The 2015 season is over. Congratulations to the Denver Broncos for putting together a great season. Enjoy your moment, eat your cake, but make it quick because it's time to get back to work. That's right - we are all about the 2016 NFL season now.
For the Dallas Cowboys, the new season will bring about some new hope. Coming off the heels of a 4-12 season, one might think a long, bumpy road lies ahead - but that is just "stinkin thinkin." Don't try to kid yourself - you're excited. With a couple star players returning to the offense, the Cowboys have a reason to be optimistic for a potential return to the post season. Yesterday, Dave Halprin mentioned that the Vegas odds makers have the Cowboys at 16:1 for winning Super Bowl 51, which ranks them 9th best out of all the teams in the league. That's pretty good for a team that gets to pick #4 overall in April's draft. The Cowboys have better odds that the reigning NFC East division champions, Washington Redskins. They also have better odds that three other teams that made the playoffs in 2015 (Minnesota, Kansas City, and Houston). Now, odds makers take into account people tendencies and the Cowboys have a huge fan base so they can get away with tweaking the numbers, but it is not unrealistic to suggest the Cowboys could be right in the thick of thinks this upcoming season.
Rising Star: DE, DeMarcus Lawrence. If he picks up where he left off last season, it's going to mean good things for Dallas.
Key Free Agent: DE, Greg Hardy. He's still young and he's still good. He's going to make some defense better.
So if the Cowboys are sitting in ninth place at the moment, what are the teams that should have Cowboys fans worried the most? Here are the odds on favorites to be champions next season:
8. Cincinnati Bengals (14:1)
The Bengals were on a tear in the first half of 2015, winning all eight of their games. They went .500 the second half, finishing at 12-4. They had a great shot to win their Wild Card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a late fumble and a couple bonehead penalties gave the game away. Andy Dalton has always been the little red engine that almost could, but last year - he had it going on. Despite missing the final three regular season games, he had the best season of his career with a QB rating of 106.2, 25 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. And Cincinnati's defense was the stingiest in the AFC, allowing only 17.4 points per game.
Rising Stars: We all know about Geno Aktins on the inside of their defensive line, but Carlos Dunlap wreaked havoc from the outside. His sack totals continue to rise with each year and he had 13.5 last season. At the young age of 26, this first time Pro-Bowler is going to be a force for years to come.
Key Free Agents: CB, Leon Hall and Adam Jones. The Bengals have a couple of veteran corners who are still playing extremely well.
7. Denver Broncos (14:1)
It's not often that the defending Super Bowl champs are this far down on the list. The Broncos defense put on a clinic on Sunday. Sure, Peyton Manning may retire, but that shouldn't diminish Denver's chances to defend their title. Manning struggled last year and the new kid, Brock Osweiler should be able to step in and do no worse. This team will again ride it's strong defense with Pro Bowl corners and Pro Bowl pass rushers. DeMarcus Ware will most likely be cut for salary cap reasons, but this defense will still be very strong.
Rising Stars: CB, Chris Harris. Two straight Pro Bowl seasons for this 26-year old.
Key Free Agents: Von Miller's agent is finally going to be able to afford that nice beach house he wanted, but after Miller's the Super Bowl performance, he might as well throw in a pet giraffe. Von is an absolute beast.
6. Carolina Panthers (10:1)
I'm surprised they're not the front runners for next season. The league's MVP, Cam Newton led his team to a 15-1 regular season record with the top scoring offense in the league. The defense led the league in takeaways. They are a great football team on both sides of the ball.
Rising Star: WR, Kelvin Benjamin. Having the top scoring offense was impressive, but doing it without your star wide receiver is shocking. Benjamin had over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns his rookie season. Adding him to the mix is going to be scary.
Key Free Agent: CB, Josh Norman. The fourth -year player came out of nowhere and established himself as one of the better corners in the league.
5. Arizona Cardinals (10:1)
The Cardinals were on a tear late in the year when they strung together nine straight victories. They finished 13-3, earning a first round bye and gave their fans a memorable playoff victory against the Green Packers. The ageless Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald anchored the offense. The Cards defense was strong too, finishing in the top 10 in points allowed and yards per game.
Rising Star: RB, David Johnson. He had 12 touchdowns, despite only having 75% of the touches that Chris Johnson had. This rookie running back took full advantage of his opportunities last season and should get plenty more of them in 2016.
Key Free Agent: S, Rashad Johnson. Solid contributor for a strong secondary.
4. Green Bay Packers (10-1)
Aaron Rodgers really missed Jordy Nelson as the Packers star quarterback had one of his weaker seasons. He finished with his lowest QB rating since becoming the starter of the Packers. Of course, don't get too excited as he still threw 30 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. If this was Eli Manning, it would be one of his best seasons.
Rising Star: CB, Ha Ha Clinton Dix. The Packers have a lot of young talent in the secondary, but the young safety can hurt you in both the passing game and running game.
Key Free Agent: CB, Casey Hayward. With several young guys playing for a lot cheaper. Hayward's price might put him out of Green Bay.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8:1)
The resiliency of the Steelers this season was impressive. After losing their star running back, Le'Veon Bell to a torn MCL, the Steelers kept cruising along. DeAngelo Williams filled in nicely and Pittsburgh's wide receiver, Antonio Brown has earned himself the title as the league's top WR. His yardage totals for the last three years are 1,499, 1,698, and 1,834. Next year could be 2,000.
Rising Star: Martavis Bryant. He's overshadowed by Brown, but this kid is a very good receiver. He made one of the better catches I have ever seen.
Not a bad TD catch by Martavis Bryant https://t.co/hWuJjJ5tD6— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorpNBC) January 10, 2016
Key Free Agent: Kelvin Beachum. The Steelers offensive line has really started to take shape. Beachum is coming off an ACL injury, but he's a talented, young left tackle.
2. New England Patriots (8:1)
Not surprising the Patriots are one of the top teams. They always win stuff. Bill Belichick and company keep cycling in good players year after year. The Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski combo is fierce, but you can add Julian Edelman to the clique. Two's company, three's a touchdown. The Patriots might have found themselves a good running back prospect with Dion Lewis. He got hurt in week nine, but before his injury he was a monster in the receiving game. That's what the Patriots look for in running backs (ala Shane Vereen).
Rising Star: DE, Chandler Jones. The Patriots have another young talent in Jamie Collins on the edge, but Jones is 25 and led the team with 13.5 sacks.
Key Free Agents: None. Oh, they have free agents, but nobody they'd sweat losing. The more interesting question is - what key free agents will they pick up?
1. Seattle Seahawks (8:1)
When the Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham, I expected it to catapult the Hawks offense. It didn't. But that didn't stop Russell Wilson from throwing for over 4,000 yards. He had 34 touchdowns, and 14 of them went to Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks defense is still the staple of their team, but they've added some offense to the mix. They started slow, but finished the regular season scoring 30+ points in six of their last eight games.
Rising Star: WR, Tyler Lockett. The speedster is a Percy Harvin clone, only healthy.
Key Free Agent: OLB, Bruce Irvin. The Seahawks pass rush is built on a solid core of rotational rushers. Can they really afford to let one of their key guys go?
Which team do you think should be the favorite to win the Super Bowl?