Green Bay Packers—It’s another Super Bowl-or-bust season for the Packers this year as they look to redeem themselves after a heartbreaking NFC Championship Game loss. With reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers should have no problem moving the ball offensively, even with the loss of star wideout Jordy Nelson. Any sort of significant Super Bowl run will depend entirely on their young defence. Look for the Packers to experiment with Clay Matthews all over the field as they try to create havoc for opposing offences.
Minnesota Vikings—Expect big things from the Vikings this year. A playoff spot will be tough to secure in the competitive NFC, but the return of Adrian Peterson make an impact in the backfield. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will continue to improve, and new addition Mike Wallace will provide him with a dynamic target. Last year, the Vikings were average defensively, but with a maturing young core led by Anthony Barr and Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota could have one of the league’s premier defences in the years to come.
Detroit Lions—The Lions are the NFL’s version of fool’s gold—they’re never quite as good as they seem. After Detroit’s loss to the Cowboys last year, quarterback Matthew Stafford is now 3-32 in his career against teams with winning records and a pathetic 0-18 against winning teams on the road. If superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson can stay healthy and Detroit can muster up a formidable rushing attack, a wild card spot might be within grasp. Unfortunately, the losses of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on the defensive line could prove costly for the Lions.
Chicago Bears—The Marc Trestman experiment is over in Chicago, and with it ends the Brandon Marshall era. The Bears have been pitiful recently, never mustering up the kind of seasons one would expect from a team with such impressive offensive firepower. Newly hired Head Coach John Fox should help shore up one of the league’s worst defences, but as long as Jay Cutler is taking snaps under centre, the future looks bleak for Bears fans. Expect wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Matt Forte to have stellar seasons, but for Chicago to be in better contention for the top pick than a division title.
Philadelphia Eagles—The Eagles had a chaotic off-season, with Head Coach Chip Kelly shedding 11 players from the team. Starting quarterback Nick Foles and Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy are out, and running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews are in. The changes are all part of Kelly’s plan to take his team to the Super Bowl, and the moves already have some analysts predicting an NFC East title. With a new defensive backfield in place and Sam Bradford starting at quarterback, it will be interesting to see if Kelly’s boldness plays off.
Dallas Cowboys—The Cowboys’ main objective for this year is to repeat their first-place showing in the NFC East. The loss of running back DeMarco Murray—who led the league in rushing yards last year—to the Eagles spells trouble for their ground game. Whoever emerges to replace Murray will benefit from the Cowboys’ dominating offensive line, but the real test of the team will be whether its defensive line can avoid a letdown.
New York Giants—The Giants are poised to have another lackluster year after being crippled by injuries in the 2014 season. A productive off-season resulted in the acquisition of running back Shane Vereen, who should be a good fit in the Giants’ offence. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should continue to amaze, but the team is already facing a rash of pre-season injuries. Star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s missing finger will render him useless for the time being, putting the impetus on new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to prevent any hiccups. For Head Coach Tom Coughlin, four consecutive seasons of missed playoffs could cost him his job, raising the stakes for this boom-or-bust team.
Washington Redskins—The quarterback duo of Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins should continue to underwhelm in 2015. The hiring of new General Manager Scot McCloughan isn’t likely to have any significant impact on the team that went 4-12 in the 2014 season. The team’s personnel dysfunction and shaky offensive line shouldn’t lead anybody to expect anything better than a last-place finish. This franchise needs a long-term rebuild.
Seattle Seahawks—To run or not to run? If the Seahawks are able to move past the fateful decision that ended their title hopes last year, they could well end up in the title game once again. During the off-season, Seattle traded for superstar tight end Jimmy Graham, who should make a steady offence far more explosive with his elite size and athleticism. The league’s best defence should continue to stifle opponents. If the Seahawks have home field advantage for the post-season, expect to see them in the Super Bowl for the third straight year.
Arizona Cardinals—The Cardinals began last year 9-1 before starting quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a knee injury. In front of him is what is shaping up to be an elite offensive line that should pave the way for a solid running game. Although the defence conceded the ninth-most yards in the league last year, they were the fifth-best when it came to preventing scoring. Arizona is well balanced and if Palmer’s surgically repaired knee holds up, they should once again challenge Seattle for the divisional title.
St. Louis Rams—The Rams bring back all 11 starters on defence and add enigmatic former first-rounder Nick Fairley to the deepest and most talented defensive line in football. The questions remain on the other side of the ball. Newly acquired quarterback Nick Foles needs to steady the offence and rookie running back Todd Gurley needs to return from injury and make an impact if St. Louis is going to make the post-season. Nonetheless the Rams have tremendous spoiler potential and are a dark horse to snatch the last wild card spot.
