NFL Nation: 2013 NFL season predictions

Video: NFL Nation kicks off

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:20
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Trey Wingo welcomes you to the kickoff of the expanded NFL Nation, ESPN's network of sites covering every NFL team.

Raiders season prediction: 4-12

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Not much is expected of the Oakland Raiders in the eyes of most observers, and I can’t disagree.

There just isn’t enough talent in Oakland. The Raiders are beginning a rebuilding phase and there are lot of holes on the roster. This is a club that is counting on late-round draft picks to contribute at key spots. That is not a good sign for the immediate future. There are few areas Oakland can feel completely confident in.

There are questions about whether Oakland can successfully throw the ball with Matt Flynn, who is entering his first year as a starter at the age of 28. He has started just two NFL games in his career. The Oakland offensive line is in shambles and there are serious worries about how much protection Flynn will get.

Defensively, Oakland should be better in the back seven than it was last year. But it is unlikely to be an upper-level defense. Oakland has major issues at pass-rusher, and if no one develops as a serious sack threat, it will create issues for the defense as a whole.

Thus, there are too many question marks to think that Oakland can win much more than 25 percent of its games as the new era takes shape. This might be a good franchise in a couple of years, but I see a second straight 4-12 finish.

Predicted finish in AFC West: fourth

Lions season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Two years ago, the Detroit Lions won half of their 10 games by one score. In 2012, they lost nine such games.

So we are left to decide: Were the Lions lucky in 2011? Or unlucky in 2012? I think the answer lies somewhere in between, and that's why I'm guessing they'll be slightly better than average in 2013.

There's a lot to like about this Lions team, and not just because they have paired Reggie Bush with Calvin Johnson to form a unique bracket of elite skill-position players. They have remade their defensive line, added new depth and experience to their secondary and overhauled their special teams in what appears to have been a productive way.

The preseason, however, has revealed a few pocks that haven't healed. The second-best option in the passing game, after Johnson, appears to be Bush. The frequent rotation at right guard and right tackle suggests a level of indecision, and eight personal fouls through three games (including unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct) are a reminder that individual discipline remains an issue.

The Lions have enough talent to make a playoff run, but we should expect them to get in their own way a few times over the next four months.

Predicted finish in NFC North: third

Bengals season prediction: 10-6

August, 28, 2013
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The Cincinnati Bengals will make history this year. Not Super Bowl history, but an unprecedented team accomplishment. The Bengals will solidify themselves as one of the best young teams in the NFL by going to the playoffs for a third straight year, something that's never been accomplished for a franchise that dates back to 1968.

The Cincinnati defense is championship caliber. The front four ranks among the best in the league, and this is backed by two ferocious hitters in linebackers Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison. On paper, this is the best defense in the division, and quite possibly the entire NFL. Based solely on the defense, the Bengals will earn a wild-card spot and advance to the divisional round.

Why aren't the Bengals predicted to go further? I have my doubts about quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals have put together an impressive supporting cast around him, which is headlined by wide receiver A.J. Green. And the top two draft picks, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, add more playmakers to the offense. But Dalton has a history of not producing in critical situations, whether it's third downs or in the playoffs. This is why the Bengals still rank behind the Ravens in the division and will be one-and-done in this year's playoffs.

Predicted finish in AFC North: second

Buccaneers season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
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When it comes to predictions, I think a lot of people are selling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers short.

I’ve looked at their schedule and I’ve looked at their roster multiple times. These aren’t the Buccaneers of the Raheem Morris era or even the later stages of the Jon Gruden era. This team has talent. Eight players have been to the Pro Bowl. Besides that, there is a lot of other young talent. I see linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron as guys who could get to the Pro Bowl.

Every time I look at the schedule, I keep coming up with one record for the Bucs. I say they’ll go 9-7. I think quarterback Josh Freeman will play just well enough in a contract year that the Bucs will want to keep him around for the long term.

A 9-7 record would put the Bucs in a tie with the New Orleans Saints, according to my predictions. But I think only one of those two teams will get a wild-card berth. I’m saying the Saints will win the tiebreaker and go to the playoffs.

The Bucs just barely will miss out.

Predicted finish in NFC South: third

Rams season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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For the first time since 2003, the Rams look poised to finish the season with a winning record. Despite the improvement, they’ll come up just short of the playoffs in perhaps the league’s most difficult division.

Led by a defense that should take the next step to become a top-10 unit, the Rams should be in the majority of their games into the fourth quarter.

Though it should be improved, the offense’s reliance on young players at the skill positions and a veteran group with consistent injury issues on the offensive line will keep the Rams from jumping into the postseason.

