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Win-Loss Projections for Every Team at the Start of Training Camp

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2014

Win-Loss Projections for Every Team at the Start of Training Camp

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 NFL season is just over a month away, which, naturally, means it is time to start predicting how things will play out over the course of the regular season.

    Sure, training camps have barely gotten underway, and even initial roster cuts are not on the immediate horizon. However, we have never shied away from making early free-agent predictions or posting that all-too-early mock draft. (Seriously, I think there are some 2016 mocks floating around out there.)

    Therefore, we don't feel it is too soon to make win-loss predictions for each team, and we will be doing exactly that over the next 32 pages. 

    Predictions will be based on last season's performances, offseason roster movement and strength of schedule. Teams will be listed by division in alphabetical order.

Buffalo Bills

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Prediction: 6-10

     

    Analysis

    The Buffalo Bills are in the midst of the league's longest active postseason drought, but this could be the year the team starts to creep back into the playoff picture.

    If second-year quarterback EJ Manuel can take a few positive steps this season (and remain healthy), I believe the Bills will have a good chance to compete for a playoff berth.

    While the New England Patriots still have the inside track to the division title, the rest of the AFC East, and the AFC in general, has been somewhat inconsistent. A three-win improvement could be good enough for Buffalo to earn a wild-card spot, especially if an AFC team like the Kansas City Chiefs takes a step backward this season.

    Manuel's development should be made easier by the addition of first-round draft pick Sammy Watkins, who has the potential to be the best receiver in the division right out of the gate.

    The real question is whether Buffalo's defense can maintain its high level of play after the loss of coordinator Mike Pettine and star linebacker Kiko Alonso.

    Buffalo's defense ranked 10th overall (333.4 yards per game allowed) and second in interceptions (23), but Pettine defected during the offseason to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Meanwhile, Alonso is likely out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Miami Dolphins

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Prediction: 7-9

     

    Analysis

    The Miami Dolphins made a ton of noise in free agency last offseason, but they made only a single-win improvement during the 2013 regular season.

    If third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill can take a big step forward in 2014, this could be the year that the pieces fall into place in Miami. However, this really feels like a team that won't put together more than eight wins on the year.

    The free-agent addition of Branden Albert should at least help keep Tannehill upright, as should the drafting of tackle Ja'Wuan James. Tannehill was sacked 58 times last season.

    The team ranked 27th in total offense a season ago (312.9 yards per game) and 21st in total defense (359.4 yards per game allowed), so there is definitely room for improvement.

    Unfortunately, injuries and suspensions will sideline some players who may have been key to the 2014 season.

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, free-agent acquisition Knowshon Moreno will miss at least a month after undergoing knee surgery. Star center Mike Pouncey may also miss up to eight weeks, according to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald.

    Second-year pass-rusher Dion Jordan has been suspended four games for a performance-enhancing drugs violation. 

    In other words, the Dolphins are not off to a terrific start.

New England Patriots

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Prediction: 11-5

     

    Analysis

    Over the past decade-plus, the New England Patriots have become the crown jewel of the AFC East. As long as quarterback Tom Brady remains healthy this coming season, the Patriots should again be considered the favorites to win the division.

    New England managed to post 12 wins and field the league's third-best scoring offense (27.8 points per game) a year ago, despite trotting out a questionable group of receivers.

    With no major offensive additions other than fourth-round running back James White, the offense may take a slight step back in 2014. The good news is that star tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play, according to NFL Media's Chriss Wesseling.

    The addition of cornerback Darrelle Revis should help bolster a defense that allowed 21.1 points per game last season (10th in the league), Revis was rated No. 1 overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for the 2013 season. Aqib Talib, who was allowed to walk in free agency, was rated 57th.

    According to ESPN, the Patriots do face the league's 10th-toughest schedule. However, one of the other AFC East teams will really have to step up as a contender for New England to not repeat as division champion. 

New York Jets

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    The New York Jets have finished 8-8 in two of the past three seasons, so predicting a .500 finish feels like a fairly safe bet here.

    On paper, this appears to be an improved team. The Jets added wide receiver Eric Decker and Chris Johnson in free agency, which should add some punch to an offense that ranked just 29th in the league in scoring in 2013 (18.1 points per game).

    However, it felt like New York overachieved to reach eight wins last year. Surpassing that mark seems unlikely, especially with the team facing the league's ninth-toughest schedule.

    The wild card, of course, is second-year quarterback Geno Smith. Smith was rated 40th among quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus for the 2013 season, but he appears to have the inside track at the starting job.

    If Smith can show some serious improvement in his second season, the Jets may emerge as surprise playoff contenders. The defense, which ranked 11th in the league last year (334.9 yards per game allowed), should again put the team in position to win games.

    However, it feels like this is a team that is a year away from really turning things back around.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    The Baltimore Ravens went from being Super Bowl champions to being just another .500 team last year, thanks to a couple of key issues.

    A weak running game (30th in the league, averaging 83 yards per game) hurt the team offensively, as did an overall lack of playmakers on that side of the ball. Trading away wide receiver Anquan Boldin may have been a mistake.

    Signing longtime Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith returns a veteran presence to the Ravens receiving corps. Smith should immediately become quarterback Joe Flacco's go-to target and one of the biggest playmakers on the team. 

    If the Ravens can squeeze a little more production out of the ground game, things should be just fine offensively.

    The Ravens drafted linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan back in May, which should help boost a playoff-caliber defense that ranked 12th in scoring (22.0 points per game allowed) a season ago.

    Playing the league's fifth-easiest schedule should help the Ravens get back on track.

     

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the postseason in each of the past three years, though the team hasn't exactly experienced any playoff success.

    Another trip back (and maybe even a playoff win) is entirely possible, as this is a superbly talented team that lost few key pieces during the offseason. In fact, the drafting of cornerback Darqueze Dennard and running back Jeremy Hill might even make this a better team on paper.

    However, I think the Bengals will struggle to overcome the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, both of whom left to fill head coaching positions.

    Keeping some sense of consistency will be key for Cincinnati as it attempts to get back to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. I think the Bengals are a playoff team, but I don't see them being as dominant as they were a season ago. 

Cleveland Browns

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    With new general manager Ray Farmer and new head coach Mike Pettine building the team, the Cleveland Browns approached the offseason aggressively and are set up to be a contender if the right pieces fall into place.

    On paper, the Browns defense should be even better than the ninth-ranked unit (332.4 yards per game allowed) the team fielded last season. Free-agent additions like Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby should help bring leadership, while young players like rookie first-round selection Justin Gilbert should add talent.

    Of course, Cleveland will still have to find a way to play efficiently on offense, especially with star receiver Josh Gordon facing a potential year-long ban. Gordon's recent DWI arrest could end any hope of him winning his appeal, which is scheduled for late July, according to ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio.

    Adding free-agent running back Ben Tate and rookie runner Terrance West should help bring balance to the unit, but Cleveland's fate likely hinges on its ability to get solid quarterback play.

    Fortunately, the Browns shouldn't be forced to start rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel before he is ready due to the presence of journeyman Brian Hoyer. According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer, Hoyer has been fully cleared for training camp after last season's ACL tear. 

    The AFC North sent just one team (the Bengals) to the playoffs a year ago. If the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens stumble again, I believe the Browns will have a decent chance of slipping into the playoffs, especially with the league's seventh-easiest schedule. 

    As things currently stand, however, this looks like a .500 team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    The Pittsburgh Steelers should be back in the postseason hunt in 2014 after posting back-to-back 8-8 campaigns.

    It is very easy to forget that Pittsburgh nearly reached the postseason last year and rattled off six wins during the last eight games of the season. It is also easy to forget that the Steelers still field an above-average defense (ranked 13th last season, allowing 337.6 yards per game).

    Pittsburgh added to that defense by drafting linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt in May's draft. And the team added safety Mike Mitchell in free agency.

    As long as the Steelers can play tough defense, run the ball effectively (the team added LeGarrette Blount during the offseason) and protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they should remain in playoff contention. 

    Playing the NFL's eighth-easiest schedule should also help.

Houston Texans

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Prediction: 7-9

     

    Analysis

    After reaching back-to-back postseasons, the Houston Texans stumbled in a disappointing 2013 campaign. This was largely due to two key factors.

    Longtime starter Matt Schaub set a new NFL record early in the season by throwing a pick-six in four consecutive games. He tossed 14 interceptions in total during eight starts (10 total games). The Texans traded Schaub to the Oakland Raiders during the offseason.

    While offseason acquisition Ryan Fitzpatrick (77.5 career passer rating) might not be a long-term solution at the quarterback position, new head coach Bill O'Brien seems to believe he is better than what the team had last season. O'Brien recently named Fitzpatrick the starter over rookie fourth-round pick Tom Savage.

    The other problem for Houston in 2013 was the back injury that caused playmaking running back Arian Foster to miss half the season. Foster has already returned to practice and appears healthy, at least according to left tackle Duane Brown, via Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

    Houston ranked seventh in the league in total defense a season ago (317.6 yards per game allowed) and added freakish pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The defense should again be a major strength of the team, and there is top-three potential for the unit.

    The Texans might be able to surpass the eight-win mark, especially considering the AFC South is far from a powerhouse division. However, the team is no lock for a playoff spot, mostly because some uncertainty remains at the quarterback position.

    The wild card here is star receiver Andre Johnson, who has been staying away from offseason activities as a show of displeasure with the franchise.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    The Indianapolis Colts should be the favorites to win the AFC South for a second consecutive year. However, I'm not so sure they do it in entirely dominating fashion.

    Indianapolis will likely face stiffer competition from Houston and Jacksonville than it did a season ago. The team will also have to overcome the free-agent losses of running back Donald Brown and safety Antoine Bethea.

    According to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, the Colts will also have to play the first four games of the season without star pass-rusher Robert Mathis due to a PED suspension.

    Of course, the Colts still have Andrew Luck, who is the one consistent and proven quarterback within the division. Anything less than a winning season and a playoff spot would be a disappointment for this team. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Prediction: 5-11

     

    Analysis

    While the Jacksonville Jaguars do face a relatively forgiving schedule, I believe the team spent the offseason building for the future more than a 2014 run.

    However, I do believe the Jaguars have an outside chance of ending their playoff woes if some of the rookies manage to make a quick transition to the pro game. 

    The Jaguars have already made it clear that the plan is to sit rookie quarterback Blake Bortles for a season and allow him to learn under journeyman Chad Henne. However, that doesn't mean rookie wideouts Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson can't be immediate contributors.

    Rookie running back Storm Johnson can also have an impact alongside free-agent acquisition Toby Gerhart. 

    The real trick in Jacksonville may rest with head coach Gus Bradley's ability to create an exciting and winning culture in the locker room. So far, it appears he is on his way to doing exactly that.

    "You hear a lot on the outside," Lee recently said, via Ken Hornack of FoxSports.com. "But coming here, this is great."

    Jacksonville probably has a better chance of turning things around in 2015 than this season, but this is definitely a team on the upswing.

    Facing the league's fourth-easiest schedule should give the Jaguars plenty of winnable games, and strange things seem to happen every year in the NFL. Therefore, it isn't safe to completely write off Jacksonville as a potential surprise team.

Tennessee Titans

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Prediction: 7-9

     

    Analysis

    Believe it or not, the Tennessee Titans were actually fairly close to earning a postseason berth last year. Had starting quarterback Jake Locker not missed nine games due to injury (he was 4-3 as a starter last season), the Titans may have been a contender.

    The return of a presumably healthy Locker should give Tennessee a fairly good chance of making a playoff run in 2014. With the Jaguars and Texans each trying to rebuild after disappointing 2013 campaigns, the Titans might even be able to challenge the Colts for an AFC South title.

