So we have arrived at the first day of the 2015 NFL season. Everybody does season previews, so somebody here at Thin Air should as well and that’s where I step forward with what was my originally planned Midweek Musings.
The only projections I’ll make are how the teams finish within a division and which teams go to the playoffs. Otherwise, I’ll talk about the observations I have about each team, their strengths and weaknesses and which coaches might have their jobs on the line. And yes, there will be as much snark as there is smart observations, so be prepared.
Let’s get this underway, shall we?
AFC East: New England, Miami, Buffalo, New York Jets
I suppose it’s too easy to pick the order these teams will finish, right? Seriously, for all of our criticisms about the Patriots (but let’s be honest, the ones that hold the most truth about the Patriots are about their fans), they remain the team to beat in the AFC East, and that will probably hold true as long as Bill Belichick is coaching and the rest of the teams in the division continue their ineptitude to a certain degree.
Regarding the Pats, though, I will tell you that the offense no longer runs through Tom Brady; it runs through Rob Gronkowski. If Gronk is healthy, the Pats run smoothly, and if he’s hurt, things fall apart. Yeah, all we hear about is how much longer Peyton Manning has left, but Tom Brady is 38 years old and, when any player is 38 years old, he’s past his prime, folks. It won’t be long before the “is it all over for Brady” narrative gets going, so hold onto your hats!
With that said, the Dolphins went “all in” on Ndamukong Suh and wrecked their cap for the next several years. Still, Ryan Tannehill keeps improving and the defense has got to be good enough to give the Dolphins a wild card berth, right? But if it’s another 8-8 season, get ready for Joe Philbin to be sent packing.
Meanwhile, the Bills continue to build the greatest defensive line of all time, but had to use up two-thirds of their cap space to do it, and are rolling the dice with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, while hoping LeSean McCoy is good enough to make up for a terrible offensive line (hint: he really isn’t). Part of me wishes for a buttfumble to happen this season, because hey, it wouldn’t be a Rex Ryan team without such shenanigans.
The Jets got out of their cap mess but didn’t do much else under John Izdik, and so another new era begins. Their defense is in good shape, but the offense is still a mess, even if they had Geno Smith behind center. I suspect the Jets will be about the same as they were last year, in which they are good enough to challenge teams but not good enough to put enough wins together.
AFC North: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland
The Ravens are the best team in this division for two reasons: They have stability in the front office and they have a great coach. They may have committed too much cap room to Joe Flacco, but they make up for it by finding good value in free agency and drafting well. And as long as they have John Harbaugh, they are going to be a threat in the playoffs, regardless of how much they struggle throughout the regular season.
The Steelers and Bengals are about even. The Steelers have proven players on offense but their offensive line seems like it’s always subpar and the defense isn’t the same as it used to be, as they move away from the longtime veterans and try to figure out which younger players are worth keeping for the long term. Meanwhile, the Bengals have an owner who doesn’t try to make waves and just wants a solid franchise, but they have a quarterback who is regressing and that may be the one thing that keeps the Bengals out of the playoffs. It may not cost Marvin Lewis his job, though, given that Bengals’ ownership doesn’t make rash decisions.
The Browns will remain a historically bad franchise as long as Jimmy Haslam is around. Haslam is a bad owner and bad owners equal historically bad franchises. I’m waiting for the Browns to give up on Johnny Manziel, only for him to sign with a team that has good ownership and watch him resurrect his career. Let’s face it, the Browns are a franchise in which almost everything they touch falls apart. Guys like Joe Haden and Joe Thomas are the exception, not the rule.
AFC South: Indianapolis, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville
The Colts are the favorites to win because Andrew Luck. That’s all you need to know. They likely will break the Broncos’ record from 2013 for most points scored because their defense won’t be able to keep other teams from scoring, and the Colts’ scoring will mostly feature Luck running for his life and still making big plays because he’s that darn good. We know the Colts will extend him eventually, but I’m worried that the Colts will make the same mistake they did with Peyton Manning, in which they do a poor job of building the team around him, but shrug their shoulders because, hey, Luck is Luck. Until the year he misses the entire season and the team goes 1-15, that is.
