NFL: 40 Predictions for the 2014 Season

Cody Swartz@cbswartz5Senior Writer ISeptember 4, 2014

NFL: 40 Predictions for the 2014 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The much-anticipated start to the 2014 NFL season will kick off with a potential playoff preview as the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks will host Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

    This year looks like it could be more of a passing season than ever before. The new officiating rules are leading to increased penalties, which should only help quarterbacks and receivers. Records may shatter, and that bodes well for those who enjoy watching the game’s finest quarterbacks play at an MVP level.

    It’s difficult to predict what will happen in an NFL year. Who would have thought the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans would suffer through such dismal campaigns in 2013? Who would have thought Josh McCown would land a starting job again? And if Nick Foles sets NFL records, is it more Foles or Chip Kelly’s offense?

    2014 should be another wild and crazy season, and three-quarters of these 40 predictions will probably be wrong. But here’s a shot at getting some of them right.

Drew Brees Will Win His First NFL MVP Award

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    Drew Brees has never won an MVP award. That’s hard to believe.

    Since joining the New Orleans Saints in 2006, these are average yearly statistics for Brees: 67.3 completion rate, 4,842 yards, 35 TD, 16 INT, 99.0 rating.

    The Saints ask him to throw the ball 40 times per game, yet he responds with unbelievable efficiency. Brees doesn’t get hurt. He’s money in the bank in terms of consistency.

    Wrestling away the MVP award from Peyton Manning will be difficult. It’s going to go to either a quarterback or running back, as has been the case for the last 27 years. Peyton Manning is a five-time winner, and Tom Brady has won it twice; taking it from either one of those two (or Aaron Rodgers) won’t be easy.

    Look for Brees to win it, though.

    Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is another weapon to soften the loss of Darren Sproles. Brees plays in a relatively easy division, and he’s quietly playing as good of football as any quarterback in league history. A 5,000-yard season with 40 touchdowns should help the Saints get a first-round bye, and that will give Brees the league MVP award.

But Aaron Rodgers Will Lead the League in Passer Rating

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    Aaron Rodgers is on a vengeance this season. How can’t he be, after missing nearly half of the 2013 campaign due to injury?

    Rodgers has posted a passer rating over 100 for five consecutive years, and he led the league in both ’11 and ’12. Rodgers doesn’t throw interceptions; his 1.8 career percentage ranks first all time. Rodgers will throw for over 5,000 yards this season with 40 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions.

    Brees will get the MVP because he will outduel Rodgers head-to-head, and the New Orleans Saints will win more games. A passer rating of around 110 by Rodgers should lead the league, though.

Wes Welker Will Retire After a Season to Forget

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    It’s been a rough month for Wes Welker. He suffered another concussion in the preseason, and then he got busted with a four-game suspension:

    Filed to ESPN: Broncos WR Wes Welker has been suspended four games for use of amphetamines, per sources.

    — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 2, 2014

    There are a handful of players in the waiting. Cody Latimer was a second-round draft pick, and he could break out in 2014, especially given Welker’s suspension. Emmanuel Sanders was signed to be a deep threat.

    This doesn’t bode well for Welker’s future. When his contract expires after this season, he may hang up his cleats for good.

Jay Cutler Will Throw for 35 Touchdowns

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    Marc Trestmann worked wonders with veteran journeyman Josh McCown in 2013, coaxing 13 touchdowns to just one interception out of McCown.

    As a team, McCown and Jay Cutler combined for 4,281 yards and 32 touchdowns. Cutler has much more natural talent than McCown. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to have a banner year.

    Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best receiving duo in the league, Matt Forte is a tremendous receiver out of the backfield, and Martellus Bennett is a quality tight end. If Cutler can stay healthy—which is not a guarantee given Cutler’s recent history—he could hit 4,800 yards and 35 touchdowns.

LeSean McCoy Will Win His Second Consecutive Rushing Crown

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    If you’re picking LeSean McCoy in fantasy football, be confident about what kind of a player you’re getting. McCoy is just 26 years old and in the prime of his career. He runs behind an All-Pro-caliber offensive line, and he’s set his goals pretty high.