San Francisco 49ers—Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Looking at the 49ers’ roster, it’s hard to believe that this is the same franchise that reeled off three straight appearances in the NFC Championship Game from 2011 to 2013. San Francisco has been ravaged by multiple departures, including former head coach Jim Harbaugh and All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. The once-vaunted defence is undergoing a rebuild, and the offence lacks the firepower and consistency to be a threat in the ruthless NFC West. The rebuilding 49ers will likely finish at the bottom of the best division in football.
Carolina Panthers—In a division where no one managed to post a winning record in 2014, the Panthers are the only team that look poised to buck that trend going forward. Even with last year’s breakout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin sidelined for the year with a torn ACL, Cam Newton has two promising pass-catchers in tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Funchess. While the offensive line won’t do Newton any favours, he’s nimble enough in the pocket to weather the pass rush. With the best defence in the division, the Panthers should easily take first place.
New Orleans Saints—Even with the shocking off-season departure of Jimmy Graham to Seattle, quarterback Drew Brees has enough to work with in Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, and Josh Hill. The squad’s wildcard will be its defence, which is largely made up of unproven rookies and average journeymen. First-rounder Andrus Peat has the potential to make an immediate impact on the offensive line, and centre Max Unger has the potential to lessen the sting of the Graham trade.
Atlanta Falcons—This team can only improve on its dismal 2014 season. Unfortunately the Falcons haven’t made enough additions to what ranked as the worst defence in the league last year. Matt Ryan is going to have his work cut out for him on offence. If receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones can stay healthy, the Falcons’ passing game will be among the best in the league. But it takes more than one dimension to win, and the Falcons’ defence is not strong enough.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Hopefully nobody in Tampa expects this season to be anything more than an extended training camp for rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The number-one pick makes this offence a little scarier, but when Mike Evans and Doug Martin are your only real threats, it’s going to be a long season. Recent reports suggest Winston may not be ready for Week 1 with a sprained ankle, and the prospect of seeing Mike Glennon out on the field for any meaningful period of time is not a cheery one.
Baltimore Ravens—The Ravens are excellent on defence and unproven on offence. They are powered by a top-shelf offensive line, a solid secondary, and an imposing—though Haloti Ngata-less—defensive line. Joe Flacco, however, will need to find a deep-ball threat from Baltimore’s inexperienced receiver corps to replace the departed Torrey Smith. Nonetheless, the Ravens should be able to ride their defensive strength far.
Cincinnati Bengals—The Bengals are the only perennial playoff team with a coach and a quarterback in the hot seat. The team is well-rounded, boasting a deep secondary and a fearsome defensive line with Geno Atkins looking like his old self in the pre-season. Their offence is equally well-organized. Jeremy Hill had an impressive rookie season in the backfield behind solid linemen. He complements the unstoppable A.J. Green and the mercurial Andy Dalton. Expect the Bengals to top the division but to exit the playoffs early.
Pittsburgh Steelers—The Steelers appear talented but disorganized. Arguably the league’s most dynamic attack, Pittsburgh must cope with the NFL’s toughest schedule in 2015. The offence, is over-reliant on Antonio Brown and all-purpose superstar Le’Veon Bell. Bell and Martavis Bryant have suspensions to start the season while centre Maurkice Pouncey is injured, so expect a slow start. Most worrying is that the Steelers’ uninspiring secondary and shallow linebacker corps have not improved. Ultimately, Pittsburgh’s offence should mask defensive flaws and take them to the post-season.
Cleveland Browns—This year’s Browns are similar to last year’s: Excellent on defence, dysfunctional on offence, and unlucky with players’ off-field conduct. Expect Joe Haden to lock down number-one receivers, and Donte Whitner to ring some bells. Cleveland has a good offensive line led by star tackle Joe Thomas. They unfortunately have the immature Johnny Manziel at quarterback, an uninspiring run game, and no true number-one wide receiver. Expect their tight defence to keep them in tight losses.
New England Patriots—With quarterback Tom Brady and Head Coach Bill Belichick still in command (thanks, judge Berman!), the Patriots remain the dominant organization in the division. The defence has been depleted with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Vince Wilfork leaving, but Belichick has always been able to coach extra wins out of this team down the stretch. When healthy, the Patriots have a frightening receiving corps. Expect to see Rob Gronkowski terrorizing any mismatched defender who covers him.
