I'm sure that a few of you have seen these popping up around the Internet this week. The 2014-15 NFL season is wrapped up, which means that it's time to start looking ahead to next season!
Here, I'll offer up my way to early predictions on the 2015-16 NFL season. Mostly, I'll be looking at each division, as opposed to an in depth look at every team, since that would make this a rather lengthy article.
Naturally, I'll be looking at the playoffs as well, and even crowing a Super Bowl champion! Let's dive right in shall we?
I think that three of the four teams in this division all have a viable chance to claim the East. The team that I think has no shot is obviously the Washington Redskins. There are just too many holes on that roster, plus some of the reports of a locker room divide simply have to be true. The Cowboys will still be good, but not as good as this year. If, and that's a big if, they can re-sign both DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, they may not be able to bring back, or bring in many other quality players.
So long as Chip Kelly is in Philadelphia, the Eagles will continue to be competitive. That, I believe, will be the nature of the offense that is run there. Their QB situation will be interesting, especially if they do end up going after Marcus Mariota in the draft. That leaves us with the New York Giants, who I think will win this division. The receiving corps will be great, Steve Spagnuolo returning will be a boost, and Tom Coughlin seems to do better on his last legs. Division Winner: New York Giants
Much like the East, three teams could win this division. The team that won't is Tampa Bay. I was one of many who thought they could be a surprise last year. Well, they were, but it wasn't a good one. The Saints showed a lot of weakness this year, and I definitely expect them to bounce back. However, the defense has problems, and let's be honest, the receivers (outside of Jimmy Graham) aren't that good.
The Falcons will be the most improved team in the league this year. Book it. The talent is there, but the team had stagnated under Mike Smith. The hiring of Dan Quinn will breathe fresh air into the organization and get this team back up to snuff. And after becoming the first South team to repeat as champions, I think the Carolina Panthers make it a three-peat. The receivers can only get better, and Cam Newton continues to improve every year. Ron Rivera also has the second best defensive player in football at his disposal in Luke Kuechly, which is always a big boost. Division Winner: Carolina Panthers
This should be the best division in all of football next year. I believe that, even with the hiring of John Fox, the Chicago Bears will be in the basement again this year. It all starts with Jay Cutler, who I want to believe in. However, he simply hasn't produced on the field, and could very well not be on the team when the season starts. The Detroit Lions are a team that is close. Jim Caldwell has proven to be a good coach (he only has one losing season) and the team has talent. They should retain Ndamukong Suh, but even still, there is something missing from this team.
Another team poised to take a big step forward is the Minnesota Vikings. Regardless of if Adrian Peterson is on the team (I don't think he will be) the pieces are here. Mike Zimmer is a great coach, and the defense should be more consistent this year. They really need to figure out how to use Cordarrelle Patterson, though. The reign of the Packers, though, will continue on the NFC North. So long as Aaron Rodgers is the QB, and the team has a serviceable defense they will win this division. They should have a large chip on their shoulder after choking away the NFC Championship as well. Division Winner: Green Bay Packers
Ah, the west. I suppose I'll jump into my biggest surprise/dark horse prediction right now. The Seattle Seahawks will go from first to worst in the division. Marshawn Lynch is probably gone. The team has no great receivers to speak of, and in my opinion a very good, but vastly overrated QB. And, after that loss, major rifts in the locker room. It will be too much for this team. The St. Louis Rams are so close to being good. Really, they are a QB away, so it will be interesting to see if they stick with Sam Bradford, or finally move on.
The Arizona Cardinals should be good again. Somehow Bruce Arians has the redbirds winning, and winning consistently. They will struggle out of the gate, as I doubt Carson Palmer will be back. Once he returns, though, look out. After dispatching with a wildly successful coach, the San Francisco 49ers will be a different team. They have talent, though, and how many times have we seen a talented team change coaches, and reach the Super Bowl the next year? Division Winner: San Francisco 49ers
Wild Cards: Arizona Cardinals (5 seed) and Atlanta Falcons (6 seed)
As we turn out attention to the AFC, we'll look at the East. This division is about the surest thing in sports, at least at the top. At the bottom will be the New York Jets, and I don't think it's even a question. The Miami Dolphins are a team much like the Lions, on the cusp but just missing something. The defense is good at times, and the offense is lacking a superstar (Mike Wallace isn't). Miami will get there, but not just yet.
