This time a year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick out of the NFC. Coming off a 2012 season in which they earned the conference’s #1 seed, Atlanta was poised to return to the playoffs behind Tony Gonzalez and free agent acquisition Steven Jackson. It didn’t take long for the prognosticators to eat a fair helping of crow, as Atlanta tanked their season away to the tune of a 4-12 record.

This season, the popular picks to venture to Arizona in February are Denver, Seattle, New England, and San Francisco. The final four teams from last season are a popular pick to win it all this season? You don’t say. While it’s possible if not bradypackplausible that one or two of these teams could find themselves at University of Phoenix Stadium next winter, it’s also just as likely that the Super Bowl participants are two dark-horses. Few believed that the New York Giants could overcome the odds to win it all in 2011. A year later, the underdog Baltimore Ravens won their second Lombardi Trophy against all odds.

In the end, the most important characteristics of a championship team are defense and health. Look back at the Super Bowl champions of the past decade, and you’d be hard pressed to find one with a subpar defensive unit. Likewise, the teams like New York who overcame early season injuries and got healthy down the stretch are the ones likely to make a deep run in January.

The frontrunners are clear: the four franchises previously mentioned joined by the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints. They’re followed by a pack of dark horse contenders; teams who have the necessary talent to make a deep run. But, might just be missing that final championship caliber ingredient. Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Carolina represent this bracket. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any one of these teams in the Super Bowl. But, it would also take an upset or two for that scenario to occur. Teams like San Diego, Baltimore, Detroit, and Arizona also have a puncher’s chance. But, there are too many question marks to seriously consider any of them good bets.

We won’t know for sure who will be battling it out in Super Bowl XLIX. One thing we do know, however, is that the NFL is nearly upon us; and that is the greatest news we’ve heard all summer…

AFC East

1. New England Patriots – 12-4
2. New York Jets – 9-7
3. Miami Dolphins – 8-8
4. Buffalo Bills – 6-10

The New England Patriots greatly improved their defense by landing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason. With Tom Brady still under center, there will be no stopping them from winning yet another AFC East title…New York could go anywhere from 10-6 to 6-10. I still like their defense despite a shaky secondary. That defensive line is the best in the conference and a more mature Geno Smith should be able to keep the Jets in contention until the end of the season…Miami would have made the playoffs with just one more win last year. But, their rebuilt offensive line won’t have enough time to gel for a playoff run in 2014. That could spell doom for Ryan Tannehill, who’s been sacked more than anyone else since the start of 2012…The Buffalo Bills are going to regret dealing a first round pick in 2015 to Cleveland for Sammy Watkins. The young WR can’t stay healthy and second year QB EJ Manuel is regressing. Doug Marrone might be looking for a new job come January.

AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals – 10-6
2. Baltimore Ravens – 9-7*
3. Cleveland Browns – 6-10
4. Pittsburgh Steelers – 5-11

Cincinnati has been to the postseason each of the last three years under Marvin Lewis and has yet to win a playoff game. If the Bengals fail to do so again, can ownership really justify bringing Lewis back? They can’t get rid of QB Andy Dalton now that he’s signed to a $100 million contract. The Bengals should have enough talent to take this division again, albeit by a razor thin margin…If anyone can wrestle the crown from Cincy, it’s the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Baltimore Ravens. Last year, Baltimore suffered through a championship hangover en route to an 8-8 finish. They will struggle to score at times this season. But, their improving defense should be talented enough to keep them in it until the very end…Believe it or not, the Cleveland Browns won’t finish in last place in 2014. Their newfound depth at running back combined with a ferocious and youthful defense should keep them ahead of a woeful Pittsburgh Steelers team. This isn’t the Steel Curtain of old, as Pittsburgh’s lack of depth on offense at both the line and skill positions will leave Todd Haley out of a job and Big Ben scoping out the Georgia bar restrooms.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts – 11-5
2. Houston Texans – 8-8
3. Tennessee Titans – 7-9
4. Jacksonville Jaguars – 4-12

Playing in a lackluster division will help Indianapolis contend for a bye week. The Colts do have some tough matchups against New England, Denver, and Philadelphia. But, the fact that they get to play their three divisional opponents as well as the NFC East’s also-rans should give Indy enough capital to contend for a Super Bowl…If Bill O’Brien is able to lead the Houston Texans to the playoffs in his first season, he should get a statue built in his honor outside Reliant Stadium. While that is very unlikely, the talent Houston has on both sides of the ball combined with a last-place schedule should afford them enough opportunities to contend…Tennessee is relying on Jake Locker to stay healthy in 2014. That’s a gamble they’ve lost each of the last two seasons…Finally, the Jaguars come in with a high upside rookie QB and not much else. A few more solid drafts and Gus Bradley should have a contender on his hands (if he makes it that long).

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos – 12-4
2. San Diego Chargers – 10-6*
3. Kansas City Chiefs – 7-9
4.Oakland Raiders – 3-13

The most surprising thing about this division might be that Denver doesn’t win 13 or more games. After their offseason spending spree, everyone is picking the Broncos to win the West for the fourth straight season. Honestly, there’s no reason not to. It’s the January failures of Peyton Manning that should give prognosticators pause; not his regular season successes…San Diego is one of my favorite dark horses this season. Philip Rivers is among the best in the business at his position and the QB trio of Ryan Mathews, Donald Brown, and Danny Woodhead is enough to make a defensive coordinator’s head spin…Kansas City fans should expect a gradual drop off from their 2013 success. The Chiefs are no longer playing a last place schedule and their defense, so promising during the first half of last season, looked much more vulnerable once teams started to figure it out…Finally, we have the Raiders, who are among the worst looking teams in the league coming into the season. Matt Schaub has been atrocious and the defense, rebuilt with aging veterans, isn’t much better.

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6
2. Dallas Cowboys – 8-8
3. Washington Redskins – 6-10
4. New York Giants – 4-12

┬áThe Eagles may not enjoy the level of success that some of their fans believe they will. But, a stellar running game coupled with what should be a scary screen attack with Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz in tow should be enough to overcome a mediocre defense en route to their second straight division championship…After years of overhype, the Dallas Cowboys might be flying a bit under the radar this season. Yes, their defense is putrid. But, their Romo led offense should be top-five in football with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Terrance Williams representing some really talented targets…One team that no one can agree upon is the Washington Redskins (yes, I said the name). Some believe that Washington will challenge Philadelphia thanks to their addition of DeSean Jackson to an already talented offense. Others think that the rapid decline of RG3 coupled with a woeful defense will leave the Redskins picking top-five in 2015. I’ll go somewhere in the middle. Though, I think they’d have a better chance at contending with Kirk Cousins under center…Finally, we have the New York Giants, whose new offensive scheme, aging roster, and patchwork secondary will likely lead to a last place finish in 2014.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers – 11-5
2. Chicago Bears – 10-6*
3. Detroit Lions – 8-8
4. Minnesota Vikings – 5-11

