For a fourth time in their history, the New England Patriots are the champions of the NFL. While the party is just getting started in Foxboro, Mass., and for Patriots fans worldwide, the rest of the league’s focus has already shifted to the 2015 season.
While the next game that counts is more than seven months away, it’s not too early to hazard a guess as to which teams could be meeting in Super Bowl 50 (that’s right, no Roman numerals for this one) a year from now. With free agency and the draft on the horizon, a lot will obviously change between now and this fall, but here is an early look at the teams seemingly best positioned to wind up in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7, 2016. It’s pretty obvious which two head up this list.
New England Patriots
2014 record: 12-4 (AFC East, AFC, Super Bowl XLIX champions)
Congratulations to the Patriots, who captured their fourth Lombardi Trophy in improbable fashion. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s championship legacies have been cemented, but do they have a “Drive for Five” in them? Brady restructured his contract in late December to free up cap space, which is something the team desperately needs. Defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty headline a group of pending free agents that also includes a pair of running backs (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Brady will turn 38 in August and he’s not the only aging keystone piece on this roster. Still, as this season demonstrated, don’t say New England’s championship widow is closing, at least not until its shut tight, locked, the blinds pulled down and the curtains drawn.
The (Shell-Shocked) Runner-ups
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC West, NFC champions, lost to New England in Super Bowl XLIX)
You could say the Seahawks now know how the Packers (see below) feel, but there’s no question this missed (blown?) opportunity is going to hurt more. Just ask the "Legion of Boom," as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Jeremy Lane are each dealing with serious injuries that will likely require surgery and/or extensive rehab. But while the coaching staff, team, fan base, analysts and anyone who watched one of the most improbable endings in Super Bowl history will play the “what if” game for who knows how long, there’s a silver lining to this seemingly dark cloud. This team’s not going anywhere and there’s every reason to think Seattle has a good shot at making playing on a third straight Super Sunday come next February. Even though there are more than 20 pending free agents on the roster, only three (CB Byron Maxwell, WR Jermaine Kearse, OL James Carpenter) are starters. And while a decision will likely be made regarding running back Marshawn Lynch’s future with the team, the majority of the core is already signed to long-term deals. The biggest exception being quarterback Russell Wilson, who technically has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but don’t be surprised to see that change before the season kicks off. It’s not going to be easy for the Seahawks to bounce back from what transpired at the end of the game, but motivation for next season certainly shouldn’t be an issue.
The Motivated Mile-Highers
2014 record: 12-4 (AFC West champions, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Divisional Round)
Even though John Elway shook up his coaching staff following the disappointing home loss to the Colts, Gary Kubiak’s experience as a head coach and with the franchise should make for a mostly seamless transition. The key to the Broncos’ hopes of making another Super Bowl run lies in whether or not Peyton Manning returns (my guess is he will) and what Elway does in free agency and the draft. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas will likely be Elway’s priorities in free agency, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Brandon Marshall are also among the list of 20 Broncos slated to hit the market.
The Cheesed-off Pack
Green Bay Packers
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC North champions, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship Game)
Blowing a 16-0 halftime and 19-7 fourth-quarter lead in Seattle in the NFC title game is going to gnaw at the Packers for a long time. Fortunately, the majority of the pieces are in place for Green Bay to contend again, led by two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. Wide receiver Randall Cobb highlights the team’s list of pending free agents, but the Packers do have rookie Davante Adams waiting in the wings. Defensive line, linebacker and tight end are all position groups that could see a lot of changes this offseason.
The Other Contenders
(in alphabetical order)
2014 record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Carolina in NFC Wild Card Game)
Before the season even started, the Cardinals were working with a shorthanded roster, and this situation only got worse as the weeks progressed. Yet, Bruce Arians continued to push the right buttons, as Arizona kept winning. A 9-1 start, gave way to a 2-5 finish, including the Wild Card loss in Carolina, as season-ending injuries to Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington decimated the offense. The good news is that Palmer, who signed a contract extension shortly before tearing his ACL for a second time, and Ellington both should be back to full speed, as well as All-Pro defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, who missed all of 2014. The front office has quite a bit of work ahead of it in terms of salary cap management, and there also will be a new defensive coordinator in charge with Todd Bowles leaving to becoming the Jets’ head coach.
2014 record: 10-6 (AFC Wild Card berth, lost to New England in Divisional Round)
The Ravens couldn’t put the Patriots away on the road in the Divisional Round despite building 14-point leads on two different occasions. With 30 pending free agents and little wiggle room when it comes to projected cap space, changes are coming to this roster, and Joe Flacco also must get acquainted with his new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman. Justin Forsett, who went from being an afterthought to the No. 5 rusher in the NFL, is a free agent, as is wide receiver Torrey Smith, kicker Justin Tucker and a slew of defensive backs. Tight end Dennis Pitta’s health (another serious hip injury) is a question mark, and his replacement, Owen Daniels, is a free agent. It’s also worth noting that defensive stalwarts nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are all on the other side of 30 years old.
