I know some of you hate people like me who go on about Football Manager a lot, but this is actually quite fun. I’ve set up a non-interventionist game on Football Manager 2014 – I’m just letting it run of its own accord and waiting to see what happens. It’s been quite entertaining so far – entertaining in a “this is so crazy it can’t possibly happen” way, and also in a “this is so crazy it probably will happen” way.
- While Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea helped themselves to the League Cup and then the Champions League, with wins over Stoke and PSG in the respective finals, and Manchester United took their first trophy under David Moyes in the FA Cup, Manchester City and Arsenal battled over the Premier League. City held a six-point lead with three games to go, but first lost to Tottenham, and then dramatically on the final day to Chelsea in a 3-2 thriller, handing the championship to the Gunners on goal difference.
- Chelsea finished 3rd, ahead of Manchester United and Tottenham. Liverpool finished 5th after sacking Brendan Rodgers in November; he was replaced by Swansea’s Michael Laudrup, who in turn was replaced by Martin O’Neill, the Northern Irishman guiding the club to its first FA Cup Final.
- At the bottom end of the Premier League, Crystal Palace were long gone by the end, and Hull and West Ham eventually joined them. Sunderland narrowly escaped.
- Player of the Year went to Chelsea’s Juan Mata, though team mate Eden Hazard was the Players’ Player of the Year. The top scorer was Olivier Giroud, and Arsene Wenger won Manager of the Year. The biggest transfer of the season was Manchester City’s summer purchase of Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane.
- The Championship was won by Reading, who edged Wigan into 2nd. Leicester were promoted via the play-offs, beating Barnsley 3-0 in the final. Yeovil, Ipswich and Doncaster went down. Wolves won League One, and were promoted along with Bristol City and Tranmere, while Oldham Athletic were the most notable casualty at the bottom. Hartlepool won League Two, and went up with former non-league clubs Burton and Fleetwood, as well as play-off winners Oxford. Bristol Rovers dropped into the Conference with Newport, being replaced by Football League returnees Kidderminster and Wrexham.
- Abroad, things were rather predictable. PSG, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Celtic were the champions of the other active countries. Fiorentina beat Borussia Dortmund in the final of the Europa League.
- The World Cup ended the season. There had already been drama in qualifying, with Spain being trounced in the play-offs by Russia, including a 5-0 second leg defeat courtesy of a Sergio Ramos red card. Then, in the tournament itself, the hosts Brazil failed to progress, while one by one the best teams in the competition took themselves out. A stoppage time Frank Lampard winner helped England to their second final, while Russia again surprised the footballing world by beating Germany in the other semi-final. In the final, goals from Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney helped England to a 2-1 win, and Henry Winter lost his shit.
- This would go down as the year where David Moyes saw off the challenge of Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini. United took their 21st English title on goal difference from Chelsea, with Manchester City a point behind in 3rd and Liverpool 4th a further two points back. This left reigning champions Arsenal out of the Champions League spots in 5th, again ahead of Tottenham.
- West Brom and newly-promoted Wigan were the surprise packages, finishing 7th and 8th respectively. Aston Villa were the most notable casualty at the bottom, winning only 4 games all season. Stoke and Reading joined them in the relegation zone, while Fulham survived after sacking Martin Jol and replacing him with Gary Bowyer.
- Robin van Persie again won Player of the Year, with the players’ choice again being Eden Hazard. The Dutch star was also top scorer, with Wigan’s Billy McKay the top-scoring British player in third. David Moyes won Manager of the Year, ahead of Steve Clarke and Owen Coyle. The most notable retirement was Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, who ended his player career at the age of 35, while Championship players breathed a sigh of relief as QPR’s Joey Barton retired at the age of 33.
- In the cups, Chelsea beat Manchester City on penalties in the FA Cup Final, while Manchester United beat Wigan in the League Cup Final in a repeat of the 2005 final.
- Nottingham Forest won the Championship under Billy Davies, with Burnley and Watford going up and Brighton, Charlton and Birmingham going down. Doncaster and Ipswich made immediate returns, with Coventry joining them. John Gregory’s Chesterfield won League Two, while Southend dropped out of the Football League, along with Morecambe. The biggest non-league story of the year was Dartford winning the Conference play-offs and gaining their first promotion into the Football League, while Leamington dropped out of Conference North after two seasons.
- Bayern, Celtic Real Madrid and PSG continued to dominate their respective leagues, and Juventus returned to the top of Serie A, as Andrea Pirlo ended his career with another winners’ medal. There was an all-Spanish Champions League Final as Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona, while Lazio beat Schalke in the Europa League Final. The biggest transfer of the season was Real Madrid buying Marek Hamsik from Napoli for £35.5m.
- Internationally, Cameroon beat Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations Final, while Brazil beat Colombia in the Copa America Final.
