2015 NFL Schedule: W-L Predictions for Every Team

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 22, 2015

2015 NFL Schedule: W-L Predictions for Every Team

0 of 32

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The 2015 NFL season will start on September 10 with the Pittsburgh Steelers traveling to meet the New England Patriots. It'll also start with expectations both high and low for teams.

    Schedule release day each spring was once a procedural afterthought. Or at least I assume it was. Now, it's an event fueled by a dangerous drug—hope.

    Every giddy fanbase can look at a new schedule and see mounting wins. But if we set aside hope and attempt to forecast the results of each 16-game marathon using what's happened so far in free agency and what will maybe/probably go down during the draft, what do those final records look like?

    I asked and answered that question 32 times, with a self-explanatory "toughest game" for each team and a "prove-it" game identifying a challenge that has to be met and overcome.

    Fair warning: I probably hate your favorite team.

Arizona Cardinals (2014 Record: 11-5)

1 of 32

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals’ 2014 season began with a whole lot of dreaming and dancing after a 9-1 start. For a time, they led not only the NFC West but the entire league. Then bones broke, muscles were torn and scrappy upstart dreams turned into Ryan Lindley starting a playoff game at quarterback.

    The window of opportunity for Arizona is still open, with a pleasant breeze rolling through. Their most critical loss during free agency was cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and defensive end Darnell Dockett became an expected cap casualty. But overall, the secondary still has a swarming, ball-hawking presence, and guard Mike Iupati was a much-needed signing to bring in reliable interior muscle up front.

    A healthy and happy Carson Palmer hopefully means more winning, and a rise up the NFC West again. Hopefully.

    Toughest game: vs. Green Bay Packers (Week 16)

    Little introduction is needed here, as we’re all well-versed in the Packers' weekly offensive bombardment. They finished second in yards per pass attempt in 2014 (8.3), and quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw only five interceptions while completing at least 70 percent of his passes in five games, even though he played on one leg for a chunk of the season.

    Any remote chance of limiting Rodgers rests with generating pressure, something the Cardinals struggled with for much of 2014. They recorded only 35 sacks (24th in the NFL), and former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has now taken his exotic blitz schemes with him to the New York Jets.

    Prove-it games: Both games against Seattle Seahawks (Weeks 10 and 17)

    The NFC West still goes through the Seahawks, especially after they added tight end Jimmy Graham to their roster. The Cardinals lost twice to their division rivals in 2014 by a combined score of 54-9.

    2015 record prediction: 9-7

Atlanta Falcons (2014 Record: 6-10)

2 of 32

    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    The thing about football players—and humans—is they age. And until we find a solution to that problem, quarterbacks aren’t immune to the aging process. This is especially troubling for the Atlanta Falcons, because quarterbacks are rather expensive and they’ve now wasted two of Matt Ryan’s prime years.

    The Falcons have a 10-22 record over the past two seasons. While Ryan has had his sputtering moments, he’s hardly the problem. He’s been sacked 75 times during Atlanta’s two-year run of results that range from mediocre to wretched, and in 2014, he was supported by a defense that allowed a league-worst 398.3 yards per game.

    The Falcons still have too many desperate, dire needs on their roster to have much optimism, and only a few can be filled during the draft with immediate Week 1 starters.

    The good news? They still play in the NFC South.

    Toughest game: vs. Indianapolis Colts (Week 11)

    The Colts did more than just go all-in this offseason, likely their last without a major quarterback contract anchoring the budget. After shoving all their chips to the middle of the table, they also wagered their firstborn and a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card.

    They added running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Andre Johnson to an offense that was already explosive after finishing 2014 with an average of 406.6 yards per game.

    Even at home, this game could get embarrassing fast for the Falcons. Pumping in crowd noise won’t be enough. They’ll need to have Megadeth playing live during each Colts possession.

    Prove-it game: vs. Houston Texans (Week 4)

    Jake Matthews was drafted to be a left-tackle pillar on Atlanta’s offensive line, but his rookie season was filled with injuries. First there was a high-ankle sprain that led to a missed game and zapped Matthews of his lower-body strength for much of the season. Then he suffered an even more concerning Lisfranc injury that required offseason surgery.

    Matthews will miss most of the Falcons’ offseason workouts and possibly part of training camp, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is expected to be healthy when games matter again, and an afternoon against Texans all-galaxy defensive end J.J. Watt will be the ultimate litmus test of both Matthews’ health and talent.

    2015 record prediction: 6-10

Baltimore Ravens (2014 Record: 10-6)

3 of 32

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Wide receiver Steve Smith left a pile of broken sporks in his wake as he experienced a career revival in 2014, leading the Baltimore Ravens in receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,065).

    While that was fun to watch and it gave us more great Smith material for his expanding collection of Canton-worthy smack talk, it’s time to acknowledge a reality: The Ravens need a receiver in the worst way.

    Owner Steve Bisciotti is partially in denial. “We do not absolutely need a wide receiver,” he recently said, via ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley.

    Instead, Bisciotti prioritized a tight end after Owen Daniels departed for the Denver Broncos. Then there's Dennis Pitta, whose future is still uncertain as he recovers from a second hip dislocation.

    But beyond Smith, there’s little more than possession-receiver hopefuls on Baltimore’s depth chart after Torrey Smith walked as a free agent, signing with the San Francisco 49ers. Smith averaged a team-high 15.7 yards per reception in 2014 and led the Ravens with 11 receiving touchdowns.

    The Ravens’ winning formula is gut-punching defense and a hammering running game. The latter half of that equation could become much more difficult in 2015 if the elder Smith remains the only true receiving threat, since defenses can focus on stopping running back Justin Forsett.

    Toughest game: vs. Seattle Seahawks (Week 14)

    The Ravens allowed 49.3 receiving yards per game (21st in the league) to tight ends in 2014, according to Football Outsiders. Jimmy Graham is always a matchup terror, but that could be especially true for the Ravens. Strong safety Matt Elam allowed a passer rating of 120.0 in coverage during his second season, per Pro Football Focus.

    Prove-it game: at Denver Broncos (Week 1)

    During the 2014 regular season, Baltimore played four games against teams that advanced to the previous year’s playoffs (Cincinnati Bengals twice, Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts). They beat only the lowly Falcons.

    Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning may be approaching pasta-arm status, but his offense still has plenty of other weapons. Sports Authority Field at Mile High also presents a hostile road environment and a tough challenge for the Ravens offense to prove it can produce points against one of the league’s premier defenses.

    2015 record prediction: 9-7

Buffalo Bills (2014 Record: 9-7)

4 of 32

    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    A few fun facts about the last time dedicated yet success-starved football fans in Buffalo watched their beloved Bills in the playoffs:

    • We were still being subjected to Will Smith rapping.
    • In film, we learned that you should never, ever talk about Fight Club, and seeing dead people is bad for your health.
    • It was still cool to dress up as Bill Clinton for Halloween.

    The year was 1999, and what a year it was. The Bills bowed out of the playoffs quickly, losing to the Tennessee Titans. The ending of that game isn’t infamous at all. Nope.

    Now 16 years later, Buffalo has been remodeled to compete with the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions. The Patriots have also spent six straight years atop the AFC East.

    The Bills’ answer this year during a division arms race: LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, Percy Harvin and…Matt Cassel?

    The mission ahead is to mask a quarterback problem with an imposing defensive line and offensive weapons who can churn out yards after the catch in a likely safe, low-risk approach by coordinator Greg Roman.