    LeSean McCoy says his goal is to rush for 2,000 yards in 2014:

    — FOX Sports NFL (@NFLonFOX) August 7, 2014

    McCoy won’t get 2,000, but he will lead the league. He’ll join the following players as consecutive rushing champions (since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970): LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson. That’s a pretty solid group of players.

    Prediction: 319 carries, 1,716 yards, 5.38 YPC, 14 TD

DeSean Jackson Won't Top 1,000 Yards

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    Chip Kelly seems pretty confident that the Philadelphia Eagles offense can continue rolling without DeSean Jackson. Jackson set career bests with 82 receptions and 1,332 yards in 2013, but he’s now playing in Washington D.C.

    Can Robert Griffin III rebound from a dismal ’13 campaign? That’s the big question. He didn’t look particularly effective in preseason.

    Last year, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated RGIII 20th among 21 qualifiers in deep-ball accuracy (30.4 percent of passes). Jackson has dealt with injuries in the past. He will miss several more games in 2014 and finish with 867 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

Muhammad Wilkerson Leads All Players in Sacks (18.5)

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    It’s really difficult for 3-4 defensive ends to rack up sacks, but J.J. Watt broke the mold on that in 2012. Watt is a dynamic player, and he’s worth every penny of the mega-extension he just signed. Robert Quinn is a good bet to push for 15-20 sacks again, but Muhammad Wilkerson will lead the league.

    Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are a scary group of players rushing the quarterback, especially with massive nose tackle Damon Harrison in the middle of the line. Wilkerson had 10.5 sacks in 2013, which is the same number as Watt. He’s due to explode in ’14, and he should win the Defensive Player of the Year award with those statistics.

Joe Philbin Will Be the First Head Coach Fired

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    Joe Philbin is already on thin ice after the Bullygate scandal of 2013. It’s surprising that he even made it through the offseason as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach.

    Philbin hasn’t had success with the team, going 15-17 in his two years. The offensive line saw a major turnover during the offseason, and the team will be relying heavily on new quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to jump-start Ryan Tannehill.

    That may happen, but the team is too mediocre for Philbin to return in ’15.

A Quarterback Controversy Will Be Brewing in Washington

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    Let’s face it: People love the backup quarterback.

    For some inexplicable reason, the general consensus among many is that Kirk Cousins is a really good backup. It’s confusing, given Cousins’ 2013 statistics: 52.3 completion percentage, four touchdowns, seven interceptions, 58.4 passer rating and an 0-3 record as a starter.

    But RGIII really regressed last year, and he’s struggled to return from his torn ACL as a rookie. His play during the preseason shows.

    RG3 still doesn't know how to SLIDE. Scary.

    — Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) August 19, 2014

    He’s going to get hurt this year and miss significant time. If Cousins plays well, there will be a quarterback controversy. Maybe there already is. 

    Joe Theismann on RG3 vs. Cousins: "If there was a QB competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man."

    — Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 25, 2014

    Even if Cousins doesn’t play well, people may still want him, considering he’s a traditional dropback passer.

4 QBs Will Be Benched

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    Four quarterbacks will be benched this season—Chad Henne, Jake Locker, Josh McCown and EJ Manuel. (And Matt Schaub has already been shelved.)

    Henne and McCown are just placeholders for the quarterbacks of the future. Blake Bortles looks like a franchise player, and Mike Glennon somehow got bumped to second on the depth chart despite a very promising rookie season.

    Locker hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Why not see what 2014 sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger can offer?

    #Titans rookie QB Zach Mettenberger led the NFL in preseason passing with 659 yards.

    — Teresa Walker (@TeresaMWalker) August 29, 2014

    And Manuel sure doesn’t inspire confidence in Buffalo, especially not with what it's paying backup Kyle Orton.

    Kyle Orton gets $5 million. EJ Manuel isn't voted captain. That's a bad look.

    — Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 1, 2014

5 QBs Will Miss Significant Time to Injury

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    Injuries happen in the NFL. They’re very difficult to predict, although we can probably assume Drew Brees and Joe Flacco aren’t getting hurt, given their uncanny ability to stay healthy. I’m taking a stab in the dark when I predict five quarterbacks will miss significant time due to injury this season. (Sam Bradford doesn’t count, as he’s already out for the year.)