Houston will again be the team that wins games thanks to its defense, because the offense has mediocre quarterbacks, lacks a good running back with Arian Foster injured and may take a while to find its true No. 2 receiver to play alongside DeAndre Hopkins. Another 8-8 finish is likely in the books for the Texans. Then it’s a matter of finding the final pieces on offense next season, namely a quarterback.
I agree with those who say that Marcus Mariota will prove to be a better NFL quarterback than Jameis Winston, but the Titans have a lot of work to do to build the team around him. The Jaguars are still trying to right things after Geno Smith went crazy with dealing draft picks and drafted all the wrong players to set the franchise back for years. With that said, it may be the last season for Gus Bradley if the Jaguars don’t at least look more competitive.
AFC West: Denver, San Diego, Kansas City, Oakland
We’ve all discussed the Broncos, so we know the story there. The Chargers improved their offensive line and their secondary should be better, but they need to generate a pass rush in order to challenge the Broncos for the division title. I think they’ll slip into a wild card berth, but make a quick exit, all while we share more pictures of Phillip Rivers’ pouty face.
Meanwhile, some are convinced that Jeremy Maclin’s arrival in Kansas City is going to put the Chiefs over the top. The problem isn’t just Captain Checkdown, though. They still don’t have a good offensive line (why is it more people doubt Ty Sambrailo and Matt Paradis than wonder when the heck Eric Fisher is going to live up to his lofty draft status?), their secondary did get better with Eric Berry’s return but isn’t very good otherwise, and they need a pass rush from more than just Justin Houston, who accounted for nearly half of KC’s sacks last season. I’m not buying the hype; the Chiefs are a 9-7 team that will miss the playoffs.
Oakland is getting better draft results from Reggie McKenzie and might steal a couple of divisions win, but the Raiders are still a year away from challenging for the division or a playoff spot. The only question is will that playoff push come in Oakland or Los Angeles next year, and if the latter, do the Chargers join them.
Projected AFC playoff teams: New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Denver (division winners), Miami, San Diego (wild cards)
NFC East: Dallas, Philadelphia, New York Giants, Washington
The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football and it wouldn’t shock me to see Darren McFadden have his best season yet, even if he’s the No. 2 guy behind Joseph Randle. That’s what having a top offensive line does. It’s also good for Tony Romo, because he’s taken a pounding in recent seasons and, without an O-line to protect him, he’d be that closer to retiring. The good thing about Jerry Jones is that, for all his faults, he seems smart enough to listen to people who can tell him what he can do to improve his draft, free agency and cap moves.
I still think the Eagles got bad value in the trade for Sam Bradford, but it looks like he’ll do fine under Chip Kelly. Only time will tell how good Kelly really is as a personnel guy, but there may be enough talent to get the Eagles a wild card berth. They’ll do enough to hold off the Giants, who have plenty of holes on the roster but are coached up well by Tom Coughlin. Still, I could see Coughlin deciding to call it quits after this season, and yes, I believe he will go out on his own terms.
Washington, of course, is a historically bad franchise, for reasons everyone has discussed. I’m waiting for Washington to finish 1-15 at best, Jay Gruden to be fired, the front office cleared out, Kirk Cousins allowed to depart in free agency, while Dan Snyder talks about how much he believes in RG3 to the point that Washington doesn’t draft a QB with the No. 1 overall pick, only for the team to trade back up into the first round to draft a QB, because this is what a Snyder-owned franchise does.
NFC North: Green Bay, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago
The Packers losing Jordy Nelson for the season wasn’t good but it’s not going to be enough to keep them from winning the division. Ted Thompson continues to draft well and is frugal in free agency, thus ensuring the Packers have a good team in place. The only question is whether or not Mike McCarthy will show more guts to go for it on fourth-and-one in goal-line situations early and thus not risk putting his team in danger late in the game.