Miami Dolphins—The Dolphins are the sneaky underdogs in this division. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed flashes of promise last season, and a strong offensive line could lead the team far. On the defensive side Cameron Wake is a destructive force—a perennial Pro-Bowler and a sack machine. With the addition of Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle, the Dolphins’ defence made the jump from scary to impenetrable. Brent Grimes is one of the top three cornerbacks in the league. Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins give the Patriots a run for their money.
Buffalo Bills—Head Coach Rex Ryan has massively upgraded the Bills’ offence by acquiring LeSean McCoy and Percy Harvin. At the same time, Buffalo’s defence remains among the top 10 in the league. The offence has the potential to be explosive with Percy Harvin and Sammy Watkins as receivers but it all falls on quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s ability to manage a highpowered offence. There are tons of questions about this squad, but don’t count them out as a dark horse to upset the Pats for the division title.
New York Jets—With Todd Bowles at the helm, the Jets could have the best defence in the league, especially with Darrelle Revis returning. Their defensive front three is absolutely lethal and the secondary has been upgraded over the off-season. On offence, Ryan Fitzpatrick will be a welcome upgrade at quarterback over Geno Smith, while Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker are two stud wideouts that will provide Fitzpatrick with dangerous weapons. After an exciting off-season, the Jets have set their expectations on a playoff berth this year.
Denver Broncos—With head coach John Fox gone and Peyton Manning looking for the first time in his career, it’s very possible the Broncos will lose the division for the first time since 2010. Several solid off-season additions won’t be enough to counter the offensive crater left by the departure of Julius Thomas, but the Broncos will beat down teams with their balanced running game. C.J. Anderson came out of nowhere last season to put up 1,200 yards, while Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are capable backups.
Kansas City Chiefs—The Chiefs seem most likely to unseat the Broncos atop this division. The addition of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a definite upgrade over Dwayne Bowe, but quarterback Alex Smith probably wouldn’t make the second string on a lot of other teams. Their defence also figures to be even better than last year with the return of both Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry, along with the additions of Marcus Peters and Tyvon Branch.
San Diego Chargers—Philip Rivers is undoubtedly the most talented quarterback in the division and has the potential to post elite numbers in 2015. Wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Jacoby Jones provide two exciting new targets for him, while cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers make up the core of a secondary that is second only to Seattle’s. Rookie running back Melvin Gordon will be an interesting x-factor, but the run defence will end up holding the Chargers back.
Oakland Raiders—The Raiders will be an intriguing team to follow this year and over the next few seasons. While Oakland doesn’t have the talent to compete for a playoff berth right now, they do have a promising future. New coach Jack Del Rio and a core of young stars give hope for a bright future, while the front seven—led by Khalil Mack—are already among the best in the league.
Indianapolis Colts—Everyone is waiting for Andrew Luck to realize his ‘chosen one’ status and win a Super Bowl. The Colts have a balanced offensive attack; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are red-zone threats, Frank Gore will bolster the backfield, and future Hall-of-Famer Andre Johnson will join the dynamic Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The only remaining question is whether the offensive line can gel and stay healthy. Indianapolis should dominate the South.
Houston Texans—Offensive coordinators everywhere will probably have sleepless nights before facing the Texans’ defence. College superstar Jadeveon Clowney will return from injury to join the freakish J.J. Watt and lockdown cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Veteran Vince Wilfork will bolster a strong defensive line. The same cannot be said for the offence. Arian Foster is out for half the season, Brian Hoyer is a beer-league quarterback, and Andre Johnson left for a division rival. Houston might be tough to beat, but they will not have enough offensive firepower to get to the playoffs.
Tennessee Titans—The Titans are putting their trust in rookie Marcus Mariota’s arm. The former University of Oregon quarterback impressed in the pre-season and should improve on Tennessee’s dismal 2014 offence. Mariota does not have many weapons, although rookie wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham has exciting potential. On defence, coordinator Dick Lebeau has a solid secondary, and scary linebackers to experiment with in Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. This is a team in transition, so expect them to struggle whilst having some encouraging performances. The Titans won’t make the playoffs, but they might surprise a few teams.
Jacksonville Jaguars—Expect Jacksonville to stay in the NFL cellar this year. Blake Bortles struggled behind a porous offensive line in his rookie season. His mechanics appear to have improved over the off-season, but this offence is punchless regardless. The biggest worry is the depleted defensive line. First-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. is injured along with veterans Ziggy Hood, Sen’Derrick Marks, and Andre Branch. Head Coach Gus Bradley wants his team to “own the AFC South,” but all Jacksonville can hope to own is 2016’s No. 1 draft pick.