Sundays are for football. As the summer comes to close, the nation is one step closer to enjoying its weekly dose of America’s most popular sport. Nothing compares to the seventeen week journey that already has many of us analyzing, contemplating, and salivating over its endless possibilities. So without further ado, I will take a stab at predicting what is to come.
1. New England Patriots (12-4)*: It’s difficult to find any reason why Bill Belichick and company won’t go on to win their 14th division title in the last 16 years. They’ve reinforced the secondary with signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady is still more than capable to lead the offense to a successful season. It should come as no surprise that the Pats will be playoff bound again.
2. New York Jets (9-7)*: The Jets didn’t receive any help from the schedule makers, they enter 2014 with 9th toughest strength of schedule. That being said, Gang Green is capable of producing a winning season. Geno Smith looks to improve, especially with new target Eric Decker joining the squad. Led by young stars Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the defense is sure to be at the top of the pack. The torn ACL suffered by rookie Dexter McDougle will hurt the secondary, but look for Rex Ryan’s team to be a pleasant surprise.
3. Miami Dolphins (7-9): It appears as though Miami will fall just short. They’ll open up against two division rivals, the Patriots at home in week one and the Bills on the road in week two. Ryan Tannehill will look to silence the critics, but I wouldn’t count on it. Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno will split carries at least until one emerges as a clear favorite. The defense was shaky at best in 2013 and there doesn’t appear to be any sign on improvement.
4. Buffalo Bills (5-11): Buffalo has amassed an intriguing group of young talent, but they’ll still have to wait their turn. EJ Manuel looks to stay healthy and improve on last year’s campaign, if he can develop a connection with rookie Sammy Watkins then they may pull out an extra win or two. Former Lions’ coach Jim Schwartz takes over as the defensive coordinator and will switch the system back to a 4-3. An interesting move considering their success with the 3-4 just a year ago.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)*: Having signed Andy Dalton to a major extension, the front office seems confident he is their franchise quarterback despite playoff inconsistency. A.J. Green will remain a lethal weapon for Dalton and Gio Bernard could have breakout season in the backfield. The offense will be supported by a top-notch defense, with the notable return of Geno Atkins on the line. Strength of schedule is in their favor. Look for the Bengals to return to the playoffs in search of win for the first time since 1990.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)*: Pittsburgh will give the Bengals a run for the money in the division. Roethlisberger will have a new set of weapons as the departure of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery has brought Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore to the Steel City. Le’Veon Bell is another breakout candidate in the backfield, while the addition of LeGarrett Blount could lead to a two-headed rushing attack. The defense is middle of the pack, but shouldn’t be much of a detriment.
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Though the schedule makers were favorable to Baltimore, their strength of schedule is 28, I’m unsure they will muster up more than a .500 season. Of course the big news is Ray Rice’s suspension and who is to say he will even be the same when he gets back. Joe Flacco better hope new target Steve Smith still has some left in the tank, as he looks to rebound from a sub-par season. The defense is aging and incomplete, far from the glory days of Ray Rice and Ed Reed. The Ravens will simply be average.
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11): Uncertainty surrounds Cleveland for the time being. Will Josh Gordon be suspended, and if so for how long? Will incumbent Brian Hoyer remain the starter or will rookie sensation Johnny Manziel take control? Will it really matter who is throwing the passes if Gordon is out for an extended period of time? Who knows. There is plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball if the offensive decides to show up, only time will tell. One thing that is for certain, if you don’t like Johnny Football you don’t like fun.
1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)*: This is the year of Andrew Luck. He’s already shown signs of brilliance in his young career and I truly believe he has a chance to jump up into the elite echelon this season. They will lose Robert Mathis and his 19 sacks from a year ago to a four game suspension to start the year. Upon his return Mathis will have to energize a defense that needs to prove itself if Indy wants to make a deep playoff push. The division is their’s to lose.
2. Tennessee Titans (5-11): Though the defense was solid last season, and has the talent to remain that way. After that there isn’t much to write home about. It appears as though Tennessee still believes Jake Locker will be a capable starting NFL quarterback. Everyone outside of Tennessee likely feels otherwise. The loss of Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt will be felt. Rookie halfback Bishop Sankey may be a star one day, but it looks like Shonn Greene will see the majority of carries right now. Titans fans will have to wait at least another year.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): Rebuilding is the theme here. The Jaguars have accumulated a wealth of young talent including rookies Blake Bortles and Marquise Lee, as well as MJD’s replacement Toby Gerhart. The D-Line will be reinforced by Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, but the defense as whole has to prove themselves after a miserable year in 2013. There will be growing pains, but the future has the potential to be bright.