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC East champions, lost to Green Bay in Divisional Round)
Jason Garrett not only removed himself from the coaching hot seat, he signed a five-year contract extension after getting the Cowboys back to the postseason. Now the challenge for Garrett and owner/general manager Jerry Jones is keeping the band together. Reigning rushing champion DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, who hauled in a league-high 16 touchdowns, are both free agents and there are mixed opinions regarding whether Jones will be able to re-sign both given their expected contract demands combined with the team’s existing financial obligations. The franchise tag could be an option for one or both, but this is a situation that bears watching, as otherwise the league’s fifth-highest scoring offense will return intact. Expect defense to be the focus in the draft, as Dallas needs to find its next superstar defensive lineman and to take a long, hard look at its underwhelming secondary. The healthy return of middle linebacker Sean Lee should provide a huge boost, but he’s just part of the puzzle.
2014 record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Championship Game)
After upsetting the Broncos at home and making it to the AFC title game are the Colts ready to take that next step? Well, a 45-7 loss to New England is enough reason to think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. And there’s also the matter of Indianapolis’ backfield, where it could be argued that its best two running backs are returning from season-ending injuries. Reggie Wayne is a free agent and his days as a Colt could be numbered, as younger guys like linebacker Jerrell Freeman need to be the team’s priority this offseason. Even if Freeman is re-signed, the defense could use more playmakers and the offensive line shored up to reduce the punishment Andrew Luck has taken in his first three seasons. The good news is there should be plenty of resources available to beef up the roster.
2014 record: 11-5 (AFC North champions, lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card) Game)
The Steelers won their division, but couldn’t get past the Ravens in the playoffs, as the offense clearly felt Le’Veon Bell’s absence. Next season, the offense should be just fine with the trio of Bell, All-Pro Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger back to terrorize defenses. A reliable backup running back must be found to spell Bell, and the passing game could be even more potent if wideouts Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton continue to develop. Expect the youth movement to continue on defense with Keith Butler replacing Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau as coordinator and the futures of long-time Steelers like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor up in the air.
The Wild Card
San Francisco 49ers
2014 record: 8-8 (3rd in NFC West)
The 49ers are the early pick for most interesting team to watch in 2015. Jim Harbaugh is gone, off to Michigan, with former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula now in charge and offensive coordinator Jeep Chryst (QBs coach) the only holdovers from a staff that made three straight trips to the NFC title game prior to 2014’s 8-8 showing. Decisions will have to be made on pending free agents running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and offensive lineman Mike Iupati, among others, and there could be other roster changes due to salary cap constraints. The defense will get All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman back from injury, but the jury is still out on quarterback Colin Kaepernick following a disappointing season. This team has the talent to contend next season or it could totally implode and struggle to break even.
Other Teams to Watch
(in alphabetical order)
2014 record: 10-5-1 (AFC Wild Card berth, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Wild Card Game)
Yes, the Bengals flamed out in the Wild Card round for a fourth straight season, but this team is relatively young and will have plenty of cap space (projected to be around $30 million) at its disposal to address weaknesses. While it’s perfectly reasonable to place all of the blame for Cincinnati’s postseason failures on quarterback Andy Dalton, keep in mind that he was without wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert (combined 1,157 yards receiving, 12 TDs in 2013) for basically the entire season, while No. 1 target A.J. Green also was hampered by injuries. On the other side of the ball, Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict played in just five games because of knee injuries. Burfict’s return is up in the air following microfracture surgery, but the Bengals’ future still looks bright, thanks to the emergence of rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Whether through free agency or the draft, the NFL’s least-productive pass rush (20 sacks) must be addressed.
2014 record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Dallas in NFC Wild Card Game)
Jim Caldwell got the Lions to the playoffs in his first season, but don’t bank on a repeat trip. Ndamukong Suh is unquestionably the team’s biggest question mark headed into free agency, but he’s just one of five defensive linemen slated to hit the open market. Detroit has already severed ties with long-time center Dominic Raiola, so the offensive line will have a different look to it, and the secondary continues to be an area of weakness that needs to be addressed. Adding to the Lions’ degree of difficulty for 2015 is a schedule that includes the NFC and AFC West divisions, as well as games against New Orleans and Philadelphia.
New Orleans Saints
2014 record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC South)
Plenty went wrong for the Saints this past season, between injuries to key players, a defense that bottomed out for the second time in three years, and a seeming lack of chemistry and leadership both on and off of the field. However, New Orleans will remain a threat in the NFC South and beyond as long as Drew Brees stays healthy and the offense produces. According to Brees, the coaching staff and front office identified what went wrong and what needs to be fixed, but the problem lies in the fact that the Saints currently just aren’t up against the cap, they are well over it, to the tune of more than a projected $20 million. Getting key pieces like safety Jairus Byrd and wide receiver Brandin Cooks back from injury will help, but running back Mark Ingram is a free agent and some other veterans, like all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, could end up being cap casualties.
San Diego Chargers
2014 record: 9-7 (3rd in AFC West)
The Chargers came one game short of a Wild Card berth, but that doesn’t mean the season was a total failure. Besides beating Seattle and Baltimore, San Diego lost by one point to Arizona in the season opener and held its own against New England in early December. Mike McCoy has gone 9-7 in each of his first two seasons as a head coach, and there’s a chance the Chargers could take another step forward in 2015. The schedule (crossover games vs. AFC and NFC North divisions) won’t be easy, but the offense is in good hands with Philip Rivers at quarterback. The running game will need to be ironed out, with Ryan Mathews and a bunch of offensive linemen pending free agents, and the pass rush is lacking. However, there are plenty of pieces to build around and cap space shouldn’t be a major hurdle towards adding some reinforcements.