It’s impossible to forecast an NFL season accurately. Still, we’re going to try to offer an informed guess on the 2014 season here.
We’ve outlined a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and a more realistic scenario for all 32 teams.
(Also, let’s acknowledge that the true best-case scenario for all 32 teams is to win the Super Bowl, but only a handful of teams will have a realistic shot at it. So please excuse us for not including the Lombardi Trophy in the Browns’ and Jaguars’ best-case option.)
• Best case: The revamped defense is a difference-maker and finally provides balance to Tom Brady’s powerful offense as the Patriots capture the Super Bowl title that’s eluded them for a decade.
• Worst case: An injury to Brady cripples the Patriots season and leaves them home in January for the first time since 2008.
• Realistic case: The Patriots cruise to yet another AFC East crown but again are tripped up by Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the AFC title game.
Projection: 12-4. Beats Indianapolis in divisional playoffs, loses at Denver in AFC title game.
• Best case: The Dolphins use their two wins over New England (last happened in 2000) as a springboard to edge the Patriots for the AFC East title and claim just their second playoff spot since 2001.
• Worst case: Ryan Tannehill struggles in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s schemes and head coach Joe Philbin is fired in early December as the Dolphins get set for yet another regime change.
• Realistic case: It’s another middling year for the Dolphins with a revamped offensive line struggling in front of Tannehill. The Dolphins will fall just outside the race for the AFC wild cards.
• Best case: Geno Smith grows into the role of Jets leader by engineering several late-game comebacks that allow the Jets to claim one of the AFC wild cards.
• Worst case: Smith and backup Michael Vick trade turns in the starting role for a sputtering offense, and the defense is porous as the Jets finish in last place for the second time in three years. Just after the season, coach Rex Ryan is fired.
• Realistic case: The weak pass defense puts the Jets in too many holes they just can’t climb out of. At some point a quarterback controversy will develop and Vick will replace Smith.
• Best case: Receiver Sammy Watkins heats up the Bills offense and leads them to a Week 17 win at Gillette Stadium (first in franchise history) to claim the final wild card and their first playoff spot since 1999.
• Worst case: Watkins is hurt and misses a significant chunk of the season. QB E.J. Manuel is benched for ineffectiveness. And coach Doug Marrone’s fate is uncertain after two losing seasons.
• Realistic case: Watkins’s talents go underutilized because of the erratic and injury-prone Manuel and his ineffective backups. The NFL’s longest playoff drought continues.
• Best case: Quarterback Joe Flacco, with a new safety net in Steve Smith, is much more effective, and aided by a bounce-back season from running back Ray Rice, leads the Ravens back on a deep playoff run.
• Worst case: The offensive line again struggles to protect Flacco, who misses time to injury for the first time. Backup Tyrod Taylor sputters as the Ravens miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
• Realistic case: Flacco is much more accurate under new coordinator Gary Kubiak after last year’s career-high 22 INTs. The running game improves, and the Ravens offense is a better complement to the defense.
Projection: 10-6. Beats Pittsburgh in wild-card round, loses at Denver in divisional playoffs.
• Best case: The Steelers defense, filled with impressive young talent like Cam Heyward, Ryan Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt, regains the edge that made it a top-10 unit from 2000-12.
• Worst case: Aging starters like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor show their age and start to break down. Then an injury to Ben Roethlisberger makes things worse by forcing Bruce Gradkowski (6-14 career record) into action.
• Realistic case: Playmakers like Le’Veon Bell, supported by former Patriot LeGarrette Blount, and Antonio Brown again have strong years and the defense improves on last year’s 13th-ranked unit.
Projection: 9-7. Wild card, loses at Baltimore in first round.
• Best case: Andy Dalton proves his doubters wrong by taking the Bengals to the playoffs for a fourth straight season — and this time winning a playoff game.
• Worst case: Dalton regresses with a career-high 25 INTs and fails to validate his long-term contract as the Bengals go 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens and slip under .500 for the first time since 2010.
• Realistic case: Dalton throws 20 INTs again, but his shortcomings are balanced by the talent of stud receiver A.J. Green and a top-10 defense.
