By JOHN ZAKOUR
MVP: Peyton Manning almost assuredly will be the best quarterback in the NFL this year, statistically. But will voters fatigue after the season he had? Are expectations too high for any mortal man (or whatever type of cyborg Peyton is)? Probably. I’ll go with Aaron Rodgers, who rather shockingly didn’t even place in the Top-10 of the best players in the NFL. Should be a perfect opportunity for Rodgers to gain some steam for an MVP run.
Offensive Rookie: Derek Carr. Despite playing at a mid-major program at Fresno State, Carr might’ve been the best arm talent in this draft. Unlike his rookie peers, we know he’s going to start and has looked impressive in the preseason, culminating in throwing two touchdowns against Seattle’s starters (mostly).
NFC East: In its heyday, the NFC east was the NFC’s beast, regularly sending two or even three teams to the playoffs. Now it’s a race to 10 wins for a division title. While the Cowboys’ defense probably won’t be historically bad, it should still be well, bad, and certainly not good enough to absorb any of their injuries. I expect them to contend for the worst team in the NFC rather than a playoff berth. Washington should be able to ride a rejuvenated RGIII and the addition of DeSean Jackson to an improved record. The Eagles set the division ablaze once Nick Foles established himself as the bird’s signal caller, and look to do the same again, but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time. So my pick is the ultimate wild card not just in the NFC east, but in all of football — the New York Football Giants. They spent big on defense and have a new scheme on offense which will hopefully turn Eli Manning into a real quarterback again (last year – 18 TDS, 27 INTs, 7 fumbles).
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NFC North: Barring another devastating injury, the Packers should be much improved. Julius Peppers will be a huge boost to the Packers’ defensive line and combined with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, they should have enough to run away with this division. The Bears were an appreciably better team with Josh McCown under center instead of Jay Cutler, but have pieces on both sides of the ball to contend. The Lions are a huge mess, but a very interesting one with talent everywhere. The Vikings will either start Matt Cassel or a rookie at quarterback, so their season is probably DOA.
NFC South: No team in the NFL let more close games get away than the Atlanta Falcons, my pick to win the always topsy turvy NFC south. One year removed from coming up just short of a Super Bowl season, the Falcons floundered to a 4-12 record. With any luck, they should be able to have a seven win improvement. In New Orleans, the Saints should be able to ride an improved defense thanks to the singing of Jairus Byrd to another playoff berth.
NFC West: Awful things happen to teams in Seattle. The Seahawks were one of the youngest teams to ever win the Super Bowl, and they did so in such convincing fashion that it’s hard not to see the Hawks as contenders for the next decade or so. However, they play in the toughest division in all of football, the NFC West. I feel any of the Top-three could win any other division in football (except the AFC West). The Cardinals’ 11 wins weren’t good enough to escape third place in the West, and the Rams were one of the most stout defenses in the league. The Niners’ defense probably won’t be elite again, but they reloaded on offense pretty effectively. I see two teams coming out of the west again.
Wild Cards: Saints, 49ers
AFC East: Patriots. It’s the AFC East, do I have to say more?
Maybe I will. The Patriots not only won 12 games in a “rebuilding” year, but added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to fortify their secondary so Julian Edelman won’t have to pedal backwards again. The Dolphins should blow up, and could end up the worst team in football. The Jets offense should continue to betray their defense. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in over a decade, but should feature an elite defensive line and possibly dynamic offense.
AFC North: It comes down to the quarterbacks in the North. Is there a better team top to bottom in the AFC, all quarterbacks being equal (which they aren’t) than the Cincinnati Bengals? The Bengals are the most complete team in the AFC, which should get them their division crown, but they need some good QB play to actually make noise in the playoffs. The Steelers have reloaded and with a favorable schedule, and have the best quarterback in their division. A candidate for surprise team in the AFC, the Cleveland Browns, have all the pieces for an excellent defense. If they can get production out of either Johnny Manziel or Brian Hoyer, this is a playoff caliber team.
AFC South: The Indianapolis Colts’ schedule and division is conducive to a gaudy record, like 12-4 or 13-3. The Colts maybe the weakest division winner in the AFC, benefiting from by far the easiest schedule, but it’s hard to see them challenged for a division title. The South features two possible horrendous teams and one mediocre one,, although the Texans and Jaguars are probably on the upswing. New addition Hakeem Nicks could excel catching passes from Andrew Luck.
AFC West: It’s tough sledding for the AFC west, as the teams have to deal with playing all of the NFC west, the best division in football. As a result, it’s going to be tough on last year’s wildcards Chargers and Chiefs, who could regress. Clearly, the Denver Broncos should win this division as they are the most complete team in the AFC. But if Carr can live up to his promise, the Raiders can field a playoff team for the first time in over a decade.
Wildcards: Steelers, Raiders
Can Andy Dalton avoid spectacular collapse? Can he be good? If he can muster play resembling “good,” the Bengals can use their skill and defense to win the AFC title. The Seahawks are still the the best team in the NFL, and in great position to repeat if they can snag homefield advantage again. But if not, I think the Packers could upend them in Lambeau. For now, I’ll go with a repeat.
Super Bowl: Seahawks over Bengals