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.
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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.
GALLERY: WHY YOUR TEAM WON'T WIN THE SUPER BOWL
Why Your Team Won't Win the Super Bowl
Why won’t they win? You mean besides the facts they have a quarterback that’s too wobbly, no featured back, wide receivers that are too inconsistent and they’re in a division that boasts three above-average defenses? Is it fair to blame CJ2K, even though he just got to Arizona?
The Dirty Birds finally moved on from The Mike Smith Project, but this offensive line still ranks among the worst in the league. Luckily, they get to dominate during the week when they face their brutally bad defense in practice.
The Ray Rice suspension is finally behind them, but so is offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who helped Justin Forsett lead the NFL with 5.1 yards per carry last year. New OC Marc Trestman has a rookie tight end, and the Ravens’ top wide receiver is 5-foot-9 and 36 years old — and he wants you to get off his lawn.
Rex Ryan takes over the reins in Buffalo, but he inherits a quarterback position that is nearly as bad as the one he had with the Jets. Former Ravens QB Tyrod Taylor might be the short-term answer, but he’s not named Russell Wilson, and running quarterbacks don’t lead teams to Super Bowl wins.
The good news is that the Panthers offense gets to face the Buccaneers, Falcons and Saints defenses twice this year. The bad news is it’ll be without Kelvin Benjamin (torn ACL), which means their No. 1 receiver is a former college tight end (Devin Funchess).
Jay Cutler catches a lot of flak for being – well, Jay Cutler. But he’s the Bears’ career passing leader! Unfortunately, he lost Marc Trestman, perennial teammate Brandon Marshall and first-round pick Kevin White is recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his shin. Luckily, the Bears’ horrible defense will get most of the headlines.
Both the Bengals defense and Andy Dalton took big steps back last year, which makes us question which versions will show up this year. The Red Rifle’s offense endured a lot of injuries in 2014, but now they have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.
In 11 of the past 12 seasons, the Browns offense has ranked 24th or worse. But don’t worry – they brought in John DeFilippo as their new offensive coordinator. Then again, he’s the sixth Browns offensive coordinator to hold that title over the past six years. Just one away from being the Lucky No. 7!
Sure, the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the NFL, but they lost the NFL’s leading rusher in DeMarco Murray, and they replaced him on their roster with the NFL’s leading limper (Darren McFadden).
John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have moved on, but the Broncos still have Peyton Manning under center. Sadly, new head coach Gary Kubiak prefers a ground-control offense, which tends to lean on the running game more. Quick, someone strap that plow to that old racehorse’s back!
Ameer Abdullah is getting high praise from prospective fantasy football owners, but then again, so did Jahvid Best and pretty much every rookie Lions running back not named Barry or Billy. They also lost the heart of their defense when DT Ndamukong Suh signed with the Dolphins. Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley are also gone, leaving Haloti Ngata an even bigger hole to fill.
Green Bay Packers
Within about a week, the Packers’ high-powered offense suffered greatly as Jordy Nelson hurt his knee and Randall Cobb hurt his shoulder. Nelson’s out for the season, and while Cobb should be fine, and Davante Adams is ready to step up, that loss is too big to overcome. Nelson averaged just under 11 touchdown catches per season over the past four years
Head coach Bill O’Brien might act and sound like this generation’s Bill Parcells, but he’ll have to get these Texans into the playoffs before that can be a serious statement. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” has given us some great stories to follow, but Brian Hoyer and Alfred Blue aren’t what you want to hitch your wagons to offensively.
Former University of Miami assistant coach Chuck Pagano turned Lucas Oil Stadium into the new Orange Bowl this summer, after bringing in former Canes Frank Gore, Andre Johnson and rookie Phillip Dorsett. If only some of those guys played defense …
The Jaguars offensive line allowed a league-high 71 sacks last season – 13 more sacks than any other team. Some opposing waterboys were even able to pad their sacks stats. Speaking of sacks – they won’t be getting any from No. 3 overall pick DE Dante Fowler, as he blew his knee out in his very first Jaguars practice.
Kansas City Chiefs
Sure, Jeremy Maclin should solve that pesky problem of the Chiefs not getting any touchdowns from wide receivers last year, but he might have to do it on a lot of long crossing routes, working with Captain Checkdown Alex Smith. The Chiefs’ four passes of 35 yards or more last year gives them a better shot at an Arena Bowl win than a Super Bowl win this year.
The defense gets a shot in the arm, with DT Ndamukong Suh stuffing runners in the middle. But offensively, the Dolphins are resting all of their passing hopes on two very young receivers -- a sophomore (Jarvis Landry) that averaged just 9.0 yards per catch, and a rookie (DeVante Parker), who’s coming off of foot surgery. What could go wrong!?!
Mix an angry 30-year-old running back, coming of an insane 15-game suspension, with a 22-year-old quarterback and a forever-grumpy wide receiver and you have the basis for an episode of “Ballers” – not a Super Bowl champion. Bridgewater would have to break Big Ben’s record for being the youngest QB to ever win the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady won’t be suspended, but now we all know – he can’t win without deflated balls or bad Pete Carroll play calling. OK, he probably can … multiple titles, too. But this defense can’t win a Super Bowl without DT Vince Wilfork. And whatever happened to those studly young wide receivers that were impressing us a few years ago: Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson (pictured) and Josh Boyce?
New Orleans Saints
The offense is moving away from the dominant passing game, much like the Broncos, but is that a good thing? Drew Brees lost his woobie security blanket, after the Saints traded Jimmy Graham to Seattle for Max Unger and a pick. So he’ll be able to stand up longer – but he loses his primary red-zone target.
New York Giants
For the start of the 2014 season, Eli Manning only had Victor Cruz, sophomore Rueben Randle and two bad-hands running backs in Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams to throw to, with Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Myers gone. Then Odell Beckham Jr. got healthy, and Larry Donnell emerged as a decent tight end. Once Cruz (knee) is healthy, Manning will have a ton of pass-catching tools, including tailback Shane Vereen. They’ll need to score a lot – in order to make up for a Giants defense that gave up the fourth-most yards from scrimmage last year.
New York Jets
Former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles takes over for Rex Ryan, but it’s going to be a while before the old gets washed out by the new. Starting quarterback Geno Smith punched a guy in the fist with his jaw in training camp, and he’s out for about the first quarter of the season with said broken jaw. The more things change for the Jets, the more they stay the same.
Not since the days of Rich Gannon has the Raiders offense been consistently good, and while sophomore Derek Carr is expected to make strides, there’s no Silver & Black Super Bowl coming this season. Latavius Murray has to stay healthy, and Amari Cooper has to develop quickly just for them to sniff a .500 season. Let’s tap the brakes on the Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin comparisons for now.
The Eagles have a mad genius at the helm in Head Coach Chip Kelly, but they also have new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Take THAT continuity! What are the odds that QB Sam Bradford invents a new ligament to tear in his knee, just to spite fantasy owners?
The Steelers currently own the best running back and wide receiver in fantasy football. But Le’Veon Bell is suspended for a couple games to start the season – and their second-best WR (Martavis Bryant) is suspended for the first four games. Considering only a few teams allowed more passing touchdowns than the Steelers defense (30) last year, head coach Mike Tomlin might wish his defense gets suspended for a few games, too.
San Diego Chargers
San Diego is ready for Melvin Gordon III to recharge this rushing offense now that Ryan Mathews has moved on to Philadelphia. The defense and the road-grading running back from Wisconsin should provide solid production, but the passing game needs some help, especially with Antonio Gates suspended for four games. That’s asking an awful lot from MGIII.
San Francisco 49ers
The Jim Harbaugh Era is over in San Francisco, and things look like they’re going to get a lot worse before they get better by the Bay. It seems like every week, another horrible piece of news comes out that knocks this 49ers defense down another notch.
One bad playcall away from back-to-back Super Bowl titles, the Seahawks are hellbent on erasing that memory in 2015. Unfortunately, their window is closing, as Marshawn Lynch is fourth among active leaders in career carries. Jimmy Graham is certainly a great add, and this defense is among the best, but … What was the question? Oh yeah, they won’t win the Super Bowl this year because Russell Wilson finally got paid! … and he has two last names. That’s never good.
St. Louis Rams
It’s never a good sign when four of a team’s nine draft picks are spent on offensive linemen – at least that’s not a good sign for the immediate future. Rookie Todd Gurley (knee) might want to wait just a little longer before making his NFL debut, giving this O-line a chance to develop some chemistry.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No doubt, this offense will be more dynamic with No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston under center. But the Buccaneers offensive line allowed 3.25 sacks per game last season (30th in the NFL), and then starting right tackle Demar Dotson suffered a sprained MCL early in the preseason.
Will Marcus Mariota be this year’s version of Bishop Sankey: Someone everyone loves -- until Week 2? From Sankey to Justin Hunter, this offense is full of disappointments, and the defense might be even worse. The offense and defense ranked among the worst three teams in points scored and points allowed last year.
The RGIII experiment has officially ended – until Kirk Cousins gets hurt. But for now, Cousins takes over under center, Alfred Morris continues to defy logic, and the Redskins defense hopes to not be one of the most-penalized units for the second year in a row. Rather than wondering why Washington won’t win the Super Bowl this season, Redskins fans should start worrying about hearing the phrase, “The Redskins are on the clock” come January.