    Toughest games: Both games against the New York Jets (Weeks 10 and 17)

    The Jets have a similarly woeful quarterback situation. But defensively, they’ve reunited the cornerback tandem of Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis and added corner Buster Skrine. The last season Cromartie and Revis were together and fully healthy was 2011 (Revis tore his ACL in Week 2 of 2012). That resulted in the league’s fifth-best pass defense, as the Jets allowed only 201.0 yards through the air per game.

    Combine that renewed secondary with a run defense that gave up only 3.8 yards per carry in 2014, and life for the Bills’ replacement-level quarterbacks could get really awful, really fast.

    Prove-it game: at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 12)

    Buffalo gave up promising young linebacker Kiko Alonso as a cost of doing business with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire McCoy. An afternoon of trying to keep up with Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles will gauge whether the Bills’ linebacker depth can absorb that loss.

    Charles is a shifty, elusive runner who’s most effective when bouncing outside. His use as a pass-catcher has increased dramatically since Andy Reid took over as head coach in Kansas City. He was slowed by injuries in 2014, but he is only a season removed from 669 yards after the catch (second in the league).

    2015 record prediction: 9-7

Carolina Panthers (2014 Record: 7-8-1)

5 of 32

    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    In 2014, the NFC South was basically Ralph Wiggum’s banana: mostly lifeless and squirming every so often on a bumpy bus ride.

    Every division has to have a winner, and that was the Panthers by default. But now they have a chance to stay atop the NFC South through a novel concept: winning games.

    There’s been addition by subtraction this offseason in Carolina. Running back DeAngelo Williams was released, giving Jonathan Stewart a clear path to feature-back status after he averaged 5.8 yards per carry over the Panthers’ final seven games of 2014 (including the playoffs).

    Michael Oher will be a catastrophe at left tackle if he plays there after giving up six sacks and 26 hurries over only 668 snaps during his first and only season with the Tennessee Titans, all per PFF. But Oher’s whiffing will matter less in a division with three other teams that just finished 21st or worst in sacks.

    Toughest game: vs. Houston Texans (Week 2)

    The mere existence of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt makes this game a frightening one for Carolina’s creaky offensive line. In 2014, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton completed 51.1 percent of his passes while under pressure, per PFF, a high success rate that will have to continue amid the duress he’s sure to face.

    Prove-it game: vs. Green Bay Packers (Week 9)

    A 34-year-old Charles Tillman will likely start at cornerback for the Panthers after they signed him with the hope he can provide veteran stability for a secondary that is still young and developing.

    How much he has left remains to be seen. Tillman’s past two seasons have ended early due to injury, and in 2013—the last time he played at least eight games—he allowed an opposing passer rating in coverage of 98.1, per PFF. An afternoon against the Packers will be the ultimate gauge of exactly how much Tillman has left in his career fuel tank.

    2015 record prediction: 8-8

Chicago Bears (2014 Record: 5-11)

6 of 32

    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Jay Cutler isn’t the Chicago Bears quarterback because he’s particularly good. He’s still the Chicago Bears quarterback because he’s paid to be good. The gap between pay and performance with him is cavernous.

    Cutler is the shining example of the worst modern quarterback quandary. Assessing a quarterback and calling him awful is easy. But finding a replacement when only about a dozen people on this planet can play the position at a high level? That's exceedingly difficult.

    The Bears' 2014 struggle ended with that problem, and it’s where 2015 could begin, too. Brandon Marshall, one of Cutler’s primary targets, was dealt to the New York Jets as new Bears general manager Ryan Pace reallocated spending to the defense.

    That was a wise decision, as wideout Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte still provide a fine arsenal of passing-game weapons, and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was a sorely needed free agency find.

    McPhee played only 48.8 percent of the defensive snaps during his final season with the Baltimore Ravens, yet he still recorded 9 sacks and 24 quarterback hits, per PFF.

    Toughest game: at Seattle Seahawks (Week 3)

    The Seahawks will fall under this daunting “toughest game” category often, mostly because they’re the Seahawks and have been to two straight Super Bowls. But a trip to Seattle now presents an especially dark thought since the Seahawks are more than just a defensive juggernaut after adding Jimmy Graham.

    The Bears signed safety Antrel Rolle, who’s aging (32) as his coverage skills are gradually declining. He’ll be tasked with helping to turn around a Bears defense that gave up an average of 60.4 receiving yards per game to tight ends in 2014, according to Football Outsiders.

    Prove-it games: Both games against the Detroit Lions (Weeks 6 and 17)

    We all understand that Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is pretty good at football. Some may even say he’s great, or ridiculously unfair. But to survive in the NFC North, the Bears will have to reduce Johnson to something less than otherworldly.

    Over two games against the Bears in 2014, Johnson finished with 249 receiving yards, averaging 14.6 yards per reception and scoring twice.

    2015 record prediction: 5-11

Cincinnati Bengals (2014 Record: 10-5-1)

7 of 32

    David Kohl/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals are a confusing, underachieving bunch. That can largely be attributed to quarterback Andy Dalton, who’s infamous for his playoff dive bombs (55.7 completion percentage, with one touchdown and six interceptions over four postseason appearances).

    But usually, he’s at least decently passable during the regular season. Dalton didn’t even meet that minimum threshold in 2014, with a career worst touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-to-17.

    In fairness, the Bengals were decimated by injuries. Wide receiver Marvin Jones didn’t play a single snap, while fellow wideout and offensive pillar A.J. Green missed four games, including the Bengals’ playoff loss. Tight end Tyler Eifert also went down early, dislocating his elbow in Week 1.

    Improved health will be the most significant offseason addition for the Bengals in 2015, though defensively they added linebacker A.J. Hawk and defensive end Michael Johnson. The latter was a free-agent bust with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Johnson is still relatively young at 28 years old and recorded a career single-season high 11.5 sacks with the Bengals in 2012.

    Toughest games: Both games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Weeks 8 and 14)

    The Bengals lost twice to their division rival in 2014 by a combined score of 69-38. In those games, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown collected 245 receiving yards, 128 of which came in Week 17 when he averaged 18.3 yards per catch.

    Prove-it game: at Buffalo Bills (Week 6)

    Running back LeSean McCoy is sure to be utilized often as a pass-catcher out of the backfield in Buffalo, just as he has been throughout a career that’s seen him average 380.4 receiving yards per season. The Bengals are fresh off a year when they allowed 50.4 receiving yards per game to running backs (29th in the NFL), according to Football Outsiders.

    2015 record prediction: 10-6

Cleveland Browns (2014 Record: 7-9)

8 of 32

    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Offensively, the Cleveland Browns will begin 2015 with the same journeyman quarterback dread they slogged through in 2014.

    The Brian Hoyer experience worked out decently at first, and then it didn’t. Hoyer threw seven interceptions over a three-game stretch before being replaced by Johnny Manziel, who promptly validated those who don’t think his playing style will ever transition well to the professional game.

    Now Josh McCown replaces Hoyer as the journeyman nobody who will provide mediocre play at best, and Manziel’s future remains uncertain. The Browns reportedly pursued Sam Bradford and offered a first-round pick, according to NFL Network’s Charley Casserly (via Mary Kay Cabot of the Northeast Ohio Media Group). And they still could chase after Bradford, as Casserly wasn’t sure if that pick was offered to the St. Louis Rams or Bradford’s new team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

    ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on April 1 the Browns are 90 percent done with Manziel (via Jeff Schudel of The News-Herald), and there’s also interest in trading up during the draft for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, according to CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora.

