Super Bowls Odds 2016: Early Handicapping for Next Year
The 2014 NFL season is in the books, and the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions. They overcame a slow start to outlast the defending champion Seahawks in an incredible Super Bowl, claiming the franchise's fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Only one team can win the Super Bowl, and that means 31 others ended the year with an increasingly bitter taste in their mouths. The offseason is now in full swing, and the goal for every team is to construct a roster that is capable of contending for a title.
Some squads are definitely closer than others, while a few clearly have significant work to do to merely get into playoff contention. But we've seen teams come out of nowhere to contend for the Super Bowl before, so optimism should rule the day for the vast majority of NFL fanbases.
Here are the early Super Bowl odds for the 2015 season as we begin to handicap next year, courtesy of OddsShark.
The Oakland Raiders might have finished 3-13 in 2014, but for the first time in a long time, there's legitimate optimism swirling around the Silver and Black.
The Raiders actually have a nice young crop of players, headlined by quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack (both entering year two). Carr tossed 21 touchdown passes against only 12 interceptions in a solid rookie campaign, while Mack was an absolute beast, totaling four sacks and finishing as Pro Football Focus' top-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker.
While the hire of Jack Del Rio as the team's new head coach didn't exactly dazzle, he was far from the worst option available and has reached the playoffs as a head coach in the NFL. The return of general manager Reggie McKenzie should be more of a worrisome matter to Raiders fans, as his teams have compiled 11 wins in three seasons.
While McKenzie deserves credit for selecting Carr and Mack in last year's draft, the rest of his record—draft and free agency included—is spotty at best. It remains to be seen if McKenzie is a good enough talent evaluator to build a consistent winner.
The Raiders might be another year away from truly competing in the AFC, but there's no question that diehard fans should feel a lot better about the team than they have in quite some time.
For the Jacksonville Jaguars, year two under coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell didn't exactly go according to plan.
While no one expected the Jaguars to compete for a Super Bowl title in 2014, it's safe to say that few expected they'd be as bad as they were, either. Jacksonville finished 3-13, giving Bradley and Caldwell seven total wins in two years on the job.
Perhaps more troubling than the overall record was the uninspiring performance of rookie signal-caller Blake Bortles. In an era where young quarterbacks have flourished, Bortles was substandard, tossing only 11 touchdown passes against 17 interceptions in 13 starts. Bortles did recently receive a vote of confidence from the owner, Shad Khan, who told Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union: "I love Blake [Bortles]. I think he’s a key building block moving forward."
But even with that said, there's no question that Bortles needs to play better in year two.
Bradley has made a few changes to the coaching staff, adding Greg Olson as offensive coordinator and former Bills head coach Doug Marrone as assistant head coach. It's unclear whether Olson is the right man to help Bortles evolve into the passer the team needs him to be.
Even though 2013 and 2014 were disappointing years in terms of overall record, the Bradley/Caldwell Jaguars have always looked towards 2015. If the team can improve the offensive line and add an impact defensive player in the draft—and Bortles elevates his level of play—the Jaguars could emerge as playoff contenders this fall.
2014 provided more of the same for the Washington Redskins, as the franchise missed the postseason for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. New coach Jay Gruden was unable to coax more than four wins out of the team and publicly clashed with quarterback Robert Griffin III, which is usually not a good thing.
It's impossible to forecast the future of the Redskins without delving into Griffin's ability to turn his career around. Since his magnificent rookie season in 2012, Griffin has authored back-to-back substandard campaigns, and it's no coincidence that the Redskins won a combined seven games over the past two years.
Griffin went 2-5 as the team's starter last year and threw four touchdown passes against six interceptions. While he played better down the stretch (after being benched for career journeyman Colt McCoy), it's unclear if he'll ever again reach the dizzying heights occupied in 2012.
There is talent on both sides of the ball, from receiver DeSean Jackson to linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, but until the team figures out the quarterback position, all will be for naught.
