49ers’ Blown Super Bowl Lead Was Historic Deja Vu

As I continue to work on the best database I could have for NFL game data this century, I keep finding new absurd facts about Kansas City’s comeback win in Super Bowl LIV.

Imagine a team leading 20-10 more than halfway through the fourth quarter in a nationally-televised game. Then that team goes on to lose 31-20 in regulation.

That’s what happened to the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but the last time the NFL has seen such a reversal of fortune — a double-digit lead halfway through the fourth turning into a double-digit loss — it also involved the 49ers, a 20-10 lead, and a 31-20 loss in prime time. 

Yep, same exact scores, but much different stakes. In 2002, the 49ers (10-6) were wrapping up a playoff-bound season on Monday Night Football against disappointing division rival St. Louis (7-9 finish). The 49ers rested and pulled starters from the game, but still led 20-3 in the fourth quarter. That’s when Rams backup quarterback Jamie Martin began to lead a comeback, pulling the team to within 20-17 with 7:09 left after throwing a touchdown pass to future HOFer Isaac Bruce. On the next play from scrimmage, Garrison Hearst fumbled and Dre’ Bly returned it for a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. Hearst fumbled again on the next drive and the Rams had a chance to run the clock out, but on 4th-and-1, Martin threw a pass to tight end Ernie Conwell for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 31-20 after the two-minute warning. A bit of a rub-it-in-their-face score for sure for a team that rarely threw to the tight end. The Rams were actually 2-point favorites so it was a surprising cover and comeback to close a game that ultimately didn’t mean anything.

It’s not terribly rare to see a team trail by double digits in the last eight minutes (or 7:30 if you want to think of it as half the quarter) of the fourth quarter and come back to win the game. It happens about five times a season. But those games often go to overtime or are won in regulation by 1-7 points. An 11-point win in regulation like the 2002 Rams had goes way against the grain.

It wouldn’t happen again in the NFL until the 49ers blew yet another 20-10 lead in this Super Bowl. The infamous 3rd-and-15 “Wasp” play by the Chiefs for 44 yards came at the 7:13 mark. The Chiefs got into the end zone with 6:13 left and would return there two more times, including Damien Williams’ 38-yard run with 1:12 left that crushed my ticket of “Chiefs by exactly 4 points” to produce the historic 31-20 final.

So like the Falcons holding a 28-3 lead — as if this will ever happen again in Dan Quinn’s career — you just can’t trust the 49ers with a 20-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Oddly enough, Quinn was a defensive quality control coach for the 2002 49ers too.

I haven’t been able to confirm the stats before 2001 yet, but it would be interesting to see a list of double-digit reversals like these two games in NFL history. I know the Chiefs are the only team since 2001 to do it in the final 7:00 while the 2002 Rams are the only other team in that time to do it in the final 8:00. I thought maybe the 1968 Jets-Raiders “Heidi” game would be one, but the Jets only led by 3 late and never more than 7 in the whole game. You’ll find that the “win by 10+” part is really hard to find.

Still, I’d love to see more so if you have any ideas of examples from pre-2001, leave them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter with them.

UPDATE: I’ve compiled a table of all seven games discovered since 1981. The first five I included all involved the 49ers or Chiefs if you could believe it, but then I also stumbled on an incredible comeback by the 1987 Cardinals against Dallas. They were down 13-3, but scored three touchdowns after the two-minute warning to win 24-13. They scored the first at 1:58, forced a three-and-out punt, then scored another, got a turnover on defense, and finally ran in a 15-yard touchdown on 4th-and-14 with 19 seconds left after Dallas used all three timeouts.

DDREV

The Decade the Scoring Juggernauts Died in the NFL

The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.

Read that sentence a second time and it comes off just as shocking. That’s a dozen teams, including eight from this decade, who scored more points — at least 527 — than anyone in the NFL’s first 100 years, and not a single one of them won the Super Bowl that year. Oh a few were pretty close, especially the 2016 Falcons and their 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, but even that was a disappointing outcome for the offense.