- Arsenal took a more comfortable title this time, beating FA and League Cup winners Spurs (in their last season at the old White Hart Lane) by 6 points. But the bigger stories were behind, as Manchester United and Chelsea finished 7th and 8th on 61 points, behind Swansea in 4th and Wigan in 6th. But Swansea, now managed by Paul Lambert, would not get a Champions League spot, as Mourinho masterminded another European success, beating his former club Real Madrid in the final. While Jose earned a reprieve, Moyes did not, and was sacked. His replacement would be former Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino
- For the first time in a long time, the three promoted sides, Nottingham Forest, Burnley and Watford, were all immediately relegated. Sunderland again had a narrow escape after sacking Poyet and replacing him with Jol.
- Arsene Wenger was again Manager of the Year, with Lambert and Coyle behind. Player of the Year went to Jack Wilshere, though Hazard won Players’ Player for the third year in a row. Jordan Rhodes of Southampton was the top scorer, beating Wigan’s Charlie Austin and Cardiff’s Andreas Cornelius. It was a notable year for retirements as Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and John Terry all ended their playing careers, and Nemanja Vidic played in his final Premier League game before retiring after a solitary cup appearance in the following season.
- Wolves, under Kenny Jackett, won the Championship, their second promotion in three seasons under the Welshman. Stoke and Aston Villa were promoted with them, while Bristol City, Coventry and Bolton went down. Birmingham won League One ahead of Brentford, with Sheffield United at last returning to the Championship with them. MK Dons were amongst the relegated teams, while Portsmouth finally left League Two by finishing third. Dartford’s brief foray into the Football League ended when they went down with Exeter, with Southend and Bristol Rovers taking their places. This season also saw FC United of Manchester earn promotion from the Northern Premier League.
- Bayern won their fourth straight Bundesliga title, while Real Madrid won the third La Liga title in a row, beating surprise contenders Valencia, managed first by Rafa Benitez and then by Roberto Mancini. Monaco broke PSG’s stranglehold in France, while Juventus won again in Italy and Celtic took yet another Scottish title, with Rangers finishing 5th in their first season back in the top flight. Barcelona won the Europa League after crashing out of the Champions League early on, but could only finish fourth in La Liga. The biggest transfers were both thanks to Bayern Munich: in the summer, they signed Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea for £38.5m, and then spent the same fee again on Schalke’s Julian Draxler.
- There would be more drama for English fans in Euro 2016. Facing Turkey in the semi-finals, Steven Caulker’s dramatic stoppage time winner helped them into the final against hosts France. Wilshere gave England the lead, but Arsenal team mate Giroud equalised in stoppage time to take the game to extra time, where Ashley Young scored to break French hearts and give captain Phil Jagielka the chance to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup. Roy Hodgson retired after the tournament, and was replaced by Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas. In South America, Uruguay beat Argentina to win Copa America.
- At last, Manchester City finally clinched the Premier League title again, beating Liverpool by 3 points. Manchester United and League Cup winners Arsenal completed the top 4, leaving Chelsea outside again, this time down in 6th; Jose Mourinho somehow retained his job again. Martino had not, though; he was sacked by United and replaced by former rival Roberto Mancini. Arsene Wenger chose this moment to retire, with his position taken by Wolves manager Kenny Jackett.
- At the bottom, Sunderland finally ran out of chances, and were joined by Aston Villa and Stoke. Fulham, now managed by Brendan Rodgers, finished 17th but did qualify for Europe after winning the FA Cup for the first time, beating Wigan in the final courtesy of a goal from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
- Cardiff’s Youssef El-Arabi was the top scorer with 26 goals, the highest total since Van Persie in 2012-13. Player of the Year went to Eden Hazard, though he failed to win a fourth-straight Players’ Player Award, which instead went to Bernard of Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini was named Manager of the Year ahead of Laudrup and, bizarrely, Rodgers, despite losing 5 of the last 6 league matches of the season. Former England captain Rio Ferdinand was the most notable retirement, while the biggest transfer was his effective replacement, Samuel Umtiti, who was brought in from Lyon for £31.5m.
- Reading (who picked up a massive 98 poins), Forest and Watford returned to the Premier League, while QPR were relegated under Dougie Freedman, along with Tranmere and Millwall. Yeovil were champions of League One, and were joined by Preston and Crewe, who made it back-to-back promotions under Henning Berg. However, Coventry slumped to back-to-back relegations, the latest being at the hands of Graham Westley. MK Dons won League Two, with Wycombe returning to the third tier via the play-offs, while Bristol Rovers were again relegated into the Conference, this time along with Bury, who in March had appointed Joey Barton as manager in a bid to escape the drop. Luton at last won the Conference, and they were joined by Football League newcomers Ebbsfleet, while Hereford and Stockport also left the Conference in the opposite direction.
- Chelsea’s last chance of Champions League qualification had been via winning it, but they lost the final to PSG; sadly Zlatan Ibramovich played no part in what would be his final season as a player. Meanwhile, Lazio won another Europa League, this time beating Lyon in the final. In the leagues, there was a big shock in the Bundesliga as Borussia Dortmund returned to the top and Bayern slumped to 6th under Josep Guardiola as Robben and Ribery both slipped into retirement. Monaco, Real Madrid, Juventus and Celtic continued their dominance of their respective leagues.
- The only major international tournament of note was the Africa Cup of Nations, which saw Egypt return to the top with a win in the final over rivals Algeria.
- Manchester City won the Premier League once again, still relying on their old spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, supplemented with more purchased stars: Varane, Bernard, Thiago, Chalobah, Sterling, Wanyama, Gaston Ramirez, Luke Shaw, Strootman and Peruzzi. Arsenal were 6 points distant, with United 3rd and Tony Pulis’ Newcastle again denying Chelsea a top four spot on goal difference; Jose again kept his job, though. Tottenham finished down in 9th, replacing manager Marco van Basten with David Moyes in November; the Scot then guided them to a League Cup triumph over Liverpool. Southampton finished 8th and won the FA Cup. Wigan again finished 6th, but were now under Roberto Martinez again.
- This was because Owen Coyle, mastermind of their great recent run, had been recruited by Everton in a vain attempt to stave off relegation, though Malky Mackay had begun the process. They would be joined by Watford and Wolves, who had curiously appointed Dougie Freedman as Jackett’s successor despite overseeing QPR’s relegation from the Championship the year before. Liverpool could laugh at Everton’s demise but they had been down there themselves at one point; Laudrup was dismissed and replaced by the prodigal son Rafa Benitez, who then guided them to an FA Cup Final.
- Manager of the Year again went to Pellegrini, beating Pulis and Cardiff’s Gary Bowyer. Eden Hazard won yet another award in the shape of Player of the Year, with the players’ choice being Man City’s Thiago. Jordan Rhodes was top scorer for the second time with 26 goals, comfortably beating Norwich’s Lionard Ekangamene and Manchester United’s new star striker Salomon Rondon.
- Stoke won the Championship by 10 points, with West Ham, armed with the Italian pair of Giampaolo Pazzini and soon-to-retire Antonio Cassano, edging Aston Villa by a point for 2nd. Crystal Palace went up via the play-offs, while Preston, Doncaster and Crewe went down. QPR, now under Mark Hughes again, won League One, with Chesterfield (under Phil Brown) and Gillingham (under Jens Lehmann) the surprise promoted pair behind them. Millwall suffered back-to-back relegations, slumping into League Two, while Coventry, who suffered a similar fate a year before, were beaten in the League Two play-off final by Port Vale, as AFC Wimbledon reached the third tier for the first time. Dagenham and Crawley dropped out of the Football League as Luton narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Conference, while Dartford won the Conference play-offs again, joining champions Newport back in League Two.
- Juventus completed the second ever Italian Treble with victory over Lyon in the Champions League Final, courtesy of a late winner from Fabio Borini. Real Madrid’s run in Spain ended as Barcelona returned to the top under Vincenzo Montella in Carles Puyol’s final season as a player, while PSG returned to the top in France and Dortmund won the Bundesliga as Bayern again floundered in 5th. Celtic won yet again in Scotland, benefiting from a new partnership with Chelsea which saw Gerard Deulofeu and Branislav Ivanovic arrive on loan along with Southampton’s Aaron Lennon and Arsenal’s Miralem Pjanic, but Rangers required a relegation play-off victory over Ross County to avoid slipping back into the Scottish Championship, leading to Ally McCoist’s ousting in favour of Nick Barmby.
- What followed would be high drama: the World Cup in Russia would go down as one of the greatest in history. Brazil once again failed to progress out of the groups, and they would be joined on the sidelines by Italy and world number 1s England, who had embarrassingly lost in their opening group game against Costa Rica courtesy of former Arsenal striker Joel Campbell’s winner, and again in their second game to a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal. Scotland, however, did progress, only to be eliminated by Germany on penalties.
In the early knockout rounds, it looked like it would be France’s tournament to lose, as Mexico took out the Germans in the quarters. In the semis, France would face the USA, who had scraped through the group stage in 2nd behind Uruguay before beating Holland and Australia. Uruguay would face Mexico in the other semi. But in a massive surprise, Aron Johannsson scored a 90th minute winner for the Americans to send them through to their first final, while Adrian Aldrete scored a 120th winner for Mexico in a 3-2 thriller, denying Uruguay captain Luis Suarez a shot at the big prize.