Helping matters was the hire of general manager Scot McCloughan, a highly regarded personnel man who helped build the 49ers and Seahawks into perennial powerhouses. It would be an upset if the franchise didn't improve under his stead.
The Tennessee Titans entered the 2014 season saddled with the moniker of the NFL's most nondescript team.
And following a 2-14 season that saw them "earn" the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft, that tagline remains appropriate.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt couldn't quite figure out a solution at quarterback, as he trotted out the Pu-Pu platter of Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger, and none found sustained success. It's likely that Locker is on his way out (the team declined his fifth-year option last offseason), and if Whitehurst is the answer, we'd love to know the question. Mettenberger flashed at times, but it remains to be seen if the Titans will look to address their quarterback needs at the top of the draft.
There isn't a ton of talent on the rest of the roster, and the defense is in dire need of an impact pass-rusher to help coordinator Ray Horton's scheme hum. It's possible that the Titans could find themselves as a wild-card contender next season, but as of right now, the Super Bowl seems a ways off.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Lovie Smith as their new head coach and broke the bank in free agency, they surely weren't expecting to "earn" the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
But that's exactly what happened, as the Bucs crashed and burned to the tune of a 2-14 record.
Smith watched as his team failed week in and week out to close out winnable games, and the final result was an ugly one. The issues started at quarterback, as neither Josh McCown nor Mike Glennon dazzled, and the defense was downright atrocious, allowing nearly 26 points per game.
But there are quality pieces on both sides of the ball—namely stud rookie receiver Mike Evans and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. In fact, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Bucs could end up contending for the playoffs in 2015 if they can find an answer at quarterback.
And that brings us to the aforementioned top pick in the draft. Will the Bucs look to add a collegiate passer—perhaps Florida State's Jameis Winston or Oregon's Marcus Mariota—or will they seek to improve elsewhere? The smart money is on general manager Jason Licht tabbing a franchise passer.
If and when that happens, it's tough to imagine the Bucs competing for a Super Bowl berth with a rookie at the game's most important position.
New York Jets
For the first time in six years, the New York Jets have a new head coach, as former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was hired in that capacity to replace the deposed Rex Ryan.
And perhaps more importantly for owner Woody Johnson and Jets fans, a new general manager—Mike Maccagnan—was hired to replace the ousted (and grossly incompetent) John Idzik.
So now, Bowles and Maccagnan represent the franchise's hope to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since Joe Namath was issuing ballyhooed guarantees.
Unfortunately for them, Idzik left the cupboard relatively bare, as there aren't a lot of talented young players on the roster. The primary issue is at quarterback, as Geno Smith didn't do enough in year two to prove that he should be given the keys to the franchise (3-10 record as starter, 13 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions).
The Jets hold the sixth overall pick in the draft and possess $48 million in cap space, via Spotrac.com, so Bowles and Maccagnan will have the resources to overhaul the roster if they deem it appropriate. One way or another, it's going to be a fascinating offseason for Gang Green.
After a Week 12 win at Atlanta, the Cleveland Browns were flying high with a 7-4 record that exceeded all expectations.
But the wheels came off following that win, as the team closed the season on a five-game losing streak that kept them out of the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year.
And now, it appears that the team is once again enveloped in drama. Quarterback Johnny Manziel—who authored an extremely forgettable neophyte campaign—entered rehab this week, and star receiver Josh Gordon has been suspended for the entire 2015 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Heading into 2014, both Manziel and Gordon loomed as potential building blocks for the star-crossed franchise; now, the futures of both appear nebulous at best.
Brian Hoyer started the majority of games last year at quarterback, but he's a free agent, and with Manziel's future uncertain, it might behoove general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine to consider bringing him back.
The defense should be even better in 2015, with Pettine coaching up a young and talented unit.
