1. New England Patriots
If any franchise can weather the Aaron Hernandez storm, it’s the Patriots (four consecutive division crowns, 10 straight seasons with at least 10 wins). The catalyst is QB Tom Brady (4,827 yards, 34 TDs, 8 INTs). Mr. Gisele Bundchen, who lost WR Wes Walker to Denver, established chemistry quickly with new WR Danny Amendola, but will have to be at his best with Hernandez incarcerated and facing a murder trial
and fellow TE Rob Gronkowski recuperating from forearm and back surgeries. RB Stevan Ridley (1,263 yards, 12 TDs) blossomed. Veteran S Adrian Wilson bolsters an iffy secondary. The surprise signing of Tim Tebow give the Pats a wing (Brady) and a prayer if Tebow makes the team. The peerless Krafts, both Robert and Jonathan, never stand pat.
2. Miami Dolphins
The moribund Dolphins (four straight losing seasons, 31-41 at home since 2003) made the biggest splash in free agency. Embattled GM Jeff Ireland brought in WRs Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, TE Dustin Keller, OT Tyson Clabo, and LBs Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to get the locals buzzing about something other than LeBron at South Beach hot spot Prime 112. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill (12 TDs, 13 INTs) showed promise during a 7-9 season. He’ll need second-year LT Jonathan Martin to protect his blindside. RB Lamar Miller is the favorite to replace Reggie Bush. Coach Joe Philbin needs No. 1 draft pick Dion Jordan to be a pass-rush bookend for Cameron Wake (15 sacks), and
No. 2 draft Boise State CB Jamar Taylor to replace Sean Smith.
3. New York Jets
New GM John Idzik raised eyebrows by drafting West Virginia QB Geno Smith in the second round. Incumbent Mark Sanchez (54.3 completion percentage, 13 TDs, 18 INTs and 52 turnovers in two years) has used up his quota of Buttfumbles. His best day isn’t Sunday, it’s payday, with his $8.25 million guaranteed contract. An off-season Rexodus ensued after Rex Ryan’s 6-10 crash landing. No. 1 draft choice Alabama CB Dee Milliner replaces Darrelle Revis (Tampa). David Garrard quit because of recurring knee trouble, and free agent RB Mike Goodson wound up in court. Murphy’s Law? More like Woody Johnson’s Law. Ryan has lame- duck status, and if his locker room deteriorates into Mariah Carey vs. Nicki Minaj again, he’ll be Rexiled.
4. Buffalo Bills
New coach Doug Marrone inherits a 6-10 Buffalo Bills team parched from a 13-year playoff drought. He gambled by drafting Florida State QB E.J. Manuel in the first round to duel for the starting spot with journeyman Kevin Kolb. RB C.J. Spiller (1,244 yards) broke out with starter Fred Jackson (knee) shelved. No. 2 draft WR Robert Woods from USC will help WR Stevie Johnson (1,046 yards), and WR Marquise Williams can deliver 4.27 speed, but unless Manuel develops quickly,
no one will be calling this team the Buffalo Wild Wings. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has finally escaped from the dwindling shadow of Rex Ryan, and wants more bang for Ralph Wilson’s bucks from DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco proved he was an elite quarterback by capturing Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors, which earned him a six-year, $120 million contract and a part playing a certain legendary Colts QB in the movie Unitas We Stand. GM Ozzie Newsome and Super Bowl champion Coach John Harbaugh (five straight playoff berths) reloaded on the fly when leader Ray Lewis retired, S Ed Reed bolted to Houston, ILB Dannell Ellerbe took his talents to South Beach and OLB Paul Kruger relocated to Cleveland. Newsome quickly signed OLB Elvis Dumervil and DTs Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and drafted Kansas State LB Arthur Brown and Florida S Matt Elam. RB Ray Rice is a lock for his fourth straight 1,000-yard season. WRs Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss need to emerge following the trade of Anquan Boldin to San Francisco, and Jacoby Jones will be Dancing With the Steelers, Bengals and Browns.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
QB Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury resulted in the Steelers’ first non-winning campaign (8-8) since 2006. With the departure of WR Mike Wallace (Miami), WRs Antonio Brown (66 receptions, 787 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders will have to do more, and Big Ben was praying that TE Heath Miller (71 catches, 816 yards) could make it back from his torn ACL. No. 1 draft Georgia sackmaster OLB Jarvis Jones replaces James Harrison (Cincinnati) on Dick LeBeau’s top-ranked defense. No. 2 draft Michigan State RB Le’Veon Bell, an adept pass catcher, replaces Rashard Mendenhall (Arizona), and speedy No. 3 draft Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton could push Sanders.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals (10-6) reached the playoffs for the second consecutive year as Andy Dalton threw for 3,667 yards and 27 TDs, developing great chemistry with WR A.J. Green (97 catches, 1,350 yards, 11 TDs) and TE Jermaine Gresham (737 yards). RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis provided balance (1,094 yards). Mike Zimmer’s defense, led by DT Geno Atkins, (12.5 sacks) was jungle tough. Ex-Steeler OLB bully James Harrison, if he can stay on the field and out of Roger Goodell’s hair, could elevate the Cincinnati Kids even higher. No. 1 draft choice Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert can stretch the field and give the Red Rifle another red-zone threat. No. 2 draft speedy North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard will be a third-down safety valve.
