2015 NFL Preview

WASHINGTON — Meaningful NFL football begins Thursday night. Hallelujah. And the only thing more exciting than this year’s NFL recaps is the games from which they are spawned. So let’s not waste time with pageantry and delve right into the biggest questions entering the 2015 NFL season: How much will the new extra-point rule matter? This offseason, the league pushed the extra-point attempt from the two-yard line to the 15-yard line in an attempt to increase the difficulty of the traditionally straightforward play. Even though the defense is now able to score on the point after, the numbers suggest these changes won’t make much difference. There didn’t seem to be a huge uptick in two-point attempts in the preseason, but will this change when the games start to count? Can DeMarco Murray replicate his 2014 magic in Philly? History suggests no. Even if Murray had stayed in Dallas behind that massive offensive line, his 449 touches in 2014 set him up to have much less impact in 2015. Besides, he’s got a history of injury, so another 16-game season from him is far from a lock. Given the questions at quarterback, the fate of the Eagles’ season could come down to how much Murray has left in the tank. Will the Colts keep trending upward? Not only has Indy made the playoffs every year since drafting Andrew Luck — they’ve advanced a round each successive year: 2012: Wild card 2013: Divisional round 2014: Conference championship Can they keep it going and advance to the Super Bowl? (Keep reading … I have the answer.) Is this RG3’s last stand in Washington? Admittedly, I’ve used this topic for Rex Ryan in my NFL Preview for three years running, so RGIII is the new “He Needs To Be Fired, But He’s Not Fired Yet” guy. Is he finally done in D.C., or will he resurrect his near-defunct career? Who’s this year’s “worst-to-first”? Last year, the Houston Texans went from a 2-14 team picking first overall to a 9-7 squad that just missed the playoffs. Before them, the Chiefs and Colts each made the playoffs the year they had the first pick. Can the Bucs do the same? Or maybe the Redskins under Kirk Cousins? (Hey, stop laughing.) Can the Patriots use the Brady controversy as fuel to repeat? The last time the league office used the Pats as an object lesson (remember Spygate? Of course you do … because it’s a big story again), New England responded with a 16-0 regular season and came within a David Tyree helmet catch from completing the greatest single season ever. Brady dodged that BS four-game suspension, but can he and coach Bill Belichick team up to author another epic performance in the wake of controversy? OK, enough questions. Time for answers. Click on to see our division-by-division preview. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok) (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
NFC East Eagles 11-5 If it weren’t for the mass exodus out of San Francisco, the upheaval in Philly would be the league’s most notable. The Eagles enter the season with a nicked-up secondary, but their talented front seven — bolstered by the addition of Kiko Alonso via the Shady McCoy deal — should pick up the slack and be the best defense in the division (which is kinda like being the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs). New QB Sam Bradford looked great in preseason. If that carries over into the regular season and he stays healthy (both really big “ifs”), this is the NFC East’s best all-around team by a wider margin than you think. I just have a feeling the combination of a better offensive line and those Chip Kelly miracle shakes will keep Bradford upright for 16 games and the Eagles in the driver’s seat for the NFC East title. Cowboys 8-8 Much like the rival Redskins, Dallas tends not to be able to string together good seasons consecutively. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will have their moments in 2015, but we all know how feeding the offense through Romo for all 16 games turns out. That’s likely what will happen now that DeMarco Murray is in Philadelphia and the Cowboys basically replaced him with spare parts. Last year, the defense was surprisingly effective, but this year they’ll be without Orlando Scandrick for the entire season and the talented-but-troubled Greg Hardy for part of it. Expect the ‘Boys to fall back to the pack and Jerry Jones’s quest for “glory hole” to come up short again. Giants 7-9 I was sorely tempted to make New York my outside-the-box pick to win the division — especially since a title run this year would extend their trend of going on a surprise Super Bowl run every four years — but there’s just no way. The Giants are losing safeties at an alarming rate; Jon Beason is dinged (again), and Jason Pierre Paul’s hand looks something like Chubbs Peterson’s fake wooden appendage. The defense figures to struggle mightily. The offense should be productive, with Eli Manning coming off an underratedly good season — and just imagine what Odell Beckham can do with healthy hamstrings! The Giants should be fun to watch, but not a winning team. Redskins 6-10: See full preview here The jury is still out on coach Jay Gruden. Bona fide NFL head coach or a really good Jon Gruden impersonator? Now that he’s got his quarterback of choice on the field, we’ll start to see. Kirk Cousins should take better advantage of the ‘Skins’ weapons — Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, maybe Jordan Reed, if he’s healthy — than RGIII could have, and the defense should be improved thanks to the additions of Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, Stephen Paea and Chris Culliver. But season ending injuries to Junior Gallette, Niles Paul and Adam Hayward hurt a lot. New GM Scot McCloughan has upgraded a talent-bereft roster with some better players in areas of great need, but A) we don’t know how much better these players are, and B) you can only add so much help in one offseason. The Skins should be marginally better, but not enough to climb out of the division basement. (AP Photo/Mel Evans) (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
