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TGS NFL SPECIAL REPORT ...MORE NFL SEASON-END REVIEWS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


With the Super Bowl and related storylines filling up most of the upcoming and final TGS Football issue of the season (available on Monday), we will use these pages to continue our season-ending reviews of NFL teams, including those already eliminated from the playoffs (non-postseason participants were reviewed in TGS Football No. 20).

AFC


Cincinnati...After being satisfied with progress over the previous two seasons, expectations in 2013 went well beyond another one-and-done in the wildcard round, but that's what happened again with the Bengals. He wasn't the only culprit in the playoff loss to the Chargers, but QB Andy Dalton produced another postseason stinker (two picks and a lost fumble) vs. the Bolts, and there are now some real doubts if Dalton is capable of taking the team deep into the playoffs in the future. While Dalton will likely be given one more chance in 2014, HC Marvin Lewis must at least ponder other options at the position. Much of Dalton's future might be linked to the direction Lewis goes with his offense now that coordinator Jay Gruden has moved to Washington to become the Redskins' new head coach. Lewis is also looking for a new d.c. after Mike Zimmer took the Vikings' head coaching job, although the robust Bengals stop units usually have a distinct influence from their head coach. Roster-wise, the emergence of North Carolina rookie RB Gio Bernard might also make it easier for the Bengals to avoid paying a roster bonus to veteran RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Other upcoming decisions beyond the hiring of new coordinators, Green-Ellis' contract, and what to do about Dalton will likely involve adding more depth to the secondary in either free agency or the draft, where the Bengals have fared well in recent years. Among key players on the roster, it remains to be seen what Cincy will do with DE Michael Johnson, who played under a franchise tag and is set for free agency again.

Indianapolis...With Houston disappearing, Tennessee minus QB Jake Locker for most of the campaign, and Jacksonville winless until after midseason, the Colts won the AFC South almost by default. In fact, Indy was 6-0 in division games, winning half of those clashes by 20 points or more. So, whatever happens in the offseason, the Colts will enter 2014 as prohibitive South favorites. As they should, having claimed the scalps of Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and Kansas City (twice) during the season, and second-year QB Andrew Luck progressing rapidly on the NFL learning curve. Luck also now has a playoff win under his belt (the breathless 45-44 rally over the Chiefs in the wildcard round), as the Colts effectively adjusted their offense after the midseason injury to key WR Reggie Wayne, mostly employing a shorter passing game thereafter, except for the occasional deep shots to speedy T.Y. Hilton. But there is room for improvement within an inconsistent OL that allowed 32 sacks and a "D" that struggled significantly through stretches of the regular season. Looking ahead, the Colts don't have a first-round pick in the draft due to the Trent Richardson trade, so GM Ryan Grigson could be expected to be more active than usual in free agency, especially with the fate of a whopping 23 FAs on the roster to be determined. (Among those who just completed their contract years are S Antoine Bethea, CB Vontae Davis, RB Donald Brown, and PK Adam Vinatieri.) Expect some shuffling on the defensive side, as help up front might be needed after ranking 26th vs. the rush, while Grigson and HC Chuck Pagano are going to mull what to do about Richardson, whose rushing totals did not impress after his arrival from Cleveland in late September. If Donald Brown isn't re-signed, it would be no surprise if the RB spot is emphasized in free agency, or when the Colts get around to drafting after the first round (Indy currently isn't scheduled to pick until the 59th slot, and also is minus a 4th-round pick that was surrendered in the Richardson trade).

Kansas City...Although the Chiefs would lose six of their last eight games, including an epic collapse in the second half of the wildcard round playoff at Indianapolis, 2013 was a success nonetheless in K.C. under new HC Andy Reid after last season's 2-14 train wreck. Still, there are issues that surfaced down the stretch, especially on defense, where the Chiefs allowed almost 30 ppg once their nine-game win streak (in which they allowed only 17 ppg) ended at Denver on November 17. Injuries to LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston didn't help down the stretch, but cannot completely account for the defensive tail-off. Bigger questions might exist offensively, where the Chiefs might want to decide if they want to extend their commitment to QB Alex Smith, who, while not spectacular, ran Reid's offense efficiently, and whose contract runs only through 2014. Expect K.C. to add a couple of more playmakers offensively, especially at the wideout spots, after do-everything RB Jamaal Charles also led the team in receptions (Dwayne Bowe was the most productive WR, but made only 57 catches, worth 11.1 yards per reception, with a long gain of only 34 yards). Thus, a deep threat who can stretch the field vertically will likely be high on the target list in free agency or the draft.

