NFL Week 9 Predictions: The Seven-Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch was a 1955 film famous for Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up over a subway grate. The psychology behind the seven-year itch is that seven years into a marriage, the quality of marriage declines and you lose interest with your significant other.

This is my seventh season as a full-time NFL writer, and 2017 is really wearing me down to the point where I’m starting to wonder if I’m feeling the seven-year itch myself with this league.

Maybe it’s just the quality of this particular season that is bugging me, or what’s going on in other areas of life in 2017 has wore me down too, but something hasn’t been right since Week 1. The Week 9 slate in particular isn’t doing me any favors to get my interest back up. I fell asleep for most of Jets-Bills on Thursday, exhausted from the day’s events, and ultimately bored by the product on the field that night. I don’t feel bad about it either, just as I don’t feel bad about waking up late for Browns-Vikings in London last week when it was already 30-16 in the fourth quarter.

The only game I’d even really want to talk about this week is Chiefs-Cowboys, and that’s partly thanks to this frustrating Ezekiel Elliott story. Great, he’s playing again, and he’s been on a tear. But I was really hoping to see him miss this one actually just to see if the running game could stabilize itself without him as it did in 2015 (without a QB that year too), and if Dak Prescott could carry the load, which I think he can. The Cowboys still have some great players minus Zeke, and I think this has shootout written all over it with the two defenses present. It should be a fun game with Tony Romo on the call, and I look forward to that part of my Sunday afternoon, but the rest of the week looks like a bust to me.

Since the 2006 season, I have collected torrents of NFL games. I haven’t kept up with it as much lately (mostly due to NFL Game Pass, when it works, and a lack of hard drive space/laziness to plug in the externals), but I have a pretty big collection. My weekly routine started with, as you may have guessed, getting the full game for the Steelers, Patriots, and Colts. Any other really good game with other teams may have been added as well, and I got a high-quality copy of every playoff game. By 2012, I added Denver to the weekly rotation because of Peyton Manning, and kept the Colts because of Andrew Luck. I was also getting every Green Bay game, usually the condensed version unless it was a great game, to keep a catalog of Aaron Rodgers’ prime. I also started doing Seattle for Russell Wilson.

At the rate things were going this year, I may have started getting Houston games for Deshaun Watson, who has had one of the greatest 7-game starts in NFL history. Even though the Texans were 3-4, I thought I might be arguing later this season that Watson is deserving of the MVP award for the impact he’s had on Houston’s offense.

Then Thursday came.

I saw this tweet a little before 5 p.m. about Watson being limited in practice because of a sore knee.

No big deal, right? He should be fine. Then I get an email from an editor about my FiveThirtyEight article. (Yeah, I’m writing there now too, and here’s the first article). It says that we need to change a paragraph now that Watson is injured. I start replying “Oh it’s just a limited in practice situation, he’ll be fine.” Before I can send that, I get a tweet from my long-time editor:

Then I saw the breaking news reports over and over: Watson tore his ACL on a non-contact injury in practice. His season is over. It’s not like I never considered this could happen, but you don’t actively think about it happening.

I was shocked and really sad in a way that I usually don’t feel over countless other NFL injuries. Most of my favorite players have been great at avoiding the long-term injury, or if it did happen, it wasn’t some practice injury during the season. It was an odd situation from the offseason like Peyton Manning in 2011 or Andrew Luck this year. Hell, we just had the news on Thursday afternoon that Luck wasn’t going to see the field in 2017, and that was bad enough. You add Watson on top of this, and it’s just about the worst season for quarterback injuries that I have ever seen.

With Watson, it just feels different because of how new and exciting he was, and how quickly he’s been taken away from this season. I actually gave a damn about watching Houston Texans games for a change. This is like getting a puppy or kitten, enjoying the hell out of them for 7 weeks, and one day they just get ran over by a car.

Watson’s not dead, and he’s already come back from one ACL injury, but it’s just not fair. He’ll never be able to finish what could have easily been the most historic, record-breaking rookie QB season in NFL history. I can only hope he returns 100% and makes Houston a contender immediately next season. I just hate that we have to wait until September 2018 to give a damn about Houston again.

But getting back to the torrents. With Week 9 in particular, the Steelers and Patriots are on a bye week. The Colts may as well be on a bye every week this year. I stopped collecting Denver games after Manning retired, and wouldn’t want to waste my hard drive with that offense (now featuring Brock Osweiler). Green Bay is on Monday night, but Rodgers won’t be playing. There’s really no special interest for me this week, and that kind of sucks.

