In My Opinion

Greg Cote’s NFL team rankings for 2013

A year ago, we couldn’t wait for the NFL season to finally start, and it was pure anticipation. Peyton Manning with a new team, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III bursting into the league — it was new and exciting.

Today, we can’t wait for King Sport to kick off, and it is mostly for the relief. It is to get past the dark headlines of an offseason dominated by the shocking arrest of Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on a murder charge. The fresh start this time offers a sense of moving on from unfortunate real life to the diversion football is supposed to be.

New England has been the dubious hub of attention entering this season because of Hernandez.

The Patriots, of course, seem to always be the focal point when it comes to the Dolphins (and are once more), because so much of Miami’s outlook every year is framed in the context of how dominant the Pats still are.

It is the handy excuse the Dolphins must outgrow.

It is the lamest crutch.

Bulletin: Two teams in the same division are allowed to be very good simultaneously. Nothing about the continuing relevance of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era should prevent the Dolphins from winning in double digits or making the playoffs or being the championship contender they haven’t been, really, since last reaching the Super Bowl almost 30 years ago, in the 1984 season.

What follows is my annual attempt to predict how good the Dolphins, Patriots and 30 other teams will be this season.

My division-by-division capsules, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear in the Sept. 6 Miami Herald on the first of our Friday NFL prediction pages. For now, here is my 2013 ranking of the 32 teams, and as always, these teams’ cooperation in helping to make this list as accurate as possible will be both hugely appreciated and thoroughly unexpected:

1. Houston Texans (12-4 last season): Not sure anybody else outside of Houston thinks the Texans are the best, but I do. Matt Schaub doesn’t have to be elite with this team, just good. He has an improved offensive line, still has Arian Foster, and rookie DeAndre Hopkins will be a target that helps free up Andre Johnson. They also have the NFL’s best defender in J.J. Watt and signed Ed Reed; plus, Brian Cushing is healthy.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1): Last season’s Super Bowl loser has gifted Colin Kaepernick with Anquan Boldin on an already potent offense. Defensively, that big-time pass rush should continue to disguise concerns in the secondary. Also like that San Fran’s toughest nondivision games are at home.

3. Seattle Seahawks (11-5): A year ago, Hawks fans wondered if Matt Flynn was the answer. Then came Russell Wilson, who has a great O-line, a loaded receiving corps able to withstand Percy Harvin’s surgery and a top ground game to insulate him against a sophomore slump. Add a strong defense and big home-field edge.

4. Denver Broncos (13-3): Wes Welker and rookie runner Montee Ball were added, yet I see a few bumps ahead. Peyton Manning’s center, J.D. Walton, will miss half the season injured. And a defense that struggled in the playoffs lost Elvis Dumervil and has Von Miller serving a six-game suspension.

5. Atlanta Falcons (13-3): They came within 10 yards of making the Super Bowl last season and seem better. Matt Ryan in his sixth season has made the leap to elite or close enough, and is joined by Steven Jackson, 30 but revitalized. Top-pick corner Desmond Trufant and pass rusher Osi Umenyiora join a retooled defense.

6. Green Bay Packers (11-5): Aaron Rodgers is the best, though losing LT Bryan Bulaga for the year hurts, and I can’t forget that GB’s defense got hammered out of each of the past two playoffs, or that Pack has gone 43 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher. They hope rookie Eddie Lacy gives Rodgers that ground threat he hasn’t had.

7. New England Patriots (12-4): The tragic erasure of Hernandez, Welker’s departure and Rob Gronkowski’s injury have been handy reasons for many to hark the end of the Pats’ reign. Don’t do it. The Belichick/Brady era isn’t done, it’s just evolving. Ten of 11 starters return to what should be an improved defense, the running game looks better, Gronk will return sooner or later, and Brady, at 36, is still Brady.

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-6): This rank feels low for a team that won the Super Bowl, but at least 10 of 22 Ravens starters will be new, the biggest overhaul ever for a reigning champion, led by Ray Lewis’ retirement and departures of Reed and Boldin. All of that change and a $121 million contract heap much pressure on Joe Flacco.

9. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6): The preceding eight teams are my top tier. Cincy, star of HBO’s Hard Knocks, begins the second echelon of playoff contenders more than title contenders. The Bengals, with their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82, are hungry for their first playoff win since 1990. LB James Harrison and rookie TE Tyler Eifert are big adds. But can Andy Dalton limit turnovers?

10. New York Giants (9-7): The Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era has been a wild ride, and more unpredictability surrounds this team. A ground game in flux, an iffy offensive line, a pass rush not as strong as it once was and a tough division all are reasons to doubt NYG can make it all the way to the Super Bowl in its own stadium.

11. Chicago Bears (10-6): Marc Trestman, a former Canes (1981-1984) and Dolphins (2004) assistant, is ready for his NFL head coaching shot after five years in the CFL. Trestman and an upgraded O-line will allow Jay Cutler to flourish. And, even with Brian Urlacher retired, four Pro Bowlers return to a defense that had 44 takeaways.

12. Miami Dolphins (7-9): Yes, I do have the Dolphins just outside of my top 10. Yes, this does mean I think they’ll make the playoffs. No, I have not been drinking. I’d admit this optimism relies on a lot going right offensively, such as Ryan Tannehill’s continued improvement, Lamar Miller’s emergence and Mike Wallace proving worth the money. As much as anything, it relies on Jonathan Martin being at least OK at left tackle. When I look at this team, though, I see a solid defense first and enough to like on offense. Left tackle is a concern, yes. But plenty of teams have plenty more worries. It all adds up to Miami being seriously in the hunt for its first playoff spot since 2008 — and first playoff win since 2000.

