2014 NFL Preview

Our gridiron guru analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of all 32 NFL teams to predict how they will fare this season, and who will be named champion at Super Bowl XLIX come January

AFC East

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Death, taxes, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Krafts mean a sixth straight division crown. Brady will need a healthy Rob Gronkowski this year to overcome the formidable Broncos in January. Mr. Gisele Bundchen made excellent use of slot receiver Julian Edelman (105 receptions, 1,056 yards) and a running game by committee. RB Shane Vereen is a dynamic receiver out of the backfield, and WR Brandon LaFell could provide the semblance of a deep threat. To counter the arms buildup in Denver, Belichick snagged Darrelle Revis as a $12 million rental and will pair him with former Seahawk Brandon Browner. Following the Seahawks’ White House visit with President Obama, Browner tweeted: “I’ll see him again.” Second-round draft pick QB Jimmy Garoppolo better have patience. Brady’s Mr. Patriot, not Mr. Mom.

2NEW YORK JETS

Coach Rex Ryan saved his job with two wins to close out 8-8 with the worst group of playmakers surrounding a rookie QB, mistake-prone Geno Smith (12 TDs, 21 INTs, but thankfully no butt fumbles). GM John Idzik’s attempt to close the Pats gap saw him sign WR Eric Decker, RB Chris Johnson and QB Michael Vick and draft Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro. Vick was brought in to push Smith, but could push him to the bench. With Marty Mornhinweg coordinating the offense, the Jets may finally
be able to score more than the Fu Manchued Joe Namath once did on Broadway at 3 a.m. Ryan, who guarantees nothing these days, not even the chicken francese at Elio’s, will surely be trumpeting a defense boasting five No. 1 draft choices over the last four years. 

3. MIAMI DOLPHINS

The ugly “Bullygate” scandal contributed to the beached Dolphins missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Not even Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells could stem the endless tide of Miami Vice (143-145) that has rendered the Marino and Shula years a distant memory. The once-incognito offensive line was an embarrassment on and off the field as QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times. Prized free agent LT Branden Albert and No. 1 draft pick Ja’Wuan James are the new bodyguards. New GM Dennis Hickey corralled Bronco Knowshon Moreno and his 1,038 yards to pair with Lamar Miller for the uptempo attack that new OC Bill Lazor brings from Philadelphia. Tannehill had a decent year (3,913 yards, 24 TDs, 17 INTs) but it would help greatly if WR Mike Wallace became the deep threat the Fish envisioned.

4BUFFALO BILLS

It was a cold, cruel winter in Buffalo as popular owner Ralph Wilson died and iconic quarterback Jim Kelly underwent cancer surgery. The Bills endured their 11th straight non-winning campaign (6-10), extending their playoff drought to 14 years. Doug Marrone, banking his future on E.J. Manuel, received a present from GM Doug Whaley, who traded up for gamebreaker WR Sammy Watkins to team with Robert Woods and Mike Williams, leading to the release of Stevie Johnson. C.J. Spiller (933 yards) slumped and Fred Jackson is 33 years old. Maybe rookie Cyrus Kouandjio, who looks like he can set a new record for downing chicken wings at Duff’s, can help at tackle. Adding Brandon Spikes helps, but losing tackling machine Kiko Alonso (ACL) and the departure of S Jairus Byrd hurts.

AFC North

1. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

After starting the decade with two 12-4 seasons, the Steelers have been humbled by back-to-back 8-8 years. QB Ben Roethlisberger played hurt but toughed it out, throwing for 4,261 yards, 28 TDs and a 92.0 rating. With Mike Wallace gone, WR Antonio Brown stepped up big (110 receptions, 1,499 yards, second in the NFL). Rookie RB Le’Veon Bell was the other bright spot on offense with 1,259 combined yards, the most by a Steeler rookie since Franco Harris. Free agency brought in RB LeGarrette Blount and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, and No.1 draft LB Ryan Shazier is a heat-seeking missile on a rejuvenated Steel Curtain, but questions remain at cornerback, where Ike Taylor is younger only than Mel Blount.