I said recently that this has been the most depressing season, and the events of the last few days have only gone on to deepen that for me.

I’m still watching, writing, researching, and tweeting, because it’s my job after all. But to say I’m having a lot of fun this season would be a lie.

2017 Week 9 Predictions

Can I just say I hate Tampa Bay? I was one game short of my first perfect week of picks ever, and the Buccaneers just had to ruin it with a dud at home against Carolina. Granted, the Bucs were the only favorite to not win last week, but can’t we have one week where the team everyone expected to win actually won? That’d be fine, but apparently that never happens. It wouldn’t have been an impressive 13-0 perfect week, but it still would have been a perfect record. Thanks for nothing, Bucs. And I’m almost willing to pick them to win this week even though it would make no sense with the way the Saints have played in a five-game winning streak. But nothing is supposed to make sense with the Jameis Winston-era Bucs, apparently.

The quest for perfection ended immediately this week. I had Buffalo and we know the Jets owned that second half on Thursday, even if I was out cold for most of it.

Winners in bold.

  • Buccaneers at Saints
  • Ravens at Titans
  • Colts at Texans
  • Rams at Giants
  • Broncos at Eagles
  • Falcons at Panthers
  • Bengals at Jaguars
  • Redskins at Seahawks
  • Cardinals at 49ers
  • Chiefs at Cowboys
  • Raiders at Dolphins
  • Lions at Packers

I am amused with the SNF game between Oakland and Miami after I called them two of the worst 12-4/10-6 teams ever last season. Both are struggling this year, with Miami being the worst 4-3 team ever (outscored by 60 points). Incredibly, the Raiders don’t have an interception on defense in eight games. That’s never been done before. I’m going to say they get at least one and win this game. While Derek Carr is overrated, he’s still better than post-retirement Jay Cutler. This would have been a good game to keep Jay Ajayi around for, but the trade deadline is what it is.

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Season: 71-48

 

2017 NFL Predictions

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

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

Eat Arby’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Buffalo Bills (2-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. New York Jets (2-14)

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

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

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

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

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. New York Giants (10-6)

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

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

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

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

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

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

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

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

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

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

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

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

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

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

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

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

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

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

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

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

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

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

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

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

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

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

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

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

4. Chicago Bears (3-13)

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

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

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

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

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Houston Texans (5-11)

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

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

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

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

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

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

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

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

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

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

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

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

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

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Seasons finishing 7-9:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BreesPO

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

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

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

From FOA 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

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

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

From FOA 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least not to this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-10)

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

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

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

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

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

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

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

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

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

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. New England (14-2)

  2. Pittsburgh (12-4)

  3. Kansas City (11-5)

  4. Tennessee (10-6)

  5. Oakland (10-6)

  6. Los Angeles (9-7)

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

NFC

  1. Dallas (12-4)

  2. Seattle (12-4)

  3. Atlanta (11-5)

  4. Green Bay (11-5)

  5. Carolina (11-5)

  6. Arizona (10-6)

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

SUPER BOWL LII

New England 23, Seattle 20

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

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

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Relevant Oakland Edition

We’re nearly at the true halfway point of the regular season. On Friday, I wrote a piece about the lack of parity in the NFL, especially in the AFC. One team could change some of that perception with a good win this week.

Steelers at Ravens

Rare to see two teams have a bye week before their regular-season matchup, but here we are. The big question is: will he or won’t he play? We’re talking about Ben Roethlisberger of course, who I swear is contractually obligated to miss at least one Baltimore game per season. The Ravens are 6-1 against the Steelers when Ben is out, but he also has a bad history of playing in his first game back from injury too. This torn meniscus was potentially a 4-6 week injury too, so questionable in this case may truly be questionable. Overall, I think the Steelers have the better team this year, and should have enough firepower to outscore a Baltimore offense that has been very lackluster, already firing its offensive coordinator. Joe Flacco is loading up on failed completions (four weeks in a row with 10+), but I can see a motivated Mike Wallace catching a bomb in this one to stick it to his old team. Fortunately, he’s still pretty limited to showing up on one or two drives per game instead of being a true dominant threat like he was in 2010-11. I want to see if Le’Veon Bell can make it look effortless against a stingy run defense, or if he’ll struggle to gain much traction and have to rely on being a threat in the passing game instead. Last year, Roethlisberger played his worst game of the season in a classic “played down to the competition” game for the Steelers in Week 16 with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Seriously, this team was hanging 30+ on everyone, and came out with a piss-poor effort against a Baltimore team that was starting Ryan Mallett at quarterback. The Steelers made him look like Joe Montana (KC version at least). We know these teams usually play a close one, and my half-assed reason for picking Pittsburgh is that I just can’t see them losing three in a row, but it’s certainly a possibility as long as the quarterback isn’t 100 percent, which I doubt he could be so soon.