    RGIII is the top pick to get injured, based largely on the way he plays the game.

    Tony Romo had offseason back surgery, which makes him a strong candidate to get hurt, and's Mike Coppinger reports it has carried over to his play in preseason.

    EJ Manuel didn’t stay healthy as a rookie, and there seems to be a direct correlation between a quarterback’s ineffectiveness and his inability to stay healthy (call it the Jake Locker or Bradford effect).

    Cam Newton and Eli Manning have never missed a start in their careers. Newton had offseason ankle surgery and now he’s dealing with a fractured rib. He’s without his left tackle, and he runs enough that he has to be considered an injury risk. Manning had offseason ankle surgery and then a preseason to forget. Sometimes quarterbacks just get hurt, and it may be his time.

    Predicted Games Missed: Romo (7), Newton (5), Manning (4), Manuel (4), Griffin (4) 

A Record 14 Quarterbacks Will Throw for 4,000 Yards

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    The NFL is a passing league. The officials will be calling more penalties on defensive backs for contact.

    That means passing yards will explode.

    The following quarterbacks will hit 4,000 yards in 2014: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles, Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill.

    The first five will all hit 5,000, with Cutler just missing out.

13 Running Backs Will Rush for 1,000 Yards

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    LeSean McCoy will lead the NFL in rushing yards, with Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles finishing second and third, respectively.

    The following players will also top 1,000 yards: Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Toby Gerhart, Montee Ball, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, DeMarco Murray, Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington.

    No major surprises here. Veterans who will fall short: Alfred Morris, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson, Ryan Mathews, Ray Rice and Frank Gore.

4 Wide Receivers Will Catch 100 Passes

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    Catching 100 passes is no easy task, and just four wide receivers will reach that mark in 2014.

    Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green are the obvious choices. Jordy Nelson is a terrific receiver with an elite quarterback.

    And the fourth player is a bit of a surprise, as Golden Tate will squeeze out 101 catches in that pass-happy offense led by Matthew Stafford.

3 Tight Ends Will Reach 1,000 Yards

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    Tight ends are the new "in" thing in the NFL. Players like Jimmy Graham, former basketball players who cause mismatch nightmares, are a quarterback’s best friend.

    Graham will be one of three tight ends with at least 1,000 receiving yards. He’ll be joined by Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron. Greg Olsen will just miss the cut, finishing with 950.

Matthew Stafford Throws for 600 Yards in a Game

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    It’s actually surprising that 4,000 yards has become the norm and players like Drew Brees hit 5,000 yards all the time, but no one has eclipsed the 60-plus-year-old mark of 554 passing yards in a game.

    That will change this year.

    Any quarterback could conceivably do it. All it takes is just one shootout. Matthew Stafford is a safe bet, considering he averages 40 passing attempts per game and does have Megatron on his side. In one epic contest, he’ll break the 600-yard mark.

The Tennessee Titans Go 3-13 and Get the First Overall Pick in the 2015 NFL Draft

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    Ken Whisenhunt is a good coach, but he gets a Tennessee Titans team that lacks an ideal quarterback and may need several years to get in contention.

    Jake Locker hasn’t proved he can pass effectively (or stay healthy), and the running game will need to rely heavily on rookie second-round pick Bishop Sankey.

    The pass defense will be without Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner, the run defense finished 30th in rushing touchdowns allowed a year ago, and the unit will be trying to undergo a transition to a new 3-4 unit. That will lead to a dismal 3-13 season and the first overall pick in next season’s draft.

St. Louis Rams Lead NFL with 60 Sacks

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    The St. Louis Rams won’t score many points on offense, but fortunately, they have a fearsome foursome on the defensive line that may keep them in games.

    Robert Quinn and Chris Long are arguably the finest duo of 4-3 defensive ends in the game. Quinn racked up 19 sacks and Long had 8.5; next year, those totals should be about 16 and 12. Aaron Donald was picked in the first round for his explosive pass-rushing skills in the interior line, and the team returns Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, William Hayes and Eugene Sims, plus camp standout Ethan Westbrooks.

    The Rams had 53 sacks in 2013. This year, they’ll get 60.

