Why talk football? Why not, with a bare 6 weeks or so before we gear up for preseason? Good time for a final prediction before the oft-meaningless results of said preseason cloud one's judgement, catastrophic injuries excepted.
Football doesn't change much. Despite an effective draft system and free agency galore, the league has a stunning equilibrium, at least in some divisions. Bottom feeders like the Red Sox don't vault to the top in one season --- then plummet to the bottom again the next. In hockey, the elite tend to stay that way for a while until slow change overcomes them. The NBA is the one place where one player, whether named Wilt Chamberlain or LeBron James, can team-hop and turn the league upside-down.
The one thing that can produce a sea change in the NFL is a dramatic QB change, but even Peyton Manning hasn't seen the mountain air produce a ring.
Anyway, on with it!
In what has become the most predictable division in football, don't expect any miracles outside Foxboro. The Patriots, with all their supposed issues, will win the division again and vie for the ring again just because they're... well... the Patriots.
The Jets, erstwhile challengers, have spent the past few seasons in the bad joke department. This year, despite what many are calling vast improvements in personnel, one of said improvements has been none other than Mike Vick. Gone is Sanchez, the questionable quarterback who led them to two conference games not so long ago. Vick is aboard to 'mentor' Geno Smith. Smith needs more than mentoring, but doesn't relish the thought of being a backup. The plan is that he starts. We shall see. The stage is set for another circus.
The Fins, sidetracked by the media's vapid anti-bullying campaign last year, have proven less than resilient in the face of adversity, however minor. Why they should suddenly develop the heart of a champion is a topic for conjecture.
And, as usual... Buffalo. They seem to have a lot of good players. They are a tough out in the division. But they're always an out. EJ Manuel isn't going to turn into Tom Brady. Or Ryan Tannehill. Or even Mike Vick. But they may not finish last. In fact, except for first place it's a scramble, but one with dubious probability of producing a wild card.
With the decline of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Bengals have been something of a default champion recently by virtue of being a solid team. But they lack everything necessary to advance past their first playoff game. What that lack is can't be quantified easily, but it will focus, as it always does, on Dalton. Fair? Who cares? Anyway, though Pitt and Balty have stronger organizations, the front offices don't slug it out on Sundays.
The Browns are a big talking point. Again. Last year they looked formidable for a game and a half before Hoyer crumbled behind his oddly porous offensive line. Everyone would love to see Johnny Football ride in on his horse and pull an instant Andrew Luck, but only Cleveland fans could possibly believe it will happen. Something good could happen. The Browns have some pieces, the Bengals are still a dubious division dynasty, and the Ravens and Steelers still have winning pedigree but not much else. Unfortunately, the Browns' organization from top to bottom is so chaotic that it's impossible to believe they can pull it off until it happens.
The Ravens and Steelers are lumped together. Each team has a star quarterback, but the rest of the equation is a big fat question mark. It's hard to fathom starting a season without a 'pick one' for the AFCN between them, but here we are.
Colts Magic may be burning out a bit, but has anyone lately come out of college and turned a completely dismantled team into a winner like Andrew Luck? So far the rebuild has been more successful than planned. Expect this to continue. Unless...
Well, there is one case of first-to-worst in the NFL, and it's the Texans. How a team boasting one of the strongest rosters can succumb to injuries (and to two disheartening blowouts to New England) with a 2-14 season is beyond belief. We are about to find out whether Gary Kubiak was the glue that held them together or the problem. Bill O'Brien is a great coordinator but this is his first head job in the NFL. A coaching change can do wonders, and if he can revive their moribund offense things might get interesing. But bypassing a quarterback for a defensive end in the draft may have sealed their fate.
Tennessee ain't too bad... and ain't too good. End of story.
Jacksonville had a very good offseason, but the Jags need to pull a 'show me' to regain credibility as a contender. The team has heart. It could happen.
You'd think with two flops in the playoffs and Peyton Manning applying for Social Security the Broncos would hang it up. Not John Elway. He has his window, and this year is proving no different than last with an army of acquisitions to get Peyton his ring. It's doubtful that it will, but it will get him yet another division crown.
Should Denver slip up, however, the Chiefs at least look like the clear lady in waiting. Alex Smith may not be Manning, but he's pretty good, and his team isn't bad either. It's all a question of what the Broncos do, and after that Super Bowl, more than one potential sword hangs over their heads.
