The 2014 NFL season is nine days from kickoff next Thursday night, when the Seattle Seahawks hoist their Super Bowl banner for the NBC audience against the Green Bay Packers. It’s time then, for the Notebook Nine, the nine key predictions I’m taking into the season. In the NFL’s case, they make doing nine easy—just one pick for each of the eight divisions, and then an overarching Super Bowl pick. Here we go…
AFC EAST: If you think the New England Patriots’ run is going to end, you can bet the entire group of three (Miami Dolphins, NY Jets, Buffalo Bills) against them, and be assured of more than doubling your investment if any of the three win the AFC East. But I don’t think Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are done. And with Tommie Kelly healthy on the defensive line and Darrelle Revis at corner, I think the Pats are as good as ever.
AFC NORTH: This has the feel of a division where it’s three legitimate contenders, the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, will all end up between 8-8 and 10-6, just like they did a year ago. The Steelers’ young offensive line is getting better and I expect them to move the ball. The Bengals have the talent, but lost both coordinators. The Ravens have pretty good talent, but will they find leadership in the post-Ray Lewis era? I’m taking the Steelers, with the Ravens close behind and Cincy falling to third.
AFC SOUTH: The Indianapolis Colts are another team that’s a big enough favorite that you can bet the division field against them and turn a profit if you’re right. This division comes down to two questions—are you believer in Jadeveon Clowney at defensive end and Bill O’Brien at head coach in Houston? If the answer is yes, we have a legitimate two-team race. If the answer is no, the only question left is whether Indy gets a first-round bye in the playoffs. And my answer is no. The Colts take it in a walk.
AFC WEST: The Denver Broncos, unsurprisingly, join New England and Indianapolis as top-heavy division favorites. I think the Kansas City Chiefs are headed for a bit of slippage—not enough to take them off the radar, but enough that they won’t challenge Denver. I like San Diego a lot—there’s not great talent there, but there’s enough and Mike McCoy instilled a toughness and discipline in that organization that was sorely lacking under Norv Turner. The Bolts will challenge, but the Broncos win it.
NFC EAST: Are you buying in that Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles can do it two straight years? If so, you’re in the majority, as the Birds are yet another heavy favorite. And in this case, I’m not buying in. Nick Foles will match his interception total from last year (2) in Week 1. The problem is that it’s easy to tear down a favorite and harder to identify one specific challenger. As a Redskins fan, I hate myself for what I’m about to say–my gut says this is finally the year for the Dallas Cowboys, albeit at 9-7.
NFC NORTH: The Green Bay Packers are in their usual status as the top-heavy favorite. I believe the Packers will do it, although I guess I thought there would be more hype for the talent level of the Detroit Lions and the offense of the Chicago Bears. In this case, the betting market and I are on the same page, as these teams will find a way to mess it up and the Vikings just aren’t ready yet.
NFC SOUTH: With all the focus on the NFC West, don’t be surprised if this division ends up being the toughest. The betting market is looking for Carolina to slide and has the New Orleans Saints a solid 5-9 favorite. But what if the Panthers defense is for real, and Cam Newton keeps progressing? What if Matt Ryan engineers a turnaround in Atlanta? What if Lovie Smith plugs the defensive holes in Tampa Bay and their offensive talent plays up to their potential? I’m high on the Saints and believe they’ll win it, behind an MVP year from Drew Brees, but this race will be good.
NFC WEST: The beast division might have a hard time living up to expectations. The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona both have suffered key injuries on defense. St. Louis has to get some offensive consistency and Seattle has to stay hungry. I’m taking the 49ers to nip the Seahawks to win the division because I love Colin Kaepernick, and Seattle to make the playoffs of course, but I think we’re looking at a modest step back for the NFC West as a whole.
FINAL PREDICTION: I would rank my AFC division winners in the following order—New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, with the Colts being very close to the top and the Steelers being closer to the playoff bubble. The wild-cards will be, in order, San Diego and Baltimore.
The NFC division winners are ranked thusly—New Orleans, San Francisco, Green Bay and Dallas. Then the wild-cards are Seattle and I’m going to take a flyer on Lovie Smith and Tampa Bay. The Seahawks, of course, rank up with the Saints and 49ers as the real Super Bowl contenders. The Cowboys and Bucs are the playoff bubble and the Packers are somewhere between the two.
That leaves me with a Super Bowl matchup of New Orleans and New England. I’m picking the Saints. I jumped on their bandwagon in about October of last year, with the way Rob Ryan had rejuvenated the defense. They slipped at the end of the regular season, but I think winning a road playoff game in Philadelphia and they playing competitively in Seattle was a big mental breakthrough for the Saints. They cash that in and ride it all the way to a second Super Bowl ring for Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
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