Colts at Packers

This will most likely be the second of three career meetings between Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. The first was a classic in 2012. The Colts, just getting the news about Chuck Pagano’s cancer, rallied from 18 points down to beat the Packers 30-27. It was really the first special Luck performance in the NFL, and set up the Colts for a season of success. Luck will have to be even better on Sunday, because I think Green Bay’s offense is going to continue looking good against bad defenses, like it has against Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta this year. The Colts may be worse than all three of them, and when they go on the road, forget about it. Rodgers at home is often dynamite, and I think he gets back on track with the big play to Jordy Nelson this week. It can still certainly be a shootout or big Indy comeback if Luck is on point with T.Y. Hilton (ailing a bit this week), because we know the Green Bay secondary is very banged up too. I just don’t think the Colts have enough to slow Green Bay down, while the Packers will contain Frank Gore and make this another one of those one-dimensional games for Luck.

Broncos at Raiders

This is the big one this week. Since Sunday Night Football became the premiere prime-time game in the NFL in 2006, the Raiders have appeared on it just one time: a completely forgettable 13-3 loss in Denver over 10 years ago. You know things are moving in the right direction if Oakland is hosting Denver in a battle for first place in the tough AFC West. This is a huge statement game for Jack Del Rio’s team. So far, the Raiders have got by weak competition, often on the road (5-0), but have faltered at home to the only two contenders they have faced (Atlanta and Chiefs). That’s not a good sign for a schedule that gets much tougher starting this week. Oakland needs to show something here, because it’s first real AFC West test this season (KC) went poorly. The Broncos are a similar team with an even better defense.

On offense, Oakland has been good in the passing game with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, but I don’t think this is a great matchup for the three, even if Aqib Talib isn’t 100% or playing. Denver has the secondary to match up with those outside receivers. Seth Roberts isn’t a bad #3 slot guy, but most of this passing game runs through those two wideouts. Cooper really struggled last year with Denver, and we know Carr has yet to have a really good game in four tries against this defense that has just terrorized some really good QBs this year.

As for Carr specifically, I don’t think he’s playing any better this year than the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. The main difference between him and most of those guys is that he’s played an easier schedule, his team’s had better health, and he has one of the best offensive lines in the league. Denver has the talent to get through that line and put Carr under pressure. He has some gunslinger in him, so he’ll force plays from time to time and give the defense turnover opportunities. I think Carr’s first eight games last year were better than his first eight this season, and we know about his decline last year when the schedule got tougher. He needs to avoid doing that again this year so Oakland can definitely make the playoffs instead of piss away a 6-2 start. Fortunately, the AFC seems weak enough for the Raiders to at least be a wild-card team, but I honestly believe Denver and KC are better teams at this point.

The Broncos just need to stick with their brand of great defense and to not screw things up on offense/ST. Unfortunately, the offense has tried screwing things up such as the three turnovers against San Diego last week that made that a game late. This is a huge game for Trevor Siemian too, as he likes to risk some dangerous plays each week as well. If he can just play within himself, then I think Denver scores just enough for the big road win. Oakland beat the Broncos last year in Denver thanks to a dominant performance from Khalil Mack (5 sacks), which we really haven’t been getting this year. They also got their GWD after Emmanuel Sanders muffed a punt at the 11-yard line. Brandon McManus later missed a game-tying field goal in the 15-12 loss. For a team that plays so many games tightly, these mistakes are almost impossible to overcome.

I don’t see a big rushing night coming from Oakland, so it will be on Carr’s shoulders to produce against this defense. If he does so, then great, but if not, then that stigma of not being able to beat the good teams is still heavily weighing on this team and its young quarterback. This game is very important for Oakland to show that it is indeed another new year, and that the AFC isn’t just about the Patriots, Broncos and Steelers again.

(Yes, I just shafted the AFC South winner, but why wouldn’t I?)

