NFL 2015 Season Predictions, Part 4: The Contenders

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Finally, we get to the top of the mountain. These are the eight teams I would expect to be among the primary contenders for this season’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara. They aren’t exactly guaranteed to make a serious playoff run — last year’s top eight included the Falcons and Saints — but it would be difficult to imagine any of these teams being bad. Whether it’s their personnel, their underlying statistics, their coaching staff, or more likely a combination of the three, they should finish among the best teams in football.

This is the final entry in a four-part preview that includes the likely eight worst teams in the league, eight teams that should decline, and eight teams that should improve. You can also listen to podcast previews of all 32 teams with myself and Robert Mays here.

I’m also not going to be including a best-case scenario for these teams because that scenario is the same: It’s the Super Bowl. I’ll throw in a worst-case scenario for fun.

Baltimore Ravens

Key 2014 Results
Record: 10-6 (NFL rank: 11)
Pythagorean Wins: 10.8 (NFL rank: 4)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.8 (NFL rank: 24)
Record in Close Games: 2-4 (NFL rank: 23)
Strength of Schedule: 0.477 (NFL rank: 26)
Turnover Margin: plus-2 (NFL rank: 14)

I already covered why the Ravens should be the favorites to win the AFC North, given that they outplayed the Steelers and Bengals over the course of the 2014 regular season, and that there are reasons to be concerned about both of those teams playing up to expectations in 2015.

There are reasons to doubt the Ravens as well, of course. First-round pick Breshad Perriman is still out with a sprained PCL, and behind him and Steve Smith, the wideout depth chart is led by practice squad journeyman Kamar Aiken, who caught an unsustainable 75 percent of his 32 targets last year. There are doubts about budding star Timmy Jernigan’s availability for Week 1, and with Brent Urban on short-term IR and Haloti Ngata traded away this offseason, the Ravens cannot afford to lose any key defensive linemen for serious time early in the season.

It’ll be very interesting to see how their rushing attack performs, especially if they’re down to Smith and a variety of question marks at receiver. After producing one of the league’s worst rushing attacks in recent memory in 2013, the arrival of Gary Kubiak seemed to drastically improve things in 2014. Baltimore improved from 32nd to 18th in rushing DVOA, but even that seems to undersell the change. On first-and-10 carries while the game was within 14 points,1 the Ravens averaged 5.4 yards per carry, the highest rate in football.

What the Ravens did really well when running the football last year was pick up steady chunks of yardage. Fourteen percent of Baltimore’s carries went for 10 yards or more, a figure only topped by the Seahawks and Packers. The problem is that they weren’t very effective in short-yardage situations. Baltimore was 28th in the league in short-yardage situations, converting on just 55 percent of its tries versus the league average of 65 percent.

All things considered, the Ravens should be able to adapt. They should be far deeper in the secondary than they were a year ago, even before the injury stack at cornerback that eventually cost them their playoff game against the Patriots. With one of the league’s best offensive lines and arguably its best pass rush, Baltimore should be able to overcome minor issues elsewhere. And while their schedule gets tougher by replacing the AFC South and the NFC South with the AFC West and the NFC West, those issues will equally affect their divisional brethren. The fact the Ravens get the Jaguars and Dolphins as the third-placed divisional placement games should make their schedule easier than the Steelers, who get the Patriots and Colts instead. That may very well be the difference swinging the North their way.

Worst-Case Scenario: The running game regresses, the Steve Smith from the second half of 2014 shows up, Joe Flacco has no receivers, and a disappointing offense holds the Ravens back to 8-8.

Dallas Cowboys

Key 2014 Results
Record: 12-4 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Wins: 10.6 (NFL rank: 6)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.4 (NFL rank: 4)
Record in Close Games: 4-1 (NFL rank: 4)
Strength of Schedule: 0.467 (NFL rank: 30)
Turnover Margin: plus-6 (NFL rank: 9)

Virtually nobody saw Dallas’s 12-4 season coming. Even given the remarkable amount of talent the Cowboys had assembled on offense, the injury to Sean Lee appeared to have eliminated one of Dallas’s few competent defenders. What looked like a historically bad defense merely turned out to be the league’s 11th-worst defense per DVOA, and when the offense stayed healthy, the Cowboys delivered a truly impressive season.

