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NFL Preview Week: Top 10 wild cards for the 2014 season

Eric Edholm
Shutdown Corner
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) carries a football during an NFL football training camp joint practice of the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014
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New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) carries a football during an NFL football training camp joint practice of the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

One year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were a joke, the Houston Texans were a Super Bowl contender, the Carolina Panthers were (at best) a middling team and Chip Kelly was an intriguing fascination, but also as the proverbial college coach coming to the big, bad NFL.

How much our opinions changed of them in short order.

Four months from now, most of what we know will be unwritten or rewritten. There will be some out-of-left-field developments, some behind-the-scenes contributors and some unexpected changes to the NFL landscape.

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We're here to try to predict those.

Call them the "wild-card" factors — the either-or propositions around the league that could sway a team (or teams) from 6-10 to 10-6, from putting their coaches on the hot seat to putting the team in the postseason derby. Here's our list of the top 10 for the 2014 NFL season:

Rob Gronkowski — The New England Patriots have the best all-around tight end when he's healthy (Jimmy Graham is the better receiver of the two), as the classic "Y" player in this offense who can be as devastating as a run blocker as he is a seam splitter and red-zone threat. But Gronkowski has been saddled with injuries the past two seasons and is coming off a torn ACL last season, and he did not play a snap in the preseason so we're left to speculate his availability for Week 1 and for the remainder of the season.

The Patriots are just a different animal offensively with Gronk on the field, and healthy. Tom Brady had an up-and-down 2013 season, with his lowest full-season completion percentage since 2003. But Brady was markedly better with Gronk in the lineup from Weeks 7-14:

 
Games Completions Attempts Passing yards Touchdowns Interceptions Completion % Yards/attempt
7 (with Gronk) 182 284 2205 13 5 64.1 7.76
9 (without Gronk) 198 344 2138 12 6 57.6 6.22
2013 total 380 628 4343 25 11 60.5 6.92

Brady trusts Gronkowski more than anyone not named Julian Edelman, and the relationship and symmetry with Danny Amendola appears stronger in Year 2. Watch for the development, too, of two bigger targets outside in Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright, along with two excellent screen/short passing game options in running backs Shane Vereen (who missed half the season with a wrist injury that affected his ability to catch the ball) and rookie James White.

But Gronk is the biggest X-factor. His mere (healthy) presence can make the Patriots' offense a top-five unit again, and that means this could be another Super Bowl team.

Referees calling things tighter — Book it: The greater emphasis on calling pass interference, defensive holding and illegal contact from the preseason will linger into regular season. There's no throwing on the brakes, so to speak — not when refs have been instructed to call these pass-related infractions much tighter. To ask them to go back to the other enforcement of the rules would be disingenuous and pointless.

Now, could we see a settling in back toward the norm by midseason? Sure, or after defenses complain. That's also bound to happen. It will be a major talking point if, say, the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks opener is marred by a maelstrom of yellow flags because the world will be watching on Thursday night. If that happens, then everyone's radars — which already have been attuned after the preseason madness — will be up for the rest of Week 1. It very well could be the takeaway talking point after the first slate of games.

The Seahawks are the team believed to be the one that could be the most affected by stricter enforcement of these penalties, but there are others. The Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and others will feel the effects with how handsy they get on opposing receivers.

Teams will have to adjust. There might be a leveling off of the flags at some point, but expect the preseason flurry to carry over into the early part of the season.

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Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports )

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports )

Andy Dalton — The Cincinnati Bengals felt they had no choice but to sign Dalton to a contract extension this offseason, even though he had failed in the team's past three playoff games. But there's a flip side: Dalton has played at a high level and helped lead the team to the playoffs, so there's obviously a connection between his performance and success.

Some Bengals fans don't see it that way, but Dalton has touched some excellent levels at times in his three NFL seasons. He just hasn't done it consistently enough, and when Dalton is bad, he's often bracingly so. The NFL's Player of the Month for October — and he really was great — capped the month with a nightmarish game in Miami in a game the Bengals had no business losing.

Dalton's contract clearly gives the Bengals outs in case he doesn't figure things out and perform more consistently, a lot like what the San Francisco 49ers gave Colin Kaepernick. But the Bengals will have no one else to turn to (Jason Campbell isn't leading a playoff charge) the next two seasons, and they have as talented a roster as almost anyone else in the AFC.

Dalton has been sharp this preseason, but we've been lured into that trap before. A true judgment on him cannot be made until January, and if Dalton can't snap his 0-3 postseason skid this year, there will be a lot of doubt, both from inside and outside the organization, on whether he ever will take the next step.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line — The Bucs became one of the teams to watch this offseason when they named Lovie Smith head coach (plus the addition by subtraction of the ugly Greg Schiano era) and upgraded the personnel at several spots. When you consider the holdover talent on both offense (Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin) and defense (Gerald McCoy, LaVonte David, Mark Barron) to what they added, it wasn't hard to envision this team going from 4-12 to playoff contention.

