AFC East 1. NE 2. MIA 3. BUF 4. NYJ As we saw Thursday, this will be business as usual with the Patriots; they will generally outplay their opposition, who will whine (usually baselessly) after they get badly outplayed. Their depleted secondary will make it harder to get through the postseason (personal to the Jets: now you sign Revis, thanks a lot), but if Brady stays healthy I don’t see the division being much of a challenge. The next three teams could finish in any order. In a coin flip, I’ll side with Miami, who even with Suh can’t match the defenses from New York and New Jersey but who unlike those teams have a competent quarterback who could even be competent plus. If you want to be optimistic about the Bills you could note that Rex Ryan took Mark Sanchez to two AFC championship games with less in defensive personnel than he has here. If you want to be realistic, you could note that 1)Taylor probably isn’t even Sanchez, 2)he was nonetheless the best option on the roster, and 3)the Bills will therefore be trying to play GROUND AND POUND (TM) in 2015, and with a shit offensive line and an injured RB1 to boot. The Jets are like the Bills with a slightly more acceptable QB — although he gets hurt and what’s behind him makes Tyrod Taylor look playable — and not quite as much talent on defense. If Bowles is good, they could finish second but it’s hard to see them giving the Patriots a push.
AFC North 1. BAL 2.PIT (*) 3. CIN 4. CLE The Ravens are a hot pick, and I can see why — Flacco isn’t great but has one a Super Bowl once and could again, the organization is very good, and the defense is at least OK. The Steelers have a fine offense. A lot of people are concerned about the loss of Dick LeBeau, compelling me to point out that while he was a great DC for many years all the evidence — starting with Pittsburgh having the 30th best DVOA in the league last year — suggests that he’s long since lost his fastball. (Tim Tebow’s QB rating in the last four games he started as a professional: 37.9, 20.6, 125.6, 52.7. Guess which one was the result of the irreplaceable supergenius of late-period Dick LeBeau.) The defense is likely to still be bad but the odds suggest it will be at least a little better. Marvin Lewis — the rich man’s LeBeau — once again has Andy Dalton and not a lot in terms of pass rushers; I could see them at least fighting for a wildcard again but I could also see a real decline this year. The Browns are like the Bills or Jets only the defense probably won’t be as good.
AFC West 1. DEN 2. KC(*) 3. SD 4. OAK The Broncos figure to have the best defense in the conference except for Buffalo, and I would say that Peyton Manning is at least a marginal upgrade on Tyrod Taylor. Whether they’re merely good or a Super Bowl contender will depend on Manning’s health, which is hard to either count on or count out. The Cheifs and Chargers should both be wild card contenders; I’ll take the Chiefs’ somewhat better defense over San Diego’s somewhat better QB, but there’s scarcely a dime’s worth of difference. The Raiders seem to be in steadier hands, but I’m not really a Carr believer.
AFC South 1. IND 2. HOU 3. TEN 4. JAX The Colts have an excellent QB, a legit shutdown corner, some decent receivers, an OK offensive line, and that’s about it. Good enough to win an atrocious division and get the crap beaten out of them by the Partiots in the playoffs, in other words. The Texans have the best defensive player in the world and some other talent to go with it. They’re also starting a QB whose performance last year was comparable to that of Clipboard Jesus himself. CJ has been replaced by Marcus Mariota, who most scouts see as the second-best QB in the draft (although, FWIW, the analytics like him more than Winston.) Mariota should be at least good enough to get them ahead of the Jags. People seem to like Bortles, but he was really terrible last year and I still think picking him ahead of Bridgewater was a another massive blunder from the organization that brought you “picking a punter with Russel Wilson still on the board.”
NFL South 1. ATL 2. NO 3. CAR 4. TB The biggest hurdle teams face is finding a QB. What’s weird about this division as that at least three of these teams have solid or better QBs but haven’t filled out the team. I’ll take the Falcons based on Julio Jones and the assumption that Quinn will shore up the defense a little bit. Brees can still play but cap hell has really thinned out the Saints, and Newton has remarkably little to work with after the injury to Benjamin. Winston is tough to project — looked like potentially solid NFL player after his first season, definitely doesn’t project as a quality one after his second season — but I’m taking a show-me approach.
NFC North 1. GB 2. MIN (*) 3. DET 4. CHI The Packers have the best player in the world and at least a decent defense; even with the Nelson injury that makes them Super Bowl contenders. The Vikings have the best QB of the 2014 draft, have other talent to go with it, and seem well-coached. The Lions aren’t as good as their record last year and have suffered devastating losses to their defense. The Bears have a dreadful defense, and Jay Cutler isn’t going to make up for it.
NFL East 1. DAL 2. PHI (*) 3. NYG 4. WSH The Cowboys have the best QB in the division, they let Murray go at the right time, and the defense should be just good enough again. The Eagles will be an interesting battle between Kelly’s superb tactics and his very dubious personnel management. The Giants defense looks really terrible, and while the offense isn’t bad it’s the third best in the division. What can you say about the Racist Nicknames except that Kirk Cousins sucks.
NFC West 1. SEA 2. STL 3. ARI 4. SF Why, oh why, couldn’t teams raid Bevell rather than the DCs? Oh wait, it’s actually very explicable! (Alas, the play call WAS AN INSIDE JOB, and the guy who made it is still here.) The Seahawks don’t have the depth they did when their core talent was underpaid, but are still the rare team with a solid QB and a first-rate defense. Foles is not Wilson, but the Rams’ defense is almost as fierce as Seattle’s. Arizona was over their head last year; maybe this is a reflection of Arians having a unique ability to win close games, but I know how I’m betting. Everyone expects the 49ers to be much worse after their talent and coaching hemorrhage, and it can be tempting to be contrarian. Hey, maybe Eric Mangini can turn the defense ar…no, I can’t even finish this.