NFL
Prediction: Luck steers Colts to title

J.T. Grugen

JT Grugen

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In February 2016, the NFL will celebrate the 50th anniversary of what has become a cornerstone event in American entertainment: the Super Bowl. With a push to expand the NFL into overseas markets, Super Bowl 50 will go down as one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of our time. The privilege of playing in the biggest game in NFL history is a reward only earned through the gauntlet that is the NFL season. For this edition of the Hot Corner, I break down every team’s schedule and who has the best shot at playing in Super Bowl 50.

New England Patriots

Here’s a scary thought: the defending champions might have actually improved over the offseason … How is this possible with a draft class stocked with non-skilled position players and no high profile free agent signings? The answer lies with the two men who have orchestrated all four New England Super Bowl victories: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. After the Deflategate scandal clouded Brady’s offseason and status for the start of the regular season, one would figure that Brady must be playing with a chip on his shoulder, which should put every team on the Patriots schedule this year on notice. Anything less than a first round bye would be a disappointment for this team.

Projected Finish: 12-4 (1st AFC East, #1 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Miami Dolphins

Towards the end of last season I thought Miami was a lock to secure the six seed in the NFL Playoffs. In fact, I mentioned in a past article how crucial it was for Ryan Tannehill to gain some playoff experience ahead of what could be an explosive 2015 season. While the Fins flopped at the conclusion of 2014, the teal and orange squad might have improved the most, on paper, over the spring. On offense, Ryan Tannehill adds Devante Parker to his arsenal, a former Louisville standout who played alongside Teddy Bridgewater. On defense, an already scary defensive line added one of the most feared players in football and the most sought after free agent: Ndamukong Suh. There are no excuses at this point in South Beach, it’s now or never for Tannehill and company.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (2nd AFC East, #5 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Buffalo Bills

I can’t remember a wide receiver class better than 2014. Odell Beckham Jr.’s Madden-esque catches and Mike Evans’ 1000 yard season dominated the headlines, but lost in the shuffle was the first receiver selected in Sammy Watkins. The Bills traded up to number four in the 2014 Draft to select Watkins in hopes that EJ Manuel would be able to build a passing attack capable of matching New England. Project Manuel is heading towards bust status one year later with the Bills starting Tyrod Taylor over their 2013 first round pick. I believe Watkins is a top five receiver if he had an average quarterback throwing the ball his way. Buffalo failed to address this need in the offseason, which will ultimately cost the Bills a playoff spot.

Projected Finish: 8-8 (3rd AFC East, missed playoffs)

New York Jets

Your franchise is in trouble when the only news on your starting quarterback coming out of training camp is that he was sucker punched in an altercation with a teammate that resulted in a broken jaw. Instead of rolling with Geno Smith, the Jets must lean on Ryan Fitzpatrick, a player past his prime just taking fliers for a quarterback job. Alternatively, New York’s experiment pick Bryce Petty may earn a start at some point this season. However, this would come as a last resort following a dreadful preseason from the Baylor alum. The Jets defense is still above average, but under a first year coach and a lackluster offense, defense won’t be enough. Get ready for more drama in the Big Apple.

Projected Finish: 3-13 (4th AFC East, missed playoffs)

Pittsburgh Steelers

How appropriate would it be to have the Steelers, who lead all NFL franchises with six Super Bowl titles, representing the AFC in the 50th anniversary of the NFL’s biggest game? Like every year, Pittsburgh remains a legitimate threat to make a run at the Lombardi. The difference between the 2015 installment of this team, though, and the franchise’s championship teams. From Joe Greene to Troy Polamalu, the Steel City’s reputation for legendary defensive players is better than any other team. In 2015, though, the steel curtain is showing signs of rust. The Steelers have focused several early draft picks in recent years on offensive linemen and wide receivers. While Big Ben’s numbers have improved with the increase pass protection, the defensive unit has dropped off substantially. Without a doubt, this is still a playoff team, but making the big dance could be a long shot at this point.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (1st AFC North, #4 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Baltimore Ravens

Going through every game on tap for the 2015 season, I found that Baltimore’s schedule stood out from the pack in that most of their matchups are fairly even on paper. Granted, after injuries, under and over performing players, and weather are factored in, these affairs could become lopsided at some point in the season. Baltimore is matched up against a slew of teams with stingy defenses including Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, Miami, and Cincinnati twice. Yet, the patience and phenomenal decision-making capabilities make Joe Flacco a nightmare for the league’s best defenses. Similar to Pittsburgh, there’s no question the Ravens have a Super Bowl caliber offense, but CJ Mosley is the only notable addition in the last three seasons on a defense that has seen Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata depart.

