Today is the NFL’s Opening Day? Who Knew?

So, aside from posting some receipe for my random burrito back in June, I haven’t blogged (this is a verb now? Blogged?) about anything since the end of May. This is when the new TV shows were announced…and they start rolling into your DVR in about two weeks.

Summer has essentially come and gone during that period. Though summer isn’t officially over for another 16 days, in my mind summer is Memorial Day to Labor Day. That makes Fall Labor Day until Thanksgiving, Holliday Season – where it’s basically winter but we’re happy about it – Thanksgiving until New Years, Winter (where we bitch about it incessantly) New Years until roughly St. Patricks Day and Spring from then until the first Memorial Day cookout.

For those of you who know me, summer (and I always have to resist capitalizing the word because of my dog) goes pretty quickly in my world. My biggest client, the Washington Kastles, play essentially throughout July and play well – winning their third championship in a row and fourth in five years (46-2 in 3 years!!). I tend to head out of town shortly thereafter – this year to South America where I had the privilege of watching the sunrise (well, sort of) over Maccu Picchu, extending my wine education in Mendoza and seeing authentic tango in Buenos Aires.

So, yeah, it’s been a while.

But I’m back blog fans (both of you). Though I am busier this fall than I have been in quite some time, my goal is to push a piece each week on some sort of regular schedule, probably Wednesdays. There’s a lot to talk about in the world of things that interest me: NFL is starting, AFL is expanding, I learned a ton about Argentinian wine, planning next year’s trip to China, apparently POTUS put his foot on a desk which the Republicans are treating like Watergate, Gravity comes out next month and Ben Affleck is Batman (that last one took me by surprise too).

But today’s post was timed specifically to the new American pastime: football and more specifically, the NFL, which kicks off its 2013 season tonight. Though it may be hard for some of you to distinguish between the season and the offseason – NFL coverage is 24/7/365 in the 21st century. Between discussing who Aaron Hernandez may have killed, to whether or not Michael Vick should get another dog to today’s lead story on Yahoo! about Tom Brady’s mansion in LA, the endless flow of coverage never seems to stop.

Let me clear this up for those of you who are confused: now comes the part where they play the games (yes, they still do that, though the safety concerns are ever-increasing, leading one to wonder how long the NFL will be able to keep doing business as usual).

There’s a ton of so-called NFL experts (defined as people who choose to write about the NFL, whether they are paid, or even have experience) out there who will tell you for sure what is going to happen this season. I’ve done this in the past, and will do so today.

Let me let you in on a secret: we’re all full of shit.

There’s an expression: “That’s why they play the game”. And another: “Any given Sunday…” If anyone knew what would truly happen in an NFL game, or could predict it with any kind of accuracy, we’d stop watching. The NFL, you see, is the ultimate reality show. The game, as coach orchestrated as it is, still depends on 22 players on the field all executing a series of highly practice maneuvers about 130 times over the course of 60 minutes. Literally anything can happen.

Who called the Ravens winning the Lombardi trophy last year (well, actually, I did, and I’m sure a lot of other people too). But you get what I’m saying; it’s exciting because we DON’T KNOW what is going to happen next.

All that said, here’s my half-baked predictions on what I think is going to go down this year, modeled partly after the ESPN’s NFL predictions. Okay, these predictions aren’t even half-baked. They’re in dough/batter form. But cookie dough is better than most cookies, IMHO.

NFC
NFC East
Champ: Washington Redskins (9-7)
I love RGIII as much as anyone (despite thinking the price in picks was too high to get him) but I think it’s going to be 4-5 games before he’s fully up to speed. Despite the hype, he’s still just a sophomore in the league and hasn’t seen the field since last year’s playoff loss. The Redskins are also a highly flawed team; but so is everyone else in the east.

New York Giants (9-7)
This is a decent team and certainly a proven performer when they have to be. But just not quite good enough week-in, week-out.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
I like Chip Kelly and his up-tempo offense a lot. I also think Vick is probably the guy to run it for a couple of years while Matt Barkley gets up to speed to take his shot. .500 will be a big improvement over last year, and they’ll be much more competitive.

Dallas Cowboys (7-9)
Another year, same story for the Cowboys: Just not quite good enough. Increased competition in the division will put them into the cellar this year.

NFC North
Champ: Green Bay Packers (12-4)
No reason to think the Pack won’t continue their dominance of the North, especially with potential Rookie of the Year candidate RB Eddie Lacy on board. Aaron Rodgers is still the best overall QB in the league and Green Bay will be on top as long as he’s healthy. Though the defense still isn’t a world-beater, it’s incrementally better and more importantly: good enough.

Chicago Bears (9-7)
The hiring of Marc Trestman as the team’s head coach was inspired, and the Bears will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years in the NFL. But figure at least a year for QB Jay Cutler to get up to speed in the unique style of offense and one more big addition on the defense before the Bears are ready for their run.