2016 Week 9 Predictions

Felt good about the Falcons on Thursday, and they came through in a big way on a short week against a divisional foe.

Winners in bold:

  • Cowboys at Browns
  • Jets at Dolphins
  • Steelers at Ravens
  • Eagles at Giants
  • Jaguars at Chiefs
  • Lions at Vikings
  • Panthers at Rams
  • Saints at 49ers
  • Colts at Packers
  • Titans at Chargers
  • Broncos at Raiders
  • Bills at Seahawks

Definitely put the Chiefs on upset alert with so many key guys out, but this is the Jaguars. While this may not be a game for Blake “The Garbage Man” Bortles to do what he does best, I can see a failed 4QC/GWD attempt from the Jags that I’ll have to write about for Tuesday. Yay, fun.

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Season: 69-51

Another bloody tie. I gave myself the loss again only because I said the AFC team (Bengals) would win, while the NFC team (Redskins) actually should have won. Damn kickers.

NFL Week 2 Predictions: The Toilet Bowl and the Manning Bowl

Another NFL week, another high-profile game with the Denver Broncos as they take on the Giants in what should be the final Manning Bowl. Now I like statistical analysis as much as the next guy, but sometimes you have to also factor in more human elements to the game.

Is Eli Manning really going to go 0-3 against Peyton in the NFL? He should get the one win, and the last one for that matter. After a horrible game with two fumbles, David Wilson is all but playing for his career in New York. He should play better because he flat out has to. Denver had 7 TD passes last week while the Giants had 6 turnovers. Those numbers will both come down, favoring the Giants, who at 0-1, cannot really afford another loss to start the season.

There are plenty of real football reasons to like New York in this one. The Giants are at home. They just had three receivers go over 100 yards and Denver’s defense is still missing it’s two best players. Remember when the Broncos couldn’t rush Joe Flacco early? Well now they’ll play an offense with the weapons to take advantage the way Baltimore couldn’t. Jack Del Rio is the master of the “no rush, no coverage” defense. Expect to see a huge day from Eli, who threw for over 500 yards in a similar spot in Week 2 last year against Tampa Bay.

Denver’s offense is still going to be tough to stop, but the running game is not there and this team does get off to slow starts, which is when the Giants need to build a lead. I expect a lot of points in the end, but I also think Eli will be in a similar situation to Sunday: having the ball late with a chance to win, and this time he’ll get it done. Giants win 34-31.

Of course this is self-serving as I picked the Giants to win the NFC East and had Denver starting 1-1, so this probably means the Broncos by 14 points, but we’ll see. I just think this is the game where not having those players on defense will hurt Denver the most.

First Quarter Knockout

Here’s something to watch for on Sunday afternoon. The San Diego Chargers, a Pacific time zone team who just lost a heart-breaker on late Monday night, have to play across the country at Philadelphia in a game that starts at 10:00 A.M. PST. With Chip Kelly’s high-tempo offense, can you see another first quarter knockout in the works? The Chargers may get so far behind that Philip Rivers will have no chance to blow it in the fourth quarter this week.

Toilet Bowl

Based on last year, Chiefs at Jaguars and Jaguars at Raiders sounds like the worst possible start to a season for a NFL fan to suffer through. This Week 2 game looked like a good one for the fast track to the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, but now it looks like it’d be an upset if the Raiders lost this one at home. Terrelle Pryor did a lot of exciting things in Indianapolis while the Jaguars were downright embarrassing against the Chiefs. Out with Blaine Gabbert and in with Chad Henne, but here’s a stat from Week 1 I never would have expected in a billion simulations:

The Raiders lead the NFL in offensive yards per drive (44.62) while the Jaguars are dead last (9.87).

I still don’t plan on saying this that often this season, but give me the Raiders on Sunday.

2013 NFL Week 2 Predictions

I’ll always take a 11-5 record in Week 1, which is usually one of the toughest to predict. Week 2 can be even harder if you pay too much attention to what happened last week, or too little and not recognize it’s a new year and some teams just aren’t as good (or bad) as you expected. I had the Patriots winning 20-10 on Thursday night, but they somehow got it done by going scoreless in the second half.

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

No matter how much I try to tell myself to “trust my gut” I end up picking 14 home teams (counting NE) and practically all the favorites. No chance in hell of that happening, which tells me I should probably pick the Steelers, the Broncos, the Panthers and maybe the Vikings. But I won’t do it. Why? I must just be a *****.