by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor and Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Baltimore (8½) is only 1+ seasons removed from its second Super Bowl title. And it’s not unreasonable to expect the Ravens to have a little extra focus in 2014 after missing the playoffs last year with a disappointing 8-8 record. QB Joe Flacco had TE “security blanket” Dennis Pitta for only the final four games last season. Now, Flacco has intense, high-quality wideout Steve Smith as well, and Smith’s fiery temperament should add a valuable spark to an offense that often lacked one in 2013. Plus, there are proven WRs such as Torrey Smith, 6-5 Marlon Brown, deep threat Jacoby Jones, and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak (former Houston coach) has brought with him sure-handed TE Owen Daniels. Former Tampa Bay C Jeremy Zuttah and former UW Badger Ricky Wagner appear to have shorn up the OL. The defense--while not the level of the Ray Lewis top-tier groups—has been delighted with the penetration of rookie DT Timmy Jernigan of Florida State and the athleticism of rookie LB C.J. Mosley in the preseason. In the age of the aerial game in the NFL, Flacco now has the quality targets in numbers to take full advantage and lift Edgar Allen Poe’s birds OVER, as the Ravens say nevermore to 2013’s Super Bowl hangover.

Kansas City (8) got off its eyebrow-raising 9-0 start in 2013, with Andy Reid pushing all the right buttons and Alex Smith flashing some Montana-esque form. But last season’s 2-5 finish, followed by a 45-44 cave-in to the Colts in the playoffs, might be more indicative of things to come. Smith’s receiving corps is below par, and top target Dwayne Bowe (only 57 recs. in 2013) is playing with a finger that Reid has described as “shot.” And, one must ask, “How much more of a pounding can ultra-valuable RB Jamaal Charles (1287 YR, 70 recs.) take?” Opponents last year found that if they could block NT Dontari Poe (4½ sacks) and hard-charging OLBs Tamba Hali & Justin Houston (combined 22 sacks), they could do plenty of business elsewhere. K.C.’s schedule includes all four of the NFC West “toughies,” plus New England and Pittsburgh. Barring another “super start” such as the one last year, it’s UNDER at Arrowhead.

It’s really not a surprise that Cleveland (6½) will go into the season without extra-dimension WR Josh Gordon, who led the NFL with 1646 receiving yards last year despite missing the first two games. A full, one-year suspension for his most recent violations of the NFL’s drug policy was always considered the most likely outcome. But it was a bit of a surprise that the constantly-rebuilding Browns (seven straight losses to end last season) didn’t bolster their receiving corps in a big way through free agency or the draft in the offseason. Management has taken a shot with Ben Tate from Houston at RB. And then there’s QB Johnny Manziel, whose marvelous escapability on the artificial turf and speed surfaces of the SEC might not translate so well to the heavier turf, cooler temperatures, and frequent winds of FirstEnergy Stadium. Remember, Cleveland won only four games last season. Do Brian Hoyer’s return and Manziel’s arrival equate somehow to an additional three victories? The OL will play hard, and the defense will be tough. But the wins are still unlikely to flow, as it’s UNDER...unless LeBron joins up and tries to save Cleveland’s football team as well.

OTHERS IN THE AFC. Has Buffalo (6½) truly solved its major problems? Second-year QB EJ Manuel seemed to have regressed at times in the preseason, which concluded with top pick WR Sammy Watkins picking up a worrisome rib injury. Yes, the Bills’ front four can bring the heat. But the new defensive coordinator is Jim Schwartz, whose wide-nine base with the Lions was often burned for big plays. So the UNDER seems more likely western New York...Denver (10½) last season became the first team in NFL history to score 600 points in a season, and that was with HC John Fox having open-heart surgery in the middle of the campaign. For 2014, Peyton Manning (now 38) looks as good as ever, while the defense has added DE DeMarcus Ware from Dallas, CB Aqib Talib from N.E., and safety T.J. Ward from Cleveland. Emmanuel Sanders might have to step in for Wes Welker (concussions), but it’s still OVER in the Mile High City...Pittsburgh (8½) has gone 8-8 the last two seasons, being hampered by injuries, age, and free-agent departures. WR Markus Wheaton last year and smurf RB Dri Archer this year have added valuable speed to the offense, and new OL coach Mike Munchak should help the Steeler front five. But the Pittsburgh defense lacks its old speed at several positions, and QB Ben Roethlisberger is now in his 11th season and wearing down a bit. It’s UNDER in the Steel City.