And so it would be a clash of two of the great rivals in world football. A tedious match was set alight when Brek Shea scored in the 59th minute for the US, but Carlos Fierro snatched an equaliser from a wayward backpass. But then substitute Jozy Altidore entered the fray and capitalised on two defensive errors to sink two late goals and clinch the greatest prize in football for the country that calls it soccer. Brad Guzan was thus a World Cup-winning captain, Tim Ream ended up with a World Cup winners’ medal, and Jurgen Klinsmann became only the second person to win the World Cup as a player and a manager.
- Torquay are still in League Two, having just had their best finish (6th). However, vice-captain Mike Williamson, who had returned to the club where he began his career, has just been released. The only surviving current players are Michael Poke and Jordan Chapell. Colin Cooper is the manager, having taken over from the sacked Mark Yates, while Danny Graham is the most notable player in the squad.
- Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have continued their monopoly on the Best Player awards, with Ronaldo seemingly ageing better despite being older. Ronaldo, now Real’s record goalscorer, is currently being paid £575,000 a week.
- Wayne Rooney is England’s most capped player, with 140 appearance, and also unsurprisingly the record goalscorer with 57.
- Nigel Pearson is the longest-serving Premier League manager, having been in charge for nearly 7 years. Second is Steve Clarke, and third is Jose Mourinho.
- Peter Schmeichel is now the manager of Conference club FC Halifax Town, having been appointed in June 2016.
- Steven Gerrard is a coach at Ipswich.
- Michael Carrick is still playing for some reason. He’s at Swansea.
- Leon Osman is manager of Exeter.
- Harry Redknapp retired in 2016, a year after leaving Newcastle. He had also previously had a stint at Hull. For some reason, obviously FM doesn’t take into account that he doesn’t manage north of London.
- Ryan Giggs has just been appointed by Sheffield Wednesday after being sacked by Aston Villa for failing to get promoted back to the Premier League.
- Scott Parker is captain of Leyton Orient.
- Conor Sammon is at Leeds.
- Interestingly, Lucas Leiva is now rated as a Liverpool legend, on a par with the likes of Rush, Shankly, Dalglish and Paisley, and ahead of the merely iconic Steven Gerrard. Jonny Evans has been added to the Man Utd legends, Tim Krul to Newcastle’s, Wilshere and Ramsey to Arsenal’s, Jack Cork to Southampton’s, and Jonas Olsson to West Brom’s. Ashley Williams is the only Swansea legend.
- Some of the more bizarre signings I’ve noticed include Cardiff’s brief period of having Champions League winners Eric Abidal and Diego Milito on their books at the same time, Tottenham signing former Arsenal player Alex Song, PSG signing virtually everyone (particularly in 2014-15 when they spent £140m on players, and again in 2016-17 when they spent £150m), and Real Madrid paying £15m for Victor Moses before selling him soon after for £5.75m (he has just returned to Spain with Sevilla). There are also several instances of players being signed, barely played, and then leaving again, or players being contracted but not registered and thus not playing. Adam Lallana has just been released by Southampton after playing only 6 league games since the end of the first season in the game, with none coming after 2015-16.
- The most expensive signing so far is Timo Werner, who moved from Stuttgart to Wolfsburg for £41.5m in the summer of 2017. The most expensive regen so far as Polish striker Damian Imianowski, who was bought from PSG by Bayern for £34.5m in January 2018.
- Only Tottenham, West Ham, AFC Wimbledon, York and Ebbsfleet (whose new ground is named after former manager Liam Daish) have moved into new stadia, with Coventry returning to the Ricoh Arena in 2016. There have been no tycoon takeovers in England, with Greenock Morton being bought by one in Scotland, though he has since withdrawn his funding.
- Disappointingly, there appear to be no power shifts in world football yet. The same teams winning everything so far, but I’ve run a similar game on FM13 and it does take a while to kick in – it was a game in which Real Zaragoza became a global force by 2022. I intend to eventually continue this to see which team will rise up and surprise everyone in the next few years…
Cincinnati @ Miami: Cincinnati
Kansas City @ Buffalo: Kansas City
Atlanta @ Carolina: Carolina
Minnesota @ Dallas: Dallas
New Orleans @ New York Jets: New Orleans
Tennessee @ St Louis: Tennessee
San Diego @ Washington: Washington
Philadelphia @ Oakland: Philadelphia
Tampa Bay @ Seattle: Seattle
Baltimore @ Cleveland: Baltimore
Pittsburgh @ New England: New England
Indianapolis @ Houston: Indianapolis
Chicago @ Green Bay: Green Bay
Washington @ Minnesota: Minnesota
Seattle @ Atlanta: Seattle
Cincinnati @ Baltimore: Cincinnati
Detroit @ Chicago: Detroit
Philadelphia @ Green Bay: Green Bay
St Louis @ Indianapolis: Indianapolis
Oakland @ New York Giants: New York Giants
Buffalo @ Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh
Jacksonville @ Tennessee: Tennessee
Carolina @ San Francisco: San Francisco
Houston @ Arizona: Arizona
Denver @ San Diego: Denver
Dallas @ New Orleans: New Orleans
Miami @ Tampa Bay: Miami
Seattle @ Arizona: Seattle
Tampa Bay @ Atlanta: Atlanta
St Louis @ Carolina: Carolina
Cincinnati @ Detroit: Detroit
San Diego @ Jacksonville: San Diego
Houston @ Kansas City: Kansas City
Buffalo @ Miami: Miami
New England @ New York Jets: New England
Dallas @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Chicago @ Washington: Chicago
San Francisco @ Tennessee: San Francisco
Cleveland @ Green Bay: Green Bay
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh
Denver @ Indianapolis: Denver
Minnesota @ New York Giants: New York Giants
Carolina @ Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay
San Francisco @ Jacksonville: San Francisco
Dallas @ Detroit: Detroit
Cleveland @ Kansas City: Kansas City
Miami @ New England: New England
Buffalo @ New Orleans: New Orleans
New York Giants @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Pittsburgh @ Oakland: Pittsburgh
New York Jets @ Cincinnati: Cincinnati
Arizona @ Atlanta: Atlanta
Washington @ Denver: Denver
Green Bay @ Minnesota: Green Bay
Seattle @ St Louis: Seattle
I’ll just whip through these this time:
Buffalo @ Cleveland – Cleveland
New Orleans @ Chicago – New Orleans
New England @ Cincinnati – Cincinnati
Detroit @ Green Bay – Green Bay
Seattle @ Indianapolis – Seattle
Baltimore @ Miami – Miami
Philadelphia @ New York Giants – Philadelphia
Jacksonville @ St Louis – St Louis
Kansas City @ Tennessee – Tennessee
Carolina @ Arizona – Carolina
Denver @ Dallas – Denver
San Diego @ Oakland – San Diego
Houston @ San Francisco – San Francisco
New York Jets @ Atlanta – Atlanta
New York Giants @ Chicago – Chicago
Green Bay @ Baltimore – Green Bay
Cincinnati @ Buffalo – Cincinnati
Detroit @ Cleveland – Cleveland
St Louis @ Houston – Houston
Oakland @ Kansas City – Kansas City
Carolina @ Minnesota – Minnesota
Pittsburgh @ New York Jets – Pittsburgh
Philadelphia @ Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay
Jacksonville @ Denver – Denver
Tennessee @ Seattle – Seattle
New Orleans @ New England – New Orleans
Arizona @ San Francisco – San Francisco
Washington @ Dallas – Dallas
Indianapolis @ San Diego – Indianapolis
I’ve been busy in the second half of this week, but I can assure you that my prediction for Kansas City-Philadelphia was for a Kansas City win – I already have predictions for all 17 weeks done just in case, though they may need an increasing number of tweaks as the season goes on. I’ve already made two changes for this week, but still have more home wins than the average Mark Lawrenson set of Premier League predictions.
Houston @ Baltimore: Houston relatively comfortably
Green Bay @ Cincinnati: Green Bay by a healthy margin
New York Giants @ Carolina: Carolina to pick up their first win but it’ll be tight
St Louis @ Dallas: Dallas by a score
Cleveland @ Minnesota: Minnesota easily, now that Cleveland are tanking for Teddy
Tampa Bay @ New England: Tempted to go for an upset but I’ll go for a safe New England win
Arizona @ New Orleans: Might be tighter than I originally thought but New Orleans
San Diego @ Tennessee: A narrow Tennessee win
Detroit @ Washington: My one change, as I’ve switched to a comfortable Detroit win
Atlanta @ Miami: Perhaps a surprise, but I’ve got a narrow Miami win down, and have since pre-season
Buffalo @ New York Jets: Buffalo but it could be close
Indianapolis @ San Francisco: San Francisco comfortably
Jacksonville @ Seattle: Seattle obviously
Chicago @ Pittsburgh: The other change I’ve made, as I’m now going for a Chicago win
Oakland @ Denver: Denver easily
San Francisco @ St Louis: San Francisco but it’ll be close
Baltimore @ Buffalo: Baltimore but judging by recent performances, it could be a tight one
Cincinnati @ Cleveland: Cincinnati should be comfortable winners
Chicago @ Detroit: Detroit to inflict a first defeat on Chicago
Seattle @ Houston: Two teams with 100% records but I’m going for the home team Houston
Indianapolis @ Jacksonville: Indianapolis by a lot of points
NY Giants @ Kansas City: Another win for Kansas City
Pittsburgh @ Minnesota: Minnesota win at Wembley
Arizona @ Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay finally winning, providing Freeman’s still the QB
New York Jets @ Tennessee: Tennessee to win a battle of the average QBs
Philadelphia @ Denver: Denver to put a lot of points on the board