Projected: 10-6 (2nd AFC North, #6 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Cincinnati Bengals

It’s pretty black and white when making predictions for the Bengals. For the past four seasons, placing the orange and black attack in the range of 9-7 and 11-5 with a first round playoff exit would have sufficed for an accurate pick. Rest assured, though, if Cincinnati fails to make it past Wildcard Weekend, there will be no choice but to retool the front office, coaching staff, and perhaps certain elements of the team. Honestly, I can’t see the Bengals back in the playoffs in 2015 due to a significant drop off in the defense. Vontaze Burfict’s injury saga and a lack of emphasis on the secondary in the draft give Cincy a “proceed with caution” status. This isn’t an ideal place to be considering the Bengals D is on course to clash with quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Derek Carr, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger.

Projected Finish: 7-9 (3rd AFC North, missed playoffs)

Cleveland Browns

The way I view the Browns’ comical quarterback situation is similar to a teenager and an iPhone. When the phone first releases, the teenager is elated. After a few features fail to operate properly, that initial infatuation is lost until the kid demands the newest version of the phone. Putting this concept into NFL terms, Browns fans are starting their “#FailForCardale” campaign in hopes of landing a high draft pick that translates into bringing Ohio State Heisman hopeful Cardale Jones back to Cleveland. It’s obvious these fans have abandoned ship on Johnny Manziel after one season, similar to how the team treated Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden. Until Cleveland commits to one plan and works out the kinks, this team will never reach the playoffs, no matter who they draft.

Projected Finish: 3-13 (4th AFC North, missed playoffs, #1 pick in 2016 NFL Draft)

Indianapolis Colts

With Reggie Wayne out of the fold, the last piece of the Peyton Manning dynasty has left Indy. Although number 87 might not be lining up alongside Andrew Luck, the Colts have constructed a new lineup of receivers that comprise the AFC’s most explosive offense. In this year’s draft, Chuck Pagano brought in one of the draft’s most sought after receivers next to Amari Cooper: Phillip Dorsett. Out of Miami, Dorsett has both the size and skills that resemble Reggie Wayne; a very similar player to their 2014 pick in Donte Moncrief, except Dorsett is a little further in his development. Both of these college standouts enter a system with a valuable mentor in Andre Johnson, arguably the NFL’s best receiver of the 2000’s. If this team can avenge their AFC Championship loss to New England in 2015, I see them being the top seed in the AFC. Otherwise, a first round bye is plausible.

Projected Finish: 11-5 (1st AFC South, #2 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Tennessee Titans

Since the downfall of Chris Johnson, no man on the Titans 53 player roster has been defined as the franchise player. Every team needs at least one superstar to market to fans, to put butts in seats, and to give the organization optimism for a rebound season. Enter Marcus Mariota, the Heisman winner out of Oregon that has built a resume in high profile games. In the Titans home opener, I would expect to see a sea of powder blue number eight jerseys. Mariota is a mix of Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick, with the confidence to stand in the pocket but the track speed to roll out and pick up a first down with his feet. He won’t be the solution to a laundry list of issues with the Titans, but his presence should fast track this team into potentially contending as early as 2016.

Projected Finish: 6-10 (2nd AFC South, missed playoffs)

Houston Texans

Beyond the Colts, the AFC South is very shaking and is probably the most inconsistent division in football right now. For a team that seems to pick up most of the Patriots’ leftovers, Houston seems to trip before the finish line every year. This organization has found tremendous success in drafting players on the defensive side of the ball, including standouts such as JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus (hopefully Jadeveon Clowney joins this list after 2015). The lack of development to the offense though is frustrating to watch. In fact, this problem escalated to the point where the team’s longest tenured player in Andre Johnson asked to leave. “Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest cliches in the book. Sure, Houston might have a top ten defense that can slow down division rival Andrew Luck and the Colts. But with Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett leading the offense, Houston won’t even reach the .500 mark.

