10 bold predictions to kick off your NFL season

I’ve spent much of the past six weeks on the road, traveling from training camp to training camp, hopping from preseason game to preseason game. I’ve been on so many Delta flights that I’ve seen "Draft Day" … twice. I’ve seen quarterbacks like Manning, Brady, Manziel, Flacco, Kaepernick and Stafford up close. For that matter, I’ve also seen the bulk of the guys on several teams’ practice squads (and those who didn’t make those). I’ve seen Mark Sanchez and Woody Johnson have a great pregame embrace and I watched Eagles GM Howie Roseman do the same with Michael Vick. These eyes have seen some good football, and, well, a lot of bad football, too. I’ve made observations, taken notes, and had countless conversations with people I’d like to think are "in the know." I’ve also heard that song "Rude" about the guy who wants to marry the girl but the father is rude (or something?) more than 1,000 times in rental cars across this great nation.

All of this is important because my editors have requested that I make 10 "bold" predictions for the 2014 season.

Truthfully, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

So, print these out and hold me to them throughout the year. Paste them on your cubicle wall, glue them above your bathroom sink and feel free to email me throughout the year at PeterSchrager@gmail.com.

Here goes nothing …

1. THE DALLAS COWBOYS WILL WIN 10 GAMES AND MAKE THE PLAYOFFS.

Oh, I’ve heard it all. Over the past two months, I’ve had someone whose opinion I value tell me the Cowboys could have the worst defense in the history of the NFL this year. I’ve had a Twitter follower "guarantee" the ‘Boys will have the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. I’ve heard a lot worse along the way, too. This is supposed to be a train wreck year in Big D. This is supposed to be the one that finally costs Jason Garrett his job.

But I think, to the great delight of Jerry Jones (and the league’s broadcast partners), Dallas is going to be the surprise team of 2014. Huh?

Believe it. Let’s start with the much-maligned defense, a unit that finished 32nd out of 32 teams in yards against and lost its four top performers — Sean Lee (injury), DeMarcus Ware (released), Jason Hatcher (free agency) and Orlando Scandrick (first four games for suspension) — and a second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence to injury) this offseason.

I actually think the Cowboys defense could be awfully feisty. This isn’t a crop of splashy names and big free-agent splashes. It’s guys like Rolando McClain, an ex-Raven and Raider who’s retired twice, hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2012 and is looking to salvage a career. It’s Bruce Carter, a former second-round pick who’s battled injuries and is finally healthy. It’s Anthony Spencer, the steady performer who’s always taken a back seat to Ware when it comes to magazine cover spreads and Sunday Night Football promos. And it’s coached by the guy defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford called "Master Splinter" earlier this summer. Insert Rod Marinelli. Yes, I’m in the "In Rod We Trust" camp, and I think Marinelli’s demeanor and coaching style is the perfect fit for a unit short on big names but big on energy, youth and smarts. The bulk of Marinelli’s defensive players are 40 years younger than him. No issue. The 65-year-old Marinelli, a Vietnam veteran and the head coach of the infamous 0-16 Detroit Lions team, has fought back from rocky situations before. He’ll run his scheme, a 4-3 with some Tampa 2 elements, and this unit is actually more fit for that defense than the one Monte Kiffin helmed a year before. He’ll also get the most out of every last one of his unheralded defensive players.

I have few doubts the offense will be electric. If Tony Romo is healthy (big if, I know), this will be one of the best, most balanced and most dynamic scoring units in the league. The schedule isn’t as grueling as it usually is.

Three years in a row, the Cowboys have been a Week 17 Sunday night win away from the playoffs. They won’t need one this year. They’re going to start off hot, shock the world Week 1 with a win over the 49ers and win 10 games.

They’ll be playing January football.

And that defense is going to be a unit no squad will want to face. Get your George Selvie jerseys. Prepare for the Barry Church Pro Bowl bid. This Cowboys team is going to surprise everyone.

2. THE CINCINNATI BENGALS WILL WIN 11 GAMES. AND LOSE THEIR FIRST PLAYOFF GAME … AGAIN.

Cincinnati lost its offensive and defensive coordinators from a year ago to head-coaching gigs but replaced them with two men who are both more than capable. Paul Guenther and Hue Jackson are no strangers to this Bengals team and are no strangers to adversity. Quarterback Andy Dalton will be even better without the issue of a contract looming over his head, and the young backfield will be electric. All good things, right? Well, I think so, until the playoffs roll around again. I have Cincinnati winning 11 regular-season games in 2014, earning the rare first-round bye, only to lose to Denver, New England or Indianapolis in the Divisional round. The drought continues. Twenty-four years since a playoff win.

3. ARIZONA CARDINALS WIDE RECEIVER JOHN BROWN WILL WIN THE NFL OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD.

Who? John Brown, that’s who. He didn’t get drafted in your fantasy league last month, and I don’t remember a big pre-draft profile on him. But in what might be the most loaded wide receiver draft class since 2009, I think Brown will be the breakout player in Year 1. With Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald serving as the Nos. 1-2 wide receivers and Andre Roberts now in Washington, Brown has the opportunity to get a load of touches in one of the league’s more explosive passing offenses. Bruce Arians has already said he expects the third-round pick out of Pittsburg State could be in 60 percent of the team’s offensive packages. I like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Eric Ebron a lot. I may like John Brown more.

4. THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS WILL BE YOUR 2014 AFC CHAMPIONS.

This may not be the "boldest" of predictions, considering New England has been to the AFC Championship Game in each of the past three years and the Super Bowl twice in the last five. But it seems as though everyone has already penciled in Denver for a return march to the Super Bowl. I like what New England has going on up in Foxboro.

The main reasons are Nos. 87 and 24. I spent a few days with the Patriots this summer, and both Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis appear to be healthy, fresh and ready to take the league by storm. The Patriots have been cautious with both — Gronk hasn’t seen full contact but did say Monday he’d be playing in the opener — and I think that was a wise move.

There was a cool moment at one of the July practices I attended. The Patriots have two practice fields, parallel to each other. Charlie Weis was on hand, watching from afar, and Tom Brady subtly took Gronkowski from the main field to the secondary one. What started out as soft and routine became an intense, full-on drill between the two men. Brady and Gronk went through the complete route tree; Gronk looking nimble, powerful and fresh. Brady looked as on-point as ever. Quietly, about 10 minutes into the drill, Revis wandered over from the main field to the secondary one. He locked up on Gronkowski. Then, with 87 players practicing elsewhere, Bill Belichick made the stroll over to watch his three stars. Things got fairly more intense, and it was one of those moments. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will be hugely important, rookie James White is going to carry the ball more than anyone realizes, and the defense needs to stay healthy. But in the end, it’ll come down to those four men. And if the three guys in the jerseys stay healthy, I can’t pick against them.

5. THE JETS WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS.

Though it won’t be pretty at times, I have the Jets finding their way into the playoffs in 2014. I’ve spent a limited amount of time around the Jets this summer, but from what I gather, this is as tight a locker room as it has been in years. Michael Vick and Chris Johnson — icons to some of the younger guys on the roster — have been perfect veterans. The circus of Tim Tebow feels like decades ago, and the days when the offense couldn’t show its face on national TV seems like even longer ago. This is a balanced, hard-nosed team with a quarterback entering his second year as the starter and arguably the best front seven in all of football. The Jets aren’t going to razzle or dazzle anyone this year, but they’ll win games. Pencil them in for a return to the playoffs. Coach Rex Ryan likes to say, "Play like a Jet." It means toughness. It means discipline. It means winning those ugly late-November, early-December games. This team is built to do just that. As to who’s playing cornerback? Your guess is as good as mine.

6. PERCY HARVIN WILL HAVE HIS BEST SEASON AS A PRO.

Harvin’s 2013 campaign, Super Bowl ring and all, came with a bit of an asterisk attached, with the wide receiver having played in just two regular-season games and one postseason contest. From conversations I’ve had within the building and from glimpses this summer, I’m confident he’ll be the star of the Seahawks offense in 2014. Harvin had just 10 touches in three games a year ago. He’s now fully recovered from the labrum tear in his hip that kept him sidelined, so watch out. In a high-octane offense that brings back just about everyone outside of Golden Tate, Harvin is going to top his career year in 2011, when he caught 87 balls and nearly topped 1,000 yards. With a full offseason under his belt, his hip back at full strength and his ex-Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell calling the shots, I’d expect Harvin to top 100 catches and 1,000 yards this year.

7. THE EAGLES OFFENSE WON’T MISS A BEAT WITH DESEAN JACKSON PLAYING ELSEWHERE.

Guess what? Coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman know what they’re doing. They wouldn’t have cut ties with their top receiver this offseason if they didn’t have a plan in place for 2014. Yes, the team expects to make up for the offensive production of DeSean Jackson with increased output from veterans Zach Ertz, Riley Cooper and a healthy Jeremy Maclin, but the real two keys will be Darren Sproles and rookie Jordan Matthews. The Eagles know what they’re getting in the versatile Sproles and hope to get solid first-year production from Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leading receiver. The potential wild card you likely haven’t heard much about is a do-everything weapon named Trey Burton. A former quarterback/wide receiver/tight end/fullback at Florida, Burton is the perfect Kelly wild card. A relative long shot to make the team this summer, the four-year Florida jackknife made the final 53-man roster last week. What’s Chip Kelly know that the rest of the league doesn’t? Keep an eye on Burton this season.

8. MATT RYAN WILL COMPLETE 70 PERCENT OF HIS PASSES, AND JULIO JONES AND RODDY WHITE WILL BOTH HAVE MORE THAN 1,400 RECEIVING YARDS.

Only one NFL team has had two receivers surpass 1,400 receiving yards in the same season since 2000, and that was the 2005 Arizona Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin). Insert Jones and White. HBO’s "Hard Knocks" hasn’t done this offense justice this summer. It’s going to be electric. Jones is healthy, White has got an extra hop in his step, and Ryan is locked in after a forgettable (and lost) 2013 campaign. No Tony Gonzalez? That only means more production for White and Jones this year. The offensive line is the question mark. Ryan, Jones and White are not. They’re set for historic 2014s.

9. THE CLEVELAND BROWNS WILL HAVE TWO OF THE TOP FIVE PICKS IN THE 2015 NFL DRAFT.

I don’t see the Hoyer/Manziel experiment going very well this year, and looking at the Browns schedule, I don’t see more than five wins on the slate. I like Mike Pettine and think he’ll be a darn good head coach in due time, but I just don’t see Year 1 of the Pettine Era ending with a playoff run. Fortunately — or unfortunately for success-starved fans in Western New York — the Bills don’t appear to be much better this year. Buffalo traded its 2015 first-round pick to trade up and get Sammy Watkins back in May. What’s it all mean? I see Cleveland having two top-five picks this spring. The big question would be, of course, whether they take a quarterback with one of those picks. Asking around with scouts, many already think Pac-12 stars Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Sean Mannion — three of the top college signal callers — have a higher NFL ceiling than Manziel. Am I giving up on Johnny Manziel before he even takes a snap? No. I don’t think so, at least.

10. THE GREEN BAY PACKERS WIN THE SUPER BOWL.

Packers over the Patriots. That’s my pick. Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the defense is improved, and they’ve been way too under the radar this summer to not go with it. Rodgers is the best player in the sport. He gets the best of Tom Brady in a 38-33 shootout down in the desert.