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Who will win the Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.

Who will win the Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks?

Week 3 of the NFL season features a few surprising 2-0 teams in the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers shouldn’t be much of a surprise after finishing 12-4 in 2013, but a poor receiving corps and an injured Cam Newton skewed outside views. A 3-0 start by each of teams will open the eyes many NFL spectators.


Week 2 Predictions Results:

Brooks: 5-11; Overall: 14-18

Perez: 7-9; Overall: 18-14

Wooten: 7-9; Overall: 16-16


Week 3 Matchups Brooks Perez Wooten
TB @ ATL ATL(W) ATL(W) ATL(W)
SD @ BUF BUF SD SD
DAL @ STL DAL DAL STL
WSH @ PHI PHI PHI PHI
HOU @ NYG HOU HOU HOU
MIN @ NO NO NO NO
TEN @ CIN CIN CIN CIN
BAL @ CLE BAL BAL BAL
GB @ DET DET GB GB
IND @ JAX IND IND IND
OAK @ NE NE NE NE
SF @ ARI SF ARI SF
DEN @ SEA SEA SEA SEA
KC @ MIA MIA MIA KC
PIT @ CAR CAR CAR CAR
CHI @ NYJ CHI CHI CHI

Brooks Bits

San Diego Chargers @ Buffalo Bills

One of the most underrated yet intriguing games of the week is between two early AFC contenders.

At 2-0 start for the Bills has given the fan base an optimistic feel for a team who hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 1999. Buffalo pulled the wool over the league’s eyes after a woeful preseason performance 1-5, including the Hall of Fame game. E.J. Manuel is beginning to look like a former 1st-rounder with explosive weapons in No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins who is fresh off his first 100 yard receiving game (117 yards) and running back C.J. Spiller who returned a kickoff for 102 yards.

With the next four games against San Diego, Houston, Detroit and New England, we’ll find out soon enough if the Bills are filet or bologna.

The Charges are coming off an impressive win against the Seattle Seahawks, putting up 30 points on a stingy Seattle secondary. Philip Rivers picked Seattle apart throwing for 284 yards and 3 touchdowns. Rivers will have to carry more of the burden with the talented but oft-injured running back Ryan Matthews out with a sprained MCL. He’s officially listed an question on the injury report, but it’s unlikely he’ll see any time on the field.

San Diego is my dark horse favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. A 1-2 start doesn’t bode well in their future, but aside from the Broncos, the Chargers don’t have any competition in the AFC West. They can recover.

Bills with the win.

Denver Broncos @ Seattle Seahawks

43-8. Forty-three to eight.

This was the monstrosity of a final score in the Super Bowl as the Seahawks blew out the Broncos in an embarrassing fashion.

The Broncos are still trying to rid the disgusting taste out their mouth. We know the story. A high powered offense now with all their pieces with the return of Wes Welker because of the new NFL drug policy. We know the Seahawks. The Legion of Boom. CenturyLink Field, the home of the deafening mad house.

Seattle is not the same team on the road. It’s been that way for the past few seasons. The defending champs will be angry after their first lost of the season.

Seahawks with the win, but will be a much more competitive game. 31-21.

Eddie P’s Philosophical Take

San Francisco 49ers @ Arizona Cardinals

The typical, bland analyst would give this game to San Francisco. Well, it goes to show how little they know.

It is indescribable to explain how tough the NFC West is.  Seattle, San Francisco, and Arizona are all exceptionally good defensively. The edge Arizona has over the other “top” two teams in the division is its passing game. With Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the outside, the Cardinals have a big, tough, physical, and explosive receiver tandem. Toss in the speedy slot receiver, John Brown, and you have a complete receiving corps.

The 49ers – still a tough team – are not as dominant as years past. Its defense is missing a central player in NaVorro Bowman, who is still recovery from an ACL injury. He and Patrick Willis held the middle of that defense together. In his place is third year backup Michael Wilhoite. While Wilhoite is doing an ok job filling in for the injured NaVorro, it’s just that – an ok job. On offense, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been mistake-prone. He’s coughed up the ball four times thus far (three INTs and one fumble).

New York Jets @ Chicago Bears

It is no secret; I am a fan of the pass-catchers. My favorite athlete is former-Ram Isaac Bruce – No. 4 (15,208) all-time in receiving yards, No. 7 (1,024) in receptions. Bruce is a surefire future Hall of Famer, in my opinion.

The Chicago Bears, while not future HOFers, have two very good receivers of their own. The veteran Brandon Marshall –sitting at No. 40 with 725 career catches – is one of the best big, physical receivers in the league. Third-year pro Alshon Jeffery is built in the exact mold – big, tough, physical, and explosive.

While the New York Jets have always had a good defense, their offense is putrid. There is no chance the Jets can do enough to outscore Da Bears.

Words From Wooten

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

This will not look good for Mike Zimmern and his Vikings. Without their former MVP, Adrian Peterson, you will see a drastic, well not as drastic because the Vikings are mediocre, performance from the team as a whole. I feel like this one will be a blowout for them. Something similar to the year Indy put Peyton on IR and they loss 62-7 to New Orleans.

Washington @ Philadelphia Eagles 

I want to see what Kirk Cousins can do against a division rival. Why not let him showcase his skills against a team like the Eagles. Sad to say, I don’t think it’s gonna be too many touchdown connections to anyone. The Eagles will come up with ways to keep Cousins at bay.

Will Ryan Tannehill lead his Miami Dolphins to a surprising 2-0 start?

Will Ryan Tannehill lead his Miami Dolphins to a surprising 2-0 start?

Week 1 of the NFL season offered a few eye-raising surprises with the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears falling to 0-1 to lesser rated teams. The biggest of them all was the Dolphins trumping the mighty Patriots. The start of the season got off to a bang. Let’s see which team will create unexpected noise in week 2 as the early season progress.


Week 1 Predictions Results:

Brooks: 9-7; Overall: 9-7

Perez: 11-5; Overall: 11-5

Wooten: 9-7; Overall: 9-7


Week 2 Matchups Brooks Perez  Wooten
PIT @ BAL PIT(L) PIT(L)  PIT(L)
MIA @ BUF MIA(L) MIA(L)  BUF(W)
JAX @ WSH WSH(W) WSH(W)  WSH(W)
DAL @ TEN TEN(L) DAL(W)  DAL(W)
AZ @ NYG AZ(L) AZ(L)  AZ(L)
NE @ MIN NE(W) NE(W)  NE(W)
NO @ CLE NO(L) NO(L)  NO(L)
ATL @ CIN CIN(W) CIN(W)  CIN(W)
DET @ CAR DET(L) DET(L)  DET(L)
STL @ TB TB(L) TB(L)  TB(L)
SEA @ SD SEA(L) SEA(L)  SEA(L)
HOU @ OAK OAK(L) HOU(W)  OAK(L)
NYJ @ GB GB(W) GB(W)  GB(W)
KC @ DEN DEN(W) DEN(W)  DEN(W)
CHI @ SF SF(L) SF(L)  SF(L)
PHI @ IND IND(L) IND(L)  IND(L)

Brooks’ Bits

New England Patriots @ Minnesota Vikings

The New England Patriots are in last place in the AFC East for the first time in the last 14 years. The Patriots 33-20 to the Dolphins was the first opening season lost in the last 12 years. Only one game has strolled by, but sitting all alone on last place is unfamiliar territory to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Co.

