Season Preview: AFC South

luck

Entering the third season of burgeoning super star QB Andrew Luck’s career, the Indianapolis Colts are again poised to benefit from playing in one of the worst divisions in the NFL. That’s not to take away from what Luck’s done in his first two years. But it’s certainly helped that the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars have combined for a dismal 32-64 record over the last two seasons (2-10 against Luck). Getting back a healthy Reggie Wayne, and adding Hakeem Nicks won’t hurt either. In Tennessee, it’s a make or break year for 4th year QB Jake Locker, who showed promise last season, but again struggled to stay healthy. Jacksonville believes they’ve found their franchise QB in rookie Blake Bortles (who admittedly looked far more impressive in preseason than I expected). Time will tell if they stay true to their stated goal of a redshirt season behind starter Chad Henne, but I wouldn’t bet on it. In Houston, either Head Coach Bill O’Brien knows something about QB Ryan Fitzpatrick the rest of us don’t, or they’ll be drafting in the top 5 again this year, despite what should be a dramatic improvement on defense.

1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3):

General Manager Ryan Grigson didn’t do nearly enough to bolster an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks on Andrew Luck last season, made worse by the lingering injury to projected starting C Khaled Holmes. And I would have liked to see more significant improvement at safety than acquiring Mike Adams, who Denver let go for a reason. But ultimately this is a QB driven league, and Indy’s got the best signal caller outside of the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers. Yes, I’d rate him that highly in just his 3rd season. Adding WR Hakeem Nicks on a one-year contract (so essentially a contract year), will certainly help, taking the pressure off Reggie Wayne to be dominant and moving T.Y. Hilton to the #3 slot (much better suited than as a primary target). But more than anything the Colts have the easiest schedule in the NFL, with six near guaranteed (as much as anything in the NFL can be) wins in the division, and favorable match-ups against a substandard NFC East.

2. Tennessee Titans (5-11):

It’s almost definitely the fan in me talking, but I’m cautiously optimistic the Titans could be much better than this. But not confident enough to predict as much, given questions over how a middle-of-the-pack defense will transition into the 3-4. I loved the hiring of Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt who lead the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance in 2009, and revived Phillip Rivers’ career in San Diego as their Offensive Coordinator last year. If Whisenthunt can work his QB magic on Jake Locker, and help him continue to build on what was a promising season last year, the Titan’s could well steal a few close games and contend for a wildcard slot. The offensive line is one of the league’s best, and rookie RB Bishop Sankey will make a perfect lightning to veteran Shonn Greene’s thunder. Free agent acquisition Dexter McCluster will fill the same role Danny Woodhead did in Whisenhunt’s offense last season, when he totaled 1,034 total yards and 8 total TDs.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13): 

A number of NFL analysts seem to be hopping on the Jaguar’s bandwagon, as a dark horse to make the playoffs. Well, I’m gonna calmly sit over here and watch them ride that sucker right off a cliff. To his credit, General Manager David Caldwell correctly identified both the offensive and defensive lines as major causes for concern. They ranked 31st in rushing offense and 29th against the run last season. Adding former Pro Bowl OG Zane Beadles from Denver will help, but three fifths of their offensive line is still composed of a couple of journeyman backups and a rookie 3rd rounder who was a bit of a reach in OG Brandon Linder. The defensive line should see marked improvement against the run adding Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood from Seattle and Pittsburgh respectively, as well as veteran pass rusher Chris Clemons (also from Seattle). But that is all of the good news. Chad Henne, is still Chad Henne, and will likely give way to rookie Blake Bortles sooner than Head Coach Gus Bradley would have us believe. And I think they’ll be sorely disappointed with RB Toby Gerhart, whose career 4.7yds/car average will plummet behind this o-line, and without Adrian Peterson wearing down defenders before he sees the field.