Projected Finish: 5-11 (3rd AFC South, missed playoffs)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Forget about building a team for a second; Jacksonville desperately needs to learn how to build a scouting squad. Seemingly every year for the past decade, the Jags find themselves with a top five pick and a “team needs” list featuring every position on the depth chart. Recently, the organization seems to have some direction with Blake Bortles as the franchise quarterback. Past that point, the rest of improvements are unseen. Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson combined to miss over 75% of the season due to injuries and Denard Robinson has failed to fully learn the role of an NFL running back. At what point does this team realize they need expert help in the draft?

Projected Finish: 4-12 (4th AFC South, missed playoffs)

Denver Broncos

On a recent Jimmy Fallon skit, NFL players were asked to read off their superlatives. Featured on the segment was none other than Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was voted “most likely to have to explain to a rookie what a VCR was”. Unfortunately, this joke is a little too real for the Broncos front office right now. Manning is one of several Broncos stars that are entering their late 30’s and even early 40’s. Sure, the team has been developing a future with picks such as QB Brock Osweiler and WR Cody Latimer in the past few drafts. Until we see those draft picks in a meaningful game though, the future of the Denver franchise remains a huge question mark. Realistically, 2015 might be the last shot Denver has at a Super Bowl run under the current regime.

Projected Finish: 11-5 (1st AFC West, #3 seed in AFC Playoffs)

Oakland Raiders

Yes, the Raiders might seem a little out of place on this list, but I’m a huge buyer on the Derek Carr-led Raiders. The front office seems to have adopted a new philosophy in the war room: drafting players based on their ability to win games at the NFL level rather than acceleration in particular skills (remember when they took Darrius Heyward-Bey over Michael Crabtree?) For a pocket passer, Derek Carr’s rookie numbers were actually above average, a true testament to his ability factoring in the lack of weapons in his passing arsenal. From what we’ve seen in preseason action, Carr’s chemistry with Amari Cooper might land “AC/DC” at the top of the list for best quarterback/receiver combo in the NFL. Oakland is a team to follow closely this season.

Projected Finish: 8-8 (2nd AFC West, missed playoffs)

San Diego Chargers

Through three weeks of making picks for every game, I was stunned to see my predictions landed San Diego in the basement of the standings at 0-3. This possibility is actually fairly realistic though with Philip Rivers and company’s tendency to start slow in the first half of the season. The typical San Diego Super Chargers comeback push in November might not be in the cards this year, though. With one of the toughest schedules with matchups against fellow AFC West rivals, in addition to drawing the AFC and NFC North teams in non-divisional action. Antonio Gates’ suspension will keep him out for at least four games and highly regarded rookie running back Melvin Gordon III is battling a hamstring injury that tends to linger in young backs. Unless a few playmakers on defense emerge early on in the season, there won’t be enough time for San Diego to recover later in the year following a slow start.

Projected Finish: 7-9 (3rd AFC West, missed playoffs)

Kansas City Chiefs

The true indicator of a strong division is when a 6-10 team finishes in last place. Perhaps geography will prove to be the bane of KC in 2015, taking into account their schedule is nearly identical to that of the Chargers which I discussed above. While fierce competition is an easy excuse to throw out should the Chiefs miss the playoff this year, the organization’s true issue is learning when to let go. Since 2011, KC’s notable draft picks include Aaron Murray, De’Anthony Thomas, Chris Conley, Dontari Poe, and Justin Houston. Yet, on offense the first three players listed have seen limited reps during their tenure with the Chiefs, and the two latter defensive studs aren’t being utilized properly (Poe stuffing the run and Houston providing the pass rush). This refusal to move on is evident in the hiring of coaches. Andy Reid is truly one of the better coaches of the 21st century, but his success came in a Philadelphia offense that had a true elite quarterback in Donovan McNabb leading the charge, not an enigma such as Alex Smith. I believe the Chiefs will make at least one substantial adjustment by their bye week and will likely come out strong in the second half of the season.

Projected Finish: 6-10 (4th AFC West, missed playoffs)

Dallas Cowboys

Unusual to Dallas football culture, the Cowboys experienced an interesting position battle for the starting running back role after losing DeMarco Murray to free agency. Big D boasted the league’s top rushing offense last year, but where their success should be credited is unknown in a case of the chicken and the egg. All-Pro rookie guard Zack Martin completed the league’s best offensive line and subsequently, DeMarco Murray broke out, threatening to break Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing yards record for a good portion of the season. We’ll see just how much the Cowboys O-Line had in Murray’s success. If all works out, Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, or whoever ends up lining up behind Tony Romo should find success and this two dimensional offense can help Dallas repeat as division champs.