But what if they fall to 0-2?

The Vikings throttled a Rams teams who played both their second and third string quarterback in week 1. Minnesota bottled up the run game, but struggled with the 6-feet-3 Brian Quick on the outside. The Patriots don’t possess that type of physical threat at wide receiver.

Newly acquired Knowshon Moreno rushed for 134 yards against New England, and the Dolphins as a whole rushed for 191 yards. If the New England had fits trying to contain Moreno, the best running back in the NFL in Adrain Peterson is going to have a field day against New England. Minnesota also got wide receiver Coradarralle Patterson going in the run game, rushing for 102 yards with a chunk of it coming from an explosive 67-yard touchdown run.

An 0-2 start for a team with Super Bowl aspiration will create a bead of sweat early on in the season.

Atlanta Falcons @ Cincinnati Bengals

Easily one of the most exciting games of week 2. The Falcons surprised everyone by not only going toe-to-toe with a favorite to come out the NFC, but beating them in overtime fashion. Matt Ryan threw for a franchise-record 448 yards and three touchdowns in the 37-34 overtime victory. Atlanta also welcomed back a health Julio Jones who finished with 7 receptions 116 yards in his first game back after missing 11 games in 2013 with a foot injury.

Speaking of dynamic wide receivers, the Bengals have the best receiver in the NFL not named Calvin Johnson. AJ Green torched the Ravens secondary hauling in 6 passes for 131 yards and a score. Andy Dalton and Green connected for a 77-yard game-winning touchdown with 4:58 left.

Both Jones and Green were selected in the 2011 NFL draft. Green was the fourth overall pick and Jones was selected two picks later when the Falcons traded up to draft him sixth overall.

These two teams both have explosive offenses, but I trust the Bengals defense a lot more than the Falcons. And now more than ever with the lost of first round tackle Jake Matthews who is on IR with an ankle injury.

 Eddie P’s Philosophical Take

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Baltimore Ravens

Man, the Baltimore Ravens cannot catch a break. Freshly off the news of the Ray Rice domestic violence video and the subsequent release of Rice, they have to go live on Thursday Night Football. To make things a little worse, the Ravens are going up against AFC North division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Rice distraction aside, it is hard to see Baltimore coming away with a “W.” On defense, it will be tough to slow down the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s offense is multi-dimensional. The Steelers can run it with Le’Veon Bell or air it out with Antonio Brown and speedster Markus Wheaton. On offense, the Ravens will have to rely on Joe Flacco. While Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith are formidable options out wide, the Ravens are thin at running back. Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett are good backups, but they are just that – backups.

Detroit Lions @ Carolina Panthers

The Detroit Lions’ offense was unbelievable in Week 1. Quarterback Matt Stafford threw a gaudy 346 yards for two touchdowns. Receiver extraordinaire Calvin “Megatron” Johnson caught those two TDs and 164 yards. New partner in crime wide-out Golden Tate added on 93 yards as well. That is not even including Reggie Bush’s production out of the backfield and Joique Bell on the ground. The offensive potential of this group is not sane.

The Carolina Panthers get their starting signal caller back this week. Cam Newton had been sidelined for a few weeks with fractured ribs. They were able to pull off a win last week with backup QB Derek Anderson under center and it would not be farfetched to believe the Panthers could come out victorious again this week with their No. 1 playing. However, Cam’s game is based on his mobility, he might be a bit more hesitant to go all-out and risk reinjuring his ribs again.

Words From Wooten

New Orleans Saints @ Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine said recently that you can expect to see Johnny Manziel in a few packages in the upcoming future. Well, the time is now. Sadly it’s up against a top-5 defense from the previous year. With that being said, Manziel or Brian Hoyer can expect a bad game against a very good defense.

With the addition of Jarius Byrd on the Saints defense, it will be hard for the opposing QB to go deep or up the middle. In the end, this won’t be a pretty one for Cleveland.

New York Jets @ Green Bay Packers 

Aaron Rodgers is looking to bounce back from a subpar performance against the reigning top defense in league in the Seattle Seahawks. With the status of the New York Jets still uncertain, you can expect for Rodgers to find a variety of ways to expose the Jets defense.

On the other hand, with the Jets picking up Eric Decker in the offseason, it gives Geno Smith a big target to look at downfield. Look forward to Geno connecting with Decker a few times if Clay Matthews doesn’t sack him first.

The NFL has returned opening the season with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers set to take on the defending Super Champion Seattle Seahawks.

The NFL has returned opening the season with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers set to take on the defending Super Champion Seattle Seahawks.

 

It’s been nearly two full years since the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks were entrenched in history after the horribly, head-scratching “Fail Mary.”

One official ruled it a touchdown and the other signaled the game was over.

It was catastrophe on and off the field, but two years removed, these two teams will get a mulligan to rectify the blunder of the long gone replacement refs.

As these two teams face off again to ignite week 1 of the 2014 NFL season, it’s now time to rev up the weekly NFL predictions brought to you by myself, Delonte Wooten, a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in criminal justice with a minor in journalism, and avid Chicago Bears fan. As well as Eddie Perez, California State University at Long Beach alum and writer at Turfshowtimes.com .

Game Picks:

Week 1 Matchups Brooks Wooten Perez
GB @ SEA SEA(W) SEA(W)  SEA(W)
NO @ ATL NO(L) NO(L)  NO(L)
MIN @ STL STL(L) STL(L)  MIN(W)
CLE @ PIT PIT(W) PIT(W)  PIT(W)
JAX @ PHI PHI(W) PHI(W)  PHI(W)
OAK @ NYJ NYJ(W) NYJ(W)  OAK(L)
CIN @ BAL CIN(W) CIN(W)  BAL(L)
BUF @ CHI CHI(L) CHI(L)  CHI(L)
WSH @ HOU HOU(W) HOU(W)  WAS(W)
TEN @ KC KC(L) KC(L)  TEN(W)
NE @ MIA NE((L) NE(L)  NE(L)
CAR @ TB TB(L) CAR(W)  CAR(W)
SF @ DAL SF(W) SF(W)  SF(W)
IND @ DEN DEN(W) DEN(W)  DEN(W)
NYG @ DET DET(W) DET(W)  DET(W)
SD @ ARI SD(L) SD(L)  AZ(W)

 

Brooks Bits (@BrooksWeekly)

Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens

Two quarterbacks who were signed to contracts worth over $100 million face off in the black and blue AFC North division matchup in Andy Dalton (CIN) and Joe Flacco (BAL). In recent years, the Bengals have risen from the constantly roughed up little brother to the king of the hill in their division.

Cincinnati and Baltimore split both contest in 2013, but expect the Bengals to dominate the division this season. The Bengals have one of the deepest and talented teams in the NFL. Cincy ranked top-5 in passing yards, and rushing and passing yards allowed on defense. The revamped a pedestrian running game by release Benjarvis Green-Ellis after drafting running backs Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill in back-to-back years.