As always with Cleveland, it comes down to the quarterback. Whether it's Hoyer, Manziel or someone else, the Browns can definitely compete for a playoff berth with the right signal-caller under center.
The Buffalo Bills finished 2014 with their first winning record in nine seasons (2004) and barely missed qualifying for the postseason for the first time in 15 seasons (1999)—so, of course, they saw their head coach depart under shady circumstances and had to hire a new one.
The departure of coach Doug Marrone was nothing short of stunning, but new owner Terry Pegula deserves credit for acting quickly and decisively in the hiring of former Jets coach Rex Ryan to the same position. Ryan might be arrogant and brash, but he did achieve some success in New York, and he brings a needed attitude and flavor to a previously vanilla franchise.
Figuring out the quarterback position is the top directive for Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley. It's unclear if EJ Manuel will ever be a competent starting quarterback in the NFL, but if 2014 was any indication, it's likely that the Bills will bring in significant competition this offseason. Handing Manuel the keys to the franchise would be a mistake worthy of immediate termination.
Even with the issues at quarterback, Bills fans should feel good about the direction of the team. The defense is absolutely loaded with talent (defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus chief among them), and linebacker Kiko Alonso will return after missing all of 2014 due to injury. Second-year receiver Sammy Watkins is also a stud.
If the Bills can find an answer at quarterback—whether it's an improved Manuel or someone else—they have the look and feel of a perennial playoff contender. But until that happens, it's tough to consider the Bills a legitimate title contender.
St. Louis Rams
2015 is shaping up as a make-or-break season for St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
The club failed to finish at .500 for the third straight year (6-10), and while some of that can be blamed on the season-ending injury suffered by starting quarterback Sam Bradford in the preseason, it's also fair to question Fisher and Snead for bringing Bradford back in the first place. In the eyes of many (including this humble author), the Rams erred by not drafting or signing Bradford's replacement, and they paid the price when Bradford once again suffered a devastating malady.
Bradford is entering the final year of his contract, and while it seems impossible to believe that he'd enter 2015 as the team's unquestioned starter, it also seemed impossible to believe that he would have entered 2014 as the team's unquestioned starter—so the entire situation is muddled. The safe bet is on the Rams bringing in competition for Bradford and letting things play out in training camp and the preseason.
The defense is solid, led by outstanding defensive end Robert Quinn and spectacular rookie tackle Aaron Donald (Donald finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 defensive tackle), with rookie running back Tre Mason flashing down the stretch. But it's clear the offense needs more weapons to contend in a loaded NFC West.
If Fisher and Snead can't figure out the offense or fix the problems at quarterback, it's probable that 2015 will be their last season in St. Louis. But if they can, watch out—the Rams could easily be contenders.
San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers had a chance to make the postseason, but lost a win-and-in game against Kansas City in Week 17, leading to an earlier-than-expected end to the season for coach Mike McCoy and Co.
Throughout the season, there were times where the Chargers had the look and feel of a Super Bowl contender, but they ultimately fell short of the playoffs. The good news, though, is that quarterback Philip Rivers will return, and like a fine wine, he appears to be getting better with age (33).
General manager Tom Telesco must add more talent on defense, as 26 sacks as an overall unit just won't cut it.
Because Rivers will be back, the Chargers must be taken seriously as a playoff contender. But right now, they cannot be considered a Super Bowl contender—not until more talent is added on both sides of the ball.
New York Giants
While 2014 was a disappointing season for coach Tom Coughlin, quarterback Eli Manning and the New York Giants, there is hope that 2015 will bring greater fortune.
And the primary reason for that hope is all-world receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who dominated opposing defenses as a neophyte. Forget just receivers—Beckham was one of the best overall players in the NFL in his rookie campaign, hauling in 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns in just 12 games. If he can continue to evolve and mature as a player, the Giants will have a game-breaking threat for years to come.
