WASHINGTON — Real tackle football is almost here.
Almost seven months after the last meaningful football game, the NFL kicks off its season on Thursday in Seattle, when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers march into CenturyLink Field to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. It’s billed as a rematch of the infamous Fail Mary game from 2012 when the Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers after the worst call in NFL history.
Here in Washington, not only is there the ongoing controversy over the Washington Redskins’ nickname, but there’s new concern over the lackluster preseason play of the Redskins’ first-team offense led by Robert Griffin III. Yes, it’s only the preseason. But this is Washington. In the nation’s capital, the Redskins are scrutinized more than President Obama.
Here is your in-depth breakdown of the 2014 NFL season, with predictions for the winners of each division, as well as the conference championship matchups and who will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.
AFC West champion: Denver Broncos
Denver signed ex-Steeler wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace Eric Decker, who signed with the New York Jets during the offseason. The Broncos beefed up their defense with the signings of DeMarcus Ware and ex-Patriot Aqib Talib. And last time I checked, they still had Peyton Manning at quarterback. The Broncos will win the AFC West going away and should have a first-round playoff bye.
AFC South champion: Indianapolis Colts
The AFC South was always the Colts’ to lose when Manning was their quarterback. With the ascent of Andrew Luck, it appears to be that way again.
Luck has somehow led the Colts to back-to-back 11-5 records in his first two years despite a poor defense and awful offensive line. The Texans, who went 2-14 last season, will be improved because of Jadeveon Clowney teaming up with J.J. Watt on the defensive line. But Houston’s starting single-caller is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who hasn’t proven in his nine years in the league that he can lead a team to success. Tennessee’s quarterback is Jake Locker and Jacksonville’s is Chad Henne. Those last two sentences explain why the Colts will win the division.
AFC North champion: Cincinnati Bengals
These aren’t your father’s Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens. Only three times in the last 13 seasons has a team other than the Steelers or Ravens been crowned champion of the AFC North. All three of those years, including last season, the Cincinnati Bengals were the team. This year will make it four times in 14 seasons.
Many scoffed at the Bengals giving quarterback Andy Dalton a six-year $115 million contract this offseason. It’s a lot of money, for sure, but it’s what the Bengals had to do. The pool of elite quarterbacks in the NFL is so shallow that teams must secure what they do have — even if he’s a second-tier guy. A.J. Green, entering only his fourth NFL season, is on his way to becoming the league’s best wide receiver. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who tore his right ACL last year and missed nine games, is healthy and ready to play. The Bengals’ defense was third-best in the league last year, in terms of yards allowed per game. Cincinnati also gave up the fifth-fewest points.
Ben Roethlisberger is getting older, and can’t seem to stay healthy. The Ravens, known in the past for a stingy defense, are a shell of what they used to be, and the Browns won’t be getting to the playoffs, no matter who their quarterback is.
AFC East champion: New England Patriots
The Patriots have won their division 10 of the past 11 seasons, and in 2008 — the only year in that span that they didn’t prevail — Tom Brady was out for the whole season with a torn up knee.
New England is more talented than last year, and remember, the Pats were one game away from the Super Bowl. The organization signed All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, and added ex-Seahawk Brandon Browner to toughen up the secondary. Vince Wilfork is back after missing 12 games last season with a torn Achilles and Rob Gronkowski, who tore the ACL in his right knee last season, is hoping to play in the opener vs. the Miami Dolphins.
With a healthy Gronk, Bill Belichick calling plays and Tom Brady throwing the ball, the AFC East is the Pats’ to lose.
NFC West champion: Seattle Seahawks
The NFC West is the toughest division in football, with Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona all winning at least 10 games last year.
The Seahawks and 49ers will compete for the division crown once again, with the Thanksgiving matchup in Santa Clara, California, on Nov. 27 and the Dec. 14 tilt in Seattle probably determining who will in the division.
Arizona was much improved under first-year head coach Bruce Arians last year, but the Cardinals are not ready to challenge the 49ers or Seahawks.
Right now, the edge goes to Seattle. San Francisco has several question marks on its defense with the nine-game suspension of Aldon Smith looming and the impending suspension of Ray McDonald, who was arrested for domestic battery on Aug. 31. The 49ers will also begin the season without stud linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is still recovering from a gruesome knee injury suffered in last year’s conference championship game in Seattle. The Seahawks also have a healthy Percy Harvin — and you saw how important he was to the team in last year’s Super Bowl demolition of the Broncos.
NFC South champion: New Orleans Saints
Carolina surprised everyone last season by winning 12 games and finishing one game ahead of Drew Brees and the Saints. That won’t happen in 2014.
Tight end Jimmy Graham signed a contract extension and won’t have any distractions this year (unless he keeps getting fined for dunking the football over the goal posts), Drew Brees is still a top-five quarterback and Sean Peyton is still an offensive guru. While many (including me) always focus on the Saints’ juggernaut offense, the defense gave up the fourth-fewest points in the league last year. Expect the Saints to challenge San Francisco and Seattle for the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC.
NFC North champion: Green Bay Packers
The Packers managed to win the NFC North last season, even without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers under center for seven games due to a broken collarbone.
Rodgers’ clavicle is now healed and the Packers are the clear favorites to repeat. The Chicago Bears, with a high-powered offense featuring receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, are the highest hurdle Green Bay has on its road to repeat, but Rodgers is 9-2 in games he’s finished against the Bears in his career. (He started against Chicago on Nov. 4 last year before getting injured; the Bears went on to defeat the Packers.)
Until Chicago beats Green Bay when it counts, the Packers are the team everyone is chasing in that division.
NFC East champion: Dallas Cowboys
The NFC East, a few years ago, was the best division in football. How times have changed.
The Eagles, last season’s champs, are the favorites to win the division again, according to odds makers in Las Vegas. But every NFC East team has a question mark.
How much will the Eagles miss DeSean Jackson? Will Eli Manning start playing like a two-time Super Bowl MVP? Can Robert Griffin III stay healthy and learn a new offense? How will the Cowboys manage to get to 8-8?
Philadelphia cut the electrifying Jackson due to off-the-field issues, and he was promptly snatched up by the Redskins to give Griffin another deep threat in addition to Santana Moss. Nick Foles, who emerged as a potential franchise quarterback last season, will have to rely on Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Co. to carve up defenses.
The Giants rallied to finish 7-9 last season after losing their first six games while Eli Manning led the NFL with 27 interceptions (the most in the NFL since 2005). Tom Coughlin’s cheeks were especially red last season.
Dallas, in each of the last three seasons, has finished 8-8 and has lost win-or-go-homes in Week 17 that would have given the Cowboys the NFC East title. As we say every year, the ‘Boys are one of the most offensively talented teams in the league, with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten leading the way. Dallas will probably find a way to choke away at least a couple of games. But for no other reason than having no confidence in the other three teams, the Cowboys will win the division this year for the first time since 2009.
AFC Championship: Patriots over Broncos
Denver and New England are easily the two best teams in the AFC, and are heavily favored to meet for the second straight year with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This year, though, New England has Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Vince Wilfork to try to stop Peyton Manning’s prolific offense — defenders the Pats didn’t have last January in Denver, when the Broncos won 21-16.
The pick: Patriots 31, Broncos 27
NFC Championship: Saints over Seahawks
The NFC has a lot more depth than the AFC, and there are four or five teams with a legitimate shot at advancing to the conference title game. Ultimately, the Saints will get revenge for last year’s divisional-round defeat in Seattle and will beat the Seahawks to go to the Super Bowl for the second time in six years.
The pick: Saints 24, Seattle 23
Super Bowl: Patriots over Saints
Next February will mark the third time that Brady attempts to win his fourth Super Bowl ring. It will also be his sixth Super Bowl, which would make him the quarterback with the most Super Bowl appearances overall. (He’s currently tied with John Elway at five.)
The matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium will pit the game’s two best tight ends against one another in Graham and Gronkowski, and two of football’s best quarterbacks in Brady and Brees. A competitive, high-scoring affair will be great to see after last year’s blowout. This is also the stadium where the Giants shocked the Patriots, 17-14, in Super Bowl XLII that ended New England’s perfect season. You think Robert Kraft and his men want some revenge in that stadium?
The pick: Patriots 35, Saints 31