2016 NFL Predictions

 

Finally, we’ve made it to another season and don’t have to watch Mark Sanchez take the field tonight. I had hoped to do some off-season content on the blog, but life can be as unpredictable as an NFL season.

Many of you are here because you follow me on Twitter (thanks), so you probably are aware that my health has recently gone downhill. In late July, I had a blood clot in my leg that moved to my lungs and caused a pulmonary embolism. That latter term has always scared me, and it was devastating to actually hear I had one. Thankfully it was detected early before it got larger, and after a two-day hospital stay, I am now on blood thinners, which presents its own set of problems. I also did a sleep study and blew everyone away with apparently the worst case of sleep apnea ever studied in western PA. I stopped breathing 150 times in an hour. Normal would be…roughly zero. My oxygen level dropped as low as 35 percent. Anything under 90 could be deadly. So I now have a CPAP machine with a liter of oxygen. In struggling with having to sleep on my back so much to get good use of the CPAP, I’ve apparently caused a pinched nerve or made my sciatica flare up, causing a burning pain in my outer thigh that has been very disruptive to my sleep.

It’s like if a coach has a bad defense, but the rest of the team is good, then he can focus on improving that one problem. That’s not too bad. But right now, I’m like a coach with a shit defense, a shit offense and a shit special teams. I’m Rod Marinelli in Detroit. It’s too much at one time. Add in the fact that we had to permanently put my grandma, who has been like my second mother for the last 30 years, in a nursing home, and it has just been a terrible, stressful summer. These should be my best years, but it’s just been the worst of times going back to 2014.

But I’m still here, and I have a group of doctors trying to help me get better. I also just want to thank everyone again that has shown their support and care for me on Twitter in this time. It was especially helpful while I was hospitalized.

I haven’t missed much work time despite all of this either. I fortunately had my work for Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 done by the time of the clot, and I’m proud of what I did in my third FOA, covering the Seahawks, Cardinals, Steelers, Ravens and 49ers. You can purchase the book here. I also just put out a 15,000-word, three-part opus on building a Super Bowl winner, which can be read here.

But this is the time for 2016 previews and predictions. I may not be as stat-heavy as usual just due to the time crunch, but let’s be real. I’ve had seven months to form an opinion about where these 32 teams are heading into Week 1. While I have often taken cynical views even before my health fell apart, I am going to try something different this year and offer what Optimistic Scott thinks about the teams that do not look like real contenders.

Some might accuse me of just hedging my bets on the teams that I get the record really wrong for, but if I’ve learned anything about the NFL and life in general, things can change in an instant. Some team is going to get derailed by injuries and some team is going to really improve for reasons we may not have expected. I’m just trying to enjoy it all while I’m still here, and I hope you continue to enjoy the way I cover this crazy game.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Let’s just get these sons of bitches out of the way first. With each passing year the Patriots tempt history with their stranglehold of the AFC East. When I looked at QB stability in the 32-team era, New England has had a huge advantage with the other teams struggling to find a signal caller that can rival Tom Brady enough to steal some division titles. Chad Pennington is the best the three teams have come up with since 2001. That’s pretty pathetic, and helps explain the lack of playoff success for the Bills and Dolphins going back to 2000.

So the Patriots cruise into each season, damn near 12 wins already in the bank, with the best quarterback and coach in the division. But is this the year things maybe fall off? Brady is 39, and the crash usually happens suddenly. We saw it happen to Dan Marino in 1999, Troy Aikman in 2000, Brett Favre in 2010 and Peyton Manning at the end of 2014 really. Brady’s health seems to be good and he’ll have four games to rest, but when you watch him take all those hits in the AFC Championship Game loss in Denver, you have to wonder how many more games like that he can finish.

But it’s going to be Jimmy G for four games because of a certain suspension. I think the Arizona game was a loss with Brady due to a strong opponent on the road, but I never really saw the Patriots going worse than 2-2. Of course, I ended up making them 1-3, but the schedule really isn’t that tough overall. When you have Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the Receiving Back of the Week, it’s a QB-friendly, YAC-based offense with the best coaching in the league. Garoppolo should be fine, and he definitely has more talent than 2008 Matt Cassel, a QB with high-school level starting experience. The defense has a lot of players hitting their prime and should be a top 10 unit.

The AFC is definitely weakened with the retirement of Manning in Denver, and major questions about Andrew Luck and the roster in Indianapolis. I think the game of the regular season in the AFC is Week 7 when New England travels to Pittsburgh. That should go a long way in determining home-field advantage. I still find it extremely interesting that every New England playoff loss in the Belichick era has been a rematch from the regular season. Is this the year Cincinnati or Pittsburgh breaks through with a big January win against the Patriots? If not, then it might just be another Super Bowl year for New England.

2. Buffalo Bills (8-8)

I wanted to believe this could be the year Buffalo ends the second-longest playoff drought (16 years) in the Super Bowl era, but I just couldn’t do it after a bad summer with so many defensive injuries and suspensions. Then you have a situation like Karlos Williams’ lack of professionalism costing the team a very good backup running back. I really am enamored with Tyrod Taylor, the East Coast Russell Wilson, and hope he stays healthy to play all 16 games. This offense could be very efficient if he matures and continues to hit the big plays to Sammy Watkins, who is getting better even if I still think the Bills traded too much to get him in such a rich WR draft. But the offense is getting there and this team still went 8-8 last year despite a hugely disappointing 24th-ranked defense in Rex Ryan’s debut. He must do better as a defensive guru, but some injuries to promising starters definitely will not help. At least Ronald Darby looks like a very good draft pick last year, and he can team up with Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey as one of the best trio of corners in the league. Pass defense is king, and Jerry Hughes is going to have to play his ass off to generate pressure for a unit that lost Mario Williams to Miami. The Bills had just 21 sacks last year.

3. New York Jets (7-9)

I actually have the Jets starting 0-6 before finishing strong for a 7-9 season. It’s not that I feel this team is bad, but I just think that opening schedule is absolutely brutal. The Jets start with CIN, at BUF, at KC, SEA, at PIT, at ARI. Sorry, but five of those teams are clearly better, and while Buffalo is on the same tier, the game is in Buffalo against a defense Ryan Fitzpatrick shit his pants against last year with the season on the line. Would I bet on the Jets to start 0-6? No, because this is the NFL and weird shit just happens all the time, but 0-6 is what I think should happen if these teams all showed up with their best effort.

I was definitely not in favor of bringing Fitzpatrick back, because this guy will always screw you in the end. He has the worst interception numbers in 4QC/GWD opportunities since 2005, throwing a pick on 7.2% of his attempts. The Jets have some fine skill players, they don’t really have a tight end (shocked by Amaro cut), but a good quarterback makes an offense with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Matt Forte work. Will it work enough against superior teams with Fitzpatrick at quarterback? Nope. I would have saved the $12 million and given Geno Smith the opportunity to start as a last shot in New York. I never would have carried four quarterbacks, but then again, I never would have drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Todd Bowles seems like a solid coach, but the Jets would be arguably my top choice for a team to regress from last season by a few games. Again, it’s that daunting opening schedule.

Optimistic Scott: Fitzpatrick did have his best season in 2015, and the Jets were a game out of the playoffs at 10-6. The blitz-happy defense is still very talented and Bowles may have a better feel of game management in his second season. And for all we know, some of that early daunting schedule could be a cakewalk if say Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt.

4. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

I think I drank the Miami Kool-Aid in a 10-6 prediction last year. Not doing that again until this team actually shows us a winning season. While I am okay with the Adam Gase hire and loved the Laremy Tunsil draft pick falling in their laps, this roster just does not give me much confidence in the AFC. The defense is the worst in the division thanks to a secondary that lacks quality starters, let alone depth. I’ll miss Brent Grimes falling down in every big moment, but it’s not like Byron Maxwell is a huge upgrade if he’s going to play like he did in Philly. Kiko Alonso, is he hurt yet? The defensive line would have been awesome a few years ago, but Mario Williams wasn’t much of a factor in Buffalo last year, Cameron Wake is coming off a serious injury at 34, and Ndamukong Suh was never going to live up to that ridiculous contract.

Offensively, here we go with the fifth take of This Is the Year Ryan Tannehill Figures It Out. Or maybe he remains below average again. I think Gase gets a little too much credit for past successes, but he could definitely help the efficiency of this offense. I think they have a nice setup for what Gase does, but DeVante Parker being such a candybone is a problem. Ideally, Parker would be the do-everything athletic freak like Demaryius Thomas or Alshon Jeffery. Kenny Stills would be the vertical, outside threat like Emmanuel Sanders or Kevin White (had he stayed healthy for Chicago last year). Jarvis Landry would be the slot guy a la Wes Welker or Eddie Royal. But with Parker’s nagging injuries, can we really trust him to be a star No. 1? Landry sure as hell should not be a No. 1 as I explained here.

jarvislandry

By the way, Royal was horrible in Chicago last year because the depth of his passes were so short that it was nearly impossible for him to make a meaningful gain. If Gase applies this screen-heavy, dink-and-dunk attack in Miami, expect to see Landry catch even more ineffective passes this season. I still worry about Tannehill’s deep accuracy, so Stills is nowhere near as effective as he was with Drew Brees in New Orleans, though I will admit Tannehill had some better success in this department last year. Jordan Cameron was arguably the worst tight end in the NFL and can’t play any worse this season. However, I still think Tannehill is a guy that’s very susceptible to pressure no matter how many first-round picks you put in front of him to block.

With Gase being an offensive guy and rookie head coach on a team that looks weak defensively, I just cannot see good results coming from this team. And remember, my goal every year is to be within two games of the team’s record. With so many close games in the NFL, there’s usually not much difference in teams separated by two games. So if Miami goes 7-9, that doesn’t prove me wrong, because that still makes them a below-average, non-playoff team. You know, the last decade in Miami, save for 2008.

Optimistic Scott: Gase is the quarterback whisperer and this is the year Tannehill puts it together. Jarvis Landry actually catches some passes beyond the first-down marker. Arian Foster has a strong return year behind that offensive line with four first-round picks. Wake, Suh and Williams dominate as one of the best defensive lines in the league, and one of those young corners surprises. Miami can take advantage of New England’s suspensions, Buffalo’s injuries and the Jets’ early schedule challenges.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

Even before the Tony Romo injury, I felt 2016 was either a division title or disaster year for the Cowboys. Legitimate Super Bowl contender? No, not with that defense and all its suspensions and general lack of talent, but a 9-7 division winner in a weak division. Then with the way Dak Prescott played in the preseason, I still felt confident enough to give the Cowboys the East. Romo should be back eventually, unless Prescott plays so well that it’s over for Tony in Dallas. That would be a damn shame, but I honestly can see it happening. He’s in a nice situation with the offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris, Dez Bryant (please stay healthy) and Jason Witten. Dallas was a likely regression candidate with last year’s serious injuries (don’t forget Orlando Scandrick, a very good corner) and plethora of close losses. The Cowboys had 9 failed comebacks last year and had four starting quarterbacks.

I really do not want to put too much stock in the preseason because of how often we’ve been fooled before. Remember when Blake Bortles looked like Ben Roethlisberger in his rookie preseason, averaging over 10 YPA, then looked more like Blaine Gabbert in the real games in 2014? Yeah, it happens all the time. Sam Bradford is most likely to throw 3 touchdown passes in a Week 3 preseason game than a game that actually counts. It’s not real, but playing good can never hurt and I’m intrigued by Prescott’s skillset. FO’s QBASE projection system also really liked him for a fourth-round pick, so this should be interesting to watch for the next two months (or longer).

I just hope people are quick to criticize the fourth-round rookie as they have been to bash the undrafted Romo, one of the greatest rags-to-riches success stories in NFL history. But I somehow don’t see that happening unless maybe Prescott starts dating Rihanna or someone famous in the mainstream music industry that I try to avoid at all costs.

2. Washington Redskins (7-9)

I’m pretty much conditioned to not expect Washington to be good in back-to-back years. I think this is a classic example of a team that took advantage of its division’s injuries and rode a hot streak (“you like that!?”) to 9-7 and the playoffs. Washington did not beat any good teams last year, and while I have the Redskins beating Pittsburgh in Week 1, I think you’ll see a lot more up-and-down play from Kirk Cousins this year. The franchise tag was the right move over a long-term deal, because he needs to prove it for more than 10 games. I never buy into low-interception streaks, especially from guys that have previously shown they throw a high rate of picks. I think he’ll regress in that department, and while I really like the receiving corps, especially if Jordan Reed stays healthy, I’m not a big fan of the offensive line and running back situation. Alfred Morris was a decent back that I probably would have kept in town.

Defensively, I think they’re still searching for that pass rusher opposite of Ryan Kerrigan, and losing Junior Galette for the second year in a row blows. But this unit will be measured by how well Josh Norman plays. Personally, I find him to be one of the league’s most annoying players. He talks way too much trash and demanded way too much money for someone with a limited track record of success, and who did not shadow the best receiver all over the field. You want to get out of the Norman matchup? Just move your receiver into the slot, which is apparently poisonous to Norman. I think he’s going to get exposed this year without that great front seven in Carolina helping him.

Optimistic Scott: Cousins makes me like that and earns himself a long-term deal with another fine season. I do like Jamison Crowder as a fourth-leading receiver, which just goes to show how deep this corps is. But it’s going to have to be offense that carries the way in Washington.

3. New York Giants (7-9)

“I’m not even supposed to be here!”

Honestly, how does promoting an offensive coordinator and spending a bunch of money in free agency equate to fixing this team? I don’t think Ben McAdoo knows more about fixing the defense than Tom Coughlin. I like the Sterling Shepard pick and hope Victor Cruz can contribute, but the offensive line is still an issue. Odell Beckham has been fantastic, but I’m not sure how much this offense can really elevate itself this year.

As for that expensive defense, my recent research on huge single-year improvements shows that adding a quality defensive back or pass-rusher as well as a coaching change can really help. The coaches are basically the same with Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. Janoris Jenkins is more scrub than stud. Actually, he’s like DeAngelo Hall in that he’ll be in the right spot enough times for a return touchdown that makes you think he’s good, but that’s just highlight syndrome. He’ll also lose focus on the field and get beat for huge touchdowns the other way. I didn’t like that signing at all. I can understand why the Giants wanted to draft Eli Apple, but that may not have been the best value in the first round for this year. Damon Harrison should help the run defense, but that’s not worth extra wins by itself. Olivier Vernon could be good, or he could be another marginal pass-rusher that changed teams in his mid-20’s. His track record was not worthy of such a huge contract. The guy to watch is an old pro: Jason Pierre-Paul. He only played in eight games after the fireworks accident, but he had 32 hurries and just one sack. Expect a much better ratio this year of his pressure turning into sacks. The defense will be improved, but not by enough to justify some of these silly signings.

Hell, even with the bad defense this team probably should have made the playoffs last year, but really struggled to close games on both sides of the ball. The defense was one thing, but for a veteran that’s been in these games dozens of times, Eli Manning had some shockingly bad clock management. He struggled with knowing when to throw the ball –away, when to take a sack, when to conserve clock, and when to throw for the end zone, and that alone probably cost the Giants 2-3 wins.

I think the final product here is going to be mediocrity again, and keep in mind the Giants have missed the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons.

