Oscars’ Diversity Problem Has a Simple Solution

There is no NFL on this weekend, but another passion of mine (film) is front and center with the Oscars on Sunday night. I used to watch the award show annually until Shakespeare in Love absurdly beat Saving Private Ryan, so I quit on it for a solid decade until I recaptured a love of film around the time No Country for Old Men won.

But now you can’t really have an Oscars discussion without the issue of diversity at the forefront ever since #OscarsSoWhite became a popular hashtag. The other issue has been about the lack of women nominated in categories that are open to both genders such as Best Director or Best Screenplay.

Personally, I’ve always been of the belief that you pick the best options available and you don’t discriminate over gender or race. The Oscars doesn’t need a Rooney Rule. If you think Greta Gerwig should have been nominated for Best Director in what became an all-male field, then that’s fine. Just tell me which of Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, and Bong Joon Ho you’re kicking off the ballot.

For me, the Oscars have always had diversity problems, though I’ve looked at it more from the viewpoint of they don’t pick enough foreign films to highlight great efforts from other countries, and they aren’t inclusive enough in terms of genre. You’ve basically had to make a drama to win a lot of the major awards for decades. Comedies rarely get anything and it’s even worse for action/horror/comic book type of “genre” movies. I think this was a big part of my Oscars burnout as a youth because I really couldn’t care less about The English Patient and other yawns they would push on us as being instant classics.

From that standpoint, I think the 2020 field is diverse and impressive to include a South Korean film with subtitles for the major awards of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Parasite is an incredible film, and while I haven’t seen the full field of nominees yet — I’d really like to see 1917 — it’s the one I would pick to win most of these awards. I also think Joker being up for 11 Oscars is a phenomenal feat for a “comic book movie” that is far more of a character study than any traditional comic book movie. Still, 5-10 years ago I don’t think it would have received any Oscars buzz as the Academy has tried to include more genres. I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit, but a dark comedy getting recognized is nice to see as someone who loves that genre. Don’t forget, Rushmore (1998) barely received one Golden Globe nominee, let alone anything from the Oscars.

So change has been slow, but the process has been improving over the years to include more diverse films. If the Academy wants to stop taking so much heat for its choices, then the solution is actually very simple.

Nominate more films. 

The most prestigious award of them all is Best Picture, yet did they not already dilute it a bit with raising the nominees to 10 in 2009? We have nine this year, so this has been the standard for a decade now. If you’re willing to “weaken” the field of the top award, why would you not nominate six or eight films for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and the four acting awards? Right now they go with just five nominees for those awards.

This way Gerwig could be nominated for Best Director and more non-white actors could also be included. It’s really that simple, and reading a few more names and showing a couple more short clips isn’t going to overrun a broadcast that is already too long each year anyways. Hell, get smarter and ditch the music performances. You’re not the Grammy’s. You’re supposed to be highlighting films.

How would it not be a benefit to all if more films are nominated? All of these companies would love to stick a “Oscar-nominated” sticker on the Blu-ray of their release. Underrated films like The Lighthouse and Midsommar could get more attention if you include them in expanded categories.

Continuing to nominate five films like they did in the 1930s doesn’t make any sense in a world where so many films are released each year. Just a little expansion can go a long way in making the field more diverse. At the end of the day the Academy still has to vote for the one best choice to win the statue. Sure, people are going to complain then too, because that’s just how people are.

Like how I still complain about that god damn Shakespeare in Love, which was a Harvey Weinstein production in case you forgot…Now that was a shameful moment in #OscarsSoWhiteSoMale history.

Go Parasite.

2019 NFL Predictions

The 100th season in NFL history kicks off tonight and I have written the longest preview of my life for it. Last year I had the Falcons beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. That almost blew up in Week 1 alone, but it was an enjoyable season…until the very end at least.

As for a few of the specific things I’m watching for this season:

A quarter of the league hired a new head coach, including six rookies. That could be rough, or just easy pickings for the established teams. I still can’t believe Marvin Lewis didn’t beat out the apocalypse in Cincinnati.

Pass interference is now reviewable and will surely come up in a few big spots this year. Overall I think it’s a good addition, but I am nervous about how they’ll apply things in the Hail Mary situations. If the preseason is any indicator, it’s going to be tough to overturn the call on the field, but we’ll certainly keep an eye on the PI flag stats this year.

As far as I know, I’ll continue to post my weekly picks on Saturdays like I have for years. Other content may also show up here this season, or it may be on a new site. We’ll see what happens, but unlike Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski, I’m not retiring from the NFL yet. Let’s get to the predictions.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

I’m not sure what was more annoying: Pittsburgh’s failure to make the playoffs or the offseason drama that was largely generated by agenda-pushing national media and two head cases (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) who are no longer with the team. You can read this rant I tweeted in February about my disgust over the way Ben Roethlisberger was critiqued during the AB/Bell drama. As Brown has continued to embarrass himself in Oakland, hopefully the drama has left town and the team can get back to focusing on winning.

While losses of talent like that certainly hurt, it’s still not a bad offense to feature JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner as the leading receiver and rusher. Sure, depth is an issue now, and they also let Jesse James go and are rolling with Vance McDonald at tight end. But the top-end talent in Pittsburgh is still very good, including the offensive line. If Roethlisberger can get on the same page with James Washington that the backups showed with him in the preseason, then the offense may not even skip a beat without Brown. They already performed very well without Bell in 2018. Losing Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach is a bigger loss really, because he’s one of the best in the business.

Despite the criticism over Pittsburgh’s soap opera-level drama last year, let’s not forget Mike Tomlin’s team was 7-2-1. Losses to Kansas City and Baltimore are understandable. The tie in Week 1 to Cleveland that ultimately cost the team a division title only happened after Chris Boswell missed a makeable field goal in overtime. In fact, you could argue no player had more to do with the Steelers missing the playoffs than Boswell. He missed that kick as well as one against Oakland that would have sent that game to overtime. Two better swings of the leg and the Steelers likely were looking at a first-round bye. Instead they missed the playoffs. The Steelers also blew a 16-point lead to the Chargers in a game where the Chargers got a long touchdown despite an obvious false start, and a pass by Philip Rivers in the end zone that should have been intercepted was instead deflected for a touchdown to get that comeback going. The Steelers actually beat New England for a change last year, but still missed the playoffs.

While the hype has shifted to Cleveland in this division, anyone writing off Pittsburgh after last year just didn’t see how many close calls this team had. This is the team with a track record of success in the division. Baker Mayfield may be one of the next big things, but Roethlisberger still played better last year. Despite the criticism over his inconsistency, Roethlisberger passed for at least 235 yards and a touchdown in all 16 games last year. That’s only been done three other times in NFL history. He’s still one of the top quarterbacks in the league and should look to get Washington and Donte Moncrief involved to make up for the loss of Brown. While I don’t think JuJu will score another 97-yard touchdown, he should be in for a huge third season after such a stellar start to his career. Look for his efficiency to drop now that he’s the main target, but the production will definitely be there.

This year I’m not going to spend much time at all talking about defenses in these previews. That’s not because offense is more consistent or important, but because it will get redundant for me to say I’m not that impressed with the defense on paper. That’s how I feel about a lot of these units this year in a league that is increasingly about situational play (third down, turnovers, red zone, final drives) instead of shutting offenses down.

As for the Steelers in particular, the defense hasn’t really been great since 2011, but I think they have a shot to return as a top-five unit this season. It’s a familiar cast, but T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds are still growing. They added linebacker Devin Bush in the first round and have kept Joe Haden in town. My biggest concern would probably be teams picking on Steven Nelson or Artie Burns at corner, but that’s why you have to get a good pass rush or safety to help out.

Week 1 should be an excellent litmus test with a trip to New England on banner night. That’s a really tough spot for the Steelers in a game that could determine a first-round bye. The Steelers also go to Baltimore in Week 17 in another game that could determine a playoff season. It’s not the easiest schedule, but the Steelers have gone at least .500 in all 15 seasons of Roethlisberger’s career, one of the longest streaks in NFL history.

Sure, this team will probably lose in Arizona in Week 14 to stay on brand, but the Steelers should be a contender all season long in the AFC.

2. Cleveland Browns (10-6)

Can a team really go from 0-16 in 2017 to the Super Bowl in 2019? There has been no shortage of hype for the Browns this year, but I’m annoyed over the lack of skepticism. What if this is actually just one big flop from a group with no real track record of NFL success? Remember, strong second-half finishes have no real evidence of carrying over to the next season, and the Browns were largely just beating sub-.500 teams last season. Baker Mayfield is very promising, but he only finished 23rd in QBR and Freddie Kitchens is still a big unknown.

Sure, on paper this looks like the beginning of a run of success for a franchise that has not seen the postseason since 2002. Getting back-to-back No. 1 picks, landing a top-tier pass-rusher and franchise quarterback with them, and trading for Odell Beckham Jr. all seem like the right steps for a team to start winning.

But “The Next Big Thing” has failed many times before in NFL history. Let me bring up two team comparisons for the 2019 Browns. We’ll start with the 2011 Eagles, the self-proclaimed “Dream Team” if you listened to Vince Young, the backup quarterback. They paid Michael Vick another fortune, brought in some big names on defense, and looked to build on a playoff season from 2010. It was a pretty solid roster, but hardly the stuff of legends. The dream turned into a nightmare quickly and the Eagles started 4-8 before finishing 8-8. Whoops.

Then you have the 2005 Bengals. Carson Palmer, a No. 1 overall pick, was going into his second season as a starter. He had flamboyant receivers and the offense was expected to be the next big thing after some strong games late in the 2004 season. The offense delivered and the defense intercepted a lot of passes on the way to an 11-5 season and division title, the first playoff season for the Bengals since 1990. I personally was skeptical of the Bengals’ hype going into that season and wanted to see them prove it first before buying in.

As you can judge by the 10-6 prediction, I’m leaning more towards 2005 Bengals than 2011 Eagles for these Browns. Still, I think we need to slow down a bit on the MVP and top QB talk for Mayfield. I’m not in any mood to defend Eli Manning, but the constant remarks of “now Odell has a real quarterback” are amusing to read. This is more of a fantasy football rant, but Mayfield didn’t even produce a 1,000-yard receiver last season. The Browns were led by Jarvis Landry (976) and David Njoku (639) in receiving yards and no one caught more than five touchdowns on a team with 29 of those scores. That’s hardly impressive or proof that Mayfield is ready to help Beckham to one of his prime seasons where he had over 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. I think this duo will be excellent, and I hope to see the targets distributed logically between Beckham and Landry — meaning Odell gets way more — but don’t fall for the trap that Beckham is ready to explode for 1,800 yards or 20 TD. And let’s not forget Eli once got some pretty nice numbers out of Fake Steve Smith and UFA Victor Cruz.

The offensive line is basically Joel Bitonio and four reclamation projects from around the league. It’s more than serviceable and the Browns did a great job in Kitchens’ games (after he replaced Todd Haley as OC) of keeping Mayfield clean, but the Browns had better lines back when they had nothing worth protecting. Funny how that works. Alas, I would have kept Duke Johnson and not touched Kareem Hunt (suspended), but we’ll see how that works out. I like Nick Chubb as it is at RB. Defensively, you have to love the high draft picks on Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward in recent years. Sheldon Richardson joins his fourth team in four years so that doesn’t do much for me, but I like the Olivier Vernon addition from the Giants. He’s missed nine games the last two years, but he can be a pressure machine and should help Garrett. I mostly just like that Jabrill Peppers is gone and Gregg Williams isn’t there anymore to play the safeties deep in center field. Steve Wilks wasn’t cut out for head coach, but he should be a solid defensive coordinator for this group.

Look, the AFC is absolutely starving for a new contender. Cleveland fans have been dying for a winner again. It would be great for the league if the Browns become that again, but I just think we should temper expectations a little for 2019.

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Going into my process of picking games, the Ravens were a team I wanted to drop to 8-8 and miss the playoffs. But once again, I found myself flirting with 10 wins and the playoffs for John Harbaugh’s squad. I think it’s easy to argue he is the third-best coach in the conference after Belichick and Reid, so the Ravens have that going for them. Baltimore was able to adapt on the fly last year offensively after making the switch from Joe Flacco to a run-heavy, old-school scheme with rookie Lamar Jackson. As usual, Baltimore was strong in the other facets of the game and Justin Tucker might be the GOAT kicker.

The problems I have with Baltimore are Jackson’s growth and durability, the loss of leadership on defense, and the division getting tougher. All of these issues can converge too. If Baltimore has to win higher-scoring games against better competition and can’t control the ground attack, will Jackson deliver? We saw in the playoffs against the Chargers how things didn’t work well when the Ravens fell behind big early, but I’m not going to use a rookie’s first playoff game to paint his career. The fact is Jackson was too inaccurate last season and the weapons they have in 2019 need him to deliver good throws more consistently. They don’t have an elite receiving talent or YAC monster. Jackson ran the ball 128 times in eight starts (including playoffs) and never threw 30 passes in any game. Obviously he can’t sustain that rushing pace over a full season without serious injury risk, and to make matters worse his backup is Robert Griffin III. I just see QB Hell in Baltimore — a familiar sight — if he continues to run at a historic rate. Jackson also fumbled 15 times last year, so while he may not throw many picks, that’s a big concern if the ball starts bouncing to the opponent more.

Granted, the Ravens were 6-2 in Jackson’s starts, but I don’t think this will hold up against the better competition, and Baltimore’s schedule features two offenses in the division (PIT/CLE) that should be really good, and the Ravens also have to travel to the Chiefs, Rams, and Seahawks and host the Patriots. So I think the schedule is going to be tough on Jackson and his progression to keep up as a passer.

It’s also going to be weird to watch the Ravens play defense without a Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs on the field, cornerstones of the front seven and franchise. Suggs went to Arizona and the Ravens also didn’t bring back Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley. That’s not to say the defense isn’t good anymore, because the secondary looks great on paper and added veteran (and probable HOFer) Earl Thomas. It just may not be as strong of a unit as we’re used to from the Ravens, and I think that’s a crucial part to their success given some of the limitations in the offense.

Baltimore stopped Baker Mayfield with the playoffs on the line in Week 17 last year. But if he and the Browns take the next steps many are predicting, will the Ravens counter with their own improvement? I can’t wait for the Week 16 matchup in Cleveland that should really go a long way in deciding this one.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)

Marvin Lewis was hired as head coach when I was still in high school, so it’s going to be weird to think about the Bengals without him. It was a move that should have happened ages ago, but I don’t think rookie coach Zac Taylor is stepping into a situation for Year 1 success. Andy Dalton hit his ceiling in 2015 and the floor isn’t even that reliable anymore. The rest of the team isn’t as good now as it was then either. Throw in another injury to A.J. Green that will impact the first two months of the season and it’s not a great setup for Dalton to thrive in a new offense. The defense is largely composed of players the franchise drafted and put on the field last year when teams moved the ball at will (31st in yards and points per drive allowed). In fact it’s kind of shocking how little was added here, and corner Darqueze Dennard being on PUP doesn’t help matters.

Even if the Bengals approach mediocrity on both sides of the ball, Taylor will have to deal with the fact that most teams on the schedule are simply better than this one. Even the games against teams of a similar nature (Bills, Jaguars) will be hard to win when Cincinnati’s star players (Green and Geno Atkins) are now on the wrong side of 30. Throw in six games against possibly the toughest division in the NFL and you can all but count the Bengals in for taking a quarterback high in April’s draft.

 

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

The NFC North prevented me from having some of the most accurate preseason predictions on the net last year. I was all in on the Packers and Vikings finishing 12-4 while the Bears stunk at 6-10. That was way off, even after the Packers came back from a huge deficit to beat the Bears in Week 1. However, that game also may have had an impact on the season after it looked like Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending injury in the first half. He of course didn’t, and he didn’t miss a start the whole season. Yet the Packers still finished 6-9-1 and fired head coach Mike McCarthy, paving the way for rookie coach Matt LaFleur to fix this offense and reinvigorate a slumping Rodgers.

Here I am again in 2019 putting the Packers and Vikings ahead of the Bears, but we are getting to a very odd place with Rodgers and his legacy. I’ve made plenty of comparisons about Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-2014 specifically) to the player he’s been since 2015, which frankly just hasn’t been that great outside of a run during the 2016 season. We know the play-action game has been broken, and that was not the case even when the running game stunk during his peak years. So it’s not about the running offense, which actually wasn’t bad in 2018. We know the Packers have gone from the best receiving corps in the NFL to something more along the lines of Davante Adams and Some Young Guys. That plays a factor too.

While the health concerns are valid for Rodgers, it’s not really that helpful to explain his performance when he was still playing every week last season. He still practiced. He still ran around and tried to make the throws he used to make, but hasn’t been able to make as frequently the last four seasons. While Rodgers finished with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions, he set an unofficial record for most passes intentionally thrown away in a season. He also had more dropped picks than real picks, so that ratio was more of a result of extremely passive play and luck. It’s also worth noting that the offense just wasn’t good this way, ranking 16th in points per drive.

I have said there are only three ways we’re going to see a return of Peak Aaron Rodgers. One way is for him to go to a new team a la Brett Favre in Minnesota. That shouldn’t happen any time soon with his contract. Another way is for the Packers to acquire a generational talent at WR/TE, but guys like Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski just don’t grow on trees.

So the most realistic option that the Packers have started the process of is bringing in a new offensive-minded head coach in LaFleur. Now it’s hard to say if LaFleur will have a Shanahan (Mike or Kyle) impact on Rodgers, but LaFleur is from that coaching tree, he was Matt Ryan’s QB coach in his 2016 MVP season, he knows Sean McVay (2017 Rams), and the Titans were a bit dysfunctional (also lacking in talent) under his watch in Tennessee last year as OC. LaFleur doesn’t bring a ton of success, but Rodgers is learning a new offense for the first time in a decade after things had gotten so stale with McCarthy. This also puts a lot of pressure on Rodgers to perform better, because that McCarthy excuse is out the window this year.

The more I type here the more I want to drop this team to 8-9 wins, but let’s stick with 10-6 and a tie-breaker win over the Vikings for the NFC North. I think if Rodgers stays upright in this offense, he can lead this team to at least a split with the Bears and Vikings, and they can get back to beating the Lions like they used to. Then I absolutely trust Rodgers at homes against the likes of DEN/OAK/CAR/WAS, and I think they can win on the road against the 49ers/Giants, and Rodgers has had plenty of success in Dallas (Week 5) too. The schedule certainly looks more favorable than last year when the Packers started 4-6-1 with road losses to the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings included. The team all but quit on McCarthy after that, starting with the shocking home loss to the Cardinals. I don’t think losing Mike Daniels was good for the defense, but the Packers have again brought in some fifth-year free agents (Adrian Amos, Preston Brown and Za’Darius Smith) to go against old practices, and the secondary has been really rebuilt in recent drafts.

Is it a championship-caliber defense? Probably not, but with an improved Rodgers, I think it’s all enough for a 10-win season and a return to the playoffs. If not, then expect more articles about how things are falling apart for a quarterback some once thought was on the path to being the best ever. It’s well known I was never on that train, but I also didn’t think I’d be writing about the potential for a third-straight missed postseason for Rodgers and the Packers.

2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

I don’t know if every team with Kirk Cousins at quarterback is destined to hover around .500 while the kicker chokes and games against winning teams go south, but he made the Vikings look like his Washington teams last year. When you were coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance and added The $84 Million Man, that’s just not good enough.

Like in Washington, the disappointment wasn’t usually all of Cousins’ fault. This team would have snuck in as the sixth seed (instead of Philadelphia) had the special teams not been so horrendous in that tie in Week 2 in Green Bay. Cousins was stellar on the road against the Rams, but Jared Goff destroyed that defense in a 38-31 final. Those were the games Cousins played well in early enough in the season to win, but didn’t. Yet like clockwork, people are more likely to remember his flops against the likes of the Bears (twice), Patriots and Seahawks. Those were four ugly losses after the bye where Cousins didn’t look interested in pushing the ball down the field at all.

So now what? The Vikings still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, providing Cousins with that excellent receiving duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Tight end Irv Smith was added in the draft and maybe Dalvin Cook will see his biggest workload yet in his third season if he can stay healthy. The offensive line was a major issue again last year as Cousins had problems with strip-sacks, which highlighted that horrific upset loss to Buffalo early in the season. It’s hard for the line to be worse this season after drafting Garrett Bradbury in the first round and Brian O’Neill is no longer a rookie.

The defense is still more than talented at each level to be a championship unit, though Xavier Rhodes needs to get back to playing at a high level. But really the team’s biggest problems were on offense last year. I’m going to bank on Cousins feeling more comfortable in his second year with the team, though coming up short of the playoffs in another 8-9 win season would be a really safe bet too.

3. Chicago Bears (9-7)

You’ve probably heard that the Bears are a prime candidate for regression this season, but it’s not as simple as that. I wrestled with this prediction because I do want to highlight the good the Bears achieved last year under rookie coach Matt Nagy. The Bears didn’t have a bad performance in any of their 17 games, including the playoff loss to the Eagles. That’s a rare feat as most teams will throw up some stinkers. The Bears blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Packers, blew a late 7-point lead in Miami (missed GW FG in OT too), they had a 10-point lead on the Patriots, lost in overtime to the Giants, and blew another late lead to the Eagles and botched another game-winning field goal at the end. This team could have easily been better than the 12-5 record it had.

It’s no small feat the Bears accomplished this in typical Chicago fashion: great defense, an emphasis on the run, and shaky quarterback play. It wasn’t so much a fluky Chicago season a la 2001 or 2005 or 2010, but it was certainly accomplished in a way that makes it hard to expect a repeat of this success in 2019. Health definitely helped as the Bears were among the least-injured teams in 2018 after being heavily, if not historically injured in the previous three years during John Fox’s tenure.

Nagy was far from a Sean McVay. He did not do a lot to elevate the offense with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who had some favorable season numbers thanks in large part to a couple of monster games against bad defenses and his best ability: scrambling. He’s an inaccurate, mistake-prone passer who needs to use his legs to compensate. Trubisky had eight games with his YPA below 6.8 compared to seven games where it was above 7.0. He’s basically the deluxe version of Buffalo’s Josh Allen. I don’t think he was poor in the playoff loss, but I would seriously worry about him being able to lead a team to three or four straight wins over quality opponents.

Trubisky needs a strong defense to succeed. He’s 1-7 as a starter when the Bears allow at least 23 points. Fortunately, the defense is still filled with talent, including Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, etc.. The Bears haven’t lost much on defense, but they did lose defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. I’ll get to him more in the Denver preview, but Fangio is in a great position to masquerade as the reason the Bears regress and the Broncos take a step forward in 2019. I say masquerade because I’m saying it could have little to actually do with his scheme that produces the results.

The Bears had a league-high 36 takeaways last season, including a preposterous 27 interceptions. That’s really impressive in this era, the hardest to get interceptions in. In fact, it’s been so hard that the Bears had 24 interceptions total from 2015-2017. Who was the defensive coordinator those three years? Vic Fangio. So let’s be very careful in associating his scheme with getting takeaways, because for three years with Fangio the Bears were the absolute pits in that area. It sure helped to have a lot more talent on the field last year, so hopefully the defense can at least continue to create splash plays. When Fangio was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh in 2011, his defense ranked first in takeaways. They fell to 14th the next year, but it was okay since the offense improved and the team reached the Super Bowl.

For the Bears to keep winning this year, the offense simply has to get better, especially if you’re banking on fewer takeaways and more injuries to happen. The schedule also presents a problem. The rest of the division took a lot of steps backwards in 2018, but you have to think the Packers and Vikings can at least be better teams in 2019. The Bears have to go to Denver in September, which is an absurd home-field advantage for the Broncos. Chicago gets the Rams on the road instead of at home this year, and they still have to deal with expectedly great offenses in the Chiefs, Chargers and Saints. Out of Chicago’s 12 wins last year, only two came against teams that won at least nine games.

I haven’t even mentioned the embarrassing kicking situation this team still has, so that’s not a problem they have really fixed yet this year. The Bears slumped to 7-9 coming off a Super Bowl appearance in 2007. That wouldn’t shock me again here, but I have them coming in at 9-7 just because I think the defense is still going to be one of the league’s best and I expect the offense to be stronger. I still don’t think Trubisky is good, but I think this young group of players hasn’t peaked together yet so that’s how I wound up at 9-7.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)

If you told me the Lions swept the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers and beat the Patriots, I would have assumed it was one of the most successful seasons since the merger for the team. I would have been dead wrong. Of course, the Packers proved to be a 6-9-1 mess and Rodgers left the Week 17 blowout injured. The Patriots also weren’t as strong as usual despite the playoff finish.

