1. AFC East (order of finish)
New England Patriots — The quality of quarterback, Tom Brady, should allow the Patriots to overcome any other issues that they will have to endure this year. While everyone is excited about the weapons in Boston this year on offense, the Patriots’ offensive line is in the process of a major transition while the team’s two leading pass rushers left in the off-season. By no means is this a 16-0 team, but the lack of another sure thing under center within the division will give them the title again this year.
Buffalo Bills — Depending on how good Ryan Fitzpatrick can be, the Bills really do have a chance to shock the world this year. More important than the addition of Mario Williams, the Bills transition to a 4-3 defense will see Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams turn become the most disruptive pair of defensive tackles in the NFL. The Bills will have a feared defensive line, with the secondary to take advantage of that pressure. Cordy Glenn’s addition to the offensive line can’t be overlooked either.
Miami Dolphins — It may be a surprise to some, but I don’t actually think the Miami Dolphins will be that bad this year. Ryan Tannehill has been very impressive in preseason and Reggie Bush showed last year that he can carry the load. A lack of receivers is an issue, but Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are solid. The offense won’t be scoring much, but the defense shouldn’t be giving up too much either. Cameron Wake remains one of the most disruptive players in the league and the secondary shouldn’t miss Vontae Davis fatally.
New York Jets — Despite all of the cameras, the headlines, the drama, fascination and spotlights, the New York Jets are simply not a very talented football team. General Manager Mike Tannenbaum has crafted a group of football players who don’t complement each other well. Mark Sanchez receives a lot of flack for his individual performance, but the Jets’ offense around him is built to fail with no rushing attack, poor pass protection and unimpressive receivers. Defensively the team has a strong defensive line and Darrelle Revis remains a superstar, but the linebackers are overrated and the safeties are unreliable.
2. MVP Finalists
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots. Drew Brees, QB, Saints. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants.
3. MVP Winner
After the playoff loss, I suspect Aaron Rodgers comes back with an attitude this year. Don’t think he takes too kindly to losing.
Brady has the potential to break records, so he will probably actually win the award even if he doesn’t deserve it.
5. Defensive Player of the Year Finalists
Jason Piere-Paul, DE, Giants. LaMarr Woodley, OLB, Steelers. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles.
6. Defensive Player of the Year Winner
Even though DeMarcus Ware could have a major season with some decent coverage behind him, I reckon he could break the sack record, I still think JPP’s all around game will land him the award. All pass rushers for me this year.
7. AFC North
Pittsburgh Steelers — There are three general reasons as to why the Steelers will fall off this year. 1: They’re old. That ones a misconception. Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and William Gay are biggest losses to the team. Each has been replaced by a better/younger player. 2: Too much turnover. The Steelers have much fewer new faces than the Ravens and Bengals this year. 3: It’s the third year curse. For the last decade or so, the Steelers have always missed the playoffs every third year. It’s a bit like the Madden curse that one.
Baltimore Ravens — I don’t expect the Ravens to be as good as they have been in recent years, you can’t lose Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson and expect to be as good with unproven commodities. Suggs may return later in the season, but a torn Achilles isn’t something that you get back from within a week, he won’t have his explosion until next season in all likelihood. The Ravens still have Ray Rice on offense, but lack quality receivers and have difficulties to overcome upfront. Joe Flacco needs to have a big year.
Cincinnati Bengals — On paper, the Bengals look great this year. However, of all the teams undergoing vast alterations this year, they seem the least likely to handle it. Andy Dalton and AJ Green have loads of new players to support them on offense, but the setup of the offense seems delved in ambiguity and lacking in leadership. Defensively the Bengals should continue to be consistent, as they always have been under Mike Zimmer.
Cleveland Browns — With a rookie laden offense, and a defense that has absorbed hit after hit this off-season, the Browns look destined for another last placed finish in the AFC North. Brandon Weeden needs to have a huge rookie season to help them move up the totem pole.
8. General Manager of the year
Phil Emery, Chicago Bears — He may be a rookie, but Emery has put the Bears in contention to win the Super Bowl this year. His moves should get the best out of Jay Cutler while the defense got a new toy in the draft.
9. NFC Rookie of the year
He won’t actually win it, Seahawks’ pass rusher Bruce Irvin will, but Rams’ cornerback Janoris Jenkins should be the best rookie in the NFC. Cornerbacks, unless they get loads of interceptions, don’t generally get as much publicity as pass rushers.
