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Chargers to emerge as AFC's most improved team?
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Chargers to emerge as AFC's most improved team?
SI Staff
Monday September 7th, 2015

Well everyone, congratulations! We've made it. We survived the interminable off-season, and the NFL is now here. The storylines, as usual, are bountiful. Whose hot seat will be up in flames by the end of the year? Which deserving team will fall short of the postseason? Which player will exceed expectations (and who won't)? Below, SI's NFL team does its best to predict the answers to some of the burning questions of the 2015 season:

Best team to miss the playoffs

DON BANKSCowboys: The Cowboys are still talented and dangerous, but I think their vaunted running game and their opportunistic defense—the two real keys to last year's surprising success—will both fail to match the production from 2014. Not by a lot, but by enough to miss the playoffs, losing the division to the Eagles and wild-card berths to Minnesota and Arizona.

GREG BEDARDChiefs: Some key early injuries/suspensions are going to be the difference on whether this well-rounded team will sink or swim in a tough division.​ I think they'll sink.

MICHAEL BELLERSteelers: This team should have one of the league’s best offenses, but issues on defense will undermine the efforts of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and company. It doesn’t help that they have their usual four games with the Bengals and Ravens, and also match up with the NFC West this season.

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GREG BISHOPCardinals: This choice comes down to numbers. If you buy the Cowboys and the Packers as playoff teams this season, (and I do), that leaves only two slots for teams from the NFC West, which is arguably football’s most stacked division. If the Seahawks repeat as division champions, which looks more probable than not, then the choice is between the Rams and their emerging defense and the Cardinals. Whichever teams doesn’t obtain a wildcard, I’d mark them as the best team not to make the playoffs.

CHRIS BURKEBengals: I've been wavering between the Bengals sitting out the playoffs for the first time in five years and them breaking their 25-year postseason victory drought. This team could go either way. I lean the way of the darkest timeline here for two reasons: a) There are not many positions where they look decidedly improved on last year's 10-5-1 team; b) The schedule shapes up to be brutal. A nine-win campaign probably won't cut it.

DOUG FARRARBroncos: The defense will be outstanding under Wade Phillips, and Gary Kubiak always gets his offensive lines to perform to the limits of their capabilities, but even with the acquisition of Evan Mathis, there's a lot of youth and inexperience in that front five. Factor in the loss in free agency of tight end Julius Thomas (Peyton Manning's top red-zone target) and Father Time's inexorable battle with Manning himself—not to mention the ascent of the Chargers and Chiefs in the AFC West—we could be looking at the end of Denver's recent postseason string, and perhaps the end of Manning's transcendent run.

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MELISSA JACOBSBengals: A quarterback with busted confidence, lingering questions facing the pass rush, and a deep conference will keep the Bengals home for the first time since 2010.

BETTE MARSTONVikings: Second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson, back from his suspension, will provide a much-needed offensive revival in Minnesota, but it still won’t be enough to vault the Vikings into the postseason. A late-season matchup against Arizona will prove fatal to their playoff hopes, but, like the Eagles in 2014, they’ll be in good position to make a charge in 2016.

AUSTIN MURPHYLions: Nobody in the NFC North is poised to knock off the Packers, leaving Detroit in search of a wildcard spot. With Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley missing up front on defense, and with first-ballot Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson starting to show subtle signs of his advancing years – he’ll be 30 by October—that will prove a bridge too far for the Lions.

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JOAN NIESENBills: Ultimately, having a subpar quarterback will keep them out of the postseason, but their defense under Rex Ryan will be better than it was a year ago—when it was already one of the league’s best.

AMY PARLAPIANOChiefs: The pieces are there for the Chiefs. Jeremy Maclin provides them with something that didn’t exist for them last year: a legitimate wide receiver. And the defense, led by Justin Houston (who got himself some money this offseason), will be strong. But their schedule does them no favors, with games against the AFC North and NFC North, plus the two against the Broncos, a team they’ve yet to beat in the Andy Reid era. There will be three playoff-caliber teams in the West this season. But Denver may be the most balanced team in the league, and I’ll take my chances with Philip Rivers over Alex Smith when it comes to crucial games down the stretch. That leaves the Chiefs on the outside looking in once again.