New England...In some ways, 2013 might have been one of HC Bill Belichick's finest hours, as the Patriots navigated through a succession of off-field distractions and a spate of injuries and personnel issues that began well before training camp convened last summer. But when the smoke finally cleared, New England had won yet another AFC East title and again advanced to the conference title game, where, like a year ago vs. Baltimore, it again met defeat, this time vs. Denver. A repeat of last season's misfortunes would appear unlikely; serious off-field problems encountered by TE Aaron Hernandez removed him permanently from the equation, and in conjunction with injuries to Rob Gronkowski it robbed QB Tom Brady of his safety blankets from recent campaigns. Gronkowski would return at midseason only to go down again in December, and while Brady found passing success with FA Danny Amendola and holdover Julian Edelman, they were smaller targets and not as effective in the red zone as Brady's past (and bigger) receiving options, partly resulting in Brady's modest TD pass total, at least compared to his past lofty standards, of 25. Meanwhile, journeyman RB LeGarrette Blount would eventually add a chop-busting dimension to the infantry. But Blount, like Edelman, is ticketed for free agency, so the Pats have some decisions to make with them, as well as with CB Aqib Talib. Offseason focuses will also likely be upon the defensive line, especially with the status of key DT Vince Wilfork up in the air after his torn Achilles tendon. The Pats' rush defense suffered as a result, sinking to 30th in the league. Getting back a healthy Wilfork and key LB Jerod Mayo (who missed more than half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle) will help the defense, but durability for both is a concern. There is also the issue about the future of Brady, who has not appeared to slow down too much but is now 36 years old, and Belichick might soon want to identify a successor. Most do not believe the Patriots are convinced about backup Ryan Mallett's long-term viability, so it might be time to look for another QB in the draft.

San Diego...Perhaps the most-pleasant surprise in the AFC, the Chargers slipped through on the rail in a torrid, do-or-die December stretch drive that saw them win their last four games and qualify by the skin of their teeth for the final conference playoff slot before avenging an earlier defeat by pounding the Bengals in the wildcard round. The team displayed the sort of consistency and resolve for first-year HC Mike McCoy that it lacked in recent years under predecessor Norv Turner, and no one would benefit more from the new direction than QB Philip Rivers, reborn in 2013 when posting his best numbers (32 TDP & 11 picks) in recent seasons. Rivers found a sweet spot in the McCoy/o.c. Ken Whisenhunt attack thanks in good part to a robust infantry diversion featuring RB Ryan Mathews (1255 YR). But there is no room to stand still in the offseason, and already McCoy is looking for a new o.c. after Whisenhunt left to become the Titans' new HC. The Bolts are also probably seeking defensive upgrades for a platoon that lacked playmakers and forced only 17 turnovers in the regular season. The rush defense also conceded a hefty 4.6 ypc, and CB Derek Cox was a major disappointment (and eventually benched) after signing a big $20 million offseason deal. San Diego will have further decisions to make regarding WRs Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander, both of whom sidelined almost the entirety of the season due to injuries and with significant durability concerns going forward.

NFC


Carolina...The surprise package in the NFC, especially since no coach appeared to be on a hotter seat in September than Ron Rivera after the Pan-thas struggled to a 1-3 break from the gate. But things began to come together in October as QB Cam Newton adjusted to a more streamlined offense installed by new o.c. Mike Shula and the defense emerged as one of the NFL's best en route to a number two overall ranking. Along the way, 2nd-year ex-Boston College LB Luke Kuechly posted some staggering numbers that put him in contention for NFL defensive MVP honors with a whopping 156 tackles, including 24 alone in the crucial penultimate-week win over the Saints that opened the door for Carolina to unexpectedly steal the NFC South and make it to the postseason for the first time since John Fox was still on the sidelines in 2008. In the end, it was too soon for Carolina to make a deep run in the playoffs, as the surging 49ers avenged a midseason loss at Candlestick. Struggles in the red zone vs. San Francisco underlined the need for another playmaker or two to be added to Newton's arsenal in the offseason, especially since the Panther wideouts could not gain separation against the Niner secondary, rendering Newton nearly helpless vs. the San Francisco pass rush. Still, Cam's progress means GM Dave Gettleman will probably try to lock Newton into a longer deal in the offseason as well as retain much of the core of a squad with 21 potential free agents, who include CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Drayton Florence, S Quinton Mikell, WR Domenik Hixon, WR Ted Ginn, Jr., PK Graham Gano, and a number of others. Fortunately for Gettleman, he was about $17 million under the cap this past season, so he has room to operate.

Green Bay...The Packers proved to be the best team in a disappointing NFC North even with QB Aaron Rodgers missing nearly half of the season and with a cluster of other injuries (15 players ended on IR) reducing HC Mike McCarthy to mix-and-match mode by midseason. A major bright spot was the emergence of Alabama rookie RB Eddie Lacy, who gave the offense its first power-running dimension in a good while, while WR Jordy Nelson finally stayed healthy and emerged as the Pack's go-to receiver after posting the best stats (85 catches) of his career. McCarthy's reshuffling of the OL proved helpful as well, and it would seem as if Matt Flynn will be welcomed back with open arms as Rodgers' backup after keeping Green Bay in the playoff race with some scintillating efforts in late-season wins vs. the Falcons and Cowboys. But for the Pack to return to the elite level in the NFC, it must make upgrades defensively after allowing more points than any playoff team in 2013 and once again being burned by San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. In his contract year, DT B.J. Raji was a major disappointment, and first-round DE Datone Jones made minimal impact. GM Ted Thompson has been reluctant to rely upon free agency in the past, but with the "D" needing reinforcements at all three levels, he might be tempted to explore that route instead of simply relying upon the draft. What to do about FAs Raji, LB Mike Neal, and CB Sam Shields will also be addressed soon.