Green Bay is easily the favorite in the North. After all, the Packers won the division a year ago despite missing Aaron Rodgers for a third of the campaign. An improved defense with Julius Peppers and Haha Clinton-Dix should help Green Bay return to the postseason…The only other “true” contender from the North is Chicago. The Bears blew their chance at a division title by losing their final two games last season when one win was all that was needed. I like Marc Trestman and I think that Jay Cutler will have a Pro Bowl quality season offensively. But, the Bears didn’t do enough to improve one of the worst rush defenses in recent memory. That will handicap their chances at a division title in 2014…For Jim Caldwell, this opportunity with Detroit represents a mulligan of sorts after the one time AFC champion head coach was fired in Indianapolis following a grueling 2011 campaign. Caldwell may have more offensive weapons than he did in Indy, with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Reggie Bush, and Joique Bell all combining to give Matt Stafford a reason to succeed. But, Detroit has yet to prove that they can make all the talent work come December. Until they do that, they’ll remain pretenders in a difficult division…Minnesota did some good things this offseason. A solid draft and a brilliant hire of Mike Zimmer as coach should have the Vikings contenders by the time they move into their new stadium in 2016. But, that rebuilding plan will take some time. Whether or not Adrian Peterson is still a force by that point will be a question that the Vikings’ front office will have to consider.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints – 12-4
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 9-7
3. Atlanta Falcons – 7-9
4. Carolina Panthers – 6-10

Despite a second place finish in 2013, New Orleans is clearly the class of the South this season. The additions of Jairus Byrd and Brandin Cooks will instantly prove integral as New Orleans wraps up home field advantage in the NFC playoffs…The rest of this division could go in any direction, as all three clubs had busy offseasons. Tampa Bay perhaps improved the most on the field (with the exception of their hideous new helmets) by landing QB Josh McCown from Chicago and drafting WR Mike Evans in the first round. He, along with Vincent Jackson and second round TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, gives Lovie Smith the type of offensive firepower that he never had with the Bears. If the classic Tampa-2 offense continues to succeed for Smith, expect Tampa Bay to be one of the most improved teams in football…The Atlanta Falcons should also expect an upswing in 2014 with the return of Julio Jones from injury as well as the maturity of a young defensive unit. Whether or not Matt Ryan can return this team to the postseason will depend on the lackluster running game and inexperienced offensive line…From first-to-worst, the Carolina Panthers saw too many integral pieces depart over the offseason to be expected to succeed once again in a tough division. I like WR Kelvin Benjamin in the long term. But, a banged up Cam Newton will miss some time and the Panthers’ aging running attack won’t have enough juice left in the tank to supplement his loss.

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks – 11-5
2. San Francisco 49ers – 10-6*
3. Arizona Cardinals – 8-8
4. St. Louis Rams – 5-11

An opening night home defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers will cost the defending champions a bye week in the NFC playoffs. Still, the Seattle Seahawks should have enough returning talent to overcome an early season swoon and win the West for the second straight year…San Francisco’s injuries will leave them struggling early much like Seattle. But, a rejuvenated Colin Kaepernick and improved depth at the skill positions will send the 49ers into the playoffs on a winning streak…Arizona is a popular pick to make the playoffs this season as they set their sights on a home Super Bowl this February. I’m not buying it. The Cardinals won 10 games last season in a year where everything went right for them. With mounting injuries and suspensions defensively and an aging Carson Palmer under center, can one really expect Arizona to reach double digit wins again? I just don’t see it…Finally, we have the St. Louis Rams, who would have been bonafide contenders had it not been for the loss of Sam Bradford to another torn-ACL. With Shaun Hill (who hasn’t played significant time since 2010) under center, the Rams offense will once again be one dimensional, leading to the talented defense spending too much time on the field even for their standards. Another top-10 pick should bring a young gunslinger like Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley into St. Louis as they continue to search for a franchise QB.

Awards

Most Valuable Player - QB Drew Brees, New Orleans

Offensive Player of the Year – RB LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia

Defensive Player of the Year – DE JJ Watt, Houston

Offensive Rookie of the Year - RB Bishop Sankey, Tennessee

Defensive Rookie of the Year – S Haha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay

Comeback Player of the Year – RB Doug Martin, Tampa Bay

Coach of the Year - Bill O’Brien, Houston

NFL Playoffs

AFC

1. New England Patriots – 12-4
2. Denver Broncos – 12-4
3. Indianapolis Colts – 11-5
4. Cincinnati Bengals – 10-6
5. San Diego Chargers – 10-6
6. Baltimore Ravens – 9-7

NFC

1. New Orleans Saints – 12-4
2. Green Bay Packers – 11-5
3. Seattle Seahawks – 11-5
4. Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6
5. Chicago Bears – 10-6
6. San Francisco 49ers – 10-6

Wild Card Round

Colts-vs-Ravens

Baltimore Ravens – 31
Indianapolis Colts – 21

Recap: The Indianapolis Colts are upset at home by the playoff proven Baltimore Ravens despite Andrew Luck’s miraculous performance (14-17, 301 yards, 3 TD). The Super Bowl XLVIII champions are led by their rushing attack, which sees Ray Rice and Bernard Piece combine for 187 yards and 3 touchdowns.

eaglesbears

Chicago Bears – 14
Philadelphia Eagles – 48

Recap: Just over a year following the Eagles’ week 16 thrashing of Chicago, Philadelphia wins their first playoff game under Chip Kelly with a dominant performance from start-to-finish. Nick Foles sets an Eagles’ postseason record by throwing five touchdowns (to five different receivers, no less) in the win. Shady McCoy added 117-yards on 20 carries.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

San Francisco 49ers – 10
Seattle Seahawks – 27

Recap: The Seattle Seahawks have no problem with their red hot division rivals at home, ending San Francisco’s season for the second straight year. With a 17-10 lead late in the fourth, Russell Wilson clinched the win with a 3-yard bootleg run for a score. Seattle out-possessed the 49ers 36:30 to 23:30 in the win. They’ll advance to face Green Bay next week.

dalton chargers

San Diego Chargers – 20
Cincinnati Bengals – 34

Recap: Behind a 21-6 fourth quarter onslaught, the Cincinnati Bengals won their first playoff game in over 20-years, getting revenge on San Diego to advance to their first divisional round matchup of the century. Much maligned Andy Dalton managed the game well. But, it’s RB Giovanni Bernard’s 166 yard, 2 touchdown rushing performance that leads the Bengals.

Divisional Round

daltonmanning

Cincinnati Bengals – 19
Denver Broncos – 10

Recap: In the biggest upset of the playoffs so far, the Cincinnati Bengals knock off the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. Behind their underrated and vastly improving young defense, Marvin Lewis and Co. advanced to the AFC Championship Game. It was a disappointing affair for the Broncos, who outgained Cincinnati 302-219 but were only able to come away with points on 2 of their 5 red zone possessions.

eaglessaints

Philadelphia Eagles – 31
New Orleans Saints – 17

Recap: Philadelphia continued their impressive performance against playoff teams in 2014 by outrushing New Orleans 242-114 in a 31-17 victory. Leading 23-17 midway through the fourth, LeSean McCoy’s 23-yard touchdown run quieted the Superdome and clinched the Eagles’ first trip to the NFC Championship Game since January, 2009. McCoy finished with 149-yards on 21 carries.

ravenspats

Baltimore Ravens – 15
New England Patriots – 23

Recap: One of the most underrated rivalries in football sees the New England Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game for the fourth consecutive season. By holding Baltimore out of the endzone, the Patriots proved that their offseason spending spree was worth the price they paid. A week after they ran wild over Indianapolis, Baltimore was limited to 53 yards on 24 carries. Up by only one point with less than 3:00 to go, Tom Brady connected with Julian Edelman for a 6-yard score and the victory.

packerseahawks

Seattle Seahawks – 17
Green Bay Packers – 27

Recap: Seattle’s quest to repeat comes to an end in Lambeau Field, as Aaron Rodgers’ 45-yard touchdown strike to Jarrett Boykin puts Green Bay on top for good in the fourth quarter. Green Bay sacked Russell Wilson four times, limiting the Super Bowl champion to a 12-25 day. Eddie Lacy and James Starks each rushed for touchdowns as Green Bay advanced to face Philadelphia at home in the NFC Championship.

