2014 AFC/NFC Season Preview

2014 AFC/NFC Season Preview

2014 AFC Season Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Bronco Busting

Thanks largely to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, and according to coldhardfootballfacts.com, the average NFL game produced 46.82 points in 2013, breaking a largely unknown 65-year-old record for scoring productivity.

The previous mark was set back in 1948 when the average NFL game produced 46.48 points.  Yes, you read that right… 1948.

That was when three of the NFL’s 10 teams in 1948 averaged more than 30 PPG.  Just one of 32 teams in 2013 averaged more than 30 PPG – the record-setting Broncos.

And despite Denver’s record-shattering scoring mark in 2013 (37.88 PPG), it still ranked behind the 1950 L.A. Rams (38.83). 

This side bar note: NFL kickers converted 86.5% of their field goal attempts in 2013.  In 1948 they converted 40.9%.

Quick Outs

Houston QB’s Matt Schaub and Case Keenum combined for a 74.0 passer rating last season.  It was 45.2 points lower than Philadelphia’s Nick Foles’ 119.2.

Denver led the league in point differential in 2013 at +207.  Cincinnati and Kansas City tied for runner-up honors in the AFC at +125.  Jacksonville was the league’s worst point differential squad at -202.

Denver’s Wes Welker and Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts led the AFC in dropped passes in 2013 with 10 each.  Chicago’s Brandon Marshall – surprise - led the league with 12 drops.

It’s a passing league today and with it the AFC owned the three worst rushing teams in the league last season, Baltimore (1,328), Jacksonville (1,260) and Pittsburgh (1,383). Not so coincidentally, all three teams miss the playoffs.

The AFC stands 87-108 SU and 91-97-8 ATS in non-conference clashes against the NFC the past three seasons.  They have gone 115-78-2 ‘Over’ in those games.
 
AFC East Division

BUFFALO


TEAM THEME: A LONG, LONG TIME
Fifteen years, and counting… that's how long it's been since the Bills last made an appearance in the playoffs. They've also enjoyed just one winning season in the process. It’s no wonder owner Ralph Wilson finally said he'd had enough. After all, a 95-year old man can only take so much. The one upside to wallowing in mediocrity is the benefit of being able to replenish lousy talent with high draft choices. Last year's first-round pick, QB E.J. Manuel, assumed the starting duties and figures to improve with experience. He will have plenty of speedy receivers at his disposal with the Bills moving up to the 4th pick to grab the best receiver in the draft, Clemson's Sammy Watkins, to replace the departed Stevie Johnson. Watkins will team with 2nd-year wideouts Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, along with free agent signee Mike Williams from Tampa Bay. RB's C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson return, while Buffalo added Bryce Brown from Philadelphia. Former 1st-rounders Mario Williams and Marcel Dareus anchor the defensive line, while the Bills have brought in Brandon Spikes from New England to shore up the linebacker corps. Will it be enough to get them over the hump? Only time will tell.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Eleven of Buffalo's last seventeen losses have been by 7 or less points.
 
MIAMI

TEAM THEME: IN A FLINCH
It's a sad state of affairs when the majority of coverage an NFL team gets during the season surrounds antics off the field. Such was life in Miami last season where the Richie Incognito scandal dominated headlines. After the bullying disaster, the Dolphins immediately canned GM Jeff Ireland and focused their attention on bookending the offensive line, signing stud LT Branden Albert from Kansas City and drafting Jawuan James out of Tennessee to play RT. They also added RB Knowshon Moreno to fill the hole at RB and stole LSU's Jarvis Landry in the draft to complement Mike Wallace and Bryan Hartline at WR, which should make QB Ryan Tannehill a happy man. FYI: contrary to rumors, Tannehill does not suffer from a flinching disorder. It's simply the aftereffect of being sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season. On the flip side, the defense has the chance to be very good if veterans like Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas can contribute as expected. Pass rusher Cameron Wake and CB Brett Grimes, Pro Bowlers each, have done more than most people expected, and now others need to step up in order for Miami to improve on last year's 8-8 mark. A soft schedule that features only five games against foes with winning records last year should keep the focus on the field – and the undercover cops at bay this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: From 1970-2003 Miami owned the league's best September home record (42-5). They own the 2nd worst record (4-11) since.
 
NEW ENGLAND

TEAM THEME: SILVER LININGS
As Steve Merril astutely points out in his 2014 NFL Preview for PLAYBOOK, the Patriots have been one of the most consistent teams over the last decade, winning the AFC East title five straight years, and in ten of the last eleven years overall. They managed to do so last year sans the services of a quality wide receiver, along with the Aaron Hernandez fiasco and all-world TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season with a torn ACL. All in all, it was arguably the best coaching job in Bill Belichick's fabled career. The Hoodie made a crafty off-season move bringing in shutdown corner Darrelle Revis to play along with the stellar young linebacker crew of Donta' Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins. With big Vince Wilfork seemingly recovered from an Achilles injury and the selection of DT Dominique Easley with their top pick in this year's draft, a long-time questionable defense could actually change direction this season. And as pointed out above, even in the worst of times, the offense has never been an issue for this team – not with Tom Brady calling signals and disgruntled Bill roaming the sidelines. It has, however, been 10 years since the Pats last tasted a Super Bowl victory. With neither coach nor quarterback able to look in the mirror without help from their hairdresser these days, expect an all-out push this season as the Pats go for their sixth straight division title and 12th in 14 years.
 
