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The Best of the NFL

   by Jim Feist - 09/02/2013

The pro football season kicks off this week when the defending champion Ravens travel to Denver, a rematch of an epic playoff comeback in January, a revenge game for the Broncos. Despite the fact that the NFC has won three of the last four Super Bowls, the AFC has won 10 of the last 16, including last year. Here is a look at some of the best of the NFL.

Broncos: 37-year old Payton Manning is back after throwing for 37 TDs, 11 INTs, 4,659 yards and only 21 sacks. The offense finished 5th in passing with 283 yards per game, 16th in rushing, and gets better with the addition of Wes Welker in the slot, stolen from the Patriots. This offense is loaded with WR Demaryius Thomas (1,434 yards) and Eric Decker (1,064 yards).
The defense was third against the run and the pass, although the numbers were skewed a bit because of a weak schedule. They only lost 4 games last year, but gave up 27 in a loss at Atlanta, a 31-21 loss at New England, a 31-25 home loss to Houston and then the playoff collapse to the Ravens. They signed CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to bolster the secondary add veteran LB Shaun Phillips from the rival Chargers. Denver is on an 11-5-1 run over the total.

Packers: In an age of passing the football the Packers are deadly, 9th in passing with 253 yds pg behind QB Aaron Rodgers (39 TDs, 8 INTs, 4,295 yds), TE Jermiachel Finley (667 yards), WR Jordy Nelson (745), WR Randall Cobb (954) and James Jones. The only concern is the offensive line, with Rodgers sacked 51 times and the ground game 27th and 20th in rushing the last two years. They took Alabama RB Eddie Lacy in the second round and he had a good preseason. A young defense made great strides and they carry a 6-3 run under the total into the new season, as well as a 7-3 ATS run.

Bears: Chicago won 8 and 10 games the last two years but it didn't save Lovie Smith's job. Chicago brings in former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman to run the team. He led the Alouettes to Canadian Football League championships in 2009 and 2010 and twice coordinated the No. 1 NFL passing offense (49ers in 1995, Raiders in 2002). Folks in the Windy City are excited to see his wide-open offenses teamed with QB Jay Cutler (19 TDs, 14 INTs), star WR Brandon Marshall (1,508 yds) and second-year WR Ashlon Jeffery.
The offensive line is still a concern with the QBs sacked 44 times last year despite being run-oriented, which is one reason they drafted Oregon guard Kyle Long with the 20th overall pick. The defense loses LB Brian Urlacher to a unit that was strong all around, 8th in the NFL at defending the pass, 8th at defending the run. Chicago carries a 3-8 ATS run into the new season.

Patriots: Despite plenty of flaws on a defense that has been a sieve, Bill Belichick's team has made it to the AFC Championship game the last two years, winning once. Big Bill has loaded up on defense, grabbing DE Chandler Jones and LB Donta Hightower in the 2012 first round then traded for CB Aqib Talib, a former first-round pick who is on a one-year contract this season.
The offense still has QB Tom Brady (34 TDs, 8 picks), but loses Welker while TE Rob Gronkowski has all kinds of injury problems. They will need production out of newcomer WR Danny Amendola and a slew of young wideouts. The Pats were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring with 34.8 ppg, but might have to cede the scoring title to Denver. The Patriots went 12-6 over the total after going 12-7 over in 2011.

49ers: The emerging NFC power! Jim Harbaugh's team came out of nowhere in 2011 with a sensational defense and power running game to host the NFC championship game and broke through last season, losing the Super Bowl in the final seconds. The defense is the backbone, 4th in the NFL against the run and the pass, led by All-Pro DT Justin Smith, 23-year old Aldon Smith (14 and 19.5 sacks the last two years). They have tremendous LBs with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, plus pick up safety Eric Reid (No. 18, LSU).
The offense was 4th in rushing, 23rd in passing behind RB Frank Gore (1,214 yards, 4.7 ypc) and QB Colin Kaepernick (10 TDs, 3 picks), who ran for 415 yards, 6.6 ypc, a versatile weapon. The passing game adds WR Anquan Boldin from the champion Ravens, alongside super TE Vernon Davis (548 yards, 5 TDs). The loss of WR Michael Crabtree (1,105 yards) is a concern, rehabbing from a serious summer injury. They carry a 9-1 run over the total into the new season and are 22-13-2 ATS under Harbaugh.

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