Matt Patricia’s rookie campaign proved to be a 6-10 year where the offense was largely injured or (in Golden Tate’s case) traded away midseason. Even Matthew Stafford played through a broken back and didn’t eclipse 4,000 yards despite making all 16 starts. His YPA (6.8) was his lowest since his first two seasons. At least Kenny Golladay continued to develop nicely. He has to be even better this year and the team will hope Kerryon Johnson stays healthy after showing a lot of promise as a rookie. Still, it’s Detroit so you don’t really expect the running game to be dominant, but they have been putting in the resources lately to get more there. Also, rookie tight ends historically tend to struggle or at least not post huge numbers. I can’t believe Detroit used another high pick (No. 8) on one (T.J. Hockenson), but lower your expectations there.

Defensively, I just don’t see much to get excited over. Patricia should know Trey Flowers well from New England, but the team has continued to misfire in the secondary (see Teez Tabor cut) and are still relying on Darius Slay to save the day. The Lions allowed 29 touchdown passes against seven interceptions in 2018. I think offenses will continue to throw well against them this year.

Look, Detroit hasn’t turned overnight into a team that will play great defense and allow Stafford to hand off 20 times a week to Kerryon Johnson. That’s what Mike Vrabel is trying to do in Tennessee. Given how consistent the Lions are at losing to good teams, this season could get off to a real ugly start with the first five games being at ARI, LAC, at PHI, KC, at GB.

This team is more likely to establish doubt than the run in 2019.

 

AFC EAST

New England Patriots (11-5)

I was pretty specific and ultimately accurate with my predictions on the 2018 Patriots:

It was the most vulnerable the team looked in years. The Patriots won fewer than 12 games for the first time since 2009 (10-6). The special teams had their worst DVOA in the Bill Belichick era. All five of New England’s losses were to non-playoff teams, including three losing teams (DET/JAX/MIA).

Yet in the playoffs, Belichick showed off his coaching superiority, outclassing the Chargers, Chiefs and Rams on the way to another ring. The pass protection and pass rush in particular in the two AFC playoff games were unbelievable for the Patriots.

Per usual, there was a season-ending scare again, but Dee Ford lined up offsides for the Chiefs on Tom Brady’s last-minute interception. And once again in overtime the Patriots won the coin toss, received the ball, and never had to see an MVP quarterback get a chance. I basically called them the Coin Flip Dynasty in this preview a year ago and I see no reason to take that back. Almost every season comes down to a singular moment that could have gone either way, and more often than not it’s gone New England’s way.

This run of success has lasted 18 seasons, matching the type of 18-year run the San Francisco 49ers are recognized for from 1981-1998. What stopped the 49ers in 1999? An aging Steve Young was injured in September and the season soon after went off the rails as the 49ers lost 11 of their last 12 games. But it wasn’t just an old HOF quarterback getting injured that changed things. The 49ers finally had serious competition from the Rams, who quickly put things together with Kurt Warner (replacement starter), Marshall Faulk (trade), Torry Holt (rookie), and Isaac Bruce (veteran). A team in the division had to put the final nail in the coffin of the San Francisco dynasty.

So which AFC East team is going to end this run for New England? The thought alone makes me feel like this:

GSG

But that’s likely going to be the way it happens where someone pushes New England out of being guaranteed a top four seed and home game in the playoffs. That doesn’t look likely in 2019, so we’ll focus on the actual contenders in the AFC. The Patriots will get to host three of their toughest competition: Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. They will travel to Houston and Baltimore as well. It’s long been projected to be one of the easiest schedules this year, but the key part is those home games with the good teams. It’s just so hard to beat the Patriots at home when they pounce on mistakes better than anyone.

As for the roster this year, Brady is obviously 42 years old. He only needs 60 pass attempts to rank fourth all time in pass attempts by a 42+ year old, trailing only Warren Moon (295), Vinny Testaverde (281), and George Blanda (148). Rookie Jarrett Stidham is Brady’s backup after the team cut Brian Hoyer, so there’s some risk there for sure as he looks to go into uncharted territory at this age.

Brady is also not going to have an all-time talent like Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski at his disposal for the first season since 2006 after Gronk retired. Maybe he comes back later in the season, but we’ll assume he’s done for now. The Patriots brought back Ben Watson, who is about to turn 39 and will serve a four-game suspension. So we’re talking about an all-time old man connection there. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots getting much out of the tight ends this year, but as always they’ll adjust and take advantage of a deep backfield. The wide receivers also get a big boost with Josh Gordon allowed to play again. He is arguably an all-time talent in his own right, but can he be trusted to last all season? He hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2012 and did not finish last year with the Patriots after 11 appearances.

You know Belichick and his staff will have the offensive line and defense sorted out, but Brady’s age, the hole at tight end, and Gordon’s unreliability all make for a cautious approach to trusting this offense to be there in the end again.

No matter what happens this season, the Patriots have solidified themselves as the team of the decade again, an unprecedented feat in the NFL. Belichick and Brady going into Year 20 together is the main reason for that, but not far behind is the lack of a real contender in the NFL (especially AFC) this decade:

  • The 1960s Packers weren’t also the team of the 70s because Vince Lombardi died before the 1970 season even started, and he wasn’t with Green Bay anymore anyway.
  • The 1970s Steelers weren’t also the team of the 80s because they didn’t draft Dan Marino in 1983 and the league was taken by storm by Bill Walsh and the 49ers.
  • The 1980s 49ers weren’t also the team of the 90s because they struggled with new elite challengers in the conference in Dallas and Green Bay.
  • The 1990s Cowboys weren’t also the team of the 00s because Jerry Jones is a tool.

Maybe dynasties will never be the same again in the NFL. No one has repeated as Super Bowl champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, the longest streak in NFL history without a repeat champ. As the NFL eyes a transitional period in the league’s 100th season, the Patriots remain a heavy favorite to win it all again.

A new power will just have to emerge.

2. New York Jets (9-7)

I Believe That the End of the Reign of Terror Is Soon Near by The Anniversary

I’m not holding my breath, but if any team should end the Patriots’ run in the AFC East, it should be the Jets. They owe us that at least. Out of the other 31 NFL teams, none are more responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty than the Jets. They hired Bill Belichick to be their head coach in 2000 only to see him resign after one day on the job. Belichick then quickly took the job in New England. Three months later, the Patriots drafted quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round. In the first game after 9/11 in 2001, the Jets were playing the Patriots with Drew Bledsoe as the starting QB. Bledsoe was seriously injured on a hit by linebacker Mo Lewis, putting Brady into the QB1 spot.

The rest is history.

For two decades the Jets have done little to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. Their biggest contribution came in 2010 when Rex Ryan’s squad took two out of three meetings with one of the strongest New England teams, including that shocking upset in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Jets haven’t made the playoffs since while the Patriots haven’t missed an AFC Championship Game in the last eight years.

Now the Jets are relying on Adam Gase, their sixth head coach since Belichick ditched them two decades ago. Gase’s enduring career is largely the good fortunate to have known Peyton Manning in Denver. He’s a retread who failed in Miami — the Dolphins ranked 29th in scoring differential from 2016-18 — and he didn’t exactly make a good first impression with the Jets in January:

gasejets

We’ll get back to Gase shortly, but the Jets’ hopes rest heavily this year on Sam Darnold taking big steps forward in his second season. As you’ll see me refer to this season, great quarterbacks usually show their greatness early in their careers. A second season isn’t too soon for Darnold (or Josh Allen/Josh Rosen/Lamar Jackson) to really impress, and you may start to feel concerned if they ever will if things don’t look good this year.

Darnold is the latest rookie to get compared to Peyton Manning’s 1998 rookie season where he threw 28 interceptions. Everyone makes this comparison while ignoring how different the passing climate was in 1998, a season where Manning usually ranked 12th or 13 in many efficiency stats while leading an offense with similar rankings. Manning also smashed many NFL rookie records at the time. In comparison, the Jets finished 2018 ranked 29th in points per drive, no offense went three-and-out more often, and Darnold was 30th in DVOA and QBR. So it’s not quite apples-to-apples. Manning also showed real improvement in his final 10 games after a lousy first six. Darnold had a few of his best games in December too after returning from injury, but it wasn’t anywhere near the clean split like Manning’s season.

Mostly people just use the comparison for interceptions, but this is where Darnold scares you a bit. He threw 15 interceptions at a rate of 3.6 percent. That is higher than average in this era, but maybe the more concerning part is that Darnold led the league with seven dropped interceptions according to ESPN.

So you just hope Darnold shows a lot of progression in reading the field and making smarter passes. He looked solid in the preseason action this year, but we know that’s not worth anything really. I like that Darnold has enough mobility to make plays happen, but turnovers will probably be the thing to watch most with him this year. They of course brought in Le’Veon Bell to help the offense, but it’s more or less a way to get a workhorse involved who can catch the ball well (assuming he’s not going to be rusty after taking a year off). I think Bell’s patient style of running behind a lesser offensive line will be one of the most interesting things to watch this season. It shouldn’t be a terrible line, but it’s not Pittsburgh quality. I don’t like the tight ends, but I like the defined role mixture at wide receiver. You have a deep threat (Robby Anderson), a playmaker (Quincy Enunwa), and a slot guy (Jamison Crowder).

The defense made a good addition in linebacker C.J. Mosley, they still have Leonard Williams up front, and the safeties are going into their third season. The Jets drafted DT Quinnen Williams No. 3 overall, but despite the “instant starter” billing it looks like he’ll start 2019 as a backup. This doesn’t look like a championship-caliber defense, but expect Gregg Williams to continue using his aggressive approach as the new defensive coordinator. It should also help that the Dolphins look lifeless on offense, Buffalo is heavily flawed there, and the Patriots no longer have Rob Gronkowski.

That gets us back to Gase, who mastered the art of winning by 3 points or losing by three scores in Miami. Among active head coaches, Gase has the best record at 4QC opportunities at 11-9 and is second only to Bruce Arians with a 14-10 (.583) record at all 4QC/GWD opportunities.

Coach4QCGWD

Last year, the Jets were 1-6 at 4QC/GWD opportunities and tied for the league lead by blowing four late leads. So if they adhere to Gase’s win close/lose big style and see regression in close games while getting better play from a second-year quarterback, you can see how a 9-7 season is possible, if not better should Darnold live up to the draft hype.

I’ll hedge my bets that the Jets didn’t turn into the 99 Rams overnight, but there’s enough newness here (including the MAC-looking uniforms) to feel excited for a change.

3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

I thought Buffalo was one of the teams most likely to land Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown to try to help QB Josh Allen. They almost had Brown for a second, but instead they’ll go with a faster Brown (John) who doesn’t care about which helmet he’s given. It’s not a bad move, but Allen can still overthrow him. I’m also not sure he’ll make great use out of Cole Beasley on the short, timing routes from the slot. At least the running backs should be better this year with the additions of the immortal Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary. However, when an offense’s best play is when the quarterback scrambles, I’m not sure any of these changes are going to make a huge difference.

Brian Daboll returns as the offensive coordinator. If you’re not familiar with him, let me remind you that he was the OC for four terrible offenses in the NFL (2009-10 Browns, 2011 Dolphins, 2012 Chiefs). He downgraded to tight ends coach in New England where he got to work with the best tight end in NFL history and essentially had his position ignored in games when Gronk was out. He then spent the 2017 year as Nick Saban’s OC in Alabama before coming back to the NFL last season to help Buffalo finish 30th in yards and points per drive. Incredible resume for sure. Now I’m starting to see why Buffalo’s best play is an Allen scramble, but of course the lack of accuracy is going to be a problem everyone who plays with Allen is going to have to overcome in the passing game.

Buffalo’s lousy offense wasted an impressive performance by the defense last season. The Bills were 2nd in yards per drive allowed, but 10th in points allowed because of starting with the worst field position for a defense. The special teams were also the worst in the league and didn’t help in that regard. We’ll see if the defense can get more production from the line after the Bills went defense again in the first round with Ed Oliver. That follows LB Tremaine Edmunds and CB Tre’Davious White. Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei didn’t have strong debuts with the team last year. The addition of Oliver is critical after Kyle Williams retired after a 13-year career. White will look to continue building on a stellar first two seasons, but the Bills really aren’t proven at corner after No. 1 on the depth chart.

Allen making a sophomore surge is certainly the best way for Buffalo to get back to winning in 2019, but I still don’t trust him to be anything more than the third-best QB in the AFC East this year. If the defense slips too then I think it’ll be time to move on from Sean McDermott here after three seasons.

4. Miami Dolphins (4-12)

Tank for Tua has a nice ring to it, but does anyone really know what the Dolphins are doing this year? Why trade a second-round pick for Josh Rosen if you’re just going to start Ryan Fitzpatrick over him? By the time they go to invest in a quarterback they’re going to have nothing to go around him outside of more rookies. Maybe that’s not the worst strategy ever, but having a left tackle like Laremy Tunsil or receiver like Kenny Stills wouldn’t have been bad. Of course, Miami traded those players to Houston for a great collection of draft picks. The Dolphins definitely won that trade in my book, but it leaves little to watch this season. Sure, Fitzpatrick could probably gunsling the team into a few more wins than Rosen would, but we know it’s only a matter of time before he implodes.

So maybe the plan is a two-year flop job to land Trevor Lawrence in 2021?

  • Miami finishes with the 6-10 season they have down to a science this century
  • Flores vows to give Rosen the reigns in 2020
  • GM Chris Grier drafts a stud at another important position in April
  • Everyone realizes Rosen still sucks when he’s been set up to fail
  • Miami lands the No. 1 pick and drafts Lawrence in 2021
  • Finding the next Dan Marino is finally solved

Do I actually think Flores and Grier are the visionaries who can pull that off? No, not really. I’m already down on Flores after the “let’s play eight Jay-Z songs in practice to see if Kenny Stills can handle the pressure” experiment. Apparently the Dolphins couldn’t handle that pressure since they traded the outspoken wideout soon after. These Bill Belichick assistants-turned-coaches kill me. Be an asshole like him if you want, but you better have the brains to go with it. They never do. I don’t expect Flores will be any different in that regard.

The highlight of this Miami season will be in Week 2 when Fitzpatrick leads the Dolphins to a home win over the Patriots, strengthening the conspiracy theory that Belichick purposely loses early-season games to former assistants.

Remember, it’s all about the long con with these guys. See you in 2021 for something interesting to happen in Miami.

 

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

There has been a lot of love for the Eagles this offseason, and frankly, I get it. They won the Super Bowl in 2017. They had a lot of injuries last year and still snuck into the playoffs and almost had two road wins before a tipped pick. Now the roster looks pretty stacked, especially in the trenches and at receiver. Imagine putting Alshon Jeffery and second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside on the outside while Nelson Agholor and DeSean Jackson lined up in the slot with Zach Ertz at tight end. That probably won’t even be ideal if second-year tight end Dallas Goedert is expectedly ahead of the curve better than JJAW. Who cares about running backs when you can throw out arguably the best five-receiver sets in the NFL? Even the backfield looks strong for Philly after adding Jordan Howard and second-round pick Miles Sanders. Unless the Eagles set a new standard for injuries this year, Carson Wentz has absolutely no excuse not to have a great season in this offense. Remember, we often see the QB improve in that second year after an ACL injury.

Ah, you knew I would get to Wentz eventually. It’s certainly one of the more perplexing situations in the NFL as those big wins late in the season the last two years came under the guidance of Nick Foles, who the Eagles let go to Jacksonville. Wentz has had injury problems and still hasn’t started a playoff game for Doug Pederson. I’m not going to say the team paid the wrong quarterback, but Wentz gets way too much credit as a finished product instead of a young QB still in development. Let’s not forget the relatively low completion percentage and YPA in 2017 with the touchdown rate boosted by incredible field position. Let’s not pretend he didn’t fumble way too much last year, struggled to score points, and remains one of the worst quarterbacks in clutch situations (now 4-12 at GWD opportunities).

Combine that GWD stat with this one: the Eagles are 0-9 and never scored more than 23 points in any of the games where Wentz threw for his most yards. This is very unusual in NFL history as I showed on Twitter this summer:

When the Eagles rely on Wentz to pull out games late or use his arm for most of the production, they are well below average at winning games than other teams in the NFL. That’s just a fact three years into his career. Maybe he’ll get better and change that, but anymore you can’t write something without people taking it as your future career proclamation. Yet I’m just stating the facts to this day and I can’t help that Eagles fans don’t like it.

So it’s good that Wentz has arguably the strongest roster around him yet. It’s good that the Eagles will get the Patriots and Seahawks at home instead of going on the road to those difficult places. It’s probably not a bad thing that Ezekiel Elliott wants to hold out in Dallas, though scroll down for my full thoughts on that. The Eagles should reclaim this division and have one of the best shots at reaching the Super Bowl, but Wentz will have to show more than he ever has if they’re going to win another ring.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

My hope of keeping this section intact before posting was nixed by the Ezekiel Elliott extension (six years, $90M) on Wednesday. As you might expect, I am not in favor of paying him so much and would rather see him traded so Dallas has resources to keep other players in town like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Demarcus Lawrence is going to make a ton and they already have three offensive lineman making eight figures. At some point the roster isn’t going to have any wiggle room to sign someone who isn’t a rookie or making the vet minimum.

Jason Garrett is still the coach, so penciling in Dallas a game around 8-8 seems perfectly reasonable to me. Going back to the Tony Romo days the Cowboys are constantly involved in close games, and they win way more of them than they are given credit for. It happened with Romo’s tenure and it has continued through the first three years of Dak Prescott’s career. In fact, Prescott’s 15 game-winning drives are tied with Russell Wilson for the most in NFL history through a quarterback’s first three seasons.

But Scott, how will Dallas continue to win these close games if Prescott doesn’t have Ezekiel Elliott running the ball?

First, this sounded better when I wrote it during Zeke’s holdout, but let’s keep it anyway. Second, read this thread where I crushed the total myth that Zeke’s rushing drives Prescott’s game-winning drive success. Finally, I think Zeke’s impact on this offense has always been overstated. People act like this offense resembles the 1970s Bills with O.J. Simpson carrying a nonexistent passing game, but that’s just not the case.

This team didn’t have center Travis Frederick for all of 2018. Frederick is back and so is tight end Jason Witten, though the only positive about the latter is that he’s nowhere near the Monday Night Football booth. I think Tony Pollard and Alfred Morris could have gotten the job done adequately enough if Elliott didn’t return, but that looks to be moot now. Randall Cobb isn’t a bad replacement at all for Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup showed some rookie promise for sure. More than anything, I believe in Prescott. I also think the defense is solid even if a couple of players (Randy Gregory and Robert Quinn) in the front seven are suspended again, but that’s become a Dallas tradition.

I only have the Cowboys at 9-7 because I think the Eagles are going to get the best of them this year and that road slate (NO, NE, CHI) has a few potential potholes. I also think the Rams and Packers are more than capable of winning in Dallas. Hell, Aaron Rodgers feels more welcomed in Big D than in his own family home. OK, that was a low blow, but I’ve had a rough year. Let me have this one. GB-DAL games have produced some great memories this decade.

Honestly, my biggest fear with the 2019 Cowboys is that this great run of winning close games the last three years runs into some serious regression this year. Prescott will be the media’s fall guy for that, and the “Zeke carries him” takes will never end. It doesn’t even matter if the losses are because Old Man Witten has a crucial fumble and the kicker shanks a game-winner from 35 yards out, or that the defense ultimately blows a lead (something that didn’t happen once in 2018). They’ll blame the quarterback, because that’s what happens in Dallas if your name isn’t Staubach or Aikman.

3. New York Giants (5-11)

I’m happy to say I didn’t spend the spring piling on rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. I did acknowledge that NFC East fans should get a kick out of arguing over whether Jones (6th to Giants) or Dwayne Haskins (15th to Washington) was the better pick in the draft, and I would have picked Haskins. It’s staggering to think Jones went so high when he averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt at Duke.

Based on the early results, Jones might be serving a ton of crow in the years to come. Then again, Blake Bortles had a fine preseason his rookie year and we know how that turned out. But Jones actually looked quite good in his preseason action when he hit 29-of-34 passes for 416 yards and a couple of scores. That’s 12.2 YPA, which is preposterous even for preseason standards in this league.

But I’m not here to talk myself into Jones as a factor in 2019. Eli Manning needed a replacement and that time will come, maybe sooner than later, but let’s think about this as Eli’s swansong. He doesn’t have Odell Beckham anymore, but Sterling Shepard is serviceable and they still have Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley at the other skill positions. You can do worse than that, but the fear is Eli will just keep checking down a historic number of failed completions to Barkley. I’d love to see some actual creativity this year in getting Barkley involved in more vertical routes since he was billed as being such a great receiver. God knows this offense could use it when they are going to trot Bennie Fowler and Cody Latimer out there at wide receiver. Why is it those guys only get to play with a Manning brother corpse? Both were in Denver in 2015 with Peyton.

It’s true that the Giants really picked up the scoring after the bye week in the second half of 2018. Does this suggest Eli was getting more comfortable in Pat Shurmur’s offense, or was it more schedule related? The offense still laid a 17-0 egg to the Titans in Week 15, but I’ll be curious to see if spreading the ball around more might help Eli any before an inevitable pull for Jones to take over.

Then again, 2019 is another one of those years where the Giants play the Patriots, so if Eli had one last hurrah in him, that would really settle what is going to be an excruciating HOF debate.

4. Washington Redskins (5-11)

I called Washington a darkhorse playoff team last year, and that was looking pretty good after a 6-3 start. Then Alex Smith and Colt McCoy broke their legs and it was another pointless 7-9 season. Enter journeyman Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins, and I’m not sure the team is any closer to relevancy. I certainly don’t see it in 2019 with the Eagles and Cowboys clearly ahead of this team. I’d probably have looked to start Haskins right away, but the mishandling of left tackle Trent Williams’ situation isn’t ideal. Now the Redskins had to bring in Donald Penn for Week 1 and are starting Ereck Flowers at left guard against the Eagles. The wide receiving corps is probably the league’s most anonymous. Yeah, maybe we can hold off on throwing Haskins to the wolves after all. At least we can see what RB Derrius Guice has this season.

Health has been a disaster in Jay Gruden’s tenure to the point where you wonder how much accountability he should take for that. Do they just overwork guys in practice or what? Do they not bring them back after enough rest? Is this why Williams is so hesitant to return? Last year wasn’t as bad, but the most important position suffered freak injuries for Gruden and that tanked the season. Still, that was an ugly brand of football the Redskins were playing and I don’t feel like they’ve ever really developed an identity under Gruden.

The defense has top 10 potential after adding safety Landon Collins to the secondary, which still features Josh Norman. But most of the defense has been drafted by the team instead of acquiring those high-priced free agents. No, it’s the offense that is costing Washington $109M in 2019, the third-highest figure according to Over The Cap. Now some of that is bad luck with the Smith injury, but the Redskins also have the most expensive tight ends even though Jordan Reed is often injured. It’s just stunning that such an expensive offense can be so hard to identify by name recognition or anything really.

Maybe Haskins will eventually give the offense an identity in 2020, but that’s likely to happen with a new coaching staff as well.

 

AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans (10-6)

I absolutely had the Colts winning this division, and then Andrew Luck shocked the world and retired. Then the Texans lost Lamar Miller and traded away Jadeveon Clowney before bringing in Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. The draft stock they gave away is going to hurt too, but let’s keep it on the short-term focus on 2019.

I don’t believe in Bill O’Brien, but I believe in Deshaun Watson. That’s one of the nicest things I can say about this team as I am not confident at all in this pick. But I believe in Watson, who was going to have an all-time great rookie season before he was injured. Last year he wasn’t nearly as prolific, but you still saw some jaw-dropping plays that give you hope. He just needs to get rid of the ball a bit quicker and not take as many sacks. That’s why while I understand the Tunsil addition, I think barring a massive shift in playing style for Watson, he’s still going to take his share of hits. He just can’t take nearly as many as last season or he’ll end up on IR again and this team is royally screwed.