Championship Round

eaglespackers

Philadelphia Eagles – 22
Green Bay Packers – 24

Recap: In a light snow at historic Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers overcame a late Philadelphia rally to advance to their sixth Super Bowl appearance. Trailing 24-6 heading into the fourth quarter, the Eagles narrowed the deficit on their first drive of the frame with a LeSean McCoy 25-yard touchdown run. A Cody Parkey field goal later, Philadelphia got the ball at their own 32 trailing by 8 with 2:48 remaining. A 16-play, 63 yard drive ensued, ultimately culminating with a 6-yard Zach Ertz touchdown to trim the Packers’ lead to 24-22. Philadelphia knew that their Super Bowl dreams rested on a two-point conversion attempt. But, their subsequent attempt to run it in with McCoy was stopped inches short. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Packers, who went into “victory formation” to run out the clock.

pats bengals

Cincinnati Bengals – 13
New England Patriots – 20

Recap: New England’s defense stands tall again, sending Tom Brady and Co. back to the Super Bowl with a 20-13 win. Cincinnati had this game tied at 13 heading into the fourth quarter. But, a Darrelle Revis interception of Andy Dalton in Bengals territory led to the game winning touchdown reception by Shane Vereen. New England’s Tom Brady overcame two interceptions to earn his 7th AFC championship.

Super Bowl XLIX

champions

Green Bay Packers – 20
New England Patriots – 27

Recap: Ten years after their last Super Bowl title, the New England Patriots will once again be kings of the football world after overcoming Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLIX. Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, Rodgers connected with WR Jordy Nelson to give the Pack their first lead of the game. Touchdowns from Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen later in the second quarter put New England on top 17-10 at the half.

In the second half, a Brandon LaFell touchdown reception saw the Patriots take the reigns midway through the third. But, Eddie Lacy’s 50-yard touchdown scamper to end the quarter cut the Packers’ deficit to 24-20 with 15 minutes remaining. Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots up by 7 with a field goal on their opening possession of the fourth. After punts on their next two offensive series, Green Bay was left with one last chance for romance when they got the ball back with less than five minutes to go. An Eddie Lacy 16-yard run put the Packers in New England territory. But, a short run by James Starks followed by two incomplete passes put the game on Rodgers’ shoulders with a 4th and 8 from the 48. Rodgers escaped the Patriots’ pressure. But, was unable to connect with Andrew Quarless over the middle, turning the ball over on downs. The Pats ran out the clock to capture their fourth championship under Bill Belichick and Brady, who was named MVP.

nick foles

SkoodSports, with the assistance of the always entertaining WhatifSports.com simulation engine, has predicted the entire regular season slate of the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles. Will LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles lead Philadelphia to their second consecutive division title? Or, will the strain of a more difficult schedule be the team’s downfall? Read it and weep, and stay tuned for SkoodSports’ full NFL Predictions coming soon.

Week 1: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars – W, 41-22
The Eagles jump out to a 41-0 lead after three quarters behind 84 rushing yards from LeSean McCoy and a sparkling 23-27, 281, 3 TD performance by QB Nick Foles. The backups allow Jacksonville to score some mercy points in the fourth. But, it’s a brilliant beginning to Chip Kelly’s second season with the club. Record: 1-0

Week 2: @ Indianapolis Colts – L 23-27
A 10-7 halftime lead for the Eagles goes by the wayside when Andrew Luck connects with Coby Fleener on an 8-yard touchdown strike with 0:21 seconds left in regulation. Indianapolis takes a 27-23 lead and wins by that margin. Record: 1-1

Week 3: vs. Washington Redskins – W, 26-18
RB LeSean McCoy eclipses the 100-yard mark on the ground for the first time this season as he and the Eagles overcome the return of DeSean Jackson in a 26-18 win. “Shady” gallops for 126 yards and Darren Sproles adds 60 and a touchdown on the ground in the win. Jackson manages just 2 receptions for 51 yards in defeat as Washington falls to 1-2. Record: 2-1

Week 4: @ San Francisco 49ers – W, 30-21
The Eagles overcome a 21-20 deficit heading into the fourth quarter. Cody Parkey’s 21-yard field goal with 3:13 to go gave Philadelphia the lead. After San Francisco turned the ball over on downs, McCoy stuck the dagger into the 49ers’ faithful with a 15-yard scoring strike to seal the road victory. It’s the Eagles’ 5th consecutive victory in San Francisco dating back to 2001. Record: 3-1

Week 5: vs. St. Louis Rams – W, 23-10
The Eagles’ much maligned pass defense limits St. Louis’ Shaun Hill to just 85 passing yards in a two touchdown win. WR Jeremy Maclin catches his second touchdown of the season and McCoy rushes for 125-yards and a score as the Eagles improve to 4-1. Record: 4-1

Week 6: vs. New York Giants – L, 22-23
The Eagles suffer a bitter home defeat at the hands of their rivals from up I-95. K Josh Brown sinks Philadelphia’s hopes with a 36-yard field goal as time expired. Philadelphia led by 5 with less than six minutes left after a Darren Sproles 44-yard touchdown run. But, the Philadelphia offense was unable to stay on the field and run out the clock as two Brown chip shots in the final five minutes gave New York a critical divisional win. Philadelphia heads into their bye week at 4-2 with a matchup against Arizona looming. Record: 4-2

Week 8: @ Arizona Cardinals – W, 31-17
The Eagles overcame a 17-7 second quarter deficit and took the reigns over a dominant second half en route to victory in Glendale. Trailing 17-14 with 2 minutes left in the first half, Eagles’ RB Darren Sproles returned an Arizona punt 69 yards to the house to give Philadelphia a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. LeSean McCoy added a rushing and receiving touchdown as Philadelphia moved to 3-0 against the NFC West. Record: 5-2

Week 9: @ Houston Texans – L 21-28
The Eagles let a disappointing one slip through their fingers. Leading 21-20 with less than two minutes left, Eagles CB Cary Williams is beat deep by WR DeAndre Hopkins, who reels in a pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick for a 69-yard game winning score. Nick Foles was intercepted for the 8th time this season, quadrupuling his total from a year ago. Record: 5-3

Week 10: vs. Carolina Panthers – W, 23-20
Monday night brings out the best in Cody Parkey. The rookie kicker hits on 3 of 4 field goal attempts, including a game winning 49-yard try as the Eagles slay the Panthers, 23-20. RB Darren Sproles highlights the victory with a 62-yard run that set up one of Parkey’s field goals. Riley Cooper scored on a two-yard strike from Foles early in the fourth to give Philadelphia their first lead. Record: 6-3

Week 11: @ Green Bay Packers – W, 27-24
Heavy underdogs despite their 6-3 record, Philadelphia rides LeSean McCoy’s 285 all purpose yards to a 3-point road victory over the 7-2 Green Bay Packers. McCoy led the team in both rushing (177 yards, 2 TD) and receiving (78 yards) in the win. Cedric Thornton had 2 of the team’s 4 sacks of QB Aaron Rodgers. Record: 7-3

Week 12: vs. Tennessee Titans – L, 20-41
Philadelphia suffers their worst loss of the season, getting outscored 24-10 in the first half en route to a three touchdown blowout against lowly 3-6 Tennessee. For the first time this season, Philadelphia was outgained on the ground (223 to 100) as rookie Bishop Sankey eclipsed the century mark for Tennessee. Nick Foles struggled, throwing two interceptions in the loss. Pundits suggest Philadelphia was looking past this matchup in anticipation of their first Thanksgiving day battle with Dallas since 1991. Record: 7-4

Week 13: @ Dallas Cowboys – L, 30-35
It doesn’t get much better for the Philadelphia defense, who allows 4 touchdown passes by Tony Romo in a Turkey Day loss to Dallas. Shady McCoy had a holiday to remember, rushing 20 times for 171 yards and Jordan Matthews’ career long 78-yard touchdown reception brought the Eagles back into the game late. But, the defense was a disappointment again as Philadelphia falls to 7-5. Record: 7-5

Week 14: vs. Seattle Seahawks – W, 23-20
Coming off of back-to-back losses in which their defense was exposed, few gave Philadelphia a chance against the reigning Super Bowl champions. But, playing at home certainly aided Philadelphia, who rushed LeSean McCoy 21 times for 104 yards and two scores in the victory. Foles continued to struggle, as the veteran QB completed just 12 passes and was intercepted by LB Bobby Wagner. But, the defense stood tall, limiting Seattle to just 3 second half points. Cody Parkey’s 39-yard field goal with 4:23 left won the Eagles their 8th game of the season. Record: 8-5

Week 15: vs. Dallas Cowboys – W, 35-17
In a light December snow at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles got revenge for their Thanksgiving defeat two weeks prior by obliterating Dallas in the second and third quarters en route to victory. Trailing 3-0 after one, Philadelphia would reel of 35 unanswered points in the middle-portion of the game. Foles had his finest performance in over a month, tossing 3 touchdowns, including a 72-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin that put Philadelphia up 28-3 just :28 seconds into the second half. The win moves Philadelphia a victory against Washington from capturing their second consecutive NFC East title. Record: 9-5

Week 16: @ Washington Redskins – L, 10-20
Nick Foles disappoints again, throwing two interceptions as the Eagles’ division championship celebration is put on hold. Philadelphia led 10-3 after one half but were unable to do much of anything after they entered the locker room. DeSean Jackson finally got some revenge, scoring a 5-yard touchdown to put Washington ahead for good in the fourth quarter. The Eagles will need either a win against New York or a Dallas loss to Washington next week to clinch the NFC East. Record: 9-6

Week 17: @ New York Giants – W, 31-10
In a game that would define the Eagles’ season, Philadelphia ran all over New York en route to their second consecutive division title. Shady McCoy’s 123 yards and 2 scores set the table, and Nick Foles’ 8-yard touchdown strike to Zach Ertz in the fourth quarter ended all hopes of a New York comeback. At 10-6, Philadelphia clinches the division. Dallas fell to Washington 24-21 to finish in second place at 8-8. Record: 10-6

Well, there you have it. Philadelphia concludes their season 10-6 and on top of the NFC East yet again. Surprisingly, the Eagles do not dominate their division, finishing 3-3 against the NFC East. But, their shocking 4-0 record against the vaunted NFC West is what propels them to a playoff berth. The Eagles had a tendency to play up or down to the skill level of their competition, which could be seen as a positive heading into the playoffs.

shady

What to Expect

RB LeSean McCoy will once again eclipse 1,300 yards on the ground. Though, his receiving totals could take a dip due to the addition of Darren Sproles, who will combine with tight end Zach Ertz to easily replace the production of the departed Jackson.

QB Nick Foles does not replicate his historic statistical 2013 campaign. Though, the former Arizona Wildcat will throw for 29 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions, making the Pro Bowl for the second straight season.

Expect Brandon Graham to finally emerge as a threat on defense. The 2010 first round pick will record 8 sacks. Though, that will come in second on the team to pass rush specialist Vinny Curry, who will finish with 10.

Brandon Boykin will continue his ascent to the top of the Philadelphia depth chart, as he will begin covering the opponents’ best targets by midseason. Another player to keep an eye on is Nolan Carroll II, who is forced into a starting role due to injuries to Bradley Fletcher.

Cody Parkey quickly makes Eagles fans forget about Alex Henery. The rookie kicker out of Auburn connects on a 51-yard field goal in week one to the crowd’s delight. He finishes 24-30 for the season with 5 successful boots of 49-or-more yards.

pmanningWhen Peyton Manning (pictured) signed with Denver in 2012, few knew what to expect out of the then 36-year old quarterback. Coming off serious neck surgery, the former Indianapolis Colt was the greatest wild card in football history. Two years and zero-championships later, few will doubt whether or not Manning belongs in the conversation of “greatest quarterback of all time.” Still, coming off one of the most embarrassing Super Bowl performances in history, this multiple MVP has plenty left to prove.

For Manning and the Denver Broncos, 2013 seemed just too easy. An offense that put up historic numbers week-in-and-week-out could not be tamed regardless of the scheme developed to defend them. That is, until they met Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. On that fateful night, everything came crashing down. Manning was inefficient. The offensive line was leaky; and the defense was as hapless as a liberal in Alaska.

Vowing not to have another storybook season come crashing down in a heap of disappointment, executive John Elway set out to improve the dilapidated Denver defense by any means necessary. Just a week into the free agent frenzy, that message was made crystal clear. Veterans DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib all joined Denver in succession, turning a significant weakness into a marketable strength. Those three will join with young Danny Trevathan and burly Terrance Knighton to give the Broncos a handful of playmakers on defense. Add in Von Miller, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing QBs when he’s not suspended; and the Broncos likely have improved more defensively than any other team in football.

On offense, Manning will no longer have the security blanket that was WR Eric Decker, who signed with New York in the spring. Replacing him will be Emmanuel Sanders, who left Pittsburgh for the Rocky Mountains. Sanders brings more speed to his game than Decker. Though, the former Steeler is nowhere near as consistent. If Sanders falters, the depth at receiver is more than sufficient. The team brought back veteran Andre Caldwell and supplemented their corps by drafting former Indiana University star Cody Latimer. At 6-2, 215, Latimer resembles Decker in the slot. He’s a fantasy darkhorse who should begin to pay dividends for Manning and fantasy owners alike come the second half of the season. Denver also returns Julius Thomas, who broke out to the tune of 12 touchdowns in 2013. Montee Ball returns in 2014, this time as the #1 back behind Manning. With no more Knowshon Moreno, Ball should easily record over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career.

