Just a few days remain before the 2015 NFL season kicks off and I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl.
While every fresh campaign begins with fanfare, anticipation and hoopla, I truly believe there’s something special on the horizon for one simple reason: there are no clear-cut favorites in this year’s run to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco.
Realistically, one-third of the league’s teams are legitimate title hopefuls and the next tier of clubs is literally biting on the juggernauts’ heels.
Let’s take a quick look at each and every team and where they stand in the general NFL hierarchy. Just so you know, the teams mentioned in each section are in no specific order.
All four participants from the 2014 AFC & NFC Championships are equally poised for a repeat. The Super Bowl Champion Patriots have Tom Brady back under center sans suspension, the runner-up Seahawks added offensive firepower a la Jimmy Graham and Rookie-of-the-Year contender Tyler Lockett, Andrew Luck will finally have a running game with Frank Gore, and Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers – even without top target Jordy Nelson.
But not a single club listed here is without a glaring weakness.
New England offers few top-tier receivers for Brady to throw to and lacks star power and depth in the secondary.
Seattle has done nothing, absolutely nothing to shore up a shoddy offensive line. In fact, they traded away the centerpiece of their line, C Max Under, in order to bring in Graham. Russell Wilson will be running for cover more than ever, perhaps negating the existence of an improved receiving corps.
Indianapolis boasts a mediocre defense at best – and outscoring your opponents every week is fine during the regular season but a poor tactic come playoff time.
And Green Bay showcased the 23rd-worst run defense in 2014 along with the league’s worst showing on special teams (which explains the onside kick debacle from the NFC Championship).
Nevertheless, we can fairly easily predict all four of last year’s finalists to be in the hunt come January.
The rest of the frontrunners
Six more teams ought to be placed on equal (or close to equal) footing.
The Steelers and Eagles are ready to become true offensive bulldozers, particularly if Sam Bradford stays healthy and looks anything like he has during the preseason. Big Ben quietly puts up enormous numbers and Le’Veon Bell is no longer a young sensation. He’s an elite running back. I’m not even worried about Bell’s two-game suspension.
— Blitzburgh (@Steel_Curtain4) September 1, 2015
The Cowboys and Broncos are two teams in the exact same position. They’re bursting with talent but always seem to shit on themselves when it matters most. I see both Dallas and Denver playing postseason ball this year but I’m still skeptical as to whether Romo can ever string enough big time games together to win it all and Peyton Manning’s football IQ may no longer be enough to overcome his age and dwindling arm strength.
Hashtag #Manningface could be popular this year if #18 starts throwing ducks. Of course John Elway hopes Von Miller and the defense can make up the slack.
— Nattie Liz (@Natalizer) August 30, 2015
What about Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer? Keep #3 healthy and he might just have the best season of his career. Arizona is a team with a killer defense and quality skill players on offense. Andre Ellington and John Brown are ready for breakout seasons just as long as their quarterback stays upright. For a time the Cards were the best team in the NFL last season – only time will tell if they’re able to sidestep another colossal collapse.
And for our under-the-radar contender, let’s talk for a second about the Ravens. Baltimore has been to the playoffs six out of the past seven seasons and is only three years removed from their last Super Bowl title. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh are quietly becoming the league’s #2 QB-Coach combo and Justin Forsett is looking to prove last year’s yardage outburst wasn’t a fluke.
Playoffs or bust
Some would slide the Chiefs into the frontrunners category but I’d still like to see more out of Alex Smith before we anoint the Kansas City passing game to be a real threat.
But – Jamaal Charles is legit.
And get ready to watch the Rex Ryan show in northern New York. They’re going to be good as long as this guy doesn’t blow it:
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 31, 2015
Another AFC East team looking to rise is the Miami Dolphins. Their success, just like during the Marino era, rests squarely on the shoulders of the dude under center. Some believe Tannehill is just good enough to carry the Fins back to January football.
Jon Gruden says it’s time for Ryan Tannehill to “bust through the door” this season and picks Miami to win the AFC East.
— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) September 2, 2015
I don’t know what to think about the Bengals. Hell, nobody does. They just keep winning in the regular season and bumbling when it matters most. Cincy may or may not continue this streak in the tough AFC North that features both the Steelers and the Ravens, but on paper they look just as good as ever.
Ditto for the Lions. They’ve got the talent on both sides of the ball to get there – all they’ve got to do is…get there.
But Detroit’s job will be even tougher with the rise of the Minnesota Vikings. Remember when All Day busted out 2,000+ yards following ACL surgery? Well, Adrian Peterson’s had a full year to rest and an enormous chip on his shoulder – and Teddy Bridgewater looks prepared to make the leap.
Boring and relatively unexciting. Philip Rivers and the Chargers always seem to find a way to win and eke into the postseason. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see them do it again.
The Saints have Drew Brees and that’s enough to compete in the lackluster NFC South. Same goes for Carolina and Cam Newton and Julio in Atlanta.
You know what they say…someone’s gotta win it, and it ain’t gonna be Tampa Bay.
Oh…and have you ever wondered why us Yanks hate soccer so much?
Here ya go.
The best football player on the planet. pic.twitter.com/4iXfkdupfD
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) September 5, 2015
Once again we’ll all be wondering whether a single defensive player can be good enough to will his team to the playoffs. With four games against the Jags and Titans – perhaps.
On to the NFC West. In theory the 49ers’ goose has been cooked – but let’s give them a chance to prove they suck before we send them to the cellar. A team that hopes to assist them in their decline is the Rams. If St. Louis can find a way to split with Seattle and Arizona they’ll be good enough to nab a Wild Card spot. Teams that feature great defenses with solid run games are still hard to beat, even in the pass-happy NFL.
Speaking of pass-happy. Is the combination of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. good enough to unseat the Eagles or the Cowboys in the NFC East?
Probably not – but maybe.
Not there but don’t despair
Here are four teams that will wind up in the 6-10 to 7-9 range. Browns, Bears, Buccaneers and Jets.
McCown is no solution in Cleveland and Chicago will underachieve once again, in spite of Matt Forte doing all he can to carry the team.
The Bucs will win some games thanks to a weak division but they’ve still got a ways to go before they can compete in non-NFC South matchups.
And the Jets? Their chances were foiled by Ik.
You know, the guy who broke Geno Smith’s face.
Looking forward to 2016
Marcus Mariota will certainly be a cause for excitement in Tennessee but he won’t be leading the Titans anywhere beyond another early draft pick. Give this club another year or two.
And Jacksonville? I’d like to see them make the jump to mediocrity but Blake Bortles doesn’t perform well without protection up front and judging from the preseason he won’t have it.
There’s a good chance Oakland doesn’t belong down here but until their record proves otherwise they’re still by far the worst team in the AFC West.
Raider fans can, however, rest assured that at least one more franchise is in more disarray. The long term effects of RGIII’s 2012 leg injury and subsequent demise cannot be denied. I predict Jay Gruden is fired before Christmas.
But all this stuff matters not – football is played on grass or Astroturf, not in the mind of a sportswriter with jiggly man boobs and chocolate sauce on his fingers.