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Football returns: Your complete NFL preview

Thursday - 9/4/2014, 12:18pm  ET

Brees (AP)
Will Drew Brees and the Saints hoist the Lombardi Trophy once again? (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON -- Well folks, it's that time of year: NFL football is back. And so is the NFL Preview, complete with picks, predictions, and pretentious rambling (maybe not the latter ... but I just really wanted some alliteration right there).

So let's touch on some of the biggest story lines entering the 2014 season before breaking down the 2014 season:

Who is the QB Class of 2012 really?

WTOP Redskins beat reporter George Wallace will have more on Year 3 of RG3 on Friday. And now that the tab has been paid on the trade that brought Robert Griffin III to D.C., we'll all find out if he's worth the bounty of the eight players the Rams got out of the deal.

This also is the year we'll see if Andrew Luck is truly elite, Ryan Tannehill is a top tier QB, Russell Wilson can carry Seattle back to the Super Bowl and Nick Foles' 2013 season wasn't a fluke. (And we'll just pretend Brandon Weeden didn't happen. You're welcome, Cleveland.)

Rex's last stand in New York

OK, you caught me. I recycled this one from last year. But it totally applies each and every year until Rex gets canned.

The Jets played .500 ball in 2013, earning Ryan a stay of execution. Atlantic City won't see the only shakeup in Jersey if things revert back to 2012 form, especially if Mike Vick rots on the bench while Geno Smith stinks up the joint.

Who will be this year's Kansas City Chiefs?

Last year, the Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5. Ditto for the Colts the season before. This year? Read ahead and I'll have an answer for you.

Have we seen the last of Michael Sam?

Sam had a good preseason by most people's standards but didn't make the Rams practice squad or active roster. Dallas has taken a flier on the NFL's first openly gay player by adding him to their practice squad, but will he stick to an active roster? Sam showed he's at least a serviceable pass rusher, and just about every team in the NFL could use one. What every team couldn't use, though, is the distraction that comes with Sam (through no fault of his own). Maybe Dallas is his new home (because they love distractions). Time will tell.

Can the Seahawks repeat?

There hasn't been a back-to-back champ in the NFL since the Patriots pulled it off 10 years ago. Everyone thought the Packers were poised to start a dynasty after the injury-riddled 2010 squad won the Super Bowl. Four years later, we're still waiting for the second title. Seattle certainly has the leadership, talent and depth to repeat. But can the 'Hawks respond to the role of being the hunted? OK, now it's time for your favorite part of the preview: The preview.

Eagles

All signs point to Chip Kelly's Eagles repeating as NFC East winners. (Getty Images/Rob Carr)

NFC East

Eagles 9-7 | Aggregate wins: 9.7

This one is basically by default, folks. The NFC East is just a step above a dumpster fire so even if Nick Foles comes back down to earth and the defense is still middle of the road (at best), this is probably still the best team in the division.

The offense swapped out DeSean Jackson for Darren Sproles, so that's basically a wash. The defense is in Year 2 of the 3-4 alignment, so they might actually play a bit better than last year. Just don't count on a gaudy record with the NFC West on the schedule.

Redskins 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 7.3

Gotta level with you, folks. I'm having a tougher time than usual handicapping this year's 'Skins. I can see them being last year's Kansas City Chiefs and going 10-6 to win the NFC East. But I also can see them going through another mind-numbing stretch of losses to finish 6-10. I choose to split the baby and say the defense has improved enough with the addition of Jason Hatcher and a healthy pass-rush tandem of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan that they won't hold the team back from hitting .500 this year.

Of course, the offense only goes as far as RG3 takes them. New coach Jay Gruden will help him be better than 2013 but maybe not quite as good as 2012, which should be enough to take advantage of DeSean Jackson and all the offensive weapons at his disposal. Maybe not a renaissance, but a step the in the right direction.

Giants 6-10 | Aggregate wins: 6.3

Eli Manning's 27 interceptions last season earned him the nickname "Turnover Machine of 2013." That has to change if New York is going to overcome a ground game that isn't scaring anybody (even though rookie RB Andre Williams had a strong preseason).

It likely won't. Eli starts the year without rookie Odell Beckham, and Victor Cruz might be the only top shelf player they have. Playing behind a suspect offensive line won't help matters.

This isn't your father's Giants defense, either. Hell, it's not even your older brother's. The unit that carried the G-men to championships in 2007 and 2011 ranked in the bottom half of the league in points allowed. Count on another mediocre season and more questions regarding whether Tom Coughlin has earned the right to leave on his own terms.

Cowboys 5-11 | Aggregate wins: 6.0

The only thing preventing this team from a 3-13 implosion is the firepower on offense. The offensive line looks better than it has in years, Dez Bryant looks poised to step up to the elite level of receivers, and Jason Witten is still old reliable.

But Tony Romo is coming off back surgery. If he's not right the first half of the season, this team might have a long 0-fer start to the year.

The defense was historically bad in 2013 and begins this year without Sean Lee for the season. They won't have Orlando Scandrick for the first four games of the season, and DeMarcus Ware is in Denver. There shall be no glory hole for Jerry Jones this year. In fact, there's a better chance we'll hear the sentence, "The Dallas Cowboys are now on the clock" really early in the 2015 draft.

Packers

No discount double-check needed -- Aaron Rodgers and the Pack are primed for a big year. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

NFC North

Packers 12-4 | Aggregate wins: 12.0

Defense struggling? Just add Peppers. That's what Green Bay did this offseason, getting Julius Peppers to play in tandem with Clay Matthews to bolster a defense that has underwhelmed in the four years since the team's Super Bowl run. It should be enough to keep the Cheeseheads at the front of the pack in the NFC North. The offense will be just fine as long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy. Eddie Lacy should build on a strong rookie campaign to finally make this Packer offense a two-dimensional juggernaut that pushes them deep into the playoffs.

Lions 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 9.0

Everything about Detroit not named Calvin Johnson screams mediocre. We're still waiting to see when Matthew Stafford makes a move toward elite status, and it feels like I'm the only one who thinks Reggie Bush has lost a step. New coach Jim Caldwell should get the most out of it, but the D in Detroit will again hold the Lions back.

Bears 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 8.0

Chicago enters Year 2 of the Marc Trestman Era with little more than they did in Year 1. The Bears swapped out Julius Peppers for Jared Allen, Jay Cutler is still the quarterback (for better or worse), and neither unit seems significantly better than it was last year. The receiving corps is deeper with Santonio Holmes and Josh Morgan, but Cutler will need to stay healthy for 16 games if Chicago hopes to prove me wrong by winning 10 of them.

Vikings 4-12 | Aggregate wins: 5.0

Admittedly, I was a little surprised I only came up with four wins for Minnesota. I like the choice of Mike Zimmer as head coach, and absolutely love Norv Turner as an offensive coordinator (especially when he's got toys like Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson to play with). But part of my process of picking games involves the QB matchup, and the Vikings rarely win one with Matt Cassell as their starter. This team might do well to win 7 or 8 games, but only if their quarterback play exceeds expectations.

Seahawks

Richard Sherman put his money where his mouth was last season. Can he and the 'Hawks do it again? (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NFC West

Seahawks 12-4 | Aggregate wins: 11.3

Apparently, the Marshawn Lynch holdout didn't hurt much because the offense looked great in the preseason. Russell Wilson looks like a man who knows exactly what to do with a Seattle offense that should finally benefit from a healthy Percy Harvin. The defense should remain stout and dominant, but two things might hold the Seahawks back from repeating (and both have to do with Richard Sherman): 1) The Madden Curse. 2) A team this mouthy seems ripe for a Super Bowl hangover. But Seattle is way too talented to fall off the map completely, and they should make another deep playoff run.

49ers 10-6 | Aggregate wins: 9.0

San Fran should offer up a burnt offering to the football gods. They get the weak NFC East and the AFC West on their schedule at a time when their roster is depleted by injury and suspension. The Niners D will be without Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman for roughly half the season, and Ray McDonald's off-field woes could cost him time. But the schedule sets up for a late season tear, provided Colin Kaepernick can finally step up and be a consistent quarterback.

Cardinals 7-9 | Aggregate wins: 7.0

Arizona surprised a lot of people last year, but that won't carry into 2014. Losing Darnell Dockett for the season is a huge blow to what is an underrated defense. The Cardinals D should still be pretty good without him, but I'm not sure I can believe in a team with an offense relying so heavily on Carson Palmer.

Rams 5-11 | Aggregate wins: 4.0

St. Louis just can't catch a break. Right when it looked like the Rams might make a move toward truly competing in the toughest division in football, the team lost Sam Bradford for the season. Unless former Terp Shaun Hill is Kurt Warner 2.0 (don't bet on it), this going to be a long year in St. Louis.

Saints

Do Drew Brees and the Saints have what it takes to run away with the NFC? (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

NFC South

Saints 12-4 | Aggregate wins: 11.3

Archie Manning says New Orleans might enjoy an all-time great team this year. The guy has spawned two Super Bowl MVPs. Who am I to disagree?

Drew Brees may not be the best QB in the NFL, but he is the league's most prolific passer. He's still got a full complement of weapons at his disposal even without Darren Sproles, whose role should go to rookie receiver Brandin Cooks. If the preseason hype is to be believed, this guy could be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

But the offense in New Orleans is always great. The defense is what's going to propel this team back to title contention. Jairus Byrd is the playmaker the Crescent City has lacked since the Saints' title run in 2009, and should be the missing link for a squad that was already ranked in the top five last season. I wouldn't be surprised if the elder Manning's words ring prophetic in February.

Bucs 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 7.7

I love Lovie. Coach Lovie Smith returns to Tampa after a stint in Chicago that was more successful than most people want to give him credit for. He'll instill discipline in a Bucs team that has an underrated amount of talent on both sides of the ball.

Lovie will know what to do with it. He brought Josh McCown with him to run the offense, and Doug Martin should be healthy enough to return to his rookie form. Lavonte David should be a star in Lovie's Tampa 2 defense. Were it not for being in a division with the Saints, I'd have the Bucs pegged for a much bigger turnaround in 2014.

Falcons 7-9 | Aggregate wins: 8.0

I really wanted to see Atlanta rebound, but I'm not sure they have what it takes. Devin Hester should give the return game a boost, but I'm not sure this defense will be any better than the 27th ranked unit from last year. Matt Ryan continues to be Romo-esque...putting up numbers, yet not doing enough to consistently carry a team to the playoffs. The Falcons should be just good enough to keep Mike Smith from getting fired.

Panthers 7-9 | Aggregate wins: 7.7

Cam Newton lost much of this all-important offseason because of late surgery. Longtime wideout Steve Smith is in Baltimore promising blood and guts for his unceremonious ouster. None of this bodes well for the offense, which is going to lean on Greg Olson and rookie Kelvin Benjamin in the passing game.

The defense lost Mike Mitchell to Pittsburgh and Greg Hardy is embroiled in perhaps the most unintentionally funny court scene of all time. It just feels like the first-to-worst situation that annually befalls the NFC South.

Patriots

Can Darrelle Revis (right) be a differenece-maker in the New England secondary? (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

AFC East

Patriots 12-4 | Aggregate wins: 11.0

Even with the mind-numbing trade of Logan Mankins, this is New England's division to lose. Which they won't. Because they haven't in five years.

Tom Brady looks to rebound from a statistically down year, but he'll have plenty of help this year. Darrelle Revis comes to town to join forces with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to make this Pats defense the best it's been since their 2003-04 Super Bowl teams. I don't think New England is better than Denver, but they could certainly give the Broncos a run for their money if they meet in the playoffs.

Dolphins 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 8.0

Now that the Bullying scandal is over and the players involved have new addresses, the business of football can return to Miami.

I'm just not sure it'll be better than .500 football.

It's time for Ryan Tannehill to prove he was worth the 8th overall pick. If he does, this is a 10-win team. If not, they're asking a defense ranked in the bottom half of the league last year to shoulder more of a load than it's capable of.

Jets 6-10 | Aggregate wins: 7.0

It's not exactly Steve Young starting over Joe Montana...but Geno Smith won the quarterback battle with Mike Vick. That's a decision that could haunt coach Rex Ryan if he's wrong. A rash of injuries at cornerback means the defense might not perform like it did last year, meaning the Jets won't be able to withstand Smith's inconsistency as it was in 2013. This team could use the speedy tandem of Vick and Chris Johnson to help offset that...and Rex will be out of Gotham pretty fast if ownership agrees and this 6-10 prediction is correct.

Bills 5-11 | Aggregate wins: 5.3

I seriously feel for Buffalo fans. The last time they made the playoffs, the Music City Miracle happened.

Their beloved franchise might leave town. And one of the few bright spots on this team, Kiko Alonso, was lost for this season before it even began. There's a chance the Bills circle the wagons if the defense stays in the top 10 and E.J. Manuel stays productive and upright for 16 games. It just doesn't seem likely.

Steelers

Can Mike Tomlin keep his feet on the sidelines and guide his Steelers back to the playoffs? (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

AFC North

Steelers 10-6 | Aggregate wins: 8.7

No, this is not me being blinded by my man crush on Mike Tomlin.

Pittsburgh seems primed for a return to the top of the division. For the first time in years, Ben Roethlisberger won't be asked to go it alone. The Steelers went back to their roots by signing bruising back LeGarrette Blount to back up Le'Veon Bell, and the speedy Dri Archer should make up for the loss of Emmanuel Sanders. The Steel City should finally appreciate what they see on offense.

On defense, youth will be served. Ryan Shazier is making history by starting for a Steeler unit that figures to be much improved from last year's, and free agent Mike Mitchell should be a nice compliment to Troy Polamalu. Nobody in the AFC playoff bracket will want to see this team.

Bengals 9-7 | Aggregate wins: 10.3

He's paid. He's experienced. He's got weapons. Time to put up.

Andy Dalton has taken Cincinnati to the postseason three straight years and it's time to actually win a playoff game. The Bengals have enough around Dalton to make it happen on offense and the defense has guys like Margus Hunt with cool names and good games to stay among the league's best units. But I don't think Dalton is worth the money, and Marvin Lewis lost both of his coordinators to head coaching gigs. That'll cost Cincy the division this year.

Ravens 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 8.7

Baltimore is always a threat to go on a run and win the AFC North. But this year, the mojo just isn't right. The team had to deal with five player arrests in the offseason, none more disruptive than the Ray Rice situation that led to his two- game suspension. It's funny seeing Steve Smith not playing in black and Carolina blue, but he fits the Ravens style perfectly. Joe Flacco will need him if he wants to look like a Super Bowl winning QB again. Depth issues and injury questions plague the defense, but this team shouldn't be too far off from Cincy or Pittsburgh.

Browns 5-11 | Aggregate wins: 5.0

You'd love for me to talk Johnny Manziel here. But as I'm sure you recall from my writing during the Tebow days, I don't spend a lot of time on backups. I'm sure Johnny Football will get some packages here and there to keep the Dawg Pound happy, but Cleveland should expect new coach Mike Pettine to have his defense ready to roll but the offense struggling with Brian Hoyer throwing to a mediocre batch of receivers wishing they had Josh Gordon around to take some of the pressure off. But at least LeBron is back, right?

Broncos

Is this Peyton and the Broncos' year, or will we be in for another dose of Manning-face? (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AFC West

Broncos 13-3 | Aggregate wins: 12.7

On paper, this looks like the best team in the NFL.

On the field, they will be.

Peyton Manning probably won't throw for 55 TDs again, but he won't have to. After their Super Bowl no-show, Denver loaded up on free agent defenders. Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and DeMarcus Ware should help make this the best defensive unit since the Orange Crush.

I know I said this last year...but this time, Montee Ball really should excel in the ground game to help take pressure off Manning. Also, Emmanuel Sanders is a good get at receiver (as if Peyton needed more weapons). Count on another gaudy regular season record...but another Mile High disappointment.

Chiefs 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 8.7

Yes, I correctly predicted Kansas City would emulate the Indianapolis Colts before them in taking a 2-14 season and turning it into a wild card playoff run. But that's where the similarities to Indy end.