4. Houston Texans (3-13): 

All of the arrows are pointing up in Houston. Just not at QB, and not this season. I’m projecting another dismal season, but there are 4 or 5 games that could really go either way. It’s easy to forget that this is largely the same roster that went 12-4 just two years ago, but the team’s failure to get a quality starting QB (easier said than done) means I still don’t favor them in close games. Ryan Fitzpatrick is serviceable, but they can just ask division rival Tennessee about whether or not he’s taking them to the playoffs. The good news is the defense should be drastically improved with new Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel; number one overall pick OLB Jadeveon Clowney; and the return from injury of All-Pro ILB Brian Cushing. Rookie RB Alfred Blue will be able to step in for the departed Ben Tate (Cleveland) to spell starter Arian Foster, who’s played all 16 games just twice in his 5 years in Houston.

Season Preview: NFC West

legion

Seattle’s Legion of Boom (easily one of the coolest defensive nicknames ever!), will be a little less physical this season with the loss of CB Brandon Browner and the league’s emphasis on downfield contact. However, they’re likely a little better in coverage with Byron Maxwell opposite All-Pro Richard Sherman. And Russell Wilson getting another year under his belt, will take pressure of Seattle’s vaunted defense. Jim Harbaugh has completely rewritten the book on college coaches coming to the NFL, taking the 49ers to at least the NFC Championship in each of his first three seasons. But injuries and suspensions have ravaged his vaunted defense, and brought a 4th consecutive playoff appearance into serious jeopardy. Arizona and St. Louis both looked poised to take gigantic steps forward heading into training camp. Unfortunately, season ending injuries to DT Darnell Dockett (Arizona) and QB Sam Bradford (St. Louis) have greatly tempered expectations.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4):

Only eight teams in NFL history have successfully defended a Super Bowl title, and none since the ’03-’04 Patriots. This doesn’t bode particularly well for defending champion Seattle, but there’s some cause to believe they could bump this trend in 2014. The main reason most teams fail to repeat is their roster and coaching staff being ravaged in the offseason by teams looking to make the leap from contender to champion. This is generally made easy by the fact that Super Bowl winning QBs are usually extremely well paid, leaving little money to sure up other key positions (see Baltimore last season). Fortunately for Seattle, their Super Bowl winning QB is still playing on his rookie contract (one based off his 3rd round selection to boot). In fact, with a salary just under $665k this season, Wilson is the 3rd highest paid quarterback ON HIS OWN TEAM!!!

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7):

Following a stellar draft in April (they were the only team to earn an A+ grade from me), I was poised to declare San Francisco Super Bowl favorites. Then the wheels fell off. CB Carlos Rogers and S Donte Whitner both left in free agency. Troubled All-Pro OLB Aldon Smith was suspended 9 games for repeated violations of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. All-Pro ILB NaVorro Bowman, thought to be on track for an early return, now appears to be sidelined for the first 6 games. And now 5-technique DE Ray McDonald would appear to be facing a 6 game suspension for violating the league brand new policy concerning domestic abuse…like BRAND NEW! Add to all of that a dismal preseason performance by the first team offense, and all signs point to coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season without a postseason appearance.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-7):

I’ll be the first to admit, if there’s a team I’m leaving out of the playoffs that could well get in, it’s probably Arizona. I absolutely love this team on offense. Bruce Arians has proven himself to be one of the premier offensive minds in the NFL. If he can get QB Carson Palmer to significantly cut down his INTs (he tossed 22 in 2013); and WR Michael Floyd can take the big step forward we generally expect from 3rd year players; this could be a top 5 NFL offense. That having been said, I think losing Darnell Dockett (injury), Daryl Washington (suspension), and Karlos Dansby (free agency) will just be too much to overcome on defense.

4. St. Louis Rams (2-14): 

Coming into training camp, I was actually very high on St. Louis. They have arguably the best defensive line in football, with exceptional depth behind starters Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Kendal Langford, and Michael Brockers. In fact, I’d look for rookie DT Aaron Donald to crack the starting lineup before season’s end. But losing QB Sam Bradford for the year (again), is just too great a blow to an already suspect offense. As a Titan’s fan, I’m all too familiar with Head Coach Jeff Fisher’s 3 yards and a cloud of dust style. But if he honestly believes they’re gonna win games with Shaun Hill under center, and throwing to such illustrious names as Brian Quick, and the oft-injured (or suspended) Kenny Britt, he’s more delusional than even I realized. Congratulations Rams fans, you’ve just entered the Jameis Winston sweepstakes (though if given a choice, I promise you Fisher will pass on him for character concerns).