The Ravens added former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith in hopes he will fill the void of the since two-year departed Anquan Boldin, who provided a security blanket for Flacco. Baltimore will be without RB Ray Rice, who was suspended by the NFL for two games after a domestic violence incident. Bernard Piecer will have to set the tone for a team that 83.3 rushing yards per game in 2013 (30th).

Expect a talented Bengals team with AJ Green on the outside to come away with the week 1 victory on the road.

Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning’s 2013 return to Lucas Oil Stadium was soiled by Andrew Luck after delivering the Broncos its first loss on the season.

But now the Sunday Night primetime matchup is at Mile High Stadium where Luck and the Colts will have to run a mile a minute to keep up with the Broncos high flying offense. Wes Welker was suspended by the NFL for 4 games for testing positive for amphetamines, but his absence won’t cause Denver to miss a beat.

The Broncos acquired the speedy Emmanuel Sanders from the Steelers and drafted rookie WR Cody Latimer in the 2nd-round. Peyton at quarterback is a rookie receiver’s dream. The 6-feet-2, 215 pound Latimer will leap onto the stage in Welker’s absence.

If the Colts can solidify their offensive line, then this team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Their makeshift offensive will get tested early and often with Von Miller and offseason acquisition DeMarcus Ware rushing the passer.

These two team put on a 39-33 thriller in favor of the Colts last season, but Peyton will remind his former team why he’s nicknamed “the sheriff.”

Eddie P’s Philosophical  Take (@iAmEddieP_)

Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

This is a match up of two perennial NFC juggernauts. The Green Bay Packers have a revamped defense and an offense that will forever shoot on all cylinders with Aaron Rodgers under center. The Seattle Seahawks are the Super Bowl-winning, defensive powerhouse with a power rushing offense. It lost a few key players on defense, but depth is one of the team’s strength.

Seattle’s home field advantage – the “12’s” are definitely a plus – and overall stronger defense will be the deciding factor.

Oakland Raiders @ New York Jets

Leading up to this year’s draft, David Carr’s little brother, Oakland Raiders’ Derek, was among the top rated signal callers. By the numbers he put out during the preseason, he surely has not disappointed one bit (30 for 45, 326 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT).

Carr did well enough to snatch the starting gig away from the 11th-year vet Matt Schaub. Carr’s play making ability, along with an underrated defense should be enough to upset the Geno Smith led New York Jets.

Words From Wooten

New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons

Since the beginning of OTA’s, there has been a lot of buzz about Saint’s rookie WR Brandin Cooks. Now, everyone just wants to know if he can live up to expectations that has surrounded have him. It has been rumored that he is arguably the best WR this past draft class, aside from Bills’ rookie WR Sammy Watkins.

Let’s see if Saints quarterback Drew Brees can connect with Cooks a few times against a subpar Atlanta defense. And speaking of Atlanta, we all want to see if Julio Jones still has that mojo of his since returning from a foot surgery that caused him to miss the 2013 season. And will Atlanta’s offensive line will block for anyone after drafting Jake Matthews in the 1st-round? The jury is still out.

Going up against the Saints defense, it won’t be easy. Be on the lookout for Cameron Jordan to have a few sacks on the day.

Washington Redskins @ Houston Texans

This may not be a great game for Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. He’s going up against comer defensive player of the year in JJ Watt, who is now a $100 million dollar man, a returning Brian Cushing and a scary rookie—the No. 1 overall pick—named Jadeveon Clowney who made a little bit of noise during the preseason. If RG3 isn’t watching for Clowney then he better be looking for Watt on the opposite side.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is the Texans starting quarterback, but the position as a whole is in shambles. I’m still giving this game to the Texans because their front seven will take of any business.

Who will raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2015?

Who will raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2015?

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is the final piece of the preseason predictions series. AFC divisional winners, as well as the NFC winners were first in the books, followed by MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year and more last week. Before the opening kickoff on Thursday between the defending Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks and the gun-slinging Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, let’s take a look at four Super Bowl scenarios that I see as plausible.


 

Scenario No. 1: Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints

The Broncos and the Saints had the top two regular season records in my divisional predictions series at 14-2 and 13-3, respectively. A battle of arguably the top-2 most prolific quarterbacks in the NFL today in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees is a titanic rematch after dueling in Super Bowl XLIV.

New Orleans revamped defense headlined by a  healthy Kenny Vaccaro and free agent Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills, is reminiscent to Seattle’s superstar safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who gave Manning fits in last year’s Super Bowl. The Saints have to endure a gauntlet in the NFC trying to withstand Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay. Unlike the Broncos’ defense from a season ago, New Orleans has the physicality on the defensive side of the ball to matchup with either teams.

Aside from the New England, there is no legitimate threat to Denver in the AFC. After an embarrassing Super Bowl performance, the Broncos added shut down cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. The trio has to set the tone for the defense from the opening snap.


 

Scenario No. 2: New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers played in only nine regular season games last season due to a broken collar bone. He managed to return the last game of the season to defeat the Chicago Bears, but lost to the 49ers in the postseason. Now back healthy and primed to play a full 16 game season, Rodgers will again remind the NFL why he’s a former Super Bowl Champion and league MVP.

Rodgers has been susceptible to sacks the past three seasons after he was taken down 45 times in 2011, 39 in 2012 and 17 in nine games in 2013. The refurbished offensive line is improved and a power running attack by last year’s OROY Eddie Lacy, will protect and open up more opportunities for Rodgers.

The signing of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers to wreak havoc alongside Clay Matthews, and drafting former Alabama ballhawk Hasean Clinton-Dix will at safety will also sew up a resurgent defense.

Year end and year out, the Patriots are seemingly a lock for the playoffs, and the AFC Championship for that matter. The Patriots are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. They only got better this year adding All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis and getting back a healthy Vince Wilfork. The Patriots Achilles Heel is their lack of a down-field threat. If Aaron Dobson can become a lethal weapon on the outside, the Patriots offense won’t have any limitations.


 

Scenario No. 3: Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks

If Andrew Luck plays to the level everyone has catapulted him to, then the rising superstar has the ability to lead his team to a Super Bowl in his third year in the NFL.

The Colts appeared to be ready for primetime last season defeating Seattle in week 5, 34-28. But losing Reggie Wayne two weeks later was a big blow to the offense. Not to mention the poor productivity from Trent Richardson who averaged 3 yards per carry. The interior of the offensive line is also a cause for concern with center Khaled Holmes, guard Hugh Thornton and guard Jack Mewhort, playing only a few snaps together because of injuries.

If the group can gel throughout the season and keep Luck standing upright, then the Colts could become a heavyweight in the AFC.

Punishing defenders early and often is the recipe in Seattle. The Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL and a top-3 overall defense. But Seattle lost key pieces in the offseason that have gone overlooked in  receiver Golden Tate, defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and defensive backs Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond.

Russell Wilson is heading into his third year as a starter and has only gotten better every season. Wilson has thrown the second most touchdowns of any quarterback in NFL history in his first two seasons with 52 (Dan Marion is No. 1 with 68).  If Percy Harvin can remain healthy (which is a big if), then we can see the offense reach the level of the defense.