The Chiefs aren't as good as last season's 9-0 start, but they aren't as bad as their 2-5 finish either. The newly-(re)paid Alex Smith remains a solid starting QB, but he's not going to carry a team to anything great. The defense is solid, but Eric Berry is the only player in the secondary returning in 2014. This is a fallback year for KC.

Chargers 8-8 | Aggregate wins: 8.3

Philip Rivers came back to Pro Bowl form in 2013. But that was with Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator. Now that Whis is in Tennessee, former Terp Frank Reich is directing the Chargers O. If Rivers has a setback this year, so too will the Chargers.

San Diego won its last four games last year to make the playoffs. This year their final four games are New England, Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City. Let's just go ahead and assume the Chargers will be home for the holidays.

Raiders 4-12 | Aggregate wins: 3.7

This might be a fun team to play with on Madden, but the results won't be there on the field. Oakland is turning the keys to the offense over to rookie Derek Carr, who showed flashes in the preseason but will inevitably have some growing pains. The two-headed monster at running back (Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden) should help, but the Raiders play in a division of tough defenses.

Speaking of defense, Oakland's would be stout...if this were 2009. Adding Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, and Carlos Rogers to a unit that already has Charles Woodson makes for a nice role call, but I doubt this will be enough to bring the Silver and Black out of the AFC West basement.

Colts

Is this the year Andrew Luck and the Colts rise to join the NFL's elites? (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

AFC South

Colts 12-4 | Aggregate wins: 11.0

I'm done underestimating this team. Andrew Luck's third NFL season will be spent cementing his status as an elite quarterback, thanks in part to the return of Reggie Wayne, the addition of Hakeem Nicks, and the emergence of T.Y. Hilton. If Trent Richardson starts playing like the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft, this offense might actually be explosive.

Don't sleep on the defense, either. D'Qwell Jackson is a nice addition at inside linebacker and the secondary should make plenty of plays. Don't be surprised to see Indy make a deep playoff run.

Texans 9-7 | Aggregate wins: 7.6

If you're a longtime reader of my work, you're well aware of my love affair with Houston. After last year's 2-14 belly flop, I swore them off. But just like Michael Corleone, they pulled me back in.

Folks, here is this year's Kansas City Chiefs. New coach Bill O'Brien hopes to separate himself from other Belichick disciples and actually bring some of New England's success to Houston, and traded for quarterback Ryan Mallett for good measure. Whether it's Mallett or Fitzpatrick, the Ryan under center likely won't hold a candle to Tom Brady, but he likely won't have to with Arian Foster back healthy and ready to carry the load again.

But the team will be carried by a beastly defense that brags top pick Jadeveon Clowney and $100 million dollar man J.J. Watt. They likely won't win 11 games, but Houston won't have nearly as many problems as last year.

Jaguars 7-9 | Aggregate wins: 5.0

If all goes according to plan in Jacksonville, Blake Bortles won't see the field in 2014. Chad Henne will keep the starting QB seat warm until the Jags think Bortles is ready. Regardless of who plays QB, they'll likely do a lot of handing off to Toby Gerhart. Coach Gus Bradley has pilfered some talent from his old stomping grounds in Seattle (Chris Clemons, Red Bryant) to bolster a defense that figures to carry the team to a better record than most expect.

Titans 4-12 | Aggregate wins: 5.7

I like Ken Whisenhunt, but he doesn't have much to work with in Tennessee. His quarterback (Jake Locker) is in his second straight make-or-break year and can't stay healthy, let alone play consistent football. Dexter McCluster might be the only one who qualifies as a playmaker on offense and nobody along defensive front seven scares you. It'll be a Music City Miracle if this team finishes near .500.

Super Bowl XLIV:

Rob's pick: Saints over Broncos
George's pick: Packers over Patriots
Noah's pick: Broncos over Packers

Rob's picks for the 2014 regular season awards:

MVP -- Drew Brees
Offensive Player of the Year -- Brees
Defensive Player of the Year -- J.J. Watt
Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Brandin Cooks
Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Jadeveon Clowney
Comeback Player of the Year -- Robert Griffin III
Coach of the Year -- Bill O'Brien

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