— The NFC East could be the most competitive division in football in 2015, with the exception of Washington. When you look at the respective schedules there’s no reason why the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys can’t all post 9-11 wins. Can they all make the playoffs? Possibly. I gave the Eagles the nod for the division. Chip Kelly has had two 10-6 seasons in Philly with Nick Foles and Foles/Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Sam Bradford is an upgrade, DeMarco Murray is close to being underrated (big loss for Dallas) and Nelson Agholor was an inspired first round pick. In a tough division — if Bradford stays healthy (big if) — they can win the East. Washington ends the season hoping they’ll get the #1 pick. Odell Beckham Jr. continues his rise to become one of the game’s truly elite players. Dallas misses Murray more than they imagined.
— Minnesota and Detroit are trendy picks to make the post season but I’m not sure. The Vikings welcome back Adrian Peterson and it’s a huge boost — Matt Asiata’s 570 rushing yards was a team high in 2014. Combined with another year of experience for Teddy Bridgewater things are looking up. However, they finished 24th in DVOA for 2014 and their seven victories came against St. Louis, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Washington, Carolina, the Jets and Chicago. All of those teams had a losing record (Carolina finished 7-8-1). This year they face the NFC West and AFC West and have a chance to start 0-4 or 1-3 against San Francisco (A), Detroit (H), San Diego (H) and Denver (A). They will improve, but will it necessarily show in the win column? As for Detroit, they’re clearly much weaker without Ndamukong Suh and Lions fans will be asking for years why they took Eric Ebron over Aaron Donald or Odell Beckham Jr. in last years draft. While they will take a step back on defense — expect some offensive improvement after a surprisingly average year for the passing game in 2014. I still think the NFC East teams have a chance to edge these two out of the post-season.
— 12 wins could secure the #1 seed in the NFC again this year and it looks like another battle between Green Bay and Seattle. Both teams will be tough to beat at home. The Seahawks always have a shot to go 8-0 or 7-1 in Seattle, meaning a 4-4 split on the road sets up 11-12 wins. They’re capable of that, even if they have to go to Dallas, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota and Green Bay outside of the NFC West. The Packers do not travel well and even had a couple of close calls at Lambeau against the Jets and Atlanta in 2014. There’s a decent chance both teams finish with equal records — making their week two encounter especially important if both end up competing for the #1 seed.
— I went with the Falcons in the NFC South. Dan Quinn gives them a physical edge they’ve lacked on defense, Matt Ryan is still a good quarterback and Julio Jones a perfect #1 target. In 2012 they went 13-3 with a similar core. I’m not sure they get back to those heights in 2015 — but they certainly could be favourites for the NFC South title and a playoff berth. Carolina will play tough to the tune of 7-9 wins and the Buccs will improve with Jameis Winston after some early teething problems. The Saints are in a bizarre state of flux — wanting to win now with an ageing Drew Brees while cutting or trading key players to save money for a rebuilding process. Brandin Cooks is going to see a ton of targets following the Jimmy Graham trade.
— The Colts still look like a bit of a paper tiger because they rely so much on Andrew Luck. They’ve put numerous weapons around him on offense but don’t appear to have addressed several needs on defense with anything more than stop-gap options. Even so, they play in the awful AFC South and with the Patriots weakened (Brady suspension, Revis/Browner departure), Peyton Manning looking his age in pre-season and the AFC North teams beating each other up — they look like a shoe-in for the #1 seed. They’ll need it to make the Super Bowl — they won’t want another trip to New England that’s for sure.
— The Chargers have been consistently good and tough to beat in the Philip Rivers era. Yet somehow they always end up playing the role of plucky outsiders, before falling after a surprise or two in the playoffs. This year they look poised to make a run for the AFC West title. Rivers has a new contract, they have weapons on offense and the defense looks better than it has been for a while. Their running attack will be better when Melvin Gordon hits his stride. Mike McCoy is an astute offensive coach. They could be an 11-5 team and that might be enough for a first round bye in the post-season. Denver, on the other hand, have looked great on defense in pre-season and struggling on offense. Manning just doesn’t look the same — not surprising aged 39. He can’t even feel the fingertips in his throwing hand any more because of all the nerve damage he’s suffered. There’s also a bit of an issue with a new offensive coach trying to put his mark on the team and Manning essentially running ‘his’ offense as usual. They can lean on the defense and win enough for the post-season — but winning on the road in the playoffs will be tough.
— The Patriots will be pushed in the AFC East and it looks like a much more open division this year. Rex Ryan and the Bills will cause a stir — and Tyrod Taylor has played at an extremely high level in pre-season. The Jets could be better with Ryan Fitzpatrick running the offense instead of Geno Smith and they’ll be solid defensively under Todd Bowles. Miami now has Suh up the middle — he’ll give Cameron Wake a shot to push for 15-20 sacks. Ryan Tannehill is still a thoroughly underwhelming quarterback though. The thing is, when Tom Brady is backed into a corner he plays his best football. He was being written off after a loss in Kansas City last season and came back to win the Super Bowl. This four game suspension, if upheld, is going to tick him off on a whole new level. If they start 1-3 — they can still finish 10-6 or 11-5 to make the playoffs. I gave the Bills the East though. Ryan had an early impact in New York, including an 11-5 season in 2010, before the act became tired with the Jets. He can have the same early success here too. Taylor has looked very sharp at quarterback, they have an assortment of weapons and an elite defense. They face Indianapolis (H), New England (H), Miami (A), the Giants (H), Tennessee (A), Cincinnati (H) and Jacksonville (A) before a bye week. Then it’s Miami (H) and the Jets (A). They could build a strong advantage in the East — and even the return of Brady might not be enough for the Patriots to catch them.