That was, until, they took the field in the preseason opener. That's when the O-line showed just how shaky it was. Shaky might have been selling it short, honestly. Putrid might be the word. The team made the most aggressive trade it has in years when it sent a draft pick to the Patriots for wrong-side-of-30 offensive guard Logan Mankins, and there's little doubt he'll help upgrade things.

But there's no guarantee the entire unit will, as it needs to, pick up the pace. If this group can prove it can run block well, and the backs and tight ends (and quarterback Josh McCown, with a quick release and decisive reads) can pick up the blitzes that are sure to come, this could be a very talented team to watch in the always topsy-turvy NFC South.

Bill O'Brien — This season's top college coach coming (back) to the NFL is O'Brien, who did a masterful job of reforming the Patriots' offense into a two-tight end monster and then later rebuilding the Penn State program back from the ashes of Joe Paterno's final, dark days.

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Texans head coach Bill O'Brien (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

That has turned him from a little-known NFL assistant into a hot commodity and someone in whom the Texans have put their faith. Is he the next Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh or Pete Carroll? Or is he something altogether different? Texans owner Bob McNair and GM Rick Smith have a lot invested in O'Brien, and part of the attraction to him has been his work on offense.

But that also appears to be where the Texans have the most questions. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been released four times, is far from settled in at quarterback, and how much can we really expect this season from newly acquired Ryan Mallett? Arian Foster has suffered a slew of injuries that have trailed from his ankles to his back, and his backups at running back are far from appealing. Other issues — receiver depth, some of the offensive line — also are worries.

Can O'Brien work his magic this season? After all, the AFC South is up for grabs. The Indianapolis Colts might be the clear favorites, but they are not yet among the conference elite. And even if the Texans can't push the Colts for a division crown, they still might be able to make a run at a wildcard spot. 

The defense is ready to win now, with the destructive J.J. Watt and No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney up front, talent at linebacker and some playmakers in the secondary. Can the offense do enough? It might require some serious coaching and scheming from O'Brien to get the two anywhere close to playing on the same plane.

San Diego Chargers pass defense — John Pagano's defense was criticized roundly last season in his first year as coordinator, but by the time the Chargers made an unlikely run to the playoffs (along with an upset over the Cincinnati Bengals in Round 1) the secondary was playing beyond where it had before and the pass rush woke up from a dormant state.

Can that continue this season, or even exceed the late-season performance?

This is a defense that had the teeth taken out of its pass rush when Dwight Freeney, Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram last season, and when Ingram came back late it looked like a completely different unit. Add in 2014 second-rounder Jeremiah Attaochu and 2013 sixth-rounder Tourek Williams to the mix, and the pass rush could end up a team strength.

The defensive line remains a worry, and there's some worry about the continued health of Manti Te'o and Donald Butler, but this is a solid group up front overall.

The secondary has one star (safety Eric Weddle) and a feisty group of smallish but aggressive corners in Shareece Wright, Brandon Flowers, first-rounder Jason Verrett and Richard Marshall. Don't be shocked if the coverage is far better this season.

Offensively, the team should be able to help out with an accurate and experienced Philip Rivers, who turned his career around under Mike McCoy, and with one of the stronger run games in the NFL. That should allow consistent rest for the defense. The Chargers had the lowest three-and-out percentage on offense a year ago, and having better defensive talent and depth should only make them more effective when the "D" is called upon.

The Chargers held up well in three matchups against the Denver Broncos last season, winning up in Denver in the cold, and beat three other playoff teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs (twice). If the offense remains at a strong level and the defense plays like it did down the stretch (or better), look out.

Colin Kaepernick — Like Dalton, there's a lot of pressure on Kaepernick to improve, but his problem hasn't been the playoffs. That's actually when he has played his best ball. Kaepernick, though, must play at a Pro Bowl level during the regular season for him to earn the majority of the dollars he signed for this summer.

But most of all, he must be a steadying force when the 49ers find themselves in flux. Kaepernick's improvisational style mixes flash and daring, but the team could use a little more predictability right now. The offseason has been an ongoing series of bad-news headlines, and the preseason performance of the first-team offense has not alleviated any of that. Other than the running of Carlos Hyde and the catching of Anquan Boldin, there's hasn't been a lot to get excited about.

If Kaepernick becomes more precise — he's sub-60 percent for his career — he could be a special player. He's dangerous on the run as a scrambler, but Kaepernick is most deadly throwing on the move. That's where most of his big-splash plays come from, but his accuracy can waver drastically on those throws, too.