    Having the league's second-easiest schedule certainly won't hurt Tennessee's cause.

    The Titans didn't make a ton of significant offseason moves, but they did retool the offensive line. Free-agent addition Michael Oher and first-round pick Taylor Lewan should each make an impact in the pass-protection department, which is good news for Locker (or rookie Zach Mettenberger, should Locker stumble).

    The level of success the Titans manage to find this season may hinge on quarterback performance and Tennessee's ability to take pressure off their quarterback via the run game.

    New head coach Ken Whisenhunt has a history of helping quarterbacks succeed, which is a promising sign for the first challenge. With Chris Johnson now with the Jets, the latter task falls to second-round draft pick Bishop Sankey. 

    The AFC looks to be a fairly wide-open conference this year, but I ultimately see the Titans hovering around the .500 mark. 

Denver Broncos

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    Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

    Prediction: 12-4

     

    Analysis

    The Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in Peyton Manning's second year with the franchise, but they ultimately lost to the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8.

    Naturally, the goal this offseason was to bolster the defense.

    The Broncos reached the Super Bowl last season thanks to the efforts of the league's top scoring offense (37.9 points per game). The team used the free-agency period to bolster the other side of the football, adding cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware.

    Oh yeah, the team also drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of May's draft.

    If the Broncos defense can show significant improvement with these new additions, there is liittle reason to believe the team won't again be the favorites to reach the big game out of the AFC.

    The big question is whether or not the Broncos can match up against the best that the NFC has to offer.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Colin E Braley/Associated Press

    Prediction: 7-9

     

    Analysis

    The Kansas City Chiefs shocked the collective football world in 2013 with a nine-win improvement over the previous season and a surprise playoff run. However, the team suffered heavy casualties in free agency this offseason, which is the primary reason I see Kansas City sliding back toward mediocrity in 2014. 

    According to Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports, the Chiefs lost five significant players within the first 90 minutes of the free-agency period. Those losses were starting left tackle Branden Albert, guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, defensive end Tyson Jackson and wide receiver Dexter McCluster.

    This isn't to say that Kansas City cannot repeat as a playoff team, but the loss of five significant contributors will make the road back to the postseason much more of a challenge.

Oakland Raiders

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Prediction: 5-11

     

    Analysis

    I really like some of the moves the Oakland Raiders made during the offseason, including the addition of veteran quarterback Matt Schaub. Adding James Jones and Maurice Jones-Drew also makes things interesting on the offensive side of the ball.

    First-round pick Khalil Mack should make an immediate impact on defense, and second-rounder Derek Carr may bring a spark to the offense if he can somehow win the starting job. According to Vic Tafur of the the San Francisco Chronicle, there is a real possibility of Carr doing exactly that. 

    However, the simple fact that the Raiders face the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL makes it hard to predict a huge turnaround in 2014. In addition to playing six AFC West games against 2013 playoff teams (the Raiders were the only team in the division to miss the postseason), the Raiders also have to battle the tough NFC West.

    Ultimately, I see this as a transition year for Oakland, with brighter seasons to come, but it is important to remember that the San Diego Chargers slipped into the postseason with a 9-7 record a year ago.

    Strange things can happen in this division, and it is hard to completely rule the Raiders out as a surprise team. If Oakland can steal a couple of wins from within the division, the team could be sitting around the .500 mark and competing for a playoff spot in December.

San Diego Chargers

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    Kent Horner/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    The San Diego Chargers sneaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record last season and pulled off a first-round upset over the Cincinnati Bengals. While part of me wants to say they can do the same thing again this season, I'm inclined to view San Diego as a .500 team with the potential to exceed expectations.

    The Chargers added a few notable pieces during the offseason, including free-agent running back Donald Brown and first-round cornerback Jason Verrett.

    In order to return to the postseason, they will likely need to see some defensive improvements. The team ranked fifth in total offense a season ago (393.3 yards per game), so things on that side of the football should be just fine.

