The Saints got the band back together in 2013. After laboring through a season sans Sean Payton thanks to Bountygate, New Orleans got back to the playoffs in 2013 with a hat tip to Payton, as well as to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whose blitz-happy charges were among the league's best at shutting down the pass. Unfortunately, a bounce-back season wasn't enough to claim the division title, or to prevent a team that became known for its road woes from getting bounced from the playoffs in the league's most hostile environment.
New Orleans looks to be in solid shape for the 2014 season, but "solid" may not generate the kind of results Saints fans are looking for in what could turn out to be the league's most competitive division next year. The Panthers are built tough. The Falcons should rebound with Julio Jones + top-six pick + some free agent dollars on defense. Lovie Smith could make the Bucs dangerous in short order if the right offensive coordinator helps Mike Glennon to raise his game.
To reclaim the NFC South division crown, New Orleans must find the formula to get better on the road. While Payton and Brees can sort through any play-calling and signaling issues, getting more physical on both sides of the ball is never a bad place for aspiring road warriors to start.
The challenge facing the Saints is a dicey cap situation, per the wizards at OverTheCap.com, New Orleans may already be about $12 million over 2014's projected cap figure. Cutting DE/OLB Will Smith's $10 million salary is a no-brainer, but tough decisions could loom for run stoppers like NT Brodrick Bunkley and SS Roman Harper, aging corner Jabari Greer, as well as some of Brees' favorite targets in Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas. With free agent TE Jimmy Graham a must-have retention who won't come cheap, things could get tough for some familiar faces in the Big Easy.
While many preseason prognosticators had regression in the forecast for the Colts, Andrew Luck and company flipped the script and progressed to a division crown in the regular season and a Divisional round game in their second straight trip to the playoffs. Of course, progress was anything but smooth and linear for one of the league's most Jekyll-and-Hyde outfits. Their playoff journey evinced more of the same -- the Colts spent two quarters against the Chiefs looking like absolute world-beaters, while the six other quarters signaled a yawning gulf between their current roster and the league's elite championship contenders.
For 2014, at least they're set at quarterback! Neither regular nor advanced stats paint a picture of an overwhelming Colts passing attack, but neither is capturing the skills that Andrew Luck puts on display. Able to rifle the ball into minuscule windows from the pocket while flashing some Aaron Rodgers-like skills on the move, Luck's future is unquestionably bright. The Colts would likely like him to be on the move a bit less in 2014, so they'll likely put some offseason focus on improving the OL and getting more out of the run game. They simply have to keep Mike McGlynn off the field next time, but hopefully the return of free agent G Donald Thomas can offer a solution. The return of TE Dwayne Allen should also do wonders for Indy's edge run game while providing a more consistent and physical presence over the middle.
The Colts should have some room to work in free agency (and they'll have more if they decide that 2013 fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes is ready to take over for Samson Satele and his $5 million cap figure next season), but prioritizing on the defensive side of the ball will be interesting for a defense with few standouts and few glaring holes. Free agent defensive linemen Randy Starks and Arthur Jones could be potential adds with 3-4 experience. Stealing Antonio Smith from the division rival Texans could add some rotational pass-rush pop to complement Robert Mathis.
Riverboat Ron Rivera underwent quite an image rehabilitation in 2013, transitioning from 2012 punchline to 2013 Coach of the Year candidate as the Panthers captured their first division crown since 2008. Cam Newton's rep got burnished as well, even though he played very similar ball (frequently excellent with some hit-or-miss accuracy) to his 2012 season. Both deserve plenty of credit, but the real story in Carolina was the emergence of a rock-ribbed defense that was equally stout against run and pass. That defense sprang a few leaks on Sunday against the 49ers, though, and an up-and-down day from Newton proved too much for a weapons-deficient Panthers offense to overcome.
