So we approach the 2015 season amid the continuing embarrassment of Roger Goodell's vainglorious vendetta against the Patriots. What we may see come 2015 -
AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
New England Patriots - 12-4, bet the over
- We need a quick history lesson to illustrate how secure the Patriots have become - in 1990 the Patriots won in Week 2 over the Colts; Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olsen said several players exposed themselves to her during a postgame locker room interview. Victor Kiam had purchased the team in 1988 and in essence dismissed Olsen out of hand; NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, incensed, launched an investigation and ultimately fined several players; the investigation saw players pulled from meetings and wiped out the season - they finished 1-15 and in the ultimate indignity were mocked by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live.
Contrast this 25 years, two team owners, one commissioner, four head coaches, four Superbowl titles, and three additional AFC titles later. The Patriots have again come under league investigation, this time for tampering with footballs, only this time the credibility of the commissioner has been exposed as a colossal hoax, only this time the Patriots are so strong an organization that the "prosecution" (Mike Florio's term) has fired them up. Much has been made of losing star defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, this even though the secondary has shown better than expected form in preseason and also shown more physicality than they did with Revis. The team has been such that several shaky preseasons the last ten-plus years haven't fazed them at all come regular season.
The caveat to keep in mind here is the slow starts for the team the last three seasons, starts that ultimately did not harm them but which nonetheless were troubling.
New York Jets - 6-10, bet the under
This is all you need to know about the Jets - their starter Geno Smith was hammered by a former teammate and will miss several games, and no teammate rose to defend Smith. Defensively the Jets look decent, but Revis has never won anything away from the Patriots. Ryan Fitzpatrick has talent but has never been able to sustain success. The quarterback to look out for is rookie Bryce Petty, who may be a sleeper for later this season. Coach Todd Bowles is new to the Jets and may get swallowed up by the worst organization of the last 45 years.
Buffalo Bills - 9-7, bet the under
The worst part for the Bills is Rex Ryan, a coach who has proven to be sloppy, less than optimumly prepared, and who doesn't instill enough discipline. Matt Cassel is present starter with EJ Manual struggling even with some encouraging effort against the Steelers , but the one to watch is Tyrod Taylor, who has shown flash as a running quarterback. Defensively the Bills are already good and are coming off their first winning season since Drew Bledsoe's last year there.
Miami Dolphins - 9-7
Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill have been in a mediocre rut since starting together in 2012; the question remains whether Tannehill can elevate his game having not really done so in three seasons. They signed Ndamukong Suh to sack quarterbacks, apparently ignoring that he has been invisible in two career starts against New England, the team Miami has to beat to go anywhere.
Indianapolis Colts - 11-5
The Colts have gone 33-15 under Andrew Luck but are 0-4 against the Patriots and really have not advanced their game in three years. They reached the AFC Title Game in 2014 but did so against the Bengals, winless in the playoffs since 1990, and Peyton Manning, usually a lock to bow out in his first playoff game each year apart from his advancing age and weakening arm strength. Luck is the real deal, but one has to start wondering if he plateaued.
Houston Texans - 10-6, bet the over
Bill O'Brien got nine wins out of a Texans team that never had stability at quarterback in 2014; now they have Brian Hoyer, who showcased legitimate form with the Browns last year, as their starter, and O'Brien has already shown he's becoming a superb NFL coach. The face of the Texans is JJ Watt, but they need Hoyer to elevate his game to become a playoff team again.
Tennessee Titans - 8-8, bet the under
The preseason has been downright discouraging for the Titans defensively with no indication they can stop anyone when it matters, a problem that has plagued Ken Whisenhunt forever. He may now have a future franchise starter in Marcus Mariota, who has shown the promise despite the inevitable rookie rawness. The decade has been abysmal for the Titans with just 30 wins entering this season; they need Mariota to advance to finally become something again, and they better hope Whisenhunt can get something positive out of the team after getting basically nothing his first season.
Jacksonville Jaguars - 6-10
Blake Bortles has proven he can play, but hasn't yet made a difference; the Jaguars also feel he hasn't gotten any help. The Jags thus have shaken up the coaching staff and signed some free agents trying to shore up an offense that didn't score much and a defense that never stopped anyone. This rebuilding is going to take more time; the Jags now need to show there is improvement so that time doesn't become their enemy.
Pittsburgh Steelers - 10-6
The Curse of Tim Tebow continues to haunt the Steelers, having lost their last three playoff games; the overtime loss to Tebow's Broncos sent them on a mini-tailspin to back-to-back 8-8 seasons; they won the AFC North in 2014 with a surprising explosiveness on offense but got waxed at home to the Ravens in the playoffs and enter 2015 minus numerous players to injury and league suspension. One has to wonder whether Mike Tomlin or Ben Roethlisberger can turn it around.
Baltimore Ravens - 10-6
Some downright ugly preseason play (highlighted in hilarious fashion with the Redskins by the biggest football brawl we've seen in years, a fitting start to Mr. Derangement Stevonne Smith's farewell tour) shouldn't derail the Ravens, but one has to wonder if they can advance their game. The improvement over 2013 would suggest they will, though we also wonder if they will miss Steve Smith after he retires at the end of the season.
Cincinnati Bengals - 10-6
The good news is the Bengals have been steady under Andy Dalton. That, though, is also the bad news. They haven't defined their game up; they've stayed pretty much where they've been since Marvin Lewis started in 2003. Dalton is good, but he hasn't become great; he clearly is in over his head come playoff time, and the Monday Night win over Peyton Manning's Broncos was almost the first win over a quality opponent by Dalton that one can recall.
Cleveland Browns - 6-10
They had their best season since 2007 but now have Johnny Manziel and Johnny Interception has shown no evidence he can handle NFL football. They also have never shown ability to follow up success. Even with all that there is talent there and it seems one of these days they'll get something going.
Denver Broncos - 12-4, bet the under
Peyton Manning's arm strength has become an issue and his career-defining inability to handle the playoffs will never go away. Talent-wise the Broncos have so much going for them but their quarterbacking has failed them when it matters most four straight years. One wonders whether the division can start catching up to them.
Kansas City Chiefs - 10-6, bet the under
The Chiefs got off to a strong start in 2014 but then fell apart and finished losing four of their last six games. Alex Smith cannot advance his game and that will doom the Chiefs again, especially having not thrown a touchdown to a wideout since 2013.
San Diego Chargers - 9-7
That's what they've been throughout the decade and re-signing Philip Rivers isn't necessarily the answer given he showed he may not be elite-caliber anymore. The Chargers' collapse to division foes in 2014 was huge and the rumors about Los Angeles have been everywhere.
Oakland Raiders - 6-10
Unlike the past twelve years the Raiders now appear to have an actual program in place with a quarterback who can become the real deal. That the organization is (per Boomer Esiason commentary) some $120 million in debt - a mind-blower for an NFL team but indicative of Al Davis' dirty dealings when he was still alive - explains the rumored LA deal.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Dallas Cowboys - 10-6, bet the under
The Cowboys overachieved in 2014 and then lost their best running back to free agency; they also lost one of their key defensive backs in Orlando Scandrick during camp. Tony Romo simply cannot be trusted to become what Jerry Jones pretends him to be - a quarterback who is more than just volume stats.
Philadelphia Eagles - 11-5, bet the over
Chip Kelly basically blew up the roster and what has resulted so far appears to be faster and stronger, though the Sam Bradford-Terrell Suggs set-to was a little troubling. Preseason or no preseason, routing the Colts and Ravens and Packers in back-to-back games is an encouraging sign; scoring on all three sides of the ball is even more encouraging for a team that has overall been genuinely good in Kelly's first two seasons.
New York Giants - 8-8
They installed a new offense and overall it showed something, but they still finished just 6-10, and once again under Tom Coughlin they started fast - 3-2 - then lost eight of their last eleven. Expect more of the same, especially after gagging against the Jets.
Washington Redskins - 4-12
Robert Griffin III got injured again and won't start the season, indication this will be yet another mess of a season given the Deadskins' recent history, even with some encouraging signs from Kirk Cousins in the Baltimore Brawl Game.
Carolina Panthers - 8-8, bet the over
A shaky preseason and some key injuries has a cloud over the defending South champs. That they rebounded to win the division last year is a good sign they can do it again.
Atlanta Falcons - 8-8
It's simply not possible to take them seriously yet after two subpar years and Matt Ryan showing no sign of improving as a quarterback.
New Orleans Saints - 9-7
Two losing seasons in the last three years isn't a good sign even with the expected 4,000-plus-yard season from Drew Brees.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 8-8, bet the under
Jameis Winston is the rookie to watch given preseason controversy; the analogy I come back to is Cam Newton, ridiculed before his debut season and proving the doubters wrong right away. Winston's game appears more about reckless athleticism compared to other quarterbacks; one has to see how much he harnesses himself to be able to throw the ball as well as the Bucs need him to. Rookie rawness and sloppiness will show up as the season goes; we need to see the talent show up also.
Seattle Seahawks - 12-4
Not having Kam Chancellor is a sign their cap management is in trouble, but until we see a slide we can expect the Seahawks to go for the George Halas Trophy again, this despite the odds of three straight such trophies beuing as poor as they are.
Arizona Cardinals - 12-4, bet the under
The Cardinals proved they're the real deal the last two seasons; now they need Carson Palmer to stay healthy to overcome the Seahawks.
St. Louis Rams - 8-8
They now have Nick Foles, but under Jeff Fisher the Rams have been stuck in neutral, occasionally winning against a high-quality opponent (see Fisher's defeats of the Colts and Broncos) but never sustaining success.
San Francisco 49ers - 6-10
The Colin Kaepernick experiment appears to be outright failing with serious regression of his play in 2014 and no sign of improvement in preseason. The entire organization also appears in chaos with mass defection of coaches and players; one wonders if anyone trusts the Niners anymore.
But of course the nature of predictions is they rarely come true. So it goes for NFL 2015.............