Just crystal ball, baby.
If Al Davis was a prognosticator, or an NFL.com hack like me, that would be his slogan. That said, building a winner in the 1970s seems a whole lot easier than predicting one in the 2000s. The Salary Cap Era is truly its own line of demarcation in the annals of pro football, in that the haves and have-nots are decided by the slimmest of margins ... with turnovers, quarterback play and injuries being the usual suspects when it comes to determinants.
What if we split the difference? Below we've taken all of the NFC teams and predicted the pie-in-the-sky ceilings as well as the everything-gets-blown-to-hell scenarios -- a Dave Dameshek special. What are the key things that must happen for the Chicago Bears to be the best they can possibly be in 2014 (11-5), and what factors could turn that record almost upside down?
That's what we've endeavored to unearth. Keep in mind, possible future injuries are not discussed prominently here, as it is well understood that an injury to Colin Kaepernick or Peyton Manning could turn a season on its ear. No, the only injuries listed are those that are already a concern -- like Tony Romo's back.
Ceiling: 10-6. Let's be honest, it would take a near miracle for a team with this bad of a defense to finish with 10 wins. Romo's back has to hold up without any problems, and he must repeat his 30-plus-touchdown-and-limited-interception performance from 2013. Romo won't be able to do it alone, as running back DeMarco Murray will need to put up 1,250 rushing yards and 10 TDs in this possible playoff scenario. Most importantly, Nick Foles needs to take a step back in Philadelphia, Robert Griffin III needs to mimic Year 2 over Year 1, and Eli Manning needs to play like, well, last year's Eli Manning. If all that happens, Dallas might sniff 10 wins.
Floor: 3-13. It's hard to imagine a team with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Romo and Murray to fall this far, but even getting back to 8-8 will be a stretch. Worst-case scenario: The Cowboys' defense struggles more than last year, and Romo's back doesn't hold up, forcing Brandon Weeden to try and keep pace in weekly track meets.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Ceiling: 10-6.I admit, 10 wins is a bit generous. But, remember, this is if everything goes mostly right ... starting with Eli completing passes to his own team. If Manning can get the protection he needs and turn his frown upside down, well, the G-Men could do some things. Rashad Jennings needs to post 1,100 rushing yards and 55 catches if the Giants are going to pull down double-digit wins. And the return of pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul to 100 percent health (and dominant play) cannot be underestimated.
Floor: 5-11. I cannot imagine a Tom Coughlin-led team finishing with fewer than five wins. The Giants certainly could make an interesting case for 5-11 if ... Manning turns the ball over 30 times like he did last year or in 2010, Jennings fails to deliver, and rookies Andre Williams and Odell Beckham fail to give the club production (especially Beckham). And if the D-line and linebackers fail to hold their own, the offense simply won't score the necessary 25-to-30 points per game to stay with the Eagles or Cowboys. Also, the Redskins' offense and defense should be much better in 2014.
Ceiling: 12-4.If the defense shows general improvement in Year 2 of Bill Davis' scheme, Malcolm Jenkins provides an upgrade at safety and the pass rush is more consistent, look out NFC. The 12-4 mark presumes that Foles continues on his torrid run from last year, when he ranked first in the NFL (yes, over Peyton Manning) with a 119.4 quarterback rating. In the 12-4 scenario, running back Darren Sproles and rookie receiver Jordan Matthews provide some of the big plays lost with DeSean Jackson's departure.
Floor: 7-9. It's difficult to see this team finishing much lower than 7-9. Even if Nick Foles regresses, which -- despite a shaky preseason start in Chicago -- doesn't look to be happening, there are plenty of weapons in Chip Kelly's system to put points on the board. What the Eagles cannot afford is another year of poor play in the secondary, especially if outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Trent Cole add little to the pass rush, and Eli Manning and RGIII play much better than they did last season.
Ceiling: 11-5. Washington has a made over roster, and, if all the dominoes fall perfectly, this team could take the NFC East crown with double-digit wins. DeSean Jackson needs to give the Redskins 18 yards per catch on 45 to 55 receptions. Pierre Garcon needs to come close to repeating last year's 100 catches. And, of course, the distributor, RGIII, can't be throwing balls across his body consistently with poor footwork like he did versus Joe Haden in Week 2 of the preseason. For this scenario to play out, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan need to combine for 23 sacks and the safeties must perform adequately.
