I cancelled the detailed preview for every NFL team a few months back, but to make up for it, here is my detailed projected winner for all eight divisions in the NFL.
NFC West: Seahawks
Most Important Players: Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Jimmy Graham, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner.
The Seattle Seahawks were a bad play away from winning the Super Bowl last season and look to be a lock to win the NFC West this season. With the offseason destruction of main division rival 49ers, their road to the top of the division seems easier than previous seasons at first glance, but there are serious questions on offense and defense that could keep them from securing a first round bye and home field advantage in the playoffs.
Seattle’s offense could be better or worst this season. The trade sending center Max Unger and the Seahawks’ 31st overall pick for Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and a 2015 fourth round pick, is what drastically changes the Seahawks offense. Last season the Seahawks had the highest rushing yards per game at 172.6 yards, but had the 27th ranked passing yards per game at 203.1. Having a legitimate number one receiving threat in Graham should improve this number significantly, but an offensive line that excelled at run blocking and was below average at pass blocking should be worse at both this season with the loss of Unger.
The Seahawks historically great defense has question marks going into the season. Last season the Seahawks’ defense gave up the least amount of points per game in the league at 15.9. Defensive coordinator of the past two seasons Dan Qninn left the Seahawks to become head coach of the Falcons and we’ll have to see if new defensive coordinator Kris Richard keep up the same high quality play they experienced over the past few seasons. It will be harder for Richard than it was for Quinn, due to the departure of second starting cornerback Byron Maxwell. Maxwell’s replacement Cary Williams will have to be better than his poor play for the Eagles last season and go back to his days playing for the Ravens Super Bowl winning team for the Seahawks defense to avoid a significant drop-off. And it currently looks like Kam Chancellor is holding out into the season, so this could result in multiple games of the Seahawks missing one of their starting safeties.
The Seahawks have a difficult schedule this season. They play the Packers, Bears, Lions, Bengals, Panthers, Cowboys, Steelers, Vikings, Ravens, Browns, and division opponents Cardinals, Rams, and 49ers twice. But with the Rams and Cardinals having bigger offensive issues than the Seahawks and having to play most of the same difficult teams, it seems unlikely they lose this division.
NFC North: Packers
Most Important Players: Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Last season the Packers were an overtime loss away from playing in the Super Bowl, and this season they are one of the few NFC teams favored to make the Super Bowl. The NFC North is arguably the second hardest division in the NFL and in competition with the NFC West for toughest division in the NFC. With the Lions as legitimate competition for the top of the NFC North and the Vikings having a realistic chance at being a wild card playoff team, only the Bears should be a near guarantee victories.
Losing their top receiver Jordy Nelson to a season ending injury in the preseason will affect an offense that was the number one team in points per game last season with 30.4. Any offense featuring the player I believe to be the best quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be great and the loss of Nelson likely increase carries for possible Pro Bowl caliber running back Eddie Lacy. Recently re-signed receiver Randall Cobb will have to continue and improve over last season’s 91 catches and 1,287 yards without the help of Nelson to keep the Packers offense from suffering too much from the loss.
The biggest reason the Packers will win the Super Bowl, win the NFC North, or make the playoffs, will be the play of their defense. Last season the Packers defense was above average with a 13th rank out of 32 teams at points given up per game with 21.8. While the Packers can rely on one of the top pass rushers in the league in Clay Matthews to keep consist pressure on the quarterback, can Julius Peppers still be an above pass rusher at 35 years old? And can Ha Ha Clinton-Dix improve on his strong rookie season and become one of the top safeties in the league?
These questions about the Packers’ defense, can Teddy Bridgewater can be an above average quarterback, and can the Lions have an elite offense, will be the most important aspects on how strong a division the NFC North will be. The Packers have a mostly difficult schedule. They play the Seahawks, Chiefs, 49ers, Rams, Chargers, Broncos, Panthers, Cowboys, Raiders, Cardinals, and the Vikings, Lions, and Bears twice.
NFC East: Cowboys
Most Important Players: Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, offensive line, Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, and Greg Hardy.
The Cowboys shocked the world last season by winning the NFC East and winning a game in the playoffs. The Cowboys will have tough competition from the Eagles for the top of the NFC East, but the Eagles have the potential to be a 11 wins and 5 losses team or a 6 wins and 10 losses team, so I give the edge to the Cowboys based on last season.