Projected Finish: 11-5 (1st NFC East, #2 seed in NFC Playoffs)

New York Giants

Picking the two wildcard teams in the NFC was easily the toughest decision I needed to make when writing this article. After going through all of the games and totalling up wins and losses, five non-division winners ended with a record of 8-8 or better, including the G-Men. In any crowded wildcard picture, head to head wins over the competition is a team’s strongest ally, which automatically settles any tie in seeding. A full season with Odell Beckham Jr. at Eli Manning’s disposal allows the Giants to match any offensive output they’ll encounter during the course of the regular. The missing link in this puzzle though is on the defensive line with Jason Pierre-Paul and the drama that has ensued following his July 4th accident. When JPP was absent from the field in 2013 and 2014, the Giants struggled tremendously in their pass rushing efforts. In a conference where Pro Bowl quarterbacks are plentiful, New York won’t apply enough pressure to keep up.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (2nd NFC East, missed playoffs)

Philadelphia Eagles

Oh well, Chip Kelly’s plan to get Marcus Mariota didn’t exactly work out. At least the Eagles only lost LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Nick Foles, and Darren Sproles in Kelly’s failed attempt. To say the direction of the Eagles did a complete 180 this past spring is an understatement. The offense now consists of Sam Bradford, Ryan Matthews, DeMarco Murray, and newly draft receiver Nelson Agholor. What’s the common denominator with this set of names? A long, detailed injury history. Now granted the odds of all five of these players going down in the same season for a significant amount of time are extremely low. There are too many question marks though to fully trust the Eagles when half of the team still hasn’t adapted to Chip Kelly’s offense.

Projected Finish: 8-8 (3rd NFC East, missed playoffs)

Washington “NFL Team”

In my opinion, Washington is throwing in the towel prematurely on Robert Griffin III. In 2012, a deal between this organization and the Rams landed brought RG3 to the nation’s capital in exchange for a package of draft picks. With what Washington had left to work with in future drafts, the team continued to build around RG3 with countless linemen picks to protect their injured quarterback. Not even the Cowboys’ line could save Griffin III though, the damage to his knee has reached the “beyond repair” point. What makes this ordeal even worse is that picks that would’ve been better spent on defensive players to eventually replaced Brian Orakpo, London Fletcher, and DeAngelo Hall were sacrificed to the RG3 plan. Luckily Colt McCoy is great at managing a game and can win a few close games for this team. That solution is only temporary though, and Washington is in deep trouble when the clock on McCoy expires.

Projected Finish: 4-12 (4th NFC East, missed playoffs)

Green Bay Packers

Only a team with Aaron Rodgers as it’s quarterback could be considered a Super Bowl favorite after the offense lost one of the top five receivers in the NFL. Rodgers possess a talent that comes along once or twice in a decade with a young quarterback: the ability to make a superstar out of the average receiver. If Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb developed through the average NFL system, these two superstars would be nothing more than pedestrian receivers on a .500 club. Luckily for Rodgers, he’s already ahead of the game with filling in the void left by Nelson’s ACL injury. Late in the postseason, rookie Davante Adams stepped up in the passing game against the league’s tightest pass defenses, including Seattle’s Legion of Boom. Second year pickups Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis serve as potential slot receivers, a role that made Randall Cobb an outstanding performer.

Projected Finish: 12-4 (1st NFC North, #1 seed in NFC Playoffs)

Detroit Lions

Credit Detroit’s front office for piecing together a roster that actually looks better on paper than last year’s team. Sure, Ndamukong Suh’s sell out to South Beach hurts the honolulu blue’s pass rush, but the other losses on the defensive front will be easily forgotten when Haloti Ngata makes his presence felt. Jim Caldwell’s connection to Ngata is very strong considering the two spent several years together in Baltimore. More importantly, Ngata’s run stuffing capabilities better suits the philosophy of Detroit defensive playbook than Suh. Of course, though, at the end of the day there’s always Megatron, aka Calvin Johnson, and as long as number 81 is lined up wide of Matthew Stafford, Detroit is never out of a game. The field of playoff contenders is a little thicker this year, but don’t be surprised if the Lions roar back into the postseason.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (2nd NFC North, #6 seed in NFC Playoffs)