    Preventing points isn’t a problem, as the Browns gave up an average of only 21.1 points per game during their first year under head coach Mike Pettine. But scoring them? Offensive dysfunction could be an issue in a division that had three double-digit win teams in 2014.

    Toughest game: vs. Denver Broncos (Week 6)

    It doesn’t matter who is under center here. Whether the Browns go with a career backup, a second-year likely bust or a developing rookie, an afternoon against the Broncos defense will end in tears.

    Broncos cornerback Chris Harris ranked fifth in 2014 after allowing a reception only once every 13.8 cover snaps, per PFF, while pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware combined for 24 sacks.

    Prove-it game: at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 10)

    The Browns haven’t won a game on the road against Pittsburgh since 2003. For perspective, at that time we were still three years from understanding what a tweet was.

    2015 record prediction: 4-12

Dallas Cowboys (2014 Record: 12-4)

9 of 32

    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Everything is bigger in Texas, even the controversial playoff endings.

    The Dallas Cowboys' season ended with a leaping, sprawling Dez Bryant non-catch against the Green Bay Packers that, in a just world, would have been ruled a fine football play. But instead, the Cowboys’ season came to its sad trombone conclusion, as did running back DeMarco Murray’s time carrying a team on his ample yet fragile body.

    The Cowboys adopted a clear “YOLO” approach with Murray, leaning on him heavily to the tune of 497 touches throughout the 2014 regular season and playoffs. That workload and Murray’s well-established breakable nature led to a smart decision when he became a free agent: fire lowballs.

    The Cowboys reportedly offered Murray only $5 million annually to re-sign, according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports. He eventually signed a deal that averages $8 million per year with the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the Cowboys to replace him with the also combustible Darren McFadden.

    Dallas will surely select a running back sometime in the upcoming draft (Todd Gurley? Melvin Gordon?). But even with fresh legs and one of the league’s best offensive lines, chugging merrily along without a player who accounted for 36.8 percent of your offensive yards is quite the challenge.

    Toughest game: vs. Seattle Seahawks (Week 8)

    Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL during offseason training activities in 2014, adding to his list of injuries that can circle Earth. He’s now missed 31 games since 2012, but he’s expected to participate in this year’s OTAs and be ready for the season.

    He’s also expected to move over and occupy the weak-side linebacker spot, meaning a date with Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will be his first true test against a bruiser while playing a new position.

    When healthy, Lee is an absolute tackling whirlwind. He recorded 42 defensive stops in 2013 over only 11 games, per PFF.

    Prove-it games: Both games against the New York Giants (Weeks 1 and 7)

    Making sure Odell Beckham Jr. stays somewhat human each week is a Herculean assignment for any secondary. But it’s especially critical for the Cowboys after he lit them up for 180 yards and four touchdowns over two games during his rookie season.

    2015 record prediction: 10-6

Denver Broncos (2014 Record: 12-4)

10 of 32

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The 2015 offseason started earlier than expected for the Denver Broncos, and it began with a central question: When is your really great old quarterback too damn old?

    Many of the fluttering ducks Peyton Manning chucked late in the season and during Denver’s playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts could be blamed on a torn right quad. A lack of lower-body torch understandably zapped his power, but even before that, Manning’s arm was well into the process of fading.

    His potential retirement loomed large immediately, but Manning returned on a restructured contract after much thought and soul searching. And with that, the Broncos now have one last year before their championship window slams shut.

    Primarily the same roster returns around Manning, with one major change and a few minor ones.

    Slot receiver Wes Welker is still unsigned and likely mulling retirement (or at least he should be after multiple concussions). Tight end Julius Thomas is gone, and his hulking athleticism will be missed. But Owen Daniels is a capable replacement who’s familiar with the system run by new head coach Gary Kubiak.

    Defensively, Terrance Knighton’s oversized body will also be missed, as the nose tackle played a key rotational role for a run defense that allowed 79.8 yards on the ground per game.

    Toughest game: vs. New England Patriots (Week 12)

    This will be the 17th and possibly final time Manning and Tom Brady meet, barring another playoff clash.

    The Patriots defense has been rearranged this offseason after winning the Super Bowl, losing both starting cornerbacks (Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis). So Manning could have more space to work with in a game that will likely be won through the air. In 2014, the Patriots and Broncos combined to allow just 15 rushing touchdowns.

    Prove-it game: at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 15)

    Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. emerged as a premier player at his position last season, allowing an opposing passer rating of only 46.7 when targeted in coverage, per PFF. He’ll have to fight hard to stay on that perch against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, who’s fresh off a season when he averaged 106.1 receiving yards per game.

    2015 record prediction: 11-5

Detroit Lions (2014 Record: 11-5)

11 of 32

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions without defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh feels like Kraft Dinner without ketchup. It’s wrong and should be illegal.

    But here we are, with Suh taking his run-lane-clogging and backfield-penetrating act to the Miami Dolphins. His run-stop percentage of 9.7 in 2014 ranked fifth among defensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF, and Suh’s pressure percentage of 8.4 also ranked fifth.

    Please remain seated and calm, however, because Haloti Ngata arrived before Suh went South.

    Ngata is older and possibly a short-term solution (his contract expires at the end of 2015). But what a versatile solution he is for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Ngata has played nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end, all while recording at least 50 tackles in six of his nine seasons.

    Toughest game: at St. Louis Rams (Week 14)

    This may seem like an odd choice for a team that has heavyweights like the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers on its schedule. But Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked 45 times in 2014, and the Rams specialize in burying opposing quarterbacks.

    Prove-it game: at New Orleans Saints (Week 15)

    The question to be answered in this game: Just how far has the Lions’ run defense fallen after replacing Suh with Ngata and losing Nick Fairley? Or has it fallen at all?

    The Saints will transition to a more run-oriented offensive attack after trading Jimmy Graham for center Max Unger, re-signing running back Mark Ingram and bringing fellow back C.J. Spiller aboard. That shift already started in 2014 when an offense with Drew Brees as its quarterback averaged 4.5 yards per carry, tied for sixth in the league.

    2015 record prediction: 10-6

Green Bay Packers (2014 Record: 12-4)

12 of 32

    Tom Lynn/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers are boring in the best way possible. They draft well and develop in-house talent, and they keep said talent during free agency instead of dumping massive dollars on mediocre names.

    There are exceptions, of course. In 2014, they spent to bring in outside linebacker Julius Peppers, and the now-35-year-old looked rejuvenated while recording seven sacks, 11 passes defensed and two interceptions.

    But the Packers primarily use their precious dollars to make sure a player's prime years are spent in Green Bay. This offseason, Randall Cobb was re-signed after he produced a league-leading 1,067 receiving yards from the slot, per PFF. Fullback John Kuhn was retained, too, along with right tackle Bryan Bulaga.

    So the Packers will field the exact same secondary-dizzying offense that averaged a league-best 30.4 points per game in 2014. And now their quarterback has two fully functioning legs.

    Toughest game: at Denver Broncos (Week 8)

    Green Bay improved against the run later in 2014 when linebacker Clay Matthews was used on the inside more often. But it was still a weakness overall, and throughout the Broncos’ last seven games (including playoffs), running back C.J. Anderson averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

    Prove-it game: vs. Seattle Seahawks (Week 2)

    What, exactly, are the Packers proving here? Just that they can finish the job this time.

    The Seahawks didn’t deserve to win the NFC title game in 2014. Though their late surge was filled with heroics and all things Russell Wilson, had Packers tight end Brandon Bostick done his job properly, we wouldn’t have endured a week of talking about Marshawn Lynch not talking.

