2014 was a wild year for the NFC. Three division winners and both Wild Card teams won an unprecedented 11 regular season games, but the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers earned their trip to the playoffs with a losing record. Nearly every division included a photo finish, yet the separation between the best and worst teams was cavernous.
With so much legitimate competition towards the top of NFC, there is bound to be a shuffling of the deck.
Below are the full season predictions for the 2015 National Football Conference:
Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
It’s easy to criticize the Philadelphia Eagles for some of the ‘questionable’ moves Chip Kelly has made this past offseason. However, it was equally as easy to dismiss his college success and assume that it would not translate to the National Football League. Winning games is not easy, yet Kelly has led his Eagles to back-to-back 10-6 campaigns.
Another one is on the horizon.
When Kelly revamped his team’s conditioning program, the league took notice. His methods have obviously resulted in winning seasons, and he was only held back in 2014 by the difficult division in which his team played – as well as an injury to starting quarterback Nick Foles. With that, the 2015 season lies largely in the health status at the quarterback position. Sam Bradford – and possiblY Mark Sanchez – have the talent and ability to be successful passers in Kelly’s system. It’s just a matter of keeping the best one on the field.
New York Giants 9-7
So close. The Giants are simply so close to breaking out that it is almost painful to watch player after player go down with injury. After nearly every safety wearing blue visited the trainer, wide receiver Victor Cruz was knocked out with a calf injury. Furthermore, the Giants have proven capable of running off hot streaks, even during losing years.
Injuries are a killer for any team, and the spotlight that has shifted to Odell Beckham Jr. will make him a wanted man – it appears to have already happened in the preseason. He may be a special talent, but with a potentially nagging hamstring and an apparent sensitivity to criticism, it’s time to see if he will be a leader, too. Wins are built on more than highlight-reel catches and, while the team will improve its standing, it isn’t quite ready to make the full leap.
Dallas Cowboys 8-8
Almost nobody saw the 2014 Dallas Cowboys coming. Entering the season, the storyline surrounding the Cowboys began and ended with the team’s defense – considered so bad that it wouldn’t matter how well the offense played. After an Opening Day loss, the Cowboys then ran off six consecutive wins en route to a 12-4 season.
Quite frankly, the Cowboys overperformed last season, and enter 2015 without the reigning rushing leader. Their defense proved to be better than expected, but 2014 was a confluence of good fortune that won’t be easily repeated. As they return back to earth, they will prove to be closer to the Cowboys many expected than the team everyone saw.
Washington Redskins 7-9
Simply by the laws of hitting rock bottom, the Washington Redskins could not possibly have a season worse than last year. Even when quarterback Robert Griffin III was healthy, he was completely ineffective – remember when people foolishly suggested he may be a better draft pick than Andrew Luck? – sporting a 2-5 record. Backups Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy managed to be even worse – 1-4 and 1-3, respectively.
The main focus of this year is obviously the quarterback position, as 2015 is being called a make-or-break season for Robert Griffin III – be careful, as the same was said about Alex Smith a handful of times in San Francisco. In what appears to be a cruel twist of fate, Griffin is injured, again, and Kirk Cousins will be the Opening Day starter.
For the Redskins, as a franchise, this is the best thing that could happen. They could allow Cousins to man the ship and assess him against only himself, knowing that Griffin wasn’t benched to get to this point. If Cousins succeeds, he keeps the job. If he fails, Griffin gets another chance when he heals. The Redskins would likely not have made this move otherwise, and the ability to piecemeal the early part of the season together should result in a few more wins. That, and there is always the chance that Cousins – once one of the most highly sought-after backup quarterback – is actually good.
Green Bay Packers 11-5
In a league where quarterbacks reign supreme, the Green Bay Packers have enjoyed an unnatural string of success in the near-seamless transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. Under Rodgers, the Packers have clinched a playoff berth in each of the last six seasons.
2015 will make it seven consecutive trips to the playoffs.
Entering last season, the Packers appeared vulnerable due to a weak offensive line, but all criticisms were quickly silenced after a torrid midseason stretch and a 12-4 regular season campaign. The loss of wide receiver Jordy Mercer will hurt, but the Packers remain the class of the NFC North, and will come out on top, yet again.
