The Race to Super Bowl 50 is set to kick off, as AFC presents familiarity, while the NFC becomes a scramble.
The defending champion, New England Patriots, had little time to celebrate as they were part of perhaps the most controversial off-season any champion has faced in their alleged ball-tampering situation aka Deflate-gate.
Can the Patriots become the first team to repeat as champions since they last did in 2003-04?
Here’s a look at how I believe the 2015 season will shape up per division in order of projected placed finish:
(X)– Division winner
(Y)– Wild Card
American Football Conference: Usual suspects continue to lead the pack.
(X) Baltimore Ravens– The Ravens are the type of team that will give all their opponents a tough time. A hard-hitting defense combined with a balanced offense led by Joe Flacco. A team poised to make a deep run in January.
(Y)Pittsburgh Steelers– The Steelers of years past known for their dominating defense and ground-and-pound running game are gone. In comes a high-octane offense led by two-time Super Bowl champion, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The defense will look different, as long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is gone, head coach Mike Tomlin brings in his 4-3 scheme. They have the pedigree, but the defense may not be enough to go all the way.
Cincinnati Bengals– Will we ever see quarterback Andy Dalton take that next step and finally win his first playoff game? The team will still be competitive, but the rest of the division got that much better. The Bengals fall short of a playoff appearance this time around.
Cleveland Browns– The Browns are getting better, but will continue to be the bottom feeders in a playoff-tested division.
(X) Indianapolis Colts– Fourth-year quarterback Andrew Luck has been as good as advertised since entering the league. The defense is still suspect, but Luck who is good enough to win league MVP and an arsenal of offensive weapons may be enough to lead the Colts to Super Sunday.
Houston Texans– They may have the best player in the league in J.J. Watt who is the most dominant defender since the late-great Reggie White, but the Texans won’t provide enough on offense to compete with the Colts.
Jacksonville Jaguars– Quarterback Blake Bortles could be victim of the sophomore slump and the team will be improved, but will once again finish third in the division.
Tennessee Titans– The Titans have their quarterback of the future in Marcus Mariota and there will be growing pains; may improve by a win or two.
(X) New England Patriots– Every year is the year the Patriots are suppose to get knocked off as division champions, yet they have won 12 of the past 14 division titles. The defense will take a step back, still Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will find a way to win 11 to 13 games and take the air out of the rest of the division.
(Y) Miami Dolphins– This will be Miami’s best chance to dethrone the Patriots, as they will field a ferocious defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be solid and the team will squeeze into the playoffs, but not good enough to take the division.
Buffalo Bills– Rex Ryan stays in the division as he continues to chase Bill Belichick and kiss his rings. The defense will be one of he best in the NFL, the offense has explosive weapons, but the inexperience at quarterback will prove to be their downfall.
New York Jets- New head coach Todd Bowles will implement his defensive scheme with the help of Pro Bowl defensive backs, Derrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Much like the Bills, the Jets will have a top defense, but questions at quarterback.
(X) Denver Broncos– It’s a reunion in Denver. Long-time Broncos coordinator-now-head coach, Gary Kubiak, brings back the zone-blocking scheme to mix with what Peyton Manning does well. Wade Phillips is also back as defensive coordinator. Denver may have the best defense in the league by seasons end. Manning has lost a step, but there’s plenty of talent around him to win a fifth consecutive division title.
Kansas City Chiefs– Head coach Andy Reid will have his team competing all season long. If healthy, Jamaal Charles will contend for MVP and the defense will be a nightmare for quarterbacks, still not enough to overthrow Denver.
Oakland Raiders– The Raiders are starting to get some pep in their step, new head coach Jack Del Rio brings structure to the team and will have young talent on both sides of the ball to help the Raiders improve from a 3-13 season in 2014, to win six to eight games in 2015.
San Diego Chargers– It’s hard to imagine a Phillip Rivers led team being last in any division, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team is capable of winning the division just as they are to finish last. This is a disappointing one for the Chargers.
National Football Conference: A conference that is wide open.
(X) Green Bay Packers– Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers will not have one of his most trusted receivers in Jordy Nelson, who is out for the season with a knee injury, still the Packers will score close to 500 points in the season. This team is thinking Super Bowl. They will also have an attacking defense good enough to get them a trip to Santa Clara.