    2015 record prediction: 14-2

Houston Texans (2014 Record: 9-7)

13 of 32

    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    So far this offseason, the Houston Texans have gone about the business of making a strength stronger and a weakness weaker.

    Nose tackle Vince Wilfork will play out the twilight of his career alongside all-everything defensive end J.J. Watt, adding another space-eater to a run defense that ranked 10th in 2014, allowing 104.3 yards per game. The Texans also signed safety Rahim Moore, who was one of the most effective coverage safeties during his final season in Denver. Moore ranked sixth among his position peers in cover snaps per reception, per PFF.

    Defense was already the foundation of Texans football. They ranked third in interceptions (20) and had Watt to clog up everything at the line of scrimmage in 2014. But offense? Not so much, which happens when your best quarterback is Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    He’s gone now, and his replacement is Brian Hoyer, another quarterback who’s merely adequate. He’ll push a now-healthy Ryan Mallett in training camp, setting up a quarterback battle that does little to get the juices flowing, especially after franchise icon wide receiver Andre Johnson left for Indy.

    Scoring will still be tough, although the same can be said for any team trying to put points up against the Texans defense.

    Toughest game: vs. New England Patriots (Week 14)

    This game could be the canary in the coal mine for the Texans’ season, showing whether they’re ready to take a significant step forward or doomed to fall into mediocrity.

    The Texans have the required defensive parts to match up well against the defending champs. Notably, Houston has an effectiveness against tight ends and ample power up front to counter the brute-force running style of Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.

    Prove-it games: Both games against the Indianapolis Colts (Weeks 5 and 15)

    The Texans play in a weak division. The AFC South is anchored at the bottom by two teams—the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans—that won a combined five games in 2014.

    So division wins are critical in the quest to unlocking that sacred playoff door. It’s a gate guarded by the Indianapolis Colts, a team the Texans have met six times since quarterback Andrew Luck was drafted. How many of those games has Houston emerged victorious from? One.

    2015 record prediction: 6-10

Indianapolis Colts (2014 Record: 11-5)

14 of 32

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    The Indianapolis Colts will soon be strapped to a quarterback contract boulder, just like much of the league. Having one player occupy a significant chunk of the salary cap makes being aggressive in free agency a tall order.

    So that’s exactly what the Colts did in March before Andrew Luck’s inevitable mega-extension comes. They brought in Frank Gore, an aging running back set to turn 32 in May who still has plenty left despite a career odometer that reads 2,942 career touches (including the playoffs). But despite those miles, Gore has strung together four straight seasons with 1,100-plus rushing yards.

    Also filed under aging but still more than capable of contributing: Andre Johnson. Not wanting to be part of a rebuild in Houston, Johnson signed a three-year contract with the Colts that gave him $10 million in guaranteed money. He may be slowing, but he’s only a season removed from 1,407 receiving yards. Johnson has a reliable set of possession hands to complement the neck-cranking speed of fellow receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief.

    The Colts also chucked a sizable portion of their overflowing cap space at outside linebacker Trent Cole, who addresses a glaring need for pressure off the edge while providing insurance in case a 34-year-old Robert Mathis struggles with his return from a torn Achilles. In 2014, Cole’s 14 quarterback hits ranked fourth among all 3-4 outside linebackers, per PFF.

    The AFC South still runs through Indianapolis. The next step: making the AFC run through Indianapolis, too.

    Toughest game: vs. New England Patriots (Week 6)

    During the Luck era, Indianapolis has attempted to establish itself as a fellow AFC power against the Patriots four times, twice during the playoffs. Each game has ended in a thorough bedwetting.

    The Patriots have beaten Indy in those four games by a combined score of 189-73.

    Prove-it game: at Miami Dolphins (Week 16)

    Although he was sacked a career single-season low 27 times in 2014, Luck still had to escape or maneuver around pressure on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks (10th in the league), per PFF.

    A trip to Miami will mean clashing helmets with the interior push of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and the duo of Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon off the edge. It will be a thorough test for an offensive line fortified by the signing of guard Todd Herremans.

    2015 record prediction: 13-3

Jacksonville Jaguars (2014 Record: 3-13)

15 of 32

    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Julius Thomas has caught 24 touchdown passes over the past two seasons. Among tight ends, only Jimmy Graham has recorded more scores during that stretch.

    What makes Thomas’ touchdown surge even more remarkable is that he missed five games over his first two seasons as a starter in Denver and was slowed by an ankle injury even when healthy in 2014.

    Which leads us to the question that will hover over both him and the Jaguars: Was Thomas’ success a result of his unique athletic gifts and status as another top producer in the long basketball-to-football tight end production line? Or did he benefit solely from the Peyton Manning push?

    Let’s go with both in equal measure.

    Thomas was one of the marquee names available in free agency. The Jaguars quickly plunked a $46 million contract on his lap, $24 million of which is guaranteed. He joins an offense that has a promising stable of young receivers (Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns) to support the growth of sophomore quarterback Blake Bortles.

    Now the Jaguars are just waiting on those maturations, and Bortles will try to take a stride forward during a season when he has to face four of the top 10 defenses from 2014.

    Toughest games: Both games against the Indianapolis Colts (Weeks 4 and 14)

    This schedule-prognosticating exercise has led to a few reminders of division dominance. For the Jaguars, the Colts are the source of their regular brutal beatings.

    Jacksonville has dropped its last four games to Indianapolis by an especially bloody combined score of 134-33.

    Prove-it game: vs. Buffalo Bills (Week 7)

    The math here is simple, as is the desperate need to prove Bortles can be kept in a standing position.

    Bortles was sacked a league-high 55 times during his first season, which is a fine way to shatter a rookie’s confidence immediately. Left tackle Luke Joeckel was selected with the second overall pick in 2013, and he resembled a rusted barn door while allowing eight of those sacks.

    The Bills have downed opposing quarterbacks a whopping 111 times over the past two seasons.

    2015 record prediction: 2-14

Kansas City Chiefs (2014 Record: 9-7)

16 of 32

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    There are amazing statistical happenings during every NFL season. Some are historical accomplishments, while others are dubious slices of awful that seem impossible.

    The latter applies to an infamous fact from the Chiefs’ 2014 season: They didn’t complete a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver, the first time that’s happened since 1964 (which is a little hazy, because the Giants’ Frank Gifford was often listed as a flanker).

    Jeremy Maclin is now being paid to bring some semblance of respect to the Chiefs’ downfield passing game. He was among free agency’s prime moneymakers, signing a five-year contract with Kansas City worth $55 million, including $22.5 million in guaranteed money.

    The mission ahead won’t be easy. The Chiefs—and, more critically, quarterback Alex Smith—have to make sure that money isn’t wasted. The core problem? Adding Maclin doesn’t change what the Chiefs are offensively and how they’ve been structured since head coach Andy Reid came aboard.

    They’re a team that had its wide receivers account for only 47.3 percent of Smith’s passing yards in 2014. The Chiefs are also only a year removed from having Jamaal Charles—a great running back, but still a running back—lead them in receptions (70), receiving yards (693) and receiving touchdowns (seven).

    How much Maclin matters simply depends on how much he’s made to matter.

    Toughest game: at Green Bay Packers (Week 3)

    Lambeau Field is often a place where wins go to die. But it could be especially uncomfortable for Smith with Packers pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers in pursuit.