I hesitate to be high on the Buffalo Bills, because a lot of teams will be. But what isn't to like? A great defense, a great defensive coach, and a solid offense. The only hole is a big one, though, and that is the QB position. Rex Ryan has proved he can win without an elite QB (see Mark Sanchez), but he'll need someone serviceable in Buffalo. And then there are the defending Super Bowl champions. As long as Tom Brady is there, they will compete. The defense was superb this year, and if they can bring back Darrelle Revis, it will continue to be. Division Winner: New England Patriots
Slowly but surely, this division is getting better. The Tennessee Titans, though, appear to be firmly entrenched in the basement. They could be on the inside track to the number one pick yet again. The Jacksonville Jaguars will be much improved, though. They went into last year's draft following the Colts' mold from 2011. Draft a top QB, and surround him with weapons. If all goes as planned, they could be scary in a few years.
The Houston Texans will be vastly improved as well. The defense is a top flight unit, mostly because of J.J. Watt. If Jadeveon Clowney can stay healthy and play motivated, that pass rush will be terrifying. Much like the Bills, though, QB is a major, major question for the Texans. The Colts are still a head above the others in the division, mainly because of Andrew Luck. The offense will continue to hum, and could get a boost if Vick Ballard can actually stay healthy. If they can add some good players to the front seven on defense, the Colts could have a very, very good team this season. Division Winner: Indianapolis Colts
Without a question, this was the best division in football last year. A lot of teams will take a step back here, though. The Cleveland Browns should continue to occupy the bottom of the North. The team should be handed over to Johnny Manziel this year, which won't end well. He's just not an NFL quarterback, size or talent wise. The Pittsburgh Steelers will take a huge step back. I don't think their aging defense will be able to play as well this year. Plus, letting Dick LeBeau go will prove to be a huge, huge, huge mistake.
The Baltimore Ravens should again compete, but the offense will regress this season. I see no way Justin Forsett is the answer at running back. Plus, with Marc Trestman calling the shots, I don't think the offense will improve. He couldn't utilize his weapons in Chicago, and Baltimore doesn't have nearly as many weapons. The Cincinnati Bengals will, again, be competitive. Andy Dalton might never be great, but he doesn't necessarily have to be. They have a fantastic running attack, and a very good defense. Sometimes, that is all it takes. Division Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
This will probably be the most mediocre division in football this coming year. The Oakland Raiders should again finish last, but they are improving. Basically, as long as they don't screw up Derek Carr, they will have a chance in a few years. The Kansas City Chiefs will probably be middle of the pack yet again. I like Alex Smith as a quarterback, but the man has no receiving weapons. None. That's a problem in today's NFL.
