The countdown to football season has entered its final week, and as all 32 teams finalize their 53-man rosters and set their game plans for Week 1, it's time for our writers to go on the record with their first round of regular season predictions. Which division winners are primed to repeat in 2015? Who could drop to the cellar after a couple of year of contention? Will there be any surprise entrants into the league's tightest races?
In this week's Cover Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar predict the order of finish in all eight divisions, backing up their picks with a quick review of which teams are best positioned for success in the new year.
With Tom Brady in the fold for the full season and the Deflategate distraction (hopefully) minimized, the Patriots should take this division again, with its sub-optimal secondary mitigated by a drastically improved pass rush. The Dolphins will come close and may be a year away from a serious postseason run. The Jets and Bills are in the same boat right now: great defenses and no real top-level quarterbacks. That won't get it done in the modern NFL.
1. New England Patriots
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets
Planned to pick the Patriots even when Tom Brady looked like he might miss four games, so there's no reason to reverse course now that he can suit up in Week 1. Miami has a playoff-worthy roster with a quarterback to match; Buffalo matches up in the former, but falls short of the latter. Tyrod Taylor has to exceed expectations if the Bills are going to find their way to 10 or 11 wins. All four teams in this division could push for a postseason spot.
The Ravens should remain the model of consistency in this division—hopefully they can keep the off-field drama to a relative minimum this season. The real problem for the Steelers isn't the suspensions that will have Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant starting their seasons late; it's a defense that in no way resembles the Steel Curtains and Blitzburghs of old. Ben Roethlisberger will need another MVP-level season to push his team back into the playoffs. Beware of a Browns team that started 6–3 last year before everything fell apart. Their defense is for real, and if Josh McCown can roll on the game-manager plan, they could break .500. As for the Bengals ... Marvin Lewis has tied his wagon to Andy Dalton for years, and this is the year he really regrets it as Dalton regresses behind a line that starts to show cracks.
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Cincinnati Bengals
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
This race should go down to the wire, as it does most seasons. Of the three contenders (sorry, Cleveland), Baltimore looks to have the most complete roster, though Cincinnati is running pretty neck and neck. Both of those teams should put up a fight defensively, which cannot be said at the moment about Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the offensive firepower to be a threat, but can they stop anyone? The preseason didn't offer much reason for optimism.
The Colts will have no trouble taking the NFL's weakest division once again, although the Texans will make it interesting and may even engineer a surprise takeover if Brian Hoyer shows some consistency. Indy will count on key contributions from veteran acquisitions Frank Gore, Andre Johnson and Trent Cole, and may be a Super Bowl team if that all pans out. The Jags will move up a bit, but perhaps not enough to save Gus Bradley's job, and the Titans simply don't have enough talent across the board to make Marcus Mariota's NFL landing a smooth one.
1. Indianapolis Colts
2. Houston Texans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Tennessee Titans
The South is not as set in stone as conventional wisdom might indicate. If the Texans had kept Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB rather than turn to the Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallett duo, they might even have enough to really threaten Indianapolis. Neither Hoyer nor Mallett can threaten defenses through the air as the inconsistent Fitzpatrick can, so it's hard to see Houston leapfrogging the Colts. Jacksonville could be a surprise seven- or eight-win team, if everything falls right.
The Broncos in third place? We're assuming that Melvin Gordon adds serious weight to San Diego's non-existent running game in 2015, which is all this team should need to ascend to the top of the division. And the Chiefs should be able to rely on a stellar defense, not to mention the Alex Smith-to-Jeremy Maclin connection, to take second. As for Denver, even the recent pickup of guard Evan Mathis can't cure this team's offensive line woes, and though Wade Phillips will engineer a great defense, there may not be anything short of a true miracle season from Peyton Manning to gloss over the offensive issues. The Raiders are the team to watch long-term—general manager Reggie McKenzie has done an estimable job of stocking what was once a barren roster.