13. Indianapolis Colts (10-6): Andrew Luck had a good-not-great rookie season statistically, elevated because he led Indy to an eight-victory improvement. Luck will be better individually, especially if Ahmad Bradshaw stays healthy and delivers as a top runner, but the Colts will be hard pressed to better the team wins. Still too many questions on D in the post-Dwight Freeney era.

14. Washington Redskins (10-6): How Robert Griffin III returns from major ACL knee surgery was a big preseason issue, but he now seems likely to be ready for the season opener. I'd worry more about what looks like a weak Redskins pass defense.

15. New Orleans Saints (7-9): The chaos of “BountyGate” is past, coach Sean Payton is back and cheap tipper Drew Brees is still really good. That alone will have the Saints improved and back in the playoff hunt. But can new defensive chief Rob Ryan turn around a unit that allowed more yards than any team ever?

16. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): After consecutive 8-8 seasons, Jerry Jones’ Cowboys look mid-pack and just shy of the postseason once again. With only two playoff games in the 17 years since their last Super Bowl win, the “America’s Team” days are long gone. That $108 million contract extension only turns up the heat on Tony Romo.

17. Minnesota Vikings (10-6): A healthy Adrian Peterson gives Minny a chance, and adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson will make Christian Ponder better. Tough for Vikes to get back to 10 wins, though, with defensive issues including an inexperienced secondary in a pass-happy division.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): The preceding teams are my main hunters for the 12 playoff spots. The Steelers begin my third tier of teams with less chance. Ben Roethlisberger alone gives Pitt a shot, but this is an aging roster and Big Ben has less talent around him than usual, with Wallace gone and a shabby blocking front.

19. St. Louis Rams (7-8-1): I believe in Jeff Fisher, who exhumed a 2-14 team and made it respectable last year, including a 2-1-1 mark against the 49ers and Seahawks. The Rams are young and faster, rookie Tavon Austin will help Sam Bradford, and the defensive front seven is really good. San Fran and Seattle are huge division roadblocks, though.

20. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14): Underperforming KC should be much better under Andy Reid. They have talent, with six Pro Bowlers, and a strong pass defense. If Alex Smith sees a career revival and Jamaal Charles stays healthy, both plausible, this could be a wild-card contender.

21. Detroit Lions (4-12): The Lions took a six-win tumble last season and should be better. Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson and excellent defensive tackles are a good starting point. But can Reggie Bush carry the load? Will an overhauled O-line and special teams jell?

22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): Tampa was smart to make a big trade for Darrelle Revis in a division where pass-D must be a priority. (The Week 1 matchup against the Jets is one you’d circle in red.) But doubts remain whether Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman (who didn’t get a contract extension) are the coach/QB combo to make the Bucs special.

23. Carolina Panthers (7-9): Cam Newton enters his third season coming off four consecutive wins to end last season, so there’s a bit of tailwind here as Ron Rivera tries to keep his job. And Cats have a solid front seven on D. But the weakness, the secondary, must have division-mates Matt Ryan and Drew Brees licking their lips.

24. San Diego Chargers (7-9): New coach Mike McCoy can’t but be better for the Bolts and for Philip Rivers than was departed Norv Turner. Question is whether Rivers can stay upright behind a shaky line. Vet Dwight Freeney ands rookie Manti Te’o should help the defense.

25. Philadelphia Eagles (4-12): The preceding teams were my third tier of playoff long shots. The Eagles begin my bottom feeders: Teams with little real hopes for 2013. New coach Chip Kelly, from Oregon, could prove to be an NFL wunderkind on offense. But rolling the dice with Michael Vick at QB and and losing top receiver Jeremy Maclin for the season give him a rough start. The overhauled defense also will need time.

26. Cleveland Browns (5-11): New coach Rob Chudzinski, the former Canes tight end, has enough talent to work with to maybe end the Browns’ run of five consecutive double-digit-loss seasons. So much depends on second-year QB Brandon Weeden, who struggled in camp just to keep his job over Jason Campbell.

27. Arizona Cardinals (5-11): Sad to say, the recycled ghost of Carson Palmer gives Larry Fitzgerald a better QB than he’s used to, but a new coach (Bruce Arians) and new defensive scheme make this a team in flux. Optimism for better than last season’s record seems a reach.

28. Tennessee Titans (6-10): An improved offensive line makes a bounce-back season likely for Chris Johnson, who could be fantasy friendly again. But doubts about Jake Locker remain, the defense was awful last season, and a tough early schedule makes an 0-5 start possible.

29. Buffalo Bills (6-10): One year ago, Buffs had some (unwarranted) hype before continuing a playoff drought that stretches to 1999. This season? No hype. New coach Doug Marrone has some rebuilding to do, and now injuries to E.J. Manuel and Kevin Kolb leave undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel as Bills' season-opening QB.

30. New York Jets (6-10): Call it Rex Ryan’s Last Stand. The Stinkin’ Jets defense, even post-Revis, is more solid than you’d expect of a team ranked this low. But this could be the worst offense in the entire league, and the QB duel between shaky incumbent Mark Sanchez and overhyped rookie Geno Smith inspired little optimism.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14): Can Maurice Jones-Drew stay healthy and reprise his former fantasy-darling status? Can Blaine Gabbert (who if healthy will start over Chad Henne) pretend to be a real QB? New coach Gus Bradley sees talent and depth lacking almost everywhere he might look.

32. Oakland Raiders (4-12): The franchise that coined “Just Win, Baby!” hasn’t had a winning season in 11 years. Why start now? The Raiders ended last season on a 1-8 skid, and a gutted roster finds no team more obviously rebuilding, with injury-prone Darren McFadden one of the few mainstays. Good luck to Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor or whomever is QB.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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