Football fans, rejoice! The 2014 NFL season begins next Thursday, September 4, when the reigning Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers. Between then and Super Bowl XLIX on February 1 in Arizona, the league's 32 teams will determine which two squads will play for the title. Here's a preview of what to expect this season:


AFC Teams to Beat

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New England Patriots — Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are back to lead the AFC's longest standing juggernaut. The Patriots figure to benefit from the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork from injury — and add to their streak of 13 straight winning seasons. The addition of veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis helps, too. The conference title should come down to New England and Denver — and Brady and Peyton Manning. Again.

Denver Broncos — Somehow the defending conference champs have looked better this pre-season than they did while dominating the AFC last year. Denver can surely play better than their embarrassing 43-8 loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl. Maybe San Diego and Kansas City can duplicate the Seahawks' success against Peyton Manning and his corps of wide receivers, but we wouldn't bet on it. New acquisitions defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward help the defense, as does a full season of pass rushing demon Von Miller.

AFC Teams On the Rise

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Tennessee Titans – The Titans already had a solid defense that will help the team stay in games. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt and free agent wide receiver Dexter McCluster and tackle Michael Oher should help reinvigorate the Tennessee offense. Adding tackle Taylor Lewan and running back Bishop Sankey via the draft assures the future is bright, too.

Baltimore Ravens – Not far removed from a Super Bowl run in early 2013, the Ravens look like they could reclaim their spot atop the AFC North thanks to the addition of veterans like wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. With running back Ray Rice suspended for the season's first two games under the league's personal conduct policy, Baltimore backup RB Bernard Pierce will have to help quarterback Joe Flacco in the team's backfield.

AFC Teams On the Decline

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Cincinnati Bengals — Cincinnati has enough talent to keep winning in 2014, but the Bengals lost offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching positions in Washington and Minnesota, respectively. The lack of continuity — and playoff wins — hints the roars may soon fade in the Queen City. Quarterback Andy Dalton might not collect on much of his new $115 million contract.

Kansas City Chiefs — Last season's Cinderella story may turn into a pumpkin in head coach Andy Reid's second year. K.C. started sliding with a 2-6 record over its last eight games of last season, including the playoff loss to Indianapolis. The Chiefs need to establish early on that they are for real, otherwise they could find themselves behind Denver and San Diego in the AFC West.

AFC Teams Who Won't Win Much

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Buffalo Bills— Oh the poor Bills. Success-starved Buffalo fans used to get needled about the franchise's four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Now, they're only too happy to not have the team move to Toronto. Quarterback EJ Manuel has plenty of weapons like running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, and rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but the rest of the team isn't quite ready to end the franchise's 14-year playoff drought. The worst part: the Bills traded away the team's first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to the Browns to move up and take Watkins.

Oakland Raiders — The Raiders added enough talent through free agency, trades and the draft to be more competitive, but even with new additions like quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, wide receiver James Jones and defensive linemen Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, Oakland won't beat its divisional foes in the stacked AFC West. Perhaps rookie linebacker Khalil Mack and second year linebacker Sio Moore can learn enough from the veterans to lead the Raiders back to respectability…before someone moves the franchise (again).

Key AFC Players to Watch:

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QB Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns — It's not like you'll have a choice. Whatever Johnny Football does in his rookie year is sure to be covered to death by the national sports media. Manziel starts the year behind incumbent Brian Hoyer, but Cleveland has too much to gain — and nothing to lose — from seeing if the former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M can work his magic at the NFL level. This Browns team won't have many other highlights this season anyway.

QB Geno Smith and RB Chris Johnson, New York Jets — The Jets' defense remains the team's biggest strength, and the offense remains its biggest question mark. If Geno Smith can get better, Rex Ryan's team could make a playoff run. If Chris Johnson can recapture some of the explosiveness he had in Tennessee, the Jets-Patriots rivalry could produce a competitive new chapter.

