BY SAM SPIEGELMAN
Every NFL season contains its share of surprising teams and disappointing teams. Who will fall into those categories in 2014?
Aside from the Denver Broncos, which team in the AFC is truly a lock to win its division or lock up a playoff spot? Conversely, the NFC is chock-full of contenders, and with so much talent throughout the conference some teams are primed to be left on the outside looking in come January.
Here's a look at five teams that are poised to take a step forward this season, whether it's a stronger record or reaching the playoffs:
1. Washington Redskins (3-13)
Consider Robert Griffin III a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year and Jay Gruden in the race for Coach of the Year.
Mike Shanahan is finally out of the nation's capital, and 'Skins fans are rejoicing at the idea of an offensive-minded guy putting RGIII in a scheme where it seems inevitable he'll succeed. Oh, and consider he now has a weaponry of Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed to spread the field, and Alfred Morris in the backfield to throw off opposing defenses.
Washington is still a bit defensively challenged, but it's still primed to have more than three wins. In fact, the NFC East as a whole improved, but don't count the 'Skins out of the division race.
2. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
Aaron Rodgers is healthy. Clay Matthews is healthy. Randall Cobb is healthy. Need I say more?
Green Bay managed to win the division last year with Matt Flynn and Seneca Wallace sharing time under center. This winter the team added Julius Peppers and re-signed its top three defensive backs, and as I alluded to before, three key cogs are back to full health to start the year off.
Of course, the Pack plays in a mighty tough NFC North, but should prove to be the class of the division.
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
A .500 mark is considered a down year for the Ravens, and I expect their ceiling to be much higher in 2014.
All reports out of the Charm City indicate Joe Flacco is going to thrive in Gary Kubiak's offense and the team is expected to re-discover its ground game. Defensively, the team added C.J. Mosley to a championship-caliber unit.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will also be competitive in 2014, but the Ravens seemed to get to 8-8 despite lackluster seasons from its key players. If those stars can turn it around, this team has a shot as re-taking the division.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
A popular choice to succeed in recent years, Tampa Bay is now under the leadership of Lovie Smith and a very strong cast of characters, including new quarterback Josh McCown. The issue for the Bucs is that they play in a very strong NFC South, where the New Orleans Saints are the class of the division and both Carolina and Atlanta could be competitive.
Tampa's offense should be dynamic if McCown continues playing as he did with Chicago. He has the Twin Towers in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, plus tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a healthy Doug Martin in the backfield. And you can count on Smith to get the Bucs' defense back into shape and be among the best in the division.
The Bucs will improve in 2014, but is still probably a year or two away from making a run at the division crown.
5. San Diego Chargers (9-7)
The Bolts got the nod here over the Chicago Bears, solely because of the division each team plays in.
Both the Chargers and Bears will be better record-wise in 2014, but the Chargers have the benefit of playing the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders twice, while Chicago has to go up against the Pack, Detroit Lions, and Minnesota Vikings.
Mike McCoy is one of my favorite head coaches. He's an offensive genius. And his defense fixed its major weakness this offseason: the secondary. When healthy, it's a multifaceted offense and dynamic front seven. That could spell playoffs again in 2014.
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