If you’re looking for a reason the Cowboys won’t be able to keep up their 12-win run in 2015, you can start with that offensive health. Dallas’s 11 offensive starters missed just seven games last season: Doug Free missed five games with a foot injury (and then sat out Dallas’s two playoff games), Ronald Leary missed one with a groin injury, and Tony Romo missed one with his broken freaking back. That was it.

Dallas’s eight other offensive starters played all 16 games, and that even sells the Cowboys short. Their backups even played all 16 games. Halfbacks Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar went 16 games. Wideouts Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris didn’t miss a game. Fullback Tyler Clutts and tight end Gavin Escobar didn’t miss a game. Same for reserve offensive linemen Jermey Parnell and Mackenzy Bernadeau. It’s almost impossible for an offense to be as healthy as Dallas’s was last season. Dallas’s top 19 players on offense missed seven games. That’s unreal.

The Cowboys won’t be as healthy on offense again. They’ll be healthier on defense, but having already lost their best cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, for the year, they might not end up being all that much healthier, and that’s without considering that they have two starters suspended for the first four games. Salary-cap concerns forced the Cowboys to let some of their key players leave in the offseason, notably swing tackle Parnell and star running back DeMarco Murray, whom the Cowboys are attempting to replace with Darren McFadden. There’s little reason to think they’ll go 4-1 in one-score games again, and their schedule should be far closer to league-average than it was a year ago.

All of those are reasonable concerns. If you’re a Cowboys fan, though, you can hold on to the fact you’ve managed to restock with talent for pennies on the dollar. Parnell would be a bigger loss if the Cowboys hadn’t added one of college’s best offensive linemen, La’el Collins, as an undrafted free agent after Collins was questioned regarding a double homicide in mid-April. Typically, you would assume that a line that played as well as Dallas’s did last season would regress toward the pack the following year, either due to injuries or variance, just as the great Philadelphia line of 2013 did last season. With a top-10 talent as your sixth lineman, that’s less of a concern. Collins should be the team’s starting left guard by mid-October, if not earlier.

Dallas also came away with a pass rush on the cheap. The Cowboys were the ones who took the plunge on Greg Hardy, and when his suspension based on domestic violence accusations was reduced from 10 to four games, it gave Rod Marinelli one of the league’s best pass-rushers on a one-year, no-risk, prove-it deal. Hardy should be fresh after close to a year off and motivated to earn a long-term contract.

He’ll be joined by Randy Gregory, who had been rumored as likely to go in the top 10 before off-field concerns dropped him to the Cowboys at no. 60. With 2014 second-rounder Demarcus Lawrence healthy after missing half of his rookie season with a broken foot, the Cowboys suddenly look deep at defensive end. And if anybody’s going to get the most out of the talent he has to work with, it’s Rod Marinelli.

In all, this adds up to a Cowboys team that deserves high expectations. It will be a tough ask to repeat their 12-4 record, but even if they drop to 11-5 or 10-6, that should still be enough to win the NFC East. Barring a serious injury to Romo — and given that the broken back sidelined him for one game last year, it’s hard to think of an injury serious enough to take him out for any substantial length of time — the Cowboys should host another playoff game in January.

Worst-Case Scenario: The secondary stinks, the Cowboys can’t stop the run, and when the offensive line shuffles through injuries, a missed assignment by Joseph Randle in pass protection ends Romo’s season in September. Dallas finishes 7-9.