 

San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

A battle between two quarterbacks who were selected in the 2011 draft a pick after of each other (Andy Dalton 35th  overall and Colin Kaepernick 36th overall) and both fresh off signing contracts worth over $100 million, is a top Super Bowl story line. The two quarterbacks are forever linked and are in similar positions. Both are surrounded by premier talent on both sides of the ball and have relished in the regular season, but that’s where it stops.

Kapernick has led his team to the Super Bowl, losing in a light-outs thriller against the Baltimore Ravens. He was only a play away from reaching the Super Bowl for a second time if it wasn’t for a timely swat by cornerback Richard Sherman. San Francisco has been knocking at the door for several seasons. This year, they may kick it down.

Dalton, however, is 0-3 in the playoffs and has completed 56.9 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions. A miraculous Super Bowl run would more than lift his inexplicable playoff blunders.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 26:  Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles #43 and breaks the single-season passing record in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS, LA – DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles #43 and breaks the single-season passing record in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is part three of the series of preseason predictions. The past two weeks featured division winners in the AFC and NFC. Individual awards are next in line to highlight the league’s best including the MVP award, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and more.


 

 MVP: Drew Brees, Quarterback, Saints

2013 MVP: Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Broncos

There are only a handful of players who are a lock to be in the running for MVP year in and year out. Brees is one of them. The 14-year veteran won Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 and has thrown for 5,100+ yards the past three seasons with 40+ touchdowns in two of the three. If it wasn’t for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Brees would’ve won MVP in 2011 completing 71.2 percent of his passes throwing for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdown passes.

Armed with a happy Jimmy Graham fresh off signing the largest contract in NFL history by a tight end at $40 million over four years, the steady Marques Colston and first round pick wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Brees and the Saints’ 2014 offense might rival the Broncos record-breaking offense from a season ago.


 

Offensive Player of the Year: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback, Lions

2013 Offensive Player of the Year: Peyton Manning

It helps if you’re playing with a wide receiver whose nickname is Megatron. The odds might not be in Matthew Stafford’s favor as the player who has won MVP has gone on to win the OPOY award the past two seasons (Manning in 2013 and Adrian Peterson in 2012).

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

However, that still won’t stop Stafford from throwing astronomical numbers. If Stafford can maintain consistency and not have a poor second half of the season throwing 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions compared to 19 to 7 in the first half in 2013, then we’re talking about a player who’s in contention for MVP as well. Stafford’s most prolific year in the NFL came in 2011 when he threw for 5,083 yards and 41 touchdowns.

Stafford has the best receiver in all of football in Calvin Johnson. The Lions finally found a viable number two option in Golden Tate, who came over from the Seattle Seahawks. Reggie Bush is still one of the most electrifying players in the NFL out the backfield and Detroit drafted a tight end 10th overall in Eric Ebron who has drawn comparison to Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.

Stafford has the tools to light up the NFL in 2014.


 

 

Defensive Player of the Year: Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Bengals

2013 Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Panthers

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) (AP Photo/Evan Pinkus)

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) (AP Photo/Evan Pinkus)

Burfict was regarded as one of the top linebackers coming into the draft in 2012, but after a dreadful performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Burfict went undrafted in 2012 out of Arizona State. The linebacker still oozed premier talent, and it showed as he surprisingly won the starting job in camp that season. Since then, he has led the Bengals in tackles the past two seasons and led the NFL in tackles last season with 171.

Cincinnati recognized the young stud, awarding him with a four-year, $20.05 million contract for the Pro Bowl outside linebacker. Burfict is a budding star coming into his own in the NFL displaying sure-tackling in the open field. It also helps when you have one of the best defensive tackles in the league in Geno Atkins keeping 300 pound guards off you.

Honorable mention: Robert Quinn, Defensive End, Rams

Quinn was virtually unblockable last season wrangling down opposing quarterbacks 19 times, causing a league high of seven forced fumbles and 12 tackles for loss. If he can duplicate those numbers, he’ll receive more notoriety after leaping onto the scene in 2013.


 

 Comeback Player of the Year: Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver, Eagles

2013 Comeback Player of the Year: Phillip Rivers, Quarterback, Chargers

Maclin has never gotten the credit he deserves playing second fiddle to the departed DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, but

Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin (18)

Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin (18)

before his injury that caused him to miss the 2013 season (torn ACL), Maclin was the most reliable receiver for the Eagles. Jackson was best suited for the highlight reel plays.

But Maclin too posses the coveted speed and explosiveness required in Chip Kelly’s high octane offense. It’s no coincidence Riley Cooper and Jackson both had career years in Kelly’s system. Maclin’s best year as a pro came in 2010, recording 70 receptions, 964 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Kelly knows how to put his best athletes in space and tailor to their strengths. He’ll do the same for Maclin. Expect a 1,000+ yard season if he can remain healthy.

Honorable Mention: Eli Manning, Quarterback, Giants

The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback has to bounce back from horrific and league-worst 27 interceptions in 2013. A lack of running game and a poor preseason showing doesn’t make this possible prediction plausible, but Manning has weapons in Victor Cruz, Ruben Randle and rookie Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside to heighten last year’s performance.


 Offensive Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, Saints.

2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Packers

Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10)

Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10)

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen could’ve very well won this award last season hauling in 71 catches, 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie. With the lightening Cooks on the road to success with Brees as his quarterback, expect him to have a similar year as Allen.

The 5-foot-9, 189 pound Cooks who ran a 4.33 at the scouting combine, will line up all across the formation in the Saints offense. He’ll play in the slot, on the outside and slip out from the backfield to catch passes. He caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season at Orgeon State. He won’t duplicate those numbers as a rookie, but the dynamo will put up gaudy numbers in the Big Easy.


 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chris Kirksey, Linebacker, Browns

2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Tackle, Jets

A Browns rookie not name Johnny Manziel will become a household name by the end of the season. Kirksey has been a one-

Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey (58)

Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey (58)

man recking crew in the preseason totaling 18 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception in three preseason games. The third-round rookie out of Iowa is battling for the inside linebacker position with veteran Craig Robertson, but he is making a case for himself after making play after play in the preseason.

According to his scouting report, Kirksey is agile and athletic. Flows to the ball when he has a clear path. And has experience in space and over the slot.

Honorable Mention: Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, Texans

The No. 1 overall pick will benefit from playing alongside former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Clowney has tallied only one sack in the preseason, but ask Atlanta Falcons’ running back Antone Smith about the force behind the freakish end’s tackle. If Clowney has a 10+ sack season, the trophy has his name already inscribed on it.


 

Coach of the Year: Lovie Smith, Buccaneers

2013 Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Panthers

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith

Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith

Smith has defensive pieces to work with in cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. But an offense that ranked dead last in passing (32nd) and 22nd in rushing in 2013, quarterback Josh McCown, rookie receiver Mike Evans and a healthy Doug Martin at running back can’t come to the offense’s rescue fast enough. The 6-foot-5 rookie tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins will also strengthen a now promising passing attack.

