When the NFL season started, it brought a smile to the face of any sports fan. The dog days of summer provided only baseball among the four major sports, and the initiation of another NFL season meant that professional sports would once again begin to consume our lives. I personally couldn’t be happier.
The start of another NFL season means something different for the 32 teams -- this time of year brings hope. Some hope that they’ll repeat as champions, some hope that this is the year that they’ll finally breakthrough, others hope to stay healthy, but everyone has hope.
That hope, for some, quickly faded on week one. For others, it will take longer; a few weeks more will pass before they begin planning for the seasons to come. Some other teams, though, will ride this hope, like many teams before them, to successful results. This could be a playoff berth, a playoff win, a super bowl win or one of many other things. Each individual has their own expectations, but each team has just one: to win. Determinations made in August and September seldom hold true come December and January. But we’ll be damned if that will stop us from making predictions.
Starting from the top, I don’t expect Seattle to replicate last season’s success. A number of factors contribute to this, including the league’s newest points of emphasis on receiver contact. The league is looking to limit teams trying to duplicate Seattle’s mold on defense, a style of play that favors physicality and contact. Instead, the NFL is hoping for a more pass-friendly, score-heavy style. These kinds of rules changes come about every so often, unfortunately for the Seahawks, they’re on the wrong end of this one. Further, repeating as champion in the NFL is next to impossible. The last team to do so was the Patriots in 2003 and 2004 and before them the Cowboys in 1992 and 1993. Couple this with every team’s added emphasis on beating the Seahawks, and that they play in the toughest division in football, and that spells a tough season for Seattle.
Seattle’s division, the NFC West, contains a few teams looking to take the next step. For San Francisco, this next step is beating Seattle and finally reaching (and winning, hopefully) the Super Bowl. San Francisco lost in the NFC Championship game last season and lost in the Super Bowl the season before that, the only way they can improve on their recent results is to win the Super Bowl. I like their chances to win the division, but the NFC is crowded, with a lot of teams trending upward, so it’s difficult to predict.
Arizona and St. Louis round out the tougher-than-ever NFC West. For St. Louis, this season will focus squarely on Sam Bradford. The former Heisman winner is entering Year 5, and Bradford will need to stay healthy and mature as a passer if St. Louis is to play to their potential. It is a difficult task playing in the NFC West, but is the current key to the Rams. They have talent on defense but it’s tough to win in the NFL without a quality quarterback. As for Arizona, I think they are among the most underrated teams in the NFL. I would not be the least bit surprised if they end up above Seattle in the standings at the end of the year. A preseason injury to Darnell Docket is certainly a significant setback for the team but they have deep talent on both sides of the ball including WR Larry Fitzgerald and CB Patrick Peterson.
The rest of the NFC is full teams clustered together. Each division will have major battles as teams fight to make the playoffs in one of the top four spots. The favorites in the AFC North are certainly Green Bay. An injury to Aaron Rodgers disrupted the Packers while they were looking like a top team in the league. Barring a setback like that this season, and the continued emergence of young RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay will be contending for a bye week come playoff time in the NFC. The NFC North also so has the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions both looking to overtake Green Bay for control of the division. Chicago has been plagued with Jay Cutler’s unfortunate injury history, but may have the best receiving corps in the game centered on Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. This season, which is head coach Mark Trestman’s second as an NFL coach, will either have the Bears step up and join the top tier of talent in the NFC or they will underperform their way to mediocre season. So much hangs on Cutler’s health that it’s difficult to forecast, but should Cutler stay healthy, he and Matt Forte will be the key pieces to ensuring Chicago has a good season.
As for Detroit, they finally ditched former head coach Jim Schwartz. The team that has had so many front office blunders since Barry Sanders retired has slowly accrued some significant talent on their roster. They have playmakers all over the field beginning with WR Calvin Johnson, but defensively, if Detroit can maintain discipline, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh anchor a defense with potential to be near the top of the league.
This type of in-division crowding is occurring in the NFC South as well. New Orleans figures to be the early favorite, but Carolina is the reigning division champion and Atlanta has been on the cusp for several years now. New Orleans is sturdy and consistent with Sean Payton and Drew Brees at the helm, but they lost offensive spark Darren Sproles and had to put up the money to pay Jimmy Graham this offseason. The slightly modified Saints’ offense will likely lose a bit of potency with their new look. The Saints are great at home, but unfortunately for them, eight games a year take place on the road, and that has been a significant problem for the Saints in recent years.
Carolina’s defense last season was top notch. I fully expect Luke Kuechly to perform like the top tier LB he played like last season. All the questions in Carolina, however, center on their poster boy QB Cam Newton. Newton has been a force on the field but has demonstrated significant immaturity of it. If Carolina is going to take the steps to overcome the Seattle’s and San Francisco’s, then the first place to start is with Cam. Carolina did add rookie TE Kelvin Benjamin who turned in a fantastic season at Florida State last year. His presence will only make the Panthers better by the goal line.