    The Chiefs’ offensive line was pillaged during free agency in 2014, as tackle Branden Albert and guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz departed. Smith was predictably sacked a career single-season high 45 times the following season. Desperate for fortifications, Kansas City traded for guard Ben Grubbs, who allowed only one sack on 1,152 snaps during his final season with the New Orleans Saints, per PFF.

    The Packers will put Smith, Grubbs and Co. to the test here.

    Prove-it game: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 7)

    Getting after the quarterback is always a strength when your team employs outside linebacker Justin Houston. But stopping the run wasn't nearly as enjoyable for the Chiefs in 2014, especially after linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito went down. Kansas City was regularly torched, allowing 4.7 yards per carry (30th in the league). 

    Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will be a good barometer to see if a healthy Johnson and DeVito have restored order.

    2015 record prediction: 7-9

Miami Dolphins (2014 Record: 8-8)

17 of 32

    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When the Miami Dolphins’ contribution to an AFC East arms race is dissected, the focus is on Ndamukong Suh. That’s what happens when you not only sign the best player at his position, but also make him the highest-paid defender in NFL history.

    But the other side of the ball deserves your attention, too, because offensive shuffling will either elevate or destroy the Dolphins’ 2015 season.

    Wide receiver Mike Wallace is gone, and he’s been replaced by Kenny Stills, another straight vertical burner. This is concerning because despite overall improvement in his third season, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill still doesn’t excel while throwing the deep ball. He completed only 37.7 percent of his passes that traveled 20-plus yards in 2014, per PFF.

    Miami also lost versatile tight end Charles Clay, replacing him with Jordan Cameron. Tannehill’s next step forward in a division filled with pass-rushing power rests with Cameron staying healthy after three concussions over a two-year period.

    Toughest game: at New England Patriots (Week 8)

    Let’s add another one to our growing list of division-based thumpings. Since drafting Tannehill, the Dolphins haven’t won at Gillette Stadium, losing all three games by a combined score of 96-30.

    Prove-it game: vs. Baltimore Ravens (Week 13)

    Tannehill spent much of his first three seasons either looking up at the sunny South Florida sky or frantically scrambling. He’s been sacked 139 times over only three seasons, which is partly a result of left tackle Branden Albert tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 10 of 2014.

    The Ravens will send two pass-rushers after Tannehill who recorded a combined 29 sacks in 2014: Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. That’s when we’ll see if Albert really is healthy, and if all his hours in a boxing ring have paid off.

    2015 record prediction: 10-6

Minnesota Vikings (2014 Record: 7-9)

18 of 32

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Teddy Bridgewater had the most polished, pro-ready and accurate arm in the 2014 draft class. He started 12 games and completed at least 70 percent of his passes in four of them. Even better, Bridgewater connected on 46.3 percent of his passes that sailed 20-plus yards, per PFF.

    He just needed someone reliable on the other end of those passes. Now that someone is…Mike Wallace?

    Wallace is, at best, a subpar route-runner. He has one big strength: speed.

    He runs far and deep, hoping there’s a football waiting when he reaches his final destination. In Miami, that style didn't jive well with Ryan Tannehill, but now the Wallace-Bridgewater marriage could be a loving one for all involved.

    Toss in the emergence of fellow wideout Charles Johnson and steady tight end Kyle Rudolph, and the Vikings have quickly surrounded their franchise-cornerstone quarterback with quality weapons.

    It would be easy to believe in that promise if it wasn’t for the matter of Adrian Peterson and where the running back will play football in 2015.

    Toughest game: at Denver Broncos (Week 4)

    The Vikings’ shiny new receiver will have to navigate through a secondary that allowed a league-low 6.0 yards per pass attempt in 2014.

    Prove-it games: All NFC North games

    The Vikings have only won three games within the NFC North over the past two years. Proof of being playoff-worthy starts with surviving in your own division.

    2015 record prediction: 7-9

New England Patriots (2014 Record: 12-4)

19 of 32

    Associated Press

    The New England Patriots have taken many forms during Bill Belichick’s stern and hooded head coaching reign. The latest version defensively meant half of the field wasn’t a concern in the secondary.

    It was sealed shut by cornerback Darrelle Revis, but he’s gone now.

    You don’t replace a Darrelle Revis. There’s only one other cornerback on his tier, and that guy plays in Seattle. Revis allowed a reception only once every 14.8 coverage snaps, per PFF, the league’s third-highest rate.

    Revis returned to the New York Jets, while imposing physical cornerback Brandon Browner left for the New Orleans Saints. Existing effectively without both will mean a reliance on pressure up front to not only continue but increase (the Patriots finished with 40 sacks during the 2014 regular season). And, more importantly, the Pats must be hoping the likes of Logan Ryan and/or Malcolm Butler aren’t exposed as their snap counts rise.

    Toughest game: at Indianapolis Colts (Week 6)

    Yes, the Patriots have shoved Colts quarterback Andrew Luck into a locker throughout his young career, taping it shut. Those beatings hit their peak (or lowlighted, depending on your fan affiliation) when Luck completed only 36.4 percent of his pass attempts during the 2015 AFC title game.

    But in those contests, Revis was there to erase Luck’s top option. Now the Colts have reloaded, and the AFC crown-holders have a depleted secondary.

    Prove-it game: at Denver Broncos (Week 12)

    There’s little to prove when you’re wearing those massive championship rings. But a game against Peyton Manning always feels like a gauge for where the Patriots stand.

    Once again, containing multiple receiving threats—this time Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders—is a much more daunting task without Revis. Both Thomas and Sanders finished among the top five in receiving yards to end the 2014 season.

    2015 record prediction: 12-4

New Orleans Saints (2014 Record: 7-9)

20 of 32

    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Squint hard and you’ll see the New Orleans Saints. The team you once recognized was dismantled, rearranged and assembled again, all within the stretch of a week or so in March.

    The most notable—and downright shocking—move amid a salary-cap purge sent tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle. But when running back Pierre Thomas and linebacker Curtis Lofton were released and allowed to walk, respectively, two more core contributors on both sides of the ball fell victim to cap restructuring.

    When those moves first went down, it was assumed Saints fans would have to endure a year of rebuilding. That’s not pleasant, but it was a fate they had surely started to accept.

    Then the franchise threw money at running back Mark Ingram to keep him in New Orleans, and C.J. Spiller will join him in the backfield with his best Darren Sproles imitation. And defensively, some much-needed muscle was added in the form of cornerback Brandon Browner, who will hopefully breathe some life into a secondary that ranked 25th in passing yards allowed during 2014.

    So what form, exactly, will the 2015 New Orleans Saints take? They will be a team that’s doing rebuilding right, discarding expensive or unnecessary pieces while still remaining competitive in a weak division.

    Toughest game: at Indianapolis Colts (Week 7)

    About that woeful secondary then: Will Browner be enough to improve it? And where has the real Kenny Vaccaro gone? Questions about the struggling safety and more will be answered when the Saints try to slow Indy’s stable of pass-catching talent.

    New Orleans finished tied for the fifth most yards allowed per pass attempt in 2014 (7.7), while giving up 251.2 passing yards per game.

    Prove-it game: vs. Dallas Cowboys (Week 4)

    I could have just listed every home game here. There was a time not so long ago when a trip to the Superdome (ahem, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome) meant a sure loss.

    Prior to 2014, the Saints had gone undefeated at home in two of the three previous seasons. Then las year, they spiraled and lost five home games. Their home-field advantage needs to be re-established as, well, an advantage, which can start with the most threatening opponent set to visit New Orleans.

    2015 record prediction: 8-8

New York Giants (2014 Record: 6-10)

21 of 32

    NJ Advance Media for NJ.com-USA TODAY Sports

    The New York Giants’ 2014 season was filled with awe and various human tricks, all supplied by wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. It’s still hard to mentally process his 1,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns while missing four games.

    Beckham isn’t normal, and he was part of an offense that eventually clicked while adapting to coordinator Ben McAdoo’s West Coast approach. The problem lied on the other side of the ball, where more breaking happened than clicking. It started with Walter Thurmond, one of the league’s best nickelbacks, going down in Week 2. Then cornerback Prince Amukamara tore his bicep in Week 7.

    Now that same secondary has been depleted by another sort of plague: free agency. Thurmond is gone, and so is safety Antrel Rolle. What was once a strength when all bodies were healthy could become a weakness, and there are other priorities early in the draft (namely offensive line help and possibly a defensive end).

    Toughest games: Both games against the Philadelphia Eagles (Weeks 2 and 9)

    Eagles head coach and personnel czar Chip Kelly stood behind his dark curtain all offseason, putting his wizard plan into motion. Part of that meant signing two of the top running backs available, and now he can go about the business of steamrolling a Giants defense that was regularly trampled in 2014.

    The Giants gave up a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry and were one of only four teams to allow 130-plus rushing yards per game. Unless they target a run-stuffer of significance early in the draft, trying to slow Eagles running back DeMarco Murray twice won't end well.

    Prove-it game: at Buffalo Bills (Week 16)

    The threat of a dynamic running back hovers here, too, this time from LeSean McCoy. But the need to establish short-area defensive quickness will be even more prevalent against the Bills.

    Offseason restructuring in Buffalo will likely lead to an offense that focuses on quick-hitting throws and yards after the catch. The Bills have collected plenty of weapons capable of doing just that, including McCoy, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay.

    The Giants’ assignment: closing that space, and doing it fast.

    2015 record prediction: 9-7

New York Jets (2014 Record: 4-12)

22 of 32

    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    How do you revive the New York Jets? By turning them into the old New York Jets, basically.

    The Jets haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, a year their defense ranked third overall (291.5 yards allowed per game). Then 2011 was the last time we saw Darrelle Revis in a Jets uniform for an entire season. In 2012, he tore his ACL in Week 2, then left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following offseason.

    He was playing alongside Antonio Cromartie then, just like he is again now.

    Bringing Cromartie and Revis back together has highlighted the Jets’ offseason defensive rebuild so far. Cromartie is fresh off a season in which he allowed an opposing passer rating in coverage of 74.9, per PFF, and Revis has long been the sort of shutdown corner who dares you to even target him. The Jets landed Buster Skrine, too, and with the amount of cornerback talent assembled, every pass attempt has a chance of heading the other way.

    However, the flaw on the Jets’ roster is a potentially crippling one. It goes by the name of Geno Smith, and he plays quarterback.

    Smith showed fleeting—so very fleeting—promise in his second season, finishing with a perfect passer rating in Week 17. The support that’s been inserted from wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Stevan Ridley won’t fix Smith’s fundamental problems: accuracy and decision-making.

    Whether it’s Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, the Jets seem to have constructed a roster aimed at making the quarterback matter as little as possible, and then playing pummelling defense.

    Toughest game: at Houston Texans (Week 11)

    The defending champs are on New York’s schedule twice, as they are every year. And there are frightening road trips to face the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts.

    But an afternoon against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans pass rush may still be the toughest assignment Smith faces (if he wins the starting job). Smith was pressured on 40.1 percent of his dropbacks in 2014, per PFF, which was mostly a result of his inability to read the field, be decisive and release the damn ball.

    Prove-it games: Both games against the Buffalo Bills (Weeks 10 and 17)

    In 2014, the Jets lost twice to the Bills, a team that’s retained its league-best pass rush. The combined final score in those losses? 81-26.

    2015 record prediction: 7-9

Oakland Raiders (2014 Record: 3-13)

23 of 32

    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    The Oakland Raiders have made smart offseason moves. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: The Oakland Raiders have displayed some intelligence while attempting an honest (or endless?) rebuild.

    They signed Roy Helu, one of the league’s best pass-catching running backs. Helu’s 1,152 receiving yards since he entered the league in 2011 ranks 16th among running backs. That’s a fine perch considering his status as almost purely a passing-down back who therefore sees far fewer snaps compared to, say, DeMarco Murray, who’s directly ahead of him on the running back receiving yards standings since 2011.

    They brought in wide receiver Michael Crabtree, paying him basically the NFL equivalent of a flat tire. Crabtree received only $3.2 million on a one-year deal. He’ll either be motivated to become the Crabtree of old, or he'll be an experiment that will end quickly after one season with little risk or financial damage to the Raiders. They’ll likely draft a receiver with the fourth overall pick, too, and it’s just a matter of whether that receiver’s name is Amari Cooper or Kevin White.

    The end of a long climb back from NFL irrelevance is coming, and eventually, so is the end of a playoff drought that’s so far spanned 12 seasons.

    But right now, it’s still difficult to look at those offseason wins and imagine a world where they translate to actual wins. Especially when the Raiders still play in the AFC West—a division in which they were the only team to finish below .500 in 2014—and their schedule now includes the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.

    Toughest games: Both games against the Denver Broncos (Weeks 5 and 14)

    Here’s yet another instance of rather lopsided division dominance. In 2014, the Raiders lost both games against the Broncos by a combined score of 88-31.

    Prove-it game: vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Week 1)

    The proof here lies in whether the Raiders can keep up with a premier wide receiver, which of course will be A.J. Green in this case.

    Let’s go with “probably not,” as first-round pick D.J. Hayden (when healthy) is still regularly whiffing, allowing a reception 68.4 percent of the time he’s targeted in coverage, per PFF.

    2015 record prediction: 2-14

Philadelphia Eagles (2014 Record: 10-6)

24 of 32

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly wants a Chip Kelly team, and he knows what a Chip Kelly team looks like. We assume so, at least, because he’s Chip Kelly.

    But everything is aligned for the Eagles to either explode or implode.

    Barring another trade during the draft (entirely possible), the Eagles’ fate during their first season with Kelly calling the personnel shots rests with the progression of Sam Bradford’s arm.

    Or does it instead rest with the health of his twice-torn ACL? Or are all prayers being directed toward running back DeMarco Murray’s continued health after he logged 497 touches in 2014? Or maybe Eagles fans are rubbing rabbit's feet for fellow running back Ryan Mathews’ entire body? He’s missed 20 games over five seasons.

    There’s a lot of potential for booming production spread throughout Kelly’s new offense. But there’s a lot of potential for bone-busting, too.

    Toughest game: at New England Patriots (Week 13)

    The Patriots have lost only three games at home over the past three seasons.

    Prove-it game: at Detroit Lions (Week 12)

    The Eagles also threw a wad of bills at cornerback Byron Maxwell, giving him $63 million over six years, $25.5 million of which is guaranteed. His 81.1 passer rating allowed in coverage ranked 25th among all cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF.

    For that sort of cornerback money, you shouldn’t get roasted by Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Good luck, Maxwell.

    2015 record prediction: 11-5

Pittsburgh Steelers (2014 Record: 11-5)

25 of 32

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s not accurate to say the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a time of transition. It’s not inaccurate either, but this feels better: Their focus is changing.

