The 2014-15 season was capped off with one of the most exciting Super Bowl games in recent years and one of the most inexplicable play calls of all time. The New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks were two of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl when the season began, but predicting the teams that will make the playoffs is not always straight forward. The NFL has the most parity of any of the four major sports leagues with teams making drastic improvements over a one-year time frame more often than other sports.
The NFL draft and free agency allows teams to make significant overhauls to their rosters in the offseason that can take them from 4-12 to 12-4. Coaching changes can also catapult underachieving teams into the playoffs. Football is also a sport where a few breaks here and there can change the trajectory of the entire season. Injuries at key positions can hold back playoff caliber teams and make them look like much worse than they are, scheduling can drastically affect a teams playoff challenges and sometimes you are a team in the NFC South and you can win the division with only seven wins. With team success however also comes individual success, and teams that make deep runs in the playoffs can struggle to keep their free agents as other teams offer higher prices for those proven winners. Every year in the NFL a few teams that made the playoffs last year drop off the following year. This past season saw teams like the 49ers, Saints, and Chargers give way to the Cardinals, Ravens and Lions. Let's try to identify how the teams from this year's playoffs will fare next season.
13 Seattle Seahawks - 2014 record: 12-4
Making the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons is no easy task in the salary cap and free agency era of the NFL. Part of Seattle's success has been the fact that their star players, namely Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson were all on their rookie contracts and outplaying their salaries by wide margins which allowed them to use those savings on veteran free agents.
The team made a big splash acquiring Jimmy Graham from the Saints, which gives them a dimension they didn't have last year; a top receiver, be it at wideout or tight end.
This season is when their extensions start to kick in and it's going to be more difficult for them to bring in free agents like Michael Bennett who were so integral to their team. The most important pieces however will still be intact and should have a chip on their shoulder after being one play away from repeat champions. Their division will remain tough but the 49ers will likely take a step back with the departure of Harbaugh and the Cardinals and Rams will continue to be good-but-not-great teams without consistent quarterback play. Coach Carroll will have his team ready after the way this season ended and they will be hungry to return for another shot.
12 Green Bay Packers - 2014 record: 12-4
While there is parity across the NFL, one thing never changes. Teams with a great quarterback tend to succeed. The Packers offense will continue to thrive as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy but their defense could use some upgrades. The Packers play in a tough division with an improving Vikings team and the Detroit Lions who have one the best defenses in the league.
Randall Cobb is back, re-signing with the Packers. Along with Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson, they can remain one of the most potent passing offenses. Their secondary could use some upgrades and their pass rush has struggled since Clay Matthews moved to inside linebacker. The Packers have one of the best front offices in the entire NFL and they will find enough defensive talent to keep this team in the Super Bowl hunt, as long as Matt Flynn doesn't have to start any games.
11 Dallas Cowboys - 2014 record: 12-4
Heading in to the 2014 season the Cowboys looked like a team that would struggle for .500 record after being hit hard by the salary cap and disappointing draft picks they were forced to start a number of cheaper free agents at key positions. The Cowboys did however make the smart move to bring in Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator who managed to craft a functional defense out of cast-offs and replacement-level talent.
The Cowboys strength was their offensive line and that line will remain intact going into next season, although they'll now be blocking for Darren McFadden instead of DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys also used their franchise tag on Dez Bryant. Tony Romo managed to play his best season of his career despite looking noticeably less mobile and affected by his back injuries. It's unlikely that Dallas will have the season of health that they did last year and even one key injury would be enough to hurt this team that lacks depth across the board. The Cowboys are unlikely to repeat the 8-0 record they had on this road this past season and if that drops to more realistic 4-4, they will drop out of the playoffs.
10 Carolina Panthers - 2014 record: 7-8-1
It would seem that the Panthers are the most likely team to drop out of the playoffs because of their 2014 record but there isn't any reason to believe the rest of the division is any better at this point. The Panthers at times looked like they may actually lose to Ryan Lindley in the playoffs and that's enough cause for concern. Their offense improved as the season went along and Jonathan Stewart showed flashes but their team lacks depth at almost every position and doesn't have the cap space to accommodate.
If Newton and Benjamin can take another step in their careers their chances for a playoff berth become more interesting. The NFC South is certainly up for grabs but with four equally mediocre teams in the division, there's no reason to consider Carolina the favorites. Without a division title the Panthers are unlikely to get in the playoffs and I would suspect at least one of the Saints, Bucs or Falcons to bounce back next year and take the division.
9 Detroit Lions - 2014 record: 11-5
Despite the star-studded offense this team succeeded because of their defense and their dominant defensive line, allowing the 2nd fewest yards in the league. With Ndamukong Suh now off to Miami, the Lions have been dealt a huge blow to their defense, but the money saved from losing Suh could possibly be used to address other areas of weakness. They did the best they could to address Suh's departure, trading for Haloti Ngata.
Matt Stafford has struggled to show demonstrable improvement in recent seasons and seems to have plateaued as an above average starting quarterback. The Lions offense struggled mightily without Calvin Johnson in the lineup and his health will again be key to their teams success as Stafford is a different quarterback without his best player. One area that the Lions will likely improve is their running game which started to heat up late in the season. That will not include Reggie Bush, who the team released. Their defense will continue to carry them but the offense will need to be more consistent if they want to become serious contenders. A healthier Megatron paired with Golden Tate and their offense should rebound in 2015.
8 Arizona Cardinals - 2014 record: 11-5
The Cardinals finished 11-5 despite missing Carson Palmer for a significant portion of the season, along with several key defensive stars including Daryl Washington and Calais Campbell. Head coach Bruce Arians rightfully won Coach of the Year for getting his team to win with consistent defense and timely plays on offense. However the Cards' lack of consistent quarterback play and non-existent running game will come back to haunt their team, especially if the injuries continue to pile up.
Both the quarterback play and run game struggles are largely symptoms of their atrocious offensive line. They have used high draft picks in an attempt to address their line but they have not panned out. Palmer is never a guarantee to make it through a season healthy and there is no decent backup option currently on their roster. Arians will always have his team playing hard but their lack of offensive consistency will hold them back. Keep in mind that Todd Bowles is not there anymore, not the Jets' new head coach. That will be a big loss.
6 New England Patriots - 2014 record: 12-4
One of the more shocking stats of the Patriots Super Bowl win is that they are the youngest team ever to win the Super Bowl. While everyone associates the Pats with Brady and Belichick, they have used the draft to stockpile young starters across their lineup. Brady looked like he could play until he's 50 as he threw for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl against one of the best secondaries of all time.
The Patriots lost both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency. New England will have more competition this upcoming season than the past with LeSean McCoy now a Buffalo Bill, the Dolphins adding Suh and the Jets bringing back both Revis and Antonio Cromartie, as well as trading for Brandon Marshall.
All that said, the Patriots re-tool their team better than anyone and as long as Brady and Belichick are together, they should be the pick to win the AFC East.
5 Denver Broncos - 2014 record: 12-4
The biggest question mark team with the Broncos is the status of Peyton Manning. Manning will be back, but will he be as effective as he was in 2013 and early 2014? Manning did not look like himself towards the end of the season and the Broncos relied heavily on C.J. Anderson and their run game. They also lost Julius Thomas in free agency who was a top target of Manning's.
On defense the Broncos have talent across the board but their secondary remains susceptible to giving up big plays. If Peyton can come back as 85% of what he was, the Broncos will remain a potent offense and a defense that stops the run and plays solid man coverage. Their competition for the division includes the Chiefs who went without a TD to a wide receiver in 2014 and the Chargers that lack the depth to compete with the Broncos. Kubiak will develop a solid running game as he has throughout his career and will limit what Peyton is asked to do.
4 Indianapolis Colts - 2014 record: 11-5
No team in the NFL is more dependent on their quarterback than the Colts with Andrew Luck and they're lucky to have him, no pun intended. The Colts have a solid secondary with Vontae Davis but desperately need more pass rushers and someone than can tackle a Patriots running back. While there is lots of focus on their lack of running game it's not as big a hole as other areas like linebacker and safety.
The Colts need to be smart (as in not trade a 1st round pick for Trent Richarson) and continue to build around their once-in-a-generation quarterback. They've certainly been aggressive, adding both Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, two veterans who have been some of the toughest players of the generation. The Colts needed to get tougher and they have.
Helping the Colts is playing in the worst division in the NFL with the Jags and Titans as perennial disappointments. This will be the Colts' division to lose for the foreseeable future, but if they want to be Super Bowl contenders they need to bring in some help for Luck.
3 Pittsburgh Steelers - 2014 record: 11-5
The Steelers have transformed in recent seasons from a defensive force to an offensive juggernaut. Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are the best offensive trio in the NFL and could do even more damage with an improved offensive line. Their defense however is seeing what happens when you overpay aging stars. The Steelers lack young talent on defense and injuries to young studs like Ryan Shazier haven't helped.
The Steelers should focus their offseason on bringing talent (especially young talent) anywhere on defense to support what should be a top-5 offense next season. Playing in the tough AFC North will make it difficult but the Steelers have the firepower to keep up with any team.
2 Cincinnati Bengals - 2014 record: 10-5-1
The Bengals thrive on having a team that is solid at every position but struggle in two of the most important areas of today's NFL: quarterback play and rushing the passer. The Bengals can address their pass rush through the draft and free agency but after handing Andy Dalton a major contract extension it's unlikely they can move on from him.
Dalton tends to have decent stats at the end of the season but struggles against good teams and especially against the blitz. It was apparent when AJ Green missed time this year that their passing game is heavily reliant on his ability and need to find other playmakers. Their running game is in a good place but Giovani Bernard regressed in his second season. The Bengals will struggle in a tough division and this may be the end for the Dalton and Lewis era in Cincy.
1 Baltimore Ravens - 2014 record: 10-6
Despite all the controversy surrounding this team they managed to put up a good season and give the Pats their best game of the playoffs, at least within the AFC. Their defense will remain their identity although age is creeping up on Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and a jolt of youth is in order. The Ravens offense is inconsistent but can hang its hat on one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, turning Justin Forsett is one the more efficient runners in the league. The Ravens also draft as well as any NFL team with last year's 1st-round pick CJ Mosley becoming a star player in just his first season. The Ravens were decimated this season in their secondary, starting 4th string players in key games. With better injury luck and fewer distractions next season, the Ravens will be one of the best teams in the AFC.
In typical Ravens fashion, they'll squeak in as a wild card and will become a dangerous team come playoff time.
Prediction: 11-5, Wild Card
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