ERIC SINGLEVikings: The hype is well-founded in Minnesota, but don’t expect the rest of the NFC North to lie down and let Teddy Bridgewater simply waltz into January. There’s so much we can’t know about Adrian Peterson until the games start counting, and a brutal out-of-division schedule filled with AFC West and NFC West teams features plenty of offenses that can make headway against Minnesota’s stout defense. The Vikings won’t want to be on the bubble by Week 17, when they head to Lambeau Field for a date with the division favorites.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images Sport

Star with a subpar season

BANKS—Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: This selection says more about who the Panthers will surround Newton with on offense this season than it does Newton and his performance. But with No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the season, Newton's play-making options dwindle to tight end Greg Olsen and not much else. Newton's passing numbers are going to dip, and there won't be a third straight NFC South title in Carolina this year.

BEDARD—Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins: Suh was the most prized free agent on the market this year, and for good reason. But between the six-year, $114 million contract that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, and the Dolphins' expectations for his impact on the defense, there's a lot to live up to, and it's not hard to imagine him falling a little short. 

BELLER—LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills: He’s the only back who has had at least 300 carries in each of the last two seasons. That’s the sort of mileage that can slow a back down in year three. McCoy is already dealing with a hamstring injury that could have him inactive in Buffalo’s season opener against Indianapolis. There are already red flags surrounding his first season with the Bills, and if the offense fails to take off under Tyrod Taylor, McCoy’s production could be dragged down.​

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BISHOP—Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: His story arc calls to mind another zone-read quarterback who excelled in his rookie season and has struggled to match that success afterward: Robert Griffin III. Kaepernick also lost a starting running back in Frank Gore, a right tackle in Leonard Davis (who is taking a break from football), a coach in Jim Harbaugh and what seemed like half of the San Francisco defense. Reports from 49ers camp that the team wants Kaepernick to become more of a pocket passer, which plays against his strengths, don’t help.

BURKE—Jeremy Maclin, WR, Chiefs: Promising signs in the preseason from the Alex Smith-to-Maclin connection, but we need to see it when the games count. Color me skeptical ... or, at least unsure that Maclin will come close to the 1,300-yard, 10-TD season he posted a year ago. The Chiefs are going to lean on Jamaal Charles and Smith loves throwing to Travis Kelce. Maclin needed 143 targets last season to post those stats; no Kansas City player saw more than 95 passes.​

FARRAR—Julius Thomas, TE, Jaguars: Thomas is the latest member of the NFL's "be careful what you wish for" club—players who get the big money they deserve, but in situations ill-suited for their talents. Perhaps Thomas could counsel with former Broncos teammate Eric Decker of the Jets when he discovers what happens after you're jettisoned out of a high-performing offense and dropped down into one very much under development.

• ​MMQB: J.J. Watt is redefining how defense is played in the NFL

JACOBS—Matt Forte: Forte, who turns 30 this year, put up big numbers under West Coast-oriented Marc Trestman. But he also lost some explosiveness last season, registering just one run over 19 yards. With Trestman gone, Forte will no longer be relied upon to be the cornerstone of the Bears' offense.  ​

MARSTON—Lesean McCoy, Bills: The former Eagles running back is going to quickly learn that he’s not in Philadelphia anymore. McCoy took a step back last year after an incredible 2013 season, and rushing behind the Bills' weak offensive line (ranked 30th overall and last in run blocking by Pro Football Focus last year) in an offense led by Tyrod Taylor doesn’t scream bounce-back year. To compare, the Eagles' offensive line ranked second overall and first in run blocking in 2014.

MURPHY—LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills: Buffalo’s struggles to pass the ball will enable defenses to key in on McCoy, whose style of running seemed to change last season: according to Pro Football Focus metrics, he was far less elusive, much more likely to be tackled for loss, or no gain, than in 2013, when he won the league’s rushing title. In the system of new OC Greg Roman, he’ll catch dramatically fewer passes.

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​NIESEN—Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos: Over the past few seasons, we’ve gotten accustomed to Thomas putting up huge numbers in Peyton Manning’s offense (1,619 yards and 11 TDs a year ago). But the change in Denver to Gary Kubiak’s offense will see the receiver’s numbers tick down through no fault of his own.

PARLAPIANO—Drew Brees, QB, Saints: Below par for Drew Brees is still pretty good, but I think the Saints are on the decline, and the 36-year-old quarterback’s age will start to catch up with him this season. The loss of Jimmy Graham is going to significantly impact his production, and with more of a running game to lean on this year, his yardage and touchdowns will be lower than what we’re used to seeing.​

SINGLE—Andre Johnson, WR, Colts: Johnson came up short of 1,000 yards last season for just the third time in the 10 seasons of his career that weren’t significantly shortened by injuries. Andrew Luck has so many other top-of-the-line targets that Johnson could slip down a few tiers among the league’s most threatening receivers even if he doesn’t start to feel his age at 34.