Optimistic Scott: Hey, maybe the Giants won’t be the most injured team in the NFL for the fourth fvcking year in a row! Eli figures it out and has his finest season since 2011 with Shepard making a big impact right away. Jenkins and Vernon prove me wrong and the defense climbs to the top 12 in the league, good enough to get this team to 9-7, which might be all you need for the NFC East.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

Perhaps no team confused me more this offseason than the Eagles.

Then by a stroke of luck, Teddy Bridgewater’s leg spontaneously combusted and the Vikings got drunk on Friday night and concocted a trade with a first-round pick for Sam Bradford. It’s the most brilliant thing the Eagles did all year, and it’s all due to the Vikings panicking. Now with Carson Wentz set to start Week 1, the plan starts to come in better focus, but I still think this thing stinks in 2016.

Doug Pederson’s embarrassing introduction as head coach of the Eagles included him talking about running a take-forever-drive in the playoffs in New England, down 14 points, because he didn’t want to give Tom Brady the ball back. I’m sorry, but what? Time is precious. I know you didn’t learn this because you’re an Andy Reid disciple, but you were basically begging your team to recover a low-percentage onside kick. I really look forward to the decision making Pederson will make in crucial moments this year.

On the field, again, expect to see a copycat version of what Reid has done with Alex Smith in Kansas City. That means hiding the quarterback and coddling him with a run game and defense. Now the D does look improved in Philly, but the running game is not quite on the level of Jamaal Charles, though I do think Ryan Mathews can be good until he’s hurt. As for Wentz, I’ve said it all year that I just hated that trade to get him. He has too many red flags for me. He was injured in college and he already suffered a rib injury in his lone NFL appearance this preseason. He only had one game in college with 30+ attempts, because he played in a run-heavy offense with a great defense that rarely allowed more than 17 points. He only had three games with 250+ passing yards. He never showed he can carry a team, and he played against weak competition, and didn’t even play that much (612 pass attempts). That’s not the kind of quarterback I trade up to draft at No. 2. He’ll have to get the Alex Smith treatment to have success in the NFL, and I don’t see the Eagles pulling that off in 2016.

Optimistic Scott: Making Wentz a game manager pays off right away and he plays just efficient enough to lead a decent offense with Mathews staying healthy. The defense rises to the top 10 and it’s all enough to get this team up to 8-8, which means they’re right there for the division title with a Week 17 game at home against Dallas. That could be fun.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Pittsburgh has been a trendy Super Bowl pick all offseason, but as Week 1 draws near, it seemed like the team kept giving us reasons to predict a down year. The first big blow was Martavis Bryant’s suspension for the entire season. That core group of Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will only have played together in 11 of their first 51 games as teammates (including 2016) due to all the injuries and suspensions this team has had. Bell is suspended again for three games, but at least he’ll return to face the Chiefs in a key AFC game. Heath Miller retired, meaning the Steelers had to hunt for a tight end for the first time in over a decade. Ladarius Green seemed like an excellent choice, but he’s on the PUP with concussion problems. This makes that position rather weak, and apparently Sammie Coates never impressed enough to win the third receiver job. He’s definitely the most Martavis-like option on the roster, but I wouldn’t expect much early this year.

This is why Brown has such a good shot at major records like 150 catches and 2,000 receiving yards if he and Roethlisberger stay healthy. Of course, when does Roethlisberger ever last all 16 games? He did in 2013-14 and his protection has improved, but you always worry about him missing some games. And there is no good backup option in Pittsburgh. Forget scoring 30 points per game, let’s just see if this offense can remain a top-five unit and stay healthy into the playoffs. They rarely have in Mike Tomlin’s tenure. If Roethlisberger stays healthy, he should be the MVP favorite given the state of other quarterbacks around the league.

The injuries have carried over to the defensive side too. Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, could miss a ton of time after sports hernia surgery. So much for that sophomore surge in the pass rush. Injuries have destroyed Senquez Golson’s opportunity to play in his first two seasons as a second-round pick, leaving the Steelers pretty thin (and pretty shitty) at corner. I really don’t expect much from rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis as the Steelers have been one of the poorest teams at developing defensive backs. It’s now or never for Jarvis Jones, and a 38-year-old James Harrison is probably still the best pass rusher on the team. I really like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but this sure does not look like a championship-caliber defense, does it? They played well enough to win in Denver, but were missing some key guys and lost the lead late after that huge Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble.

I trust this team to outscore the likes of the Chiefs, Colts and Bengals in a big game, but I still don’t trust the Tomlin vs. Belichick mismatch when they play New England. Pittsburgh must play a fantastic game in Week 7 when the Patriots come to town in what could help secure home-field advantage. Because there is a shot at Heinz Field, but I cannot see this team winning in Foxboro in January. That remains the biggest hurdle.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Each year I expect the Bengals to fall off after losing some talented coordinators, or that Andy Dalton will just have that awful season, but it hasn’t happened yet in all five years that he’s been the quarterback. He was definitely at his best last season and it was a shame he got hurt when the Bengals were in position to be a No. 1 seed. Was that the new Dalton or just a hot streak? This season will help answer that, but I really think it’s going to be a huge year for A.J. Green with the losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and the injury that will keep Tyler Eifert out to start the season. Green is almost underappreciated with the way he makes so many great catches on not-so-accurate Dalton passes. This could be his best year yet, though that may also mean the ball is not being spread around and the Bengals are throwing more due to trailing.

I think Marvin Lewis can’t keep losing coordinators and expect to keep winning, but this roster is still pretty solid on both sides of the ball. I trust the defense more than the offense, but that’s fine in the AFC where the top contenders (NE/PIT) are offensive-focused teams. If the Bengals are going to break through in the playoffs, it’s going to be with a strong defensive run and improved play from Dalton. He did not get that chance last year, and the Bengals still should have won with AJ McCarron against the Steelers.

Again, an off year wouldn’t surprise me, but it’s tough to look at the AFC and go with other teams over Cincinnati.

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Baltimore rarely has back-to-back down years, and I believe John Harbaugh, as petty as he can be at times, is one of the best coaches in the NFL. Injuries were absurd last year, losing Terrell Suggs in Week 1 and practically every skill guy (and his main backup) the rest of the way. Now Joe Flacco was struggling and leading this team to nowhere before he tore his ACL, but he really needs to play better than he has been post-Super Bowl win.

Like Dallas, Baltimore was an easy regression pick with the injuries and absurd close-game losses (10 of them). I wouldn’t bet against Steve Smith since he’s crazy, but I think he’s more likely to just hit 1,000 receptions for his career rather than have a huge season at age 37 after an Achilles injury. He’s 39 catches away. Breshad Perriman, who the hell knows what he can do at this level? Ben Watson was a tough loss at tight end, but really, I didn’t get what the Ravens were doing with their skill guys this year.

Mike Wallace? Also, Stanley over Tunsil in the draft? Eh, we’ll see. I think the running back depth is better, you hope for better health, better play from Flacco, and the defense still has some really good talent, even if some of the best players (Suggs, Dumervil, Weddle) are in their 30’s. Throw in a favorable schedule and I think Baltimore can do just enough to secure the sixth seed, though I must admit I first had them in a five-way tie at 8-8 in the AFC. I ended up giving them the Week 1 win at home against Buffalo to get to 9-7. Like I wrote in their FOA essay, it’s going to be down to the wire with this team and a bunch of others in the AFC for that final wild card. I just don’t think these Ravens can go deep into the tournament like the 2008-2012 teams did. This is more of a one-and-done roster.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

Good lord, this roster looks pretty bad, though a lot of it is due to young players (ton of rookies) that we have yet to discover if they are any good. That’s the tough task Hue Jackson has in taking over this mess known as Cleveland 2.0. But hey, at least LeBron brought home the ‘ship this summer.

Optimistic Scott: I’m struggling here, but as I always say, those teams with a new coach and new quarterback are worth keeping an eye on for significant improvement. At the very least, it will be interesting to see if Jackson can get a resurgence out of Robert Griffin III. Can Josh Gordon come anywhere close to his 2013 level when he returns? I think I like Duke Johnson as a lead back. Will Corey Coleman have an instant impact as a highly-targeted wideout? Can Terrelle Pryor actually make the transition to starting wide receiver? Was Gary Barnidge a one-year wonder, or can he still catch a pass with his ass cheeks this year? Even the optimist in me has absolutely no interest in watching this defense play, but at least there are some interesting things to watch on that offense this year. And good luck, Andrew Healy. Pull some strings behind the scenes.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Seriously, the Packers drew the AFC South, the NFC East and Teddy Bridgewater’s leg exploded? I loved this schedule so much that I’m kind of regretting not giving the Packers a 14-2 No. 1 seed. But then again, when I tend to go all in with a 13-14 win season for a team, it ends in disaster. So we’ll stick with 12-4 with the thought that Aaron Rodgers is going to return to a high level of play, Jordy Nelson will eventually get back to being a major threat, and the receiving depth will be better this year with the addition of tight end Jared Cook, and Eddie Lacy seems motivated again. I flat out don’t understand the Josh Sitton release this late in the game, but I don’t think that’s a deal breaker here. Sure, a blown block come playoff time may come back to bite the team, but I don’t think Sitton was moving the win needle for this team.

But as is always the case with this Green Bay team, do I really expect them to make a comeback in a big game or not blow one with terrible Mike McCarthy decisions? The Hail Mary’s last year were cool, but even Tim Couch hit two of those in his career. I’m also pretty sure a phantom facemask did not precede either one. Green Bay’s schedule may push them to a high seed, but their home-field advantage has not been a strength in January and I think those teams like Carolina, Seattle and Arizona can all come into Lambeau and push this team around.

2. Detroit Lions (9-7)

“How are the Lions going to win two more games without Calvin Johnson?”

If it sounds crazy, it might just happen, because that’s the NFL. And in the NFL, the great wide receivers aren’t as impactful as people want to believe. I was surprised to see where I ended up ranking this Detroit team, but I believe in the improvement last year after a horrific start. The defense was solid after the bye week, and Matthew Stafford was all about that Jim Bob Cooter dink-and-dunk. While Megatron will be missed, I actually think this can help Stafford spread the ball around more, getting Golden Tate, Marvin Jones (solid catch radius; he’ll make some big plays) and Anquan Boldin heavily involved. I think Tate is a really special talent and hope he gets more variation in this system this year without Johnson around for the big plays. Tate can beat you short and long. This system also loves throwing to running backs, and I expect more rushing success from Ameer Abdullah in his second season. The offensive line has been given considerable draft capital and must produce results. I’m still not thrilled with Eric Ebron at tight end, but he’s better than Brandon Pettigrew at the very least.

Last year, we saw Detroit battle in Seattle, only to lose after a crazy Johnson fumble/illegal bat in the end zone. A bogus call and the worst Hail Mary defense ever cost the Lions a sweep of the Packers. They finally won up in Green Bay, and they’ll get to host the Packers in Week 17 this year. It’s not like I’m in love with this team, and I still think Jim Caldwell is perfect for a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s, but there is solid talent here with Haloti Ngata, Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy and Darius Slay on the defense. 9-7 is nothing to write home about, but that’s big news for Detroit.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Look, it’s a damn shame that Teddy Bridgewater’s leg was amputated. It may be bad karma that I made a running joke (three mentions) in this preview about that horrific injury, but I really am sad for the kid and disappointed that we won’t get to see him in his third season. Takes the life out of those Derek Carr and Blake Bortles debates, but does it crush the souls of the Vikings this year? It’s not like this was a pass-reliant team, and the defensive talent is nice, Adrian Peterson is still there, the offensive line and receivers were upgraded, and there were real expectations here before last week’s incident.

What crushes the soul is giving up a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, who at best is going to give you league-average quarterback play for a premium price. He’s actually a great con artist, showing teams just enough to keep hope alive that he’ll develop into something he never will. The talent of this team and coaching of Mike Zimmer should keep them floating around 8-8, and I truly believe that was still possible even with Shaun Hill (that’s my quarterback). Yes, Hill is older now and a significant injury risk himself, but what are people seeing in Bradford to continue wasting so many valuable resources on him? He actually may have been at his best last year (thanks Chip), but it was still him leading an unproductive offense in Philadelphia.

Some of Bridgewater’s best 2015 games were the close losses in Denver and Arizona. Those are games he helped bring Minnesota to the brink of winning against great competition. Maybe with an extra year of progression, he could have got them over the hump. Bradford and Hill aren’t doing that. Sorry, Minnesota. Hopefully we can see a healthy Teddy in 2017.

Optimistic Scott: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is finally the right play-caller for Sam Bradford, who has a 2011 Alex Smith-like enlightenment, which means the team is still going to win because of the run game and defense.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

Not sure I understand the move to replace Robbie Gould with Connor Barth, but not a good sign that I’m leading off talking about kickers. The Bears have been kind of stuck in a malaise the past few years. They’re just not a very attractive team to follow. Jay Cutler has a 90.0 passer rating since 2013, but only a 16-25 record as Chicago’s defense fell apart and had to be rebuilt. It hasn’t been a good rebuild, the secondary is going to be a problem, but I at least dig the additions of Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan and rookie Leonard Floyd. John Fox should eventually get that unit turned around, but it’s going to take another offseason or two. The offense was interesting last year with a lot of big injuries. I want to see Kevin White in meaningful games. He should be an improvement over last year’s secondary receivers. Cutler played pretty well, but the Bears lost some really close games they easily could have won. Josh Sitton was a wise signing to be the new left guard, but I’m just not feeling this offense as taking any major steps forward. This is more of a reset year with Jeremy Langford replacing Matt Forte full time, as well as Zach Miller taking over TE1 from Martellus Bennett.

Optimistic Scott: Fox Ball reigns supreme again as Cutler pulls out enough games late for the team to flirt with 9-7 and the sixth seed. Kevin White is way better than we expected after missing his entire rookie season. Hope is much higher going into 2017.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

So the healthiest Colts teams since 2006 were the 2011 Peyton-less version and the 2015 half Luck-less version. Ain’t that a bitch? The last two times the Colts missed the playoffs, they were generally healthy, except at the most important position. I’m not sure if a healthy Luck would have been a huge advantage to the Colts last year based on the way he played, but I sure believe he beats Houston at home to get this team to the playoffs. I want to believe 2015 was an aberration caused by injury, but I’m not 100 percent certain. Luck looked really bad at times last year, like in the Carolina game where he missed some inexplicably easy passes.

Then again, for how out of sorts Luck was in 2015, this team still had arguably its best showing yet against the Patriots, at least before the GRIEF WHALE happened. They came back from 17 down in the fourth quarter in Carolina, becoming the first team in NFL history to lose after leading in overtime. And Luck’s season ended with a lacerated kidney, but only after he had the most efficient and effective game any quarterback had against Denver’s No. 1 defense.

I don’t see great things for Indy this year, but I don’t see anything great about the AFC South in 2016. 9-7 can win it, and I was actually surprised at the lack of wins I had to give the Titans and Jaguars as I thought I’d have the four teams more closely bunched. But I think Luck plays better and squeezes out enough close wins, because it’s going to be necessary to compensate again for that injury-riddled defense without a pass rush or secondary.

Ryan Grigson, you failed this city.

2. Houston Texans (8-8)

“Bill O’Brien has put up back-to-back 9-7 seasons with QB slop. He brings in Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, still has the best defender on the planet, and you think he falls back to 8-8?”

