Now that we’re a few hours away from the return of Sunday afternoon football, I guess it’s finally time to let everyone know our complete division-by-division and playoff predictions, huh?
We started with the AFC, now we’ll hit you with the NFC. Next will be our playoff predictions. Stay tuned.
1. Green Bay Packers
Reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers has lost a couple of key weapons, with the season-ending ACL tear for Jordy Nelson and the nagging shoulder injury for Randall Cobb. Cobb will be ready to go for Week 1, but that doesn’t mean his shoulder injury couldn’t potentially slow down his production. But that won’t slow down Mike McCarthy and Rodgers’ passing attack, as the next guy will be ready to step up. The next guy, in this case, will be Davonte Adams, who caught 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie behind Jordy and Cobb. Not to mention the return of James Jones, who 73 passes for 666 yards and six touchdowns in Oakland last year. And Eddie Lacy is obviously a top three running back in the league. So yeah, I think the offense is in good hands. It’s Dom Capers defense, if anything, that would prevent the Pack from winning it all in 2015. Ranking 13th in scoring defense, Green Bay struggled stopping the run (23rd in yards, 14th in TDs) but a healthy B.J. Raji back on the field clogging up the middle should be a huge boost. Raji missed all of 2014, but will be back in action this season. Rodgers is likely to lead the Packers deep into January (maybe even February?) once again.
2. Minnesota Vikings
I love the Vikings this year. In fact, I loved them last year as well. Teddy Bridgewater had a solid rookie season under center despite having Adrian Peterson in his backfield for just one lonesome game. But, AP is back and better than he’s ever been––we think. He’ll likely pick up where he left off and break out for another 1,500-yard season and capture the AP Comeback Player of the Year award for the second time in his career. And now that Bridgewater has one year under his belt and playmakers such as Mike Wallace, Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson and Kyle Rudolph, I don’t expect to see a sophomore slump. On defense, DC George Edwards now has a strong secondary led by Xavier Rhodes, veteran Terence Newman and first-round rookie Trae Waynes, backed by one of the league’s play-making free safeties Harrison Smith. Four of Minnesota’s nine 2014 losses were by a touchdown or fewer, meaning if a few extra breaks went their way they could’ve been 10-11 win team in the North.
3. Detroit Lions
Reggie Bush, now in San Francisco, has been replaced by one of the more anticipated non-first round RB coming into the league this year––Ameer Abdullah. Though Joique Bell will be the No. 1 back, it’s only a matter of time until Abdullah starts making plays and provides Detroit with a true No. 1 RB to match Matt Stafford’s playmaking abilities in the passing game. Future Hall of Fame wideout Calvin Johnson Jr. will team up with Golden Tate once again to form a very strong receiver tandem. Detroit’s defense ranked No. 1 against the run in 2014, and No. 3 in scoring and No. 2 in total yards. But the loss of defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley will be tough to replace, despite the acquisition of Baltimore’s NT Haloti Ngata. It’ll be interesting to see if Detroit’s defense can pick up where it left off in the run-stopping category this year, but either way I can’t see Detroit repeating its 11-win 2014 season and returning to the postseason.
4. Chicago Bears
This is a make-or-break season for quarterback Jay Cutler, coming off a 5-11 season. New head coach John Fox certainly has his work cut out for him. Cutler set a career-high with 28 touchdown passes last year, but also threw 18 picks and was sacked 38 times in 15 starts. Rookie receiver Kevin White will miss a chunk of time this year, and Brandon Marshall left town for the Jets, leaving just Alshon Jeffery to get a majority of the targets in Chicago’s offense. On defense, they are in full-on rebuild mode. Youth was brought in with the selections of NT Eddie Goldman and S Adrian Amos, but the losses of veterans Lance Briggs, Chris Conte, Charles Tillman, Stephen Paea and D.J. Williams have left voids that will be filled by less-experienced players and it will take some time for this unit to be able to slow down offenses such as Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Head coach Chip Kelly, once again, made headlines this off-season with some interesting roster moves. Sam Bradford (St. Louis’ delicate franchise quarterback with two restructured ACLs), check. DeMarco Murray (league’s leading rusher in Dallas last year), check. Ryan Mathews (San Diego’s oft-injured running back), check. Kiko Alonso (Buffalo’s up-and-coming LB whom was exchanged for starting RB LeSean McCoy), check. Cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell (two Super Bowl-winning corners), check and check. It was a controversial off-season for the team, as they basically completely rebuilt on both sides of the football. But, honestly, I think stealing Dallas’ star running back could be the deciding factor in the NFC East, as Dallas will now need to use a RB-by-committee and will struggle in the run game just a year after receiving 1,800 yards from Murray. Kelly’s busy off-season pays off, as long as Bradford remains healthy––which is a big risk, but could reap major reward.