Chicago Bears 9-7 (Wild Card)
There may be no more enigmatic quarterback than Jay Cutler. Is he good? Is he great? Is he terrible? Arguments could be made from all angles, yet he will lead a franchise into a season for the ninth consecutive year.
2014 should have been an expected downturn for the Bears. They had skated by for too long, and fell victim of the ‘fantasy football effect’ – where the perception of dangerous playmakers masks the actual flaws of a team. Mercifully, the Bears parted with head coach Marc Trestman in favor of veteran John Fox, in a de facto admittance of utter failure.
Fox brings a pedigree of defense to a franchise that was built on such a foundation. The loss of wide receiver – and longtime favorite target of Cutler – Brandon Marshall will cost the offense, but the changing of the guard from Trestman to Jox should do wonders. The Bears slip into the playoffs with a Wild Card berth.
Detroit Lions 8-8
There’s always one team that gets hurt by a top-heavy division. Last year, it was the Detroit Lions. Putting together the team’s best regular season campaign in nearly twenty-five years, the eleven-win 2014 Lions were nothing more than the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs. On the heels of a top-five defense and a new head coach, the Lions exceeded expectations only to have their season end in the first round of the playoffs.
The Lions are a prime candidate for regression, due to the high level at which they performed last season coupled with the loss of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Head coach Jim Caldwell was the correct replacement for Jim Schwartz, as he helped stabilize a talented squad in disarray, but there is little to use a springboard into this year. Instead, the Lions will muddle in mediocrity.
Minnesota Vikings 7-9
The Minnesota Vikings are quickly becoming the hot ‘sleeper team’ around football circles. Led by second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and featuring the return of running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are looking to take a massive step forward and compete for the division.
Other than the projected improvement at the quarterback position, there is little reason to believe the Vikings will leapfrog at least two other teams in the crowded NFC North. Even the aforementioned return of Peterson is far from a guarantee of extra wins, as the running back is now 30-years old, nearly one full season removed from the sport, and still with a massive knee injury on his resume. Even the addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace will have little impact on the team’s bottom line.
Right now, the Vikings are average, at best.
Atlanta Falcons 11-5
It has now become a recurring theme, but how are the Atlanta Falcons so loaded with talent yet so devoid of wins? The answer, last season, was simple: their defense was catastrophically bad.
Enter new head coach Dan Quinn, former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Surely, Quinn won’t have the same toys as he did in the Pacific Northwest, but his task is somewhat lessened by the team’s powerful offense.
The Falcons simply cannot be as bad as their record has indicated over the past two seasons – a combined 10-22. The glaring weakness that is the team’s defense should improve exponentially under Quinn, and the division is so poor that eight wins would have locked up the NFC South, last year.
A quick turnaround in Atlanta is well within the bounds of reason, and the Falcons should vault to the top of the division by season’s end.
New Orleans Saints 9-7 (Wild Card)
It was almost unbelievable how badly the New Orleans Saints struggled, last year. Almost every week, the case could be made that the Saints were not only ready to snap out of their season-long funk, but capture the tantalizingly obtainable NFC South crown. Loss after loss, the combination of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees – two of the best in the business for their respective roles – seemed to defy the odds.
Like their division rivals from Atlanta, the Saints are simply too talented to be a non-factor in the playoff picture. Even the loss of tight end Jimmy Graham should be absolved, as one of Brees’ best talents is distributing throughout the roster. In addition, the deal that moved Jimmy Graham to Seattle brought back center Max Unger, solidifying the offensive line in front of Brees.
The only cause for concern in New Orleans is the fact that the Saints severely underperformed last year with a potentially better team. Therefore, their flaws make them less than an eleven or twelve-win team, but they will secure a Wild Card spot behind the division leading Falcons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4-12
It’s going to be a hard year in Tampa Bay if quarterback Jameis Winston does not show an immediate impact on the field. The first overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, Winston takes over a franchise that has failed to win more than four games in four of its last six seasons.
The Buccaneers – 2-14 last year – were missing much more than a quarterback in 2014, but even the addition of Winston is not a guarantee of future success. The stock of the eventual top pick fluctuated throughout each step of the drafting process, driven by both off-field issues and on-field abilities. Quite frankly, at a position where leadership and maturity is crucial, Winston may need extended time to develop. Unless he comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders, the player with the best chance to help turn a franchise around will be fighting an uphill battle.
Carolina Panthers 4-12
There likely has never existed a team with better luck than the 2014 Carolina Panthers. In a losing season, the Panthers found themselves in the pathetic pillow fight that was the NFC South race. After emerging as the ‘non-loser’ – ‘winner’ is too forgiving of a term – the Panthers then faced the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Ryan Lindley, Arizona’s third string quarterback with nine career games under his belt, drew the short straw and was the sacrificial lamb for the Cardinals.
In every way, the Panthers were one of the league’s worst teams for the entire season. Their trip to the playoffs was nothing more than fortunate circumstance, and their luck has already begun to wear out – talented wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is out for the upcoming season with a knee injury. With everything breaking their way, last year, the Panthers could only secure seven regular season wins. They have nowhere to go but down.
Seattle Seahawks 12-4
There are just some teams that cannot be stopped. Like the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks are an incredible example of defying the odds. In today’s game, teams don’t win the Super Bowl one year, then return to the big game the following season. Then again, teams aren’t built like the Seattle Seahawks.
With one of the sport’s smartest, most effective quarterbacks under center – Russell Wilson, a former third-round draft pick, has a 36-12 record in the regular season – the Seahawks are poised for another playoff run. Without resistance from the rest of the NFC West, Seattle will remain atop the division, as long as the team remains hungry. Thankfully for the Seahawks, the bitter taste of Super Bowl XLIX’s gut-wrenching loss should be the exact driving force needed for Seattle to win the NFC West again.
St. Louis Rams 9-7
The Rams have had all the makings of a ‘sleeper team’ for years – solid coaching, a formidable quarterback, and a division where they are easily forgotten. When one of the components – quarterback Sam Bradford – was continuously removed from the equation due to injuries, the upside is limited.
New quarterback Nick Foles comes with his own risk in the injury department, but was the face of one of the most explosive offenses for a brief period of time. Indoors and on turf, Foles’ output could rival his best days in Philadelphia.
Assuming Foles does what Bradford couldn’t – stay on the field – the Rams should finally move out of the basement of the division. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the NFC West title will simply be unobtainable as long as the Seahawks continue to dominate.
Arizona Cardinals 6-10
It was no secret as to what derailed the 2014 Arizona Cardinals – injuries at the quarterback position. Carson Palmer led a 6-0 campaign before injuring his knee, and Drew Stanton led the team to a 5-3 record in his absence. When Stanton went down, Ryan Lindley couldn’t quite cut it, losing both games he started.
A healthy Carson Palmer is obviously the key to victory for the Cardinals, but the dangerous assumption is that Palmer will be 100 percent and back to his best form. The reality is that Palmer suffered for years after his first knee injury, and his career was in jeopardy on multiple occasions. To think that he will return to form the September following another is dangerous. The fate of the Cardinals rests on Palmer and, quite frankly, it will be too much to bear. The Cardinals are about to enter a ‘down year.’
San Francisco 49ers 4-12
There is a chance – albeit, small – that the 49ers are not a horrific team. Colin Kaepernick was everyone’s favorite quarterback after a handful of games, and there is validity to the claims that he is capable of leading a team. The problem is that the rest of the team is in shambles and Kaepernick will have to be extraordinary in order to mask its flaws.
Former head coach Jim Harbaugh was ready to leave the sinking ship midway through last season. Little has improved, since then, and the only thing worth watching in San Francisco is the aforementioned Kaepernick to see how he responds with the odds against him.
It was almost inconceivable how hungry the Seahawks looked throughout most of 2014 to become back-to-back Super Bowl champions. They are undoubtedly a special team, and the sting that must be left from the way they lost Super Bowl XLIX is enough to light the team’s fire, again.
There should be another memorable meeting in the works between the Seahawks and Packers, but Seattle will be on a mission to solidify its place in history. After knocking off the Packers in the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season, the Seahawks will win their second Super Bowl in a three-year span.