Finally, after seven months since the last time we’ve seen meaningful football, the NFL is back. The score of 43-8 is probably still in the heads of all Seattle and Denver fans, but it is a new season now. The fields have been worked on, players have been preparing since training camp opened back in July, and coaches perfected their game plans ahead of a long and strenuous season. Week one is already in the books. With several surprises and a few blowouts, this season has already been off to a staggering start.
In week one we found: Seattle demonstrating its dominance once again in the Thursday night season opener against Green Bay; a New England team struggle for the first time in a while against a division opponent; a 34-point second-half outburst by the Eagles after going down 17-0 against the lowly Jaguars; Peyton Manning’s 31-24 victory over Andrew Luck and the Colts, the only team Manning had never defeated; a gun-slinging shootout in Atlanta, as the Saints fell to the Falcons in overtime; only six points scored by a Rams offense already down to their third-string quarterback against Minnesota; and finally, a pair of Monday night victories by Detroit (35-14 over the New York Giants) and Arizona (18-17 over San Diego).
Yes, all that happened just in week one! But before we jump up and claim a certain team the best in the NFL solely based on week one performances (Minnesota fans, you’ll be losing by 28 points more often than winning by that spread), let’s take a look at how some of the top teams stack up in each conference.
The NFC is considerably stronger than the AFC this year, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see another NFC team win the Super Bowl for the fifth time in six years. The NFC West is looking to dominate once again, with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers topping the division. Both feature top-five defenses, but which quarterback will be able to lead his team back to the NFC Championship–Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson? Let’s not leave out the Arizona Cardinals either, whose run defense is suffocating.
If the NFC West is famous for its defense, the NFC South is known for its offense. Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will both be in charge of the top offenses in the NFC, and if their defenses are able to stop teams once in a while, the Saints and Falcons could be scary teams. The Carolina Panthers have a well-balanced team too, explosive on offense with Cam Newton and anchored on defense by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly.
Even though this division dominated the league a few years ago, the NFC East may be the weakest division in football. Philadelphia probably has the best chance of winning the division with rushing champion LeSean McCoy. Washington, New York, and Dallas simply have too many questions on defense paired with inconsistent quarterbacks.
Lastly, the NFC North features four teams that could all take the division crown. Detroit, Green Bay, and Chicago feature some of the best offenses in the game. Some of the explosive talents include the Lions’s Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Reggie Bush; Packers’s Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, and Jordy Nelson; and Bears’s Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery. And with the Vikings, you can never leave out a team with Adrian Peterson running the ball. The real question will be, which defense can limit opponents to less than 30 points on a regular basis?
The reigning AFC Champion Denver Broncos reside in the AFC West, and should have no problem making the playoffs after making big-name defensive acquisitions (DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib). Kansas City and San Diego both made the playoffs a year ago, too. Comeback Player of the Year Philip Rivers can probably perform well in the offense again, but it would be difficult for the Chiefs to repeat last year’s performance, especially after losing linebacker Derrick Johnson to a season-ending injury.
In the AFC East, the Patriots are still the front-runner like they have been for more than a decade. Still, an opening week 33-20 defeat to the Miami Dolphins may be worrisome. Tom Brady has a healthy Rob Gronkowski (we’ll see how long that lasts) to throw the ball to, and Revis Island has also resurfaced in New England. Don’t forget about the Jets though, as Rex Ryan may finally have a shot at the playoffs, with his last appearance being in 2010.
For the second-straight season, the AFC North doesn’t have a dominating team. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore will all be vying for the division crown, but quarterback play and team defense will once again determine the winner. The Bengals have a top defense led by Vontaze Burfict, but can Andy Dalton win a playoff game after that big $115 million contract? The Ravens and Steelers both have Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, but their veteran defenses aren’t quite so elite anymore.
The AFC South may have a clear-cut winner this season–the Indianapolis Colts, who finished four games above second-place Tennessee in 2013. Andrew Luck may finally be considered an elite quarterback near the class of Brees, Brady, Manning, and Rodgers. He has the weapons too, with veteran Reggie Wayne and big-play athlete T.Y. Hilton. However, Robert Mathis is out for the season with an Achilles tear after leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2013.
Look, even with all of this analysis that experts, like Adam Schefter of ESPN or Brian Billick of NFL Network, and wanna-be experts, like me, go through to see which team will do the best year-in and year-out, all that matters is enjoying the game. So sit back, kick your feet up, and relish an exciting 2014 season as we savor the ride to Super Bowl XLIX.
NFC Playoff Seeding:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Philadelphia Eagles
4. Detroit Lions
5. Seattle Seahawks
6. Atlanta Falcons
AFC Playoff Seeding:
1. Denver Broncos
2. Indianapolis Colts
3. New England Patriots
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
5. San Diego Chargers
6. Miami Dolphins
NFC Conference Championship:
#1 San Francisco over #6 Atlanta
AFC Conference Championship:
#1 Denver over #2 Indianapolis
#1 San Francisco over #1 Denver
NFL Pick ‘Em
Doug Hendry (Sports Editor) Jen Lee (Assitant Sports Editor) Ajan Caneda (Copy Editor) Lauren Boone (Editor in Chief) Maddie Bertschmann (Print Presentation Director) and Emily Evancho (Print Managing Editor)
MIA @ BUF Miami Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo
DAL @ TEN Dallas Tennessee Dallas Tennessee Tennessee
ARI @ NYG Arizona New York Arizona New York Arizona
ATL @ CIN Atlanta Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Atlanta
DET @ CAR Detroit Detroit Carolina Carolina Detroit
KC @ DEN Denver Denver Denver Denver Denver
CHI @ SF San Francisco San Francisco Chicago San Francisco San Francisco
PHI @ IND Philadelphia Philadelphia Indianapolis Philadelphia Indianapolis