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Bold NFL Predictions for 2014: Chargers will win the AFC West

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com

Philip Rivers is smiling because he's got his sights on the AFC West title. (USATSI)
Philip Rivers is smiling because he's got his sights on the AFC West title. (USATSI)

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BOLD PREDICTIONS by definition are, BOLD. Here are ours, which will almost certainly become meaningless by the end of September. We fully expect you not to let us forget this.

1. Chargers will win the AFC West. Strong right out of the gate, we know. But a year after picking the Chargers to have the NFL's worst record, we're all in on Philip Rivers and this offense, even if the defense has plenty of questions.

Just how good was Rivers in 2013, a year after everybody thought his best days were well behind him? He was second in total QB value, according to Football Outsiders' metrics behind -- you guessed it, Peyton Manning. Just as important: the offensive line, which ranked dead last in pass-blocking in 2012, when Rivers was sacked 49 times, was eighth a year ago. That's huge.

So how can the Chargers outpace the Broncos after Manning set all sorts of offensive records last season? The only way it happens is if Manning's 38-year-old bones can't hold up to the punishment of an entire NFL season. History says he'll be fine -- Manning's started 16 games in every one of his 16 NFL seasons save one -- in 2011, when he was sidelined for the year after having multiple neck surgeries.

And as good as the Chargers' O-line was, the Broncos were even better at protecting Manning, most of which was Manning's doing. But as the old saying goes, the backup quarterback is always a play away. No one wants that to happen, but if Manning doesn't make it through the season, the Chargers will have a clear, relatively easy path to the AFC West title.

2. Titans will win 10 games. It's not easy to win in Kansas City, but we don't expect the 2014 Chiefs to look anything like the 2013 version that won 11 games, which is why we think the Titans can go into Arrowhead Stadium in Week 1 and do it. That has less to do with how we feel about Tennessee than it does with Kansas City, a team that will be lucky to go 8-8 this season.

Then, in Week 2, the Titans host the Cowboys in their home opener. They should win there too. Which means Tennessee will be 2-0 ahead of their Week 3 matchup with the Bengals. The Titans will lose there, and to the Colts in Week 4 before an eminently winnable four-game stretch against the Browns, Jags, Redskins and Texans. Three losses to the Ravens, Steelers and Eagles followed by four wins in their final five games (Texans, Giants, Jets, Jags, Colts) gets you to 10 wins.

This is best-case scenario, and this group could easily win six games. The bigger, long-range problem: What does coach Ken Whisenhunt do at quarterback? Jake Locker is in the final year of his rookie deal (the team didn't pick up his fifth-year option), and he could put up Drew Brees type production and the team wouldn't franchise him in 2015. Put another way: We'll never understand why Whisenhunt didn't take the Lions' job this offseason. Matthew Stafford is a potential franchise quarterback and Calvin Johnson is a franchise playmaker. The Titans, as it stands, have neither. But, yeah, enjoy those 10 wins!

3. Panthers finish second in the NFC South ... with seven wins. CBSSports.com's Will Brinson thinks the Panthers are the second-best team in the division, behind the Saints, and I'm starting to think he might be right. But unlike a year ago, when Carolina won 12 games, this group is more likely to go 7-9.

The defense should again be solid but the offense is one big question mark. We like Cam Newton but not when he's coming off ankle surgery and has a new stable of wide receivers. Then there's the offensive line, which has been revamped thanks to several key retirements. And if there's one NFL absolute it's this: You can have all the playmakers in the world but without a competent O-line to protect your quarterback, it's a waste of time.

Back in 2008, the Steelers took Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed with their first two draft picks, despite glaring needs along the offensive line. Coach Mike Tomlin had a theory: you can stop the pass rush in one of two ways. Conventionally, with pass blockers, or through skill position players who stretch the defense. Neither Mendenhall nor Sweed proved to be that and Pittsburgh's O-line has been a weak link until this offseason when the team hired Mike Munchak as offensive line coach. (Also worth mentioning: the Steelers ended up winning the Super Bowl in '08 despite one of the worst O-lines in recent history.)