NFL DIVISION PREVIEWS:
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

Al Bello/Getty Images Sport

Non-star with a breakout season

BANKS—Davante Adams, WR, Packers: The second-year receiver from Fresno State was already headed for bigger and better things this year even before Packers' top receiver Jordy Nelson blew out his ACL in Week 2 of the preseason at Pittsburgh. But now Aaron Rodgers and co. need Adams to produce at an entirely new level, and he'll answer that challenge. All of those Nelson targets have to go to someone, and Adams will reap the benefits.

BEDARD—Tyrann Mathieu, S, Cardinals: He has yet to stay healthy for a whole season, but there's no question that the talent is there. 

BELLER—Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals: The third-year tight end has the right pedigree, as well as the opportunity necessary for a breakout. He’s going to have a major role in Cincinnati’s passing attack, which could be potent now that he, A.J. Green, and Marvin Jones are all entirely healthy. Even though Hue Jackson may be a run-heavy offensive coordinator, he’s going to utilize his big tight end in the middle of the field. By season’s end, Eifert will be widely viewed as one of the best receiving tight ends in the league.

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BISHOP—Eric Ebron, TE, Lions: The Lions tight end struggled in his rookie season (25 catches, 248 yards). But that’s normal for tight ends. He’ll be more versed in the offense this season. And the Lions welcome back a healthy (for now) Calvin Johnson. And they added Ameer Abdullah in the draft to help their run game. All of that should give Ebron a ton of room to operate in the middle of the field. Plus, if Detroit’s defense is, as expected, not as good as a year ago, the Lions will be forced to throw often, which means more targets.

BURKE—Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers: Lost in all of San Francisco's Jarryd Hayne hubbub has been Hyde's solid preseason as the No. 1 back. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry over the first three weeks before sitting out Thursday, looking every bit a capable Frank Gore replacement in the process. The 49ers are going to have to grind out wins this year, so Hyde will have the ball in his hands a ton. Anything shy of 1,000 yards rushing would be a letdown.

FARRAR—Davante Adams, WR, Packers: Sometimes, breakout seasons are all about opportunity. Now that Jordy Nelson is out for the entire 2015 season, and Randall Cobb is still the best slot receiver in the NFL, it will be up to Adams more than anyone else to make up for Nelson's nearly irreplaceable production. Adams has the physical skills to do that, and the 2014 second-round pick will certainly get the opportunity to increase his rookie totals of 38 catches for 446 yards and three touchdowns.

MMQB: Deep dive on Bill O’Brien and the overachieving Texans

JACOBS—Sam Bradford, QB, Eagles: Finally healthy, Bradford looked phenomenal in the preseason. Unlike the hodgepodge of receivers he played with in St. Louis, the Eagles come with two of the most exciting young wideouts in Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor. Add in a stellar offensive line and there’s no reason 2015 can’t be the season Bradford finally looks like a no. 1 overall pick. 

MARSTON—Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs: After a lost rookie season in 2013, Kelce hauled 67 catches for 862 yards and  five receiving touchdowns last season (RB Jamaal Charles also had five receiving touchdowns, which tied Kelce for team high), and thanks to the addition of deep threat Jeremy Maclin, Kelce’s numbers are only going to improve this season. With defenses keeping tabs on the Chiefs’ new WR, the field should open up for the young, athletic tight end, especially in Andy Reid’s west coast offense.

MURPHY—Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles: Overshadowed last season by fellow rookie wideouts like Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin, Matthews—who left Vanderbilt as the SEC’s all-time leading receiver—quietly amassed 67 catches for 872 yards and 8 TDs. And that was working as a slot guy. In ’15, with ex-WR1 Jeremy Maclin gone, Matthews will move all over the field. His chemistry with new quarterback Sam Bradford is already there.

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NIESEN—Aaron Donald, DT, Rams: The Rams defensive tackle won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award a season ago, but he still hasn’t reached full-on star status. That should change this season. Donald has become one of the rocks of a unit that could be the NFL’s best line, and with his pass-rushing skills and aggressive run defense, he might be the best player in the NFL at his position before long.