While the Saints got the band back together in 2013, keeping the band together in 2014 could prove a tad tricky for the Panthers. Their salary cap situation (approximately $120 million committed for 2014) isn't great, exacerbated by $12 million in dead money and a combined $11.5 million figure for a pair of non-superstar runners in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. With stud DE Greg Hardy hitting free agency along with most of the secondary (Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell) and left side of the O-line (Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton), Carolina could find it tough just to break even this offseason.
Assuming they're able to bring back Hardy and a couple of secondary members, the Panthers should turn in another stout defensive showing in 2014 but will have to rely on the draft to add pop to the offense. With Steve Smith dangerous but aging and Brandon LaFell tremendously inconsistent (and another 2014 free agent to boot), the Panthers would love to give Newton another dependable target besides TE Greg Olsen. It's likely, though, that Newton will shoulder just as big an offensive load next season with a questionable assortment of weapons. If he bags a second division title in 2014, he'll have earned that imaginary 'S' on his chest.
Coach Mike McCoy put a charge into the Bolts, bringing Philip Rivers and the rest of the offense off of the slab and giving them new life with his precision-oriented short passing game. If that last sentence was a bit Frankenstein-heavy, apologies -- watching Rivers run calls nothing but Boris Karloff to mind. A rebuilt OL didn't have to block as long, and turned itself into a respectable, road-grading run unit as the season went on.
The defense ... was not good. But the unit rose to the occasion on key moments (most notably in its second regular-season meeting with the Broncos) to snag a surprise playoff entry, and showed up with a pulse in the Wild Card round -- which is all you need to do when Bad Andy Dalton takes the field. The Manning-led Broncos were made of sterner stuff. The Chargers' offseason started Sunday night despite a good effort and some late onside-kick drama in Denver.
So what does 2014 hold for the boys in (sometimes powder) blue? Rivers certainly looks like he has a few good years left in him. The emergence of stud rookie receiver Keenan Allen along with the re-emergence of former first-round runner Ryan Mathews gives the offense some quality building blocks. Building from within may be the order of the day for 2014, as the Chargers are projected to have about $128 million committed for next season between salaries and dead money.
Getting rid of guys like Jeromey Clary and Le'Ron McClain could generate some quick savings. Productive but high-paid guys like Rivers and safety Eric Weddle could be restructure candidates. At a cap figure of over $7 million, aging war-horse Antonio Gates may be asked to take a pay cut or be forced to step aside for emerging talent Ladarius Green. At any rate, the offense is unlikely to add a big-ticket item (they're still recovering from the Robert Meachem fiasco) and should instead count on growth from guys like Allen and Vincent Brown.
The defense will get an immediate boost just by having Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram healthy next September. The Chargers will add immediate pop to the pass rush, and that will at least offer some help to one of the league's most beleaguered secondaries. Not a lot of nice things can be said about the cornerback corps in any event, and both the draft and mid-tier free agents like Eric Wright, Chris Owens or Corey Graham could provide upgrade options on the likely departing Richard Marshall and the probably-should-be-departing Derek Cox. The Chargers have a tough divisional row to hoe, but progress from the young'uns on offense and a league-average defense would let San Diego give the boys in Denver and KC a run for their money.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
There wasn't much question that the NFC West was the league's best division this season. Any lingering doubts were put to bed this weekend as the Seahawks and 49ers ran over the opposition to set up a rubber match in the NFC Championship Game.
Both squads leaned on their defenses to dispatch their Division round foes. The Legion of Boom silenced Jimmy Graham and curtailed the Saints' scoring, while the Niners choked out the Panthers' run game and combined stout goal-line stands with a pair of INTs to keep Carolina to a meager 10 points. The Seahawks had the better ground numbers as Marshawn Lynch chewed up the Saints, though when adjusted for opponents, the Niners' effort was at least as impressive. Colin Kaepernick enjoyed a better day in the air against a robust Panthers pass defense, and his form in the season's stretch run has to compare favorably to Russell Wilson's.
