Sam Tastad’s NFL Preview, and ‘Expert’ Predictions
The NFL season begins in Seattle with a rematch of the 'Fail Mary' game between the Seahawks and Green Bay Packers on Thursday night on NBC.
There are many storylines heading into the 2014 season. Can Seattle repeat? Does Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have enough for another Super Bowl run or does Tom Brady have another run left in him?
Picks: AFC Championship: Patriots over Broncos
NFC Championship: Saints over Seahawks.
Super Bowl: Patriots over Saints.
AFC East: As long as Brady is quarterback, this division belongs to New England. In the offseason, the Patriots did a nice job bolstering their secondary by adding Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner. I like their odds with this revamped defense, and Brady throwing to a healthy Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and second-year wideout Kenbrell Thompkins. Outside of the Patriots, Miami was 8-8 last year and are hoping Ryan Tannehill can have a big season in his third season in the NFL. The Jets will rely on their defense, after finishing 11th in the NFL in total points allowed. However, their biggest task is quarterback. Can Michael Vick or Geno Smith do enough to be better than the 25th ranked offense than they were last year? Lastly, Doug Marrone could be on the hot seat in Buffalo. The Bills have a young, and talented offense, and a solid defense. But can they produce? If they can't, they might be living on prayer to stay in New York. Pick: Patriots.
AFC South: Andrew Luck is aiming to carry the Indianapolis Colts to their third straight postseason and for at least this season, I think it's a safe bet. Houston will be tough on defense with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney looking to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, but can Ryan Fitzpatrick score enough points on offense? Tennessee could surprise with new offensive minded head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Jacksonville is still at least a year from competing. Pick: Colts.
AFC North: It's really a three-team race between Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. Andy Dalton got a monster deal, but can he finally win a playoff game? Dalton just needs to be a game manager with A.J. Green as his deep threat with A.J. Green, and Giovani Bernard as a multidimensional halfback. Plus, Vontaze Burflict led the league in tackles last year and Geno Atkins is healthy again. In Baltimore, Joe Flacco has a new offensive coordinator (Gary Kubiak) and healthy pieces on offense (Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith and newly-acquired Steve Smith). The Ravens hope it their work in the offeseason can take some pressure off of Flacco. Third, Pittsburgh is in unique situation because Ben Roethlisberger's weapons on offense are shrinking. Emmanuel Sanders is now on the Denver Broncos. That means it's up to Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, and Markus Wheaton to help Big Ben out. Hopefully, Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount won't be suspended for getting arrested and will help Roethliesberger remain confident in the pocket. Pick: Bengals.
AFC West: Denver added some defensive players (DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib). On offense, Eric Decker left for the New York Jets, and the Broncos filled his opening by signing Sanders away from Pittsburgh. The starting running back job is Monte Ball's after Knowshon Moreno left for Miami. Don't sweat it, though. There is this quarterback still under center named Peyton Manning. It will be tough to replicate 2013, where he threw for 55 touchdowns, and he will have to do it without Decker and Wes Welker for the first four games due to a suspension. There's plenty of other weapons, though - DeMaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Sanders. and rookie Cody Latimer should make it easy to have another Orange Crush in 2014. Not only is Welker suspended, but so is Matt Prater for violating the substance-abuse policy. And then, there's history. The last losing team to play in a Super Bowl the next year was the 1993 Buffalo Bills. Aside from Denver, Kansas City and San Diego are still very good. Both the Chiefs at 11-5 and the Chargers at 9-7 made the playoffs last season. The big question is will Kansas City take a step back and can Phillip Rivers have another big season? All things point to the latter with the Chargers favorable schedule (Bills, Jaguars, Jets, Raiders twice, Dolphins, and Rams). Pick: Broncos.