4. Houston Texans (3-13): The Texans are not a very good football team. Yes, Jadeveon Clowney is a once in a generation talent. Yes, it will be entertaining to watch him perform alongside J.J. Watt. If the defense remains healthy they could surprise some. The offense is putrid. An aging Andre Johnson and back surgery returnee Arian Foster will have to return to their prime to provide any hope. Ryan Fitzpatrick appears to be the starting quarterback, so there’s that. First year coach Bill O’Brien will have his work cut out for him.
1. Denver Broncos (12-4)*: After an utter collapse in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver is poised to rebound well. Peyton Manning will not replicate last year’s record setting performance, but he may come closer than you think. Montee Ball has the potential to shine with the departure of Knowshon Moreno. An already strong defense is bolstered by the additions like Aqib Talib and DeMArcus Ware. A devastating knee injury to Danny Trevathan won’t go unnoticed, but he should bounce back as there is no ligament damage. The Broncos will see the playoffs yet again.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8): The Chiefs will come back down to Earth in Andy Reid’s second season at the helm. Jamaal Charles is one of the biggest offensive threats in the game, but unless he gets some help it will soon be come all too predictable. Dwayne Bowe has been surrounded by controversy; recent news of a finger injury was followed up by a one game suspension. Led by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, maybe the best linebacker duo in the game, the defense remains one of the league’s best. Facing seventh toughest schedule the Chiefs are in for a bumpy road.
3. San Diego Chargers (7-9): Philip Rivers woke up last year, found new a weapon in Kennan Allen, and led San Diego to playoff berth. Don’t expect it to happen again. They play in a difficult division and they face one of the toughest schedules according to pre-season listings. The defense is questionable at best and will have to outperform expectations for San Diego to expect to compete in the AFC.
4. Oakland Raiders (6-10): Oakland signed Matt Schaub in hopes he’ll return to his success a couple of years ago, but rookie Derek Carr may actually give the Raiders a better chance to win. They signed Maurice Jones-Drew to fortify the running game, another washed up star who will have to prove he has anything left in the tank. They made some moves to improve the defense by drafting Khalil Mack and signing the likes of Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley among others. If all the veterans find the fountain of youth and return to their glory days I may be proven wrong. Right now, the Raiders are facing another tough season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)*: Year two of the Chip Kelly era promises to be entertaining. Nick Foles won’t put up a 27/2 TD/INT ratio again, but he may not have to. A healthy Jeremy Maclin will help fill the void of DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy is arguably the best running back in the game. No one is questioning the offense. Its the defense that will have to improve for the Eagles to make the jump from “very good” to “elite”. A lenient schedule should help them take the division title. I wouldn’t expect a deep playoff run, though.
2. Washington Redskins (9-7): Jay Gruden takes over head coaching duties and should vastly improve on last year’s 3-13 performance. A healthy RGIII has a new toy in DeSean Jackson, a nice complement to Pierre Garçon. Alfred Morris has developed into a solid threat for the running game. Meanwhile, Brian Orakpo remains the only bright spot on a weak defense that will prevent them from being anything other than above-average.
3. New York Giants (6-10): Eli Manning won’t lead the league in interceptions again, but he will need to bounce back in outstanding fashion for the G-Men to really make an impact in 2014. Not to mention he has to learn a new system. Key losses include Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks, Chris Snee, and Andrew Brown among others. One can’t forget the devastating career-ending injury for David Wilson that is going to hurt more than just their hearts. In what appears to be an NFC East theme, the defense simply will not be able to compete with high-level offenses. Who knows what happened to Jason Pierre-Paul last year, he will have to really step up now without Tuck on the line. It’ll be a difficult road for this team from MetLife Stadium.
4. Dallas Cowboys (4-12): The Dallas Cowboys’ defense was one of the worst in history last season and it has only gotten worse. Orlando Scandrick must have listened to Tyga one too many times, he’ll serve a four game suspension for ingesting Molly. Sean Lee is out for the season. DeMarcus Ware no longer dons a Cowboys’ uniform. The list goes on and on. The offense will lean on back surgery returnee Tony Romo. If he goes down again Dez Bryant will be catching passes from either Brandon Weeden or Caleb Hanie…yikes. It simply isn’t in the cards for Dallas this year. Jason Garrett may be looking for a job sooner rather than later.
1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)*: A healthy Aaron Rodgers is back to lead an offense that will also benefit from Randall Cobb’s return. Eddie Lacy appears to be a franchise tailback and will complement Rodgers nicely. Defensively, they need to be consistent. Clay Matthews has got to stay healthy, new arrival Julius Peppers has to turn back the clock, and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix must prove himself. An easier schedule than most will aid their success. Green Bay will take home their fourth consecutive division title.
