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Anthony
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Cool Anthony's 2014 NFL Preview

Predicted records in parentheses


AFC EAST

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3):
The conventional wisdom says that their proverbial window is closing, but both huge schedule advantage over and regular-season home game against defending conference champ Broncos makes them the thinking man's choice to be AFC's rep in the desert come Candlemas Eve.

2. NEW YORK JETS (9-7): At least Michael Vick is a proven non-boat-rocker as a backup quarterback. Not really buying into the considerable spring and summer hype, but six teams have to make the playoffs from the AFC, even if eight or as many as ten in the NFC will probably deserve to go more than they will.

3. BUFFALO BILLS (8-8): E.J. Manuel is ahead of Geno Smith on the learning curve, at least so far, and backfield tandem of speedy C.J. Spiller and bruiser Fred Jackson is rare these days. Also came away with first wide receiver drafted in Sammy Watkins. But even this projected finish would be their best in a decade.

4. MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9): Have been almost universally panned by the power-ranking nerds this summer, one of whom has gone so far as to tab them as the second worst team in the whole league. And fifty thousand of any group - even power-ranking nerds - can't all be wrong, can they?


AFC NORTH

1. CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6):
All that money for Andy Dalton - a staggering $115 million over six years - when he has been outscored 77-33 in three playoff games, all losses? So much for their notoriously cheap front office, it can be said - and this particular beat figures to go on for at least one more year, although a repeat as division champs appears likely.

2. BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7): Emerged from their post-Super Bowl XLVII fire sale in reasonably good shape, and free-agent signings should improve last year's 29th-ranked offense and enabled them to concentrate on reinvigorating aging defense in draft. Like the Jets, they probably wouldn't even sniff the playoffs in the NFC, but should be good enough to land one of the AFC wild cards, and have realistic chance at snagging the division title.

3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-9): The serious talk about not holding onto Ben Roethlisberger at all costs when he becomes a free agent next March is not what you want to hear from a team's front office, and may be a sign that they see inevitable downtime in their immediate future and that a resistance-is-futile mentality has set in. And only three starters remain from 2012's league-leading defense - and one of them is the oft-injured Troy Polamalu.

4. CLEVELAND BROWNS (3-13): With Josh Gordon suspended for the entire season (and quite possibly beyond), maybe it's just as well that Brian Hoyer and not Johnny Manziel will open the season as their starting quarterback. At least the fans have the return of prodigal son LeBron James to look forward to.


AFC SOUTH

1. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (12-4):
Andrew Luck is improving year to year, not only as a quarterback, but as a team leader as well; and with the entire league's easiest schedule based on the 2013 final records, thanks largely to six games against what could be the weakest group of division rivals in NFL history, they seem poised to take the next logical step - a trip to the Final Four.

2. TENNESSEE TITANS (5-11): Guess the common sense in their front office died along with Bud Adams, as Chris Johnson was simply thrown away and they got nothing in return. But even that supremely dumb move still probably leaves them superior to the other two teams in here, setting them up for having a solid shot to break the mark for worst record ever for a second-place division finisher, now held by the 5-9 San Francisco 49ers of 1975.

3. HOUSTON TEXANS (4-12): Will enter season with what could be the worst QB depth chart of any NFL team in living memory, which has implanted wanderlust in Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster's recovery from back surgery is proving to be weak, slow, and halting. Bill O'Brien would have been better off staying at Penn State, even with them banned from bowl games for two more years.

4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (3-13): First, they reach for Blake Bortles in the draft, then they bench him in favor of obvious no-hoper Chad Henne. They can't leave for Los Angeles or London soon enough.


AFC WEST

1. DENVER BRONCOS (11-5):
Popular pick to get Peyton Manning to return to the scene of the crime in the Super Bowl, but backbreaking schedule makes even a first-round bye, let alone a top AFC playoff seed, seem almost downright quixotic. Should easily win this division again, however - easier than they did last year in fact.

2. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8-8): Came out of nowhere to get up for a wild card, which they then parlayed into an Elite Eight voyage when Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton pulled their usual disappearing act in the playoffs, but this year they must sing the schedule blues along with the rest of the division, and that militates strongly against Mike McCoy making it two postseason junkets in as many years as a head coach.

3. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-9): SOS indeed - they take a well-nigh-inconceivable 114 percentage-point jump in strength of schedule from last season, when they also played half their whole schedule against backup quarterbacks. Can't help but regress in Fat Boy's sophomore season.

4. OAKLAND RAIDERS (3-13): Following a 4-12 season, they not only have the toughest schedule in the NFL, but one that goes up 55 percentage points in difficulty from a year ago, placing Dennis Allen at the absolute top of the list of endangered head coaches for 2014.


NFC EAST

1. NEW YORK GIANTS (10-6):
If the Eagles do implode, post-DeSean Jackson, somebody has to win this division - and gotta give them big-time props for going 7-9 last year after an 0-6 start, the second-best finish of all time for an 0-6 starter (the '09 Titans wound up 8-8 after dropping their first half-dozen), and their just-concluded 5-0 preseason is the seventh since the present exhibition format (five games for two teams, four for the rest) was implemented in 1978 - and five of the other six went on to post double-digit wins in the regular season. If Eli Manning can simply shed the Joe Btfsplk-like cloud that followed him around everywhere he went a year ago, they're the pick to do it.

2. DALLAS COWBOYS (9-7): So, Jerry Jones wants to win with, in his words, glitz and glamor. Hey Jerry, how about just plain winning? But at least they'll break the 8-8 habit.

3. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-9): Nick Foles has half-year flash in the pan written all over him - especially with his top receiver from that half-year having been first publicly calumniated and then shamefully thrown under the bus by a narcissistic, megalomaniacal, brain-dead coach over the spring. As a result, it will be open season on the, to put it charitably, less-than-mobile Foles via the blitz, and eight and nine-man fronts will greet LeSean McCoy on virtually every down. So don't believe the hype being peddled by the likes of Cris Collinsworth - not for a minute.

4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (6-10): Maybe the manufactured controversy over their team name would be more intense if they were actually relevant - but even with DeSean having fallen into their laps, a defense coming off a near 30-points-per-game-allowed season and lack of first-round 2014 draft choice pursuant to RG3 trade does much to dampen enthusiasm.


NFC NORTH

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-3):
With all the attention, NFC-wise anyway, focused like a laser beam on the two top teams in the West, what might happen if Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews don't miss twelve games between them as they did in 2013? At upwards of 15-1 at some outlets, they are the clear value play in this year's Super Bowl futures.

2. CHICAGO BEARS (9-7): Canned Lovie Smith for falling apart at the end of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, only to have Marc Trestman come in and do the same thing a year ago. They're 4-10 in December over those three years, all with Jay Cutler, who for his part is 13-17 lifetime therein (vs. 43-31 in the rest of his starts), at quarterback.

3. DETROIT LIONS (8-8): Like the Bears - and for a much longer time - they've been hitting the brakes in December, with an NFL-worst 13-43 record in that month dating all the way back to 2001. And how long will it be before Matthew Stafford establishes himself as the clear front-runner for Underachiever of the Year yet again, and Ndamukong Suh suffers the same fate as baseball's Pete Rose, albeit for vastly different reasons?

4. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10): While he won't begin the season as the starting quarterback, look for Teddy Bridgewater to take over before very long. But they have been forced outdoors at home while awaiting the replacement of the departed Metrodome, and if their long-term form outdoors (on the road) is any guide - 19-60-1 since 2001! - that is anything but a positive development.


NFC SOUTH

1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (12-4):
Last year's December fade, which cost them the division title, does leave a bad taste, but it was a rebuilding year for the defense after getting persecuted into record-breaking futility in 2012 in a grotesque overreaction to Bountygate; and as if Drew Brees didn't have enough weapons at his disposal already, Brandin Cooks, who may very well outperform the earlier-drafted Sammy Watkins at wide receiver in today's NFL, was procured in said draft.

2. ATLANTA FALCONS (11-5): Yes, they do have the Anti-Yo-Yo Theory - only four teams have ever made the playoffs both the year before and the year after a 4-12 or worse season - to contend with; but if Julio Jones can make a complete recovery and the off-season additions on defense, most notably free-agent nose tackle Paul Soliai, who has a Pro Bowl appearance on his resume, are as good as advertised, then they are fully capable of bucking this trend.

3. CAROLINA PANTHERS (8-8): Not only has no NFC South champ ever repeated since the division's founding in 2002, but this team has never - repeat, never - posted back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, not even the years after 1996 and 2008's 12-4 campaigns. Will battle Chiefs for 2014 "Flops of the Year" honors (at least if one goes strictly by the 2013 final records), and with all-time leading receiver Steve Smith rather unceremoniously discarded, will also battle Josh Gordon-bereft Browns and post-DeSean Jackson Eagles for league's worst wide receiver contingent.

4. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6-10): Lovie Smith has declared Mike Glennon his "quarterback of the future" - no doubt making many if not most of their fans hope that relocation to L.A. or London is in their future. Maybe the Bears did the right thing by giving Smith the heave-ho after all.


NFC WEST

1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (12-4):
Becoming the first team in this decade to allow less than 10 yards per completion as their secondary did last season has turned out to have grave consequences, in that it has prompted the owners to make the chuck rule that much more stringent. And repeating as Super Bowl champs is hard enough to do even when the league isn't pointedly out to get you.

2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (11-5): First they lose NaVorro Bowman for at least the first six games, then they lose Aldon Smith for the first nine - and, chances are, Ray McDonald for six. That's a pretty huge blow to the defense; and if the pattern holds, Colin Kaepernick will drive them down the length of the field at the end of the game and then fart out in the divisional playoffs this year.

3. ARIZONA CARDINALS (7-9): Too many of their players had what look suspiciously like career seasons in 2013 that they cannot be realistically expected to duplicate in 2014, from Carson Palmer on down; and two of them can't match their '13 performances in any case - defensive end Darnell Dockett, who tore his ACL in practice three weeks ago and is lost for the entire season, as is linebacker Daryl Washington, courtesy of the league's decidedly politically-incorrect substance-abuse policy.

4. ST. LOUIS RAMS (2-14): I dreamed I saw Shaun Hill last night; he was battling Bryce Petty for the first-string quarterback job at next summer's training camp - after Petty had been selected with the #1 overall pick two months earlier, and having formally declared the Sam Bradford experiment the failure it so obviously was by cutting bait and releasing him two months before that.


PLAYOFFS (Home teams in CAPS)

AFC Wild Card: DENVER over N.Y. Jets
.......................... Baltimore over CINCINNATI

NFC Wild Card: NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta
........................... San Francisco over N.Y. GIANTS

AFC Semifinals: NEW ENGLAND over Baltimore
............................ INDIANAPOLIS over Denver

NFC Semifinals: GREEN BAY over San Francisco
............................ SEATTLE over New Orleans

AFC Championship: NEW ENGLAND over Indianapolis

NFC Championship: GREEN BAY over Seattle

Super Bowl XLIX: Green Bay over New England
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