The past 7 months of professional football have been relatively dramatic, considering that nothing that has happened has been on the field. Since the Patriots topped the Seahawks in a dramatic 28-24 victory, a lot has happened in the National Football League. Many big stars have switched teams. High-profile coaches have been fired, and new up-and-comers have been hired. New hotshot rookies were drafted or signed into the league. Some underperforming veterans were released. Deflategate has constantly lingered in the background, as have deeply serious issues about concussions. But all of those things can finally, FINALLY be pushed to the side. In a couple short hours, Tom Brady and his Patriots will square off against Ben Roethlsiberger’s Steelers. Football will be back. How this season will play out is anyone’s guess- here’s my guesses for what will happen, ON THE FIELD, in the coming months.
Regular Season Standings
The Seahawks are a very trendy pick to win the Super Bowl this upcoming season. And I understand why- Russell Wilson led his team to a Super Bowl last year, and now he has a legitimate passing game weapon in Jimmy Graham at his disposal. But I think there are a couple of issues with this team- the loss of Max Unger, whom they traded away to get Jimmy Graham, being the first and foremost one. His loss cannot be understated. I also think that some cracks are starting to show in the ‘Hawks vaunted secondary- Kam Chancellor might hold out for a good chunk of time, and while Cary Williams is a decent cornerback, he will get beat up on more than Richard Sherman’s other partners did. These weaknesses will allow the Rams to supplant them. The Rams front 7 are filled with absolute beasts, and that doesn’t even include the soon-to-breakout Alec Ogletree, their first round pick in 2013. The acquisition of Nick Foles will allow the team to better utilize their speedy wide receivers, and the drafting of Todd Gurley gives the running game perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the entire league. The Rams also happen to have a slightly easier strength of schedule than their rivals. All of those things will allow the Rams to top what is arguably the best division in the game
The Cardinals and the 49ers are not bad teams, by any means. The Cards get Carson Palmer back after an injury caused him to a good portion of the season, and he will have a trio of athletic receivers to throw to. In San Fran, the signing of speedster Torrey Smith and the promotion of young, powerful back Carlos Hyde will keep their offense at least above average. The problem for both of these teams will be their defenses. The Cardinals lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Dan Williams and elite cornerback Antonio Cromartie to free agency, while the 49ers were decimated by retirements by three major contributors. In a league that is well into a period of offense-first mentalities, these two teams’ shortcomings will see them fall short of playoff places.
Vikings (#2 WC)
The Pack were dealt an early-season blow when Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, and things got really scary after Randall Cobb landed hard on his shoulder. Thankfully for Mike McCarthy’s club, the speedy Cobb didn’t get a serious injury, and will be at close to 100% when the season starts. With Davante Adams and Jeff Janis stepping in to help fill the Nelson-shaped void, Green Bay’s offense will be a step below high octane, but Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, and Cobb are talented enough to boost this team to the top of the division by themselves.
The best of the rest will be the Vikings, who will be one of my two “surprise” playoff picks for the upcoming season. Obviously, the return of Adrian Peterson will get the most publicity, but I think that the addition of Mike Wallace as a compliment to Charles Johnson at receiver, as well as the drafting of potential superstar corner Trae Waynes, are the two moves that will make the biggest difference for this team. Teddy Bridgewater’s development will accelerate faster than many anticipated, and the former Louisville man will help guide his team into the second wild card spot.
The other two teams in this division could be fighting for a wild card spot or a first round pick, depending on how their season starts. The Lions will have to depend on their offense more than they have had to in the past few years, thanks to the losses of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but I expect Calvin Johnson to continue to struggle with injuries and for Golden Tate to fall off a bit after a career season last year. If Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah can pick up a lot of slack, then the team could be ok. But otherwise, they could be in some trouble. The Bears have a much improved defensive coaching staff this year, and picked up a couple of intriguing players (Pernell McPhee and Antrel Rolle) to fill pressing needs. However, major injury concerns at wide receiver, and a merry-go-round at offensive line, present major problems. If the Monsters of the Midway can get them sorted out, they may be a fringe contender- otherwise, Bears fans could be in for another long year.
This is perhaps the weakest division in football- their division winner finished under .500 last year, for goodness sakes! There are a couple of reasons that I think that the Falcons will be able to rise to the top. The first is the dedication to a younger running game on offense- by starting rookie Tevin Coleman and backing him up with second-year man Devonta Freeman, the Falcons will have some explosiveness in the backfield to take pressure off of Matt Ryan. The second, and most important reason, is the hiring of Dan Quinn as the head coach. He will bring a fiery leadership to help rejuvenate a defense that has been pretty vanilla in the past couple seasons. The third reason is that Atlanta has the easiest strength of schedule of any NFL team this season. I don’t expect them to make it look easy, but I do think they will win the division.
