Tag Archives: Jack Del Rio

NFL Playoffs: 2017 NFL Wild-Card Weekend Predictions!

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Miami’s run to the playoffs started in Week 6 against the Steelers. On Sunday, the Dolphins will meet them again in Pittsburgh.

By: Elias McMillan

 

Last Week: 14-2

Final 2016 Regular Season Record: 163-91-2

NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend

Oakland @ Houston – For the second straight year, ESPN gets stuck with coverage of a playoff game in Houston that no one really wanted to see. Oakland was such a great story this season until about 2 weeks ago. Within that time, they have lost their starter and backup QB in rout to already being clinched for a post-season berth in the playoffs. Where Oakland goes from here is anyone’s guess. Houston has had its QB troubles recently too. Houston’s 72 million dollar man, QB Brock Osweiler, was bench about 3 weeks ago but because of a concussion suffered by his replacement, backup Tom Savage, Osweiler will be back in the starting position this Saturday. We have to imagine that Osweiler isn’t feeling too confident about his standing as the leader of the offense or as a competent QB in this league. The fact is that Osweiler hasn’t lived up to expectations this season. I’m not sure if Houston is going to need Osweiler to be great to win this playoff game. Houston has other weapons on the team that will make them a tough out for the Raiders. RB Lamar Miller had a good first season with the Texans. He was held out from the last two games of the regular season and he should be fresh and ready to go this weekend. Oakland will have to find a way to account for Miller as they ranked 23rd in the league in run defense. Houston is going to have to run the ball effectively in this game in order to control the clock and to keep Osweiler from making a mistake. Oakland doesn’t have a strong run defense but their defense can affect the game in other ways. Edge rushers, Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, have made a living this season at creating chaos in the opponents back field. Oakland allows quite a few yards through the air but I like the way safety Reggie Nelson has been playing lately. Oakland doesn’t have the best defense in the playoffs but they have the ability to create turnovers that can change the game. After being down two QB’s, the Raiders will have to start QB Connor Cook on Saturday who is making his career debut as a pro. Cook is a real wildcard in this matchup because no one knows what to expect from him. Oakland’s offensive line has a huge task ahead of them as they will have to protect their young QB against a pretty good Houston defense. DE Jadeveon Clowney has finally emerged as a difference maker on the field with the absence of J.J. Watt. Oakland has had a serviceable running game this season so with Cook starting, we may see a steady dose of RB Latavius Murray. Houston has one of the top pass defenses in the league so it will be interesting seeing how Cook want to attack them with Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree. In their matchup earlier this season, Houston outplayed Oakland really but they were on the wrong end of a couple of bad calls. I bet Oakland thinks that can play better than what they did in the last matchup but Houston probably has the bigger revenge chip on their shoulder. Oakland won 12 games this season and I think their playmakers on defense will be the difference. I’m taking the Raiders in a low scoring affair. Prediction: Raiders 18 – Texans 14

Detroit @ Seattle – In the second game on Saturday, we’ll see two teams that don’t look like they are ready to make a run towards the Super Bowl. Detroit squandered their lead in the NFC North to the Packers in a matter of 3 weeks. Seattle wrapped up the NFC West earlier but since the injury to Earl Thomas, they haven’t looked the same. Detroit still has its work cut out for them if they hope to upset Seattle who is usually a monster at home. But with the way Seattle has been playing lately, they are definitely vulnerable right now, even with the home field advantage. If Detroit can keep Seattle from controlling the clock on offense, they’ll have a shot at winning this game. Detroit has been inconsistent at stopping the run on defense but Seattle’s run game has been inconsistent as well. I don’t know how well Russell Wilson will play but Detroit will have to find a way to pressure him in order to keep him from making big plays. Last year in the playoffs, Wilson struggled in that first game at Minnesota but was still able to make the big play late to help Seattle get the victory. With the state of the Seahawks offensive line, I believe the Lions will be able to get after Wilson. Seattle is still pretty good defensively even without Earl Thomas. The Seahawks have a good pass rush and one of the top run defenses in the league. Detroit should have a hard time getting the run game going which will open the door for QB Matt Stafford to try to win the game with his arm. The Legion of Boom isn’t quite that without Thomas in the lineup so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Stafford find the matchups that will help him get his team down the field. TE Eric Ebron has emerged recently and WR’s Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin are more than familiar with the Seattle secondary. I think this game will be closer than what many people think. Detroit hasn’t won in a month and I don’t think I have faith in their defense to totally shut down Seattle offensively. A wildcard in this game will be TE Jimmy Graham who can destroy a defense’s game plan at any moment. I’m going with the home team. Prediction: Seahawks 26 – Lions 21

Miami @ Pittsburgh – Miami starting the season with a 1-4 record going into their Week 6 matchup at home against the Steelers. Who would have known that game was the start of a 9-2 run in the post season? Miami has had a remarkable and unlikely run to the playoffs this season and it is fitting that they’ll be in Pittsburgh on Sunday for this Wildcard matchup. People see the city name “Miami” and think, “Oh. There’s no way a team from Miami can win in Pittsburgh in January!” That thinking is common but couldn’t be more false. Miami is a ten-point underdog this weekend but I think they could stand a chance in Pittsburgh. Miami was able to beat Pittsburgh in their first matchup this season because of RB Jay Ajayi and the Miami run game. A great coach once said that a good run game is one thing that is guaranteed to travel with teams no matter which stadium they’re playing at. If Miami brings their running attack and is able to control the clock, they’ll be able to limit Pittsburgh’s scoring chances on offense. QB Matt Moore will be starting for the Dolphins and I don’t see him coming out with the goal to just air it out against the Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh’s defense as a whole has gotten a lot better since Week 6 so Moore will have to be careful and be selective about the shots to take down field. Miami does have more than capable WR’s in Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills. This game will feature two defenses that can allow both offenses to put up a lot of numbers but again; I see where Pittsburgh’s defense has improved. Not so much with Miami. I don’t have much confidence in Miami limiting Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, or Antonio Brown on Sunday. For Miami to stand a chance on defense, they will need to bring the pressure towards Roethlisberger for all 4 quarters. The Steelers have a decent offensive line but they’ll have a huge chore ahead of them on Sunday in the shape of DE Cameron Wake and DT Ndamukong Suh. I think too many things would have to go right for Miami for them to upset Pittsburgh on Sunday. Miami could slow the game down with Ajayi or harass Roethlisberger behind the line of scrimmage. But the Steelers just have too many weapons for Miami to account for. They wont be able to stop Bell on the ground and with time, Roethlisberger should be able to find big plays down the field against the Dolphins secondary. Miami could make it interesting but I like the Steelers at home. Prediction: Steelers 36 – Dolphins 28

New York Giants @ Green Bay – The second matchup on Sunday features two of the hottest teams in the NFC. Green Bay rode their hot streak into winning the NFC North last week. The Giants have looked impressive down the stretch and many believe that they could be gearing up for another championship run. I have to give Green Bay credit for catching up with Detroit and winning the division but on Sunday, they might match up poorly against the Giants. The Giants have done a tremendous job defensively recently and they might present some issues to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. New York may not have the same pass rushing abilities they had when Jason Pierre-Paul was healthy but they playing well against the run and the secondary is also playing out of its mind right now. If the Giants can’t get after Rodgers, he will have time in the pocket but many QB’s have found it tough recently against the Giants secondary. Green Bay is going to have to figure out a creative way to get receivers open down the field. Another thing I don’t like about this matchup for the Packers is that their defense really isn’t good. They have had their issues this season at stopping the run and they are recently faced with multiple injuries in the secondary. The Giants don’t have a strong rushing offense but they do have some talented backs that might be able to find some space against the Packers front seven. And with a hurting secondary, the Giants and their talented trio of receivers should be able to make big plays down the field. Rodgers is the hot QB right now and he has powered the entire Green Bay squad during their run into the playoffs. Green Bay has been an overachiever in recent weeks so; I think they’ll be able to put up a good fight especially at home. But with the way that the Giants defense has been playing recently and with the state of the Packers secondary, I can see the Giants winning this one by the skin of their teeth. Prediction: Giants 24 – Packers 21

