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Once more into the breach

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Predicting the 2014 NFL season

The evenings are growing brisk and the leaves on the trees are changing their hue. Autumn is almost upon us, and with it comes NFL football. The 2014 season kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 4 with the Green Bay Packers heading to Seattle to take on the Seahawks.

As per usual, I will be making an effort to predict the outcomes of the coming season. And as per usual, you can probably expect a relatively unimpressive performance though in my defense, I have slowly been getting better with each year that passes. Last year, you could even say that I did decently.

(Of course, that leaves aside the fact that I spent the season picking games week to week against my adorable dog Stella and getting soundly thrashed. For those who are interested, Kibbles and Picks will be making its return to the Maine Edge website this season. Tune in and see if I can at least keep it close this time around.)

Anyway on with the show. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Maine Edge NFL Season Preview!

(y = division winner; x = wild card winner)

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AFC

AFC East

New England Patriots: 12-4 (y)

Miami Dolphins: 8-8

New York Jets: 6-10

Buffalo Bills: 6-10

There's no question that quarterback Tom Brady is starting to show a few signs of age. However, while he started off slowly last season, he looked awfully good in the second half. Expect that Brady to show up this season especially now that he has had a chance to mesh with his young receivers and it looks like tight end Rob Gronkowski might actually be somewhat healthy. And with the addition of a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis, the leaky pass defense should be much improved. If the offense stays solid and the D takes a step forward, this team is a threat to go deep in the playoffs. The Dolphins went through a lot of turmoil last year, dealing with the Richie Incognito/Johnathan Martin situation. The team is looking to QB Ryan Tannehill to take a step forward in his third season as a starter. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is known for his creative schemes; if the offensive line can get it together and the run game gels, this team could surprise. The New York Jets have once again put themselves in a controversial quarterback situation, while young Geno Smith is ostensibly the starter, polarizing veteran Michael Vick is waiting in the wings. The team has a strong front seven, a new running back in Chris Johnson and a new number-one WR in former Bronco Eric Decker. However, it isn't likely that coach Rex Ryan's team has enough to reach .500. The Buffalo Bills seem to be one of those teams that is perpetually a few years from contention. The loss of linebacker Kiko Alonso for the season after a spectacular rookie year especially hurts. If young QB EJ Manuel fails to develop a rapport with rookie wideout Sammy Watkins and the defense can't generate pass pressure similar to last year, it's going to be a long season in Buffalo.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6 (y)

Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-7

Baltimore Ravens: 7-9

Cleveland Browns: 6-10

Bengals QB Andy Dalton signed a much-derided extension this offseason six years, $115 million. Cincinnati put their faith in Dalton's ability to team up with receiver AJ Green one of the league's elite talents at the position and elevate the Bengals' performance. If the defense can continue to overperform and Dalton can cut down on the INTs, the Bengals could have a big year. The Steelers are consistently good, but once again, they don't look to have enough to make the leap to greatness. QB Ben Roethlisberger is another year older and is missing Emmanuel Sanders, one of his favorite targets. There is, however, a new look on the defensive line: if end Cameron Heyward continues to progress, he could be one of the league's best. Pittsburgh needs a healthy run game and plenty of sacks to stay competitive. The Ravens look middle-of-the-road, but neither double-digit wins nor losses would be that surprising. Joe Flacco is as average a QB as there is. The team has a strong front seven on defense, but there are some real questions on offense. Running back Ray Rice has been terrible for a full year (both as a player and as a person); he needs to perform for the Ravens to have a chance at real success. It'll help if WR Steve Smith continues to seem ageless. As for the Cleveland Browns, well it's pretty clear that the story there is Johnny Football. If Johnny Manziel lives up to the hype that has preceded him into the NFL, the Browns have a chance at making some noise. But even then, it will likely be just noise the receiving corps is ho-hum and the defense is solid but unimpressive.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts: 10-6 (y)

Houston Texans: 10-6 (x)