Floor: 5-11. The wheels could fall off this season if Jay Gruden's offense crashes in the minds of his players, and tight end Jordan Reed and slot receiver Andre Roberts don't provide a boost on third down. And the team could really bottom out if RGIII devolves further from his rookie exploits in 2013. (Anyone watch the Ravens game?) Throw in defensive lineman Jason Hatcher hitting the career wall at 32 years old, and five wins could be an eventuality.
Ceiling: 11-5.Jay Cutler throws for 4,600 yards, 36 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Alshon Jeffery gets even better from last year's oft-spectacular 1,421-yard receiving campaign. Matt Forte's knees and body hold up over what's sure to be another 300-touch season. The Bears also need to at least split with the Packers and Lions, sweep the Vikings, and win three of four vs. the AFC East, as well.
Floor: 6-10.I see little chance of the Bears finishing anything worse than 7-9, but in this rock-bottom scenario, Cutler fails to live up to his contract -- or even Josh McCown's performance from last year. The offensive line, which made great strides last season, ends up taking a step toward the Jerry Angelo days. Yet, all that aside, the most important determining factor of whether Chicago fails in 2014 is the play of defenders Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Jon Bostic. The defense was terrible last season, especially against the run. And against the Seahawksthe other night. Holy cow.
Ceiling: 10-6.Reggie Bush and Joique Bell combine for 1,800 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, allowing the season's outcome to fall somewhere besides on Matthew Stafford's shoulders. Even the most positive Lions fan must acknowledge Stafford's play has been inconsistent the past two seasons. In a division as strong on offense as the NFC North figures to be, the defensive front we have all heard about -- ad nauseum -- must impose its will. If Ndamukong Suh is a consistent force, and Ziggy Ansah grows up in Year 2, it could happen. Golden Tate putting up 800 yards and six touchdowns sure sounds nice, too.
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Floor: 5-11. An already so-so secondary stinks up the joint, as second-year pro Darius Slay fails to capitalize on his promising talent. On offense, five wins could come courtesy of Stafford continuing his recent trend of locking on Megatron in certain situations, throwing off his back foot and turning the ball over at extremely inopportune times (see: last year's home loss versus the Ravens). Tate and rookie tight end Eric Ebron drop a Brandon Pettigrew-esque amount of passes, suffering the No. 2 syndrome in Detroit ... which is to say there has been no No. 2 in Detroit for some time.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Ceiling: 13-3. With games in New Orleans and Seattle, and the whole NFC North figuring to be better in 2014, 13 wins is pie-in-the-sky stuff for this club. More likely: 10 or 11 wins. That said, if Aaron Rodgers has another 45:6 TD-to-INT ratio this season (like he did three years ago), and Eddie Lacy piles up 1,350 rushing yards, the Pack will be fighting for its fifth Lombardi Trophy. The defense merely needs to hold its own, particularly the secondary, and limit the big plays. Green Bay allowed 77 plays of 20-plus yards last year, tied for fifth worst. In 2011, it was worst in the league, and the Packers still went 15-1.
Floor: 8-8. Rodgers continues his penchant for holding the ball too long in key situations, taking an unnecessary hit that pulls him out of the lineup again. (We are avoiding injuries in most scenarios, but given Rodgers' missed time last year, it must be mentioned.) Live to play another down, brother. Clay Matthews has to be available for his team, as well. Last year, the star linebacker missed nearly a third of the season, posting just 7.5 sacks and 4.5 hurries in 11 games. In the eight-win scenario, the run defense struggles mightily again (25th last year), consistently putting struggling offenses like the Vikings' unit in third-and-manageables. Bear in mind, the Packers already have sustained some significant injuries in the preseason.
Ceiling: 9-7.Matt Cassel must play like a man fighting for his career -- helping Minnesota beat the Rams, Falcons, Lions (twice), Jets, Bills, Dolphins, and split with the Bears and Packers -- for the Vikings to reach this mark. Adrian Peterson runs for more than 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns. Cordarrelle Patterson becomes a certifiable big-play threat in his sophomore season -- like he was against the Chiefs on Saturday night. Oh, and that defense ... Mike Zimmer will have to motivate a unit devoid of established difference-makers, much like he did in Cincinnati before guys like Vontaze Burfict came into their own. That starts with Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.