NFL 2016: Preseason Awards & Playoff Predictions

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In Super Bowl LI, I think we’ll see a rematch that is 8 years in the making.

By: Elias McMillan

 

First, here are my picks for the 2016 post-season awards:

MVP: Aaron Rodgers – QB (Green Bay Packers) – The MVP award is such a sham. It is really the “best QB of the season” award. But I think that guy in 2016 might be Aaron Rodgers. With his receivers now back and healthy, we will see that Packers passing attack that we were used to seeing a couple of seasons ago. Rodgers will put up great numbers and because of the Teddy Bridgewater injury, the Packers might overtake in the NFC North this season as well.

Offensive MVP: Antonio Brown – WR (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Now, I know that this could easily be the MVP as well but I know that would never happen. Either way, Antonio Brown is probably the best offensive weapon in football. The guy is unstoppable and is showing no signs of slowing down. Because of the suspension situations in Pittsburgh, the Steelers will be leaning on Brown even more this season.

Defensive MVP: Khalil Mack – LB (Oakland Raiders) – Khalil Mack is on the cusp of NFL stardom and I think his play will elevate this Raiders team into the postseason in 2016. I still don’t have a clear answer of what type of defense will the Raiders run in 2016. Will it be a 4-3 or a 3-4? All the clues tell me that it will be a 3-4, which will give Mack even more opportunity to get after the QB. I think we will see Mack as the league leader in sack this season.

Offensive Rookie of the Year – Ezekiel Elliott – RB (Dallas Cowboys) – This will be everyone’s answer to this question. But I honestly was going to go another way until a couple of things happened. 1) The Darren McFadden injury is much more serious than originally indicated. I was thinking that Dallas would do the whole “running back by committee” thing with Zeke, Alfred Morris, and DMC. But it is clear that Zeke will be the lead back and will get most of the carries this season. And 2) I really liked WR Laquon Treadwell to help Teddy Bridgewater to become a more down the field threat. But with the current state of Minnesota’s QB situation, I’m not sure about his impact in his first year. It is pretty much set in stone that Elliott behind this offensive line will do some serious damage in his first year.

Defensive Rookie of the Year – Robert Nkemdiche – DT (Arizona Cardinals) – With Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones doing damage on the outside, Nkemdiche is going to have a lot of opportunities to be an impact rookie in the trenches for this Cardinals defense.

Comeback Player of the Year – DeMarco Murray – RB (Tennessee Titans) – Philadelphia brought over Murray from Dallas in order to short change their division rival. That had to be the only reason because once Murray got to Philly, they didn’t have a plan on how to use him or they just didn’t know how to use him. Now that he is no longer a pawn in Chip Kelly’s game, Murray will get to do what he does best in Tennessee. Murray is a physical downhill runner and he’ll be behind a power offensive line in Tennessee. I think that rookie Derrick Henry will “vulture” away some touchdowns for him but we will see the 2014 DeMarco Murray make his return in 2016. Prediction: Murray will have more yards this season than Philadelphia will have as a team.

Coach of the Year – Jack Del Rio (Oakland Raiders) – The Raiders are young, hungry and they have the right leadership at the coaching position. The Raiders will be a playoff team in 2016 under coach Del Rio who will offers a wealth of experience for this young team.

