And so the preseason is done and we await the opening of the NFL's 94th season, beginning with Thursday Night Football as the Baltimore Ravens opene at the Denver Broncos, a rematch of 2012's epic 38-35 double-OT playoff upset. A look at the teams entering Week One -
AFC EAST ---
By far the most ready team is the New England Patriots, having overhauled their receiving corps and made their roster younger over the last few seasons. An ugly 40-9 preseason loss at Detroit showcased vulnerability, but overall the Patriots remain the AFC team most likely to go to the Superbowl.
The Miami Dolphins are the only squad in the division looking to be getting better, as they have a program behind Ryan Tannehill that showed capability in 2012 and in this preseason. It's nowhere close to challenging the Patriots but 9-7 isn't out of reach anymore.
The Buffalo Bills have a new program, new coach, and new quarterback, and an ugly preseason to show for it. Doug Marrone came from Syracuse to provide some fresh ideas to a notoriously stale program, and EJ Manuel will likely need a lot of time to get something going.
The New York Jets have sunk back to the level of league joke between the buffoonish head coach in Rex Ryan and a new GM in John Idzik (whose dad was on Walt Michaels' NY Jets staff) and indecision on what to do with the inept Mark Sanchez and with the rookie in Geno Smith who looked bad in preseason.
AFC SOUTH ---
This may be the deepest division in the AFC. The Indianapolis Colts exploded back to league prominence with a new quarterback and new front office regime, and Andrew Luck looks ready for a long and profitable career proceding where Peyton Manning left off.
The Houston Texans now have their program humming, though one should wonder how much more Matt Schaub has left and whether there is any ability to elevate his game; he's been a very good quarterback but has never been able to become elite.
The Tennessee Titans are the sleeper team of the division, having quietly shown substantial improvement on both sides of the ball in preseason. A lot of analysis seems to down Jake Locker, yet unnoticed by the sports media is that Locker has been switched to a shorter passing game and seems to be thriving in it; the Titans run game appears to have also gotten some jolt with ex-Jet Shonn Greene.
Even the Jacksonville Jaguars, who fell to one of the worst teams in the league last year, have shown some reason for optimism. Blaine Gabbert was awful in 2012 yet in preseason this year actuallyn showed real improvement.
AFC NORTH ---
The Baltimore Ravens are defending Superbowl champs, and famously blew up their roster to get younger, especially on defense, and yet one doesn't know what to expect here - preseason was decidedly mixed and showed reason for doubt (especially on offense), yet the Ravens have been perhaps the most consistent challenger in the league since 2000.
The Cincinnati Bengals are widely considered a favorite for the division, having gone 19-13 with Andy Dalton and AJ Green showing an elevation of the game not really shown by Carson Palmer or the receiver tandem of Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmanzadeh as good as they undoubtedly where. Preseason didn't leave any reason to doubt the optimism here.
The surprise team may be the Cleveland Browns, who showed marked improvement in preseason. The Browns have been almost an expected last-place team for years; that may not be the case in 2013.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the team in trouble, with mediocre showing on both sides of the ball and more abuse of Ben Roethlisberger as a result. Having lost nine of their last seventeen games, one has reason for pessimism in Pittsburgh.
AFC WEST ---
The Denver Broncos are widely expected to go to the Superbowl thanks to the acquistion of receiver Wes Welker. The Broncos certainly are strong enough to go 12-4 or better but in preseason showed disturbingly mediocre performance in Ones vs. Ones - that Peyton Manning couldn't keep up with the Seahawks Ones in that game is a red flag; that Welker was injured and missed two games is another. That Manning is a notoriously poor playoff quarterback is the wall stopping the Broncos right now.
Problem is no one else in the division looks any good. Kansas City is rebuilding under Andy Reid and may take time; the Oakland Raiders are a mess - again; the San Diego Chargers showed zero improvement in preseason.
NFC EAST ---
A public disagreement between Robert Griffin III and coach Mike Shanahan showcased the dysfunction that has permeated the Washington Redskins under onwer Daniel Snyder. Despite this the Skins are the strongest team in the division.
The NY Giants are the strongest challenger yet also the most uneven, racing out of the box fast and then collapsing in the second half virtually every year under Tom Coughlin. A decidedly poor preseason gives no reason for optimism here.
The Dallas Cowboys remain a joke under Tony Romo and at this stage of his career nothing will change for him.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a new program and are counting on Michael Vick to actually improve his game after he regressed at doing so after 2010.
NFC SOUTH ---
Sean Payton is back with the New Orleans Saints and team-wide improvement seems palpable already, yet even with Payton the Saints have put up huge numbers and many wins yet the aura of invincibility isn't there.
The Atlanta Falcons have for now taken over the division, yet their inability to elevate to the next level remains.
The slepper team is the Carolina Panthers, as Cam Newton quietly showed marked improvement last last year and defensively the Panthers appear better now.
The Tampa Bay Bucs have talent all around but have a quarterback problem, as Mike Glennon has outplayed Josh Freeman at quarterback. Freeman may not last the first half of the season here.
NFC NORTH ---
Most people are picking the Green Bay Packers to easily win here. I'm not so sure.
By far the most overrated contender in the league is Green Bay; the infamous Seahawks game last year was not about the Packers getting robbed (they didn't get robbed) - it was about the Packers getting exposed. When they frontrun, they're good; when they have to fight to hold a lead or they fall behind, they have shown they can't lead a comeback, especially Aaron Rodgers, the weakest fourth-quarter quarterback in the league.
The Minnesota Vikings didn't show as much muscle in preseason as I thought they would and may be in for a tough season.
The Chicago Bears have a new coach but with Jay Cutler they have little realistic chance; Cutler is a volume-stats quarterback with no guts.
The Detriot Lions have huge talent yet zero discipline; they play to hit people and they don't care if its clean or not; it won them the game against the Patriots but won't do anything in the regular season.
NFC WEST ---
By far the two best teams in the NFC are the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, and with Russell Wilson the Seahawks may be the better team.
Pete Carroll is proving his critics wrong; he is a bona fide NFL coach. The 49ers will have their work cut out for them.
This is especially true given that the St. Louis Rams and Jeff Fisher had the best division record in the NFC West, but a mediocre preseason didn't give much room for optimism. The Rams need to show firepower and fast.
The Arizona Cardinals still look awful, as much as I like Bruce Arians as coach.
My predicition here is the AFC sees seven teams battling for six playoff spots come December - New England and Denver lock up their divisions while Indy, Houston, Tennessee, Cincy, and Baltimore battle for four playoff spots and Cleveland actually makes some noise there.
In the NFC the Niners and Hawks will easily make the postseason while the Skins, Falcons, and Packers win their divisions; the Panthers and Saints will be in a fight for a wildcard spot while the Rams may play spoiler.
So let's kick off 2013.