The next two teams, the Panther and the Bucs, have relatively similar defenses- a few good role players in certain places and a middle linebacker that wreaks havoc. They both have running games that have the potential to be special, but have largely failed to do that in recent years. This, to me, means that the play of the teams’ two quarterbacks will determine who finishes second in this division. Though Jameis Winston will be a better, more polished version of Cam Newton once he matures, and currently has better weapons than the Auburn man, but at this point in their careers, Newton has more ability to carry his team, so I think the Panthers will sneak above the Bucs.
I feel badly putting the Saints in last place in the division because of how much respect I have for Drew Brees. But the offense has lost some of its luster with the trades of Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham, as well as the parting of ways with Pierre Thomas. Even the normally dependable Marques Colston is starting to slow up a little bit. And on the defensive side of the ball, after the release of troubled pass rusher Junior Galette, there just aren’t any real playmakers. Despite Brees’s best efforts, this is a team headed for a top-10 pick.
I’ve never seen the problem that people have with Tony Romo- yes, he doesn’t always perform the greatest in high pressure situations, but only a select few are able to consistently do so. After an impressive statistical season last year, the only offensive starter that departed the team was DeMarco Murray, and Joseph Randle has enough talent to make up for most, if not all, of his production. The quality of the defense worries me a little bit, but the ‘Boys offense is solid in every area imaginable, and will help guide them to a division title and the number one seed in the NFC.
I, unlike many football experts, liked most of the move that Chip Kelly made this past offseason (except for the Byron Maxwell signing). However, the Eagles defense just doesn’t seem like it will be all that great at stopping the pass, and while DeMarco Murray is a solid NFL running back, he benefitted greatly from playing behind a beastly O-line in Dallas, and I don’t think he’ll do enough to prevent many teams from sending 5 or 6 players in all-out blitz mode, gunning for the oft-injured Sam Bradford. The Eagles have a talented pair of wideouts, but that won’t be enough to see them to the playoffs.
The bottom two teams in this division will be one of the two worst teams in football. The Giants offense has a lot of firepower, with Eli Manning and two elite receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz (and even a solid slot guy in Rueben Randle), but the defense is no longer what it once was, and will struggle to stop many teams. The Redskins, outside of Alfred Morris, are a complete mess. Their quarterback situation is extremely chaotic, the weapons they have outside of Morris are very streaky, and their defense doesn’t have anyone on it that really stands out outside of Ryan Kerrigan, who, as a defensive end, can only do so much with the players he has around him.
Chargers (WC #2)
The Broncos and Chargers are, to me, two fairly evenly matched teams. At this point, Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers are very similar ability-wise. Both teams have an above-average pass rush and two Pro Bowl-caliber players in their secondary. The biggest difference between the teams, to me, is the talent level of the skill players on offense. I really like Keenan Allen, but he doesn’t compare to the freak of nature that is Demariyus Thomas. Emmanuel Sanders is far better than Malcolm Floyd. The combination of Virgil Green and Owen Daniels will outperform the combination of Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates. CJ Anderson is far more explosive than Melvin Gordon. The Chargers will make it tough on Denver, but the Broncos offense has more firepower than Denver’s does. Both teams will make it into the playoffs, but Gary Kubiak’s men will take the division.
The futures of the Chiefs and Raiders have me really conflicted. I think that both teams made some nice additions this offseason- Jeremy Maclin and Marcus Peters for the Chiefs, Amari Cooper and Curtis Lofton for the Raiders- and both clubs have solid, experienced veteran coaches in Andy Reid and Jack Del Rio. However, it just feels to me like something is… missing. I don’t quite know what it is, but the two things that come to mind for me are offensive consistency and defensive talent. I think that those two things will make it difficult for either team to make a real playoff push, and they both finish in the bottom half of the league.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, “Why do you have the Bengals winning this division, and as a #1 seed?” Well, Jeremy Hill is a top-5 NFL running back with a quality backup in Giovani Bernard. Marvin Jones is back after losing all of last year to injury, and Tyler Eifert is returning from a major injury, too, giving Andy Dalton the most potent offense he’s ever had. Marvin Lewis’s front 7 is filled with talent, and added Super Bowl winner AJ Hawk to provide a capable backup and steady veteran leadership. Steady corner Leon Hall works opposite the fleet Adam Jones. The team is somewhat weak on its back end safety, but other than that, it’s impossible to find a flaw in this team that they can’t easily compensate for. So while it is altogether possible for Dalton and co. to flop in the playoffs, this is a good enough team to be the top AFC team in the regular season.