29.2 points per game was the amount the Cowboys scored last season and was good enough for fifth in the league. Tony Romo had his best touchdown to interception differential in his career, with 34 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Former member of the Cowboys and current member of the Eagles DeMarco Murray was the leading rusher in the NFL last season. While likely starting running back Joseph Randle will not be as good as Murray, with the best offensive line in the league and one of the top three wide receivers in Dez Bryant, it is likely the Cowboys running game is good this season.
Last season most people expected the Cowboys defense to be historically bad, but they somehow managed to be average giving up 22 points per game, which was good enough for 15 out of 32. Almost all the credit for an acceptable defense without several talented players can go to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Marinelli got career years from players like Rolando McClain and was aided by the offense’s ability to control the clock and not turnover the ball. Starting cornerback Orlando Scandric is out for the season with a knee injury, but the return of the Cowboys best linebacker Sean Lee, who missed all of last with an ACL tear, should keep the defense from dropping off. The addition of Pro Bowl caliber defensive end Greg Hardy could be the game changer that turns an average defense to an above average defense. The Cowboys will have to wait four games until Hardy can play for the team, and the same amount of games for starting linebacker Rolando McClain, so the defense will likely be worse for a quarter of the season.
The Cowboys schedule could be easy or tough, it depends on the Eagles and Giants. Can Sam Bradford play all 16 games and be the player he was projected to be when he was drafted? Can the Giants offensive line protect Eli Manning long enough for him to complete passes to Odell Beckham? Will Byron Maxwell be the Pro Bowl caliber cornerback the Eagles paid him to be? Will defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul still be effective after losing some of his fingers? These questions will greatly affect the Cowboys chances to win the division, but they can at least count on the Redskins to suck. They play the Falcons, Saints, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Panthers, Packers, Jets, Bills, and the Redskins, Eagles, and Giants twice.
NFC South: Falcons
Most Important Players: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, Desmond Trufant, and Vic Beasley Jr.
Last season – during my power rankings – I called the eventual winner of the NFC South the biggest loser, because the NFC South was the only division in the NFL to guarantee a playoff spot to a team with a losing record. The Carolina Panthers won the division with 7 wins, 8 losses, and 1 tie. This season I believe the Atlanta Falcons will win the NFC South, but this is the prediction I have the least faith in and I don’t except the winner to be a good team, but at least 8 to 9 wins should win the division this season.
Statistically speaking, the Falcons offense was above average last season. They scored 23.8 points per game, which was good enough for 12th in the league. They were also fifth in passing yards per game, but were second to last in rushing yards per game and Matt Ryan was sacked 31 times, which was an improvement over the 44 times he was sacked the previous season. The Falcons offensive line is likely to struggle again this season and rookie running back Tevin Coleman will have to be good to take pressure off Ryan and the offensive line’s poor pass blocking. Hopefully Pro Bowl caliber receiver Julio Jones can remain healthy and Roddy White can still be an above average receiver at 33 years old.
New Falcons head coach Dan Quinn coordinated a defense that played in the Super Bowl two years in a row, but will likely struggle to find half of that success with the Falcons defense. The Falcons were ranked 27th in points per game, giving up 26.1 points. The hope is that Quinn has a similar affect on the Falcons as Marinelli had on the Cowboys last season, Desmond Trufant becomes a lockdown cornerback, and rookie defensive end Vic Beasly is defensive rookie of the year.
Based on playing in the NFC South the Falcons have an easy schedule. The Saints lost their top receiving threat and have a terrible defense, the Buccaneers won two games last year and have a rookie quarterback, and the Panthers have little offensive talent after losing Kevin Benjamin for the year. The Falcons play the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Texans, Redskins, Titans, 49ers, Colts, Vikings, Jaguars, and the Saints, Buccaneers, and Panthers twice.
AFC West: Broncos
Most Important Players: Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, C.J. Anderson, Von Miller, and Aqib Talib.
Last season, after earning a first round bye in the playoffs, the Broncos were upset by the Colts losing 24 to 13. Peyton Manning finally started to show age at the end of the season and head coach John Fox left the team for the Bears this offseason. The Broncos have some of the best offensive talent in the league and a few standout defensive players. While Manning’s play will be the deciding factor on whether this team is a true Super Bowl contender, they should win the AFC West with only slight difficulty.
Last season the Broncos were second in the league in points per game with 30.1, but a lot of this relied on Manning’s passing. At 39 years old, it seems unlikely that Manning will be able to match last year’s production, which was good enough for fourth in the league in passing yards per game. Luckily for the Broncos, new head coach Gary Kubiak’s specialty is the running game. If running back C.J. Anderson can carry a running game that was 15th in the league in rushing yards per game last season to top ten in the category this season, Manning could have less pressure on him this season and hopefully be healthy in the playoffs.
