2015 NFL Predictions

(In before the kickoff). This morning I read my 2014 predictions and I thought this part from the intro was appropriate.

“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.”

I could probably say that every year now, but this offseason especially was tough for personal reasons, the absurd ending to the Super Bowl (“Run to Win”) and the ridiculous Deflategate story that simply won’t die. We just need to get back to watching football games. I think every team has a good share of flaws this year. There are a few favorites, but I didn’t find picking the Super Bowl to be as obvious as some past years.

If you want some really specific research and detail on every team, you can still buy Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 here. I covered the AFC West, the Colts and had some input on the Steelers this year.

Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my 2014 record was 157-98-1 (.615), or a few games better than the 152-103-1 (.596) record in 2013. As always, I hope to do better, but I’m sure the results this year will be in the same range.

One thing I won’t be doing is picking a team to go 14-2 like how I went all in on the Saints last year. That was by far my biggest miss. This season, every team is projected for 4-13 wins, and it wouldn’t shock me if 12-4 was the best record like it was a year ago.

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Stat: In St. Louis, the Rams scored at least 24 points in just 22.4% of Sam Bradford’s 49 starts.

I think both East divisions got a lot more interesting this year, and the NFC East in particular is where I expect something peculiar to happen. What would be peculiar? A breakout year from Sam Bradford or Kirk Cousins, a return to the playoffs for the Giants and a Dallas meltdown.

Chip Kelly has started his NFL coaching career with back-to-back 10-6 seasons, yet some — like a former fullback on a certain network — don’t buy what he’s selling. I’m hesitant to buy the roster moves from Kelly this offseason, stocking up on some players with high injury risk, but his belief and application in sports science is strong. I think DeMarco Murray could be great in this offense as long as he stays healthy. I’m curious to see how Jordan Matthews, so often in the slot, fares as a de facto No. 1 WR. Chip’s offense has seen huge years from DeSean Jackson (2013) and Jeremy Maclin (2014) in that role, but Matthews is a different player. I’ve never been a Bradford fan and I think he was too dink-and-dunk with the Rams, but if anyone can mold him into an above-average quarterback, it’s probably Kelly. His system just gets receivers wide open down the field, and we saw Nick Foles miss too many of those to start 2014. I also expect the secondary to be considerably better after dumping Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nate Allen.

Ultimately, it came down to the schedule here and I just think the Eagles have an easier path than Dallas. Not having to go to Green Bay in December like Dallas does could make all the difference. I think my first run through of the games had the Eagles at 13-3, but I knew that was too high. I’m not letting preseason results sway me at all, but it certainly wasn’t discouraging to see this team kick some ass in those games.

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

Stat: Still going to call him a choker? Tony Romo is the first QB in NFL history to lead at least four game-winning drives in four consecutive seasons.  And #DEZCaughtIt

Jason Garrett has still never lost more than two games in a row, and his longest winning streak is now six games. I say it every year, but Romo makes this team relevant at the end of the season. The defense is still not going to be great, and the loss of Orlando Scandrick might even be bigger than losing Sean Lee a year ago. Scandrick is one of three cornerbacks (Chris Harris and Vontae Davis the other two) to rank in the top 15 in FO’s adjusted success rate in coverage. Dallas has added some talent for sure — some of it is suspended for four games though — but last year’s success was in part to the offense keeping the defense off the field, and the defense finishing first in takeaways per drive. That’s a stat that will regress and the Cowboys will have to make more regular stops this season.

The 8-0 road record in 2014 was very impressive and totally unexpected. Dallas going .500 at home however was not that surprising, because this team has had some issues in the new stadium. Check where the Cowboys are after Week 9, because the early schedule is a doozy. If they’re doing well by then, I expect a playoff team for sure. If not, then it could come down to another Week 17 playoff game. At least this one would be at home against Washington.

3. New York Giants (9-7)

Stat: It’s like Groundhog Day. Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric for the second year in a row.

Injuries are expected to regress to the mean, but the Giants couldn’t avoid them again in 2014, especially in the secondary. This year we’ve already seen the secondary lose some bodies, but at least they still have all their fingers. Come on, JPP. Fireworks? Odell Beckham Jr.’s sophomore season is the most heavily anticipated one since Randy Moss, but I think he’ll deliver. He just may not be as spectacular on a per-game basis, but he is legit and not Michael Clayton.

The Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, but here we are again in a year they play the AFC East. Maybe Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz return to form late in the season and the 9-7 Giants pull it off again. The Giants are like a leap year too: they show up every four years in February. We saw it in 2008, 2012 and if 2016 is next, then we already have a vision of the outcome: Beckham’s one-handed catch sinks the Patriots and Eli Manning becomes the highest-paid player in NFL history*. Don’t even front. This is probably like the 83rd-most likely outcome of the 2015 season, because the Giants do weird shit like this under Tom Coughlin.

