Pat Higgins | Sports Editor
AFC East: New England Patriots
The Patriots have won 13 of the last 15 division titles. The most recent year in which they did not win the division was in 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. Four years ago, it seemed as if Rex Ryan and his New York Jets would challenge Bill Bellichick and the Patriot Way, but the infamous “Butt Fumble” all but ended the Sanchize Era after a few promising playoff runs.
The Dolphins may be decent this year. Ryan Tannehill is a serviceable quarterback for now, and the additions of Knowshon Moreno and Mike Wallace in the last two years make the offense somewhat threatening. Just don’t expect anything above 8-8.
As for the Bills, they’ll remain the franchise with the craziest fans and the worst track record in the league.
AFC North Winner: Cincinatti Bengals
While the AFC East is a top heavy division (there’s the Pats, and really no challengers), the AFC North is crowded with teams on the cusp but not in the discussion for the Super Bowl. The Steelers have bolstered their front seven in recent drafts adding Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, but the team’s top two running backs were both just busted for possession of marijuana before a team flight to Philadelphia last week.
The Ravens remain competitive with Flacco at the helm, but they too are rebuilding after their 2012 Super Bowl title. The Browns have a solid defense in place but plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position. Johnny Manziel will start by season’s end, but not much else will likely come out of Cleveland this year other than four more months of Manziel mania.
That leaves the Bengals as the favorite to take the North. Andy Dalton just inked a pricy new deal after leading Cincinatti to pathetic losses in the Wild Card Rounds in the last three years, first against the Texans in 2011 and 2012 and most recently the Chargers in 2013. Second year running back Giovanni Bernard will handle the rushing duties after an impressive rookie season, while AJ Green will be back at wide receiver. With a defense capable of competing against top offenses, the Bengals will likely win this division, but not without a few late season battles against AFC North opponents in frigid conditions.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck and the Colts will repeat as the class of the South in 2014. The Jaguars, Titans and Texans are simply not ready to compete with Indy this year. The second coming of Peyton Manning will lead the Colts to the playoffs again this year. There’s just not much discussion about it. Where the young Colts will go in the postseason remains to be seen.
AFC West: Denver Broncos
Perhaps the deepest division in the AFC, the West will likely send if not one but two wild card teams to the playoffs. Although Broncos wideout Wes Welker suffered a pretty nasty concussion last week, there seems to be no doubt that Peyton Manning will navigate the Broncos through his 17th professional season. With the additions of defensive end Demarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib, the defense should be a bit more sturdy than they were in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Chargers and Chiefs will both attempt to dethrone Denver with plenty of weapons across the board, but at the end of the day, Peyton will prevail in the regular season. It’s not unlikely to expect both San Diego and Kansas City to claim Wild Card berths and take some shots at divisional winners come playoff time though.
Saúl Berríos-Thomas | Layout Editor
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are going to win this division. This is the year that Tony Romo will be healthy enough to find Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Demarco Murray and run an efficient offense the way Jerry Jones always wanted. Pair that with an above average defense and weak teams in the division, and the Cowboys will take the East.
The runner-up who will be just outside of the wildcard race is the Philadelphia Eagles. Nick Foles cannot be as good as he was last year, in fact he will probably be much worse considering this preseason he has already thrown more interceptions (3) than he did last year (2). DeSean Jackson’s release is a huge loss and Jeremy Maclin is not a sufficient replacement. The high-power no-huddle offense of Chip Kelly’s regime thrived because they had depth, something this Eagles team lacks.
The Washington Redskins will be good at times because they have an offense that is built to win now, but there is no way Robert Griffin III plays 16 games. Eli Manning is just bad at throwing footballs, which won’t translate well for the New York “Football” Giants.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers will win this division. Aaron Rodgers is set to have a huge bounce back year. The rest of the team remains consistent to what they have been. B.J. Raji is a big loss on the defensive side, but quality depth at the position combined with a strong secondary helps cover that loss. Eddie Lacy may have a bit of a sophomore slump, but James Starks is still there as a talented number two back.
The Lions and Bears will be close all season and both should compete for Wild Card spots. I give the Lions a slight edge considering they have the best wide receiver in the game (Calvin Johnson) along with a talented supporting cast and a slightly above average quarterback in Matthew Stafford who knows how to play to his strengths. They are also better than the Bears on defense.
The Bears have one of the most exciting offenses in the game, provided that Jay Cutler stays healthy. Brandon Marshall is still in the tail end of his prime and Alshon Jeffery is going to be good for several years and may even climb to the top of the wide receiver power rankings. Matt Forte could be the best running back in football this year. I bet you didn’t know he is only 28 years old. He has only missed five games since he came into the league in 2008 and played all 16 last year.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
The Saints will easily win this division. Take what you know about the Saint from any of the last two or three years and apply it in 2014. They have a number of solid wide outs who have been hauling in Drew Brees’ spirals on that turf in the Super Dome for quite some time. They also have a monster-freak-Frankenstein creature at tight end who likes to dunk the ball in Jimmy Graham.
The Panthers have a really good quarterback in Cam Newton, but he will be throwing to veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, rookie Kelvin Benjamin and a number of practice squad-caliber wideouts beyond that. It’s difficult to imagine the Panthers will be able to repeat the 12-4 clip they posted last year with Steve Smith’s departure.
Third place is the newly tough, but not too tough Falcons. They have a talented passing attack and will bounce back from last year’s miserable 4-12 season, but Steven Jackson is already nursing a hamstring injury. If anything happens to him they would turn to the talented, but unproven rookie Devonta Freeman.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are going to win this division. They already had a great receiving core and they just got Stevie Johnson, a prime candidate to have a career year thanks to the change in scenery. Their defense will not be as good as it was in the last two years, but they will still be good enough to 49ers to win the division.
The Seahawks will not be able to recapture the glory of 2014. Don’t get me wrong, they will be good, just not good enough. Russell Wilson got worse as the season progressed and defenses figured him out. He is likely to struggle in his third season. Losing Golden Tate is a bigger loss than people might expect especially when you consider that Percy Harvin has played ten football games in the last two regular seasons and has only played 16 games once in his career.
The Cardinals had success with a Kurt Warner late in his career, they may be trying to do that again with Carson Palmer. They have young talented players surrounding him and while they may not get there they will be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. Also on defense they have a stellar secondary that could be the best in the league.