In the NFL, the middle is a tricky place to be.
Winners are winners and losers are losers, and a record that places a team squarely in one category or the other can provide a certain amount of clarity moving forward. Teams that win as much as they lose, however, wind up in a no man's land of mediocrity.
History hasn't been especially kind to 8-8 teams. Of the 22 teams that posted .500 records from 2008 to 2012, just six improved the following season (and just three of those made the playoffs), while five teams stayed at 8-8. Half, meanwhile, did worse. And 10 of the 22 squads failed to win more than six games. Of course, that isn't to say you can't get anywhere from 8-8 -- three of the past 14 Super Bowl-winning teams had .500 records the year before (the 2009 New Orleans Saints, the 2007 New York Giants and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens).
Last season, six teams finished at 8-8: the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. As we look ahead to the 2014 campaign, I thought I'd attempt to predict which of these squads will improve, which will stay even and which will slip. Here's how I see things shaking out:
GOING DOWN ...
The Cowboys have epitomized mediocrity recently, finishing 8-8 for three straight seasons. I was all set to pencil them in to finally win nine -- and then linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL during Tuesday's OTA session. Lee simply is Dallas' defense. He's such a force as both a leader and a playmaker, someone who seems to make everyone around him better. If he's out for the season, as is expected, it will be a severe blow to this team, likely costing it a win or two.
One positive for the Cowboys is that, unlike when Lee missed time last season, they have some options to replace him, starting with rookie Anthony Hitchens. Iowa's defensive MVP and leading tackler last season is an active -- if undersized -- guy. He's also a relative newcomer to the position, and it might take some time for him to learn everything he has to learn at the pro level. At least Lee's injury came early enough for Dallas to formulate a plan to account for his loss, either by doing a big job on Hitchens or by finding someone else. Perhaps the Cowboys could coax former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who knows defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's system, out of retirement.
As for the rest of the roster, new offensive play-caller Scott Linehan should help significantly, especially when it comes to running the ball more effectively. If the Cowboys had fielded a better ground attack last season, they could've won 10 games. Consider the Week 15 defeat to the Packers, in which Dallas was up by 23 at the half but lost because of an inability to run. This area of the game will be crucial when it comes to keeping the Cowboys' defense off the field. The offensive line, meanwhile, is on an upward trajectory; a unit that gave up just 35 sacks last season is getting yet another young talent in first-round pick Zack Martin, one year after the team used a first-rounder on center Travis Frederick. And while back issues typically concern me, Dallas seems to be confident quarterback Tony Romo will be able to perform after having offseason surgery. I do know he's mentally tough and will play through whatever pain he might encounter.
Predicted win total: Seven.
STUCK IN NEUTRAL
New York Jets
This team is an enigma. How the Jets could be outscored by 97 points while posting a turnover differential of -14 and still manage to finish 8-8 is very hard to explain.
Geno Smith is the key in New York. Of the Jets' 29 turnovers in 2013, Smith contributed a whopping 25. For what it's worth, he did cut down on such gaffes toward the end of the year, giving up just two picks over a 3-1 stretch to close things out. And, of course, he didn't have much in the way of help, so the Jets added a number of offensive pieces, including receiver Eric Decker, running back Chris Johnson and lineman Breno Giacomini. Smith's ability -- or failure -- to take advantage of those pieces will determine the course of the Jets' season.
New York also picked up some helpful assets in the draft, adding safety Calvin Pryor and underrated cornerback Dexter McDougle to a pass defense that ranked 22nd last season. Additionally, they grabbed some prospects who could further help the offense in tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Jalen Saunders. The latter actually reminds me of Saints first-round pick Brandin Cooks in terms of quickness, but Saunders is lighter and didn't have the same kind of production in college.
Still, everything's riding on Smith, which makes the situation with Michael Vick especially interesting. Vick had been saying all the right things about being a backup -- that is, until he volunteered his opinion that he could take the Jets to the Super Bowl. A split on this team could be catastrophic.
Predicted win total: Eight.
With Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte leading the way, Chicago's offense had a prolific 2013, scoring at a clip of 27.8 points per game, the second-best mark in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Bears, their defense allowed their opponents to be even more prolific; Chicago gave up 29.9 points per game, among the worst rates in the league. The Bears also had the NFL's worst run defense, yielding 161.4 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry, and struggled to bring down the passer, finishing with a league-low 31 sacks.
Chicago's big offseason task, then, was to shore up the defense. And to that end, I think they did a great job in free agency, adding talents like Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston; Houston, in fact, was probably the Oakland Raiders' best defensive player last season. As for the draft, Chicago used its first-round pick on Kyle Fuller, whom I expect will contribute immediately as a third cornerback, and turned to the line in the second round, grabbing LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, who projects as an eventual starter. Finally, new defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni is very, very good at what he does, and will be a boon to the unit. With a better defense supporting their explosive offense, the Bears should make a sizable leap in 2014.
Predicted win total: 10.
After stumbling to an 0-4 start in which they were outscored by 41 points, the Steelers pulled themselves together in a major way last season, rallying to an 8-4 record the rest of the way and falling just short of a playoff berth. I think Pittsburgh already was better than its 2013 record indicated, and that was before the team made a series of moves to address some of its weaknesses.
Like the Bears, the Steelers need to do a better job stopping the run. They also must tighten up the protection for Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 42 times in 2013. Free-agent signee Cam Thomas will help with the former issue, while new offensive line coach Mike Munchak will make a huge difference when it comes to Big Ben safeguarding. As for Pittsburgh's draft haul, linebacker Ryan Shazier will provide an instant impact; in fact, I see the first-round pick as a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. This team has a way of getting the most out of guys like Shazier and fellow defensive rookie Stephon Tuitt. And while the offense did lose receiver Emmanuel Sanders to free agency, the talented Antonio Brown is still on the roster. Plus, Pittsburgh can expect to have a full season with tight end Heath Miller.
If the Steelers played just about anywhere besides the AFC North, I would pencil them in for at least 10 wins. However, they are stuck in the same division as the Ravens and Bengals, so I can't be quite that optimistic.
Predicted win total: Nine.
In the 2012 playoffs, Joe Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions en route to helping the Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII. Last season, he was picked off 22 times -- three more times than he found the end zone. Baltimore's attempt to break the 8-8 barrier in 2014 hinges largely on which version of Flacco takes the field.
A few things should be working in Flacco's favor, including the addition of veteran receiver Steve Smith; I consider that move to be among the steals of the offseason. Yes, the Carolina Panthers castoff is 35 years old, but he's a competitive guy who will catch the kinds of passes that fell incomplete (or were intercepted) in 2013. Having tight end Dennis Pitta healthy also helps Flacco a great deal. Pitta, who missed 12 games in 2013 with a hip injury, made so many of the big, drive-continuing plays that kept the Ravens going during their Super Bowl run.
Beyond Flacco, Baltimore has an excellent special teams unit, plus a top-notch kicker in Justin Tucker, who missed just three of his 41 field-goal attempts in 2013, and a very good punter in Sam Koch. Running back Ray Rice, meanwhile, must do better than his 3.1-yards-per-carry rate from last season -- and that's aside from whatever discipline he might face in the wake of his recent issues off the field. The team helped itself in the draft, adding several players who could bolster the defense, including excellent linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Terrence Brooks and defensive linemen Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban.
Predicted win total: Nine.
This is the year Ryan Tannehill has to show he can improve, namely by cutting down on interceptions thrown and sacks taken. Yes, adding Branden Albert to the offensive line will help, but the fact remains that some of the league-leading 58 sacks given up by the Dolphins last season were Tannehill's fault; it looked like he held the ball too long at times. Fortunately for the Dolphins, I think Tannehill has the capacity to grow as a quarterback and take care of these issues. Miami also will need to get more from receiver Mike Wallace, who managed just 12.7 yards per catch -- not commensurate with the big-money contract the team gave him last offseason.
Of course, even with an offense that ranked 27th in the NFL in 2013, Miami still managed to hang in the playoff hunt late into the season. In 2014, we can expect the Dolphins' attack to bring much more pizazz, thanks to their secret weapon: new coordinator Bill Lazor. He's a sharp up-and-comer who can have a transformative effect on this squad.
Predicted win total: Nine.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.