And then there's Oakland. Except for the Browns, the perennial example of how not to do things. This year they had a good offseason, not just for them but for anyone. The question will be whether the added talent has effect or just gets sucked into the bottomless pit that has claimed so many. Matt Schaub will become the latest faded star to try his luck. Carson Palmer couldn't do it. Went to Arizona and looked just fine. Oughtta tell you something.
Finally we have the Chargers... or what's left of them. They showed so much heart last year, it's impossible to write them off. Under AnybodyButNorv, they blossomed from talented underachievers to untalented overachievers. The latter is far more fun to watch. Don't count them out of second place unless a few of their remaining wheels fall off.
The division that had everyone in a 4-way head scratching quandary for years now is Nick Foles' to lose. The Eagles may not be great, but they're good, and that's all it should take. The reasons?
The Giants stunk, and have great stink potential again. The embattled Coughlin could pull one of his miracles again, but this time it would have to be a real miracle.
The Redskins have more problems than their name (or, more accurately, those who've made a PC cause celebre out of it) and they start with what was only recently their one rock-solid position. Two years ago, RG3 and Kirk Cousins looked too good to stay on the same team. But they did, and the results were disasterous. Griffin, back early from his injury (at his insistence), stunk the house out. He was so bad that he was benched in favor of Cousins, unfortunately so late in the season that the cause was hopeless and Cousins was hopelessly out of sorts. Now they have two young question marks to go with the others... which comprise the whole shebang, on and off the field.
The Cowboys get sillier --- and progressively worse --- by the year. Don't guess this trend will continue. Bank on it.
The Pack may not be what they were once, and Aaron Rodgers may be contemplating suicide judging from his comments on running with the ball, but for reasons so common among the divisions they should manage win theirs.
The Bears are coming back with a revamped defense. Good idea. After that it's Jay and Matt and pray for health. Same old Bears.
The Lions continue to be the league's shining example of how to squander apparent talent. Will a coaching change make all the difference? Something better.
The Vikings try hard, and that might be enough to push them past the menagerie if both animal squads sputter, which is more than possible. But whatever happens they probably won't catch Green Bay. You can't ride AP like a horse.
I've been predicting the dissolution of the Saints for a few years now, and been wrong. Last year their hot start buried the Falcons, leaving doubt as to how hard said Falcons were actually trying. And they handled upstart Carolina when they had to. They have the best (and dirtiest) coach in the division. Will that still be enough? Maybe. Maybe not. The wheels have to fall off some day, but they need some encouragement.
Atlanta is a huge question mark following a pathetic season rivaled only by Houston. Is Mike Smith really back? Consistency may be something the Falcons don't want this time around. Nobody sinks like that after losing a wide receiver. Nobody good, anyway.
Carolina had a breakout season for Cam last year. Or was it a flash in the pan? Judging from what happened between the season and postseason, it'll all depend on how short a leash they can keep on Newton, who appears to prefer the Superman routine, which loses, to the game manager routine, which won them games.
Tampa Bay isn't pathetic, but the Bucs also aren't looking like contenders either. This year, though, is the Lovie Smith Show. If they play as hard for him as the Bears did, who knows where this fairly talented team might end up?
Suddenly the premier division in football, the NFCW has two powerhouses, one good team and one mystery flop. Seattle's hold on the division is anything but guaranteed. But the champs are the likeliest to win it. There's one major reason.
Colin Kaepernick has been showing more and more of his flaky side since the reins came off. He's talented and dynamic, but he's also a mistake-prone passer who can be a liability when he goes sour. His discipline is in, shall we say, some question, certainly when compared to that of the possibly less skilled Russell Wilson. But the Niners should be there until the end anyway.
The Cards surprised almost everybody by making a run at a playoff spot late. Carson Palmer settled into his role, and the team played well. There's just too much to overcome right now in the division though.
Which brings us to the Rams. Is Sam still a franchise QB? Have all those draft picks borne fruit yet? Will they this time around? Is Fisher really still a capable coach? Stay tuned, but the likely anwers, as their record shall determine, are no, no and no. This ain't the NFCE. This ain't even the NFCS. Rebuilds don't take this long.