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders
Are we really ready to throw in the towel on Peyton Manning before the season begins? Not here. Even if he runs out of gas in, say, mid-December, the Broncos still have a dynamic backfield and a fearsome defense. I'm pretty bullish on San Diego, too, and Kansas City is a Super Bowl threat if Alex Smith takes to a revamped passing attack. If any AFC division sends three teams to the playoffs, bet on it being this one.
Last season, an atrocious secondary kept Chip Kelly's Eagles out of the running for the NFC crown, and they've done enough in the off-season to take care of that. If Sam Bradford can stay healthy in his new environs (big if, we know), Kelly's offense will be just about unstoppable most Sundays. The Cowboys will have a better pass rush, but serious questions abound elsewhere on that defense, and the run game is now an issue. The Giants are re-jiggering a lot in Eli Manning's contract year—a big rebuild could be coming for Big Blue. As for the Redskins, they're probably good for more drama off the field than intrigue with anything they do in an actual football sense.
1. Dallas Cowboys
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. New York Giants
4. Washington Redskins
Despite being a card-carrying member of #TeamSamBradford, I've got the Cowboys repeating in the East, and the Dallas defense is the reason why. That unit survived on a lot of smoke and mirrors last season only to upgrade this off-season with Randy Gregory, Byron Jones and (eventually) Greg Hardy. The return of LB Sean Lee will help, as well.
A very tight top of the division could be decided by one addition and one subtraction: Rookie running back Ameer Abdullah will provide a LeSean McCoy level of shake-and-bake for the Lions, and the injured Jordy Nelson will prove irreplaceable for the Packers. You have to love the way Mike Zimmer has put his defense together in Minnesota, and Teddy Bridgewater looks like the NFL's next best young quarterback. Minnesota's offensive line will decide its fate, which is not a happy thought. As for the Bears, an offense under construction and a defense very much in the backseat will have Chicago wondering how long it will have to wait for another division title.
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Detroit Lions
3. Minnesota Vikings
4. Chicago Bears
Rough estimate of the NFC North's outlook this season: The Packers are a legitimate Super Bowl threat, the Lions are their chief challenger within the division, the Vikings can contend for a wild card and the Bears also play in the NFC North. Jordy Nelson's injury threatens to make Green Bay vulnerable up top.
The Falcons already have what it takes on offense to win a division that had no winning teams in 2014, and new coach Dan Quinn will add power and diversity through scheme on defense. The Panthers might have taken this division for a third straight year if Kelvin Benjamin hadn't been lost for the season, but they could still be in the hunt with a good defense, led by a bright young secondary. The Bucs are starting to put it back together after last season's landslide, and Jameis Winston has the look of a legitimate NFL starter, but there are too many holes, especially along the offensive line, to expect anything more than mere respectability. The Saints had to cut ties with several key players due to cap issues, and there's only so much Drew Brees can do.
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Carolina Panthers
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let's just say that my prediction last year that New Orleans would reach the Super Bowl did not exactly pan out. I'm hesitantly back on the bandwagon because I'm expecting a bounceback season from Drew Brees and at least minor improvements from the defense. And speaking of defense, Carolina's stands out in a division lacking on that side of the ball. But can the Panthers score? Like, at all?
This may not be the Seahawks team you're used to. The passing game should be more explosive with Tyler Lockett and Jimmy Graham, but the secondary and offensive line might keep this team from its third straight NFC title. They still don't have enough to take this division, but the Rams are coming on strong with a formidable defense and an improved running game. Nick Foles's ability to work behind a patchwork offensive line is the key here. The Cardinals' third-place prediction is based on Carson Palmer's inability to stay upright for 16 games; if he beats the odds, it's not impossible for Arizona to rise up and take the West. And after the most off-season roster churn in recent memory, the 49ers will likely be playing for the first pick in the 2016 draft.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. St. Louis Rams
After back-to-back NFC championships, are the Seahawks due to take a step back? Their O-line will likely be to blame if they do, and Arizona could pounce on the opportunity. Of course, the Cardinals are another Carson Palmer injury away from being a sub-.500 team, so their entire season may ride on how healthy he is. After that, I'm calling San Francisco to be more competitive than people expect. Not wild-card competitive, but far from a three- or four-win meltdown.