*Wrote this before the extension. Feck.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Stat: In 2014, Kirk Cousins’ knockdown rate when passing was 7.1%. Robert Griffin III’s was 29.5%.

That’s right, the offensive line doesn’t block better for the other guy. The other guy gets rid of the ball better and without limiting the odds for a first down by throwing so short of the sticks. The problem Cousins has is he can be a turnover machine, so the Redskins are pretty f*cked either way.

Morgan Moses is the new right tackle. I charted his first start against the 49ers last year. He allowed three sacks. Washington apparently used a very high pick to stick Brandon Scherff at right guard. DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed may be poised for big fantasy years, but I don’t see a lot of good to come from this offense.

And yet somehow I feel even less confident about the defense coming around. They replaced defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, but who is going to get the job done on the field? They’ve rented their defensive line and secondary from other teams. Well, David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland (susp.) are draft picks, but neither had a good 2014. The linebackers are about the only drafted players with talent, led by Ryan Kerrigan. If DeAngelo Hall is still starting for your team in 2015, that about sums up where you’re at in this league.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Stat: Since 2001, the Patriots are 11-0 in the playoffs when playing a team for the first time that season (10-8 in rematches).

You just have to pencil in the Patriots for double-digit wins. The postseason is what it is. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. I think the AFC East is improved, but not enough to the point where someone is going to overtake New England this year. However, I think this squad feels closer to the 2005-06 teams than anything like 2007 or even 2010-12. Or last year of course. The loss of Vince Wilfork won’t be huge, but the massive turnover in that secondary is likely to haunt them a few times this season. But I’d expect the offensive line and defense to shape into form after Thanksgiving, which seems to always happen in NE (defensively at least).

Last year I thought the schedule would help the Patriots to the top seed. This year I think the schedule could knock them to a three seed, which is something they’ve never been under Belichick. Road games with the Cowboys, Colts and Broncos are going to be huge for seeding, not to mention the nemesis Giants and the Week 17 finale in Miami.

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

Stat: Mike Wallace was +15.9 in receiving plus-minus (adjusted for where ball is thrown) with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. In Miami, Wallace was just a -0.6 with Ryan Tannehill. Kenny Stills was an incredible +21.9 in New Orleans with Drew Brees. This stat is heavily influenced by the quarterback, so we’ll see if Tannehill can find the connection deep with Stills that he never found with Wallace.

This is the fifth team from the East divisions that I’m predicting to have a winning record. Is that too many? They’re going to beat up on each other, or maybe more appropriately they’re going to beat up on the scrubs on their schedule and have some great games against each other. I just think this is the year Miami’s spending pays off with a playoff berth. Ryan Tannehill’s arrow is pointing up and he has a very solid receiving corps with Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and TE Jordan Cameron. I also really like Lamar Miller, and here is an example of the type of content you’ll find in FOA 2015’s player comments for hundreds of players. (I wrote this one – click it to enlarge)

LMiller

I ranked Miami 2nd in under-25 talent this year, and while someone like Walt Aikens or Jamar Taylor needs to step up in the secondary, it’s the veterans like Brent Grimes and Ndamukong Suh who will have to play at a high level to get Miami back to the postseason. I think the offense is poised for great things under Bill Lazor and the defense steps up. Though if it’s another 8-8 finish, then say goodbye to Joe Philbin in Miami. He has to win this year.

3. Buffalo Bills (7-9)

Stat: Tyrod Taylor is making his first career start in the 65th possible game of his career. The QB in my top 64 of all time to take the longest to start was Tony Romo (55th game).

Taylor doesn’t have to be great for Buffalo to win, but this is the third year in a row I’m picking Buffalo to have a losing record. That didn’t work last year, but I didn’t foresee Kyle Orton taking over so quickly. I think the receiving weapons are pretty good, and Sammy Watkins deserves better QB play and offensive design. I’m not sold he can get it this year, but Taylor’s going to be very fun to watch as a scrambler and play-fake QB. This is Greg Roman, so he should do some Colin Kaepernick-type things with Taylor and LeSean McCoy in the backfield. Show us some read-option and spread. I think Taylor could rush for 800+ yards if he lasts all season. Unfortunately I see Rex Ryan attached to a team and I just expect shit offense, but there’s talent here to be better than the usual poor Buffalo standard on this side of the ball.