Manning also played better than the team's record (6-10) would indicate, as he seemed to grow more comfortable in the scheme implemented by first-year coordinator Ben McAdoo as the season progressed. If general manager Jerry Reese can improve the offensive line, Manning should be in line for a big 2015.
Gone is defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, as he's been replaced by fan-favorite Steve Spagnuolo, who was the team's defensive coordinator when Big Blue upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Reese and company have a decision looming on free-agent defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who recorded 12.5 sacks last season.
Under Coughlin and Manning (two Super Bowl titles), the Giants have shown an ability to rise up when left for dead, so they cannot be counted out of any Super Bowl conversation—no matter what their record was the previous season.
The Minnesota Vikings might have finished the 2014 season at 7-9, but there is much reason for optimism surrounding the franchise.
Many of the good feelings emanate from rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who flashed excellence on more than one occasion in his neophyte campaign. Bridgewater tossed 14 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions and seemed to save his most sterling efforts for when it mattered the most. He's a legitimate franchise building block, and the Vikings appear to have an answer at the league's most important position.
Coach Mike Zimmer has a number of pieces to work with on defense, including linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The Vikings could end up fashioning together a scary defense to combat the signal-callers in the NFC North.
It remains to be seen if star running back Adrian Peterson will remain with the team in 2015, but even if he plays elsewhere, the Vikings proved that they'll be a force to be reckoned with moving forward. They represent a sneaky-good bet to succeed this upcoming fall.
The Miami Dolphins came very close to ending the franchise's six-year playoff drought, but ultimately fell short once again. That made it three years under coach Joe Philbin in which the club hasn't made the postseason—or finished above .500 (7-9 in 2012, 8-8 in 2013 and 2014).
While one could easily have constructed a legitimate argument for Philbin to lose his job, he was retained by owner Stephen Ross and will return for a fourth season. His game and time-management skills must improve if the Dolphins are to take the next step as a team. 2015 absolutely represents a win-or-else season for Philbin.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill continued to improve, tossing 27 touchdown passes against only 12 interceptions. He seems to be this close to making "the leap" into the stratosphere of great quarterbacks, but isn't there quite yet. Dolphins fans must hope that another offseason of tutelage under Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will prove fruitful for Tannehill.
Cameron Wake provides pass-rushing oomph at defensive end but could use some help around him. General manager Dennis Hickey and new executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum must bring in support for Wake on defense.
The Dolphins aren't far off from Super Bowl contention. If Tannehill and Philbin can take the next step at their respective jobs, the playoffs are very much within reach.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs narrowly missed the postseason with a 9-7 record. And while that might count as a disappointment, it marked two consecutive winning seasons in two years under coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith, so something is clearly being built in Kansas City.
The Chiefs were buoyed by outstanding performances from running back Jamaal Charles (5.0 yards per carry) and linebacker Justin Houston (a league-leading 22 sacks). Both men were among the very best at their position in 2014.
There's no doubt that the Chiefs need to add more firepower on offense, as Smith went an entire season without completing a touchdown pass to a receiver. No, you didn't read that incorrectly: Smith went an entire season without completing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. No one would fault general manager John Dorsey if he selected a pass-catcher in the first round of April's draft.
The Chiefs must figure out a way to keep Houston, 26, in the fold. Pass-rushers like him don't grow on trees, so signing him long-term must be the team's biggest priority this offseason. If they can secure Houston's services and acquire some weapons for Smith, the Chiefs will be right back in the playoff conversation in 2015.
The Houston Texans overachieved in a major way in 2014, going 9-7 in coach Bill O'Brien's first year on the sidelines.
That improvement was keyed by the astounding performance of defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who was the NFL's best player last season. Watt finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 3-4 defensive end and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year this past weekend.
Just imagine how good the Texans could be if they had a legitimate signal-caller! If O'Brien has designs on making the postseason, an upgrade at quarterback is essential. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum just won't get the job done, and it's unclear if rookie Tom Savage will be ready for prime time in 2015.
But with an above-average roster and the unstoppable Watt, the Texans are an intriguing Super Bowl play at 40-1.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Cincinnati Bengals' season ended in the wild-card round of the postseason.
And for the fourth consecutive year, the questions about quarterback Andy Dalton's ability to win in a big spot will bubble to the forefront.
Dalton has guided the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his four NFL seasons but has failed spectacularly in each postseason game. With the Bengals possessing a Super Bowl-quality roster, Dalton must improve his quality of play to help the team get over the hump. Until then, he'll continue to be the albatross slung around the team's collective neck.
Marvin Lewis still hasn't won a playoff game in 12 years as head coach, and it's fair to wonder when owner Mike Brown will consider making a change—especially considering offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could represent an upgrade.
The Bengals have star players like receiver A.J. Green and a stud running back in Jeremy Hill, but until Dalton gets his act together, the Bengals will be perennial bridesmaids—but never the bride.
The 2014 Chicago Bears were the biggest dumpster fire in the entire National Football League. With that said, it's no surprise that ownership decided to part ways with both coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery.
Emery, of course, hired Trestman and bestowed a big-money contract extension on mercurial quarterback Jay Cutler, while Trestman proved a colossal flop as an NFL head coach. Both needed to be fired so the Bears deserve credit for making those moves.
Ryan Pace was hired away from New Orleans as the new general manager, and he hired John Fox as the team's new head coach. Fox has brought two different franchises (Carolina and Denver) to the Super Bowl, and has a wealth of experience. He should be able to help fix what has been a broken defense and fashion together a team capable of competing with the Packers in the NFC North.
Fox also deserves credit for the coaching staff he put together—Adam Gase as offensive coordinator and Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator is nothing to sneeze at.
The main question, as it was last year, will be whether or not the team can coax consistent play out of Cutler. Cutler was benched down the stretch of last season, which is an incredible feat considering his massive contract. His future in Chicago remains up in the air and will be a storyline to monitor throughout the offseason.
It's impossible to project where Chicago could end up without knowing its plans for Cutler. But if Cutler can finally put it all together, the Bears project as a potentially scary team.
The Carolina Panthers bounced back from a 3-8-1 start to win their final four games—which was enough for the club to repeat as champions of the dreadful NFC South and earn the home playoff game that came with it.
And the Panthers took advantage of a wounded Cardinals team and advanced to the divisional round of the postseason, where their season was ended by Seattle. But it was still a massively successful season for coach Ron Rivera and his team.
General manager Dave Gettleman was likely vindicated by the playoff berth, as he was criticized for a number of personnel decisions last offseason. Now, he has back-to-back division titles under his belt and cash to burn in the offseason.
Cam Newton continued to make strides in year four and earned his first playoff victory. The arrow is squarely pointed up on his career, and his rapport with rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin should only continue to grow. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was once again among the league's best at his position.
A fascinating situation to monitor will be that of free-agent defensive end Greg Hardy. Legal issues prevented Hardy from playing in all but one game, and his future remains up in the air.
If the Panthers can add an infusion of young talent to support their existing core, a Super Bowl run is not out of the question.
The Atlanta Falcons might have finished 2014 with a 6-10 record, but that clearly didn't bother Las Vegas too much, as the Falcons possess better-than-expected odds to capture next year's Lombardi Trophy.
A lot of that likely has to do with the team's high-octane offense, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones. The bugaboo for Atlanta over the past few seasons has been a lackluster and toothless defense, and the team hopes it's found a fix in new head coach Dan Quinn.
Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, takes over for the fired Mike Smith. Smith did great things in Atlanta, but it was clearly time for a change. Quinn's primary directive will be fixing a defense that hasn't allowed the Falcons to remain at the same level as NFC heavyweights Green Bay and Seattle.
The Falcons front office—led by Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli—will be tasked with finding more playmakers on defense. The offense will be fine, provided Ryan stays healthy. If Quinn can elevate the defense to respectability, the Falcons could be on the way toward a major turnaround in 2015.
The Detroit Lions restored the roar in 2014, bouncing back from a dreadful 2013 season to qualify for the postseason with an 11-5 record.
And even though the season ended in devastating fashion at the hands of the Cowboys in the wild-card round, 2014 must still be considered a rousing success for coach Jim Caldwell and Co.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford saved his best for when it mattered the most, leading a number of fourth-quarter comebacks, and the defense was outstanding, keyed by coordinator Teryl Austin. Golden Tate proved an adept second option in the passing attack behind star receiver Calvin Johnson, and rookie tight end Eric Ebron started to flash as the season drew to a close.
Now, the question is if the Lions will re-sign star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is slated to be a free agent. Suh is an absolute monster, and the Lions would be wise to figure out a way to keep him in the fold.
If the Lions can keep Suh and continue building around their nucleus of talent, there's no reason to believe that they can't make the playoffs again in 2015.
In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens missed the postseason for the first time in the coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco era (2008). The two men made sure that streak didn't extend to two years, as they made the playoffs as the AFC's sixth seed.
After downing Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, Baltimore's season ended in heartbreaking fashion against eventual Super Bowl champion New England in the divisional round. While the loss undoubtedly stings, there's no doubt that the Ravens served notice to the rest of the league that they'll be back in 2015.
Flacco is a stud, and the offensive line solidified as the season went on. Justin Forsett was a revelation at running back, and receiver Steve Smith proved he still has gas left in the tank. The Ravens do have a decision to make on receiver Torrey Smith, who is slated to enter the free-agent market in March.
The defense was once again solid, although torpedoed by injuries to the secondary. General manager Ozzie Newsome is among the league's best at his job, so expect that position to be fortified via free agency and the draft.
For the Arizona Cardinals, the end of the 2014 season had to be bitterly disappointing.
After racing out to a 9-1 start that had a "team of destiny" feel to it, the Cardinals watched as their two top quarterbacks—starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton—suffered significant injuries that would prevent them from playing over the rest of the campaign. Those maladies meant the team had to bring back Ryan Lindley off the Chargers practice squad, and he was predictably awful, leading to the club's ouster in the wild-card round.
The fact that the Cardinals managed to get to 11-5 and make the playoffs despite the injuries is a major credit to coach Bruce Arians, who was named the 2014 Coach of the Year this past weekend. Arians' wizardry should not be discounted—he turned in magnificent work to steer his team into January football.
The Cardinals have an excellent general manager in Steve Keim, so the young talent should continue to flow in. If Palmer (or Stanton) can stay healthy, there's no reason to believe Arizona won't contend for a Super Bowl berth in 2015.
2014 was a bittersweet season for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On one hand, the Steelers won the AFC North for the first time since 2010 (and made the playoffs for the first time since 2011)—but on the other, an injury to star running back Le'Veon Bell helped facilitate an exit against hated rival Baltimore in the wild-card round.
Even though the campaign ended sooner than expected, Steelers fans should feel good about the direction of the franchise. Ben Roethlisberger is entrenched as the team's quarterback (which is a very good thing), and Bell proved to be one of the league's finest players regardless of position. Plus, receiver Antonio Brown authored an outstanding year, hauling in 129 receptions for 1,698 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns.
The defense needs an infusion of young talent and playmaking ability, as the unit finished only 18th overall in total defense. But because of Roethlisberger and the offense, the Steelers aren't far off from contending for a Super Bowl title. At 25-1, the Steelers represent fantastic value.
And, oh yeah, having a Super Bowl-winning coach like Mike Tomlin helps, too.
New Orleans Saints
No team in 2014 disappointed more than the New Orleans Saints.
Considered by many (including this humble author) to be Super Bowl contenders prior to the season, the Saints crashed and burned to the tune of a 7-9 record—a mark that seemed unfathomable at the beginning of September.
The Saints couldn't close out games and watched as their defense was shredded at inopportune times. And despite putting up more gaudy numbers (4,952 passing yards and 33 passing touchdowns), quarterback Drew Brees also didn't have his best year, as he failed to pull out victories in a number of winnable contests.
But despite all the negative feelings surrounding the Bayou, all is not lost for the Saints. Brees (and coach Sean Payton) will be back next year, and the offense should be electric—especially with rookie receiver Brandin Cooks getting set to enter year two. If defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can coach up the defense, there's no reason to believe that the Saints won't be back in the Super Bowl hunt in 2015.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers might be entering the offseason with above-average odds to win next year's Super Bowl, but make no mistake about it: They made a titanic error in not retaining coach Jim Harbaugh.
Instead, Harbaugh is now the head coach at the University of Michigan, and was replaced by defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Tomsula could end up being the second coming of Bill Walsh, but the bottom line is that Harbaugh was an absolute stud who carried the 49ers out of the dark ages after his hire in 2011.
Tomsula's choices for his coordinators were also uninspiring. Eric Mangini will oversee the defense, while former quarterback's coach Geep Chryst was elevated to offensive coordinator and will be tasked with fixing quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Because, you know, the best guy to fix the broken quarterback is the guy who oversaw his regression last season. Right. Good luck with that.
Kaepernick must improve if the 49ers are to return to Super Bowl contention, and right now, it doesn't seem as if the team has the pieces in place for that to occur.
While the Philadelphia Eagles went 10-6 in 2014, the season must be considered a failure because they didn't qualify for the postseason. That might be a bittersweet fact, but it should make Eagles fans feel good to know that coach Chip Kelly has raised the bar that much in only two seasons on the job.
The Eagles stumbled down the stretch to miss the playoffs, losing a stunner in Week 16 at Washington. The foibles were aided by unrest at the quarterback position, as starter Nick Foles played in only eight games following a collarbone injury. Backup Mark Sanchez played well at points but ultimately showed why he entered the year as a backup, as he too often played hot potato with the football.
Where Kelly goes at quarterback will be an omnipresent story throughout the offseason. Will he stick with Foles? Will he re-sign Sanchez, an impending free agent? Or will he make a move for Marcus Mariota, whom he coached on the collegiate level at Oregon?
That answer will likely dictate where the Eagles fall among Super Bowl contenders. If the quarterback plays well, Philadelphia is a team that can most certainly hang with the big boys in the NFC.
The Indianapolis Colts might have fallen short of their ultimate goal—winning the Super Bowl—but they were mighty impressive in 2014, reaching the AFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual champion Patriots.
The Colts are, of course, spearheaded by celestial quarterback Andrew Luck, who was utterly magnificent in year three. The scary thing for the rest of the league is that Luck is getting better each and every year. As long as he's under center, Indianapolis will be a perennial Super Bowl contender.
As for his supporting cast...that's another story entirely. General manager Ryan Grigson would be well-served to improve Luck's protection and add an impact pass-rusher. But the Colts aren't far off, and that's mostly because of Luck.
Coach Chuck Pagano has now presided over three playoff teams in three years, so the arrow remains pointed upward for the Colts.
In 2014, the Dallas Cowboys exceeded all expectations in spectacular fashion, going 12-4, winning the NFC East and coming within a controversial call of advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
And while star receiver Dez Bryant's non-catch (which was unequivocally a catch in the opinion of this humble author) might have ended the season on a sour note, Cowboys fans should feel excellent about the direction of the franchise.
Quarterback Tony Romo was fantastic when healthy, and his offensive line was masterful. Rookie guard Zack Martin proved to be an outstanding draft pick by owner Jerry Jones, and running back DeMarco Murray rushed for a league-leading 1,845 yards. With Murray set to hit free agency, it's unclear if he'll be back in Dallas.
Coach Jason Garrett signed an extension following the team's elimination, and the coaching staff will remain intact. If Jones can continue adding impact players on defense, the Cowboys will be a no-brainer Super Bowl candidate next year—and should be considered the favorites to repeat as NFC East champions.
It's really impossible to assign accurate Super Bowl odds to the Denver Broncos without knowing the playing status of quarterback Peyton Manning—so it's pretty clear that Vegas assumes Manning will be returning for an 18th season, or else there's no chance Denver's odds would be this high.
But while the world (and general manager John Elway) waits for Manning's decision, the Broncos have a number of hard decisions to make following yet another disappointing end to a Super Bowl-or-bust season. Both star receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas will enter the free-agent market, and losing one—or both—would be detrimental to the team's offense.
Gary Kubiak is the team's new head coach, as he replaces the deposed John Fox. Kubiak was Elway's backup for nine seasons in Denver, so there is obviously a familiarity there. But Kubiak's lack of success as a head coach—only two playoff appearances and a 61-64 mark in eight seasons in Houston—has to be disconcerting for Broncos fans.
But again, it's impossible to forecast Denver's chances without knowing for sure if Manning will be back. It's as simple as this: If Manning retires, the Broncos probably won't be a Super Bowl contender. If Manning returns, pencil them in to play next January.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers' 2014 season ended in devastating fashion, as they blew a 16-0 lead in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle. But the good news is that they should be right back in the Super Bowl conversation when the 2015 season kicks off.
That's primarily because they employ the best quarterback in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers, who claimed his second MVP award this past weekend, finished the year with 38 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. He was positively sublime and there's no reason to believe he won't be outstanding yet again in 2015.
While coach Mike McCarthy was criticized—and rightly so—for his conservative play-calling against Seattle, the fact of the matter is that he's still one of the best coaches in the NFL, and the Packers are lucky to have him. Period, end of story.
The Packers are loaded with talent, which is a testament to the greatness of general manager Ted Thompson. With Rodgers, McCarthy and Thompson serving as the team's leaders, the Packers are in good hands and should be considered the favorites to win the NFC North for the fifth consecutive season.
New England Patriots
For the fourth time in their illustrious history (and since 2001), the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions, having downed the Seahawks in (an epic) Super Bowl XLIX, 28-24.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady—who captured his third Super Bowl MVP award—was sublime in the fourth quarter, leading a stirring comeback that cemented his (and coach Bill Belichick's place) in history. There can no longer be a question as to who the greatest quarterback of all time is, a topic expounded upon by Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman.
While the confetti is still falling in Foxborough, the Patriots have a real opportunity to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Brady and Belichick will both be back, and with players like tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, the future is bright.
The bottom line is that as long as Brady and Belichick are employed by the team, the Patriots will be Super Bowl contenders. Wager against them at your own risk.
While it's little consolation considering their heartbreaking defeat in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seattle Seahawks are currently considered the favorite to raise the Lombardi Trophy next February.
A lot of that has to do with the talented young nucleus of players that nearly claimed back-to-back Super Bowl championships. The team will surely extend the contract of star quarterback Russell Wilson, and the roster is stacked with quality and depth.
While Super Bowl XLIX won't go down as his finest hour, Pete Carroll is still one of the NFL's finest head coaches, and he shouldn't have much of an issue replacing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn (off to coach the Atlanta Falcons). General manager John Schneider does a fantastic job and should add a number of talented rookies via the draft, as per usual.
There are question marks, namely the status of running back Marshawn Lynch, who has one year remaining on his contract, and the health of cornerback Richard Sherman, as ESPN's John Clayton reported Sherman might need to undergo Tommy John surgery this offseason.
But the bottom line is that Wilson and Carroll will be back, and that spells trouble for the opposition. The Seahawks might be down for the nonce, but you best believe that next season, they'll be competing for the Super Bowl once again.