Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

SEANOBLOW

The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

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Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

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I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

vino

Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

2014 NFL Predictions

I just want something I can never have…a perfect week of NFL predictions. But before we get into my weekly picks every Saturday, here are my full season predictions for the 2014 season.

Last year I had Denver beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl. Half right. Okay, more like a quarter right. Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my record was 152-103-1 (.596), or one game worse than just picking every single home team. That’s still not bad given the ebb and flow of an NFL season, but I’m striving to do better this year.

I predicted 20 teams within two games of their actual record, but had some notable misses in a year where three teams declined by at least seven wins for only the second time since the merger.

2013smiths

Dramatic falls and rises shouldn’t happen again this year, but you never know. Chad Henne could tear his ACL on Sunday and Blake Bortles ends up leading the Jaguars to an AFC South title. The pieces to this 2014 puzzle have been moving for seven months already, but the real fun starts tonight.

This year’s band to set up each team’s theme is Nine Inch Nails. It’s hard to believe Pretty Hate Machine is 25 years old and The Downward Spiral is 20 years old. We’re also up to season 95 of the NFL.

Honest note: proofreading was at a minimum on this piece, and I shot from the hip more than doing new research under a time crunch. After seven long months of research, writing and waiting, I just want to watch some real f’n football games.

 

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Nine Inch Nails: “Closer”

Stat: The 2013 Eagles averaged 7.04 yards after catch, the highest since 1992 according to STATS LLC.

If you read my Eagles chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (purchased here), then you might think I want to feel Chip Kelly from the inside. Unlike DeSean Jackson, who won’t be a big loss, I have fully bought into Chip’s offense. However, where’s the improvement coming from on defense when not much has changed from last year’s lackluster group? As much as I want to push this team into the next tier in the NFC, I’m hesitant because of that defense. There’s also a 2012-13 Washington feel with this team minus the quarterback nursing a torn ACL. Remember, the Eagles were 3-5 before rallying and had the fewest injuries in the league. Nick Foles only threw two picks. These things regress to the mean and he was living off play-action passing down the winning stretch. Sounds like RGIII’s rookie year a bit, doesn’t it? I’m not one for teams “catching up” to Chip, and I think this offense almost has too many weapons, but it wouldn’t shock me to see some decline here. Still, this is the best team in the division and they could get closer to the top of the conference.

2. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Hurt”

Stat: No team in NFL history has ever finished .500 in four consecutive seasons, but the 2011-13 Cowboys are only the fourth team to spend three seasons in purgatory.

Based on my stat, I shouldn’t pick 8-8 again, right? Well, things just broke that way as they usually do for Dallas. Jason Garrett’s never won more than four in a row; never lost more than two in a row. He does just enough to keep his job. The offense should be effective as long as Tony Romo’s behind center, but good lord this defense gets worse every time I look at it. Beyond players who left in the offseason, there are a bunch of injuries, disappointment and underachieving. It’s hard to get worse than last year, but where will the impact plays come from? I feel like 8-8 would actually be an achievement this season for Dallas. The bottom could fall out here.

3. New York Giants (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Downward Spiral”

Stat: Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric.

A ton of injuries (especially at RB/CB) and Eli Manning led the league in interceptions (27). Sounds like a good candidate for regression, but this is the downward spiral choice as the Giants have gone from my division winner to 5-11 over the past few months. The new offense with the laughable goal of 70 percent completions for Eli has been a mess so far. What if he doesn’t recover? There’s a lot of turnover on the line and Hakeem Nicks has moved on. Rookie Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t been able to get on the field. The starting tight end is a nobody. This team has to be carried by its defense, which fortunately should be pretty good with additions like Stevie Brown (hurt in 2013) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I can see 7-9 happening, but the Tom Coughlin/Eli era is deep into its third act and we’re probably not going to get a happy ending.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Disappointed”

Stat: Washington has used the second-highest rate of play-action passing since 2012 (roughly 35 percent). In three years as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, coach Jay Gruden used play action sparingly: 16.4% (2011), 17.1% (2012), 18.9% (2013).

Last year I picked Washington to win 10 games and miss the playoffs. They disappointed greatly with a 3-13 finish. The offense couldn’t score early in games, the defense was a sieve, so there was no controlling of games with the run and play-action like in 2012 when Robert Griffin III had great numbers. Expecting about seven wins this year, my run through of the schedule only produced a 4-12 record. What we know is this receiving corps is loaded with talent, including the Drag King (DeSean Jackson) and Drag Qu–better not (Garcon). Very interested to see Jordan Reed play a full season at tight end. That’s a nice group, but will the quarterback get them the ball consistently? Will Griffin stop taking horrible hits on the sidelines and will he ever learn to slide so that it doesn’t look like he’s trying to shit in the woods?