I’m not sure the Texans are better off than they were last weekend. Tunsil should improve the offensive line, and I think they can survive the Miller loss just fine with Duke Johnson (excellent receiver) and Carlos Hyde. Clowney is a considerable loss this close to the season, but he never was the dominant force he was expected to be as the No. 1 pick. At least they still have J.J. Watt, who returned to form last year with 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles. So the pass rush has taken a hit here, but it’s not like trading away Khalil Mack with nothing left a la 2018 Oakland.

As for the Stills addition, I think he’s too similar to Will Fuller (deep threat) to make a huge impact, but since Fuller struggles to stay healthy that might just be good insurance. But obviously DeAndre Hopkins is amazing, they have two deep threats now, and I think Keke Coutee is an interesting slot receiver. Tight end is still a dead spot, but Watson has enough around him to score this year.

The Texans play the Titans twice in the final three weeks. I have the AFC South being decided by those games, and I give Houston the edge in the final game of the season at home. But don’t think I’m at all confident in predictions for this division this year. The Luck retirement blew everything up.

2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Watching the Titans play football isn’t much different than begrudgingly going to church. They both take place early on Sundays. The dryness of a communion wafer is on par with the blandness of the Tennessee passing offense year after year. Both can make 60 minutes feel like forever before you leave unfulfilled, pondering a new hobby for your weekends.

The Titans have really mastered the art of finishing 9-7 without exciting anyone (see 2011 and the last three years). So where do I have them at? 9-7 again. At least coach Mike Vrabel’s rookie season wasn’t a disaster and he had some good wins (PHI/NE/DAL) to start 5-4. He even had a chance to make the playoffs in Game 256, but Andrew Luck once again put the Colts over the Titans.

That’s why the Titans are arguably the biggest beneficiaries of this tumultuous offseason in the AFC South. Luck retired, so move the Colts down and make them a potential sweep for Tennessee. The Jaguars still have plenty of issues. The Texans have lost Lamar Miller and traded away Jadeveon Clowney. Even though I’ve been yawning the whole time I’m writing this team preview, you have to respect the Titans for having some stability and a plan. They’re going to run Derrick Henry, hope Marcus Mariota can deliver on play-action and third downs, and play good enough defense to keep the game close.

Mariota hasn’t lived up to the hype so far, but maybe this could be the year when a monster payday would be right around the corner if he delivers. At least tight end Delanie Walker will be back after missing 15 games in 2018. Taylor Lewan’s suspension is also only four games, and the Titans have a chance to really load up on wins after the bye week. With two of the last three games against Houston, we might just see Tennessee in Game 256 playing for the postseason once again.

3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)

Crying over you, crying over you

Yes, now you’re gone and from this moment on

I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying

Yeah, I’m crying, crying, over you

— Roy Orbison, “Crying”

It’s still shocking to think that Andrew Luck retired. I wrote about it here recently, but the whole situation really throws in a wrinkle to the 2019 season. Had Luck been healthy coming into 2019 — that means no cramp issue or anything — I was going to make him my pick for MVP and for the Colts to have a serious shot at a first-round bye. Did I think the Colts would win the Super Bowl this year? Absolutely not. I think the team would still have big issues against the Patriots/Chiefs/Steelers in the playoffs. But I thought a great regular season would have been within reach with a healthy Luck.

Alas, here we are with Jacoby Brissett taking over. I don’t think he’s good, but I think the Colts are in a way better situation coaching and talent wise than they were in 2011 and 2017 when they also had to play without their franchise QB. In 2017, the Colts could have been much better record wise, but the defense was terrible at holding leads and Brissett played poorly in the second half of those games. I don’t think he can replicate the success Luck had last year in moving to a rhythm passing game, but I also think Frank Reich is a coach who will tailor the offense more to Brissett’s skills. Brissett is mobile and he can throw deep. The defense also has the potential to improve with Justin Houston coming from Kansas City to join a cast filled with draft picks from the last three years.

The Colts won’t have to win many shootouts, and the road games that should prove to be very tough (at LAC, KC, PIT, NO) were already games they would have been at a disadvantage in even with Luck. My biggest fear is that the Colts put together a complete team season now that Luck has retired instead of ever doing it while he was active. So while I think this retirement moves the Colts out of the playoffs, I still think there’s enough here to win seven games.

I know, it’s disappointing, but that’s life.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

I wanted to find more wins for the Jaguars, but it proved to be too difficult. I still really like the defense and expect Nick Foles to take advantage of that unit better than Blake Bortles did. The Jaguars lost the most fumbles per drive on offense last year. The problem is Foles might be the best part of this offense now and he’s simply never been that type of quarterback. He needs the system and talent around him to really succeed, or else you see more of the failed completion master he was with the Rams. I’m not big on the receivers, line, tight ends or Fournette as the featured back here.

The other connection people likely have written about is John DeFilippo coming in as the offensive coordinator. He was the quarterback coach in Philadelphia when Foles had that magical run on the way to Super Bowl MVP. However, let’s not think the position coach was the lynchpin in that happening. DeFilippo was supposed to be a hot head coach candidate in 2018. He settled for the Minnesota OC job and was fired during the season, underachieving with Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and company. He has even less to work with here with Foles, so other than familiarity with each other I’m out on this being a huge plus for the offense. But then again, I’m trying to sell myself on this offense putting together long drives with Fournette runs and short completions by Foles to NFL-caliber (but not star) receivers. They’re not going to morph into the 2003 Patriots or anything, but the defense should still be good at each level to give Foles and the offense a fighting chance most weeks.

And hey, two games against the Colts just got a lot easier. I’m still scratching my head in disbelief over the 6-0 win the Jaguars pulled off against Indy last year. The Jaguars finished 5-5 last year when allowing fewer than 21 points. The rest of the NFL won 79 percent of its games when that happened. Look for the Jaguars to improve and possibly even surprise this year, further cementing Foles as having one of the strangest legacies in NFL history.

 

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

Atlanta topping Pittsburgh was my Super Bowl pick last year, and it only took a couple of weeks for that to blow up in my face.

The Falcons were one of four teams (NYJ, NYG, SF) to blow four fourth-quarter leads last year, a problem for all of Dan Quinn’s tenure. They wasted a year by Matt Ryan that was arguably the best a quarterback has ever had for a team with a losing record (7-9). I can’t deny the offense disappointed during the five-game losing streak, but offense is not the main problem in Atlanta. The team’s general injury luck before 2018 was excellent, so it wasn’t shocking to see injuries pile up right away last year, including defensive starters going down in Week 1 in Philly. It was a rough year for the defense all around, but they will be happy to get Keanu Neal and Deion Jones back. It’s still not going to be a great unit, but look how often just one more stop would have turned losses into wins for the Falcons in recent seasons.

This is one of my shortest write-ups because the Falcons are pretty set in their ways and haven’t made wholesale changes from last year. You just have to hope for fewer blown leads for a change. I’m not going to pick Atlanta for the Super Bowl again, but I trust Ryan and a talented offense to deliver enough wins from a schedule that should ease up down the stretch.

2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

Let’s get this part out of the way: Yes, the Saints should have been in the Super Bowl last year. That was DPI and it was horseshit that they didn’t flag it. That would have taken the clock down near the end and the short field goal likely would have been made to send the Saints to face the Patriots. Do they win that game too? I don’t know, but it sure would have been more entertaining I bet.

Unfortunately, I can see that heartbreaking ending being the final nail in the coffin for the Payton-Brees era, at least as far as the championship window is concerned. Yes, Brees returns at 40, but he without a doubt slowed down last season and you should always be worried about that with a quarterback of his age. It was almost a 2014 Peyton Manning type of change. Brees was having one of the best seasons of his career, then he had a four-week period where throwing for 200 yards proved to be a real struggle. He used to walk into the building with 200 yards in the bank. The Saints only failed to crack 24 points six times last year, but five of those games came after the shocking loss to Dallas on a Thursday night. Without a tipped pick against the Eagles, this could have possibly been a one-and-done season for New Orleans even before the controversial finish a week later against the Rams.

So when I go with 9-7 for the Saints this year, I do it because I see a tougher division around them, and I built in a lot of caution over Brees’ age. I also think smarter defenses can look at this offense and realize how much of it goes through Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara and they should do more to contain those guys. Thomas was particularly ineffective against the Rams in the playoff game. There’s a reason this team tried to get Dez Bryant on the field last year before he was immediately injured. There’s just not a lot of depth after Thomas. Mark Ingram is also gone from the backfield, though I don’t think Latavius Murray is a bad backup plan. Jared Cook should be an upgrade at tight end if he plays like he did for Oakland last year. But it’s still mostly a Thomas and Kamara offense with Brees throwing a ton of passes short of the sticks and them making it work with precision and YAC.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for still picking the Saints as the class of the NFC, but “Best Team in the NFC” is basically a one-year role. Things change often here unlike in the AFC. The schedule also doesn’t do many favors for the Saints. They’ll go on the road where they’re rarely as potent against the Rams, Seahawks and Bears. They’ll also end the season on the road with the Titans and Panthers. I also want to point out that the Saints were a league-best 7-1 in close games last season, holding seven fourth-quarter leads and not blowing any until the infamous playoff loss. These things tend to regress the next year, and it’s not like we haven’t seen the Saints defense collapse time and time again, or the team finish 7-9 over and over despite superb efforts from the quarterback and offense.

I think the NFL is better when Brees and the Saints are good, but I’m just worried that they won’t be good enough for the playoffs this season.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

If you watched All or Nothing on Amazon, you were reminded that Carolina had a very interesting 2018 season. There was the 63-yard field goal against the Giants and the 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in Philly to build a somewhat misleading 6-2 start. Then they had their doors blown off in Pittsburgh, allowing 52 points, or five fewer f-words than Ron Rivera dropped in the locker room at halftime. That kicked off a seven-game losing streak that saw the team botch a two-point conversion attempt against Detroit, lose a shootout with the Seahawks, throw a pick parade against the horrific Tampa Bay defense, and blow a superb defensive effort against the Saints on a Monday night. Cam Newton shut things down for health reasons the final two games and the Panthers missed the playoffs again.

I’ve seen plenty of people putting Carolina back in the playoffs this year, but I still think Atlanta and New Orleans are stronger in the division, and I don’t see the South getting three playoff teams again. I’m big on Christian McCaffrey and the linebackers. I think the young wideouts should take good steps forward this year. Newton’s play has been up and down since the MVP season, but he’s still more reliable than most quarterbacks in the NFL.

Maybe 8-8 sounds disappointing, but keep in mind it would still be the fourth-best record in the nine years for the Newton-Rivera tenure.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

If you want a real darkhorse for the playoffs in 2019, look no further than Tampa Bay. The Bucs haven’t been to the postseason since 2007. Bruce Arians comes in with a track record of success and should love Jameis Winston’s vertical approach with the weapons they have. Last year, the Bucs quietly had one of the most interesting passing offenses in NFL history. You just didn’t get the full feel of it because Winston split time with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Tampa Bay QBs combined for 5,358 yards, 36 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. That’s a staggering amount of production, but also far too many turnovers.

This is really Winston’s best shot yet to shine, or else the Bucs will want to look at moving on in 2020. He has the receiving talent around him to succeed, though the offensive line and backfield are nothing special. Winston’s best ability is to throw beyond the sticks and make first downs, but he has to cut down on the mistakes that limit his team’s scoring.

They’re going to need the points with this defense that has been awful for years. I actually like the front seven this year, but the secondary still leaves a lot to be desired. Playing in such a strong quarterback division has been a problem for the Bucs, and I see that continuing again this year.

Last year, the Bucs were 0-7 at 4QC and 1-7 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. Arians has the best record of any active coach (27-17-1, .611) in such games. If everything comes together offensively and the defense is stronger, and if the Bucs start winning some close games for a change, then you can see how an unexpected 9-7 season can emerge from all of this. I wouldn’t hold my breath on it, but it shouldn’t take you by surprise if it happens.

 

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Part of me just wants to fill this section with tweets I made about Patrick Mahomes’ incredible first year as a starter. I feel like I can confidently say no quarterback has had a better 19-game start to his career than Mahomes. Even in the five games the Chiefs lost last year, he was stellar.  I’ll start with some highlights:

The Chiefs have scored at least 26 points in all 19 of Mahomes’ starts (including playoffs). For an idea of how impressive that is, the longest streaks in NFL history of scoring 26+ points (playoffs included) belong to the 2012-13 Broncos (19 games), 2018 Chiefs (18 games), and the 1983 Redskins (15 games). No other team has a streak longer than 12 games. Keep in mind that the Chiefs’ official streak is at 18 games since Mahomes did not start the playoff loss to the 2017 Titans (Alex Smith did).

So we are witnessing truly historic stuff that really only 1984 Dan Marino compares to. Mahomes looked the part in every way too last year, delivering accurate bullets and playing great under pressure with his mobility and arm making him the ultimate dual threat.

Naturally, you expect regression from the offense this season after one of those all-time great years. There’s a chance Mahomes will never reach those numbers again, but let’s not bother speculating on that with the direction the game is headed and how good he can be. I think Mahomes deserves to be the MVP favorite again this year even though the expectations of matching or exceeding his numbers last year could hurt him when the time comes for that. But he should have another great year in an offense still loaded with talent (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins). We’ll see how the backfield shakes out after just adding LeSean McCoy, but I’m sure Andy Reid will figure something out. The offensive line is still shaky to me, and that was an issue in the postseason when Mahomes was under pressure too often. Still, he pulled off the rare feat of positive DVOA under pressure so he can handle it.

Regardless of how much the offense declines, the defense has to start picking up the slack. They couldn’t stop the Patriots from scoring 43 in the first matchup. They couldn’t hang onto an interception Jared Goff gifted them in the 54-51 classic. They couldn’t stop Philip Rivers on the final drive at home on Thursday night. They were lit up by Russell Wilson’s deep throws in Seattle. Dee Ford lined up offsides at the worst time ever against New England, and the Chiefs failed to ever give Mahomes a chance with the ball in overtime. We need to see more stops from this defense in crunch time.

There’s not a game on the 2019 schedule where I wouldn’t trust Mahomes to be able to outscore the opposition, but the reason I still predicted four losses was the defense. They said goodbye to Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Ford, but at least brought in Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, Bashaud Breeland, and Tyrann Mathieu. Still, I’m not convinced the defense is better on paper, but at least coordinator Bob Sutton is gone. Reid brought in another old friend in Steve Spagnuolo to fill that post, but Spag’s resume is very shaky. He’s best known for the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run, but he’s also coached horrible defenses in three different NFL cities. At the very least, it’s a fresh set of eyes.

The Chiefs couldn’t finish off the Patriots in two attempts last year. They still have played them about as well as any team in recent years, but it’s all about finishing. We’ll see what happens in Week 14 and possibly another playoff matchup this time around. A more balanced team that is still great offensively might just be the key in 2019.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

First order of business: a holdout by RB Melvin Gordon doesn’t really change my prospects for this team. We saw how other backs were successful last year, and Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are capable of filling in for Gordon. Hunter Henry is also finally healthy at TE, though it wouldn’t be a Chargers season without a big injury before Week 1. Safety Derwin James will miss major time after a stellar rookie season last year.

I am really skeptical of giving this team so many wins again this season. Let’s not forget that 2018 was the first time the Chargers won double-digit games since 2009. Philip Rivers has really only had two great seasons since that time, and both led to the playoffs (2013 and 2018). I still expect him to be fine at age 38, though I thought his numbers were a little inflated last year with a couple long touchdowns on absurd plays where a lineman clearly false started, and they got away with a push-off (OPI) to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. The offensive line also scares me a bit this year. Rivers has avoided injury with the best to ever do it, but all it takes is one snap.

However, for a change the Chargers weren’t massively crippled by injuries and didn’t implode in close games over and over last year. They saved their dumb moment for the playoffs in New England where they seemed completely unprepared for what Bill Belichick would do. The seven defensive back wrinkle was cute and effective against run-heavy Baltimore, but that wasn’t going to work against the diverse Patriots. That game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggests either. Rivers has still never beaten the Patriots with Brady at quarterback.

The Patriots aren’t on the regular season schedule again either, and the Chargers catch a few other breaks like getting the Colts first without Andrew Luck, and they’ll get to host the likes of Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Houston, and Minnesota. I know, it’s basically the worst home-field advantage in the NFL, but it’s better than a true road game. So the schedule is favorable enough that I still have the Chargers winning 10 games, but I’ll still trust the Chiefs and Mahomes more to take the division once again.

3. Denver Broncos (7-9)

The first thing I look for in trying to find a turnaround team: new coach and new quarterback. The only teams that qualify this season are Denver, Arizona and Miami. The Broncos bring the experience here with Vic Fangio (his first head coaching job) and Joe Flacco, but I’d be skeptical of both.

Let’s start with Fangio, the 61-year-old who is so old school he wouldn’t even pass a kidney stone before his preseason debut in August. He comes over from the Bears where he was the defensive coordinator for the last four years. From 2015-17, the Bears were the worst defense in the NFL at getting interceptions (24 total). Last year they had 27 picks in a stellar defensive season led by some big-name talent that wasn’t always there in past years, including the trade for Khalil Mack from Oakland. Fangio is a long-time coordinator and he’s coached about as many top-tier defenses as he has bottom-tier. It often comes down to the talent rather than any revolutionary scheming.

This is why I think Fangio could get some overstated love this season should Denver improve and Chicago regress. Both of those things can be expected to happen on turnover regression alone. Fortunately, the Broncos have plenty of defensive talent, led by Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Derek Wolfe, and Chris Harris. It’s not the defense has fallen off since the Super Bowl 50 win, but it just hasn’t been as great, and it’s been hampered by a bad offense.

I’m not a fan of hiring defensive-minded coaches, especially ones who have never had the top job before. This could start to look like Grumpy Old Men on the sideline. Joining Fangio is an old friend, Ed Donatell, who will be an NFL defensive coordinator for the first time since 2006 (Falcons). He’s 62, which is just the inverse of 26, which is how many yards Donatell’s Green Bay defense had to defend on fourth down in the 2003 playoffs in Philadelphia. He was fired after that failure. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello is the pup of the group at 47 years old. He coached Kyle Shanahan’s quarterbacks the last two years in San Francisco, but has never been an OC in the NFL until now. He’s definitely from the Shanahan coaching tree, so that suits Elway and the Broncos well, or at least in the past it would have. We may not see a great modern approach to this offense this season.

As for Flacco, things have rarely been the same since that month he stopped in Denver and Rahim Moore acted the fool, ruining quarterback contracts for eternity. Flacco’s cap hit is $18.5M this season before going back into the 20’s next year. He has a good chance to hold off second-round rookie Drew Lock, but Flacco has not been a valuable QB in some years. In fact, I’ve done multiple studies for ESPN Insider before to show that he was one of the least valuable in the game relative to how well his running game, defense, and special teams performed. Despite Flacco’s flaws, he was on Baltimore teams that were .500 or better in five of the last six seasons since he peaked with his Super Bowl run in the 2012 season.

So if you think the defense will be elite and Phillip Lindsay will be a productive runner behind an offensive line John Elway has tried to improve, then perhaps Flacco will again be insulated better than most quarterbacks this season. I would have some doubts about Emmanuel Sanders being highly productive at 32 after tearing his Achilles, but he’s still the most reliable target on the team. Courtland Sutton is an interesting No. 2 in his second season though.

For a change, Denver doesn’t open the season with two straight home games. The Broncos beating the Bears at home in Week 2 might be my lock of the year pick, but overall, I don’t see Denver having enough firepower or elite enough defense to get ahead of the Chargers and Chiefs in this division.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

My pick for the worst record in the NFL goes to Oakland. The Raiders already played near that level for Jon Gruden last year where their only convincing win was on Christmas Eve against a Denver team hoping to get Vance Joseph fired as their present. A shaky head-to-head win over Arizona was the only reason Oakland didn’t pick No. 1 overall in 2019.

Obviously I don’t think much of the Antonio Brown trade here. Will he still put up some numbers? Sure, but it can’t be understated how good of a connection he had with Ben Roethlisberger, who wasn’t afraid to get the ball to Brown. That connection suffered for the first time last year, but Brown still led the league with 15 TD catches in 15 games. I don’t think Brown is right in the head these days, and I don’t mean the fit of his helmet. Derek Carr is unreliably aggressive, meaning he will try a back-shoulder pass 20 yards down the field or a go route, but he’ll also dump the ball down in fear of getting hit with the best (read: worst) of them. If Brown couldn’t get along with Ben anymore, just imagine where this relationship with Carr will go. Also, I don’t get why they wouldn’t bring back TE Jared Cook and why bother with a first-round RB when you have so many holes?

I actually think Carr will have the second-best season of his career this year, but it won’t be enough to mean anything. Defensively, this unit was predictably pathetic without Khalil Mack at getting pressure last year. It’s hard to go anywhere but up in 2019, but there’s little to get excited about here.

On the way to 3-13, I gave Oakland an 0-8 road record and a 1-5 division record. The Chargers are better period, and with the Kansas City offense and Denver defense, I see rough times for Oakland in the AFC West. Even if they double their wins from my prediction to finish 6-10, it’s still yet another failed season for a team that’s almost exclusively dealt in them since Gruden saw his Buccaneers beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

 

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

Losing the Super Bowl isn’t a curse. It’s a disappointing end to an exciting season, which is exactly what the Rams had last year. They won a lot of high-scoring games, including the 54-51 classic against the Chiefs. Say what you want about Jared Goff, but with him at quarterback the Rams were able to outscore the Chargers, Vikings (arguably the best passing performance any QB had in 2018), Packers, Seahawks (twice), Chiefs and Saints last year. That’s why the 13-3 dud of a Super Bowl was such a massive letdown. Even Sean McVay knew immediately how badly he botched that one, his first big test against Belichick’s Patriots.

As far as the NFC goes, the Rams still look as talented as any team out there. They have McVay and Wade Phillips on the coaching staff. They have the best defender in the league in Aaron Donald. They added Eric Weddle to a secondary that still has Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. We’ll get to Goff soon, and we know Todd Gurley can be big in this offense, but it still doesn’t skip a beat without him either. The Rams might have the best wide receiver trio in the league with Cooper Kupp back healthy. That was one of the most significant injuries last year as he can help open this offense up.

The Rams mostly lost out on the No. 1 seed last year because they lost in New Orleans midway through the season. This year they get the Saints at home in Week 2. We know the Saints just aren’t as potent on the road, so there’s an advantage. The Rams’ toughest road game may prove to be at Pittsburgh, but that’s after a bye week. The Rams have beaten Seattle three straight times, so the division power has definitely swung there.

As for Goff, I’m writing this section hours after his big extension news came through. It’s hard to believe one of the worst rookie quarterbacks ever is inking a deal worth $110M guaranteed just a couple years later. His rookie year is now irrelevant of course, and I’m probably a bigger Goff fan than most out there. Still, it’s a bit crazy to think how quickly things have changed here, but he was the No. 1 overall pick for good reasons. Even if he lacks the flash of some of the other young quarterbacks in the league, Goff is effective at running the play-action heavy offense McVay wants him to run. When Goff throws for 300 yards, the Rams are 11-2 and average 36.2 points per game. That’s up there with anyone you can name. If he could have just delivered a better throw to Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl, he might have a ring already.

Speaking of that dreadful Super Bowl, I never wrote any of my thoughts about it. I thought about saying something in March before free agency as I thought maybe it would have been ideal if the Rams traded for Rob Gronkowski (before he retired of course). When I look at that game, I see ineffective offense by both teams, but the Patriots still moved the ball well as long as Gronk and Julian Edelman were involved in the passing game. Brady was terrible when targeting anyone else, but those two receivers, who primarily work the slot and middle of the field, were able to eat up every coverage and defender the Rams threw at them. Edelman of course won MVP, but Gronk made the big catch down the seam that set up the game-winning touchdown.

Meanwhile, McVay did nothing easy on early downs for Goff, like the RB passes or screens they usually do. Goff was stuck in a lot of third-and-long situations and failed to deliver. On several of the biggest plays of the game, he tried to hit Cooks deep, but Stephon Gilmore had a great game, including that monster interception late. To me, that proved to be the difference in the game. The Patriots had their studs make plays look easy, while Goff was stuck trying to hit vertical passes to outside receivers matched up with strong corners. It’s not like Brady was going to attack Aqib Talib deep down the field when Edelman was getting open quickly everywhere. That’s why I think the lack of a great tight end — the position accounted for one target and zero catches in the SB — is the only thing the Rams are missing offensively, and why the return of Kupp in the slot should be a huge help to Goff and McVay. Josh Reynolds just wasn’t as good.