Minnesota Vikings

Heading into their sophomore campaign, it’s not Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles turning heads from the 2014 quarterback class. Instead, Teddy Bridgewater has captured lightning in a bottle as he continues to translate his success from Louisville to the NFL. In year two, Bridgewater’s offense is adding two big names in search of a rebound season. There’s Adrian Peterson in the backfield, returning from suspension due to off-field issues. Meanwhile, wideout Mike Wallace is a darkhorse for comeback player of the year following a dreadful tenure in Miami where the former Steeler standout never synced up with Ryan Tannehill. The only obstacle keeping this team from a playoff berth lies with the offensive line. Bridgewater failed to use his dual threat tendencies to evade the NFC North’s notoriously tough defensive fronts last season. With Detroit and Chicago both taking steps to improve their lines this offseason, Minnesota will have to address non-skilled positions in next year’s draft.

Projected Finish: 8-8 (3rd NFC North, missed playoffs)

Chicago Bears

The front office in Chicago spends every offseason finding ways to win with Jay Cutler at quarterback. From stockpiling receivers for depth, to strengthening the offensive line to improve protection, to piecing together a shutdown defense that keeps the offense in every game. Entering 2015 though, Cutler will operate under rough conditions. After Brandon Marshall’s departure in a trade to the Jets, the Bears looked to replace Cutler’s former teammate in Denver with a standout receiver in the draft. Enter Kevin White, widely considered the second best receiver on the big board behind Amari Cooper, who’s rookie campaign was over before starting. White’s season ending injury is a theme with the Bears. Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal, and Marquess Wilson all entered the season opener against Green Bay under a questionable status, a scary situation in week one. Unless the health issues improve, the Bears might finish at the bottom of the NFL.

Projected Finish: 6-10 (4th NFC North, missed playoffs)

Atlanta Falcons

Before analyzing any NFC South team, let’s set the record straight: 7-8-1 won’t be enough to win this division in 2015. The dirty birds must feel like they have something to prove this season after being blown out in essentially a division title game to end the season last year….at home. The biggest difference in this campaign is head coach Dan Quinn, a popular pick for Coach of the Year. Quinn was the architect behind the Legion of Boom up in Seattle. While the Falcons’ secondary isn’t exactly turning heads, Atlanta’s first round pick is the most physical player in the 2015 rookie class: a 6’3 linebacker out of Clemson, Vic Beasley. This team will have the most feared pass rush within their division, a huge key to stopping Atlanta’s biggest rival in Drew Brees and his Saints. If Matt Ryan can come through in a playoff game, this squad is a huge dark horse for Super Bowl 50.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (1st NFC South, #4 seed in NFC Playoffs)

New Orleans Saints

Incorrectly predicting the demise of both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady over the past few seasons, the media has turned their attention to Drew Brees. This isn’t the same Saints team that won a ring five years ago in one of the most memorable playoff runs of the past decade. Brees isn’t quite ready to hang up the cleats, though. Although Jimmy Graham was shipped off to Seattle, the All-Pro tight end posted one of his worst seasons statistically last year in the Big Easy. Plus, the return of Brandin Cooks who looked phenomenal in the first quarter of 2014 will nullify any effects on the Saints’ offense. Brees also has CJ Spiller at his disposal, a great dual threat back that provides NO a great check down option when Cooks or Marques Colston can’t get open, something this team hasn’t had since Darren Sproles left town. Without a doubt, Brees can match any quarterback in an offensive fireworks show, just maybe not on the level that he could in 2010.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (2nd NFC South, #5 seed in NFC Playoffs)

Carolina Panthers

The moment that Carolina lost their status as favorites in the NFC South came when Kelvin Benjamin held his knee in pain and limped off the Panthers’ practice field in Spartanburg, SC. Coming off a strong rookie season in which he collected over 1000 receiving yards, Benjamin allowed both quarterback Cam Newton and Panther fans to forget about Steve Smith Sr., but Smitty’s absence will certainly be felt in 2015. However, Newton has run a mostly effective offense without Smith Sr. or Benjamin several times in the past, and after the team locked up linebacker Luke Kuechly for the foreseeable future, this team might need to win their games with an old school, defensive struggle. Again though, this could prove challenging without DeAngelo Williams in the backfield. Working around the Kelvin Benjamin injury is certainly possible, but Carolina might not have the manpower to do so effectively.

