Teams in predicted order of finish
Champs lose key defenders, but Flacco still has weapons
Much is made of the team losing LB Ray Lewis (retired) and S Ed Reed (to Houston), but the most damaging loss for the Super Bowl champs might be WR Anquan Boldin (to San Francisco). QB Joe Flacco returns, having signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract. RB Ray Rice, who gained 1,621 yards from scrimmage, is back, and third-year WR Torrey Smith returns to be Flacco’s go-to guy. The defense, despite the loss of two possible future Hall of Famers, is retooled with younger players.
Dalton & Co. have Cincy poised for a playoff breakthrough
The team has taken some hard knocks over the years: 22 seasons without a playoff win, but there are signs that streak might be coming to an end. Cincinnati has made the postseason the past two years, losing to Houston each time. Last year, it was a respectable 19-13 setback. QB Andy Dalton can throw to one of the best WRs in the game, A.J. Green. Dalton has average arm strength but does own this distinction: He is the only QB to make the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and throw 20 or more TD passes each season. Rookie RB Giovani Bernard is exciting to watch carry the ball, but at 5 feet 9 inches and 208 pounds, he can’t block a pass rusher. That often dictates how much a RB plays.
Big Ben must carry load again, while defense loses key guy
The Steelers hoped to get back to their glory-days style of play based on a strong running game and a solid defense. Enter RB Le’Veon Bell, drafted in the second round. But Bell suffered a sprained foot injury during the preseason, and it’s not known how long he will be out. QB Ben Roethlisberger always gives the team a chance to win. The defense, which ranked 17th last year, lost mainstay LB James Harrison (to Cincinnati).
Offense has playmakers, but .500 may be best team can do
Cleveland has some exciting playmakers, notably RB Trent Richardson and WR Josh Gordon. QB Brandon Weeden has the physical tools to succeed, and WR Greg Little will put up big numbers if defenses double-team Gordon. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton will stress pressuring the quarterback. Despite this cheery outlook, an 0-4 start is a distinct possibility, and 8-8 would be a great season.
Josh Gordon, WR, Browns
As a rookie last year, Gordon had 805 receiving yards. More than that, he just looks the part of a star ready to bloom. He will miss the first two games because of a substance-abuse suspension, but that could drop his value significantly, perhaps, and you could swoop in.