AFC Predictions:

AFC Division Winners: New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Denver
AFC Wild Cards: San Diego, Pittsburgh
AFC Champion: New England


NFC Teams to Beat:

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New Orleans Saints— If any team can take down the Seahawks, it's the Saints — especially if New Orleans makes the road to the Super Bowl run through the Superdome. Quarterback Drew Brees adds rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks to an offense that already had weapons like tight end Jimmy Graham and running backs Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Free agent safety Jairus Byrd improves the defense, which has to get off the field on third downs to be effective.

Seattle Seahawks — Head coach Pete Carroll has a potential dynasty under his direction. The Seattle defense seems every bit as intimidating as it was last season, and quarterback Russell Wilson gets wide receiver Percy Harvin back from injury to bolster the offense. The only real question marks are if running back Marshawn Lynch can still produce after taking a pounding over the past several seasons — and if the first-place schedule will cost the Seahawks home field advantage. If that's the case, Seattle will have a hard time repeating as champs.

NFC Teams On the Rise

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Philadelphia Eagles — Head coach Chip Kelly was a bigger success than most anyone expected in his first year in the NFL. The same can be said for quarterback Nick Foles, who threw 27 touchdown passes against just two interceptions in his breakout year. Kelly and Foles need to repeat their performances, while defensive coordinator Bill Davis' schemes help carry the Eagles forward in 2014. Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy is arguably the best all-around back in the NFL.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — New head coach Lovie Smith has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, especially linebacker Lavonte David, who is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and cornerback Alterraun Verner. New quarterback Josh McCown gets to throw to basketball player-sized receivers Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, as well as hand off to workhorse back Doug Martin. If the offensive line can hold up, the Bucs should be a playoff contender.

NFC Teams On the Decline

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Arizona Cardinals — Arizona was nearly a playoff team last season, but that close call was more the result of a favorable schedule than actual progress. Quarterback Carson Palmer has looked rough this pre-season, and the injuries have piled up around the team. Unless running back Andre Ellington has a career year, the Cardinals won't be talking playoffs again in 2014.

Carolina Panthers – Franchise quarterback Cam Newton is coming off ankle surgery and playing behind a questionable offensive line while hoping someone establishes themselves as a competent No. 1 wide receiver. Carolina's fierce defense will keep the Panthers in games, but fans can't realistically expect another 12-4 season.

NFC Teams Who Won't Win Much

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Dallas Cowboys — The Cowboys have lost to a division rival with a playoff spot on the line at the end of three consecutive seasons. Dallas likely won't have the opportunity to squander another chance like that this year. The Cowboys seem guaranteed to have an epically bad defense and aren't sure if quarterback Tony Romo can fully recover from back surgery to lead the offense. A weak NFC East might keep the losing from getting ugly, but "America's Team" is headed into rebuild mode sooner than later.

St. Louis Rams – Even before the Rams lost quarterback Sam Bradford for the season to a torn knee ligament, St. Louis was already behind Seattle and San Francisco in the brutal NFC West. Backup QB Shaun Hill isn't the answer. Their talented defense means avoiding a total meltdown, but St. Louis is all but assured of another high draft pick in 2015.

Key NFC Players to Watch

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QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers — After losing much of last season to a broken collarbone, Aaron Rodgers likely needs to throw for 5,000 yards to ensure the Packers return to the playoffs. He'll be tested by Seattle's "Legion of Boom" on opening night in a game which could set this season's tone for both teams.

WR DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins – One of the off-season's biggest head-scratching moves was the Eagles cutting the speedy DeSean Jackson loose without getting anything in return besides criticism. New head coach Jay Gruden knows how to use Jackson's speed to make defenses pay. Washington could challenge for a playoff spot if its offense creates havoc for opposing teams courtesy of Jackson.

NFC Predictions:

NFC Division Winners: Philadelphia, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle
NFC Wild Cards: Tampa Bay, Washington
NFC Champion: New Orleans

Super Bowl XLIX

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With home-field advantage, the Saints should get past the Seahawks for the NFC championship, while the Patriots improved defense should get them by the Broncos in the AFC title game. If the Super Bowl was on turf and indoors, New Orleans would likely walk away with a title, but New England should take home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 2005 with a thrilling win.