There's a lot more than an eyebrow at stake in Kaepernick and Wilson's fourth career clash. The last two throwdowns in the Clink have turned into beatdowns by the Seahawks, but this one feels like it will go down to the wire. Kaepernick's high-caliber play is worth considering, as is the fact that San Francisco will take the field with a better offensive line and three of the top four passing game weapons in Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
Against that, the Seahawks feature one of the most outstanding pass defenses in the history of the game, and boast an extremely versatile lockdown corner in Richard Sherman as well as an elite centerfield mistake-eraser in Earl Thomas. Sherman will be good for taking out one of the Niners' weapons, but he won't have the luxury of taking out Anquan Boldin with impunity in this one with Davis and Crabtree on hand. Marques Colston's big Saturday showed that an overlooked receiver can move the chains against Seattle, and the size of the Niners' receiving weapons coupled with Frank Gore's power and Kaepernick's speed make San Francisco a dangerous red-zone opponent.
Of course, a matchup between two of the league's most physical teams will have much of its story written by the ground game. Marshawn Lynch is the growling engine of the Seahawks' rushing attack, getting average blocking and turning in a host of punishing runs while frequently turning the corner on those who underestimate his speed. Gore may be hitting the downside of his career, but he can still hit the hole with authority and benefits from elite blocking as well as the impeccable design of the Roman/Harbaugh run scheme. The 12th Man may help the Seahawks to another dominating show in the trenches, but that outcome -- and the outcome of the matchup as a whole -- is far from guaranteed.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Another postseason, another AFC playoff showdown between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The two masters of the quarterbacking craft will meet for the fourth time in the postseason, with Manning looking to even his career playoff mark against the Brady/Belichick crew.
Each earned their spot in this year's showdown by dispatching a QB-heavy contender. Philip Rivers has been a peer but seldom an equal to Brady and Manning, and though he brought some late-game heat with Keenan Allen he was unable to knock off Manning's Broncos. Manning's old club was led by a new face in Andrew Luck, but Luck served the same Brady/Belichick penance as his predecessor as the battle of one-man show vs. well-oiled machine ended in a 43-22 thumping.
However next Sunday's title games shake out, we're guaranteed a matchup of new-school phenom against old-school legend in the Super Bowl. Which QB carries the old-school torch for the AFC could depend on a single errant throw, but will likely be decided by their supporting casts. The best units by Football Outsiders' DVOA ranking in this matchup are Broncos' passing game (#1 with a bullet) and the Patriots' ground game (ranked sixth).
The Broncos defense came in at ninth against the run, though they've had their struggles without DE Derek Wolfe and OLB Von Miller. They'll need to be on their game considering how Logan Mankins and company have been paving the road for LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. The worst unit by DVOA in this contest is the Patriots' run defense, finishing an unsightly 27th and potentially spelling trouble against the Broncos' 1-2 punch of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. The Broncos offensive line created consistent creases with zone stretch runs against the Chargers while the Patriots simply bludgeoned the Colts -- neither defense wants to hand the opposing QB the luxury of working ahead of the chains all day.
The passing game offers a variety of intriguing matchups. No one can take away all of Manning's toys, but Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard match up better than most corner tandems against Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Both Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan are limited but still battle-tested players who won't get clowned by Wes Welker, and Devin McCourty is one of the league's smartest safeties. Brady's weapons seem less imposing, but Julian Edelman has been nigh-unstoppable in the slot while Danny Amendola's rapport with Brady has been growing. Throw in mobile mismatch-maker Shane Vereen out of the backfield and the Denver secondary could be searching for answers -- especially if the Pats' ground game is running at top form.
It would have been tough to pick a better ending to the season than the one we have teed up. Familiar foes with similar styles will clash on Sunday, and a historic outdoor Super Bowl in New York will feature an intriguing contrast no matter how the championship games turn out.
We've only got three games left, but they may be three of the season's best.