I feel like this is generally the time of year when I start to get a handle on which teams I might like in the upcoming season. The draft is a few weeks back, rosters start to settle, there is little meat remaining on the free agent bone and the schedules are out.
We don't yet know which teams will be crushed by unavoidable injuries. We don't know which undrafted free agents will become impact players. We don't know which third-year players will get over the hump and turn into regular contributors. And we don't know which quarterbacks will emerge as legit guys you can build around. But we do have a good idea of which teams seem to have amassed a surplus of talent and seem fortified to withstand the onslaught of inevitable turmoil yet to come.
Is this an exercise in futility? Quite possibly.
But that's what May is for. In a sport in which half a year passes between meaningful games being played, where the offseason is longer than the actual season and, all the while, America obsesses over each and every transaction, well, hell, I figure it's never too early to throw out a quasi-informed opinion or two. So while I'm not stupid enough to go all out and predict wild-card teams and a Super Bowl result and all of that, I am just dumb enough to try to wade into each division and give a glimpse into how I see it going. Because, again, it's May and all.
Chalk, chalk, chalk, chalk, chalk, chalk, chalk. That's seven chalks because the Patriots have won this thing for seven straight seasons -- and 13 of the last 15 starting in 2001 with their first Super Bowl title run under Bill Belichick. Even if Tom Brady does miss the first four games of the season, their stranglehold on this division will continue.
Week 1 at Arizona will be tough, and I tend to think Chandler Jones gets to the quarterback a time or three. But I see the Pats dispatching at least two of the three next AFC teams they meet (Dolphins, Texans, Bills) and then Brady comes back mad at the world and you can pencil them in for 12 wins.
I don't buy the rest of this division, and the reality is the other three teams will all likely be in the market for new starting quarterbacks by January. That includes the Jets, even if they do bring Ryan Fitzpatrick back. That's a band-aid. Until or unless Brady slows down, this is the Patriots' division.
Get Adam Gase with the right quarterback in Miami and maybe the Dolphins make a move in a few years, and in the meantime the Jets could win 10 games again and push the Pats, but I don't see anyone here who can realistically keep up. The Patriots won't have this thing wrapped up by Thanksgiving like they do some years ... but still likely before Christmas.
I have a feeling this is the year the Steelers get back on top. The Martavis Bryant suspension hurts, but if there is any position where the Steelers could withstand that blow -- and find plenty of candidates to step up -- it's at receiver.
It would be hard to imagine them having the same run of bad injury luck as a year ago and I believe this defense is making baby steps. Big Ben will have a monster season.
Meantime, the Bengals have lost ample talent and suffered a lot of brain drain to their coaching staff in recent years and that takes a toll. They are a little old in key spots on defense and I was never a big Andy Dalton guy even when he had his full array of weapons. The Bengals are accustomed to having starting hot and having others chase them, but the schedule is a beast this time around with four of the first six games on the road. Not only that, they to face the Jets, Steelers, Broncos, Cowboys and Patriots in that span.
The Ravens are on the rise but I believe they are still one more draft away from being back to their usual place in the pecking order. If the youngsters lead the way and this draft is a home run, they'll push for the playoffs again, but having so many older players coming off significant injuries (Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs) is a concern. Is there a fourth team in this division? I forget sometimes.
I'm tempted to call the Jaguars America's team, but really they are The American Media's Team, because my brothers and sisters in the press cannot stop gushing over them. Don't get me wrong, that defense has to be better now and they will make strides, but I'm just not ready to coronate them yet. This is actually the most intriguing division in the league to me, with every team having a young quarterback who has at least flashed something. You could make the case for any of the four clubs at this point, even the Titans, given the lack of a true bully on this block.
I actually like the Colts to regain their perch. They'll score more points with a healthy Andrew Luck and this kid is too smart and too motivated not to have learned a ton by having to sit out most of last year and watch Matt Hasselbeck operate his offense. The chaos and uncertainty about the future of the coaching staff and front office cast a cloud over 2015, yet still this team had a slim chance to get to the playoffs in Week 17 despite all it endured. They'll be better for it.
I'm not buying Brock Osweiler as being an upgrade over Brian Hoyer in Houston until I see it. You can mock Hoyer all you want for the playoff meltdown, but I'll bet you the new quarterback doesn't sniff Hoyer's regular season numbers from a year ago even with all the shiny new weapons the Texans have now. The Titans need another year with a draft haul to fill all of the holes they have, though Mariota will soon be the best quarterback in this division. And the Jags will finally get to the .500 mark, but I have the Colts edging them out.
I can't help but think of my pal and colleague Amy Trask as I write this one. Beware the Raiders, baby. They will win. And win a lot. A year ago they were my team on the rise and one I believed would become a legit force in the AFC. This year, especially given the departures in Denver, I believe they can truly compete to host a playoff game or two. I like the additions to the secondary and the front seven is no joke and they have one of the best offensive lines in football at a time when no one can block or pass protect anymore. This is a big team and a fast team and the quarterback is ice cold when he needs to be.