• Best case: Johnny Manziel earns the starting job early in the season and engineers a series of comeback wins that thrust the Browns into the playoff race.
• Worst case: Brian Hoyer bombs as the starter. Manziel replaces him but his inexperience is exposed by AFC North defenses, and the Browns earn yet another high draft pick.
• Realistic case: The defense is top-notch, but the offense can’t provide proper balance. Manziel wins the job by early October, and does engineer a comeback win or two.
• Best case: Andrew Luck beats Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the regular season, then does the same thing in the postseason in earning his first Super Bowl berth.
• Worst case: Trent Richardson continues to show that trading for him was a mistake. Luck’s skill engineering comebacks sputters and the Colts are beaten out by the Texans or Jaguars for the division title.
• Realistic case: Luck — whose talent can cover up a lot of warts — connects big with targets like Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Coby Fleener as the Colts run over most teams. Hard to see them not winning the AFC South.
Projection: 11-5. Beats San Diego in wild-card round, loses at New England in divisional playoffs.
• Best case: Ryan Fitzpatrick becomes a smart game-manager who limits his mistakes. Then the defense, with J.J. Watt and top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney menacing quarterbacks, points the way to a wild card.
• Worst case: Fitzpatrick is a mistake machine, throws more interceptions than touchdowns, and yields to an assembly line of starting QBs (with rookie Tom Savage and newly acquired Ryan Mallett) who all prove incapable.
• Realistic case: The strength of the defense lifts the Texans back toward respectability, while Fitzpatrick throws nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns around an otherwise-talented offense. Savage or Mallett will be the starter by the end of the year.
• Best case: The Jaguars show continued growth on both sides of the ball and flirt with .500. Rookie QB Blake Bortles claims the starting job and begins to put his stamp on the team.
• Worst case: Bortles is pressed into service because of injury or ineffectiveness by Chad Henne and plays like a lost rookie as losses pile up.
• Realistic case: Another building year for Gus Bradley’s squad. Both sides of the ball should improve from last year’s 31st-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense. If their plan is working, they should have a strong second half and enter 2015 as contenders.
• Best case: New coach Ken Whisenhunt injects confidence and accuracy into QB Jake Locker, whose rapport with breakout receiver Justin Hunter powers the offense, and the Titans make a bid for a wild card.
• Worst case: Locker sputters and the Titans play quarterback carousel with him, Charlie Whitehurst, and rookie Zach Mettenberger en route to a top-five pick.
• Realistic case: The Titans have a solid defense, and Whisenhunt’s history (he improved the Chargers from 31st to fifth in offense as coordinator last year) suggests he’ll improve the offense. But Locker’s history suggests little reason to believe he can make a playoff run.
• Best case: The ceiling couldn’t be higher. New CBS analyst Tony Gonzalez predicted Peyton Manning will one-up Tom Brady this year by going 16-0 and then winning the Super Bowl. The reloaded Broncos look on paper like the type of team that can try to capture what the 2007 Patriots couldn’t.
• Worst case: It’s hard to see how this team doesn’t win 10 games. It would take multiple injuries to key players to keep them out of the postseason. Even with an injury to Manning, they still should be in the playoff hunt.
• Realistic case: The defense (with additions like DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib and regulars like Von Miller, Chris Harris, and Rahim Moore healthy again) should be a better complement for its top-rated offense and better prepared for a Super Bowl run. Expect to see the Broncos in February.
Projection: 13-3. Beats Baltimore in divisional playoffs and New England in AFC title game, then beats Green Bay in Super Bowl XLIX.
• Best case: Philip Rivers thrives in new coordinator Frank Reich’s no-huddle and the Chargers’ offense carries them to a 10-win campaign that gives them a wild card behind the Broncos.
• Worst case: The transition to Reich is bumpy and the offense can’t cover up for the leaky defense as the Bolts slink to their second sub-.500 season in three years.
• Realistic case: Rivers will have the offense in the top 10. The defense will be adequate to keep the Chargers in the hunt.