Each of the remaining teams in this division were in playoff contention for most of last season, but have flaws that, to me, will be enough to keep all of them out of the playoffs, and maybe even keep them from being as successful as they were last year. The Steelers have one of the best offenses in the entire league, but their defense, despite strong efforts to improve it, is nowhere near the quality that it once was, especially in the secondary. The Ravens defense, too, isn’t as strong as it was in its glory days, but its biggest problem is that its offense can’t be counted on to be super effective- Dennis Pitta is injured, Steve Smith is aging, Breshad Perriman is unproven, and Justin Forsett can’t be counted on to recreate his career year. The Browns have a decent defense, led by All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden, but their questions at quarterback, and their lack of weapons in the passing game, will prevent them from making it anywhere in a league where the teams with the better passing games are likely to trump other teams. The AFC North was definitely the AFC’s best division last year, but I can’t see them repeating the performance this season.
The Colts have been considered one of the weaker division winners of the league because of the lack of quality within the rest of the division. But the team made a couple of veteran additions that might make Indy a threat to be the top team in the AFC. Putting Andre Johnson opposite TY Hilton gives them a possession-orientated threat to complement Hilton’s speed, and signing former San Fran running back Frank Gore gives the team a true top-10 back for the first time since Edgerrin James left for Arizona. The defense still has some weaknesses, but the offense is good enough to carry this team to a very solid record this year. Following them in the standings will be one of my surprises of the year, the Jaguars. Despite the injury to first round pick Dante Fowler Jr. and many people’s doubts about the development of Blake Bortles, but by bringing in former Denver star Julius Thomas and drafting running back TJ Yeldon to help the offense, along with the signing of defensive end Jared Odrick to improve the team’s pass rush, the Jags, who will be playing 4 games this season against two teams that will be among the worst in the game, will definitely see their record from last year, and maybe, just maybe, they can make a run at the playoffs.
As I said earlier, I believe the bottom two teams in this division will struggle mightily this season. I really like Brian Hoyer, and (kind of) have since his days at Michigan State, but the uncertainty surrounding the injured Arian Foster, as well as the departure of franchise icon Andre Johnson, will make it tough for the team to really get any momentum going, despite two freaks like JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney leading the defense. The Titans have a similar problem to the Texans. I love Marcus Mariota, and I think that the defense will be much improved with Brian Orakpo joining longtime defensive anchor Michael Griffin. But having Bishop Sankey as your running back and Harry Douglas as your number 1 receiver will not strike fear into any opposing defenses, especially when your quarterback has yet to play an NFL game. Look for these AFC South squads to land a top-10 pick.
Bills (WC #1)
The AFC East will battle with the NFC West to be the top division in football. The Jets, while surrounded by controversy brought on by the punch to Geno Smith’s face, have improved in many areas. They’ve brought in star receiver Brandon Marshall to bolster the passing game. The brought back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie while drafting former USC star Leonard Williams to bolster the defense. The Dolphins brought in megastar defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to work with Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes on defense, and added receivers Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings to help out Ryan Tannehill. All of those players are very talented, and have the potential to push their teams into contention. But one team in front of them has made moves that will make them a legit playoff contender, and the other one… well, the other one is the defending champion.
The Bills are my dark horse this year- I like Tyrod Taylor more than most people do, and I think that the unbelievable amount of explosiveness surrounding him, highlighted by LeSean McCoy, supplemented by Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin, will make things easier on Taylor and allow him excel. Plus, with Rex Ryan coming in to help provide his own wrinkles to a defense that finished 4th overall in total yards allowed last season, I think the Bills will be good enough to take the first wild card slot. The Patriots, meanwhile, may have lost Darrelle Revis to the division rival Jets, but a full year of Tom Brady and a healthy Rob Gronkowski will make the Pats tough to beat. Combine those two with Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount, and they will be VERY tough to beat. The Pats take the division, but Ryan continues to be a thorn in Coach Bill Belichick’s side.
Seahawks defeat Falcons
Packers defeat Vikings
The Falcons will have a home field advantage, and also happen to have one of the best receivers of his generation. And those are about the only things they have over the Seahawks. Russell Wilson is better than Matt Ryan and has more valuable playoff experience, and Marshawn Lynch can top the Falcons’ running back duo any day. And then there’s defenses- Atlanta’s may improve this year with Seattle’s old defensive coordinator at the helm, but they have a long way to go to match Pete Carroll’s team in terms of personnel. The ‘Hawks will literally run over the Falcons and into the divisional round.
Meanwhile, in the other wildcard matchup, it’ll be an intra-divisional matchup between the star QB of the NFC North, Rodgers, and his heir apparent, Bridgewater. The Pack have two major advantages over their rivals. The first is home field advantage- Packers fans are very passionate, and will be even more so when the playoffs come around, making Lambeau Field a real fortress. The other advantage, and the one that determines this game, is playoff experience. Rodgers has been there before and Bridgewater hasn’t. The former Cal man keeps his cool and guides his team on to the next round.
Rams defeat Seahawks
Cowboys defeat Packers
Both of these games have winners that may seem against the grain in terms of predictions, especially the Rams winning over the 2-time defending NFC champs from Seattle. But I think that the same flaws that make allow the Rams to win the division will let them triumph over Pete Carroll’s squad here. The multifaceted Rams offense will keep the ‘Hawks guessing and make it harder for the team’s ferocious pass rush or Richard Sherman, from taking over. The Rams’ phenomenal front 7 is able to penetrate the Seahawks’ line without their anchor, Max Unger, there to provide a steady calm. The Rams will move in.
A rematch of last year’s game! How perfect! I think this year, though, the result will be different- Tony Romo will want to make up for his loss last season, and the advantage of having the game of Dallas instead of the raucous Lambeau Field will make it much easier to do so. Plus, I think it will be easier for the Cowboys to hone in on their tormenters from last year’s game, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, without having to worry about Jordy Nelson. “America’s Team” advances to the conference championship.
Rams defeat Cowboys
During most of this of this post, I’ve frequently emphasized a team’s offensive prowess in regards to whether or not the team ends up being successful. But, as the old saying goes, “Defense wins championships,” and defense will be the determining factor in who wins this game. And the Rams defense is on a far higher level than Dallas’s. Yes, the Cowboys have a great offensive line, but the fearsome front 7 of the Rams (there are just so many ways to describe these guys!) will give them some issues, taking some pressure off of their average secondary. The Dallas front 7 doesn’t come close to comparing to St. Louis’s, and won’t provide the secondary much relief. St. Louis moves on to the Super Bowl in their first playoff appearance since 2004.
Bills defeat Broncos
Colts defeat Chargers
Peyton Manning is a competitive person, and I know he wants to win again, but in all honesty, I think that he should have retired last season. Playing against a ferocious defense in colder weather, with a weakening arm, will not do the legendary quarterback any favors. And while the Broncos defensive members are no slouches, there are explosive players all over Buffalo’s offense, and I think that Denver will have a harder time stopping Buffalo than vice versa. Rex Ryan and co. pull off the upset to move on.
Both of these teams have relatively middling defenses and offenses that are right on the edge of being great, so talent wise, these teams are pretty even. However, I think that the matchups in this one favor the Colts. Vontae Davis is the perfect foil to Keenan Allen, while Brandon Flowers will have a tough time matching up with the towering Andre Johnson. Melvin Gordon will have trouble evading D’Qwell Jackson, while the wily Frank Gore should be able to mess with the young Manti Te’o and the inconsistent Donald Butler. The Colts win a close one.
Patriots defeat Colts
Bengals defeat Bills
Back in the day, this game would be the matchup of matchups- Tom Brady facing off with Peyton Manning. The rivalry between Brady and Andrew Luck isn’t anywhere near as strong, but will still make for an amusing game. Both teams will be fighting to prove last year’s result wasn’t a true reflection of their team- the Patriots with Deflategate and the Colts for getting blown out. In the end, though, I think Brady’s playoff savvy is enough to hold off the league’s best young QB to advance to the AFC championship game.
Out of all the playoff games, this was probably my toughest to call- I don’t think anyone really expects either of these teams to make it this far, so I’ve become kind of fond of them, and it was difficult to pick one to knock out. However, I think Cincy prevails in this one, solely because of playoff experience on the part of the Bengals. Yes, they’ve lost every game they’ve played with Andy Dalton as their quarterback, but they only lost last year due to a superhuman performance from Andrew Luck. Tyrod Taylor is not Andrew Luck, and while the Bills defense is far better than Indianapolis’s, Dalton and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will have a few things up their sleeve to allow Cincy to prevail.
Patriots defeat Bengals
Both teams have offenses that match up fairly well against each other’s defense- New England does not have a great run defense, which will allow Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to take advantage, while the Bengals have nobody that can truly match up well with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski (I mean, who does, really?)- so I see this one as being somewhat of a shootout. And, having played, and won, many, many shootout games against Peyton Manning when both quarterbacks were in there prime, Brady will know what it takes to win. New England advances to its second straight Super Bowl.
Patriots defeat Rams
I really thought about the Bengals being here and winning it all, giving a deserving Marvin Lewis a Super Bowl win and allowing Andy Dalton to stick his tongue out at all his haters. Instead, we get a rematch of the Patriots first ever Super Bowl victory. The Rams offense may not be the “Greatest Show on Turf” anymore, but their balanced attack, with two high quality running backs and a pair of speedy receivers, might make trouble for the Pats’ newly rebuilt secondary. Jeff Fischer’s front 7 is filled with talent, and will be gunning to slow the Patriots all game long. The problem for St. Louis is the same problem they had the last time they squared off against New England in the Super Bowl: Tom Brady. Brady will be fired up to show that last year’s victory over the Seahawks was no fluke, and if he was able to have his way with Seattle’s secondary last year, I expect him to do the same to the Rams this year. So while most of the players that take the field for both teams will be different from the last matchup back in 2002, the one that remains, Brady, will make the difference. The Pats will win 27-20.
NFL MVP: Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Let me start by saying how much I love Giovani Bernard. I wholeheartedly believe that if he hadn’t gotten injured last year, he would still be the starter in Cincy, and Hill would be his solid backup. But that isn’t the case- Hill is the starter and will get most of the carries. The former LSU is a powerful runner that averaged over 5 yards a carry last season while running for 1,124 yards, despite only starting his first game in week 9. With a full season as a starter approaching for Hill, I can see his YPC average dropping a little bit, but his running style and talent are conducive to him having another huge season. I can see him having an Adrian Peterson-type season and pull away the MVP award from Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
The three front runners for this are, to me, the obvious choices: Gordon, St. Louis running back Todd Gurley, and Oakland receiver Amari Cooper. Gurley will not start the season as he completes his recovery from a torn ACL and will be splitting carries with Tre Mason for at least part of the season, so I don’t think he’ll have the stats to win the award. I love the potential that Cooper has, and he is very similar to his predecessor at Alabama, Julio Jones, but he isn’t the freak of nature that Mike Evans is, and I think it will take at least half the year for Cooper and David Carr to get on the same page. Therefore, I think that Gordon, San Diego’s undisputed #1, with a solid offensive line in front of him and a good play action quarterback, will excel in San Diego to win the ROY.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta has been crying out for a decent pass rusher after John Abraham left for Arizona following the 2012 season. Beasley is quick off the edge and, due to his exceptional football mind, can play both defensive end and linebacker if needed. Just imagine the different uses that Coach Dan Quinn will have for the former Clemson player. It’s actually a little bit scary how good he could play in Quinn’s Leo role.
Coach of the Year: Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills
Ryan definitely wore out his welcome with the Jets, but he gets a fresh start in the division he is most familiar with after taking over the Bills. Ryan inherits a solid defense that he will be able to bring his own special twist to, and due to a couple of controversial offseason moves he has a few playmakers to work with on offense. An unproven quarterback is a little bit of a worry, but that hasn’t stopped Ryan from making the playoffs before, and I think he’ll take a Bills team with relatively low expectations to the playoffs.
Best Acquisition: Orlando Franklin, OT, San Diego Chargers
Franklin outperformed his more heralded teammate Ryan Clady last season, and yet, after leaving Denver, he signed on in San Diego with a contract that is worth $20 MILLION less than the deal Clady is currently working on. On top of that, Franklin is reunited with his former offensive coordinator (and a former offensive lineman) Mike McCoy. Peyton Manning still has enough in the tank to keep the Broncos above the Chargers, but once Melvin Gordon settles in to San Diego, he, Phillip Rivers and Franklin will combine to make a lethal combination for the Chargers.
Worst Acquisition: Byron Maxwell, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Here’s a little newsflash for people that haven’t picked up on this yet- the Seahawks defense of the past 3 years makes everyone seem better than they really are. Brandon Browner was thought to be the next star after having a great year opposite Richard Sherman, and Walter Thurmond III was thought to be a high quality nickel back. Both of them failed to live up to their potential after leaving the comfy confines of the Northwest. Maxwell may be a decent corner, for all we know, but to splash $62 million on a guy that may just be “average” was a big mistake by Chip Kelly.
Biggest Surprise: Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
In order for the Bills to make the playoffs, in an era of high volume passing, the Rex Ryan is going to need his quarterback to step up. After a few years of backing up Joe Flacco under QB guru Cam Cameron’s tutelage, Taylor looked sharp and accurate in preseason action, and it seemed that he worked out the kinks that caused his completion percentage to be low. With a couple quick receivers and a solid running game to take the pressure off of him, don’t be surprised if Taylor is the best QB in the entire AFC East. Yes, even better than Tom Brady.