On paper, the Bucs are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. The Panthers are dealing with injury issues with quarterback Cam Newton and lack offensive firepower, and the Falcons have also regressed and lost key players to injury. If the longtime coach can corral and provide a stroke confidence to a this talented team, then the Bucs could become the surprise team in the NFC.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo looks for an opening to pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Will Tony Romo finally lead America’s team back to the playoffs? (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

This is part two of the series of preseason predictions. Last week was the AFC divisional predictions, this week is the NFC, who has won the Super Bowl four of the last five seasons.

 


NFC North

1. Detroit Lions (11-5)

Last season was a tale of two different teams for the Detroit Lions. The Lions started off hot with a 6-3 record, only to lose six of the last seven games. In those first nine games, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions. His first brilliant nine game stretch was quickly forgotten after throwing 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions the remainder of the season.

Inconsistency as a team and inconsistency from a player whose job is to lead the team.

Now comes new Lions’ coach Jim Caldwell whose job is to do just that,  add consistency. Caldwell knows how to work with quarterbacks. When he was the quarterback coach in Baltimore, the Ravens demoted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and named Caldwell to the same position. The Ravens never looked back and Caldwell helped lead the Ravens offense and quarterback Joe Flacco to a historic postseason run ending in a 34–31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Caldwell works well with talent under center. He led Peyton Manning and the Colts to a 14-2 record and one of the top offensive in the NFL in 2009. On a team with Stafford, the best wide receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson, recently acquired receiver Golden Tate and the rookie, athletic tight end Eric Ebron, the Lions may have the best passing attack in the league. Not to mention Reggie Bush slipping out the backfield. If the Lions’ secondary improves from last year, then this team will be dangerous throughout the season.

2. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

The Packers finally developed a running game in snagging running back Eddie Lacy who turned out to become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 71 time the past two seasons and he only appeared in nine games last season due to a collarbone injury. The presence of Lacy was a sigh of relief to take the load off Rodgers, but the Packers still have a leaky offensive line.

Green Bay is seen as a finesse team who lack physicality. Nothing has been done to wipe away this notion as San Francisco ended their playoff run in back-to-back seasons rushing for a combine 490 yards.

The Packers are in a talented yet vastly underrated division. They have elite offensive weapons and are poised to make the playoffs lead by Rodgers, but if their defense doesn’t catch up, they will endure another one-and-done in the postseason.

3. Chicago Bears (8-8)

This team is an enigma. Putting your trust in Jay Cutler is like putting your trust in a blind man telling you to stick your hand in a bucket of hissing water hoses. On arm talent alone, Cutler is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. But it’s something about him that’s always missing.

Last year, I pondered over whether the Bears could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. In all fairness, Cutler only played 11 games. Josh McCown, who is now the Buccaneers starting quarterback, played admirably is Cutler’s absence, but even he couldn’t succeed in an offense with two 6-foot-4 towers on the outside in receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.

The offensive line is much improved lead by second-year guard Kyle Long and left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Chicago has one of the most versatile running backs in the NFL in Matt Forte. They have a talented front seven on defense led by Jared Allen, formerly with the division rival Vikings, and breakout linebacker to watch Jon Bostic. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman will continue smother receivers on the outside.

The downfall of this team is at safety. Rookie Brock Vereen is currently listed at the starting free safety and the acquisition of Ryan Mundy who came over from the Giants, at strong safety. An unproven player and a player who has plateaued.

You never know what you’re going to get out of the Bears.

4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12)

It’s hard watching future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson’s talent washed away on a mediocre team. The Vikings have bright spots in some areas in highlight reel receiver Cordarralle Patterson and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. But who will throw them the ball?

Matt Cassell has proved he’s only a quick-fix at the position and Christian Ponder is the forgotten man. Minnesota traded back up in the first round to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The former Heisman hopeful and consensus preseason lock for the No. 1 overall pick watched his stock nose-dive after a poor pro day workout.

On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota drafted the pass rushing linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA ninth overall, but even he alone can’t fix the Vikings 31st ranked defense from a year ago. The Vikings defense gave up 30 points per game last season, giving up 397.6 yards a game. In a division with the Bears, Packers and Lions high-powered offenses, the Vikings don’t have the manpower to stop them. Or keep pace in scoring for that matter.


 

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The only team stopping the Saints from winning the South is the Saints. The pass-happy Saints will continue to follow the lead of quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colton and lighting rookie in a bottle Brandin Cooks. It’s pass first, second and third in New Orleans—ranked second overall in 2013 in passing but 25th in rushing at 92.1 YPG—but when you have a record breaking quarterback in Brees and an offense tailored around his skill-set, the Saints will march down the field on any team.

Rob Ryan catapulted a poor defense to fourth overall in 2013, giving up 305.7 yards per game and a stifling 194.1 through the air (2nd). The defense has only gotten better adding All-Pro safety Jarius Byrd to pair him next to last year’s standout rookie Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans also added veteran, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey into the mix. Bailey is a shell of himself at this point in his career, but he’s still an upgrade nonetheless.

The road to the NFC South crown is through New Orleans.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

I’m not sold on the newly acquired Josh McCown, but I am sold on the talent around him. Drafting Johnny Manziel’s favorite target at Texas A&M in Mike Evans to pair with Vincent Jackson on the outside—the Bucs’ have re-created a Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffrey duo that McCown grew so accustomed to, lobbing the ball up in jump ball situations. The Bucs’ will welcome back a healthy Doug Martin at running back, who hasn’t been the same since his 1,000 yard rookie season.

On defense, Tampa Bay essentially rented shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis for a season as he abandoned ship to take his talents to Foxboro. The Bucs’ replaced Revis with physical corner Alterraun Verner, adding another piece to a defense already loaded with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.

If McCown takes form, the Bucs could become a surprise team in the NFC.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

From first to third. Unless Carolina plans to win every game by a score of 14 to 10, the Panthers won’t duplicate last year’s success. Aside from Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton is one of the few big bodied quarterbacks who can sustain the constant physical abuse in the NFL, but the Panthers’ star  is hampered by an ankle injury that may linger over into the regular season.

The defense will remain intact behind a dominant front seven, featuring reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. D’Angelo Williams will lead the rushing attack that ranked 11th in 2013, but beyond Williams, the offense might come to a standstill.

Greg Olsen is the only respectable and known commodity of the Panthers’ receiving group, and he’s a tight end. Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery? Mediocre, mid-level players at best. Tiquan Underwoon and Marvin McNutt? Players who have yet to make a name for themselves in the NFL, aside from Underwoods’ hair catching headlines. 

The only answer Carolina has at wide receiver is first round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. The rookie has hauled in tough catches in the preseason, but unless the 6-foot-5 receiver has a Randy Moss-like rookie season, the Panthers won’t have any help on the outside.

4. Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

The Falcons have fallen from grace, and fast. Before an abysmal 2013 season dropping to 4-12, Atlanta previously went 36-12 between 2010-12. Those days are long gone, even after a one year fall. Several perennial playoff teams have gotten better, with up-and-coming teams like St. Louis, Arizona and Washington jockeying for divisional supremacy.

