The NFL could not have asked for a better finale in the NFC when the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks were the last two teams standing. In 2014 the NFC Championship game was a dream match-up with the ferocious defense of the Seahawks matching up against Aaron Rodgers and the mighty Packers offense. Instead, the game became an instant classic not due to an amazing performance by both teams but rather both team self-destructing.
The Packers had a 19-7 lead with just over five minutes to play after Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson had one of the worst first half of a game in NFL history throwing three interceptions. When the Packers intercepted Wilson again to get the ball back the Packers appeared headed to the Super Bowl. Instead, the Packers ran the ball and punted back to Seattle. The Seahawks moved downfield to score and then recovered an onside kick to score and add a two-point conversion to take a three point lead.
The Packers got the game to overtime with a strong drive down the field and field goal, but when the game went to overtime it was all Seattle. Wilson shook off his slow start to the game and drove Seattle to a victory and another trip to the Super Bowl as the Packers had all offseason to think about how they blew a 12 point lead in four minutes and missed out on going to the Super Bowl against a Patriots team they beat in the regular season.
To preview the 2015 NFL season, I will break it down into two articles–one for the AFC here and this one for the NFC. Looking at each division within the conference, each team will have a designation attached to them indicating their expected category for the coming season. They are ranked as “Elite Title Contenders” meaning they are an expected Super Bowl contender, “Contender” meaning they are in competition to make the playoffs, “Pretenders” meaning they may have high hopes coming into the season but are in the five to eight wins category, and finally the “Out of the Race” teams who are building for the future still and looking for growth and development more than wins.
Seattle Seahawks – Elite Title Contenders
Seattle fell a yard short of a back-to-back Super Bowl championship as the Seahawks tried to pass the ball into the end zone and had it intercepted by New England rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler. To compensate, the Seahawks traded center Max Unger to New Orleans for star tight end Jimmy Graham giving quarterback Russell Wilson his first dynamic pass receiver on offense. With Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch locked up long-term, the Seahawks are in position to
shine on offense for the foreseeable future. Rookie Tyler Lockett and young Super Bowl standout Chris Matthews should help in the passing game as well.
On defense the Seahawks are still waiting for star safety Kam Chancellor to end his holdout and return to the team. As long as Earl Thomas is healthy and All-Pro Richard Sherman are in the secondary Seattle will be fine. Cary Williams has joined the secondary and the linebackers remain strong with K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Bruce Irvin a strong trio. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril lead the pass rush and rookie pass-rusher Frank Clark should help as well.
Seattle remains the favorite in the NFC due to their stifling defense and the addition of Jimmy Graham should be a boost to the offense. Seattle is definitely a legitimate Super Bowl favorite again in 2015.
Arizona Cardinals – Contenders
The Arizona Cardinals were flying high in 2014 before a run of injuries at quarterback derailed their season. Starter Carson Palmer tore his ACL and then backup Drew Stanton got hurt as well. Forced to turn to Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals fell short. A healthy Palmer and revitalized Larry Fitzgerald lead the offense. Second and third wide receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown are good enough and Arizona added rookie running back David Johnson to the explosive Andre Ellington.
Arizona added linebacker D.J. Humphries in the draft to a weak linebacker group. The secondary will miss veteran Antonio Cromartie but they still retain Patrick Peterson who is one of the best in the NFL. The secondary will be alright if they stay healthy. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu is a big play maker if healthy and Deone Bucannon should improve in his second season. The defensive line is strong as veteran Cory Redding joins Calais Campbell–who is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league.
Arizona is a quality team with Palmer (or even Stanton) leading the team, Depth is a concern on both sides of the ball but a healthy 2015 should catapult the Cardinals back into the playoffs.
St. Louis Rams – Contenders
The St. Louis Rams finally pulled the plug on the failed Sam Bradford experiment this offseason as they sent the former number one overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in return for fellow signal caller Nick Foles. The Rams also added rookie running back Todd Gurley to impressive young back Tre Mason to anchor a run-based offense. Tight end Jared Cook is a top target–which is not saying much–and Brian Quick and Kenny Britt join Tavon Austin at wide receiver.
