That said, but for safety Rahim Moore misjudging that long Joe Flacco fly ball to Jacoby Jones in the divisional playoffs, the Broncos probably would've made it to the Super Bowl last year. Their defense is one of the best in the league. It finished second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed last season. Peyton Manning threw 37 touchdown passes, and now has Wes Welker on his side. The Seahawks won seven of their last eight regular-season games and missed making the NFC Championship Game by the hair on Russell Wilson's chinny-chin-chin. The addition of Percy Harvin is going to make an offense that averaged 37 points a game in its last six games even more lethal. Their defense, which finished first in the league in points allowed, improved its pass rush with the addition of defensive end Cliff Avril.
Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck all made big impacts as rookies, leading their teams to the playoffs. Do you expect more of the same this year, or is it sophomore-slump time?
I expect all three to continue to improve as the speed of the game continues to slow down for them. Luck should be much better statistically after completing just 54.1 percent of his passes and throwing 18 picks as a rookie. Griffin, who had a 102.4 passer rating and threw just five interceptions in 393 attempts, is coming off a torn ACL, which will affect his running more than his throwing. Wilson's sub-6-foot height didn't seem to hinder him last season. No reason to believe it will this year, particularly with the addition of Harvin to his receiving corps.
Just two quarterbacks went in the first three rounds of the draft - EJ Manuel (16th overall to the Jets) and Geno Smith (39th overall to the Bills). What are the chances of either of them having the kind of rookie success that Luck, Griffin and Wilson did?
Not very good. I think both of them eventually could develop into decent starting-caliber quarterbacks, but neither is as polished as Luck, RGIII and Wilson were heading into their first training camps. Plus, both are playing for bad teams, which might increase their chances of early playing time, but decrease their chances of early success.
The read-option became all the rage in the league last year. Is it going to be even more popular this season, particularly with the arrival of Chip Kelly and still more mobile quarterbacks like Manuel and Smith?
Defensive coordinators spent a lot of time this offseason trying to figure out a plan for defending the read-option. The best one, quite frankly, is to beat the crap out of the quarterback, and discourage teams from running it. That's what the Ravens did in February against the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick. "How many times can you run that play?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh told me the day after his team's Super Bowl win over Kaepernick and the Niners. "Because if you're going to hit the quarterback every play, which is what our goal was then your quarterback's going to get hurt. Defenses will defend it better next year than they did this year. I don't think it's going anywhere. People are still going to use it. It's going to be effective. But I don't think it's going to be a primary offense."
How much of an impact will the new rule prohibiting both tacklers and runners from using the crown of their helmets to deliver a forceable blow outside the tackle box have this season?
Not a lot. The league insists the officials will only be calling the obvious infractions and not incidental stuff like a running back who ducks his head to protect himself as he's going out of bounds. Keep in mind, you still can use the crown of your helmet inside the tackle box. A running back isn't going to be penalized for putting his head down on a dive play on third-and-1. According to the league, it looked at every play from Weeks 10 and 16 last season and found just 11 plays that would have resulted in penalties under the new rule. And that was when it wasn't even illegal.
No Wes Welker. No Aaron Hernandez. And probably no Rob Gronkowski, at least for the first half of the season. Is this the year Bill Belichick and the Patriots finally get theirs?
History has taught us never to bet against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez obviously have been a significan part of the Patriots' passing game the last 2 years, catching 55 of Brady's 73 touchdown passes. They will be missed. But let's go back to 2006 for a second, when Brady and the Patriots made it to the AFC Championship Game. That year, the Pats' four leading receivers were Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown, Ben Watson and Kevin Faulk. Caldwell caught a team-high 61 passes. Caught a total of 91 in his other five NFL seasons with the Chargers and Redskins. In the Patriots' divisional playoff win over the Chargers that year, Jabar Gaffney, who couldn't even make the Eagles' roster, caught 10 passes from Brady. So don't throw dirt on Belichick and Brady quite yet. They'll figure out some way to get the ball into the end zone.
What are the chances of Andy Reid turning around the Chiefs?
Pretty good, actually. His critics may not want to hear this, but Reid's a very good football coach, as evidenced by his 149 career wins and five conference championship game appearances with the Eagles. He just stayed too long in Philly. The Chiefs aren't nearly as bad as last year's 2-14 record might indicate. They addressed their two biggest offensive needs in the offseason by trading for quarterback Alex Smith and using the first pick in the draft on athletic left tackle Eric Fisher. They already have one of the league's top running backs in Jamaal Charles and added another dangerous runner - Knile Davis - in the third round. The defense has some talented pieces, including safety Eric Berry and corners Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith. If you're looking for a 2013 rags-to-riches candidate, the Chiefs aren't a bad pick.
