The NFL season officially kicks off on Thursday night as the Super Bowl champion Seahawks host the Packers. Both teams figure to be among the elite once again this season, but this season won’t look the same as it did a year ago.
Here’s a look at all 32 teams’ outlooks for the season, as well as awards and postseason predictions.
1 New England Patriots (11-5)
With just about nobody trustworthy to throw to last year, Tom Brady still guided this team to a first-round bye. The 2014 receiving corps is a bit better, and a healthy Rob Gronkowski will help. And, Darrelle Revis gives them a true top corner, instantly making this defense better. They’ll be in the Super Bowl hunt once again.
2 Jets (9-7)
Nobody outside the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, foresaw anything like the 8-8 finish last year. Gang Green won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2014, but it’s not unreasonable to expect similar results. On paper, the offense is much better, although a questionable secondary could be a problem. Still, they should be in the mix for a playoff spot.
3 Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Not too much about this team is truly impressive. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is pretty decent, as are his receivers. His running back tandem of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller is OK. The defense has some talent (defensive end Cameron Wake, cornerback Brent Grimes) that won’t win many games on its own. This team is a prime candidate for an offseason coaching shake-up.
4 Buffalo Bills (4-12)
The Bills have one of the most talented defensive lines in football, with the likes of Mario and Kyle Williams (no relation) leading the way. On any given Sunday, this is a team that can win if the offense limits mistakes. Unfortunately, that offense will experience plenty of missteps. It all hinges on second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, who may struggle more often than not.
1 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Cincy has steadily built its way toward a season like this. They have weapons — including receiver A.J. Green — everywhere on offense for quarterback Andy Dalton to use, and the defense is as well-rounded as they come. Will they reach the Super Bowl this year? They’re not the first team people think of, but they might still be playing by late January.
2 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger — or getting hit less — but he should have enough in the tank to lead a sneaky-good offense to a few victories. Antonio Brown, his top target, became an upper-echelon wideout last year, and will wreak havoc on opposing defenses. For once, the concern here is defense, as Troy Polamalu and crew aren’t what they used to be.
3 Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Baltimore really could go either way. They ought to be better on offense with the addition of a grizzled Steve Smith and a full year of healthy Dennis Pitta, but is this defense all that much better than a year ago? Hard to say. They play in perhaps the toughest division in the AFC, which likely will be what keeps the Ravens from a postseason return.
4 Cleveland Browns (6-10)
The season-long suspension of top receiver Josh Gordon will burn all year, and they will experience all the first-year growing pains that come with a new head coach (Mike Pettine) and rookie quarterback (Johnny Manziel, who will be starting come October). They’ll show promise at times, but aren’t ready to make any waves this year.
1 Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
If the Texans don’t bounce back as projected, Indy will run away with this division. And really, they should regardless. They’re the only team with so much as a steady quarterback situation, and the Colts’ passer happens to be a 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl selection in Andrew Luck. However, this team will only go as far as their middling defense will allow.
2 Houston Texans (10-6)
Anyone who says they saw last year’s 2-14 campaign coming is a liar, and I’ll stand by that. This team can’t be that bad again, but 10 wins might be overly optimistic, too. Still, there’s a lot to like on offense (WR Andre Johnson, RB Arian Foster) and defense (DE J.J. Watt, top pick Jadeveon Clowney). They’ll be in the thick of things in December, at the least.
3 Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
The Jags look ready to escape the bottom floor of the NFL standings. They won’t be much better, but they won’t be the abysmal team of recent years. If this prophecy comes to pass, it will be thanks to newcomers such as running back Toby Gerhart and — later in the season — rookie passer Blake Bortles.
4 Tennessee Titans (5-11)
Their success hinges on whether Jake Locker takes the next step and asserts himself as the quarterback of the Titans’ future. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against him. They have the most unsettled backfield in the NFL and no true threats in the passing game. It doesn’t help that their defense is as nondescript as they come. This could get ugly.
1 Denver Broncos (12-4)
Rest assured that, health permitting, Peyton Manning will be back in the postseason again. The pieces on offense mostly are the same with a few substitutes, but the big changes came on defense. DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib upgrade the pass rush and secondary, respectively, and will help put this team on the road back to the Super Bowl.
2 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Other than a few new faces on the offensive line, this is largely the same team that turned heads and made the playoffs a year ago. They’ll continue to ride talented running back Jamaal Charles on offense and count on a sturdy defense to keep scores in check. It’s hard to picture K.C. usurping the Broncos in this division, but stranger things have happened.
3 San Diego Chargers (7-9)
Despite the projected record, the Chargers aren’t really much worse than they were a year ago. However, they may struggle having to travel east multiple times this season. Plus, they’ve got four tough games against the two stronger AFC West teams. It wouldn’t be surprising if QB Philip Rivers and company ended up above .500, though.
4 Oakland Raiders (3-13)
What would be surprising is if the Raiders made any waves this year. They made the right choice going with rookie quarterback Derek Carr, but he will experience growing pains as he works with some so-so receivers and an aging running back in Maurice Jones-Drew. At least the NFL draft is less than a year away.
1 Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
Any of these teams could claim the division’s postseason spot, but nobody will truly deserve it. That’s not to say Philly has a bad team. They don’t. But, the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson will come back to haunt them — probably in weeks 3 and 16 against the Redskins. Good news is they still have LeSean McCoy, one of the league’s elite runners.
2 Washington Redskins (8-8)
The Redskins added Jackson to finally give Robert Griffin III a true No. 1 target in the passing attack. Of course, RGIII still needs to be on the field to target said receiver, which has been an issue. If he plays all 16 games, they should win this division. He probably won’t, which figures to come back to bite them.