On defense the Rams went from impressive to scarily good this offseason. Aaron Donald–the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year–is an impact interior lineman. Add him to Robert Quinn–a devastating penetrating pass rusher–and Michael Brockers and Chris Long and it is an impressive unit. However, the Rams then went and signed young veteran tackle Nick Fairley to generate pressure. Linebacker Akeem Ayers was signed to push veteran James Laurinaitis and provide much needed blitzing skills. Pressure is good on defense as the secondary is just so-so. Janoris Jenkins is talented but oft-injured and Mark Barron has untapped potential.
Like Arizona, the Rams have the defense to be one of the best, but the offense is built around the running game and not a great passing team. However, they are good enough to win enough games to be a Wild Card team and maybe pull an upset in 2015.
San Francisco 49ers – Pretenders
The mess that has become the 49ers is quite sad, actually. What was a young, dynamic Super Bowl team has suffered amazing attrition in the offseason. With head coach Jim Harbaugh leading the reverse Gold Rush out of town, the offense will try to get Colin Kaepernick some help from running back Carlos Hyde. However, with the attrition on the offensive line, Hyde and newly signed Reggie Bush will struggle to find room. At wide receiver Torrey Smith replaces Michael Crabtree as Kaepernick’s top target. Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis return as well.
Although the 49ers have struggles on offense, the defense is even worse shape. Almost every skilled linebacker is gone as Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland all retired. NaVorro Bowman is coming back from a knee injury. On the defensive line, Justin Smith retired, Aldon Smith was let go after another arrest, and Ray McDonald is gone due to domestic violence arrests. Now Ahmad Brooks is in trouble being charged with sexual battery and sent home from camp. Arik Armstead and Darnell Dockett will have to start with Glenn Dorsey. The 49ers also lost both starting cornerbacks as the secondary went from a key strength to a weakness.
This team is a mess, and then San Francisco went and replaced Harbaugh with an unproven head coach who was never even an NFL coordinator in Jim Tomsula (everyone repeat after me, “Who?”). Hard to believe this team has fallen so far, so fast. It will be a tough 2015 in San Francisco.
It is difficult to anoint any team from a division where no one reached .500 last season as elite. The Saints are the closest as they still have Drew Brees and a number of weapons on offense. C.J. Spiller will be a good fit in the offense and adding rookie Andrus Peat to the offensive line along with Max Unger can only help. The trading away of Jimmy Graham is puzzling but Brees still has Brandin Cooks who has All Pro potential. Veteran Marques Colston remains as well and the team is strong at running back with Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram.
The Saints made a number of moves to shore up the defense and drafted six players to add to coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit (Rob Ryan is the brother with long hair and who passed on gastric bypass surgery). Rookie P.J. Williams joins Keenan Lewis and imports Kyle Wilson and Brandon Browner at cornerback. The Saints said goodbye to Junior Galette on the line and signed Anthony Spencer from Dallas. At linebacker, rookie Stephone Anthony is an intriguing pick-up and has been a star in training camp so far.
With an improved defense and a still-potent offense, the Saints should cruise through the NFC South and be a playoff team again in 2015.
Carolina Panthers – Pretenders
Carolina backed into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record last year behind a stifling defense and quarterback Cam Newton finding his groove with tight end Greg Olsen and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin is out for 2015 and replacing him with rookie project Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn is not going to be a plus. The offense will lean on running back Jonathan Stewart and hope he and Newton stay healthy behind a suspect offensive line.
The defense is the strength of Carolina. Safeties Tre Boston and Roman Harper are solid and Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere are solid at cornerback along with veteran Charles Tillman. Charles Johnson keys the defensive line and Kony Ealy should improve as a pass rusher in 2015. Rookie Shaq Thompson joins veteran Thomas Davis and Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly at linebacker. Kuechly is a true difference maker who is a beast against the run, is excellent in coverage, and is a solid blitzer.
