Preseason Division-by-Division Predictions for the 2014 Season

Sean ODonnellContributor IIIAugust 27, 2014

Preseason Division-by-Division Predictions for the 2014 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It's almost hard to believe we're already on the periphery of the 2014 NFL season. With Week 3 of the preseason—also known as the regular season's dress rehearsal—in the books for all 32 franchises, we received a small glimpse of what each team will have to offer when the games begin to count.

    This is when it becomes customary to predict how each NFL team will fare in the coming season.

    Of course, there are plenty of variables that could be heavy factors once the new season gets underway. Some key players are still rehabbing from injury, we have yet to see anything more than a vanilla scheme from any squad and most rookies will still need time to reach their full potential.

    Regardless, we do have enough information at this point in the year to make an educated guess in regards to the league's rankings come Week 17.

    Will last year's top squads continue to shine? Which teams are in for big setbacks? How many underdog squads will rise from the ashes to become surprise contenders?

    Let's break it down.

AFC East

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    Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1New England Patriots12-4
    2Miami Dolphins9-7
    3New York Jets8-8
    4Buffalo Bills6-10

    Yes, the New England Patriots take the AFC East for the sixth consecutive season. In 2013, this team went 12-4 with an offense that was plagued by injuries and featured two rookie wide receivers. Not to mention a defense ranked 26th in the league.

    This year, not only does quarterback Tom Brady have a more experienced wide receiver corps at his disposal, but a healthy Rob Gronkowski back in the fold simply puts the unit over the top. Defensively speaking, head coach Bill Belichick saw a weakness in his secondary and responded by bringing in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

    Suddenly, this could be one of the most talented teams in the league—and certainly the most talented in the division.

    The 2014 Miami Dolphins come with a rather simple storyline. If quarterback Ryan Tannehill can continue developing throughout the season, this could be a vastly improved team considering the similarity of its roster from a year ago. Although, should the quarterback decline, it could be a long season in Miami.

    The New York Jets have a similar story to that of the Dolphins. This team needs Geno Smith to step up as a worthy field general. He has an improved weapon in Eric Decker this year, and he may have to throw more often than not considering the team may find itself behind frequently due to New York's very thin secondary.

    Expect another year to build in Buffalo. EJ Manuel still looks to have quite a way to go in his development, and his main target is a rookie—albeit a very talented one—in wide receiver Sammy Watkins. This team has a fine defensive unit, but its offense just doesn't have the firepower (yet) to get enough points on the board.

AFC North

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1Pittsburgh Steelers11-5
    2Cincinnati Bengals10-6
    3Baltimore Ravens8-8
    4Cleveland Browns5-11

    We have a bit of a changing of the guard this season in the AFC North, as the Pittsburgh Steelers take control of the division. Last season, the Steelers floundered around in the beginning of the year, heading into their Week 5 bye with a record of 0-4.

    The team's offense made leaps and bounds over the remainder of the season, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally began to get on the same page. Expect this unit to continue that trend into the 2014 season.

    Dick LeBeau's defensive unit finished 13th in the league in 2013 but saw improvement over the back half of the season. The addition of rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier will aid the resurfacing of one of the most feared defenses in the NFL.

    Pittsburgh certainly won't run away with the division, though, as the Cincinnati Bengals will be nipping at their heels throughout the year. Quarterback Andy Dalton broke team passing records last season with 4,293 passing yards and 33 touchdowns. He's looked great during the preseason, and we can expect him to produce similar numbers in 2014.

    Cincinnati's defense has been one of the most stout units over the past several seasons, finishing third in 2013. However, due to the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to the Minnesota Vikings, we'll have to wait and see if this unit can keep up that hard-nosed mentality going forward.

    As for the Baltimore Ravens, the question is this: Can we trust quarterback Joe Flacco in 2014? He had a simply awful showing in 2013, and despite the addition of Steve Smith, he isn't a lock to improve on those numbers this year due to the lack of a balanced offense—the offensive line struggles blocking for the run, and Ray Rice is facing a two-game suspension.

    Baltimore's defensive unit is chock-full of talent; however, if the team's offense can't get it together, there's no way it can compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

    Then we have the Cleveland Browns. Things appeared to be on the upswing over the offseason for this team. The Browns have a very stout defense, drafted a potential franchise quarterback in Johnny Manziel and have Josh Gordon—one of the most talented wide receivers in the league—at his disposal.

    Well, Manziel has looked awful during the preseason, losing the quarterback competition to Brian Hoyer, and Gordon is facing a suspension for at least of good chunk of the season. This appears to be another year full of unanswered questions for Cleveland.

AFC South

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1Indianapolis Colts11-5
    2Tennessee Titans8-8
    3Jacksonville Jaguars6-10
    4Houston Texans3-13

    Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts offense are ready to roll in 2014. The third-year signal-caller improved by leaps and bounds in 2013, and that trend should continue due to the return of Reggie Wayne and addition of Hakeem Nicks.

    While the Colts don't have the strongest defense in the league—they ranked 20th in the league last season—the team's offense is good enough to blow the doors off of most defensive units. There's no reason to believe this team will take a step back from its 11-5 record a season ago.

    There's plenty to like about the Tennessee Titans, who have an improving defense and plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Generally, predictions can't be made with the assumption of injury, but quarterback Jake Locker has yet to play a full NFL season. This team won't get over the hump until it has a reliable signal-caller in the fold for a full 16 games.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are a team on the rise. Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has looked phenomenal during the preseason, and the team's younger wide receivers have shown plenty of promise. Unfortunately, as long as Chad Henne is under center, the Jaguars won't rack up any kind of significant numbers in the win column.

    Last season, the Houston Texans finished the season with a record of 2-14, losing 14 consecutive games to earn the top draft pick in 2014. While this team does have some talent on both sides of the ball, poor quarterback play doomed its season. Making the switch from Matt Schaub to Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't exactly an upgrade, and we can expect Houston to be in the running for the draft's No. 1 pick once again.

AFC West

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    USA TODAY Sports
    RankTeamRecord
    1Denver Broncos13-3
    2San Diego Chargers11-5
    3Kansas City Chiefs9-7
    4Oakland Raiders3-13

    It's difficult to bet against the Denver Broncos after Peyton Manning's record-setting season in 2013. While he may not put up those gaudy numbers in consecutive seasons, he certainly has the weapons to finish the year as the NFL's most prolific passer once again.

    What's most impressive about this team is its focus on the defensive side of the ball over the offseason. Denver brought in players such as DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib to increase its defense's versatility and toughness. The Broncos may be a more well-rounded team than they were a year ago—and that's a scary thought.

    The San Diego Chargers should be expected to take another step forward this year after squeezing into the playoffs in 2013. Quarterback Philip Rivers has been resurgent under head coach Mike McCoy, and this year, he has an improved offensive line and the return of Malcom Floyd to complement Keenan Allen.

    San Diego's secondary was its Achilles' heel in 2013, but an improved unit, including rookie cornerback Jason Verrett, should allow for visible improvement this year.

    While the Chargers take a step forward, the Kansas City Chiefs take a step back. Quarterback Alex Smith was efficient a year ago, but the team as a whole struggled down the final stretch of the season, finishing the year with four losses over its final six games. The coaching staff didn't address the squad's lack of offensive weapons over the offseason, and there's only so much running back Jamaal Charles can do to carry the team for another season.

    The Oakland Raiders are a team in a tremendous state of flux. There's some talent the roster—especially on the defensive side of the ball—but the offense will absolutely struggle to get points on the board due to an inconsistent quarterback, thin wide receiver corps and uncertainty at the running back position. It will be another long season for Oakland.

NFC East

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1Philadelphia Eagles10-6
    2New York Giants8-8
    3Washington Redskins7-9
    4Dallas Cowboys6-10

    The Philadelphia Eagles may be one of the most lopsided teams in the NFL, but that won't stop them from taking the NFC East for a second consecutive season.

    Offensively, the Eagles are extremely prolific. Even if quarterback Nick Foles takes a slight step back from his incredible 2013 season, players like LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles and a now-healthy Jeremy Maclin will be right there to pick up the pieces in Chip Kelly's high-octane offense.

    The team's weakness resides in its secondary. The 29th-ranked defense from a year ago, Philadelphia didn't do much to right the ship for 2014. Although, like last year, the offense will put up enough points to mask this deficiency for the most part.

    Will Eli Manning and the New York Giants get their passing game together this year? Manning was dreadful in 2013, and quite frankly, he hasn't looked any better during the 2014 preseason. The offensive line will continue to be a problem, and we don't exactly know what rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has to offer just yet. This team is full of uncertainty and looks poised to reach the .500 mark this year.

    The Washington Redskins only came away with three wins a season ago, but they should be improved enough to at least double that number in 2014.

    Jay Gruden helped develop Andy Dalton nicely in Cincinnati, and his tutelage should benefit Robert Griffin III too. The addition of DeSean Jackson certainly won't hurt either. The defense has improved slightly as well over the offseason as well, but the fear for this team is consistency under a first-time head coach.

    Expect the Dallas Cowboys to take a step back in 2014. The team's defense was ranked dead last a season ago, and multiple losses of key players on that side of the ball will maintain that No. 32 ranking this season. Tony Romo and Co. should put enough points on the board to accumulate some wins, but not many.

NFC North

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
    RankTeamRecord
    1Green Bay Packers11-5
    2Chicago Bears9-7
    3Detroit Lions8-8
    4Minnesota Vikings6-10

    Don't look now, but quarterback Aaron Rodgers is healthy once more. Rodgers played in just nine games in 2013, but the Green Bay Packers still finished atop the NFC North. This fast-paced offense is one of the most difficult in the league to contain—and the emergence of running back Eddie Lacy last season gave the squad a new wrinkle.

    Green Bay struggled a bit on defense last season, but it did come away with one of the offseason's biggest free-agent acquisitions in Julius Peppers. Add a healthy linebacker corps into the fold, and we could see a vastly improved unit in 2014. This is the most well-rounded team in the division, and Green Bay's final record will reflect that.

    Speaking of healthy quarterbacks, Jay Cutler is looking to go the full season for the Chicago Bears in 2014. His rocket arm combined with the talents of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery give this offense a passing attack feared by most defenses.

    The problem last season was on defense, as it ranked dead last against the run. The Bears improved their pass rush tremendously with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, but the team's run defense is still in question. This unit's production could prove to make or break Chicago's season.

    The Detroit Lions continue to be a rather perplexing team. There's so much offensive talent at quarterback Matthew Stafford's disposal, but the unit remains inconsistent. The same can be said on the other side of the ball, as Detroit's run defense has looked solid, but its young secondary has struggled to contain most passing attacks.

    Right now, the Lions could easily win eight games based on sheer talent, but there are enough concerns to warrant losing eight as well.

    The Minnesota Vikings are a team in transition under first-time head coach Mike Zimmer. The defensive-minded coach did wonders in Cincinnati, and he'll have his work cut out for him as he attempts to transform last year's 31st-ranked unit.

    To make his job even tougher, the Vikings aren't exactly in good standing on offense. Matt Cassel was just barely good enough to win the starting job over rookie Teddy Bridgewater. While this team is in flux, don't expect to see too many wins accumulate immediately. However, there's certainly light at the end of the tunnel.

NFC South

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1New Orleans Saints12-4
    2Atlanta Falcons10-6
    3Tampa Bay Buccaneers8-8
    4Carolina Panthers6-10

    The New Orleans Saints looked like a very complete team a season ago, riding its high-flying offense and budding defense to an 8-0 home record and 11-5 mark overall. Expect Drew Brees and Co. to better that number in 2014.

    This offense remains as dynamic as ever thanks to the more experienced Kenny Stills and addition of rookie Brandin Cooks to join the steady Marques Colston and the dangerous Jimmy Graham.

    Defensively, this team flourished under Rob Ryan in 2013, finishing the season ranked fourth in the league. With another year of experience under the defensive coordinator and the additions of Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd in the secondary, this unit should be expected to finish among the league's best yet again.

    The Atlanta Falcons will be one of the most resurgent teams in the NFL this season. The offensive line is in better shape than it was last year, and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are healthy once again. We should expect bit things from quarterback Matt Ryan.

    Atlanta also did a nice job solidifying the interior of its defensive line over the offseason, adding Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. These two players will be instrumental in improving a run defense that ranked 31st in the league one year ago.

    New head coach Lovie Smith has already done wonders for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is a completely different team from the one that finished last season with a 4-12 record.

    Tampa Bay's offense is just huge now. Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans are both 6'5", and the team has a new veteran quarterback in Josh McCown who made a living tossing jump balls in Chicago last season. The return of Doug Martin to bolster the backfield is a big added bonus.

    Tampa Bay's defense appears vastly improved as well. The team added Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald to pair with Gerald McCoy to form one of the league's most threatening defensive fronts.

    As for the Carolina Panthers, it just doesn't look good. The team was a big surprise a season ago, winning the division with a 12-4 record. While the league's No. 2-ranked defense remains intact, it's the offensive side of the ball that causes concern.

    The offensive line remains iffy at best—Cam Newton suffered a fractured rib during the preseason as a result—and there's a severe lack of explosive weapons at the quarterback's disposal.

    Rookie Kelvin Benjamin is already slated as a starter, and veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant simply aren't able to take the top off any defense. Due to this lack of speed, more pressure will be applied up front by opposing defenses this season to contain the running game as well.

    This offense hasn't been overwhelming through the preseason, and this team could be in bad shape if head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula can't get a plan together quickly.

NFC West

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
    RankTeamRecord
    1Seattle Seahawks12-4
    2San Francisco 49ers10-6
    3Arizona Cardinals9-7
    4St. Louis Rams6-10

     

    The Seattle Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champions, and this team hasn't showed any signs of a regression through the preseason. Russell Wilson continues to display sharp decision-making as a passer and the ability to create plays with his feet. Giving him another explosive weapon in a now-healthy Percy Harvin is just the icing on the cake for this offense.

    What more can be said about the league's No. 1 defense from one season ago? The Seahawks have the NFL's best secondary, and the team simply flies around the field, making plays against even the most prolific offenses.

    Not only will the Seahawks win the NFC West once again this season, but expect them to make another deep playoff run.

    The San Francisco 49ers appear to be on the verge of how they began the 2013 season—in a slump. The team's offense couldn't get it together during the preseason, and considering a difficult early season schedule, it could find itself in an early hole.

    There's far too much talent on this team for a slump to last more than a handful of games, so expect San Francisco to right the ship and get into the playoff mix before the regular season comes to a close.

    Last season, the Arizona Cardinals shocked the NFL, going 10-6 and barely missing out on the playoffs. Unfortunately, a very tough schedule will keep them out of the playoffs for another season. Half of the team's games in 2013 are against playoff teams from a year ago, with other tough games coming at Atlanta and against Detroit.

    If quarterback Carson Palmer can continue his resurgence this season, the Cardinals could surprise the league once again; however, based on his roller-coaster preseason, that's certainly not a lock.

    The St. Louis Rams received a very tough break during their Week 3 preseason contest against the Browns. In the first quarter, starting quarterback Sam Bradford suffered an ACL tear that will force him to miss the entire season.

    Without a reliable signal-caller in the fold, this team simply can't be expected to generate an abundance of wins in 2014. There's plenty of young talent in St. Louis, and the future looks bright for this team. Unfortunately, it will have to wait at least another season before seeing the playoffs for the first time since 2004.