Predicting the outcome of an NFL season is, to put it mildly, a bit difficult. In no other professional sports league, it seems, is there so much variance and uncertainty from year to year.
The Houston Texans, fresh off their best season in franchise history, lost 14 consecutive games last year to finish with the NFL’s worst record. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, rattled off 11 wins in their final 12 games to earn their first playoff berth since 2008. Then there’s the Kansas City Chiefs, who surprised everyone by winning their first nine games, then promptly bombed out to an early playoff exit.
Unexpected injuries, unprecedented personnel changes and a league specifically engineered to create parity make choosing a winner increasingly difficult.
But we’re going to try.
Below are our “expert” picks for how each team will finish in their respective divisions, followed by playoff predictions and the crowning of our 2014 Super Bowl champion.
If we’re right, you heard it here first.
*Denotes playoff team
*1. New England Patriots (Projected record: 12-4)
2. New York Jets (8-8)
3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
4. Buffalo Bills (7-9)
As in almost every season over the last 15 years, it’s the Patriots and everyone else. On paper, the Jets pose the “biggest” threat to dethrone their rivals, as they signed high-profile offensive weapons Eric Decker and Chris Johnson. Geno Smith and Michael Vick are not Tom Brady, though, and the Jets still aren’t ready for playoff contention.
The Bills should be an intriguing team to watch this year, as they’ve built an exciting core of young offensive skill players to go along with a talented defense. They’ll fall well short of New England, but don’t be surprised if they make a run at Miami or New York.
*1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
*2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The AFC North could be one of the most wide-open divisions in football this year. The Steelers finished 8-8 last season but won six of their last eight games, and the running back tandem of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount — assuming they can stay on the field — might be just enough to give Pittsburgh the division crown.
The 2013 division champs lost both coordinators in Jay Gruden (offense) and Mike Zimmer (defense), but the Bengals will overcome their growing pains just in time to shut the Ravens out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Johnny Manziel brings plenty of excitement to Cleveland, but without Josh Gordon, it’s hard to see the Browns going anywhere in 2014.
*1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
2. Tennessee Titans (7-9)
3. Houston Texans (5-11)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
Like the Patriots in the AFC East, Andrew Luck and the Colts should have no problem winning the division. The intrigue in the AFC South, though, lies at the bottom. The Jaguars will still stink, but Blake Bortles, Toby Gerhart and Marqise Lee should create some buzz in Jacksonville. The Texans aren’t going anywhere with Ryan Fitzpatrick calling the plays, but they’ll certainly improve on their disastrous 2013 campaign.
Running back Bishop Sankey and receiver Justin Hunter are reasons to get excited in Tennessee, but they still won’t be enough to get the Titans over .500.
*1. Denver Broncos (12-4)
*2. San Diego Chargers (9-7)
3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
4. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
Super Bowl XLVIII proved that the Broncos’ offense can be stopped, but this remains Denver’s division. After winning four in a row to surge into the playoffs last season, the Chargers are poised for a repeat appearance after adding Donald Brown and getting Malcom Floyd back from injury.
Expect the Chiefs’ slide to continue into 2014, as they lost three key players on the offensive line this offseason and will play one of the toughest schedules in the league. Derek Carr has shown promise for the Raiders this preseason, but it’s tough to expect a rookie to turn a franchise around in one season.
*1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
2. New York Giants (9-7)
3. Dallas Cowboys (7-9)
4. Washington Redskins (5-11)
The Eagles lost a key offensive weapon to the division rival Redskins, but DeSean Jackson shouldn’t drastically change the fortunes of either team. Chip Kelly’s offense still should put up enough points to carry Philadelphia to another 10-win season, while Robert Griffin III’s preseason struggles suggest another long, if not slightly better, year in Washington.
The Giants were very active this offseason — key additions include Rashard Jennings, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond — and could give the Eagles a run for their money, while Dallas doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon.
*1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
*2. Chicago Bears (9-7)
3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12)
A healthy Aaron Rodgers, plus one of the league’s brightest young stars in Eddie Lacy, should spell dominance for the Packers. After that, it gets dicey. The Bears and Lions have two of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, but their defenses haven’t proved they can be contenders.
Chicago’s addition of defensive ends Julius Peppers and Lamarr Houston could make them a wild-card contender, but Detroit likely will be on the outside looking in again. Joining them will be the Vikings, who still are searching for strong quarterback play to complement the dominant Adrian Peterson.
*1. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
2. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
6. Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
The Panthers lost their best cornerback (Captain Munnerlyn) and basically their entire receiving corps this offseason, and Cam Newton now has a fractured rib after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. Carolina’s stout defense will keep this team afloat, but it won’t catch the Saints, who look poised for a deep playoff run.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Buccaneers should make huge strides with a new head coach (Lovie Smith) and quarterback (Josh McCown). The Falcons also should improve from 4-12, but the loss of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will be tough to swallow for a team that already lacks defensive bite.
*1. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
*2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
3. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
4. St. Louis Rams (6-10)
These records might be even better if everyone didn’t have to play each other twice. The defending Super Bowl champs have a huge target on their backs, and while the 49ers might be without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith for an extended period of time, they’ll still be out for blood.
The Cardinals are talented and hungry, but the loss of linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby might be too much to swallow in this tough division. The Rams looked like potential contenders until Sam Bradford went down with a torn ACL, leaving the offense in the hands of Shaun Hill. That doesn’t inspire confidence.
Colts defeat Chargers
Steelers defeat Bengals
Patriots defeat Colts
Broncos defeat Steelers
Broncos defeat Patriots
Expect the cream to rise to the top again in the AFC. The Colts are rapidly closing the gap between the Broncos and Patriots and everyone else, but they ultimately lack the defensive prowess to prevent another thrashing at the hands of Tom Brady in the divisional round.
That should set up another Brady-Manning showdown. New England made serious moves to improve its defense this offseason, but so did Denver. The Patriots will need to score in bunches to prevent a repeat of last season, and that will be very difficult to do on the road against a revamped defense hungry for Super Bowl revenge.
Packers defeat Bears
49ers defeat Eagles
Saints defeat 49ers
Seahawks defeat Packers
Saints defeat Seahawks
The Seahawks are the best team in the NFC, but hear us out. It’s extremely difficult to repeat in today’s NFL, and a brutal NFC West could cost the defending champs the top seed in the conference. If that’s the case, a team like the Saints, who play a relatively easy schedule in 2014, could enjoy home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
New Orleans has an underrated defense and is nearly impossible to beat at home, and if it can survive a tough divisional-round matchup against San Francisco, it has a shot at taking down Seattle at the Superdome. The Packers also are contenders, but we can’t see them taking down the Seahawks on the road if that scenario that arises.
Super Bowl XLIX
Broncos defeat Saints
Drew Brees again meets Peyton Manning on football’s biggest stage, but the elder statesman gets the last laugh this time. You’d better believe Manning and the Broncos will be prepared after their disastrous start in last season’s Super Bowl, and the athletic Denver defense might be one of the few units that can contain Jimmy Graham.
This might be one of the last legitimate chances Peyton Manning has at winning a second Super Bowl. This time, he’ll make the most of it.