Are you ready for some football? I know I am. It all gets started tonight as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots look to put a controversial off-season behind them against the high-powered Steelers. I like New England tonight. However, instead of picking individual games this week, here are my season preview and predictions. The AFC is up first.
New England- Their division rivals have all gotten much better. However, a full year of Brady and Belichick is good enough for me. They will not have the division wrapped up by Halloween like they typically do, but they will get the job done. The Patriots are as good as any team in sports when it comes to replacing players, but their chances of a Super Bowl repeat are hurt by the loss of both their big physical corners, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency.
Indianapolis- Everyone else likes Indy much more than I do. They are competing with Houston, Tennessee, and Jacksonville for their division. Jacksonville will be better than people think. Despite that, I am fairly certain that if you replaced Colts with Ohio State, the Buckeyes would win this division going away. There is no doubt Andrew Luck is amazing. However, the offensive line is still below average and acquisitions like veteran RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson would have been great in 2008. The current versions of Gore and Johnson are not a significant upgrade over what they had last year. While the defense has some of the best players you have never heard of like CB Vontae Davis and LB Jerrell Freeman, the Colts are exactly what they have been for most of the last 20 years. A really average team in a bad division with a great quarterback. The QB’s name has changed from Manning to Luck. That is about it. Talk of this team doing anything more than winning one playoff game is ridiculous.
Denver- In the interest of full disclosure, for those of you who do not know already, the Broncos are my favorite team and have been since I was about five. Yes, Peyton Manning is 39 and he fell apart at the end of last year, but John Elway has done all he can to give Manning what I feel is the best team he has ever been on. Look for new coach Gary Kubiak to have a much more balanced offense than the pass happy mess that got the Broncos into trouble late last year. I feel C.J. Anderson is the kind of back that will allow the Broncos to play “smash mouth” football when needed and take some pressure off of the aging QB. He also allows Kubiak to have Peyton line up under center more and call a wider variety of run plays. The weapons are still there at receiver and new tight end Owen Daniels should fit nicely. The defense got a great pass rush all last year. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are back. So, that will not change. They will ultimately be judged on what happens in the playoffs, but thoughts of this franchise completely falling off a cliff this year are a major overreaction.
Baltimore- In a conference where all the major contenders have big questions, the Ravens do not. They are well coached and have a solid run game and defense. Also, they have this generation’s best road QB this side of Tom Brady in Joe Flacco. They are the safest bet in the NFL to be around in January.
Kansas City- Expect this team to still be built around running the ball with Jamaal Charles and short and quick passes that play to Alex Smith’s strengths, but one free agent signing has made this team much more dangerous. Speedy wide receiver Jeremy Macklin will be able to take the top off of defenses and go deep once in a while. No one knows how to use him better than Chiefs coach Andy Reid who also had Macklin in Philly. The defense is about the steadiest you will find in the league. They are a real threat to end Denver’s streak of five straight AFC West titles. Even though I do not see that happening, they are very capable of reaching the playoffs and maybe knocking someone off on the road.
Buffalo- I am tormented by what to do with this team, but I have decided I really believe in Rex Ryan. They have added a ton of talent with Lesean McCoy, Charles Clay, and Percy Harvin. Should these three injury prone ball carriers and pass catchers stay healthy, Buffalo will cause problems for anyone. They have arguably the best defense in the league. All they need is decent, not great quarterback play. Despite the GM saying that they were in “a quarterback purgatory” in training camp, I saw enough good things from former Virginia Tech option quarterback and career NFL back up Tyrod Taylor in the preseason to convince me that Buffalo will make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. My conference champ will be revealed later. Now, on to the NFC.
Seattle- They are the defending conference champs for a reason. Their defense will not be as invincible if defensive back Kam Chancellor’s holdout lingers into the regular season, but they are still plenty good enough to decimate opponents. The human magician that is Russell Wilson is still at the helm of the offense, but make no mistake this offense is still centered around tailback Marshawn Lynch. Combine that with the fact that the Seahawks were able to add a weapon like TE Jimmy Graham and the level of talent on this roster goes from outrageous to unfair.
Dallas- I would argue that the Cowboys were screwed out of a potential trip to the Super Bowl in Green Bay last year. Yes, they lost DeMarco Murray. However, that offensive line is good enough to make any running back at least serviceable. The return of a field general like linebacker Sean Lee on defense cannot be overstated. Also, fans just have to accept that Tony Romo is really good. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are still around. So, Romo will be really good again.
Green Bay- They lost WR Jordy Nelson for the year in the preseason and are average on defense. Only one thing matters though. They have Aaron Rodgers, the other teams in the division do not.
Carolina- Honestly, I have no clue about this division. The Panthers won it last year with a losing record. It could happen again this year. I could see any one of the four teams winning it, even Tampa, but Carolina has the best defense and Cam Newton finished last year really strong.
NY Giants- Speaking of finishing last year strong, no one did that better than the Giants. They were scoring 30+ points a game over the final month of the season. This will be the first year we get to see Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz healthy and on the same field. That has defensive coordinators everywhere wetting the bed. With the experience and track record of head coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning, they will be a force year and can win on the road in the playoffs.
Arizona- Where would this team have ended up last year with a decent and healthy QB? We will never know. Carson Palmer is back this year and healthy. The Cards are rock solid everywhere and do not beat themselves.
Conference Champs: Baltimore, NY Giants
Super Bowl: Baltimore