Not that I expect a SB rematch, but if you remove Gronk and add Kupp, that definitely tilts things in favor of the Rams. Of course, the Patriots do a much better job of getting back to Super Bowls while we just don’t see it as much in the NFC. The last team to repeat was Seattle in 2013-14. In fact, the 2013-14 Seahawks are the last team to repeat in NFC Championship Game appearances.

2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

It’s going to be weird to see the Seahawks without Doug Baldwin or Earl Thomas. Then again, it was weird to see them without Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor last year and they still made the playoffs at 10-6. But this continued loss of talent — the old core is essentially down to Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright — is one of the reasons why it’s hard to keep Seattle among the NFL’s eltie. The other problem is the rise of Sean McVay’s Rams, the team with three straight wins over the Seahawks and the last two NFC West crowns.

So you’re almost starting with the idea that Seattle will have to go on the road as a Wild Card to get to another Super Bowl, which is bad news for a team with one of the league’s best home-field advantages. The Seahawks forgot Wilson was their quarterback in last year’s playoff loss in Dallas. It would have been nice if they forgot that at the end of Super Bowl XLIX — I will never let this go — but the team has not returned to the NFC Championship Game since that 2014 season.

Much like with Baltimore in the AFC, I sat down for this process with the idea that Seattle would regress to 8-9 wins and miss the playoffs. But I believe in Wilson so much that I had them finishing 10-6, and that was even before the weekend when they acquired Jadeveon Clowney in a trade from Houston. I think Clowney and Ziggy Ansah haven’t fully lived up to their top 5 draft status in this league, but it’s not a bad duo to have as your edge rushers. The linebackers remain great, but the secondary still looks like a development project after the Legion of Boom went to ashes.

For as much as the coaching staff frightens you with their insistence on running the ball, you still have to think of Pete Carroll as one of the best in this coach-deficient era of NFL history.

I’m curious to see what Wilson gets out of rookie receiver DK Metcalf, and how Tyler Lockett adapts to being a No. 1 WR after an extremely efficient 2018 season. I still expect the Rams to maintain their superiority in the division, but look for a so-so Seattle team to finish strong and win their last three games to set up another postseason.

3. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)

The 49ers were one of my five biggest misses last year. I bought into the Jimmy Garoppolo hype and had them finishing 9-7 (actual: 4-12). Was I a year too early? Are we not on the brink of this Kyle Shanahan experiment closing up shop if they can’t get their rich QB playing well and win more than six games? This is Shanahan’s third year and the team moved backwards in 2018. I’ve mentioned several times in game recaps how officiating has gone against Shanahan in close games, and injuries weren’t kind either last year. So maybe there’s some reason for hope there if Garoppolo can look more like the QB he was late in 2017, but I’m not really in love with anything on the offense besides George Kittle. And even he may take a step back last year if those big YAC plays don’t come to fruition again, but he’s one of the best tight ends to watch now.

The defense has continued to pour resources into the line without much to show for. Nick Bosa is already hurt to start his career. Dee Ford, worst-timed offsides ever aside, is a good, proven addition from Kansas City, but he really has to pick up a lot of slack in the rest of this front seven. Richard Sherman isn’t what he used to be and injuries have always prevented Jason Verrett from becoming what he could be.

If this team can survive September (at TB, at CIN, PIT) then I think it’ll be an interesting season, but the schedule just gets tougher after that and it’s always a hard spot to be in when you’re no more than the third-best team in your own division.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

More great quarterbacks are always good for the NFL, but I also want to see No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray succeed just to further diminish height as a prerequisite for the position. Murray had one of the most ridiculous seasons in NCCA history last year: 11.6 yards per pass attempt, 42 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and he rushed for 1,001 yards (sacks included) and a dozen more scores. But this is the NFL and his preseason was lousy: 5.4 YPA, no touchdowns or picks. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his regular season, but if you’re going to predict he has a Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott type of impact on this team as a rookie, note that they had strong, productive preseasons as rookies. Some have suggested rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury purposely held things back from his offense in the preseason, but that’s a bit of a tough sell to me. There’s a pretty good chance this thing could be a disaster for 2019.

In fact, I’d say it’s about 85 percent disaster, 15 percent success in Year 1 for Murray/Kingsbury. They’ll want to account for his height and mobility and move the pocket, though I’m not crazy about the offensive line they’ve mashed together. Larry Fitzgerald is 36 now, and it’s hard to get excited in 2019 about Michael Crabtree, Maxxxxxx Williams or Charles Clay. I think the strength of the defense should be the veterans up front (Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones), but star corner Patrick Peterson is suspended for six games.

I say bring on the Air Raid to the NFL, but let’s not forget that Arizona peaked in 2015 and has only seen the roster decline since. This is a work in progress.

 

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Kansas City (12-4)
  2. New England (11-5)
  3. Pittsburgh (11-5)
  4. Houston (10-6)
  5. Cleveland (10-6)
  6. Los Angeles (10-6)

I like sweeps this year. This Sunday night’s game in New England ultimately gives the Patriots another first-round bye over the Steelers, which sets up another rematch there after the Steelers take care of the Chargers. The Steelers fall in New England again. Meanwhile, the Browns finally get a playoff win in Houston before losing in a shootout with the Chiefs at Arrowhead. In a direct rematch from last year’s title game, the Chiefs don’t get shutout in the first half this time and finally get over the hump by smashing the Patriots at home to reach the team’s first Super Bowl since the 1970 merger.

NFC

  1. Los Angeles (12-4)
  2. Philadelphia (11-5)
  3. Green Bay (10-6)
  4. Atlanta (10-6)
  5. Seattle (10-6)
  6. Minnesota (10-6)

I know it’s far too neat to have all 12 playoff teams with 10+ wins, and I’m probably setting myself up for failure with 19 teams winning at least eight games. Alas, I have the Rams and Eagles taking the first-round byes to also set up a 1 vs. 2 matchup again. I think the Packers will beat the Vikings at home while the Falcons nip Seattle in Atlanta again. McVay starts his playoff revenge tour by beating the Falcons, the team that took them out in his rookie year. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz finally starts his first playoff game and he outplays Aaron Rodgers for a win. But as Wentz returns to the site of his torn ACL from 2017, Aaron Donald and the Rams shut the Eagles down in a crucial game for the McVay vs. Pederson debate. McVay gets to Super Bowl No. 2 first.

SUPER BOWL LIV

LA Rams 38, Kansas City 34

It’s not quite 54-51, but this rematch from last year is another classic shootout. The Rams put the ball in Goff’s hands after a couple of so-so games in the NFC playoffs and he delivers on the big stage in an MVP-winning performance. Mahomes sets some kind of record for excellence in a Super Bowl loss.

TL;DR version: Second time’s a charm for McVay as we get the Super Bowl we deserved a year later.

Top 10 Andrew Luck Moments

The shock of Andrew Luck’s retirement this weekend is still with me. Just as the NFL looks to start its 100th season, there has really never been a quarterback of this caliber who walked away from the game just shy of his 30th birthday.

Maybe Luck returns in a year or two, but for now, let’s assume his career is over. This would have to make him the all-time choice for the “what if he stayed healthy?” quarterback. Luck was truly unique despite playing in an era as good as any in NFL history at the position.

I think it’s important to write something like this to preserve his legacy, because Luck could very well be forgotten in the near future. Luck was never a league MVP or first-team All-Pro quarterback. That’s not just a matter of playing the same time as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers either. In fact, Luck saw Cam Newton (2015), Matt Ryan (2016) and Patrick Mahomes (2018) ascend to those levels in the last four years. Luck never threw for 5,000 yards and topped out at 40 touchdown passes (2014). He never reached a Super Bowl and finished with a completion percentage barely over 60 percent and 7.2 yards per attempt. He played in 86 regular-season games and eight more in the playoffs. In all likelihood, he’ll never get a serious push for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Some statistics will look favorable for Luck over time, but overall, he won’t stack up to his peers and the Hall of Famers people thought he’d compare to as one of the most hyped prospects in draft history. Luck was always better on video than he was on paper. Luck was closer to John Elway than he was Peyton Manning, and it’s a shame the Colts kind of screwed the pooch after drafting all three of those players No. 1 overall. The difference is Luck is checking out before we see if he has another level to ascend in his game, or if he would get there by finally having superior coaching and talent around him.

That’s probably the most disappointing part of this all: we likely never got to see Peak Andrew Luck. Health was the main culprit, and we can place the blame in multiple places there, including on the quarterback himself who had a reckless style from Day 1 until Frank Reich had him releasing the ball faster in 2018, his swansong which netted him a Comeback Player of the Year award. When Peyton Manning exploded with 49 touchdown passes in 2004, that was his seventh season in the league. Tom Brady’s 50 touchdown pass season in 2007 was his seventh as a starter. Drew Brees’ best statistical years were in 2009 and 2011, his 9th and 11th NFL seasons. Joe Montana’s statistical peak was 1989, his 11th NFL season. Even the aforementioned Matt Ryan peaked in 2016, his ninth season. Most quarterbacks aren’t like Kurt Warner, Dan Marino and (likely) Patrick Mahomes, who figured things out immediately in their second seasons. Most top quarterbacks have their best moment in the midpoint of their career, but Luck only lasted seven seasons, playing in six of them.

Despite only 94 starts, Luck provided several memorable moments. With respect to the debate this week about whether Luck or Bert Jones was the third-best QB in Colts history behind Manning and Johnny Unitas, I will point this out. Jones really doesn’t have any highlight reel to speak of. Part of it is an era/technology difference, though most hardcore NFL fans who were born after the 70s, myself included, have visual aids for the likes of Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, etc. I really can’t recall a single play from Bert Jones’ career. The most famous game he played in was Ghost to the Post, a playoff loss to the Raiders in double overtime. Jones never won a playoff game (0-3) actually. He threw four touchdown passes twice in his career, including one loss where he also threw four picks (one for a touchdown in a 45-38 final). His legacy is really that of a three-year stretch (1975-77) where he was incredibly efficient in the toughest era for passing statistics since the merger, and it was highlighted by that 1976 season. Like Luck, his career was marred and shortened by injury.

I’ll take Luck over Jones, and it’s for reasons like the games I’m about to go through. When I shared that tweet earlier about Luck being one of the QBs you can count on to drag a team to double-digit wins, it’s because of games like this where he delivered for rosters that usually had no business winning double-digit games and going to the playoffs. Luck did that four times in his career.

Here are Luck’s top 10 moments as judged by me, a fan since Day 1, who is still trying to wrap his head around the idea that we won’t see any more of this.

10. 2016 Week 17 – 17-Point Comeback vs. Jaguars

The Jaguars had the best defense in the NFL in 2017, and many of those players were on the field for this matchup in the final game of the 2016 season. Jacksonville led 17-0 early, but Luck clawed the Colts back to a 20-17 deficit before getting the ball back with 1:33. He led a 75-yard touchdown drive, finishing the Jaguars off with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle for a 24-20 win. Luck’s elation spilled over after the throw, ending a comeback season after a miserable 2015.

LuckJags2016

9. 2014 AFC Divisional – 3rd-and-16 at Broncos

The biggest playoff win the Colts had in the Luck era came in Denver in the 2014 AFC divisional round. Luck didn’t have a stellar game, but against a strong defense, he came out of the locker room in the third quarter and engineered a 72-yard touchdown drive that gave the Colts a commanding 21-10 lead in a game they went on to win 24-13. The drive was kept alive by a 32-yard pass to Coby Fleener on a big third-and-16.

8. 2013 Week 7 – SNF vs. Broncos

Denver came to town with a red-hot Peyton Manning and a 6-0 record for Sunday Night Football. This was Luck’s first chance to outscore his predecessor in a game and he delivered by throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for another in a 39-33 win, handing Denver its first loss of the season.

7. 2015 Week 3 – 13-Point 4QC at Titans

Luck was a major nuisance for the division rival Titans in his career. He was 11-0 as a starter and had four of his 21 4QC/GWD against the Titans, his most against any team. The most memorable happened to be in 2015, Luck’s lost year to injury after he reportedly injured his shoulder in this game. Still, he played through and finished in style. The Colts fell behind 27-14 in the fourth quarter and threatened to fall to 0-3 on the season. Luck led three touchdown drives in a 35-33 win.

6. 2015 Week 9 – Lacerated Kidney vs. Broncos

While 2015 was the roughest playing year of Luck’s career, he ended it on a high note with his game-winning drive in a 27-24 win against Manning’s Broncos. Denver had the best defense in the league that year and Luck had one of the finest games against it, and he did this despite playing with a lacerated kidney. Luck’s season ended after this game, but it was one of the best wins of his career.

5. 2013 Week 9 – 18-Point Comeback at Texans

This was another Sunday Night Football game where the Colts pulled off the improbable comeback, and Luck and T.Y. Hilton became the Houston’s secondary worst nightmare. Down 24-6 late in the third quarter, Luck found Hilton for three touchdowns, including a 58-yard bomb that wouldn’t be the last time Hilton split the defensive backs in Houston. The Colts won 27-24.

4. 2012 Week 13 – 12-Point Comeback at Lions

Luck set a rookie record with seven game-winning drives in 2012. Perhaps none were more memorable than the walk-off score in Detroit in a 35-33 win. The Colts actually trailed 33-21 with just over four minutes remaining. After one touchdown drive, Luck got the ball back with 1:07 left and drove the Colts 75 yards for the win. On the game’s final play, Luck improvised before flipping the ball to Donnie Avery for the score with no time left.

3. 2012 Week 5 – ChuckStrong vs. Packers

This was probably the first moment where it looked like the Colts had something really special in Luck. Indy (1-2) was a touchdown underdog at home against Green Bay, and head coach Chuck Pagano was just revealed to have cancer that week. The Colts trailed 21-3 at halftime, but this would be the first of 11 times Luck led the Colts to a win after trailing by at least 12 points. Down 27-22 late, Luck engineered a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, overcoming three third-and-long situations. Reggie Wayne came up big on the drive and had a 4-yard touchdown. The Colts won 30-27.

2. 2014 AFC Wild Card – TD vs. Bengals

Many of Luck’s big moments were comebacks and close games. This was a 26-10 final, but it was his most efficient playoff performance of his career. The touchdown in particular came at a big moment when the Colts only led 13-10 in the third quarter. Luck stepped up and delivered a dime to Donte Moncrief for a 36-yard touchdown. Luck finished the game by completing 31-of-44 passes for 376 yards. That was his only touchdown pass, but it was as fine as you’ll see.

1. 2013 AFC Wild Card – 28-Point Comeback vs. Chiefs

You knew the second-largest comeback in playoff history was going to be No. 1. In many ways, this is a career-defining game for Luck as it gives you the full experience of his career. His team came out playing disgraceful football as the defense was shredded by Alex Smith and the Chiefs. The ill-fated Trent Richardson trade led to a fumble in the second quarter. Luck was down 24-7 and had only thrown two incomplete passes to that point. He also threw a couple of ugly interceptions in the game, which the Chiefs led 38-10 in the third quarter.

For as bleak as it looked, Luck continued playing his game and eventually led five touchdowns in a six-drive span. He threw for 443 yards and finished the scoring off with a perfect 64-yard bomb to Hilton to split the defenders again. But the ultimate highlight in this 45-44 win that will always survive the test of time is Luck’s recovery of God Dammit Donald Brown’s fumble. Luck corrected his teammate’s mistake by picking up the ball and lunging forward for his own touchdown to save the comeback.

That game was Luck in a nutshell. It wasn’t always pretty, but he found a way to be successful even if the odds and the team around him weren’t in his favor.

Andrew Luck never became the next Peyton Manning, and it appears Patrick Mahomes may go down as the quarterback of the NFL’s next decade. But Luck was a special player in his own right, and for those of us who were able to see him play, we’ll have to talk about him to future generations in the words of the late Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Three 11-win seasons with Ryan Grigson as the brains of the operation. I watched Trent Richardson stumble in the dark near the end zone. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Goodbye, Andrew.

BRunner

Scott Kacsmar: About Me

This blog already has an “About” section, but it’s outdated to where it doesn’t even mention when I started working my first full-time job in 2013. As of today, I am a free agent. I thank Aaron Schatz for giving me the opportunity, and I wish him and the other writers the best going forward.

If you told me I would get fired over something involving Twitter and Patriots fans, I could have believed it. I just would have assumed it would be something that happens in the moment rather than tweets primarily from 2012-13 back when I was a freelancer. Now I’m sitting here, on one of the coldest days temperature wise in my 32 years, to write what really is the most important thing I’ve ever written. Some may advise this is a bad idea, but I only know one way to defend myself, and that is to be brutally honest, transparent, and state my case. I’ve been silent long enough.

Three paragraphs in and a lot of you probably still don’t know what’s going on, which is a huge source of my frustration here. On Wednesday afternoon (1/30), I was alerted that old tweets of mine were collected in screenshots on Twitter from members of “BJBSJ,” a news outlet that doesn’t even have a website. I’ll let one of them explain what their service is:

In other words, they are Patriots fans with an ax to grind as I already had several of the people involved Muted before Wednesday. That means past interactions didn’t go well with these people. I’ve gotten into it with Patriots fans online for 15 years, but this group is particularly obsessed with ending people who view their favorite sports teams differently. Their leader, Craig Bernard, is a self-called “Bountyhunter” and is no stranger to calling people c*nts and pedophiles online (I can screenshot too in case he deletes). Here’s a series of tweets from him on Wednesday where he confirms no fewer than six people dug through my nearly 140,000 tweets since 2011 to pick out about 16 bits of (in their eyes) racist gold. He also refers to me as “Kochsmear,” which I’ve grown used to seeing (or Cocksmear) from those who don’t like me online over the years. It’s just amusing to see it here as this was clearly a smear job as he implored someone at Barstool to run with their attack.

bjsj

On Thursday (1/31), Black Sports Online (BSO) ran with the story, for which I was never contacted for comment. BSO has the tweets in there, but I will get to them all below shortly. None of the tweets had any racial slurs or threats, but some of the tweets were absolutely cringeworthy and I’m ashamed and embarrassed to have my name attached to them. If I had a do-over, I never would have made them, but I did and here we are and that’s far from the last time I’ll own up to them here. Please read along to the end.

I needed to write an apology, but that proved to be more difficult than imagined. Normally, when you offend someone, it’s easy to be direct and offer them a sincere apology. Here, I was trying to write an apology that I would float into the void on my Twitter account over a situation most were completely unaware of (BJBSJ’s not exactly CNN). Looking at what other media members have gone through when they apologized for something, some people will always complain regardless, but this is what I posted and it didn’t go over too well. It certainly wasn’t as detailed as I wanted it to be, but they were all my own words.

1-30-2019apology

Readers didn’t like the “if anyone feels offended, I apologize” part. I understand that, but the problem I ran into there was I didn’t know who the people I was apologizing to were, and I know that not everyone is going to be offended by it as I’ve heard back on Twitter. Trying to apologize for something hardly anyone knows about, and where a lot of people might not even care is not an easy thing to do.

The part that aggravates me more than anything is that these BJBSJ people are not offended by the tweets they exposed. They’re offended by the tweets I’ve made over the years, including this week, about the New England Patriots, their team. That’s why it was such a connected network of Patriots fans that continued to push this story on this week and harass the companies involved over doing something about it. Again, many of the people replying I already had blocked or muted before this started, and several were even followers of mine I had muted. These people were out for blood and I guess they got it for the time being.

If you don’t know me, you should know that I have a longstanding feud with Patriots fans about their team’s place in history. I back up what I say with stats on Twitter and in countless articles, and I’ve never let it interfere with my work as you can see if you look at the last piece I co-wrote — at least I ended the tenure with strong work — where the Patriots got a push over the Rams to win this Sunday. But these people are obsessed enough with someone critical of their team that they’ll do this during the week their team is in the Super Bowl. That’s the kind of petty society we live in today where people can disagree with you on sports or politics and try to ruin you. I’ve had it attempted before with a Trump supporter who didn’t like my Ivanka joke in 2017, yet her own timeline revealed an incest joke about having sex with someone’s aunt. These people are hypocrites at best and deplorable at worst, yet get enough of them together to fake outrage and they’ll mess your life up.

I’m suddenly billed as a racist because that’s the most convenient way to get rid of me in 2019, facts be damned. Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows that is bullshit. As I said in the apology, I acknowledge that I have a history of bringing up race on Twitter, but it’s always been in a quirky, comedic way, and never about hatred or indifference. Here are examples of some tweets that were not brought up this week that I do not feel ashamed about posting:

Have I ever pushed the envelope of decency on Twitter before? Yes. But if I was getting a lot of negative reactions from these tweets, then clearly I wouldn’t be making them. But I thought this was all in good, harmless fun. Clearly I do bring up race more than the average 30-something white guy, but show me where it’s ever been out of hatred. I also have shown I’ll change when I know someone is offended. I used to have “Lover of spreadsheets and Japanese women” in my Twitter bio for a couple of years. After seeing complaints about that, I realized that needed removed and I needed to be more professional. I’m not always tone deaf on these matters. If someone (especially a woman) lets me know that was creepy, then I’m going to fix it.

THE TWEETS

Now for the tweets in question, which were posted by @dontaboomhauer (formerly @designatedkyle). I’ll go through them the best I can to explain my thought process. Sometimes, there simply is no explanation other than I was fucking stupid to post that, but I also hope that with some of these you’ll see just how much these people stretched to paint me as something I’m not.

Top two – I have made many tweets over the years about fireworks in my neighborhood, typically on 4th of July and New Year’s. I was doing it to start this month even. For the 2012 tweet about fireworks in the ghetto, I apologize for that. I meant no harm. I see how “ghetto” can take on a negative racial connotation that I didn’t consider at the time, but I assure you that’s not how I view it. I just tweeted the word ghetto in November 2018 to describe old CD-Rs that were generic. In 2016 I described the Gallagher family on Shameless as ghetto (they’re white if you haven’t seen the show). I’ve lived in an impoverished area my whole life. While it is predominantly African-American, I’ve had neighbors of all races. The biggest offenders for the fireworks have actually been a white family nearby. I had nothing racial in mind when I made that tweet, and the same can be said about the section 8 tweet because “ghetto” and “section 8” are not racial things in my eyes. Again, there is section 8 housing right next to me and the tenants (always of varying races) are a revolving door. This was 4th of July 2016, so it’s more recent when I clearly had a full-time job and good-sized following. Again, I understand the optics can look racially bad to some, but the context I have on my neighborhood is something I should have communicated better to not offend anyone. In the end, I shouldn’t have done either tweet and just commented on my general dislike of 4th of July, as I did in 2015. I’m sorry.

Bottom two – I deeply regret posting these in 2012-13. The first with the “darkest part of Africa” was a reference to Akeem, a white wrestler created out of stereotypical WWF of the 1980s. That was probably the year I was watching old wrestling stuff on Youtube with my friend and laughing at that line in his intro as they introduced him from there. Why would I tweet it to bring up quarterback Browning Nagle apparently getting his jerseys delivered like they do with jerseys people don’t want (SB losers and such)? I don’t know. It was a pathetic joke in poor taste. I’m sorry. The black people’s BBQ tweet, that’s confused me for over 24 hours now. I have no idea what #KGC is. Kentucky Grilled Chicken? All I can think of is I saw a commercial for the movie Grown Ups 2 and commented that I’d rather watch my neighbors cook on the porch than that movie. It was a knock on the movie only, but I apologize for needlessly bringing up black people there. The whole thing never should have been tweeted as it’s not funny or necessary. I’m sorry.

Top two – On calling the 90s NBA low-scoring era “thug ball DEF” in 2014, I clearly screwed up. That’s a case of me being tone deaf on how that word thug can be associated negatively to the African-American players. I need to do better and I think I have in regards to using (or not using) that word. As for the other tweet, I’m disgusted with myself for thinking “a decent portion of blacks” was acceptable to type. I apologize. 2014 was a year I got into some heated debates about whether or not Redskins should change their team name, and that was a poor choice of words. I’m sorry.

Bottom two – the one on the right is where I again mentioned that I live in a ghetto area, which I already explained is not a racial term for me, but I apologize if you feel differently. We’ll just have to agree to disagree there. As for the Adam & Eve tweet, that was one where I clearly knew I was pushing the envelope, but that was due to starting a creationism vs. evolution debate, a touchy subject for sure. But again, that was me in 2014 referring to “blacks,” and that’s just simply not good enough from me. That’s another area where I feel like I’ve made strides to be better in addressing people more respectfully. I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner in life, but I truly meant nothing racially insensitive there. Religion? That’s a different story, and that was the target of the tweet.

