2014 NFL Season: Predicting the divisional winners and sleeper competition

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With the 2014 NFL season about to get into full swing GMS predicts which teams will be celebrating come playoff time.

AFC East:

Winner: New England Patriots:
For a few seconds, it looked like the Patriots suffered a severe loss with cornerback Aqib Talib spurning them for the Denver Broncos. But no worries, the Pats did what they do best - make sure they have a winning squad. They were able to accomplish that by signing Darrelle Revis; arguably, a better corner than Talib. As long as Tom Brady is behind the line - despite his age -, and the defense remains solid, they will remain a major threat.

Sleeper: New York Jets:
Geno Smith has looked great this offseason, and new acquisition running back Chris Johnson gives them a lethal running threat. Chris Ivory should still see touches and he’s a great third-down guy who can bruise out the tough yards.Johnson’s flashy style of running and Ivory’s bulldozer-ness compliment each other perfectly.

Eric Decker was also acquired in the offseason and he gives Geno a legitimate target out wide. He’s big, strong, and a phenomenal route runner who does his job well and will make the young quarterback’s life easy. The Jets’ defense is extremely aggressive and focuses on wearing down the opposing offense rather than delaying them, which will likely either result and quick three-and-outs, or big yardage against them. Whatever the result may be, it will speed the game up and that’s exactly what the Jets offense wants due to their player personnel.

AFC North:

Winner: Cincinnati Bengals:
Despite an early round exit to the San Diego Chargers in last seasons’ playoffs, there is no denying the talent on this team. Behind superstar AJ Green, Cincy boasts some of the best young offensive talent in rookie sensation Giovani Bernard, and a gifted pair of second-option receiving corps in Marvin Jones and Muhammad Sanu. It all comes down to Andy Dalton. He has to get AJ Green involved, all the time, and he must be consistent. Consistency has been his biggest enemy. If he plays as well as the Bengals recently paid him (seventeen million in year one), they will be major contenders. We already know how good the defense is.

Sleeper: Pittsburgh Steelers:
The Steelers may have lost wideout Emmanuel Sanders, but Antonio Brown will go above and beyond in replacing his production. Brown is a crazy athlete and finishes every play with purpose. He is a major rising star.

He won’t be the only key receiving component, though; Heath Miller, who was below average for his standards last season because he was recovering from surgery on his knee, is gathering rave reviews from teammates this offseason and apparently looks better than ever. Also, think about this: last season, in which the Steelers began the season 0-4, their top two running backs were Isaac Redman and Felix Jones. This season? The mega-talented power-running duo of Le’veon Bell and LaGarett Blount. To avoid hindrance, I won’t make a pun out of LaGarett’s last name.

AFC West:

Winner: Denver Broncos:
Oh, the Broncos. They were destined to get it all right. Peyton Manning would cement his legacy. Champ Bailey would get his ring. The legendary offense would go down in history books. Nothing could slow them down... well, that’s until they were clobbered by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Their shaky defense, which had been covered up all season by their offense, was blatantly exposed. Well, what did General Manager John Elway do about it? He made sure Peyton Manning gets another shot, by adding star cornerback Aquib Talib and seven time pro-bowler Demarcus Ware. Despite the loss of Eric Decker, their offense is still the best in the league. Now, their defense suddenly looks just as scary.

These Broncos are going to be a nightmare to deal with on both sides of the ball. Speaking of Ball, how about Montee Ball? Without Knowshon Moreno, the job is his to lose, and he shouldn’t lose it. He took last year to learn the offense and flourish his skillset. He is one of the most talented young runners in football, and he couldn’t be in a more perfect situation to thrive in an offense that relies heavily on the pass, thus making the run more unpredictable. Expect big things all around.

Sleeper: San Diego Chargers:
I would not be shocked if the Chargers won the AFC West. Phllip Rivers responded incredibly to Mike McCoy’s uptempo offense, and he proved he has tons left in the tank. In year two under McCoy, it’s not far-fetched to say that Rivers could cement himself as a top-four quarterback in the NFL, after the likes of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He is right behind them.

Second-year phenom Keenan Allen only needs a few more games of greatness to establish himself as one of the very top-tier receivers in the game, and he will certainly make Rivers’ job easier. The biggest notice, however, comes from a vastly improved secondary defense. The Bolts drafted Jason Verett, an NFL ready cornerback with exceptional athleticism, followed by the addition of pro-bowl corner Brandon Flowers; one of the premier receiver-stoppers in the game.

The Chargers are improved offensively and defensively, and added with another year of experience under Mike McCoy, this group will look to build off of their short playoff run last season.

AFC South:

Winner: Indianapolis Colts:
Last year was just a warmup. This year is the real thing. Andrew Luck showed phenomenal poise in his second year with the Colts and has all the skills to thrust himself into MVP contention. He’s not a highlight machine, but much like Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson, he manages the game, gets the job done, and throws for big yards when necessary.

With the addition of Hakeem Nicks, Andrew Luck has a reliable target to pair with T.Y Hilton, who enjoyed a phenomenal breakout campaign last season. But the key to success will lie with Trent Richardson. If he returns to 2012-13 form, there will be few teams with a better chance at winning big than the Indianapolis Colts.

Sleeper: Houston Texans:
To be brutally honest, I don’t see one other team in this division being a sleeper, or a winner of any sort. But, I’m going to go with the Texans here simply because they have unparalleled defensive potential. JJ Watt, Brian Cushing, Jadeveon Clowney, DJ Swearinger, just to name a few, lead the way. I don’t think their defense will be as good as some others’ this season, but soon enough no unit will be better. There’s just too much promise.

NFC East:

Winner: Washington Redskins:
The Redskins had high expectations coming into last season, but quarterback Robert Griffin III’s sophomore slump heavily impacted the Redskins’ subpar season performance. This season, expectations should be high once again, especially with the recent addition of DeSean Jackson. He makes them elite. I’m taking them to win this division for a simple reason: A core of RGIII, D-Jax, Pierre Garcon, Alfred Morris and breakout sensation Jordan Reed, who reminds many of Jimmy Graham, can and should be a top three offense.

If the Redskins’ defense can do it’s job, the name-controversy of the Redskins won’t be their biggest weekly headlines.

Sleeper: Philadelphia Eagles:
While I respect the Philadelphia front office for doing what they thought was right by cutting DeSean Jackson, it doesn’t exactly help them as a team. However, this opens the door for the forgotten man, Jeremy Maclin, to thrive and take over Jackson’s role.

Maclin was not able to play last season due to injury. He has bundles of talent and can easily mature into a premier receiver. Then there is Lesean McCoy, who convinced many in 2013 that he is the best running back in the NFL. He should get even more carries this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Eagles focus on their running more, which is an area they thrive in due to Mccoy’s abilities. Finally, with quarterback Nick Foles emerging as an elite quarterback with incredible range, it’s clear there is potential all around for this team to have a great year. The defense needs some improvement, though.

NFC North:

Winner: Green Bay Packers:
I’m saying it this season, I said it last season, and I said it the season before that: until Aaron Rodgers walks away from this organization, there is no counting out the Packers. That would simply be foolish.

While Aaron Rodgers was out for a few games last year, we saw the implications it had on the rest of the roster; they weren't that great. In fact, they were below average. With him, they are contenders, always. That is, unless he gets injured again. A Rodger-less Packers team is not one I see competing. He means that much. The Packers were also without their best receiver Randall Cobb for the majority of the season, and still, Rodgers thrived. With him back, the offense will be even more sinister.

The defense, though, is questionable. Last season, they ranked 25th in rushing defense. A healthy Clay Matthews and the new addition of Julius Peppers should definitely improve that. Yes, they got dismantled by the Seahawks in week 1, but that should actually help them in figuring out their game plan for the rest of the season and how to improve in their weak areas.

Sleeper: Detroit Lions:
The Lions are a team I have a hard time figuring out. Some games, their offense looks unstoppable - thanks to Calvin Johnson - and their rush defense will make it impossible for the opposing team to run more than sixty yards. But some other games, their defense looks vulnerable and their offense seems stagnant because it is so reliant on Calvin Johnson. The Lions are the epitome of inconsistency. However, adding Super Bowl champ wide receiver Golden Tate should take a tremendous amount of pressure off of Calvin Johnson’s shoulders (even though we know his shoulders are strong enough to take it) and the offense should run far more fluidly as a result.

If the Lions utilize Reggie Bush on the run and mix up their plays, which should support an already-strong defensive unit, the Lions will secure the playoff birth that they narrowly missed last season.

NFC South:

Winner: Carolina Panthers:
With the departure of Steve Smith, the Panthers lack a number-one receiver. How much will that play into their overall success? That is the main question coming into preseason. Cam Newton has proven he is an elite quarterback who can throw and run equally well, but he can only go so far without a main target. Even though many great teams, including the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots last season, don’t necessarily need a great number-one, Steve Smith was such a key part to their offense that it’s hard to imagine them being as productive without him. The defense is incredible, though, and that will be what lifts them to victories.

Sleeper: Atlanta Falcons:
As long as the core of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Matt Ryan stick together, I see them as being a threat to any team. The offense tends to get flashy, and Ryan often tries to throw balls out of his range, but Jones and White will catch anything. If Steven Jackson can have a solid year behind the line, the Falcons will be a more versatile and consistent offense. They could definitely sneak into the picture.

NFC West:

Winner: Seattle Seahawks:
You literally can't pick anyone else, for two reasons: #1, because they just won the Super Bowl. and #2, because they are still the best team in the NFL, and that was evident in their dominant victory over the Green Bay Packers, who are considered to be title contenders this year.

It's extremely hard to repeat in the NFL, but the Seahawks are good enough to defy any kind of odds. Marshawn Lynch is still most certainly a beast, Russell Wilson will continue to be the best game-managing quarterback in the NFL, and they have Percy Harvin for a full season. Should I even mention the defense? Probably a waste of space. 

Sleeper: Arizona Cardinals:
They've got to be the sleeper here, surely. Everyone talks about Larry Fitzgerald, but what about Michael Floyd, who might have just had the quietest one-thousand yard reception year in recent memory. Most analysts are torn about who will even be the number one receiver in the system. And that's a very good thing. Maybe not for Fitzgerald fantasy owners, but definitely for the Cardinals offense.

The defense is also excellent and Patrick Peterson will try desperately to prove he is the best cornerback in the NFL, and let's hope it stirs up another Twitter argument with Richard Sherman. Pure entertainment. Andre Ellington's health status for the upcoming season will be the biggest factor into major success or complete burnout. His blazing speed makes that much of a difference.

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Cincinnati Bengals
New York Jets
New England Patriots
Denver Broncos
Detroit Lions
Pittsburgh Steelers
Houston Texans
San Diego Chargers
Green Bay Packers
Washington Redskins
Philadelphia Eagles
San Francisco 49ers
Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts
Carolina Panthers
Seattle Seahawks

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