And now, here is my forecast for the playoffs this season. As a reminder, here are the teams I see qualifying in 2016:

AFC

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers – 12-4 (AFC North)
  2. New England Patriots – 11-5 (AFC East)
  3. Kansas City Chiefs – 11-5 (AFC West)
  4. Houston Texans – 9-7 (AFC South)
  5. Cincinnati Bengals – 10-6 (Wildcard 1)
  6. Oakland Raiders – 9-7 (Wildcard 2)

NFC

  1. Arizona Cardinals – 12-4 (NFC West)
  2. Carolina Panthers – 12-4 (NFC South)
  3. Minnesota Vikings – 11-5 (NFC North)
  4. New York Giants – 9-7 (NFC East)
  5. Seattle Seahawks – 10-6 (Wildcard 1)
  6. Green Bay Packers – 10-6 (Wildcard 2)

Wild Card Weekend

AFC: (3) Chiefs over (6) Raiders, (5) Bengals over (4) Texans

NFC: (6) Packers over (3) Vikings, (5) Seahawks over (4) Giants

Divisional Round

AFC: (1) Steelers over (5) Bengals, (2) Patriots over (3) Chiefs

NFC: (1) Cardinals over (6) Packers, (2) Panthers over (5) Seahawks

Conference Championship Sunday

AFC: (1) Steelers over (2) Patriots

NFC: (1) Cardinals over (2) Panthers

Super Bowl LI from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas

Arizona Cardinals over Pittsburgh Steelers

Recap: In the AFC, I see the Steelers being the clear-cut favorites and I don’t see that changing as the season goes on. Its not like I see the Steelers as some type of great team or anything. It is more because the other top teams in the conference failed at getting better in the offseason. Denver will not be better. New England did not improve. Who does that leave? Houston? Cincinnati? Please. If the talent on the Steelers roster is as good as everyone thinks it is, the Steelers should be able to win the conference. I know that the Steelers are a team dealing with multiple suspensions but they are equipped with talent to help lessen that blow. The Steelers also don’t have a great defense but that same defense over achieved last season and I think they’ll do the same this year. The Steelers dealt with a lot (injuries, suspensions, etc.) in 2015 and they were still oh-so close to beating the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos. I think that will serve as motivation as Pittsburgh will advance to its ninth Super Bowl. The competition in the NFC is a lot tougher than it was a couple years ago. Carolina, Seattle, and Arizona will all be serious contenders in 2016. I thought Minnesota would join that conversation this year but they lost their starting QB in a tragic non-contact injury in practice. Green Bay could sneak in and win that division but I don’t see them on the class of those first three NFC teams I named. The reason I like Arizona so much is that I think they have a dynamic defense this season so match their offense. RB David Johnson will continue to improve. The Cardinals passing game will continue to light up the scoreboards. And now the defense will have an improved pass rush with Chandler Jones and an improved secondary with a now healthy Tyrann Mathieu. So in this Super Bowl XLIII rematch, I have Arizona flipping the script and allowing Larry Fitzgerald to walk off into the sunset.

NFL 2016: AFC West Preview

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Khalil Mack and the Raiders defense will make a playoff push in 2016.

By: Elias McMillan

 