Top 2 – Inception 2 was another poor joke in bad taste that I want to apologize for. It doesn’t even really make sense. So stupid. As for Rajon Rondo being a thug, again, that’s a situation where I need to just stick with “prick” or something that can’t have a racial overtone to it. I’m sorry, and as I mentioned in the previous section, I have gotten smarter to avoid using that word.

2/5 UPDATE: I’ve realized that it helps to read the whole thread for context on some of these tweets. I was asked why I didn’t like Rondo, and that’s when I called him a little thug. When someone mentioned him as a role model (that person’s tweet since deleted), I strongly disagreed and I said I heard him call players the n-word on multiple occasions. So it doesn’t make any sense that I would use “thug” as a substitution for the n-word when my basis for calling him a “thug” was his use of the n-word. So call me tone deaf if you want, but I was not being racial with this tweet.

Bottom 2 – I refuse to apologize for this reach. I did a Bleacher Report article in 2013 about where NFL players were from and I just used Africa as a country in the table so it’d be easier to read. This article was approved by my editor and no one had any racial insensitivity problems with it until this attempt to ruin me. You can question my understanding of geography (country vs. continent), but I have nothing to apologize for there.

There’s the aforementioned Akeem wrestler. Yeah, I used the word “jive” to describe a white wrestler who thought he was from Africa and liked to dance. I’m not sorry for that. As for referring to the Steelers backup quarterbacks as “brothers” behind Ben Roethlisberger (with a list afterwards), I apologize if anyone is offended by that. Again, maybe I’m too comfortable with using a word like that given where I’ve grown up and the people/culture I’ve grown up with. That’s definitely something I’ll think about going forward, but if you think this was a post of hatred, then I apologize. That wasn’t my intent at all. Hell, I’d have welcomed most black quarterbacks over Landry Jones.

2/3 UPDATE: I just realized the thread in question for that tweet started with me talking about how it seems impossible a team could go 93 seasons without starting a black QB. Then I was asked about which team’s used the most, so that led to my comment about the Steelers.

Top 2 – Honda commercial. I’m not going to bother trying to find it to watch it again, but there was some commercial in 2012 where I made a poor attempt at humor. Trying to pass the time during a live sporting event (island games) by making jokes about commercials is something I need to give up on, or at least make sure I’m not being offensive before I hit send. That was the situation leading to a few of these embarrassing tweets. For this one, the target of the joke was the corny white family owning a slave. I can’t believe I have to say this, but I do not approve of slavery and I apologize for making such a stupid tweet.

As for the Oscars tweet, that was right after it ended in 2014, a big night for 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, hence my comment about slaves and space. As for AIDS, that’s just a well-known movie joke that if you play a character with a terminal disease (such as Tom Hanks in Philadelphia with AIDS) then you have a great shot at winning Oscars. I do not regret that tweet, though that doesn’t mean I’m not compassionate for people battling terrible diseases. It was just a movie joke, and if you know my Twitter, you know I watch a ton of movies and TV and talk about them.

Bottom 2 – Again, there were debates about the Redskins changing their name that year that I acted like a douche in. I apologize for that, and I actually recall writing some type of apology back then when it happened. I can’t find it at this time, but again, I am sorry for not being more open minded about this debate as my views have changed since 2014.

Also, there was a 2013 tweet I’m going to delete where I said “It’s ridiculous. And it’s gotten worse so quickly. Saying “retard” was no big thing growing up. Now? They practically ban it.” This isn’t at all race related, but it’s as bad as anything I’ve gone over so far. I have to do better than that, and I will say that’s not a word I use anymore and I have moved it to “r-word” territory when I discuss it now. I’m sorry for that tweet.

Okay, the five shopping days left in Black History Month from 2012 was atrocious. What does that even mean? I don’t know, but it’s stupid, not funny, and I deeply regret posting such a bad joke. As for the Steelers backup QB stuff in 2012, again, I clearly have continued to make tweets for years about players being black or white. Yes, just being. No hatred or indifference about it. So at worst that was just a bad joke, though also pretty true since they did sign a ton of black quarterbacks in that era. Finally, when I say Charlie Batch is black and we come from the same hood, it’s because he is, and we do. I grew up in the same neighborhood he did, went to the same school, and he’s owned property right across the street before. I was replying there to someone asking if he was black or mixed race. I don’t see how this could be an offensive tweet, and if Charlie wants to reach out to me to talk about everything here, I’d really appreciate that since I am a fan of his.

Left – Yes, in 2017 I was in the kitchen with my mom. All of a sudden I saw a kid sprinting through the yard and a cop was giving chase. I don’t know what ever came of it. That’s one of those things you don’t see every day, so in this social media era where we cover everything in our lives, I made a tweet. I understand that identifying him as “black kid” can look bad, but I meant nothing offensive there. The kid literally was a black kid. Had he been white, I still likely would have said “white kid” since that too would be unusual to see running through my yard on what is generally a dead street. So maybe this is an area where I need work, because I would still say things like “white running back” or “black kicker” too. That’s race; not racism in my opinion, as I’m just using those words as identifiers and nothing more. But maybe I need to have a talk with people on this specific topic to understand a different viewpoint.

As for the tweet about First Take in 2013 with Skip Bayless and Stephen A., I think that’s another absurd reach. I said nothing about race, and at that time, Skip (old white guy) was the most irritating part of that show. All I said was they speak loud, dumb garbage and I’m not taking it back. Now the other tweet in 2013 about running a train on a girl (she was legal age at least; I’m not that sick) in a KFC commercial, I absolutely apologize for being a sexist pig there. That should have never been tweeted.

Finally, there’s the Fat Albert Christmas Special, which I watched right before Christmas in 2012, the first year I had Netflix and was looking for something Christmas-y. I tweeted what the literal plot (see IMDb) of the special was and that’s that. That’s not even a joke tweet, hence the “I kid you not.” We’re all doomed if a tweet like that needs apologized for. It was actually my second tweet about the special as I first pointed out the stereotypical writing to call the Scrooge character “Mr. Tyrone.” Again, I have no hope for our future if this Fat Albert stuff is considered problematic.

That concludes the run this group put out and BSO published. That’s what they dished out on me through almost eight years and nearly 140,000 tweets. I’ve given you my honest explanations. I’ve been contrite and accountable when I know I fucked up, and I’ve defended myself where I felt it was deserved. I don’t know what more I can say about these tweets. If you still think I’m racist and want to unfollow, that’s your decision. I can only offer my viewpoints and hope that the interactions I’ve had with people over the years show that I am not that kind of person, though I am admittedly a flawed human being. Based on what I’ve seen from the lynch mob that got me, they are too.

It is all an eye-opening experience of how to conduct yourself on social media in this era where people with nothing better to do can set out to ruin you. Covering sports will naturally paint you as a target, but if you mix in personal stuff with professional, you better be on your toes about what you put out there. I wasn’t good enough in that area in the past, and now I just hope I get a shot at doing so in the future.

It is extra painful to be labeled something you know you’re not by people who only have an interest in destroying you. I’ve barely eaten in two days as I’ve tried to follow along, largely limited to silence, at this ordeal. People who don’t know anything about me aside from that collection of tweets now have a label for me that I know I don’t deserve. I’ve seen someone say “this is the kind of person that gets to write off Kaepernick.” Really? I wrote an article in 2017 that was in such support of Kaepernick being blackballed that the findings in it are going to be used by his legal team in his collusion case. Also, I have been a staunch anti-Trump person and have called him out for racism countless times. So if you lump me in with MAGA you couldn’t be any more off base.

BJBSJ framing my thoughts on race and diversity is a joke when these people only care that I write negative things about the Patriots. From my friendships to relationships to work contacts, I have never had any problems with race or diversity. I hired multiple interns each year and I hired people from different races and backgrounds, always trying to give someone a shot to get their foot in the door. I hired a female intern, which I think was a first. I’ve helped people advance pretty far in this field, and I’ve given advice to countless writers and shared data with others in need of help. Have I always been courteous with everyone I encounter on Twitter? No, but I usually go by a policy of treating you with the respect you treat me. I’ve had death threats and salacious shit thrown at me over the years and I didn’t snap on those people to lose everything.

While I know I’ve screwed up on some things, I know I’m not alone there. I’m also well aware of what I did compared to other sports media people who recently had instances of old tweets using racial slurs or new racist imagery in cartoons. To my knowledge, none of those people lost their jobs, and Jourdan Rodrigue was allegedly just suspended. I’ve also heard about Mike Loyko this week, and I don’t know what’s happened to him, but good lord his old tweets were vile. My intentions were only humor, not hatred.

Where do I go from here? I don’t know, but my first thought is about my health insurance. I still take an important blood thinner, which I may need to pay out of pocket for. As for what comes after that, I’m not sure. I still want to cover football. I think the upcoming years could be really good with the young players emerging in the league. I tried last year to move on to a different company, but that didn’t work out. The scarcity of jobs like the one I had was always a frightening fact I tried to bury deep in my mind. There was really never a backup plan.

So that’s my story. The details of the next chapter are a complete unknown right now, but I know I want to write. I also want to offer one final apology to any readers I have let down with all of this. The readers helped me get my last job, and I can only hope to still have the support of people who take an interest in what I say, respect my effort and passion, and accept me for the flawed individual I am. I know I’ll never be good enough for some people, but I never set out to please everyone. There will always be haters and detractors, but I will never put myself in this position again to let them destroy the life I worked hard for.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

Once again I wrote so much for the season predictions that I left out the awards. So we’ll get right to those before I talk about a few Week 1 games of interest.

2017 NFL Award Predictions

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers
  • Coach of the Year: Andy Reid
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Wade Phillips
  • Offensive Player of the Year: David Johnson
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Christian McCaffrey
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: T.J. Watt
  • Comeback Player of the Year: J.J. Watt

For the top coach, you know I was high on the Chiefs already going into Thursday night, so it’s not an overreaction to that. Andy Reid has won the award once, back in 2002. Surprisingly, every coach to win it in a 16-game season has won 10+ games except for Jimmy Johnson (7-9 with 1990 Cowboys) and Jack Patera (9-7 with 1978 Seahawks). If Todd Bowles finished 7-9 with the 2017 Jets, I would seriously consider him for the award. For real.

As for DROY, might be wishful thinking with T.J. Watt, but encouraged by his preseason and winning a starting job. I would have probably picked Myles Garrett if he wasn’t starting his career injured, which is unfortunate. Was looking forward to seeing him in action tomorrow.

Week 1 Games of Interest

I think the top AFC game is Raiders at Titans, a game I picked to happen again in the wild-card round. It was only a 17-10 game last year, but I’m expecting to see a lot more points with two quarterbacks returning from a broken leg suffered on the same day last year. I still don’t trust these defenses too much, and I am excited to see Marshawn Lynch back in action. I think the Titans will take this one at home, making a statement that this is their year in the AFC South.

The top NFC game for me is Seattle at Green Bay. It really could end up determining the No. 1 seed for all we know, just like it did in 2014 when these teams opened the season. Earl Thomas was out last year and the Seahawks were roasted in Green Bay. They also lost there in 2015, so it’s an important game for this team to win if they want to better their shot of not returning to Lambeau. I think with a loaded defense and healthy Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have the edge over a Green Bay team that still looks shaky to me on defense.

Giants at Dallas is often a solid choice for SNF. I think Dallas gets over that hump after getting swept by its rival last year. Odell Beckham Jr.’s health status is a big question mark, but the Giants still have other weapons. I just think the Cowboys embrace this somewhat unexpected opportunity to still have Ezekiel Elliott available and run a balanced offense with Dak Prescott having his best game against the Giants. That defense has really been his biggest weakness so far in his brief career. The defensive line and secondary are very strong, but I would advise that CB performance can always oscillate wildly. Maybe Janoris Jenkins isn’t as good this year, but Eli Apple could also make up for it by improving in his second season. This is another really important NFC game even though it is just Week 1.

2017 Week 1 Predictions

I start the year 0-1, just like the Patriots. How crazy was that game on Thursday night? I wrote about all the history the Chiefs overcame to win where few teams ever do. I’ve been saying for months that Kansas City is the team to beat New England, not Oakland and Pittsburgh. I just didn’t think we’d see that type of game from Alex Smith, and that was about the most unorthodox passing night for the Patriots in the last 11 seasons. One of Tom Brady’s worst throwing nights in that time for sure. Now it is just one game, but there are going to be some problems for the Patriots against any quality opponent if that front seven doesn’t play a lot better, and if the passing offense doesn’t get back to more short, quicker passes.

Winners in bold:

  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Cardinals at Lions
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Raiders at Titans
  • Falcons at Bears
  • Steelers at Browns
  • Eagles at Redskins
  • Jets at Bills
  • Colts at Rams
  • Panthers at 49ers
  • Seahawks at Packers
  • Giants at Cowboys
  • Saints at Vikings
  • Chargers at Broncos

I’m interested in seeing how several of the rookie head coaches fare, including both guys in the MNF finale in Denver. Maybe times are a changin’ if the Chargers can go into Denver and hold onto a late lead for a big road win. I also think the Rams get a golden opportunity to start 1-0 with an Indy team missing its best player on each side of the ball (Andrew Luck and Vontae Davis). Tough break for the Colts in an otherwise winnable game given no Aaron Donald (holdout over though). Also think the Panthers could get a good effort from the 49ers’ new-look offense under Kyle Shanahan. I’m excited to see Christian McCaffrey’s debut in that one against a talented, but young front seven.

2017 NFL Predictions

In last year’s NFL predictions, Optimistic Scott made his debut, offering a beacon of hope for a few teams.

The 2016 season then crushed him after another historic offense collapsed on the game’s biggest stage, allowing New England to do what it does better than anyone in history: take advantage of another team’s stupidity. Thanks to that ridiculous Super Bowl LI finish, the 2017 season is basically being billed as New England vs. the NFL. To the despair of football fans across the world (minus one region), we’ve waited seven months just to begin a five-month journey of the Patriots dominating the NFL with no hope of a worthy contender in sight.

Eat Arby’s.

Eventually, a new power will rise, but is anyone really counting on a team like Tampa Bay or Tennessee to establish that level of play this year? That would be ending a near-decade drought of playoff appearances. Both teams went 9-7 last year, and I have them improving and finishing with the same record this year, though you’ll have to scroll to the bottom to see which one makes the playoffs.

This is the longest the NFL has ever gone without a repeat champion, with the Patriots being the last to do so in 2003-04. It is hard to recall another season where one team was seemingly so far ahead of the field going into Week 1 like New England is this year. What has beaten this team in the past? There sure wasn’t any help from the AFC East, which looks to be in extra embarrassing mode this season with the Bills and Jets tanking. Archie Manning’s Sperm has been the best defense against the New England dynasty, producing five playoff wins, but we know Peyton Manning is history. Eli’s Giants theoretically have a 6.25 percent chance of getting back to the Super Bowl, and their realistic odds probably aren’t that much higher, especially compared to Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, and Seattle.

The Ravens and Jets were once able to vanquish the Patriots (at home even) in the playoffs with Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, but those were strong defenses. The best defense in the AFC is likely still in Denver, but it’s the same story as last year with that team: no QB, likely to lose by a 16-3 score to the Patriots, and unlikely to return to the playoffs. Flacco’s not even good enough anymore to reliably get Baltimore into the playoffs, and the Ravens are 0-3 against the Patriots since 2013 anyway. Pittsburgh and Oakland don’t have the defense to slow down New England, and the coaching disadvantage is huge there. That leaves one team (Kansas City), and we’ll get a great view tonight of how that matchup looks this season. The season goes quickly, but it is still a long way between now and January. A lot can happen.

A Kansas City upset in the season’s first game would totally change the outlook of this season, one that has many predicting the Patriots to go 19-0. If you don’t believe one game can do that, well just look at Super Bowl LI, or “28-3” as it will be forever known. Had Atlanta done just one more thing right — and trust me, we can pick from a long list of things that went wrong after 28-3 — we’d be singing a different tune right now.

If every other personnel decision, roster move and injury this offseason was exactly the same following an Atlanta Super Bowl win, would the Patriots still get undefeated predictions and be such an overwhelming favorite? I highly doubt it, but what really would be different going into 2017? After all, they’d still have a loaded roster, a head coaching advantage over every opponent, and a schedule that we have projected at FO to be the easiest this season. Sure, the Kansas City game may have been played on Sunday afternoon instead of Thursday night (champions’ spotlight), but the schedule is still very much the same.

Yet that comeback, or epic collapse by Atlanta, does shape the perception going into this season that the Patriots are unbeatable. It’s up to the rest of the NFL to prove that wrong. I always start with the AFC East, so the Patriots are the first team up in my predictions, so let’s continue with why 19-0 is unlikely to happen, but another Lombardi just may be inevitable.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

A decade after the 2007 Patriots flirted with perfection, here we are again. In case you forgot, the Patriots ended 2016 on a 10-game winning streak including the playoffs. So any prediction of 16-0 or 19-0 this year means you would be predicting the Patriots to have a 26 to 29-game winning streak. The NFL’s all-time longest winning streak is 21 games by the 2003-04 Patriots (salutations to Olindo Mare, the Colts’ goal-line offense, Drew Bennett, John Kasay, and Mike Vanderjagt for keeping that one alive so long).

Unless Bill Belichick or Tom Brady wants to leave no doubt that they are Faust, I cannot imagine one team being so lucky for 29 games. A loss is bound to happen somewhere, and the front seven certainly doesn’t look like a unit that should be going undefeated. Perhaps this is the year the losses of Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich catch up to Belichick. Remember, the Patriots had some defensive struggles in 2009-2011 after losing a ton of defensive veterans from the beginning of the dynasty. Maybe David Harris (ex-Jets) looks too old and slow at linebacker, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (ex-Bills) is not the free-agent signing the Patriots were hoping for. I’m not saying we’ll see 2005 or 2011-caliber defense from the Patriots this year, but it’s unlikely to allow the fewest points in the league like last year.

Of course, this offense has the potential to be the most potent since that 2007 season. Or is it had the potential? The loss of Julian Edelman (ACL) in the preseason is very notable, and also a reminder that it doesn’t take much for a player to get hurt and change your season’s outlook. Does Edelman represent a drop in wins? Unlikely, especially not when the team has so much skill player depth and a very similar player in Danny Amendola.

However, I can see the Edelman injury costing this team at the end of the year, whether it’s that first regular-season loss or a season-ending playoff loss. There is no denying that Brady and Edelman have a special connection, as that slot receiver role that the Pats have defined in the modern game is crucial to this offense’s ability to move the chains and keep drives alive. Edelman had 159 targets last season. He had at least 73 receiving yards in each of the final 11 games last season. Part of that was the injury to Rob Gronkowski — oh yeah, arguably the best TE in NFL history is back now — but it’s also the style of this offense. Brady feasts on those short routes to Edelman, who is a tough sucker with the ball in his hands, always fighting forward for extra yards. The Patriots put an incredible amount of volume and responsibility on their slot receiver. Wes Welker was extremely durable in this role for 2007-2012. Edelman has not been as durable, and now he’s gone for the year. Amendola has often been injured in his career, and I seriously doubt he could handle 100-plus targets in this offense without getting hurt. He’s also just not as good as Edelman.

But beyond Gronkowski returning, what else is different? The Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, a young, top deep threat with Drew Brees in New Orleans. They also might throw a few deep balls to Phillip Dorsett after picking up the first-round pick in a trade from the Colts. Chris Hogan has been turned into a vertical receiver in New England, and he should see a lot more usage after his huge postseason. Do people realize that Hogan had 332 receiving yards in the postseason alone? That’s the 14th-most in a postseason in NFL history (note: Edelman’s 342 yards last year ranks 10th). Oh, they also picked up Dwayne Allen for some Gronk insurance (always have to buy some Gronk insurance), and they have about a million receiving backs, including James White, who could have been Super Bowl MVP.

This sounds like an offense that will be going down the field more often, but is that really a smart move with a 40-year-old QB who is not at his most comfortable in a vertical offense? We’ll get to the age thing in a second, but just consider how this might hurt the Patriots against a quality opponent.

We saw some of this in the Houston AFC divisional game where Brady threw a lot of deep balls to deal with pressure, but the offense was having a difficult time that night. Brady threw two interceptions after throwing two all regular season. So what if some of those drives that get kept alive with a short throw and YAC to Edelman are replaced with a deep pass that sails out of bounds to Hogan or Cooks? If Brady is holding the ball longer to make these deep throws, then that could open him up to more pressure and sacks. Let’s face it: the offensive line is not that strong either. When Brady was pressured last year, he was off target on more than 45 percent of his passes, the worst rate in the NFL. This is a consistent trend in his career too, which is why getting pressure on him is more important than it is for other top quarterbacks.

Let this drop in efficiency from a more vertical strategy happen on two or three drives that otherwise get extended with a safer throw to Edelman, and that could be the difference in winning a close playoff game and losing a close playoff game. God knows the Patriots know better than anyone about being involved in close playoff games. The margins are often tiny with this team. So a 40-year-old QB missing his security blanket, not playing to his strengths (perhaps in very cold January weather) may end up hurting the Patriots in the end.

We’re entering rarely charted territory with a 40-year-old quarterback. Brett Favre was great at 40 for the Vikings in 2009, but terrible at 41 in 2010. Warren Moon still had a productive 1997 season for the Seahawks at 41. The only other quarterback to start 10-plus games in his 40s was Vinny Testaverde (2004 Cowboys). That’s it. Favre (2009) was the only time a quarterback started all 16 games in his 40s.

Father Time is undefeated, and he likes to swoop in quickly rather than let you die a slow death. Even Peyton Manning had a dominant 2014 start before things fell off late in the year. The torn quad was just the beginning of the end. Would even Belichick have the guts to bench a struggling Brady for Jimmy Garoppolo? I’m not so sure. Even with Garoppolo, this team should still easily win the AFC East and contend for a bye anyway. But if they stick with a struggling Brady and the defense isn’t top notch, then I can see some losses.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches from that regular season. You basically have to play this team at least once to correct your mistakes for the big rematch. Fortunately, we will see the Patriots play the AFC’s three heavy hitters in the regular season (Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Oakland). They’ll also play the NFC South, which boasts the last two Super Bowl teams (2016 Falcons and 2015 Panthers). Otherwise, the schedule isn’t too bad, and outside of those games, only a virtuoso performance by Drew Brees (Week 2) or a demolition of Brady by Von Miller and company in Denver (Week 10) should bother the Patriots in their pursuit of perfection.

Kansas City has the first shot at making 19-0 a moot point, but we’ll see if the Chiefs also have the best shot in January of ending New England’s repeat attempt for good. Barring catastrophic injury, this team is absolutely a lock for a home playoff game, and probably a bye. There is just no way of getting to the Super Bowl in the AFC without handling New England at some point.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Like I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, the only thing Miami is great at is being mediocre. There’s not a strong unit on this offense or defense, and the special teams weren’t that special last year. The Dolphins pulled off a few crazy comebacks, had multiple non-offensive game-winning scores, and escaped two game-winning field goals in overtime wins (Cleveland and Buffalo) to get to 10-6 last year. That’s not a sustainable formula going forward. Miami’s only quality win last year was the game against Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger tore his meniscus and Jay Ajayi broke out. We saw what happened when the QB1 injuries were reversed in the playoffs.

Now with Ryan Tannehill out, which is so very unfortunate, Miami has the perfect signal caller to head this parade back to mediocrity: Jay Cutler. He cared just enough to get out of his FOX gig to make $10 million this year. He’ll make some dazzling throws. He may even help DeVante Parker break out in his third year, which I think is far more crucial to this offense than feeding Jarvis Landry, which has had a negative impact on this offense’s production in the past. Cutler can even pull off some impressive game-winning drives of his own. But that “wow arm talent!” will also single-handedly cost your team a few games a year with mind-numbing decisions and game-changing turnovers.

Maybe Ajayi is a stud with Laremy Tunsil in his proper position at left tackle, but keep in mind that feat of three 200-yard rushing games means that nearly half of his rushing production came in three games. This was not a consistent rushing offense last year.

The defense is heavily reliant on Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake generating pressure. The rest of the defense lacks a great player, and with the linebackers, you just hope that Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons stay healthy at this point. Byron Maxwell wasn’t terrible last year like he was in 2015, but cornerback performance can shift in a hurry. The Dolphins still can’t be trusted in the secondary to do anything great against top passing offenses.

