By Brent Michael
(BSN) After a drama-filled offseason, the NFL and its legion of followers finally get to return their attention to the on-field product as the league kicks off its 2015 season on Thursday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit Gillette Stadium to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
Here are one man’s thoughts on how the 2015 season will play out.
* Indicates division winner
** Indicates wild card
* New England Patriots (13-3): The defending Super Bowl champs are once again the team to beat in the AFC East, a division they’ve conquered in each of the last six seasons and twelve of the last fourteen going back to their magical run of 2001.
** Miami Dolphins (10-6): With mega free agent addition Ndamukong Suh joining an already formidable defensive front, the up-and-coming Dolphins just might have enough to challenge the Patriots reign atop the AFC East standings.
Buffalo Bills (9-7): The Bills have the talent and coaching to compete in the AFC East, but as with virtually all Rex Ryan coached teams, questions surround the quarterback position. Tyrod Taylor gets the first crack at it. Taylor spent the last four seasons backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore and is slated for his first career start against the Colts on Sunday.
New York Jets (5-11): The Jets swapped one defensive guru for another but I don’t believe it was an upgrade. The defense should be competitive but I can’t see this offense having much success outscoring the other teams in the division. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Jets lose 14 games this year.
* Baltimore Ravens (13-3): Joe Flacco might be the most underrated QB in the league and Coach Harbaugh ranks only behind Bill Belichick on my list of the league’s top coaches. The Ravens have struggled within the AFC North the past couple of years but that will not be the case in 2015.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7): Its a new era of Steelers football fueled by an explosive offense and a leaky defense. The Steelers could surprise me but I think they take a step back as they retool the defensive side of the ball.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons but I see this team trending in the wrong direction. I think the wheels fall off in 2015. Will Marvin Lewis survive another downward spiral?
Cleveland Browns (3-13): The Browns were so close last season in making their climb back to respectability. They were right in the thick of the playoff hunt with journey-man QB Brian Hoyer at the helm but then they caved into public pressure to start the kid and ended up losing their last five games. Now they enter 2015 having to choose between the kid coming out of rehab and another journey-man QB with less ability than the guy they had. Browns fans will regret having treated Hoyer so poorly.
* Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): In a bit of a surprise, the Chiefs end the Broncos four year stranglehold over the AFC West.
Denver Broncos (10-6): Father time continues creeping up on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Broncos will be in the running for a playoff spot or division title but fall short on the tie-breaker. The silver lining is that Manning lovers won’t have to endure another one-and-done postseason storyline. Does Manning come back in for another go-around in 2016?
San Diego Chargers (7-9): This is a team I may be underestimating a bit. They’re one of those fringe teams that could go anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6 depending on luck and health.
Oakland Raiders (5-11): Not sold on Carr just yet but it wouldn’t shock me if the entire division has a down year and 7 wins keeps everyone in contention until the end.
* Houston Texans (10-6): Probably my boldest prediction and the one most likely to get mocked at the end of the season but I like the direction Coach O’Brien has this team headed. Brian Hoyer won’t be flashy or put up many fantasy league stats but he’s a good fit for this team. He also has the confidence of the Head Coach backing him and that will make all the difference. Texans win the South.
** Indianapolis Colts (10-6): It must be like Groundhogs day in Indy. The Colts have been using the same formula for almost two decades now. Get steamrolled on the defensive side of the ball and then draft a receiver with their first pick. Luck may be the next great quarterback in the NFL but he’s not as good as Peyton Manning was during his time there and even Manning couldn’t win the big playoff games until he had help from his defense. The Colts will contend but the ending will be the same. They’ll get gashed badly in the playoffs and make you wonder how they made it as far as they did.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): Baby steps. The Jaguars will be much more competitive this year and probably win a game or two that nobody expects them to.
Tennessee Titans (4-12): Its going to be a long year in Tennessee. There will be growing pains for the rookie QB. The question is whether he shows enough improvement by the end of the year to make Titans fans feel excited by the future.
* Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): This might be the hardest division to call. It will be a dog fight until the end. I’m picking the Eagles because I think Bradford is due for a healthy season and if that happens, I think he’ll flourish in Chip Kelly’s offense.