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs quietly had an outstanding season in 2015 headlined by that massive win streak that they rode into the playoffs. I think that this Chiefs team going into 2016, will have a pretty good shot at overtaking this division from Denver since the Broncos may have not improved in the offseason. The Chiefs have a great veteran core, a great running game, and a great defense. Head coach Andy Reid will have this team ready for bigger things in 2016. I think the questions about QB Alex Smith going into last season are about done. I’m not saying that Smith is a top QB in the league but he is much better than what people believe. When pressed, he can make the big plays at times and I think last season he won the respect of a lot of people in that locker room. A big help to Alex Smith is that the Chiefs are one the best teams at running the football. Everyone knows that Jamaal Charles is the star but they have great depth behind him with Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware, and the speedy kick returner Knile Davis. I don’t know if the depth behind Charles is in result of just having good talent or if the Chiefs offensive line does an outstanding job but either way, it works for this team. The Chiefs receiving core is kind of boring outside of Jeremy Maclin. Maclin showed a lot of heart last season by playing through injuries and he is one of the toughest guys in the league. The Chiefs need someone else opposite of Maclin to step up this season. That could be Albert Wilson or second year receiver Chris Conley. Smith also has a pretty good connection with TE Travis Kelce in the passing game. Kansas City’s defense is strong up front and they had a top 10 run defense in 2015. Nose tackle Dontari Poe is the leader of the group and I think top draft pick, Chris Jones from Mississippi State, will be a great addition eventually. The Chiefs return the same great group at linebacker this season. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston maybe starting to get up there in age but they are still a top pass rushing duo in the league. LB’s Derrick Johnson and Josh Mauga are both good tacklers and pass defenders. Kansas City’s secondary received a big boost last season from reigning defensive rookie of the year, CB Marcus Peters. Peters is an interception machine and he looks to continue right where he left off in 2015. The veteran leader in the secondary, safety Eric Berry, is back and is fresh off a season where he won Comeback Player of the Year. The Chiefs have a great collection of talent in 2016 and they are battle tested. They should be able to win the AFC West and maybe make some noise in the post season. Prediction: 11-5 (AFC West Champs)

Oakland Raiders – Coming off a 7-9 season, the Raiders actually have some momentum going into 2016. They have assembled a young talented roster but they still have some holes that need to be filled. I think this Raiders team is going to be good this year mainly because of their defense. I’m not entirely sure if the Raiders have made the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense but the moves they have made in the offseason do reflect that. Either way, they have drafted very smart and they have brought it some key veteran players. On the defensive line, they have a couple of guys that fit the 3-4 scheme as big bodied, run stuffers. DT’s Dan Williams and Justin Ellis offer a lot of size inside and rookie Jihad Ward will offer athleticism inside as a defensive end. There is also some hope that second year DE Mario Edwards Jr. will improve this season. The Raiders have the players at defensive line but the real standouts will be the pass rushers. Khalil Mack had a standout 2015 and he has the ability to be the next Von Miller. In a 4-3 defense, Mack was moved around a lot and did well. But he really excelled at creating pressure in the backfield. In a 3-4 defense, Mack would have more opportunities at getting to the QB and I believe that this is the plan for 2016. I think the offseason signing of OLB Bruce Irvin supports that scheme change. Irvin played in a 4-3 defense in Seattle but he is probably more suited as an outside rusher in a 3-4 defense. With Mack on the opposite side, Irvin is going to have the chance to be an impact player in this defense. The Raiders have had a big hole in their secondary for years now. This offseason they brought in a couple veterans and some young guys that might be able to turn this unit around. CB Sean Smith was a good player in Kansas City and former first round pick D.J. Hayden is coming off his best season as a pro. Charles Woodson retired but Oakland will attempt to replace him with seasoned vet, Reggie Nelson. Nelson isn’t the player that Woodson was obviously, but he is a ball hawk with a knack for creating big time turnovers. Nelson will be paired with this year’s first round pick, safety Karl Joseph. I thought Joseph was a reach in the first round for Oakland but the guy is a heat seeking missile when it comes to ball carriers. The combo of Nelson and Joseph will be perfect for this defense as both bring that playmaking potential on each down. On offense, the Raiders have the QB and WR positions figured out at least. QB David Carr hasn’t put up monster numbers yet but he is the young leader of this offense. Carr has a great set of reliable receivers in veteran Michael Crabtree and second year standout Amari Cooper. The combination of AC/DC has already become a popular one for Raiders fans. What worries me about the Raiders offense is that I don’t think they are strong up front and I think that is holding back Carr and especially the running game. RB Latavius Murray had a decent 2015 season but I think he could be better if the Raiders had a better offensive line. The Raiders don’t have great depth behind Murray at RB. Rookie DeAndre Washington led the Big 12 in rushing last year and he might be called upon early in his career. The Raiders are also really lacking at the TE position. Mychal Rivera isn’t dynamic to give Carr a reliable target in the passing game. I expect this Raiders defense to be a monster and I think Oakland could possibly ride it into the team’s first post-season berth since 2002. But they need to fill some holes on the offensive side of the ball if they want to return to being the dominant team in this division. Prediction: 9-7 (Wildcard)

