Cigar Aficionado's 2015 NFL Preview

<em>Cigar Aficionado's</em> 2015 NFL Preview
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, seen here catching a 22-yard touchdown pass in the Patriots' Super Bowl XLIX victory.
In the wake of Deflategate our guru of the gridiron combs through the rosters of all 32 pro football teams and predicts how they will finish and who will prevail

AFC East

1. New England Patriots

Unless you've been living on Mars, you know that the Patriots will start defending their NFL crown with Tom Brady on the bench. The Super Bowl MVP was sacked for four games, pending appeal, because of a violation of football air pressure rules. The Patriots were fined $1 million and forfeited two draft picks, including their No. 1 choice in 2016. The overly harsh penalty is a blow for a franchise that has excelled with 12 consecutive 10-or-more-win seasons, eight Super Bowl appearances and four titles. But you'll go broke betting against owner Bob Kraft. All Brady needed last year (4,109 yards, 33 TDs) was the return of Rob Gronkowski, who in 15 games led all TEs (1,124 yards, 12 TDs). Second-year QB Jimmy Garoppolo takes over in Brady's absence. Brady will be 38 when the season begins without him, and armed with a chip on his shoulder when it's time for him to kiss Gisele good-bye and head back to work.

2. Miami Dolphins

It is sink or swim for Coach Joe Philbin, who has coached Miami for three years without a winning season. The Fish made a free-agency splash by hooking Detroit's DT Ndamukong Suh with a six-year, $114 million contract. Suh is expected to help pass rush demon Cameron Wake bolster a defense that crumbled at the end of last season. QB Ryan Tannehill was rewarded for his 4,045 passing yards with a six-year, $96 million deal. WR Jarvis Landry (84 receptions, 758 yards) was a rookie revelation, and first-round pick DeVante Parker is a deep threat. Owner Stephen Ross landed a big fish in executive Mike Tannenbaum, who figures to be as hungry for AFC East redemption as he is for the main course at Joe's Stone Crab.

3. Buffalo Bills

Rex Ryan stormed into town with a blizzard of bravado to take charge of the Bills, who registered their first winning season (9-7) since 2004 yet missed the playoffs for the 15th straight year. Ryan inherits a formidable defense, but doesn't have a quarterback unless newcomer Matt Cassel can be a better game manager than disappointing E.J. Manuel. "We're going to build a bully team and out-physical people," warned Ryan, who signed former BullyGate guard Richie Incognito. The Bills were able to trade for elite RB LeSean McCoy (1,319 yards) to go with WR Sammy Watkins (65 catches, 982 yards). Percy Harvin and Charles Clay were added in free agency. Ryan, who is obsessed with the Patriots, didn't come to Buffalo to kiss their rings—maybe to devour the wings at Duff's. 

4. New York Jets

After a pathetic 4-12 campaign, Woody Johnson cleaned house, firing Ryan and GM John Idzik. Rookie coach Todd Bowles won't wear wigs to press conferences. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who spent the off-season rehabbing a broken leg, is reunited with OC Chan Gailey, while QB Geno Smith, who hasn't shown much, was anointed No. 1 in May, for whatever that's worth. The green-and-white masses were delighted by the return of CB Darrelle Revis, and DE Leonard Williams, the best player in the draft, gives the Jets a potential modern day New York Sack Exchange. One day, J-E-T-S won't stand for Just End The Suffering.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens

Even without Ray Rice, who was suspended for the season because of spousal abuse, the 10-6 Ravens reached the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Joe Flacco, who calls new OC Marc Trestman "a great mind," was Joe Cool QB (3,986 yards, 27 TDs) while the defense was Ray Lewis tough. Rookie LB C.J. Mosley was a main reason why (133 tackles). RB Justin Forsett (1,266 yards) made Ravens fans forget Rice. WR Steve Smith came over from Carolina and didn't disappoint (79 receptions, 1,065 yards, 6 TDs), opposite Torrey Smith (49 grabs, 767 yards, 11 TDs), who left in free agency. Speedy No. 1 draft WR Breshad Perriman will take his place. In case TE Dennis Pitta (hip surgery) doesn't return, master GM Ozzie Newsome drafted TE Maxx Williams.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

With the Big Three of QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, and RB Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers finished strong (11-5) to win the North in a backyard brawl with the Bengals and the Ravens. Big Ben threw for 4,952 yards, Brown caught 129 passes and Bell ran for 1,361 yards as the offense averaged 411.1 yards, second best in the NFL. "Ben is a franchise quarterback that's getting better with age," lauded GM Kevin Colbert. WRs Markus Wheaton (644 yards) and Martavis Bryant (549 yards) help, but Bell's three-game suspension for substance abuse stings. Hall of Fame-bound Troy Polamalu decided to retire after 12 years, and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau left for Tennessee. They'll be missed. The defense happily added No. 1 OLB Bud Dupree, who is projected to start.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals (10-5-1) are an enigma. Marvin Lewis has coached them to the playoffs four straight times, only to lose in the first round. The natives are more restless than ever about QB Andy Dalton (3,398 yards), who has weapons in A.J. Green (69 catches, 1,041 yards), Mohamed Sanu (56 receptions, 790 yards), Jeremy Hill (1,124 yards) and Giovani Bernard (680 yards). TE Tyler Eifert, who missed 15 games, returns. The defense, acclimating to new coordinator Paul Guenther, was riddled with injuries. "We have to be more disruptive," said Lewis, who welcomes back Michael Johnson alongside Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Tackling machine Vontaze Burfict (knee) could miss the first month. 

4. Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel wasn't Johnny Football, he was Johnny Bench, and then Johnny Rehab. Long-suffering Browns fans might have longed for Kevin Costner of Draft Day fame after GM Ray Farmer earned a four-game suspension for using his cell phone to text plays to the sideline. The Bad News Browns were also slapped with a $250,000 fine. The club hasn't found an answer at quarterback since its 1999 return to Cleveland with 22 different imposters, seven consecutive losing seasons and zero playoff berths. Enter QB Josh McCown, who lacks playmakers. At least Mike Pettine can count on No. 1 draft pick Danny Shelton to upgrade his inept run defense. The clock in Cleveland is ticking...this time on an owner.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have gone 11-5 for three consecutive seasons since Coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck rode into town and have advanced one step further in the playoffs each time. Luck set a franchise-record 4,761 passing yards and a career high 40 TDs. "I don't think the kid feels any pressure," marveled Pagano. Indy owned the league's No. 1 passing offense (305.9 yards a game). Signing ex-49er Frank Gore upgrades the running attack and former Texan WR Andre Johnson helps in the air. First-round burner WR Phillip Dorsett gives Luck another dangerous weapon alongside T.Y. Hilton. GM Ryan Grigson didn't curry any favors with Patriots owner Kraft, tipping off officials days before the AFC Championship game about Brady's use of deflated footballs. Pats v. Indy on October 18 will be hotter than the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo's.

2. Houston Texans 

First-year coach Bill O'Brien did an admirable job as the Texans overcame a 2-14 finish in 2013 to just miss the playoffs at 9-7, impressive because  neither Ryan Mallett nor Ryan Fitzpatrick could establish themselves as the starting QB. The team's catalyst was J.J. Watt, with 20.5 sacks and 78 tackles (59 of them solo). He'll get help from NT Vince Wilfork, the former Patriot. Brian Hoyer comes over from Cleveland to try to win the QB job. He'll have WR DeAndre Hopkins (76 receptions) and RB Arian Foster (1,246 yards) to count on, but he'll have to make do without Andre Johnson.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

The 3-13 Jaguars fielded the youngest roster in the league last season. They owned the worst offense (15.6 points per game) and ranked 31st in passing, little surprise considering that rookie Blake Bortles (2,908 yards, 11 TDs, 17 INTs) started 13 games. The kid was handicapped by not having a ground game or a go-to receiver. Coach Gus Bradley sees progress from Bortles. "The last five or six games he picked it up," Bradley observed. The offensive line never picked it up, allowing a franchise-high 71 sacks. Bradley lost his No. 1 draft pick (and third pick overall) OLB Dante Fowler Jr. for the season with a torn ACL suffered in his first mini-camp in May. No. 2 draft pick T.J. Yeldon has a chance to put up numbers at running back.

4. Tennessee Titans

Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is a rare talent who could be a Colin Kaepernick clone, a franchise QB who should be hitting the right notes in the Music City for the next 12 years or so. Mariota is charged with resurrecting a 2-14 team with its worst showing since the franchise was known as the Houston Oilers. Zach Mettenberger went 0-6 as a starter with 8 TDs and 7 INTs, while Jake Locker couldn't cut it and retired at 27. Mariota gives fans hope, and the impotent Titans helped him with No. 2 draft choice Dorial Green-Beckham, a WR who brings baggage and has drawn comparisons to Randy Moss.

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos

Mile High will be interesting with the return of Peyton Manning and the addition of coach Gary Kubiak, who brings a moving pocket system, far different than Manning's drop back operation. Manning, 39, put up big numbers (4,727 yards, 39 TDs) despite playing hurt the last month of the season, and he has big-play WRs in Demaryius Thomas (111 catches, 1,619 yards, 11 TDs) and Emmanuel Sanders (101 receptions, 1,404 yards) and a tough RB in C.J. Anderson. Manning was moaning in May after LT Ryan Clady was lost for the season (torn ACL) and his well-being depends on No. 2 pick Ty Sambrailo. Von Miller leads the defense, which got immediate pass rush help from No. 1 pick Shane Ray. "If we don't bring a Super Bowl to this city," said Sanders, "then it's a bust season."

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Losing four of their last five games cost the Chiefs (9-7) a playoff spot. Kansas City has talent on offense behind steady QB Alex Smith (3,265 yards, 18 TDs, 93.4 rating), RB Jamaal Charles (1,033 yards, 5.0 average) and TE Travis Kelce (67 receptions, 862 yards). Andy Reid upgraded by adding WR Jeremy Maclin (85 grabs, 1,318 yards) to replace Dwayne Bowe, who had too many drops and couldn't find the end zone. The Chiefs need to beef up their run defense and fortify the secondary, which is why they made CB Marcus Peters their No. 1 pick.

3. San Diego Chargers

If QB Philip Rivers just had a few more playmakers, the Chargers (who finished 9-7) would have bolted into the playoffs. "He's our guy," said GM Tom Telesco, as Rivers showed why (4,286 yards, 31 TDs, 93.8 rating). His go-to guy was WR Keenan Allen (77 catches, 783 yards) who is expected to produce even more this season. TE Ladarius Green gets his shot while Antonio Gates (69 receptions, 821 yards, 12 TDs) serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. WR Malcom Floyd (52 catches, 856 yards) is another tall target. The Chargers need a running game to take a little pressure off the 33-year-old Rivers. They picked up a good one with first-round pick Melvin Gordon III from Wisconsin.

4. Oakland Raiders

Jack Del Rio, the ninth Oakland boss since 2001, will try to resurrect a moribund franchise with 12 straight non-winning seasons. The Raiders were the only team to average fewer than 300 yards. The light at the end of the tunnel (at least by Raiders standards) is QB Derek Carr, who impressed in his rookie campaign (3,270 yards, 21 TDs, 12 INTs). "We're changing the culture around here," he says. Flush with cap space, the best Oakland did in free agency was gamble on WR Michael Crabtree and RB Trent Richardson. The good news: No. 1 pick Amari Cooper is a go-to guy who will remind silver-and-black aficionados of Tim Brown.

NFC East

1. New York Giants

Since their last Super Bowl win in 2012, the Giants have gone 19-29, a surprising period of futility with critics questioning QB Eli Manning. But Manning (4,410 yards, 30 TDs) silenced them in his first year under Ben McAdoo's offense thanks in large part to WR Odell Beckham Jr. (91 catches, 1,305 yards, 12 TDs in 12 games) who captured imaginations with a one-handed catch for the ages. The thought of OBJ paired with a healthy Victor Cruz has co-owner Steve Tisch doing the salsa at Elio's. Ownership doesn't want to hear excuses after three straight years missing the playoffs. Key to the defense is whether Jason Pierre-Paul (12.5 sacks), who suffered injuries to his hands and fingers in a mindless July 4 fireworks incident, will miss time and leave new DC Steve Spagnuolo, who helped Tom Coughlin to his first championship, without an elite pass rusher.

 

2. Dallas Cowboys

The Boys finally got it right after going 8-8 three straight seasons with a 12-4 mark. Amazingly, the Tony Romo rodeo show had a spotless 8-0 performance on the road. Romo had a career year with 3,705 yards, 34 TDs and only 9 INTs behind a line that enabled DeMarco Murray (12 100-yard games) to set records. The line is even stronger with the signing of free agent La'el Collins, but can Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle run behind it? WR Dez Bryant put up big numbers, helping Jason Garrett become the first head coach to last more than four years since Jimmy Johnson. Jerry Jones created a stir with the signing of ex-Panther Greg Hardy, who will miss the first four games of the season (domestic violence). Jones would sign Hannibal Lector if he could rush the passer.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

It took Eagles coach Chip Kelly only two years to fashion a 360-degree roster turnaround. He disposed of 5,576 yards of offense and 33 TDs by dropping DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy. Then he shipped QB Nick Foles to St. Louis for immobile, injury-prone QB Sam Bradford. Eagles fans were next expecting him to trade the Liberty Bell. Kelly scored a coup by signing DeMarco Murray and his NFL-leading 1,845 yards from the Cowboys-after signing RB Ryan Mathews. Bradford, who had to endure talk that Kelly was obsessed with figuring out a way to land Mariota, his quarterback at Oregon, is happy. "It looks like a blast to play in this offense," he said. And that was before Kelly drafted WR Nelson Agholor, who had 104 receptions at USC.

4. Washington Redskins

It was yet another season of ineptitude for the Redskins. Last season was the fifth time since 2010 that they lost 10 or more games. Jay Gruden, the team's eighth coach under owner Daniel Snyder, had no answers. After a spectacular 2012 rookie debut, QB Robert Griffin III has dramatically regressed thanks to two knee injuries. The Redskins do have firepower on offense with DeSean Jackson (56 receptions, 1,169 yards), Pierre Garçon (68 catches, 752 yards) and RB Alfred Morris (1,074 yards) but problems abound in the secondary. Brandon Scherff, the Redskins No. 1 draft pick, will add much-needed toughness to the offensive line. 

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers

The Packers (12-4) wrapped up their sixth consecutive postseason berth and they would have made the Super Bowl if they had been playing for touchdowns instead of field goals in their 28-22 OT loss to Seattle in the NFC title game. Aaron Rodgers, one of the top three QBs in the business, shook off injuries with another eye-popping season (4,381 yards, 38 TDs, 5 INTs). Dynamic WR Randall Cobb terrorized defenses (1,287 yards, 12 TDs) while RB Eddie Lacy was the first Packer in 40 years to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons. WR Jordy Nelson was another star while Clay Matthews showed the way on defense with 11 sacks. As always, the Pack was quiet in free agency.

2. Detroit Lions

The roar was back in the Lions (11-5) as they made the playoffs for the first time since 2011, only to lose in the first round and fail to win their first playoff game since 1992. Detroit held opponents to a league-low 69.3 rushing yards a game, allowing just two teams to reach 100 yards. Ndamukong Suh was outstanding (a career-high 21 tackles for losses) while S Glover Quin led the NFL with 7 INTs and LB DeAndre Levy was a tackling machine (151). A leaky line allowed QB Matthew Stafford to absorb 45 sacks, but he still managed to put up 4,257 yards and 22 TDs, mostly to WRs Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson. Suh and Nick Fairley need replacing, so enter ex-Raven DT Haloti Ngata.

3. Minnesota Vikings

Finishing 7-9 in an injury and suspension-mired campaign under rookie coach Mike Zimmer was noteworthy. RB Adrian Peterson returns from suspension (child abuse), but how happy or productive will he be at age 30? Rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater showed poise and promise (2,919 yards, 14 TDs) in 13 games. "He made everyone around him better," said OC Norv Turner. That wasn't the case for WR Cordarrelle Patterson, who disappointed with only 33 receptions. "This is a make-or-break year for me," he said. WR Greg Jennings (59 catches, 742 yards, team-high 6 TDs) left for Miami and will be replaced by ex-Dolphin deep threat Mike Wallace. No. 1 draft CB Trae Waynes helps CB Xavier Rhodes defend in a division loaded with aerial playmakers.

4. Chicago Bears

After two sub-standard years, the Bears couldn't wait to fire coach Mark Trestman. He was looked upon as an offensive guru, but Jay Cutler had one of his poorer outings (3,812 yards, 28 TDs, 18 INTs) with an NFL-high 24 turnovers. It's up to former Denver coach John Fox to get the best out of the talented but enigmatic QB. The offensive talent is there, with RB Matt Forte, WRs Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal and TE Martellus Bennett. Kevin White, a big speedy WR first-rounder, replaces Brandon Marshall. Fox needs to rebuild the defense, once as revered in Chicago as Da Pork Chop at Ditka's.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints

The 7-9 record for the cap-strapped Saints was one of the most disappointing seasons in Coach Sean Payton's distinguished tenure in New Orleans. Payton is still counting on QB Drew Brees, who tied Ben Roethlisberger for the NFL lead with 4,952 yards. RB Mark Ingram had a career year with 964 yards and WR Marques Colston (59 catches, 902 yards) remains Brees's top target.

Acquiring versatile RB C.J. Spiller to pair with speedy WR Brandin Cooks gives the Saints as much spice as the Shrimp Clemenceau at Galatoire's, although Jimmy Graham, traded to Seattle, will be missed. Rob Ryan was hungry to upgrade his 31st-ranked defense, and he must have felt he was at a Mardi Gras with the arrivals of free agent CB Brandon Browner and Clemson ILB Stephone Anthony.

