Forecasting an entire season of football is a fool’s game, but we play it every year as Week 1 of the regular season looms. You know the drill. It’s time for our 20 bold predictions for the NFL’s 2015 season. As always, your results may vary:
1. Peyton Manning has thrown a league-high 131 touchdown passes in the past three seasons, or 42 more than Philip Rivers has tossed in that span. In a related development, Denver went 38–10 during the 2012-13-14 seasons and won the AFC West each year, by a combined 11 games, with San Diego finishing a cumulative 13 games behind the Broncos at 25–23.
But this season, the tables will turn, with Rivers being the division’s best quarterback, not Manning. Rivers will reach the 40 touchdown pass plateau for the first time in his 11-year NFL career, notching more than Manning. The Chargers will follow Rivers’s lead and win their first AFC West crown since 2009, ending the Broncos’ four-year stranglehold on the division. Denver will still be playoff-bound, but will have to go the wild-card route in the postseason, while San Diego steams to only its second Super Bowl berth in franchise history. The Chargers in the Super Bowl. Yep. How’s that for bold?
2. I’m calling an audible that reverses my previous stance on this one, but I can see a scenario in which the NFL doesn’t have a team (or two) relocated and ready to play in Los Angeles in 2016 after all. Time is starting to run a bit short in terms of coming up with a solution for the league’s messy three-team tango in L.A., and with commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff knocked off balance by last week’s Deflategate loss in federal court, you can never rule out the issue being tabled for the time being.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke seems hell-bent to move to Los Angeles next year, so they’re the wild card in this situation. But if the league can’t figure out a relocation process that works smoothly and comes off without a major hitch, Goodell is unlikely to gamble on making a hasty call that might blow up in the NFL’s face. With all that’s going on in the league office, I could see a delay of game being called in L.A.
3. New Eagles starting quarterback Sam Bradford will start all 16 games in the regular season and two more in the playoffs, making Chip Kelly look like a genius for his roll of the dice on the oft-injured 2010 No. 1 overall pick. Bradford will reach career highs in ever statistical category except games missed, and Kelly’s Eagles will fly all the way to the NFC title game, which they’ll lose in Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.
4. With Chicago’s first-round rookie receiver Kevin White perhaps missing the entire season after having shin surgery last month, new Bears play-maker Eddie Royal will log a career-best 100-reception season as quarterback Jay Cutler’s go-to target. Royal and Cutler played together in Denver and will have an instant connection, albeit one that will not keep the Bears out of last place in the deep NFC North.
5. The Bills will participate in the playoffs for the first time since Wade Phillips was their head coach and the Y2K scare was newsy. That is all.
6. Defending NFC East champion Dallas will stand 3–5 at midseason and in a bit of disarray. The Cowboys will put on a strong second-half rally, but fall just short of the franchise’s first back-to-back playoff trips since 2006-07.
7. Houston’s longtime face-of-the-franchise Andre Johnson will absolutely torture the Texans in his first two games as a Colt facing his former club: Week 5 in Houston on a Thursday night affair, and at Indianapolis in Week 15. Johnson says he’s not bent on revenge against the Texans, but he’ll log about 300 yards receiving and three touchdowns in those two centerpiece games as the Colts roll to a third consecutive AFC South title.
8. The 12-week wonder at receiver this year will be Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant, not Odell Beckham Jr. Bryant will miss the season’s first four games due to a league suspension for substance abuse violations, but he’ll be a play-making machine in the season’s final three months. In a related development, Raiders rookie receiver Amari Cooper will be the real deal from day one this season, for all 16 games.
9. No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota will handily out-play No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston in that huge Week 1 Tennessee-at-Tampa Bay showdown, launching himself on the way to the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honor. The Titans will win a game or two more than the Bucs, with Mariota posting significantly better statistics than his classmate, but both rookie quarterbacks will enjoy building-block seasons to feel good about.
10. If the Seahawks advance to their third consecutive Super Bowl in a career-capping accomplishment, look for head coach Pete Carroll to leave Seattle and become associated somehow with the effort to return the NFL to the Los Angeles market, eventually becoming a team president/football czar for one of the teams that relocates there.
11. Bengals fans won’t beat up quarterback Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis over another one-and-done playoff appearance, which would be Cincinnati’s fifth in a row—because the Bengals will hover right around .500 all season and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. At quarterback, Dalton will be benched in favor of backup A.J. McCarron, with the former Crimson Tide star making his debut in the lineup in Week 8 at Pittsburgh.
12. Eagles running back DeMarco Murray will come nowhere near his NFL-leading 1,845 rushing yards of last season in Dallas, because with Ryan Mathews also in Philadelphia this year, Murray won’t have to carry that heavy of a load in Chip Kelly’s multi-faceted offense. But Murray will still top 1,200 yards, and that will easily out-pace his replacement in Dallas. Joseph “Meat on the Bone” Randle will struggle to barely reach the 1,000 yard mark.
13. Finally getting the Seahawks on their home-field turf at Lambeau, the Packers will punish Seattle in Week 2, winning by three touchdowns and exacting at least some measure of revenge for the last three meetings between these rivals, all of which were in Seattle: the infamous “Fail Mary” game of early 2012, last year’s league opener on Thursday night of Week 1, and Green Bay’s bitter meltdown of a loss in overtime in the NFC Championship Game.
14. Jimmy Graham has the reputation and the hype behind him, but it will be Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce who will hang up something approaching Gronk-like numbers in the Chiefs much-improved offense. Graham will be a potent red zone threat in Seattle, but his overall stats won’t match his productive years in the Saints’ Drew Brees-led offense.
15. The photos were fab, but only one of the five Sports Illustrated cover subjects for the NFL preview issue will be taking part in this season’s playoffs: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson (so what else is new?). As for Houston’s J.J. Watt, Chicago’s Matt Forte, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., it really won’t be your fault that the Texans, Bears, Bucs and Giants will be out of the playoff picture.
16. Ray Rice runs out of Cleveland’s backfield for the first time in Week 3 against Oakland. This prediction will have an even greater chance of coming true if the Browns start 0–2, losing at the Jets and home against Tennessee, a scenario I’m not sure I foresee.
17. The NFL’s best and toughest division will not again be the AFC North, which last season featured three playoff teams in the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens, plus a plucky 7–9 Browns team that started the year 7–4. I’m giving that distinction this year to the AFC West, where both the Chargers and Broncos will make the playoffs, with Kansas City again right on the cusp of the postseason and the perpetually rebuilding Raiders showing real improvement.
18. Of the quarterbacks around the league who are on trial for their futures this season, both Philly’s Sam Bradford and the Rams’ Nick Foles will find permanent homes and sign long-term deals with their new clubs. Eli Manning isn’t going anywhere either, obviously, and will re-up with the G-Men. But after another underachieving season from Jay Cutler in Chicago, the Bears will finally cut ties and move on from him after 2015. Ditto for Geno Smith and the Jets.
19. New 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula will still be seeking his first win of his tenure when the Falcons visit Levi’s Stadium in Week 9. Earlier home games against Minnesota, Green Bay, Baltimore and Seattle won’t yield a San Francisco victory, nor will road games at Pittsburgh, Arizona, the Giants and St. Louis. If you’re scoring at home, that’s an 0–8 start for the depleted 49ers, and that answers the question of whether the NFL’s streak of no team having played a Super Bowl in its own stadium will reach 50 this season.
20. Neither Robert Griffin III or Jay Gruden will still be around in D.C. to see who Washington takes No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft. But team owner Daniel Snyder will immediately rule out trading the pick to the Rams.
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