The Denver Broncos will take a large step back this year. Peyton Manning showed signs of age, and that will continue this season. Potential departures of both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas could hurt badly. Throw in a coaching overall, and you really don't have a recipe for success. They should be decent, though, simply because of the talent on this roster. This could finally be the year the San Diego Chargers take the next step in the division. This is the hardest team to get a read on in the entire NFL, though, because of their streaky play. Sometimes they are great, other times they are dreadful. Either way, that might be enough to win the West this year. Division Winner: San Diego Chargers
Wild Cards: Buffalo Bills (5 seed) and Denver Broncos (6 seed)
Wild Card Playoffs
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) New York Giants - For whatever reason, this match-up is extremely intriguing to me, and would be a good game. We know the Giants, specifically Eli Manning, have magic when January begins. The Cardinals, though will be rolling at this point, with a healthy Carson Palmer in tow. I could see this going high or low scoring, it's a toss-up. Give me Bruce Arians' team with a healthy (in my projections at least) roster. Winner: Arizona Cardinals
(6) Denver Broncos at (3) Cincinnati Bengals - It's a battle of the two captains of the one-and-done club. The Broncos have the talent, but do they have a team? A home game will give Dalton and the Bengals an edge in this one, which could be a low scoring affair. The Bengals end the NFL's longest playoff win drought, and end Peyton Manning's career in the process. Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
(6) Atlanta Falcons at (3) San Francisco 49ers - I'll make this one easy. The Falcons will be improved, but not improved enough to go into San Francisco and steal a playoff game. Quinn's familiarity with Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense will help, but it won't help enough. Winner: San Francisco 49ers
(5) Buffalo Bills at (4) San Diego Chargers - Much like the Giants, the Chargers always seem to find some sort of magic in the postseason. Of course, so does Rex Ryan. Much like the Jets teams of 2009 and 2010, this Buffalo team will be carried by its defense. And much like in 2009, Ryan's team will go on the road and win in San Diego. Winner: Buffalo Bills
(3) Cincinnati Bengals at (2) Indianapolis Colts - For the first time we get to see how Luck plays coming off of the bye in the playoffs. In the past, the bye week was almost always a sentence to being one-and-done for the Colts. Not this time, though, as they will handle the Bengals at home for the second time in two years. Winner: Indianapolis Colts
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (1) Green Bay Packers - Winning in New York is one thing, but winning in Green Bay is quite another. We know that Arians' offense is based off a vertical threat. Of course, that's much tougher to do in cold and (potentially) snowy weather. Barring a horrific collapse from Aaron Rodgers in this game, there is no way the Packers lose here. Winner: Green Bay Packers
(5) Buffalo Bills at (1) New England Patriots - Ryan is correct. Even if Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots never admit it, they don't want to face Ryan's teams. We all know the reason Ryan went to Buffalo is to beat the Patriots. New England knows better than anyone how tough it is to repeat as champs. In case they forgot, they'll learn the hard way this season. Winner: Buffalo Bills
(3) San Francisco 49ers at (2) Carolina Panthers - For the second time in three years the Panthers will get the second seed. Unfortunately, for the third straight year they will run up against a NFC West opponent. This game will be a tight, defensive battle, but for the second time in three seasons, the 49ers will advance. Winner San Francisco 49ers
(5) Buffalo Bills at (2) Indianapolis Colts - The Bills give the Colts the gift that the Ravens couldn't give them this year. While some might say it would be a rite of passage for Luck to have to go into New England and win, I'm sure he would rather have a home game in the championship. The Bills won't be a pushover, though. At the end of the day, though, a great defense can only get you so far without a good QB. Winner: Indianapolis Colts
(3) San Francisco 49ers at (2) Green Bay Packers - The third chapter in the renewed Packers-49ers playoff rivalry. In the 1990s, it was the Packers who had the 49ers' number. Now, it is the 49ers who have the Packers' number. Rodgers may be the best QB in the game, but the Packers defense simply cannot stop a QB who can run effectively. Winner: San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers vs. Indianapolis Colts - I didn't mean for this to happen, but the 49ers will end up "hosting" the Super Bowl. Despite being the "home team" the Colts will essentially be playing on the road. This would be the first time a team hosted the Super Bowl, and the first time that the Colts make the big game in a city other than Miami. Two years ago, the Colts went into San Francisco and completely dominated the 49ers. Don't expect complete domination this time around, though. The 49ers will be ready to be the first Super Bowl host to play at home, of course, that comes with pressure as well. Call me a homer, but Luck wins his first Super Bowl the same way Brady won his, off the foot of Adam Vinatieri. Super Bowl Champion: Indianapolis Colts
Maybe that is a bit of a homer pick, but I really believe (unless something catastrophic happens) this season could really be the Colts' year. Feel free to offer up your own too early predictions, or disagree with mine (which I'm sure you will).