Denver Broncos – It’s hard for champions to repeat especially in the NFL. Denver is going to have a tough time bucking that logic in 2016. Denver still has a lot of the talent pieces from last year’s championship run but they also lost a few and the division they play in has improved. Denver was able to ride their defense to a championship a season ago and it looks like the defense will have to be the vocal point once again in 2016. Peyton Manning wasn’t his old self last season but his presence and his knowledge of the offense was able to get the most out of what he was able to do. I don’t think Denver has a QB on the roster right now that can be as valuable as Manning was to the offense last season. Manning looked bad at times in his final season but I think he’ll look better than what Denver has to offer at QB in 2016. Mark Sanchez is a veteran whose best days are behind him. Trevor Siemian hasn’t taken a snap in the regular season. And first round pick, Paxton Lynch, may not be ready to start on day one. Denver also lost multiple starters on the offensive line so, they may be in trouble when it comes to pass protection and run blocking. The QB will have to lean heavy on RB’s C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are talented receivers but their impact on the game will be lower this season because of the situation at QB. On defense, they may have lost Malik Jackson in free agency but I think they’ll still be pretty solid up front with Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. Of course, the star of the defense is Von Miller who is the best pass rusher in football right now. Miller paired with DeMarcus Ware proved to be a deadly combo during the last post season and they will hope to pick up where they left off in 2016. Ware does have an injury history but Shane Ray is waiting in the wings as his heir apparent. Denver’s secondary could be a mixed bag this year too. Last season, CB’s Chris Harris and Bradley Roby proved their worth but that group will miss Aqib Talib who is facing a possible suspension and is battling his own injury problems. As the case for most good movies, the sequel wont be as good as the original. I don’t think Denver is going to fall off the face of the earth but they wont be contenders with that messy QB situation. They should have pulled the trigger on that purposed Colin Kaepernick trade. Prediction: 8-8

San Diego Chargers – The Chargers could potentially climb out of the AFC West basement in 2016 but I don’t see it happening. There are too many question marks on both sides of the ball and I think that the mismanagement from the front office is starting to affect the team. On paper, I think San Diego should be strong offensively. The only thing really missing on offense is a consistent run game. At QB, Phillip Rivers returns for another season as one of the most overlooked players in the league. Rivers can throw it with the best of them and this year he’ll have a pretty talented core of WR’s. I like the pairing of WR’s Kellen Allen and free agent acquisition Travis Benjamin as one serves as a tough possession and the other is a speedy game breaker. I also like the idea of veteran WR James Jones serving as a third option for Rivers. This is a role that Jones excelled at in Green Bay. Of course, Rivers will have Antonio Gates to throw to again at the TE position. But also look out for rookie Hunter Henry who will have a role at the second TE. The Chargers have drafted well up front and have brought in free agents in the past to help bolster that offensive line. Despite that, the running game has been such a major disappointment. San Diego has a decent collection of RB’s but second year player, Melvin Gordon, has to prove this season that he can be the guy in the backfield for this team. Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver are good complementary players at RB but Gordon has to prove that he was worth that first round pick from a season ago. On defense, the Chargers have a lot of talent but they have been inconsistent at all three phases. They don’t stop the run, they don’t get to the QB often enough, and the secondary will definetly be hurting without safety Eric Weddle. This years first round pick, Joey Bosa, was suppose to be a big help upfront at stopping run and creating pressure in the backfield. But the front office has screwed up the process of getting him signed much like other first rounders under this regime. Who knows if the Bosa holdout will last the entire season but I think the affects of it will cause division in the locker room. The Chargers struggle at stopping the run but they do have a pair of decent pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu. Inside at linebacker, Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman need to become the stars that they were in college to help improve the run defense. In the secondary, I actually like the two starters, Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett. I don’t know if Dwight Lowery can replace Weddle at safety for this team but he might provide some needed veteran leadership. I expect this Chargers team to compete hard for those fans in San Diego this season. But I think they will lack the consistency on both sides of the ball to compete for a playoff berth. I’m looking forward to these two victories for the Chargers in 2016: 1) Joey Bosa ending his holdout & 2) San Diego getting a stadium deal done. Prediction: 6-10