Denver Broncos

Key 2014 Results
Record: 12-4 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Wins: 10.8 (NFL rank: 4)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.2 (NFL rank: 6)
Record in Close Games: 4-1 (NFL rank: 4)
Strength of Schedule: 0.532 (NFL rank: 2)
Turnover Margin: plus-5 (NFL rank: 11)

The Broncos seem simple to analyze: They’re going to be great if Peyton Manning looks like the quarterback from the first three-quarters of the 2014 campaign. That Manning threw 36 touchdowns against nine picks, posted a passer rating of 107.8, and had the third-best QBR in the league. Even if Manning takes a tiny slip from those numbers at the age of 39, if he’s anything close to that quarterback, it’s impossible to imagine the Broncos struggling to compete.

Manning wasn’t the same guy after that stretch, owing to a very physical game against the Bills before he injured a quadriceps muscle against the Chargers. In his final five games (including the playoffs), Manning threw four touchdowns against six picks and could muster only a 76.5 passer rating; his QBR of 47.3 was the 19th-best in the league. Now, that Manning? If he’s the new normal, Denver might be in trouble.

Well, that depends. Let’s say Manning is that quarterback from the end of the season. A 47.3 QBR would have been right between Jay Cutler (25th, 52.6 QBR) and Geno Smith (26th, 44.3 QBR) over the course of a season. If that’s the strong suit of your team, a quarterback that middling wouldn’t be able to lead you to the playoffs in as strong of a division as the AFC West.

But if that Manning shows up, he wouldn’t be the strongest part of this Broncos team, because they do just about everything else well. Even as their pass blocking struggled toward the end of the season, the Broncos found both their run-blocking form and their running back by adding C.J. Anderson to the lineup. Anderson averaged 4.7 yards per carry on a team whose other running backs (Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson, and the recently released Montee Ball) averaged 4.1 yards per pop, even though the Broncos gave him a heavy workload. Anderson had a 127-carry load over a five-game stretch, a figure that translates to a 406-carry pace over a full season.

That bunch of backs was seventh in the league in rushing DVOA. Granted, part of that has to do with teams being afraid of Manning, and if they knew he was mediocre, they would be more aggressive about run-blitzing. And that was with a different offensive line, one that included Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin, neither of whom is around in 2015. Denver will have four new starters up front under Gary Kubiak in Week 1, including rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo and left guard Evan Mathis, signed in late August. That was also under Adam Gase’s system, while Kubiak will be installing and refining his flavor of a zone-blocking scheme that’s worked in Denver, Houston, and Baltimore. It remains to be seen whether Manning sticks by the play-action-heavy, frequently waggling scheme of Kubiak if the offense starts slow or, as he did in 2012 after early struggles, just goes back to play the Indianapolis hits with his old playbook.

In all, the running game should be good. And there’s little reason to think the defense will stink after finishing fourth in DVOA in 2014 and 15th in 2013. Well, maybe one reason. I’d be concerned about their ability to stop the run, having lost Terrance Knighton in free agency and going without the suspended Derek Wolfe for the first four games. That line looks distinctly thin without those two. It’s hard to think of a better non-Seahawks team in terms of combined talent at linebacker and in the secondary, though, especially after T.J. Ward comes back from his suspension in Week 2. And while the Broncos will miss the excellent work done by Jack Del Rio, they replaced him with one of the best defensive coordinators in recent league history in Wade Phillips.

I think the Broncos could very well be a playoff team if Manning posted a QBR in the 50 range, barring a catastrophic injury stack or the team straight-up rejecting Kubiak’s leadership and quitting on him altogether. The team around him is good enough to justify a playoff run with a mediocre quarterback if it plays close to how it performed in 2014. And if Manning actually does return to his early 2014 form (let alone his historically great 2013 numbers), this could quickly become one of the best teams in football, if not the best.

Worst-Case Scenario: Manning actually is still hurt and hits injured reserve in early October, beginning the Brock Osweiler era far sooner than it should. (As to when the era actually should begin, “never” is a totally acceptable answer.) The Broncos collapse more than I think they would without their star quarterback and finish 6-10.