Floor: 3-13. Minnesota suffers through Cassel's early-season struggles and subsequent benching, Bridgewater's mistakes and a defense that repeats its lackluster 2013 performance (when it allowed a staggering 30 points per game). If Peterson starts showing some wear and tear, and Patterson and Kyle Rudolph don't progress in their young careers, Minnesota won't be able to score enough to take pressure off its defense.
Ceiling: 10-6. So much has to go right for the Falcons to make it to 10-6. Matt Ryan needs to receive great protection from his offensive line, starting with rookie Jake Matthews, who's been thrust into the left tackle spot because of Sam Baker's season-ending injury. Devonta Freeman takes over at running back, boosting the offense enough so Ryan doesn't have to throw 45 times per game, and Julio Jones and Roddy White don't both need 100-yard performances each week. The defense has to be viable, unlike last year, when the unit ranked 27th.
Floor: 5-11. We don't think the Falcons will repeat last year's 4-12 performance. If they are to come close, however, it will be because the front seven won't be able to stop backs like Gio Bernard (Week 2), Adrian Peterson (Week 4) or Eddie Lacy (Week 14) from running right through them. Atlanta allowed 4.78 yards per rush in 2013. If cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant fail to improve in their sophomore season, it could be a looong campaign in the Georgia Dome -- the front line remains one of the weaker units in pro football.
Ceiling: 12-4. Repeating last year's performance in the NFC South will be a tall task. But if rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin and Cam Newton develop chemistry to the tune of 8-to-10 touchdowns, DeAngelo Williams adds consistent pop in the run game, and Jonathan Stewart adds his availability to the team more often, Carolina will be in decent shape. Throw in defensive tackle Kawann Short playing more snaps and becoming a disruptive force, and this will be winner winner chicken dinner for an already imposing defense. And, of course, Riverboat Ron's string of successful risk-taking continues.
Floor: 8-8. The Panthers' defense is simply too strong for the team to slip below the .500 abyss this season. For 8-8, Luke Kuechly would have to show us he is mortal, and the Panthers' vaunted pass rush wouldn't do enough to hide a mediocre secondary. Newton would have to play like he did in the playoffs last season virtually all of this year (while still unfortunately being the team's leading rusher). Finally, offensive tackle Byron Bell proves to not be an adequate replacement for the retired Jordan Gross.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Ceiling: 12-4.The NFC South will not be as weak as it was in 2013, with both Atlanta and Tampa Bay approaching .500. The Saints' offensive machine will be relying on a rookie wide receiver in Brandin Cooks to fill some of the void created by Darren Sproles' departure. So, in order to win 12 games, Cooks will need to grow up fast, while Drew Brees will still have to play at an All-Pro level. Meanwhile, in the 12-win scenario, Rob Ryan's defense repeats its top-five performance from one year ago.
*Floor: 9-7. *Sorry, but we can't envision any scenario (outside of injury to Brees) where New Orleans fails to finish with a winning record. Kenny Vaccaro and/or Jairus Byrd have to flop in their first year together in New Orleans' secondary. Marques Colston has to hit the career wall in Year 9. The running game also has to fail, starting with Mark Ingram losing all the momentum he's built this preseason. Lastly, Ryan's unit has to prove to be smoke and mirrors, struggling to find the most effective personnel groupings.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Ceiling: 10-6. Josh McCown comes out dealing, starting the season with the same success he enjoyed last year in Chicago. Defenders Alterraun Verner and Michael Johnson turn out to be smart signings by the front office. Doug Martin shows he is closer to the 1,400-yard back he was in 2012 than the guy who averaged 3.6 yards per rush last year before his season-ending injury. Most imperatively, Lovie Smith succeeds in changing a culture that frankly has been off-kilter for at least five years now. The offensive line -- devoid of Carl Nicks -- would have to step it up considerably. (Editor's Note: The Bucs traded for guard Logan Mankins on Tuesday.) Ditto the pass rush, which hasn't finished in the top 15 in sacks in 10 years.
*Floor: 4-12. *The McCown experiment looks more like the quarterback's Arizona days 2.0, with the whole ship listing in its wake. Vincent Jackson fails to reach 800 yards receiving, while rookie Mike Evans struggles adjusting to the pro game. Bobby Rainey out-rushes Martin by several hundred yards. And perhaps most unrealistically, but still worth noting because of its devastating effect: Lavonte David's play slips to the point that his dominant 2013 performance looks to be a flash in the pan.
Ceiling: 11-5.Carson Palmer forgets that he is Carson Palmer and throws for 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Andre Ellington rushes for 1,150 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season as the lead back. Larry Fitzgerald posts his first 1,000-yard season since 2011. And the defense doesn't miss Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby or Darnell Dockett. Oh, and Arizona splits with Seattle, while sweeping San Francisco and St. Louis. That's how this club gets to 11 wins.
Floor: 7-9. Washington's year-long suspension and Dockett's injury cause the middle of the Cardinals' defense to be soft, while Palmer throws 20 interceptions and is incapable of putting the team on his back. In the 7-9 scenario, Ellington becomes the latest chapter in the Cruddy Express that has been the Cards' running game since the days of Ottis Anderson and Stump Mitchell. We should note that Bruce Arians has proven to be a good enough head coach, and the Cards' depth chart is strong enough that it is seriously doubtful this club drops more than nine games.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Ceiling: 9-7.For the Rams to win nine games, Shaun Hill would have to pull some kind of Warnerian feat, replacing the injured Sam Bradford in the same manner Kurt Warner filled in for Trent Green in 1999. Of course, that also means Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt would have to seriously amp up their games and reach Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt levels. Even if the Rams fall a little short of those prerequisites, their defense is certainly capable of being a top-10 unit that keeps the club in games -- particularly at home. The NFC West is just the wrong division to be in at this point in time.
Floor: 2-14. While it is extremely doubtful St. Louis will fall to these depths, it did happen to the Houston Texans last season, right? Hill could certainly reprise Matt Schaub's uninspiring 2013 performance, and with a few tough losses and injuries, it would be easy to see this club sliding into the abyss. While 6-10 is more likely, the top-pick-in-the-draft possibility comes into play with all the ifs and questions ... How does the club sustain the loss of Bradford? Will the West be as strong as it was in 2013? Can Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin step it up? What if Jake Long struggles coming back from injury?
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Ceiling: 12-4.This is one of the more wild swings in the whole ceiling/floor exercise. In the 12-win scenario, Colin Kaepernick plays much better than he has in the preseason, providing the brand of dual-threat excitement (and effectiveness) he did against the Packers in the 2012 Playoffs. Justin Smith plays 16 games at an All-Pro level, while Aldon Smith stays on the straight-and-narrow path ... to the quarterback, posting a bunch of sacks. NaVorro Bowman is still his Pro Bowl self when he's activated off the PUP list, while safety Eric Reid becomes an All-Pro in Year 2.
Floor: 6-10.Frank Gore runs like Shaun Alexander and Larry Johnson from their Redskins days. (That's no bueno.) Carlos Hyde fails to deliver on his preseason hype, causing the run game to flounder. The malaise under which the first-team defense has played this August continues into the regular season, with the Niners losing both games to the 'Hawks and Cardinals, and dropping three more -- to the Broncos, Chargers and Chiefs. Perhaps most importantly, the corners are unable stop anybody -- which has been a concern all offseason. It's on you, Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock.
Ceiling: 14-2.With the way the rest of the NFC West is shaping up, it is getting easier to see the Seahawks running away with the division. San Francisco has looked mostly lousy in the preseason, the Cardinals have lost key personnel and the Rams are without their starting quarterback. In the 14-2 scenario, Seattle sweeps its division, sweeps the NFC East, wins three out of four against the AFC West, and splits its other two games: Green Bay and Carolina.
Floor: 10-6. The defense won't allow this club to go 8-8. And when you consider the team's quality ground attack and solid special teams unit, Russell Wilson would have to morph into RWIII, playing like his Class of 2012 counterpart did last season in D.C. for the 'Hawks to absolutely fall flat. The Percy Harvin addition would turn out to be a flop in this scenario. Perhaps the loss of depth on D (Chris Clemons is now with the Jags) could result in a few nail-biters for the team. But, 10-6 is as low as we're willing to go.