Training camp is here in the NFL, and every team has aspirations of making the playoffs. While some teams appear to be destined to not have a great season, you just never know what could happen in the National Football League. Last year, the Carolina Panthers went from 7-9 to 12-4, stunning everybody and winning the NFC South. The NFC East is another story, as the Philadelphia Eagles went from 4-12 to 13-3, winning the division. Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins went from division winners at 10-6 to 3-13. And, believe it or not, the Cowboys stayed 8-8, where they’ve been the last 15 years.
So, who are going to be the final 12 teams playing when the calendar year changes? That’s what I’m here to try and predict. Some teams are no brainers. Others, however, may surprise you.
AFC EAST: Winner- New England. Here’s one of those “no brainer” picks. The Patriots have dominated this division since the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, winning the division every year except 2008, when Brady tore his ACL (they still went 11-5 that season). The Patriots seem poised once again to take the division crown, as Brady is getting his favorite target back in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was injured last season. The team that may challenge the Patriots is the Miami Dolphins. Miami was on the verge of getting a wild card spot last year, but faltered down the stretch. The New York Jets are also interesting, as year two of the Geno Smith era will show if Smith is truly the guy or not. And then there are the Bills, who are still a very young, improving team. They may be a surprise team in two years, but this year looks unlikely. Still, look for the Patriots to win the division once again.
AFC NORTH: Winner- Pittsburgh. Last year was an interesting year for the Steelers. They lost their first four games, only to go 8-4 after their bye week and almost make the playoffs. It was the second straight 8-8 season for the Steelers and also the second straight season Pittsburgh missed the playoffs. So why do I think they’re going to win this division? Simply put, they have the best quarterback in the division in Ben Roethlisberger. They also have Antonio Brown returning, who had 1,499 yards receiving last season, 2nd in the NFL behind Josh Gordon. Their defense will be good again, as guys like Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, and rookie Ryan Shazier look to anchor another solid defensive unit. The closest challenger is a tie between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals won the division last season, but there are a lot of questions as to if they can repeat their success from last year. The Ravens won the Super Bowl 2 seasons ago, and they did add wide receiver Steve Smith this offseason, but it’ll be interesting to see how the defense plays in year two of the post-Ray Lewis era. And the Cleveland Browns? Well, with no receivers and a quarterback controversy, who knows what’ll happen there. I predict Johnny Manziel wins more games then Bryan Hoyer, but they still go 6-10.
AFC SOUTH: Winner- Indianapolis. Really, there are no other teams to challenge the Colts in this division. Behind young quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts made another big step in their development last season, winning the division and beating the Kansas City Chiefs in one of the craziest playoff games in NFL history. Although they lost in the Divisional round against New England, getting that far was a step in the right direction for this young team. Luck still has Reggie Wayne, one of the best receivers of the past 10 years and potentially a Hall of Famer. Combine that with tight end Coby Fleener, a young T.Y Hilton, and the signing of Hakeem Nicks, and this offense could be very dangerous. The closest team to challenge them, honestly, is Houston, who had the worst record in the NFL last season. They drafted Jadeveon Clowney, making him and JJ Watt one of the deadliest duos on the defensive line. The quarterback situation is a question mark, as Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick look to be battling it out for the starting job. The question marks around receiver Andre Johnson are also a problem, but if they can figure it out, the Texans may surprise some people. As for the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars? Well, the NFL Draft is moving from New York next year, so their fans better adjust their flights.
AFC WEST: Winner- Denver. Is Peyton Manning still there? Yes? Ok, well the division is theirs. As long as Manning stays healthy, this is one of the best teams in the league. They went to the Super Bowl last season, and there’s no reason why they couldn’t make it back. With essentially the same offense last year minus Eric Decker, the Broncos could put up even more points then they did last year. And, they added DeMarcus Ware on defense, making their team that much better overall. Their closest challenger is San Diego, as they could take advantage of a very favorable schedule early in the season. The Chiefs were a surprise team last season, going 10-6. It’ll be interesting to see how Kansas City does with more expectations in year two of the Andy Reid regime. The Oakland Raiders should talk to Jaguars and Titans fans about those flights to the draft.
AFC WILD CARD TEAMS: San Diego and Cincinnati. I think Philip Rivers will once again be brilliant and guide a young Chargers team back to the postseason, being the number five seed and playing four seed Pittsburgh. Then, the Bengals will sneak in because that’s all Andy Dalton has done in his career: make the playoffs. The Dalton to AJ Green connection is too deadly not to make the playoffs, and at 9-7, they take the 6 seed and play Indianapolis in the first round. So here’s how the AFC looks to me:
- Denver (14-2)
- New England (12-4)
- Indianapolis (12-4)
- Pittsburgh (10-6)
- San Diego (11-5)
- Cincinnati (9-7)
Now that the AFC is set, let’s move to the NFC, which proves to be a little more wide open then the AFC.