The defense was great last year and returns a lot of talent. Of course I’m skeptical about sustaining defensive success, but the change of coach should help keep things fresh. I believe in Rex as a defensive play-caller, but I just don’t trust his offense, the side of the ball I swear he doesn’t put much effort into. That’s why I see Buffalo as another version of his Jets teams, and they weren’t successful since 2010. When you look at the schedule (IND, NE, at MIA to start), it’s not crazy to see Buffalo in a 0-3 hole. Things need to be clicking right away, and while I think they’ll win at least one of those games, I don’t see a strong start or finish this year. The streak continues.

4. New York Jets (5-11)

Stat: Remember when the 2013 Jets were 8-8 thanks to a 7-2 record in close games? Last year that record in close games fell to 3-8, dropping the Jets to 4-12. Know who is awful in those situations? Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 9-32-1 at game-winning drive opportunities with more turnovers in losses than any quarterback in that situation since 2005.

I actually think Fitzpatrick is an upgrade over Geno Smith, and this could be the best Jets defense since 2010, but here’s what that really means. Instead of having a quarterback commit a lot of early turnovers in a 28-17 loss, the Jets will watch Fitzpatrick toss game-ending picks in 19-16 defeats instead. He can give you league-average QB play, and certainly has some weapons around him, but he’ll make big mistakes in big moments the way people think far more successful QBs do. Fitzpatrick is factually that guy.

Good luck to Todd Bowles, because he’s had a very up-and-down career in the last few years. I think he earned this with his great work in Arizona, but let’s not forget how awful the Eagles were under his watch in 2012. The Sheldon Richardson situation takes away a little from a talent-heavy defensive line.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Stat: Adjusted for where the ball was thrown, Aaron Rodgers has completed 56.8 more passes (11.7 percentage points above expectations) than an average quarterback would have completed to Jordy Nelson.

arod

Yes, the Jordy Nelson torn ACL is terrible, but the Packers still have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Davante Adams already had high expectations in year two, and now they’ll be even higher. James Jones was moonlighting as a No. 1 in Oakland last year. He only has to be the No. 3 here and has depth behind him with Richard Rodgers getting better at tight end. There’s also Eddie Lacy for defenses to deal with.

What amazes me is just how many of the 2014 Packers are returning in 2015. This team kept damn near everyone, so the results should be pretty good again, right? Green Bay’s made six straight playoff trips. This is one of the teams that you can pencil in and just have to hope for some breaks in the playoffs. They didn’t get all they needed last year with the excruciating loss in Seattle. I still think the defense is under par from 2010, which really spearheaded that title run, but the offense is good enough to make this team a serious contender again. They just have to find a way to deal with Seattle, but the good news is they get them at home in Week 2. Win that game so you don’t have to go back to Seattle in January. However, Green Bay has not defended home field well in the playoffs, but their chances are still significantly better at Lambeau.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

Stat: Teddy Bridgewater’s strong finish was marked by a considerable drop in the distance of his passes as he relied more on the short game. His DVOA under pressure was consistently below average.

teddybridge

I thought Bridgewater was the best QB in the 2014 draft and so far nothing has proven otherwise. However, I’m hesitant to buy into him this year based on the way he finished last season. It was impressive, but not enough to the point where he’s going to be like a top 10 guy this season. I think he still has to work on the deep ball and it’s not clear if Mike Wallace is still a real threat for that. He had a much better red-zone season than usual in 2014. I liked the cheap pickup, but the Vikings have some interesting receivers in Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson as well. Bridgewater seemed very comfortable with them last year while Cordarrelle Patterson is simply not comfortable as an NFL WR. At least Kyle Rudolph and Adrian Peterson are back, so this offense could be fun to watch, though two big blows on the offensive line — and Matt Kalil isn’t even one of them — could hurt with Phil Loadholt (done) and John Sullivan (IR-DFR).

I like what Mike Zimmer has done with the defense and the talent is there for a top 10 season on that type of ball. This is a year where I see the Vikings breaking through to beat a team like Green Bay at home, but not doing enough things consistently to make the playoffs. They’re going to just miss out.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)

Stat: Golden Tate is the only WR in the NFL to rank in the top five in receiving plus-minus and YAC+ since 2012.

I whiffed on the Lions last year. I think a conservative 8-8 is the right approach this year. Rmember, the 2013 Lions blew a league-record seven fourth-quarter leads, so they were better than their record. The 2014 Lions had five fourth-quarter comebacks, so they weren’t really as good as 11-5. They also saw some career years from DeAndre Levy and Glover Quin, and career years aren’t easy to repeat. Golden Tate was great and that was a huge addition to give Calvin Johnson help. Eric Ebron had a usual slow start at TE, so maybe he can make them better at that position. I’m very interested to see what Ameer Abdullah can do in the backfield. Stafford also targeted three backs 50 times last year, so the backs are a big part of the passing game. I just think the career-year performances and loss of Ndamukong Suh, combined with a tough schedule drops this team out of the playoffs.