Griffin’s going to play somewhere in between his first two years, but I’m skeptical of what he does in an offense that seemingly won’t be so dependent on making things look like zone read and play-action. For all we know, Gruden did a hell of a job getting everything he could out of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, but this is going to be an adjustment for RGIII. The defense is pretty much a dumpster fire after Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Too many guys on the wrong side of 30 and some of the most overrated multi-time Pro Bowlers in NFL history (DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather).

 

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “Wish”

Stat: I jinxed them on every interesting streak last year, so I’ll have to find new stuff.

Repeat after me, Patriots fans.

  • 2005: We wish Tom Brady didn’t throw that pass to Champ Bailey in the end zone.
  • 2006: We wish we didn’t blow an 18-point lead in Indianapolis.
  • 2007: We wish Rodney Harrison decapitated David Tyree so he couldn’t make the helmet catch.
  • 2008: We wish Bernard Pollard was never born.
  • 2009-10: We wish we could outscore Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez at home.
  • 2011: We wish Eli Manning didn’t save his best throws for our defense.
  • 2012-13: We wish Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib didn’t break so easily late in the season.

Since last winning a Super Bowl over nine years ago, it’s been a lot of the same for the Patriots each year. You can pencil them in for 12+ wins. You can also take an opponent on the schedule and pick them to beat the Patriots in a playoff rematch, because that’s exactly what happened in their last eight playoff appearances. This year they play the likes of Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, San Diego and Green Bay. Take your pick.

I expect Brady to play better, Gronkowski to play more games and Bill Belichick will use Darrelle Revis the way he’s supposed to be used. This is probably the best defense the Patriots have fielded since the rebuild began about five years ago. I like the Patriots to get the No. 1 seed simply because they play an easier schedule than Denver and get home-field advantage for the third year in a row when they play the Broncos in Week 9. Just have to wish everything goes right in the playoffs like they did a decade ago.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Into the Void”

Stat: Despite a league-worst 58 sacks, Ryan Tannehill had the 13th-lowest pressure rate of qualified quarterbacks last year.

Tannehill and Joe Philbin are starting to run low on chances to prove they’re the right people for their jobs. It’s a tough task: bringing the Dolphins out of sustained mediocrity/general irrelevance ever since Dan Marino retired. For Tannehill, he’s really struggled with pressure the last two years. His offensive line should be a little better this year, though Mike Pouncey needs to get back on the field ASAP. Mike Wallace has been on a steady decline since the midpoint of 2011, but it’s hard to get any worse than last year when he just couldn’t generate the big plays down the field. A new offensive coordinator will help too, but the offense is going to have to pick things up to carry this team over the hump. The defense should be okay, but the annual story of waiting for a quarterback to blossom in this post-Marino era remains the most critical part of any Dolphins season. A good start with the Patriots at home — that was probably Tannehill’s most impressive game last year in December — is huge.

 3. New York Jets (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Down In It”

Stat: The 2013 Jets had the worst scoring differential (-97) for an 8-8 team in NFL history.

Last year’s Jets were of the “win close, lose big” variety. With Geno Smith leading five game-winning drives, it was a poor man’s version of the 2012 Colts, who still rebounded to make the playoffs in 2013. I’m not confident in Geno as I am Luck, but he does have better weapons this year. Eric Decker will show up against the lousy defenses and disappear against the good ones. His vertical game matches up well with Geno’s skillset. I know I predicted terrible things for the Jets (and Bills) last year too and was burned, but I just think last season’s record was a mirage and there’s more to fix on the defense than we imagine. The secondary, especially cornerback, is a mess right now. Rex Ryan can coach defense and he might have the best defensive line (in the AFC), but we haven’t truly seen a top-notch unit since 2010. That’s also the last time the Jets were anything better than a .500 team with a bunch of bad losses on their resume.

 4. Buffalo Bills (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Something I Can Never Have”

Stat: The only team in the 21st century to not make the NFL playoffs.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I hate writing about Buffalo because it’s the same stories every year. Will the quarterback be any good? Can they score points? Is the defense good enough to carry the offense to a winning record? And the answer is always no. This year especially, I see a team wallowing for the top pick in the draft. How can the defense improve on last year when it lost its defensive coordinator, its two best players (Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso) and had career-years in sack production from Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes? That just screams regression, especially given the success without getting pressure.

Speaking of pressure, EJ Manuel had the third-lowest DVOA without pressure (10.3%) in 2013. I found 40 examples since 2010 where a quarterback had a DVOA without pressure under 20.0%. Not one of those quarterbacks was a good starter after that point. This is something reserved for the worst quarterbacks in the league or guys on the decline. Matt Schaub did that last year and he’s already lost his job to Derek Carr. Eli Manning also did it and I’m skeptical of his future. Manuel hasn’t looked good this preseason, but that is just preseason football. This could be a run-heavy offense again with two good backs, but Manuel has to step up with what is a talented receiving corps.

 

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Even Deeper”

Stat: 2009-14 Packers can tie franchise record for most consecutive playoff appearances (6; 1993-98).

Insert mandatory line about as long as Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the division, the Packers are the NFC North favorites. That’s still the case. What I don’t see is a defense good enough to make this a Super Bowl team in the loaded NFC. The year the defense actually played up to that level was 2010 and we know what happened then. The offense will be very good as long as Rodgers is healthy, but when matched up with a team like the Seahawks or 49ers, I’m not sold on the Packers. They’re 0-5 against those teams since 2012 and I like Seattle in the opener. Green Bay also has to travel to New Orleans for an expected shootout, but it’s those tough road games that make me think the Packers won’t be getting a first-round bye, meaning they’ll likely return to the same difficult venues in January. If they can’t dig deeper and grind out those road wins, they’re not ready for another title run.

2. Chicago Bears (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Mr. Self Destruct”

Stat: In 2013, Josh McCown (8.0%) and Jay Cutler (-23.8%) finished 1st and 2nd in DVOA with pressure.

My initial run through the games produced a 13-3 record for Chicago. That’s not happening. I like Marc Trestman, but this team’s still a bit flawed for that kind of record. Jay Cutler has shown almost no progression since the first start of his career since 2006. He’ll make beautiful throws. He’ll make horrible throws. He’ll come through in the clutch. He’ll get you blown out before halftime. He is what he is, but he can lead this team to the playoffs with talented skill players and their wide catch radius. Alshon Jeffery was more impressive than Brandon Marshall last year in my eyes. The defense used to be so reliable, but the core has gotten old and there were too many injuries right down the middle last year. Safety play leaves much to be desired. Still, better health and talent can get this group to being at least mediocre, which is good enough mixed with a high-scoring offense.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Kinda I Want To”

Stat: Mike Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator for the last 14 seasons. His defense’s average rank in points per drive is 14.6, finishing as high as third last year with Cincinnati.

Last year I was really hard on the Vikings, and rightfully so. This year, I kind of wanted to make them a playoff team, but the tough schedule made that too hard. I also wish they would have just let Teddy Bridgewater take over as QB1 from the start and insulated him with a very talented offense, a strong running game and Norv Turner’s knowledge. The weapons and line are there, but they’re going to start with Matt Cassel and the book’s been out on him. He’ll look good against the soft defenses, but match the Vikings up with a better opponent and the mistakes will shine through. Bridgewater rarely threw picks in college. He’s the future, but I wish he was the present. Zimmer’s going to make the defense better after an awful 2013, but he doesn’t have a full deck yet like he was getting close to in Cincinnati. Maybe next year, Minnesota.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: “Head Like a Hole”

Stat: The 2013 Lions tied the NFL record (2000 Chargers) by blowing seven fourth-quarter leads.

I’m just going to post this copy of Jim Caldwell’s resume I “found” one day…

jimcald

Lions needed a change at the top, but I’m not sold Caldwell is the right guy for the job. Mike Tanier made a great point in FOA 2014 about the Lions being hit hardest by the old CBA in having to dish out huge contracts to top picks like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. Johnson has lived up to the hype, but Stafford still has the funky mechanics and bad decisions. Suh leads a defense that’s been mediocre at best and he’s not consistently a force in the middle. He’s pretty good at getting fined though.

These players take up so much of the cap space that it’s hard to build the rest of the team. They have more receivers than ever before around Stafford this year, but the defense doesn’t have much outside of the line, especially in the secondary. That’s why there will be plenty of high-scoring games and the more put on Stafford’s plate, the more likely he starts making those costly mistakes. A lot of people are high on the 2014 Lions, but FO’s projections were not. Based on this team’s history, I think another losing season should surprise no one. As much as the Lions want to taste victory, their mouths are dry in the end. They’ll probably score too many points to only win six games, but this isn’t a playoff team in a conference with contenders who can do multiple things at a high level.

 

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”

Stat: The 2004-2013 Steelers are the 8th team in the Super Bowl era to go a decade without a losing record and having outscored their opponents in each season.

You knew I’d pick that song, right? “The standard is the standard” for Mike Tomlin. So we’re just waiting for the Steelers to get a few ball bounces and break out of this 8-8 mediocrity. I originally didn’t want to pick the Steelers to win the AFC North, but we’ll probably have at least one new division winner in the AFC, right? The elements of a few great players, an easy schedule and a division without a juggernaut help the Steelers, but those same things all existed in last year’s 8-8 finish.

The fear with the Steelers is they only got marginally better this offseason. Dri Archer could grow into having a Darren Sproles-type impact if Todd Haley uses him right (holding my breath there). Mike Munchak could be huge for the offensive line if he maximizes the talent David DeCastro has. Ryan Clark was too old at safety, so insert Mike Mitchell. Ryan Shazier’s speed is going to create a lot of plays. However, the rest of the secondary remains intact and that’s not great news if Ike Taylor is going to keep giving up completions and amassing penalties.

Does Ben Roethlisberger actually get his no-huddle offense this year? We’ll see, but that would be one welcomed change to a team that seems to be slow in keeping up with evolving trends.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ruiner”

Stat: Andy Dalton has increased his touchdowns, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt each year of his career.

In a three-team race for the division, the Bengals probably have the best roster, but the least trustworthy quarterback. We’ve at least seen Joe Flacco go on a great run against superior competition. Andy Dalton has been absolutely dreadful in playoff games. My opinion of him really soured this offseason when I looked at the catch radius for A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. Dalton takes advantage of his playmakers by allowing them to create a great highlight reel on difficult catches that aren’t great throws. When people talk about a quarterback being made better by his weapons, Dalton is the example to point to. While after looking at more receivers I felt better about Dalton, but then I looked at his playoff loss to San Diego and again found instances of Jermaine Gresham, a 6’5″ tight end having to leap off the ground and fully extend his arms above the head for a catch. Dalton is not an accurate quarterback by any means, but he’s still very rich now.

JGreshb

Marvin Lewis has somehow made it to a 12th season in Cincinnati without a single playoff win. Expectations will be high again, but both coordinators are gone. This is a crucial season in Cincinnati and while I think the talent is there to win 10 games, a decline out of the playoffs wouldn’t be surprising. After all, how many teams consistently win with average quarterback play?

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Only Time”

Stat: Despite one of the worst rushing attacks in the last 25 years, Joe Flacco had his highest DVOA yet on play-action passes.

Last year was the only time John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco failed to make the playoffs together in six seasons. It’s the only time Flacco failed to throw no more than 12 interceptions (career-high 22). It’s the only time Ray Rice punched…Okay, it was a really bad year and not a great offseason for the Ravens. Basking in the glow of their Super Bowl title, a poached roster had a difficult time last year with sustaining offense.

I think Gary Kubiak could be huge for that running game, which was so ineffective all season regardless if it was Rice or Bernard Pierce. The play-action game oddly worked, but Baltimore rarely used it. Some of the best play-action attacks in recent time were Kubiak’s in Houston, so I think he can do a good job here with a pretty talented receiving corps. There’s a deep threat (Torrey Smith), a veteran underneath (Steve Smith), a tall/red zone guy (Marlon Brown), another deep threat/return specialist (Jacoby Jones) and tight end Dennis Pitta is healthy again. I also think Michael Campanaro could be a good slot receiver. The offense will get better, but this is still a team led by defense. The front seven is loaded with talent, but they are old. At least rookie C.J. Mosley is there to bring the snap-weighted age down. Secondary depth and the safety position in particular concern me, but I have the Ravens getting off to a nice start and they’ll be a factor in the playoff race.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Wretched”

Stat: Browns are 3-22 (.120) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities since 2011.

One of the most agonizing stories this offseason was Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel. It’s Hoyer in Week 1, but it doesn’t matter which quarterback starts, because this will be one of the worst offenses in the league. Even with Josh Gordon’s incredible effort last year, the Browns ranked 28th in offensive points per drive. Where will the points come from this year? The ghost of Miles Austin? Ben Tate? Manziel scrambles? It’s no longer Brandon Weeden and T-Rich, but there’s not much here. The defense will keep this team competitive in many games and Mike Pettine should have a solid impact there. However, Pettine seems cursed to work with terrible offenses each year and I see no reason why the 2014 Browns will be any different. I’m glad Hoyer is starting too. After the impending bad September, we can stop saying he has a winning record as Cleveland’s starter in a stretch that wasn’t all that last year.

 

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Perfect Drug”

Stat: We think of the Saints as a scoring juggernaut, but nine teams actually scored more points than New Orleans (414) in 2013.