10. AFC Rookie of the year
Andrew Luck, come on now…
11. AFC South
Jacksonville Jaguars — There goes my credibility for half of you. For those staying on to hear me out, the Jaguars won five games last year with an awful rookie quarterback, no receivers, an offensive line constantly being reshuffled because of injury, an injury depleted secondary, no wide receivers and an under-performing tight end. Blaine Gabbert has much more support this year, and should benefit from a full off-season. In the South there is no clear winner. The division is up for grabs.
Tennessee Titans — The only real question mark over the Titans is their youth. Jake Locker is taking over at quarterback, while the defense is relying on mostly inexperienced talent over proven veterans. Chris Johnson should rebound to a big season with a full off-season while Kenny Britt’s one game suspension was a favorable outcome. Britt, Nate Washington and rookie Kendall Wright should be a very explosive group of receivers, while Johnson’s running will make Locker’s life easier early on.
Houston Texans — From a sheer football point of view, the Texans are one of the better teams in the NFL despite the losses of some key leaders(DeMeco Ryans and Eric Winston). From a mental perspective however, I am skeptical. It is always much easier to establish success than sustain it. How the Texans react to being everyone’s favorites for the division this year will define their season. Sometimes, actually a lot of the time, the mental is more important than the physical.
Indianapolis Colts — The Colts made some great moves this off-season, and that’s not just drafting Andrew Luck, but defensively they are still missing too many pieces to compete for the division. Nobody will look forward to playing this team, but most will expect to beat it.
12. Words Sure to be spoken by NFL commisioner Roger Goodell next April
“With the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select Tyler Wilson…That reset button in Cleveland is worn out!”
13. AFC West
Kansas City Chiefs — The most balanced roster in the NFL only has one question mark, however that question mark is more important than any other. Nobody is sure if Matt Cassel can carry the Chiefs to the promised land, but he will have everything he needs to win the division this year. The Chiefs have talented receivers, a potentially dominant running game, a just as talented offensive line and a defense worthy of facing any offense.
San Diego Chargers — Philip Rivers needs to bounce back and I suspect he will. Rivers has lost Vincent Jackson, but Antonio Gates is reportedly in great shape while Eddie Royal should prove to be exactly the receiver Rivers was lacking last season. Once Ryan Mathews, Vincent Brown and Jared Gaither are healthy, the Chargers will have a very intimidating offense. Defensively the secondary has many question marks, but the front seven looks set to be very strong and versatile.
Denver Broncos — While it’s a bit of an extreme, Peyton Manning should be treated somewhat like a rookie this year. Mentally he is still as intelligent as ever, but from a sheer physical point of view it is unlikely that he just slides back into his previous level of performance. Before missing last season Manning’s play was beginning to drop off, he is still an elite quarterback, but one must question if he can compete with players like Rodgers/Brees/Brady this year.
Oakland Raiders — The Raiders have the worst secondary in the league, a quarterback who needs to prove his decision making and consistency with a superstar running back who can’t stay healthy. A lot of things have to go right for the Raiders this year for the team to even approach .500. Count me as a doubter.
14. Dead Coach Walking
Rex Ryan, New York Jets — Eventually, when you win arguments by shouting louder than
everyone else, you’re left alone in the room.
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons/Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles — The Falcons need to actually win a playoff game, while Reid’s owner is inexplicably already talking about getting rid of Reid after the season. One thing is for sure, Andy wouldn’t be out of a job too long. Maybe four to five hours?
16. NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles — Despite the fragility of their quarterback, the Eagles’ defense, and in particular their defensive line, should push them towards the playoffs and a division title. Unless Juan Castillo hasn’t learned from last season, the Eagles should have the kind of defense that doesn’t ask their offense to score a huge amount to win games. When you’ve got as much offensive talent as the Eagles do, that formula equals a lot of success.
Dallas Cowboys — For the first time in quite some time, I’m buying the Cowboys’ hype. With the added help in the secondary from Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, DeMarcus Ware could crack 30 sacks. Offensively DeMarco Murray will be amongst the elite running backs if he can stay healthy while Tyron Smith’s switch to left tackle will be an important aspect of the team’s offense.
New York Giants — Coming off a Super Bowl season, the Giants have many problems to overcome. They are largely the same problems that they had last season but there’s a certain hint of the inevitable with the team this year. Terrell Thomas’ torn ACL from last season reared its head again this year and he is already on IR. Chris Canty starts the season on the PUP list while the offensive line will need a big year from William Beatty to rebound.
Washington Redskins — The Redskins are relying on Robert Griffin III to turn the franchise around, but for this season they need to temper expectations. Griffin himself should be an impressive rookie as Kyle Shanahan implements him in the offense, but defensively the Redskins don’t have the safeties to prevent big plays on a consistent basis.
17. Breakout candidates
Marcell Dareus, DT, Bills. Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers. Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings. Earl Bennett, WR, Bears. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jaguars. CJ Spiller, HB, Bills. Kendall Hunter, HB, 49ers.
18. Breakdown candidates
Frank Gore, RB, 49ers. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons. Alex Smith, QB, 49ers. Vincent Jackson, WR, Buccaneers.
19. Comeback player of the year
Peyton Manning is the obvious selection, and odds are that he will win it, but don’t discount the ability of Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, Jamaal Charles or Eric Berry.
Of the other four candidates, Charles is most likely to draw the most attention from voters unless Moss has a mental year of production.
21. NFC North
Green Bay Packers — Aaron Rodgers. That is all.
Chicago Bears — The Bears have significantly upgraded their offense this off-season with the additions of key players and the transition to Mike Tice’s offense. Tice will get the best out of Michael Bush while Matt Forte should be an excellent option again in the passing game. With Brandon Marshall reuniting with Jay Cutler, one of the best receiver-quarterback combinations in the NFL should be reborn. Defensively Shea McClellin will add some intensity to the defensive front, but Brian Urlacher needs to hold off father time.
Detroit Lions — Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford will continue to dominate on the field, while the additions of Ryan Broyles, Mikel Leshoure and Riley Reiff should help. However the most significant part of the Lions’ roster lies in their secondary. After releasing Aaron Berry for off-the-field issues, the Lions downgraded an already weak secondary and haven’t made moves to rectify the issue. In a passing league, the Lions are likely to be in shootouts on a weekly basis.
Minnesota Vikings — The return of Adrian Peterson will reinvigorate the franchise, but realistically it makes more sense for the Vikings to ease him back onto the field. Peterson’s torn ACL could significantly hurt his level of play on the field this year, but the Vikings do have a quality backup in Toby Gerhart and an improving offense all around. Defensively the team should be solid, but in this division they have no hope of shocking their rivals.
22. Coach of the year
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks.
Mike Mularky, Jacksonville Jaguars.
24. The NFC team most likely to surprise
The Seattle Seahawks — If Russell Wilson can have any kind of a decent year, the Seahawks could be this year’s 49ers.
If the Buccaneers won the NFC South, it would be a shock, but not majorly. It’s very unlikely to happen however unless Greg Schiano is some kind of miracle worker. I mean when do rookie coaches ever turn teams around instantly…oh wait…
26. The AFC team most likely to surprise
The Miami Dolphins aren’t as bad as people are making out, they could conceivably finish second in the AFC East, but it all hinges on Ryan Tannehill.
If Brandon Weeden can play like Andy Dalton did last year, who knows what the Cleveland Browns could manage.
28. NFC Player who will feel the most pressure
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers — Colin Kaepernick has shown flashes in limited time, while Smith now has expectations hanging over his head opposed to complete pessimism. After an off-season when Jim Harbaugh evaluated Peyton Manning, Smith will be feeling pressured to perform.
29. AFC Player who will feel the most pressure
Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders — The Raiders gave up a huge amount to acquire Palmer. He didn’t overwhelm audiences last year, but was given a pass considering the circumstances. This year there are no excuses for Palmer with a full off-season under his belt.
30. NFC South
New Orleans Saints — Despite the loss of Sean Payton, and a phenomenally poor defense on paper, the Saints’ offense won’t miss a beat with Drew Brees at the helm and will be too good for the NFC South. Replacing Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs was an astute move, while Robert Meachem’s targets will simply be redirected to Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham.
Carolina Panthers — Cam Newton’s second season syndrome should be non-existent. Even if Newton does struggle, the Panthers now have enough running backs to run on every down with Mike Tolbert joining DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. With Ron Edwards returning to the interior of the defensive line, Luke Kuechly joining the linebacking corps and Thomas Davis and Jon Beason returning from injury, the Panthers front seven should be much improved.
Atlanta Falcons — The Falcons have serious gamebreaking talent at wide receiver, but Michael Turner looks like a shadow of himself while the Falcons offensive line is simply horrible. Defensively the secondary is much improved with the arrival of Asante Samuel, but the lack of any complementary pass rushers to Jon Abraham continues to be a problem. The Falcons are the kind of team who will destroy weaker teams, but be exposed by the real contenders.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Greg Schiano has to change the culture amongst his current crop of players. The Buccaneers can blame Raheem Morris all they like for last season’s collapse, but the players involved failed to take any kind of responsibility that grown men should do. Yes they were young and there have been veteran additions this off-season, but the overall congruency of the roster doesn’t appear to that of a winning formula.
31. AFC team most likely to flop
New England Patriots — Surprised? Don’t be. The Patriots have never missed the playoffs when Brady has started a full 16 games, but neither have they ever had so many issues on the offensive line and defense at one time. If the team’s line can’t keep Brady upright, all those weapons will go to waste.
Do the Jets count?…nevermind…While the Bills haven’t actually achieved anything really, everyone expects them to take a huge leap forward this year. If Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t live up to his own individual expectations, then the team won’t go anywhere with Tarvaris Jackson on the field.
33. NFC team most likely to flop
The reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants only finished the regular season 9-7 last year. While everyone will expect them to have a big season, this roster resembles last year’s one more than anything. They may just miss out on the playoffs this year.
The Detroit Lions’ defense is so bad that one hit to Matthew Stafford could push them into the top five picks of next year’s draft.
35. NFC West
Seattle Seahawks — Pete Carroll may have finally found his quarterback in rookie Russell Wilson. If he has, the rest of the NFL will be on notice. With Marshawn Lynch running hard between the tackles, Sidney Rice returning to a talented receiving corps and a defense on the verge of being dominant, the Seahawks are only looking for Wilson to get them to the playoffs. Wilson will have his ups and downs, but if those ups are high enough and the downs aren’t too low, then that alone will be an improvement over the departed Tarvaris Jackson.
San Francisco 49ers — The 49ers defense should be impressive again next year, but I doubt it will be as good. Defensively the 49ers will be set, but the offense lacks a clear identity. Jim Harbaugh made an effort during the off-season to revamp the skill positions, but with Alex Smith at quarterback they are limited in what they can do down the field.
St. Louis Rams — Jeff Fisher is looking to change the culture in St. Louis. He gave Sam Bradford a vote of confidence by not looking to draft Robert Griffin, but now he must craft an offense to get the best out of him. The team still lacks talent on the offensive line but does have a few quality running backs to rely on and improved receivers over last year. Defensively the additions of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins will have a major impact. A positive one at that.
Arizona Cardinals — With John Skelton and Kevin Kolb wrestling each other for the starting spot, the Cardinals are in a lose-lose situation without bringing in a new face. Skelton is not a reliable passer, but won the job based on his rapport with Larry Fitzgerald. When that is the defining aspect of the battle, you know the quality was low. At the very least the return of Chris Wells and Ryan Williams at running back, to go along with the addition of Michael Floyd at receiver, will give whoever is under center enough weapons to compete, if not the offensive line to protect. The Cardinals problem is that their defense is too good for them to have a chance at drafting a top quarterback next year without making a trade.
36. Team with the best chance to go undefeated
Even though their division is desperate, the Green Bay Packers are definitely the team with the best chance of going undefeated. However I doubt that any team will even come close.
38. Team with the best chance to go winless
The New York Jets really are in a bad way.
39. AFC playoffs, last team in
Buffalo Bills — A nine win team most likely.
40. AFC playoffs, last team out
The Baltimore Ravens — In a tougher division, the Ravens may see 8-8 after losing Suggs.
41. NFC playoffs, last team in
The Carolina Panthers — Cam’s first playoff game!!!
42. NFC playoffs, last team out
The Detroit Lions — With the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers dismantling their defense, the Lions will be hurt by the division they play in to lose a spot in the playoffs.
43. AFC Championship
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs — A fresh new face in the AFC Championship game against an old regular. The Chiefs will be able to manage games with Cassel while relying on their defense to carry them to the final game in the AFC. Unfortunately the lack of a big time quarterback will eventually catch up to them as the Steelers win on the road at Kansas City to advance to the Super Bowl.
Todd Haley tears off his shirt in the middle of the field and starts screaming to every fan with his middle fingers in the air. Count on it!
44. NFC Championship
Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers — Michael Vick manages to stay healthy for the playoffs, and even more, he gets hot. The Eagles rely on their dominant defensive line to continually dismantle their opponents’ offenses on the way. Of course, the Eagles line consistently push Rodgers out of the pocket, but Rodgers continues to pick apart the Eagles’ secondary as if he were playing in the park.
45. The Super Bowl winner is….
Aaron Rodgers redefines beast mode in this rematch of the 2010 Super Bowl and takes over the game again to win his second Super Bowl MVP in three years.
Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf