10 bold predictions to kick off the 2015 NFL season
I’ve enjoyed a nice eight-month victory lap since my annual 10 Bold Predictions column from last season. With the rest of my colleagues covering the NFL predicting an Armageddon-ish 2-14 or 4-12 season from the Dallas Cowboys, I said 10 wins and the playoffs. I wrote, “Trust Romo.” I said, “Trust the offensive line.” I said, with a bit of hesitation, “Trust Dez.”
It worked out.
But none of that matters now. It’s a new season and you only get one calendar year to enjoy patting yourself on the back and receiving the occasional positive tweet from followers (they exist, I learned!). New season. Ten new predictions. Let’s do it.
1. The Philadelphia Eagles will win the NFC.
My journey to this year’s predictions column started on a steamy late spring day back in June. I’d been making the trip to select NFL OTA and minicamp practices along the East coast and decided to wet my beak with some Eagles action. I’d been to countless Philly practices over the past two years and knew the deal. On the days he’s made available to the media, coach Chip Kelly briefly speaks with reporters under a tent adjacent to the practice fields, EDM music blares from the speakers, and away we go with the fastest-paced practice in the NFL.
But this one in June felt different. There was a vibe unlike that of Years 1 and 2 of the Chip Kelly era. And as crazy as it might have been to see Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Matt Barkley all suiting up, taking reps side by side, there was a certain uniformity among the team that seemed to click. The defensive front seven — for years “on the verge” — appeared to have blossomed into a mature, suddenly whole unit. The defensive backs — a bit of an Achilles heel the past two seasons — were better, bigger. And the running backs were like the Traveling Wilburys, a star-studded ensemble of former lead guys working together as one. No egos. Roles for everyone.
In 2013, Kelly won 10 games with many of Andy Reid’s players. In 2014, he lost his starting quarterback after a 6-2 start and missed the playoffs. In 2015, the chess master seems to have his own pieces, from top to bottom, and is ready to execute.
I left that practice — one that probably wasn’t too memorable for the beat guys who are there daily — feeling like this was Chip’s squad. They’re faster where they have to be and bigger where they’ve got to be and appear to be in sync from get-go. Most important, they’re healthy. Other contenders have injuries from top to bottom and suffered heart-breaking losses on the practice field this summer, but the Eagles escaped six weeks of high-impact training unscathed.
After a much-discussed offseason in which he seized more control of personnel decisions, re-modeled the front office and jettisoned fan favorites LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles, Kelly — the mad scientist who’s turned football on its head — has all eyes on him. The many maneuvers he made this offseason, at times quite Machiavellian, will either be a complete success or a complete bust. At this point, there’s really no going back, and there’s certainly no in-between.
And I’m all in.
Preseason games mean about as much as gambling tips from your co-workers at the water cooler, but it’s hard not to be entranced with what the Eagles’ first-unit offense did this summer. The Eagles outscored their opponents 86-17 in the first half of their first three preseason games. Against the Packers in their third exhibition contest, Sam Bradford went 10 for 10 for 121 yards and three touchdowns, and the Eagles scored on all three of his possessions.
There are question marks, of course. The offensive guards. Who knows what we’re getting there? And, then there’s Bradford’s knees. Again. In the Eagles’ offense, there are going to be times where pass rushers have clean shots at the quarterback, as Terrell Suggs did in the Baltimore preseason game. How the former top overall pick handles those situations, and the threat of an injury every time he drops back, will be huge.
When I revisited the Eagles later in the summer, it was more of the same stuff I saw in June. Up-tempo, positive vibes and a feeling of 90 guys pulling in the same direction. That list of 90 has been trimmed to 53, and along the way, the John Moffitt and Tim Tebow experiments have come and gone. Kelly has been tinkering with his roster all offseason, but the truth is that he’s been building the 2015 Eagles for three years.
They’ve shown flashes in each of his first two seasons as coach. This is the year the dream comes to fruition. Philly is your team out of the NFC.
2. The Rams will finish their last season in St. Louis by going to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They’ll announce their move to Los Angeles shortly after.
I’ve been on and off the Rams hype plane so many times in recent years, I have jetlag. For the fourth straight season, the Rams start out with the youngest team in football, and for the fourth straight year, I love them. That’s OK. This is the year they put it all together. Lost in all the Sam Bradford love this summer was an awfully strong preseason from the guy St. Louis traded Bradford for: Nick Foles. Signed to a two-year extension a few weeks back, Foles completed 12 of 14 passes in his last two preseason starts, with the only two misses coming on a drop and a receiver falling down. St. Louis has quietly added pieces at every position, and when rookie running back Todd Gurley hits his stride in Week 4 or 5, the offense is going to be a far better unit than expected. I see a nine-win season for the Rams; enough to get them the second wild-card spot in the NFC. I also see them announcing a move to Los Angeles, once and for all, sometime in February.
