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NFL Top Teams to Watch
By Jim Feist

The pro football season kicks off next week when the defending champion Patriots host the high-flying passing offense of Steelers. The Pats will be without their star QB as Jimmy Garoppolo is forced to start as Tom Brady sits. Too bad the Patriots weren’t hosting the Cowboys, then it would be the battle of two legendary Eastern Illinois Panther quarterbacks. We’ll have to wait until Week 5 for that showdown. The NFC has won four of the last six Super Bowls (it could have been 5 of 6 if the Seahawks had called a run on second down), but the AFC has won 11 of the last 18. Here is a look at some of the best of the NFL.

AFC Champion: Ravens
NFC Champion: Seahawks
Super Bowl Winner: Ravens over Seahawks

Ravens: Many times teams that may have a tough postseason loss come back the next season a little better — and a bit more fortunate. Three years ago, the Broncos lost a heart-breaker to the Ravens, then stormed back a year later to make the Super Bowl. Seattle had a gut-wrenching 30-28 last season loss to Atlanta in the playoffs, then showed everyone a year later that wasn’t a fluke by winning the Super Bowl. Perhaps the Baltimore Ravens fit into this mold for 2015, letting a 28-14 playoff lead slip away to eventual champion New England.

The Ravens aren’t lacking for talent. The balanced offense rebuilt the O-line quickly and found a gem in RB Justin Forsett (1,266 yards, 5.4 ypc). Thirty-year old QB Joe Flacco (27 TDs, 12 INTs, 3,986 yds) had a strong season and the defense is tough up front and hopes to have good healthy in the secondary. The D-line loses tackle Haloti Ngata because of salary, but believe they have his replacement in Timmy Jernigan. When Ngata sat out December, the Ravens went 3-1 with Jernigan and allowed an average of 94.2 yards rushing per game. The LB corps is loaded with Chris Canty, C.J. Mosley, Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (12 sacks). Totals players note that Baltimore is on an 11-5 run to the ‘under’ the total at home.

Packers: In an age of passing the football, the Packers are deadly, 8th in passing with 266.3 yds per game behind 31-year old QB Aaron Rodgers (38 TDs, 5 INTs) and his 4,381 yards. They actually have a great ground attack, too, ranked 11th in rushing behind RB Eddie Lacy, tops in the NFL with 30.4 points per game. Speedy WR Randall Cobb is a great assett, but the loss of star WR Jordy Nelson in preseason was a shocker. This offense will be still be explosive, but will they take a step back?

At least the young defense keeps getting better, ranked 10th against the pass, 23rd against the run. They welcome back NT B.J. Raji from an injury and will continue to move LB Clay Matthews inside, a trick that improved the run defense late last season. A pair of top draft picks add depth to the secondary, so this Packers team looks armed and dangerous for 2015. Think they’ve worked on defending the on-side kick?

Broncos: Last round up for 39-year old Peyton Manning? This team was second in the NFL in points (30.1 ppg) after Green Bay, as Manning slid a bit to 39 TDs, 15 INTs, and 4,727 yards. They finished 4th in passing (291 yards per game), 15th in rushing and return 27-year old WR Demaryius Thomas (1,619 yards), WR Emmanuel Sanders (1,404 yards) and picked up TE Owen Daniels.

However, changes are in store with Gary Kubiak taking over. He brings in zone-blocking, something he learned from Mike Shanahan when the two were in Denver, plus the GM insists on becoming more balanced. They’ve added rookie depth on the offensive line, but had a tough summer blow with the loss of T Ryan Clady, already done for the year. The defense has star power, too. Denver was 10-7 to the ‘over’ the total last year, part of a sizzling 29-16-1 ‘over’ the total run, 33-19-2 ‘over’ since Peyton got here.

Giants: A bounce back year for the Giants? Despite a 6-10 campaign, QB Eli Manning actually had a strong season with 30 TDs and 14 INTs. The Giants dealt with a ton of injuries. They have been using high draft picks on the offensive line the last few years and appear to have that fixed, as Manning was sacked 28 times. To improve the run game, they took rookie guard Ereck Flowers with the 9th overall pick (Miami, FL).

Manning has exceptional targets with Victor Cruz, Odell Beckham (1,305 yards) and Reuben Randall (938). The defense was good at getting after the passer (47 sacks) but at a cost of ignoring the run, something new DC Steve Spagnuolo will focus on. He was defensive coordinator in 2007 when they won the title. The secondary was hit hardest by injuries and adds second-rounder safety Landon Collins (Alabama).

Seahawks: It’s amazing how one wacky play can change everything. Instead of Tom Brady losing three straight Super Bowls, he’s now got four, in company with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. And the Seahawks should have been celebrating all summer, coming to camp being asked about their chances of winning three straight titles, last accomplished by Vince Lombardi’s Packers.

Instead, Malcolm Butler’s interception unleashed floodgates of shock and disharmony in Seattle. Russell Wilson and Mike Bennett not content with contract offers, a LB saying he’s leaving after this season, and the coaching staff/play-calling under fire. Despite these distractions, the Seahawks still have the most talented roster in the NFL. The defense is loaded, ranked No. 1 the last two years, while the run-first offense (most of the time, that is) retained RB Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards), who hinted at retirement. The Super Bowl ending was shocking, but a return trip to the NFC title game for this group would not be.

Patriots: And speaking of tumultuous offseasons…The defending champs lost their two starting CBs and will be without 38-year old QB Tom Brady (33 TDs, 9 INTs) the first four games. However, in a weak AFC this team still will be a force. The passing attack is loaded with TE Rob Gronkowski (1,124), Julian Edleman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola.

The offensive line gets even better with Florida State guard Tre Jackson and the defensive line adds first-round pick NT Malcolm Brown, a nice surprise expected to go higher. That leaves only the secondary for Bill Belichick to focus on, which lost star power and a lot of depth. Don’t underestimate this group, as Trent Dilfer did last September when the Chiefs bombed them 41-14 (“The Patriots aren’t good anymore”).