New York Giants (9-7): I expect this to be Coughlin’s last season and think the players will rally around him and have a good season. It might not be good enough to make the playoffs but the G-Men will be in the running.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7): The Cowboys were painfully close to upsetting the Packers and advancing to the NFC Championship Game last year. I’m just not sure they have the mental toughness to get back there. Once adversity hits, guys like Dez Bryant become ticking time bombs. I just don’t trust this team. They have the talent, even with the loss of DeMarco Murray, to make me eat my words but my gut says the Cowboys will struggle with consistency this year.
Washington Redskins (4-12): Kudos to Head Coach Jay Gruden for finally making the decision to send Robert Griffin to the bench but until he’s released outright the RG3 drama will surround this team. I’ve always liked Cousins’ potential but, truth be told, I like Colt McCoy even more. Always thought he got a raw deal in Cleveland. Some organizations are capable of ruining quarterbacks no matter how good they may be.
* Green Bay Packers (14-2): Aaron Rogers and the Green Bay Packers will be the class of the league this year. 15-1 or dare I say 16-0 might even be possible. Few teams are even capable of challenging them.
** Minnesota Vikings (9-7): Adrian Peterson returns to action after his year long suspension and for the first time in his career, he might have a decent quarterback in front of him. I really liked what I saw from Teddy Bridgewater last year. I think the Vikings will make some noise and earn a Wild Card berth.
Detroit Lions (8-8): The Lions are going to have a hard time making it back to the playoffs for a second straight season. We should learn a lot about the Lions in their first five games. If they’re competitive in those five games and emerge with a winning record, they’ll be in good shape. Whether they make the postseason or not, it will probably be by a very slim margin either way.
Chicago Bears (5-11): I don’t really know what to expect from the Bears but I’m not expecting much. I respect Head Coach John Fox though so they may be more competitive than I’m predicting.
* St. Louis Rams (10-6): I’m high on the Rams and don’t really know why. Its just a feeling. Head Coach Jeff Fisher is a much better coach than his recent record would suggest. I think this is the year he guides the Rams to the next level.
** Seattle Seahawks (10-6): After a nice string of success, the Seahawks are learning exactly how hard it is to keep all your players happy when they all want to get paid. Figuring out which ones to pay and which ones to replace with younger players being developed is the name of the game. Succeed at that task and Seattle could become the next New England Patriots. Fail and they’ll be just like every other franchise who rides the roller coaster between excellence and mediocrity from season to season.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7): Injuries are the ugliest part of the sport. Well, that and all the whining and crying from teams that get beat by the Patriots but lets keep our focus on the Cardinals. Its a shame we didn’t get to see how far this team could’ve gone last season with healthy quarterback play. Carson Palmer is back for 2015 but the defense that was so outstanding last year suffered numerous losses during the offseason. The Cardinals should have enough to be competitive but I’m not sure they’ll have enough to be special in what is probably the toughest division in the league.
San Francisco 49ers (3-13): Wow…How quickly the mighty have fallen. Its going to be a long year for 49ers fans.
* Atlanta Falcons (9-7): This will once again be the weakest division in the league. The Falcons, Panthers, and Saints are all pretty close but I’m giving the edge to Atlanta. The guess here is that new Head Coach Dan Quinn will do just enough to improve their defensive woes for QB Matt Ryan and the offense to lead the team back into the postseason.
Carolina Panthers (8-8): Carolina has won the NFC South the past two years and will be in the running to do so again.
New Orleans Saints (7-9): Head Coach Sean Payton made quite a stir during the offseason when he traded star TE Jimmy Graham to Seattle. It appears he’s trying to rebuild this team into a tougher outfit but I expect that its going to take more than one offseason to do it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13): I’m not big on many rookie QB’s to begin with and have doubts that Jameis Winston has the mental maturity to handle playing QB at this level. Vince Young was a much better talent but it didn’t take him long to wear out his welcome. I hope I’m wrong but I expect the same from Winston.
WILD-CARD ROUND: AFC – Houston over Miami; Kansas City over Indianapolis
WILD-CARD ROUND: NFC – Seattle over Atlanta; Minnesota over Philadelphia
DIVISIONAL ROUND: AFC – New England over Kansas City; Baltimore over Houston
DIVISIONAL ROUND: NFC – Green Bay over Minnesota; Seattle over St. Louis
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: New England over Baltimore
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Green Bay over Seattle
SUPER BOWL: New England over Green Bay