And as if you needed a reminder, the Lions simply don’t beat good teams in the Stafford era: 3-32 vs. teams who finish with a winning record.

4. Chicago Bears (5-11)

Stat: Jay Cutler still doesn’t care. Though he does have the highest conversion rate on two-point conversion passes since 1994. Those will come in handy down 42-6.

The Kevin White injury sucks for the offense, which traded Brandon Marshall to the Jets. I really didn’t care for all the screens and shortening of Alshon Jeffery’s game last year, and that might continue with Adam Gase, because no one told him the jig is up after Seattle exposed Denver’s screens in the Super Bowl. Matt Forte will catch fewer passes with Marc Trestman gone, but he should still be effective. It’s just hard to run the ball when you’re down 42-0.

John Fox should eventually fix the defense, but I don’t think the talent is there in 2015 for any remarkable improvement. It’s going to be another long year in Chicago.

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Stat: Only two of Baltimore’s 15 playoff games in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era have been played at home.

A lot of people are picking the Ravens for the Super Bowl. I’m not, but I could see it. The talent is there to get into the tournament. The consistency at head coach and quarterback is there. The front seven is one of the league’s best. The secondary should be better with the return of Jimmy Smith and some safety upgrades.

Should we be worried about the offense with Gary Kubiak leaving (Justin Forsett regression alert) and the fact that Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro are the depth behind old Steve Smith while Breshad Perriman (a rookie) is hurt? Dennis Pitta’s permanent status now is hurt, Owen Daniels is gone, Crockett Gilmore is skinning coons before practice and Maxx Williams is just a rookie. Yes, these are concerns, but this team usually finds a way to get into the tournament where anything can happen. One year you throw a pass that should have been caught to get to the Super Bowl. One year you throw up a prayer that gets answered. The next year you throw a game-ending interception. I just think the schedule favors the Ravens in this division since they don’t have to go to New England and Seattle like Pittsburgh does. They are also a more balanced team than Pittsburgh, and the duo of Harbaugh/Flacco is better than Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Stat: Bengals are first team in NFL history to go one-and-done in four consecutive Wild Card games.

I have run out of things to say about this team having done several AFC North pieces each offseason. How many Wild Card exits can you keep going through before a team moves in a different direction at coach and quarterback? This run has been remarkable for the wrong reasons, and here we are again with another 10-win season projected from me. Cincinnati has beaten good and great teams in the regular season, but not in the playoffs where the contests haven’t even been contests for the most part.

I love A.J. Green because of how hard Dalton makes his job with inaccurate throws. I think Jeremy Hill can be a stud this year. Geno Atkins should be stronger, two years removed from the ACL now. The talent is there, but do you trust this team to win in Baltimore or Indy or New England? But hell, with all of my Bengal bashing they’ll probably go to Denver and knock off the Broncos with Dalton having a dominant game, sending Peyton Manning into retirement. You know it’s either going to be Dalton or Alex Smith delivering that karma on me.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Stat: Steelers are the first team since 1940 to intercept fewer than 12 passes in four consecutive seasons. Their 76 takeaways are the fewest in the NFL since 2011.  

I have the Steelers beating the Broncos in Pittsburgh in December, but also losing at home to Oakland. Don’t laugh. That’s basically what happened in 2009 when Oakland won here, but Green Bay didn’t in that epic shootout. This is what the Steelers do: get up for good teams, play down to the competition. We’ll see how much they have left for the brutal finish after a Week 11 bye: at Seattle, Indy, at Cincy, Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland.

The defense is not going to dramatically improve this year, and the offense won’t be as good to compensate, hence another 8-8 season, wasting another year of Roethlisberger’s remaining prime.

The injury to Maurkice Pouncey (after he lived up to the hype in 2014) and suspensions to Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant already mean the Steelers have far less continuity than they had on offense last year when they had almost no games missed. Despite the prowess of the 2014 offense, they had about five “off” games. You’d like to see that number drop to three or less if you want to be a top-tier offense, which is what the Steelers need to have to make up for the defense.

I almost feel bad for Keith Butler taking over at defensive coordinator for Dick LeBeau. He waited so long for this job that the talent core of the defense is almost entirely gone now. The 2015 draft has already been a disappointment with three picks not making the 53-man roster, Sammie Coates not impressing and Senquez Golson on IR. I loved the trade for Brandon Boykin, but I still can’t trust the secondary.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Stat: Joe Thomas has never missed a single offensive snap in eight years.

This year’s Cleveland offense looks like something you’d find at a flea market with the one fancy showroom saved for the offensive linemen. “Look, a two-for-one deal on a broken Josh McCown and Dwayne Bowe. And there’s Brian Hartline, complete with no touchdowns!” Can’t Mike Pettine ever enjoy a consistent offense? Starting McCown is basically throwing in the towel on the season. They have to see Johnny Manziel this year, but I already predicted Cardale Jones as the future of this team.

At least the defense has some pieces in place.

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

Stat: Drew Brees is deadly accurate. If there’s a +/- stat, he likely bests everyone since 2006 (click to enlarge).

accQB

This division was pathetic last year, and it’s not going to be worlds better in 2015 I don’t think. I’m very hesitant to pick the Saints after getting burned so bad last year, but this is my trust in Drew Brees and Sean Payton. They let some games slip away last year that should have been won. I know Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills were big losses, but the braintrust here know how to get guys ready to play. Look at Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and company.

When I look at the schedule, I think it’s probable the Saints are favored in eight straight games starting in November. The schedule’s just not that daunting. In past years I’d predict 11-13 wins for the Saints with this schedule, but given the deficiencies we’re seeing, I’m content at 9-7. That should be enough in the NFC South.

2. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

Stat: In 22 losses since 2013, Matt Ryan has thrown for 6,137 yards and 36 touchdowns. The next closest quarterback in losses is Eli Manning (5,085 yards and 27 touchdowns).

I think Dan Quinn was the type of coach the Falcons needed and Vic Beasley was the type of defensive player they needed to draft. That’s the side of the ball causing them the most trouble, though the offense is not without fault, especially up front and in the running game. I respect Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but I’m not a big fan of what they’re doing at tight end and the secondary wide receivers. I think the defense only gets so better in year one, but it’s not enough to push this team back into the playoffs.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Stat: Cam Newton overthrew a league-high 17% of his passes in 2014. He was at 15% in a healthier 2013.

Basically I have the Panthers as the same subpar team they’ve been in three of the last four years under Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. The exception was 2013 and that was thanks to a great defense. I don’t think they have the offensive line, the wide receivers and the secondary to win at that level this season. Seven wins aren’t going to get you a home playoff game against Ryan Lindley this year. I’m just disappointed Kelvin Benjamin was injured in practice, because he was very interesting to watch in 2014. I think Newton will miss him dearly and Devin Funchess won’t come close to replicating Benjamin’s 2014. They are going to have to rely on Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. and that’s just not enticing with a quarterback who has accuracy issues.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Stat: 43.6% of Mike Evans’ receiving yards came in a three-game stretch against the Browns, Falcons and Redskins.  

I should have researched it, but 5-11 sounds like a reasonable next-year record for a team coming off a 2-14 season. Everyone seems to have Jameis Winston penciled in to lead the league in interceptions. That would be funny if Marcus Mariota threw more after the annoying hype over preseason practice stats. I think Winston will do his share of forcing the ball, but he could be a sack machine too. Not to the level of David Carr, but he’s going to have to get rid of the ball this year and that could mean some extra picks. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are good receivers for him, though I don’t see an efficient offense at all here. More like bottom four. What should be better is the defense, led by Lavonte David. Lovie Smith should tighten things up in year two and I think we started to see that after the bye last year.

The 2014 Buccaneers were a league-worst 1-10 in close games. I think they’ll surprise a few teams this year and steal a handful of wins.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)

Stat: Colts are 33-4 (.892) in the Andrew Luck era when allowing fewer than 29 points. The Colts have allowed at least 40 points in half of their 18 losses since 2012.

This feels like a boom-or-bust year for the Colts. They’re trying to become the first team to ever advance another step in the playoffs in four straight years, which would be to the Super Bowl. The schedule gives them the best path to the No. 1 seed thanks to playing in the QB-starved AFC South and having home games with Denver and New England. However, if the Colts implode two more times against the Patriots or falter in a major way (say, miss the playoffs) I could see Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson fired for it.

I think Andre Johnson and Frank Gore will pay off, but those are rentals. I think Phillip Dorsett may work out too, but he’s a luxury pick and won’t help them stop [random Patriot RB] from rushing for 160 yards and 4 TD. Obviously the Colts have some flaws on the offensive line and the consistency of the defense, especially against better opponents. But the biggest problem this team has is getting completely outclassed, outcoached and outplayed about a handful of times every year. This doesn’t happen to annual playoff teams. In FOA 2015, I looked at 158 cases of a team making the playoffs in three consecutive years. The 2012-14 Colts truly stand alone in how they win and lose games:

ColtsFOA

How do you stop doing that? Hopefully it involves cutting off the fat from the offense like Trent Richardson. Gore and some changes along the offensive line should improve the running game. The defense is filled with veterans, but you just hope some of them step up and start rushing the passer. They sure have enough bodies to try. The defensive line could be a big weakness with an injury to Arthur Jones putting some inexperienced players in the spotlight. The season does not 100% hinge on how the Colts handle the Patriots, or if they have to see them twice again, but that’s certainly the biggest hurdle in getting to the Super Bowl for this team. They match up better with everyone else.