Making matters more difficult is a seemingly tough schedule, which includes four games against expected powerhouses Seattle and San Francisco, plus trips to playoff teams such as Atlanta, Houston and Indianapolis.

Elsewhere on the schedule, the Rams play a number of games that appear to be toss-ups. Matchups with the likes of Chicago, Carolina, Dallas and New Orleans could go either way.

To get to 9-7, the Rams must improve their record at home and outside the division after going 4-4 and 3-7, respectively, in those categories in 2012.

Predicted finish in NFC West: third

Broncos season prediction: 12-4

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Yes, they have created more drama than your average reality show this past offseason. Yes, they have questions on the offensive line. And yes, Von Miller is suspended for the first six games of the season. But the Broncos have quarterback Peyton Manning, and Manning, regardless of the circumstances and the personnel around him in his career, has had nine 12-win seasons.

So should the Broncos keep Manning healthy, upright and throwing to a deep receiving corps, the Broncos have to like their odds to again win the AFC West and get the kind of playoff position they let slip away last year in their double-overtime loss to the Ravens in the divisional round of the postseason. Make no mistake, though, Miller’s loss will sting plenty, and it will be made even worse if he doesn’t do his part during the time away and come back in Week 7 -- for Manning’s first game in Indianapolis since the Colts released him -- ready to be an impact presence on defense.

Overall, the Broncos are solid all over the depth chart, and the threat of an up-tempo, no-huddle attack at altitude should make an already top-shelf home-field advantage even better.

All in all, the Broncos are surrounded by rebuilding projects in their division, and players like Manning and Champ Bailey want a Super Bowl shot.

Predicted finish in AFC West: first

Chiefs season prediction: 8-8

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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The Kansas City Chiefs have too much talent to win just two games again, and they addressed their two major flaws from last season: poor coaching and lousy quarterback play. They also have an early schedule set up for success. But it’s still a bit much to expect them to make the playoffs in their first season with Andy Reid as their coach and Alex Smith as their quarterback.

In addition to a new coach and quarterback, the Chiefs have new coordinators and new offensive and defensive systems, a new general manager and many new players in key spots. That’s a lot to mesh together in a short period of time.

The addition of Smith, who threw just 10 interceptions in his last 25 starts for the 49ers, will cut down on turnovers, and that alone will help improve the offense. But Smith isn’t capable of carrying a team on his back and will need more help than the Chiefs appear capable of giving him.

Pass protection has been a problem during the preseason, and the Chiefs had yet to identify a second wide receiver to take some pressure off running back Jamaal Charles and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, the only proven playmakers the Chiefs have.

Predicted finish in AFC West: second

Panthers season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
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Center Ryan Kalil didn't take out a full-page ad in the local newspaper predicting a Super Bowl victory as he did last season, and I'm not going there, either.

Despite four wins to close out 2012, too many uncertainties remain to call this a playoff team. The biggest question: Can quarterback Cam Newton cut down on mistakes and inconsistent passing to become a winner, as new general manager Dave Gettleman insists must happen?

Newton has thrown for more yards than any quarterback in his first two NFL seasons, but his record is a mediocre 13-19. He has to find a way to win with his arm and head the way he can with his legs.

The key word that keeps surfacing is leadership. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula likes what Newton has shown in practice, but it all comes down to results. A 2-12 record in games decided by seven or fewer points the past two seasons must be reversed. With the uncertainty of running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle), unproven wide receivers outside of Steve Smith, question marks in the secondary and the league's toughest schedule, Kalil was smart to keep quiet.

Predicted finish in NFC South: second

Colts season prediction: 10-6

August, 28, 2013
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Better team. Worse record.

That's the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2012, they rode rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and used the emotion of not having coach Chuck Pagano most of the season to be the surprise team of the league and finish with an 11-5 record.

It will be difficult for them to top the seven come-from-behind victories they had last season. Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne admitted during training camp that some teams probably took them lightly last season.

The Colts won't be able to sneak up on opponents this season.

Luck will continue to get better, and the offense shouldn't have any problems scoring points with weapons at receiver, tight end and running back. But the Colts have a tough schedule, with games against San Francisco (road), Cincinnati (road), Seattle and Denver and two games against division foe Houston.

The offensive line, one of the weak links last season, has to prove it can do a better job protecting its franchise player. Luck was sacked 41 times last season.

The Colts are a playoff team as long as Luck remains healthy, and they may even make it past wild-card weekend, but they’re still another few players away from being talked about as Super Bowl contenders like New England and Denver in the AFC.

Predicted finish in AFC South: second

Steelers season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
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The six Lombardi trophies that line the front of the library at the Steelers’ practice facility offer the strongest statement that 8-8 is simply not acceptable in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers slipped to mediocrity in 2012 and it is fair to ask whether they will be good enough to be even an eight-win team this season. That is how many questions the Steelers are facing after missing the playoffs for only the second time in Mike Tomlin’s six years as head coach.