NFL 2015: AFC West Preview

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Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl window maybe closing sooner than later.

By: Elias McMillan

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos – At the end of last season, watching Denver was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. QB Peyton Manning got a little banged up and the entire football team lost its edge offensively and defensively. This cost head coach John Fox his job but Denver was able to bring in Gary Kubiak who is familiar with the Denver franchise. Kubiak might be the right coach for Denver right now offensively because he has the reputation for using the running game effectively. An effectively running game could mean less pressure on Manning and the passing game. There is a lot of preseason buzz surrounding RB C.J. Anderson, as he might be a breakout star in Kubiak’s offense. For this offense to work, they are gonna need to get the best out of an under achieving offensive line. They’ve recently signed veteran guard Evan Mathis who will be able to play right away and make the Broncos stronger up front. Peyton Manning may have one or two good seasons left but he is still in the position where he is the most important piece on this football team. Denver will return a deep receiving core led by WR Demaryius Thomas. WR Emmanuel Sanders was a breakout star last season and also look for Cody Latimer to have an increased role this season. They lost TE Julius Thomas in free agency but Kubiak was able to bring over veteran Owen Daniels from Baltimore. Last season, Denver loaded up on defense but ultimately they under performed as a unit. This season, they brought in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and with him, I expect expectations will be raised. Phillips has a great rep as a great defensive coach who can get the most out of his players. Denver’s strength on defense comes from its linebackers. They have a great pass-rushing duo in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Also, they drafted Shane Ray with their first round pick in the draft and he might develop into Ware’s replacement eventually. I like Denver’s middle linebackers as well, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. Denver will need more consistency from their secondary in 2015. CB Aqib Talib is the most talented player they have in the secondary but he needs to play smarter this year. I really like second year player Bradley Rody who showed a lot of promise in his rookie year. At safety, T.J. Ward should be able to continue to be a force in run support and as a tackler down the field. I think the defense should be improved under Wade Phillips but ultimately the success of this team will be determined on the offensive side of the ball. If the running game is improved and Manning can stay healthy, I don’t see why Denver wont be able to repeat as division champs again. Prediction: 11-5 (AFC West Champs)

Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs have two things that I’ve always liked on a football team: defense and a running game. But last season, the offense and the defense under achieved at times and it kept them from making the post season. I think the Chiefs can return to the playoffs this season but a lot of it is going to depend on what they can get out for the QB position. You’ll hear a million times this season about how QB Alex Smith didn’t throw a TD pass to a receiver all last season. Smith didn’t have a good 2014 season but I think he could bounce back. He pretty much has to because this season could be his last shot at being a starter in this league. To help Smith out, they brought in WR Jeremy Maclin from Philadelphia. Maclin is a speedster who will be featured as a legit number one option for Smith in this offense. Despite what happens with Smith and the passing game, RB Jamaal Charles will once again power this offense. Charles showed last season that he has the ability to put the offense on his back at times as a runner or as a receiver from the backfield. The more touches that Charles gets, the better for this offense. Kansas City has a decent defense but they lack consistency at times. The defensive line will be hurt at the beginning of the season, as DT Dontari Poe will miss some time due to injury. The stars of the defense are pass rushing super powers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. The combo of Hali and Houston are almost guaranteed to combine for 30 plus sacks this season. The Chiefs will also receive great play in the middle of the defense from LB Derrick Johnson. This year’s first round pick, CB Marcus Peters, might have been the best corner in this draft. If Peters can get over some maturity issues, he could become an instant factor in the secondary. The feel good story of the season for the Chiefs and the entire league will be safety Eric Berry and his return from his fight with cancer. No one knows what kind of player he can be but just being out there would be a victory for the defense. I think Andy Reid’s Chiefs will be tough again this season. The running game and the defense will be good but if Alex Smith can rebound from a rough 2014, they could return to the post season. Prediction: 9-7 (Wild-Card)

San Diego Chargers – San Diego just missed the post season last year and they’ll face an uphill battle to back in the playoffs this season. The Chargers are pretty stable on offensively but they maybe the opposite on defense. They’ll be led once again by QB Phillip Rivers who is established as one of the better QB’s in the league. San Diego also made an effort to improve the offensive line by signing guard Orlando Franklin away from division rival, Denver. San Diego will be real deep at RB this season and hopefully they’ll be able to find a clear-cut starter out of the group. Branden Oliver and Danny Woodhead have proven to be serviceable but they are really hoping for rookie Melvin Gordon to eventually be the star. Rivers will have decent targets in the passing game this season as Malcom Floyd and Keenan Allen return. I also liked they brought in Jacoby Jones to help on special teams as a returner but Jones also is a great down the field target. The offense will be hurt for the first four weeks of the season without Rivers favorite target, TE Antonio Gates. On defense, I don’t see where the Chargers really improved. The defense didn’t have a strong pass rush a season ago. Jeremiah Attaochu and Melvin Ingram are capable of bringing pressure to the QB but they both need to step up this season. The Chargers have a nice duo at inside linebacker in Donald Butler and Manti Te’o but I bet they are hoping that rookie Denzel Perryman can start paying dividends early in his career. Perryman had an impressive college career and he may be a future starter on this defense. San Diego has a decent secondary led by safety Eric Weddle who is playing in his final season for the Chargers. San Diego also has two legit starting corners in Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett. I think Phillip Rivers will continue to keep this team in games this season but I also think that the defense might keep them from competing for a playoff spot in 2015. Prediction: 8-8  

Oakland Raiders – For the first time in awhile, the optimism is Oakland is real. They’ll still be a few pieces away from keeping out of the basement in this division but they are starting the gather enough young players were they might be a force to deal with in a few seasons. I really like that they finally hired a head coach with prior experience at the job. Jack Del Rio is a tough coach with experience and he’ll be a perfect for this young roster. A lot will depend of the development of QB Derek Carr who showed some promise in his rookie season. The Raiders don’t have a star at RB right now but RB Latavius Murray had some decent games last season before his injury. Murray will return this season as the starter. Their top draft pick, WR Amari Cooper, is the future leader of this receiving core. Cooper is a quick and efficient route runner who is already earning the trust of Carr. Carr and Cooper might become a common connection for years to come for the Raiders. Oakland has a bright future on defense as well. Second year player, Khalil Mack, will be playing more in his natural position as a 4-3 pass rushing defensive end this season. Mack excels at bringing pressure so he should have a big sophomore season. I like the personnel on the Raiders defensive line. Veteran DT Dan Williams played great in Arizona a season ago and DE Justin Tuck is a guy that can still get after the quarterback. At linebacker, they have a pair of smart veteran is Malcolm Smith and Curtis Lofton. The ageless one in the secondary, Charles Woodson returns to continue to be a mentor for the younger corners and safeties. CB D.J. Hayden really started to play at a high level at the end of last season and the Raiders will be counting on him to continue that into 2015. If Del Rio can get this young team to over achieve, they could surprise some teams this season. But in reality that are some years away from making the post season. Oakland could be on the right track with Del Rio though. Prediction: 6-10