I said eight of these teams happened in the last decade. The 2019 Ravens were the latest to join the group, going one-and-done at home after a season-worst performance on offense in that 28-12 loss to Tennessee to sour Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Baltimore scored at least 20 points in every week of the regular season on its way to 531 points, the 11th-highest mark in NFL history.

The upset that night had me looking into just how crazy this was for the decade. I found that the 2019 49ers (ranked 17th in scoring since 2010) were the decade’s last hope for a top 20 team in scoring to win a Super Bowl:

T30-2010s

Well, as you know now, the 49ers lost Super Bowl LIV to the Chiefs, who ranked 31st in scoring this decade. The 2014 Patriots (22nd) and 2017 Eagles (30th) were the only top 30 teams in scoring to win a Super Bowl this decade.

That doesn’t greatly differ from the results of the previous decade where only two of the top 30 scoring teams won Super Bowls, but at least the 2009 Saints finished fourth:

T30-2000s

When you go back to the 1990s, eight of the top 25 teams won Super Bowls, including every team ranked 2-5:

T30-1990s

That was back when the league was just getting used to the salary cap and the NFC tended to dominate the Super Bowls until the 1997 Broncos upset Green Bay. As for the offensively-fun 1980s, four of the top 12 scoring teams won a Super Bowl:

T30-1980s

When we get back to the defensive decade that was the 1970s after the merger, we still saw five of the top 30 teams win a Super Bowl with the 1979 Steelers ranking third to end the decade:

T30-1970s

We know winning a Super Bowl takes a lot of things going your way, but scoring a ton of points in the regular season has never really been a big requirement for pulling it off. You can combine the top 30 scoring teams from the 1980s, 2000s and 2010s and have the same number of Super Bowl winners (eight) as the top 30 scoring teams from the 1990s alone. The 90s were really the decade for juggernauts to go all the way and deliver in the playoffs too with not that many upsets around the league. Had Buffalo’s Scott Norwood made his field goal in Super Bowl XXV and if the 1992 49ers were able to prevail instead of the Cowboys (and dust off Buffalo) for that Super Bowl, then we would have had nine of the top 17 scoring teams with rings that decade. Eight of the top 25 is still pretty great when you look at the history here.

With the 2000s, Bill Belichick’s Patriots obviously have a lot to do with those results. The 2001 Rams (20-17), 2004 Colts (20-3) and 2006 Chargers (24-21) were three of the top six scoring teams that decade, but they all lost to the Patriots in the playoffs with disappointing performances on that side of the ball. Of course, the 2007 Patriots also blew it in the Super Bowl with the 17-14 loss to the Giants to deny themselves a perfect 19-0 season. The Patriots’ 589 points that year still ranks second all time. I’d also be remiss to not give the 2000 Ravens some love here. We know they got to face Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl and played a lot of shoddy offenses in the regular season, but they also shut down two of the 10 highest-scoring teams of the decade in Denver (21-3) and Oakland (16-3).

Putting a bow on the 2010s, we experienced so many famous crash-and-burn efforts from some of the best offenses in NFL history. None were bigger than the 2013 Broncos, who lost 43-8 in the Super Bowl to Seattle’s historic defense after setting the record with 606 points in the regular season. From the first snap that led to a safety the Broncos were out of sorts that night. We also saw the Patriots crumble three years in a row (2010-12) in playoff losses, Aaron Rodgers’ best season in 2011 ended with a playoff dud against the Giants, and Belichick once again denied several teams (2018 Chiefs, 2018 Rams, 2016 Falcons) on his way to more rings for the Patriots. But at the very least, Patrick Mahomes put up 31 points in the second half of that AFC Championship Game loss for the Chiefs, the second-highest scoring team of the decade. Very few of these historic offenses can say they delivered in their playoff defeat, but the 2018 Chiefs, 1998 Vikings (damn kickers), and 2011 Saints (36-32 in San Francisco) are three who can say that.

However, one thing we’ve seen several times is that it’s not always your best team that wins the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, 2015 Broncos and now 2019 Chiefs are all certainly proof of that.

Finally, for those curious here are the results for the top 30 team scoring defenses for each decade:

  • 2010s: Three of the top nine won a Super Bowl (peak: 2013 Seahawks were 4th)
  • 2000s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl, including 1st (2000 BAL) and 3rd (2002 TB)
  • 1990s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl (peak: 1996 Packers were 4th)
  • 1980s: Six of the top 20 using points allowed per game (due to strikes) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1985 Bears were 2nd)
  • 1970s: Five of the top 23 using points allowed per game (due to season length change) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1973 Dolphins were 9th)

That’s 21 offensive champions and 26 defensive champions over the five decades. While you don’t want to rely too heavily on one side of the ball, it’s always fascinating to see how scoring juggernauts have had such a rough time throughout NFL history. If you look at the top 12 (13 total teams due to a tie) scoring teams from 1940-1969, only three of them won a championship. That includes the 1961 Oilers (first 500-point team) winning the AFL Championship Game by a 10-3 score, and the 1964 Browns (tied for 12th) shutting out the ninth-ranked Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

The 1950 Rams still hold the NFL record with 38.8 points per game, but they lost 30-28 to the Browns in a classic championship game. Hey, at least they scored 28 and not just a field goal like the 2018 Rams did in Super Bowl LIII.

Coming full circle, I said the 12 highest-scoring teams have zero championships. The 1999 Rams are the reason it’s not the 15 highest teams that are ring-less. They still rank 13th with 526 points scored in that shocking Super Bowl-winning season. But even that example of The Greatest Show on Turf struggled mightily against Tampa Bay, scoring a late touchdown to win 11-6 in the NFC Championship Game. They also caught a break on defense when Bert Emanuel’s catch was ruled incomplete, and then ended up winning the Super Bowl 23-16 over Tennessee after stopping a late completion short of the goal line.

Kurt Warner in 1999 is still the last regular season MVP to win the Super Bowl in the same season, though maybe that’s a streak for Patrick Mahomes to end next year. Yes, it’s all coming back to Mahomes one way or another this offseason. Just accept it now.

NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Best Week of the Year Edition

December 8 was always the date to circle since the NFL schedule came out in April. That was the big Chiefs-Patriots game in New England, but now that we’re here, it’s actually a much bigger weekend with four marquee games. Those two teams aren’t even the current No. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s Baltimore, which has its final big road test in Buffalo, a surprise 9-3 team that almost controls its own destiny for home-field advantage. We also could see the Saints inch closer to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and we should get some clarity on an MVP race that is down to Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

It took a little pure dumb luck with the 49ers and Bills stepping up, but the NFL has one hell of a schedule planned tomorrow. It shouldn’t get as big as this again until the playoffs, but first those seeds could really shake up because of what happens on Sunday.

49ers at Saints (-2)

The 49ers come in as a 2-point underdog in a tough place to play, though the Saints haven’t been able to blow out anyone at home aside from Arizona. Don’t forget that stunning 26-9 loss to the Falcons as well. I think the 49ers showed a lot of quality play on the road in rainy Baltimore last week and will welcome the dome conditions in this one. It is a bit of a disadvantage to be on the road in the early slot on the East for the second week in a row, but teams are better at handling that these days with travel.

The main reason I like the 49ers to win is their physical defense. I think they can key in on Michael Thomas — a matchup with Richard Sherman would be fun — as the Saints don’t have another player with 500 receiving yards. They have the front seven talent to harass Drew Brees, who took 6 sacks in the Atlanta loss but only three the rest of the season. Also, the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have just 7 giveaways thru 12 games of a season. They’ve lost just one fumble all year. That screams regression and the 49ers are the type of defense to make them pay there (24 takeaways rank 4th this year).

The 49ers are also No. 2 in points scored and points allowed this season. This is a very good team and I think Jimmy Garoppolo will shine just enough with the running game always being a threat to pull off this road win. If you’re continuing to compare the 2019 49ers to the 2017 Eagles, then think of this as their road win over the 2017 Rams which helped the Eagles get the top seed.