Green Bay Packers

Key 2014 Results
Record: 12-4 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Wins: 11.0 (NFL rank: 3)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.0 (NFL rank: T-7)
Record in Close Games: 5-0 (NFL rank: 1)
Strength of Schedule: 0.513 (NFL rank: 9)
Turnover Margin: plus-14 (NFL rank: 1)

It’s really easy to make a case that the Packers will decline in 2015. It’s two quick pieces. You start with that 5-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. You’ve probably read enough of these pieces to know that winning all of your close games is unsustainable. It’s also true that downright incredible quarterbacks seem to have an ability to win more of those games than you might expect, as I mentioned during Andrew Luck Week last August. For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case with Aaron Rodgers, at least until this past season. His record in close games before 2014 was a pedestrian 17-22:

It’s sorta scary to imagine Rodgers, being as good as he is, suddenly picking up all the close wins. It’s also probably not going to happen again; the Packers should be closer to .500 in those games this year. (It’s also worth noting they went 1-1 in one-score games in the playoffs, beating the Cowboys 26-21 before losing 28-22 to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.) That alone should drag the Pack down a game or two.

The other concern is the one I wrote about last month: injuries. The Packers lost Jordy Nelson to a season-ending torn ACL during the preseason, a brutal blow for a team that really stayed remarkably healthy on offense last year. After finishing 23rd and 29th in offensive Adjusted Games Lost during 2012 and 2013, respectively, the Packers had the league’s third-healthiest offense in 2014. Their 11 starters missed exactly one game, when Bryan Bulaga tore his MCL in the season-opening loss to the Seahawks and sat out the following week. They’re obviously already up to 16 games missed with Nelson on injured reserve, and he surely won’t be the last player to get injured.

Those things matter. The Packers aren’t going to just skip over those concerns like they aren’t there. They probably won’t have the best turnover margin in football, either. But as long as Rodgers stays healthy, those issues shouldn’t materially affect things. Green Bay has a relatively easy path toward winning its division, given that the Lions are likely to decline and the Bears and Vikings are still a ways from contending. Only the Colts and Seahawks have shorter odds on winning their respective divisions, per Pinnacle Sports. The Packers should be able to all but walk into the postseason, even if it’s at 11-5 instead of 12-4.

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodgers goes down in October with an injury, realizes his potential as a YouTube star alongside Olivia Munn, and retires.

Indianapolis Colts

Key 2014 Results
Record: 11-5 (NFL rank: 6)
Pythagorean Wins: 10.0 (NFL rank: 8)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.0 (NFL rank: T-7)
Record in Close Games: 4-2 (NFL rank: 10)
Strength of Schedule: 0.501 (NFL rank: 16)
Turnover Margin: minus-5 (NFL rank: 22)

We’re now entering the final year of the Andrew Luck Is Cheap Era. It’s true that without an extension, Luck will still cost the Colts less next season than what he would likely get on the open market, but he’s a real bargain now. His cap hit in this fourth year of his rookie deal is an SUV over $7 million; in terms of actual cash paid, the Jaguars will write larger paychecks to Chad Henne this year ($3.5 million) than the Colts will to Luck ($3.4 million). Next year, absent an extension, Luck’s fifth-year option will see his salary rise to $16.1 million, and it’s hard to see him getting much less than the franchise tag after that. More likely, he’ll sign one of the richest contracts in the history of football during the next eight months.

The Colts have been good with Luck, finishing 11-5 in three consecutive seasons while slowly inching their way further in the playoffs. They lost in the wild-card round during Luck’s rookie season, then won in the wild-card round before losing in the divisional round in 2013, and followed that by winning in the first two rounds before getting smashed to bits by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last year. You don’t need me to tell you where that one-step-forward progress would take them this year.

This offseason, general manager Ryan Grigson went for it. After previously targeting younger free-agent talent and mostly striking out, Grigson went the Madden route and signed a lot of talented famous players on the wrong side of 30 to deals. This offseason delivered Andre Johnson, Todd Herremans, Frank Gore, and Trent Cole to the roster, all of whom represent stability in places where the Colts have struggled in years past. You can throw in 29-year-old Dwight Lowery and Kendall Langford for good measure.