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Patriots are 11-1 SU all-time (11-0 last eleven) in games versus the NFC North.
 
NEW YORK JETS

TEAM THEME: SPLASH EFFECT
On the heels of a 3rd-straight non-winning season, the Jets made quite a splash in free agency this offseason. It started when they acquired dog-killer QB Michael Vick from the Eagles. They also added WR Eric Decker from Denver and RB Chris Johnson from Tennessee. As a result, there’s a quarterback battle brewing between Vick and last year's starter, Geno Smith, with 6th round draft choice Tajh Boyd lurking somewhere in the background. While Vick is widely recognized as a human turnover machine, his numbers – in limited opportunity – pale in comparison to Smith, whose 12 TD’s and 21 INT’s paved the way to a non-descript 66.5 QB Rating. Hence, there is surely a QB war ahead in the Big Apple. "I said from Day One, Geno will be tough to beat...but I also said, Mike's going to have an opportunity to compete, and he will," insists Jets coach Rex Ryan. Call it what you may, we see more turnovers spilling out of MetLife this year than at a Sara Lee factory. And for Ryan, it's imperative he makes a dramatic U-turn sometime soon as three non-winning seasons in a row (22-26) don't hold water to the back-to-back championship game appearances the Flyboys served up during his first two years with the team in 2009-10.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jets are 8-4 SU all-time vs. the NFC North.

AFC North Division

BALTIMORE


TEAM THEME: BAD BOYS
Just how bad did the Super Bowl Jinx affect the Ravens last season? When you lead the league in penalties with 126 for 1,196 yards, that's bad. When your starting quarterback tosses more interceptions than touchdown passes and finishes the season with a QB Rating (73.1) below Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt McGloin, that's bad. And when your star running back falls nearly 500 yards below his previous output – on 3.1 Yards Per Rush – that's bad. As a result, the Super Bowl ringleaders failed to even make it back to the postseason in 2013. A closer look, though, shows signs of a return to glory in the offing. For openers, last year's rebuilt OL figures to be much improved. There's lots of experience on defense – maybe too much as LB Terrell Suggs, NT Haloti Ngata and DE Elvis Dumervil could be past their prime years. But HC John Harbaugh injected some youth into the equation by going to the last two national champs for some new blood on defense, drafting SS Terrence Brooks and DT Timmy Jernigan from FSU and LB C.J. Mosley from Alabama. Speaking of two-deep, the Ravens have excellent depth everywhere along the ranks. A return to the norm by Flacco and Rice, along with an added infusion by the Smith bros (LB Daryl, CB Jimmy and WR's Steve and Torrey) will find the Black Birds on our play list this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Half (four) of the Ravens’ losses last season were by a field goal or less.

CINCINNATI

TEAM THEME: IT'S NOT EASY BEING ME
Talk about getting no respect, QB Rodney, err, Andy Dalton has led his team to the playoffs in each of his first three years in the league, winning 30 games in the process. And that total would be even higher had Dangerfield, err, Dalton not gone one-and-out in each of his postseason appearances. As such, the redheaded rifle continues to take a back seat to other Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the NFL. We look for that to end this year. This squad has a familiar look with Dalton throwing to A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, and talented RB’s Giovani Bernard and Benjarvis Green-Ellis carrying the football. Meanwhile, talented 2nd-round rookie Jeremy Hill (LSU) figures to challenge for playing time. One of the league's top defensive players that most fans never heard of, Vontaze Burfict (171 total tackles), and Rey Maualuga team to lead an active defense, while DT Geno Atkins will try to bounce back from a torn ACL (he still led the team in sacks despite missing half the season). The pass defense will be much improved with free agents Terrence Newman from Dallas and Reggie Nelson from Jacksonville joining Pac-Man Jones in the secondary, while Darqueze Dennard (1st-round draft choice from Michigan State) will break into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. If the Bengals look to be the team to beat in the AFC North, it's because they are.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: It's been 23 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game – the longest skein in the league.
 
CLEVELAND

TEAM THEME: UP TO SNUFF
It's been said this franchise chews through coaches like bubble gum. With Mike Pettine the 9th head coach since 1999, it's hard to argue. And while suffering 10 losses in ten of the last eleven seasons, they also tend to spit out quarterbacks faster than the man from Skoal. After going through seven starting QB's the last four years (including three last season), the Browns have officially cycled through 20 starting signal-callers since their rebirth in 1999 – plus 141 coaches and assistants. Or as long-suffering Cleveland fans put it best, ‘WTF.’ Brownstown was stoked when Cleveland selected Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in the first round of the draft this year. How excited was Johnny Football? “I'm going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don't care if they've had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I'm going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.” He'll battle incumbent Brian Hoyer (3-0 SUATS with Cleveland), a local product, for the starting job. Meanwhile, a strong draft, crafty off-season signings and a renewed enthusiasm have new management off on solid footing. Yes, it's been a long time between drinks of winning water but this year's bunch has the look of thirst-quenchers. 

STAT YOU WILL LIKE:  The four-win Browns sent five players to the Pro Bowl last year.
 
PITTSBURGH

TEAM THEME: MUNCH ON THIS
Perhaps the best acquisition during the offseason was the signing of Hall of Fame OL coach Mike Munchak. It's for certain Big Ben is sleeping more these nights knowing his blocking schemes figure to better protect him. The human piñata has been sacked 386 times in his 10-year NFL career, leading to numerous injuries along the way. Roethlisberger welcomes new targets Lance Moore from the Saints and Darius Heyward-Bey from the Raiders. In addition, dynamic speedster Dri Archer, a 3rd round pick from Kent State, figures to be all over the field. Power back LaGarrette Blount comes over from New England to work alongside Le'Veon Bell, assuring a better-balanced attack in 2014. The defense, though, became a cause of concern when it slipped 61 YPG last season. Secondary veterans Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and William Gay figure to be great tutors to explosive 2nd-year man Jarvis Jones and the team's 1st round pick, LB Ryan Shazier of Ohio State. After a pair of 8-8 kiss-your-sister seasons in 2012 and 2013, Mike Tomlin will be chomping at the bit to get back to the playoffs – especially with eleven of the losses (five last year) coming by a touchdown or less. With the Steelers a stout 8-3-1 SUATS all-time in games against the NFC South, we won't bet against him.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Ben Roethlisberger is 16-2 SU in his NFL career in games played at Ohio.
 
AFC South Division

HOUSTON


TEAM THEME: UPSIDE DOWN
In one of the most bizarre seasons in NFL history, Houston's football fortunes were turned upside down like a Texas twister last year. After back-to-back playoff appearances the prior two years, a puzzling 2-win season in 2013 finds HC Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub out, with new HC Bill O'Brien and who-knows-who at quarterback in this season. After passing on Blake Bortles with the #1 pick of this year's draft, it appears Ryan Fitzpatrick will apparently get first crack at the starting QB position. Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and rookie Tom Savage (Pitt) will be the candidates if that doesn't work out. RB Arian Foster will again be the focus of the offense, hoping to catch more balls out of the backfield this year, while WR's Andre Johnson and emerging 2nd-year man DeAndre Hopkins hope one of the aforementioned QB's can somehow get them the football. The defense is strong, with J.J Watt leading the way up front, and top draft pick Jadaveon Clowney rushing from the other side. In addition, Brian Cushing is back from a serious knee injury and a broken leg that limited him to just seven games last season. It all looks good on paper, but so did a stat sheet that found them winning games by 29 YPG last year. Go figure.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE:  The Texans suffered nine losses by a TD or less last season, including five by a FG or less.

INDIANAPOLIS

TEAM THEME: STREAK OF LUCK
Proving his worth, Colts QB Andrew Luck inherited a 2-14 squad and turned them into playoff prodigies his first two years behind center with Indianapolis. And while it can be said he did it with smoke and mirrors (Indy was outstatted both seasons), the fact of the matter is he did it with several key players missing with injuries last year, including the services of star WR Reggie Wayne, who suffered a season-ending injury in Game Seven. Wayne is back from the injury list this season, along with TE Dwayne Allen and RB Vick Ballard. In addition, they've added talent in the form of Hakeem Nicks at WR to go with elusive T.Y. Hilton. There are problems on defense with Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games following his best season (19.5 sacks). It all points to a possible tough year for HC Chuck Pagano and DC Greg Manusky. The schedule maker comes to their aid, however, as the Colts take on the softest Strength of Schedule in the league, facing foes that owned a combined .430 win percentage overall, including .414 away. That's because only four foes on this year's itinerary owned winning records in 2013. We're not sure if it’s the luck of the draw or the skill of the quarterback, but one thing we know for sure: Indy is awfully lucky to have Andrew on their side.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Colts are 30-5 SU at home in division games since 2002.

JACKSONVILLE

TEAM THEME: JACKED UP FOR REAL
How important was the Bye Week for the Jaguars last season? We're not sure if it took that long for the team to buy into new coach Gus Bradley's schemes, or an embarrassing 1-20 skein – including a 13-game losing streak – factored into the equation, but the fact is these Cats were a different team thereafter. A 4-4 finish included three road wins, leaving Jacksonville in a positive state of mind for the first time in three years. The Jags are building for the future while they keep stockpiling talent… and getting there could happen a lot sooner than most people expect with QB Blake Bortles as the centerpiece of the new movement. RB Maurice Jones-Drew has departed for Oakland and will be replaced by former Viking workhorse, Toby Gerhart. While it appears WR Justin Blackmon is irreparable, one or more of the talented rookie crew could emerge: Marquise Lee (USC), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Damian Copeland (Louisville) and Allen Hurns (Miami). On defense, Paul Posluszny is back after finishing second in the NFL with 162 total tackles. In addition, Bradley used his past years at Seattle to attract DE's Red Bryant and DB Chris Clemons from the Super Bowl champs. Yes, the Jags are definitely moving in the right direction.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jaguars are 11-1 ATS as road dogs with same-season revenge.
 
TENNESSEE

TEAM THEME: GEE WHIZ
When the Titans severed ties with Mike Munchak, a majority of those in upper management were torn. Munchak had served 14 years with the team as a loyal comrade: he was the O-line coach before assuming head coaching duties in 2011 when Jeff Fisher departed. A 5-year playoff famine was the inevitable determining factor. As a result, Munchak is out and former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is in. Whiz inherits a nice blend of talent with a squad that actually improved its numbers on both sides of the ball last year. Additionally, the Titans will square off against the 2nd softest schedule in the league overall (foes .433) while hosting the cushiest opponents (foes .416), with only one foe invading LP Field with a winning record from last year. Tennessee drafted monstrous OT Taylor Lewan #1 out of Michigan after selecting Alabama guard Chance Warmack with their top pick last year, solidifying the right side of their offensive line for years to come. Despite losing RB Chris Johnson to the Jets, the running game is in good hands with Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster and star rookie RB Bishop Sankey. In addition, Whisenhunt brought in former sidekick Ray Horton to handle the defense. For a team that suffered six losses by 8 or less points last year, the playoff drought could be ending soon. 