Detroit Lions (8-8)
This team will double their win total from 2012 and push on the fringes of the NFL Playoffs again. Reggie Bush should catch 70+ balls and add a spark to their offense. But the offensive line still has some holes as does the team’s secondary.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Christian Ponder isn’t the answer for the purple, and this year the chickens will come home to roost on that one. Adrian Peterson can’t carry this team to a playoff berth every year, let alone a title.

NFC South
Champ: New Orleans Saints (11-5)
The bounty hangover is finally over and the Saints can get back to work. Sean Payton was probably the biggest subtraction for any NFL team last year. With a new, attacking defense and Payton back calling the plays, the Saints have a slight edge over the Falcons.

Wild Card: Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
Mike Smith is as solid as they come for a head coach, Matt Ryan is a good, consistent player, but this team is lacking in some flash. They simply don’t have anyone who can take over the game at this point, on either side of the ball. Generally this is the difference between a good team and a great team: someone who can deliver a spark. Until someone steps up to fill these shoes, it’s hard to see Atlanta being a true Super Bowl contender.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
I like Tampa and I’m a big fan of head coach Greg Schiano. I’m just not sure that Josh Freeman is the answer at quarterback and no one else seems to be stepping up on the offensive side of the ball. The defense and locker room are going to miss retired DB Ronde Barber a lot more than they think.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)
No attempt to replace Cam Newton’s aging weapons (DeAngelo Williams & Steve Smith) will be head coach Ron Rivera’s undoing in Charlotte.

NFC West
Champ: San Francisco 49ers (11-5)
This was a tough call between the 49ers and the Seahawks, but I actually think Seattle is going to take a slight step back in the early going this season and that will allow the 49ers to sneak back in to the division championship. San Francisco is as solid as they were last season, and I think the always underrated Anquan Boldin will fill in nicely for their depleted WR corps.

Wild Card: Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
As noted above, Seattle is going to have a tough go early this season. They invested a ton in Percy Harvin and he’s hurt, Bruce Irvin is suspended and no one is talking about the loss of defensive coordinator Gus Bradey to the Jaguars. I fully believe in Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the guys in the ugly-ass green…but they’re going to take some lumps early on before they get things sorted. If any team in the NFL is capable of a late-season push, it’s them.

Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
This isn’t a bad team. But they have big offensive line problems and an aging, immobile quarterback. Throw on top of that no real answer at RB and a new coaching scheme and they just won’t keep up with Seattle and San Francisco.

St. Louis Rams (7-9)
A step back for the Rams as they struggle to fix their offense. The Rams have a three-headed monster at RB (which means they don’t have one) and they’re counting on a rookie receiver to be the answer for QB Sam Bradford. Their defense is coming and they have two first-round picks next year – this team will be a real contender in a year or two.

NFC Playoff Predictions
Wild Card Round
#6 Atlanta at #3 New Orleans – New Orleans
#5 Seattle at #4 Washington – Seattle

Divisional Round
#5 Seattle at #1 Green Bay – Seattle
#3 New Orleans at #2 San Francisco – San Francisco

Conference Championship
#5 Seattle at #2 San Francisco – Seattle

AFC
AFC East
Champ: New England Patriots (11-5)
There’s no reason to think that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company won’t continue their dominance of this otherwise very weak division. The Jets are a nationwide joke and a month from imploding, the Bills are starting a rookie QB who many thought should have gone in the third round and who has only played a few minutes in pre-season due to injury and the Dolphins are coming – but at least a season away from legit playoff contention. The Patriots are largely the same team they have been for years, though they have a very slow talent erosion that is going to catch up with them one of these days. Not this year, though.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)
Miami is a team that is coming, but had a long way to go just a year ago. Rayn Tannehill was a pleasant surprise last year and should make a big step forward. But a step forward isn’t going to put him near the NFL elite (figure middle of the pack) and he won’t be ready to carry this team yet.

Buffalo Bills (5-11)
EJ Manuel has the potential to be a good starting QB in the NFL. But he was rough to begin with and missing the back nine in training camp with an injury didn’t help. This is a rebuilding year under new head coach Doug Marrone.

New York Jets (2-14)
This team is a mess, and needs to be gutted and rebuilt from the bottom up. There’s really nothing else to add here.

AFC North
Champ: Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
It’s always fun to completely write off last year’s champ: people like to hate and it’s easiest to hate on the guy on top. But Baltimore will hang on to their division crown this year by the skin of their teeth. GM Ozzie Newsome and company did a terrific job both planning for this talent exodus as well as bringing in a few new faces. I actually think their defense could be better: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were both way past their respective primes last year. They’ve both been replaced by some pretty talented youngsters who will see significant time. The offense will miss WR Anquan Boldin, particularly in the playoffs. But with their offensive line woes seemingly solved in last year’s playoffs, look for an MVP-caliber season from RB Ray Rice and Flacco will do what he always does: find a way, no matter how ugly it looks.