I’ve been high on this team all offseason. The defense is getting closer to the offense, which should be great with better wide receiver depth to go along with Jimmy Graham. Drew Brees is my MVP pick. He might even avoid the annual stinker game against an inferior opponent he has every year. He’ll have to if the Saints are to have a shot at the top seed and not have to worry about traveling to Seattle where they are 0-3 since 2010. I’m all in on the Saints in this division. They just better get that four-minute offense fixed, because it stung them against the Patriots and Panthers last year.

2. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Where Is Everybody?”

Stat: Panthers lost 80.2% of its secondary snaps from 2013.

panth

The Panthers burned me in last year’s predictions by finally winning several close games on their way to the playoffs. Then they burned a lot of their roster. Who are these Panthers? One of the league’s very best front sevens is still there, but the secondary, offensive line and wide receivers have gone through major changes without many great additions. I don’t think they’re that bad off at wideout now with veterans and Kelvin Benjamin should be productive right away. Greg Olsen should have his best year. The line is a little scary and we’ve already seen the usually durable Cam Newton have some rib issues this preseason. The secondary was the weak link last year, but it actually didn’t play that poorly and the Panthers were still very good on defense without getting pressure. They didn’t draft any studs or sign any great free agents to replace those guys, so I think the weakness just got weaker. I also think Riverboat Ron was overblown last year and this is still a team with several holes that need fixed before we can entertain the thought that this is a Super Bowl contender.

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Starfuckers, Inc.”

Stat: The 2013 Falcons had the highest pass ratio on offense in NFL history (68.7%). And there’s an 87% chance Bryan Cox owns Wild Hogs on DVD.

When did the Falcons become the boring version of the Cowboys? They have a couple of stars (heavily slanted towards offense), a lack of depth and they barely try to run the ball anymore. Jake Matthews has big shoes to fill at left tackle, but he has the pedigree. Matt Ryan had a better year than most will give him credit for, but this offense has sputtered out in the red zone in crucial situations way too often since 2012. It cost them a Super Bowl appearance and a couple of games last year. Take away a HOFer like Tony Gonzalez and replace him with nothing proven and that’s going to be hard to overcome. At least Julio Jones is back, but for how long? He hasn’t been a pillar of health. The offense has to compensate for the defense, which has lost defensive captain Sean Weatherspoon again. After cornerback Desmond Trufant, I’m not sure there’s much on this defense for the long-term. I still think Ryan and Mike Smith are one of the league’s better QB-HC pairings and this team will be better, but they’re not ready for a playoff return.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “With Teeth”

Stat: Last season, Josh McCown became the only QB since 2010 to have a positive DVOA (8.0%) while under pressure. Yeah, life doesn’t make much sense.

We’re going to see the impact of coaching here. Greg Schiano had a great player at every level of the defense (Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis) and still didn’t get good results last year. Lovie Smith will turn that around and get this unit playing well with Alterraun Verner replacing Revis. David is one of the most underrated defenders in the league.

They’ll be fine defensively, but where the coaching may hurt is on offense where Lovie’s teams usually are lackluster. McCown doesn’t have Marc Trestman this time. He does have two big receivers again, but Mike Evans is a rookie and perhaps not ready to break out like Alshon Jeffery last year. Doug Martin returning will help and the Logan Mankins trade was good, but the offensive line will have to quickly build chemistry. I just can’t trust McCown to continue his success in a different system and personally, I would have never signed him and just let Mike Glennon keep the job. Sure, Gumby the Gargantuan looks awkward as hell out there, but he was slicing and dicing the Seahawks in Seattle for a half as a rookie. Give the kid another shot. I bet we see him this year too. McCown is 35.

 

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Survivalism”

Stat: Colts are 16-2 (.889) in games decided by 1-8 points since 2012. #Luck

The 12-4 record doesn’t match the direction I feel this franchise is headed, but if any team’s going to post a 12-4 record with big flaws, it’s the Colts. Who will generate pressure without Robert Mathis as he serves his four-game suspension? Even when Mathis comes back, you have to raise your eyebrows about his career season resulting in a suspension for PEDs. Why is the defense so old with an average age of 29.5 for the main starters and nickel back? Who the heck is the interior offensive line this year? Will Trent Richardson even get back to being “3.0” and how long can Pep Hamilton keep giving him the ball?

I’ve bounced around this offseason from having the Colts in the Super Bowl to remembering they have Delano Howell at starting safety, so how would that be possible? They don’t even have Howell (neck) now, because this is one of the most injured teams year after year. Andrew Luck has his best group of receivers yet, but the Colts need to utilize them with empty sets and using Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen together at least 80 times this year. That’s a tough formation to defend, especially when Luck can scramble so well. Last year wasn’t the huge leap forward for Luck, but he did get better and I think he can improve more with this receiving cast.