2. Dallas Cowboys
As stated above, Dallas lost its top runner from 2014, DeMarco Murray. And to a hated division rival, of all teams. Now, QB Tony Romo will have Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle and Christine Michael running the ball out of the backfield, which will slow down the Boys’ offensive production more than you’d like to think. Of course, Romo will still be tossing 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air, but having a one-dimensional offense could hurt them when we hit the last stretch in December. Rookies Byron Jones (CB) and Randy Gregory (DE), and off-season addition Greg Hardy will be huge on defense (Hardy will be out for the first 10 games, but will be key down the stretch) will boost Rod Marinelli’s 15th-ranked scoring defense. But, to be honest, I don’t think it’ll matter how well the defense fares, Romo’s offense will still be top 5 or 10 in scoring and good enough to snag a Wild Card spot. But the loss of Murray will haunt Jason Garrett’s unit down the stretch.
3. New York Giants
The New York Giants are an intriguing team this season. Obviously, all eyes will be on Eli Manning and second-year wideout Odell Beckham Jr., who lit the league on fire last season after catching 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, as a rookie, in just 12 games. So it’ll be interesting to see what the pair can do in a full 16 games. But I feel a lot of people are overlooking the underrated RB tandem of Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings. The two backs combined for 1,360 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. Can we expect even bigger things from them this year? I would like to think so. Second-round pick Landon Collins, former Alabama safety, will be useful in the passing game, but it’s really the 30th-ranked run game that will need to step up and make plays this year if they’d like to compete in the East. Eli and coach Tom Coughlin have had their backs up against the wall plenty of times. I don’t see the G-Men competing for a postseason berth this season, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t happen.
4. Washington Redskins
I’m not sure who had a worse off-season, the guys in D.C. or the 49ers. But you can certainly make a strong case for the Skins in this argument. Robert Griffin III––you know, the gunslinger that owner Dan Snyder gave St. Louis everything but the kitchen sink in order to trade up and snag him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2012––is now riding the bench after his head injury in the preseason. Kirk Cousins, a 27-year old with just nine career starts in three seasons, will be Washington’s starter entering the season. And on defense, Brian Orakpo left for Tennessee and Junior Galette (the supposed savior of the pass-rush) is out for the season. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan will need to carry the under-performing defense, which ranked 29th in scoring last season. At this point, Washington will likely be competing for another top 5 draft pick.
1. New Orleans Saints
Quarterback Drew Brees lost a lot of production from tight end Jimmy Graham, who was shipped off to the defending NFC champion Seahawks. But with Brandin Cooks (53 catches, 550 yards, 3 TD) entering his second season in the league, I expect a breakout season from him to help fill the void left in the passing game. And Josh Hill, Graham’s replacement, could turn in to a solid pass-catching option in Brees’ pass offense as well. A season ago, New Orleans finished just shy of a South division title despite a 7-9 record. It was the second seven-win season in the last three years, and the 35-year old Brees isn’t getting any younger. But he’s still a top-tier quarterback who spreads the ball out to his receivers and has the ability to turn an undrafted receiver into a No. 1 target. So I don’t see the Graham loss proving to be vital, and Rob Ryan’s No. 28-ranked scoring defense gained some key pieces over the off-season, including linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Anthony Spencer, and corners Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson. Improvement on the defensive side of the ball should be enough to get Sean Payton back to the top of the South in 2015.