    The Steelers will likely draft either a cornerback or safety in the first round. Either option would be just fine, since they sorely need to bolster a secondary that allowed 253.1 passing yards per game in 2014 (27th league-wide). That ballooning number was the result of declining performance from aging, slowing, injured and now former Steelers defensive greats.

    The era that saw a blurry black mane flying around the field ended with safety Troy Polamalu’s retirement on April 10. Cornerback Ike Taylor followed Polamalu into the post-football life, which was a welcome announcement after Taylor had been a punching bag in coverage for several seasons. Then there was outside linebacker Jason Worilds, whose retirement may have been jarring for the football world at large, but as a free agent, he would have priced himself out of Pittsburgh regardless.

    Youth will replenish age, as is common in the football cycle. But there may be some growing pains, and now the Steelers' strengths will shift.

    Offensively, there’s a sudden surplus of talentthe league-leading kind (or close to it). In 2014, wide receiver Antonio Brown led the league in receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698), while running back Le’Veon Bell finished second in both rushing yards (1,361) and yards from scrimmage (2,215).

    But the most promise could lie in the speed and hops of Martavis Bryant, who averaged an incredible 21.1 yards per catch during his rookie season, with eight touchdowns on only 26 receptions.

    There always seems to be a reason to fear the Steelers. But now opponents will be afraid of the other side of the ball.

    Toughest game: at Seattle Seahawks (Week 12)

    It feels like the opposing team wins at CenturyLink Field about as often as a Halley’s Comet appearance. The Seahawks have dropped only two games at home since drafting quarterback Russell Wilson.

    Prove-it game: at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 7)

    Opposing defenses recorded three-plus sacks seven times against the Steelers in 2014, including the Ravens’ five during the postseason. Although the total times quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down decreased in 2014 (from 42 to 33), keeping that high-volume pressure down against powerful defenses—like, say, the one fielded by Kansas City—will be critical if the Steelers have to win more games in shootout fashion.

    2015 record prediction: 12-4

San Diego Chargers (2014 Record: 9-7)

26 of 32

    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Diego Chargers face many questions in the near future. Chief among them: How much longer will they be the San Diego Chargers?

    A move to Los Angeles remains possible by 2016, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers isn’t exactly eager to pack his bags. The direction of both Rivers’ career as he enters his final season under contract and the Chargers’ future at quarterback could be determined in less than a week.

    Will the Chargers make a draft play for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota? Or maybe this is an equally pressing draft question: What are they going to do at running back? Ryan Mathews walked as a free agent, and although Danny Woodhead is healthy now, the Chargers could rightfully view either Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon as the best player available with their 17th overall pick in the first round.

    Signing wide receiver Stevie Johnson introduces another uniquely skilled receiver for Rivers (or Mariota?) to work with if he’s used properly, and inserting Orlando Franklin—one of the best guards available in free agency—will greatly improve the Chargers’ run blocking.

    But there’s work to be done yet this offseason, and questions to be answered while facing a schedule that includes the Steelers, Dolphins, Lions and, as always, two games against the Broncos.

    Toughest game: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 5)

    The Chargers had a cellar-dwelling run defense in 2014, allowing 124.1 rushing yards per game and 4.5 per carry. They also fielded one of only three defenses to give up a 90-plus yard run.

    They'll now face four top-10 running backs from 2014 by rushing yards per game, with Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell the most imposing and dynamic.

    Prove-it game: Both games against the Denver Broncos (Weeks 13 and 17)

    The Chargers have defeated Denver only once during the Peyton Manning era, and the five losses during that stretch came by an average of 10.4 points.

    2015 record prediction: 8-8

San Francisco 49ers (2014 Record: 8-8)

27 of 32

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Close your eyes and try to imagine the worst possible offseason for an NFL team. Not even the wildest scenario you can cook up matches the doom dumped on the San Francisco 49ers.

    First, linebacker Patrick Willis retired, taking his seven Pro Bowl appearances over eight seasons with him. Then fellow linebacker Chris Borland retired, dodging future concussion problems. That was shocking, as the 49ers expected Borland to replace Willis and for NaVorro Bowman to get back to full health.

    Now two primary starting linebackers are gone along with Dan Skuta, who brought depth at outside linebacker. And at cornerback, both Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox have fled. There’s promise among the replacements, with veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett in prime position for a rebound year after he ranked fourth among 3-4 defensive ends in quarterback hits during his last healthy season, per PFF.

    Offensively, running back Reggie Bush brings versatility with his 3,489 career receiving yards, the third most since he entered the league in 2006. And wide receiver Torrey Smith gives 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a desperately needed deep threat to match his equally deep arm.

    The task ahead, however, is concentrated on defense. Can a top-five unit under now-departed coordinator Vic Fangio stay afloat after sweeping changes? Other NFC West teams fortified their offenses, while the 49ers kept shuffling and replacing.

    Toughest game: at Cleveland Browns (Week 14)

    This may seem like an odd choice for a team that has the Packers, Steelers and Ravens on its schedule. But a secondary that has cornerback Joe Haden and safety Tashaun Gipson—who allowed a passer rating of only 41.9 in coverage, per PFF—will present a unique challenge Kaepernick doesn’t see often.

    This game will give us some indication whether Kaepernick really has improved his ability to read a defense and go through his progressions properly.

    Prove-it game: at Seattle Seahawks (Week 11)

    Look, we’re all aware that Seattle isn’t a fun place to play football, ever. But at some point, you at least need to be competitive on the road against a division rival, because the NFC West will keep running through the Seahawks.

    And that hasn’t happened in three years for the 49ers. They’ve lost their last three regular-season games in Seattle by a combined score of 88-23. The exception was a 23-17 playoff loss, but it featured an infamous game-ending Kaepernick interception and Richard Sherman rant.

    2015 record prediction: 4-12

Seattle Seahawks (2014 Record: 12-4)

28 of 32

    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    In 2014, a running back led the Seattle Seahawks in receiving touchdowns. It was Marshawn Lynch with four, while all Seahawks tight ends combined to score six times.

    Jimmy Graham has scored 51 touchdowns over five seasons, including 10 in 2014 (he topped out at 16 in 2013). He’s the red-zone threat Russell Wilson desperately needs, and he will be an athletic infusion into a passing offense that often struggled to create separation.

    But Graham comes at a cost. Seattle had to ship away center Max Unger to get him from the Saints. Unger is one of the NFL’s best run-blocking centers, and therefore a critical cog for an offense that will remain focused on the run.

    Ideally, any running room Lynch loses will be more than compensated for by Graham and the stability he’ll bring to a passing attack that previously consisted of Wilson attempting to harness chaos.

    Toughest games: Both games against the St. Louis Rams (Weeks 1 and 16)

    Any team that excels at defending tight ends now becomes a Seahawks nemesis. The Rams had the sixth-best defense against the position in 2014, according to Football Outsiders, allowing only 44.4 yards per game to tight ends.

    Prove-it game: at Dallas Cowboys (Week 8)

    Seattle dropped a rare home game to the Dallas Cowboys in 2014, losing 30-23 in Week 7. In that game, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo often looked far too comfortable while completing 65.6 percent of his passes, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt.

    2015 record prediction: 15-1

St. Louis Rams (2014 Record: 6-10)

29 of 32

    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Rams registered only one sack through the first five games of 2014. Surely that statistical hiccup would be corrected, right? Loudly, the Rams’ answer was “yes.”

    The Rams still finished 2014 with 40 sacks. That included eight sacks against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 9. Making life painful for quarterbacks is what the Rams do, and now that strength has become even stronger.