I also don’t think it helps that the Dolphins may have to play just six true home games due to the Hurricane in Week 1 and the London game with the Saints. (Update: game has been moved to Week 11, so they’ll play 16 straight.) When you look at the schedule, most of the teams Miami faces are just flat out better. I would be shocked if this isn’t a typical 7-9/8-8 Miami season. The saving grace was going to be Tannehill improving in Year 2 with Gase, but we get an unexpected Year 2 of Cutler and Gase. The problem is every Cutler year looks a bit too familiar, and as the last decade has shown, that’s usually not good enough for the playoffs.

3. Buffalo Bills (2-14)

Buffalo’s offseason has been so ass-backwards, I expect the team’s next announcement to be a new statue in honor of O.J. Simpson.

I wasn’t always this down on Buffalo this offseason. In fact, I expected the typical 7- 8 wins and no playoff appearance for the team in 2017, but recent moves have been stunning. It started when they fired the GM (Doug Whaley) after the draft, which was a bit of odd timing. Then the strange moves started with the team trading away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby. Those are young players who are supposed to be WR1 and CB1. Not to mention the Bills already lost Robert Woods (WR2) and Stephon Gilmore (old CB1) this offseason. Yeah, I’ve been at odds with the Watkins trade since the beginning, but his vertical style fits Tyrod Taylor’s strength well, and certainly much better than slot receiver Jordan Matthews and rookie possession receiver Zay Jones. Anquan Boldin joined this circus and after one lousy preseason game, basically said “Peace, Buffalo.  Call me if you need me, Pats.”

It really seems like Buffalo is trying to sabotage Taylor’s third season as a starter to have the excuse to move on from him in 2018. This is the problem you can face with a rookie head coach with no track record (Sean McDermott) and a new GM (Brandon Beane) who doesn’t have any heartstrings tied to the current roster. These are Carolina guys setting up shop in Buffalo, and they’re basically throwing in the towel on this season. Trading away Reggie Ragland, the 41st pick in the 2016 draft, was just par for the course in this housecleaning.

I certainly wouldn’t put any money on the Bills winning two games, but aside from sweeping the Jets and perhaps rushing all over New Orleans outdoors in cold weather, where are the wins coming from on this schedule? Hell, a win over the Jets in Week 1 isn’t even a guarantee like it almost would have been had this team still had its core of young talent.

The Bills have really outdone themselves in making their product even more unwatchable this season. Apparently they expect us to start paying attention again in 2018.

Rant Time: Before I somehow get into a worse team in the Jets, let’s merge together these topics of the AFC East’s inferiority and New England’s “brilliance thru other’s stupidity.” Let’s think about Chris Hogan. Like I said before, a prolific postseason and expected to do bigger things in 2017. This was a guy who had the nickname “7-11” because he was always open. Yet the 2012 Dolphins, a team in desperate need of wideouts, couldn’t even bother to keep Hogan on the practice squad for more than a couple of days before releasing him for good. He ends up in Buffalo and has some decent production for a team that has struggled to throw the ball since the 21st century started. Did Buffalo keep him? No, he signed an offer sheet with the Patriots, because Belichick knew there was talent there. The Bills didn’t match, and now we’re seeing a Bills team that has almost nothing at the wide receiver position, and will likely get burned at least once by Hogan this season. I’m not 100% sure if his whiteness plays a role in not getting enough respect from front offices (or opposing defenses). I mean, watch the coaches on Hard Knocks this year with Tampa Bay and notice how black linebacker Cameron Lynch was always said to “move better” than white linebacker Riley Bullough (Joe Dirt). Every time they were compared, that was the go-to line. There may very well be statistical support of that from GPS tracking data, but it screams code for “black guy is more athletic than slow white guy.” And maybe that’s fine in this situation pending that it’s true, but this is dicey when you start calling a white quarterback “smart” in a way you wouldn’t say that for a similar black quarterback, or that a white running back has to be “gritty” just to make a 53-man roster. I’m getting off track now, but that’s why I called this Rant Time. The point is the Patriots won’t care about things like skin color and draft status when evaluating a player. If they can find a quick, shifty player who can catch the ball and make things happen, they’ll kill you with him, even if he’s undrafted and white. Other teams are busy trying to find players who look the part rather than those capable to play the part.

4. New York Jets (2-14)

Seriously, is this not the lamest division race in the post-merger era? If you thought the Bills have given up, the Jets tossed the towel months ago. No, you won’t be watching Ryan Fitzpatrick throw interceptions instead of completions to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker this year. You won’t even see Quincy Enunwa make some impressive plays, but at least that one is due to an unfortunate injury. No, with this offense, we might as well be watching Josh McCown (or Christian Hackenberg) take the field with the cast from Little Giants, all grown up. There is nothing to get excited about on this offense anymore.

Of course, if tanking is your plan, then McCown is your man.

So maybe getting the No. 1 pick (over Buffalo’s dead body) and getting a quarterback like Sam Darnold is the plan all along for the Jets. But even the defense is likely to struggle with Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine taking over as the starting corners. That is a far cry from the days of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. At least the defensive line is still stout, but the Jets made sure to trade away malcontent Sheldon Richardson to Seattle, where he will likely shine now that he plays for a team he can actually give a damn for.

0-16 predictions are understandable, but if you are curious, I have the Jets winning at home against the Jaguars and Bills this year. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I know it will take a lot of help from Blake Bortles and another team that isn’t interested in even competing this season.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

Right after Super Bowl LI ended, Dallas was my Super Bowl LII pick for the NFC. As the months went on and the suspensions piled up, I cooled off a bit on that prediction. Now with the uncertainty surrounding the Ezekiel Elliott situation, I’m really not sure what to make of Dallas. Surprisingly, I still found 12 wins for them, including a huge head-to-head tie-breaker over Seattle in Week 16.

However, I think the Cowboys have some of their toughest tests early in the season. I think they’ll get over the Giants hump on Sunday with Elliott somehow allowed to play, but going to Denver and Arizona, those are games that could easily both be losses against talented defenses on the road. Green Bay may also be a close loss again in Week 5 if Elliott isn’t there. So it’s tough to really project Dallas with so many key players out for portions of the season, but I do believe Dak Prescott is for real. That wasn’t some RGIII misleading season. He had a season that was as efficient as some of the best from that group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. He just didn’t have the volume of them, but that’s to be expected for a rookie.

Sophomore slump, you say? Maybe, but it’s hard to improve on what could be arguably the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history. A few of the past candidates for that, including Dan Marino (1983), Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Russell Wilson (2012) all have something in common too: they reached the Super Bowl in their second season, with the last two winning a ring that early. Prescott has a chance to do that too.

I’m sure the interceptions will go up, but Prescott seems to have the proper skillset to be a low-INT guy on an annual basis. The last decade of QB play was dominated by the Manning/Brady/Brees pocket passer. I think the game is shifting towards the more athletic quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but also escape and make things happen on the run. Aaron Rodgers and Wilson have been doing this, and I think Prescott and Marcus Mariota can also be that type of quarterback.

The Elliott suspension could also be a great test for Prescott to show that he is the main reason Dallas improved to the No. 1 seed last year with one of the best offenses in the league. Remember, Dallas rested starters in Week 17, so could have been 14-2 as well, especially if Mark Sanchez didn’t play as much as he did that day.

The defense hasn’t been terrible despite the flaws, but it’s definitely not a unit that looks championship caliber. Maybe Jaylon Smith can contribute this year, and perhaps Orlando Scandrick plays better another year removed from a torn ACL.

If Dallas faltered to 8-8/9-7, I wouldn’t be shocked, but I just believe in Prescott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, this offensive line, and kicker Dan Bailey to get the job done.

2. New York Giants (10-6)

The Giants were the lowest variance team in DVOA history last season. Every week it seemed like the defense was holding onto a one-score lead to wrap up another win. The defense let down in Green Bay in the playoffs, but I still really like the defensive line and secondary. Janoris Jenkins changed my opinion of him from his play with the Rams. He was very good last year, and safety Landon Collins is quickly approaching great status. The linebackers seem JAG level to me, but overall, it’s one of the best defenses in the NFC and I think that will continue in 2017.

This team goes the distance if Eli Manning can find that 2011 touch again. He was not consistent enough last season, and I’m not sure how much an older Brandon Marshall and a rookie tight end (Evan Engram) help this year. But there is talent around him, including Paul Perkins, who I expect to be solid at running back. The offensive line is still a question mark, but Eli has always been pretty good at mitigating sacks and great at staying healthy every week.

If he just plays up to his abilities at the right moments again, then this team can be Super, but I just don’t see them sweeping Dallas again like last year.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

The Eagles seem like a good candidate for improvement after losing six close games last season. They already have a strong defense and special teams, and added offensive talent in Alshon Jefferey, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount. What ultimately kept the Eagles out of the playoffs was their passing game, led by rookie Carson Wentz. As you probably know, I think he was a bottom-10 QB last season by just about any metric, and anyone who sees otherwise likely stopped paying attention after September ended. I didn’t think his three-game start was the stuff of legends either, and that’s where the controversy started when I pointed out his very low ranking in air yards. By season’s end, Wentz threw the fifth-shortest passes in the league, but it’s always going to be difficult to sink to the bottom when Alex Smith and Sam Bradford are still QB1s.

When Wentz had his big day against Pittsburgh in Week 3, I pointed out that Darren Sproles made two great plays after the catch, gaining YAC of 46 and 50 yards. That’s not a repeatable strategy. In the season’s other 15 games, the Eagles never had a play with more than 30 YAC, and this was an offense that threw more than 600 passes.

By adding Jeffery and Smith, that tells me the Eagles will go downfield more this year, but is that really Wentz’s strength? That remains to be seen, as this is an Andy Reid/Doug Pederson style of WCO, and the Chiefs still neutered Jeremy Maclin a bit when he joined Alex Smith in Kansas City. Jeffery and Smith are low catch% receivers who can make big plays, but you have to be willing to give them shots. Jeffery in particular can win 50/50 balls. I don’t have a ton of confidence left in Smith after a putrid showing on the 49ers last year, but yes, he is better than some of the wideouts the Eagles had a year ago. Still, I didn’t think Jordan Matthews (traded to Buffalo), tight end Zach Ertz and Sproles were bad weapons for a quarterback to have. The Eagles certainly didn’t have the worst supporting cast in the league last year.

I’ve never made any kind of career proclamation about what Wentz will be. I just called his rookie year like I saw it: bad. Can he get better? Of course, but I’d be alarmed that he didn’t improve as last year went on. When people ignore the huge difference in stats of this era to the past, they do silly things like compare his rookie season to Peyton Manning’s in 1998. Okay, but can you not see that Manning shook off a terrible six-game start and was trending upwards the final 10 games that year? Wentz peaked so early last year. Maybe that’s irrelevant going forward, but I just think the expectations that low catch% wideouts and Lane Johnson are going to make this huge difference for him is a bit absurd. Seriously, Johnson has to be the 2nd most overrated Eagle at this point if you think he has that big of an impact on this team. No legit quarterback’s success is tied to his right tackle. You can make that argument for a play or a drive, but not for a full game or season. That’s just not how the NFL works.

Fact is the 2016 Eagles were 0-9 when opponents scored more than 20 points, 7-0 when they were held under 20. The offense needs to step up, and it’s not as simple as adding a few new players. Wentz himself just has to get a lot better in his second season, and while I think he’ll be better, I don’t think he’ll be great enough to carry this team to the top of the division.

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

It seems like the only real offseason story about Washington has been Kirk Cousins’ contract, and the fact that he may bolt for a team like the 49ers in 2018 to the tune of $30 million per season. If we’re being honest, he’s one more good year away from doing as much, if not more than Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford have in their careers, so why not have someone pay him handsomely too? I just don’t get why it hasn’t been Washington yet.

Last year, if the defense could defend a 75-yard field in Detroit or if Dustin Hopkins makes a 34-yard field goal in London in overtime, the Redskins make the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cousins was about the least of the team’s problems. In fact, when I looked at DVOA by routes, he was one of the most effective quarterbacks on several different routes. A lot of that production was with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who are both gone, but if he can continue his efficiency without those guys and without offensive coordinator Sean McVay, then what more does Cousins need to prove to Washington? They still have some talent around him in Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson (injured rookie year), Jordan Reed, a good offensive line, and options at running back. The offense won’t fall apart without those receivers and coordinator, but if it sustains itself without those pieces, then you have to give Cousins credit for that. He’s a good, but not great quarterback, and there aren’t too many of those around right now.

Defensively, does Josh Norman fare better in his second season with the team? He didn’t have the biggest track record in Carolina. Otherwise, we’re talking about rookie Jonathan Allen needing to make a quick impact, and the other stories here aren’t encouraging. Trent Murphy is suspended four games, DeAngelo Hall isn’t healthy, and Su’a Cravens has thought about retiring already.

So I see a bit of football purgatory here with Washington sticking around .500 and missing the playoffs again, but that’s still better to watch than quarterback hell.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

I could really just copy last year’s paragraph here. Can this team beat New England in a big game? That’s really what it boils down to again, because I trust the Steelers against any other AFC contender. But unlike in 2005, 2008 and 2010, you’re not going to avoid the Patriots in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. The AFC is too weak for that to happen now.

So what is different this time? For starters, it sure would be great if Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant could last a whole season together. They’ve only all appeared and finished 11 games since 2014. Bryant has never even played against New England. Bell went out with an injury early in the AFC Championship Game and he didn’t play in the 2015 opener. Roethlisberger missed the Week 7 game last year. So the Patriots have not seen more than two of those four guys for a full game in the last three meetings, all won by New England with the Pittsburgh defense looking bad. That’s really the bigger problem, but it doesn’t help when Pittsburgh has to invest so much money into three offensive players who are never together when the team needs them the most.

Maybe the defense actually looks at the 2011 game tape and what worked that day (press coverage). Anything would be better than the usual “how did we leave this guy so open?” game plan that Pittsburgh walks into these New England games with. They didn’t even look like they knew who Chris Hogan was in the AFC Championship Game.

I’m not sold that this is Roethlisberger’s final season. I think he’s going to Brett Favre this thing, which means at least one March retirement followed by an August return to the team for “one more try.” But if this is it, then the Steelers have made some uncharacteristic moves to help out with that. I’m just not sure that Joe Haden and Vance McDonald are the missing pieces to getting past the Patriots. Sure, those guys could be CB1 and TE1 on this team given the weakness at those positions, but Haden hasn’t been too good for a couple of years now. More than anything, the big four needs to stay healthy and I’d like to see T.J. Watt have a good pass-rushing impact as a rookie starter. The secondary is still question. Do you think the team would have moved for Haden and safety J.J. Wilcox if they were really comfortable with 2016 draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis?

I like the Steelers for a No. 2 seed, but even with a win at home against New England in Week 15, I still think the Patriots will win more games to make sure the playoff matchup is in Foxboro again. That’s where the Steelers really look lost against this team. What I described in the Patriots section about forcing deep balls to Cooks/Hogan instead of shredding the short stuff with Edelman could be Pittsburgh’s key to victory this year, but it will take an incredible effort to pull that one out based on how these matchups usually go.

Aside from basing everything on New England, it really could be exciting to watch this offense if Bell can make it through this season with such a heavy workload, and if Bryant returns to the athletic freak he was in 2014-15. Those are two big question marks, and the inevitable Roethlisberger injury has nearly kept this team out of the playoffs the last two years. Still, I think Pittsburgh has a significant edge over the AFC North.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

Every year I was waiting for the Bengals to miss the playoffs after that five-year run in 2011-2015. The team was rarely great at anything in that stretch, but only last year finally saw them finish under .500. Andy Dalton still had a respectable season with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert basically missing half of the season. If he can get those guys back to go with rookie John Ross and second-year wideout Tyler Boyd, then the Bengals have a pretty talented offense. Throw in Gio Bernard at receiving back and Joe Mixon stealing snaps from Jeremy Hill, and the Bengals have plenty of options.

However, the offensive line does look like the worst of the Dalton era. The good news is that he generally gets rid of the ball quickly, but this could be something that holds them back for sure. Dalton has never been that great under pressure.

The defense returns some standouts in Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, but Adam Jones (1 game) and Vontaze Burfict (3 games) are currently suspended. The Bengals should stick to their “solid, but not great” standing on defense.

I think the home schedule is very favorable, but don’t see the Bengals winning in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Denver, or Minnesota.

Add it all together and a mediocre 8-8 sounds pretty reasonable.

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

When I looked at QB-added value in 2016, Joe Flacco was the least valuable QB in the NFL last year. This is based on EPA by the QB relative to the rest of his team (running game, defense, special teams, penalties). Flacco wasted strong performances from his defense and special teams last year to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the third time in four years since he destroyed the QB contract market.

So with a $24.5M cap hit this year, the Ravens are paying out the ass for a quarterback who smashed the record for failed completions last year with 144. What ever will Flacco do with Kyle Jusczyczhkdsflhk off to San Francisco? I guess he’ll just have to throw passes 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to Danny Woodhead now. That’s actually a decent tradeoff for this offense, but it’s still an offense that is likely to struggle. Flacco’s not even fully healthy going into the season, so that’s another problem.

Oh, the defense should still be pretty good, meaning a pretty typical Baltimore year. Defense has to bail out the offense, and it won’t happen enough times to make the playoffs.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

If the Browns finally start to turn things around, the 2017 draft will be the main reason for that. They have a potential franchise QB in DeShone Kizer, a “best player in the draft” pass-rushing prospect in Myles Garrett, and talented athletes at tight end (David Njoku) and safety (Jabrill Peppers).

They also have a boatload of future picks to make, but none of this means anything if the Browns still struggle to identify and develop talent at the pro level. The fact that they drafted so many receivers a year ago and still signed Kenny Britt and traded for Sammie Coates isn’t a ringing endorsement for the 2016 draft. But I think Kizer has some solid weapons to work with now, and it is interesting that he’s the only rookie to start in Week 1 at quarterback after going in the second round. I think he’ll be too inconsistent to have a great rookie season, and the defense still isn’t ready to do anything big, but it should at least be more exciting to watch the Browns this year than it usually has been.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Packers and Patriots can both tie the NFL record with a ninth-consecutive playoff appearance this season. As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, I think that’s almost a lock, even if the Packers do like to wait until Week 17 to figure out their playoff fate. Rodgers was incredible down the stretch last year, but not so much when the Packers started 4-6. I’d like to see him return more to his 2009-2014 consistency rather than what’s gone in the last two seasons. I think he can, and that’s why he is my favorite for the MVP award this year.

I still don’t think the defense is going to be anything special, so Rodgers has to be. Martellus Bennett should be a fine upgrade at tight end for an offense that hasn’t had a lot there since Jermichael Finley. Ty Montgomery as a running back is an interesting opportunity, but I’m not sold that he’ll get a ton of touches until we see it actually happen. I still like Jordy Nelson a lot and Davante Adams came around last year after an ugly 2015. Rodgers will always extend plays with the best of them, though I’d like to see more conventional offensive efficiency. Those broken plays weren’t as successful as one may think last year.

While this team can hang its hat on making the playoffs again, one has to wonder at what point will GM Ted Thompson or HC Mike McCarthy take the heat for one Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots have three (two wins) since 2009. The Colts went to two Super Bowls (1-1 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 2002-2010. The Cowboys went to three Super Bowls (1-2 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 1975-1983. Green Bay has needed to do more with this high caliber of quarterback play from Rodgers, but the team is stubborn with relying on the draft. The Patriots just won the Super Bowl and immediately tried to get even better. The teams that have beaten Green Bay the last three years didn’t rest on their laurels either. The Falcons added Dontari Poe. The Cardinals traded for Chandler Jones last year. In 2015, the Seahawks traded to get Jimmy Graham. Green Bay’s biggest move in free agency in that time was replacing Jared Cook with Bennett. No, for real. It’s a way different approach to how the Patriots constantly try out new weapons for Brady, or defenders (see Gilmore) for Belichick to toy with.

I write a lot of the same things about the Packers every year, because what’s really changed? They try to win by the draft and home-grown talent. They rely heavily on Rodgers to be amazing. They still can’t be trusted to make a big comeback. 2010 is still a major outlier for Dom Capers’ defense. Green Bay has a stagnant status in this league, and while most teams would trade spots with the Packers in a heartbeat, year after year we’re left expecting more by season’s end.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

A 58-yard field goal by Detroit’s Matt Prater was really the difference in Minnesota making the playoffs as a wild-card team versus missing out at 8-8. This team is right on that cusp, but I don’t see a whole lot changing this year. The defense should play closer to the early-season dominance than the late-season fallout it displayed against the Colts and Packers. I still don’t trust Sam Bradford to win high-scoring games or elevate a team to the playoffs. They have to win with defense and play much better along the offensive line so that the running game can be better with rookie running back Dalvin Cook. I think the offensive line is better this year after adding Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and rookie center Pat Elflein. A strong unit? Not likely, but anything would be better than this:

I think that late-season stretch where the Vikings go on the road against Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina and Green Bay in five weeks is what will ultimately keep this team out of the playoffs again. Let’s hope Teddy Bridgewater can resume his playing career soon in Minnesota. There are some good pieces in place here.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

By now you know a lot of the numbers. Detroit broke the NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season, and those teams usually regress, especially in close games (drops from 66.8% wins to 40.1% wins). Matthew Stafford is the highest-paid player in NFL history despite never getting a single vote for MVP or first-team All-Pro, never winning a playoff game (0-3), and never finishing higher than 10th in passing DVOA. Yes, that 5-46 record against teams with a winning record is hard to believe, and not anywhere close to other quarterbacks of his caliber since 2009.

Stafford isn’t a typical top 10 quarterback, but we can inflate him as one in a league where Peyton Manning and Tony Romo recently retired. He’s fine, he can keep your team competitive, but he is ultimately a volume passer who can be mistake prone. He’s basically this generation’s Drew Bledsoe without getting carried to a Super Bowl appearance yet.

As I wrote in FOA 2017, Detroit was like a 5-11 team that pulled off four miracles, often on the arm of Stafford, but also with help from Matt Prater and some huge interceptions by a defense that was otherwise terrible. Stafford’s best years may very well be ahead of him, but until he reaches that point, Detroit will still be scraping by just to finish around .500. I thought I could find them more than six wins, but I simply like teams such as Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota better this year. I do like the draft pick of Kenny Golladay and the potential of a healthy Ameer Abdullah behind the revamped right side of the line (T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner). I’m not thrilled about injuries to Taylor Decker and Kerry Hyder. I’ve never been a Jim Caldwell fan, and I think this is a season where those close games that so often fell Detroit’s way last year go the other way this year, keeping the Lions out of the playoffs.

And let’s face it, you wouldn’t pick them to win a wild-card game anyway.

4. Chicago Bears (3-13)

It certainly is worth noting that the Bears had the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in our database going back to 2000. Health should be better this year, though Cameron Meredith may have a few words about that. That’s an awful loss after his surprisingly good performance last season.

Last year, the Bears went 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only won home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. In 2017, I have them going 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only winning home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. Oh, and they’re still paying out the ass for quarterbacks, but instead of a Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer/Matt Barkley three-way, it’s Mike Glennon and rookie Mitch Trubisky.

Look, I don’t feel good about the record, but I haven’t felt good about Chicago for several years now. They’ve lost Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White hasn’t been able to show anything. The offensive line is solid, but I think Glennon is a bit slower to get rid of the ball than a Hoyer or Barkley. Jordan Howard was a great find last year, but I don’t think the defense will be strong enough to keep enough games winnable for the Bears to rely on the run. I like the linebackers a lot and Leonard Floyd could have a breakout year, but the secondary is pathetic. Seriously, you just have to do better than starting Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper at corner.

Even if the Bears win six games, it’s another pointless season for this franchise. As much as I thought Glennon deserved a starting job somewhere, I don’t understand the contract he was given at all. He should be making the $6 million or so that Hoyer and McCown are making this year. Then to trade up for Trubisky, it’s just a messy situation. Best-case scenario is that Glennon plays well enough so that the Bears can move him for a high draft pick. Hell, his track record by then will be greater than that of Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Flynn, and Matt Schaub when they were given big deals elsewhere. Guess the only problem is his name isn’t Matt Glennon, but I’ll be damned if Gumby can’t stand nice and tall for every anthem this season.