Denver is undoubtedly the best team in this division, and many would argue the most complete unit in the conference. Whether or not that means a second Super Bowl title for Manning remains to be seen. After all, most believed that Denver would walk out of MetLife Stadium with their franchise’s third ring. Instead, they crawled out with whiplash. You’ll see Manning and Co. in January. But, their fate from then on will rely on the ability of their veteran defense to improve on the performance of 2013.

The Kansas City Chiefs shocked the world a year ago. After hiring former Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Andy Reid to rebuild their once proud franchise, the Chiefs emerged as one of the best teams in football during the first half of the season. A second half swoon once they started playing better competition left K.C. at 11-5. Their fall from grace was culminated with a massive collapse during the second half of their Wild Card Round loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

While Reid, QB Alex Smith, RB Jamaal Charles, and the bulk of their top-five defense return in 2014, the Chiefs are a popular pick to return to their expected mediocrity. The reason for that is clear. Kansas City will no longer be playing a last placed schedule. They also lost a majority of their offensive line to free agency. The added competition and skepticism is no stranger to Reid, who overcame mixed expectations to become Philadelphia’s winning-est coach during his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love. Still, asking this team to replicate their offensive performance from 2013 might be impossible.

tambahaliInstead of addressing their patchwork offense during the NFL Draft, Reid and the Chiefs pulled a very Reid’esque move by drafting pass rushing DE Dee Ford in round one. Ford has plenty of upside. But, this move reminds this writer way too much of Reid’s decisions to draft such luminaries as Brandon Graham and Jerome McDougle whilst in Philadelphia. A pass rush is great. But, when your team already has two dynamite edge rushers (Tamba Hali (pictured) and Justin Houston), is it really necessary to add another despite the weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary? Veteran CB Brandon Flowers was released in June. His replacement is expected to be Marcus Cooper, a 7th round pick in 2013. That, along with the notable subtractions on their offensive line, will keep Kansas City from returning to the playoffs this winter.

For head coach Mike McCoy, who enjoyed a fruitful first season with the San Diego Chargers, 2014 is an opportunity to build on his already stellar accomplishments. The former offensive coordinator in Denver; McCoy is an offensive genius. His fast-paced, no-huddle mentality helped QB Philip Rivers return to the Pro Bowl. Granted, the emergence of rookie WR kallenKeenan Allen (pictured) helped, as well. Allen’s 71 receptions for 1,056 yards were tops among rookie targets. Rivers will hope that a sophomore slump is avoided in 2014.

There wasn’t much turnover at the receiver position, as Allen returns alongside Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd, and Eddie Royal to give Rivers a solid group of vets. Behind the 10-year signal caller remains Ryan Mathews, who can do a little of everything when he has the ball in his hands. He’s joined by pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead and new addition Donald Brown, who comes west from the Indianapolis Colts. A first round pick in 2009, Brown is every bit as good a receiver as Woodhead, while also offering the ability to go between-the-tackles.

On defense, a woefully underrated unit only got better. The growth of youngsters like Donald Butler, Manti Te’o, and Corey Liuget should prove critical to the success of San Diego’s front-seven. Meanwhile, the leadership of S Eric Weddle should help tutor youngsters like Shareece Wright and Jason Verrett (the team’s first round pick) to become future stars in the secondary. The Chargers also retained veteran CB Richard Marshall, who is expected to start opposite Wright on the outside.

Anyone who doubts San Diego’s ability to return to contention in 2014 is going to be disappointed. With Rivers surrounded by a solid cast of characters, this remains the only team in the West that can compete with Denver not only on Sunday; but, also in the division race.

Finally, we have the Oakland Raiders. The ugly stepchild of the NFL, Oakland hasn’t made the postseason since they were obliterated in Super Bowl XXXVII by Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. Gone are the days of “just win baby.” Now, the mantra should be, “just don’t get blown out, baby.” It’s a make-or-break season for third year coach Dennis Allen, who’s combined to go 8-24 in two seasons on the Golden Coast. If the Raiders don’t show significant improvement in 2014, Allen will be patrolling the unemployment line come the new year.

In order to avoid another dismal campaign, Raiders’ GM Kareem McKenzie spent the offseason making it rain left-and-right on free agent targets. On offense, Oakland added veterans in QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, djhaydenand LT Donald Penn. While Schaub has not looked good during preseason, he should certainly prove to be more steady than the duo of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin were last season. Jones-Drew, meanwhile, should provide veteran leadership and a change of pace contribution behind starting RB Darren McFadden. The latter’s health will prove critical, as the 2008 first round pick has somehow stuck with Oakland despite being unable to stay on the field for 16-games.

The offseason overhaul was not limited solely to the offensive side of the ball. On defense, veteran acquisitions LaMaar Woodley, Justin Tuck, and Carlos Rogers should limit the seven touchdown single game performances that Oakland allows in 2014. First round pick Khalil Mack, considered one of the most talented players in the 2014 draft, is expected to start at strongside linebacker. Last year’s first rounder, CB DJ Hayden (pictured), should also show marked improvement during his second season as a starter. The team also brought in veteran Tarell Brown, who takes his talents across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This infusion of depth across the defense should allow Oakland to improve on their 4-12 finish of a year ago. Though, it’s doubtful that their veteran spending spree will result in their first winning season in 12 years.

Many will argue that this is a division with one contender and three pretenders. This blog would disagree. While the Broncos are far and away the most talented franchise in the West, the Chargers and, to a lesser extent, the Chiefs are contenders in their own right. While Denver may be the pick of the litter in 2014, a future without Manning lends some serious questions to be answered. For now, though, this division belongs to the Broncos. Whether or not the same can be said for the Lombardi Trophy will be answered in six months.

There’s little doubt that the AFC South comes into 2014 as one of the weakest divisions on paper. Outside of the defending division champion Colts, there’s not a whole lot of faith that the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLIX will come out of this quartet. Still, there’s plenty of potential loading the rosters of the three also-rans. As we’ve seen plenty of times before, the NFL is a league fueled by parity. So, it should come as no shock to the pundits if any of the Titans, Jaguars, or Texans emerge as playoff contenders behind their young, hungry rosters.

andrewluckThe one true constant for the better part of the last 15-years (with the exception of 2011) is that the Indianapolis Colts will sit near the top of the South standings come January. QB Andrew Luck (pictured) has certainly lived up to the hype that saw him become the #1 overall pick in 2012 out of Stanford. The former Cardinal gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of his game during his sophomore campaign with Indy, cutting his interceptions in half (from 18 to 9) and increasing his completion percentage considerably (from 54% to 60%).

Indianapolis made an effort to improve the weapons that Luck has to utilize this season, signing free agent WR Hakeem Nicks away from the Giants to join T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener as Luck’s go-to-guys. Nicks, injury plagued during his final few seasons in The Big Apple, showed up to camp in great shape and has really impressed during the preseason. His addition, along with a full season of RB Trent Richardson, should easily give Indy the best offense in the division.