The clear plan is to consign Grigson mistakes and problem spots to the past. Johnson is in for the duo of Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks. Herremans replaces failed free-agent signing Gosder Cherilus, with 2014 second-rounder Jack Mewhort moving to tackle. Gore wipes away the Trent Richardson fiasco. Cole takes over for 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner, who didn’t exhibit enough as a starter when Robert Mathis missed the 2014 season. And Langford and Lowery are replacements for disappointing free-agent additions Ricky Jean-Francois and LaRon Landry, respectively.

You can see where I’m going with this, and it’s fair to say I’m skeptical of Grigson’s work given the enormous competitive advantage he’s had at quarterback (and with the schedule) over the past few years. But given the situation he faced heading into this offseason, I can’t really say I blame him too much for what he decided to do with the roster. Sure, it would have been nice to see the Colts try to solve their issues on the defensive line by throwing a ton of money at Ndamukong Suh and front-loading the cap hit for his deal before Luck gets paid. They can also get out of many of these deals in 2016 to clear out cap room, with Gore the notable exception.

These are win-now deals designed to ensure competence over replacement-level play in 2015, and it just might work. This should unquestionably be the most talented roster the Colts throw around Luck, although it might not be quite as good as the names and their prior level of play might indicate. Johnson slipped badly during his final year in Houston, finishing as one of the least-efficient receivers in the league, although he should unquestionably see a boost playing with Luck as opposed to Ryan Fitzpatrick & Co.

There are still question marks along both sides of the line of scrimmage; the Colts will have to hope Mewhort takes well to right tackle and that the interior of their line holds up. Luck continues to take far more hits than any other quarterback; last year, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, Luck was knocked down 91 times. The next-most-hit quarterback, Matt Ryan, went to the ground 65 times.

And the front three on defense remains a serious concern, especially with Arthur Jones done for the season after ankle surgery. The Colts will start two rookies along the defensive line, with third-rounder Henry Anderson filling in for Jones at end and fifth-rounder David Parry winning the nose tackle job. They could very well be sleepers — Anderson, in particular, seemed to be a fan favorite — but it’s hard to really say the Colts addressed what appeared to have been their biggest problem.

We won’t really know how this all matters until the postseason, since the Colts essentially appear to be on scholarship in the AFC South. Pinnacle assigns them a 74.6 percent chance of winning the division after you adjust for the vig, and Football Outsiders projects them to face the seventh-easiest schedule in football in 2015. Barring an injury to Luck, who has seemed indestructible so far, the South and at least one home playoff game seem to be theirs for the taking. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Luck win his first MVP award with an improved receiving corps; indeed, he’s both mine and Robert Mays’s pick.

But people are going to doubt these Colts until they stop a dominant running game in the playoffs, whether it be the Patriots, Ravens, or Steelers. They have three playoff wins in the Luck era, beating an Alex Smith–led Chiefs team who lost its best player to a first-quarter injury,2 Andy Dalton, and an injured Peyton Manning. I tend to be down on that sort of thinking, because it’s silly to rate teams on one or two postseason games as opposed to the broader regular-season sample. But given how easy their division has been and how dramatically they’ve gone down over the past two years, it’s fair to say many will be skeptical of the Colts until they actually break through.

Worst-Case Scenario: Luck gets injured and oh god here come the Tennessee Titans at +2660 down the stretch!

Kansas City Chiefs

Key 2014 Results
Record: 9-7 (NFL rank: 13)
Pythagorean Wins: 10.1 (NFL rank: 7)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-1.1 (NFL rank: 27)
Record in Close Games: 3-4 (NFL rank: 18)
Strength of Schedule: 0.499 (NFL rank: 17)
Turnover Margin: minus-3 (NFL rank: 21)

I speculate that the Chiefs are probably the most surprising team on this list, given that they were the only one that failed to make the playoffs last year. You could also spin a nice argument that they don’t belong: After all, this is a team that lost to the Titans by 16 points, couldn’t win a key divisional matchup against the Raiders, and who gave Jim Harbaugh his last win against a team with a winning record who wasn’t starting Ryan Lindley at quarterback. And they’re also down at least of their best defensive players for at least part of September.

All of those things are true. I also think you can make a pretty good case in the opposite direction. Has there ever been a non-playoff team that beat both the AFC and NFC representatives in the Super Bowl? The Chiefs did that, blowing out the Patriots by 27 points in Week 4 before pulling out a deserved 24-20 win over the Seahawks. The Chiefs won six games against teams with a .500 record or better last year, a remarkable number.

It’s also not difficult to think the Chiefs could have a more talented roster in 2015. It’s true they’re going to be missing top cornerback Sean Smith, who is suspended for the first three games, and given that two of those games are against the Broncos and Packers, the suspension comes at an inopportune time.

At the same time, while it looked like star nose tackle Dontari Poe was going to be out for a meaningful chunk of the season after undergoing back surgery over the summer, he has somehow recovered and returned to practice. Poe could very well be back in the lineup Sunday against the Texans, even if he’s not ready to play on virtually every snap like he normally does. The Chiefs should be a healthier team this year, particularly on defense, where they lost starters Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito to season-ending Achilles injuries in Week 1 last year. They finished as the league’s sixth-most injured defense, and even if DeVito and Johnson aren’t the same players they used to be, they should still be upgrades on the alternatives from last year.

And, of course, the Chiefs made a massive upgrade at wide receiver. No competitive team had worse wideouts than Kansas City last year, and swapping out Dwayne Bowe for Jeremy Maclin should be an enormous improvement for Alex Smith. The addition of former Ravens and Saints Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs to solve the team’s other problem spot at left guard should help give Smith more time to throw the football. Andy Reid may also be able to try to get the ball a little farther downfield; last year, Smith’s average pass traveled just 5.6 yards in the air. That was the lowest figure in football by a significant margin, as the next-closest passer was Blake Bortles at 6.9 yards.

The numbers say Kansas City actually was one of the best teams in football last year; the Chiefs were ninth in point differential, even after that blowout loss to the Titans, and 10th in DVOA. They probably should have made the playoffs, given that their season boiled down to Travis Kelce’s bizarre flip fumble against the Cardinals near the red zone. They’re favorites to win that game from that moment forward if Kelce is ruled down, and if they finish at 10-6, they win a tiebreaker with the Ravens for the final spot in the AFC. Even if they can’t catch the Broncos, they should be able to make it to the postseason this time around.

Worst-Case Scenario: Last year’s dismal run defense doesn’t do much better with Poe at 75 percent, Maclin gets injured, Jamaal Charles gets injured, and a star-less Chiefs team falls to third place in the AFC West.

New England Patriots

Key 2014 Results
Record: 12-4 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Wins: 11.5 (NFL rank: 2)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-0.5 (NFL rank: 11)
Record in Close Games: 3-1 (NFL rank: 7)
Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (NFL rank: 3)
Turnover Margin: plus-12 (NFL rank: 2)

It’s been a quiet offseason for the Pat— OK, I’ll spare you that bit. You know what’s happened with the Patriots this offseason. Tom Brady is back, and as I wrote in July, that should be worth a little more than a half-win to their chances versus having Jimmy Garoppolo for the first four games. The Garoppolo era will have to wait, but what about the rest of the Patriots? What should we expect out of them?

On offense, with Brady back, New England’s biggest concern is already rearing its ugly head: Injuries are going to be an issue. They’re already down two starters for a good chunk of the season. Brandon LaFell was placed on the PUP list with a mysterious foot injury that’s bothered him all offseason, leaving him out for a minimum of six games. More disconcertingly, second-year center Bryan Stork suffered what appears to be a very serious concussion; even after he was cleared to return to practice last week, Stork was unable to participate and was then placed on short-term injured reserve. He’ll miss a minimum of eight weeks, and as is obviously the case with concussions, there’s no guarantee when he’ll be ready to return.

In addition to the human concerns about Stork’s health, there are football concerns about New England’s offensive line, which was such a mess last season that people actually thought it was time to bench Brady.3 That line was a mess during the first part of the 2014 campaign, and it eventually settled in once the Patriots went with an interior combination of Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell at guard surrounding Stork at center. That grouping is no more. Connolly is retired, and with the Stork injury, Wendell is likely to move back to center. The Patriots have a pair of rookie fourth-rounders in reserve, and one of those two — Shaq Mason or Tre’ Jackson — will likely have to start against the Steelers tonight.

And the team’s perennial injury concern, of course, is Rob Gronkowski. Gronk made it through the 2014 season unscathed after missing 17 of New England’s prior 28 games (including the playoffs). Gronkowski sat out a meaningless Week 17 game against the Bills and took the entire month of September to ramp up his snap count while coming back from a torn ACL and MCL, but once he got into the lineup, his performance on a per-game basis was as good as it had been in 2011, before the injury woes. His prorated line from Week 5 through the end of the regular season would be 100 catches for 1,421 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.

It would be foolish to assume Gronkowski will stay healthy all season again in 2015; his injury history is too significant and his style is too physical to count on perfect attendance in any given season. But Bill Belichick has made concessions to the fact he needs to keep his star tight end healthy. He’s taken Gronkowski off special-teams duty as a blocker altogether after Gronk broke his arm in 2012 while protecting an extra point late in a 59-24 rout of the Colts. Gronkowski also didn’t suit up in the preseason for the third consecutive year; in the past, that was mostly because Gronkowski was already injured and recovering, but by all accounts, he came into this preseason as healthy as he’s been as a pro. Belichick still chose to keep him on the sideline.

On the other side of the ball, there are rightful concerns about the secondary after the Patriots shed their top three cornerbacks this offseason. Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington have been scattered about the league, and the Patriots haven’t really replaced them. They messed around with various veteran cornerbacks throughout the offseason, with Eagles disaster Bradley Fletcher and Raiders castoff Tarell Brown eventually making the roster. The Patriots will rely heavily on Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, who were fourth and fifth on the depth chart last year. A preseason attempt to give star safety Devin McCourty reps at his old position of cornerback didn’t take, with McCourty himself saying it didn’t feel great.

Instead, Belichick will try to make up for the secondary concerns with what may very well be the best front seven he’s had in New England. The loss of longtime pillar Vince Wilfork is overstated, given how the 33-year-old Wilfork really wasn’t the same player after coming back from a torn Achilles last year. Instead, Belichick will roll out a pair of athletic first-rounders on the interior in rookie Malcom Brown and 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley, who has looked dominant at times during the preseason. The Patriots are deeper at end with Jabaal Sheard providing a much-needed third rusher behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and with Jerod Mayo back, Belichick’s linebackers are in the running with Carolina and Seattle for football’s rangiest group.

The Pats were 12th in defensive DVOA last year. The players and the coverage may not look the same, but they should be somewhere close to that figure again in 2015. And if that’s the case, a season with Brady should be enough to ensure yet another AFC East title.

Worst-Case Scenario: A new league bylaw allows Bernard Pollard to change teams each week and suit up for whoever the Patriots are playing.

Seattle Seahawks

Key 2014 Results
Record: 12-4 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Wins: 11.8 (NFL rank: 1)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-0.2 (NFL rank: 14)
Record in Close Games: 3-3 (NFL rank: 13)
Strength of Schedule: 0.524 (NFL rank: 5)
Turnover Margin: plus-10 (NFL rank: 4)

And that leaves the Seahawks, who find themselves embroiled in yet another public contract spat. In January, it was with Marshawn Lynch. Over the summer, it was with Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin, and then Russell Wilson. And now, it’s with strong safety Kam Chancellor, whose holdout will see him miss at least the opening game of the season against the Rams on Sunday.

It’s not a surprise Chancellor would be the first Seahawks player to actually hold out; he was the first core player from this edition of the Seahawks who was drafted and developed by the team to receive an extension. He signed a four-year deal before the 2013 season, after his third year in the league, that paid him $28 million over four years. We’re entering the second year of that extension and Chancellor is already clamoring for a new contract. Given that somebody like Nate Allen just got $23 million over four years from the Raiders, you can understand why Chancellor feels like he’s underpaid.