In Atlanta, the return of WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones from injury will be the major talking points. QB Matt Ryan is stepping into the fold now and will need to perform this season if he wishes to remain the guy in Atlanta. The problem for his entire career however, has been the quality of the defense. Atlanta’s defense is not expected be a force this season but if they can manage to be average, then the Falcons should have the offensive firepower to carry an average defense to an above average record. The Falcons, too, should expect to be great at home, but, much like the Saints, have struggled on the road in the past.
The NFC East doesn’t have the same problem as the other three divisions. The NFC East is littered with teams that are not near the top of the NFC, but always possess the potential to break out. The early favorites in the NFC East are the Philadelphia Eagles. Entering Year 2 of the Chip Kelly experiment, Nick Foles has emerged as the quarterback of the team. He put together a nice season last year, but he has lost deep threat DeSean Jackson and added Darren Sproles from New Orleans. The Eagles are certainly the favorite in the division but history has shown it is foolish to count out the New York Giants. Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have earned the benefit of the doubt, and after an abysmal 2013 season, the G-men will certainly be expected to rebound and contend in a weak NFC East. Dallas will likely be their usual circus, ultimately culminating in failing to qualify for the postseason. Washington is an interesting case. They won the division two years ago but experienced growing pains with their young roster last season. Robert Griffin III should be fully recovered from his ACL injury and with offensive guru Jay Gruden at the helm, Washington will be a trendy pick in the uncharacteristically weak NFC East.
The AFC has a much clearer picture. It’s the top of the conference and everyone else. At the very top, two teams expect to be battling for dominance all season, Peyton Manning’s Broncos, and Tom Brady’s Patriots. The two played in last season’s AFC Championship game and both went out in the offseason and improved their rosters in the hopes of making a playoff run or two before the career of their respective quarterbacks wind to a close.
Denver spent plenty of money this offseason. They inked DeMarcus Ware, TJ Ward, Aqib Talib, and Emmanuel Sanders each to deals in free agency. These additions didn’t come without losses, as they waved goodbye to Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Still, Denver has improved its defense and retained most of its historic offense from last season and will stroll through the AFC West. While the Chiefs were a great story of last year and Andy Reid is a capable coach, Kansas City is primed to fall short this season. Jamaal Charles has shouldered an unreal workload the last few seasons, and you have to wonder when it will catch up with him. Further, the jury is still out on Alex Smith and the Chiefs didn’t end last year on too high of a note, losing five of their final seven games after opening 9-0. I think San Diego is more likely to finish 2nd in the AFC West, and is a good candidate for one of the Wild Card spots in the AFC.
On the other half of the country, Tom Brady and the Patriots have been preparing themselves for a deep postseason run. They strengthen their biggest weakness from last year, being their depth in the secondary. They let Aqib Talib walk to make way for Darrelle Revis, who, the last time he was on a playoff team, was an absolute force. After Revis, they also signed former Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner to give their secondary an entirely new look. Additionally, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo are all returning from season-ending injuries last season that will definitely strengthen the middle of New England’s defense. On offense, the Patriots added Brandon Lafell, who is not a game changer but a noteworthy acquisition. Moreover, Rob Gronkowski is returning to the lineup and is looking to play a full season. Last year’s Patriots’ team was night and day with and without Gronkowski. If he’s healthy, the Patriots have a Top 5 offense in the league. Nobody else in AFC East looks truly poised for the postseason, but Miami, New York, and Buffalo all have the talent to challenge for the #6 seed should they get a few breaks in their favor.
The rest of the AFC picture is clouded. Andrew Luck’s Colts will certainly be the team that looks to make the leap this season. The Colts may be the team to upset either Denver or New England in the playoffs, and frankly, they look like the only team capable of doing so. If they are to do so, Luck will have to produce like a Top 5 QB in the NFL, a task that is certainly within his grasp. The AFC South’s Jaguars and Titans are both likely to end up near the top of next year’s draft. Houston could be poised for a rebound. They were the #3 seed in 2012. Following a disappointing, injury-plagued 2013, the team added top pick Jadaveon Clowney and Coach Bill O’Brien. Still, issues at quarterback are tough to overcome and Houston does not have the best track record. However, with a defense like Houston’s and the talent they have at skill positions with guys like Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, Houston has good chance at a Wild Card spot in the AFC if they can manage to figure it out.
The AFC North is a crapshoot. Different people like different teams. I personally see the Cincinnati Bengals emerging as the eventual division champion. I’m not high on Baltimore especially considering the off the field issues they’ve had. I’m not sold on anything in Pittsburgh either, Mike Tomlin is a great coach but Roethlisberger has not been great in recent years and the loss of Emmanuel Sanders will put added focus on Antonio Brown in the passing game. Cleveland is the buzz of the league, and while Johnny Manziel will not start Week 1, the Browns may be a surprise for some. Josh Gordon’s impending suspension is the biggest question mark, unless Manziel gets his opportunity and replicates his freshman year at A&M with this Browns team, Cleveland will be on the outside looking in once again.