From a team perspective, Atlanta has no running game (32nd ranked in ’13) as All-Pro running back Steven Jackson, who has been a bust acquisition, is still battling soft tissue injuries. To make matters worse, the Falcons have lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the season with a torn patellar tendon, and as a result, rookie right tackle Jake Matthews will make the switch to left tackle. Atlanta couldn’t stop the run either, giving up 135.8 yards per game on the ground (31st).

Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales has retired and Julio Jones saw his first live game action since week 5 of the 2013 season as he recovered from foot surgery. Best case scenario for the Falcons is becoming the team “nobody wants to play” at the end of the season because of their attempts to keep other teams out the playoffs like themselves.


 

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Chip Kelly’s offense was a success last season. He’s either a quarterback guru or Nick Foles channeled his inner Randall Cunningham.  A 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio is a rarity from any quarterback, let alone a quarterback coming off his first full season as a starter. Foles will have to play to last year’s level to convince spectators around the league if he’s the answer in Philadelphia. LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, rookie receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, the speed and talent on offense is undeniable.

The Eagles are primed to repeat as division champs, especially in a weak NFC East. But with so much speed and finesse and lacking in physicality, there have been whispers of labeling the Eagles as a soft team. The only knock on the Eagles is their lackluster pass defense. Philadelphia ranked dead last in 2013 (32nd) opening airways for opposing quarterbacks, nearly allowing 300 yards a game through the air.

2. Washington Redskins (9-7)

A rebound season for Robert Griffin III is in order after coming back prematurely from a torn ACL. The hiring of former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was a brilliant move as he will look to better protect his star quarterback with quick three to five step drops and deviating away from the zone-read.

Washington is only a year removed from a 10-6 season after losing to the Seahawks in the divisional round in 2012. This team isn’t getting the notoriety it deserve from a talent perspective. Jordan Reed is a bright, young star at tight end, bringing over DeSean Jackson from the Eagles is an enormous addition and Alfred Morris has had back-to-back 1,200+ yard seasons. Pierre Garcon’s productivity will only grow with Jackson opposite of him.

If Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan continue to rack up sacks and the secondary continues to improve, then the Redskins could very well win this division. It all depends on the health and maturation of RGIII.

3. New York Giants (7-9)

In one week, the Giants look like a surefire Super Bowl contender. In the next week, they look like they’re prepping themselves for the No. 1 overall pick.

When the Giants won their two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots, they prided themselves on getting to the quarterback early and often. New York had 53 sacks in their 2007 championship year and 48 in 2011. They only had 33 in 2012 and 34 in 2013 (tied for 25th). Jason Pierre-Paul and former Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers will have to lift this group back to prominence. Second-year end Damontre Moore and veteran Mathias Kiwanuka will also have to provide an impact.

But it’s a quarterback driven league. It’s doesn’t matter if you’re a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, if you throw 27 interceptions in a season, you won’t win many games, if any. The Giants hired Ben McAdoo, who is well respected for his work with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay the last two seasons as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Switching to a west coast offense to get the ball out of Eli Manning’s hands quickly is the plan to curb the interceptions, but his preseason performance hasn’t looked promising.

Manning has talent at wider receiver with Victor Cruz, Ruben Randle and first round pick Odell Beckham Jr., but from early indications, this team will miss out on the playoffs.

4. Dallas Cowboys (5-11)

Statistically, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2013. The Cowboys gave up 425 points last season (30th). They allowed 71 passing plays of 20+ yards (32nd). Dallas gave up 2,368 yards after the catch (30th). And teams scored in the redzone 64.5 percent of the time.

They couldn’t stop a nose bleed last season.

With injuries to linebacker Sean Lee, cornerback Orlando Scandrick missing the first four games due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy and first round bust Morris Claiborne still dwelling on the roster, the Cowboys may be even worse this season.

All hopes lies on Tony Romo. Those who have watched Romo play over the past eight seasons knows placing all your hope in the fluky quarterback is comparable to landing on tails on a two-headed coin with heads on both sides. The connection of Romo to Dez Bryant will occur early and often, but it won’t mean a thing if they can’t stop the other team from scoring.


 

NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

San Francisco is one of the deepest teams in the NFL. To revamp the 30th ranked passing offense, they’ve surrounded Colin Kaepernick, fresh off a signing a six-year, $126 million contract extension in June, with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and rookie Bruce Ellington. The 49ers also get a healthy Michael Crabtree for a full season and Anquan Boldin returns after a 1,179 yard season.

Part of the 49ers passing woes is attributed to their run-first offense. But a backfield consisting of Frank Gore and second round rookie Carlos Hyde, is a luxury San Francisco can afford. Even if it means less production through the air.

Their biggest concern is at corner with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who have benefited from a dominant front seven. Also, starting right guard Alex Boone has been involved in a lengthy contract holdout. Teams have been acquiring about the Pro Bowl guard and there have been no indications that he will commit to a long term deal unless the price is right. This is a major issue for a team surrounded by top defensive lines throughout the division.

2. St. Louis Rams (10-6)

Speaking of defensive lines, the best D-Line in the NFL belongs to the St. Louis Rams. A line featuring pass rushing specialist Robert Quinn, who terrorized quarterbacks with 19 sacks last season, the locomotive Chris Long, an underrated Michael Brockers and first round rookie Aaron Donald has caused for some to resurrect the nickname of the “Fearsome Foursome” to describe this line.

The Rams have finally grabbed receiver help in the signing of Kenny Britt. Third year wideout Brian Quick has been stepping up throughout practice and the preseason and the electrifying Tavon Austin returns for his second season. Stedman Bailey has reportedly been the most productive receiver in camp, but he will miss the first four games for violating the leagues substance abuse policy. His return will only bolster the group.

It all comes down to quarterback Sam Bradford who is returning from ACL surgery. The fifth year quarterback has played a full 16 game season only twice in his career. He got off to a hot start last year throwing 14 touchdowns to 4 interceptions before going down to injury in week 7, albeit, nine of those touchdowns coming against teams that ended up with losing records.

If Bradford has a successful and healthy season, the Rams will claim the Wild Card in the NFC.

3. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

The hunter will now become the hunted. This brass team will welcome any dog fight from opponents, but Seattle was ravaged by free agency this offseason. Seattle lost receiver Golden Tate, defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and defensive backs Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond, They also have an unhappy Marshawn Lynch at running back after holding out briefly for a contract.

The Seahawks Achilles Heel is their offensive line who experienced a number of injuries last season. This group, who recently added president of the NFLPA, Eric Winston at right tackle, gave up seven sacks to the Rams in week 8 in 2013 and sacked 44 times overall. Aside from Percy Harvin, the Seahawks don’t have a reliable target at receiver. A 10-6 record would mean a waltz into the playoffs in any other division in the NFC, but I expect Seattle’s 4-2 division record to drop in 2013, causing them to miss the playoffs.

4. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

A talented team trapped in the toughest division in the NFL. They have a top-5 secondary with shut down corner Patrick Peterson on the outside, adding Antonio Cromartie opposite of him. The Cardinals drafted safety Deone Bucannon to pair with Tyrann Mathieu, who is is expected to be activated from the PUP list after tearing ACL and LCL last December.

Arizona recently lost Darnell Dockett for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He was suspended four games last season for violating the same policy. Injuries and suspensions are beginning to decimate the roster.

On offense, a Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd trio will put points on the board. Second-year running back Andre Ellington will enter the season as the full-time starter after a promising rookie campaign. Palmer is creeping up in age at 34-year-old and hasn’t proved to be a big time difference maker in his career. If the Cardinals get off to a bad start, don’t be surprised if rookie quarterback Logan Thomas comes unto the field.

Photograph by Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage. Photograph by Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports

 

By KELTON BROOKS

(@BrooksWeekly)

NFL football is well underway as week 1 of preseason action is now in the books. Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel starred in his NFL debut electrifying the crowd with a 16 yard scamper against the Detroit Lions. Not to mention a pair of speedy Oregon rookies in De’Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs, who returned an 80-yard punt for a score, and Josh Huff of the Philadelphia Eagles, who made a long distance call of 102 yards on a kickoff return.

This is the essence of preseason football: focusing on individual performance, not the final score.

But that will all change Sept. 4 when the Green Bay Packers take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last season, only to get trampled by Seattle 43-8. The AFC as a whole has to redeem themselves after the Broncos’ whipping. Several perennial, contending AFC teams have bolstered their rosters, while some have been decimated by injuries and free agency.

While it may not always be the case, normally the first step to reaching the Super Bowl is winning the division. Let’s take a look at which AFC team will claim the top spot in their respective division in the 2014 NFL season.


AFC North

1. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) 

The Bengals recently awarded franchise quarterback Andy Dalton with a contract worth $96 million over six years. Dalton has led his Bengals to the playoffs every season since he was drafted in 2011. But that’s where the success stops, in the playoffs. The four year quarterback has been Jekyll and Hyde in the regular season and postseason. Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs and has completed 56.9 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions.

During the regular season, he ranks only behind Dan Marino and Peyton Manning in NFL history with 80 touchdown passes during his first three seasons. Cincinnati is a Super Bowl caliber team and talented on both sides of the ball with superstar wide receiver A.J. Green and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins. But this team will only go as far as Dalton leads them.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Baltimore failed to reach the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the same year the Ravens gift wrapped an unprecedented contract worth $126.6 million to quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens have gotten better on offense signing still explosive receiver Steve Smith, even at age 35. And also welcoming back of healthy Dennis Pitta at tight end.

Last season was the first time future first ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis wasn’t draped in black and purple after he announced his retirement during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He was the heart and soul of the team. The loss of Lewis was evident in the locker room and on the field. Flacco has to shed his calm demeanor and become more of a vocal leader to lead his team to a successful 2014-15 season.

The Ravens captured headlines when star running back Ray Rice was convicted of battery chargers after he struck his then fiancé, now wife, and was issued a two-game suspension by the NFL. A heinous act, yes, but expect Baltimore to rally around Rice throughout the season.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Take a look at the Steelers linebacker unit. There familiar stalwarts are no longer on board. No more Larry Foote, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley or James Farrior, all the grizzled veterans are long gone. The group is now littered with callow youth behind second year linebacker Jarvis Jones and highly touted rookie Ryan Shazier. Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds and considered the veterans of the group at age 28 and 26, respectively.

Another position filled with inexperience and question marks is the Steelers receiver corps. Second year wideout Marcus Wheaton is penciled in as the starter after only hauling in six catches last season. Antonio Brown is a mainstay reeling in 110 catches, 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, but 6-feet-5 inch rookie Martavis Bryant has to make an immediate impact and create a connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  The NFL has written off this storied franchise in recent years, but Pittsburgh could become a surprise in the AFC.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

FistEnergy Stadium will soon become the The House that Johnny Built, but until then, Johnny Manziel and the Browns will remain at the bottom of the division. A two win improvement would become somewhat of a success for a team who went 4-12 the previous season. Cleveland has been adamant about entrenching incumbent Brian Hoyer as the starter, but throughout training camp, neither quarterback has separated themselves from each other.

Brown wide receiver Josh Gordon, who led the NFL in receiving yards last season (1,646), is still waiting on a decision from the NFL on his appeal of a one-year suspension enforced by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It was evident in the Browns preseason opener against the Lions that they are in need of pass catches after numerous drops throughout the game.

Cleveland has a bright future with Manziel and a physical defense featuring Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, but there time is two or three years from now.


 

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)

Luck has been on the Colts’ side for the past two seasons reaching the playoffs. The former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, is a consensus top-10 quarterback entering his third year in the NFL and ranked as a top-5 quarterback by a few big wigs around the league. The Colts are set for 10-15 years as long as Luck remains healthy and surrounded by talent. The return of Reggie Wayne, who fell victim to a torn ACL mid-season, is an added bonus to receiver T.Y. Hilton who is fresh off his first 1,000 yard season.

The Colts offense only has only gotten better by signing former Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and drafting the physical Donte Moncrief out of the University of Mississippi. Trent Richardson also made headlines after pledging to rush for over 1,000 yards in the upcoming season. Production from Richardson is warranted after an abysmal season averaging 2.9 yards a carry after he was traded from the Browns.

Again, Indianapolis will reign over the AFC South for years to come as long as Luck is under center.

2. Tennessee Titans (8-8)

This is possibly a make-or-break season for fourth year quarterback Jake Locker who has missed 26 games due to injury in three seasons in Tennessee. But with an offensive line featuring three first rounders and Pro Bowl guard Andy Levitre, the Titans have made strides to protect their young quarterback.

Tennessee lost big times players on both sides of the ball in running back Chris Johnson to the New York Jets and cornerback Alterraun Verner to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although, Verner is a bigger loss compared to Johnson, leading the Titans to the 11th-best pass defense. Johnson’s production has declined drastically since his 2,000 yard season in 2009 and signing a monstrous four-year, $53.5 million contract extension in 2011 in Tennessee. Albeit, he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season since he entered the NFL.

Ken Whisenhunt is entering his first season as the Titans head coach. Known as an offensive guru who focuses on taking shots down the fill, maybe he has the ability to cure Locker who possesses a big arm. The Titans committed grand larceny in stealing former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round in May’s draft. If Locker doesn’t remain healthy, Tennessee might insert their quarterback of the future.

3. Houston Texans (7-9)

Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the answer at quarterback. He is simply a bandaid for next year’s draft or maybe the Texans believe they found their quarterback of the future in Tom Savage, who was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Pittsburgh. It seemed that the Texans turned the corner from a perennial doormat to a contender in recent years, but with questions at the quarterback position, their season is numbered.

It’s not bizarre to think Fitzpatrick is the sole reason why Andre Johnson considered retirement or a trade.

Houston nabbed the freakish defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to pair along side former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Unless the nightmarish duo can pull of 20 sacks apiece—which they won’t—the Texans don’t stand a chance in the AFC South, let alone the conference. Fitzpatrick is serviceable, but not a quarterback who will take you to the playoffs.