NFC East: Who is going to win division? I'm not even sure, but Philadelphia has to have the edge. The Eagles won last year with a 10-6 record. Nick Foles loses DeSean Jackson, but Jeremy Maclin, and Riley Cooper returns along with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles in the backfield. At tight end, Zach Ertz could breakout. As far as the rest of the division goes, the Cowboys hope Tony Romo's back holds up. He will probably be throwing a lot because the Cowboys defense is pitiful after Sean Lee was lost for the season in minicamp. The New York Giants have a terrible offensive line, and no running game. Plus, Eli Manning is still adjusting to new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system. Washington though, could be a surprise. Their success rides on the shoulders of Robert Griffin III. He has weapons to throw to with Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, Jordan Reed, and newly acquired wideout DeSean Jackson. Griffin III will have to stay healthy, and learn to slide, something that has been subject to criticism lately. Pick: Eagles.
NFC North: Defense is optional in the Black and Blue Division. Green Bay, Chicago, and Detroit have three of the NFL's best arms (Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford). Green Bay's offense became more explosive last year after Eddie Lacy rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Rodgers is fully healthy and is supposedly in the best shape of his career. Once again, the defense will need to improve and it should with Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers teaming up. In Chicago, it's hard to argue with their wideouts; Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Martellus Bennett, and newly acquired Santonio Holmes. The four of them give Jay Cutler some lethal weapons to work with. Like the Packers, their defense will have to improve after giving up 29.9 points a game last year. Matthew Stafford has an offensive coach (Jim Caldwell), and the game's best receiver (Calvin Johnson), and a dangerous tailback when healthy (Reggie Bush). On defense, the line is stout and the secondary needs to get better to give the Lions a shot. Lastly, Minnesota could surprise. Matt Cassel has looked great in preseason. Adrian Peterson is the NFL's best running back, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph are primed for a big year in Norv Turner's new offense. Pick: Packers.
NFC South: Carolina won this division last year and received a first-round bye. This year, Cam Newton will have to do it with new receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, rookie Kelvin Benjamin, and James Avant). Can a defensive ranked second in the NFL for total yards allowed carry the Panthers? With questions on Carolina's offense, New Orleans is a popular pick to win the South. The offense was ranked fourth, and have a new weapon, rookie wideout Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. The biggest improvement is the defense. Rob Ryan's unit was ranked fourth in total yards allowed in the NFL. Atlanta should win more than four games in 2014, but losing Sam Baker was a big loss. Rookie Jake Matthews will be moved to left tackle and will have a big task ahead of himself in protecting Matt Ryan. Fourth, Tampa Bay is a hot pick to be the NFL's biggest surprise. Lovie Smith comes into town with a new quarterback (Josh McCown) and the defense, Smith's speciality, is one of the league's most underrated defenses led by Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Pick: Saints.
NFC West: This division is the Wild, Wild West of the best defenses in the NFL. All four teams were ranked in the top 15 for total points allowed. Plus, they are all very good. Seattle won the Super Bowl, San Francisco made the playoffs, Arizona narrowly missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, and St. Louis was 7-9 a season ago. A lot of people are picking Seattle to repeat, but no team has since the Patriots did in 2003, 2004. Oh, and no Super Bowl champ has won a playoff game the following year since New England repeated. One reason the Seahawks might repeat is Percy Harvin. He is finally healthy and has been practicing in camp. Harvin changed the Super Bowl and could be the reason they win another World Championship. Aside from Seattle, the 49ers will look to go to the playoffs again, but in the first half of the season, they will have to play without NaVarro Bowman (placed on PUP list), Aldon Smith is out until Week Nine (suspension), and Ray McDonald was recently arrested. That's a lot of pressure on Colin Kaepernick. Arizona lost Darnell Dockett in camp and has dealt with some injuries. On offense, how much does Carson Palmer have left? The Rams have one of the best young defenses with Chris Long and Robert Quinn, but Sam Bradford tore his ACL again. It's up to Shaun Hill and the defense now. Pick: Seahawks.
*For comments and story ideas, email Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samtastad.