NFC EAST: Winner- Philadelphia. The Eagles soared to new heights under Chip Kelly last season (sorry for the bad pun), as they went from worst to first in the division. The Eagles were the three seed, but lost to New Orleans on Wild Card weekend. The Eagles had a big loss in the offseason in receiver DeSean Jackson, but the retuning Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin, and running back LeSean McCoy will provide just as much firepower as they did last year. Nick Foles also has another year of experience under his belt, which will only make their chances to repeat as division winners that much better. The three other teams in the division, the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins, all have major question marks surrounding their team, making it hard to believe any of the three teams will not only win the division, but even make it to the playoffs.
NFC NORTH: Winner- Green Bay. As a Chicago Bears fan, it’s always hard to pick the Packers to win anything. As a journalist, though, Green Bay is probably the best team in this division, but not by much. The one x-factor they have over all the other teams, however, is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is already one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, as he has won a Super Bowl and an MVP in his time in Green Bay. Even without Rodgers for seven games last season, the Packers were able to win the division in the final week against the Bears. Rodgers came back for that game and threw the iconic touchdown pass on fourth down to a wide-open Randall Cobb, who was also coming back from injury. With not only Cobb, but Jordy Nelson and a potential breakout star in running back Eddy Lacey, this team seems poised to win the division crown for a fourth straight season. The Bears and Detroit Lions, however, may have a say in all of this. The Bears return a very potent offense featuring receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Martellus Bennett, and running back Matt Forte, who is one of the more complete backs in the game. They also upgraded their defense, signing Jared Allen and Lamar Houston to help out with their defensive line. They also drafted cornerback Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech, which will help out Chicago’s secondary. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to one guy for the Bears, and that’s Jay Cutler. If Cutler can stay healthy and play at a high level like he’s suppose to, then Chicago could win the division for the first time since 2010. The same thing goes for the Lions, as it seems that Detroit has 15 offensive weapons for quarterback Matthew Stafford. If Stafford could avoid costly interceptions and play at the same level he did in 2011, when Detroit made the playoffs, they could also sneak up and win the division. The Minnesota Vikings are young and talented, but in this tough division, I don’t see them coming out of it with anything better then a 5-11 record.
NFC SOUTH: Winner- New Orleans. History is not on the side of defending champion Carolina. Since the AFC South was created, no team has ever repeated as division champ. That’s why I’m picking New Orleans to come out of this division. They have a great offense, anchored by soon-to-be Hall of Famer in Drew Brees. They also have plenty of offensive weapons for Brees to throw to, including Marquis Colston, Robert Meachem, and the newly drafted Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. They finished 11-5 last season and were a few seconds away from potentially beating the Seahawks in the playoffs. I think a team that could challenge them, surprisingly, is the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta was decimated by injuries last year, as they lost star receiver Julio Jones early in the season. Roddy White was also injured, and Matt Ryan couldn’t avoid pressure often, including getting sacked nine times versus Carolina in the final week. The loss of Tony Gonzalez hurts, but if they can stay healthy, they have a chance to fight for a wild card spot. Carolina lost so many weapons this offseason, and with Cam Newton coming off surgery, there are too many question marks for them. The Buccaneers are interesting with first year head coach Lovie Smith, but time will tell if they’re young talent is legitimate or not.
NFC WEST: Winner- San Francisco. It’s always so hard to repeat as Super Bowl champs. The target is on your back all season, and with arguably the second best team in the league in your division, it’s even tougher. That’s why I think the 49ers, not the Seahawks, will win the NFC West this season. The 49ers were 20 yards away from back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and feel motivated to shut up Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback for Seattle. Colin Kaepernick has been great in his first season and a half as the starter with the 49ers, winning four playoff games in that time. He was also five yards away from winning the Super Bowl, but the Ravens defense held them there to win the game. With motivation, one of the best rosters in the NFL, and one of the best coaches in Jim Harbaugh at the helm, the 49ers look to re-gain their division crown. The Seahawks are their biggest challenger, obviously, as they essentially return the same team from last year. The Arizona Cardinals are dangerous too, as they went 10-6 last season, including a win in Seattle, something the 49ers haven’t been able to do the last two seasons. The St. Louis Rams are also very young and deep, but their success hinges on the health of quarterback Sam Bradford. I believe this is the best division in football and has a chance for all four team to be .500 or better.
NFC WILD CARD TEAMS: Seattle and Chicago. Although I don’t think Seattle wins their division, I think they get back as the five seed and play four seed Green Bay in the first round. I also chose the Bears because their offense is really stacked, and with a better defense in place now, they can go 10-6 and grab the six seed in a very competitive NFC. This would put them against New Orleans in the first round, and good luck trying to beat the Saints in the Superdome. Here is how I think the NFC shakes out:
- San Francisco (13-3)
- Philadelphia (12-4)
- New Orleans (11-5)
- Green Bay (11-5)
- Seattle (12-4)
- Chicago (10-6)
Well, there you go. These are my predictions for the NFC and AFC this year. What are your thoughts? Comment below or comment on Facebook or Twitter, as I’d love to hear your opinions.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to check out the other blogs I’ve posted, and stay tuned as I go more in-depth on all the things going on in the sports world. This is Game of Sports.