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Cinnjerm3000
02-04-2015, 06:25 PM
Bruce Arians wasted little time setting expectations when he guaranteed his Arizona Cardinals would finish the 2015 season in the Super Bowl at the San Francisco 49ers' stadium.


"We're dressing in their locker room," Arians said after winning Coach of the Year honors Saturday night. "We can write it down today."

We can write down lots of things today without knowing whether they'll come true. Taking Arians' lead, I've played the 2015 season in my head and come up with the playoff field, plus a look at how a few intriguing teams could break through (I'm looking at you, Atlanta). Arians' Cardinals do not make the initial cut, but even if Arizona advances to the Super Bowl, the 49ers' locker room might not be available (neither the Seattle Seahawks nor the New England Patriots used the Cardinals' actual locker room for Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium).

These are early projections -- not necessarily predictions -- but we will write them down today regardless.

Who I like in the NFC


1. Seattle Seahawks: Expectations for Seattle will change if Marshawn Lynch walks away from the final year of his contract, but I still think the Seahawks would remain a playoff team and possibly even NFC West favorites. Their young defensive core is under contract, and they are set to welcome back three promising players from injuries in 22-year-old end Cassius Marsh, 23-year-old linebacker Kevin Pierre-Lewis and 23-year-old tackle Jordan Hill. Remember those names.




2. Green Bay Packers: I'm still not sure how Green Bay blew that 16-0 lead in the NFC title game. For as unreliable as the Packers were in that game, they remain one of the most reliable teams in the league thanks to the building blocks already in place (Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, etc.). It's tougher banking on Detroit in the NFC North. The Lions could lose Ndamukong Suh and/or Nick Fairley, significantly altering their defensive outlook while putting pressure on Matthew Stafford to carry more of the offensive load. Stafford hasn't appeared ready to take on that additional responsibility.



3. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' offensive line is the single most reliable position group in the NFC East, but part of me wonders whether the team will stick with the run-oriented philosophy that worked so well last season. DeMarco Murray could leave in free agency. Coach Jason Garrett is a former quarterback, and former quarterbacks generally like to throw the ball. With these things in mind, I sought some assurances from center Travis Frederick in the locker room after the Pro Bowl. He explained the philosophical shift this way: "It came from knowing we had invested in the offensive line, it came from a renewed investment in the run game by the coordinator and it came from the success that we had."



4. New Orleans Saints: The thinking here is that the Saints' defense will not be historically bad for a second consecutive season. I was tempted to go with Carolina in this slot based on how the Panthers developed players on defense last season, but the schedule was a deterrent. The Panthers play a league-high five road games against teams with quarterbacks I would place in the top two tiers on the 1-5 scale introduced before last season. How the Panthers fare in those road games against Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson and Tony Romo will be pivotal. Carolina also gets Rodgers and Andrew Luck at home, giving the Panthers a league-high nine games against Tier 1-2 quarterbacks. (San Francisco also has nine, while the Saints have six if we move up Carson Palmer into that second tier, which seems reasonable after last season.)



5. Detroit Lions: The Vikings were tempting here because Teddy Bridgewater has shown promise, Minnesota overcame much to finish 7-9 last season, and the division-rival Lions' defense could take a hit. However, the Vikings were 0-7 against teams that finished .500 or better. Jacksonville was the only other team without a victory over a winning team (the Lions were 2-4 against them). The health and outlook for opposing quarterbacks will come into play. Minnesota gets Denver (Peyton Manning) and Arizona (Palmer) on the road. Detroit plays those teams at home.



6. Philadelphia Eagles: Arizona was a strong consideration here with Palmer returning and the front office set on restoring speed to the defense. I just think the Eagles have a better shot at the playoffs because their division could be more volatile at the top. Going with Philadelphia here would give us two non-playoff teams from 2014 in the NFC postseason field next season. I'll be watching to see whether the Eagles have simply been unlucky with quarterback injuries or whether evidence mounts that quarterbacks are additionally vulnerable in Chip Kelly's system.

Who I like in the AFC


1. New England Patriots: One question is whether the NFL could impose harsh sanctions against the Patriots after finishing its investigation into whether the team systematically reduced air pressure in footballs. Nothing would surprise me here. The league could impose little or no meaningful punishment. The damage could be limited to a fine and forfeiture of draft choices. Everything changes for this team if the league suspends Tom Brady.



2. Pittsburgh Steelers: Question marks in Denver and Baltimore make the Steelers feel like a safer pick at this point. They were an NFL-best 6-1 during the 2014 regular season against teams that finished .500 or better. They've got the quarterback, running back, receivers and offensive line to push for another AFC North title. How will the defense change with Keith Butler replacing Dick LeBeau?



3. Indianapolis Colts: Weak quarterback competition within the AFC South already puts the Colts in prime position, and the scheduling rotation also delivers 2015 games against quarterback-challenged teams such as Tampa Bay, Buffalo and the New York Jets. The Colts could get another gift if Manning retires or returns to Denver in a diminished capacity. Also: They have Andrew Luck.



4. Denver Broncos: Let's not write off Manning or the Broncos prematurely. Denver has two superior pass-rushers and a solid secondary, and good skill-position players (we'll see if the Broncos can keep both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas). The system Gary Kubiak is bringing from Baltimore has repeatedly turned lesser-known running backs into surprising producers. Quarterbacks also have shined. Joe Flacco had a career year with Kubiak last season. Matt Schaub fared well under Kubiak previously. (Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus went in-depth on the potential Manning-Kubiak match last week.)



5. Baltimore Ravens: The offense is going to change without Kubiak and it's tough to see the change as an improvement. Miami was a consideration thanks to a road schedule featuring Washington, Tennessee, Jacksonville and the Jets. It's just tough to trust a Dolphins team that typically fades late in the season. The Ravens have averaged 10.4 victories per season since 2008 and have never been worse than 8-8 over that stretch. They find ways to compete year after year.



6. San Diego Chargers: I'm expecting an up-and-down season for the Chargers partly because they face a volatile mix of opposing quarterbacks. Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco can be great or horrible depending on the week. All are on the Chargers' schedule. San Diego also faces all the teams with highly drafted second-year quarterbacks (Minnesota, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland). Manning's situation in Denver is another critical variable, as the Chargers are the AFC West team best-positioned to capitalize on any drop-off from the Broncos.

This list seems about right to me. Don't see how you can't like the Steelers finishing in one of the top two spots. 6-1 against +.500 teams, if only they can figure out how to beat the dregs.

RuthlessBurgher
02-04-2015, 08:12 PM
The Steelers were an NFL-best 6-1 during the 2014 regular season against teams that finished .500 or better.

It's amazing how much we discuss our team on here and this is the first time I've heard that stat.

NorthCoast
02-04-2015, 08:34 PM
It's amazing how much we discuss our team on here and this is the first time I've heard that stat.

Yep. Waaaay too much focus on the negative 1 for whatever stat against sub 0.300 teams. It's glass-half-full against glass-half-empty crowd.

Cinnjerm3000
02-05-2015, 04:39 AM
A similar article from NFL.com discusses the top 10 teams most likely to knock off the champion Patriots.
http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000467955/article/top-10-challengers-to-new-england-patriots-in-2015

Don't look now, but it seems this team might not be flying under the radar going into next season.