Carolina (8½) won a crucial late-season game vs. New Orleans last year and captured the NFC South at 12-4. But, as we all know, no team has repeated as NFC South champ. And the bad news just seems to keep coming for the Panthers, from the retirement of oh-so-steady LT Jordan Gross, to DE Greg Hardy’s legal troubles, to the departure of last year’s WRs, to losses in the secondary, to Cam Newton’s ankle surgery, to Newton’s exhibition rib injury. Not to mention that Carolina is now the bearer of the NFC South target. Not to mention the non-divisional trips to Baltimore, Cincy, Green Bay, and Philly, or the visit from Seattle. In the NFC South, where it seems that the rule is “what goes up must come down,” it’s UNDER for the Panthers.

Detroit (8½) was a frequent underachiever in the Jim Schwartz era despite its bright stars on offense and its intimidators on defense. New head coach Jim Caldwell appears to have had success improving team discipline. But the Lion secondary still looks very leaky, especially in a division that includes such potent aerial games in Green Bay and Chicago. Caldwell, the long-time coach of Peyton Manning at Indy and the short-time coach of Joe Flacco at Baltimore, might find that keeping Matthew Stafford (19 ints. in 2013) on the straight and narrow a bit more difficult. With Calvin Johnson having taken a beating in recent seasons, it’s UNDER this ambitious total in the Motor City.

Minnesota (6½) was 5-10-1 last season under Leslie Frazier. But the team has taken well to the fresh approach of new head coach Mike Zimmer, going 4-0 in the preseason (which means little except for attitude) with Adrian Peterson taking nary a carry. Zimmer has made the choice of turning the attack over to offensive coordinator deluxe Norv Turner, who has a terrific TE in Kyle Rudloph, an emerging deep threat in Cordarrelle Patterson, and a reliable vet in former G.B. WR Greg Jennings. There’s impressive new blood on defense in rookie OLB Anthony Barr and veteran free-agent CB Captain Munnerlyn from Carolina. Third-year S Harrison Smith is on the verge of all-pro status. Look for the Vikings to go OVER while playing at the outdoor home of the Gophers.

OTHERS IN THE NFC. Philadelphia (9) is now in a better groove with Chip Kelly’s offensive schemes, practice methods, and off-the-field ideas. And it shouldn’t take too much for the Eagles to out-distance their NFC East foes. Philly led the league in rushing last season. And while DeSean Jackson is gone, Darren Sproles now is around to drive defenses crazy. The road schedule (including games at Indy, S.F., Arizona, and G.B.) is tough, but so is stopping Kelly’s deceptive, uptempo offense. The total of nine is not too high to still look OVER in Philly...Atlanta (8½) has added Devin Hester to its special teams and as a slot receiver in its potent aerial game. But the undersized Falcon defense (31st vs. the run last year) has already lost LBs Sean Weatherspoon and Marquis Spruill and DT Peria Jerry. LT Sam Baker (knee) is gone on offense. Raise your hand if you trust RB Steven Jackson to make it through the campaign. UNDER for the Falcs despite the presence of QB Matt Ryan...Even the oddsmakers don’t expect Dallas (7½) to make it to 8-8 for a fourth straight season. And why should they after 2013’s last-rated defense has been weakened even further by injury (top LB Sean Lee), free agency (DE DeMarcus Ware), and suspension (CB Orlando Scandrick, S Jakar Hamilton)? The offense will score a bunch (as long as Tony Romo is okay), but it’s UNDER in Big D until the Pokes show more grit on defense.

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