Denver still looks like a playoff team, but Paxton Lynch will take his lumps early. There is a lot to like about the roster too, but that Justin Houston injury could be a season-changer. The Chargers can't possibly be as bad as they were a year ago, though they are once again a lame-duck team with a lot of overriding issues about their future. I still have big concerns about the offensive line and the ability to stay balanced on offense. The gap from first to worst will close considerably in this division, and I believe in the Raiders.
Things have a way of swinging wildly from one extreme to the other in this division. No one seems to stay good for long. Chip Kelly tore through it for one season and then couldn't really win again. The Redskins won last year while still being in rebuilding mode and the Giants spent money like mid-200os Dan Snyder trying to get relevant again.
Which brings me to the Dallas Cowboys. This is another team where 2015 strikes me as an anomaly -- all of the key injuries, the inept quarterback play, the drama every week. That won't happen again. Are they flawed? Hell yeah. They have no pass rush and I have no idea why they used their first two draft picks the way they did. But a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant is enough to shift the paradigm in this topsy-turvy division yet again, and I believe they will do just that. Those two can carry a team, and Rod Marinelli will find some fits on defense. Ten wins will get it done.
I'm not buying the Eagles' 2016 quarterback room -- though Carson Wentz in 2017 could change all of that. The Redskins could also be a better team for the future yet actually win fewer games in 2016. I have also yet to see a team splurge like the Giants did and it actually pay off in the standings. Too much of a team game.
I can't not pick against the Packers here. Sure, they got off the rails last season and the Vikings made a big jump up. But Aaron Rodgers seemed to be pretty beat up all year, too. If he and the offensive line can avoid major injuries, this is the team. They get Clay Matthews back in his usual spot, they get Eddie Lacy back off the pancake batter and the only 2015 playoff teams they have to face on the road all season are the Vikings (because they're in the same division and all) and the Redskins. The Packers can't have consecutive seasons where they slip up like that at Lambeau, I don't think.
I could see the Vikings taking a step back unless they truly unlock Teddy Bridgewater and that offense. I'm not convinced Norv Turner has the pieces to do it yet. This smells like a year of transition in Detroit where they did the ol' fire half the building now/fire the other half next January thing, and there are many execs in the NFL convinced that Pats coordinator Matt Patrica is the next de-facto coach of the Lions.
Locker rooms tend to sense that, and the retirement of Megatron will leave a gaping void. And I'm not loving what I am hearing out of the Bears facility these days. I don't see them being poised to take what would have to be a fairly huge jump to get back to respectability. I see them bringing up the rear again.
I'm not exactly reinventing the wheel here: I like Carolina. A lot. Yes the Panthers lost the Super Bowl, but I love the front seven there and no one was talking about Josh Norman this time a year ago. Love their draft. Love the depth they have developed. They get Kelvin Benjamin back, the offense will continue to evolve and Cam Newton wins games. Period.
I believe the Bucs will give them a good run and have some wild-card potential to me. Jameis Winston is the real deal and the young Bucs will learn to win some of the kinds of games they let slip away a year ago. Getting out of the handcuffs of the former defensive scheme will help as well.
Drew Brees in a lame-duck season doesn't bode well for the Saints and they still will need significant time to get that defense out of the abyss. That, coupled with them losing their mojo at home, won't be easy to overcome.
The Falcons still get pushed around too easily, though Dan Quinn is trying to change that, but I don't see there being enough ability to get to the passer. I'm not a big Matt Ryan guy (but thankfully my buddy Pete Prisco is twice the Matt Ryan guy as anyone else in North America, so that more than compensates).
This is the best inter-divisional slugfest in the league right now. The Seahawks and the Cardinals could both make the argument as being the best team in the NFL on paper this spring. You could probably convince me on either of them.
Only one can win the division, of course, and that provides the far superior route to the Super Bowl, as both clubs are absolute beasts at home. Give me the better quarterback every time, and that's Russell Wilson. I'm not sure how easily Carson Palmer shakes off his latest postseason implosion and I always worry about getting a full season out of him at this stage of his career. And as he goes, so goes that franchise.
The Seahawks don't have that Super Bowl hangover anymore, with the horrible way they lost that game, and they don't have Marshawn Lynch or Kam Chancellor drama this year, either. They seem recharged and hungry and they ran the ball better without Beast Mode a year ago than they did with him.
As for the other two teams that play in the division, well, I don't see this latest Chip Kelly thing lasting more than a couple of years. Call me crazy, but the 49ers lost their entire defense in the span of 18 months and I'm not a Blaine Gabbert guy, believe it or not. The Rams will be an intriguing story now that Stan Kroenke finally got his manifest destiny and has a team he can drive to see from his Malibu estate. But I'd turn to that great prognosticator Clubber Lang as a glimpse into what's ahead for rookie quarterback Jared Goff: Pain.
I don't love the Rams line and if this kid thought he got abused during that 1-11 season at Cal, he ain't seen nothing yet. Perhaps the Rams have solved their quarterback conundrum in the long term, but in the short term that's still a very weak quarterback room by NFL standards and this defense is still going to have to steal games for them to be better than middling.