2. Detroit Lions (9-7): The addition of Golden Tate will help Matt Stafford tremendously and will draw some of the attention away from All-Universe wideout Calvin Johnson. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell remain a dynamic duo in the backfield, thus the offense is going to score and score a lot. Ndamukong Suh leads a defense made of big names and little success. To make a playoff push the defense will have to largely improve on their 2013 effort.
3. Chicago Bears (9-7): I love the Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery trio. Matt Forte is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield, as he is a threat to catch some passes in addition to carving up defenses with his legs. The Santonio Holmes signing would have had a bigger impact years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he still had some big plays left in him. An average schedule makes the defense the only question mark. Chicago addressed their needs on D with some key free agent signings, including Jared Allen, yet they still have something to prove. Come January, the Bears will be left on the outside looking in.
4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10): Young and full of potential, the Vikings simply aren’t quite there yet. New head coach Mike Zimmer will help shift focus to a defense that gave up a lot of points a year ago. While the defense needs work, the offensive may be able to score given everything pans out. Adrian Peterson is still Adrian Peterson. Cordarrelle Patterson could have a breakout season, while the Greg Jennings of old could make a comeback. A quarterback battle is likely to give Matt Cassel the reigns for the beginning of the season. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater has tons of upside and appears to be more ready than many believe. I say let the kid start.
1. New Orleans Saints (11-5)*: The Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham duo will continue to be a problem for most defenses. Rookie Brandin Cooks has impressed thus far and will provide some speed to the offense. It appears they’ll trot out some combination of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Khiry Robinson in the backfield, where they’ll miss Darren Sproles. The addition of Jairus Byrd in the secondary will aid a defense that likely outperformed their talent last year. If Rob Ryan can keep the defensive magic going in 2014, the Saints will be a threat to do some playoff damage.
2. Carolina Panthers (8-8): Led by an elite front seven, Carolina’s strength is defense. The Panthers also benefit from a favorable schedule, leaving the offense as a major question mark. There is little doubt surrounding the capabilities of franchise quarterback Cam Newton, he just doesn’t appear to have enough of a supporting cast to flourish. They’ve essentially brought in an entire new wide receiving corps after Steve Smith and company jumped ship. A weak offensive line couple with the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart tandem in the backfield won’t be enough to support Cam either.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): The Bucs have an intriguing amount of talent, but I fear they’ll be unable to put it all together. The Josh McCown signing will only pay off if he emulates last year’s career best performance, while Doug Martin is going to have to prove himself again post-injury. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are two guys any defense would be happy to have, if their supporting cast steps up the defense will be very good. The schedule is only slightly on the easier side, we’ll have to see if they take advantage.
4. Atlanta Falcons (7-9): Defensively, they still need work. They’ll open the season against New Orleans and the schedule doesn’t get much easier from there. The return of Julio Jones is huge for Matt Ryan as he’ll now have another top weapon to pair with a healthy Roddy White. Steven Jackson will try to prove he still has something left in the tank out of the backfield. Atlanta will be better than last year, but that’s just about it.
1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)*: The defending champions are locked and loaded for 2014. Headed by the Legion on Boom, expect the defense to remain the best in the league. Percy Harvin is healthy which will be a valuable target for Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch and his Skittles are back after a brief holdout. They’ll have to navigate a difficult schedule and emerge from the toughest division, but I think they’ll get it done again. The only question is, is this a dynasty in the making?
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-5)*: San Francisco may very well be the second best team in the league. Unfortunately, they’re stuck behind those pesky Seahawks. Like Seattle, their defense is exceptional. NaVarro Bowman won’t return from injury until well into the season, but they have plenty of depth to make up for that. Colin Kaepernick has potential to be even better than he already is, so does Michael Crabtree. Frank Gore remains reliable out of the backfield. Don’t be surprised of the 49ers take down the reigning champs come January.
3. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)*: Continuing the division the theme, the defense is top-notch. Carson Palmer has the weapons in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. among others. He’ll have to play especially well to put up points against the division rivals. The strongest division and a difficult schedule appear to be the two biggest factors holding Arizona back. It should still be an entertaining season in the desert.
4. St. Louis Rams (8-8): It would be fun to see St. Louis in another division, but they’re stuck in the brutal NFC West. Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and the gang are a force to reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball. Rookie Tre Mason will create a two-headed rushing attack with Zac Stacy. I just fear Sam Bradford won’t be able to take this team from good to great. The Rams are good and could sneak into the playoffs with a few good breaks.
AFC: Colts, Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Steelers, Jets
NFC: Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Eagles, 49ers, Cardinals
Super Bowl: Colts vs. Seahawks, Seahawks win it again.