I debated on whether or not to put Minnesota ahead of Detroit, but I suspect Adrian Peterson has another good season or two left in him and that Teddy Bridgewater will improve. Combine that with a good defense and the Vikings may be able to slip past Detroit for second in the division and perhaps sneak into a wild card berth. Detroit will likely have a winning record but go 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
I can’t see Chicago turning things around in its first season under John Fox. It did happen quickly with the Panthers and the same with the Broncos, but the Bears’ offensive line is a mess and their top draft pick is injured. Nor do I see a player like Von Miller who will transform the defense instantly. At least when Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders were in Denver, they didn’t sign a bunch of players to bad contracts. Phil Emery did, though, and so it will take more time for the Bears to sort everything out.
NFC South: Atlanta, New Orleans, Carolina, Tampa Bay
Many are convinced that the Saints are headed back to the playoffs this season. I am not. I will explain after I get Atlanta out of the way. The Falcons have some solid pieces on offense and a solid secondary that may be enough to get them to the division title this year. What was good about the Falcons was they didn’t rush into a coaching hire and waited for the man they wanted, Dan Quinn. They also made a good first-round pick in Vic Beasley. I can see Beasley providing a good boost to the defense and Matt Ryan to bounce back, thus putting the Falcons atop the division and making Quinn a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
The Saints, though, strike me more like the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan’s final year, in which bad roster decisions, poor cap management, bad draft choices and the general belief that they were just a few players away from another Super Bowl, caught up with them. Most pundits at the time were surprised that Shanahan was fired, as many believed he’d have his job as long as he wanted it. These pundits think the same of Sean Payton. It’s true Payton doesn’t have final say on personnel, but his general manager Mickey Loomis is a big part of the personnel mismanagement. If the Saints don’t make the playoffs, Loomis is likely fired and Payton may follow him. So if the Saints don’t get to the playoffs, don’t be surprised if changes take place.
Of all the teams who needed offensive line help, the Panthers did the worst job of finding it. Throw in a season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin and the Panthers will likely struggle on offense. With that said, Ron Rivera seems to get younger players to peak down the stretch, so that may allow him to keep his job. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has a good defense and a couple of good offensive players (Mike Evans was a great pick for them last year) but I’m not sold on Winston as a franchise QB. (That animated gif in Drew Magary’s preview still cracks me up, BTW.) Tampa Bay could be drafting in the top five again next year and that may cost Lovie Smith his job.
NFC West: Seattle, St. Louis, Arizona, San Francisco
The Seahawks aren’t quite the team they were last year — their offensive line is in flux and Kam Chancellor’s extended holdout won’t help the secondary. But they have plenty of talent on defense to keep the unit among the best in the NFL, Tyler Lockett was a good value pick and Jimmy Graham should help the offense. So Seattle is still the favorites to win the division.
It was tough deciding between St. Louis and Arizona for who would finish second in the division. St. Louis has a quarterback with more upside and a better overall defense, but Arizona has the better head coach. I give the benefit of the doubt to St. Louis on this one, though I’m not sure they will clinch a wild card berth. Still, a 9-7 record would mean Jeff Fisher sticks around. Arizona looks like a .500 team, but when you consider the Cardinals are going through transition, that’s pretty good.
The Niners are everyone’s favorite pick for the team that goes off the rails. While I have them finishing last in the division, the Niners will win enough games to avoid drafting in the top five of next year’s draft. And for all we know, NaVarro Bowman will win Defensive Player of the Year because he doing all the heavy lifting on defense. On the other hand, it’s probably the last season for Colin Kaepernick with the team, because I don’t see anybody on this coaching staff who will get him to correct his weaknesses.
Projected NFC playoff teams: Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle (division winners), Philadelphia, Minnesota (wild cards)