Tennessee Titans: 4-12

Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-12

It's a coin flip at the top of the AFC South this season. The Colts have the best young QB in the league in Andrew Luck. Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is healthy, as is rising star tight end Dwayne Allen. They've got some questions in the running game Trent Richardson needs to step up and on defense, but if they can maintain their low level of turnovers and get some stops, Luck could well lead them deep into the playoffs again. Houston, on the other hand, was the worst team in the league last year. Why the drastic leap forward? Number one pick Jadeveon Clowney joins JJ Watt on what has become the most imposing defensive line in the league. The Houston defensive front seven is immensely talented; if the defensive backs can keep up, this might be the best defense in the league. Of course, you have to score points, but the Texans could ride RB Arian Foster all the way to the playoffs. Tennessee continues to have faith in Jake Locker, but the inconsistent QB needs to make a big jump forward for the Titans to have any shot at relevance, especially now that RB Chris Johnson is gone. He's got perhaps the best offensive line he's ever had, a hotshot rookie WR in Justin Hunter and a QB-guru coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt. It's now or never for Locker. Jacksonville is once again at the bottom of the standings. They used their first-round pick on QB Blake Bortles, who they're hoping doesn't even see the field. They've added Adrian Peterson's caddy Toby Gerhart as their lead running back. The Jaguars won just four games last year; they'll probably have to get lucky to match that number this season.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: 13-3 (y)

San Diego Chargers: 9-7 (x)

Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9

Oakland Raiders: 3-13

If anything, 13 wins seems low for Denver. Despite their humiliation in the Super Bowl, the Broncos appear to be firing on all cylinders, though WR Wes Welker's recent concussion is certainly worrying. Still, Peyton Manning is the reigning MVP and looks as sharp as ever under center. A fully healthy Von Miller could invigorate the defense; if Montee Ball proves capable of handling the rushing load, the Broncos could cruise into the postseason and exact some revenge. The Chargers could well wind up doing even better than this prediction. QB Philip Rivers has always been talented, but new OC Frank Reich's offense might be his best fit yet. Guys like Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green can catch the ball; Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead can run with it. They even picked up an excellent corner in Brandon Flowers. San Diego's just a lucky break or two away from 10 wins or more. Meanwhile, the Chiefs won 11 games last year, but they did so with a lot of smoke and mirrors. Alex Smith is merely competent at quarterback, while the defense and special teams posted unsustainable numbers especially during the team's 9-0 start. Still, Kansas City has a singular talent in RB Jamaal Charles; if they can get him some help and at least approach last year's performance on D, they could be scary. The Raiders are their usual sad-sack selves, fielding a team that would have been world-beaters six or seven years ago, but in 2014 is just old. They've got a couple of bright spots on defense especially if first-round pick Khalil Mack lives up to the hype but any team that's looking to QB Matt Schaub as their offensive savior is in for a long and depressing season.

NFC

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles: 11-5 (y)

New York Giants: 8-8

Dallas Cowboys: 7-9

Washington Redskins: 6-10

Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly has gotten a lot of love as an innovator and with good reason. Despite the loss of WR DeSean Jackson, this team has a lot of offensive weapons, led by RB LeSean McCoy, one of the five best offensive weapons in the league. With QB Nick Foles getting comfortable behind an offensive line that is starting to settle in, the Eagles are going to score tons of points. If the defense can manage to be even average, the sky's the limit. Giants QB Eli Manning had one of his worst seasons as a pro last year, but you have to think that there's something still in the tank. New York is moving to a West Coast offensive scheme this year, which should work well with Manning's strengths. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has to lead the way and generate pressure if the Giants are to have any hope of contention. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are likely going to avoid the longest stretch of utter mediocrity in league history 8-8 the past three seasons but not in the way they might have hoped. QB Tony Romo and the offense will score plenty of points, but the defense hasn't improved nearly enough from last year's historic badness. Seven wins might be the ceiling for this group, but Jason Garrett's squad will probably be fun to watch. The Redskins are another team that will put up points DeSean Jackson joins Pierre Garcon, TE Jordan Reed and RB Alfred Morris on an offense led by talented (and injury-prone) QB Robert Griffin III. RG3 and company will fire away, but they might need to score 30-plus a game to even have a shot. Expect a lot of entertaining losses in Washington.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers: 12-4 (y)

Chicago Bears: 10-6 (x)