2CINCINNATI BENGALS

Cincy won the North (11-5) but Andy Dalton faltered for the third straight time during his QB era and failed to get them past the first round of the playoffs. The natives were restless after the home loss to the wildcard Chargers, and Coach For Life Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in the postseason. Dalton (4,293 yards, 33 touchdowns, 20 INTs) has an All-Pro wideout in A.J. Green (98 receptions, 1,426 yards, 11 TDs) and another good one in Marvin Jones. LB Vontaze Burfict led the NFL with 171 tackles. But DE Michael Johnson left for Tampa, and Lewis carries on without offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and trusted defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The return of elite DT Geno Atkins from ACL surgery is critical. QB A.J. McCarron, the first-round draft choice of Katherine Webb, will have to sit behind backup Jason Campbell.

3. BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Ravens regressed from a Super Bowl season in 2013 to missing the playoffs for the first time under John Harbaugh, who was hired in 2008. Most of the decline was attributable to an underachieving offensive line, behind which RB Ray Rice collected a career-low 3.1 yards a carry. Rice will sit out the first two games on suspension for assault, but Bernard Pierce is no slouch. QB Joe Flacco was under pressure practically every week (48 sacks), clearly evident by his 73.1 rating. WR Torrey Smith had a breakout year (65 grabs, 1,128 yards). GM Ozzie Newsome jumped at the chance to sign pugnacious WR Steve Smith and TE Owen Daniels to pair with TE Dennis Pitta. No. 1 draft choice MLB C.J. Mosley probably won’t be Ray Lewis, but he won’t be Jerry Lewis either.

4CLEVELAND BROWNS

Johnny “Football” Manziel, who makes Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus look like shrinking violets, brings his act to 4-12 Cleveland, which has been a graveyard for QBs since Bernie Kosar left in 1993. Brian Hoyer is the latest, but his days are numbered. Having eight coaches in 15 years has resulted in double-digit losses in 10 of the last 11 seasons, which leaves new coach Mike Pettine on shaky ground. Rex Ryan’s protégé took a hit when his best player, WR Josh Gordon (87 receptions, 1,646 yards) was suspended, possibly for the year, pending appeal. The Browns neglected to draft a wideout in a receiver-rich draft and passed on WR Sammy Watkins—another Mistake by the Lake. The Dawg Pound defense will keep games close. Johnny Cleveland’s jersey is hot and the Browns sold thousands of season tickets, but Cleveland was once excited over Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden too.

AFC South

1. HOUSTON TEXANS

The Texans went from a South title in 2012 to a disastrous 2-14 nightmare that included a humiliating 14-game losing streak. It cost coach Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub their jobs. The new sheriff in town, Bill O’Brien, wasted no time trading Schaub to Oakland and using the No. 1 pick in the draft to take linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who will team with sack leaders J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to create a 10 gallon headache for opposing QBs. Rookie NT Louis Nix is also expected to start. The big question is who plays quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick? Case Keenum?) because RB Arian Foster can’t carry the franchise. Star WR Andre Johnson (109 grabs, 1,407 yards) expressed his frustration. “I just kind of wonder sometimes, is this still the place for me?” he questioned. WR DeAndre Hopkins could be primed for a breakout season. 

2INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

In his first two years, Andrew Luck looked like John Wayne, riding the Colts (11-5) to a South title and two playoff berths. But he needs help. With virtually no running output, the QB stood tough (3,822 yards, 23 TDs, 9 INTs and 32 sacks). With Reggie Wayne (no relation to John) hurt, Luck developed a rapport with deep threat T.Y. Hilton (82 catches, 1,083 yards) since RB Trent Richardson could only produce 458 yards. The
return of Wayne, plus the additions of Hakeem Nicks and No. 2 draft Donte Moncrief at receiver, has Luck smiling. Robert Mathis and his NFL league-leading 19.5 sacks will spend the first four games of the season serving a suspension. Owner Jim Irsay, out of rehab and back on Twitter, was subject to disciplinary action from Commissioner Roger Goodell.

3. TENNESSEE TITANS

Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, who had been around the franchise as a player since Van Halen was relevant, was fired after a 7-9 season. Former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired to make the Nashville team sound once again after the Titans scored only 276 points, second lowest in the entire AFC. An offensive specialist, Whisenhunt’s biggest project is QB Jake Locker, who has made only 18 starts in three years and spent half of 2012 on injured reserve. Whisenhunt did wonders for Philip Rivers in San Diego, which should benefit WR Kendall Wright (94 receptions, 1,079 yards) and second-year WR Justin Hunter. Jurrell Casey (10.5 sacks) is key as the Titans switch to a 3-4 defensive front under Ray Horton. With RB Chris Johnson gone, the Titans need second-round choice Bishop Sankey to help fill the void.