2. Carolina Panthers
Carolina won the division with a disappointing 7-8-1 record in 2014, going 4-2 in division match-ups but only beating the 2-14 Buccaneers by a combined eight points in both of their showdowns. Cam Newton tossed for 3,000 yards and ran for another 500+ with 23 combined touchdowns (18 passing, 5 rushing). But now that Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year following a torn ACL in the preseason, the Panthers’ offense is back to square one when it comes to its receiving corps. Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Kevin Norwood and rookie Devin Funchess are the receivers for Carolina, meaning it looks like TE Greg Olsen will be Cam’s go-to target, and coach Ron Rivera will need to hope for production and consistency from the rest of the guys. Luckily, the defense will carry Carolina into the playoff hunt, led by the game’s highest-paid inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis will provide the pass-rush, while rookie Shaq Thompson and veteran FA signing Charles Tillman will be other guys to keep an eye on this season. Expect a decent run game and strong defense to carry Rivera’s Panthers in 2015.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan is, in fact, a reliable and solid franchise quarterback to have on your roster. His numbers have been there over the years, including his 2014 season with 4,600 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 14 picks. Atlanta’s offense (despite just six wins in ’14) ranked 12th in scoring, eighth in total yards and fifth in passing yards last year, but the lack of a consistent rushing attack and a defense 26.1 yards per game held back the Falcons. But first-year head coach Dan Quinn (fun fact: Quinn played football at the college I’m currently attending, Salisbury University) hopes to change all that this year. In the draft, Quinn selected pass-rusher Vic Beasley out of Clemson and CB Jalen Collins out of LSU with the first and second round picks, and snagged RB Tevin Coleman in the third round. Adrian Clayborn, Justin Durant and Brooks Reed are entering into DC Richard Smith’s defense this year in hopes of improving a defense that ranked 27th in scoring, 32nd in total yards, 32nd in passing yards and 32 in rushing touchdowns. Even a slight improvement on defense would be a successful first year at the helm for Quinn, but it may take a couple of seasons to turn this Falcons squad back into NFC South contenders.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Franchise quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston has a lot riding on his shoulders this season. He’s responsible for turning the two-win Buccaneers into competitors in a division with three great quarterbacks. He’ll have six tough games against Brees, Ryan and Newton. Luckily, he already has two explosive, tall wideouts to throw passes to––Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Hopefully, for Jameis’ sake, Doug Martin will have a 2012-type season. But, that’s probably wishful thinking. I think at this point Tampa Bay will be lucky to get to six wins. The silver lining: they’ll most likely get a top 10 draft pick for next year and have the opportunity to begin building around Winston. Good luck, Lovie.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Despite a couple of rising teams in the West division, you can’t pick against the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in this division. You just can’t. They were one play away from winning a second straight Super Bowl in February. Quarterback Russell Wilson now has Jimmy Graham at his disposal on offense––and they also added RB depth with the signing of Fred Jackson. And the defense, despite the contract troubles of Kam Chancellor (which could be nearing an end), the defensive unit will be as strong as ever. After seasons of 11, 13 and 12 wins from 2012-14, Seattle will see 14 wins and a No. 1 seed in the conference this season.
2. Arizona Cardinals
It’s still amazing to me that Arizona made the postseason last year despite having three different starting quarterbacks. Head coach Bruce Arians led the team to 11 wins and a Wild Card berth despite losing Carson Palmer to injury and having Drew Stanton (eight starts, 5-3 record) and Ryan Lindley (two starts, 0-2 record) under center for a majority of the season. But when Carson was on the field, Arizona was unstoppable. In his six starts, the Cardinals were 6-0 last year. He’s now back and healthy, and still has Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown at his disposal. On defense the Cards are set as well, coming off a season in which they ranked No. 5 in scoring. They struggled to stop the pass in terms of yardage allowed, but surrendered just 22 touchdowns through the air. Arizona should have a stronger defensive unit than on offense, but as long as Palmer stays healthy all season they shouldn’t have any trouble capturing a second straight postseason appearance and possibly even winning a game or two in January.
3. St. Louis Rams
Remember how I talked about Chip Kelly acquiring Sam Bradford over the off-season? Well, Nick Foles was sent to St. Louis in that deal and will serve as Jeff Fisher’s franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Running backs Tre Mason and first-round pick Todd Gurley will form a scary duo out of the backfield once they are both healthy and at Fisher’s disposal. Fisher will, once again, house a tough defense this year, led by Chris Long and pass-rushing phenom Robert Quinn up front. But it may be St. Louis’ linebacking core of the consistent James Laurinaitis (ILB) and play-making OLB Alec Ogletree that allows St. Louis to continue with success against its NFC West foes Seattle and Arizona. They have a shot at improving upon last year’s six wins, but I just don’t see the Rams competing this season like most everyone else sees them doing.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the 49ers had an incredibly rough off-season, am I right? Retirement after retirement (Anthony Davis, Chris Borland, Patrick Willis) and free agency losses of players such as WR Michael Crabtree, RB Frank Gore, G Mike Iupati, OT Jonathan Martin and LB Dan Skuta. Even coach Jim Harbaugh left (now coaching Michigan), leaving first-year head coach Jim Tomsula and franchise QB Colin Kaepernick to clean up the mess left behind. San Fran’s biggest addition of the off-season is veterans Reggie Bush (RB) and Torrey Smith (WR), both of whom will simply just be role players, not stars, for this offense. Silver lining: a top 5 or 10 draft pick for Tomsula to begin to rebuild this franchise.
Cardinals over Eagles
Cowboys over Saints
Seahawks over Cardinals
Packers over Cowboys
Packers over Seahawks
Photo: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images