Season Preview: NFC East

shady

Move over Adrian Peterson! There’s a new top dog among NFL running backs, and he carries the championship belt to prove it! Last season Lesean McCoy flourished in 1st year Head Coach Chip Kelly’s up tempo offense, leading the league in rushing with 1,607yds. I expect him to improve on those numbers this year, after fully buying in to Kelly’s offseason workout, diet, and sleep regiments. Add that to a full offseason taking reps with the number ones for QB Nick Foles, and I see no reason to believe Philly won’t repeat as division champs in 2014. Major questions persist in Washington surrounding the health and development of 3rd year QB Robert Griffin III. And even bigger concerns persist in New York and Dallas, with the G-men struggling mightily offensively in the preseason, and the Cowboys…well being the Cowboys.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (14-2):

Entering year two, Head Coach Chip Kelly has silenced any and all doubters that questioned whether his fast paced offense could work in the NFL. Not only did it work in Philly, to the tune of 27.6pts/game (4th in the NFL), but it worked in New England where Bill Belichick instituted elements of Kelly’s offense and rang up 27.8pts/game (3rd in the NFL). Typically speaking when a new coaching regime has great success in its first season, players buy in a little more in the offseason in year two. When buying into a system means regulating your diet and sleep patterns in accordance to coach Kelly’s scientific research and study of olympic athletes, there’s reason to believe we’ll see a significant jump in year two. Combine all of this with a 20th ranked strength of schedule in 2014, and I expect a big year in Philly.

2. Washington (9-7): 

I think the idea that Robert Griffin III is entering a make or break year in just his 3rd season, is utterly ridiculous. But that having been said, there will be significant pressure for the young QB to show marked improvement given the addition of some serious talent to the offense during the offseason. Bringing in former division rival WR Desean Jackson from Philadelphia gives Washington the true deep threat they’ve lacked since Santana Moss fell from the ranks of premier NFL WRs. Bringing in speedy slot receiver Andre Roberts from Arizona will help, as well. But the primary reason for optimism in the nation’s capitol is the arrival of Head Coach Jay Gruden. Personally, I viewed the departure of the consistently overrated Mike Shanahan as addition by subtraction anyway. Bringing in a guy in Gruden that was able to turn Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton into a 4,000+yds passer is just icing on the cake. Expect the acquisition of veteran safety Ryan Clark from Pittsburgh to help markedly improve Washington’s 20th ranked pass defense from a year ago.

3. Dallas Cowboys (7-9):

Owner Jerry Jones didn’t do much to get fans excited about a potential playoff birth this season (not that it takes a lot for the perpetually, and confusingly confident Dallas fans). While I felt OT Zack Martin out of Notre Dame was a pretty solid pick in the 1st round, Jones and company had to feel a bit queasy about ILB CJ Mosely going one space afterwards when Sean Lee went down for the year in training camp. Romo and company should be even better on offense, after ranking 5th in pts/game a year ago. But without Lee and the departed DeMarcus Ware (Denver), their last ranked defense from a year ago, will likely be even worse. Which is frankly, kind of terrifying.

4. New York Giants (3-13):

While there was some cause to be optimistic that QB Eli Manning would return to form with the addition of LSU WR Odell Beckham, all such hope was entirely extinguished in the preseason. First Beckham has struggled to get on the field due to a lingering hamstring injury. Then they lost RB David Wilson to an early retirement due to injury. Wilson was expected to be a key member of a rotation backfield with  free agent acquisition Rashad Jennings, and rookie Andre Williams. Manning and 3rd year man Reuben Randle (expected to be the team’s #2 WR this season),  just can’t seem to get on the same page. Randle caught just 3 passes in 5 preseason games, and the first team offense scored just one TD. The addition of CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should help on defense. But his aide will likely be mitigated by the loss of stalwart DE Justin Tuck. Barring a return to form for DE Jason Pierre-Paul, and offensive output that could not be predicted based on what we’ve seen so far, I think Big Blue is in for a long season.