Washington @ Oakland: Washington, though it might be close
Dallas @ San Diego: Despite San Diego’s recent positive form, I think Dallas will edge it
New England @ Atlanta: The first test for the new New England offense, but I think they’ll fail. Atlanta
Miami @ New Orleans: Originally I had a Miami win but I think I’ll change that to a narrow New Orleans win
This seems to be a fashionable thing to do. Here’s my bandwagon-jumping attempt to decide which teams are hot and which are a sack of shit, with their records after week 2:
1. Seattle (2-0)
2. San Francisco (1-1)
3. Denver (2-0)
4. Green Bay (1-1)
5. Houston (2-0)
6. New Orleans (2-0)
7. Atlanta (1-1)
8. New England (2-0)
9. Chicago (2-0)
10. Kansas City (2-0)
11. Miami (2-0)
12. Cincinnati (1-1)
13. Detroit (1-1)
14. Indianapolis (1-1)
15. Dallas (1-1)
16. Tennessee (1-1)
17. Baltimore (1-1)
18. St Louis (1-1)
19. Philadelphia (1-1)
20. San Diego (1-1)
21. Minnesota (0-2)
22. Washington (0-2)
23. Arizona (1-1)
24. Buffalo (1-1)
25. Carolina (0-2)
26. Tampa Bay (0-2)
27. New York Giants (0-2)
28. Pittsburgh (0-2)
29. New York Jets (1-1)
30. Cleveland (0-2)
31. Oakland (1-1)
32. Jacksonville (0-2)
There’s no time like the first time. This is my first full season watching the NFL fan. On the one hand, I’m inexperienced at this thing. On the other, I’d like to think that I’ve got a different perspective on these things. I see a lot of the professional pundits love the established teams, whereas because I’m new to this business, I’m just calling it as I see it without context, which could work both ways. So I’m going to take advantage of this and throw out a few risky predictions. If they don’t come off, I can pass it off as inexperience. If they do, I look like a genius.
5 things I think will happen
1. Oakland will be bad. Very bad
The way I see it, while the NFL is incredibly competitive with loads of very good teams (and that’s something we can be grateful for), there are a few bad teams, and there’s a bit of a gulf developing between the very good and very bad teams. This could be one of those seasons where a team goes 0-16. And if any team is going 0-16 this year, it’s the Raiders.
The Raiders have a very inexperienced quarterback who has looked ropey so far. Their best offensive player always gets injured. Their offensive line is non-existent. I don’t see where the points are going to come from, and they don’t look great defensively either. In their division, they face Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Peyton Manning. I’d say they have about 3 winnable games on their schedule at the most – San Diego at home, Jacksonville and the New York Jets. I struggle to see how they can score more points than a team that’s better than that.
2. The Ravens won’t make the play-offs
I think there’s a realistic chance that Baltimore won’t make it to the post-season. The Giants dropped off quickly last season despite not losing a load of key personnel like the Ravens have. The Bengals look worthy challengers, the Browns have improved, you can’t write off the Steelers, and there are a few decent contenders for wildcard spots. But it’s not just that.
I watched America’s Game last night, and while I know documentaries of that sort are going to focus on the emotion and narratives rather than the sporting detail, it really demonstrated how much of the Ravens’ push for the Super Bowl was helped over the line by the unity of the team in the wake of a number of events, including Art Modell’s death, Ray Lewis’ retirement, and a number of players coming to the end of their contracts. Even if that only added an extra 2 or 3 per cent to their performance, that was the difference. This year, they won’t have that, and that could be the difference between 10-6 while peaking at the right time and 8-8 with no wildcard spot.
3. The Cardinals will pick in the top 5 of the 2014 Draft
The schedule for Arizona is very tough this year. Not only are they the odd one out in arguably the strongest division in the NFL, but they also have to face the NFC South teams, Detroit, Philadelphia and the AFC South teams. Their one saving grace is that they only have to travel to their weaker opponents – they go to Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and, in probably the toughest trip, to New Orleans, whereas they will welcome the Colts, the Texans, the Falcons, the Lions and the Panthers.
However, I’m not convinced by the signing of Carson Palmer, who the Raiders were happy to let go in favour of signing a QB they are now making their back-up because he’s not good enough to start. They have also lost their top draft pick, Jonathan Cooper, to injury, while 6th round pick, wide receiver Ryan Swope, has retired due to concussion issues. That basically leaves them at 7 draft picks, which isn’t ideal for a team that has lost 11 of its last 12 games. They’re not in as big a mess as the Raiders, the Jets or the Jaguars but they’re in that group just above them, mainly because of the schedule.
4. This will be a classic season
I did follow last season at a distance, and I realised come the end that it had been a very good season. The teams in the money rounds were playing at a very high standard, and the games were more often decided by individual brilliance rather than mistakes. I remember discussing this with my friends, cynically remarking “but 3 of the 4 teams in the Championship Games are the same as last season.” The response I got was “yeah but this is totally unexpected.” And I see the point now. A bit.
This year will be even better, though. Many of the teams are in something of a transition phase – the Steelers and Giants, two of the top teams of the last decade, are on the decline without being terrible, possibly along with the Ravens who have already been hit by losses this year; the Bengals and Seahawks are on the way up; and there are a group of teams who could be the next to hit the latter category, on the verge of becoming good again. As well as that, the NFL has a new generation of quarterbacks who are in the process of becoming big stars, while Brady and Peyton Manning enter the last few years of their career, the “savour it while you can” stage.
5. British interest in the NFL will continue to grow quickly
I’ve noticed the NFL gradually becoming fashionable again in the last 6 or 7 years. The TV coverage of the Super Bowl got ramped up, the “alternative” kids in school started talking about it, and then the NFL decided to stage games at Wembley. Maybe I’m completely wrong on this and the level of interest has been relatively stable since the 1980s, but I get the feeling the NFL’s popularity here has increased a lot since Super Bowl XLII (Pats-Giants, which had some great narratives that people could engage with even if they weren’t familiar with the sport), which was certainly the first one I took an interest in.
If you mention the NFL to most British football fans, though, they usually react cynically – “American rubbish” etc. And yet the same people will probably bemoan the lack of parity in the Premier League, or about how money is ruining everything – the exact two things that aren’t happening to the NFL, because of the “we’re only as strong as the weakest team” mantra. It’s everything British football fans want from the Premier League, and I think people are starting to wake up to that.
Yes, it’s a bit corporate on the surface, the game does take time to get used to, and it does feel a little distant over there on the other side of the Pond, literally and metaphorically. But it’s becoming more relevant. Each year the coverage here of the Super Bowl increases a little, and I think that’s a sure sign of more people being interested. That this is coinciding with a new era for the NFL – new teams at the top, a new generation of superstars, and potential international expansion – is only going to help that transition from minority sport to something a sizeable number of people follow.
My (safe) predictions
1. New England Patriots*
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets
1. Cincinnati Bengals*
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
1. Houston Texans*
2. Indianapolis Colts*
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
1. Denver Broncos*
2. Kansas City Chiefs*
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Oakland Raiders
1. Washington Redskins*
2. Dallas Cowboys
3. New York Giants
4. Philadelphia Eagles
1. Green Bay Packers*
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Detroit Lions
4. Chicago Bears
1. Atlanta Falcons*
2. New Orleans Saints*
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. San Francisco 49ers*
2. Seattle Seahawks*
3. St Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals
AFC Wildcard Games
New England (3) beat Kansas City (6)
Cincinnati (4) beat Indianapolis (5)
NFC Wildcard Games
Atlanta (3) beat New Orleans (6)
Seattle (5) beat Washington (4)
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Houston (1) beat Cincinnati (4)
New England (3) beat Denver (2)
NFC Divisional Playoffs
San Francisco (1) beat Seattle (5)
Green Bay (2) beat Atlanta (3)
Houston (1) beat New England (3)
San Francisco (1) beat Green Bay (2)
Super Bowl XLVIII
San Francisco beat Houston
Brace yourselves, loyal readers (yes, all three of you): I’m trying to show I know things about another sport. Emphasis on “trying” – it’s my first “proper” season of following the NFL so expect many of these predictions to be wildly inaccurate. I’m getting the first two weeks out of the way in one go and at least two weeks before most of the games even take place because I feel like it. To the seasoned American football analyst, these probably appear the equivalent of Mark Lawrenson’s Premier League predictions, but I don’t care.
Baltimore at Denver
Ah, the first Thursday night game, a rematch of last year’s classic play-off game, etc. My gut feeling on this is that the Ravens are weaker having lost so many personnel from last year – even though the actual ability of the squad may not have dropped (especially factoring in the return to full fitness of the likes of Ngata and Webb), the unity of the squad will have been disrupted and they won’t be on the same psychological high that they were during the play-offs when they had momentum and had Ray Lewis barking them on. So I fancy Denver to win this comfortably.
New England at Buffalo
Insert bland platitudes about the Patriots’ tight end situation here. But even though Tom Brady doesn’t have many targets to throw to, Buffalo currently have doubts about who is supposed to be doing their throwing to begin with, with EJ Manuel having a “minor knee procedure” and Kevin Kolb out with “concussion-like symptoms”. This is only going one way – I’m going for the easy prediction and saying New England will batter the Bills.
Seattle at Carolina
My season preview tells me the Panthers are projected to finish 4th in NFC South, and comfortably so at that. I think that’s a bit harsh, though admittedly I’m having a hard time working out who they could finish above. It could be quite a competitive division. The Seahawks, on the other hand…well, so much has been said about how wonderful they are going to be. We’ll see. But I’ll go with Seattle here, though it won’t be a total rout.
Cincinnati at Chicago
Said season preview reckons the Bears will finish 3rd again in NFC North. Again, I think the criticism within it is a bit harsh – they collapsed last year but still looked to be a good team overall, and 10-6 isn’t a dreadful record. I detect a certain amount of cynicism about Marc Trestman, which you can neither prove nor disprove at this stage. As for Cincinnati, I think they could potentially edge out the Ravens to win their division. But despite that, it’s at Soldier Field, so I’m going for a marginal Chicago win here.
Miami at Cleveland
That season preview thinks Miami will finish behind Buffalo. I found that a bit amusing. I fancy the Dolphins for a wildcard spot this year. Yes, I know, you shouldn’t read much into the free agency haul, but they are a team on the up (even if it’s gradual). I think they could surprise this year. As for the Browns, they seem to be making small improvements to the team but I’m not sure it’s enough of a step forward in a tough division. And I think they’ll lose this one too – going for Miami to start strongly with the benefit from the new signings.
Minnesota at Detroit
NFC North is such a good division this year. Any of the four teams could conceivably be in the play-offs come January. I think this will be a close contest. Detroit seem to be making some effort to cure their issues of last year, and even then they weren’t too far off the pace. Minnesota ended last season well, and Adrian Peterson and all that, but there are still doubts about Ponder. I’m going for a slightly surprising win for Detroit.
Oakland at Indianapolis
The Raiders are a mess. The Colts aren’t. Indianapolis will win easily.
Kansas City at Jacksonville
I like where the Chiefs are going. They already had half a good team last year. They were just lacking the half that would stop them losing 14 matches. And they had other issues as well… Jacksonville were pretty woeful too but there is less cause for hope there than in Missouri. Kansas City to win comfortably in their first game under Andy Reid.
Atlanta at New Orleans
I can’t really talk about Bountygate and Sean Payton and all that. So I’ll just say this – New Orleans will be better this year, and Atlanta may not be. The component parts may be there for the Falcons but they had such momentum last year it might prove tough to replicate their form, especially with such a tough schedule this time. As it’s in the Superdome, I’m going for New Orleans.
Tampa Bay at New York Jets
Oh come off it, you know what’s going to happen here. Tampa Bay.
Tennessee at Pittsburgh
This is an intriguing one. The Titans may be a bit more competitive this year, while the Steelers are a team on the decline with their key players of their previous generation now likely to be past their peak. I’m going for Tennessee, which might shock those American pundits who talk up the big teams all the time.
Green Bay at San Francisco
I don’t want to have to predict a Packers defeat, but this isn’t too far removed from the situation at this point last year. Green Bay have tried to fill some of the holes in their game from last year, but the 49ers could equally claim to have improved. All rests on Kaepernick… I think San Francisco will win this by a similar margin to the first game last year.
Arizona at St Louis
The Cardinals are my dark horse shout to be picking first in the 2014 Draft. They’re in a very tough division and I’m not convinced by their roster – having an ageing Carson Palmer at the helm of the offense wouldn’t fill me with confidence if I was a fan. Meanwhile, the Rams enter their second season under Jeff Fisher after being more competitive than perhaps expected in his first there. St Louis at home should take this with room to spare.
New York Giants at Dallas
The Giants, like the Steelers, are probably past their peak, and they have begun to shed some of their successful generation. I think they’ll continue to slip this year. As for Dallas, I’d be surprised if they don’t finish at least 2nd with the Giants and the Eagles struggling, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t win this too.
Philadelphia at Washington
Pundits have said this depends on whether Robert Griffin III is back. If he is, Washington will win comfortably. If he isn’t, Washington will win by a small amount. So Washington, obviously.
Houston at San Diego
The second Monday night game starts at 03:20 on Tuesday morning here. So I guess I’ll miss another Houston win. The Chargers are another team in decline and it’ll take another couple of years to turn them around, while the Texans aren’t too far from a first Super Bowl appearance, especially in a weak AFC.
New York Jets at New England: New England easily
St Louis at Atlanta: Atlanta but it’ll be close
Cleveland at Baltimore: Baltimore but they’ll have to work quite hard for it
Carolina at Buffalo: Carolina comfortably
Minnesota at Chicago: Chicago marginally
Washington at Green Bay: Green Bay, the margin depending on the Redskins QB
Tennessee at Houston: Houston by a healthy margin
Miami at Indianapolis: Indianapolis but not by much
Dallas at Kansas City: Kansas City but another close game
San Diego at Philadelphia: San Diego but could go either way
Detroit at Arizona: Detroit by a single figure margin
New Orleans at Tampa Bay: New Orleans comfortably
Denver at New York Giants: Denver with ease
Jacksonville at Oakland: Jacksonville because they are slightly less bad
San Francisco at Seattle: Seattle but much closer than last year
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: Cincinnati with a narrow win