Minnesota Vikings– Adrian Peterson is back after missing 15 games in 2014 with a suspension. Last time Peterson missed games, he came back to rush for 2,098 yards the following season. Quarterback Terry Bridgwater will surprise people with his poise. The team will compete, but still not enough to top the Packers in the division race.
Detroit Lions– The Lions lost their top defensive player Ndamukong Suh, who is now in Miami, but the defense will still be a force. Quarterback Matthew Stafford will once again throw for 4,500 yards, but the Lions take a step back in the division.
Chicago Bears– John Fox comes in from Denver to coach the quarterback who left Denver in Jay Cutler. The defense will improve, but Cutler will continue to do what Cutler does, be a quarterback who will only get you eight wins or less.
(X) New Orleans Saints– Will we see a division winner with a winning record this time around? Drew Brees and the Saints retake the division, this time with 11 wins.
Atlanta Falcons– Matt Ryan will bounce back after a subpar 2014, Julio Jones will continue to be one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, but not enough improvement to make the post season.
Carolina Panthers¬– Last season division winner with a record of 7-8-1, may win the same amount of games in 2015, but this time it won’t get them anywhere near the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers– The Jameis Winston era begins for the Bucs, much like the Titans, there will be growing pains.
(X) Philadelphia Eagles– Oregon East will be on display as head coach, Chip Kelly will use a trio of running backs led by 2014 rushing champ, DeMarco Murray. The defense will improve enough to help the Eagles take the ever-unpredictable division.
(Y) Dallas Cowboys– The loss of DeMarco Murray will be felt, but the Cowboys have the league’s best offensive line to protect Tony Romo who will get Dez Bryant the ball plenty. The defense gets a boost from the return of linebacker, Sean Lee. Dallas will not win the division, but the team is poised to make a deep run come January.
New York Giants– This could again be one of those years where we all say Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin are done in New York then they prove us all wrong and win another Super Bowl, but the Eagles and Cowboys are much better this time around to allow the Giants to squeeze in to the playoffs.
Washington Redskins– The team is already moved on from the Robert Griffin era, now they have to find out if Kirk Cousins is the franchise quarterback they’ve been waiting for. Once again, Washington is looking up to the rest of the division.
(X) Arizona Cardinals– The Red Birds are led by back-to-back coach of the year, Bruce Arians. The team will be prepared to compete every week. The Cardinals will have a top 10 defense complemented by a balanced offense to finally knock out Seattle a top the division.
(Y) Seattle Seahawks– The Seahawks may be subject to a Super-Bowl hangover as the decision to pass on second and goal from the one-yard line will haunt them for years to come. The team is still loaded with talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it will once again be a force in the playoffs.
St. Louis Rams– The Rams get a new quarterback in Nick Foles and new running back in Todd Gurley, who’s not expected to play until week 4. Head coach, Jeff Fisher will lead a team with a good defense, but it will not be enough to top Arizona and Seattle.
San Francisco 49ers– This team looks nothing like the team that fielded Super Bowl 47. Gone are head coach, Jim Harbaugh, now at Michigan, stars like, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Michael Crabtree to name a few. It will rely on Colin Kaepernick’s arm and legs to succeed in 2015. It will not be enough.
And where to cheer for your favorite team in El Paso? Here’s a list. If your team’s club isn’t on this list, feel free to email us at news@epheraldpost for inclusion.
Chicago Bears: Sparrow’s Spirits and Pies (Downtown)
Denver Broncos: Oasis and Fiesta Lanes (Zaragosa), 6 Strings, Tortuga Sports Lounge
Dallas Cowboys: Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, Funkmeyers Rec Room
Green Bay Packers: Maverick’s Billiards (Montana)
Minnesota Vikings: Maverick’s Billiards (James Watt)
New England Patriots: Three Pints
New Orleans Saints: King Crab
Oakland Raiders: La Santa Sports Bar and Grill
Philadelphia Eagles: Border City Ale House
Pittsburgh Steelers: Down the Road, King’sX
San Diego Chargers: Smokey’s Pit Stop and Saloon (Zaragosa)
San Francisco 49ers: Barfly, Cowboy Touch