West: After a regular season that was the envy of most any team in NFL history, the Denver Broncos and their high-powered offense were embarrassed in the Super Bowl by the Seattle Seahawks 43-8.
So to go along with NFL MVP Peyton Manning and an offense that scored the most points in NFL history, the Broncos beefed up their defense by adding pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Losing Eric Decker to free agency and the recurrence of concussion issues for Wes Welker could hurt the offense.
While Manning was a given last season, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs were a big surprise. In their first season under coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs turned a talented bunch into a cohesive unit and started 9-0. How they handle their sophomore season under Reid will be key.
It is also Year 2 for the San Diego Chargers under Mike McCoy. The optimism isn’t as great as it is in K.C. because the Chargers have had expectations, only to disappoint. There has to be more purpose.
The Raiders have brought in a slew of veterans to go with a young core, but it will be another long season in the Black Hole with one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.
1. Broncos 2. Chiefs 3. Chargers 4. Raiders
North: While the AFC North will not be in the conversation for the best division in the NFL, it might have the most balance. While the Cincinnati Bengals surprisingly had an easy time winning the division last year, that won’t be the case this year. Andy Dalton and Co. will still be reckoned with offensively, but the Bengals will improve defensively with the return of Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, along with adding rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard to a deep secondary.
The Baltimore Ravens struggled with leadership last season without linebacker Ray Lewis and will never be flashy, so their style and quarterback Joe Flacco’s big-play ability will keep the Ravens competitive.
This figures to be a pivotal year for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. His ability to remain in the lineup — as well as figuring out a consistent running game — will be crucial. Rock-star QB Johnny Manziel has arrived on the Cleveland Browns' stage, but he starts off as Johnny Clipboard after Brian Hoyer gots the starting nod in hopes of reviving the Browns.
1. Bengals 2. Ravens 3. Steelers 4. Browns
South: The implosion of the Houston Texans was perhaps the biggest surprise in the NFL last season. But there was a reward for that ineptness: Jadeveon Clowney, who was taken by the Texans with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
Clowney will be the Texans’ yang to J.J. Watt’s ying, providing perhaps the most dynamic pass-rushing tandem in the NFL this season. That defensive firepower will be needed after the offense was problematic last season. Matt Schaub is now with the Raiders, replaced at quarterback by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But can the Texans catch up to the Indianapolis Colts? Former Stanford star Andrew Luck is only entering his third NFL season (seems like five, right?) and while he only gets better, his surrounding cast isn’t markedly improved.
Tennessee Titans QB Jake Locker flashed some of his potential last year before sustaining a season-ending injury. Speedy running back Chris Johnson is now with the New York Jets, so rookie Bishop Sankey could get lots of carries.
When will the Jacksonville Jaguars move to London? Probably never (Los Angeles is a better option). This franchise continues to be a mess.
1. Colts 2. Texans 3. Titans 4. Jaguars
East: The “Gronk Show” is back, which means quarterback Tom Brady has a legitimate target to throw to this year, giving the New England Patriots a little more stability in the receiving corps. Last year, the arrest of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski’s injuries took away two of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL.
Still, the Patriots made it to the AFC Championship Game. But with some fortifications, the Brady and Co. should be in top gear.
Don’t sleep on the Buffalo Bills. Rookie receiver Sammy Watkins is a new weapon for second-year QB E.J. Manuel to throw to, while C.J. Spiller is an explosive runner.
Coach Rex Ryan has stopped making Super Bowl predictions for the New York Jets, which may have been the best thing to happen there. Mark Sanchez is gone, leaving QB Geno Smith to not have to look over his shoulder.
The Miami Dolphins could be a sleeper, too, with Ryan Tannehill in his third year.
1. Patriots 2. Bills 3. Jets 4. Dolphins
West: There is little to dispute that the Seattle Seahawks are the NFL’s new bad boys. With a brash confidence and cocky demeanor, the Seahawks stomped their way to their first Super Bowl championship last season.
Even with that, the Seahawks also have a supreme collection of talent. Quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman are just beginning to enter the prime of their careers.
Injuries and a suspension could keep the Niners from making a fourth straight trip to the NFC Championship Game, but an improved receiving corps should aid Colin Kaepernick’s development into an elite QB.
The Arizona Cardinals showed last season they weren’t a pushover and, behind running back Andre Ellington, have the characteristics of a contender. However, the Cardinals’ defense will need to be up to the task.
With QB Sam Bradford going down for the season with a knee injury, the St. Louis Rams’ expected growth into a contender has hit yet another roadblock.
1. Seahawks 2. 49ers 3. Cardinals 4. Rams
North: With the drafting of Eddie Lacy last season, the Green Bay Packers had a semblance of a running game. With Lacy entering his second season, the Packers will be counting on Lacy to take the heat off quarterback Aaron Rodgers, still one of the NFL’s best.
Adding aging pass rusher Julius Peppers and rookie safety Ha-Ha Clinton Dix to a defense that already includes Clay Matthews was a needed move if the Packers are to get their offense on the field even more.
The rest of the division is a toss-up. The Detroit Lions, a perennial underachiever, have a new coach in the underappreciated Jim Caldwell. If he can motivate Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Co. to take the next step and be a contender, the Lions could be dangerous.
The Chicago Bears teeter on the edge of relevancy. QB Jay Cutler tends to be his own worst enemy. Stealing fierce pass rusher Jared Allen from the Minnesota Vikings was an excellent offseason move.
Perhaps the best young talent in the division is in Minnesota. Rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater was brought in for future wins and will have the electric Cordarrelle Patterson as a top target, along with the steady veteran presence of running back Adrian Peterson.
1. Packers 2. Lions 3. Bears 4. Vikings
South: If there was ever a division that epitomizes the parity that the NFL preaches, it is the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers won the division last season after the Atlanta Falcons surprisingly fizzled. The Panthers made some dramatic changes, including not bringing receiver Steve Smith back, but still have quarterback Cam Newton and are banking on an improved running game. Oh, and don’t forget about the Luke Kuechly-led defense.
But the New Orleans Saints, behind QB Drew Brees, should still be the favorite. They added safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and receiver Brandin Cooks in the draft in their upgrade efforts.
The Falcons are an enigma. You want to like QB Matt Ryan and star receiver Julius Jones, but there just seems to be a factor holding them back. If the defense can’t rise up, it might not matter how explosive the offense is.
Lovie Smith is back on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ sideline. Whether the former defensive coordinator in the Warren Sapp era can undo what Greg Schiano messed up will hold the key to the Bucs’ fortunes.
1. Saints 2. Panthers 3. Falcons 4. Buccaneers
East: And then there is the NFL’s pinup division. All four teams think they belong among the NFL’s elite, but they come with a wart that stifles their success.
Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL coach was a success, with his up-tempo offense finding its wings with the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Nick Foles was a pleasant surprise with his efficiency and adding Darren Sproles to LeSean McCoy at running back is an interesting wrinkle. Sproles could also help offset the loss of DeSean Jackson, who was cut in the offseason.
The New York Giants are as solid as they come, but could finish anywhere in the division, too. Finding a running game is key.
Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, well … ummm … will only go as far as Romo will let them. The quarterback’s propensity for big mistakes is a killer. Of course, the Cowboys’ defense is also a killer.
Jay Gruden takes over the Washington Redskins and will look to get QB Robert Griffin III back to his rookie-season production.
1. Eagles 2. Giants 3. Cowboys 4. Redskins
Wild-card playoff: 49ers def. Eagles, Saints def. Lions
Divisional playoff: Packers def. 49ers, Seahawks def. Saints
Championship game: Packers def. Seahawks
Wild-card playoff: Texans def. Patriots, Chiefs def. Bengals
Divisional playoff: Broncos def. Chiefs, Colts def. Texans
Championship game: Broncos def. Colts
Packers def. Broncos
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Johnny Manziel, Browns
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Khalil Mack, Raiders
Offensive Player of the Year: Calvin Johnson, Lions
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Texans
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers