By the numbers, this the 95th season for the NFL, the 49th season for the Dolphins and the first season since the takeover of the league by Johnny Manziel, who might or might not start for a bad team but whose jersey sales rank No. 1 in the nation because we as Americans are easily impressed.
Manziel being drafted by the Browns and LeBron James returning to the Cavaliers makes it a joyous time for Cleveland sports fans, whose unbridled buoyancy is offset only by the fact they still awaken daily to the soul-pounding reality that, “I live in Cleveland.”
Anyway, when it comes to NFL predictions and me I always accentuate the positive because that is generally less embarrassing than the unadorned reality. In that spirit. I would note that on this page a year ago, my top 15 teams featured eight of the 12 that went on to make the playoffs, including a No. 3 ranking for eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle. Not terrible, right?
That spin sounds a lot better than admitting the team I rated No. 1 overall last year went on to finish with the worst record in the league at 2-14. Seriously. Houston, you had a problem. I just didn’t foresee it.
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(See, Cleveland. I make fun of myself, too!)
My division-by-division capsules, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear Sept. 5 on the first of our Friday NFL prediction pages.
For now, here is my 2014 ranking of the 32 teams, with last year’s regular-season and playoff records in parentheses. As always, these teams’ cooperation in helping to make this ranking as accurate as possible will be both hugely appreciated and thoroughly unexpected.
Spoiler alert: The Dolphins will make the playoffs! No, seriously.
Seahawks (13-3, 3-0): Tough to not rank the defending champs on top to start, even knowing no team has repeated a Super Bowl title since New England in 2003-04. Secondary-driven defense is best in league, nobody has bigger home-field advantage and Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch’s offense adds a healthy Percy Harvin.
Broncos (13-3, 2-1): Peyton Manning, at 38, cannot possibly approach last year’s crazy 55 TD passes can he? Even with a spotty ground game, never doubt PeyDay. Manning still has mucho weapons, and the defense adds DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib.
3. New England Patriots (12-4, 1-1): He threw for 4,343 yards and 25 TDs last season. That was Tom Brady having an off year and being washed up. Now his line is better, and he gets Rob Gronkowski back. And a strong defense adds Darrelle Revis. A Super Bowl threat with Gronk’s good health.
4. New Orleans Saints (11-5, 1-1): Rob Ryan’s defense is improved and adds Jairus Byrd. Drew Brees has a solid O-line and, now, a game-breaker in Brandin Cooks. Oh, almost forgot: Jimmy Graham.
5. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1, 0-1): Aaron Rodgers missed half of last season but is now healthy and still in prime time. RB Eddie Lacy is an emerging star, and the defense has key adds in pass rusher Julius Peppers and rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
6. San Francisco 49ers (12-4, 2-1): A Super Bowl threat once more, but I have a hunch Colin Kaepernick might feel the weight of that huge new contract, despite adding Stevie Johnson. And defensive star Aldon Smith faces a likely lengthy NFL suspension.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, 0-1): Preceding six teams are my first-level title threats. Birds begin my next tier. Chip Kelly’s offense still has LeSean McCoy and adds Darren Sproles, but will miss DeSean Jackson. Nick Foles can’t possibly be as good. And don’t see much pass rush.
8. Chicago Bears (8-8): Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte troika will make offense potent again, and the defense should be better after a draft emphasis to help run defense and signing of Jared Allen.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, 0-1): That blown 28-point lead in playoff loss doesn’t erase all Andy Reid did last season. Serious offensive issues other than Jamaal Charles, but ground game and big defense will keep KC in every game.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5, 0-1): Andy Dalton, adding the pressure of a large new contract, is 0-3 in playoffs and ’Gals last won a postseason game in 1990. But Cincy is solid enough all-around to at least get there again.
11. Indianapolis Colts (11-5, 1-1): I’ll be the one to say. I think Andrew Luck is overrated. But with T.Y. Hilton, a healthy Reggie Wayne and now Hakeem Nicks, that’s easy to disguise. Pass defense is not very good, though.
DOLPHINS (8-8): Huge disparity of regard for this team. Saw the Fins rated 31st somewhere — second to worst. That’s nuts. Miami was 8-6 last year, despite all the Bullygate turmoil, before a late fade. And Dolphins on paper have improved. A lot. Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James help the O-line. Jarvis Landry and Knowshon Moreno give Ryan Tannehill more weapons in Bill Lazor’s new offense. And additions of Cortland Finnegan, Earl Mitchell and Louis Delmas bolster an already stout defense. Almost forgot: Tight end/H-back Charles Clay is a budding major force.
Cardinals (10-6): Were 6-2 in second half of last season, and Larry Fitzgerald and emerging Michael Floyd give old Carson Palmer big weapons. If defense is as good as some think, they could be a playoff team.
14. San Diego Chargers (9-7, 1-1): Philip Rivers, coming off a great year, gives Bolts another playoff shot, but they need better defense beyond decent secondary.
Panthers (12-4, 0-1): I’m hunching a big downturn in fortunes for Cam Newton’s Cats. His receiving corps and line aren’t very good, and pass defense could be worst in league.
16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Blew the playoffs with a late, Miami-esque meltdown, and I don’t see much improvement. Joe Flacco’s offense is mediocre, even without the Ray Rice turmoil, and defense isn’t what it was.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): As Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window creaks to a close, his surrounding cast just isn’t better than average.
18. Detroit Lions (7-9): This concludes our broad second tier of teams (7-18) that are playoff contenders but not title contenders. Lions one of seven teams with a new head coach, Jim Caldwell. Matthew Stafford has Calvin Johnson, now adds Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Problem is defense, with lack of a pass rush and subpar secondary.
Falcons (4-12): We begin our third tier of clubs that should not expect the playoffs. Team “Hard Knocks” might be in for some of those. Matt Ryan has Julio Jones and Roddy White but not much blocking help, and I don’t see much above average on defense.
20. Buffalo Bills (6-10): This might be a high rank for a team whose playoff drought stretches to 1999, but Sammy Watkins gives offense a chance to be explosive if EJ Manuel is up to the throwing part. Defense should be great against the run.
21. New York
Giants (7-9): Eli Manning is coming off a nightmarish 27-interception season, and the defense looks pretty bad other than a decent secondary.
Texans (2-14): Big ifs on offense: If Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are healthy, and if Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum are even OK at quarterback. J.J. Watt and now Jadeveon Clowney give team some big pieces on defense for new coach Bill O’Brien.
23. New York Jets (6-10): Rex Ryan’s Last Stand relies on Geno Smith to make huge strides at quarterback, or the howling for Michael Vick will be quick. Adding Eric Decker should help more than Chris Johnson. But defense has real issues beyond a stout interior line.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): New coach Lovie Smith will help, and quarterback Josh McCown is a maligned but OK stopgap until Mike Glennon is ready. A beefed-up O-line and running back Doug Martin give Bucs some pop. But they’re weak in pass rush and coverage.
Cowboys (8-8): Tony Romo and Dez Bryant spearhead a pretty solid attack, but the defrocked America’s Team and coach-on-a-hot-seat Jason Garrett might have worst defense in the NFL.
26. Washington Redskins (3-13): Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and now DeSean Jackson give the Unmentionable Nicknames’ offense some potential for new coach Jay Gruden (one of four rookie head coaches). But pass defense could be horrid.
27. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Everybody is talking about openly gay defensive lineman Michael Sam, but he isn’t even the most important Sam on his own team. That’s quarterback Sam Bradford, who is out for the season with another torn ACL. STL has great pass rush but not much else defensively.
28. Cleveland Browns (4-12): It will probably be Brian Hoyer until Johnny Football is ready, but Josh Gordon is expected to be suspended, a huge loss. But a great O-line and pretty good defense give Earthtones and rookie coach Mike Pettine a shot.
29. Tennessee Titans (7-9): New coach Ken Whisenhunt must try to find points with Jake Locker at the helm, but defense could keep team in wild-card hunt.
30. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1): Comes to mind the phrase “wasting the Adrian Peterson years.” Question is when new coach Mike Zimmer will take ball from Matt Cassel and give it to Teddy Bridgewater.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-12): No winning season in 12 years. Make it 13. Khalil Mack-infused defense could be OK, but hope relies on a second wind from quarterback Matt Schaub. League’s toughest schedule doesn’t help.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Chad Henne shepherds NFL’s weakest offense. Rookie Blake Bortles should be happy he’s rubbernecking the accident, not in it.