I’m not sure how I got 12-4 when the Mathis-less Colts start with Denver and Philadelphia. Are the Colts ready to take down a Denver or New England to get to the Super Bowl? I don’t really see it, and the AFC South should be getting better in a hurry. Luck continues to give the Colts the edge here, but that window is closing until the Colts decide to open things up a little more.

2. Houston Texans (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Becoming”

Stat: Since 1970 merger, only two teams have ever declined by 10 wins excluding strike seasons: 1993-94 Houston Oilers and 2012-13 Houston Texans.

Damn that was almost a perfect draft with Jadeveon Clowney and one pick away from getting Teddy Bridgewater too. That combination of Clowney and J.J. Watt will be tough on bad lines, but we’ve seen even with the greatness of Watt the Texans can get torn apart defensively or lose 14 games in a row. They’ll win a handful this year with new coach Bill O’Brien and a new quarterback: bearded-hasbeen Ryan Fitzpatrick or neverwas Ryan Mallett. But I think the quarterback of the future resides in next year’s draft for Houston. Get that piece in place and this team can be in a good position very soon.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Find My Way”

Stat: With Maurice Jones-Drew gone, the 2014 AFC South is the first division since 2002 to not return a single rushing leader from the year before (Donald Brown in Indianapolis, Chris Johnson in Tennessee and Ben Tate in Houston).

Blake Bortles. I can’t believe Jacksonville has gone with Chad Henne to start the season and a plan to keep Bortles on the bench all year. That’s just not the NFL anymore, and Bortles was very impressive this preseason with his Roethlisberger-esque style. If Luke Joeckel wants to “forget” his blocking assignment and get Chad Henne destroyed, that might be the best thing for this team. I kid, only a little. But I think we’ll see Bortles at some point this year and he’ll make the Jaguars one of the trendiest playoff picks in 2015. Hell, I’m already seeing it this year, but as long as it’s Henne, that’s not happening.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “You Know What You Are?”

Stat: In 2013, Kendall Wright had two touchdowns on 94 receptions. He’s only the fourth WR to have no more than two touchdowns with at least 90 catches in a season.

I picked four wins for the Titans last year and they surprised with seven. This team’s hard to figure out, but let’s review some facts. Jake Locker isn’t very accurate or durable. Ken Whisenhunt hasn’t had any success in his career unless he’s had a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner or Philip Rivers last year. Ray Horton’s defenses have been fairly mediocre the last few years, and the Cardinals didn’t miss a step without him last year. Will Jurrell Casey get as much pressure as a 3-4 DE? That’s hard to do, and he is one of the few real bright spots in place on this otherwise bland, directionless team.

The 2013 AFC South had a rotten year, but playing the AFC West and NFC West had a huge impact on the records. The schedules should be easier this year, and that fact alone should help some of these teams win more games, though I think this division is a big part of why the AFC is so top-heavy right now. We’re still waiting for something to spark in the South besides Indianapolis. To me, the Titans have the least going on of these three teams.

 

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ringfinger”

Stat: Seattle has had a fourth-quarter lead in 30 consecutive games (including playoffs). I’ll have to dig, but this could be the all-time record.

The defending Super Bowl champion hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots, but that’s going to change this year. Seattle’s in as good of shape as any team to repeat. The defense won’t be as historically great, but it will still be dominant. The offense could really get better with a healthier offensive line and actual snaps from Percy Harvin on offense. Doug Baldwin is underrated and I like Jermaine Kearse too. Russell Wilson didn’t really grow from his rookie year, but his level of play was so consistent and high enough already. His best days are ahead of him, but the time for winning rings is now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “And All That Could Have Been”

Stat: The 2011-13 49ers are the 11th team to lose to the eventual champion in three straight postseasons. In year four, the previous 10 teams missed the playoffs six times, lost a Super Bowl and won three championships.