Projection: 9-7. Wild card. Loses at Indianapolis in first round.
• Best case: The defensive magic that the Chiefs found in their 9-0 start last season, when they allowed just 12 points a game, reappears. (But that is a long shot with corners like Ron Parker and Marcus Cooper against Manning and Rivers.)
• Worst case: The Chiefs challenge the Raiders for the basement of the AFC West, with the departures from last year’s offensive line weakening the unit and forcing Alex Smith into too many mistakes.
• Realistic case: The Chiefs are primed to regress from last year’s 11-5 wild card finish. They made few improvements to their roster, are too thin in the secondary, and play in a division where the Broncos and Chargers could beat up on them.
• Best case: Rookie Derek Carr steps up and seizes the starting role — saving the Raiders from a Matt Schaub era — and takes command of an offense that, along with the mishmash of veteran defensive additions playing above expectations, helps save coach Dennis Allen’s job.
• Worst case: The injuries that have already hit Carr and Schaub lead to another year of rotating quarterbacks. Coach Dennis Allen is fired before the season ends as the Raiders claim the No. 1 overall pick.
• Realistic case: The aging free-agent additions will underwhelm and show why they were left on the market. Allen will be fired, along with GM Reggie McKenzie, and the Raiders will be one of the NFL’s worst teams.
• Best case: Nick Foles repeats his dazzling 2013 performance and the fortified defense (welcome, Malcolm Jenkins) improves on its 29th-ranked finish last year to make the Eagles serious Super Bowl contenders.
• Worst case: Foles’s accuracy and overall performance decline sharply amid the absence of DeSean Jackson, and the slowdown in the offense can’t mask the defensive breakdowns as the Eagles fall under .500 in Chip Kelly’s second year.
• Realistic case: Foles is good (though maybe he throws more than 2 INTs) and his rapport with a healthy Jeremy Maclin makes up for Jackson’s exit. The defense is solid, and the Eagles make a playoff run.
Projection: 10-6. Loses to Chicago in first round of playoffs.
• Best case: Robert Griffin III gains confidence from new coach Jay Gruden and makes new weapon DeSean Jackson his favorite option. The offense is more well-rounded under a maturing Griffin as the Redskins push the Eagles for the division title.
• Worst case: Griffin flounders as Gruden can’t teach him to balance being a pocket passer with using his legs wisely. Losses pile up early in the season, leading fans to clamor for a quarterback change to Kirk Cousins.
• Realistic case: Gruden will get Griffin to better balance that line between being creative and protecting his body and will make him a better quarterback. The defense will improve, as will the Redskins overall.
• Best case: The offensive preseason struggles turn out to be minor growing pains in the transition to coordinator Ben McAdoo. Eli Manning has a bounce-back season and the defense again turns in a top-10 performance as the Giants chase the division crown.
• Worst case: The transition to McAdoo’s offense turns into a season-long slog as points are embarrassingly hard to find. What looked like a down year for Manning in 2013 starts to look like a quarterback in decline.
• Realistic case: The offensive growing pains will linger, but there is enough talent (Rashad Jennings, Victor Cruz) that it could stabilize. The defense will be OK, but it will be a disappointing season and a frustrating end to the Tom Coughlin era.
• Best case: Quarterback Tony Romo has a career year at the center of a talented offense that makes up for a defense that can’t put opponents away. The offense wins enough slugfests to earn a wild card.
• Worst case: The defense (missing Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick, and having let go of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher) regresses from its 32d-ranked finish last season and reaches a historically bad level that puts the Cowboys in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.
• Realistic case: Romo’s offense will keep the Cowboys interesting. But the defense looks so bad that the offense won’t be able to make up the difference. Even Jerry Jones said the season will be an “uphill battle.” Easy to see the Cowboys imploding and coach Jason Garrett being fired midseason.
• Best case: The Packers defense, with Julius Peppers now harassing quarterbacks alongside Clay Matthews, improves dramatically from last year’s 25th-ranked finish. Aaron Rodgers puts forth an MVP performance and leads the Packers to his second Super Bowl title.
• Worst case: Rodgers is hurt again behind a leaky offensive line, but this time the rest of the NFC North doesn’t underachieve and the Packers miss the playoffs.
• Realistic case: The defense should play much better than last year, even if it isn’t an elite unit. Rodgers, aided by workhorse running back Eddie Lacy, does indeed play at an MVP level and leads the Packers to the Super Bowl.
Projection: 12-4. Beats Seattle in divisional playoffs and New Orleans in NFC title game, then loses to Denver in Super Bowl XLIX.
• Best case: Jay Cutler harnesses the considerable talents in his arsenal (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte) and the Bears ride their top-five offense to an NFC North title.
• Worst case: Cutler’s accuracy and decision-making problems pop up again as the offense sputters in coach Marc Trestman’s second year. The defense doesn’t make the improvements the Bears expected and the team slumps to a 6-10 finish.
• Realistic case: The offense should be one of the NFL’s best. With free agent imports Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston expected to inject life into the pass rush, the defense should improve on last season’s 30th-ranked unit. They’ll be in the playoff hunt.
Projection: 10-6. Wild card. Wins at Philadelphia in first round, then loses at New Orleans in divisional playoffs.
• Best case: New coach Jim Caldwell finally instills discipline that allows the Lions to get the most out of their talented roster. They claim the NFC North title after consecutive wins to close the season in Chicago and Green Bay (the team’s first there since 1991).
• Worst case: Dumb penalties and bad decisions, a hallmark of old coach Jim Schwartz’s era, continue in the Caldwell regime. Matthew Stafford still crosses the 20-INT barrier and the secondary allows NFC North gunslingers like Rodgers and Cutler to score too much.
• Realistic case: The Lions will be a smarter team that reflects Caldwell’s cautious approach. Calvin Johnson will again be the league’s best receiver. But Stafford will still make too many bad decisions, and Ndamukong Suh’s temper will distract from his talents.
• Best case: Adrian Peterson finishes the job he started two years ago and surpasses Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record (2,105). New coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is vastly improved and Peterson’s record-clinching day helps the Vikings lock up a wild card in Week 17.
• Worst case: Opening day starter Matt Cassel falters, and rookie Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t offer an upgrade when he replaces him at quarterback. Because there’s little threat under center, Peterson is bottled up and held under 1,000 rushing yards as the Vikings fall to the basement in the NFC North.
• Realistic case: Peterson rushes for 1,500 yards, helped by the development of Cordarrelle Patterson as a deep threat. Bridgewater replaces Cassel at midseason. The Vikings finish in last place, but with improvements on offense and defense to suggest they can contend in 2015.
• Best case: The Saints again go undefeated in the Superdome, but improve their road record from 3-5 to 5-3 to earn home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs and pave their way to Super Bowl XLIX.
• Worst case: An injury knocks Drew Brees out for the season and the offense struggles to jell under new starter Luke McCown, who withers despite the considerable talent around him. The Saints finish under .500 for the second time in three years.
• Realistic case: Brees’s arsenal (headlined by Jimmy Graham) would make most quarterbacks jealous. The defense is above average, with ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd providing a boost. The Saints win the division and are still standing on conference championship weekend.
Projection: 13-3. Beats Chicago in divisional playoffs, then loses to Green Bay in NFC title game.
• Best case: Logan Mankins helps turn Josh McCown into a Pro Bowl QB who makes Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans 1,000-yard receivers as new coach Lovie Smith leads the Bucs, 4-12 a year ago, to a wild card.
• Worst case: McCown falters as starter and an offense that ranked 32d last year fails to improve as the Bucs remain in the basement of the NFC South.
• Realistic case: The Bucs are primed for a turnaround from last season’s 4-12 effort and will be helped by the winning attitude Smith brought to town. McCown won’t be a Pro Bowler, but he is savvy enough to know he should lean on Jackson and Evans to move the chains. The defense is solid, and the Bucs will be a factor in December.
Projection: 9-7. Wild card. Loses at Seattle in first round.