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Titans are 9-1 SUATS as dogs versus the NFC East.
 
AFC West Division

DENVER


TEAM THEME: BEATING A DEAD HORSE
Q: When is a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl not as bad as it appeared? A: when you are outstatted by only 35 yards in a minus-4 turnover performance. Be that as it may, the Broncos left SB XLVIII with their tails dragging after Peyton Manning was held to 8 or fewer points for only the 8th time in 263 career games in the NFL. The Broncos quickly became busy in free agency, picking up DeMarcus Ware from Dallas on the defensive line and CB Aqib Talib from New England. Along with returning star LB Von Miller, the defense immediately went from mediocre to good. There are several question marks about Miller, however, as a six-game drug suspension started last season, followed by weight gain upon his return and some erratic play, then an early end to the season with a torn ACL. The Broncos also must survive some losses, but a cast of veteran receivers, including Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and TE Julius Thomas – along with a stellar offensive line that remains nearly intact – and you now know why Denver is favored by most to return to the Super Bowl. We're unlike most, however, as the dreaded 'Super Bowl loser jinx' is affixed squarely to their backs. And to that we say, “riders up.”

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Denver is 2-7 SU and ATS versus the NFC West, including 0-4 SU and ATS the last four.
 
KANSAS CITY

TEAM THEME: THE PAIN CLINIC
Andy Reid proved to be the elixir needed to take the Chiefs from their losing ways straight to the playoffs when Kansas City became only the 2nd team other than 1980 Denver to start a season 5-0 after going 2-14 the previous year. After stretching the start to 9-0, the Featherheads went 2-5 thereafter before choking like Greg Norman at the Masters in a 45-44 loss to the Colts in the playoffs – a game they actually led 38-10 in the 3Q. So what do they do for an encore after last year's painful fall from grace? Aside from being forced to rebuild the O-line, KC must face the toughest home Strength of Schedule in the league, with foes owning a .570 win percentage last season. That being said, don't look for anything close to last year's liftoff as, after opening with a home game against the Titans, the Chiefs go on the road to Denver, Miami and San Francisco for three of the next four, with a Monday-nighter against the Patriots squeezed into the middle. A winning record going into the Bye Week – and at season's end – would be quite an accomplishment. Meanwhile, two players from this year's draft look to contribute:  RB De'Anthony Thomas, who fits into the mold of the departed Dexter McCluster as special teams return man and part-time slot receiver, and QB Aaron Murray, who looks to be the Chiefs signal-caller of the future.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chiefs are 10-0 SU and 9-1 ATS in their last ten games vs. NFC West opponents.
 
OAKLAND

TEAM THEME: DOUBLE TROUBLE
For some reason, the Raiders seem to enjoy doing things in pairs: back-to-back 4-12 seasons the last two years, preceded by 8-8 campaigns the prior two seasons, and two 5-11 efforts before that. They have also lost eight games by double-digit margins each of the past two seasons. What better way to break the pattern than to bring in the Pick-6 King – Matt Schaub – to quarterback this year's team. Compounding matters, Oakland will take on the most difficult strength of schedule in the league with 11 games against winning teams. As a result, the Raiders hit the free agent market hard. The question is, are they a bunch of guys that nobody wanted, or will they use the rejection to motivate them into showing they have something left? Newcomers on offense include the likes of Schaub, WR’s James Jones and Greg Little, plus RB Maurice Jones-Drew, along with several offensive linemen. The defensive pick-ups are a little more exciting: Lamarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith and CB Carlos Rogers. Again, do any of these guys have anything left in the tank? The best new name could be top draft pick LB Khalil Mack out of Buffalo, who looks like a can't-miss prospect. With rookie QB Derek Carr battling Schaub, it would be no surprise to find a two-headed quarterback situation in Oakland this year. So what else is new?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Raiders are 1-9 SU and 0-10 ATS vs. opponents off a pair of losses by 7 or more points each.

SAN DIEGO

TEAM THEME: DOWNSTREAMING
After a successful 10-win playoff campaign last season the Chargers are another team that pretty much ignored the free agent market, picking up Donald Brown of the Colts to join the mix of Ryan Matthews, Danny Woodhead, and a couple of rookies, Marion Grice of Arizona State and Branden Oliver of Buffalo in a crowded backfield. The other significant signing was Kellen Clemens from the Rams to backup Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers rebounded superbly off a pair of lackluster seasons the previous two years, as his 105.5 QB Rating last season was 2nd only to Peyton Manning among starters with at least 12 starts. A lot of what happens this year, of course, depends on the mercurial Rivers, but the receiving corps is solid, as is the defense, and as a whole this team absolutely loves HC Mike McCoy. The top draft pick, CB Jason Verrett of TCU, has a good chance to step in as a starter alongside veterans Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist. It will be interesting to see how the Chargers respond after losing OC Ken Whisenhunt (new Titans head coach) considering the offense improved a whopping 84 YPG last season. This much we know for sure: San Diego's record has regressed each year seven times in a row since 1982 after winning 10 or more games the previous season. Stay tuned.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Philip Rivers is 30-6 SU during the month of December in his NFL career.