PARLAPIANO— Davante Adams, WR, Packers: I would have thought about picking Adams even before Jordy Nelson’s ACL tear, but with Aaron Rodgers’s top guy out for the year, this is a no-brainer. Randall Cobb will be the new No. 1, but Adams will see his targets skyrocket this season. He showed flashes in his rookie year, but had trouble fully adjusting. Now he has a year of experience under his belt, he’s coming off of an extremely impressive offseason that included this one-handed grab, and he’s a main weapon for the best quarterback in the game. He won’t be a 'non-star' for much longer.​

SINGLE—Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers: Verrett landed on IR with a torn labrum in November of his rookie season, but I can’t stop watching his leaping interception in the final seconds of a tight October win in Oakland and wondering how much he can grow over a full year. As he continues to learn from seasoned veteran Brandon Flowers, Verrett could be the breakout playmaker that brings San Diego’s underrated defense some national respect this season.

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Team with the worst record

BANKS—Washington: The team that Daniel Snyder loves had another tumultuous preseason with costly injuries and the always topical quarterback situation dominating the headlines. Washington won three games in 2013, four in 2014, and will be right there in that neighborhood once again this season. Their competition for the No. 1 draft pick? Chicago, the Giants, the Panthers and the 49ers.

BEDARD—Bears: I have four teams tied at 3-13 (Jaguars, Titans, Washington), but Chicago could be terrible on defense. That may just be enough to "earn" them the number one pick next year. 

BELLER—Redskins: It doesn’t really matter if it’s Kirk Cousins or Colt McCoy (which I believe it will be, at some point) under center for this team. There are so many holes on the roster from top to bottom that this farce can end in just one way, and that’s atop the 2016 NFL Draft. Ryan Kerrigan might be the only player on the defense who gives the team above-average individual production. The team is sticking with a 3-4 alignment under Joe Barry, but there’s no proof that they actually have the personnel to do so. Keep an eye on this team’s trip to Chicago on December 13. The loser of that game will have the league’s worst record.

BISHOP—Raiders: You can see improvement in Oakland. Derek Carr turned in a decent rookie season, and the Raiders added stud wideout Amari Cooper. But too many other holes remain, especially on both lines. The Raiders may even improve in a way that their record doesn’t show.

BURKE—Titans: Marcus Mariota is going to be a good quarterback in this league for a very long time. In year one, though, he will be saddled by a rebuilding roster still painfully shy on talent. More than that, there is minimal evidence of late that coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Ruston Webster are the right guys to get this franchise back on track.

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FARRAR—49ers: There are those who will tell you that despite the loss of their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, and enough departed star power to fill half a top-level team, the 49ers might surprise some people. I'm not convinced at all. Jed York and Trent Baalke have their dream of total franchise control, and they're about to find out that without Jim Harbaugh's winning (if admittedly annoying) football acumen and most of the team built before Baalke took charge of personnel, there's not much left. New head coach Jim Tomsula is a good guy in an absolutely untenable situation, and Baalke might as well start thinking now about how he can do a better job with the first overall pick in 2016 than he's done in his last few drafts.

JACOBS–Redskins: I see them going 2-14. A broken locker room, a terrible defense and Colt McCoy as possibly the team’s best quarterback will make for a long, depressing season. 

MARSTON—Redskins: There’s no question here: the off-field quarreling of the owner and coach coupled with the relative inexperience of QB Kirk Cousins only spells disaster for this franchise. They’ll be in the market for one of Ohio State’s quarterbacks come draft time.

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MURPHY—Browns: The Cleveland Browns provide the latest, starkest example of how whiffing on your quarterback can kneecap a franchise for years. Johnny Manziel, last year’s troubled first-round pick, finally has his mind right. But now his arm hurts. Josh McCown is 35, and not a long-term solution. Wideouts Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, two of the club’s marquee free agent signings, are not the stuff of cornerbacks’ nightmares. This could go south, quickly.

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NIESEN— Redskins. A team this low on talent and high on dysfunction seems poised to finish the season at the bottom of the NFL. At this point, it seems like Robert Griffin III’s 2012 season happened in an alternate universe. Maybe it did.

PARLAPIANO—Browns: The Browns open the season with games against the Jets, Titans and Raiders. Hope Josh McCown and co. enjoy it while it lasts: the other 13 games are against the AFC North teams twice, the NFC West and the rest of the AFC West. Cleveland has some positives: the return of Alex Mack to a great offensive line, the addition of Danny Shelton on defense, and a sharp coaching mind in Mike Pettine. But with McCown (or, maybe at some point Johnny Manziel) at the helm and a lack of any real game-changing running backs or receivers, it’s hard to see them getting out of that brutal schedule with a respectable win total.​

SINGLE—Buccaneers. It’s almost as hard to earn the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years as it is to repeat as Super Bowl champs, but no depths are too deep to fathom with an offensive line like Tampa Bay’s. The Bucs should be crossing their fingers that Jameis Winston stays upright long enough to make real developmental strides in his rookie year.

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

First coach to get fired

BANKS—Joe Philbin, Dolphins: Oakland's Dennis Allen was the only head coach to get canned during the season last year, and I'm not sure there will be any firings until Black Monday this time around. But I do know Philbin needs to make the playoffs to stay employed by the Dolphins, and once again I don't have Miami making it to the postseason this year.

BEDARD—Jay Gruden, Redskins: This one is easy. Look who he works for.

BELLER—Jay Gruden, Redskins: Daniel Snyder is going to need a scapegoat for his team’s failures this year. He doesn’t seem like the type of owner who’d be eager to pay two head coaches, Gruden will catch most of the blame from Snyder for the Robert Griffin III debacle.​

BISHOP—Jay Gruden, Redskins: Not a huge fan of this question, but the answer seems to be pretty obvious: Washington is a mess. Much of the drama centers of Robert Griffin III and the team’s handling of him. Combine that with a new general manager in Scot McCloughan who isn’t beholden to Gruden and his leash definitely looks like the shortest one in football.

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BURKE—Jay Gruden, Redskins: In general, betting on Daniel Snyder to send his coach packing carries a decent chance of paying off. And Washington already feels like it's ripping apart at the seams, even before the regular season begins. Gruden's inability (or unwillingness) to mesh with Robert Griffin III quickly soured the situation. Unless Kirk Cousins plays well above his head to start the season, the losses could mount quickly. Snyder probably will not offer much leeway if they do.​

FARRAR—Marvin Lewis, Bengals: It would be a surprise, to be sure, but if the Bengals start the 2015 campaign in a rocky fashion, it wouldn't surprise me if owner Mike Brown, who refused to commit to Lewis beyond a one-year extension in 2015, decided to go in a different direction. And if Andy Dalton plays as he did in the preseason, it's a near-sure thing that this team will stumble out of the gate. Firing Lewis would be a bad move, but the Bengals are used to bad moves—they made a lot of them between the Sam Wyche and Lewis tenures.

JACOBS–Jay Gruden: After his team tanks, Snyder will go through the same process to which he's become accustomed, sending Gruden off to join his brother in the fired football coaches association. Without any change to the toxic environment in Washington, Gruden’s replacement will land in this spot in two years. 

MARSTON—Marvin Lewis, Bengals: Another season with no playoff victories will mean the Bengals finally throw in the towel on Lewis after 13 seasons. It wasn’t that long ago that Lewis had greater job security than just about any head coach in the NFL, but failing to win in the postseason  can wipe that slate clean quickly. It was a great run while it lasted, but he just couldn’t get the job done. 

MURPHY—Gus Bradley, Jaguars: Yeah, yeah, he inherited a roster in disarray, and has needed time to implement his systems. But after losing 25 of his first 32 games, the Jaguars coach needs to show marked progress, soon. Not helpful: first-round pick and edge-rusher Dante Fowler tore an ACL in the first rookie mini-camp; star tight end Julius Thomas will be out until Week 3 with a broken finger. If the Jags start 0-4 – not implausible: they open with the Panthers, Dolphins, Patriots and Colts—hands-on owner Shahid Khan could bust a move.

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​NIESEN—Jay Gruden, Redskins: Since he took over in 2014, Gruden’s footing in Washington has never been steady. The coach was supposed to be the man to right Robert Griffin III’s career in Washington, and by giving up on him, Gruden may be distancing himself from ownership, and setting himself up for a disastrous season on the field.​

PARLAPIANO—Jay Gruden, Redskins: Yes, this is only his second season, and it’s inane to blame all of this organization’s many, many problems on Gruden. But Washington has become the NFL’s laughing-stock and Gruden isn’t doing much to make the situation any better. He’s been engulfed in a messy, public battle with RG3, who is benched again for the world beater known as...Kirk Cousins. He was brought in to improve on Mike Shanahan’s 3-13 record in 2013, and he did improve it—by one game. Just like RG3 at QB, if Gruden is going to succeed as a head coach, it’s going to be elsewhere.