Projected Finish: 9-7 (3rd NFC South, missed playoffs)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Speaking of Cam Newton, I see shades of the 2011 top pick in this year’s top pick. Jameis Winston is responsible for turning around a Bucs team that finished at the absolute bottom of the league in 2014. As strange as this sounds, Tampa isn’t that bad off for a team that finished 2-14. Winston already has a veteran receiver in Vincent Jackson that can aid in directing traffic. In terms of talent, the Florida State alum possess one of the most underrated players of the 2014 rookie class: Mike Evans. In his second year out of Virginia Tech, Evans has the size and strength of Calvin Johnson in addition to the speed of Antonio Brown. Jackson and Evans alone can create enough opportunities for Winston to make clean throws instead of forcing balls into coverage that have labeled the 2013 Heisman winner as turnover prone in the past. Realistically, one dramatic change to New Orleans or Atlanta is all it would take for Lovie Smith’s team to make a push for the playoffs.

Projected Finish: 7-9 (4th NFC South, missed playoffs)

Seattle Seahawks

One blockbuster trade at the start of free agency actually made an even scarier threat in 2015. Don’t forget, this is a team that was a four yard rush away from repeating as Super Bowl Champions. Russell Wilson nearly collected his second Super Bowl ring in three NFL seasons by defeating both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The horror of Super Bowl XLIX is in the rear view mirror for this team now, though. Wilson is adjusting to a new offense in the Pacific northwest with one of the best tight ends in the game: Jimmy Graham. Expect 2015 to be a transition period for Wilson. The rushing attack might be strong for now, but Marshawn Lynch’s time in the NFL is coming to a close. More emphasis will need to be placed on Russell Wilson’s arm rather than his footwork. There will be some growing pains for a team and a fanbase now accustomed to sitting atop the NFC throne. In a long term perspective though, changes in Wilson’s style made now could create a dynasty.

Projected Finish: 10-6 (1st NFC West, #3 seed in NFC Playoffs)

Arizona Cardinals

Putting aside CenturyLink Field and the 12th man up in Seattle, University of Phoenix Stadium has turned into one of the toughest venues to win at on the road. No, Cardinals fans aren’t shattering records for loudest decibel level or creating a hostile environment for opposing teams. Part of this can be attributed to head coach Bruce Arians’ impressive resume. While quiet in nature, this coach has contributed to two Steelers Super Bowl victories and worked with some of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks today, including Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. In turn, under Arians’ system a slew of quarterbacks were able to piece together an 8-1 start for the red and black attack last season, eventually leading to a playoff berth. Palmer might have rediscovered the magic he lost in Cincy nearly a decade ago, but the former USC hurler isn’t capable of winning a 35-31 quarterback battle. On defense, the chemistry between LSU teammates Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu is impeccable. However, this team simply cannot stand up against a rushing team, a huge concern when Eddie Lacy, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Melvin Gordon III, and Jamaal Charles are on your schedule.

Projected Finish: 8-8 (2nd NFC West, missed playoffs)

St. Louis Rams

Back when the Rams received a package of draft picks for practically dealing away Robert Griffin III to Washington, the St. Louis front office discovered a gold mine. This was able to address two needs in the first round of the draft for the past three years with two picks from a slew of high profile college studs. Entering 2015, we’re all still waiting for those picks to become playmakers. In the meantime, the Rams are very to similar to their 2011 team, in need of a true top wide receiver, a strong, physical safety, and a defensive tackle to play alongside Robert Quinn. Most importantly, the Rams need a leader in the locker room, a feature that has been absent since Steven Jackson left town three years ago. Nick Foles doesn’t command the same respect as Sam Bradford, and there’s no player on the team’s roster with more than eight years of experience. This year might be a great learning opportunity for a relatively young roster, but that will come at the price of losing their playoff contender status.