• Best case: The Panthers ride the defense back to the postseason as Cam Newton, working with an unheralded corps of receivers, puts the offense on his back and churns out a 10-6 record that claims a wild card.
• Worst case: An offensive line pocked with question marks and the unimpressive receiving corps lead Newton to try to make too many plays himself — which leads to him getting hurt. Derek Anderson can’t lift the team in Newton’s absence, and the Panthers regress to 6-10.
• Realistic case: The defense (second-ranked last year) should be among the league’s best. But the receivers could be among the NFL’s worst. The Panthers need first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin to make an immediate impact. They’ll be just outside of the playoffs mix come Week 17 in Atlanta.
• Best case: The Falcons, minutes away from the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, bounce back from their injury-plagued 2013 with monster years from Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Matt Ryan en route to an NFC South title and a deep playoff run.
• Worst case: Ryan struggles behind a porous offensive line with little run support for his talented receivers. The Falcons go 1-5 in the NFC South en route to also-ran status, which likely prompts coach Mike Smith’s dismissal after the season.
• Realistic case: Ryan and his receivers are too talented not to compete if they all remain healthy. They are not as deep as the teams that went 36-12 from 2010-12, but these Falcons should contend for a wild card.
• Best case: The Seahawks renew the hard-hitting defense and smart-moving offense that delivered their first title last year and become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 10 years.
• Worst case: The Seahawks learn through some tough upsets that wearing the crown comes with a price as they get every team’s best shot. Consider: losses to the Packers and Broncos, two losses to the 49ers and losses at the Panthers and Eagles. Add in a defeat in Arizona in Week 16, and it would mean the humbled Seahawks would need to beat the Rams in the finale just to make the playoffs.
• Realistic case: The Seahawks go 1-1 against the Packers and Broncos, both of whom they play at home, and 1-1 against the 49ers. The defense will remain among the league’s best, and Russell Wilson will navigate back to the playoffs, so the Seahawks have a chance to defend their crown.
Projection: 11-5. Beats Arizona in first round, then loses at Green Bay in divisional playoffs.
• Best case: The Cardinals, out of the playoffs despite winning 10 games last year, leave no doubt about their postseason fate by winning 12 games as a rejuvenated Carson Palmer earns a Pro Bowl nod for the first time in eight years and the defense steps up to replace the production of Darnell Dockett and Daryl Washington.
• Worst case: The loss of Docket (torn ACL) and Washington (one-year drug suspension) is too much for the defense to recover from, and Palmer regresses as the Cardinals can’t compete with the Seahawks and 49ers.
• Realistic case: The defensive subtractions hurt, but the Cardinals have the depth and a good coach in Bruce Arians to weather those on their top-10 unit. The Cardinals have an impressive receiving corps, headed by Larry Fitzgerald, that makes it easy for Palmer to thrive. They’ll be in the hunt for a wild card.
• Best case: Colin Kaepernick steps up to become a Pro Bowler while throwing for 30 TDs and running for 10 more as he leads the 49ers to a 12-4 mark and an NFC West title.
• Worst case: Kaepernick is hurt and Blaine Gabbert ends up as the starter — albeit only briefly because he’s so ineffective that Jim Harbaugh is forced to search for a third starter while the season goes down the drain.
• Realistic case: The talent that has put this team in the NFC title game (Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore) three straight years will make it a factor, even if they trail their nemesis, Seattle, in the standings again. The defense may not be as good as last year’s fifth-ranked unit with Navorro Bowman, Glenn Dorsey and Aldon Smith all set to miss time.
• Best case: Their best-case scenario went down the drain when Sam Bradford was lost for the year during the preseason. With Shaun Hill now their starting QB, the Rams’ ceiling maxes out with a wild-card squad that rides a dominant defense and an efficient, game-managing quarterback. But that’s a reach.
• Worst case: Hill’s limitations are exposed several weeks into the season and the offense can’t move. They turn to second and third options under center, and they become a doormat.
• Realistic case: The Rams have a talented defense, which they need in the loaded NFC West. But is last year’s 30th-ranked offense really going to improve under the leadership of Hill? The Rams are headed for last place again.