The NFC West is the best division in football, but I feel like the 49ers are a clear No. 2 behind Seattle. The gap was much smaller last year, but the 49ers are down too many key defenders for me to believe they’ll still be a 12-4 team. I like Colin Kaepernick and his deepest set of weapons yet, but the identity of this team has been running and defense. Those teams have a short shelf life of success and you wonder how long Jim Harbaugh’s intensity will carry the way. The 49ers are a playoff-caliber team, but it’s another long trip as the Wild Card, which means an extra game and all road appearances. I think we’ll be looking back at this team and how it was one play or one score away from winning or at least getting to multiple Super Bowls. That’s not to say the run is over, but the off-field issues and some shaky drafting the last few years could start to catch up.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: ‘Somewhat Damaged”

Stat: Since moving to Arizona/Phoenix in 1988, the Cardinals have had one running back rush for 1,000 yards and average 4.0 yards per carry in the same season: Beanie Wells, 1,047 yards, 4.27 YPC (2011)

A surprise 10-6 team last year, the Cardinals are going to take a step back with that hard schedule and too many losses on defense. Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby are big losses in the front seven. Larry Foote and John Abraham (who was great last year) are really up there in years. Antonio Cromartie had a horrible season in 2013. Patrick Peterson takes on a tough responsibility each week, but he’s not exactly a shutdown corner. I think the defense regresses and this becomes a more offensive team, which is really where the pieces are right now with a bunch of Notre Dame guys and Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals actually have options at tight end for a change with John Carlson and Troy Niklas. Andre Ellington could have a huge year, but as the stat above shows, running backs usually die out in the desert. I was never a fan of Carson Palmer in a Bruce Arians offense, and I think he played to expectations last year. When protected, he was quite good. When pressured, he was a bottom five quarterback in the league. He’s not Luck or Roethlisberger, but Arians don’t currr. Palmer will pile up volume numbers, but Arizona’s not going to live up to last year.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Fragile”

Stat: No St. Louis receiver has had 700 receiving yards in a season since Torry Holt in 2008.

I actually tend to believe Shaun Hill is a better quarterback than Sam Bradford. He’s been in this spot before, replacing what was a disappointing No. 1 overall pick (Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford) and keeping the team competitive. He has one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios (1.78) ever. He doesn’t have to carry the team, and I think they can max out at eight wins. However, I had a hell of a time with the difficult schedule in giving them any more than five wins. It’s not that the Rams are bad, but they’re just not great at most levels beyond that front seven. Most of the teams they will see this year are simply better.

 

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “We’re In This Together”

Stat: Peyton Manning is 80-0 when his team allows fewer than 17 points, excluding a 16-10 loss he left after two series in Week 17, 2007.

I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that was in XLVIII. Remember when the highest-scoring team ever came out in the Super Bowl and couldn’t even get the first snap off correctly? Can we just jump to the postseason? The regular season is a formality for the Broncos. They’ll lose in Seattle, lose in New England and split with the Chargers. That’s 13-3, but I think losing the game in New England is why the Broncos will drop to the second seed. Yes, they were still the top seed the last two years despite losing in Foxboro — again, this is an awful scheduling quirk by the NFL where teams are playing at the same site three years in a row — but that won’t happen for a third year in a row. Playing the AFC West and NFC West is going to be tough. The Patriots have the easier road.

Come playoff time, let’s see what Denver has learned. The schedule works out beautifully in the sense that they played the Seahawks and 49ers in the preseason and in the regular season. If “being more physical” is the key to not letting 43-8 happen again, then they’re going to get a good litmus test. Frankly, I don’t know what more the offense can do to match up with Seattle. They’re still going to run Peyton Manning’s offense, and we know what that looks like. Can the receivers separate or do anything after the catch? Can they block that quick edge pressure that caused some huge problems last year? Can they run the ball at all? This isn’t suddenly going to be the 1998 Broncos. Montee Ball isn’t Terrell Davis.

That’s why I think the way for Denver to win this year’s Super Bowl is for the defense to step up and turn the tables on those top teams. Get after a Russell Wilson (wasn’t hit in Super Bowl) or Drew Brees. Cause turnovers, which Denver failed to do even once in three playoff games last year. Keep the game competitive. The Super Bowl was 15-0 Seattle and Manning had only thrown one incompletion to that point. Things got out of hand so fast.

Maybe this is the year the Broncos play more complementary football and the ball bounces their way. Somehow, the Broncos are 28-8 with Manning despite a -9 turnover differential (same as 6-26 Jacksonville). That team in Seattle? It has a +41 turnover differential since 2012 (Patriots are +36). The Denver offense won’t be record-setting against a tougher schedule. I predict they’ll score 492 points, down from 606 last year. The defense should be much better. For all the talk about the new additions (and they are nice), I think Von Miller and Ryan Clady returning is as big of news as any move.

Wes Welker and Danny Trevathan missing early games? Forget about that. It’s Super Bowl or bust for this team. We’ll see if the new additions on defense pay off. It worked for the 1994 49ers, who had to get over the Dallas hurdle in the playoffs. Three Dallas turnovers set up a 21-0 lead for the 49ers halfway into the first quarter of the 1994 NFC Championship. They held on for the win on a day where Steve Young only completed 13-of-29 passes for 155 yards. It’s not about just having a record-setting offense or superior defense. It’s getting your units to play together and that’s what the Broncos have to do against better competition.