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Re: 2014 AFC/NFC Season Preview

2014 NFC Season Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

The Times Are A Changing

The NFC has long been the stepchild conference in the NFL … until lately.

Looking back, since 1990 the AFC holds a 757-712-3 SU and 722-698-52 ATS edge over the NFC in head-to-head non-conference competition. Over the last three years, however, the NFC is closing ground – fast.

That’s confirmed by a flip-flopped 87-108 SU and 90-97-8 ATS mark by the AFC over the NFC in these contests over the last three seasons.

Initial thought was a lot of the recent numbers correlate to the recent uprising of the NFC West. Not true. The NFC South has actually held the upper hand the past three seasons in these non-conference clashes, sporting a division best 30-18 SU and 26-21-1 mark.

The NFC West is right behind the South at 30-20 SU and 28-19-3 ATS. Meanwhile, the slowly deteriorating NFC East brings up the rear at 22-27 SU and 21-27-1 ATS in these matchups.

Over Blown

Speaking of non-conference tilts, the high-scoring NFL last season set a benchmark record in these games in the Over/Under totals.

Games involving these two opposite conference foes went 50-15 ‘OVER’ the in head-to-head competition.

Games in which the Over/Under total was set at 41 or fewer points flew ‘OVER’ 14 of the 16 times.

Quick Outs

Since the American Professional Football Association became the National Football League in 1922, the Chicago Bears are the only team not to change its name or city.

The Dallas Cowboys haven’t played in Dallas since 1971.

The St. Louis Rams were the first team in the league to use logos on their helmets.

NFC East Division

DALLAS


TEAM THEME: TICK, TICK, TICK…
This much we know for sure about Jerry Jones. If he didn't have a strong ticker, he would be sitting alongside Tom Landry watching Cowboys games from afar. It wasn't bad enough for Jones to endure three consecutive 8-win seasons in which 15 of the 24 losses came by a touchdown or less – including an astonishing five losses by a field goal or less last year. JJ was also forced to live through the discomfiture of knowing a win in any of the last three season finales would have resulted in a playoff berth. Talk about taxing the heart. The question begs: how long will he keep head coach Jason Garrett on the sidelines? Dallas' woes are certainly not the fault of the offense. It's the defense that keeps Jones up at night popping nitroglycerin. Ranked dead-last in the league in 2013, crippling news came on the first day of the OTA's this spring when LB Sean Lee, the leader of the defense, injured his knee. Coupled with the departure of Pro Bowl DE Demarcus Ware to Denver, a cardiologist is standing by. With reliable TE Jason Witten back as one of Tony Romo's favorite targets, the QB's full recovery from surgery on a herniated disk is imperative. As bad as Romo's injury was, it's clearly better than the triple bypass Jones has avoided the last few years.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cowboys are 2-12 SU and 3-11 ATS in Game Sixteen since 2000, the worst in the NFL.

NEW YORK GIANTS

TEAM THEME: 39 STEPS
When your season starts atop a banana peel, there is little else one can do other than to prepare for the fall. And fall they did. Mightily. A 0-6 start for the first time since 1976 put the Giants in a hole from which they were never able to recover. So how is it, you ask, that a team who improved its defense 50 YPG on the season missed out on the playoffs? Just ask QB Eli Manning, who endured a career-high 39 sacks last year, requiring ankle surgery in the off-season. Consequently, he tossed a league-high 27 INT’s while finishing the season with a career-low 69.4 QB Rating. The results were an offense that slipped 48 YPG. To help shore things up on the attack side, New York selected WR Odell Beckham (LSU) with its 1st-round pick in this year's draft. He'll certainly push Victor Cruz and recently re-acquired Mario Manningham for starting honors. On the defensive front, Tom Coughlin picked up Walter Thurmond from the Super Bowl champs and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Denver, but will need a return to form from Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks in 2011). Rest assured, Eli was busy viewing plenty of film in the off-season. For what it's worth, don't offer up a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, ‘The 39 Steps’ to Manning anytime soon. He'll likely run for cover.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Giants are 1-6 ATS all-time as favorites vs. the AFC South.

PHILADELPHIA

TEAM THEME: SOMETHING SPECIAL IN THE AIR
As promised, the Eagles came with everything they had en route to winning 10 games in Chip Kelly’s NFL debut last season. Aside from setting franchise records on offense for points, TD’s and total yards, Philadelphia's questionable defense also managed to hold two foes (Chicago and Detroit) to season-low yards late in the season. Imagine what happens if continued improvement is met on both sides of the ball this year? First-round pick DE Marcus Smith was an outstanding pass rusher at Louisville, and should make the transition to LB in Kelly's 3-4 defense. The offense brings in WR’s Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff (former Kelly pupil from Oregon), high picks in this year's draft for emerging QB Nick Foles – who lit up the airwaves with the top QB Rating in the league last year (119.2) on 29 TD’s and 2 INT’s. Along with the return of Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL after posting three straight seasons of over 800 yards receiving, DeSean Jackson's departure should prove to be a moot point by season's end. Add in dynamic Darren Sproles for a change of pace in the backfield with superstar LeSean McCoy, and Kelly's offense should be more prolific than ever. When it comes to preparing a game plan, no coach in the league is more thorough than the frenetic Kelly. The man never tires.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Chip Kelly is 20-1 SU away versus either college conference or NFL division foes in his career.

WASHINGTON

TEAM THEME: RG YEAR III
Like the Browns, the Redskins cycle through head coaches like Lance Armstrong manufactures lies, with Jay Gruden the 9th new Washington coach since 1999. It's what happens when you've had only three winning seasons post 1999. And it's what happened to Mike Shanahan after going 24-40 in his tenure with Dan Snyder. Last year's drop-off (from 10 wins to 3) was dramatic, yet understandable. RGIII hit the sophomore wall before bowing out with another knee injury after 13 games – while the team coughed up 34 turnovers as opposed to 16 in 2012. A season-ending 8-game losing streak was the topper, especially given the fact they actually outgained foes 22 YPG in the process. No one works harder than Griffin, the 2012 Rookie Of The Year, who poured in many hours during the offseason to fine-tune his game. If Griffin is right, Gruden can expect the passing game to be back on track with newly acquired DeSean Jackson lining up opposite Pierre Garcon, and the return from injury of emerging TE Jordan Reed. The defense is led by Brian Orakpo at OLB, while Jason Hatcher comes over from Dallas to join Barry Cofield on the defensive line after recording 11 sacks last season for the Cowboys. Should it all come together, look for the Hogs to be sneaky-good in a tough-as-nails division in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Redskins last division title was in 1999.

NFC North Division

CHICAGO


TEAM THEME: AFTER THE LOVIN'
With sophomore head coach Marc Trestman now firmly entrenched in the Windy City, he'll be hoping to do exactly what his predecessor, Lovie Smith, did in his 2nd year on the job – take his team to the playoffs. Anything less will be a disappointment for a team that has averaged more than 9.5 wins per season the last nine years. To do so, the Bears will need to do a better job down the stretch as they’re just 6-12 SU and 5-12-1 ATS during the final six games of the season the last three years. It all starts with the defense, one that slipped dramatically last season (-80 YPG). As a result, out goes Julius Peppers; in comes DE Jared Allen from Minnesota and LB D.J. Williams from Denver. On the other side of the ball, the offense improved 72 YPG and welcomes back the entire OL that started all 16 games last year. The pieces are in place, should they stay healthy. And speaking of which, what to do should oft-injured QB Jay Cutler become sidelined once again? Watch David Fales from San Jose State, Chicago's 6th round choice in this year's draft. The word is QB guru-coach Terry Shea insists Fales has all the tools and is the real deal. Remember, you read it here.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bears are 14-6 SU in their first four games of the season since 2009.

DETROIT

TEAM THEME: THE SAME OLD SONG
For the second-year in a row, the Lions managed to dominate in the stats, yet end the season on the losing side of the ledger. Despite the statistical anomaly, Jim Schwartz was dispatched (now DC at Buffalo) in favor of Jim Caldwell, former Colts boss. Caldwell is widely recognized as a quarterback guru, having worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco among others. Lions QB Matthew Stafford figures to benefit from Caldwell's tutoring. And with Detroit having slowly built a competitive team by developing its No.1 draft choices over the years, this outfit could well be a sleeper. Looking back, the Lions have stockpiled the likes of WR Calvin Johnson in 2007, Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew in 2009, along with defensive linemen Ndamakong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in three of the previous four drafts – not to mention stud LT Riley Reiff in 2012. Add in this year's top pick TE Eric Ebron from North Carolina, who could be a major contributor almost immediately in the Lions' two-tight end sets, and the talent is there. Toss in an offensive line that returns intact, along with a healthy RB in Reggie Bush, and just like that this could be the year of the Lion in the NFC North. Then again, this song has been sung over and over in recent years.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lions will host only one team this season that owned a winning record last year.

GREEN BAY

TEAM THEME: ON THE MEND
Quick. Fill in the blank: Aaron Rodgers is to the Packers is what [blank] was to the Colts. Whether you answered Peyton Manning or Johnny Unitas, you get the picture. Much like Indianapolis' massive descent in 2011 when they went from a 12-time playoff squad to a 2-win team when Manning was injured and forced to miss the season, Green Bay got a taste of the same thing last season when Rodgers broke his collarbone in Game Eight of the campaign. After a 2-5-1 SU and 1-7 ATS slide, Rodgers returned to lead his troops to a season-ending, playoff clinching victory… keeping a 4-year playoff streak intact. Rodgers returns and with it, the Packers become the favorite to capture NFC North honors this season. Also returning from the injury list, on the other side of the ball, is stud LB Clay Matthews. Joining Matthews this year is perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. Along with top draft pick FS Ha Ha Clinton Dix (can't wait to hear Marv Albert call that one…), Green Bay is making a concentrated effort to shore up its stop troops, knowing full well that 'defense' is a considered a foreign language inside this division. In other words, he who plays it best will likely capture the division crown.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: From 1939-2001 the Packers were 13-0 SU at home in playoff games. They've gone 2-5 since.

MINNESOTA

TEAM THEME: ZIM AND VIGOR
When the Vikings showed Leslie Frazier the door and inked former Cincinnati DC Mike Zimmer as their new boss, little did the spirited coach realize what he was biting off. Inheriting the worst scoring defense in the league (30.0 PPG) and a team that coughed up more than 400 yards on ten different occasions last year, Zimmer sees the cup as half-full. His blunt demeanor – he called Bobby Petrino a “gutless bastard” – was called out on HBO's 'Hard Knocks' during his stay with the Bengals. He lives by a great quote from Vince Lombardi, who said, “'If you grab your players' hearts, they'll follow you anywhere.” To which Zimmer says, "That's what I want to do. I want to grab these players' hearts and get them to follow me." Leading the charge will be star RB Adrian Peterson, who appears to be back in top form after suffering a myriad of injuries last year. He spearheads an offense that has seen its stats improve steadily each of the last three years. The biggest question mark is who will be behind center? It appears that Matt Cassel will get the nod at QB – at least to start the season – as Christian Ponder seems to have worn out his welcome, with rookie Teddy Bridgewater awaiting his turn. Meanwhile, the defense has a new look after losing stud DL Jared Allen.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vikings will face only three teams that owned a winning record last season.

NFC South Division

ATLANTA


TEAM THEME: BIRDS IN FLIGHT
What a difference a year makes, especially to an injury-riddled NFL squad. QB Matt Ryan will have his full contingent of wideouts in place to start 2014, as Julio Jones returns from a foot injury that limited him to just five games last year. Meanwhile, Harry Douglas had a breakout season in his place, and the pair will join veteran Roddy White for the Falcons' receiving corps. The missing piece, of course, is TE Tony Gonzalez, who will now be in the CBS studio post-retirement. Steven Jackson was also limited by injuries last season, rushing for just 543 yards in 12 games, and could be pushed at some point by rookie Devonta Freeman out of Florida State. After picking up Osi Umenyiora from the Giants before last season, Mike Smith added to his defensive line during this offseason by grabbing free agents Paul Soliai from Miami and Tyson Jackson from KC before nabbing DT Ra'shede Hageman in the draft. But the biggest addition for the Dirty Birds might have been 1st-rounder Jake Matthews, who should step into the starting lineup immediately at RT. With seven losses coming by 7 or less points last season, and both Matty Ice and head coach Mike Smith in off their first-ever losing season since pairing up six years ago, the Falcons have the look of a mission team ready to fly. And to help matters, a soft non-conference slate features only two foes with winning records last year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Falcons are 19-6 ATS at home with revenge under Mike Smith.

CAROLINA

TEAM THEME: CAM-O-FLAGE
Coming off a successful 12-4 campaign, you would expect most of last year's look to be the same, but you would be wrong. Sure, the offensive backfield will have a familiar feel, with QB Cam Newton back after off-season surgery, and some combination of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert toting the football. But while Greg Olson is back at TE, the rest of the offensive line is in complete flux, and Ron Rivera may have to employ LSU rookie G Trai Turner in the starting lineup. That's not to mention the Greg Hardy domestic mess turning into a PR disaster. Newton's receiving corps will be made up of free agents Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant replacing Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, plus FSU rookie Kelvin Benjamin working into the mix at some point. Defensively, Luke Kuechly is all over the field and is now one of the very best in the game. But who knows if Hardy (aka The Kraken) can settle his legal issues before the season gets underway? Rest assured, these Cats will look to rely on a stop-unit that ranked No. 2 in scoring defense (15.1 PPG) last year. Will it be enough to put them in back-to-back playoff years for the first time ever in franchise history? We think not.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: No team has ever repeated as division champion since the inception of the NFC South in 2002.

NEW ORLEANS

TEAM THEME: THE BEIGNETS ARE BACK
This is one of those teams that looks virtually the same as last year, and if you're a Saints fan that's a good thing. While rebounding from seven wins in 2012 to twelve victories last season, New Orleans made a dramatic reversal of fortune where it counted the most – on defense. New DC Rob Ryan's schemes met with a startling 139 YPG improvement. And to illustrate the impact Ryan had, the Saints' defense allowed ZERO opponents to gain season-high (or 2nd high) yardage last year, as opposed to coughing up the same number 11 times in 2012. To top it off, free agent DB Champ Bailey and 3-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd from the Bills have been added to shore up Ryan's secondary. On the flip side, 35-year old Drew Brees is getting longer in the tooth these days but instead of age, we see a savvy, experienced veteran primed to make a super run in 2014. An improved offensive line and a new toy in 1st-round pick WR Brandin Cooks (led the nation with 133 YPG at Oregon State last year) will help Brees forget about counting candles on his cake. With a schedule that finds none of their first seven opponents sporting a winning record last year, and only one of their eight road games against a winning opponent, look for the Saints to make a big push for conference honors this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Teams are 4-22 SUATS between the threes (+3 to -3) in games after facing the Saints since 2010.

TAMPA BAY

TEAM THEME: LOVIN' IT
When last season ended, the Bucs gave the boot to HC Greg Schiano and brought in Lovie Smith. And with him comes a new recipe for success. That's because, after a 5-11 season in his first season with Chicago in 2004, Lovie's Bears averaged almost 10 wins per season thereafter. Coming over with Smith is former Chicago backup QB Josh McCown, whose 13 TD's and 1 INT last season earned him a sparkling QB Rating of 109.0. He'll look to spark an offense that gained the fewest amount of yards in the league (2,820) last season. Also back is RB Doug Martin who, after a monster rookie campaign in 2012, will attempt to make a comeback from a torn labrum that ended his season last year after just six games. The receiving corps should be large and in charge, as 6'5” draft choices Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) join veteran Vincent Jackson in the aerial attack. New DC Leslie Frazier loses CB Darrelle Revis but welcomes back LB Lavonte David, who has become one of the NFL's top defensive players with 219 solo tackles in his first two seasons. A soft schedule featuring only three opponents with winning records last year paves the way for a new love-in by the Bay beginning this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Teams who finished last, or tied for last, have won the NFC South 11 years in a row the following season.

NFC West Division

ARIZONA


TEAM THEME: HEADED TO THE PROMISED LAND
After surprising the league with 10 wins in his first season with the Cardinals last year, Bruce Arians will be looking to buck a bit of history in 2014. That's because the last three times the Arizona managed to avoid a sub .500 season, they reverted back to their losing ways each year thereafter – going 5-11, 4-12 and 6-10. So what's in the cards for the Cards this season, you ask? It all starts with Arians, a starting QB at Virginia Tech and former offensive coordinator with both Alabama and the 2008 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who infused life into a lethargic offense and is promising even more 2014. Not finished there, he immediately went to work in the offseason repairing the secondary with 1st-round SS Deone Bucannon and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie. Playing alongside Patrick Peterson instantly upgrades the defense. If dangerous Tyrann Mathieu can also return from the serious knee injury that ended his breakout rookie season, the secondary will be a source of pride. Coincidentally, Zona's new-look offense improved 83 YPG, cracking the 400-yard plateau for the first time since 2009 (four times). Along with a defense that was 21 YPG better last year than in 2012, we say move over Seattle and San Fran, there's a new guy in the neighborhood and in these parts they call him the Boss. B-R-U-C-E…

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Arians is 16-3 SU and 15-2-2 ATS as an NFL head coach versus sub .600 opponents.

ST. LOUIS

TEAM THEME: A NEW LISTING
After taking over a team in 2012 that averaged three wins a season the previous five years, Jeff Fisher has clearly brought the Rams back to respectability, despite residing in the challenging NFC West. However, respectable doesn't cut it in the Fisher household. Not for a coach that has suffered only seven losing seasons in 18 full years as a head coach in the NFL. After winning the NFC West in 2012, St. Louis tumbled to 1-5 in the division last year. With that, Fisher went to work, putting together a huge draft this spring. Two 1st-rounders should start immediately as Greg Robinson will bookend the offensive line opposite Jake Long, while Aaron Donald should jump right in at defensive tackle. In addition, two other selections should contribute sooner rather than later in CB LaMarcus Joyner from FSU and RB Tre Mason from Auburn. QB Sam Bradford is out for the year and while the receiving contingent is small, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Tavon Austin are lightning-quick and can certainly stretch the field. The biggest hurdle this year will be taking on the 3rd toughest strength of schedule in the league, with no less than 10 games against foes that finished with a winning record last season. It's what comes from living in the high-priced neighborhood they do.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Rams are 1-31 SU and 7-25 ATS as division home dogs of 3 or more points.

SAN FRANCISCO

TEAM THEME: GOLD DIGGERS
Okay, before we begin here's another of our famous bar bets guaranteed to have your designated-driver working overtime: name the only two teams in the NFL that ran more plays than they passed last year. If you guessed San Francisco and… Seattle… you're a winner! Of course, a good part of the answer lies in the legs of each team's quarterback, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, who are scramblers supreme. Once again, Kaepernick has a wealth of veteran talent to work with as Stevie Johnson (Buffalo) and Brandon Lloyd (New England) join standout receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. And that doesn’t even include star TE Vernon Davis – nor did we mention rookie WR Bruce Ellington. Same story at RB where the 1-2 punch of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter has been entrenched for several seasons, but could be challenged by 2014 2nd-round draft choice Carlos Hyde and the possible return to health of Marcus Lattimore, who sat out last season with the knee injury he suffered in his last year at South Carolina. Star LB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith headline a defense that's been Top 10 every year since Jim Harbaugh's arrival. Yes, there sure is a lot to like about the Niners as, according to Aldon Smith, this team is loaded… in more ways than one.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last time San Francisco won a Super Bowl was 20 years ago.

SEATTLE

TEAM THEME: TAG, YOU'RE IT
It can be said that Super Bowl champions are often built by giving up future luxuries in order to win right now… such is the case with the Seahawks. Their first draft pick in this year's draft was #45 after trading down, and they had just three of the first 108 selections. Will it affect this year’s talent-laden roster? Hardly, as there are not many weak links to be found. It's hard to feel sorry for a defense that has three Pro Bowlers returning in the secondary, and an offensive attack that adds a playmaker to the full-time lineup in perennial Pro Bowler Percy Harvin, who missed most of the season. The 12th man should be ready to raise some hell once again, especially after winning 17 of 18 home games the past two seasons. But before he prepares to lose his voice, it should be noted that Super Bowl winners have had a tough row to hoe the following year – just ask the Ravens and Giants the past two seasons – as they become the top priority game on each opponent's schedule. Then there's a murderous slate to tackle, the 7th toughest Strength of Schedule in the league against foes .556 overall and .575 away, including six road foes that won 10 or more games in 2013. Let's see what happens in 2014 to a team that led the league in net TO's (+27) last year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Seahawks are 1-23 SU away vs. .666 or greater AFC West opponents, including 18 losses in a row.

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