Again, if it sounds crazy, it just may be what happens, because that’s the NFL. I’m not an Osweiler fan. I think he was really up and down last season, and he is going to be someone that takes too many sacks. Houston’s offensive line does not look like a strength to me either. I wouldn’t have paid Osweiler what he got, and I think John Elway made the right decision not to tie himself down to this kid for $18 million per year. O’Brien has done a decent job of getting more out of quarterbacks, but I think the pocket presence and inconsistent deep ball (his numbers were similar to Old Manning’s last year) are going to be issues again in Houston. I did like the Miller signing and he should improve the running game, assuming he gets his touches this time.

The defense does again look rather solid on paper, but you wonder if J.J. Watt is rushing back from injury too fast for Week 1. Maybe that has a huge negative effect on his season, because when healthy, no one’s better. Would like to see Clowney make a big impact this year to live up to that draft pick. Imagine if they got Teddy Bridgewater in that 2014 draft. Teddy might not be on crutches for the rest of his life (and that’s a fourth mention…I’m going to hell).

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Trust me, Jacksonville fans. I wanted to get you guys 7-8 wins, but it just wasn’t happening as I went through the schedule. I actually have Jacksonville starting 4-0 before the bye, then going on a 10-game losing streak, so we know I’m wrong as hell here on the individual games, but let’s think about it. Last season, the Jags went 5-11 with four game-winning drives. That sounds good for Blake Bortles, but they were not very pretty moments when you dig into them. Against Buffalo, a Bortles pick-six made the comeback necessary in the first place as they nearly blew that game in London. Good thing EJ Manuel was the opposing QB instead of Tyrod Taylor. The real stinker was against Baltimore where Bortles had a game-ending interception dropped, then a miserable fourth-down attempt that never should have counted saw him fall down, get up and take a facemask, leading to a 15-yard penalty and untimed down for the Jaguars to win on a 53-yard field goal. The GWD against Tennessee started at the 5-yard line after a 63-yard punt return.

Bortles was still very much garbage-time hero than clutch in 2015. Bortles threw 13 touchdown passes when trailing by multiple scores in the second half. The previous NFL record was 10, which is why I can comfortably say Bortles had the least effective 35-touchdown season by any quarterback in NFL history. Sure, Allen Robinson is fantastic and Allen Hurns has become a very good No. 2. Julius Thomas might be better this year if he can ever stay healthy. Yeldon and Ivory makes for a good backfield. They have a nice offense, but a sloppy quarterback and a struggling offensive line.

I’m not sold the offense will get much better until the defense does, and the amount of drafted talent there is outstanding with Dante Fowler, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey. If Gus Bradley gets to coach these guys and still can’t turn things around, he has to go. But then again, there are injury concerns with these players. Fowler missed his whole rookie season. Jack’s injury concerns dropped him from a top-5 pick to the second round. With Ramsey, rookie corners often struggle. This is why it could be 2017 when the Jaguars finally take that step forward. The playoff buzz for this year is still a bit premature.

Optimistic Scott: Bortles cleans up the sacks and turnovers, the offense doesn’t rank 30th in the second quarter, leading to tighter second halves where the young, improved defense can help win more games. Who knows, maybe 2016 is the year the Jaguars take it to the limit and…steal the show.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-11)

“Exotic Smashmouth” sounds like a series of porn videos I’d stick in my “Blowjobs” folder. Mike Mularkey was the most uninspiring head coach hire since Jim Tomsula a year ago. I would love to see Marcus Mariota in a shotgun-heavy, quick passing attack. The Titans want to turn back time and run DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry 500 times. At least Henry has looked good, but I hated the Jack Conklin pick with Tunsil still on the board. I still think the “tackle the catch” defense is one of the least imposing in the league, and any team playing this defense should target Antwon Blake any time he’s on the field.

But at the very least, I’m interested to see Mariota in year two and to see if this crazy Tajae Sharpe story can turn into something historic. I wrote a great deal about his rise to the top receiver spot as a fifth-round rookie, and he has not disappointed in the preseason. I still think he’s a possession receiver and won’t hit the big plays to have anywhere near a Randy Moss or Odell Beckham kind of rookie season, but 800-plus yards should be in his grasp to make him the most productive fifth-round rookie wideout since the merger.

Optimistic Scott: Playoffs!? You kidding me? That’s a load of Mularkey.

NFC SOUTH

1. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

Yes, I kept calling this team last year the worst 7-0 team ever, the worst 14-0 team ever, the worst 15-1 team ever, etc. I didn’t believe the No. 1 scoring offense was really as good as the point total suggested because of the dominance in field position and turnovers. I didn’t think Cam Newton was the MVP, though his second-half performance in the season was at that level. Still, it was not what you’d expect from a MVP/All-Pro season.

This year, I think Carolina is still the class of the NFC South, but will fall back to the pack. The schedule should be tougher, they shouldn’t dominate turnovers and field position as much as they did, and the secondary definitely looks vulnerable even if the front seven is still excellent. Offensively, people automatically assume Kelvin Benjamin’s return makes this a better unit than last year. I think this is what will happen. Newton will play at a more efficient level consistently for 16 games, but won’t have the same 45 TD total, meaning people will think he regressed from 2015. Baloney. He still has plenty of room for improvement and needs to cut down on the overthrows. I think Carolina’s offensive DVOA will be better than last year, but they’ll score fewer points this year just due to the aforementioned changes in schedule/turnovers/field position. Still a Super Bowl contender, but more like the third or fourth-best team in the NFC this season.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)

This team did a solid job of fighting its way to 6-10 last year, and the young core should improve to make that move up to .500. But I still think the playoffs are a year or two off. Jameis Winston’s rookie season was definitely not as mistake prone (sacks and picks) as I expected. In fact, it reminded me in many ways of Andrew Luck’s rookie season in the way that Jameis was the most hit quarterback, he played in a vertical offense with receivers that had some bad drops, and he still threw for 4,000 yards. I see a lot of Cam in him as he led the league in overthrown passes and was pretty scattershot with his accuracy, but you could see the talent and ability to run. I expect Mike Evans to play at a higher level after some bad drops last year. That could be a beloved stack in DFS this year. I’m not sold Doug Martin repeats last year’s success and the offensive line is still a work in progress, so this team is going to be involved in its share of close games. Always love Lavonte David, but that secondary is an eyesore with Brent Grimes and Chris Conte expected to start. That’s why I really can’t see a playoff team here.

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

I guess I can no longer bash “that Rob Ryan D” but man was last year abysmal. One of the greatest passing seasons in NFL history belongs to the “2015 Saints Opponents.” The good news is they really can’t play any worse, and still went 7-9 since Drew Brees was still great. His accuracy was the worst it’s been in 10 years, but that’s just because of how great he’s usually been. It didn’t help that the Saints lost so much offensive talent and Marques Colston was on his last legs. I dig this new group of Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks, Brandon Coleman and rookie Michael Thomas. It should be better than last year’s group, and they’ve added Coby Fleener at tight end. He’ll make some horrible efforts on the ball, but Brees will find him down the seam for some big gainers too.

The defense has added a bunch of veterans like Paul Kruger, Nick Fairley, James Laurinaitis and Dannell Ellerbe, so you will see some change. It just may be the 25th-best defense instead of dead last, but hey, that’s an improvement. It sucks that Sheldon Rankins, the first-round rookie, was lost with an injury. The Saints need impact defenders, and it’s hard to see any here outside of Cameron Jordan. Brees got paid again, but it’s hard to see more than another 7-9 type of season.

Optimistic Scott: This team was a play away in each game from sweeping Carolina last year, and that includes a start by Luke McCown. With Sean Payton and Drew Brees, you always have a chance with that prolific offense. Beating the Lions at home in Week 13 and the Falcons on the road in Week 17 could be the difference between 7-9 season and 9-7 wild card.

4. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

I originally had this team at 5-11, but ended up finding two more wins. I really think last year was a huge blown opportunity. They were healthy, the schedule was so favorable, and they just fell apart after winning all those close games early in the season. How do you lose to Blaine Gabbert? Oh yeah, you kick a field goal from the 1-yard line in the last three minutes, down by 4 points. Then Matt Ryan regressed and threw some really awful picks, like when they blew the 14-point lead at home to Indianapolis with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback.

I just think Ryan is not what he used to be, the offense is too reliant on Julio Jones, don’t think Mohamed Sanu is a WR2, don’t care for Jacob Tamme as TE1, and while the defense should be better, it’s still not a strong unit. Devonta Freeman was not that impressive down the stretch last year, though I still think he deserves the majority of the carries over Tevin Coleman. I’m curious to see if Vic Beasley can have a bigger impact this year. He didn’t do much this year, though at least made a signature stop of Newton to win that game against Carolina. Again, that was the kind of year Atlanta had. Lose to Gabbert, knock off the 14-0 Panthers.

Optimistic Scott: Ryan gets back to his past higher level of efficiency, Julio dominates again, Freeman puts together a full season, and Dan Quinn has the defense looking more in line with the improvement he was expected to bring. Still, this is more about competing for a wild card than anything more significant.

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

While I did bash the Chiefs’ 9-game winning streak in 2013 and 11-game winning streak last year for various reasons, this is a good team with a sound roster. KC did not win the division in either of those seasons because of Denver, but the Broncos are taking a step back this year and the Chiefs are the most talented team in the division. You know what I think about Alex Smith, but Andy Reid is managing him properly and they’re going to beat teams with defense, running the ball and him not turning it over. This team can run the ball very well even without Jamaal Charles. Spencer Ware was really good last season. Obviously you prefer Charles, who is always a 5.0 YPC back, but they have the depth at that position. Justin Houston’s health does concern me since they’re going to need him for the big games to apply pressure. Marcus Peters could fall victim to the random variation in cornerback success in his second year. I doubt he gets as many picks this time, and losing Sean Smith was not addressed too well.

I wouldn’t trust the Chiefs to win a playoff game in Pittsburgh or New England, but this is still one of the top teams in the AFC and not many people are talking about them right now.

2. Oakland Raiders (8-8)

Again, I had about five teams vying for that last wild card at 8-8, and Oakland is right there in that tier with Houston, Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver. I think I said my share on Derek Carr being overrated, but I do expect a better overall season from him this year. Just think he’s too gunslinger and struggles with accuracy to really sustain a highly-efficient offense, and they barely changed that side of the ball, expecting the youth to just get better together. I’m definitely not one for believing Kelechi Osemele is a godsend as the highest-paid guard in history (without even a single Pro Bowl). The line is a real strength, but they still have to get more rushing production than they have.

If the offense is counting on young draft picks to grow, the defense is expecting to get better by bringing in other team’s players. Bruce Irvin joins Malcolm Smith as two former Seattle linebackers starting in Jack Del Rio’s defense. David Amerson is playing ahead of D.J. Hayden, who has been a bust. Sean Smith was a good signing to help improve the corners and weaken Kansas City at the same time. Nate Allen has never been anything special and Reggie Nelson is a good veteran safety from Cincinnati. I think they’ll miss Charles Woodson for various reasons. But then there is one great draft pick in Khalil Mack, and he’s going to have to have that type of All-Pro season to really get this defense in playoff shape. I just don’t have enough faith in Del Rio and Carr to get it all together this year, but maybe 2017 is finally the year to end this awful streak of not winning.

Optimistic Scott: Well, you have them right there at 8-8. All it takes is one more great Carr performance or one huge Mack game to get over that hump to 9-7, the first winning record in Oakland since 2002.

3. Denver Broncos (8-8)

The great Tom Moore once said “If [Peyton Manning] goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.” Now Denver is going from the greatest quarterback in NFL history to a guy with a name that sounds like a sex machine or cum. I guess either way the Broncos are practicing fucked.

But seriously, how do you go from winning the Super Bowl to starting such a bland seventh-round pick in his second year in Trevor Siemian? The guy stunk in college, posting the type of numbers that would rarely get you drafted in this era. I would have prepared Paxton Lynch from day one to be the starter and just roll with my defense, which I expect to be the best in the league.

Cornerback Chris Harris scoffed when FO initially projected the Broncos to go 7-9. It’s true, Denver rarely is below .500 going back to the early 1970’s, and even the Tim Tebow-led team went 8-8 in 2011. But I think 8-8 is a good prediction as this team was living on the edge all year in 2015. Denver’s 7 4QC/GWD wins led the league, and those teams usually always regress the next year, unless they have Peyton Manning in their prime. These Broncos don’t even have Manning coming back at his worst.

My expected regression for Denver is built on two ideas as I highly disagree with two notions many Broncos fans share going into this season.

First, this idea that the defense will be just as good, if not better this year. No, just no. For starters, it’s not even the same defense since Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson are gone. Great defenses can last for several years, but Denver was a very strong No. 1 defense in 2015. Since 1989, only the 1993-94 Steelers and 2013-14 Seahawks finished No. 1 in defensive DVOA in consecutive years. Wade Phillips has a history of D’s starting great, but not sustaining that improvement. Don’t get me wrong, Denver’s D should be the best in the AFC, but it’s very unlikely they match last year’s dominance.

Just consider the takeaways alone. No, Denver did not force an astronomical number (27), but look at how they happened. They rip away a pass in the end zone to beat the Ravens 19-13 in Week 1. Jamaal Charles has an unfathomable fumble returned for a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds in Week 2. That almost never happens. Huge pick 6’s against Baltimore, Oakland and San Diego. They strip Bridgewater with the game on the line. They pick off Josh McCown late in Cleveland. They get a fumble off AJ McCarron in overtime to end that big game in Week 16. They get a fumble off third-string back Fitzgerald Toussaint in the playoffs when the Steelers were driving with a 13-12 fourth-quarter lead. We know fumble recoveries are pretty random, but Denver snatched 13 last year. The 14-point difference in the Super Bowl was almost entirely created by Von Miller’s two strip-sacks of Newton occurring so close to the end zone.

What if the Newton fumbles in the SB happen at midfield or closer to Denver scoring territory? They likely don’t put two touchdowns on the board then. Now what happens if that Charles’ fumble occurs at midfield, and the Broncos have to go to overtime? Do you think the Patriots muff a punt again in the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead? You just can’t expect to keep getting such monumental takeaways on defense. The 2016 defense could end up with more takeaways than 2015, but it’s unlikely they will be as impactful as last year.

Then there’s the idea that the offense will be better, because it couldn’t get any worse. Nope, it can get worse. For one, this was not a good offensive lineup last year. The running game was hit or miss, Demaryius Thomas struggled, they really didn’t develop a WR3 or receiving TE after losing Welker & Julius, the OL was arguably the worst in NFL, and yes, both quarterbacks made too many mistakes.

However, those quarterbacks still moved the ball (4,216 passing yards on 7.0 YPA) and made timely plays (the 7 4QC/GWD). You want to see ugly offense? Wait until Siemian is struggling to pass for 200 yards or averaging 6.4 YPA while taking bad sacks behind a revamped OL that still may not be any good. I love how Emmanuel Sanders is playing and I think Benny Fowler should be a WR3, but again, I don’t see much receiving depth on this team. The idea that Cody Latimer can be better now that Peyton is gone is just absurd.

Good quarterback play can be efficient, effective or timely. Last year, Denver really only got the timely part, but what do you think Siemian is going to do? Can he lead a team 80 yards down the field in Arrowhead in the final minutes with a 24-17 deficit like Manning did? That’s why I don’t want to hear this bullshit that anyone like a Ryan Fitzpatrick could have won a Super Bowl with Denver’s defense last year. So many quarterbacks would have flopped in that Week 2 spot, which would’ve made the Chiefs the division winner and the Broncos a fifth seed. The Broncos aren’t going anywhere in last year’s playoffs as a fifth seed. They needed that top seed, so they needed all of those close wins. Manning is the record holder at that, and Brock Osweiler did well against tough teams like the Patriots and Bengals. I was glad to hear from Kubiak in that “Worth the Wait” special that the Week 2 KC win was the biggest moment for this team last year. So many quarterbacks blow the division title right there in that moment.

Denver’s won five straight division titles, but so much of that past success was built by people no longer on the team. Winning the Super Bowl was great, they deserved it after getting close in previous years, but I can’t see any serious title defense happening here.

Optimistic Scott: Maybe Paxton Lynch takes over after a 1-3 start and proves to be the right talent to run Gary Kubiak’s offense. The defense remains the best in the league, giving the team a chance to win any game. They win just enough to get back to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

Originally I was thinking a 9-7 dark horse with this team, but as the summer wore on and I went through the schedule, I just don’t like what the Chargers are selling. The Joey Bosa saga was absurd. I didn’t think that could happen with the rookie wage scale in new CBA, but here we go. Bosa is not expected to play this week and that defense could really use the help. I like Jason Verrett and Denzel Perryman as two recent draft picks, but they lost Eric Weddle and Brandon Flowers was nowhere near as good in 2015. It’s not a quality defense by any means.

Offensively, Antonio Gates is going to hit the wall at some point, right? They drafted his replacement in Hunter Henry, though I wouldn’t expect much in 2016 there. The offensive line is still a big issue for Philip Rivers, who has had some rough stretches over the last two years. There have also been bright spots, but he hasn’t played consistently at a high level since 2013. I like Keenan Allen, I believe Travis Benjamin can do Malcom Floyd things, but where is the depth at receiver? Stevie Johnson got hurt and they didn’t think James Jones was worth a roster spot. Dontrelle Inman is a JAG. This looks to me like another 75+ catches for Danny Woodhead, which isn’t very fun to watch. Hopefully Melvin Gordon has more success, including finding the end zone at least once in a game that counts, because last year makes that pick look awful.

I think Mike McCoy is one of the most likely coaches to be fired after this season.

Optimistic Scott: Again, the division is going through some changes and the opportunity is there for San Diego to rise. Rivers is still a top 10 quarterback, so you always have a chance with one of those.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

It’s like Pessimistic Scott or Cautiously Optimistic Scott is writing this part, because I have strong championship expectations for Seattle, yet this odd concern that this is the year they fall off. We’re talking about the DVOA dynasty. Four straight years of finishing No. 1 in the stat, something no team has ever done, and we feel that’s true even if you went back to WWII. It’s an unprecedented run of strong, competitive, efficient play, and the reality is all of these runs have to end eventually.

I keep thinking the historic 88-game streak of having a lead or being within one score in the fourth quarter is going to end, as it almost did twice in the last four games of 2015 alone. Things are starting to crack defensively. The blown leads are a consistent problem, as they should have blown another playoff game if not for Blair Walsh’s 27-yard miss. Maybe there’s a Russell Wilson injury behind a suspect offensive line that’s the main culprit for a decline. Maybe it’s Jimmy Graham not being a factor after his 2015 injury, or Thomas Rawls not repeating his success. I still don’t buy into Christine Michael being legit.

Overall, I still think the roster is great, and Wilson was just at another level down the stretch of 2015. I’ve always been big on Doug Baldwin, I think Tyler Lockett has star potential, and Jermaine Kearse always seems to make big catches in big moments. It’s a very underrated receiving corps. The defense still has great talent at every level and they made the wise decision to not keep Brandon Browner.

So why am I so worried? I guess that’s just how I am these days with everything that’s going on personally.

2. Arizona Cardinals (11-5)

Here I go again worrying. Pittsburgh, Seattle and Arizona are three of the top Super Bowl picks for people this year, yet I somehow keep finding ways to think they’re all going to flounder.

Last year, Arizona was arguably the best team in the league for most of the season. They have balance and great talent on both sides of the ball with one of the top coaches. Then the Philadelphia game happened, Carson Palmer messed up his thumb and Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL. It was never the same after that, and as Arizona’s two most important players, they have a history of multiple ACL tears. I’m not really worried about Mathieu, but Palmer, going on 37, has me thinking Jake Delhomme in 2009 right now. Sure, I thought Palmer was the regular-season MVP as no quarterback was more consistently great from Week 1 to Week 17. He was outstanding with the best receiving corps in the league last year. But down the stretch, whether it was the injury or the pressure or better competition, he looked like the Palmer of old, which is a bad thing. He turned the ball over six times in Carolina in the biggest game of his career. The Cardinals played a really piss-poor game that day, but Palmer was especially bad.

I just fear Palmer’s going to carry over the bad play into 2016, but if he doesn’t, then this is still a top offense and I can’t wait to see David Johnson as a full-time workhorse back. Larry Fitzgerald is still going strong and John Brown is there to take over as the No. 1 if he has to. They still don’t have much at tight end, but that’s okay in this style of offense. The defense looks to be one of the best again, though I don’t think Chandler Jones is going to have a huge impact. He turns a lot of his pressures into sacks, but he doesn’t generate as much pressure as you’d like to see.

Bruce Arians lives on the edge with an aggressive style that has served him so well in pulling out close games. Arians is 19-8 (.704) in 4QC/GWD opportunities. No other active coach is above .500. Arians is 31-1 when leading by one score in the fourth quarter. Pete Carroll is just 23-15 in Seattle since 2012. I like that Arizona gets the Patriots without Tom Brady, while the Seahawks have to travel to New England with Brady back. The schedule slightly favors Arizona over Seattle, but I ended up finding another road loss (Buffalo) for Arizona to finish 11-5 and a wild card team.

But again, for a team that loves downfield passing, heavy blitzing and plays so many close games, that’s all just asking for a year where the coin flips the other way too often. This team’s Super Bowl window is right now, so it can’t afford to have a slip-up year like that.

3. Los Angeles Rams (7-9)

It’s fitting that the Rams are in Hollywood now. For years I have been saying no film genre has suffered a bigger decline in quality than comedy. The greatness of old comedies was all the quotable lines.

  • “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” (Animal House)
  • “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” (Dumb & Dumber)
  • “Surely you can’t be serious. I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.” (Airplane!)
  • “(Singing) Fat guy in a little coat” (Tommy Boy)
  • “The shitter was full!” (Christmas Vacation)
  • “If things go well I might be showing her my O-face. Oh…oh…oh! You know what I’m talkin’ about. Oh!” (Office Space)
  • “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older. They stay the same age.” (Dazed & Confused)
  • “Well, nobody’s perfect!” (Some Like It Hot)

American comedy in the 21st century has been ruined by a small group of powerful people such as Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. They’ve created more jobs than Obama, but it’s ruined the genre with someone like Seth Rogen playing the same character in every movie. It’s not that these comedies are unwatchable, but the main problem is they lack quotable lines or memorable scenes. The Apatow crowd in particular has basically two forms of writing comedy lines: heavy use of swearing built around sexual innuendo or a “You look like [pop culture reference likely linked to a sex joke]”. Seriously, without looking it up, try quoting something really funny from Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, This Is the End, Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc. I double dog dare you. Ahh, see what I did there? While the classics had lines that became part of pop culture, these new hacks just rely on quoting that old pop culture without adding anything new. What will writers take away from this era in future decades? There’s nothing here.

So thank you Jeff Fisher for bringing back some real comedy with your quotable lines on this season of Hard Knocks. “7-9 bullshit” is going to be quoted so many times, and it’s the perfect way to describe the majority of his coaching career. It certainly fits this Rams team, because what else would you call locking up gadget player Tavon Austin for over $10M a year when he can’t even put up a 500-yard receiving season? That’s the kind of 7-9 bullshit that makes me laugh.

Another hilarious thing the Rams did this year: traded a fortune to move up to the No. 1 pick so they can draft Jared Goff and make him the third-string quarterback behind Case Keenum and Sean Mannion. Now that might be 5-11 fuckery. It’s unbelievable that a quarterback, who did have to carry his team weekly unlike Carson Wentz, could be the third-stringer behind two totally unaccomplished players. I’m all for starting a quarterback right away. I know Goff has struggled and really hasn’t earned it yet, but you can’t move into a new city, make a power move to No. 1 and try selling Case f’n Keenum to the new fans. The fact that GM Les Snead talked up Keenum last year is absurd. He was very good against Tampa Bay and had a nice touchdown pass in Seattle. Beyond that, his five starts showed very little. Now I thought Keenum was a fun QB to watch in college where he was prolific against lesser competition, but he’s not NFL starter material. Yes, the defense should be quite good led by Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, though the secondary will hurt them against better passing teams. They have Todd Gurley expecting to be the next great back, so it is a decent setup for a weak quarterback. That’s also why I thought they’d want Wentz since he fits this style much better than Goff, who had to throw it a ton to combat Cal’s awful defense.

I honestly didn’t have to change anything to get a 7-9 record for the Rams. It’s almost like that’s the natural order for a Fisher team. You just expect it. I knew once Fisher said “I’m not fucking going 7-9, or 8-8, or 9-7, okay. Or 10-6 for that matter” that the Rams were the greatest comedy of 2016. You tell them, Jeff. 10-6 isn’t good enough in a division with two powerhouses when you’re going to start Keenum at quarterback.

goodlaugh

4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

Chip Kelly inherited a weaker roster with a worse quarterback situation in a tougher division than what he had in Philadelphia. I don’t think he matches Jim Tomsula’s 5-11 record, though that doesn’t mean this team won’t be better. I think the 2015 49ers were quite arguably the worst team in the league, and got lucky on three field goals. That could have been a 2-14 year easily. I absolutely can’t believe that Blaine Gabbert is the starter over Colin Kaepernick. I felt that way well before the national anthem controversy, which I’d prefer not to get into here. There’s just not much hope for anything good to come of this year outside of perhaps getting the No. 1 pick and being in line to draft a quarterback (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson) to rid themselves of Gabbert and Kap next year. Carlos Hyde should benefit from Kelly’s scheme, Torrey Smith should have a huge year with such a weak cast of receivers, and I think the defense has something to build on with the two Oregon defensive ends. This is going to be a long process to get back to relevance, so hopefully people give Kelly a break. I believe in his coaching, but I think he was a lousy GM. Hopefully he’ll form a better relationship with Trent Baalke than Jim Harbaugh did.

Optimistic Scott: Bruh, this is almost 13,000 words, the longest single-part thing you’ve ever written. Let’s wrap it up.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
  2. New England (12-4)
  3. Kansas City (11-5)
  4. Indianapolis (9-7)
  5. Cincinnati (12-4)
  6. Baltimore (9-7)

The Chiefs finally get a home playoff game and win one, but fall in New England again. The Bengals knock off the Colts in Indy, but can’t get past Pittsburgh again. Pittsburgh loses a third AFC Championship Game at home to New England since 2001.

NFC

  1. Seattle (12-4)
  2. Green Bay (12-4)
  3. Carolina (11-5)
  4. Dallas (9-7)
  5. Arizona (11-5)
  6. Detroit (9-7)

Detroit still can’t get a playoff win as Carolina holds at home. The Cardinals take care of Dallas, setting up a third matchup with Seattle, which the Seahawks win at home. Carolina at Green Bay could be really interesting. I think I’d go with Carolina there, setting up another rematch, but this time the Seahawks get the early lead and hang on to beat the Panthers.

SUPER BOWL LI

Seattle Seahawks 23, New England 17

What, another rematch? This time half of Seattle’s defense isn’t injured, and Russell Wilson knows better than to throw a pass into congestion from the 1-yard line. In fact, Jimmy Graham high-pointing a fade over Malcolm Butler would be a heck of an image.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. – Bill Cowher after Super Bowl XXX

2015 NFL Predictions

(In before the kickoff). This morning I read my 2014 predictions and I thought this part from the intro was appropriate.

“Honest note: proofreading was at a minimum on this piece, and I shot from the hip more than doing new research under a time crunch. After seven long months of research, writing and waiting, I just want to watch some real f’n football games.”

I could probably say that every year now, but this offseason especially was tough for personal reasons, the absurd ending to the Super Bowl (“Run to Win”) and the ridiculous Deflategate story that simply won’t die. We just need to get back to watching football games. I think every team has a good share of flaws this year. There are a few favorites, but I didn’t find picking the Super Bowl to be as obvious as some past years.

If you want some really specific research and detail on every team, you can still buy Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 here. I covered the AFC West, the Colts and had some input on the Steelers this year.

Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my 2014 record was 157-98-1 (.615), or a few games better than the 152-103-1 (.596) record in 2013. As always, I hope to do better, but I’m sure the results this year will be in the same range.

One thing I won’t be doing is picking a team to go 14-2 like how I went all in on the Saints last year. That was by far my biggest miss. This season, every team is projected for 4-13 wins, and it wouldn’t shock me if 12-4 was the best record like it was a year ago.

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Stat: In St. Louis, the Rams scored at least 24 points in just 22.4% of Sam Bradford’s 49 starts.

I think both East divisions got a lot more interesting this year, and the NFC East in particular is where I expect something peculiar to happen. What would be peculiar? A breakout year from Sam Bradford or Kirk Cousins, a return to the playoffs for the Giants and a Dallas meltdown.

Chip Kelly has started his NFL coaching career with back-to-back 10-6 seasons, yet some — like a former fullback on a certain network — don’t buy what he’s selling. I’m hesitant to buy the roster moves from Kelly this offseason, stocking up on some players with high injury risk, but his belief and application in sports science is strong. I think DeMarco Murray could be great in this offense as long as he stays healthy. I’m curious to see how Jordan Matthews, so often in the slot, fares as a de facto No. 1 WR. Chip’s offense has seen huge years from DeSean Jackson (2013) and Jeremy Maclin (2014) in that role, but Matthews is a different player. I’ve never been a Bradford fan and I think he was too dink-and-dunk with the Rams, but if anyone can mold him into an above-average quarterback, it’s probably Kelly. His system just gets receivers wide open down the field, and we saw Nick Foles miss too many of those to start 2014. I also expect the secondary to be considerably better after dumping Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nate Allen.

Ultimately, it came down to the schedule here and I just think the Eagles have an easier path than Dallas. Not having to go to Green Bay in December like Dallas does could make all the difference. I think my first run through of the games had the Eagles at 13-3, but I knew that was too high. I’m not letting preseason results sway me at all, but it certainly wasn’t discouraging to see this team kick some ass in those games.

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

Stat: Still going to call him a choker? Tony Romo is the first QB in NFL history to lead at least four game-winning drives in four consecutive seasons.  And #DEZCaughtIt

Jason Garrett has still never lost more than two games in a row, and his longest winning streak is now six games. I say it every year, but Romo makes this team relevant at the end of the season. The defense is still not going to be great, and the loss of Orlando Scandrick might even be bigger than losing Sean Lee a year ago. Scandrick is one of three cornerbacks (Chris Harris and Vontae Davis the other two) to rank in the top 15 in FO’s adjusted success rate in coverage. Dallas has added some talent for sure — some of it is suspended for four games though — but last year’s success was in part to the offense keeping the defense off the field, and the defense finishing first in takeaways per drive. That’s a stat that will regress and the Cowboys will have to make more regular stops this season.

The 8-0 road record in 2014 was very impressive and totally unexpected. Dallas going .500 at home however was not that surprising, because this team has had some issues in the new stadium. Check where the Cowboys are after Week 9, because the early schedule is a doozy. If they’re doing well by then, I expect a playoff team for sure. If not, then it could come down to another Week 17 playoff game. At least this one would be at home against Washington.

3. New York Giants (9-7)

Stat: It’s like Groundhog Day. Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric for the second year in a row.

Injuries are expected to regress to the mean, but the Giants couldn’t avoid them again in 2014, especially in the secondary. This year we’ve already seen the secondary lose some bodies, but at least they still have all their fingers. Come on, JPP. Fireworks? Odell Beckham Jr.’s sophomore season is the most heavily anticipated one since Randy Moss, but I think he’ll deliver. He just may not be as spectacular on a per-game basis, but he is legit and not Michael Clayton.

The Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, but here we are again in a year they play the AFC East. Maybe Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz return to form late in the season and the 9-7 Giants pull it off again. The Giants are like a leap year too: they show up every four years in February. We saw it in 2008, 2012 and if 2016 is next, then we already have a vision of the outcome: Beckham’s one-handed catch sinks the Patriots and Eli Manning becomes the highest-paid player in NFL history*. Don’t even front. This is probably like the 83rd-most likely outcome of the 2015 season, because the Giants do weird shit like this under Tom Coughlin.

*Wrote this before the extension. Feck.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Stat: In 2014, Kirk Cousins’ knockdown rate when passing was 7.1%. Robert Griffin III’s was 29.5%.

That’s right, the offensive line doesn’t block better for the other guy. The other guy gets rid of the ball better and without limiting the odds for a first down by throwing so short of the sticks. The problem Cousins has is he can be a turnover machine, so the Redskins are pretty f*cked either way.

Morgan Moses is the new right tackle. I charted his first start against the 49ers last year. He allowed three sacks. Washington apparently used a very high pick to stick Brandon Scherff at right guard. DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed may be poised for big fantasy years, but I don’t see a lot of good to come from this offense.

And yet somehow I feel even less confident about the defense coming around. They replaced defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, but who is going to get the job done on the field? They’ve rented their defensive line and secondary from other teams. Well, David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland (susp.) are draft picks, but neither had a good 2014. The linebackers are about the only drafted players with talent, led by Ryan Kerrigan. If DeAngelo Hall is still starting for your team in 2015, that about sums up where you’re at in this league.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Stat: Since 2001, the Patriots are 11-0 in the playoffs when playing a team for the first time that season (10-8 in rematches).

You just have to pencil in the Patriots for double-digit wins. The postseason is what it is. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. I think the AFC East is improved, but not enough to the point where someone is going to overtake New England this year. However, I think this squad feels closer to the 2005-06 teams than anything like 2007 or even 2010-12. Or last year of course. The loss of Vince Wilfork won’t be huge, but the massive turnover in that secondary is likely to haunt them a few times this season. But I’d expect the offensive line and defense to shape into form after Thanksgiving, which seems to always happen in NE (defensively at least).

Last year I thought the schedule would help the Patriots to the top seed. This year I think the schedule could knock them to a three seed, which is something they’ve never been under Belichick. Road games with the Cowboys, Colts and Broncos are going to be huge for seeding, not to mention the nemesis Giants and the Week 17 finale in Miami.

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

Stat: Mike Wallace was +15.9 in receiving plus-minus (adjusted for where ball is thrown) with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. In Miami, Wallace was just a -0.6 with Ryan Tannehill. Kenny Stills was an incredible +21.9 in New Orleans with Drew Brees. This stat is heavily influenced by the quarterback, so we’ll see if Tannehill can find the connection deep with Stills that he never found with Wallace.

This is the fifth team from the East divisions that I’m predicting to have a winning record. Is that too many? They’re going to beat up on each other, or maybe more appropriately they’re going to beat up on the scrubs on their schedule and have some great games against each other. I just think this is the year Miami’s spending pays off with a playoff berth. Ryan Tannehill’s arrow is pointing up and he has a very solid receiving corps with Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and TE Jordan Cameron. I also really like Lamar Miller, and here is an example of the type of content you’ll find in FOA 2015’s player comments for hundreds of players. (I wrote this one – click it to enlarge)

LMiller

I ranked Miami 2nd in under-25 talent this year, and while someone like Walt Aikens or Jamar Taylor needs to step up in the secondary, it’s the veterans like Brent Grimes and Ndamukong Suh who will have to play at a high level to get Miami back to the postseason. I think the offense is poised for great things under Bill Lazor and the defense steps up. Though if it’s another 8-8 finish, then say goodbye to Joe Philbin in Miami. He has to win this year.

3. Buffalo Bills (7-9)

Stat: Tyrod Taylor is making his first career start in the 65th possible game of his career. The QB in my top 64 of all time to take the longest to start was Tony Romo (55th game).

Taylor doesn’t have to be great for Buffalo to win, but this is the third year in a row I’m picking Buffalo to have a losing record. That didn’t work last year, but I didn’t foresee Kyle Orton taking over so quickly. I think the receiving weapons are pretty good, and Sammy Watkins deserves better QB play and offensive design. I’m not sold he can get it this year, but Taylor’s going to be very fun to watch as a scrambler and play-fake QB. This is Greg Roman, so he should do some Colin Kaepernick-type things with Taylor and LeSean McCoy in the backfield. Show us some read-option and spread. I think Taylor could rush for 800+ yards if he lasts all season. Unfortunately I see Rex Ryan attached to a team and I just expect shit offense, but there’s talent here to be better than the usual poor Buffalo standard on this side of the ball.

The defense was great last year and returns a lot of talent. Of course I’m skeptical about sustaining defensive success, but the change of coach should help keep things fresh. I believe in Rex as a defensive play-caller, but I just don’t trust his offense, the side of the ball I swear he doesn’t put much effort into. That’s why I see Buffalo as another version of his Jets teams, and they weren’t successful since 2010. When you look at the schedule (IND, NE, at MIA to start), it’s not crazy to see Buffalo in a 0-3 hole. Things need to be clicking right away, and while I think they’ll win at least one of those games, I don’t see a strong start or finish this year. The streak continues.

4. New York Jets (5-11)

Stat: Remember when the 2013 Jets were 8-8 thanks to a 7-2 record in close games? Last year that record in close games fell to 3-8, dropping the Jets to 4-12. Know who is awful in those situations? Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 9-32-1 at game-winning drive opportunities with more turnovers in losses than any quarterback in that situation since 2005.

I actually think Fitzpatrick is an upgrade over Geno Smith, and this could be the best Jets defense since 2010, but here’s what that really means. Instead of having a quarterback commit a lot of early turnovers in a 28-17 loss, the Jets will watch Fitzpatrick toss game-ending picks in 19-16 defeats instead. He can give you league-average QB play, and certainly has some weapons around him, but he’ll make big mistakes in big moments the way people think far more successful QBs do. Fitzpatrick is factually that guy.

Good luck to Todd Bowles, because he’s had a very up-and-down career in the last few years. I think he earned this with his great work in Arizona, but let’s not forget how awful the Eagles were under his watch in 2012. The Sheldon Richardson situation takes away a little from a talent-heavy defensive line.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Stat: Adjusted for where the ball was thrown, Aaron Rodgers has completed 56.8 more passes (11.7 percentage points above expectations) than an average quarterback would have completed to Jordy Nelson.

arod

Yes, the Jordy Nelson torn ACL is terrible, but the Packers still have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Davante Adams already had high expectations in year two, and now they’ll be even higher. James Jones was moonlighting as a No. 1 in Oakland last year. He only has to be the No. 3 here and has depth behind him with Richard Rodgers getting better at tight end. There’s also Eddie Lacy for defenses to deal with.

What amazes me is just how many of the 2014 Packers are returning in 2015. This team kept damn near everyone, so the results should be pretty good again, right? Green Bay’s made six straight playoff trips. This is one of the teams that you can pencil in and just have to hope for some breaks in the playoffs. They didn’t get all they needed last year with the excruciating loss in Seattle. I still think the defense is under par from 2010, which really spearheaded that title run, but the offense is good enough to make this team a serious contender again. They just have to find a way to deal with Seattle, but the good news is they get them at home in Week 2. Win that game so you don’t have to go back to Seattle in January. However, Green Bay has not defended home field well in the playoffs, but their chances are still significantly better at Lambeau.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

Stat: Teddy Bridgewater’s strong finish was marked by a considerable drop in the distance of his passes as he relied more on the short game. His DVOA under pressure was consistently below average.

teddybridge

I thought Bridgewater was the best QB in the 2014 draft and so far nothing has proven otherwise. However, I’m hesitant to buy into him this year based on the way he finished last season. It was impressive, but not enough to the point where he’s going to be like a top 10 guy this season. I think he still has to work on the deep ball and it’s not clear if Mike Wallace is still a real threat for that. He had a much better red-zone season than usual in 2014. I liked the cheap pickup, but the Vikings have some interesting receivers in Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson as well. Bridgewater seemed very comfortable with them last year while Cordarrelle Patterson is simply not comfortable as an NFL WR. At least Kyle Rudolph and Adrian Peterson are back, so this offense could be fun to watch, though two big blows on the offensive line — and Matt Kalil isn’t even one of them — could hurt with Phil Loadholt (done) and John Sullivan (IR-DFR).

I like what Mike Zimmer has done with the defense and the talent is there for a top 10 season on that type of ball. This is a year where I see the Vikings breaking through to beat a team like Green Bay at home, but not doing enough things consistently to make the playoffs. They’re going to just miss out.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)

Stat: Golden Tate is the only WR in the NFL to rank in the top five in receiving plus-minus and YAC+ since 2012.

I whiffed on the Lions last year. I think a conservative 8-8 is the right approach this year. Rmember, the 2013 Lions blew a league-record seven fourth-quarter leads, so they were better than their record. The 2014 Lions had five fourth-quarter comebacks, so they weren’t really as good as 11-5. They also saw some career years from DeAndre Levy and Glover Quin, and career years aren’t easy to repeat. Golden Tate was great and that was a huge addition to give Calvin Johnson help. Eric Ebron had a usual slow start at TE, so maybe he can make them better at that position. I’m very interested to see what Ameer Abdullah can do in the backfield. Stafford also targeted three backs 50 times last year, so the backs are a big part of the passing game. I just think the career-year performances and loss of Ndamukong Suh, combined with a tough schedule drops this team out of the playoffs.

And as if you needed a reminder, the Lions simply don’t beat good teams in the Stafford era: 3-32 vs. teams who finish with a winning record.

4. Chicago Bears (5-11)

Stat: Jay Cutler still doesn’t care. Though he does have the highest conversion rate on two-point conversion passes since 1994. Those will come in handy down 42-6.

The Kevin White injury sucks for the offense, which traded Brandon Marshall to the Jets. I really didn’t care for all the screens and shortening of Alshon Jeffery’s game last year, and that might continue with Adam Gase, because no one told him the jig is up after Seattle exposed Denver’s screens in the Super Bowl. Matt Forte will catch fewer passes with Marc Trestman gone, but he should still be effective. It’s just hard to run the ball when you’re down 42-0.

John Fox should eventually fix the defense, but I don’t think the talent is there in 2015 for any remarkable improvement. It’s going to be another long year in Chicago.

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Stat: Only two of Baltimore’s 15 playoff games in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era have been played at home.

A lot of people are picking the Ravens for the Super Bowl. I’m not, but I could see it. The talent is there to get into the tournament. The consistency at head coach and quarterback is there. The front seven is one of the league’s best. The secondary should be better with the return of Jimmy Smith and some safety upgrades.

Should we be worried about the offense with Gary Kubiak leaving (Justin Forsett regression alert) and the fact that Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro are the depth behind old Steve Smith while Breshad Perriman (a rookie) is hurt? Dennis Pitta’s permanent status now is hurt, Owen Daniels is gone, Crockett Gilmore is skinning coons before practice and Maxx Williams is just a rookie. Yes, these are concerns, but this team usually finds a way to get into the tournament where anything can happen. One year you throw a pass that should have been caught to get to the Super Bowl. One year you throw up a prayer that gets answered. The next year you throw a game-ending interception. I just think the schedule favors the Ravens in this division since they don’t have to go to New England and Seattle like Pittsburgh does. They are also a more balanced team than Pittsburgh, and the duo of Harbaugh/Flacco is better than Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Stat: Bengals are first team in NFL history to go one-and-done in four consecutive Wild Card games.

I have run out of things to say about this team having done several AFC North pieces each offseason. How many Wild Card exits can you keep going through before a team moves in a different direction at coach and quarterback? This run has been remarkable for the wrong reasons, and here we are again with another 10-win season projected from me. Cincinnati has beaten good and great teams in the regular season, but not in the playoffs where the contests haven’t even been contests for the most part.

I love A.J. Green because of how hard Dalton makes his job with inaccurate throws. I think Jeremy Hill can be a stud this year. Geno Atkins should be stronger, two years removed from the ACL now. The talent is there, but do you trust this team to win in Baltimore or Indy or New England? But hell, with all of my Bengal bashing they’ll probably go to Denver and knock off the Broncos with Dalton having a dominant game, sending Peyton Manning into retirement. You know it’s either going to be Dalton or Alex Smith delivering that karma on me.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Stat: Steelers are the first team since 1940 to intercept fewer than 12 passes in four consecutive seasons. Their 76 takeaways are the fewest in the NFL since 2011.  

I have the Steelers beating the Broncos in Pittsburgh in December, but also losing at home to Oakland. Don’t laugh. That’s basically what happened in 2009 when Oakland won here, but Green Bay didn’t in that epic shootout. This is what the Steelers do: get up for good teams, play down to the competition. We’ll see how much they have left for the brutal finish after a Week 11 bye: at Seattle, Indy, at Cincy, Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland.

The defense is not going to dramatically improve this year, and the offense won’t be as good to compensate, hence another 8-8 season, wasting another year of Roethlisberger’s remaining prime.

The injury to Maurkice Pouncey (after he lived up to the hype in 2014) and suspensions to Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant already mean the Steelers have far less continuity than they had on offense last year when they had almost no games missed. Despite the prowess of the 2014 offense, they had about five “off” games. You’d like to see that number drop to three or less if you want to be a top-tier offense, which is what the Steelers need to have to make up for the defense.

I almost feel bad for Keith Butler taking over at defensive coordinator for Dick LeBeau. He waited so long for this job that the talent core of the defense is almost entirely gone now. The 2015 draft has already been a disappointment with three picks not making the 53-man roster, Sammie Coates not impressing and Senquez Golson on IR. I loved the trade for Brandon Boykin, but I still can’t trust the secondary.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Stat: Joe Thomas has never missed a single offensive snap in eight years.

This year’s Cleveland offense looks like something you’d find at a flea market with the one fancy showroom saved for the offensive linemen. “Look, a two-for-one deal on a broken Josh McCown and Dwayne Bowe. And there’s Brian Hartline, complete with no touchdowns!” Can’t Mike Pettine ever enjoy a consistent offense? Starting McCown is basically throwing in the towel on the season. They have to see Johnny Manziel this year, but I already predicted Cardale Jones as the future of this team.

At least the defense has some pieces in place.

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

Stat: Drew Brees is deadly accurate. If there’s a +/- stat, he likely bests everyone since 2006 (click to enlarge).

accQB

This division was pathetic last year, and it’s not going to be worlds better in 2015 I don’t think. I’m very hesitant to pick the Saints after getting burned so bad last year, but this is my trust in Drew Brees and Sean Payton. They let some games slip away last year that should have been won. I know Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills were big losses, but the braintrust here know how to get guys ready to play. Look at Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and company.