3. The Buffalo Bills will return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Circle the wagons, Bills fans. The team is legit. New coach Rex Ryan has brought the excitement back to Western New York, but the Bills front office gets credit for assembling the necessary pieces. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor didn’t win the starting job by default; he won it by mastering Greg Roman’s offense and offering a host of opportunities both with his feet and arm. Re-signing Jerry Hughes was as big a deal as any, and the additions of LeSean McCoy and Percy Harvin will make a difference. The Bills have long been on the cusp defensively, but the offense will finally make the leap in 2015. A new ownership group, a strong offseason and a new optimism will lead to 10 wins and a trip to the postseason.
4. The Steelers and Cowboys will both miss the playoffs.
I don’t see either of these great franchises making the postseason in 2015. Ben Roethlisberger may throw for 4,500 yards, but if the defense — particularly the secondary — can’t stop anyone in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will struggle to make it back to the playoffs. Everything clicked and hit just right for Dallas a season ago. The expectations are awfully high for 2015 — Super Bowl or bust. I think they’re solid on both sides of the ball, but with a killer schedule, the Cowboys will miss the playoffs in the end.
5. David Johnson will lead the Arizona Cardinals in rushing.
Who? That’s right. David Johnson, the little-known rookie running back out of Northern Iowa, is going to outpace both Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson in rushing stats. Listen to the fantasy football experts all you want, or take this tip and run with it.
6. Jaguars rookie running back T. J. Yeldon will be a fantasy football monster, topping 1,200 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns.
I know, I know. Fantasy football matters little to the hardcore fan. But with the Jaguars bringing in new offensive coordinator Greg Olson and new weapons at the skill positions and bulking up the offensive line they’re going to get big numbers out of Yeldon. The Alabama star wasn’t a recipient of big pre-draft hype and made no waves in training camp or the preseason. Just wait until the regular season. He’ll lead all rookie running backs in rushing.
7. Von Miller will break Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record.
I’m not sure what to expect from Peyton Manning this season, but I do know the Broncos pass rush is going to be special. With DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and the blossoming Sylvester Williams all looking healthy and ready to emerge this preseason, Miller can annihilate opposing tackles off the edge. Justin Houston came just shy of breaking Strahan’s 22.5 single-season sacks record a season ago. I think Miller goes for an even 24, breaks the record and then absolutely breaks the bank next offseason in free agency.
8. The Jets will win more games than the Giants.
And not by much. Neither franchise will make the playoffs this year. Another long season for the Jersey teams.
9. Kwon Alexander will be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Tampa Bay’s first-round pick is starting at quarterback and its two second-rounders will start on the offensive line, but its fourth-round pick could be the best of the bunch. Alexander, a star at LSU, is going to start at middle linebacker in Lovie Smith’s defensive scheme. Way ahead of schedule, the 21-year-old could end up being the quarterback of a surprisingly very good D. NFL teams drafted 123 players ahead of Alexander, but he’s my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
10. Jay Cutler will have his best year as a pro, and Adam Gase will be the first new head coach hired in January.
Everyone is done with Cutler. I get it. He’s a bum. He’s a surly dude. He’s got nothing left. He can’t win. I think he will have his best season as a professional quarterback in 2015. Gase’s offense — a derivative of the one Cutler started to master under former Bears coordinator Mike Martz — could be perfect for the big-armed veteran QB. I’m not putting all my eggs in the Bears’ basket — they could finish in last place in the NFC North this year — but it won’t be because of quarterback play. Cutler is in a good place, and with Gase guiding him, they’ll both have big years.
NFC wild-card round
(6) Rams at (3) Seahawks: Seahawks 23, Rams 16
(5) Cardinals at (4) Panthers: Cardinals 27, Panthers 17
AFC wild-card round
(6) Ravens at (3) Colts: Colts 21, Ravens 17
(5) Bills at (4) Bengals: Bengals 16, Bills 10
NFC divisional round
(5) Cardinals at (1) Eagles: Eagles 34, Cardinals 20
(3) Seahawks at (2) Packers: Packers 20, Seahawks 16
AFC divisional round
(4) Bengals at (1) Patriots: Patriots 27, Bengals 17
(3) Colts at (2) Broncos: Broncos 37, Colts 20
NFC championship game
(2) Packers at (1) Eagles: Eagles 34, Packers 24
AFC championship game
(2) Broncos at (1) Patriots: Patriots 24, Broncos 20
Super Bowl 50
Patriots 34, Eagles 30
- Andre Ellington
- Arizona Cardinals
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Buffalo Bills
- Chicago Bears
- DeMarcus Ware
- Denver Broncos
- Green Bay Packers
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Jay Cutler
- John Moffitt
- Justin Houston
- Kwon Alexander
- LeSean McCoy
- Los Angeles Rams
- Mark Sanchez
- Matt Barkley
- Percy Harvin
- Peyton Manning
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Sam Bradford
- Shane Ray
- Sylvester Williams
- T.J. Yeldon
- Terrell Suggs
- Tim Tebow
- Todd Gurley II
- Tyrod Taylor
- Von Miller