Defensively, the Colts desperately wanted to improve their run defense. After resigning CB Vontae Davis, they achieved that goal by signing free agent LB D’Qwell Jackson away from Cleveland. Jackson was a captain and leader for nearly a decade by the coast of Lake Erie, and should give Indianapolis the muscle in the middle that they’ve lacked ever since Mike Peterson departed. Indianapolis may not have had a first round pick (Richardson deal). But, they certainly made the most of the offseason by landing impact talents at bargain basement prices. They should once again patrol the top of the mountain once the postseason begins in just over four months.

One team that has teetered between mediocrity and misery over the last five years is the Tennessee Titans. Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt (formerly of the Arizona Cardinals), Tennessee will look to build around their homegrown talent, with their sights set on 2015 as the year where they’ll truly contend for a division title. QB Jake Locker (pictured) was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. Expectations have yet to be met, as Locker has spent more time on the infirmary report than he has under center. There’s no doubting his athleticism and talent. But, the former Washington Huskies’ last chance is upon him. If Locker can’t stay on the field in 2014, Whisenhunt will have no choice but to address the position next offseason.

jakelockerTwo of the longest tenured Titans, RB Chris Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner, packed their bags in the offseason. Johnson made his way to the Jets, while Verner signed a large free agent deal in Tampa. Tennessee is likely to feel the impact of Verner’s departure harder, as the team drafted rookie Bishop Sankey and signed former Chiefs’ speedster Dexter McCluster to cushion the impact of Johnson’s departure. Both of those players should combine to give Tennessee a talented duo behind Locker.

However, the loss of Verner could cause some problems in an uber-passing league like the NFL. Jason McCourty remains on one end. But, the team is going to be forced to rely on second year project Blidi Wreh-Wilson to start opposite him. The Malden, MA native was a 3rd round pick in 2013, so the team has faith in his talent. Still, cornerback is one position where youth is not ideal, and the Titans could have a big issue on their hands against the better aerial teams (see, Indianapolis).

While Tennessee does have a bright future ahead, there’s still too many questions to consider them anything more than the second best team in a weak division. If Locker can stay healthy, 8 or 9 wins is possible. Anything more than that is a pipe dream during Whisenhunt’s first season on the job.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, success has been a long time coming. Now 15-years separated from the days of Mark Brunell and two AFC Championship appearances during the franchise’s first five years, Jacksonville continued their rebuilding process under coach Gus Bradley this spring. First round pick QB Blake Bortles (pictured) showed definite flashes of brilliance during the team’s preseason. But, the Jaguars aren’t expected to rush Bortles under center like they did with his predecessor Blaine Gabbert. Instead, Jacksonville is content with letting QB Chad Henne handle the lion’s share of the snaps in 2014. Bradley and Co. know that Bortles is much more raw than most first round signal-callers. Despite his unrivaled athletic prowess, Bortles still needs to learn how to be a quarterback in the NFL, so throwing him to the wolves with an offense devoid of firepower would likely do more to hurt the former UCF star than anything.

The most notable loss for the Jags this offseason was the departure of longtime workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. Once blakebortlesconsidered a top-five back in football, injuries and age have brought Jones-Drew’s career to a standstill. He hitched his wagon and headed west for Oakland this spring. Replacing him will be former Minnesota backup Toby Gerhart, who mired behind Adrian Peterson for five years before finally getting his shot in The Sunshine State this fall. Gerhart is a bruising back, and should help take the load off of Henne early on while the young offensive line continues to gel. May draft picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson should provide depth at receiver, though exactly what type of impact the rookie WR’s have this season remains a mystery.

On defense, Jacksonville saw plenty of turnover. Their additions on the front-four of DE Chris Clemons and DT Ziggy Hood should provide depth for Bradley, who was considered one of the best defensive tutors in the game during his time in Seattle. MLB Paul Posluszny returns to anchor the heart of the D’. Second year safety Jonathan Cyprien continues to mature into one of the better young secondary players in the league. If Jacksonville’s defense continues to progress under Bradley’s leadership, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Jacksonville emerge as the second best team in this division.

Finally, we have the Houston Texans. My, how swiftly Gary Kubiak’s reign in The Lonestar State went up in smoke. Hired prior to the 2006 season as the second coach in franchise history, Kubiak led the Texans to their first two postseason berths in 2011 & 2012 (both division titles). Unfortunately, that success was short-lived, as the precipitous decline of QB Matt Schaub (who set a record for the most consecutive games with a pick-six in 2013) and the alarming lack of depth across the roster left an injury plagued Houston franchise at the depths of the NFL’s despair. Following back-to-back wins to begin their campaign, Houston lost 14 in-a-row to finish it off, leaving them with the worst record and first overall pick in May’s draft.

Despite clamoring to the contrary, Houston ignored their need under center and grabbed perceived generational talent Jadeveon Clowney with that #1 overall selection. The former South Carolina superstar has shown exactly why Houston made that decision. The defensive end’s ability to change the game with his talent was far too impressive to overlook, and new coach Bill O’Brien knew this when he grabbed him this spring. Speaking of O’Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator takes over for Kubiak after a two-year stint in Happy Valley as head coach at Penn State. Considering the rubble with which the program was left following the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011, the football world was gaga over O’Brien’s ability to turn that disaster into success with the wave of his figurative magic wand. He will be one of the bigger stories of the season, as he tries to turn the Houston sink hole into a success story overnight.

arianfosterOn offense, O’Brien brought in former Buffalo and Tennessee gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick to be his veteran leader in the short term. The Harvard graduate is one of the brightest players in the league. While he won’t wow anyone with his physical tools, Fitzpatrick has enough experience and talent to be a successful stopgap in the short-term while Houston finds their QB of the future. It’s possible that mid-round draft choice Tom Savage of Pitt is that guy. But, that remains to be seen. Surrounding these signal callers will be a still electrifying offense. Future Hall-of-Fame WR Andre Johnson returns to the only team he’s ever known despite rumbles to the contrary this offseason. He’s joined on offense by second year phenom DeAndre Hopkins and workhorse RB Arian Foster (pictured). The latter is expected to enjoy a rebound campaign after an injury riddled 2013 saw backup RB Ben Tate outgain the former. Tate is now in Cleveland, so Foster is the unquestioned #1 runner on a team likely to pound the rock more than anyone else in the division.

On defense, Houston was a mess a year ago. Their acquisition of Ed Reed backfired tremendously, as the future Hall-of-Fame safety was released before the end of November. Still, plenty of talent remains from the defense that ranked near the top of football in 2012. J.J. Watt returns as one of, if not the best 3-4 defensive end in the game. With Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury, one could reasonably expect Houston to finish the season with a top-10 defensive unit. The secondary, which features Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson at corner, is suspect, and easily should be considered the weak point of the unit.

All in all, Houston should be considered a dark horse contender in 2014. While they don’t have a championship caliber QB at this time, Fitzpatrick has never enjoyed the amount of talent that he’ll have around him on the Texans once the regular season commences in two weeks. Contending with Indianapolis at the top might be a reach. But, expecting anything less than 2nd place out of these Texans is underrating them, especially considering their peers.

Clearly, this is a division on the rise. The Colts are still young, and are already a Super Bowl contender behind Luck. Meanwhile, the other three franchises that continue to chase them are hungry and exploding with talent. Come 2016, it shouldn’t be a shock to see the AFC South returning to the glory it experienced when it was still the AFC Central and teams like Jacksonville and Tennessee ruled the landscape with an iron fist.

Known far and wide as one of the toughest divisions in football, the AFC North once again figures to be a three-horse race in 2014. For the better part of the last five-years, it’s been a battle between the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals for division supremacy. While Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns may one day evolve into contenders, that time hasn’t arrived yet.

daltonIn 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals captured their second consecutive division crown. Behind third year phenom QB Andy Dalton (pictured) and his cast of weapons, Cincinnati has trumped the odds, becoming contenders after nearly two decades of incompetence. Marvin Lewis is the second longest tenured coach in football (trailing only Bill Belichick) despite having never won a playoff game (0-5). Last season, the Bengals found themselves once again on the short end of the stick come January, losing to the 6th seeded San Diego Chargers, 27-10. In that game, Dalton was picked twice and fumbled once, as Cincinnati’s postseason misery continued. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.

Still, optimism is high in The Queen City. Dalton returns with a fresh, new $100 million contract stretching his wallet to George Costanza’esque proportions. He’s joined by a solid supporting cast, including AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Gio Bernard, and 2nd round pick RB Jeremy Hill. On defense, the 3rd ranked unit in the NFL a year ago should only improve after drafting CB Darqueze Dennard in the first round. The former Michigan State Spartan was considered by many to be the top corner in the draft before a poor combine performance lowered his draft stock. The Bengals should feel confident once again that they’ll be near the top of the North when January rolls around. Whether or not they’ll have enough to finally break their postseason winless drought is a tale for another day.

This time a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were coming off their second Super Bowl title and Joe Flacco was a recently ngatarich man. Fast forward a season, and the Ravens are suddenly a forgotten bunch in the uber-competitive North division. Gone are the days when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the Baltimore secondary. Their loss was certainly felt last year, when the Ravens tanked their final two regular season affairs to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007. The selection of LB CJ Mosley in round one should help aid the likes of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on defense.

But, what about the Ravens’ offense? Flacco suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013, throwing 22 interceptions (his previous career high was 12). The addition of WR Steve Smith should help. As should the health of TE Dennis Pitta and the return of Ray Rice following his early season suspension. Those weapons, coupled with role players like Bernard Pierce, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones, should be enough to get Baltimore right back into the playoff hunt in 2014.

Gone are the days when Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers ruled this division with an iron fist. Since their overtime playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos following the 2011 season, the Steelers have gone an unsatisfying 16-16. That may be enough to keep seats cool in Jacksonville. But, in Pittsburgh, where the trophy case is adorned with the most Lombardi Trophies in history, mediocrity is unacceptable.

lbellTo remedy this, Pittsburgh will have to rely on their youth movement to get them over the hump. The loss of Emmanuel Sanders (Denver) will allow young receiver Markus Wheaton to step into the starting lineup. The 2013 draft pick has wheels to burn, and should be an adequate replacement for Sanders. The recent arrests of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount notwithstanding, the Steelers’ offense should be improved enough to the point where their defense won’t have to carry the load in 2014.

Finally, you have the Cleveland Browns, who made a lot of noise this offseason by hiring former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as coach after their flirtation with San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh fell short. Pettine would then break the odometer by drafting Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel 22nd overall in May’s draft. Manziel won’t begin the season as the Browns’ starter. But, Brian Hoyer’s inexperience will likely lead to a midseason promotion for the former Aggies gunslinger.

When Manziel isn’t flipping off opposing sidelines or doing imaginary lines of cocaine in public bathrooms, he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback in this league. Still, his raw mechanics and haywire off-the-field mentality is what likely cost him the starting job to begin the year; and could plague him during his tenure in Cleveland. Let’s not forget that “Johnny Football” was selected in the same draft slot as recent Cleveland busts Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn. The pending suspension to WR Josh Gordon will have a huge impact on the Browns’ usatsi_7921970_221200_lowresoffensive success this season. Currently, Gordon is suspended for the entire season due to multiple failures of the league’s substance abuse policy. But, it’s likely that Gordon will succeed in his appeal to get that suspension lowered. More on that to come.

On defense, Cleveland is among the up-and-comers in the AFC. CB Joe Haden is joined by first round pick Justin Gilbert on the outside. Joining them in Ohio will be veteran Karlos Dansby, who joins the team from Arizona. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is among the best in football at his position, and he’s joined by Desmond Bryant and Atyba Rubin to complete a nasty (and thick) 3-4 defensive front.

Any of these four teams could finish .500 or above if things break right for them. In August, the Bengals have to be considered the favorite based on last year’s success alone. Cincinnati got better as the season went on, and their defensive improvements over the offseason should only make them more dangerous in 2014. Despite this, it’s impossible to count out Baltimore or Pittsburgh, who both have playoff proven performers under center and improvements at the skill positions, as well. Always known as “the black and blue division,” the AFC North promises to give us yet another electric season of blood, bruises, and battles.

One of the few constants in the NFL over the course of the last 15-years has been the success of the New England Patriots. In 2013, that imperialistic dominance over the AFC East continued; as the Patriots conquered their division for the 11th time in 13 years. Also-rans Miami, New York, and Buffalo will set their sights on a rebellion of sorts. Their rise from the depths of the division will be predicated on the maturity and growth of their young quarterbacks. Regardless, it might not matter come January.

Like it or not, the AFC East still belongs to New England. Under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and the leadership of Tom Brady, New England has established a hegemony over their division for the better part of this century. How long can this dominance last? No one knows the answer to that question. One thing is almost certain; the Patriots will once again conquer the East in 2014.

Bill-Belichick-Tom-BradyWhen New England walked off the turf at Sports Authority Field in Denver last January, their mission was clear; improve the defense at all costs. After the Patriots’ porous secondary allowed Payton Manning and the Broncos free reign over the thin Denver airspace, Belichick knew that the only way to wash away the bitter taste of defeat was with the acquisition of game changers in the secondary. Enter Darrelle Revis, who was released by Tampa following one forgettable season in the Sunshine State.

Revis might not be the player that he was 5-years ago. But, New England doesn’t need him to be. By reputation alone, the former Pitt Panther will stiffen a formerly limp pass defense. The addition of Brandon Browner from Seattle should also prove critical; as the former Seahawks’ starter will be picked quite a bit playing opposite of Revis. These pickups allowed former starters Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan to assimilate to roles they’ll be more comfortable with as nickle and dime defensive backs.

The biggest question in New England this season may be the health of Rob Gronkowski, who has been seen more in dance clubs recently than on the field (as long as he’s not murdering someone afterwards like his former teammate, Aaron Hernandez, I think Belichick is okay with it). If “Gronk” can remain on the field for at least 13 games this season, there should be nothing standing between the Pats and a home playoff game or two at Gillette Stadium in January.

tnnehillMore people will remember the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 season for the Richie Incognito fiasco rather than their rather meteoric collapse down the stretch. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Dolphins were 8-6, needing just one win (or help from other teams) to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008. Instead, the team’s much maligned offensive line caved like Incognito at a buffet line. The Dolphins scored just one touchdown in their final two games against New York and Buffalo, being outscored 39-7 as their playoff hopes eroded.