Carolina will go as far as their defense takes them, but the offense is short on talent and paper thin in the depth department. Expect the Panthers to regress in 2015.
Atlanta Falcons – Pretenders
Speaking of teams falling on bad luck, was it just a few years ago the Falcons were in the NFC Championship game? Matt Ryan is still an elite quarterback but the rest of the team is falling apart around him. Julio Jones is elite when he stays on the field and and Roddy White is solid but aging. Devonta Freeman was a disappointment last year and will battle third round draft pick Tevin Coleman at running back all season. The offensive line is merely adequate and cannot win shootouts.
The problem with shootouts was that the defense was terrible. The Falcons loaded up with free agents adding pass rushers Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield. Rookie Vic Beasley should add a pass rush presence while rookie Jalen Collins should push Robert Alford across from Desmond Trufant. Trufant is the best player on defense and one of the more underrated cornerbacks. At linebacker the Falcons added Justin Durant and Brooks Reed. The defense has definitely improved in 2015.
The Falcons are better than they were in 2014 but still not good enough to push the Saints for the division crown. Expect a .500 season from the Falcons but they are a good draft and offseason from taking the next step back to a playoff team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Out of the Race
Tampa Bay found their franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston. Despite his off-field activities at Florida State, there is no doubt about his talent on the field. Winston will be an upgrade at quarterback as a rookie and should put up good numbers with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Evans is dynamic on the field and Jackson is solid number two receiver. Doug Martin needs to bounce back from injuries to his 2012 form at running back and second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to show he can be healthy and contribute at tight end. A rebuilt offensive line should help as well.
On defense the Bucs are in a tough spot. Gerald McCoy is dominant but the rest of the defensive line is weak. George Johnson, William Gholston, and Jacquies Smith are hardly starts. At linebacker the team has Lavonte David–another budding star–but not much beside him. Free agent Bruce Carter is not a fit for the defense and Danny Lansanah is just ordinary. Alterraun Verner is the best of the secondary but Jonathan Banks is weak and Sterling Moore is a career back-up. Safety is still a question mark and one of the weaker positions on the team.
The Buccaneers are building for the future but are still a few years away. Jameis Winston and the offense should improve, but the defense will struggle and Tampa Bay should be planning on another high draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Make no mistake, the loss of wide receiver Jordy Nelson is a huge blow to the Green Bay Packers. However, the presence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers overcomes many obstacles to the Packers. With Rodgers and running back Eddie Lacy, the Packers remain one of the top offenses in the NFL. Wide receiver Randall Cobb is an elite slot receiver and Davante Adams is an emerging talent. Look for tight end Richard Rodgers to take big step forward in 2015 and become an offensive threat.
On defense the Packers are still forced to move pass rushing threat Clay Matthews to inside linebacker. While Julius Peppers is a strong pass rusher, Nick Perry is just average. The Packers loaded up in the secondary during the draft for depth as they are solid in the secondary still. The defensive line is still strong with B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion. Guion has a three game suspension to start the season but Mike Daniels is solid inside.
The Packers are the elite of the NFC North and should have been in the Super Bowl last year. Even without Nelson, look for the Packers challenging to be the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl in 2015.
Detroit Lions – Contenders
The Lions came so close to defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card playoff game in 2014 and return most of their skill position players on offense in 2015. Matthew Stafford anchors the offense and rookie running back Ameer Abdullah looks like a star so far in the summer. Third down back Joique Bell is a strong complement. Calvin “Megatron” Johnson is a superstar at wide receiver and Golden Tate is an excellent number two. Tight end has the talented Eric Ebron who struggled as a rookie. What holds back the firepower? A weak offensive line. The Lions tri.ed to juggle it through the draft and free agency but dramatic results are not expected from the group.
On defense the Lions let star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and his backup C.J. Mosley leave. Free agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley and solid defensive end George Johnson also left. The Lions traded for veteran Haloti Ngata to fill the hole and he will team with Tyrunn Walker. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah will need to have a big season as a pass rusher. Linebacker DeAndre Levy is a stud and the position is deep. The secondary remains the same and is a group of solid veterans.
The defense should continue to carry the Lions to contention for the playoffs but quarterback Matthew Stafford needs to step up his game to get Detroit over the hump. That will only happen if the offensive line shows big improvement.
Minnesota Vikings – Contenders
Minnesota is a sexy pick to take a big step forward and contend in 2015. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed why his puzzling drop to the end of the first round was a mistake by other teams in a need of a quarterback. Once replacing veteran Matt Cassel he went 6-6 and was a leader on the field. Adding Adrian Peterson to the offense should only help. Mike Wallace was added as a free agent to the receiving group and he joins the underrated Charles Johnson, the overrated Cordarrelle Patterson, and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings defense saw improvement last year after dumping veterans Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph make a strong interior presence on the defensive line while Everson Griffen is a sack machine. Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges are above-average at linebacker and the secondary improved last year as safety Harrison Smith emerged as a dominant player. Xavier Rhodes is the best cornerback no one knows why Captain Munnerlyn is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. Adding first round draft pick Trae Waynes to man the corner opposite Rhodes should shore up a big weakness.
Minnesota should be in contention for a Wild Card spot in 2015. Whether the team can find a balance to the ball-hungry Adrian Peterson and the passing game on offense remains to be seen. Teddy Bridgewater needs to continue to improve in his second season to push Minnesota into the playoffs.
Chicago Bears – Out of the Race
The season ended in Chicago when seventh-overall draft pick wide receiver Kevin White was lost for the season with a stress fracture in his shin which will cause him to miss the 2015 season. Sure, there was no hope prior to that, but the injury was a kick in the groin for a team that was going to need every young player to step up in 2015. The Bears still have Jay Cutler at quarterback but traded away locker room cancer Brandon Marshall. Without White, the offense will lean on running back Matt Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett, and wide receiver Eddie Royal. While the offensive line is improved, Cutler will not without the big-play potential of White.
On defense, the Bills said goodbye to veterans Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman and brought in second round draft pick Eddie Goldman to anchor the interior defensive line, Pernell McPhee to bring pressure from the edge, and Antrel Rolle to solidify the secondary. The team is moving to a 3-4 defense which should boost the production of Jay Ratliff on the defensive line. A healthy Lamarr Houston or revitalized Jared Allen should be a boost while improvement by youngsters Brock Vereen and Kyle Fuller is a must. Without Briggs at linebacker, former Tampa Bay linebacker Mason Foster and Jon Bostic need to be solid.
The Bears are working towards improvement in 2015, but the loss of White is just too much for the team to overcome. Another top-ten draft pick is in their future.
Call me crazy but I am all-in on Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. He may rub some players the wrong way and confuse the fans with his moves, but he has been bold in a Bill Belichick manner in remaking his team in his image. QuartSma Bradford–if healthy–is a significant upgrade at quarterback. Kelly traded LeSean McCoy and his contract to Buffalo and brought in two starting quality backs who fit his system better in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews. The loss of Jeremy Maclin in free agency stings, but rookie Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews should mitigate it. If tight end Zach Ertz can improve the offense should finally match Kelly’s vision.
The Eagles defense was a weak point last season so Kelly again went to work rebuilding it to match his plan. Byron Maxwell was imported from Seattle and Eric Rowe was drafted to man the position with Nolan Carroll. Walter Thurmond slides to safety where he will team with Malcolm Jenkins. The linebackers are athletic and import Kiko Alonso should help as well. Connor Barwin is a beast rushing the passer and Marcus Smith and Brandon Graham can bring pressure as well. The defensive line is strong against the run
Chip Kelly may be a bit unique in his methods, but in year three in Philadelphia he is ready to the take the Eagles to the next level. Do not discount Philadelphia–this is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Dallas Cowboys – Contenders
The Dallas Cowboys feel cheated having lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Green Bay Packers last year. This offseason, however, the team lost star running back DeMarco Murray in free agency and did little to replace him. Anyone may be able to rush for 4 yards per carry behind Dallas’ monster offensive line, but Murray was not just anyone. However, Dallas remains a contender due to the presence of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Cole Beasley is a solid slot receiver but Terrance Williams has made little impact as the number two receiver. Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden are at the top of the rotation at running back.