 

Season Preview: NFC North

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears

For decades the monicker “Monsters of the Midway” has been used to identify the Chicago Bears’ traditionally dominant defense. Unfortunately, that defense ranked just 30th in the NFL last season, giving up a whopping 394.5yds/game. While I expect that unit to improve significantly given a stellar defensive draft class, the real Monsters in Chicago will be playing at WR this year. Despite continued concern over Green Bay’s defense, which ranked 25th last season, it’s difficult to imagine that getting a healthy Aaron Rodgers for a full season won’t help Green Bay return to the league’s elite. The major question in Detroit surrounds whether new Head Coach Jim Caldwell can finally instill the discipline this team lacked under Jim Schwartz. If he can keep them focused and avoid another monumental late season collapse, we could see as many as 3 postseason participants from this division in 2014. Hint: Minnesota will not be one of them.

1. Chicago Bears (12-4):

NFC North defensive coordinators likely spent all offseason trying to imagine ways to shut down Chicago’s two-headed monster at WR in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. Last season the duo combined for a ridiculous 189 catches, 2,716yds, and 19 TDs. Only Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (now a NY Jet), had more yards (2,718) and TDs (25) as a tandem. And they had arguably the best QB in the history in the league tossing them the rock in Peyton Manning. Marshall and Jeffrey lost starter Jay Cutler, and actually saw their production go up with journeyman backup Josh McCown under center. With a healthy Cutler entering his second year in QB guru Marc Trestman’s system, there’s reason to believe the duo will be even better in 2014. Add that to a defense that ought to be significantly improved by the additions of free agent pass rushers Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, and rookie DBs (both of whom I expect to start) Kyle Fuller and Brock Vereen, and you’ve got a 2014 division winner and potential Super Bowl contender.

2. Detroit Lions (10-6):

I don’t love Jim Caldwell as a head coach, contributing most of his rookie season success in Indianapolis to Peyton Manning. But I also don’t believe he’s nearly as bad as his second season 2-14 finish suggests. Moreover, I think his steady demeanor could be just what the doctor ordered for a Lions team that’s lacked discipline for the last few seasons. An offense with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson,  Golden Tate, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, and rookie TE Eric Ebron will take care of itself. The biggest question for this team is can the defensive secondary play well enough to keep the leads their stellar offense and stellar defensive front seven will inevitably build. The likely answer to that question is no, but I believe they get help from a relatively easy schedule outside of the division.

3. Green Bay Packers (10-6):

The Packers are a very tricky team to try to predict this season, because it’s hard to know what to expect defensively. Losing nose tackle BJ Raji for the season, certainly didn’t help, but I think Letroy Guion will surprise some people in replacement. No the true concerns, are how long it takes for rookie Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to acclimate and crack the starting lineup, and how well veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers adjusts to moving to OLB in the 3-4 after 12 seasons with his hand in the dirt. On offense, Green Bay gets All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers back fully healthy to pair with rookie sensation Eddie Lacy. Think about just how good Aaron Rodgers has been since taking over for Brett Favre. Now think about the fact that he’s never had a significant contribution from the running game. Yikes!

4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10):

For many the arrival of offensive guru Norv Turner in Minnesota is cause to believe the Vikings are poised for a potential playoff run. I’m here to tell you, don’t listen to the hype. First and foremost, as you can see, I expect the Vikes to struggle in what I believe will be the best division in football. Next, genius though Norv Turner may be, he’s still starting the season with a guy in Matt Cassel who’s ranged from game manager to backup during his 9 NFL seasons. Like I said with Josh McCown in Tampa, QBs that can really play in this league don’t often change teams, and this is Cassel’s third. Even more disconcerting, Minnesota returns 8 or 11 starters from a defense that ranked 31st last year. And while DT Linval Joseph is a significant upgrade, rookie OLB Anthony Barr (a top 10 reach in this year’s draft) and CB Captain Munnerlyn are most certainly not.  Worst of all, perennial All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson will be without Toby Gerhart to spell him, and even worse he turned 29 earlier this season. And well…

Season Preview: NFC South

brees-cam

Since the league’s realignment in 2002, no NFC South team has been able to repeat as division champs. I see absolutely no reason, to see that changing this year. You would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Carolina’s locker room that doesn’t expect the black cats to take a dramatic step backwards after losing their top 4 receivers, as well as veteran OT Jordan Gross in the offseason. And while Carolina General Manager David Gettleman was busy stripping Cam Newton of what few targets he had, New Orleans General Manager Mickey Loomis was bolstering a defense that already ranked 4th in the league last year. Which means we won’t be seeing the league’s bottom feeder, Atlanta, going from worst to first as has happened 6 times in division history. Here’s how I see it all shaking out this season.

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3): 

Last season, Head Coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees fell just short of getting their revenge against Commissioner Roger Goodell for what they perceived as an unjustifiably lost season in 2012, following the Bounty-Gate scandal. The Saints stumbled down the stretch, losing 3 of their last 5 games to finish behind Carolina in the division, before getting bounced out of the playoffs by eventual Super Bowl Champion Seattle. Rob Ryan’s defense should be even better in year two, with the additions of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo, and rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste from Nebraska, to improve on a secondary that ranked 2nd against the pass last year. On offense they added Oregon St. speedster Brandin Cooks to replace both the departed Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. Adding Cooks’ speed to the dominance of Jimmy Graham, and WR Kenny Stills (who I expect to have a breakout year) makes the Saints a Super Bowl contender, and runaway favorite in the division.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9):

I expect to see a huge improvement in Tampa Bay following a regime change in the offseason. Greg Schiano’s name was added to the heap of college coaches who failed to transition to the NFL, and long time Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith (potential Coach of the Year candidate) was brought in to right the ship. New General Manager Jason Licht wasted no time improving the roster, making an effort to mirror Smith’s Chicago offense from two years ago adding 6’5″ WR Mike Evans from Texas A&M to play opposite the 6’3″ Vincent Jackson. I’m less confident in the addition of career journeyman QB Josh McCown, despite his stellar performance last season in Chicago, with similarly huge WRs Brandon Marshall (6’4″) and Alshon Jeffrey (6’3″). Typically speaking, in the NFL guys don’t spend their first 11 seasons as a backup for no reason. I do expect marked improvement from last year’s 17th ranked defense due to the presence of Lovie Smith, and the addition of Pro Bowl CB Alterraun Verner.

3. Carolina Panthers (6-10): 

As I mentioned in the lead, I just don’t see anyway Carolina doesn’t take a step back with so many losses from last year’s roster. The release of the franchise all-time leading WR Steve Smith will do down as the most puzzling move by any team this offseason, especially when considering that it didn’t free up enough money to pursue any top flight WR free agents. QB Cam Newton will be heavily dependent on TE Greg Olson and rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida St. While there’s reason for excitement over Benjamin’s combination of size and speed (something Cam’s never had at that position), he also plays a position generally regarded as one of the toughest transitions from college to the NFL. With no one better than the aging Jerricho Cotchery, Benjamin will likely see double coverage early and often as the season progresses, which won’t make his transition any easier. Fortunately Carolina’s second ranked defense from a year ago should be even better, returning the entire front 7 (likely the best in the NFL). In addition the secondary (largely covered up by the front 7 last season), was completely revamped, adding veterans CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, and S Thomas Decoud.

4. Atlanta Falcons (6-10): 

There’s a natural instinct to believe Atlanta has to get better this season with All-Pro WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White returning from injuries. Unfortunately, the injury bug has already reared it’s head in 2014, as starting LT Sam Baker was lost for the year in a preseason shellacking at the hands of the Houston Texans (who aren’t good, by the way). That’ll force rookie Jake Matthews to start his career protecting Matt Ryan’s blindside a little earlier than expected. That doesn’t bode well for a unit that was arguably the worst in the NFL last season, finishing dead last in rushing, and allowing 44 sacks. Add this to Atlanta’s failure to adequately address their non-existent pass rush, which finished 29th in sacks a year ago with just 32, and I expect the Falcons to revisit the bottom of the division in 2014.

 

2014 NFL Predictions

nfl

GOD BLESS AMERICA, FOOTBALL SEASON IS BACK!!!

Too much? I didn’t think so, either. It’s been one hell of an offseason in the NFL. The usual big names moving in free agency; analysts way over scrutinizing rookies, who’ll make little impact this season; and players that just can’t seem to stay out of trouble in the offseason (and one owner, by the way). But all that talk and worry is over. Football season is upon us! And just for you, I’ve got playoff and Super Bowl Predictions! Because I have to have something to look back on, and have been totally wrong about, right?

AFC Playoffs:

1. Chargers (14-2)

2. Colts (13-3)

3. Bengals (12-4)

4. Patriots (12-4)

5. Broncos (13-3)

6. Steelers (11-5)

I’ve got the Steelers knocking off the 3 seed Bengals in the Wild Card round, because when two teams are close in playoff, I’ll take the squad with the better QB and coach. I think Manning and company prove too much for Brady’s bunch for the second year in a row, largely because I don’t believe for a second that Rob Gronkowski will be available. In the divisional round the Chargers offense behind a reinvigorated Phillip Rivers proves to much for Pittsburgh. And Manning keeps the grasshopper in his place, besting Andrew Luck in a matchup of top 5 NFL QBs.

AFC Championship:

Chargers vs. Broncos – I’m taking the Chargers to edge out the Broncos in a close one. Honestly, this pick is mostly based on NFL history telling us there’s next to no chance that last year’s Super Bowl loser will make a second consecutive appearance in the big game.

NFC Playoffs:

1. Eagles (14-2)

2. Saints (13-3)

3. Seahawks (12-4)

4. Bears (12-4)

5. Lions (10-6)

6. Packers (10-6)

I’ve got the Packers taking their second loss of the year in Seattle in the Wild Card round. I just don’t believe that anybody beats them in that stadium, in the postseason. I believe Chicago will handle Detroit easily. Both teams have tremendous offensive talent, but I only expect one to make significant improvement on last year’s atrocious defense (not Detroit). In the divisional round I think Nick Foles’ lack of playoff experience ends a stellar season for Chip Kelly’s vaunted offense, with Chicago moving on. Just as the Seahawks can’t be beat at home in the playoffs, neither can the Saints. They march on to the NFC Championship.

NFC Championship:

Saints vs. Bears- I love the Bear’s offense, but the combination of the Saint’s top 5 defense; top 5 offense; and home field advantage proves just too much for Cutler & Co.

Super Bowl XLIX (that’s 49 for the Roman numerically challenged):

Chargers vs. Saints- This Super Bowl will be a testament of wills. Phillip Rivers’ will to not be the only 1st round QB from ’04 class to not win a Super Bowl. Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s will to stick it to Roger Goodell for the lost 2012 season following Bounty Gate. Ultimately, I think Rob Ryan’s defense makes the difference, and the New Orleans Saints are your 2015 NFL Champions!

I’M BAAAAACK!!!!

Did you think I’d forgotten you? *Frank Underwood voice*

My apologies for my extended absence. A combination of let’s say connectivity issues, and in my opinion, the general malaise that is sports in the summer kept me away. I don’t care for golf, baseball, tennis, or NASCAR, and you all only want to hear me drone on about NBA and NFL Free Agency for so long, am I right?

But never fear! I’ve been plenty busy. Tonight marks the start of the NFL season (and truly should be a national holiday). As such, I’ve prepared for you a complete breakdown of all 8 NFL divisions (to be released today and tomorrow starting with the NFC), along with my playoff and Super Bowl predictions for the ’14-’15 season! I know, so ridiculously exciting, right?

Well I’m not gonna make you wait any longer. So without further ado…