    The Rams’ most significant offseason addition so far has been defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He’ll be used in a situational role, rotating in on passing downs to round out a defensive line that will cause a league-wide epidemic of soiled pants.

    Fairley will line up alongside 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, giving the Rams a pair of defensive tackles who each had at least 15 quarterback hurries last season (Fairley recorded 17 despite appearing in only eight games due to an injury, while Donald finished with 29, per PFF).

    This is a Rams team that has the potential to rise in the NFC West. But the height of that ascent will be determined by a familiar problem at quarterback.

    Toughest game: at Green Bay Packers (Week 5)

    The Rams were part of a trading frenzy right when the new league year began in March, swapping quarterbacks with the Philadelphia Eagles. Soon they’ll find out exactly which Nick Foles they acquired as a result of that deal.

    Is it the quarterback who was at ease and comfortable in 2013 while averaging 9.1 passing yards per attempt and chucking only two interceptions on 317 throws? Or will St. Louis sink with the quarterback who coughed up 10 picks with nearly the same workload in 2014 (310 pass attempts)?

    A trip to Lambeau Field generally has a way of determining if a quarterback will keep his head above water against high-level competition or if he’s set to drown quickly.

    Prove-it game: at Baltimore Ravens (Week 11)

    Foles needs a chance to stand and deliver, a fundamental opportunity that wasn’t given to Rams quarterbacks often in 2014. The Rams’ offensive line gave up an average of nearly three sacks per game.

    The Ravens and their second-ranked pass rush will be a litmus test, with outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and/or Elvis Dumervil challenging left tackle Greg Robinson. He’ll be a full-season starter after waiting until Week 6 in 2014 to get the nod during his rookie year.

    2015 record prediction: 7-9

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014 Record: 2-14)

30 of 32

    Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    Let’s go ahead and assume the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Jameis Winston with their first overall pick. Let’s also assume that in Winston, the Bucs finally land a franchise quarterback.

    General manager Jason Licht will have then acquired the most difficult piece to obtain during a rebuild that still requires many, many blocks. But he'll be winding down that road in the right direction.

    Getting anything at all in return for safety Dashon Goldson was pure magic. Licht sent Goldson and a seventh-round pick to the Washington Redskins in exchange for their sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft. Goldson was a colossal bust after being signed as a free agent in 2013. He gave up 371 yards in coverage during his final season with the Bucs, ranking 151st out of 166 safeties, per PFF.

    But there’s still a massive hole to climb out of defensively, one far too large for a single offseason. Cornerback Alterraun Verner’s 2014 game log has a wretched odor: four games when he allowed 100-plus yards in coverage, per PFF.

    Of course, a larger problem in the Bucs secondary was time, and opposing quarterbacks having too much of it. Tampa finished 2014 with only 36 sacks, which came after a lowly 35 in 2013. More push up front is a dire need, and picking up George Johnson—the former Detroit Lions defensive end who had six sacks on only 531 snaps—is a fine start, along with taking a flier on defensive tackle Henry Melton.

    Toughest game: at Indianapolis Colts (Week 12)

    The Bucs may be able to at least contain Colts running backs Frank Gore and Dan Herron after allowing only 3.9 yards per carry in 2014. But doing the same to a vast arsenal of pass-catchers—including wide receivers Andre Johnson and T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener—isn’t happening.

    Prove-it game: vs. Dallas Cowboys (Week 10)

    There’s no better time to prove you’re worth $14 million in guaranteed money than against the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant.

    The Bucs signed Verner to be a smothering shutdown corner against the toughest competition. Yet the games when he was roasted in 2014 came against the Falcons’ Julio Jones, the Steelers’ Antonio Brown and the Ravens’ Torrey Smith.

    2015 record prediction: 3-13

Tennessee Titans (2014 Record: 2-14)

31 of 32

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If they pass on Marcus Mariota with their second overall pick, the Tennessee Titans are set up to be undone by a position that’s often a source of failure. 

    But if the Titans select defensive end Leonard Williams, they’ll have not just the best rookie defender on their 2015 roster, but also arguably the best prospect in the draft class. Williams would add his 21 sacks over three seasons at USC to a defense that’s also welcoming outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da’Norris Searcy.

    There’s suddenly a lot to like about that defense, and there's reason to believe in a quick turnaround after the Titans gave up 373 yards per game in 2014 (27th). That’s assuming, of course, Orakpo can avoid another muscle tear of some kind (24 missed games over the past three seasons).

    But those defensive efforts will be unraveled by poor quarterback play.

    Passing on Mariota means the Titans likely won’t draft an immediate starter at quarterback, and Zach Mettenberger will be under center for Week 1. The apparent “poor man’s Tom Brady” has a large body and an even larger arm. However, he’s far too stationary, and as a result, he takes repeated whacks in the pocket. Despite appearing in only six games during his rookie season, Mettenberger still took 18 sacks.

    If Mettenberger isn’t protected (a concern after tackle Michael Roos retired), then free-agent wide receiver Harry Douglas will be a wasted signing. The Titans’ 2015 schedule includes five games against top-10 pass rushes in 2014.

    Toughest game: at New England Patriots (Week 15)

    The Patriots lost only one game at home in 2014, and in the seven wins, they outscored opponents 255-117.

    Prove-it game: vs. Buffalo Bills (Week 5)

    So, about protecting a statue-like quarterback: The Bills had three defensive linemen with double-digit sacks in 2014.

    2015 record prediction: 3-13

Washington Redskins (2014 Record: 4-12)

32 of 32

    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins have the unfortunate task of defending Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr. twice each season. So new general manager Scot McCloughan followed simple logic and aggressively made defense his focus this offseason.

    He fortified his defensive line by signing ends Ricky Jean-Francois and Stephen Paea, and he then pounced on tackle Terrance Knighton when his market dried up, signing him to a bargain one-year deal worth $4 million. Then he fortified a 24th-ranked secondary by signing cornerback Chris Culliver, who gave up an opposing passer rating in coverage of only 66.5 during his final season with the 49ers, per PFF. Safety Duke Ihenacho’s return from a fractured heel will also help the Redskins’ struggling pass defense.

    But much like the Titans, this team has the look of being just fine defensively and horribly inadequate offensively. Robert Griffin III has been either broken (10 missed games over three seasons) or completely lacking the ability to properly go through his progressions. Having either little or no vision has produced some high comedy, such as Griffin missing five wide open receivers at one point.

    Griffin either holds the ball too long (33 sacks taken over only nine game appearances in 2014) or simply doesn’t move the offense enough to produce (only four touchdown passes over those same nine games). He’s the starting quarterback both now in the offseason and likely for Week 1, too, and the offense will keep suffering if/when his regression continues.

    Toughest game: at New York Jets (Week 6)

    Aside from defending the aforementioned NFC East wide receiver studs and a visit to New England, the Redskins have a relatively easy schedule (by design, of course, as that’s how the system works when a team wins all of four games). They’ll face only six teams that finished with a record above .500 in 2014.

    The Jets were far below that mark, but they’ve already improved their defense significantly. The coverage skills of cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis present a doomed matchup for the indecisive Griffin.

    Prove-it game: at New England Patriots (Week 9)

    I could have just put every road game here. The Redskins haven’t done a lot of winning over the past two seasons, but they’ve been especially brutal on the road.

    During that stretch, they’ve played 16 road games. Their record? 2-14.

    2015 record prediction: 3-13

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!