This is probably the least attention I've ever paid to an NFL offseason, so these picks could well end up being my most accurate yet. I'm becoming increasingly turned off by NFL coverage becoming less 'sports league' than it is 'reality show,' so my actual following of player movement has been quite limited. It'll be Week 10 or something and I'll still be going, "wait, he plays for the Jets now?"
Also contributing to the malaise is that, while I'm sure there will be a few surprises along the way, this year's NFL seems relatively easy to predict. There are very, very few teams that don't possess at least one glaring flaw, so either one of the great teams will have something (injury, suspension, etc.) go badly wrong or one of the flawed teams will either correct their problem or simply be the least-flawed team left standing come Super Bowl time. To the predictions!
NFC South: Buccaneers, Saints*, Falcons, Panthers
I feel like I've picked the Bucs as a darkhorse for the last few years in a row and they've always let me down, yet I feel even better about them in 2014 since they have a real coach now. Raheem Morris was in over his head and Greg Schiano was a macho nutcase, but Lovie Smith is an actual legitimately good head coach --- he's not a project or a question mark, as you know what a Lovie team can do. It's for this reason I see Tampa at least making the playoffs, though my division winner pick is perhaps a bit optimistic. It'll be either them or the Saints, who are as reliable as always. Atlanta could rebound from their Murphy's Law season last year, but I'm not sure if the 2013 Falcons necessarily had as many things go wrong as it was a case of a flawed team's problems coming home to roost. In any case, they might rebound to around 8-8 but no further in a tough division. Carolina is going to regress to the point that Riverboat Ron might actually need to get a job as a blackjack dealer next offseason.
NFC West: Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals
Man, this division. I'd probably have both St. Louis AND Arizona ticketed for the playoffs if they were in any other division…wouldn't all four NFC West teams just beat the hell out of anyone from the NFC East? Seattle has to be the clear favourite to repeat yet you could just about talk me into any finishing order for the other three; yes, even San Francisco in last since I think they're due to regress. The Rams losing Sam Bradford isn't really a big loss given that Shaun Hill might actually be a better quarterback; the Cards are praying for one more half-decent Carson Palmer year and the Niners are just trying to keep their entire roster from ended up on the suspended list. Meanwhile, the Seahawks had a pretty drama-free offseason and you can pencil them in for at least seven wins based on home games alone.
NFC East: Eagles, Giants, [NAME REDACTED], Cowboys
Here's another division where the winner seems obvious and the other three as a crapshoot, though in the NFC East it's because everyone is mediocre rather than the hellacious West. Philly should win without too many issues unless it turns out the league has completely caught onto Chip Kelly (which isn't far-fetched). I'm picking New York for second solely because this seems like one of those inexplicable Giants turn-around years when they'll probably contend for the Super Bowl again. Washington is Washington and Dallas is Dallas, so they'll just soak up 75% of the media attention while winning a combined 14 games or less.
NFC Central: Packers, Bears*, Vikings, Lions
Inexplicably, the Central might now be the second-toughest division in football. I'm as surprised as you. Minnesota and Detroit both figure to be improved solely due to coaching changes and, in the Vikings' case, because they've finally given up on Christian Ponder. (I'm on the Teddy Bridgewater bandwagon and feel that the Vikes made a big upgrade.) If Jay Cutler can finally stay healthy for a whole season, Chicago is a quiet Super Bowl contender, minus the fact that they can never seem to beat Green Bay when it counts.
My Packers get their own paragraph since, frankly, I'm a little concerned by the offseason. On the one hand, it seems like the Pack are getting a little Patriots-esque in assuming that anyone can fit into their offensive system, so a good receiver like James Jones was basically just discarded in favour of the up-and-coming cheaper option (Jarrett Boykin). Losing B.J. Raji is a big blow to an already suspect defense and wasn't addressed as much as I would've liked, though I'm intrigued by Julius Peppers. I'm picking Green Bay to win the division again because of Aaron Rodgers (and because I'm a homer), yet it's troubling that a team who has been so brutalized by injuries for two years running didn't do much to upgrade their depth. If the Packers are just crossing their fingers and hoping for good luck from the injury fairies, that's not a sound winning strategy. I could really go anywhere on the Packers this year, from 11-5 to even a 7-9 step back kind of season if the North is as improved as I think it is.
AFC South: Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Titans
Maybe the most miserable division of them all; even any of the NFC East teams would stand a good shot at winning the AFC South. Houston seems like a safe bet to rebound since, unlike Atlanta, their downfall last year had one major root cause and that was Matt Schaub suddenly turning into the worst quarterback in the world. Remove him for an upgrade in….uh, Ryan Fitzpatrick…ok, well, F to a D+ is still an upgrade….and boom, Houston is back on track. Playing in this lousy division definitely lends itself to a quick recovery, though by that same token, it wouldn't be *totally* shocking to see Tennessee or Jacksonville suddenly string together a few division wins and get themselves in the race. The Jaguars aren't as bad as most think, and while the Titans are maybe the most boring team in pro sports, they're at least a halfway tough out. I hate that the Colts' QB is actually named Luck, since when I write something like, "the Colts' luck will finally run out in 2014," it makes it sound like a bad pun other than a solid prediction and you all know how much I hate bad puns. Wait…
AFC West: Broncos, Chiefs*, Chargers, Raiders
Denver is certainly finishing first and the ongoing Oakland clownshow is definitely finishing last. Most pundits feel the Chargers are for real and the Chiefs are due to regress, yet I'm not so sure. It could be because I felt San Diego would be awful last year and I'm still not taking them seriously, but that roster just feels like a bunch that had every break go their way in 2013 and they still only barely squeaked into the playoffs. (And then beat the Bengals in the first round, as if that's an achievement.) The Chiefs just seem more solid from top to bottom and I think they'll finish ahead of San Diego, plus return to the playoffs.
AFC East: Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins
This seems like the AFC West to me, where you have one clear-cut winner and one clear-cut loser, though maybe I'm being a bit too hard on Miami (they're better than the Raiders, in theory). I'm picking New York over Buffalo since the Jets seemingly always overachieve under Rex Ryan while the Bills always underachieve no matter the coach or the talent on their roster. If E.J. Manuel is healthy and the real deal, Buffalo could very well make the playoffs, yet that would entail something actually going right for that franchise.
AFC North: Bengals, Ravens*, Steelers, Browns
This is a weird division for me, since while I'm picking Cincinnati to win, it still just feels like the Ravens or Steelers would both beat them head-to-head. Cincy has enough talent to beat anyone and their ability to always beat the lesser teams will help them win the division again, yet when push comes to shove in the playoffs, I'd have to see them actually win a game before picking them to do anything special. Baltimore is due to bounce back and Pittsburgh doesn't seem to have enough parts to do anything of note, though they'll inevitably win between seven and nine games. The Browns are going to be their usual catastrophe, with Manziel getting torn apart both by defensive lines and the media every week.
* Saints over Packers
* Bears over Eagles
* Ravens over Bengals
* Chiefs over Texans
* Seahawks over Bears
* Saints over Buccaneers
* Broncos over Chiefs
* Patriots over Ravens
NFC title game: Seahawks over Saints
Part of me wanted to ride the Tampa bandwagon all the way to the NFC championship round, yet not even I'm that crazy. Seattle is the obvious pick, the Saints are the safe pick, and the Seahawks will ride their home crowd to yet another Super Bowl.
AFC title game: Broncos over Patriots
Seems too obvious, eh? The fact is, the AFC is still a pretty weak conference overall and it's hard to make a case for any other team managing to rise up and overcome the Brady/Manning regime. Denver wins again after Tom Brady is sacked on a critical fourth down play by a Bronco defender who shot up the middle, leading everyone to realize that Logan Mankins shouldn't have been traded and that "the Patriot Way" is code for being cheap.
Super Bowl: Seahawks over Broncos
Wow, am I literally just predicting a repeat of last year's title game? Talk about phoning it in. To be fair, I did totally call last year's Super Bowl, so maybe I'm the best prognosticator in the world. Or, maybe Seattle and Denver still seem like the deepest and best teams in their leagues and, barring wear-and-tear from two straight extended seasons, both stand out as the favourites again. This year, we'll even get a more competitive game as Peyton Manning will only choke in the Super Bowl by 21 points this year.