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)

I’m a little hesitant about buying into Tennessee like many people have. But I also know that the best way to end an eight-year playoff drought is with strong quarterback play. You like to think the Titans have that with Marcus Mariota, and they’ve built around him well with adding Corey Davis and Eric Decker. They also have two solid backs and TE Delanie Walker. The offensive line is pretty solid, especially at tackle.

The criticisms I have on Mariota so far are durability and too many turnovers in 4QC/GWD situations. With the latter, this team likely wins the AFC South last year if not for some untimely turnovers (several returned for touchdowns) by Mariota late in games. With his durability, in two years he’s already had three injuries that caused him to miss starts. That’s more than most top QBs in this era have in their whole careers.

If Mariota can stay healthy and play like he did after last year’s slow start, then the Titans have a good one here. On defense, I expect better results than last year, but still not a top unit. Brian Orakpo was a good pickup last year. A player I think can become a household name in 2017 is safety Kevin Byard. It seemed like every time this offseason when I went to look up a play or something involving the Titans defense, there he was doing something valuable for the team. He was one of the best against the run and the pass last year. The Titans could use a strong force in the secondary after letting long-time corner Jason McCourty go.

I think the Titans have a few statement games on the schedule that can show they’re a contender this year. They’ll host Seattle in Week 3, and they really need to beat the Colts at home in Week 6. The Titans haven’t beaten the Colts with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at quarterback since the 2008 season, the last time they were a playoff team. Luck will hopefully be back for that one, but it’s a big mental hurdle to get over for this team. I think there’s a stretch late in the year that’s really tough when the Titans travel to play the Steelers, Colts and Cardinals in a four-game span.

But we know 10-6 is more than enough to win the AFC South these days. Hey, Sunday’s game with Oakland could easily be a wild-card preview. Some new blood for a change. But again, don’t get crazy in thinking this team will seriously challenge New England and get to a Super Bowl. It’s a process. Plus, we’re talking about a team coached by Mike Mularkey and a defense led by Dick LeBeau. The Patriots shouldn’t have to worry about the Titans this year, but the future finally looks bright here.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

The Colts have somehow fallen into NFL purgatory: not good enough to make the playoffs (not even in the AFC South), not bad enough to get a top 10 draft pick. Well, at least the explanation for why this team isn’t one of the AFC elites going into Andrew Luck’s sixth season is obvious. Ryan Grigson was a horrible GM and the barrage of hits on Luck year after year has had an effect.

Oh, Luck was still fantastic last year. Arguably his finest season yet. Sure, he’d like to have a few throws against the Texans and Jaguars (London) back, but he did more than enough to drag this team what could have easily been a 10-5 record in his starts. That would have meant a home playoff game against the Raiders with Connor Cook at quarterback. But the defense couldn’t hold up a 35-34 lead in the final 37 seconds against Detroit. The defense somehow blew a 14-point lead in the final seven minutes to Brock Osweiler. There’s your postseason gone.

Now the Colts open 2017 with Scott Tolzien at quarterback, because Luck still isn’t healthy enough after offseason surgery. We knew this could be the case months ago, so why didn’t the Colts do something more reasonable like bring in Colin Kaepernick or make this shocking trade of Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett weeks ago? They’re stuck with Tolzien now, and what looked like a winnable opener against the Rams now looks like a likely loss. By the time Luck comes back, this team could be in a 1-3 hole, and that’s assuming Cleveland is a win at home.

I still have the Colts at 8-8, because I expect Luck to return and think the post-bye schedule is where they can really clean up. But this expected rough start is likely going to ruin any chance at a return to the playoffs. The defense is still a huge eyesore, so I don’t see Tolzien being able to rely on that or the running game with Frank Gore to win games in Luck’s absence.

If you’ve been a fan of this team recently, then the NFL’s just not the same right now without Peyton Manning and with the Colts relying on backup quarterbacks to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. The Colts were an annual contender for the better part of two decades, but they’re just another team these days.

3. Houston Texans (5-11)

Houston ranked 29th in DVOA last year, one of the worst marks ever for a playoff team, but thus is the benefit of the AFC South. Getting the best defender in football (J.J. Watt) back should be a boost, and it’s hard to do much worse than Brock Osweiler last year, but let’s not count out Tom Savage just yet. Yes, the fact that Savage is the starter in Week 1 is rather annoying, as he is clearly a poor stop-gap to Deshaun Watson. However, I have grown used to Bill O’Brien making our NFL viewing lives as miserable as possible.

I really had high hopes that Watson, who the Texans traded up to get, would have a Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott impact on Houston this year, which could be a team to deal with provided competent quarterback play. We saw this in the playoffs in New England where the defense did a respectable job, but that brutal special teams unit and Osweiler (along with Will Fuller’s hands) were not up to the task. Unfortunately, Watson did not seem up to the task this preseason. Granted, preseason isn’t everything, but Wilson and Prescott dominated there to help them win the Week 1 starting job. So I’m skeptical of Watson’s impact this season, but I doubt Savage makes it through 16 starts. We’ll see the Clemson star soon enough.

I don’t feel great about the 5-win projection here, because O’Brien churns out 9-7 seasons with subpar quarterback play, a passing offense that generates the least YAC, and now has Watt and Clowney together for a change. But I just think the road schedule is tough on Houston, the offense will struggle to score points, and the rest of the AFC South should be better this year.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Blake Bortles made his NFL debut against the Colts in 2014. He entered the game in the third quarter with Jacksonville down 30-0. “The Garbage Man” was born.

But if he still stinks this year, then that has to be it in Jacksonville. Sure, he’ll probably hold onto an NFL job for the next eight years, because he’s white and stands for the anthem, but there’s no way he should start for this team in 2018 after four years of mostly lousy play. 60-plus starts is plenty of evidence.

I have said a few times in light of the ridiculous contracts signed by Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford that Bortles is one strong season away from becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history. You may laugh, but I am a little serious.

Does this scenario not sound plausible? Bortles does improve his statistics in a noticeable way (TD:INT ratio) this year. The Jaguars shock everyone and win about 10 games to capture the AFC South. At that point, what’s stopping the team from signing him to at least $25 million per season? I could even hear a ridiculous Tom Coughlin statement like “I’m sure this was the Blake they expected to get when they drafted him third overall in 2014, so we’re glad to keep him in the fold long-term” after the bogus signing.

Yes, a guy who we just talked about being benched for Chad Henne days ago is one big stat season and playoff appearance away from having a resume that’s not that far off from the other “highest-paid players in NFL history.”

And I would love to see it happen in the most farcical way possible. I’m talking like a 2007 Derek Anderson or 2010 Josh Freeman type of season, but far worse.

Things I want to see before Jacksonville pays out the ass for him:

  • Bortles throws single-digit interceptions, but leads the NFL with 14+ dropped interceptions.
  • Bortles fumbles 12 times, but somehow loses 0 of them.
  • His receivers drop the fewest passes in the league.
  • His receivers make the most YAC+ plays in the NFL, including several long touchdowns on screens, blown coverages, and broken tackles.
  • Clear splits that his numbers were beefed up against terrible defenses.
  • For him to set an NFL-record for 1-to-3 yard touchdown passes.
  • For The Garbage Man to absolutely crush garbage time in the six games Jacksonville loses en route to that 10-6 division title, inflating those season stats even more. I’m talking Matt Cassel vs. 2010 Broncos Hall of Garbage Time Fame stuff.
  • We’ll be able to say “he played the Colts without Vontae and J.J. Watt missed the second Houston game.”
  • Jacksonville’s young, super talented defense rises to the top five in the league and is the main reason for this winning record, QBWINZ be damned.

Basically, the most misleading stat line and record you’ll ever see attached to a quarterback’s name. Please, sign him after all of that happens.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

I saved the Falcons as my last team to write about. Maybe I’m viewing this as my eulogy to the 2016 season.

With Atlanta, there’s the football stuff and the mental stuff to talk about this year. The football part is pretty simple. The historic offense will regress this year, because that’s what historic offenses do. You don’t just improve on what the Falcons did last year, especially when you lose your offensive coordinator and don’t make any significant roster upgrades. Having said that, Kyle Shanahan is not a special soothsayer. In fact, he’s the No.1 reason “28-3” happened. Run the god damn ball. It’s that simple. When Shanahan left Houston, the 2010 Texans improved to No. 2 in offensive DVOA. He was also in Atlanta in 2015 when things were at their worst in the Matt Ryan era. So he’s not irreplaceable by any means.

Given the talent still here, I expect Ryan to have a top-five QB season and lead this offense to a lot of points. TE Austin Hooper might have a breakout year. The defense is where the Falcons have to get a lot better, and I think that’s possible with young players getting better, Dontari Poe coming over at NT, and the return of CB1 Desmond Trufant. Atlanta improved on defense down the stretch last year, but as we know, couldn’t get that final stop in SB LI. I don’t think the defense will be top 10 or anything, but it should fare better than 2016’s No. 26 ranking in DVOA. There won’t be as many shootouts necessary for Atlanta to win this year.

The Falcons were a strong 11-5 team. They led in the fourth quarter of every game after Week 1, but still lost five times, including you know what. This team played very well for much of the season, but just didn’t close out a few games like you have to if you are to win a championship.

So many people are going to write off the Falcons this year for not being able to get over the devastation of 28-3. I get that, but it’s just not very true of NFL history. These are professionals. They get over things by getting better. The 1971 Dolphins were embarrassed 24-3 in the Super Bowl (only team to not score a touchdown), but came back to go 17-0 in 1972. The 1990 Buffalo Bills lost on a last-second field goal in the Super Bowl, but still rallied to make three more trips to the big game (all losses). They even had to overcome an NFL-record 32-point deficit against the Oilers in 1992. How did Houston handle that choke? Well, it started 1-4 in 1993, but rallied to finish 12-4. Oh, they still choked away another postseason game to the Chiefs, but that’s besides the point. The 2005 Colts had a horrible ending to their season when Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide and they lost in a dramatic game to Pittsburgh. At that point, you didn’t know if they would ever win a Super Bowl after blowing a season where they looked like the best team. They still started 9-0 in 2006, overcame a rough patch and won the Super Bowl.

So teams do come back well from devastating losses all the time. I don’t think Atlanta is going to worry much at all about 28-3 this year. If there’s a game where there could be a mental block, it would be in New England. And if they happen to meet again in the Super Bowl, then okay, I can see that being a bit of a problem. Maybe some embrace the opportunity, and maybe some try too hard that night. I’d sign up to see that though, and I think every Atlanta player would sign up today for that game if they could. The Falcons were the better team for much of the game, but it’s just incredible how they never delivered the knockout punch. I said earlier you can list the moments that went wrong after 28-3, and I’m going to try doing that now. I’m sure I’ll forget a few too as I’ve tried to erase these memories.

  • 6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.
  • 1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.
  • 8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.
  • 5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.
  • 3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.
  • 3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.
  • 2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.
  • 0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion. I even could have mentioned a couple of third-and-longs that would have put NE in troubling fourth-and-longs. Even if the Falcons rip off two Super Bowl wins here, they’ll always feel sick about the one that got away. But if you’re on this team, then you have to know that you were really that close to pulling it off. Some of these teams feel so far away from competing for this, but the Falcons are built well and in good shape to finish the job this year.

2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

If you told me the Panthers could win anywhere from 5 to 13 games this year, I’d agree with you. One of the hardest teams to predict this season; such  a wide range of options. Much like the accuracy of a Cam Newton pass, you never know what you’re going to get here. It could be great like 2015, or it could be lousy like 2014 and 2016.

I was very adamant about the 14-0 start in 2015 being a fluke, and after the Broncos stifled Carolina’s offense in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers had the biggest drop (nine wins) in NFL history for a 15-1 team. That didn’t surprise me too much, but I did expect a playoff team last year. Clearly, the defense was not as good without Josh Norman, and Luke Kuechly also missed six games. When the offense wasn’t playing with a bunch of great field position thanks to the takeaways on defense, we saw struggles to score, and a lot of incompletions from Cam. Health was also an issue and he had his fewest rushing yards yet in a season by a margin of 180 yards.

This is why I like the selection of running back Christian McCaffrey, who has looked very fast on an NFL field this preseason. Carolina still has to show they will use him in multiple ways in games that count, but I don’t see how you draft a guy that high and treat him like he’s Jonathan Stewart. So that should be a big add and help keep the offense centered more around the run where the offensive line can play to its strength better.

But this really is about the defense getting back to an elite level and helping Newton take advantage of short fields. I think the schedule is pretty favorable to the Panthers, and only the road game in New England feels like one where they’ll be significantly disadvantaged.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

I believe Tampa Bay is on the right track, but just had them missing the No. 6 seed due to a head-to-head loss with a team I haven’t mentioned yet. I think you’ll see a team that improves in DVOA on both sides of the ball, led by Jameis Winston on offense and Lavonte David on defense. I just don’t think Tampa Bay is ready to do things like beat New England or win in Green Bay.

Winston really is Cam Newton’s doppelganger. They both throw the deepest passes in the league at over 10 air yards per attempt. They led the NFL in off-target throw rate, partially due to the difficulty of their throws. They love to make things happen under pressure, and Winston actually had the highest QBR under pressure of any quarterback season since 2006 according to ESPN’s database. They both need really tall receivers to bring down some of those high or wide throws. I think Winston has a chance to become a more consistent passer than what Newton has done through six years, but we’ll see. Winston really does throw some dumb interceptions, and we saw that this preseason as well.

You have to love what the Buccaneers did in the offseason for Winston by adding DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard. Jackson should give Winston the speedy deep threat that Vincent Jackson (height, but age) no longer could be. Howard has a lot of potential, but I wouldn’t expect much this season as that is usually the case with rookie tight ends. Cameron Brate is a solid player too. They have weapons, they don’t have a great offensive line, but the mobile quarterback helps make up for some of that.

I just think the team is still too young to take that next step, and starting Chris Conte at safety doesn’t do them any favors either. But the Buccaneers should be fun to watch this year and will definitely be a trendy playoff pick in 2018.

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Seasons finishing 7-9:

  • Jeff Fisher (four in 20 full years)
  • Sean Payton (four in 10 years)

What’s that? For almost half of his coaching career, Sean Payton has been 7-9 Bullshit. I actually had the Saints at 8-8 after the first run through, but gave another win away to have them at 7-9 for the fourth year in a row.

It’s really sad that this has become the expectations for the Saints given the continued stellar play from Drew Brees. I wanted to write something very detailed about Brees before Week 1, but ran out of time. I guess next offseason works too, because I don’t see the Saints improving enough on defense to get back to the playoffs this year. It would take just a move up to mediocrity really, but I’m just not sold yet when I look at the starting lineup on that side of the ball.

Even the offense makes me worry a little with the trade of Brandin Cooks and three-game suspension for Willie Snead, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Brees. He helped Michael Thomas to the most rookie DYAR ever last year. The running back depth chart is deep, though I don’t have high expectations for Adrian Peterson anymore.

Brees can seemingly throw for 5,000 yards and be one of the most accurate passers with any supporting cast, but it’s just not enough when your defense hemorrhages points at the rate of New Orleans’ defense.

I recently looked at what keeps a great QB out of the playoffs. The fact that Brees has had seven healthy seasons with 16 starts where he missed the playoffs is staggering. It’s the most in NFL history.

I looked at every QB season since 1989 when a team missed the playoffs. Brees has 9,485 total DYAR in the 10 seasons where he missed the playoffs. That’s almost double the next-closest quarterback (Philip Rivers, 4,878 DYAR).

BreesPO

Once we add 1986-88 for Dan Marino, he’ll be second to Brees, but still not even close. We always think of Marino as the best example of a quarterback who had his career wasted by his team’s lack of running game and defense. Well, fortunately Brees had an efficient running game in 2009, and when it disappeared in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, he had Tracy Porter picking off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Marino never had that luxury, but Brees is really the one who should have more playoff starts where he has been amazing in his career.

To be continued (because I’m sure things won’t change in 2017 for the Saints)

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

From FOA 2017:

“How do you get Alex Smith to throw for 4,000 yards? Tell him it’s third down with 4,500 yards to go. In all seriousness, Smith passed for a career-high 3,502 yards last season. Since Smith was drafted in 2005, quarterbacks have passed for more yards than he did last year 164 times. By this point, we know exactly what type of quarterback Smith is. The same can likely be said for the Chiefs, hence the aggressive trade to get Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.”

I compared the Chiefs to the Broncos circa 2003-2006. That team made the playoffs three years in a row with Mike Shanahan getting the best out of Jake Plummer, but couldn’t get past teams like the Colts and Steelers. Jay Cutler was drafted in the first round in 2006 and eventually replaced Plummer for the final five games of the season. I can see Mahomes doing that to Smith, but maybe the Chiefs will wait until 2018. Then again, who thought the Chiefs would fire their GM and let Jeremy Maclin go after June? It was a strange offseason for what should be a top contender in the AFC.

What Smith can do is play well to keep Mahomes on the bench. I’m not sure a player can suddenly reach a new level in Year 13, but I guess Steve DeBerg did it for the Chiefs in 1990 (his 23 TD, 4 INT year).

I really thought I’d have Oakland jumping ahead of the Chiefs, but it just didn’t turn out that way when I went through each game. I have the teams splitting this year rather than another KC sweep, but they certainly have Derek Carr’s number at this point.

There are plenty of reasons why I think the Chiefs have the best shot to beat the Patriots in the AFC. If you haven’t noticed by now, that’s kind of the whole point of this season. Everyone’s trying to dethrone New England. The Chiefs have a good coach in Andy Reid, certainly better than Mike Tomlin and Jack Del Rio. Sure, he has his time management screw-ups, but the clock doesn’t matter if you kick New England’s ass 41-14 like the Chiefs did in 2014, the last time the Patriots looked that bad. Reid also had the Chiefs in a 27-20 game in the 2015 playoffs in NE that really swung on a Knile Davis fumble. He didn’t get blown out like Tomlin. As a 25-ponit underdog, Reid gave the 2007 Patriots all they could handle after their dominant 10-0 start, and nearly pulled off the upset with A.J. Feeley as his quarterback. There was also that close Super Bowl XXXIX loss to the Patriots. Reid can hang with Belichick despite the inferior QB play.

One thing about Smith’s safe style is that he usually avoids turnovers, so the Chiefs could win the turnover battle in New England given their ball-hawking secondary led by Marcus Peters and Eric Berry. The Chiefs like to run the ball, and while the loss of Spencer Ware sucks, maybe Kareem Hunt is the rookie for the task. The Chiefs could put together some time-consuming drives (to their benefit this time) in NE, because remember, that defense looks shaky on paper in the front seven. The strength is in the secondary, and it’s not like Smith will go crazy in forcing it there. They can rely on Travis Kelce to out-Gronk Gronk instead, and Tyreek Hill offers a lot of flexibility. Kansas City also annually has great special teams thanks to coordinator Dave Toub. That’s another area where they could outplay the Patriots. Justin Houston and Dee Ford make up a nice pass-rushing duo, which could get after Brady without the Chiefs having to blitz too much.

Sure, there are flaws here. I don’t think Hill is a legit WR1, I think he’s more like Percy Harvin at best, so the Maclin release was odd. The corners after Peters aren’t very impressive either. The OL is hardly going to be confused for Dallas or Oakland. Smith’s limitations are well documented, but it’s not like you go into New England to win 35-28 games. You win 21-14 games there, doing it with defense. Pittsburgh and Oakland just don’t have the defense. Tomlin and Del Rio have a putrid history against Brady’s offense. Simple as that.

I know many will predict the Chiefs to fall off this year, and maybe Smith regresses and loses the job to Mahomes sooner than we expect. None of that would surprise me, but I still think this is a very talented roster, a balanced team, and the best hope in the conference of keeping the Patriots out of another Super Bowl.

Christ, did I really just say that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are the AFC’s best hope against New England? If you told me this would be the future back in 2005-07, I might have started paying more attention to the NBA and NHL.

2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

Yep, that about sums it up, but I’ll explain. Oakland was arguably the worst 12-4 team in NFL history last season. The Raiders’ plus-31 scoring differential was the smallest ever for a 12-win team. The seven fourth-quarter comebacks were the second most by a team in NFL history. The Raiders were the NFL’s only team to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2016. While no one had more penalties than Oakland, the big calls largely went in their favor. Derek Carr’s 19 drawn defensive pass interference penalties are the most by any QB in a season since 1986, and perhaps the most ever given the NFL’s history with passing volume and penalties. Carr was the only QB to throw a dropped interception (Eric Weddle in Baltimore) on the same drive that he threw a game-winning touchdown (the very next play) in 2016. Carr also had two terrible throws on fourth down in the final minutes against the Saints and Buccaneers that were erased by bogus penalties on the defense. So for all the “clutch” talk about Carr last year, I basically saw a guy get away with three game-losing throws for a team that easily could have been 9-7 with a fairly lousy defense. Let’s not even get into every call and decision going Oakland’s way in Mexico City against Houston on a Monday night. Oakland’s offense also had the best starting field position in the league.

So what I’m telling you is simple: Oakland wasn’t as good as its record last year, and I think this team will win fewer games this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t actually get better and be in better position to beat a team like Kansas City or New England. Last year, the Raiders beat single-digit win teams, but went 0-3 against the Chiefs (12-4) and Falcons (11-5). And regardless of Carr’s broken leg and the efforts of Khalil Mack, that defense made Brock Osweiler look decent. Twice.

From FOA 2017:

“It is not an insult to believe that the Raiders will regress and win fewer games this season. Stacking 12-win seasons is a very difficult thing to do in this league. Joe Montana, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan have never stacked together consecutive 12-win seasons, to give a few notable examples. A team basically has to have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady at quarterback to consistently win 12 games a year, and Derek Carr is not at that level yet.”

No, Carr is most certainly not at that MVP level yet despite the six votes he actually received for the award last year. He’s improved a lot from his rookie year, but when you’re barely beating out Sam Bradford and Trevor Siemian in yards per pass attempt, how good are you really playing the position? Carr has yet to lead the Oakland offense to a top 10 ranking in yards per drive or points per drive, which is something a top QB routinely does.

Carr is the Cautious Gunslinger, an oxymoron if there ever was one. He’s “checkdown or touchdown” personified. Sure, he’ll force some dangerous throws into small windows, but he’ll also check the ball down with no pressure around him behind an excellent offensive line. He even set a single-game record (back to 1989) for failed completions with 18 against Tampa Bay last year. He’s hard to pressure, but I think his sack avoidance, undeniably built from watching his brother get pummeled, can be a detriment to this offense at times. Carr’s red-zone production has also dropped each year, and he missed a lot of close touchdowns with Amari Cooper last year on throws that were caught out of bounds — the rare slim margin that didn’t go Oakland’s way last year.

This is an offensive-driven team, but the defense was again quite good at holding the late lead. I just don’t think they’ll hold up as well in those moments this year, which is why Oakland could win fewer games despite better performance on both sides of the ball. Again, going 12-4 or better is really hard in this league. It’s not as easy as the Patriots make it look sometimes. The AFC West is also very deep and challenging. Carr has yet to have a really good game against the Chiefs or Broncos.

I think a lot of people want to pick Oakland just because it’s been a while and we can’t stand watching the Patriots win year after year. That’s fine, but it’s just not very likely that this team will out-coach or outplay the Pats this year. The defense has too many flaws to stand up to that Brady-led offense that has always given Del Rio fits. The offense’s strength are the outside receivers in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, but that plays into the hands of Belichick’s corners. Sure, Marshawn Lynch is a wild card and I’m thrilled he’s back in the league, but I’m keeping my expectations low after a year off and a bad 2015 from him. He should enjoy the line in front of him though.

So we’ll see if Oakland can get better this year without it actually being reflected on the W-L record. I think that’s likely, but I was still able to find one extra win for the Chiefs to take the division title. The Chiefs have a better coach, defense and special teams than Oakland. The quarterback edge still goes to Carr, but it’s not by the wide margin some people think.

At least not to this point.

3. San Diego Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

I can’t help it, I still want to call them San Diego. The Chargers are a trendy pick this year, and I totally get it. The starting lineup looks pretty nice on both sides of the ball. Mike McCoy is gone. The injuries can’t possibly always be this bad, can they? They can’t blow another handful of fourth-quarter leads, can they?

Well, if 2015 to 2016 is any indication, they sure can repeat those bad things. The Chargers have blown 11 fourth-quarter leads since 2015, including six last year. That’s incredible when you consider the team has nine wins in that time. The injuries were really bad last year, especially at wide receiver and to cornerback Jason Verrett.