Projected Finish: 6-10 (3rd NFC West, missed playoffs)

San Francisco 49ers

Earlier on I noted that Chip Kelly’s Eagles underwent one of the strangest roster rebuilds in recent memory. Similarly, San Francisco experienced a similar summer of change, but the results heading into the 2015 season have proven ugly. In fact, former Niners contributors no longer with the team made up 37% of the team’s snaps last season, which doesn’t even account Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff returning the college football scene. The list of names San Fran have lost is staggering: former Pro Bowl halfback Frank Gore, two starting offensive linemen, two starting defensive linemen, two starting cornerbacks, four linebackers including Patrick Willis, leading receiver Michael Crabtree, and elite punter Andy Lee. This dramatic change would be a difficult pill for any team to swallow. Perhaps most of these moves will prove beneficial in the long run, but as for 2015, the Bay Area is about to experiment with their “new” football team. Prepare for a cringe-worthy four months.

Projected Finish: 5-11 (4th NFC West, missed playoffs)

AFC Playoff Picture

First Round Byes: (1) Patriots, (2) Colts
Wildcard Games: (6) Ravens @ (3) Broncos & (5) Dolphins @ (4) Steelers

The usual suspects return to January football here with the only difference from season being Miami at the top wildcard spot as opposed to Cincinnati. These six teams provide a wide array of potential rematches from impactful playoff games from the past three seasons, including a very interesting showdown between the Ravens and Broncos on Wildcard Weekend. There’s a reason, however, that the Patriots and Colts stand alone at the top of the AFC: nobody can match Tom Brady or Andrew Luck. Ultimately, the script writes itself here: it’s a rematch from a Colts-Patriots championship game last season that sparked the controversial Deflategate, which is still making headlines today. Tom Brady is the only cornerstone quarterback in the AFC that Luck has left to beat, and what better way to do so than in what will be the biggest game to date in his young career.

Prediction: (2) Colts over (1) Patriots in AFC Championship Game

NFC Playoff Picture

First Round Byes: (1) Packers, (2) Cowboys
Wildcard Games: (6) Lions @ (3) Seahawks & (5) Saints @ (4) Falcons

Simply due to the fact that Seattle does not possess home field advantage here, the NFC playoffs could be wide open. Should the Legion of Boom and company rout the Lions in round one, a team that becomes extremely vulnerable on the road must travel Dallas (where Seattle hasn’t won since 2002) or Green Bay (where Seattle hasn’t won since 1999). Don’t rule out the NFC South team that emerges from Wildcard Weekend either; Drew Brees and Matt Ryan have proven they can match pace with Aaron Rodgers or Tony Romo. Realistically though, only one of the five lower seeds have what it takes to beat the Packers in Frozen Tundra. The Cowboys nearly upset Green Bay in the Divisional round of last year’s playoffs when the infamous “completing the process” rule robbed Dez Bryant of a catch that would have secured Dallas a date with Seattle the following week. Similar to the AFC scenario I laid out, redemption is the theme here and Tony Romo finally leads his Cowboys to a Super Bowl.

Super Bowl 50

Indianapolis Colts (SB Record: 2-2) vs. Dallas Cowboys (SB Record: 5-3)

From a historical standpoint, this game has several record-breaking implications for Dallas. First off, by representing the NFC in this game, the Cowboys would hold the record for most appearances in the Super Bowl by any franchise with nine. A win would tie Dallas with Pittsburgh for most Super Bowl victories with six. This is also only the second time in the past decade that the starting quarterbacks from both teams are making their first Super Bowl appearance, the only other occurrence was three years ago when Joe Flacco’s Ravens beat Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers.

Breaking down the game, these two teams are nearly identical on paper. Two strong offensive lines that protect their quarterbacks well. Two running backs past their prime looking for one more shot at immortality. Two secondaries vulnerable to high powered passing attacks. Then of course, two of the NFL’s most questionable performers in clutch situations in Andrew Luck and Tony Romo. The team who possess the ball last might determine the winner in this battle through the air. Ultimately, it comes down to which secondary can take away the opposing quarterback’s top option the best. While each team is equal in ability, I have more confidence in Luck’s ability to connect with Coby Fleener, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett than Tony Romo finding Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley. Luck cements his legacy in Indy and completes his mission of replacing Peyton Manning with a win in the biggest Super Bowl of all time.

Prediction: Colts 34, Cowboys 27
Super Bowl 50 MVP: Andrew Luck, QB, IND

JT Grugen, managing editor and sports analyst for The Knight Times for his entire four-year career at Kings, now attends Ohio State University on a full-ride Evans Scholarship.

photo: ABC NEWS

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