What other teams have a chance to be this year's Colts and Vikings?
Two years ago, the Lions won 10 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Last year, everything that could go wrong for them did and they finished 4-12. I'm not going to tell you they're a Super Bowl contender, but with the addition of Reggie Bush and a solid draft that addressed defensive shortcomings both up front and on the back end, they are talented enough to make a playoff run again, particularly if first-round athletic freak Ziggy Ansah can master Jim Washburn's wide-nine. You can also throw the Eagles into the potential rags-to-riches pot. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league. They've got one of the best running backs in the league. They've got a solid receiving corps. If they can get some decent quarterback play from somebody, and if their defense can figure out a way to stop teams on third down, Chip Kelly will be a coach-of-the-year candidate.
Can the Jets' new offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, find a way to turn Mark Sanchez into a serviceable starting quarterback?
I'm not sure God could turn Sanchez into a serviceable starter. And Marty isn't God. Unless Geno Smith develops faster than expected, it's going to be a long year for the Jets. You probably can pencil in Mornhinweg as a "senior offensive assistant" for the Chiefs in 2014.
What are the chances of the Ravens repeating?
No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots in 2003-04, and there is a Spygate asterisk on those two wins. The Ravens took some big hits in the offseason. Ray Lewis retired. Ed Reed signed with Houston. Anquan Boldin was traded and linebackers Danelle Ellerbee and Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams left. But, they have one of the league's top quarterbacks in Joe Flacco, who is coming off one of the best postseasons of any quarterback in history (11 touchdown passes, no interceptions). They have enough talent to win the AFC North again. But a second straight Lombardi Trophy? No, not seeing it.
Which player do you think is going to have a breakout season in 2013?
Sam Bradford. Bradford's first three seasons have been unremarkable. A .583 completion percentage. a 77.3 passer rating. Not what the Rams had hoped for when they made the former Oklahoma quarterback the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. Bradford hasn't had much to work with other than overachieving ex-Eagles Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and Amendola couldn't stay healthy. The Rams used their first-round pick on game-breaker Tavon Austin and signed the best pass-catching free agent on the market, Jared Cook. With those two, along with their other talented pass-catching tight end, Lance Kendricks, look for a big season out of Bradford.
Which head coaches could be looking for work after the season?
The five who will be coaching without a net this season are the Cowboys' Jason Garrett, the Jets' Rex Ryan, the Lions' Jim Schwartz, the Titans' Mike Munchak and the Panthers' Ron Rivera. Garrett has been stripped of most of his power by owner-GM Jerry Jones. He won't be calling the offensive plays this season, and he didn't have any say in the hiring of his new defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin. Rumors that Jones tells Garrett what to eat for lunch and dinner are unconfirmed. If the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, Garrett almost certainly will be gone. Schwartz led the Lions to the playoffs in 2011. But they fell to 4-12 last year. If the Lions don't make a serious playoff run this year, he likely won't be back. Ryan? This is it for Sexy Rexy. He's a dead coach walking. His team is awful and figures to win no more than four or five games. Given the rebuilding job he faces, new GM John Idzik saw no point in bringing in a new coach until next year. Both Munchak and Rivera nearly got the ax last year and need to make serious playoff pushes to stick around. That will be easier for Rivera, who at least has a legitimate quarterback.
With Sean Payton back from his season-long suspension, will the Saints be back in the playoffs?
No. Offense, which is Payton's specialty, wasn't the reason the Saints finished 7-9 last season. Defense was. They gave up more yards than any defense in NFL history and finished 31st in points allowed. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was fired and replaced by Rob Ryan. But they've got two problems: a) too little talent on defense; and b) the talent they do have doesn't really fit the 3-4 scheme they are switching to. The Falcons will win the NFC South again. The Bucs will finish second. The Saints will duke it out with Carolina for third.
The Steelers went 8-8 last year and missed the playoffs for just the fourth time in the last 12 years. What are their bounce-back chances in 2013?
Frankly, not very good. Like last year, they are no better than the third-best team in their division, behind the Bengals and Ravens. Their defense finished first in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed, but it's getting old. Safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are 33 and 32 respectively. Defensive end Brett Keisel is 34. Linebacker Larry Foote is 33. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always seems to be playing with one injury or another and hasn't been a 16-game starter since '08. Best-case scenario for the Steelers in my view: 9-7. Worst-case: 6-10.
On Twitter: @Pdomo