2. Carolina Panthers

A season-ending four-game winning streak gave the Panthers not only a 7-8-1 finish, but the South championship as well. Carolina became the first team to repeat as kings since the four-team division was formed in 2002. QB Cam Newton's production was down (3,127 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) but he forged a solid bond with rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, while TE Greg Olsen had a breakout year. Jonathan Stewart provided the ground attack, but it was the 10th-ranked defense, led by All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly that carried head coach Ron Rivera.

3. Atlanta Falcons

Welcome to Noisegate.  The Falcons were found guilty of amping the noise inside their Georgia Dome for the last two years and were fined $350,000 plus a 2016 draft pick. Atlanta finished 6-10, which cost coach Mike Smith his job. It's hard to believe how the Falcons have flopped two years removed from QB Matt Ryan leading them to the NFC title game. Ryan (4,694 yards, 28 TDs) has a dynamic WR tandem in Julio Jones (104 receptions, 1,593 yards) and Roddy White (80 catches, 921 yards) but not much of a running attack. It's up to new head coach Dan Quinn to reshape the woeful defense. Clemson OLB Vic Beasley, drafted in the first round, is an athletic freak who could juice a deathly silent pass rush.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coach Lovie Smith was salivating to make QB Jameis Winston the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with an arm that can throw deep. The Buccaneers were scuttled at home (0-8) and Smith went down with the ship (2-14) in his initial season. Winston has a big challenge operating behind one of the NFL's worst offensive lines (it gave up 52 sacks) as he takes aim at two big receivers, Vincent Jackson and rookie sensation Mike Evans. Second-round draft choices LT Donovan Smith and RG Ali Marpet will be expected to start. Smith had better inform Winston that the crab cakes at Bern's Steak House aren't free.

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks

A brutally discouraging finish in the Super Bowl—for Pete's sake—made for a long Seahawks off-season. Except for the ill-fated call/interception on the last play from the one QB Russell Wilson continues to amaze (3,475 yards, 20 TDs, and a 95 passer rating). The offense may open up more even though Lynch (1,306 yards, 13 TDs) is back for Beast Mode duty. Ex-Saint TE Jimmy Graham (85 catches, 889 yards, 10 TDs) will be a red-zone weapon. The Legion of Boom defense, led by CB Richard Sherman, shares equal billing. The 12th Man, louder than the outcry over Obamacare, has helped the Hawks to a 26-2 record at Century Linc over the last three years.

2. Arizona Cardinals

Coach Bruce Arians created an oasis in the desert as the Cardinals opened 3-0 and flew into the postseason. If QB Carson Palmer (95.6 passer rating) wasn't lost to a torn ACL they might have advanced in the playoffs. WR Larry Fitzgerald was held in check with knee injuries. RB Andre Ellington (660 yards) struggled to run behind a weak line. Remedy comes via big men: 330-pound G Mike Iupati, 307-pound C A.Q. Shipley and 307-pound OT D.J. Humphries. Can the defense, under new coordinator James Bettcher, pick up where it left off under blitz-happy coach Todd Bowles? Is there a big-time pass rusher in the house to help overcome the losses of CB Antonio Cromartie and DE Darnell Dockett? Can Sean Weatherspoon stay on the field? Can Arians get a reservation at Mastro's Steakhouse whenever he pleases?

3. St. Louis Rams

Jeff Fisher is a solid head coach who has been snakebitten the last two years. In ex-Eagle QB Nick Foles, Fisher has his fourth quarterback in three years. Foles has some talent in RB Tre Mason (765 yards), WR Kenny Britt (748 yards) and TE Jared Cook (634 yards). No. 1 draft RB Todd Gurley was a bold pick. Rated the best RB on the board, Gurley could take the offense to another level once he is completely healed (ACL). Whether or not the Rams move to California, it's likely that dynamic DE  Robert Quinn will need a new bookend when DE Chris Long, sacked by ankle surgery last season, likely leaves after 2015.

4. San Francisco 49ers

The Jim Harbaugh Era ended unceremoniously as the 8-8 49ers missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. Harbaugh averaged 11.1 wins a year. How do you lose a coach like that? "They left me," said Harbaugh, who was embroiled in a power struggle with GM Trent Baalke and landed on his Michigan feet in Ann Arbor. QB Colin Kaepernick (3,369 yards, 19 TDs) had a career-low rating. Anquan Boldin was his best receiver. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who replaces Harbaugh, has big cleats to fill. He's lost player after player, including Frank Gore. The Bay area has become the Bay of Pigs.