At the same time, Seahawks general manager John Schneider finds himself in a lose-lose position. He’s established a history of wanting to sign his young talent to four-year contracts, which prevent the Seahawks from getting stuck with accelerated cap hits running years into the future if deals don’t work out. Schneider has already given in on the Lynch situation, giving Seattle’s star halfback a two-year extension that will run after the end of his current four-year pact.

That deal came after Lynch had finished the third year of his four-year contract, though. Chancellor just finished the first year of his extension. If Schneider gives in on Chancellor, Bennett will be next. And after that, if you were Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, why wouldn’t you try to get new deals next year? Schneider has to draw the line somewhere, if only to establish a precedent that he won’t be ripping up contracts every offseason.

It’s not really a surprise the Seahawks would take a stand with Chancellor, who is an excellent player, but still a step down from Sherman and Thomas, who are the league’s best players at their positions and who possess truly transcendent skill sets. Chancellor is an excellent strong safety, one of the few players in the league capable of attacking the line of scrimmage from deep in the defensive backfield without shirking his coverage responsibilities. It’s also true he can be beat when isolated one-on-one, as the Patriots were able to do during the Super Bowl.

The two arguments you hear most regarding paying Chancellor is the idea that he’s the heart and soul of the defense and that he prevents teams from throwing over the middle. I can’t speak to the former, although anecdotally, arguments like that seem to fade if a team plays well without that leader involved. Lawyer Milloy was the heart and soul of the Patriots in 2003, and they did just fine without him, even after getting blown out by Milloy’s Bills in Week 1.

As far as throwing over the middle of the field, that’s something we can look at. The Seahawks do restrain throws to the deep middle of the field, but that’s Thomas’s territory. Do they prevent teams from throwing to the center of the field on intermediate routes?

The answer is not really, no. In fact, during the 2014 season, when teams threw the ball within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, 59.0 percent of their throws against the Seahawks were inside the numbers. That was the third-highest rate in the league, and Seattle was pretty average at defending those passes:

The reality is that teams don’t really have a choice. They have to throw over the middle against the Seahawks. They don’t want to throw deep at Thomas. They don’t want to throw at Sherman. That leaves the left side of the field, where Byron Maxwell and now Cary Williams have lined up, and the shallow center of the field. Teams pick their poison against the Seahawks, and often that means sneaking across the middle of the field.

Seahawks fans will likely be noting by now that Seattle’s numbers over the middle declined last year and chalking that up to the absence of Bobby Wagner, who inspired dominant defensive play after he returned in Week 12. That’s true, but it also indirectly explains why the Seahawks don’t need to give in to Chancellor’s demands and why his sole presence isn’t preventing teams from throwing over the middle. Wagner is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, and if Chancellor didn’t exist, we would hear the same argument about how teams were afraid to throw over the middle because they didn’t want to have their heads blown off by Seattle’s star middle linebacker. The Seahawks will be worse without Chancellor, but it won’t fundamentally change how they look on defense like not having Sherman or Thomas around would.

And that, in a way, leaves Seattle in better shape. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Seahawks slip a bit early, given that they face five playoff teams before the Week 9 bye, may be missing Chancellor for some or all of that stretch, and are undergoing construction on offense. They’ll need to figure out how to integrate Jimmy Graham into their offensive attack and develop continuity on their offensive line as they replace left guard James Carpenter and center Max Unger. They appear to be moving 2014 right tackle Justin Britt to guard and handing over the right tackle spot to 2014 undrafted free agent Garry Gilliam, who started one game last year. That may not stick.

Once things jell, this will be a great football team again. The schedule seems far softer after the break, especially if the Cardinals take the sort of decline I’m projecting. It’s hardly the most outlandish prediction, but expect the Seahawks to ride another long winning streak into the postseason again in 2015.

Worst-Case Scenario: We get 17 weeks of Recovery Water jokes. Let’s leave those in the offseason. We’ll all be happier.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell