There’s only a few more days remaining until American football is back on screens across the globe, as the 2015/16 NFL season officially kicks off with the Pittsburgh Steelers traveling to current Superbowl Champions the New England Patriots. College Football stars have been drafted and signed, dramatic cuts and trades have been made and fans have seen glimpses of what to expect from their teams thanks to the past month of pre-season games.
This year is particularly special as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Superbowl, the big climax to the NFL season in which the overall NFC and AFC champions face off for the right to lift the Lombardi trophy. Rather fittingly the “Golden state” of California has been selected as the host of the game’s golden anniversary, which is scheduled to be played on February 7th 2016.
The Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and the Patriots are some of the teams tipped to be crowned the 50th champions by the experts, but one thing that makes the league so great can be its unpredictability. An early season injury to a star veteran or unexpected breakthrough by a rookie player can be the difference between playoff contention and finishing with a sub .500 record. With that being said we’ll try to give you a very brief break down of what to expect from each of the NFL’s 8 regional divisions this year.
AFC NORTH, (Ravens, Steelers, Browns, Bengals)
This division should be a tight one as on paper it’s filled with very competitive and balanced teams. Early shouts would say that the Browns would be the team that struggle the most out of the four, which is sad news for Hallam’s Welfare and Community officer James Manson, who has a strange and unexplainable man crush on Quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Ravens look like they may just have an edge over the Bengals, though not by much at all. Cincinnati will look to their strong run game to keep the chains moving while having strengthened their defence over the summer with signings like A.J Hawk and Michael Johnson. The Ravens have it tough with 5 of their opening 7 games being on the road, while also losing reliable receiver Torrey Smith in the offseason. His replacement is the currently injured Breshad Perriman, with many experts agreeing he should settle in quickly when he returns to action. The Steelers have a great QB in “Big” Ben Roethlisberger and a real star in the form of Running back La’Veon Bell, but possess a defence which has looked suspect to say the least.
AFC EAST, (Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Bills)
It would take a brave man to bet against Tom Brady leading the Patriots to the post-season and possibly on to back-to-back Superbowl appearances. With the “Deflategate” scandal seemingly cleared up Brady looks set for a full season at the helm of a New England offence with some serious weapons available. The Dolphins can expect to be a threat to most teams they come up against and have the squad to improve on last year’s 8-8 record, but should ultimately fall short in any attempt at knocking the Patriots off the top spot in the east. QB Ryan Tannehill has looked sharp in preseason and Miami find themselves blessed with several relatively easy fixtures during the opening weeks of the campaign. It’s then pretty even between the two teams balling out of New York, who both possess fierce defences but pretty average offences. The acquisition of former Eagles RB LeSean “Shady” McCoy is a step in the right direction for the Bills, whereas the Jets found themselves making off-season headlines for all the wrong reasons. Your starting QB getting his jaw broken after a dust up with a rookie Linebacker sort of steals the thunder from any positive squad developments.
AFC SOUTH, (Colts, Texans, Jaguars, Titans)
This one should be an easy ride into the post-season for the Colts lead by QB Andrew Luck, who can expect to at least match last year’s 11-5 record if everything goes to plan. The stars of this seasons HBO show Hard knocks are the Texans, and with a Defensive Line as menacing as theirs they should be delivering a fair few hard knocks to opposing QBs and RBs alike. Let’s just say JJ Watt and a fully fit Jadeveon Clowney is a duo you wouldn’t want to encounter in a dark alleyway late at night. However the lack of a standout QB1 and an offense which can’t quite match up to the Colt’s will be their weakness. For the Jags it was a tough break losing first round pick Dante Fowler Jr to an ACL tear during training camp, he won’t see action until next season. They should still shake the stigma of being an “easy” fixture and may surprise a few teams they come up against, but finishing with 6 or 7 wins would be an exceptional season for them following last year’s 3-13 showing. Over in Tennessee the signing of Heisman trophy winning QB Marcus Mariota surely won’t be enough to propel the Titans into the post-season. It could be a long campaign for the former Oregon Ducks star as he looks around a locker room filled with distinctly average talents by league standards.
AFC WEST (Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders)
Here we have yet another tough division to call with 3 (sorry Raider’s fans) very competitive teams vowing to be crowned the champs of the AFC west. Experts have pointed to the Broncos’ Offensive line as a possibly fatal flaw to the team’s chances of success, but Peyton Manning is a QB with the experience and quality to single-handedly drag Denver to the Play-offs if he has a good year. The Chiefs can rest assured knowing they have a very strong defence and an offence that can be relied on to move the ball, however they remain a strange and unpredictable team. Kansas City managed to beat both the Seahawks and the Patriots last time out yet also ended up losing to both Oakland and Tennessee. They receive a nice end to the season with 3 of their final games being at home and will remain a team to watch out for. The Chargers look to have improved their run game with the summer acquisition of Melvin Gordon and have added talent to their receiver corp. They matched the Chief’s 9-7 record last time out and have a squad that will keep this division extremely close. The Raiders can pull off an upset, (just ask the Chiefs) but don’t yet have enough quality on either O or D that can move them up to being a franchise that can hit a .500 record.
NFC NORTH (Packers, Lions, Vikings, Bears)
Really the Packers and Lions will be the two teams fighting it out to take this division with the Vikings as a possible wildcard team. Aaron Rodgers is a versatile QB with a great arm and decent scramble when a play falls apart, and this year he could genuinely lead Green Bay to a Superbowl appearance. His will to play on through pain and injury will also serve the Packers well, however he’ll have to make plays without one of his favourite targets as Jordy Nelson recovers from injury. The Lions finished 11-5 last time out and can do it again this year, however they’ll find themselves sharing the division with a much more competitive Vikings side. Adrian Peterson is a running back who will consistently tear up the yards for Minnesota no matter what stacks opposing defences play against him. But this year could see Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater emerge as one of the leagues’ top talents, giving the Vikings a new dimension alongside their run game. The Bears are a shadow of the former great teams to play out of Chicago and if predictions are right should be resting at the bottom of the division come playoff time.
NFC EAST (Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins)
The Eagles look like the strongest team in this division but will find the Dallas Cowboys breathing down their necks the whole way through the regular season. Philly may have lost McCoy but managed to replace him with the Cowboys’ own star RB from last year in the shape of DeMarco Murray. The Eagles also boast two other great running back options with Sproles and Mathews and have made much needed improvements to last season’s truly atrocious secondary. Tim Tebow won’t be along for the ride after being cut at the very end of preseason as Chip Kelly looks to hand Sam Bradford control of his offence. Dallas still has arguably the most dominating O Line in the league, but will be without a star running back to exploit the holes and gaps they will create. They will give Tony Romo the time he needs however to get passes off and regularly connect with star receiver Dez Bryant. On D improvements have been made and sturdy Linebacker Sean Lee should return after being injured for last season. The Giants finished 6-10 last year and will more than likely be there or thereabouts this time around. Eli Manning will push for a .500 record and no doubt Beckham Jr will extend the length of his NFL career highlight reel, but New York are several stars away from competing with the likes of Dallas and Philly. The Redskins could be in for a tough year and I can already see the Hard Knocks cameras following them around next off-season, documenting the much needed Washington rebuilding effort.
NFC SOUTH (Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers,)
One of the hardest divisions to call mainly due to just how terrible it is. None of the teams in the NFC south managed a positive season last time out as the Panther limped through to the playoffs on a 7-8-1 record. This year any of the four teams have the chance to take the division, with the Bucs probably being the team with the least quality despite the addition #1 draft pick Jameis Winston. The Falcons have vastly improved a leaky defence with rookie picks such as Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett along with other league tested veterans. On offense Matt Ryan didn’t earn the nickname of Matty Ice without the ability to be a clutch quarterback, but in truth whether or not Atlanta reach the post-season will rely on wide receiver Julio Jones’s ability to stay injury free all year. Over in New Orleans future hall of fame QB Drew Brees had a bit of a blip last year, but he’s still protected by a great O Line and should be looking to bounce back strongly. As for the rest of the squad several big name players are no longer with the team due to salary issues, but as mentioned the quality of this division really does still leave the Saints as contenders. The Panthers we’re pretty lucky in reaching the playoffs last year, but also managed to upset the Cardinals in the postseason as they suffered a QB crisis. Nether the less Cam Newton is a dual threat QB who may find himself enjoying his best season to date even with the loss of receiver Kelvin Benjamin. A strong Panthers defence with Luke Kuechly at the heart of it also makes them good contenders in the south, as they chase a 3rd consecutive divisional title. The Bucs finished with the worst record out of all 32 teams last season, ending with only 2 wins all year. This season shouldn’t be as bleak for the Florida based team, but they still remain a step behind their fellow divisional franchises.
NFC WEST (Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams)
Myself and seemingly every other football fan has awarded the NFC West to the Seahawks before a down of football has even been played. They’re fresh off back-to-back Superbowl appearances which in truth should have been back-to-back Superbowl wins. The now infamous decision to throw on the 1 yard line on 2nd down will be talked about for decades. In the meantime however the hawks should use the loss as motivation and play with a chip on their shoulders, as they desperately look to correct the wrongs of that night in Arizona. An already strong squad hasn’t been changed too much and barring several key injuries should be a dead cert for the later stages of post-season football. The Cardinals would do very well to take the divisional top spot from the Seahawks, but a more likely outcome would be runners up and a wildcard route into the play-offs. They’ll be aiming to replicate last year’s successes which ended with an 11-5 record, however Carson Palmer’s ability to stay fit for all 16 games will be a deciding factor. The Rams look in for another so-so season after ending last year with a 6-10 record. The big trade over the summer was adding Nick Foles to the roster as Sam Bradford went the other way to the Eagles. St Louis have a good defence, but that might not be enough to end what is now a decade long run without a play-off appearance. There’s also talk as to whether or not the Rams will be upping sticks and moving back to Los Angeles sooner rather than later. Finally we have the 49ers and what a messy and eventful offseason they’ve had. Star running back Frank Gore left while linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland followed him out the door as they both retired. Fellow LB Aldon Smith was also released by the team after getting himself arrested. Colin Kaepernick is an athletic dual-threat QB whose speed can unlock defences and make big plays for San Francisco, but he’ll have his work cut out leading this team into the play-offs with all the cuts and changes to the roster. A bright spark has been the emergence of Running back Jarryd Hayne, a former star of Australian League Rugby who decided to make the transition to American Football this year.
Davey Silver – Hallam Warriors Linebacker.