In 2014, the Dolphins feature an improved secondary (with the signing of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas) and a hopefully rebuilt offensive line. Their first round selection of JaWuan James coupled with the free agent signing of Branden Albert from Kansas City should serve them well after they allowed the most sacks in football a year ago. Still, the Dolphins’ biggest question might remain under center, where Ryan Tannehill has firmly established himself as the starter.

The 26-year old gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of the game in 2013, throwing 24 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. However, his propensity to hang onto the ball too long has led to 93 sacks over his first two seasons, the highest amount in football over that time frame. He’ll need to learn to throw the ball away if the Dolphins are going to keep him under center for 16 more games this season.

For the New York Jets, winning has never been more important. In fact, there hasn’t been a more critical season for a Ryan since Rex’s father Buddy failed to win a playoff game in 1991 for the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to his unceremonious departure. After years of bloviating, the Jets’ coach may have finally learned to shut up and coach, as you’ll hear no guarantees about New York’s success in 2014.

If Ryan is going to keep his job, he’ll need to win at least 9 games. To do that, the Jets will need to see marked improvement from sophomore signal caller Geno Smith. The former WVU Mountaineer is certainly going to have to show that the turnover problems of 2013 were merely rookie growing pains, and not a sign of things to come. If Smith struggles early, expect the vociferous New York fan base to begin calling for Michael Vick, who was signed from Philadelphia over the spring. Take it from someone who’s watched him over the last four years, the last thing anyone should want is Michael Vick under center. Besides, it’s not as though he’ll finally be able to stay healthy for 16-games. Eagles fans were telling themselves that “this is the year,” during his entire tenure with the franchise. Smith/Vick is joined by Chris Johnson (formerly CJ2K, now just another washed up tailback) and Eric Decker; both of whom were signed away from fellow AFC rivals.

deemillThe Jets’ defense is as good as ever, with 2nd-year CB Dee Milliner expected to continue his growth into one of the better cover corners in the game. If the Jets’ offseason spending spree on offense pays off, they should find themselves once again in contention come December. If Smith struggles and/or Vick can’t stay healthy, expect the pink slips to be permeating throughout the Meadowlands come Christmas.

Finally, we have the ultimate cellar dweller, the once proud Buffalo Bills. It was a tough offseason for the Bills’ faithful. Not only did they lose their owner, as the death of Ralph Wilson put an ominous dark cloud over the future of the franchise in northern New York. But, they also saw their front office commit a large gamble to rookie WR Sammy Watkins, trading a 2015 first round pick for the draft pick to acquire him.

Now, Watkins could turn out to be the next Randy Moss. But, odds are that his rookie production levels will be more in line with the norm. That’s all well and good, especially if he eventually develops into a Julio Jones type talent. But, for a team with so Bills-Sammy-Watkins-Bill-Wippertmany question marks, was it really such a good idea to deal away a future first for the chance to select a receiver? Who knows? Perhaps the addition of Watkins will propel 2013 first rounder EJ Manuel to the Pro Bowl. He’d have to stay healthy first, as Manuel’s fast paced, scrambling style doesn’t exactly lay credence to that hope. Still, Buffalo’s offense under Doug Marrone is in the rebuilding phase. With CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson still in the backfield, they should be good enough to keep pace with anyone short of Denver in the AFC.

On defense, the Bills spent big to improve what was a calamitous unit in 2013. The loss of Kiko Alonso for the season due to injury will prove damaging. But, the additions of Brandon Spikes (New England), Corey Graham (Baltimore), and Keith Rivers (New York Giants) should provide the Bills with enough depth to get by. It should be noted that Spikes was rated the best inside linebacker against the run by Pro Football Focus in 2013, and that stopping the run was the Bills’ weak point last season.

All in all, the 2014 AFC East race looks to once again be a battle for second place. But, in a conference with so much competitiveness in the other three divisions, second place in the East might just be enough to take a wild card spot in the AFC.

 

ruben-amaro.p1Ruben Amaro Jr. has wasted his final trade deadline as General Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

By now, the writing is more than on the wall. It’s splattered and strewn across the canvas like a Monet masterpiece. By failing to deal a single overpaid and under-performing asset at last month’s deadline, Amaro cemented his status as the most hated man in the City of Brotherly Love. He also likely set his fate in stone. By this time next year, the Phillies will have a new GM, and red pinstripe wearing fans everywhere will rejoice the demise of a once celebrated figure in this franchise’s often tumultuous history.

How did it come to this? Where did he go wrong? For all the vitriol targeted at Amaro, he has had his moments during his 6-year tenure as the team’s GM. Trading for Roy Halladay was one of them, as the move for Doc put the Phillies firmly in the center of Major League Baseball’s spotlight. Amaro’s re-signing of Cliff Lee was also considered, at the time, to be one of the most shrewd and unexpectedly brilliant transactions in team history. The contract he levied to Cole Hamels in 2012 is also considered a solid deal considering what hurlers like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are expected to get this offseason.

Not all of Amaro’s moves were pitiful. But, it’s the failure of the Phillies’ executive to capitalize on opportunities that will ultimately lead to his demise. When the team originally traded Lee in December, 2009, their rationale was that they needed to replenish the team’s dwindling farm system following their acquisition of Halladay. In exchange for the Cy Young winner, Amaro landed the baseball equivalent of a pocket full of syphilis coated thumbtacks; Tyson Gillies (released), J.C. Ramirez (released), and Phillippe Aumont (most Phillies fans wish he would be released). A haul like that isn’t exactly replenishing anything; unless you’re referring to replenishing the unemployment line.

Two-and-a-half years later, Amaro’s ill-fated sale of Hunter Pence to San Francisco produced Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin, and Nate Schierholtz; none of whom have produced anything at the major league level in Philadelphia. The move was made even worse by the fact that Amaro dealt future franchise cornerstones in Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Domingo Santana to land Pence just one year prior. Since he was shipped to the Golden Coast, Pence boasts a line of .275-49-193 in 334 games. Oh, and he’s got that 2012 World Series ring to serve as a reminder of what Amaro has yet to, and likely never will deliver, to Philadelphia.

It’s moves like these that scared Amaro away from making a deal last month; and it’s moves like these that will spell the end of his tenure as GM of the team. Did Amaro fail miserably as the team’s figurehead? No, he didn’t. But, only so many bad contracts can be charitably donated to player’s with bad knees or ruptured achilles before the fanbase’s patience is stretched beyond its limits. Like the knee ligaments of Chase Utley (another aging player awarded a massive contract), Amaro’s support has all but eroded and dissolved.

No one knows what direction team ownership will go in to find a replacement for Amaro. They’ve had a penchant for staying in-house with their executives over the years. Whether it be Amaro or Ed Wade, David Montgomery and co. haven’t been too keen on reaching beyond Citizens’ Bank Way to find decision makers. The one time they did scour the countryside for a GM was in 2005, when the team replaced Wade with Pat Gillick. Three years and many brilliant, under the radar moves later, the Phillies were world f’n champions.

Surely, they can do it again with the right puppeteer pulling the strings. Whether or not ownership is wise enough to realize this is a tale for another day.