New Orleans...What was looking to be a triumphant season with the return of HC Sean Payton from the "Bountygate" scandal instead ended in a bit of frustration as the Saints blew the important home-field edge in the playoffs with late-season losses to the Seahawks and Panthers (the latter effectively costing New Orleans a division crown that seemed all but assured in October), and a subsequent bitter division-round exit, again at Seattle. All of that grated, because the Saints were an undefeated 8-0 SU at the Superdome, pushing their home mark, with Payton on the sideline, to a sparkling 17-0 since 2011. But as the sixth seed in the NFC, the Saints could not convert their great advantage as a host into home games in the playoffs. There were still plenty of positives, with QB Drew Brees cracking the 5000-yard passing mark for the third straight year, TE Jimmy Graham posting more out-of-this-world numbers, and the "D" rehabilitating quickly under long-haired new d.c. Rob Ryan. Still, the difference between home and road numbers remained startling, even beyond the SU marks (8-0 vs. 3-5), as Brees' stats and those of the defense also tailed off significantly on the road, which suggests that Payton might be tempted to hire Dr. Phil on a consultancy basis for some psychological analysis. Upcoming offseason maneuvers include some possible tricky negotiations with Graham, who will want top dollar on a long-term deal but could instead wind up with a franchise tag for 2014 and less money, as TEs are compensated less than WRs under the franchise designation. Beyond Graham, GM Mickey Loomis has decisions regarding pending FAs FS Malcolm Jenkins, DE Kenyon Coleman, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, and WR Robert Meachem, among others.

Philadelphia...With the rest of the NFC East spinning its wheels, the Eagles made significant progress under first-year and ex-Oregon HC Chip Kelly, winning the division and coming within seconds of advancing to the second round of the playoffs, losing a heartbreaker to the Saints in the wildcard round. Along the way, Philly worked Kelly's fast-paced offense so deftly that it became one of the most entertaining teams in the league, while second-year QB Nick Foles ended up as the NFL's top-rated passer and RB Shady McCoy the league's top rusher. Expect offseason upgrades to be focused on the defense, which ranked 29th overall and last against the pass. The starting secondary, in particular, was not disruptive enough, combining for only four picks and two fumble recoveries. Elsewhere on the roster, it would be a surprise if QB Michael Vick returns; if he does so it will assuredly be at a significant pay cut, and most insiders expect him to test the FA waters. The Birds will also have to decide if they want to re-sign one or both of WRs Jeremy Maclin (who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL) and Riley Cooper, both heading to free agency. Still, this is a team with only a handful of starters in their 30s, and the momentum is very positive at the Linc.

San Francisco...By the end of the season, the 49ers had came to a boil and looked ready to advance to their second straight Super Bowl before the Seahawks rallied for a 23-17 win in the NFC title game. After what had been a superb late-season and postseason run, QB Colin Kaepernick turned the ball over three times in the 4th Q at Seattle, and a golden chance at a return trip to the Supe was squandered. Still, there is not much apparent downside for a franchise that has advanced to the conference title game in each of HC Jim Harbaugh's three years in charge and prepares to move next season into the ultimate state-of-the-art NFL stadium, down the peninsula in Santa Clara and adjacent to the team's headquarters. The question moving forward is if the hated Seahawks are going to remain an obstacle for the best generation of 49ers in two decades, and if so, what is San Francisco going to do about it. Kaepernick, though struggling in the first half of the season and late in the NFC title game, had more huge moments throughout the season (especially after preferred target WR Michael Crabtree returned from injury) and has emerged as a dominant force. But Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke will be looking closely at the supporting cast, such as RB Frank Gore, showing signs of wear-and-tear at 30 years old and entering a contract year. Are Kendall Hunter or Anthony Dixon ready to step into the breach as featured backs? Baalke also has some FAs to worry about (among them C Jonathan Goodwin, S Donte Whitner & PK Phil Dawson), and pending cap numbers could possibly have the likes of Gore, CB Carlos Rogers, and DL Justin Smith on that list as well. Depth at WR spots behind Crabtree and Anquan Boldin might need to be addressed in the offseason, and Baalke will also be keeping a close watch on the rehab of LB NaVorro Bowman, who suffered a devastating knee injury in the NFC title game that could jeopardize his availability next season. If so, Baalke might be looking for reinforcements at the LB position in free agency or the draft. Still, compared to most teams, the 49ers' issues are few
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