On defense, the Cowboys are waiting for free agent defensive end Greg Hardy to return from his suspension. Another player suspended the first four games in linebacker Rolando McClain. Beyond Hardy, there is little pass rush as second round pick Randy Gregory will have to shoulder the burden the first quarter of the season. Sean Lee needs to stay healthy and Anthony Hitchens needs to step up at linebacker in his sophomore season. The secondary is reeling from losing Orlando Scandrick to injury and rookie Byron Jones will need to contribute along with veterans Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. The safeties are below average.
The offense should still be strong in Dallas, but questions remain about the defense. Even with McClain and Hardy returning in week five, the Cowboys just do not have enough talent on defense to be a serious Super Bowl contender in 2015.
New York Giants – Pretenders
The New York Giants finished the 2014 season with just six wins despite the emergence of rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. While the expectations are high with wide receiver Victor Cruz returning from injury, there are still questions with the Giants. Eli Manning is solid at quarterback, free agent Shane Vereen is an excellent receiving back, and Rueben Randle is an adequate third wide receiver, but the team will go as the offensive line and running game allows them. Rookie Ereck Flowers will have to start right away with William Beatty out most of the season. The rest of the line is weak and is a big reason that injury-prone Rashad Jennings and plodding Andre Williams struggled to run the ball.
The Giants struggles on defense started with the secondary in 2014. They dumped all their safeties and traded up for Landon Collins in the second round. At cornerback they have Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie–a competent duo if healthy and motivated. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul blew up his hand on Independence Day and are leaning on veteran Robert Ayers and rookie Damontre Moore to get pressure. Inside they have the talented Jonathan Hankins and rapidly declining Cullen Jenkins and 2014 mid-round pick Jay Bromley. New York signed J.T. Thomas from Jacksonville to team with Devon Kennard and Jon Beason at linebacker.
New York does not have a defense capable of making the playoffs, even with their explosive passing attack. An inconsistent running game and poor blocking up front will further hurt their chances in 2015.
Washington NFL Franchise – Out of the Race
The Washington NFL Franchise has a mess at quarterback. Head coach Jay Gruden seems to prefer traditional pocket quarterback Kirk Cousins but is saddled with Robert Griffin III. Of course, running for his life behind a bad offensive line does not help with the evaluation. Washington imported Brandon Scheff through the draft and some developing young players and having Trent Williams will help. Impressive young tight end Niles Paul is out for the year with an ankle injury and back-up Jordan Reed is coming back from a serious knee injury. Veteran DeSean Jackson is an impressive receiver–if the offensive line gives him time to get downfield. Ditto for Pierre Garcon opposite him. Running back Alfred Morris is solid–if healthy. Rookie Matt Jones should help as a third down back, but there is scant depth at any position on offense.
On defense Washington was abysmal in 2014 and made some moves to try to address the situation but there was only so much they could do. At defensive tackle they loaded up adding Ricky Jean-Francois, Stephen Paea, and Terrance Knighton. At linebacker they have Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley inside and pass rushers Trent Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan outside. In the secondary Deangelo Hall holds down one spot and free agent Chris Culliver will man the other. At safety, Washington brought in veterans Dashon Goldson and Duke Ihenacho, upgrading the talent there significantly.
On paper Washington has upgraded on defense but there are few young difference makers other than Kerrigan. It is an old, slow unit that may struggle again in 2015. The offense has the potential to improve, but what happens at quarterback is what will drive the Redskins in 2015.