Like the Panthers, the Falcons and Buccaneers have issues along the offensive line that could make for a long seasons for Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Josh McCown in Tampa.

4. Robert Griffin III will be on the bench by Week 6. And not because he hasn't yet returned to his 2012 rookie-of-the-year form but because he might be the worst person on the planet when it comes to avoiding huge hits. We saw it again Monday night when RG3 scrambled left and launched himself like a pinball as he approached the sidelines. Three Browns' defenders dutifully knocked him around before he hit the turf.

Which reminded us of this Bud Kilmer quote: "You got to be the dumbest smart kid I know."

The thing is, Washington could start 2-0 with wins over the Texans and Jaguars, and might even be 3-1 by the time they face the Seahawks in Week 5. But that defense will punish Griffin for as long as he continues to stubbornly run around the field until he's incapable of leaving under his own power. (Sound familiar?)

5. Markus Wheaton will outperform Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton, the Steelers' 2013 third-round pick, will replace Sanders, who signed with Denver in the offseason and was originally the Steelers' 2010 third-round pick.

Sanders was a good-but-not-great receiver in Pittsburgh, but could never stay healthy enough to escape Antonio Brown's shadow. Wheaton, who is faster, has better hands, and appears to be a better route runner, should benefit from the Steelers' no-huddle offense, one that Ben Roethlisberger ran efficiently during the second half of last season, and in the team's second preseason game against the Bills that led to this sweet 16-yard pitch and catch.

"I hope Wheaton is that guy because he is a young guy that people don't quite know about yet," Roethlisberger said recently, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He hasn't earned the respect, and that's probably rightfully so because he hasn't done much. But I'm excited for him because I think he is going to surprise a lot of people.”

On paper, Sanders, should be in for a big year. He'll have Manning peppering him passes for the next four months ... except that he didn't have a catch in the preseason opener and missed the Week 2 preseason game. There's also plenty of competition for Manning's attention, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas -- all who have experience in Denver's offense -- chief among them.

6. Eric Decker will outperform Emmanuel Sanders. Decker signed with the Jets in the offseason, and while it's easy to say that he was the beneficiary of playing in Denver's high-powered offense, we'll find out just how good he is when he's on the receiving end of Geno Smith short hops and overthrows. But since he's the Jets' only legitimate pass-catcher, expect him to get a lot of looks (that'll help pad his stats). First from Smith and then from Michael Vick, when he replaces the second-year quarterback (which, we suppose, is a not-so-bold prediction).

7. Adrian Peterson will run for more yards than Matt Cassel throws. A year ago, Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards in 14 games and Cassel threw for 1,807 yards in nine games. Cassel appears set to start the season, but the Vikings aren't going anywhere this season, which means coach Mike Zimmer shouldn't have any reservations about giving the job to rookie first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater as soon as they feel he's ready.

Week 6, seems like the perfect time to ease him into the lineup. After early games against the Patriots, Saints and Packers, Minnesota has a much more manageable stretch against the Lions, Bills, Bucs and Redskins. If the team is, say, 1-4 after the first five weeks, why wouldn't Zimmer make the move, especially if Peterson would provide Bridgewater some cover?

8. Steve Smith will have at least 80 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards with the Ravens. Here's all you need to know: During Derrick Mason's six years in Baltimore (2005-2010), he averaged 78.5 catches and 962.8 yards. In 2009, at age 35, Mason had 73 catches, 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns.

Plus, Smith promised all the blood and guts and we tend to believe him.

9. Trent Richardson will rush for 400 yards. To be clear: That's for the entire season. Bank it. Now, you may wonder, is 400 yards good or bad? Doing the Trent Richardson conversion, where 1 regular yard works out to 7.5 Trent Richardson yards, it's Hall of Fame-type production. Richardson (by Richardson standards, admittedly) is looking at 3,000 Richardson yards in 2014.

10. Johnny Manziel will give the finger to at least two more teams this season.

Because, really, Chris Gardocki would want it that way.

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