2. Houston Texans (6-10)

Stat: Brian Hoyer overthrew or underthrew 24.5% of his passes in 2014, the highest rate in the NFL.

The front seven has a chance to be very good if Vince Wilfork and Jadeveon Clowney can help out J.J. Watt. I look forward to charting the catch radius of DeAndre Hopkins, and there’s not much else I can really say about the offense. Oh, Arian Foster needs to get back soon. I gained some newfound respect for coach Bill O’Brien after watching this team on Hard Knocks. I just hope he can find a competent quarterback soon, because one does not exist on the current Houston roster. I think he can get more out of Hoyer than Cleveland did, but it’s not going to be up to the level of where this team can seriously compete for anything, even in a bad division. Don’t let last year’s 9-7 record fool you.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

Stat: Blake Bortles’ passing YPA in the final six games of 2014 was 5.41, 5.54, 5.26, 5.68, 4.42 and 3.55. You have got to be kidding me.  

Yeah, I said last year Bortles would have people making Jacksonville a trendy pick for the playoffs in 2015. More like a trendy pick for the No. 1 overall pick. Fooled by his preseason performance, I didn’t see much at all last year from Bortles, who rarely had a chance to shine anyway behind this offensive line. I think T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson can give the running game a boost Toby Gerhart couldn’t, and I’m curious to see Allen Robinson in year two. I hated the Julius Thomas signing, because he is an injury prone player (oh, and look…) and he should thank Peyton for the millions. They basically overpaid for Marcedes Lewis 2.0.

It sucks that Dante Fowler is already done for the year with an injury. The Jaguars needed some type of cornerstone on defense, because this is largely a collection of guys who probably wouldn’t start on most teams in the league. CB Aaron Colvin might be a breakout player, but there’s just very little for the Jaguars to hang their hat on here and expect consistency from.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

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.

Is Ken Whisenhunt stocking up on mediocre running backs because he thinks he can maximize Mariota by limiting his attempts the way he did Roethlisberger a decade ago? That’s not going to work if your defense is trash, and I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic about this group. Maybe if Brian Orakpo stays healthy and Blidi Wreh-Wilson stays on the sideline they can finish 20th or so, but the highlight of this season will be seeing how Mariota handles the NFL. I want to believe a QB who threw 105 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in college can succeed in this league, but recent results have not been favorable to young quarterbacks. Either way, I expect the Titans to lose a large number of games and for Whisenhunt to be fired at season’s end.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Stat: Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 70 consecutive games, an NFL record.

This team is historically great, but can it stay together? Kam Chancellor doesn’t seem to think so, and that’s a damn shame with a huge game looming in Green Bay in Week 2. That could be the difference in where the NFC Championship Game is played. We know Seattle has enough talent to win 10+ games. They’re clearly the best team in this division, with or without Chancellor. Russell Wilson has Jimmy Graham and recovery water, so maybe he’ll throw 38 passes in a game this year (56 games and counting of him not). I also can’t wait to see what Tyler Lockett can do. He might be a big-play rookie threat the way Mike Wallace was in 2009 for the Steelers. The offense can pick up any slack on the defense, which should still be great. The offensive line is the biggest weakness, but we write that every year. This team is still a couple of Marshawn Lynch runs away from being 8-0 in the playoffs with a 2012 NFC Championship Game to be played in San Francisco. You don’t blow them out and you can’t keep them down for 60 minutes.

2. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

Stat: The 2014 Cardinals were 11-3 in close games featuring a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. That’s incredible.

We keep doubting Bruce Arians and his magic beans, but he keeps defying the odds with all these close wins. Does losing Todd Bowles and some defenders hurt? Probably, but I think the philosophy is still going to be aggressive and the Cardinals have quite the group of defensive backs to use with the athletic ability to tackle hard and cover speed. Offensively, it’s good to see Carson Palmer back, especially after we were forced to watch Ryan Lindley in national settings. John Brown is a receiver everyone’s counting on to break out, but this offense still has Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald too. There may not be a lot to love on this team, but there’s a lot to like and I think they’ll be right in the thick of the playoff race all year. They’ll just suffer some close-game regression, but I’ve been wrong before about “BA.”

3. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)

Stat: The 49ers have 6-of-22 starters from Super Bowl XLVII remaining on the 2015 roster

I almost had to go back and reconfigure my records when I saw I was giving the 49ers seven wins. That sounds like way too many for a new coach who would definitely wear a deep V-neck with no undershirt to an important press conference. That’s just how guys from western PA roll. I’ve walked the same streets and hallways Tomsula did years ago growing up, and while I wish him well, I see a pretty short-lived, difficult tenure in stepping in for Jim Harbaugh. The incredible roster turnover probably wouldn’t have all happened if Harbaugh was still there. So how do I get seven wins for this team? I guess I still have some confidence in the talents of Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Antoine Bethea and NaVorro Bowman. They’re all still playing, right? This could be a pick I regret, but I just think the 49ers will be able to compete and win some games this year. But I should have probably found a way to make it five wins instead of seven.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Stat: There have been 278 individual 800-yard receiving seasons in the NFL since 2008. Zero of them have happened in St. Louis.

I’d probably be more right if I swapped the records for the 49ers and Rams, but it’s behind me. I hated the Jeff Fisher-reeking Todd Gurley pick since the Rams continue to try building an offensive line and already had Tre Mason. That’s not going to turn them into a playoff team. I’m not sure what to make of the Nick Foles trade. I know I’m not a Sam Bradford fan, but what exactly is Foles without Chip Kelly? He’s been like a different QB in each of his three seasons, so I really look forward to seeing who he is in 2015. I think Foles is better than what the Rams have usually had at QB recently, and he could be a good fit for a run-heavy, play-action heavy offense. I still don’t like Tavon Austin the NFL, and I think Brian Quick had the lightbulb turn on last year before injury. Curious to see if he could break the 800-yard mark.

But am I curious enough to want to watch the Rams every week? No, it’s still a Fisher team, and I think the secondary will hold the defense back from reaching its full potential again. Too many breakdowns and miscommunications there. The front seven can be fantastic, but as Bruce Arians said, there’s a reason this team is always 8-8. I don’t even see them doing that well this year.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (12-4)

Stat: Peyton Manning has the top three seasons with the lowest pressure rate of any quarterback since 2010. He did this with two teams, three offensive coordinators and 18 different starting offensive linemen.

I have written plenty about Denver in FOA 2015 and elsewhere this offseason, including the reasons behind last year’s second-half slump (a very unique scheduling of road/home games and Manning’s torn quad). The absurd gameplan and statistical outlier that was that playoff loss to Indy where the Broncos amassed more failed completions (15) than any of the 13,320 offensive performances since 1989. I wrote not to panic about the offensive line, which is still the roster’s weakest link even after the Evan Mathis addition. I think Wade Phillips will do a great job with the defense, which alone should have the team in contention even if the offense takes a step back. And yes, I have some serious concerns that the Manning-Kubiak mixture doesn’t come out as expected. Fortunately this team gets the Patriots and Bengals at home this year instead of on the road.

But really, what I want to focus on here is some of the ridiculous talk all offseason surrounding the Broncos. Any time I hear “Manning has a running game and defense now!” I know better than to believe it, because it usually doesn’t come together. He might have those things, but we’ll see. More than this, I can’t stand the notion that Kubiak and John Elway know exactly how to manage Manning and how to win championships just because of what the Broncos did in 1997-98. Those teams still threw 500 passes. Elway was still injured multiple times, even hurting himself in pre-game warm-ups and while lifting weights. Bubby Brister had no problem filling in those games on those loaded teams. Manning had the flu and then had the torn quad happen in games where he threw just 20 passes. Injury can happen on any play. I understand not having him throw 600+ passes this year, but he’s still going to be around 500 I bet. It’s 2015. You just signed Demaryius Thomas to a huge contract. You have Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels. These are some of your best players. Use them.

The Broncos did basically nothing in the postseason after Elway retired, running Kubiak’s/Shanahan’s offense. Why did things work in 97-98? Elway had all the help you could ask for in the playoffs (click to enlarge):

ElwaySBs

A defense that allows 12.9 PPG, forces 3.1 turnovers per game, and a running game that averaged 178.6 yards per game at 5.3 YPC. They were nearly scoring 30 per game with Elway only having to contribute a little over 140 yards towards the scoring each week. When Elway had a down game in each run (97 SB vs. Packers, 98 AFC-C vs. Jets), the team was there to pick him up.

If you could promise me the Broncos will play like a team like that this postseason, then I’ll pick them to go all the way. But I haven’t seen it the last three years, and I’m not sure I trust Kubiak to get this team to that point in 2015. We’re going to look back at the 2012 Broncos as the best shot this team had to win a Super Bowl. That team was on a roll playing complementary football, but one big mistake killed them. They haven’t been the same ever since.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

Stat: How about a stat debut? “ALEX” is Air Less Expected and it’s named after none other than Alex Smith. This metric looks at the average difference between how far a quarterback threw the ball (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. This is most informative on third and fourth down. This graphic comes from FOA 2015 and looks at the main quarterbacks since 2011 on third down and their ALEX. It’s like Smith is playing his own sport, throwing nearly two yards short on average of the sticks on third down. You can see the best quarterbacks tend to be at the top.

ALEX

We’ll see if Alex Smith can start throwing deep with more success, but how many teams have a RB/WR/TE trio like the Chiefs have with Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce? That’s pretty good. Albert Wilson is a competent slot receiver, so who cares if this team doesn’t have much of anything to stick on the outside? They have a lot of weapons around Smith. He just has to stop being so shy to pull the trigger. We know by now you have to coddle him a bit to succeed, but this team is built to do that against a large chunk of the NFL. The Chiefs need a good start with Denver and Green Bay on the early schedule. That could be tough with Sean Smith’s suspension, but it’s a good measuring stick for where this team is offensively. You have to score a decent number of points to beat teams like that. I think the Chiefs at full strength have a competent enough defense to win it all, but a poor (1-3 for example) start might just short-circuit the whole season. Ultimately I have them stuck in 8-8 purgatory with a lot of AFC competition this year.

3. San Diego Chargers (8-8)

Stat: Philip Rivers’ YPA dropped two full yards in the final 10 games of the season, apparently due to a rib injury he played through.

I’ll be honest, it’s less than an hour before Thursday night kickoff and I really want to relax, so apologies to San Diego fans. Please check out my Q&A with Bolts from the Blue where I gave very detailed answers about the Chargers this year. My gut is they’re right in that Wild Card mix, but I guess I just didn’t see enough wins on that schedule when I ran through it.

4. Oakland Raiders (4-12)

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

Derek Carr thought he was Aaron Rodgers last year, but he only had a used James Jones. I think he’ll like the receiving corps much better this season with Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and a healthy Rod Streater. However, I’m still not sold on Carr as a franchise quarterback and I think this offense will still struggle. Jack Del Rio will improve the defense and Khalil Mack is a stud. My tone in the book was optimistic for a change, but when push comes to shove, I still think the Raiders struggle like hell to avoid double-digit losses in 2015. One of my handful of teams finishing 4-12.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Indianapolis (13-3)
  2. Denver (12-4)
  3. New England (12-4)
  4. Baltimore (11-5)
  5. Cincinnati (10-6)
  6. Miami (10-6)

Some accuse the Patriots of intentionally letting Miami “show their cards” in a win in Week 17 to set up an ass-kicking at Foxboro in the Wild Card round. The Ravens knock off the Bengals in another divisional rematch, maybe signaling the end of Lewis and Dalton. Yeah, probably not. The Colts can handle Baltimore’s lack of dynamic weapons at home in a defensive battle. Manning will finish his career with a losing record against Brady, but he’ll have the 3-2 postseason edge, which would be so delightfully awkward for NE fans to swallow. Denver at Indy in the AFC Championship Game, think that would get a lot of hype? I’m going with the Colts to get it done at home, possibly ending Manning’s career where it began, but after a hard-fought classic instead of this past January’s funeral march.

NFC

  1. Seattle (13-3)
  2. Green Bay (12-4)
  3. Philadelphia (11-5)
  4. New Orleans (9-7)
  5. Dallas (10-6)
  6. NY Giants (9-7)

The Giants won a tie-breaker (I checked) over the Cardinals and Vikings for the final Wild Card spot. They upset the Eagles at home, giving Heath Evans an erection until he realizes this could be bad news for his Pats and Saints. Here come the Giants again. The Cowboys lose in New Orleans, because Dez didn’t catch enough balls. Seattle quickly silences the Giants’ hype with a decisive win. The Saints give Green Bay a good one, but the Packers win at home. Green Bay returns to Seattle for some revenge, but the Seahawks stifle them again.

SUPER BOWL 50

Seattle Seahawks 28, Indianapolis Colts 20

No, that’s definitely not four 1-yard touchdown passes to Jimmy Graham. Marshawn Lynch runs all over the Colts to earn Super Bowl MVP before retiring on the spot. Then the internet sets the scene for Fallout 5 after the destruction caused by the Andrew Luck vs. Russell Wilson debate.

This was just my vision of 2015. Let the real thing begin.

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