill to winning a Super Bowl is much steeper than the one to a division title.
AFC West: DENVER BRONCOS
Remember when Denver was struggling so much that fans were taking out billboard ads asking for Tim Tebow to be inserted into the starting lineup? Man, that feels like a lifetime ago.
NFC North: DETROIT LIONS
I don't have nightmares often, but when I do, they're usually about Detroit's defensive line.
NFC East: DALLAS COWBOYS
The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last decade, but weirdly, they've only won the division three times. I wouldn't bet on Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III staying healthy for an entire season. Which leaves me the Cowboys, sort of by default.
NFC South: ATLANTA FALCONS
I've already gone all in with quarterback Matt Ryan, saying he's going to lead the league in passing touchdowns and win MVP, so it stands to reason that I'd go with Atlanta here.
NFC West: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
This might be the toughest division to predict. Seattle and San Francisco are very comparable when they're both at full tilt. St. Louis is a dark-horse candidate that's going to be better than people realize. And Arizona, while not strong enough to compete for the division, will be a formidable opponent with an improved offense and a new quarterback.
AFC Champion: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Can former Marshall University standout Aaron Dobson split the difference between his fellow alumni, Troy Brown and Randy Moss, and emerge as a consistent threat in the passing attack? If he can, and if Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola can stay healthy, the Patriots seem primed for their third straight AFC Championship appearance, and their second Super Bowl appearance in the last three years.
NFC Champion: ATLANTA FALCONS
Matt Ryan is going to make me look like a genius or a fool, with absolutely no in-between.
Super Bowl XLVIII Champion: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
I think New England's decision to move on from wide receiver Wes Welker will produce a net gain because coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will be forced to expand the offense in newer, less predictable ways. Weirdly, by becoming less predictable, New England's success will be more predictable than ever.
Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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