There are numerous interesting storylines entering the upcoming NFL season. There are even some that don’t have anything to do with the Manning brothers.
Eli Manning is the quarterback of the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions. Peyton Manning, as you may have heard, signed with the Denver Broncos during the offseason.
Sticking with the quarterbacks, there are five rookie starters as the season begins: Russell Wilson (Seahawks); Robert Griffin III (Redskins); Brandon Weeden (Browns); Andrew Luck (Colts); and Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins). These five follow the path of last season’s rookie quarterbacks, five of whom begin this season as starters: Cam Newton (Panthers); Andy Dalton (Bengals); Jack Locker (Titans); Christian Ponder (Vikings) and Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars).
It’s nice to see some new blood, but that doesn’t mean these young quarterbacks are quite ready to lead their teams to the Promised Land. In fact, as a bit of a tease for my NFL predictions (below), I don’t think any of the 10 teams listed above, all with rookie or second-year starting quarterbacks, will make the playoffs.
This may be the dawn of a new era, but that era is just getting started. That leaves us with familiar faces battling for playoff berths. Then again, nobody predicted the meteoric rise of the 49ers last season, so it’s possible that one of the NFL’s basement dwellers rises to the penthouse.
One of the teams trying to get back to the playoffs is the Eagles. After a disappointing 8-8 campaign last season, the Eagles have attempted to solidify their defense through the draft and via trade. Their chances for making the playoffs, and succeeding once they get there, are still heavily dependent on the health of quarterback Michael Vick. For an expanded Eagles preview, click here.
Here’s how we think the upcoming NFL season will unfold:
(Eric Fisher’s predicted records in bold face; Ron Opher’s predictions in parentheses and italics.)
Cowboys: The return of running back DeMarco Murray, who was exceptional in relief of Felix Jones until breaking his ankle against the Giants in Week 14, provides Dallas with a huge boost. 10-6 (10-6)
EAGLES: Michael Vick’s health is the key for the Eagles, who should be better than last season. Several quirks in the schedule don’t do the Eagles any favors. For example, they play on Monday night, resulting in shorter time to prepare, before both games with the Cowboys. 10-6 (10-6, Eagles win division)
Giants: The defending Super Bowl champs finish with the same regular-season record as last season. This time, however, it’s not good enough to make the playoffs. 9-7 (10-6)
Redskins: The Redskins are putting a heavy burden on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III without giving him many weapons to work with on offense. A good defense is hurt by a sub-par secondary. 3-13 (4-12)
Division analysis: This should once again be a three-team battle for first place. The Giants won the division by one game last season, although the Eagles, despite finishing one game out of first, weren’t truly a factor. The Eagles and Cowboys were both plagued by fourth-quarter collapses last season, which is why both teams concentrated on improving their defenses. Subtract a fourth-quarter collapse or two for the Eagles and Cowboys, and they both finish ahead of the steady Giants. The Cowboys win the division because they beat the Eagles twice. The Birds earn a wild card.
Packers: Green Bay’s offense is incredibly dangerous. Aaron Rodgers (above) might be the best quarterback I the NFL. The Packers tried to add balance by adding running back Cedric Benson. But this is still a lopsided team. The defense should be better than last season, but it may not be good enough for the Packers to win the Super Bowl. 12-4 (12-4)
Bears: Chicago traded for receiver Brandon Marshall, reuniting him with quarterback Jay Cutler, and draft receiver Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. More options on offense could return the Bears to the playoffs after an 8-8 season last year. 10-6 (9-7)
Lions: The Lions make the Packers seem balanced. With Calvin Johnson catching passes from Matthew Stafford, the Lions have a potent offense. Their defense, however, isn’t very good, particularly their secondary. A poor secondary is a bad weakness to have when you’re top competition is the Packers and Bears. 10-6 (11-5)
Vikings: The Vikings have the same weakness as the Lions: their secondary. The difference is the Vikings aren’t good enough in the other areas, except running back, to compensate for that weakness. 3-13 (3-13)
Division analysis: This is a terrific division with three playoff-caliber teams. The Packers, Bears and Lions all tried to make themselves more balanced. I think the Bears improved the most, which is why they’re the only team in this group that I think will improve its record. The Packers won’t go 15-1, but they’re still the class of this division. The Bears secure a wild card berth; the Lions miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Saints: BountyGate has undoubtedly been a strain on the Saints, but it also has put a giant chip on their collective shoulders. With quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, the Saints offense should be as dangerous as ever. The defense displayed improvement last season, which helped the Saints to a 13-3 record. The addition of former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator is a huge factor for a team with its head coach (Sean Payton) suspended for the year. 11-5 (10-6, wild card)
Falcons: Regular-season success hasn’t translated into playoff success for Atlanta. It won’t this season, either. The Falcons have diversified their offense after a 24-2 embarrassing playoff loss to the Giants last season. Will that be enough to make the playoffs? 10-6 (10-6, win division)
Panthers: Cam Newton made the Panthers exciting with a terrific rookie season, but they still only finished 6-10. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly should improve the defense, but not enough to put the Panthers in playoff contention. 7-9 (7-9)
Buccaneers: The Bucs are starting over with a new coach, Greg Schiano, and some new piece, such as free agent receiver Vincent Jackson and rookies Doug Martin (running back), Mark Barron (safety) and Lavonte David (linebacker). Improvement might not be reflected in their record, but the Bucs may be a team to watch in a year or two. 3-13 (4-12)
Division analysis: The Saints and Falcons should battle for the division title. The Panthers could challenge for the division lead, but I think they’re a couple defensive difference-makers and a receiver or two away from being an elite team. I have the Falcons missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. The Saints have eyes on being the first team to play the Super Bowl on its home field. Can you imagine NFL commissioner Roger Goodell having to present the Lombardi Trophy to the Saints after BountyGate? I can.
49ers: San Francisco is not a one-year wonder. The 49ers defense, led by defensive end Justin Smith and an outstanding linebacker corps led by Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, is excellent. The 49ers added receivers (Mario Manningham, Randy Moss) and a running back (Brandon Jacobs), but the offensive line is where the 49ers are vulnerable. 11-5 (11-5)
Seahawks: Seattle isn’t a bad team, but having rookie Russell Wilson beat out veteran Matt Flynn, the former Packers backup who landed a big free-agent contract, at quarterback isn’t necessarily a good thing. The Seahawks could be buried by a difficult first half that includes five road games, including San Francisco, Detroit and Carolina, and home games against the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots. 6-10 (5-11)
Rams: St. Louis had a brutal first-half schedule last season (Eagles, Ravens, Packers, Cowboys and Saints). A poor start and numerous injuries doomed the Rams, who finished 2-14. With veteran coach Jeff Fisher running the show, the Rams should be better. Not good, but better. 5-11 (7-9)
Cardinals: John Skelton edged out Kevin Kolb in a mediocre quarterback competition. With the Cardinals’ offensive line, you’ll probably see both quarterbacks, because it’s unlikely the starter will make it through the season unscathed. A bad running game, poor offensive line and mediocre quarterbacks are a bad combination, even if you add superb receiver Larry Fitzgerald to the mix. 4-12 (4-12)
Division analysis: The 49ers are far and away the class of the NFC West. The Seahawks are the only team capable of challenging the 49ers, but an extremely difficult early schedule will keep the Seahawks struggling to reach .500, let alone catch the 49ers. The 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game last season. Can they go even further this year?
Patriots: New England’s passing attack got even better with the addition of receiver Brandon Lloyd. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez form the best tight end duo in the NFL. But will the defense be good enough for the Patriots to return to the Super Bowl? 13-3 (13-3)
Bills: The signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson have made Buffalo a trendy playoff pick. Williams and Anderson give the Bills a formidable defensive line, but the rest of the defense is ordinary. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would benefit from having better receivers. 10-6 (7-9)
Jets: The Jets should be interesting. That’s for certain. Whether they’re interesting to watch because they’re good or because their offense is a train wreck is more difficult to ascertain. The defense should be better than last year. The offense might not be as good, even with Tim Tebow providing a boost. 9-7 (8-8)
Dolphins: Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is going to receive a baptism by fire. Translation: The Dolphins wouldn’t be very good this season regardless of who is playing quarterback. 6-10 (6-10)
Division analysis: The Patriots are the best team in the AFC West. Again. No other team in the division finished above .500 last season, but the Bills and Jets have an opportunity to change that this season. The Bills and Jets could challenge for a wild card berth, but I don’t think either will attain it.
Ravens: Baltimore’s offense may not have caught up to its defense yet, but the competition is close. The Ravens lost Terrell Suggs, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, due to a torn Achilles tendon, but Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata are still around. Draft picks Courtney Upshaw (DE/LB, Alabama) and Bernard Pierce (running back, Temple) may contribute right away. 11-5 (11-5, wild card)
Steelers: The Steelers’ strength is still their fearsome corps of linebackers. The question is whether the offense is good enough for the Steelers to make a postseason run. With Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a torn ACL, the Steelers’ fortunes may depend on the development of running back Isaac Redman. 10-6 (12-4)
Bengals: Cincinnati surprised many people, including me, by going 9-7 last season and making the playoffs. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was much better than expected. On the other hand, the Bengals did not beat a single playoff team last season. If they can’t beat playoff teams this year with a more difficult schedule, they’ll be home by January. 7-9 (9-7)
Browns: The Browns have a new starting quarterback, 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden, and a new starting running back, Trent Richardson. Unfortunately for the Browns, Richardson had arthroscopic surgery and may not be at full strength when the season begins. There aren’t many other bright spots for the Browns. 2-14 (1-15)
Division analysis: Some people have the Bengals in the mix with the Ravens and Steelers for the division title. I don’t see that happening. I think the Steelers have what it takes to earn a wild card berth, but, unlike the Ravens, I don’t think they have what it takes to advance deep into the playoffs.
Texans: The Texans staggered down the stretch last season, but held on to a playoff berth and won a playoff game with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates. Matt Schaub returns from a foot injury to start at quarterback. With defensive end Mario Williams gone to Buffalo, the Texans will be counting upon first-round pick Whitney Mercilus to contribute right away. 10-6 (12-4)
Titans: Tennessee is solid. Whether the Titans are better than average may depend on the development of second-year quarterback Jake Locker. Running back Chris Johnson will benefit if the Titans’ passing game develops. The defense is solid, but there aren’t a lot of difference-makers. 8-8 (10-6, wild card)
Colts: The Colts had last season to adjust to being without Peyton Manning, who was sidelined by a neck injury. This year they will adjust to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The right side of the offensive line may consist of Eagles castoff’s Winston Justice and Mike McGlynn. Good luck, Mr. Luck. 5-11 (5-11)
Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew ended his holdout Sunday. The running back’s presence won’t make a major difference for the Jaguars, who are being led by new head coach Mike Mularkey. Former Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, who led the Jaguars last season with 119 tackles, is one of Jacksonville’s few bright spots. 2-14 (2-14)
Division analysis: The Texans are the only team in the AFC South with the capability to make some playoff noise. The Titans would be happy to make the playoffs, but they may be a year or two away. The Colts and Jaguars are rebuilding.
Chargers: Receiver Eddie Royal is a dropoff from Vincent Jackson, who signed with the Bucs, but quarterback Philip Rivers still has enough weapons to pile up points. There is some question, however, about whether the Chargers can develop a consistent running game. The defense isn’t great, but it should be good enough to make the playoffs. 11-5 (9-7)
Broncos: The Broncos and Peyton Manning (above) won’t have time to adjust. In the six games prior to their bye, the Broncos host the Steelers, Texans and Raiders and play at Atlanta, New England and San Diego, including two Monday night road games. The Broncos may struggle through the first half of their schedule, but I expect them to pick it up during the second half of the season. The Broncos’ running game is far better than what Manning was accustomed to with the Colts. 10-6 (11-5)
Chiefs: With running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry recovered from ACL tears sustained during the first two games of last season, Kansas City should automatically be better. The addition of running back Peyton Hillis takes some of the weight off Charles and quarterback Matt Cassel. Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali lead a dominating group of linebackers. 10-6 (6-10)
Raiders: Oakland is starting over once again with yet another head coach (Dennis Allen). The lack of continuity is exacerbated by the lack of standout players, although running back Darren McFadden can be a difference-maker when he’s healthy, with when being the operative word. 3-13 (7-9)
Division analysis: The West should be the AFC’s most competitive division, if not the most competitive division in the entire NFL. The Chargers, Broncos and Chiefs are all capable of winning the division. I may have short-changed the Raiders, but one reason for their abysmal record is the improvement of the three teams above them. It’s possible that all three AFC West powers make the playoffs, but I envision the Chargers winning the division and the Broncos recovering from their tough early schedule to beat out the Chiefs for a playoff spot by beating Kansas City on the final day of the regular season.
ERIC’S PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Wild Card round
Bears over Cowboys
49ers over EAGLES
Packers over Bears
Saints over 49ers
Saints over Packers
Wild Card round
Broncos over Texans
Steelers over Chargers
Broncos over Patriots
Ravens over Steelers
Broncos over Ravens
Saints over Broncos
RON’S PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Wild Card round
Falcons over Lions
Saints over EAGLES
49ers over Falcons
Packers over Saints
49ers over Packers
Wild Card round
Ravens over Broncos
Steelers over Titans
Ravens over Patriots
Texans over Steelers
Texans over Ravens
Texans over 49ers