SINGLE—Jay Gruden, Redskins: Even if the Redskins improve by a game or two on their 4–12 record from a year ago, it would be an upset to see either Gruden or Robert Griffin III back in D.C. for 2016, to say nothing of both staying. As frustrating as the idea of another complete overhaul might be, Gruden’s initial hiring may be a cautionary tale for the use of half-measures to address a dysfunctional coach-quarterback tandem.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images Sport

Game I'm looking forward to most

BANKS—Patriots at Colts, Week 6: Do I really need to explain this one? The hype, drama and myriad of storylines in this showdown can not be, well, over-inflated.

BEDARD—Patriots at Colts, Week 6: Tom Brady goes into the den of the team that started the Deflategate saga. Hide the women and children.​

BELLER—Miami at New England, Week 8: This may seem like a curious choice, but I think the Dolphins have a real chance to knock the Patriots off their perch in the AFC East this season. Before the Dolphins travel to New England a few days before Halloween, they’ll visit the Redskins, Jaguars, and Titans, and host the Bills, Jets, and Texans. They could very well be 6-0 when they meet the Patriots for the first time this year. That’ll be the first chance for either team to gain the upper hand in the AFC East.​

BISHOP—Cowboys at Packers, Week 14: The Packers looked like Super Bowl favorites a month ago, but that was before they lost Jordy Nelson to an ACL tear for the season, and watched Randall Cobb and three projected starters on the offensive line get hurt. By December, the Packers should be rounding into form, and they’ll meet a Dallas team that can sling the ball around and nearly beat them last year in the playoffs. No less than a division title may for each may be at stake.

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BURKE—Patriots at Broncos, Week 12: It is understandable if you are over the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning hype. I'm not, especially as this could be the last time we see two of the all-time greats go at it, depending on what Manning has planned for his future beyond the 2015 season. Assuming New England and Denver are where they should be come Week 12, this matchup could hold heavy significance in the AFC playoff race, too.

FARRAR—Eagles at Jets, Week 3: It's a Week 3 matchup with only one of the teams as a projected playoff entrant, but it will be extremely intriguing to see what the Jets' defense under Todd Bowles does to counter an Eagles offense under Chip Kelly that looked absolutely incendiary with Sam Bradford under center. When the Eagles travel to Detroit in late November, if Bradford is still healthy, that might just be an NFC championship preview.​

JACOBS—Patriots at Colts, Week 6: The lingering feelings from Deflategate will be omnipresent but so will the AFC’s two best teams. 

MARSTON—Packers at Broncos, Week 8: Packers vs. Broncos: One of the NFL’s best quarterbacks ever in his prime vs. one of the NFL’s best quarterback ever in his twilight on Sunday night? Reminds me of John Elway in his twilight vs. Brett Favre in his prime during Super Bowl 32. There’s no way I’m missing this one.

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MURPHY—Cowboys at Eagles, Week 2: Also known as DeMarco’s Revenge. Was it a mistake for the ‘Boys to let DeMarco Murray go in free agency? Philly’s new feature back will be eager to prove that it was. Of equal interest: How will Sam Bradford operate in Chip Kelly’s system? Which team is the alpha dog in the NFC East? Inquiring minds want to know.

NIESEN—Patriots at Colts, Week 6: This isn't because of anything related to deflated balls. I think these are going to be the AFC’s two best teams, and how Andrew Luck and company perform against New England will go a long way in signaling what strides Indianapolis has made since getting blown out a season ago. This game will be a good barometer of whether the Colts are the Super Bowl team that I and others think they may well be.

PARLAPIANO—Patriots at Broncos, Week 12: Sure, the storylines have been exhausted, the tales of the Peyton-Brady bromance are oft-repeated and Rodgers-Luck may be a more accurate description of the two best quarterbacks in the league right now. I don’t care. Getting to see these two guys face off is thrilling and special, and it hasn’t lost its luster, even after all of these years. This may very well be the last time we get to see it. I’ll be appreciating every minute.

SINGLE—Packers at Broncos, Week 8: A preemptive apology to Game 5 of the World Series, which is set to compete directly with Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning dueling under the lights at Mile High Stadium. Plan for a true-to-script shootout as both teams position themselves for the stretch run in their respective deep divisions.

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