3 Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
The league’s most inconsistent team for years doesn’t look any closer to putting it all together this year. But, they might sneak into the postseason regardless on the strength of a furious aerial attack led by the oft-maligned Tony Romo, who really is much better than he gets credit for. That said, watch him cause the turnover that costs them a playoff berth.
4 Giants (7-9)
Everything depends on how quickly Big Blue adapts to the new offense in games that count. That includes everyone from Eli Manning to the newbies on the O-line, in the backfield and in the passing game. At least the defense should be on the rise after some smart additions. All the Giants have to do is stay in it until December. If they do, they have a shot.
1 Green Bay Packers (12-4)
With Aaron Rodgers at full strength, Green Bay is the King in the North (for you “Game of Thrones” fans). He, along with talented receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson and running back Eddie Lacy, make for the NFC’s most dynamic offense. The defense isn’t great, but the Clay Matthews-led unit will get the job done most days.
2 Chicago Bears (11-5)
Gone are the days when the Bears were known for their brutish defense. Now, they’re a pass-happy dynamo that has a good enough quarterback in Jay Cutler to get the ball to the league’s top WR tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Make no mistake, though, the defense will be fine with additions such as defensive end Jared Allen in tow.
3 Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
This is another situation in which a team’s success rests largely on quarterback play. For now, it’s Matt Cassel under center, and that should be enough to get by considering they have all-world running back Adrian Peterson and the dynamic Cordarrelle Patterson. But most of all, the Vikings face a weak schedule that will give them a chance to make the postseason.
4 Detroit Lions (5-11)
The Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson connection will be as in sync as always. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: their defense doesn’t look very good outside of D-tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Lions are going to keep teams in games that they should put away and that’s why they’ll end up in the cellar of the NFC North.
1 New Orleans Saints (11-5)
The Saints will reclaim the South crown this year, but they won’t be as mighty a division champ as they’ve been in the past. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham still make this offensive machine run on all cylinders, but a few smaller but key losses (Darren Sproles, Lance Moore) will hurt a bit. Defense still will be this group’s Achilles heel.
2 Carolina Panthers (8-8)
The football world has made much of the Panthers’ losses in the receiving game — no wideout on the roster was in Charlotte a year ago. But the trouble here is the new look O-line that lost left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement. Expect Cam Newton to take more hits than in years past, but still have the team battling into the final weeks.
3 Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
With reliable Tony Gonzalez now retired, the vaunted pass attack lost some luster. Top receiver Julio Jones is healthy again, which will help some, but not enough to propel this team into the playoff picture. Drafting Jake Matthews should have helped the O-line, but the loss of left tackle Sam Baker to injury stings. Another lost season is brewing.
4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)
This might be overly pessimistic, but the Bucs have a lot going against them. They’re ill-equipped to hold up a candle to the NFC and AFC North teams or the top two in their own division that account for four more games. That’s 10 games that look grim off the bat. This is the very definition of a rebuilding season.
1 Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Super Bowl winners experience a hangover of sorts, but the Seahawks could be the exception. They deserve to be favored to repeat as NFC champs, at the least, thanks to the fact that most of the key offensive and defensive players are back and still in their productive years. Bank on cornerback Richard Sherman and the “Legion of Boom” to reign.
2 Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
The Cards didn’t get worse from a 10-win season a year ago, and they could easily duplicate that win total again and sneak into the playoffs this time. But, they’ll travel to the East Coast a lot, which won’t do them any favors. Still, cornerback Patrick Peterson and the rest of this defense could do serious damage.
3 San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
The losses of a few key defensive players to free agency (Carlos Rogers) and suspension (Aldon Smith) are going to start to add up. Fortunately, there’s plenty to like about the Niners, including quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is a much better player when Michael Crabtree is around. Like Arizona, they could win 10 or more games and return to the playoffs.
4 St. Louis Rams (4-12)
One team that won’t be in the postseason hunt is the Rams, which have the misfortune of playing in a brutal division and already have lost their quarterback Sam Bradford for the season. The last time the Rams lost their starting QB in the preseason, they won the Super Bowl. That’s not happening this time. Maybe next year.
Breakout star: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings
The second-year player scored six touchdowns over his team’s final five games in December, and he led the NFL in yards per kick return. Dynamic players such as Patterson become stars in this league fast.
First QB sent to bench: Brian Hoyer, Browns
Even if Hoyer isn’t playing poorly, Cleveland needs to be winning in order to keep the Dog Pound’s calls for “Johnny Football” himself, Johnny Manziel, at bay.
Rookie with brightest future: Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
There’s a chance he won’t play at all this season – but he should. Jacksonville has sought a franchise quarterback for years, and Bortles has all the tools to be just that.
Best MNF matchup: Broncos at Bengals
The last Monday night game of the year could help decide the AFC’s top seed and who gets home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Coach most likely to be axed: Dennis Allen, Raiders
He nearly didn’t make it out of the past offseason. He might still be given all 16 games to coach Oakland, but he’ll be gone by Black Monday.
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB Packers
Offensive Player of the Year: LeSean McCoy, RB Eagles
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Texans
Coach of the Year: Marvin Lewis, Bengals
Passing leader: Drew Brees, Saints
Rushing leader: McCoy
Receiving leader: Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
Sack leader: Watt
AFC WILD CARD: Patriots over Chiefs, Colts over Steelers
NFC WILD CARD: Saints over Vikings, Bears over Eagles
AFC DIVISIONAL: Bengals over Colts, Patriots over Broncos
NFC DIVISIONAL: Seahawks over Bears, Saints over Packers
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Patriots over Bengals
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Seahawks over Saints
SUPER BOWL XLIX: Seahawks over Patriots