Losing running back Ben Tate in free agency may become a bigger blow than the Texans anticipate after the reoccurring injuries to Arian Foster. Houston will lean on him early and often, but he still won’t be enough.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

A new stadium. A new head coach. A new quarterback. The Jaguars have added pieces to rejuvenate a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. Jacksonville is still light years away from becoming a contender, but drafting the likes of quarterback Blake Bortles and going toy shopping in round two selecting a pair of wide receivers in Marquise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State), this team is starting to turn the corner from a personnel perspective.

The organization plans to start Chad Henne on the opening week of the season, but if Bortles continues to have outings similar to his preseason debut, the Jaguars may be forced to change their hands and start the rookie.


 

 

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Everyone team in this division is looking up at the Patriots. New England has won the AFC East 11 of the last 12 seasons.

The Patriots’ dominance in the division doesn’t look to come to a stop anytime soon. The additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Bradon Browner, and welcoming back Vince Wilfork from injury, the defense may have finally caught up with the offense. Staking a claim for Revis Island and signing Browner—who will miss the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy—was a direct result of Peyton Manning torching the secondary for 400 yards in the AFC Championship.

After signing 6-feet-3, 210 pound Bradon Lafell, quarterback Tom Brady jokingly said:

“I have some of the little pygmies out there like Julian (5-10, 200) and Danny (5-11, 195), and it’s nice to have a little bigger guy out there from time to time who has a big catch radius,” Brady cracked. “Hopefully Danny (Amendola) and Julian (Edelman) don’t get mad at me for saying that. They won’t. They know I’m joking.”

All jokes aside, Lafell could never put it all together in Carolina, but maybe a change of scenery and catching passes from arguably the best quarterback in the NFL will elevate his play on the field.

2. New York Jets (9-7)

If the Jets establish any consistency at quarterback, scratch that 9-7 record, they will secure 10+ wins and make the playoffs (or if Michael Vick is named the starter). I’ve harped on this many times, but up until week 11, the Jets flip-flopped wins and losses. The Jets finished the 2013 season with an 8-8 record. Gang Green couldn’t escape the highs and lows of Geno Smith.

To have a sophomore slump, one would need to have a successful rookie season. Smith did not have that success, throwing 21 interceptions. However, he did pick up his play towards the last quarter of the season throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions with a 3-1 record.

The Jets signed Chris Johnson in free agency and wide receiver Eric Decker to aid Smith’s progress. Decker was one of Peyton Manning’s favorite target in Denver hauling in 172 receptions, 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns in two season with Manning. He won’t see those numbers with Smith as his quarterback, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

Rex Ryan is on the hot seat in New York. It seems like it has been that way the past three seasons, but if the Jets go 8-8 again, New York will have a vacancy at head coach.

3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Miami didn’t do much this offseason to build on a surprising 8-8 season in 2013. The Dolphins brought in running back Knowshon Moreno, but he has been nicked-up with a lot of mileage on his body, and signing Cortland Finnegan wasn’t an upgrade in the secondary after he was regularly torched in St. Louis last season.

And the Dolphins’ organization should still examine themselves after giving Mike Wallace a contract worth $60 million over five years. Wallace is a one-trick pony who won’t come close to out performing his contract. The jury is still out on third year quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is in the shadow of fellow draft class quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

Tannehill tossed 24 touchdown passes last season, very respectable. But he needs to drop his 17 interceptions into the eight to 12 range.

4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)

It’s hard to gage the Bills 2013 performance because of quarterback E.J. Manuel missing six games due to injury. Manuel is somewhat still in his rookie stage of on-field play in the upcoming season with only 10 regular season games under his belt. The Bills are loaded with speed on offense with C.J. Spiller and drafting the dynamic wideout in Sammy Watkins, but Buffalo is far too young to make an impact in the AFC East.

Buffalo had an opportunistic defense in 2013 ranking second in the NFL with 23 interceptions. They have talent at every position, but won’t pose a legitimate threat anytime soon.


 

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos (14-2)

Peyton Manning could have a MVP season every year. After throwing for an NFL record of 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, the Broncos have added even more weapons on offense for Manning by signing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and drafting the big body receiver in Cody Lattimore.

It’s frightening to think what the Broncos may accomplish on offense this season.

But the bigger story is on defense. John Elway, general manager and executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos, knows this Denver team has maybe a two year window to win a Super Bowl under Manning. They were downright embarrassed and bullied by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Denver needed to add toughness to match up against physical teams. They did so by adding hard-hitting, box safety T.J. Ward, a shut down corner in Aqib Talib, and sack master DeMarcus Ware.

Not to mention outside linebacker Von Miller who was cleared by doctors July 24 to participate in offseason activities.

If Denver doesn’t win the Super Bowl this season with Manning, they won’t win one at all

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Every year we wait on the Chargers to play to their on-paper potential. And every year the Chargers let everyone down. But this year, the Chargers will become one of the surprises in the AFC.

San Diego flexed its ability to win in the AFC West going 4-2 last season and 6-6 against the AFC as a whole. Phillip Rivers enjoyed a prolific season throwing the second most touchdowns in his career with 32, to only 11 interceptions. Running back Ryan Matthews finally stayed healthy for a full season for the first time in his career rushing for a career high of 1,255 yards. And rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen burst unto the scene catching 71 balls for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Those are unheard of numbers for a rookie receiver.

The Chargers’ Achilles Heel was their 29th ranked passing defense, giving up 258.7 yards per game. They went out to find the solution in signing Brandon Flowers from a division nemesis and drafted one of top corners in Jason Verrett out of TCU.

San Diego is a Super Bowl sleeper in the AFC.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

The Chiefs overachieved last season. After starting the season 9-0, they went on to lose five of their last seven games.

Alex Smith continues to display his game-manager label in Kansas City, mirroring his San Francisco days. Smith does just enough to get you to a certain point, but not enough to get you over the hump. The Chiefs are reportedly not committed to signing Smith to a long term deal.

The Chiefs’ defense were once considered stingy in the first half of the season, but they faltered hard later in the season ranking 24th overall. They still have a number of big names on defense with safety Eric Berry, pass rushing specialist Tamba Hali and the mammoth defensive tackle in Dontari Poe, but the Chiefs won’t experience the unexpected success they achieved in 2013.

Kansas City also lost key players in offensive tackle Brandon Albert, cornerback Brandon Flowers and RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Unlike the Flowers and Albert, McCluster’s presence won’t be missed as much after drafting lightening in a bottle De’Anthony Thomas.

4. Oakland Raiders (6-10)

Matt Schaub’s time may have run its course in the NFL. Throwing a pick-6 in four straight games in 2013 for the Texans and a not-so-good- showing in his preseason debut with the Raiders is not a good sign for the 33-year-old quarterback.

Despite Schaub’s inabilities, Oakland went out and grabbed talent this offseason. The Raiders signed James Jones, who once led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 14 in 2012, offensive tackle Donald Penn, and a resurgent Maurice Jones-Drew to pair with Darren McFadden. On defense, they added three veterans in linebacker LaMar Woodley, defensive end Justin Tuck, cornerback Carlos Rogers through free agency, and No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack (OLB) who will receiver tutelage from Woodley.

The most intriguing player on the team is rookie quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr. If Schaub continues his lackluster 2013 performance, the organization will thrust in the young gun-slinger in Carr.