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Just Like You Imagined”

Stat: San Diego had a league-low 158 offensive drives in 2013, but ranked second in points per drive (2.46) to only Denver (2.98).

Once upon a time Philip Rivers was essentially the sixth-best quarterback in the league and very consistent, getting San Diego in the playoffs in 2006-09. Then he started making more mistakes, especially in situational football and appeared to be on the decline. Last year, he was back to form and there’s no reason not to expect he can stay there in Mike McCoy’s offense. I still say Keenan Allen should have won OROY, and there are several other quality receivers in this offense along with three running backs who can play and fill every role. They’ll be fine on that side of the ball. The improvement has to come on defense, which shouldn’t be hard after how bad things were for most of last season. The fewest drives per game was the result of an efficient, ball-control offense for both San Diego and its opponents. The Chargers couldn’t stop teams until later in the season when they fared well with Cincinnati (especially in the playoffs) and even stole a win in Denver on a Thursday night. The division’s really not up for grabs, but I like San Diego as a solid Wild Card team with a chance to upset just about anyone in the AFC.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Big Come Down”

Stat: After starting 9-0, the Chiefs finished the season 2-6, including a 28-point blown lead in the playoffs.

This is the Carolina of the AFC. The quarterback’s basically average, but he’s right up there with Peyton and Brees if you ask John Lynch. The offensive line has lost several players, including the left tackle (Branden Albert). Eric Fisher was awful last year, but fortunately he was just a rookie. Brandon Flowers left the secondary where there’s question marks at cornerback and the safety next to Eric Berry. They didn’t really add anything to the receiving corps besides getting a healthy (but unproven) Travis Kelce back at tight end. The draft didn’t add an instant impact starter. Dee Ford’s not likely to steal much playing time from Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. There’s not a lot to like here in terms of a playoff team. Going from the easiest schedule to what’s projected as the second toughest is a big deal. Having the second-fewest injuries means you’re probably going to have more this year. At best, this is maybe the eighth-best team in the AFC.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

Nine Inch Nails: “Help Me I Am In Hell”

Stat: Oakland finished 4-12 or worse in 38.5 percent of Football Outsiders’ season simulations — highest rate of any team.

Eleven seasons without a winning record or a playoff appearance sums it up enough. At least we’ll see Derek Carr early, which could provide some hope (Matt Schaub is washed up), or could tell the Raiders they need to take Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston next year. Khalil Mack should be pretty good, and hey, that’s one piece for the future. The other pieces are relics of the past with Oakland’s spending spree at the thrift store adding LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Donald Penn, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones and Carlos Rogers.

It’s about damn time the Raiders had a roster ready to win the 2009 AFC West.

 

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. New England (13-3)

  • 2. Denver (13-3)

  • 3. Indianapolis (12-4)

  • 4. Pittsburgh (10-6)

  • 5. Cincinnati (10-6)

  • 6. San Diego (10-6)

Ruh-roh, Indy’s old nemesis San Diego comes in and works its voodoo magic again for a win. Pittsburgh keeps Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton winless in the playoffs, but Ike Taylor gets a bout of PTSD against Demaryius Thomas in Denver. San Diego once again fails to get past the Tom Brady-led Patriots, setting up the fifth (and final) Manning vs. Brady playoff meeting. The rubber match. The guy with HFA has always won in the playoffs, but this time the Denver defense hardens and leads the road win in a low-scoring game.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (14-2)

  • 2. New Orleans (14-2)

  • 3. Green Bay (12-4)

  • 4. Philadelphia (11-5)

  • 5. San Francisco (10-6)

  • 6. Chicago (10-6)

Bears and Packers part three? I like Green Bay in that one, which sets up a more ideal meeting in New Orleans, but Brees gets the best of that duel. The 49ers are unable to continue their road success in Philadelphia, earning Chip Kelly his first playoff win. However, the Eagles are no match in Seattle with that crowd and defense. The Saints return to Seattle, giving us two straight final fours with only bye teams. It’s more competitive this time, but again the Seahawks find a way to beat the Saints.

 

SUPER BOWL XLIX

Seattle Seahawks 27, Denver Broncos 17

I hate this prediction, but I’d rather be right than try to be different. This is 1992-93 Dallas vs. Buffalo all over again to me. This time it will be closer, but the Seahawks pull away in the second half to intensify the dynasty talk.

If you don’t like that outcome, well consider Richard Sherman is on the cover of Madden.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better?