Kaepernick doesn't throw a lot of interceptions (11 in 23 career starts), but he has fumbled the ball too many times (15) in those games. Also, his lack of precision — and the 49ers' lack of reliable receiving options outside of Boldin — led the 49ers to turn in 47 three-and-outs in 189 offensive possessions last season.

Adding Stevie Johnson and getting Michael Crabtree back for the whole season should help. But it also requires Kaepernick taking another step up in his game. That happening could take the 49ers from bridesmaid to honeymoon in a hurry.

New York Giants passing gameEli Manning has had a notoriously inconsistent career as a passer, but it has been a general consensus that he's best operating in a downfield passing attack. Now, with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, Manning is having to adapt his game. Not that the Giants won't be going vertical this season, but the approach has changed to more of a rhythm, quick-hitting passing attack that requires Manning to be more accurate and decisive.

So far, the results have been quite disappointing. The preseason only offered a few brief glimpses of success with the passing game, as Manning roundly struggled, Victor Cruz made few impact plays, first-round receiver Odell Beckham remains sidelined, no front-line tight end emerged and projected starting left guard Geoff Schwartz figures to miss the majority (if not all) of the season with a dislocated toe.

The run game looks like a solid bet, but Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Co. might not be the kind of bedrock group that can dominate on a weekly basis. It has the feel of a strong complementary unit, not a special one.

Can it all come together in time? The Giants open with five non-playoff teams from 2013, but they can't expect to ease into things either. Manning has played at a high level, and he figures to pick up the pace at some point. But if he doesn't, we could be talking about a playoff-contending roster that falls to 6-10 without strong quarterbacking.

The rookie quarterback class (including, yep, that guy) — They're going to have their say on this season, even if there are not (m)any starting right away. Yes, we think Derek Carr has an excellent chance to be out there Week 1 against the New York Jets, and we like his chances to have a solid season. But for others, there must be patience.

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Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland Browns fans will get their Johnny Manziel fix eventually. Brian Hoyer probably has the weakest hold on any starting quarterback job outside of Oakland, and he really can't win in this situation. It will take playing at a level above the one he briefly touched last season, and that would mean he was playing better than he had ever before in his career. Even though he's not ready or anywhere close to being complete, Manziel will get his crack. The Browns need to give their fans a healthy dose early on.

Don't assume the Minnesota Vikings feel that same pressure. They have a sneaky-good team — maybe not one capable of taking down the Packers or Bears in the division, but one that could make a run at a wildcard spot with the right mix of defense, turnover margin and solid QB play. We know Adrian Peterson is going to do his thing, and Cordarrelle Patterson is ready to be unleashed. All Matt Cassel has to do, as he has for a good portion of his career, is move the chains and avoid mistakes. I hate the "game manager" title, but that's what he is. Prediction: Teddy waits.

But the most fascinating scenario lies in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars might shock some people this season. Not everything is in place yet, but this is a team to watch. They're extremely well-coached and tough, and that alone should be worth 2-3 victories. But if they emerge from a tough opening five-game stretch at 1-4 and feel like a few more plays in the passing game could have put them at 3-2, don't be stunned if the Jags scrap their plan to sit Blake Bortles. He has shown rare poise and terrific talent in the preseason and is just a better playmaker than Chad Henne, who isn't the game manager that, say, Cassel is.

Chicago Bears defense — The Bears were a game away from winning the NFC North and hosting a home playoff game last January despite owning a horrific run defense, along with mostly miserable safety play. The team bolstered its front line with veterans Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young, plus draft picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, and the hope is that a stronger rush and less leaky run defense will help the secondary out by putting them in better positions defensively and giving the coordinators more play-calling freedom.

That's the theory, anyway. So far, the results have not been all that pretty in the preseason. Yeah, Mel Tucker was not gameplanning or tipping his hand, Allen sat out most of the exhibition season and the safety thing was still working itself out at press time. But it's hard to look at the results and think that the Bears did much more than take a miserable defense and make it merely below average to bad.

The Bears also must get lucky with injuries; the bottom of their roster appears a bit lean, and that applies to the potentially great offense. (Close your eyes and picture Jimmy Clausen throwing to Josh Morgan and Micheal Spurlock, or handing off to Shaun Draughn 20 times in a game ... chills?)

But if healthy, this offense makes the Bears contenders. What will elevate them past that point and onto a new threshold is a defense that can make occasional big stands, force two turnovers per game on average and one that will not get bullied against decent run games. That's really it. The special teams stand as something of a question mark, too, so the pressure gets cranked up an extra notch or two.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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