4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

The Jaguars made some drastic moves after last year’s 4-12 debacle under rookie coach Gus Bradley. They got rid of QB Blaine Gabbert, who played only 28 games in three years, and lead rusher Maurice Jones-Drew. GM David Caldwell looked to the draft (11 picks) to rebuild and didn’t wait to make Central Florida QB Blake Bortles his first pick. Bortles will replace bridge quarterback Chad Henne when he’s ready. WRs Marqise Lee from USC and Allen Robinson of Penn State were drafted to replace troubled WR Justin Blackmon and join WR Cecil Shorts (66 receptions, 777 yards). RB Toby Gerhart will carry the mail. Oklahoma CB Aaron Colvin could turn out to be a fourth-round steal. Caldwell has given Jag fans something to growl about without summoning Tim Tebow.

AFC West

1. DENVER BRONCOS

Peyton Manning’s record-breaking season was marred by a horrific 43-8 loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl. Manning (115.1 rating) set standards for passing yards (5,477) and TDs (55) but would trade it all for a second Super Bowl ring. The Broncos (13-3) scored a record 606 points. Manning loses WR Eric Decker, but has WR Demaryius Thomas (92 grabs, 1,430 yards, 14 TDs), Wes Welker (73 catches, 778 yards, 10 TDs) and TE Julius Thomas (65 receptions, 788 yards, 12 TDs) back and welcomes Emmanuel Sanders as Decker’s replacement. The Broncs addressed a weak secondary by adding CB Aqib Talib and S T.J. Ward. Former Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware (117 sacks in 9 years) will join Von Miller to bring the heat. With Knowshon Moreno gone, Montee Bell will handle the running, and first-round pick Bradley Roby will try to fill Champ Bailey’s shoes. Everyone’s high in Denver—on the Broncos.

2KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Andy Reid took a 4-12 sad sack and made the playoffs with an 11-5 record. He got the most out of QB Alex Smith (3,313 yards, 23 TDs) and Chiefs fans were yelling Super Bowl after a 9-0 start before the defense became soft. RB Jamaal Charles was a one-man warrior.  He ran for 1,287 yards, caught 70 balls for 693 more and scored 19 TDs. The Chiefs lost five starters from 2013 and need a playmaking wide receiver and a remake of the offensive line. They didn’t replenish either in the draft. Their No. 1 choice was OLB Dee Ford, a pass rush specialist who will keep OLB  Tamba Hali (11 sacks) and Justin Houston (11 sacks) fresh. Drafting Georgia QB Aaron Murray raised eyebrows.

3. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Philip Rivers showed critics he’s not on the decline by carrying the Chargers (9-7) into the playoffs for the first time in four years and beating the Bengals on the road before losing in Denver. He tied a career-high 105.5 rating based on a 69.5 completion mark, 4,478 yards and 32 TDs. Rivers (4-0 in December) hooked up with rookie WR Keenan Allen (71
receptions, 1,046 yards) to give the Chargers their biggest offensive bolt. Coach Mike McCoy also got production out of RB Ryan Matthews (1,255 yards) and TE Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards), but keep an eye on TE Ladarius Green, a young Gates. The Chargers waited until the seventh round before drafting speedy Tevin Reese from Baylor. Second-round draft choice explosive Jeremiah Attaochu is a swing LB/DE who can help Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney rush the passer, while No. 1 pick feisty little CB Jason Verrett will match up well with Wes Welker.

4OAKLAND RAIDERS

Whatever happened to Al Davis’ pet phrase, “Just Win Baby”? The 4-12 “Raiders of the Lost Ark” turned in a non-winning season for the 11th straight time and have gone 49-111 the last 10 years. Coach Dennis Allen will walk the plank if there is more Commitment to Pestilence. GM Reggie McKenzie embarked on a free agent signing spree with QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, LT Donald Penn; DE Justin Tuck and LB LaMarr Woodley. But it was No. 1 draft Khalil Mack, a hard-charging OLB, who had Raider fans cheering one of their best drafts in years, which included QB of the Future Derek Carr. The Silver & Black will travel a league-high 36,106 miles in 2014—that’s a Commitment to Turbulence.

NFC East

1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES​

The Eagles haven’t won an NFL championship since 1960 but QB Nick Foles is moving them in the right direction. The lanky young gunslinger delivered the East crown (10-6) with 2,891 passing yards, 64 percent accuracy and 27 TDs, with only 2 INTs, topping the NFL ratings at 119.2. “Foles made the most of his opportunities,” said GM Howie Roseman, who has helped by picking up dynamic ex-Saints RB Darren Sproles. “Darren is an unbelievable weapon,” said coach Chip Kelly. So is LeSean McCoy—who nominates LeSean McCoy as the NFL’s best running back. WR Riley Cooper broke out (47 grabs, 835 yards) while the Eagles look to replace DeSean Jackson with Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leading receiver, and Taylor Huff, who Kelly coached at Oregon. If WR Jeremy Maclin is fully recovered from ACL surgery, the Eagles can soar even higher, especially if No. 1 draft pick Marcus Smith can help the diehards forget Brian Dawkins.

2NEW YORK GIANTS

In losing their first six games, the Giants became one of the league’s disappointments with their 7-9 record. QB Eli Manning experienced his worst season (18 TDs, 27 INTs, 57.5 percent completion mark) and the running game was absent. “The offense is broken,” moaned co-owner John Mara, who brought in OC Ben McAdoo from Green Bay for a fix. The offensive line received a makeover, and GM Jerry Reese couldn’t resist making gamebreaking WR-PR Odell Beckham his first-round pick. CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond upgrade the secondary, Antrel Rolle and Jon Beason are defensive leaders, but the return to form of a healthy Jason Pierre-Paul is key. 

3. DALLAS COWBOYS

Jerry Jones must be tickled that his Cowboys led the NFL in merchandise sales last year. They finished 8-8 for a third straight time and have been 133-133 since the end of the 1997 season with but one playoff win in 17 years. The concern this year is how QB Tony Romo will perform following back surgery after throwing for 3,828 yards and 31 TDs. The Cowboys have playmakers in WR Dez Bryant (93 receptions, 1,233 yards, 13 TDs), TE Jason Witten (73 grabs, 851 yards) and RB DeMarco Murray (1,121 yards) but need to fix a 32nd-ranked defense that has lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and then MLB Sean Lee to a torn ACL right after Memorial Day. Jones surprised everyone—and probably himself—by taking RG Zack Martin with the 16th pick instead of overhyped QB Johnny Manziel. Then he drafted the Best Available Demarcus—Demarcus
Lawrence—to juice the pass rush.

4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS

New coach Jay Gruden could have more problems than President Obama, taking over a 3-13 team that has been out of the playoffs 17 of the last 21 years. Owner Dan Snyder runs through coaches like Winston Churchill did cigars, and he’s under increasing fire to change the club’s name. Gruden’s priority is getting QB Robert Griffin, who missed the last three games of the season, to be RG III again. He has a gem in WR Pierre Garçon who led the NFL (113 catches, 1,346 yards) while RB Alfred Morris contributed (1,275 yards). Signing ex-Eagle WR DeSean Jackson (82 catches, 1,332 yards, 9 TDs) was huge. The draft delivered defensive help with Stanford OLB Trent Murphy, who led the NCAA in sacks (15).

NFC North

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers lost QB Aaron Rodgers for seven games, and limped to the North Title (8-7-1) and into the playoffs. It was the 25th-ranked defense that almost did in the Pack as their safeties failed to create a single turnover. “We have a lot of creativity in our defense but we didn’t get to use a lot of it,” claimed Coach Mike McCarthy. Getting DE Julius Peppers from Chicago will solve that, and help OLB Clay Matthews get after the quarterback. Rodgers needs more playmakers like WR Jordy Nelson (85 receptions, 1,314 yards) and RB Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs. The return of multifaceted weapon Randall Cobb (leg) is huge. GM Ted Thompson remedied the safety position by drafting Alabama ballhawk Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He’ll be no laughing matter to Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.

2DETROIT LIONS

Another late-season collapse (7-9) proved fatal to coach Jim Schwartz, who was fired. In five years in Motown, he went 29-57, little better than what John McKay accomplished with the 1976 expansion Buccaneers (22-53). Jim Caldwell replaced Schwartz and inherits offensive talent, beginning with the NFL’s best wide receiver Calvin Johnson (84 grabs, 1,492 yards, 12 TDs), RB Reggie Bush (1,006 yards) and QB Matthew Stafford (4,650 yards, 29 TDs). Signing former Seahawk WR Golden Tate (64 catches, 898 yards) was golden. The Lions added a boost to the offense with dynamic No. 1 choice TE Eric Ebron, but ignored patching up a porous secondary that needs cornerback Darius Slay to blossom.

3. CHICAGO BEARS

The question they’re asking at Ditka’s Steakhouse is whatever happened to the Bears defense? Ranked 32nd against the run and 30th in total defense, where are the Monsters of the Midway? Coach Marc Trestman could only go 8-8 his first year in the Windy City, and missed the playoffs by losing the last two games. The Bears have top receivers in Brandon Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs); Alshon Jeffery (89 catches, 1,421 yards) and TE Martellus Bennett (65 grabs, 759 yards). Matt Forte did the running but inconsistent QB Jay Cutler (2,621 yards, 19 TDs, 12 INTs), who some wanted benched for Josh McCown, held the Bears back. Ex-Viking DE Jared Allen, the NFL’s leading active sacker (128.5), and DE Lamarr Houston, will give the Bears a pass rush. CB Kyle Fuller will help in a pass-crazed division, but the safety position remains a concern.

4. MINNESOTA VIKINGS​

Mike Zimmer, a defensive mind, takes over a Vikings team that is lost on offense. Zimmer will fix the holes on the defensive line and at linebacker but it’s up to whiz OC Norv Turner to repair the Achilles heel at quarterback. Neither Christian Ponder nor Matt Cassel is the answer, so GM Rick Spielman drafted Teddy Bridgewater, who should have a chip on his shoulder following all the pre-draft disparaging of his game. Adrian Peterson shook off injuries (1,266 yards, 10 TDs) while WR Greg Jennings produced 804 yards. Minny is expecting big  things from Cordarrelle Patterson, who impressed his rookie season (45 catches, 469 yards). “We expect him to thrive under Norv,” said Spielman. Maybe by 2018, when they host Super Bowl LII, they’ll have a Super Bowl quarterback.

NFC South

1. NEW ORLEANS  SAINTS

The 11-5 Saints were energized with the return of Coach Sean Payton and won a playoff game before a tough loss at Seattle. QB Drew Brees continued his magic (5,162 yards, 39 TDs) especially with TE Jimmy Graham (86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 16 TDs) and WR Marques Colston (75 catches, 943 yards). RB Khiry Robinson may be the answer to a marginal ground game. First-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan—who literally and figuratively is in Fat City these days—made his presence felt as his unit allowed only 304 points, fourth best in the NFC. Signing CB Champ Bailey and S Jairus Byrd strengthens the secondary while No. 1 draft choice, speedy WR Brandin Cooks, could be as mouthwatering an option for Brees and Payton as the shrimp remoulade at Galatoire’s.

2. CAROLINA PANTHERS

It will be curious to see if the 12-4 Panthers can continue their growl and again take the South. Cam Newton (3,379 yards, 24 TDs, offseason ankle surgery) has to be concerned—he lost four receivers to free agency, including discarded Steve Smith. “I can’t believe we made those moves,” cried RB DeAngelo Williams, who led the ground attack with 843 yards. The fourth-ranked defense (an NFL-high 60 sacks) carried an 18th-rated offense. MLB Luke Kuechly led in tackles (156) while DEs Greg Hardy (assault charges) and Charles Johnson combined for 26 sacks. Carolina added WRs Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to complement TE Greg Olsen (73 catches, 816 yards). Big things are expected from towering WR Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round pick. The retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross leaves a big hole.

3. ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons were a No. 1 seed in 2012 but resembled pigeons in 2013 (4-12). Injuries played a part as a crumbling offensive line (44 sacks) sabotaged QB Matt Ryan, which is why OT Jake Matthews was the sixth pick in the draft. Matty Ice threw 651 passes, completed 439 for 4,515 yards and 26 TDs. With Julio Jones injured, he focused on WR Harry Douglas (85 receptions, 1,067 yards), TE Tony Gonzalez (83 grabs, 859 yards) and WR Roddy White (63 catches, 711 yards). RB Steven Jackson could only manage 543 yards between injuries. Atlanta is hoping 6' 8" Levine Toilolo will replace the
retired Gonzalez, but that’s unlikely. Needing to get bigger and nastier on the defensive line, the Falcons brought in NT Paul Soliai and DT Tyson Jackson, and drafted hulking DT Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round, who is a good bet to do serious damage at Bone’s Steakhouse.

4TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano could have saved his job (4-12) with a strong finish. However “the Pirates of the Carribbean” were scuttled behind inexperienced rookie QB Mike Glennon (32nd in passing yards), and the team ranked 30th in points (288) and 31st in 3rd-down conversions. Both Schiano and GM Mark Dominik were fired. Ex-Bear coach Lovie Smith is the new skipper and he’s looking for help everywhere. He began by bringing aboard former Bears QB Josh McCown, and got him big playmakers—6' 5" WR Mike Evans, who helped Manziel grow in stature, and 6' 7" TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins to join 6' 5" WR Vincent Jackson. The Bucs won’t be pushovers. They nailed it on offense but neglected the defense with none among the six selections.

NFC West

1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

They were sleepless in Seattle after the Seahawks (13-3) overwhelmed Denver in the Super Bowl, 43-8. Little QB Russell Wilson was the big bird, passing for 3,357 yards, 26 TDs and only 9 INTs to earn a 101.2 rating. He also ran for 539 yards and a TD. Beast Mode Marshawn Lynch led the ground forces (1,257 yards) with a total of 14 TDs. A tough run defense led the NFL in points allowed (231 points) and yards allowed (4,378) and takeaways (39), the first to accomplish the feat since the 1985 Bears.  Trash-talking CB Richard Sherman and FS Earl Thomas were the ringleaders of the Legion of Doom secondary with a league-high 8 INTs. Wilson will have two more WRs to work with, Colorado’s speedy Paul Richardson and Alabama’s Kevin Norwood.

2SAN FRANCISCO 49ers

Coach Jim Harbaugh has brought the 49ers to the playoffs in each of his three years. He’ll have his hands full this time in the NFL’s toughest division. The 49ers went 12-4 in QB Colin Kaepernick’s first full season (3,197 yards, 21 TDs). WR Anquan Boldin was clutch (85 catches, 1,179 yards), TE Vernon Davis wreaked havoc with his speed (52 receptions, 850 yards, 13 TDs) and reliable Frank Gore supplied the ground power (1,128 yards, 9 TDs). Harbaugh signed WR Stevie Johnson from Buffalo, and with Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde and South Carolina WR Bruce Ellington, the 49ers struck gold and tightened the secondary with No. 1 pick Jimmie Ward. They’ll need ILB NaVorro Bowman to recover from his broken leg and OLB Aldon Smith to straighten out his life. 

3. ST. LOUIS RAMS 

QB Sam Bradford is praying for some playmakers so he can shoot past 7-9 and make the playoffs—the Rams haven’t been there in 10 years. The team’s standouts were TE Jared Cook (51 catches, 671 yards) and RB Zac Stacy (973 yards). OC Brian Schottenheimer needs to make better use of WR Tavon Austin. Robert Quinn (19 sacks) Chris Long (8.5 sacks) and rookie Alec Ogletree, who led in tackles (117), keyed the defense. Fisher rolled the dice on WR Kenny Britt. OL Greg Robinson and DT Aaron Donald upgrade the trenches while rookie Lamarcus Joyner boosts the secondary. The Rams made history by drafting OLB Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL. “I will make this team, “ declared Sam.

4ARIZONA CARDINALS

Despite an uneven performance from QB Carson Palmer, who threw for a career-high 4,274 yards but was undone by 22 INTs, coach Bruce Arians went 10-6 in the desert. Coupled with his 9-3 mark replacing Chuck Pagano at Indy, he’s off to a great start as a head coach (19-9). WR Larry Fitzgerald was Palmer’s main guy (82 receptions, 954 yards, 10 TDs), while Michael Floyd weighed in with a career-high 65 catches and 1,041 yards. The Cardinals had a double-barrel ground game but Rashard Mendenhall has retired. The offensive line has been upgraded with T Jared Veldheer and G Jonathan Cooper. DE John Abraham is back. They helped the secondary by drafting Deone Bucannon, an
enforcer from Washington State, and may have a sleeper in WR John Brown.

Super Bowl Prediction

Patriots Over Saints

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady return to the scene of their Imperfect Upset. This time, in The Battle of the Tight Ends, Brady coolly answers a fourth-quarter Drew Brees TD pass to Jimmy Graham (which follows a daring Sean Payton onsides kick recovery, of course) with a dramatic last-second game-winner to Rob Gronkowski for that elusive fourth ring, and the Krafts light up one of those old Red Auerbach victory cigars.