The Broncos had an average defense last season allowing 22.1 points per game ranking them 16 out of 32 teams. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is usually a good defensive coordinator, but last year’s defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was a good defensive coordinator. As long as Von Miller and Aqib Talib stay healthy, I expect the defense to be the same.
The Broncos have a difficult schedule, but their competition in the AFC West is not as talented as the Broncos. The Raiders are a below average team at best and the Chiefs and Chargers are teams competing for a wild care playoff spot with a 50% chance of making it. The Broncos play the Ravens, Lions, Vikings, Browns, Packers, Colts, Bears, Patriots, Steelers, Bengals, and the Chargers, Chiefs, and Raiders twice.
AFC North: Steelers
Most Important Players: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Hayward, and Jarvis Jones.
The Steelers surprisingly made the playoffs last season, but that success was short lived when they lost in the first round to the Ravens. The Steelers scored 27.2 points per game last season one spot above the Ravens at eighth overall. With a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl caliber running back in Le’Veon Bell, and Pro Bowl caliber receiver in Antonio Brown, I aspect to the offense to be good. But the offense will have to survive two games without Le’Veon Bell and at least until week 9 for center Maurkice Pouncey.
The Steelers defense was close to average last season allowing 23 points per game, but they are young enough to improve. The biggest questions are whether Jarvis Jones can become a good pass rusher, can James Harrison still be a decent pass rusher at 37 years old, and how will new defensive coordinator Keith Butler do? I’m not sure how good the Steelers defense will be, but I think there is a decent chance they are above average.
The Steelers will have tough competition from the Ravens and Bengals, but I have more faith in the Steelers offense and improved defense pushing them past the Ravens and Bengals, but wouldn’t be surprised to see all three teams making the playoffs. The Browns are a below average team, but good enough to upset much better teams every once in awhile. The Steelers play the Patriots, 49ers, Rams, Chargers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Raiders, Seahawks, Colts, Broncos, and the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens twice.
AFC East: Patriots
Most Important Players: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and Chandler Jones.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl last, but most of the news involving them this offseason is negative and involves cheating. With Tom Brady’s victory in court dismissing any chance he misses games due to suspension, the small opening for another team to win the AFC East has likely closed.
The Patriots offense revolves around Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and it really is as simple as that. Last season the Patriots offense ranked fourth in the league in points per game with 29.2. The Patriots average close to a touchdown more a game than their biggest competition in the AFC East the Dolphins who scored 24.2.
Defense, and a lack of special game preparation, is the biggest reason the Patriots will be or won’t be repeat champions. It is the only advantage one of their division opponents had over the Patriots last season. The Bills were fourth in the league in points given up per game at 18.1 and the Patriots eighth with 19.6 last season. But the Patriots loss shutdown corner Darrelle Revis to the Jets this offseason, and do not appear to have a good replacement.
The Patriots are unlikely to be challenged much until the playoffs. While Dolphins could be a playoff team with the addition of Ndamukong Suh, I personally do not think they are ready to challenge the Patriots for the division. The Jets and Bills quarterback situation is too bad for see either of them as realistic division winners. The Patriots play the Steelers, Jaguars, Cowboys, Colts, Redskins, Giants, Broncos, Eagles, Texans, Titans, and the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills twice.
AFC South: Colts
Most Important Players: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Frank Gore, Vontae Davis, D’Qwell Jackson, and Trent Cole.
I saved the easiest division to predict for last, as there is only one good team in the AFC South. Unless Andrew Luck suffers a season ending injury, I see no way the Colts do not win the AFC South.
Andrew Luck is a top five quarterback that is yet to reach the prime of his career. Last season the Colts were sixth in points per game with 28.6, and that was will a poor running game. The Colts were 22 out of 32 in rushing yards per game with 100.8. Former 49ers running back Frank Gore joined the Colts this offseason and should improve their running game. While Gore is old for a running back at 32, he rushed for 1,106 yards last season, only 506 yards less than the entire Colts team ran for that year.
The Colts had a slightly below average defense last season. They gave up 23.1 points per game and end the season ranked nineteenth. While I don’t expect a big improvement this season, last season there wasn’t an offense in their division that was higher than 14th in points per game and two teams were in the bottom three in the league in this category.
The Colts have the easiest schedule for a team that has a chance to make the Super Bowl. They have nine games against teams that had a losing record last season. They play the Bills, Jets, Patriots, Saints, Panthers, Broncos, Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers, Dolphins, and the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans twice.