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Key Games -- Week 10 at Chargers, Week 12 at Patriots, Week 13 at Chiefs, Week 15 vs. Chargers, & Week 16 at Texans
Breakout Player -- The Broncos can take a deep breath following the brief injury scare to defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. The second-year player enters the season as one of Denver’s most important players. Von Miller’s six-game suspension is a significant hit to their pass rush, but an improving Wolfe (six sacks in 2012) could lessen the blow.
Rookie Impact -- A running back emerges as a rookie of the year candidate just about every year. Montee Ball fits that criterion in 2013. Ball and Ronnie Hillman figure to compete for reps throughout the season, but there’s no question Ball is the more talented runner. Denver’s one-dimensional offense arguably cost them in the playoffs. They aren’t likely forgetting that anytime soon, so look for Peyton Manning in use his running backs more. Ball has 1,000-yard potential, as a result.
Fantasy Stud -- The league’s only four-time MVP, Manning threw for 37 touchdowns and 4,659 yards. Pencil him in for another elite fantasy year. In addition to Manning, receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas will also make an impact, despite the signing of Wes Welker. For Manning, the former Patriot is more likely assuming the role of Dallas Clark or Brandon Stokley in Denver’s offense, while Decker and Demaryius Thomas play the role of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
Prediction -- The Broncos won 13 games a year ago before bowing out in the divisional round to eventual champion Baltimore. An improving division could be Denver’s biggest obstacle in 2013. Matching their ‘13 mark of 6-0 against AFC West rivals will prove difficult. The Chargers will be better under Mike McCoy and Kansas City could give them a run as well. In addition, Denver against San Diego (in Denver) and at Kansas City could prove troublesome. Manning does not play well in the cold. He might be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but there comes a point when every quarterback just looks uncomfortable in cold weather games. It happened to Brett Favre and it’s happening to Manning. Because of Manning’s play, they’ll drop at least one cold weather game, in addition to losing an early-season game due to Miller’s absence. A playoff appearance is definitely in the cards, but the Broncos are going to have to fight tooth and nail this season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Key Games -- Week 7 vs. Texans, Week 11 at Broncos, Week 12 vs. Chargers, Week 13 vs. Broncos, & Week 16 vs. Colts
Breakout Player -- A season-ending knee injury cost safety Eric Berry the entire 2011 season. He came back strong last year, but with the exception of Adrian Peterson, torn ACL’s often take two years to overcome. Berry’s now two years removed from his ACL tear, and by all accounts, he’s ready to become a game-changing safety. Yes, he’s been to the Pro Bowl, but that was with only one interception. Not only will he see a spike in interceptions, but he’s also a good bet to lead the Chiefs in tackles.
Rookie Impact -- No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher had a rocky month. He’s suffering from a slew injuries and he was woeful against San Francisco. Still, the Chiefs knew he wasn’t as polished as Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel was. They took him because of his combination of athleticism and size. His upside is immense and he should improve as the season progresses.
Fantasy Stud -- High expectations are nothing new for running back Jamaal Charles. His skills and Andy Reid’s offense is the perfect match. We all saw how much success LeSean McCoy had playing for Reid, and many are looking for Charles to duplicate that success. He’s undoubtedly a RB1 entering the season.
Prediction -- In many ways, the hiring of Reid fits a pattern with Kansas City. The Chiefs have a history of bringing in veteran coaches to turn around their ailing franchise. They hired Marty Schottenheimer in 1989 and Dick Vermeil in 2001. Neither Schottenheimer nor Vermeil ultimately won a championship with Kansas City, but they did produce several quality teams. In a weaken AFC, Kansas City could compete for a postseason spot, but they must get better production from their passing game, run defense, and pass rush. All three phases will improve in ‘13, but not quite enough to advance the last place Chiefs into the postseason.
San Diego Chargers
Key Games -- Week 1 vs. Texans, Week 6 vs. Colts, Week 10 vs. Broncos, Week 13 vs. Bengals, & Week 15 at Broncos
Breakout Player -- After playing apprentice to Takeo Spikes for two seasons, inside linebacker Donald Butler is ready to step out of the shadows and emerge as an all-pro caliber player. He’s an every-down linebacker capable of rushing the quarterback or dropping into coverage. The Chargers reportedly are already eyeing Butler for a contract extension. They hope him and second-round pick Manti Te’o can form one of the best inside linebacker tandems for years to come.
Rookie Impact -- The Chargers patiently waited for Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker to fall into their laps with the No. 11 pick. Fluker is a massive, mauling right tackle that’ll bring much-needed attitude to San Diego’s offensive line. He’ll be a candidate for the all-rookie team, if he’s able to improve as a pass blocker.
Fantasy Stud -- When the Chargers hired Mike McCoy as their head coach, his No. 1 priority became fixing quarterback Philip Rivers. The regression of Antonio Gates, and a depleting receiving corps, prevents River from re-emerging as a top-flight fantasy quarterback. However, under McCoy, he’ll have his best season since 2010.
Prediction -- As stated, the key to San Diego’s resurgence is McCoy’s ability to reconstruct Rivers. Rivers was among the league’s elite from 2008-10, but he’s significantly regressed the last two years. He won’t quite achieve his previous stature, as San Diego’s receiving corps needs overhauling, but he’ll put San Diego in position to challenge Denver if he just plays efficiently and lets a young defense takeover. That’s where the real resurgence in San Diego is happening. They possess quality players at all three phases of their defense. Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes form one of the best defensive line tandems in football. They join Butler and safety Eric Weddle as ascending players. A coach in his first season with a franchise has led that respective team to the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons. McCoy’s the best bet to make eight.
Key Games -- Week 3 at Broncos, Week 5 vs. Chargers, Week 6 at Chiefs, Week 8 vs. Steelers, & Week 17 vs. Broncos
Breakout Player -- After playing steady football for three years, Oakland’s counting on defensive lineman Lamarr Houston to elevate his play. Because of salary cap ramifications, the Raiders parted ways with long-time starters Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour. The onus is on Houston to fill their void and spark a pass rush that finished second to last in quarterback sacks a year ago.
Rookie Impact -- Rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden’s story will be among the most tracked in football this year. Last November, he needed emergency surgery to repair a vein in his heart. This wasn’t just career threatening, but also life threatening. Less than a year later, he’ll likely make his NFL debut in week one. He’s obviously a tremendous athlete -- having recovered so quickly -- and his football instincts are very good. He could be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise long year for Raider fans.
Fantasy Stud -- Health and not talent is Darren McFadden’s red flag. He possesses tremendous upside, but he’s missed 16 games in three years. His durability is a major red flag, but if he can remain healthy, a return to his 2010 form (1,157 yards in 13 games) is within the realm of possibility.
Prediction -- When Oakland hired Reggie McKenzie as their general manger, they knew it would take him time to rebuild. The receiving corps is a mess and the o-line remains one of the league’s worst. This franchise is still reeling from Hue Jackson‘s decision to trade for Carson Palmer, as the team‘s been unable to address some of the above concerns. Ironically, Palmer may have been their best player and McKenzie traded him away in the off-season. Much of Oakland’s roster purge in the off-season is the result of a terrible salary cap situation left in McKenzie‘s hands. The current Raiders general manager comes from Green Bay, though, where he learned from Ted Thompson. That means drafting and developing your own talent. This philosophy takes time (McKenzie doesn’t have Brett Favre as Thompson did in ‘07), but it can work. It’ll just take patience.