4. Cleveland Browns
Rookie RB Trent Richardson (950 yards, 11 rushing TDs, 51 receptions for 367 yards and 1 TD) won over Jim Brown, but the brass needs more from second-year graybeard QB Brandon Weeden, who threw more INTs (17) than TDs (14). Rob Chudzinski becomes the sixth head coach in 10 years, and offensive guru Norv Turner will be a godsend to Weeden and Jason Campbell. “We’re going to go attack,” Turner says. New GM Mike Lombardi may have struck gold for new owner James Haslam with No. 1 pick edge rusher Barkevious Mingo. Lombardi—Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing—engineered a trade for Miami WR Davone Bess, who’ll mentor Josh Gordon and Greg Little.
1. Houston Texans
Can QB Matt Schaub (4,008 yards and a 90.7 QB rating) take the two-time defending South champs (12-4) to the Promised Land? Arian Foster (1,424 yards and 15 TDs) is a franchise back. WR Andre Johnson (112 receptions, 1,598 yards) hopes that No. 1 draft Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins can take the heat off him and TE Owen Daniels. DE J.J. Watt proved tougher than watching a “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” rerun with his league-best 20.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 33 tackles for losses or no gain, and with 16 pass deflections you can call him J.J. Swat. Ex-Raven S Ed Reed and No. 2 draft South Carolina S D.J. Swearinger solidify the secondary.
2. Indianapolis Colts
When Coach Chuck Pagano was hospitalized with leukemia, few thought the Colts would win two games with a rookie quarterback and a 70 percent turnover in personnel. Interim coach Bruce Arians did an inspiring job riding the Colts (11-5) into the playoffs, when Pagano returned. Franchise QB Andrew Luck, as good as the parmesan crusted grouper at the Milano Inn, set an NFL rookie record with 4,374 passing yards. WR Reggie Wayne (106 catches, 1,355 yards) and rookie WR T.Y. Hilton (50 receptions, 861 yards) stepped up. Ex-Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw steps in. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton replaces Arians, now the Arizona head coach. No. 1 draft Florida State OLB Bjoern Werner replaces Dwight Freeney opposite Robert Mathis. Owner Jim Irsay won’t have to tweet about Peyton Manning anymore.
3. Tennessee Titans
Neither QB Jake Locker (10 TDs, 11 INTs) nor veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, now in Indy, could provide any fireworks during a 6-10 season. RB Chris Johnson (1,243 yards) might have to share carries with ex-Jet Shonn Greene. The offensive line has been dramatically upgraded with free agent G Andy Levitre and No. 1 draft Alabama G Chance Warmack. Volatile WR Kenny Britt (45 catches) had his differences with Coach Mike Munchak, who avoided owner Bud Adams’ guillotine. WR Kendall Wright, the 2012 No. 1 draft pick, should be a big-play weapon. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams hopes to light a fire
under the pass rush—without bounty programs, please.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags (2-14) recorded the worst record in their 18-year history last season. Shad Kahn, the only minority owner in the NFL and a lifelong winner, installed a new regime with GM Dave Caldwell and Coach Gus Bradley. QBs Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne struggled as the Jags finished a lowly 29th on offense. WR Cecil Shorts III can be a gamebreaker, but apparently 2012 No. 1 draft WR Justin Blackman (who will serve a four-game suspension for substance abuse to start the season) idolizes Lindsay Lohan. RB Maurice Jones-Drew (a career-low 414 yards) vows to return to form following his Lisfranc injury. No. 1 draft Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel and No. 5 Michigan QB/RB Denard Robinson were quality picks. The Jags should have signed Tim Tebow—if only to lead the prayers for a pass rush.
1. Denver Broncos
The $96 Million Manning (4,659 yards, 37 TDs) made Denver (13-3) Peyton’s Place, and the already tony address has been upgraded in the off-season. Tom Brady’s former Mr. Clutch, Wes Welker, is stepping in as Manning’s new slot receiver alongside WR Demaryius Thomas (94 receptions, 1,434 yards, 10 TDs) and Eric Decker (85 grabs, 1,064 yards, 13 TDs). No. 2 draft Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, the NCAA all-time touchdown leader (83), could head a committee that will include Ronnie Hillman. LB Von Miller (18.5 sacks) keyed a defense yielding an AFC-low 289 points. Ex-Chargers OLB Shaun Phillips (9 1/2 sacks) should compensate for the loss of Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore). The back end was fortified once free agent CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie joined Champ Bailey.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
The worst season in Chiefs history (2-14) cost GM Scott Pioli and Coach Romeo Crennel their jobs, and awarded savvy new coach Andy Reid No. 1 overall draft OT Eric Fisher. The trade for San Francisco QB Alex Smith eradicated a quarterback eyesore that was responsible for the AFC’s fewest points (211). RB Jamaal Charles (1,509 yards, 5 TDs) is the team’s star. RB-WR Dexter McCluster appears primed for a breakout season to assist WR Dwayne Bowe (59 receptions, 801 yards). New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s attacking scheme has the defense excited to defend their territory at Arrowhead Stadium. Reid it and weep, AFC foes: The Chiefs are back.
3. San Diego Chargers
The Bolts missed the playoffs (7-9) for the third straight time, and owner Dean Spanos fired GM A.J. Smith and Coach Norv Turner. QB Philip Rivers struggled (3,606 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs) and was sacked 49 times. WR Malcom Floyd (56 catches), RB Ryan Mathews (707 rushing yards) and TE Antonio Gates (49 catches, 538 yards) disappointed. No. 1 draft choice Alabama RT D.J. Fluker is a starter, and rookie coach Mike McCoy needs veteran LT Max Starks to keep Rivers upright. No. 1 pick OLB Melvin Ingram tore his ACL, necessitating the signing of ex-Colt OLB-DE Dwight Freeney. CB Derek Cox helps replace Antoine Cason (Arizona). No. 2 draft choice Notre Dame ILB Manti Te’o isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination, while No. 3 draft pick California WR Keenan Allen will contribute immediately.
4. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders started the 2012 season in a black hole and remained there, ending 4-12. QB Carson Palmer has been replaced by Matt Flynn (who has all of two career starts), who won’t be throwing to Fred Biletnikoff or Cliff Branch. Often-injured star RB Darren McFadden (707 yards) only averaged 3.3 yards per game last year. The Silver & Black remains without a pass rusher who can even remotely remind anyone of Ben Davidson or Lyle Alzado. GM Reggie McKenzie can’t find an Otis Sistrunk or John Matuszak either. No. 1 draft choice Houston CB D.J. Hayden is returning from abdominal and heart surgery. It looks like heartache once again for Raider Nation.
1. New York Giants
The G Men suffered another second-half swoon under Tom Coughlin following a 6-2 start and missed the playoffs. The defense finished 31st so elite GM Jerry Reese added Cullen Jenkins, Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore. QB Eli Manning slipped a bit (3,948 yards, 26 TDs) from 2012, but WR Victor Cruz salsaed his way to 86 catches, 1,092 yards, 10 TDs and a huge raise. Manning needs a healthy Hakeem Nicks and RB David Wilson is a home run waiting to happen. No. 1 draft choice Justin Pugh adds much-needed new blood to an aging offensive line. Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka have their fingers crossed that Jason Pierre-Paul (back surgery) can make the opener. Co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch will gladly get you dinner reservations at Elio’s and Fred’s at Barney’s if their boys make it to the first New York/New Jersey Super Bowl.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Perhaps Jerry Jones should turn the personnel reins over to his children, or hire Jimmy Johnson. America’s Scream has gone .500 in the 21st Century because Jerruh picks players about as well as Rihanna picks boyfriends. QB Tony Romo (4,903 yards, 28 TDs, 19 INTs) earned a six-year, $55 million extension, even though he’s won only one playoff game. Romo has WR Dez Bryant (92 receptions, 1,382 yards) and TE Jason Witten (110 catches, 1,039 yards), but he needs a healthy RB DeMarco Murray. Monte Kiffin’s defense lacks depth and youth. No. 1 draft pick Travis Frederick should start at center. Jason Garrett has surrendered play-calling duties to Bill Callahan, so keep an eye on Jon Gruden.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Iggles lost 11 of their last 12 games, so new coach Chip Kelly, a gutsy hire by bold GM Howie Roseman, brings his high-octane offense from Oregon. Kelly also brings Scott Hulls, who has trained Navy Seals, as his Sports Science Coordinator. What’s next? Training camp underwater? Fragile QB Mike Vick (12 TDs, 10 INTs) has bulked up but may not survive a quarterback battle with Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. The team has weapons, namely RB LeSean McCoy (840 yards), WRs Jeremy Maclin (69 catches, 857 yards) and DeSean Jackson (45 catches, 700 yards) and TE Brent Celek (57 catches, 684 yards). Athletic No. 1 draft choice Lane Johnson from Oklahoma can start on the right side and eventually replace LT Jason Peters. No. 2 pick Stanford TE Zach Ertz will help in the red zone. OLB Connor Barwin will juice the 3-4’s pass rush.
4. Washington Redskins
Robert Griffin III was the talk of the nation’s capitol as the Redskins reeled off seven straight wins and captured their first division title in 13 years. RG III (3,200 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs) set a rookie record with 875 rushing yards. But RG Knee’s torn ACL even has the president wondering whether he can depend so much on his legs. Fellow rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 TDs. Mike Shanahan needs WR Pierre Garçon (foot) to stay healthy. Brian Orakpo (torn pectoral) is ready to wreak havoc again as the bookend to Ryan Kerrigan. E.J. Biggers and David Amerson will upgrade the ailing secondary so coordinator Jim Haslett won’t have to summon Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
1. Green Bay Packers
Bruising No. 2 draft choice Eddie Lacy from Alabama could signal the end of Mike McCarthy’s RB-by-Committee if his surgical toe holds up, although No. 4 pick Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) is a 205-pounder with burst. Bryan Bulaga moves from RT to LT on the revamped offensive line that allowed 51 sacks, far too many for $110 million quarterback Aaron Rodgers to take. Since 2007, the Cheeseheads are 66-30, mainly because of the A-Rod (84 TDs, only 14 INTs) who never used steroids. Wideouts Randall Cobb (80 receptions, 954 yards), Jordy Nelson (49 catches, 745 yards) and James Jones (64 catches, 14 TDs), allowed GM Ted Thompson to let Greg Jennings leave for Minnesota. OLB Nick Perry, drafted No. 1 in 2012 by the Pack, needs to be the bookend for Clay Matthews.
2. Minnesota Vikings
A jaw-dropping 2.097-yard MVP season by RB Adrian Peterson following major reconstructive knee surgery carried the Vikings (10-6) into the playoffs. The offense needs more from QB Christian Ponder (18 TDs), otherwise QB Matt Cassel, who came over from Kansas City, will get a shot. Greg Jennings replaces the departed WR Percy Harvin (Seattle). GM Rick Spielman’s draft-day bounty featured a trio of first-round picks that included gifted Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Patterson. Leslie Frazier also happily added Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, the top-rated defensive tackle, to his second-ranked run defense, and Florida State CB Xavier Rhodes, who has the size to combat Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears (10-6) lost five of their last eight games to miss the playoffs, enough for ownership to unlove Lovie Smith. Offensive guru Marc Trestman comes from Canada to jumpstart the offense. One bright spot was WR Brandon Marshall, who set career highs with 118 receptions, 1,508 yards and 11 TDs. QB Jay Cutler (19 TDs, 14 INTs) had a so-so campaign behind yet another weak offensive line. Expect RB Matt Forte to catch 60 balls out of the backfield. No. 1 draft G Kyle Long should start at left guard. Gone from an opportunistic defense (44 takeaways) is team leader Brian Urlacher. At least CB Tim Jennings (9 INTs) didn’t retire. No. 2 draft Florida MLB Jon Bostic is Urlacher’s heir apparent. GM Phil Emery added TE Martellus Bennett in free agency. Da Bears fans are chewing it all over at Ditka’s and Gibsons Steakhouse.
4. Detroit Lions
Although the 2011 Detroit Lions made their first playoff appearance since 1999, it proved to be only a mirage, as the 2012 Lions (4-12) reverted to form and lost their final eight games. Franchise QB Matthew Stafford is lucky his arm didn’t fall off after a record 727 passing attempts. Megatron WR Calvin Johnson set a league receiving mark (1,964 yards). Reggie Bush (986 yards for Miami) upgrades a sorry ground attack and freakish No. 1 draft choice Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah (BYU) replaces Cliff Avril (Seattle) at defensive end. No. 3 draft pick Larry Warford from Kentucky should start at guard, but it looks like Motown will be singing the blues once again.
1. New Orleans Saints
They’re doing the Benson Boogie around the Royal Sonesta Hotel now that Coach Sean Payton is back from his Bountygate suspension to rejoin Drew Brees (43 TDs, 5,177 yards), the first quarterback to fashion three 5,000-yard seasons. Brees’ weapons are as dangerous as the Bermuda Triangle: Marques Colston (1,154 yards), Lance Moore (1,041 yards), and TE Jimmy Graham (982 yards). Payton hired Rob Ryan to turn around a unit that was shredded for 7,042 yards. Rex’s burly twin brother might need a tummy tuck of his own once he chows down on the Poisson Crabmeat Yvonne at Galatoire’s. No. 1 draft choice S Kenny Vaccaro is just what Dr. Ryan ordered. With Payton and trusted aide Joe Vitt, the Saints (7-9) will be a Super Bowl contender once again.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan (4,719 yards, 32 TDs) led the dirty birds to the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs. They barely survived electric Russell Wilson and the Seahawks after blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter before Matty Ice, desperate for his first playoff win in four tries, engineered a drive that led to a last-second, game-winning field goal. They weren’t as lucky against Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers, who overcame a 17-point deficit in the NFC Championship game. Ryan has dynamic duo WRs Julio Jones (1,198 yards, 10 TDs) and Roddy White (92 catches, 1,351 yards) and was thrilled when ageless TE Tony Gonzalez unretired. Steven Jackson replaces Michael Turner at RB. Despite adding Osi Umenyiora, the pass rush remains suspect. No. 1 draft choice Desmond Trufant should start.
3. Carolina Panthers
Jerry Richardson’s boys (7-9) rallied to win five of their last six games behind QB Cam Newton (19 TDs, 3,869 yards, 8 rushing TDs) and rookie tackling machine linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the league in tackles with 164 (including 61 assists). Newton will rely on resigned DeAngelo Williams at RB to provide balance following Jonathan Stewart’s off-season ankle surgeries. Veteran WR Steve Smith was money (73 receptions, 1,174 yards, 4 TDs, 16.1 yards per catch), but Batman still craves his Robin. Domenik Hixon comes over from the Giants to help at WR, and he can get deep and return kicks, but he couldn’t stay healthy when he was with New York. No. 1 draft choice Utah DT Star Lotulelei is a much-needed run stuffer. It’s Put Up Or Shut Up for Coach Ron Rivera.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rookie coach Greg Schiano was blowing smoke in a cigar town with a 6-4 start before fading to a 7-9 finish. QB Josh Freeman was the prime culprit, slumping to 54.8 percent accuracy with 17 INTs and 10 fumbles. Ex-Charger WR Vincent Jackson (72 receptions, 1,384 yards) was a deep threat complement to WR Mike Williams (63 catches, 996 yards). RB Doug Martin set a club rookie record with 1,766 rushing yards. Acquiring CB Darrelle Revis in a blockbuster trade with the Jets for the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2014 was huge. Ronde Barber retired, but free agent safety Dashon Goldson was a prize catch. DEs Adrian Claiborne and Da’Quan Bowers must rush the passer the way locals attack the steaks at Bern’s.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers (11-4-1) came within five yards of winning their first Super Bowl in 18 years and appear loaded for another stellar season. They added to their arsenal by acquiring WR Anquan Boldin in a trade with the Ravens, and signed CB Nnamdi Asomugha. Jim Harbaugh is hopeful that his bulked-up 2012 No. 1 draft choice, WR A.J. Jenkins, and Mario Manningham (knee) can help TE Vernon Davis with Michael Crabtree pushing to return from a torn Achilles. Behind one of the NFL’s top
offensive lines, dual threat-QB Colin Kaepernick (98.3 rating) became a Lethal Weapon after replacing Alex Smith. RB Frank Gore (1,214 rushing yards) and OLB Aldon Smith (NFC-leading 19.5 sacks) showed the way. No. 1 draft pick LSU safety Eric Reid replaces Dashon Goldson (Bucs).
2. Seattle Seahawks
After four straight losing seasons, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks (11-5) won seven of their last eight games to fly into the playoffs.
Dynamic rookie QB Russell Wilson towered over his short-sighted naysayers with 26 passing TDs, only 10 INTs and 4 running TDs. RB Marshawn Lynch played in Beast Mode with a career-high 1,590 rushing yards while DE Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks), rookie LB Bobby Wagner (140 tackles) and CB Richard Sherman (8 INTs), were predators. Wilson won’t endure any sophomore jinx thanks to the blockbuster trade for gamebreaker WR Percy Harvin.
3. St. Louis Rams
Coach Jeff Fisher took a 3-13 laughingstock to 7-8-1. The Rams tied Denver with 52 sacks as DEs Chris Long (11.5) and Robert Quinn (10.5) anchor a unit that returns nine starters. Fisher must replace 1,000-yard RB Steven Jackson (Atlanta) and WR Danny Amendola (63 catches, New England). Ex-Dolphin LT Jake Long has orders to protect QB Sam Bradford (21 TDs) so he can target munchkin No. 1 draft West Virginia WR Tavon Austin, a dynamic gamebreaker who could be The Greatest Show on Turf. If athletic LB Alec Ogletree checks his baggage at the door, he’ll make an impact. Fisher, an elite coach, already has the Rams horning in on a playoff berth.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Following a 4-0 start, the desert dwellers lost nine straight games (5-11). New coach Bruce Arians imported quarterback Carson Palmer, who makes WR Larry Fitzgerald (71 catches, 798 yards) a nuclear weapon again. No. 1 draft pick North Carolina G Jonathan Cooper immediately upgrades the offensive line. Stud ILB Daryl Washington will be serving a four-game suspension, and will be greeting rookie LBs Kevin Minter and Alex Okafor (as well as former Cardinal LB Karlos Dansby) when he returns. Troubled No. 3 draft LSU CB Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu will be mentored by all-world CB-PR Patrick Peterson. Playoffs? Donald Trump will leave Melania for Rosie O’Donnell before that happens.
SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Patriots Over 49ers: The last place the 49ers should want to try to win a Super Bowl is MetLife Stadium, on the other coast, against a team that knows the place well. No matter if it’s an Ice Bowl, after two Super failures against the Giants, the third time’s the charm for Belichick and Brady to become the first coach-quarterback tandem to win four rings since Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. It’s Oh, brother! again for Jim Harbaugh in Super Bowl XLVIII.