    If the Chargers didn't face the league's fourth-toughest schedule, I'd be much more inclined to increase their projected win total. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    Prediction: 4-12

     

    Analysis

    Call me crazy, but the Dallas Cowboys just feel like a train wreck waiting to happen.

    The NFL's most mediocre team (8-8 each of the past three years), the Cowboys are coming off of yet another disappointing regular-season finish. Yet the team did little to really improve during the offseason.

    Dallas' big free-agent addition was defensive tackle Henry Melton. According to NFL Media's Chris Wesseling, Melton has only recently been cleared to practice for the first time this offseason.

    Drafting offensive tackle Zack Martin in the first round of May's draft gives the Cowboys a nice piece on the line, but it does nothing to improve the league's worst overall defense (415.3 yards per game allowed). Interestingly, Martin was involved in the accident that sent star linebacker Sean Lee to injured reserve with a torn ACL.

    The good news is that starting quarterback Tony Romo has been proclaimed a "full-go" for training camp, according to Mike Fisher of 105.3 The Fan. Romo missed the end of the 2013 season with a back injury and would likely be replaced in the starting lineup with Brandon Weeden if he could not open this season under center.

    Overall, it feels like the Cowboys are in store for a steep decline.

New York Giants

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Prediction: 5-11

     

    Analysis

    Aside from the fact that the New York Giants managed to win seven of their final 10 games last season, there isn't a lot to feel positive about with Big Blue.

    The team lost defensive end Justin Tuck, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in free agency. Meanwhile, standout offensive lineman Chris Snee announced his retirement this offseason.

    Oh yeah, and the Giants are learning a new offensive system—one that quarterback Eli Manning doesn’t appear comfortable with.

    “Yeah, it is different. You come into the season a little nervous; you just don’t have [the same comfort],’’ Manning said recently of the new offense, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

    The good news here is that the NFC East doesn't project as a particularly strong division, and the Giants can't be counted out entirely.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Prediction: 10-6

     

    Analysis

    The Philadelphia Eagles project as the clear-cut favorites to win the NFC East in 2014.

    The team posted an impressive 10-6 record a season ago under then-new head coach Chip Kelly.  The Eagles also boasted the league's second-ranked offense (417.2 yards per game)

    Adding guys like Malcom Jenkins and Darren Sproles during the offseason should only make this team more formidable this coming year. And the drafting of wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff should help ensure the offense remains at its explosive best.

    It will be interesting to see how quarterback Nick Foles performs after spending a full offseason as the team's unquestioned starter. He tossed 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions a season ago and could be in store for even bigger things.

    Overall, I view Philadelphia as a team that should post double-digit wins and that could even be competing for a playoff bye late in the regular season. 

Washington Redskins

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    Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    The potential is there for the Washington Redskins to again reach the postseason, as the team won the NFC East only a year before last season's train-wreck campaign.

    The biggest problem for Washington last season was the drop-off in performance from quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin saw his combined touchdown total drop from 27 to 16 and his passer rating tumble from 102.4 to 82.2, as the previous season's knee injury clearly limited him.

    According to USA Today's Jim Corbett, Griffin is now without the bulky knee brace he sported last season and looks like a completely different player. This means we should see at least some of the magic that helped Griffin lead Washington to the playoffs in his inaugural NFL campaign.

    The addition of wide receiver DeSean Jackson should certainly help Griffin as he looks to rebound.

    The Washington defense, which ranked 18th overall last season (354.1 yards per game allowed), should see a boost from free-agent defensive lineman Jason Hatcher and rookie second-round linebacker Trent Murphy. Hatcher recently underwent surgery but is expected to only miss four to six weeks.

    As long as Griffin and the offense can hold up their end of the bargain, the defense shouldn't be under as much pressure as last season, when offensive points were relatively difficult to come by.

    While the Eagles will look to build on last year's playoff season, the division appears to be in a state of flux. The Giants went just 7-9 last season, and the Cowboys have a myriad of roster questions, including the health of Romo. There is no truly dominant team in the bunch.

Chicago Bears

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    The Chicago Bears should have been a playoff team a season ago. With a fully healthy Jay Cutler back under center, there is no reason they shouldn't be in the mix in 2014.

    Adding free-agent pass-rusher Jared Allen and defensive end Lamarr Houston should help bolster a unit that surrendered a whopping 29.9 points per game last season (30th in the league). Drafting cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive tackle Ego Ferguson should also help in that department.

    Offense should again be a strength for this team. Despite missing Cutler for five games in 2013, the Bears still managed to average 27.8 points per game on the season (second in the NFL).

    Some attrition is likely to result from the three-way battle atop the NFC North, and health will probably be a factor for Chicago once again. Barring something unforeseen, however, the Bears should be right in the divisional race up until the end of the regular season.

Detroit Lions

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Prediction: 7-9

     

    Analysis

    The Detroit Lions fielded the league's sixth-best offense in 2013 (392.1 yards per game), yet they still managed to produce only seven wins on the year.

    I'm not convinced that adding more offensive firepower is the way to get over the hump in the NFC North, but this is exactly what Detroit did during the offseason. The team added wide receiver Golden Tate in free agency and drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of May's draft.

    Detroit wasn't terrible on defense (23.5 points per game allowed), but inopportune mistakes too often cost the team games. The coming season most likely hinges on new head coach Jim Caldwell's ability to get the team to play up to its potential.

    This is a team that would probably be a solid playoff contender in the AFC. However, Detroit has to learn how to consistently win within the division.

    I see things playing out much as they did a season ago and the Lions sitting just outside of playoff contention late in the regular season.

Green Bay Packers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Prediction: 10-6

     

    Analysis

    I'm inclined to project the Green Bay Packers as a playoff team in 2014 simply because quarterback Aaron Rodgers should be under center all or most of the regular season.

    However, I'm not quite prepared to return the Packers to the ranks of the NFC's elite. Winning a division title is extremely possible, but I don't think this team is ready yet to compete with the likes of Seattle or San Francisco on a consistent basis.

    Of course, we'll have an opportunity to see just how the Packers fare against the Seahawks on the opening night of the regular season. It will be one of the more difficult games on a Packers schedule that is the 13th-hardest in the league.

    Of course, as long as Rodgers and 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy are healthy and available, it is hard to count this team out.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Prediction: 4-12

     

    Analysis

    The Minnesota Vikings may have found their quarterback of the future in May's draft when they traded back into the first round to take Louisville product Teddy Bridgewater.

    After looking at the Vikings' schedule, however, it appears that the future may have to wait.

    Overall, the schedule isn't necessarily that tough (actually, it's the 12th-easiest). However, Minnesota opens the year against St. Louis, New England, New Orleans, Atlanta and Green Bay. This means the team could easily be looking at 0-5 to start the season.

    New head coach Mike Zimmer will also have to find a way to turn around a defense that ranked dead-last in the NFL a season ago with 30 points per game allowed. 

    The good news is that the Vikings still have Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately, that alone probably isn't enough to keep Minnesota in contention in the tough NFC North.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    The Atlanta Falcons reached the postseason for three consecutive years before stumbling to a 4-12 record last season. Atlanta has an opportunity to get back into the playoff mix in 2014. 

    The difficult part for the Falcons will be trying to improve a defense that allowed 27.7 points (27th in the league) and 135.8 yards rushing (31st) per game last season. Bringing in free-agent defensive tackle Paul Soliai and drafting defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman should at least help make the Falcons defense more stout up front.

    The Falcons should also be able to improve their rushing attack, which ranked dead last in the NFL last season (77.9 yards per game). Steven Jackson should begin the season healthy, and the team added Florida State standout Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of May's draft. Meanwhile, the free-agent addition of guard Jon Asamoah should not be overlooked.

    Part of the team's struggles last season stemmed from the foot injury that ended wideout Julio Jones' season after just five games. According to Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, the former Alabama star plans to be ready for the opening week of the regular season.

    This means the talented pass-catching trio of Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas should be available right out of the gate. Also, promising rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews should help ensure Ryan has the time to attack downfield.

    Unfortunately, it will still be difficult for Atlanta to surpass the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. However, the NFC South is unpredictable—a team has never won back-to-back NFC South division titles—so anything is possible.

Carolina Panthers

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    Thanks to a stifling defense and the emergence of quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers managed to win 12 games and earn a playoff bye last season.

    Unfortunately, the offseason was not as kind to the team.

    Newton underwent ankle surgery and, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, is still limited in his mobility. Backup Derek Anderson will likely be the guy if Newton is unable to start the season under center.

    The Panthers also lost a number of notable players in free agency, including receiver Steve Smith and safety Mike Mitchell, and longtime tackle Jordan Gross retired.

    The good news for Carolina is that rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin has the potential to develop into a solid No. 1 target for Newton to utilize. There is that—and the fact that the NFC South always appears to be a wide-open division.

    Still, I get the feeling the Panthers will have to take a step back this season before taking another step forward the next.

New Orleans Saints

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Prediction: 10-6

     

    Analysis

    The New Orleans Saints returned to the postseason in 2013 a year after posting a disappointing 7-9 record. The turnaround was thanks in no small part to the return of suspended head coach Sean Payton.

    As long as Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are spearheading this franchise, the Saints are likely to remain in the postseason hunt. The duo helped produce the NFL's fourth-best offense (399.4 yards per game) a season ago.

    The addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan also played a big role, as the defense finished the season fourth in the league in scoring (19.0 points per game allowed).

    New Orleans landed a couple of big pieces during the offseason, signing free-agent safety Jairus Byrd and drafting first-round receiver Brandin Cooks. The fact that the Saints were able to ink tight end Jimmy Graham to a new four-year, $40 million deal is another promising sign.

    The decision to trade away running back Darren Sproles, however, is a bit of a head-scratcher. 

    The Saints face the league's ninth-easiest schedule and should once again be in the NFC playoff mix.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    One of the biggest reasons to get excited about the potential improvement of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the addition of new head coach Lovie Smith. Not only does Smith have experience with the organization (he served as linebackers coach from 1996 to 2000), but he brings with him much-needed playoff and Super Bowl experience.

    The Bucs also signed journeyman quarterback Josh McCown via free agency and subsequently named him their starting quarterback for the upcoming season. McCown brings his own experience and should help solidify the quarterback position for at least the short term.

    Thanks in large part to the presence of playmaking receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, McCown tossed 13 touchdowns with just one interception in eight games for the Chicago Bears last season. The Buccaneers drafted 6'5" receiver Mike Evans in the first round of May's draft to pair with Vincent Jackson. This should give McCown a similarly talented duo to target with his new team.

    Upgrading the passing attack should greatly increase Tampa's chances for success, as the team ranked last in the NFL in that category last season (176.3 yards per game).

    The Buccaneers defense was a middle-of-the-pack unit a season ago, ranking 17th in yards allowed with 348.0 per game. The free-agent addition of pass-rusher Michael Johnson should help, but the Buccaneers will have plenty of chances to win as long as the defense plays well enough to keep the team in games. 

    Having running back Doug Martin back in the fold should also be a tremendous boon. Martin appeared in just six games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He has already been medically cleared and should be back to 100 percent by the regular season.

    Pushing for a playoff spot isn't out of the question for the Buccaneers, but tough NFC South opponents such as the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers may keep the team on the outside at season's end.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Prediction: 9-7

     

    Analysis

    After making the jump from 5-11 to 10-6 last year, the Arizona Cardinals made the leap into contention this past season. However, a playoff spot eluded the team thanks to the success of divisional opposition.

    Even though the NFC West sent two other teams to the playoffs, last year's team was nearly good enough to sneak into the postseason.

    Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and his array of receiving weapons helped the Cardinals field the league's 12th-best offense (346.4 yards per game). Meanwhile, Arizona's sixth-ranked defense (317.4 yards per game allowed) helped to ensure the team was consistently within distance of a victory.

    The Cardinals looked to free agency to help upgrade the offensive line, which was one of the few real weaknesses in 2013, and came away with left tackle Jared Veldheer as the big prize.

    The drafting of former Washington State safety Deone Bucannon should help add punch to the back end of the Arizona defense. Rookie tight end Troy Niklas and rookie wideout John Brown join veterans Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to form a dangerous receiving corps.

    The goal for Arizona now should be to try to win an additional game or two in order to rise out of the brutal NFC West as contenders for the division title. However, the team should have a decent chance of getting into the postseason as long as it can again post a winning record. 

San Francisco 49ers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Prediction: 11-5

     

    Analysis

    The San Francisco 49ers have reached the NFC title game in each of the past three season, and it is hard to imagine them not excelling again in 2014.

    While the 49ers did lose Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner in free agency, the signing of Antoine Bethea and the drafting of safety Jimmie Ward should help ensure the league's third-best scoring defense (18.0 points per game allowed) continues to thrive.

    Re-signing wide receiver Anquan Boldin was a major offseason win, and the drafting of running back Carlos Hyde should keep the ground game strong.

    Perhaps the best news of late is that star tight end Vernon Davis appears done with his contract holdout. According to ESPN's Bill Williamson, Davis has reported to training camp. 49ers safety C.J. Spillman first reported Davis' return.

    With a few notable addition and most of the major players back in the fold, the 49ers should again be able to challenge the Seahawks for division and conference supremacy. 

Seattle Seahawks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Prediction: 10-6

     

    Analysis

    It's difficult to predict the Seattle Seahawks taking a step back this coming year, but the reigning Super Bowl champions always seem to have a target on their backs.

    Seattle also faces the league's sixth-toughest schedule, with many of the more daunting matchups coming on the road. Improvements to the division-rival Cardinals and Rams may cause a slight drop in the Seahawks' win total as well.

    Still, this is a team that should have no trouble slipping into the playoffs, and the Seahawks only need that opportunity in order to kick-start another possible championship run.

    Losing wide receiver Golden Tate in free agency and wideout Sidney Rice to retirement may have some impact on the offense. However, the team did draft a pair of promising young pass-catchers in May's draft.

    This is a team built on strong defense (14.4 points per game allowed in 2013) and a punishing rushing attack (136.8 yards per game), and both should remain strengths in the coming season.

    There is little reason to believe that the Seahawks won't again be among the NFL's elite in 2014.

St. Louis Rams

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Prediction: 8-8

     

    Analysis

    The St. Louis Rams face the league's third-toughest schedule and reside in arguably the NFL's toughest division.

    However, I still believe they have a fighting chance of pushing for a playoff spot in 2014. The team fell just a couple of games short in 2013, despite missing starting quarterback Sam Bradford for nine games. 

    The tricky part will be for St. Louis to find greater success within the NFC West (the Rams were 6-4 outside the division last season). Having Bradford at 100 percent for the season should be a major boon, as should the Rams' impressive draft class.

    St. Louis nabbed a potentially elite offensive lineman in Auburn's Greg Robinson. The team also added a starting-caliber defensive tackle and cornerback in Aaron Donald and Lamarcus Joyner, respectively. Meanwhile, rookie running back Tre Mason should be a valuable complement to second-year runner Zac Stacy.

    Considering the Rams won seven games in each of the past two seasons, there is no reason to believe they can't emerge as contenders in 2014. However, the team has yet to take that next step and really push the more successful teams in the conference. This could be the year it finally happens.

    St. Louis already fielded an impressive scoring defense last season (ranked 13th, allowing 22.8 points per game). If the Rams can make some offensive improvements and post even a slightly better divisional record, I see little reason why the team could not be battling for a playoff spot late in the regular season. 

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