The offense could be better in Todd Haley’s second season as coordinator as he and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have a better rapport and understanding of one another.

But a young offensive line must keep Big Ben upright and create enough running room for an underwhelming group of running backs. The Steelers will open the season without injured tight end Heath Miller, putting more pressure on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to emerge opposite Antonio Brown.

A defense that has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL the past two seasons must put more pressure on the quarterback and create more turnovers. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu staying healthy would go a long way toward the Steelers improving in both areas.

Predicted finish in AFC North: third

Chargers season prediction: 6-10

August, 28, 2013
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For the long haul, I think the San Diego Chargers are heading in the right direction as they begin the Tom Telesco-Mike McCoy era. However, I am not convinced we will see immediate progress.

San Diego went 7-9 last season, the final one of the A.J. Smith-Norv Turner partnership. It was the first time the Chargers had a losing record with Philip Rivers as their starting quarterback, a stretch that dated to 2006.

I foresee the won-loss record getting slightly worse -- San Diego finishing this season 6-10 -- because the Chargers just aren’t very deep. Telesco and McCoy are the right men for the job. They will turn this team around.

But for the immediate future, I think the Chargers may struggle. They are dangerously thin at key spots.

The offensive line is not up to par and I think it will have a difficult time giving Rivers the necessary protection. The receivers group is injured and could suffer further damage as the season goes on.

I like the core of the defense, but there are pass-rush questions and depth issues in the secondary. This is what the Chargers are: a promising work in progress. But for the short term, that could mean a losing season in the first year of the new regime.

Predicted finish in AFC West: third

Falcons season prediction: 11-5

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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I’ll go ahead and predict a sixth consecutive winning season for the Atlanta Falcons. But I don’t think their record will be quite as good as it was last season, when the Falcons went 13-3.

With the New Orleans Saints a year removed from the bounty scandal, I don't think the Falcons will run away with the division the way they did last year. The Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers will all be competitive, and Atlanta's schedule is not at all easy.

I say the Falcons go 11-5. I also say they’ll become the first team in history to win the NFC South in back-to-back seasons.

More importantly, I’ll say the Falcons (particularly coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan) are going to finally put an end to the talk about how they can’t win the big one.

The Falcons are loaded at the skill positions, their defense should be improved, and this is a hungry team. That’s why I’m saying the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl, where they'll defeat Denver Broncos.

Predicted finish in NFC South: first

Bears season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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The initial prediction when the schedule came out was 8-8. Although this team is so much better than that in terms of talent, the direction it’s taking under new head coach Marc Trestman, not to mention all the work done by general manager Phil Emery, ultimately this will all come down to quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler possesses elite arm talent and superior intelligence. Emery, meanwhile, took care of his end by bolstering protection, adding a weapon in tight end Martellus Bennett and hiring an offensive-minded coach in Trestman, who has a track record as somewhat of a quarterback whisperer.

The problem here is twofold in that (1) despite what’s said publicly, the defense is not yet sold on Trestman, and (2) Cutler, who is playing in his fourth offense in five seasons with the Bears, is leading a club facing a brutal schedule featuring five 2012 playoff teams. What's more is the right side of the offensive line is expected to feature a pair of rookies who will inevitably experience growing pains. How will Cutler manage those? How will Cutler handle two explosive personalities, like his own, in Brandon Marshall and new tight end Bennett when things aren’t going well?

Predicted finish in NFC North: Second

Cardinals season prediction: 7-9

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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A 7-9 prediction for the Arizona Cardinals suggests only a two-game improvement from 2012, but that is misleading. The 2012 team, which lost 11 of its final 12 games, was horrible and horribly undermanned by season's end.

The current team will be much better thanks primarily to Carson Palmer’s addition by trade from Oakland. Palmer is not a great quarterback, but he's at least competent. Palmer could improve playing with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd under an offensive-minded coach with big plans for him. At the very least, the way Palmer has played recently should equate to about three additional victories over a 16-game schedule, considering the quarterback play Arizona received last season.

There are some concerns. Finishing better than 2-4 against NFC West opponents could be tough given the state of the division. I'm not as concerned as some about the Cardinals' offensive line. Depth and talent is improved there, and the position was trending positively late last season. Palmer's low sack rate should help. Durability concerns at running back are well founded, however. Rashard Mendenhall and especially Ryan Williams have had trouble staying healthy. And while Palmer represents an upgrade, he might still be the fourth-ranked quarterback in the division.

Predicted finish in NFC West: fourth

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