When I look at the schedule, I think it’s probable the Saints are favored in eight straight games starting in November. The schedule’s just not that daunting. In past years I’d predict 11-13 wins for the Saints with this schedule, but given the deficiencies we’re seeing, I’m content at 9-7. That should be enough in the NFC South.

2. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

Stat: In 22 losses since 2013, Matt Ryan has thrown for 6,137 yards and 36 touchdowns. The next closest quarterback in losses is Eli Manning (5,085 yards and 27 touchdowns).

I think Dan Quinn was the type of coach the Falcons needed and Vic Beasley was the type of defensive player they needed to draft. That’s the side of the ball causing them the most trouble, though the offense is not without fault, especially up front and in the running game. I respect Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but I’m not a big fan of what they’re doing at tight end and the secondary wide receivers. I think the defense only gets so better in year one, but it’s not enough to push this team back into the playoffs.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Stat: Cam Newton overthrew a league-high 17% of his passes in 2014. He was at 15% in a healthier 2013.

Basically I have the Panthers as the same subpar team they’ve been in three of the last four years under Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. The exception was 2013 and that was thanks to a great defense. I don’t think they have the offensive line, the wide receivers and the secondary to win at that level this season. Seven wins aren’t going to get you a home playoff game against Ryan Lindley this year. I’m just disappointed Kelvin Benjamin was injured in practice, because he was very interesting to watch in 2014. I think Newton will miss him dearly and Devin Funchess won’t come close to replicating Benjamin’s 2014. They are going to have to rely on Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. and that’s just not enticing with a quarterback who has accuracy issues.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Stat: 43.6% of Mike Evans’ receiving yards came in a three-game stretch against the Browns, Falcons and Redskins.  

I should have researched it, but 5-11 sounds like a reasonable next-year record for a team coming off a 2-14 season. Everyone seems to have Jameis Winston penciled in to lead the league in interceptions. That would be funny if Marcus Mariota threw more after the annoying hype over preseason practice stats. I think Winston will do his share of forcing the ball, but he could be a sack machine too. Not to the level of David Carr, but he’s going to have to get rid of the ball this year and that could mean some extra picks. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are good receivers for him, though I don’t see an efficient offense at all here. More like bottom four. What should be better is the defense, led by Lavonte David. Lovie Smith should tighten things up in year two and I think we started to see that after the bye last year.

The 2014 Buccaneers were a league-worst 1-10 in close games. I think they’ll surprise a few teams this year and steal a handful of wins.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)

Stat: Colts are 33-4 (.892) in the Andrew Luck era when allowing fewer than 29 points. The Colts have allowed at least 40 points in half of their 18 losses since 2012.

This feels like a boom-or-bust year for the Colts. They’re trying to become the first team to ever advance another step in the playoffs in four straight years, which would be to the Super Bowl. The schedule gives them the best path to the No. 1 seed thanks to playing in the QB-starved AFC South and having home games with Denver and New England. However, if the Colts implode two more times against the Patriots or falter in a major way (say, miss the playoffs) I could see Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson fired for it.

I think Andre Johnson and Frank Gore will pay off, but those are rentals. I think Phillip Dorsett may work out too, but he’s a luxury pick and won’t help them stop [random Patriot RB] from rushing for 160 yards and 4 TD. Obviously the Colts have some flaws on the offensive line and the consistency of the defense, especially against better opponents. But the biggest problem this team has is getting completely outclassed, outcoached and outplayed about a handful of times every year. This doesn’t happen to annual playoff teams. In FOA 2015, I looked at 158 cases of a team making the playoffs in three consecutive years. The 2012-14 Colts truly stand alone in how they win and lose games:

ColtsFOA

How do you stop doing that? Hopefully it involves cutting off the fat from the offense like Trent Richardson. Gore and some changes along the offensive line should improve the running game. The defense is filled with veterans, but you just hope some of them step up and start rushing the passer. They sure have enough bodies to try. The defensive line could be a big weakness with an injury to Arthur Jones putting some inexperienced players in the spotlight. The season does not 100% hinge on how the Colts handle the Patriots, or if they have to see them twice again, but that’s certainly the biggest hurdle in getting to the Super Bowl for this team. They match up better with everyone else.

2. Houston Texans (6-10)

Stat: Brian Hoyer overthrew or underthrew 24.5% of his passes in 2014, the highest rate in the NFL.

The front seven has a chance to be very good if Vince Wilfork and Jadeveon Clowney can help out J.J. Watt. I look forward to charting the catch radius of DeAndre Hopkins, and there’s not much else I can really say about the offense. Oh, Arian Foster needs to get back soon. I gained some newfound respect for coach Bill O’Brien after watching this team on Hard Knocks. I just hope he can find a competent quarterback soon, because one does not exist on the current Houston roster. I think he can get more out of Hoyer than Cleveland did, but it’s not going to be up to the level of where this team can seriously compete for anything, even in a bad division. Don’t let last year’s 9-7 record fool you.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

Stat: Blake Bortles’ passing YPA in the final six games of 2014 was 5.41, 5.54, 5.26, 5.68, 4.42 and 3.55. You have got to be kidding me.  

Yeah, I said last year Bortles would have people making Jacksonville a trendy pick for the playoffs in 2015. More like a trendy pick for the No. 1 overall pick. Fooled by his preseason performance, I didn’t see much at all last year from Bortles, who rarely had a chance to shine anyway behind this offensive line. I think T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson can give the running game a boost Toby Gerhart couldn’t, and I’m curious to see Allen Robinson in year two. I hated the Julius Thomas signing, because he is an injury prone player (oh, and look…) and he should thank Peyton for the millions. They basically overpaid for Marcedes Lewis 2.0.

It sucks that Dante Fowler is already done for the year with an injury. The Jaguars needed some type of cornerstone on defense, because this is largely a collection of guys who probably wouldn’t start on most teams in the league. CB Aaron Colvin might be a breakout player, but there’s just very little for the Jaguars to hang their hat on here and expect consistency from.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Stat: In 2013, Kendall Wright had two touchdowns on 94 receptions. He’s only the fourth WR to have no more than two touchdowns with at least 90 catches in a season.

Is Ken Whisenhunt stocking up on mediocre running backs because he thinks he can maximize Mariota by limiting his attempts the way he did Roethlisberger a decade ago? That’s not going to work if your defense is trash, and I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic about this group. Maybe if Brian Orakpo stays healthy and Blidi Wreh-Wilson stays on the sideline they can finish 20th or so, but the highlight of this season will be seeing how Mariota handles the NFL. I want to believe a QB who threw 105 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in college can succeed in this league, but recent results have not been favorable to young quarterbacks. Either way, I expect the Titans to lose a large number of games and for Whisenhunt to be fired at season’s end.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Stat: Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 70 consecutive games, an NFL record.

This team is historically great, but can it stay together? Kam Chancellor doesn’t seem to think so, and that’s a damn shame with a huge game looming in Green Bay in Week 2. That could be the difference in where the NFC Championship Game is played. We know Seattle has enough talent to win 10+ games. They’re clearly the best team in this division, with or without Chancellor. Russell Wilson has Jimmy Graham and recovery water, so maybe he’ll throw 38 passes in a game this year (56 games and counting of him not). I also can’t wait to see what Tyler Lockett can do. He might be a big-play rookie threat the way Mike Wallace was in 2009 for the Steelers. The offense can pick up any slack on the defense, which should still be great. The offensive line is the biggest weakness, but we write that every year. This team is still a couple of Marshawn Lynch runs away from being 8-0 in the playoffs with a 2012 NFC Championship Game to be played in San Francisco. You don’t blow them out and you can’t keep them down for 60 minutes.

2. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

Stat: The 2014 Cardinals were 11-3 in close games featuring a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. That’s incredible.

We keep doubting Bruce Arians and his magic beans, but he keeps defying the odds with all these close wins. Does losing Todd Bowles and some defenders hurt? Probably, but I think the philosophy is still going to be aggressive and the Cardinals have quite the group of defensive backs to use with the athletic ability to tackle hard and cover speed. Offensively, it’s good to see Carson Palmer back, especially after we were forced to watch Ryan Lindley in national settings. John Brown is a receiver everyone’s counting on to break out, but this offense still has Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald too. There may not be a lot to love on this team, but there’s a lot to like and I think they’ll be right in the thick of the playoff race all year. They’ll just suffer some close-game regression, but I’ve been wrong before about “BA.”

3. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)

Stat: The 49ers have 6-of-22 starters from Super Bowl XLVII remaining on the 2015 roster

I almost had to go back and reconfigure my records when I saw I was giving the 49ers seven wins. That sounds like way too many for a new coach who would definitely wear a deep V-neck with no undershirt to an important press conference. That’s just how guys from western PA roll. I’ve walked the same streets and hallways Tomsula did years ago growing up, and while I wish him well, I see a pretty short-lived, difficult tenure in stepping in for Jim Harbaugh. The incredible roster turnover probably wouldn’t have all happened if Harbaugh was still there. So how do I get seven wins for this team? I guess I still have some confidence in the talents of Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Antoine Bethea and NaVorro Bowman. They’re all still playing, right? This could be a pick I regret, but I just think the 49ers will be able to compete and win some games this year. But I should have probably found a way to make it five wins instead of seven.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Stat: There have been 278 individual 800-yard receiving seasons in the NFL since 2008. Zero of them have happened in St. Louis.

I’d probably be more right if I swapped the records for the 49ers and Rams, but it’s behind me. I hated the Jeff Fisher-reeking Todd Gurley pick since the Rams continue to try building an offensive line and already had Tre Mason. That’s not going to turn them into a playoff team. I’m not sure what to make of the Nick Foles trade. I know I’m not a Sam Bradford fan, but what exactly is Foles without Chip Kelly? He’s been like a different QB in each of his three seasons, so I really look forward to seeing who he is in 2015. I think Foles is better than what the Rams have usually had at QB recently, and he could be a good fit for a run-heavy, play-action heavy offense. I still don’t like Tavon Austin the NFL, and I think Brian Quick had the lightbulb turn on last year before injury. Curious to see if he could break the 800-yard mark.

But am I curious enough to want to watch the Rams every week? No, it’s still a Fisher team, and I think the secondary will hold the defense back from reaching its full potential again. Too many breakdowns and miscommunications there. The front seven can be fantastic, but as Bruce Arians said, there’s a reason this team is always 8-8. I don’t even see them doing that well this year.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (12-4)

Stat: Peyton Manning has the top three seasons with the lowest pressure rate of any quarterback since 2010. He did this with two teams, three offensive coordinators and 18 different starting offensive linemen.

I have written plenty about Denver in FOA 2015 and elsewhere this offseason, including the reasons behind last year’s second-half slump (a very unique scheduling of road/home games and Manning’s torn quad). The absurd gameplan and statistical outlier that was that playoff loss to Indy where the Broncos amassed more failed completions (15) than any of the 13,320 offensive performances since 1989. I wrote not to panic about the offensive line, which is still the roster’s weakest link even after the Evan Mathis addition. I think Wade Phillips will do a great job with the defense, which alone should have the team in contention even if the offense takes a step back. And yes, I have some serious concerns that the Manning-Kubiak mixture doesn’t come out as expected. Fortunately this team gets the Patriots and Bengals at home this year instead of on the road.

But really, what I want to focus on here is some of the ridiculous talk all offseason surrounding the Broncos. Any time I hear “Manning has a running game and defense now!” I know better than to believe it, because it usually doesn’t come together. He might have those things, but we’ll see. More than this, I can’t stand the notion that Kubiak and John Elway know exactly how to manage Manning and how to win championships just because of what the Broncos did in 1997-98. Those teams still threw 500 passes. Elway was still injured multiple times, even hurting himself in pre-game warm-ups and while lifting weights. Bubby Brister had no problem filling in those games on those loaded teams. Manning had the flu and then had the torn quad happen in games where he threw just 20 passes. Injury can happen on any play. I understand not having him throw 600+ passes this year, but he’s still going to be around 500 I bet. It’s 2015. You just signed Demaryius Thomas to a huge contract. You have Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels. These are some of your best players. Use them.

The Broncos did basically nothing in the postseason after Elway retired, running Kubiak’s/Shanahan’s offense. Why did things work in 97-98? Elway had all the help you could ask for in the playoffs (click to enlarge):

ElwaySBs

A defense that allows 12.9 PPG, forces 3.1 turnovers per game, and a running game that averaged 178.6 yards per game at 5.3 YPC. They were nearly scoring 30 per game with Elway only having to contribute a little over 140 yards towards the scoring each week. When Elway had a down game in each run (97 SB vs. Packers, 98 AFC-C vs. Jets), the team was there to pick him up.

If you could promise me the Broncos will play like a team like that this postseason, then I’ll pick them to go all the way. But I haven’t seen it the last three years, and I’m not sure I trust Kubiak to get this team to that point in 2015. We’re going to look back at the 2012 Broncos as the best shot this team had to win a Super Bowl. That team was on a roll playing complementary football, but one big mistake killed them. They haven’t been the same ever since.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

Stat: How about a stat debut? “ALEX” is Air Less Expected and it’s named after none other than Alex Smith. This metric looks at the average difference between how far a quarterback threw the ball (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. This is most informative on third and fourth down. This graphic comes from FOA 2015 and looks at the main quarterbacks since 2011 on third down and their ALEX. It’s like Smith is playing his own sport, throwing nearly two yards short on average of the sticks on third down. You can see the best quarterbacks tend to be at the top.

ALEX

We’ll see if Alex Smith can start throwing deep with more success, but how many teams have a RB/WR/TE trio like the Chiefs have with Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce? That’s pretty good. Albert Wilson is a competent slot receiver, so who cares if this team doesn’t have much of anything to stick on the outside? They have a lot of weapons around Smith. He just has to stop being so shy to pull the trigger. We know by now you have to coddle him a bit to succeed, but this team is built to do that against a large chunk of the NFL. The Chiefs need a good start with Denver and Green Bay on the early schedule. That could be tough with Sean Smith’s suspension, but it’s a good measuring stick for where this team is offensively. You have to score a decent number of points to beat teams like that. I think the Chiefs at full strength have a competent enough defense to win it all, but a poor (1-3 for example) start might just short-circuit the whole season. Ultimately I have them stuck in 8-8 purgatory with a lot of AFC competition this year.

3. San Diego Chargers (8-8)

Stat: Philip Rivers’ YPA dropped two full yards in the final 10 games of the season, apparently due to a rib injury he played through.

I’ll be honest, it’s less than an hour before Thursday night kickoff and I really want to relax, so apologies to San Diego fans. Please check out my Q&A with Bolts from the Blue where I gave very detailed answers about the Chargers this year. My gut is they’re right in that Wild Card mix, but I guess I just didn’t see enough wins on that schedule when I ran through it.

4. Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Stat: Oakland finished 4-12 or worse in 38.5 percent of Football Outsiders’ season simulations — highest rate of any team.

Derek Carr thought he was Aaron Rodgers last year, but he only had a used James Jones. I think he’ll like the receiving corps much better this season with Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and a healthy Rod Streater. However, I’m still not sold on Carr as a franchise quarterback and I think this offense will still struggle. Jack Del Rio will improve the defense and Khalil Mack is a stud. My tone in the book was optimistic for a change, but when push comes to shove, I still think the Raiders struggle like hell to avoid double-digit losses in 2015. One of my handful of teams finishing 4-12.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Indianapolis (13-3)
  2. Denver (12-4)
  3. New England (12-4)
  4. Baltimore (11-5)
  5. Cincinnati (10-6)
  6. Miami (10-6)

Some accuse the Patriots of intentionally letting Miami “show their cards” in a win in Week 17 to set up an ass-kicking at Foxboro in the Wild Card round. The Ravens knock off the Bengals in another divisional rematch, maybe signaling the end of Lewis and Dalton. Yeah, probably not. The Colts can handle Baltimore’s lack of dynamic weapons at home in a defensive battle. Manning will finish his career with a losing record against Brady, but he’ll have the 3-2 postseason edge, which would be so delightfully awkward for NE fans to swallow. Denver at Indy in the AFC Championship Game, think that would get a lot of hype? I’m going with the Colts to get it done at home, possibly ending Manning’s career where it began, but after a hard-fought classic instead of this past January’s funeral march.

NFC

  1. Seattle (13-3)
  2. Green Bay (12-4)
  3. Philadelphia (11-5)
  4. New Orleans (9-7)
  5. Dallas (10-6)
  6. NY Giants (9-7)

The Giants won a tie-breaker (I checked) over the Cardinals and Vikings for the final Wild Card spot. They upset the Eagles at home, giving Heath Evans an erection until he realizes this could be bad news for his Pats and Saints. Here come the Giants again. The Cowboys lose in New Orleans, because Dez didn’t catch enough balls. Seattle quickly silences the Giants’ hype with a decisive win. The Saints give Green Bay a good one, but the Packers win at home. Green Bay returns to Seattle for some revenge, but the Seahawks stifle them again.

SUPER BOWL 50

Seattle Seahawks 28, Indianapolis Colts 20

No, that’s definitely not four 1-yard touchdown passes to Jimmy Graham. Marshawn Lynch runs all over the Colts to earn Super Bowl MVP before retiring on the spot. Then the internet sets the scene for Fallout 5 after the destruction caused by the Andrew Luck vs. Russell Wilson debate.

This was just my vision of 2015. Let the real thing begin.

2013 NFL Wild Card Predictions

Last season I did an unusually good job of picking playoff games. I even got really close to the final score on Wild Card weekend. My 9-2 record only consisted of losses by the Colts (too much of a heart choice) and Broncos (“Rahim Moore should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell”). This season, I have virtually zero confidence in having a good month of predictions. This is not a lack of confidence in myself. It’s the inconsistency the 2013 playoff field has shown us.

Factor in the declining quality in officiating — you just know at least one team is going to get royally screwed here — and literally anything could happen. Sure, I would never bet on Chargers-Saints in a February blizzard, but that’s really not even that crazy. I feel like any of the 12 teams could go on a run or could go one-and-done. I’ve never felt this way before about a playoff field. Last year I would have never believed the Colts could win in New England or Denver. I didn’t picture Baltimore doing it, but the Ravens did. Even before we found out it was going to be a lousy game with Joe Webb at quarterback, I gave the Vikings little chance to move past the Wild Card round, let alone win another game.

But each year I see more playoff randomness and there are way too many great players on these teams unable to participate due to injury. So the flaws are all very real. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

I did not have time to start it this week unfortunately, but I will be running an epic series of articles on quarterbacks in the playoffs starting on Football Outsiders next week. If you want a great source of data to bookmark, this will deliver. If you want something to shove in someone’s face when they say something stupid, consider it a belated gift.

Speaking of gifts, make sure to download my updated playoff chart for every team in the Super Bowl era.

Chiefs at Colts

Practically everything I needed to say about this game can be found in my preview at Football Outsiders. I do like the Colts in a much closer game than the one in Week 16.

One thing I will add here: I hope Andrew Luck gets his first playoff win today, just so we don’t have to go through this stupid “when’s he going to win one?” thing that is sure to come in today’s media world. “Oh, Russell Wilson won a playoff game last year. Colin Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl. WHAT’S WHRONG WIT ANDROOW LUCK!?!” We went through this recently with Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, but none of those players were the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Now I’m not saying we need to absolve Luck of all blame if he has a horrible game against the Chiefs, but I don’t think anyone expected the Colts to go 22-10 the last two years with such a revamped and flawed roster. Just being in this position is worthy of respect. Cam Newton didn’t do this in 2011-12. Robert Griffin III already fell off in year two and the Redskins are a mess.

The Colts have beaten the best teams in the league this year without really being one themselves. Imagine that.

Saints at Eagles

Again, it’s been a busy last few days of playoff preparation. You can read my ESPN Insider article (if possible) on Nick Foles’ totally unexpected elite season here. He might look like he failed to land the lead role in Napoleon Dynamite, but the kid can play and it’s not just the Chip Kelly system. I’m impressed and I think he has a good shot to win this game against a Saints team that, let’s face it, hasn’t played well on the road this season.

So what is it about that “Saints are awesome at home, but forget them on the road” thing? I give my thoughts on that here. It is overstated a bit, but until the Saints win a game like this, people will continue to doubt them outside of the dome. Pierre Thomas reportedly will not play, but the Saints still have plenty of backs. They just don’t have nearly the type of reliable running game the Eagles have. The balance is why I like the Eagles to win at home, because it’s not like Foles has to do it all while Brees is likely to go over 45 pass attempts.

You may recall an article I did on offensive balance this summer. The 2013 Eagles rank 18th in balance-adjusted yards per play since 1970:

t20bal

Should be a lot of points scored, but give me the home team here.

Chargers at Bengals

Here’s one where literally anything could happen. The Chargers probably aren’t happy about the 10 A.M. PST kickoff, but they couldn’t even bitch about a crack of dawn start time after the gift from the officials and Ryan Succop last week to even be in this game.

Plain and simple: the Bengals have the best defense in the AFC, they can contain San Diego’s offense, but Andy Dalton cannot blow the game for them. Dalton threw four picks last week and still won. He can’t throw more than two and win this week, because San Diego loves to shorten the game with long drives (death by papercuts). The Chargers had the fewest offensive drives (158) in the league this year and averaged the most possession time per drive and ran the most plays per drive. That’s just how they play football because the offense makes a lot of successful plays and the poor defense allows a lot of first downs.

That all shortens the game, so Dalton cannot waste possessions for his teams and give up field position with turnovers. I think the Bengals are best equipped in the AFC to handle a bad game from their quarterback due to the defense and surrounding offensive talent, but few teams are equipped to overcome a postseason pick parade.

The Bengals are 8-0 at home this season. I may do a short post on this at FO, but I found 50 teams to go 8-0 at home since 1978. They went 43-16 (.729) at home in the playoffs. Only 11 teams went one-and-done at home in the playoffs.

As long as Dalton keeps the picks under three, the Bengals should move on here, but I’ve been wrong before on San Diego.

49ers at Packers

I guess the weather’s going to be a big story here. What’s the forecast?

itscold

If scoring is down, then I just think that favors the 49ers even more in a tough, grind it out game. The Packers are different now that they have a running game with Eddie Lacy, but the 49ers are such a balanced team on both sides of the ball. They’re frankly just a better team than the Packers, who I think in the future would not be hosting this game as an 8-7-1 team over a 12-4 team they already lost to. But we can’t fix the playoffs this month, so tough shi+.

Dom Capers has had no answers for Colin Kaepernick. By air or ground, it’s been a nightmare the last two games and even Alex Smith picked this defense apart in the 2012 opener. I’m not sure enough has changed for Green Bay to get past the 49ers, which is the exact opposite of this series in the 90s with Brett Favre always getting past Steve Young except for that time Jerry Rice fumbled and no referee cared.

Wait, you mean the NFL referees have always sucked?

The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb back, which is great and it means there’s always a chance, but this defense is awful and will be without Clay Matthews. The Packers have allowed at least 21 points in 10 straight games (at least 26 in 9/10). They’ve been behind by a lot of unusually big deficits in the second half almost every week since the Rodgers injury. It was a great effort to rally back and make the playoffs, but I just don’t see the defense being strong like it was in 2010 for this team to put together a run.

The 49ers simply continue to be a bad matchup for the Packers.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Oh I’m never a fan of picking the scores because they just provide more ways to show how wrong you were, but here we go.

  • Colts over Chiefs, 23-20
  • Eagles over Saints, 34-24
  • Bengals over Chargers, 31-17
  • 49ers over Packers, 23-16

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 9-6
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 11-4
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-3
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 8-6
  • Week 11: 9-6
  • Week 12: 7-6-1
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 8-8
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 14-2
  • Season: 164-91-1

NFL Week 4 Predictions: I Don’t Care If Aaron Rodgers Is Clutch

This has been quite the week. Four years after first quantifying a quarterback’s record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I finally saw that work transfer to the TV set this week on ESPN’s First Take with this graphic:

2013-09-24_11-38-24_225

Little did I expect what would follow. In true First Take style, right after debating whether or not Peyton Manning was the greatest QB in the history of the NFL, the next segment was fully devoted to whether or not Aaron Rodgers was still the best QB in today’s NFL. You know, ahead of the guy they just said might be the GOAT.

The surreal event of watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless hold a printout copy of my Insider article on Rodgers so they could argue about it is something I never would have expected and never will forget.

FT0924

The fruits of my labor made it like Christmas morning for Bayless, as he has argued his ridiculous “lack of clutch gene” narrative — ridiculous in that no gene exists for anyone — on Rodgers for years without doing the research to support it. He has something now, just as anyone should when I first wrote about the front-running Packers before the 2011 season started. This is nothing new to long-time readers, but it took a push by ESPN to finally get the numbers out there.

So if Green Bay’s historic struggles to win these games is a story going forward, then I have done my job.

The problem is when a large audience catches on to something completely new to them, there’s going to be a strong negative reaction too. That’s what I want to address here. You can consider this version 2.0 of “The Truth About the Front-Running Green Bay Packers”

First, allow me to expose a little secret:  Monday’s article was a last-second backup plan after the events of Sunday’s early games made a piece I did on the AFC null and void. So after the dramatic game ended between Green Bay and Cincinnati, I pitched a topic I’m very familiar with and have plenty of research on already.

Now, let’s understand this is a business. You need some controversial headlines that will generate clicks. Any good business will tell you that, not just ESPN. People can twist headlines all they want, but if you read the article:

I never said Rodgers is not clutch. I don’t write about the “clutchiness” of QBs. I write about what happened in clutch situations. Clutch is a history, not a skill.

I never said the 5-24 record at comebacks or 9-26 record at game-winning drive opportunities is all Rodgers’ fault. In fact, my first mention of this goes right to head coach Mike McCarthy.

“These close-game failures have been the hush-hush hallmark of coach Mike McCarthy’s otherwise successful tenure as Packers head coach. While the blame should be distributed everywhere, why are we not looking at the quarterback more?”

Here are some other direct quotes from the article that do not put the blame all on Rodgers:

“It’s always the same story for Green Bay: win big or lose close”

“Sunday was a perfect opportunity, but it was the latest in a long line of failures for the league’s best front-running quarterback and team.”

“There is some historical data to show the crunch-time disconnect in Green Bay.”

I understand the article is behind a pay wall, so not everyone was able to read it (hint: try Google). But there are claims out there on things I never wrote in the piece.

I also did not write the line “Recurring fourth-quarter failures prevent him from being NFL’s top QB” under the title, however I agree with it 100 percent. I’m not going to put Rodgers ahead of Peyton and Tom Brady, who have the gaudy stats, records, MVP awards and Super Bowl rings too. They also have a larger body of work. But the main difference comes in that I can still trust those QBs when the game does not start as planned and they have to win it late. I don’t trust Rodgers in the same fashion, which is why I had little faith he would get the go-ahead drive on Sunday in Cincinnati.

I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words on this topic before, so anyone thinking this was a knee-jerk reaction to Sunday’s game just doesn’t know my work on the topic. By the way, I’m limited to around 1,500 words on Insider, so any thought to being able to fully explain away every loss in the 9-26 record is a pipe dream.

Stephen A. Smith said he didn’t see a list of the games where Rodgers led the Packers to a fourth-quarter lead, but the defense gave it back. HOWEVVVVA, it does state this in the article:

“Of course, some of the 26 losses speak well for him. He has put Green Bay ahead seven times in the fourth quarter when trailing, only for the team to go on to lose the game. The defense is certainly deserving of blame for this.”

I make sure I cover my bases. So that’s what I wanted to say about the Insider piece itself.

As for any fan criticism or written defenses that have come from other writers this week, now I will respond to those.

I’m not as nonchalant about things as Rodgers, who responded with “Yeah, I’m not worried about that at all” when ESPN’s Jason Wilde asked him point blank about the lack of success in these games. I probably need to get that way to survive in this business, but I probably like arguing with people too much to stop completely.

There were many comments, e-mails and articles this week in response to my work. I’m not going to link to any of the articles as I didn’t see any that attacked me personally. If I did, I would have responded accordingly. I’m just going to go over some of the general faults I found.

No one’s done the same study I have done. It’s hard to compare (straight up) any past study of close games if you’re not looking at things the way I do, which is 4th quarter/OT, tied or down by one score. What I do takes an eternity for one person to compile, so I don’t think anyone could have accomplished that the last few days.

Stats in the final 5:00 – Sure, we can look at these, but that leaves out a lot of what goes into the 5-24/9-26 records. It’s not just about what you do when you’re behind, but it’s how you protect that lead or how you avoid getting into these situations late in the first place.

Win-loss record at 4QC/GWD should not be thrown away like trash – You can read my rant on this from FO here. We can take these stats and just look at how good a guy is at scoring a TD when he’s down 4-8 points in the 4Q, or scoring a FG when he’s tied or down 1-3. We can break them up that way and maybe get something useful out of that. The only reason I haven’t done it is because I’m still trying to put together a full database for every single opportunity in the last 30+ years. That takes time.

However, the record, the wins and losses (and sometimes ties), is the starting point for knowing which games to look at. We can’t just ignore it. While we can break the games down and see why the team won or lost, we need to be taking 4QC/GWD, which are situational drive stats at the heart of it all, and not just focus on the scoring drive(s).

Rodgers probably could have avoided last Sunday’s 4QC opportunity if he didn’t throw a bad INT early in the quarter in scoring territory. And people talk about the Johnathan Franklin fumble on 4th-and-1 losing the game, but I can tell you any advanced stat (DVOA, QBR, WPA, EPA) will give Rodgers two negatives for the sack on 2nd-and-6 and the 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-12 that set up that 4th-and-1 in the first place. He’s still accountable in that loss for things that took place before he was even trailing in the 4Q.

With a stat like TD passes, we don’t care about what happened on the drive before and after. It is what it is. These 4QC/GWD stats are different because what happens before and after them will usually decide if they stand up or not. Just taking a 1-point lead with 14:50 left to play does not put you in good position for a GWD. You will likely need to do something the rest of the game too.

Even before I became the guy who corrected 4QC stats for people like Elway and Marino, I was tracking successes and failures for active QBs for years. Eventually I started combining the two files to develop records for how successful QBs/teams are at such games. It was only natural for me to start quantifying things like one-minute drills, two-minute offense and the four-minute offense. I want to develop a new win probability model this offseason so I can use things like WPA and Expected Points Added (EPA) for QBs in these situations. I want to quantify late-game performance and strategy as well as anyone ever has, but it’s a process and you’ll just have to bear with me.

I don’t think the W-L record, especially for a QB, is the best way to judge these things, but I know it’s not meaningless either, especially for those who sit at the extreme ends of the chart. There’s something there that’s worth exploring and talking about.

Final-score analysis is heavily flawed to study the closeness of games. Because it takes too long to do this, most close-game studies have always been about the final score. Those can be very misleading. The Colts/49ers from last Sunday played a game that was a tie or one-score difference for 93% of the game before the Colts pulled away 27-7. A final-score study would reject that as a close game, but it would accept trash like MNF Eagles/Redskins from Week 1 when Washington made it 33-27 late and failed to recover the onside kick. That game was not close and the only drive involving a one-score game in the 4Q that night was Michael Vick taking two knees. Forget about the final score.

Rodgers is 20-22 (.476) in games decided by one score, and I hope it’s assumed when I say Rodgers I mean “the Packers with Rodgers at QB”. Because the record with Matt Flynn or Brett Favre (under McCarthy) would be different.

Anyways, 20-22 is a hell of a difference from 9-26 (.257) at GWDs, so you can see it’s two completely different studies. That’s the one thing I would like to change in how I’ve been writing about this. It’s not so much a close-game issue for Green Bay as it is a failure to win games when they have to score the winning points in the 4Q/OT.  Behind Rodgers they’re 9-26 at doing that, but 49-5 in all other games. No one has been able to explain that absurd gap in winning percentage, which is the largest in NFL history.

There is no simple explanation as teams lose games for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the QB, sometimes it’s the defense and once in a while it’s a kicker. You can count how many times Mason Crosby missed a clutch kick (four games and three were long attempts) that led to a loss, but what about Tony Romo (5) or Tom Brady (once)? You can’t just adjust Rodgers’ record for these things, because they happen to all other QBs too. If you want the article that will show that, stay tuned to Football Outsiders this season.

No matter who you want to blame, the Packers are 9-26 at GWDs with Rodgers at QB and that is a terrible record, especially for such a good team. Rodgers is the headline, but the Packers’ problems are the real story, and too many people are glossing over that aspect of this.

As for criticism of my “Phil Simms analysis” that 4QC show the cream rising to the top, well you find fault with the 10 guys who have held the record for most 4QC wins since 1950: Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, Bobby Layne, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. That’s a who’s who of the best QBs through the years with Joe Montana (5th all time) only excluded because he missed too many games in his career. The 1970s are not represented, but wouldn’t you know Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler all lead the decade with 15 4QC wins. Throughout NFL history, the best QBs dominate this stat as much as any other stat you can pick. But for Aaron Rodgers, he’s still somehow behind John Skelton and Tim Tebow. If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, nothing will.

Enough with the “lack of opportunity” argument – I hammered on this before, but again some people think Rodgers has a lack of 4QC/GWD for a lack of opportunity. 29-35 games is plenty of opportunity. It’s not the opportunity, it’s the bad winning percentage. Here’s an updated list with a few more notable QBs and how many 4QC opportunities they have had by start.

4QO

Rodgers is just above average at 32.6%, so stop it.

Statistical significance vs. real significance – I want to tread lightly on this topic as this alone could be 5,000 words out of me. I fully understand the small sample size issues with covering football. I’ve done hundreds of articles and looked at many things over the years, so I know as well as anyone when we don’t have enough data to make good conclusions. How many comeback opportunities does Rodgers need before we can statistically conclude his record is bad? 30? 50? 100? I don’t know, but I will work to find out in the offseason.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep doing my job as a football analyst to present the patterns and trends that aid our coverage of the game. They may or may not have statistical significance, but once you start talking about 29-35 games, that seems rather foolish to brush everything off as being random.

We can all agree the final minutes of a close NFL game are different from the rest of the game, right? The rule book changes in regards to clock stoppages and things like advancing the ball after a fumble. Time actually becomes a factor with using timeouts and managing the clock. No one cares about the game clock unless it’s the end of a half. Offenses will use all four downs while playing three-down football most of the time otherwise. There’s that sense of “if this drive is not successful, we will lose the game” that just does not come early in the game. It’s a different experience in crunch time.

So how many times does a team need to experience this before they learn how to adapt to the situation? Think of your own real-life experiences in adverse situations: driving up an icy hill on your way home from work, flying on an airplane or going to a funeral parlor. Yeah, I’m going to go with the darkest analogy I could think of.

Do you have to go see 80 dead people before it becomes statistically significant in how you will handle the situation? Or does it take a few trips before we know what to expect and act accordingly? That could be anything from the smell of the place, the demeanor of mourners, dealing with the image of the person in the casket, proper dress attire, etc. Sometimes we may get thrown a curve ball like a person laughing hysterically or someone throwing themselves onto the casket. In football, some unexpected things can come up too like a seven-man blitz or a dropped pass.

In other sports we have seen teams like Michael Jordan’s Bulls or Sidney Crosby’s Penguins have to climb the ladder of success before winning a championship. That means getting your feet wet in the playoffs, learning how to adjust for a best-of-7 series and going further each time before eventually completing the journey to the top.

Why can’t it be the same in the NFL where you have to learn to adjust to adverse situations? It shouldn’t take years upon years to do that either. I think we’ve seen enough from the Packers to reasonably conclude they struggle a lot in these types of games.

If you honestly see zero significance and only randomness to the Packers being 5-24 at 4QC behind Rodgers — possibly 0-20 against winning teams — then maybe following the NFL is not right for you. That record is unlike anyone else’s record when we’re talking about an annual SB contending team. Now if you want me to break the records down to adjust for opponent, or dig deeper into the causes, then that’s fine. I’ve done such things in the past. I know the few wins the Packers do have have often been unimpressive (bad opponents, small deficits). There are patterns. I’ve done enough to know something is not right with how the Packers win and lose football games.

Not to harp on it, but the comments made this offseason by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver about Rodgers’ leadership is another layer to this story. Cue the smoke/fire line. We don’t see receivers for QBs like Peyton, Brady and Matt Ryan question their leadership. We also see those QBs with great success in these close games. Maybe there’s something there, but let’s stick to numbers.

I have seen all 26 losses by GB. They happened and it didn’t take a stroke of bad luck every time. This team has issues late whether it’s the QB’s unwillingness to throw interceptions so he takes drive-killing sacks, the lack of a running game, the struggling OL, McCarthy’s playcalling, Dom Capers’ defense or Mr. Crosby’s kicking. There are baselines already established. For an elite QB, a 9-26 record at GWDs is bad and no one will convince me to say otherwise. Should it improve, then credit to the Packers.

But as long as it stays where it is, we have a problem here, and remember it’s a problem that has already and will continue to cost the Packers wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, playoff wins and Super Bowl rings.

2013 NFL Week 4 Predictions

After hesitantly picking the 49ers, that makes me 4-0 on the Thursday games this season. My record’s much better than the quality of those games. I’m still stinging from another difficult Week 3 that saw an 8-8 record. Onward and upward this week as we try to figure these teams out.

Winners in bold:

  • Giants at Chiefs
  • Cardinals at Buccaneers
  • Steelers at Vikings
  • Ravens at Bills
  • Bears at Lions
  • Bengals at Browns
  • Colts at Jaguars
  • Seahawks at Texans
  • Jets at Titans
  • Eagles at Broncos
  • Cowboys at Chargers
  • Redskins at Raiders
  • Patriots at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Saints

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Season: 31-17

Good god I have 10/14 road teams winning this week. Even if we don’t count Pittsburgh (neutral site), that sounds like trouble. Upset watch for Seattle, Cincy, Baltimore and Chicago?

Also, back in April I had Pittsburgh beating Minnesota in London with the premonition of Adrian Peterson being contained, Christian Ponder coughing over some turnovers, Big Ben finding Sanders/Brown deep down the sideline for scores. Just a good day for the Steelers in London. Now with both teams at 0-3, I barely feel like watching this one. Though with Matt Cassel stepping in at QB, I can’t imagine the takeaway-less Steelers do not get a few this week. And I still expect the Steelers to win, dropping a Minnesota team I railed on more than any other team this offseason to 0-4.

With Carolina and Green Bay on the bye week, there’s no chance to blow a late lead this week. But if there’s anyone I don’t want to see need a fourth-quarter comeback in Week 4, it will be Breaking Bad. I’ve noticed a lot of big-time series finales in recent years (Dexter and Big Love especially) waited too long to get things going and tried to rush it for a botched ending. I’m counting on big things from AMC here.

If Walter White escapes the country to become a lumberjack, I’m going to lose my sanity and quit watching these series since we never get closure or final satisfaction anymore.

NFL Week 3 Predictions: Crystal Blue Polian and My Dark Passenger

You may have heard the Colts traded a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson this week. While still trying to process that mind-blowing trade, one speck of analysis about it did catch my eye.

The more I hear from Bill Polian as an analyst, the more I wonder how he had a 25-year successful run as general manager in the NFL. Oh yeah, he had players like Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly and Peyton Manning. Still, he made some good moves at times too. While claiming Landry Jones was the best QB in the 2013 draft because “he’s a winner” was bad from Polian, this latest thought is probably worse when it comes to the general understanding of football.

Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith’s Twitter feed had the quote from Polian: Trent Richardson’s 3.5 yards a carry is good enough because “3.5 plus 3.5 puts you at 3rd & 3. Andrew Luck can convert those.”

WELL IF IT’S 3RD-AND-3, WHY NOT RUN RICHARDSON AGAIN FOR THE FIRST DOWN? SORRY PAT MCAFEE, YOUR SERVICES WILL NO LONGER BE REQUIRED. NO WONDER THE BROWNS WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE JUGGERNAUT LED BY RICH…OH, wait.

No wonder Polian hates the “stat geeks” as he’s expressed in the past. He fails to understand simple statistical concepts. Yes, Richardson averages 3.5 YPC, which is very low compared to the league’s baseline, but that does not mean he picks up 3.5 yards every play. So far this season Richardson has gained 3 yards or less on 17 of his 31 carries.

It gets better. Since 2012, no offense has been in 3rd-and-3 more than the Colts (27 plays). They have the third-best conversion rate too. That’s without Richardson, who was in Cleveland, who had just 12 plays on 3rd-and-3. That’s tied with the Giants for next to last. D’oh.

Polian was the decision maker on deals that involved millions of dollars and the hopes and dreams of franchises’ long-term success. Yet he can’t even figure out what a 3.5 YPC average says about a running back or how that would function in an offense?

I’ve said it before but the stupidity of experts is a big reason I got into the sports writing business. If I ever hit the Powerball like some lucky jackass did this week, I would write nothing but scathing attacks on the so-called experts when they say something dumb.

I’d never run out of material.

Steelers or Dexter: Which do I hate more right now?

I have watched every Steelers game live, in its entirety, since at least the 2003 season. It may even be since sometime in the 2001 season but I seem to recall missing the first three quarters of 2002 Week 17 against Baltimore. Might have went to church or something that would be laughable now on a Sunday morning for me.  So yeah, I’ve never missed a live snap of Ben Roethlisberger’s career.

But this week when the 0-2 Steelers play the Bears in prime time, I think come 9 P.M. I am going to turn the channel to Showtime to watch the series finale of Dexter, which is another thing in my life that has gone from a favorite to a like to a “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore” chore. The writers have butchered mostly everything with this show ever since the brilliant Trinity storyline (season 4). They could have made this 8-season show into six seasons. Seasons 5 & 6 had the exact same setup at the end, but different outcomes. I hope seasons 7 & 8 do not follow that, and they better not even think about having Dexter kill Deb. Michael C. Hall’s already been in the best series finale ever (Six Feet Under), so hopefully he doesn’t regress to the mean with a dud.

After that’s over — and I probably bitch about it on Twitter — I’ll take a quick look at the game, which should be heading to halftime, then I’ll start Breaking Bad on the DVR. That’s 75 minutes this week. I’m not even going to DVR the game thanks to the brilliance of Game Rewind. I’ll just watch it later.

Will I miss the Steelers game? Not if it’s anything like the first two miserable weeks. I’m doing my dark passenger a favor as watching the 2013 Steelers puts me in a rotten mood. Of course, I’m doing the unthinkable and picking them to win, so I’ll see what happens, but not live. There’s simply better TV options, or standards, this Sunday.

Hurry-Up

I posted some records as starters on Twitter on Friday. Matt Schaub is a perfect 29-0 when the Texans allow 0-19 points, but watch me jinx him in Baltimore on Sunday in what could be a low-scoring game between two teams who do not look that impressive so far.

019

My Trent Richardson Week 3 prediction in San Francisco: seven carries for 24 yards.

Good test for Green Bay’s offense: Cincinnati has not allowed more than 24 points in its last 11 games. They allowed 31 to Denver at home last year, so the elite QB/weapons can get the job done against this defense.

Will the Jaguars cover the 20-point spread in Seattle? Yes, barely, though it will be good to see a team not named the Patriots in this situation. Seattle shouldn’t allow more than single-digit points, but the offense needs to get rolling here in 2013. I’m thinking 24-6 final.

2013 NFL Week 3 Predictions

Last year I went 4-12 in Week 3, so hopefully this will be better. Off to a good start picking the Chiefs and their defense  on Thursday.

Winners in bold:

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

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Season: 23-9

NFL Week 1 Predictions

The 2013 NFL season opener would make for a good source of SAT questions.

The Baltimore Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions. Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley, Marlon Brown, Ricky Wagner, Chris Canty and Elvis Dumervil are Baltimore Ravens. Which of the following statements are true?

That may be the reason no defending champion has won even a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots. It’s a much different team just seven months later. Many of the key Ravens on Thursday night — Clark and Stokley combined for 22 targets — had nothing to do with the team’s 2012 season.

Meanwhile the Broncos could supply the math questions as Peyton Manning had one of the most prolific passing games with 462 yards and 7 TD. Finally a post-merger QB hit the 7 TD mark and it took an absurdly stupid play by linebacker Danny Trifflin’ Trevathan to set up the situation for it to happen.

Manning (42) and Flacco (62) combined for 104 pass attempts, which set a record for the most combined pass attempts in a non-OT game in NFL history. In fact, it’s the second-most pass attempts ever in regulation as only these overtime games had as many or more attempts:

  • 11/13/1994 New England vs. Minnesota (OT) – 112 attempts (106 in regulation)
  • 11/22/2012 Detroit vs. Houston (OT) – 109 attempts (90 in regulation)
  • 10/18/1987 Miami vs. NY Jets (OT; replacement game) – 104 attempts (82 in regulation)
  • 9/6/1998 NY Jets vs. San Francisco (OT) – 104 attempts (95 in regulation)

If we included playoff games, then the 2011 NFC Divisional between the 49ers and Saints would be second with 105 attempts in regulation. This is probably a sign of things to come.

Manning now sits comfortably in this list that shows the leaders for having the most games with a certain number of TD passes (including playoffs):

SGTD

A historic opener indeed, and a good start to my “year of the Broncos” prediction.

I will no longer be doing a writing recap in my weekly predictions as I am not writing for as many sites this season (though I did appear three places this week). Instead I will do a weekly update in the archives, so be sure to check that section out. It was the reason I started this blog.

2013 NFL Week 1 Predictions

Last season I went 168-87-1 (.658). Let’s shoot for better since I’ll have even more data to crunch this season. It’s a 1-0 start as I obviously had Denver beating Baltimore.

Winners in bold:

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

I am not brave enough to pick it, but do not be surprised if the Chargers give Houston all it can handle late Monday night. Also it would not shock me if the Jets win and Rex Ryan can have a “shut the frack up!” week to the media.

Be sure to enjoy Sunday Week 1 as we only get to experience a finite number of these in our lifetime.