NFC North Packers 13-3 Aaron Rodgers is the NFL’s best quarterback. If you don’t agree, you will by season’s end. Stud receiver Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury hurts, but it’s not like the cupboard is bare in Titletown. Randall Cobb — coming off a 91-catch season — should be fine as the #1 target, and James Jones has returned to the Pack. Eddie Lacy could be one of the league’s most productive runners, and their defense should again perform somewhere near the top 10. Much has been said about what the Nelson injury means for Green Bay’s title hopes, but this much I know: The last time the Packers got ravaged by injury, they won their fourth Super Bowl. So count on another division title and a deep playoff run that very well could end with Rodgers hoisting a Lombardi Trophy in his native California. Vikings 11-5 Here’s your surprise team of 2015, folks. Head coach Mike Zimmer had another offseason to retool a talented defense and get his young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater further acclimated to the pro game. He doesn’t look inclined to suffer from a sophomore slump either; he had a terrific offseason and has a new deep threat in Mike Wallace. Rookie Stephon Diggs is showing the NFL what Terps fans already knew: He’s a game-changer in the return game. Losing Phil Loadholt for the season hurts, leaving an already questionable offensive line in the lurch. But Adrian Peterson is back and he’s pissed. That alone is worth eight wins, but I’m banking on at least 10 and a triumphant return to the postseason. Lions 8-8 If you haven’t had your fantasy draft yet, remember this name: Ameer Abdullah. (Also, maybe you should hold your fantasy draft sometime before the season starts. Just sayin’.) Ironically, the Motor City has been in search of a talented runner with a motor since Barry Sanders left. If Abdullah lives up to some of his preseason exploits, that takes pressure off the Matthew Stafford/Calvin Johnson combo and gives this team the balance to challenge Minnesota and Green Bay. However, the Lions defense lost tackles Ndamakong Suh and Nick Fairley to free agency, replacing them with Haloti Ngata. The ex-Raven enters the season with a chip on his shoulder but also a strain in his hamstring, so expect the Detroit D to take a step back. This team goes only as far as Stafford and Johnson can take them, which is typically somewhere near .500. Bears 4-12 John Fox is a great get at head coach — and just what the doctor ordered for a defense that ranked 30th in yardage and 31st in scoring last season — but Jay Cutler is still the QB and he won’t be throwing to stud rookie receiver Kevin White until midseason, if at all. Alshon Jeffrey enters the season just getting out of a walking boot and Brandon Marshall is a Jet. This means the fate of the Bears’ offense rests squarely on the shoulders of Matt Forte. Fox will keep Chicago competitive, but don’t expect much more than a .500 season. (AP Photo/Don Wright) (AP Photo/Don Wright)
NFC South Saints 10-6 I think Drew Brees is the most prolific passer of the past decade, but he’s got his work cut out for him in 2015. At age 36, he’s being asked to carry New Orleans back to the playoffs even though the team traded or cut Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Curtis Lofton, Ben Grubbs and Pierre Thomas. The Saints added C.J. Spiller, Max Unger and Orson Charles, but it’s pretty telling the organization used a third-round pick on a possible successor to Brees (Garrett Grayson). Even with the addition of Brandon Browner, the secondary is injured and likely to struggle, especially considering the team ditched linebacker (and alleged problem child) Junior Galette and will ask rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha to pick up his slack. The Saints should win the division essentially by default. Falcons 9-7 For what it’s worth, Atlanta enjoys the league’s easiest schedule on paper. New coach Dan Quinn will happily take that in his first year in the ATL, and he’ll also welcome Matt Ryan to new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s QB-friendly scheme. There’s been a lot of change in the Falcons’ defensive front seven, so if Quinn can whip that previously lackluster unit into shape quickly, this might actually be Atlanta’s division to lose. Panthers 7-9 Even with Greg Hardy taking his production (and off-field baggage) to Dallas, the Carolina defense should remain among the league’s best. However, the offense figures to struggle, with outstanding second-year wideout Kelvin Benjamin out for the season and their only offensive lineman of note, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, opening the season with a knee sprain. Cam Newton truly is Superman if he can carry the Panthers to a .500 record (let alone a third-straight trip to the playoffs) with little more than Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess to back him up. Bucs 6-10 RGIII isn’t the only 2012 first-rounder looking to regain his rookie form: Doug Martin is at a career crossroads in Tampa, and the Bucs need him to be productive again to take the pressure off top draft pick Jameis Winston. Tampa’s youth movement is led by stars like Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Mike Evans, but those are just cherries on top of a crap sundae if Winston and Martin aren’t playing well. Winston showed flashes in the preseason, but he also came off like a knucklehead at Florida State (and there’s also the history of FSU QBs not faring so well at the next level). Lovie Smith’s defense will be better, and so will Tampa — just not enough to avoid another last-place finish. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps) (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
NFC West Seahawks 12-4 When last we saw Seattle, they were reeling from a bad goal-line interception that cost them a rare opportunity to win back-to-back championships. Since then, they’ve been doing whatever they can to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover: a team getaway in Hawaii, a trade for a marquee name (Jimmy Graham) and some miracle potion for their newly paid star quarterback. Toss in the addition of Fred Jackson to bolster an already-deep backfield and the ‘Hawks are poised for a third straight trip to the Big Dance, right? Nope. The defense will remain among the league’s best, but the Kam Chancellor holdout surely doesn’t help a dinged-up secondary. The offensive line is highly questionable due in part to the Graham trade, and the receiving corps is largely made of spare parts. Seattle will be back in the playoffs, but their run stops short of Santa Clara. Cardinals 9-7 Arizona won 21 games over the last two seasons, the first time that’s happened in the organization since Don Coryell coached the St. Louis Cardinals to 21 wins during 14-game seasons in 1975 and 1976. So basically, Bruce Arians is changing the way we view the desert. This season is less about who the Cards signed and drafted than who they get back. Carson Palmer returns from his heartbreaking knee injury to lead a potentially potent offense, and the defense gets a healthy Honey Badger back in the secondary (that’s Tyrann Mathieu, in case you forgot). That’s a huge boost to a team ravaged by injuries in 2014. If the rushing tandem of David Johnson and Andre Ellington proves productive and the defense can overcome the loss of star defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, they’ll again get in the playoffs as a wild card, and maybe even challenge the Seahawks for the division title. Rams 6-10 Time will tell if St. Louis got totally ripped off in the Nick Foles/Sam Bradford swap, but the Rams seem to think they came out all right. Foles won’t have nearly as many weapons as Bradford enjoys in Philly, so I wouldn’t bet on the early returns looking so good. The run game should take a little of the pressure off, with rookie Todd Gurley in the mix (whenever he gets healthy). Defense will be hallmark of this team, but even with the additions of Nick Fairley and Akeem Ayers, their unit isn’t better than Seattle’s and probably not Arizona’s. If Foles plays like he did in 2013, this is a winning team. If he’s the guy from last year, they’re not. 49ers 5-11 There’s taking a wrecking ball to a team. And there’s the 2015 Niners. Compared to the team that went to the Super Bowl three years ago, this is scorched earth. Of the 46 active players in Super Bowl XLVII, 35 are no longer with the organization. And it’s not just the quantity, it’s the quality. Troubled linebacker Aldon Smith was released a few weeks ago after one too many off-field problems. Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis unexpectedly retired young. Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Dan Skuta left in free agency. Yes, they added potential impact players such as Torrey Smith and rugby star Jarryd Hayne, but you don’t lose more than 20 combined Pro Bowl appearances and more than 1,000 career NFL starts and not see a precipitous drop in the standings. Did I mention the downgrade at coach? I don’t care what 49ers ownership says, Jim Tomsula ain’t Steve Kerr. Maybe more Steve Carrell … because everyone outside the Bay Area will be pointing and laughing at this team’s dramatic drop to the bottom of the division and maybe the conference. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
AFC East Patriots 12-4 It’s good to be New England. They beat down Commissioner Roger Goodell in court, so Tom Brady shrugs off the Deflategate ruling to open the season. Thus, the offense will remain a well-oiled machine Pats fans won’t need to worry about. The defense lost both starting corners (Darrelle Revis to the Jets and Brandon Browner to the Saints), but Belichick’s boys are the poster children for the age-old NFL credo “next man up.” Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler will step up and the D will remain stingy. The rest of the division appears to be closing the gap, but not enough to kick the defending champs out of the division penthouse. Bills 11-5 The NFL’s longest playoff drought is about to end. Rex Ryan says Buffalo is returning to the postseason and I wholeheartedly agree. The defense was good before he got there, and don’t expect to see a drop off. LeSean McCoy isn’t exactly the “ground and pound” type, but he’ll be plenty productive. The receiving corps is deep for the still-wet behind the ears QB Tyrod Taylor, who will make his first NFL start Sunday. Even if Taylor isn’t up to the task, Matt Cassell and/or EJ Manuel are as good (if not better) than anything Rex had in New York. Don’t be surprised if Buffalo not only makes the playoffs but makes a little noise while they’re there. Dolphins 6-10 I know some people are hot for these guys, but I don’t see it. Even though Ndamakong Suh took his talents to South Beach, this team still screams mediocrity. Re-signing Ryan Tannehill was something they just kinda had to do, and they’ll find out whether they overpaid now that he’s got rookie DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills to throw to. This is it for Joe Philbin. Expect their retooled defense to keep them in games, but to finish at/near .500. Again. Jets 4-12 If you think the Redskins are having issues, just look at what happened to Geno “Glass Jaw” Smith. This dude is going to miss substantial time because a third-string linebacker literally jacked his jaw. Ironically, it might be the best thing to happen to the Jets, since it opens the door for Ryan Fitzpatrick to become more than that Harvard guy with the great beard. I like new head coach Todd Bowles, but he’s fighting a losing battle here. He’s got an offense bereft of weapons and his players are literally beating each other up. The already-good defensive line adds perhaps the draft’s best player in Leonard Williams, but he’s nicked to start the season. It shall be dark in Gotham. Or Jersey. So basically, they’re the Jets. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
AFC North Ravens 10-6: See full preview here I know everyone wants to crown their asses, but it’s not a good sign for Baltimore when they’re being issued warnings about new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Regardless of whether it’s warranted, Joe Flacco is playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons; Torrey Smith — their top touchdown scorer — left for San Fran, and Dennis Pitta starts the year on the PUP list. It could take a while for this unit to get going. We tend to assume the defense will be good, and another season of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs coming off the edge shouldn’t change that. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Ravens miss Haloti Ngata. That said, there’s not much separating them from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (which is why I have them all finishing with the same record and Baltimore winning the division on tiebreakers. Yes, I actually spent time working out the tiebreakers.) In a must-see regular season event, the Christmas-weekend showdown with the Steelers could very well decide which team wins the division. Steelers 10-6 I know we typically don’t spend time on special teams here, but that unit bears watching in Pittsburgh. They traded away punter Brad Wing to make room for a guy who worked at McDonald’s, and kicker Shaun Suisham is out for the season (although they arguably upgraded by trading for Josh Scobee). But these are the Steelers. Historically, the fate of their season rests on the shoulders of the defense, but this year it’s not for the usual reasons. Dick LeBeau is gone after 13 years at the helm, and names such as Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel are no longer on the roster. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler isn’t changing much, but this young, unproven unit allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 80 percent of their passes for an interception-free 122.3 quarterback rating in four preseason first halves. That doesn’t exactly remind us of the Steel Curtain. I expect Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown to have another big year (even with Maurkice Pouncey out after ankle surgery and LeVeon Bell serving an early suspension) but even if this offense remains prolific, I doubt the defense will be good enough to propel this team to more than 10 wins. Bengals 10-6 Now for my annual disclaimer: I can’t handicap this team worth a damn. Maybe it’s the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Bengals, or my own unintentional Midwest bias, but this team baffles me. Cincinnati looks really good on paper: a ton of offensive weapons, solid special teams and a defense with few holes welcoming back stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins. It all checks out, except for one key component: quarterback. Cincy will only go as far as Andy Dalton takes them. If he finally puts it all together and takes a step toward elite status, this is a potential Super Bowl team. If he’s the same old Andy, this is a one-and-done playoff team. Or worse. Browns 2-14 Coach Mike Pettine begins his second season in Cleveland with more than a few problems on offense: Josh McCown starts at quarterback after an unimpressive stint in Tampa. Dwayne Bowe is spreading delusions of high-powered offense, yet barely made the roster himself. The Browns are turning to rookie Duke Johnson in hopes of finally getting some production out of the running back position, and will likely have to manufacture some offense by using QB/WR Terrell Pryor in some read-option packages. The team thinks they have something special in first-round pick Danny Shelton, perhaps more so when paired with Desmond Bryant and former Terp Randy Starks up front. So the defense will keep the Brownies in a lot of games, but the barren wasteland on offense has me confident we’ll hear Roger Goodell say: “With the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select …” (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AFC South Colts 12-4 This team just seems to have the goods. Andrew Luck is being anointed a god entering his fourth season. Andre Johnson is fired up to finally play for a winner. The inconvenient truth about Frank Gore (see what I did there?) is that he’s 65 in running back years. If Gore has one last great season (like Stephen Davis for the 2003 Panthers) and the defense is markedly better than the unit that got shelled by the Pats in the AFC title game, this is the best team in the conference. Count on a deep playoff run that ends in Santa Clara. Texans 8-8 It’s a good thing Houston’s ownership isn’t expecting a superhero quarterback, because Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett barely qualify as sidekicks. Toss in another nagging injury to Arian Foster and Andre Johnson’s defection to division rival Indy, and it looks like it’ll be another season of J.J. Watt single-handedly willing this team to a .500 record. Jaguars 3-13 Stud rookie Dante Fowler — the third overall pick in the draft — was lost for the season after tearing an ACL in his first NFL practice. Prized free agent Julius Thomas will miss the first month of the season with a finger injury. That’s two potential impact players off a meh roster to start the season. Second-year QB Blake Bortles will have to make huge strides in 2015 (the emergence of Allen Robinson should help) if Jacksonville is going to stay out of the division — and maybe the league — basement. Titans 3-13 Tennessee is praying to the football gods, Warren Moon and anyone else who’ll listen that Marcus Mariota doesn’t suffer the same fate as the last QB to be selected second overall. Fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham had a great camp and should provide a steady target but Mariota is playing in his first pro-style offense behind a shaky line. Not a good combo. Brian Orakpo is the headline addition on defense, which lets you know just how lackluster an offseason it was. Dick LeBeau will make them better but it’ll take a Music City Miracle for the Titans to be anything more than a six-win team. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AFC West Chargers 10-6 Philip Rivers got paid and is under center for the long haul. More importantly, he’s got youngsters Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon to help him form what looks to be a great set of triplets at the skill positions. Throw in veteran Stevie Johnson to help take pressure off the aging Antonio Gates, and this should be a fun (final?) season in San Diego. The defense was quietly ranked in the top 10 last season, and the arrow is pointing up in 2015 thanks to up-and-coming youngsters Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett. I see the Chargers bolting their way to the top of the division and maybe even making some noise in the playoffs. Broncos 9-7 So let me get this straight, Denver: You fire an established coach who took you to the Super Bowl two years ago for going one-and-done in the playoffs and replace him with a guy who consistently underwhelmed in Houston with a ton of talent? There’s simply no world in which Gary Kubiak is an upgrade over John Fox. He’s the current iteration of my dreaded Norv Turner corollary*. Kubiak has Peyton Manning, but perhaps in name only. He’s another year older (39), coming off a December to forget. He’s without a playmaker at tight end, and we’re still waiting on a running back to take the pressure off him (like Terrell Davis did in 1997 for John Elway). Add the blow of an already-shaky offensive line losing Ryan Clady for the season, and the Broncos are closer to the glue factory than the Super Bowl. It’s the beginning of the end for Manning in Denver. Chiefs 9-7 One of the NFL’s best feel-good stories could bolster one of the best defenses of 2015. Eric Berry is back in the KC secondary after dealing with lymphoma, and the newly paid Justin Houston should again be dominant rushing the passer. One of the more mind-numbing stats of 2014 was that the Chiefs went the whole season without a TD pass to a receiver. Jeremy Maclin — who caught 10 TDs in Philly last year — should put an end to that madness and become one of Alex Smith’s favorite targets. Denver’s downfall should open the door for KC to contend for a playoff spot and maybe even the division title. Raiders 5-11 Trent Richardson’s inability to find the hole cost him a job in the Black Hole, but the early returns on the Derek Carr/Amari Cooper passing combo are positive so far. Khalil Mack should be a force on defense, but he’s about the only player on the unit who’s not old and/or marginal. It’s another long season in Oakland, but the youth movement will make it more fun to watch and provide the hope of better days ahead. *The Norv Turner Corollary: A head coach who is clearly better suited to be a coordinator, and is so decidedly mediocre in the former role that I deduct two games from how the team looks like they’ll do. In Denver’s case, a team with 12-4 talent falls to 9 or 10 wins under the NTC. See also: Phillips, Wade. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Super Bowl & Awards Super Bowl XLIV: Green Bay over Indianapolis MVP: Andrew Luck Offensive Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt Offensive Rookie of the Year: Amari Cooper Defensive Rookie of the Year: Shaq Thompson Comeback Player of the Year: Eric Berry and Sam Bradford Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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