As the 2014 NFL season approaches, it’s important to point out that Back to the Future II took place in the distant dystopia of 2015. Furthermore, I managed to swipe Biff’s almanac so you can take these predictions to the bank.
(Disclaimer: Please don’t take these picks to the bank. Arrogance and preseason picks do not go hand in hand, as many podcasts and major publications have discovered.)
Here are the key takeaways from my glimpse at the aforementioned sports almanac.
2014 NFL regular season predictions
AFC South bounces back with two playoffs bids
If Jake Locker stays healthy Tennessee boasts a decent shot to earn a playoff bid. Big “if,” I know, but Locker in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense with an athletic mix of targets could prove dangerous. Houston is this offseason’s red herring of resurgence; it’s the Titans who will capitalize on a schedule delivering the AFC North and NFC East along with two each against the Jags and Texans.
Dexter McCluster is an underrated yet valuable asset and will likely assume a Danny Woodhead role, reminiscent of Whisenhunt’s last stop as offensive coordinator in San Diego. He’s played a significant role in the career revivals of Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers as each swiftly went from downward spiral to MVP candidate.
This is not calling Locker the next Warner or Rivers, but his early 2013 sample bodes well for a breakout year. Justin Hunter can take the top off the defense and high-point balls in the end zone while Kendall Wright’s already emerged as an excellent possession target with the ability to do more.
The veteran presence of Nate Washington and versatility of tight end Delanie Walker round out an arsenal of weapons that complement each other quite well. Now if the switch to 3-4 amplifies their defensive strength in the way I believe it could, Ray Horton’s unit could prove halfway decent despite some major questions at cornerback.
GIF – Jake Locker to Nate Washington for the TD http://t.co/XxyzqwCJvK
— FanSided GIF (@FanSidedGIF) August 24, 2014
Pep Hamilton’s second year overseeing the Colts offense—one would assume—features some lessons learned from baffling first-half approaches in 2013. Andrew Luck is primed to take an even bigger step up and earn Indy a playoff bid. Jacksonville will continue its climb to respectability once Blake Bortles can take the reins from Chad Henne.
San Francisco 49ers will miss the playoffs
The 49ers could very well take a losing record into the bye week. Home contests against the Eagles and Bears plus trips to Arizona and Denver look brutal sans Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who on some days are the most dangerous player in the league at their respective position. The Ray McDonald news feels like a tipping point and presents another major loss. The defensive questions and acrimonious offseason for Jim Harbaugh appear increasingly like things we point to in retrospect when the cards have fallen.
There’s also no guarantee the de-escalators in Colin Kaepernick’s deal will speed up his concerning development as a passer. Kaepernick finished 31st in accuracy percentage last season and 21st this preseason among quarterbacks who took at least 25% of their team’s dropbacks, via Pro Football Focus’ database.
Kaepernick may be a better athlete than Russell Wilson and I would presume has more ripped abs, but Wilson remains far ahead of Kaepernick on the QB learning curve despite inferior protection. Greg Roman’s offense is predicated on power-running opponents into submission to consistently thrive. What happens if the general play of the line significantly declines for a second straight year?
Mike Iupati broke his fibula in January to cap a down year and was recently seen being mercilessly beaten by Corey Liuget, so that’s a legitimate worry as the Niners have counted on class-of-the-league play at left guard for years. Right guard Alex Boone missed all of preseason and just ended his holdout. Starting center Jonathan Goodwin left in free agency. The Niners’ typically punishing line stepped back in 2013, finishing ninth in PFF’s offensive line rankings. It’s hard to assume they hold the same massive advantage in the trenches as previous years under Harbaugh.
Justin Smith might not be mortal, but if he is, he’s about to turn 35. CB Tramaine Brock and S Eric Reid have shown promising development and could well replenish a secondary losing longtimers Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner — replacing the latter with Antoine Bethea seems problematic.
The Niners could be headed for an 8-8 season.
Squads that could realistically capitalize as underdogs at plus odds (via Bovada)
Chargers make playoffs (+180 odds).
San Diego’s pass rush should improve drastically in returning Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram, the former performing well before his 2013 injury and the latter after. “X” factor is how quickly rookie cornerback Jason Verrett makes an impact and whether Brandon Flowers shakes off a down 2013 campaign in an ill-fitting coverage scheme. Philip Rivers played incredibly well with a thin receiving corps and this group should improve drastically as Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green gain more experience. Now-healthy Malcom Floyd is typically productive with his targets and helps Rivers attack downfield.
Looking at the second AFC wild card berth, Titans make playoffs (+300) or Jets (+300).
I picked Tennessee to advance over the Jets via tiebreaker from a head-to-head home win in Week 15, but it was a close call. For the Jets, finishing 9-7 would comprise a one-win improvement in what should be a relatively weak AFC. Geno Smith, a second-year quarterback who improved drastically after a dumpster-fire midseason stretch, should give them near-average quarterback play and that may be enough for a wild-card spot in 2014. Not to overhype, but Calvin Pryor looks like the perfectly tailored chess piece for a Rex Ryan defense.
Cardinals make playoffs (+250)
Football Outsiders ranked Arizona as the No. 2 defense in DVOA last season. Losing Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett will diminish this unit to varying degrees, though it probably blows things out of proportion to say Todd Bowles’ group will fall off a cliff. Washington missed four games en route to the 20th-ranked season among ILBs in PFF grading and Dockett 34th among 3-4 DEs.
The Cards also add Antonio Cromartie, return Tyrann Mathieu from injury and first-round rookie Deone Bucannon could prove an immediate difference maker for a squad coming off a 10-6 season. Assume continued offensive progress under Bruce Arians—with Jared Veldheer anchoring the left side—and a wild card bid out of the NFC West seems very realistic.
Division winners: Bears (+350) and Ravens (+275)
Any season predictions that go all chalk with division winners are bound to fail somewhere. I’m slightly disappointed for picking just two underdogs out of eight, but this will do.
Jay Cutler continues to improve in a Marc Trestman offense that produced 43 percent more passing yards in just his first season in charge. A worst-case scenario 2013 defensively will benefit dramatically if Lance Briggs and “Peanut” Tillman stay relatively healthy, while Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Jared Allen are sure-fire upgrades on the defensive front against both run and pass.
The Bears also field the best WR tandem in the league (comprised of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery), and Matt Forte continues to rack up all-purpose yards at will as an every-down back.
My Texans and Ravens predictions could prove that I’m too keen on new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, but I think his zone-scheme touch to the offense is a vital upgrade. The rest is up to Joe Flacco, now equipped with a full season of Dennis Pitta, Steve Smith and capable blindside protector Eugene Monroe.
Seahawks win Super Bowl (6/1), Pats win AFC (3/1)
Not exactly a sleeper pick and, wow, it seems like the odds are getting less appetizing every day. I typically avoid picking a repeat but this Seahawks team is set to defy recent trends. Winning the Super Bowl before an offseason in which Russell Wilson could not talk extension allows them to absorb cap hits from Percy Harvin, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas over the next few years while keeping Michael Bennett from bolting in free agency. The domino effect from Wilson’s rookie contract helps make repeating uniquely probable.
New England gets the narrow edge over Denver and San Diego.
Other interesting over-under season win totals
OVER/Started from the bottom and now we’re here: Vikes (6.5), Rams (6.5), Bucs (7)
All three possess 10-win ceilings yet only need seven to cover or push. St. Louis finished third in sacks and adds interior penetration from Aaron Donald. Minnesota boasts a sneaky good mix of vets up front with the main concerns being how quickly young Sharrif Floyd and Anthony Barr transfer supreme talent to production. Bucs new head coach Lovie Smith surrounded DT Gerald McCoy with Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald, who looked like one of the offseason’s best bargains yet again against Buffalo.
St. Louis added a capable veteran QB in Shaun Hill and Tampa with Luke McCown. Handing off to Adrian Peterson will make life manageable in Minnesota for Matt Cassel and eventually Teddy Bridgewater.
UNDER/could be regressing: Chiefs (8), Panthers (7.5), Texans (7.5)
Alex Smith may put up career-best numbers in year two under Andy Reid and it would rely somewhat on a bounce-back year from Dwayne Bowe and emergence of Travis Kelce. There should be a smaller percentage of conservative throws for Smith as KC’s defense won’t get to feast on poor offenses quite like in early 2013. Still, this was not their winning formula last year. Eric Berry’s the only member of the secondary that likely qualifies above mediocre. Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (twice) and Philip Rivers (twice) will take a full advantage. Meanwhile a shuffled O-line poses major questions for a run-heavy offense.
Vegas anticipates regression to mean for both the Panthers and Texans. Carolina’s primed for regression to poor. An offense built on power running will struggle minus one of the best left wings in football with LT Jordan Gross and LG Travelle Wharton off to retirement. Houston’s offensive line must adjust from Kubiak’s zone run-centric attack to a Bill Bradley offense sure to feature growing pains, commanded by perhaps the league’s least-inspiring quarterback platoon and an erstwhile star running back with back problems.
Team-by-team win-loss predictions (Full week-by-week predictions for the entire season here)
NFC East: PHI 11-5 NYG 8-8 WAS 7-9 DAL 6-10
NFC North: CHI 12-4 *GB 11-5 MIN 7-9 DET 5-11
NFC South: NO 13-3 ATL 9-7 TB 8-8 CAR 4-12
NFC West: SEA 13-3 *AZ 10-6 SF 8-8 STL 7-9
AFC East: NE 12-4 NYJ 9-7 MIA 6-10 BUF 4-12
AFC North: BAL 10-6 PIT 8-8 CIN 6-10 CLE 4-12
AFC South: IND 10-6 *TEN 9-7 JAX 5-11 HOU 3-13
AFC West: DEN 12-4 *SD 11-5 KC 6-10 OAK 2-14
#3 Colts over #6 Titans | #5 Chargers over #4 Ravens
#3 Bears over #6 Cardinals | #5 Packers over #4 Eagles
#1 Patriots over #6 Colts | #5 Chargers over #2 Broncos
#1 Seahawks over #5 Packers | #2 Saints over #3 Bears
#1 Patriots over #5 Chargers | #1 Seahawks over #2 Saints
Seahawks over Patriots