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NFL: Answers to six key questions for 2015


The Sports Xchange

We are finally in the homestretch of one of the biggest downer offseasons in NFL history.

A downer, that is, unless you enjoy hearing that Adrian Peterson doesn’t want to play for the Vikings, or that Ray Rice just wants to play or that Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald are innocent, or that, well, maybe footballs should be stuffed instead of blown up.

In fact, speaking of blowing up, a lot of folks probably would like to blow up this entire offseason, and we’re going to sort of do that with a look ahead to training camps next month. Thankfully.

It will be hard to avoid the headlines as all the offseason drama, headlined by Tom Brady’s appeal, plays out, but let’s try. We’ll make the leap from one season to the next by asking questions (the easy part) and trying to answer them (the difficult part), and sticking strictly to actual football.

And in keeping with the new rule aimed at making the seventh point — the PAT — more difficult, we’ll limit our questions to six, a touchdown’s worth.

Here we go.

1. Which team has improved the most since last year?

Buffalo. The big issue for the Bills now will be to get their quarterback situation straightened out — and remember, that’s something Rex Ryan never quite accomplished with the Jets. But with LeSean McCoy to run the ball and Percy Harvin to catch it, the Bills added significant firepower to an offense that ranked 25th in the league last year. Buffalo took a couple of hits on defense, but a better offense should cover that up.

2. Which team has fallen the most since last year?

San Francisco. The loss of coach Jim Harbaugh by itself was a huge blow, given the difference Harbaugh made after the team’s last several coaches. But the 49ers also took a bunch of hits in losing such key team leaders as Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore plus two veteran starters off their offensive line.

3. Who made the best hire among new coaches?

Atlanta. Dan Quinn, going back to before his days as a defensive line coach with the 49ers, long has appeared to be a coaching star on the rise. It won’t be hard for him to improve a defense that ranked dead last in the league a year ago, and quarterback Matt Ryan ought to benefit by using his mobility in new coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

4. Which coach is on the hottest hot seat in 2015?

You probably thought we would say Jim Tomsula of the 49ers, but the fact is that management hitched itself to Tomsula when it pushed Jim Harbaugh out the door, so while Tomsula may take some heat from the media and outsiders, he is in a relatively safe spot with ownership. Not so, however, for Joe Philbin of the Dolphins, who many thought might not survive after last season. Miami went all-in in free agency, landing Ndamukong Suh among others, and with big bucks being poured into stadium upgrades, hard to think that owner Stephen Ross will put up with a third straight .500 season.

5. Which 2014 division champion faces the most difficulty?

Denver. The Broncos offensive line was a little unsettled even before left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season, and yes, we know that Peyton Manning can get rid of the ball as quickly as anyone who ever played quarterback. But Manning is 39 now, coming off a sub-par season in which he really began to show his age late in the year. You are reminded of all the great quarterbacks who stuck around a year too long and wonder if Manning will manage to avoid getting his name on that list.

6. Which non-playoff team from last year has the most potential for success?

Minnesota. A team’s chance for success depends not only on what it does but on its opponents, and even though Buffalo should be much improved — if it can fix the quarterback spot — the Bills still have New England standing in their way. Yes, the Vikings have Green Bay in their path, but at some point that defense seems to catch up with the Packers (although last year it did not happen until the final moments of the NFC championship game). With a year under his belt, Teddy Bridgewater looks like a keeper, and once he realizes he is stuck in Minnesota, look for a big year from Adrian Peterson.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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