But with Verrett back, the Chargers have a nice corner duo for Gus Bradley (new DC) to work with Verrett and Casey Hayward. The Chargers also have a good pass-rushing duo in Joey Bosa (let’s see a full year from him now) and Melvin Ingram. Those are very desirable things for every defense, and the Chargers have both locked up.

You still like Philip Rivers as a competent QB, even if he peaked back in 2008-09. I think new coach Anthony Lynn will be good for him, especially if he gets Melvin Gordon off to a career year. Lynn has that ground-and-pound mentality, and while Rivers will still throw 500+ passes, the Chargers should be more balanced this year. They still have strong WR depth in Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and maybe will get something out of No. 7 pick Mike Williams (another one!?) after all. Hunter Henry, after a nice rookie campaign, is ready to replace Antonio Gates as the top TE. The downside is that offensive line, but Rivers has always managed to survive it and start every game. His teammates have been less fortunate. Guard Forrest Lamp has already been lost for the season, and the rookie was a draft favorite. That sucks, but we’ll see if Russell Okung can get the job done at the all-important left tackle position.

I really like the starting lineup, but I’m just waiting for the injuries to pile up and ruin this thing. The Chargers should remain competitive in most games and definitely challenge for a wild card all season long. I’ve seen some pick them for the AFC West, but I still think Kansas City and Oakland have more top-tier talent and less impending sense of doom.

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

Much of what I wrote last year still applies. I was all on the 8-8 bandwagon for Denver last season, and I think barring a few special teams mistakes from Carolina (Gano GW miss on opening night) and New Orleans (blocked XP returned for GW 2PC), I’d have nailed that one. The Broncos also got to finish 2016 with a home win against the Raiders without Derek Carr, and even second-stringer Matt McGloin went down with injury in that one.

With Denver this year, I understand why Trevor Siemian is getting the starting job, but this is really bad news for Paxton Lynch’s future.

Siemian was better than I expected last season, but there’s still a pretty low ceiling on his career. I don’t think there’s much left to see that we haven’t already seen from him, and regardless of QB choice, the Broncos still have big question marks at OL, inconsistent running backs, and no real third receiving option. Yeah, I would like to see Jamaal Charles get back to contributing in a big way, but that ship has likely sailed by way of injury in his career.

So it comes back to the defense, which will have to stand up against a pretty tough schedule with the six division games and NFC East (10 quality opponent games right there if you ask me). The Broncos also have to play the Patriots again, and scored just three points last year at home. The lack of scoring doomed Denver late in the year during a three-game losing streak. That can certainly happen again to this offense, which returns Mike McCoy to his old post of offensive coordinator. But I think the loss of veteran coaching in Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips cannot be ignored. Rookie head coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods are new to these roles, and don’t have anywhere near the acumen of their predecessors, who were two of the few coaches capable of going toe to toe with a Belichick.

It’s also really hard to sustain such defensive greatness for three years in a row. Players get hurt, they get old, and they move on. We’ve already seen DeMarcus Ware retire, T.J. Ward get released in a pretty surprising move. Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett have battled injury, leaving little depth behind Von Miller on the edge right now. The defense should still be quite good, but it needs to be incredible to compensate for this offense.

The Broncos should take a step back this year until they can take a step forward at the quarterback position. I would have loved to see Tony Romo leading this team, but at least he’s spared us from Phil Simms. I’m willing to sacrifice seeing quality offensive football in Denver again if it means no more Phil.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Last year: “Maybe there’s a Russell Wilson injury behind a suspect offensive line that’s the main culprit for a decline.”

Whoops, didn’t mean to bring some bad voodoo his way, but that’s exactly what happened, and it was as early as Week 1 against Miami. Wilson’s leg injuries certainly impacted his usual playing style and playmaking ability.

I also wrote last year that Seattle started to show some cracks and the historic streak of games with a lead or being within one score in the fourth quarter was going to end. It did end at 98 games in Tampa Bay in Week 12, but what a streak that was. Even if the streak continued, it would have ended in Green Bay (Week 14) or in Atlanta (NFC divisional loss). Seattle got spanked twice last year after Earl Thomas went down with injury, and Richard Sherman was also playing injured for much of the season.

Seattle was still good enough to go 10-5-1 and win a playoff game at home, but expectations are for so much more than that. I think a healthy Wilson will make a huge difference, even if the cheap offensive line is still heavily flawed. Yes, last year’s injuries that threatened to keep him out of action are the main concern with a bad line, but it’s not like Wilson hasn’t been dealing with this for most of his career. That’s the risk you take, and it has allowed Seattle to spend elsewhere, namely in keeping together a great defense. Add Sheldon Richardson from a trade with the Jets to that mix, and a Seattle defense we already projected to be No. 1 at FO should be even stronger.

Tyler Lockett is another Seattle player who should return from injury. Between better health, a deeper running back corps (look out for receiving back C.J. Prosise too), and the Richardson move, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks don’t get back to first-round bye status. It’s just that they have to open in Green Bay this Sunday, and that game could go a long way in deciding home-field advantage. Hell, it did in 2014 when Seattle beat Green Bay in Week 1 and both finished 12-4. You may recall how that matchup played out in the NFC Championship Game. This weekend is huge for the Seahawks in pursuit of that second Lombardi. The Legion of Boom era does have a closing window, so opportunities like this cannot be wasted.

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

I was so worried about picking Arizona to do great things in 2016 due to the age of star players (namely Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald) and the durability of Palmer and Tyrann Mathieu. Well, some of my fears were confirmed. Mathieu missed six more games. Palmer only missed one game, but his efficiency did take a big drop from that stellar 2015, and he was the most hit quarterback in 2016, which I didn’t expect. However, that part really isn’t that unexpected in a Bruce Arians offense. John Brown’s health also wasn’t there for this team, and Michael Floyd fell apart. Fitzgerald led the NFL in catches, but averaged a career-low 9.6 yards per reception. I’d be worried a little about him as far as producing efficient gains given his age (34 now).

But in the end, special teams failed the Cardinals as much as anything last year. We saw it on opening night when Belichick willed another kicker to miss a game-winning field goal against his team. Chandler Catanzaro also choked on a gimme FG in that 6-6 tie with Seattle, which I especially hated to see happen. A botched FG returned for a TD in Buffalo didn’t help matters either, nor did allowing a 104-yard kick return TD to Cordarrelle Patterson in a 30-24 loss to the Vikings.

So it would have been pretty easy for this team to win 9-10 games with a competent ST unit. Catanzaro has been replaced by Phil Dawson, a good move.

Palmer also has David Johnson to feed the ball to in many different ways. Johnson was used out of the slot more than any other RB in the passing game last year. On defense, the line looks pretty shaky without Calais Campbell and his awesome voice no longer there. But this is why you draft a Robert Nkemdiche in the first round. He has to step up after a no-show rookie year. Left tackle D.J. Humphries was once in the dog house too, but is starting to pan out for the team. They need Nkemdiche to follow a similar path. This is still a pretty talented defense with Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Chandler Jones, and of course Patrick Peterson.

Protect Palmer better. Improve the special teams. That should do the trick to get back to that 10-6 range the Cardinals were at in Arians’ first three seasons.

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-10)

As sure as the sun rises in the East, Jared Goff ranked last in just about every 2016 statistical category. I don’t know how many QB stat studies I wrote this offseason that had to point out how awful Goff was. Not just worst of 2016, but the worst season in many of our advanced stats going back to 2006. Sometimes by a wide margin too. The most discouraging stat of them all is -45.2% DVOA without pressure. Yes, without pressure. Anything under +10% is usually indicative of a quarterback who cannot be a worthwhile starter in this league. The next-worst season for any quarterback with at least 200 passes since 2010 was Brady Quinn, who had -6.7% DVOA without pressure for the 2012 Chiefs. Yes, we’re talking about a drop at the bottom from -6.7% to -45.2%.

You remember that hole Christian Bale had to climb out of in The Dark Knight Rises? Quadruple that and that’s about how far Goff is away from being NFL average.

Sean McVay has his work cut out for him, but at least he’s an offensive-minded coach who just happens to look like the latest cast member on a CW show. He has to get the offensive line fixed, and Todd Gurley back on track. At least they’ll be helped by the additions of Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, rookie TE Gerald Everett, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Right about now, Tyrod Taylor is like “can you believe this shit?” Goff has enough help to at least elevate this offense back to something respectable. After all, he was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason, right? We try to keep thinking there’s a glimmer of hope since it was just seven starts on a Jeff Fisher-coached offense that has stunk for a decade. But it was so nightmarish-ly bad, and Goff’s numbers were so much worse than even Case Keenum’s in the same offense, that it is scary to think what he’ll do this year.

I simply cannot wait until next offseason to do a huge table comparison of Goff’s 2016 vs. 2017. I can’t imagine he doesn’t improve, but he still might easily be a bottom-three starting QB in the NFL.

The good news is that Wade Phillips should do wonders with the defense, which he usually does when he changes jobs. The problem is Aaron Donald’s holdout might be legit. I expect the Rams to make him the highest-paid defender in NFL history, and given the makeup of the team, why the hell wouldn’t they do it? But he really needs to get out there for this team to try clawing back to 8-8. I feel like I was generous in picking some of the wins for the Rams this year, including another one over the Seahawks (Wade calling pressures vs. that OL is scary). This could easily be another one of the 3-13 teams if Goff plays like he did last year.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

If the young defensive talent produces quicker than expected, then this could easily be a 5-6 win team, but still in last place this year. Get ready for about 50 in-cuts from Brian Hoyer to Pierre Garcon this year. Marquise Goodwin might catch the occasional play-action bomb in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, but Garcon is the only guy to really trust in this receiving corps.

But this could be a nice destination for a Kirk Cousins in 2018, provided that the defensive front seven lives up to the draft hype: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Reuben Foster are all first-round draft picks. NaVorro Bowman is still there, as is Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, and Eli Harold. Cornerback can really use an upgrade, but I’d imagine that will be addressed next offseason.

If I don’t wrap this up I’ll be writing these predictions into the offseason. This is my longest single piece ever at 16,444 words.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. New England (14-2)

  2. Pittsburgh (12-4)

  3. Kansas City (11-5)

  4. Tennessee (10-6)

  5. Oakland (10-6)

  6. Los Angeles (9-7)

The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since the 1993 season. That finally happens as they take care of the Chargers in a third matchup of the year. Oakland gets by Tennessee, kicking off the irrational Derek Carr vs. Marcus Mariota argument for the next 10 years. The Raiders fall hard in New England, a surprise after their emotional win over the Patriots in Mexico City (yes, my prediction). The Steelers take care of the Chiefs with a little more than six field goals this time, and we’re right back where we were last year: Pittsburgh at New England. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, right?

NFC

  1. Dallas (12-4)

  2. Seattle (12-4)

  3. Atlanta (11-5)

  4. Green Bay (11-5)

  5. Carolina (11-5)

  6. Arizona (10-6)

Arizona just edged out the Giants and Bucs for the final playoff spot. The Cardinals fall in Atlanta, which doesn’t blow a huge lead this time. The Packers stand tall at home against the Panthers in an exciting shootout, but can’t outgun Dallas for a second year in a row. Atlanta falters in Seattle again, setting up Seahawks at Cowboys for the NFC Championship Game. This one goes to the more experienced Seattle team, denying Prescott that sophomore Super Bowl trip like Marino, Roethlisberger, and Wilson had.

SUPER BOWL LII

New England 23, Seattle 20

Ugh, this again. Pete Carroll figures his past ghosts (LenDale White vs. Texas, Malcolm Butler) won’t come back to haunt him, so he goes for the win at the 1-yard line with the Seahawks down 23-20 on fourth down in the final seconds. Eddie Lacy gets buried in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on the most predictable run-heavy formation look you’ll ever see. So someone finally runs the ball when they should have against the Patriots, but now we’ll have to complain they ran it the wrong way for the rest of our meaningless existence.

Tl;dr version: Patriots win everything and 31 other teams mean nothing anymore. Eat Arby’s.

The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

QBHOFCB

Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

apvotes

The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

PYDREC

Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

Newsroom_Brady

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Peyton Manning and the TD Record

If you’ve been following along on Twitter this week, you probably know I’ve had a major PC problem. I had some files backed up, but fortunately I was able to back everything up yesterday. So I haven’t lost any of the data I spend much of my time working on as a career and hobby. I’ll have a better PC this week, but for now I’m going to be brief on this week’s preview.

The Passing TD Record

Week 7 has a real solid schedule, but obviously the highlight game is SNF: 49ers at Broncos. Out of the 64 AFC-NFC matchups this year, this is one of the most likely to be a rematch in February. These teams have been among the best the past few years and this should be a competitive one, prime-time blowouts be damned.

There’s also some major NFL history at stake with Peyton Manning needing three touchdown passes to surpass Brett Favre (508).

Why is it major? There aren’t many more satisfying plays for a quarterback than to throw a touchdown pass. Throw a bunch of them and you’re going to have plenty of highlights and wins.

It’s also a record that rarely changes in NFL history. Here’s a chronology of the TD pass record since the start of the modern era in the NFL (1950):

  • 1950 (start of season) – Sammy Baugh, the first quarterback to ever throw 100 TDs, had 168 (retired with 187)
  • 12/10/1961 – Bobby Layne tied Baugh with his 187th TD pass
  • 9/23/1962 – Layne set record with 188th TD pass (finished with 196)
  • 12/1/1963 – Y.A. Tittle (we have to exclude his 1948-49 AAFC stats) tied Layne with his 196th TD pass and surpassed him with his 197th (finished with 212)
  • 9/18/1966 – Johnny Unitas tied and surpassed Tittle with four touchdowns against the Vikings (finished with 290)
  • 12/20/1975 – Fran Tarkenton tied and surpassed Unitas with two touchdowns against the Bills (finished with 342)
  • 11/20/1995 – Dan Marino tied Tarkenton at 242.
  • 11/26/1995 – Marino surpassed Tarkenton with four touchdowns against the Colts (finished with 420)
  • 9/23/2007 – Brett Favre tied Marino at 420.
  • 9/30/2007 – Favre surpassed Marino with two touchdowns against the Vikings (finished with 508)

Manning will be only the 8th quarterback in the post-WWII era to hold the record. With his finish to be determined, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck may be the only active players with a realistic shot to catch Manning some day.

Updating a table (click to enlarge) I first compiled months ago, here’s a look at the most TD passes in NFL history based on minimum distance (yards gained):

minTDdist

The table is easy to read and only includes regular-season touchdown passes. Peyton has thrown 111 touchdowns that gained at least 30 yards, the most of any quarterback ever.

If Manning’s next TD pass is at least 34 yards, he’ll break seven ties in the 2-34 range. He has a good shot to retire with his name in first on 1-40 yards. He also needs one 70+ TD pass to break that tie with Favre, but those are very rare.

Manning has 24 games with Denver with 3+ TD passes, so I think he’ll get it over with on Sunday night.

Final prediction: 49ers 20, Broncos 27

NFL Week 7 Predictions

Of course I had the Patriots on TNF, but that was much closer than expected.

Winners in bold:

  • Panthers at Packers
  • Falcons at Ravens
  • Vikings at Bills
  • Browns at Jaguars
  • Bengals at Colts
  • Dolphins at Bears
  • Saints at Lions
  • Titans at Redskins
  • Seahawks at Rams
  • Chiefs at Chargers
  • Giants at Cowboys
  • Cardinals at Raiders
  • 49ers at Broncos
  • Texans at Steelers

Road teams ruled last week, but I like many of the home teams this week (but not the homers that come with them).

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Total: 56-34-1

NFL Week 5 Predictions: End of an Era?

Nothing fancy to write about today. I’m just hoping for a few prime-time games that aren’t total bloodbaths. Seahawks-Redskins gives me little hope on Monday — Richard Sherman pick-six alert — but the Bengals-Patriots is most interesting given the first four weeks of this season.

In any other year I would guaran-damn-tee a New England win. Forget that the Bengals are 3-0, playing very well and coming off a bye week. This is New England. This team doesn’t lose two in a row and they almost never lose at home.

However, is this still that New England? It really hasn’t looked that way so far. Every run eventually ends. If the Patriots lose in ugly fashion at home to the Bengals, we might be looking at the end of an era. Then again, the AFC East, which has mostly stockpiled wins over Oakland, is so dreadful the Patriots may still end up with a home playoff game out of this.

The NFL schedule makers probably never imagined Week 5 would feature the only undefeated teams, Arizona and Cincinnati, would be on the road to face Peyton and Brady. Given past history, you expect we won’t have a 4-0 team for only the second time since 1990 (last time: 2010).

I can trust Manning to have a strong game off the bye, and for Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to give the mad-bombing Drew Stanton fits. I like Denver this week. I usually trust the New England winning machine, but what has this team shown this year to make us really think they should win this game? Sure, the Bengals usually disappoint in any big spot, but when one era ends, another usually begins.

The Bengals could use this win as much as the Patriots to change longstanding perception.

With each passing moment we drift further away

Closer to our chosen paths.

But I can’t help remembering what was…what might have been

Hopesfall – The End of an Era

NFL Week 5 Predictions

I had the Packers winning big, so for once I would have made a good TNF bet against the spread.

Winners in bold:

  • Steelers at Jaguars
  • Buccaneers at Saints
  • Falcons at Giants
  • Bills at Lions
  • Ravens at Colts
  • Bears at Panthers
  • Rams at Eagles
  • Texans at Cowboys
  • Browns at Titans
  • Cardinals at Broncos
  • Chiefs at 49ers
  • Jets at Chargers
  • Bengals at Patriots
  • Seahawks at Redskins

Yes, I picked against the Patriots. My apologies, Cincinnati.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Total: 36-25

NFL Week 4 Predictions: Ground Control to Major Tom Brady, Your Circuit’s Dead

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”

I’m not here to shovel dirt on Tom Brady’s career today. Technically, everyone’s career is closer to death with each passing day, but the boldness of declaring Brady finished is something I would need far more evidence to dare write.

However, let’s evaluate some troubling numbers.

Just passing for 200 yards and/or multiple touchdowns has become a struggle for Brady dating back to late last season. Brady hasn’t thrown multiple touchdown passes in his last seven games — one shy of the longest streak of his career (came in 2001).

In each of his last eight games, Brady has been held under 8.0 yards per pass attempt, one of the longest streaks in his career. The lowly Oakland defense held him to 6.32 YPA at home last week.

For the second year in a row the Patriots have gotten off to a slow start offensively, but this year isn’t about a massive turnover at receiver. Julian Edelman is impossible to cover underneath and he’s caught 22 out of 28 targets. Rob Gronkowski is back, though he’s been limited in his recovery from a torn ACL. Danny Amendola is there, but he’s not been the success the Patriots gambled on when deciding to move on from Wes Welker. Then there are the outside wide receivers that tend to occupy milk cartons in this offense. Brandon LaFell has caught 4-of-14 targets from Brady. Kenbrell Thompkins has 53 yards on 11 targets. Aaron Dobson has barely seen the field with injuries.

This year’s new problem is the offensive line. Subtract Logan Mankins, and more importantly, subtract OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, and without that pristine pass protection or consistent run blocking, you get an offense that ranks last in the league in yards per play (4.3). Yes, even below the Jaguars (4.6).

Some of the problems are new, but some have been there for Brady’s entire career. They’ve just been masked better by superior coaching and talent. Brady’s not a scrambler. He’s not one for extending plays. He won’t break out of sacks. He’s not a great vertical passer able to stretch the field on any given play. He’ll dink-and-dunk a defense to death, only to set up a big play at the opportune moment.

And at 2-1, the Patriots are still technically winning, even if it’s all about a defense that’s allowed a total of 16 points to Minnesota and Oakland the last two weeks.

Brady winning despite inefficiency with passing the ball is an old story. He has the best record of any QB since 1960 in games with 6.5 YPA or worse (minimum 15 attempts). Only 7 quarterbacks (min. 40 games) have a winning record when they average no more than 6.5 YPA:

  1. Tom Brady (41-25, .621)
  2. Roger Staubach (25-16, .610)
  3. Jim McMahon (25-18, .581)
  4. Kordell Stewart (26-23, .531)
  5. Jake Delhomme (21-19, .525)
  6. Jay Schroeder (21-19, .525)
  7. Jack Kemp (25-24-2, .510)

Some of these players had rushing value you don’t get with Brady, but dominant defense was also a common theme here.

If you lowered the bar to 6.0 YPA (minimum 30 games), Brady again has the best record ever at 27-20 (.547) when including playoffs. That’s more than a full yard per attempt below the league average. Only five quarterbacks since 1960 have a winning record in that situation (McMahon, Stewart, Len Dawson, and Jim Kelly) with a minimum 30 games.

Does that make Brady special? Not really, but it does say a lot for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They find different ways to win, but if Brady’s playing like this against competition like Miami/Minnesota/Oakland, then how can the Patriots expect to win a championship this year?

I had another theory about Brady’s winning record with bad YPA. Not all sub-6.0 YPA games are created equally. Maybe Brady does other things well on those days, such as a higher completion percentage and good touchdown-interception ratio. So I looked at my growing database of QB game logs (regular season only) and looked at every game (min. 10 attempts) thru 2013 where the QB averaged no better than 6.0 YPA. Then I summed those numbers together to produce the following table (click to enlarge). It’s not a conclusive list — I have about 90 players and many of them are very good — but it gives us an idea of general performance.

Using 85 quarterbacks with a minimum of 400 attempts, I ranked everyone best-to-worst on sub-6.0 days for stats like completion percentage, YPA, TD%, INT%, passer rating (PR) and win pct. I also ranked each QB based on his team’s scoring averages: points for (PF) and points allowed (PA). These scoring numbers were not adjusted for return scores.

sub6

Brady ranks well above average here in everything, but especially in regards to TD% and INT%. Where he’s not as impressive as some of his peers are completion percentage (13th) and the stat this table is built around, YPA (27th). Brady’s 7th in scoring, but he’s had the luxury of the 8th-best scoring defense here, which is true for most of the quarterbacks with a winning record. A guy that actually shows up very well here statistically is Andy Dalton (highest TD%, passer rating and team scoring average), but these numbers could use some opponent adjustments.  Peyton Manning was a tenth away two Dallas QBs from having the highest completion percentage and highest YPA.

Remember, these are all regular-season numbers. Including the playoffs would actually improve Brady’s record, because he somehow went 5-3 when averaging <=6.0 YPA. There’s the rub though. Brady started 5-0 in the playoffs when doing that, but since the 2007 season when the Patriots shifted to an offensive-first team, he’s 0-3 like you would expect from that low average.

When the Patriots take on Kansas City on Monday night, which Brady will show up? A KC win would bring the Chiefs even in record with the Patriots and further add to the AFC’s mediocrity this season. It’s hard to imagine Brady not having his best game this month under the bright lights, but maybe we need to temper expectations for this 37-year-old quarterback. Maybe those dominant performances from 2007-2012 are a thing of the past. Maybe last year was the beginning of the end. All careers have to wind down and end eventually.

Any previous matchup between a Tom Brady offense and an Alex Smith offense would be a no-brainer. But this week, it’s not so clear which quarterback is the one who struggles to stretch the field and must rely on his defense and running game. This is the closest in caliber Brady and Smith have been in their NFL careers.

If that’s not cause for concern in New England, then I don’t know what is. But I like the Patriots this week, because I know this has never truly been a team that lives or die by its quarterback play. Bill Belichick versus Andy Reid is the real mismatch, and I expect The Hood to improve to 5-0 vs. Big Red.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Chiefs 16

Bonus prediction: Brady will end his streak of games without multiple touchdown passes…barely.

NFL Week 4 Predictions

I screwed up my first Thursday pick after Kirk Cousins went full Buccaneer against the Giants. Not every defense plays like Jacksonville and Philadelphia.

Cousins only has 341 official dropbacks in the regular season, but his turnover rate is 5.87 percent. How bad is that? Let’s just say Mark Sanchez (5.29%) and Rex Grossman (5.30%) think it’s too high to remain a starter in today’s NFL.

Winners in bold:

  • Packers at Bears
  • Panthers at Ravens
  • Bills at Texans
  • Lions at Jets
  • Dolphins at Raiders
  • Titans at Colts
  • Buccaneers at Steelers
  • Jaguars at Chargers
  • Falcons at Vikings
  • Eagles at 49ers
  • Saints at Cowboys
  • Patriots at Chiefs

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Total: 28-20