Wild Card: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Bengals are the sexy pick to win the AFC North this year, with the Ravens and Steelers still reloading and the Browns constantly rebuilding. Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden is a personal favorite of mine (go AFL alums!) and the offense looks pretty good. QB Andy Dalton is progressing (though he won’t likely ever be an elite QB in the league) and WR AJ Green is a certified stud. Add in a reasonably good offensive line and a couple of young backs. But Baltimore will hold them off this year…just.

Wild Card: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
The question in Pittsburgh this year, as it has been for the last few season, is will the offensive line hold up? The team ignored the line for years as age and injury chipped away at it and when you play smash mouth football, no line means few points. But after spending two first round picks and two second round picks in the last three years, the Steelers are hopeful that this will be the year things turn around. But youth is a double-edged sword: the Steelers philosophy is all about continuity and chemistry above all, and no one knows how this line will perform. I trust GM Kevin Colbert and the team’s self-described “mom and pop” scouting staff, and think the team will be on the upswing this year. They are a defensive star away from a Super Bowl run, though should eek into the playoffs in 2013.

Cleveland Browns (6-10)
The Browns should actually be better than a 6-10 record. They have one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL with new HC Robb Chudzinski and coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense). QB Brandon Weeden is better than most people think, RB Trent Richardson (when healthy) can be a Top 3 back in the league and the offensive line is solid. Lack of a go-to receiver and a poor secondary will be this team’s undoing ultimately, but not so much as playing in the toughest division in the NFL. In the NFC East, the Browns could actually contend.

AFC South
Champ: Houston Texans (10-6)
I actually don’t think that Houston is that great of a team. They have some good pieces, but there’s something missing on this squad. The defense is very solid, but the offense a bit more suspect. QB Matt Schaub seems to be on the decline and WR Andre Johnson clearly is. They have never had a good answer for WR2 opposite Johnson and the offensive line is just adequate. Add in that team MVP Arian Foster is battling injuries and the Texans could have big issues this year. But they will win the division anyway, just barely beating the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
Another popular playoff pick, but expect the Colts to take a slight step back this season. The team fully united last year around freshman HC Chuck Pagano’s illness, and it’s easy to see where that could have caused them to play a little over their heads. Also, QB Andrew Luck has a new offensive coordinator this year, replacing Bruce Arians. Though Luck’s new OC is also his old OC from college, expect that transition to take some time. WR Reggie Wayne isn’t getting any younger, either.

Tennessee Titans (7-9)
Tennessee is a team without a true identity. QB Jake Locker is a work-in-progress who probably should still be on the bench at this point – I don’t think he’s quite ready for prime-time. The good news is he is playing behind a much-improved offensive line. RB Shonn Green is an underrated addition, who should help pound the ball on the nights when Chris Johnson isn’t effective (and there’s a lot of those). The defense is still lacking “the guy” and Locker’s struggles will keep the team at six wins again in 2013.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
Four wins and being largely competitive is what I expect from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that would be welcome in J-ville as well. Gus Bradley was an inspired choice for head coach and should be building a solid foundation there. But this is a team severely lacking in talent and a quick turnaround isn’t in the cards.

AFC West
Champ: Denver Broncos (13-3)
This is a team that came damned close last year, and it’s really only gotten better in 2013. QB Peyton Manning is another year away from the neck injury that kept him out of action in 2011. The receivers have only gotten better with the addition of WR Wes Welker (stolen from the Patriots). This should be the Broncos’ year to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since John Elway was on the field.

San Diego Chargers (7-9)
San Diego has been a frustrating team to watch over the last few years, because their talent was just so much better than their record; seldom has a team underachieved as much as the Chargers. A new start this year with the innovative HC Mike McCoy was what they needed, though the window is rapidly closing for the Chargers. This team still is lacking in receivers, and needs some offensive line help. 2014 may be their last chance.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
I like Andy Reid as a head coach, but I wish he’d have taken a year off before jumping back into the fire. No coach in the NFL has gone through what he has gone through and he had clearly lost his team in Philadelphia. A year off would have given him some much-needed perspective. That said, the Chiefs are a lot more talented than their 2 wins last year would suggest, and he’ll bring some much-needed stability to the top of that organization.

Oakland Raiders (3-13)
I like what Oakland is doing; seriously. They’ve chosen these last couple of years to just bite the bullet and get rid of all of the old Al Davis mistakes and rebuilding with as best an infusion of youth as they can get. But this team has a long way to go (though it’ll be interesting to see if Terrelle Pryor can do anything out there).

AFC Playoff Predictions
Wild Card Round
#6 Pittsburgh at #3 Houston – Pittsburgh
#5 Cincinnati at #4 Baltimore – Baltimore

Divisional round
#6 Pittsburgh at #1 Denver – Denver
#4 Baltimore at #2 New England – Baltimore

Conference Championship
#4 Baltimore at #1 Denver – Denver

SUPER BOWL WINNER
Denver Broncos over Seattle Seahawks

AWARD WINNERS
MVP: QB Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Offensive Player: WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
Defensive Player: DL JJ Watt, Houston Texans
Offensive Rookie: RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Defensive Rookie: S Matt Elam, Baltimore Ravens
Coach of the Year: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints