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On 09/05/2013 01:39 PM in NFL

Experts: Playoff picks, sleepers

Experts: Playoff picks, sleepers

Ron Jaworski, Herm Edwards and Mel Kiper provide favorites to reach playoffs

By Herm Edwards, Mel Kiper and Ron Jaworski | ESPN Insider


The Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, but first, teams have to take care of business in the regular season. Three of Insider's NFL experts -- Ron Jaworski, Herm Edwards and Mel Kiper -- provided their picks and analysis for division and wild-card winners in 2013, plus a few sleeper teams that could surprise by Week 17.

AFC

AFC East


Ron Jaworski: Miami Dolphins
Sooner or later, someone will overtake the Patriots, and I saw a much-improved team last season under coach Joe Philbin. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman has done a great job bringing along Ryan Tannehill, and now Mike Wallace gives him a big, downfield weapon. If Dion Jordan evolves as expected, he and Cameron Wake will be nightmares for QBs.


Herm Edwards: New England Patriots
This team is still the class of the AFC East, even after a tough offseason. Tom Brady will make his new receivers look good, and the Patriots will win games by double-digits again.
Mel Kiper: Patriots
They're at least two games better than any team in the division. Defense could be improved.


AFC North


Jaworski: Baltimore Ravens
I believe this will be a better team than the one that left the field in New Orleans in February with the Lombardi trophy. Yes, the Ravens lost Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but those two aren't the same guys who will go into the Hall of Fame. Now the team is younger, Michael Huff comes over from Oakland, and Matt Elam enters as a rookie. The Ravens are without Lewis' leadership, but their linebacker play should improve. This is going to be a younger, revitalized team.


Edwards: Cincinnati Bengals
I really like this team this year. The defense will be strong, led by Geno Atkins, and they have drafted very well the past couple of years. Andy Dalton needs to step up in big games, though.


Kiper: Bengals
Depends a great deal on Dalton taking that next step. But there's talent everywhere.


AFC South


Jaworski: Houston Texans
Gary Kubiak has done a heck of a job coaching this group. I believe the Texans made one of the best choices in the draft selecting DeAndre Hopkins. That gives Andre Johnson a much-needed complementary receiver, and I think Johnson will catch a lot more footballs because of it. From the running perspective, Arian Foster may be nicked up, but Ben Tate could be the best backup RB in the league. Defensively, Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt will anchor this unit and make it a complete football team.


Edwards: Texans
The most complete team in a weak division; the Texans should win this going away.


Kiper: Texans
I do think the Colts can challenge, but Houston is the most complete team, and Hopkins will help.


AFC West


Jaworski: Denver Broncos
Denver may be inconsistent to start the season but it will finish strong. The pass rush will be a question mark, but on the offensive side -- my goodness. The Patriots ran 75 plays a game last season, and I think Peyton Manning wants to hit 80 this season.


Edwards: Broncos
Peyton Manning now has a season under his belt and a new offensive weapon in Wes Welker. Watch out for Julius Thomas emerging at tight end as well. The Von Miller suspension will hurt, but this team is too good to let that slow it down.


Kiper: Broncos
I wouldn't be surprised if Kansas City provides a test, but the Broncos have a massive QB edge on the rest of the division.


Wild Card 1


Jaworski: Bengals
I'm splitting hairs by choosing Baltimore over Cincinnati in the North. I watched the Bengals' preseason film Tuesday morning and they just dominate the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, there's nothing they can't do. I predict a breakout year for A.J. Green, as he becomes the go-to guy for Dalton. Add Gio Bernard, whom I love, and the tight end tandem of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham, and they have every element needed to succeed.


Edwards: Kansas City Chiefs
I think they make the playoffs in Andy Reid's first season as their coach. Jamaal Charles should have a big year in this offense, and Alex Smith will provide much better play at the QB position.


Kiper: Ravens
Could actually be better on defense as that unit jells.


Wild Card 2


Jaworski: Patriots
Even though I picked Miami to win the East, the Pats are still a playoff team and will be dangerous once they get there. Tom Brady always gives you the chance to win, but the turnover at receiver and tight end gives me pause. I have some concern about their consistency and continuity.


Edwards: Dolphins
Their offseason acquisitions should pay off with a trip to the postseason. Wallace should provide the downfield target Tannehill was missing last season, and this defense is underrated.


Kiper: Dolphins
Could start slow, but I like the growth curve for Tannehill.


NFC

NFC East


Jaworski: Dallas Cowboys
I think they're finally going to have a breakout year and it will be because of an improved offensive line. I give a lot of credit to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Based on the preseason tape I've seen, this can be a pretty good group, and rookie Travis Frederick has fit right in at center. In years past, this was their weak spot, but it looks a lot better right now.


Edwards: Cowboys
Tony Romo needs to prove that he's worth the big extension he just signed. I think Dez Bryant is going to have a huge year, and the Cowboys' D will be improved.


Kiper: New York Giants
The most stable roster with the fewest holes in a division where depth is a problem elsewhere.


NFC North


Jaworski: Green Bay Packers
Offensively, I don't know how you can stop this group. Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones -- they're all so solid. And, oh, by the way, now they've got some guys to carry the rock in Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Can you imagine how much more dynamic this offense can be when they add a play-action dimension?


Edwards: Packers
They have the best QB in the game in Rodgers and now should have a running attack to go with it. The question in the playoffs will be their defense.


Kiper: Packers
The defense took a big step forward last year. This year, I think the running game will.

NFC South


Jaworski: New Orleans Saints
Based off preseason tape, the Saints' offense looks like it did in 2010 and 2011. Sean Payton's big, explosive play designs are back and Drew Brees is executing. The Saints are going to move the ball and I believe they will overtake the Falcons. Now, can the defense can hold up? The Saints may give up big plays, but they'll create turnovers, too.


Edwards: Atlanta Falcons
I love their offensive firepower with Matt Ryan and Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Steven Jackson should also provide an upgrade in the running game. A little concerned about the defense, but this offense will be able to carry them.


Kiper: Falcons
The offense is going to score points. If the pass rush is a little better, the defense could improve.


NFC West


Jaworski: San Francisco 49ers
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, they're the team to beat. Colin Kaepernick, with a Super Bowl trip under his belt, should be terrific. Their offense should be strong, particularly on the ground, but the defense is what will fuel this team. Their linebackers -- Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith -- are second to none. Up front, Justin Smith gives you nothing but his best effort every down. There's a lot to like in San Francisco.


Edwards: Seattle Seahawks
They have one of the league's best defenses and a rising, young QB in Russell Wilson. Pete Carroll has transformed this team into a Super Bowl contender.


Kiper: Seahawks
San Francisco's remarkable run of health runs into Seattle's depth and comfort at QB.

Wild Card 1


Jaworski: Seahawks
You could argue between the Seahawks and Niners in the West until the cows come home. There are 100 reasons I like this team, but No. 1? When they come off the bus, they look like they want to kick your ass. This team loves being big, physical, intimidators. That's how they built this team. I'm a big Wilson fan. If they get Percy Harvin back, he'll be another nightmare matchup problem for opposing defenses.


Edwards: 49ers
Kaepernick is only going to get better and this defense is rock solid. I just think the Seahawks are a little better.


Kiper: 49ers
I said they might regress just slightly, not miss the playoffs. Relax, Niners fans.


Wild Card 2


Jaworski: Falcons
I know about the 0-4 preseason, but when I broke down the tape and focused on the O-line, I didn't have any concerns. I don't think they played great, but they'll be OK. They can help out with blocking tight ends and backs, and will still have enough offensive weapons to move the chains. There might not be a better receiving tandem than White and Jones. The key will be the Falcons' pass rush and Osi Umenyiora. If he plays well, they'll play well.


Edwards: Redskins
Assuming Robert Griffin III can stay healthy, I like Washington's ability to run the ball and put stress on defenses. The return of Brian Orakpo will be big for that defense.


Kiper: Bears
The defense is old, but good enough. The offense improves with new coach Marc Trestman around.


Dark Horses


Jaworski: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa defense has a lot of playmakers and put in some consistently solid performances last season. The weakness was the secondary, but they added Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. Offensively, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson will be great. It's going to come down to Josh Freeman. There was a six-game stretch last season when he was the best quarterback in the NFL, then late in the season he just didn't compete and dropped like a rock. If he plays consistently well, this is a playoff team.


Edwards: Saints and Colts
Payton returning is worth a couple of wins, and Brees should make fewer mistakes this season. That offense should be scary, but the Saints need the defense to improve. It was historically bad last season.

It's going to be tough for the Colts to repeat the magic of last season, but they still have Andrew Luck at QB and he should only get better in his second season. This defense doesn't have all of the pieces for a complete 3-4 unit, but should be improved as well. Look for a big season from Indy's two tight ends.


Kiper: Chiefs and Buccaneers
Kansas City is far more talented than it showed in 2012 -- nine wins wouldn't be a surprise.

The pieces are there in Tampa to win that division if Freeman returns to 2010 levels. Revis' presence should offer a lift for the pass defense.


Super Bowl XLVIII winner


Jaworski: Packers over Broncos
Well, if you wanted a clue toward my pick, you should look at my QB Big Board. These teams have my No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks in Rodgers and Manning. There are some new young guys on Green Bay's defense who have a lot of talent. Given time to mature in-season, eventually they'll be a lot better on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, I think the Broncos just face more questions on defense. And really, it's going to be a freezing cold blizzard come February in New York -- how can you not like the Packers in those conditions?


Edwards: Seahawks over Broncos
With Wilson improving and that strong defense, I think the Seahawks have enough to get by Denver. Peyton falls just short again.


Kiper: Giants over Broncos
Manning Bowl I. Tom Coughlin continues his every-other-year Super Bowl run.