Detroit Lions: 7-9

Minnesota Vikings: 4-12

The Packers are one of the best teams in the NFC, led by perhaps the league's best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers will put up MVP-level numbers again this year. He's also got a quality RB in Eddie Lacy; if Lacy can continue to develop, this will be an incredible potent and balanced offense. And while the team lost stalwart D-lineman BJ Raji to injury, they also added pass rusher Julius Peppers to a defense that already includes Clay Matthews. As long as Rodgers stays upright, pencil the Pack in for a dozen wins. The Bears, long known for their defensive acumen, turned into an impressive offensive machine last season under coach Marc Trestman. QB Jay Cutler has two elite receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, as well as one of the NFL's most underrated backs in Matt Forte. The defense looks vastly improved , led up front by newly-acquired end Jared Allen. If the defense is as improved as it looks, Chicago will be a force to be reckoned with. Detroit has some elite offensive talent RB Reggie Bush and QB Matthew Stafford are excellent when healthy, while WR Calvin Johnson is merely the best receiver in the league but the team suffers from mental mistakes. Add to that a talented-but-troubled defense especially on the line and the Lions are looking at another sub-par season. Minnesota's best player is obviously RB Adrian Peterson, but he can't do it alone. Even a historic season won't be enough. Rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater needs to make a splash and the defense has to improve particularly in the secondary - if this team is going to have any shot at success in a tough division.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints: 12-4 (y)

Carolina Panthers: 9-7

Atlanta Falcons: 6-10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-12

The New Orleans Saints are still the class of this division. They've got an all-world QB in Drew Brees and one of the league's best coaches in Sean Payton. Expect another high-octane offensive season from Brees and his talented receiving corps. The defense under coordinator Rob Ryan had some struggles in the second half next year; expect improvement, especially in terms of turnovers. There's a lot of talent in the Big Easy. The Carolina Panthers might be the clubhouse leader for 'Team absolutely no one wants to play' status. They've got an excellent defense (though it might not quite measure up to last year's second-ranked unit) and a uniquely talented QB in Cam Newton. While erstwhile number-one WR Steve Smith is gone, first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin has shown flashes of early brilliance. They won't win 12 again, but 10 and a playoff spot is certainly doable. The Falcons are another team with the potential to overshoot this prediction. There's a lot of aerial firepower here, with Matt Ryan throwing to the (hopefully healthy) tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White. But they've got a lot of holes on defense and an aging Stephen Jackson at running back. If it all goes right, watch out, but that seems unlikely. Tampa Bay is a bit of a mess; frankly, even those four wins might be a bit of a reach. They need to hope that RB Doug Martin is all the way back from injury and new QB Josh McCown's fill-in work with the Bears was no fluke. They also need a number of disparate defensive parts to gel very quickly. That's a lot of ifs for a team already at the bottom.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks: 12-4 (y)

San Francisco 49ers: 11-5 (x)

Arizona Cardinals: 6-10

St. Louis Rams: 5-11

And here we are the toughest division in the NFL. The reigning champion Seahawks are looking great, with rising star QB Russell Wilson poised to take another step forward. He's got guys like Percy Harvin and rookie Paul Richardson to throw to. He's also got RB Marshawn Lynch to run the ball. Add to that an elite defense led by the NFL's best cornerback Richard Sherman and there's no reason to think the Seahawks won't challenge for back-to-back titles. Of course, the 49ers might have something to say about that. Colin Kaepernick has proven to be every bit the threat that Wilson is. He's throwing to Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson. The San Francisco defense might not have gotten the hype of Seattle's, but it was the number-one scoring D in the league last year. This team could easily leapfrog the Seahawks. Arizona has the bad luck to share a division with two of the best teams in the league. They won't match last year's 10 wins, even though a full season of QB Carson Palmer will improve the offense. With Larry Fitzgerald leading the way, this receiving corps can catch the ball. If the offensive line can keep it together, the Cardinals will score. They've got all-world defensive backs like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, but their other defensive losses plus a brutal schedule point to significant regression. The Rams are strong on the lines both their offensive and defensive lines look to be strong but the farther away from the line of scrimmage you get, the bleaker the picture. QB Sam Bradford will never live up to his massive contract with this lack of legitimate receiving threats. The linebackers are middling, while the defensive secondary is a mess. Five wins is probably the ceiling for St. Louis.

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