Geno Smith Holds off Michael Vick and Plays Surprisingly Well

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    Rex Ryan doesn’t have a good history of developing quarterbacks, and Geno Smith didn’t start off on the right track a year ago. Smith threw 12 touchdowns to 21 interceptions, finishing last among 37 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating.

    He gets a new deep threat for 2014, as the team signed Eric Decker. Chris Johnson should add some pop to the running game. And new tight end Jace Amaro is another target in the receiving game.

    Smith also played much better down the stretch, and he'll hold off Michael Vick this year. Smith accounted for seven total touchdowns to just two interceptions in his final four games in '13. A good season for Smith in 2014 would be 25 total touchdowns to 15 interceptions.

New England Leads the AFC in Scoring Defense

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    The New England Patriots are going to win a lot of games this season, because they have Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and a pretty easy schedule.

    But don’t forget about that defense. The 2013 Patriots had a good, but not great, defense, rating 10th in points allowed and 26th in yards allowed. This unit will be much better in 2014, bordering on elite.

    The big offseason signing was All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who will be Belichick’s chess piece on defense. Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan team with free safety Devin McCourty to form a secondary that could rank among the game’s finest.

    The defensive line is stocked with Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork, plus first-round draft pick Dominique Easley. Jerod Mayo is a Pro Bowl middle linebacker, and Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are up-and-comers. Look for Collins to contend for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

Kansas City Chiefs Bench Eric Fisher at Midseason

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    It’s looking as if Andy Reid has another first-round bust to add to a collection that already includes Freddie Mitchell, Jerome McDougle, Brandon Graham and Danny Watkins.

    Eric Fisher was horrendous as a rookie, and this is after going first overall. Pro Football Focus rated Fisher 70th among 76 offensive tackles (subscription required).

    He hasn’t looked much better this preseason.

    ERIC FISHER: How not to pass block - absolutely horrendous to turn your back on a pass rusher.

    — UK Draft Guide (@mattphillips78) August 24, 2014

    The problem is that the Kansas City Chiefs have to play Fisher at left tackle. Pro Bowler Branden Albert left in free agency and right tackle Donald Stephenson is suspended for four games. So they’re stuck with Fisher, and that doesn’t bode well for Alex Smith.

Best Free-Agent Signing: Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

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    I’ve already said I think Golden Tate breaks out and catches 100 passes this season. It’s not as unrealistic as it may seem.

    Matthew Stafford has averaged 675 passes per year since 2011. He struggles to complete 60 percent, but that’s still close to 420. Calvin Johnson should be good for 115 of those receptions. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will each catch 50. Nate Burleson and Kris Durham have been replaced by Golden Tate and rookie tight end Eric Ebron.

    Tate caught 64 passes last year, doing so in an offense that saw the quarterback throw just 407 passes. Prorate those 407 passes to 675, and that’s already over 100 receptions for Tate.

    Tate led the NFL with 21 broken tackles last year. He’s an underrated player and will join the national scene in 2014.

Worst Free-Agent Signing: Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders

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    Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t have too much left in the tank. He rushed for just 803 yards a year ago on an awful 3.4 yards-per-carry average. He’s 29 years old and now joining an Oakland team that rated by Pro Football Focus as the fourth-worst run-blocking team in 2013 (subscription required).

    Jones-Drew will also be competing for carries with Darren McFadden, but Latavius Murray may soon be stealing the rushing attempts.

Jadeveon Clowney Registers 12 Sacks

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    Few defensive players enter the league with as much hype as Jadeveon Clowney. The Houston Texans took the ferocious pass-rusher first overall, bypassing a potential franchise quarterback.

    Clowney will begin his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker, lining up opposite 5-technique defensive end J.J. Watt. Pity opposing offensive coordinators that have to figure out how much of their line will be needed to guard against those two players.

    Clowney is too talented to ignore. He’ll become an instant sensation in this league. Watch him put up 12 sacks, a handful of forced fumbles, tackles for losses and a few highlight plays this season.

A.J. Green Matches J.J. Watt’s $100 Million Deal

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    J.J. Watt just broke the bank with a nine-figure contract, but A.J. Green will match him. Green is a special player. He’s not Calvin Johnson, although maybe he will be better.

    Johnson’s first three years: 193 receptions, 3,071 yards, 21 TD

    Green’s first three years: 260 receptions, 3,833 yards, 29 TD

    The Cincinnati Bengals just paid Andy Dalton $115 million, but there’s no way they can afford to let Dalton play without Green. That means Green gets Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson money.

Rookie Pro Bowlers: Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Donald, Ryan Shazier

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    Jadeveon Clowney will make the Pro Bowl as a rookie, finishing with 12 sacks and four forced fumbles. Aaron Donald looks to be the next Gerald McCoy or Geno Atkins at 3-technique defensive tackle, and he plays in an ideal situation with Robert Quinn and Chris Long rushing off the edge.

    Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. He joins a solid linebacker corps—Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds—and should register enough interceptions and sacks to make a Pro Bowl.

Johnny Manziel Doesn't Start Until Week 9

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    All focus in Cleveland will be on Johnny Manziel, but there’s a chance Brian Hoyer holds down the fort for as much as half a season.

    Manziel will certainly see time in packages; he’s a running quarterback who brings a level of excitement to the offense. He completed just 47 percent of his passes in the preseason; that’s more in the Tim Tebow region than Cam Newton.

    But Hoyer is a solid player who may keep the Browns afloat longer than people think. By midseason though, the Browns have to see what they have in Manziel, and they’ll hand the offense to him.

San Diego Repeats as a Playoff Team

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    The San Diego Chargers have flown under the radar this offseason, but there’s strong evidence to suggest they will be right back in the playoff hunt in 2014.

    New head coach Mike McCoy helped to rejuvenate Philip Rivers’ career, coaxing a Pro Bowl season out of the veteran. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is a top target, while up-and-coming tight end Ladarius Green is a future breakout player at tight end. The offensive line is finally stable, the first time in San Diego in years.

    And the defense has a lot of potential in the front seven, led by high draft picks Melvin Ingram, Corey Liuget and Manti Te’o. New cornerback Brandon Flowers should toughen up the secondary, as should first-round pick Jason Verrett.

    San Diego could challenge for the division even, but 11 wins is more realistic. That should earn the fifth seed in the AFC.

Kansas City Doesn’t Come Close to the Playoffs

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    Andy Reid worked wonders with the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs, starting 9-0. He lost six of his final eight, though, including an awful blown lead to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card Round.

    Quarterback Alex Smith was just re-signed to a four-year, $68 million deal, and running back Jamaal Charles is still in his prime. The defense has some playmakers in Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Dontari Poe and Eric Berry.

    The problem is the trenches; the team lost Pro Bowler Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. Defensive end Tyson Jackson also left for the Atlanta Falcons. That means failed first-round pick Eric Fisher has to start at left tackle, and right tackle Donald Stephenson is suspended for four games.

    The Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers are also difficult opponents (Reid went 0-4 against these teams in 2013), and the Chiefs have to play the NFC West. Seven wins is realistic.

Dallas Cowboys Break Their .500 Streak by Going .375 (But Jason Garrett Stays)

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    It will be a rough season for the Dallas Cowboys. Check out the guys lining up on their defense.

    Tony Romo and the offense could score 450 points, but Romo is 34 years old and dealing with a back injury. There’s a good chance he gets hurt, and that means it’s Brandon Weeden time.

    As long as Jerry Jones is selling tickets, he won’t care, and after the season, he’ll probably keep Jason Garrett (unless he can work out a deal for Jim Harbaugh).

Notable NFL Players in Final Years with Their Team

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    Some players like Darrelle Revis are elite talents, but Revis seems to enjoy offering his services to teams as a one-year rent-a-player. He’ll probably play elsewhere in 2015.

    Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson have ridiculous cap hits. Fitzgerald may be outright released (bet the New England Patriots come calling), while the Houston Texans will try to trade Johnson.

    Veterans like Charles Johnson, Chris Long, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, Antonio Gates, Darnell Dockett, Trent Cole, Chad Greenway and Leon Hall are due to make high cap hits for ’15.

    And Adrian Peterson would be a shock, but it may be unrealistic to expect next year’s Vikings to pay $15 million for a 30-year-old running back.

New England Starts 8-0, Last Undefeated Team

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    It doesn’t seem like there’s any way the New England Patriots could miss the playoffs in 2014. The schedule is easy, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have won double-digit games for 11 consecutive seasons.

    The Patriots should roll over their first-half schedule. They play the following quarterbacks: Ryan Tannehill, Matt Cassel, Derek Carr, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, EJ Manuel and Geno Smith. New England should be able to win against Jay Cutler in Week 8, but then it gets difficult with consecutive matchups against Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.

Denver Starts 1-2, Wins Final 13 Games

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    Like many people, I think the Denver Broncos will be dominant this season. There’s no reason not to think that. Peyton Manning is playing the greatest football of his career and the defense improved.

    I just think they’ll start 1-2.

    That would mean losses in Week 1 (Indianapolis) and Week 3 (Seattle). After that, the Broncos go on a roll, winning their final 13 games and securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Jacksonville Jaguars Will Be the AFC's Surprise Playoff Team

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars to make the playoffs? Fire this guy immediately.

    Hear me out, though.

    Whether by injury, immense pressure or Chad Henne’s struggles, Blake Bortles will take over as the starter by mid-October. Bortles played extremely well in the preseason, and he looks to be a future franchise quarterback.

    There are a lot of reasons to like Toby Gerhart. Marqise Lee was one of the most NFL-ready wide receivers, and Allen Robinson will win his share of jump balls. (Watch for undrafted rookie Allen Hurns too.)

    Gus Bradley made his mark in Seattle as a defensive coordinator, so he should be able to mold this unit into a tough defense.

    Chris Clemons and Red Bryant make the defensive line much more formidable, and tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is an unknown star. Paul Posluszny is a Pro Bowl middle linebacker. Cornerback Dwayne Gratz played pretty well as a rookie, and safety John Cyprien is expected to be an anchor of the defense.

    The division is also fairly easy. The Jaguars should be able to split their division games. The NFC East is beatable, other than a Week 1 game against Philadelphia. And they also get Cleveland and Miami at home, which means they will find a way to win eight and make the playoffs.

San Francisco 49ers Stumble into the Postseason

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    Sometimes a really great team can have one of those seasons. The 2005 Philadelphia Eagles did it amidst the T.O. saga. It happened to last year’s Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans.

    The San Francisco 49ers have too talented of a roster to miss the playoffs, but it won’t come easy. The division is tough. The defense is without Aldon Smith for nine weeks (suspension), and Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman is recovering from a brutal 2013 injury.

    Colin Kaepernick is a dual threat as a quarterback, but he needs to improve as a pure passer. The tough NFC West division won’t help his development. The Niners will finish 9-7 and grab the sixth seed, but they won’t win a playoff game. And that may be the end of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, as he seems to be wearing out his welcome.

Seattle and New Orleans Lock Up NFC's Top 2 Seeds

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    The Seattle Seahawks should be every bit as good in 2014 as they were a year ago. Golden Tate left in free agency, as did a handful of defensive linemen (Red Bryant and Chris Clemons) and Brandon Browner. But Percy Harvin and Russell Okung should be healthy for the start of the season, and Russell Wilson looked really good in preseason.

    The Seahawks roll to 13 wins, a division title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

    Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints will always have an explosive offense as long as they have Drew Brees. Rob Ryan worked wonders a year ago, getting the defense to rank fourth in both points allowed and yards allowed. They’ll win 13 games too.

Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck in AFC Championship Game

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    Last year, Andrew Luck squared off against Tom Brady in the AFC Divisional Round, with the New England Patriots winning that one.

    This year, Luck will take the Indianapolis Colts to an AFC Championship Game in Denver, setting up an epic Luck vs. Peyton Manning contest.

    And Luck will win a shootout.

Andrew Luck Carries the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl Appearance

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    You know that "it" factor that some players have? Michael Jordan had it. Derek Jeter had it. And Andrew Luck has it.

    The football world doesn’t seem to have quite caught onto Luck yet. He’s a giant Band-Aid that disguises a below-average Indianapolis Colts team, having led them to consecutive 11-win seasons. Last year, Luck led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history in the AFC Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    So many statistics show Luck’s ridiculous value to his team. He plays with minimal help in the running game. The defense is mediocre, relying heavily on Robert Mathis’ pass rush. Luck’s uncanny ability to win close contests is what elevates him to elite status.

    Since Andrew Luck was drafted, the #Colts are 15-2 (.822) in one-score games, best record in the NFL. The #49ers are next at 7-3-1 (.682).

    — Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) January 6, 2014

    The Colts won’t get a first-round bye in this year’s playoffs due to the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, two teams that should win 12 games with ease. But the playoffs are where Luck will take off.

    He will outduel Andy Dalton, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in three consecutive weeks, sending the Colts to the Super Bowl. At least one of those games will be reminiscent of last year when Luck puts the Colts on his back and carried them to a huge fourth-quarter victory. And when the dust settles, Luck will be on the NFL’s biggest stage in just his third season.

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints Win Their Second Super Bowl in 5 Years

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    Drew Brees against Andrew Luck in the Super Bowl would be a New Orleans-Indianapolis rematch from the 2009 season. That time, Brees beat Peyton Manning. This time, he’ll beat Luck.

    Brees doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves nationally. He’s on par with Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Since Brees joined the Saints in 2006, he has as many Super Bowl rings (one) as Manning and Rodgers and one more than Brady.

    Brees has ridiculous postseason numbers. He’s completed 66 percent of his passes for 24 touchdowns to just six interceptions and a passer rating over 100. He’s averaged 378 passing yards in his last five playoff games.

    He’ll have to put up a lot of points to outscore Luck. How about a 34-31 Saints win? This would make Brees the first quarterback to win league MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season since Kurt Warner in 1999.

Rob Ryan Becomes a Head Coach After the Season

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    Winning the Super Bowl should dramatically help Rob Ryan’s chances to one day be a head coach. He took the 2012 New Orleans Saints from the 31st-rated scoring defense and 32nd-rated total defense to fourth in each category.

    Ryan has a handful of blossoming stars on his defense—Cameron Jordan, newly extended Junior Galette, Keenan Lewis, Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro—and it’s not unreasonable to expect the Saints to finish as a top defensive team once again.

    That will get Ryan a head coaching job somewhere—Miami? Buffalo? (Two Ryans coaching in the same division…Wow.)

NFL Awards

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    NFL awards for this season listed below.

    NFL MVP: Drew Brees

    Offensive Player of the Year: LeSean McCoy

    Defensive Player of the Year: Muhammad Wilkerson

    Coach of the Year: Gus Bradley

    Comeback Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers

    Offensive Rookie of the Year: Blake Bortles

    Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney

    Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees

NFL Team-by-Team Predictions

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    USA TODAY Sports

    AFC East: New England (13-3), NY Jets (8-8), Miami (7-9), Buffalo (5-11)

    AFC North: Baltimore (9-7), Cincinnati (8-8), Pittsburgh (8-8), Cleveland (5-11)

    AFC South: Indianapolis (9-7), Jacksonville (8-8)*, Houston (5-11), Tennessee (4-12)

    AFC West: Denver (14-2), San Diego (11-5)*, Kansas City (7-9), Oakland (3-13)

    NFC East: Philadelphia (11-5), NY Giants (8-8), Dallas (6-10), Washington (4-12)

    NFC North: Green Bay (12-4), Chicago (9-7)*, Detroit (7-9), Minnesota (4-12)

    NFC South: New Orleans (13-3), Carolina (8-8), Tampa Bay (8-8), Atlanta (7-9)

    NFC West: Seattle (13-3), San Francisco (9-7)*, Arizona (8-8), St. Louis (5-11)

    Wild Card Playoffs:

    (4) Philadelphia over (5) San Francisco

    (3) Green Bay over (6) Chicago

    (5) San Diego over (4) Baltimore

    (3) Indianapolis over (6) Jacksonville

    Divisional Playoffs:

    (1)    New Orleans over (4) Philadelphia

    (2)    Seattle over (3) Green Bay

    (1)    Denver over (5) San Diego

    (3)    Indianapolis over (2) New England

    Conference Championships:

    (1)    New Orleans over (2) Seattle

    (3)    Indianapolis over (1) Denver

    Super Bowl:

    New Orleans over Indianapolis