Ravens at Bills (+6.5)

The Bills have seven wins against teams picking in the top 11 of the 2020 draft as of right now. This would be a huge step up in class to beat a Baltimore team that has entered historic territory. The Ravens average 45 yards per drive on offense, which would set a record for the modern era. They can still become the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. Lamar Jackson is the MVP front-runner and the consistent threat that Bills fans wish Josh Allen was right now. Allen has been playing better in recent weeks, but the Bills are definitely at a disadvantage with an offense that ranks just 16th in yards per drive and 21st in points per drive. The Baltimore defense is also picking things up and actually do better at forcing turnovers than the Bills.

The spread feels about right for this one, but if there is a game where Jackson is going to look mortal, it would be a road game against a solid defense. Yet even when he’s contained as a passer, he’s still a major threat as a rusher so it’s been really hard on defenses this year to figure this unique offense out. I think Baltimore delivers on the road and continues holding onto the No. 1 seed over New England.

But don’t lose sight that this is one of the biggest games in Buffalo in the last 20 years. They could really use a win like this.

Chiefs at Patriots (-3)

So much for the 43-40 and 37-31 offensive shootouts of last year. These teams aren’t playing great offensively and that shouldn’t surprise you with New England. The old QB is having one of his worst slumps ever, but it’s rarely mattered thanks to the defense being so strong. The surprise is that Patrick Mahomes has just turned in the worst 8 quarters of his career. Over the last two games, Mahomes has completed 55.7 percent of his passes at 5.85 YPA with just 2 TD and 1 INT. He didn’t even crack 200 yards in either game. Fortunately, his defense picked off Philip Rivers and Derek Carr enough for it to not matter as the Chiefs won both games (sound familiar?).

This is a bad time for Mahomes to be slumping with a road test against a veteran secondary and all-around difficult defense to pass against this year. If the big plays aren’t there like they were for Mahomes last year against NE, then this one could be another ugly offensive game. Keep in mind that despite those high scores last year, the Patriots twice did something no other team has.

In 29 career games with Mahomes, the Chiefs have been held under 10 points in the first half twice: 9 points at Patriots (lost 43-40), 0 points vs. Patriots (lost 37-31 OT).

Mahomes needs to stop fading away from the line on so many of his passes and find a rhythm early so that he can play a complete game against the Patriots and force Brady to actually be good. My thought is that after the ugly loss in Houston, Brady will be sharper at home — I’d be all in on Chiefs if this was in Arrowhead — and the running game that’s gotten going in recent weeks will be used effectively against a subpar Chiefs defense.

So it’s not quite the super important game for the AFC as we thought it would be, but you’d still rather win it than not. It’s just unfortunate that between the Mahomes injury and some of the sloppy play the team has showed this year, even a win in NE doesn’t mean Kansas City won’t have to come back and do it all over again in January in a 3/2 matchup.

Seahawks at Rams (+1)

Their first meeting on TNF was one of the best games this season, one that the Rams would have won had it not been for a missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein. I said this almost two months ago:

Missed field goals have been great to Seattle this year. The 49ers also missed one in overtime that would have won that game after Russell Wilson’s inexplicable interception. So had those two NFC West kickers connected, this would be the 8-4 Seahawks at the 8-4 Rams. But because of two swings of the leg, it’s the 10-2 Seahawks at the 7-5 Rams. Wilson is still in the MVP race despite cooling off, and there’s a lot of disappointment surrounding Sean McVay and Jared Goff right now. What a league.

But it has been a wildly inconsistent year for the Rams and Goff. He’s had a few brilliant games, including last week when he was over 320 passing yards at halftime. He’s also had some major stinkers as has the defense, led by DC Wade Phillips and Aaron Donald, that always seems to escape any criticism.

I said earlier this week that the 2019 Saints and 2019 Seahawks are two of the worst 10-2 teams ever because of their tiny point differentials. Seattle is just +36, the smallest scoring differential ever for a 10-2 team. I think if Lamar Jackson shines in Buffalo and Wilson struggles in this game (another prime time one), the MVP is all but locked up for Jackson. So that’s another layer to keep in mind.

The outcome of SF-NO will give us a better idea of how big this game is on Sunday night, but it’s a last gasp effort for the Rams either way. They have to win this game and they easily could if their star players play up to their potential. I’m not surprised the spread is damn near a pick ’em with how unpredictable the Rams have been and how close to the vest Seattle has been. In the end, you trust Wilson over Goff in crunch time, but as this season has shown, all it takes is one play sometimes to decide a game. I wouldn’t bet on this one like I would the other three big games on Sunday.

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF, so there’s another trainwreck to talk about some other time.

2019Wk14

A quick note on PIT-ARI: this would definitely fit the classic Mike Tomlin letdown game on the road. The Cardinals are an interesting young team without a lot of tape that the Steelers are familiar with. I think it’s a game where either the Cardinals win outright, or Duck Hodges has a breakout game against a terrible pass defense. Obviously I went with the former because I think the Steelers lack the weapons to get the job done without JuJu available again. James Washington had his career game last week so I can’t see him repeating it, but I am glad to see the Steelers get back to throwing downfield to wide receivers. This one could be fun, though I’d much rather be watching KC-NE.

2019Wk1-13

2019 NFL Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Cleveland Browns (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

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

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

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

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

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

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)

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

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

 

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

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

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

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

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

3. Chicago Bears (9-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)

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

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

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

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

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

 

AFC EAST

New England Patriots (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

GSG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new power will just have to emerge.

2. New York Jets (9-7)

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

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

The rest is history.

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

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

gasejets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coach4QCGWD

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

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

3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

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

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

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

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

4. Miami Dolphins (4-12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. New York Giants (5-11)

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

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

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

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

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

4. Washington Redskins (5-11)

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

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

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

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

 

AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)

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

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

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

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

3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)

Crying over you, crying over you

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

I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying

Yeah, I’m crying, crying, over you

— Roy Orbison, “Crying”

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

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

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

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

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

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

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

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

 

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

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

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

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

2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

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

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

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

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

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

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

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

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

 

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

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

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

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

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

3. Denver Broncos (7-9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

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

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

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

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

 

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

3. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)

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

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

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

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

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

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

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

 

PLAYOFFS

AFC

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

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

NFC

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

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

SUPER BOWL LIV

LA Rams 38, Kansas City 34

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

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

2018 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has boiled down to three games that we really could have predicted we’d get back in Week 9. That was when the Saints won 45-35 at home against the Rams, just a few weeks after the Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40. They were two of the most entertaining games this season, and the home team got the edge in both. While that first matchup has led the Rams back to playing on the road, the Chiefs caught a break from the Dolphins in keeping the Patriots at the No. 2 seed for a change. With expectations for more scoring fests this weekend, it’s shaping up to be a potentially classic Conference Championship Sunday. We could use it after the last two weeks, and don’t forget the fact that the home team is 10-0 in these games going back to the 2013 season. Both home teams are a FG favorite right now, which basically means a pick ’em on a neutral field.

But neutral these fields are not…

Rams at Saints (-3)

It’s simplistic, but I think this game comes down to which Jared Goff shows up. He was having a really fine third season, but hit a wall after the bye week for three games. Two good games to close the regular season, then he didn’t have to do too much against Dallas last week when the running game and offensive line just dominated. The Saints are a defense that you have to attack deep (32nd in DVOA) and typically outside the numbers to WRs (30th and 31st vs. #1 and #2 WRs). You saw Nick Foles have success in building that 14-0 lead last week. The Rams are almost always in 11 personnel (3 WR/1 RB/1 TE), even after the big slot receiver Cooper Kupp injury, and the Saints don’t handle that too well in the passing game. They’re one of three defenses to allow over 8.0 YPA against 11 personnel. They are however the best in rushing YPC against 11, so Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson should not find as much success as they had last week. It’s going to be on the passing game to deliver.

In Week 9, Goff had a strong game (391 yards and 3 TD) on the road. Gurley only had 13 carries for 68 yards, so the Rams didn’t dominate on the ground. The game almost got away from them in the second quarter. Tied at 14, the Rams did nothing with good field position following a fumble, tried an ill-fated fake field goal, later missed a 51-yard FG, then Goff threw a bad pick before halftime that set up a short field for Drew Brees. The Rams were down 35-14, but Goff did lead them back to a 35-35 tie in the fourth quarter. It’s just that the defense couldn’t stop Michael Thomas on a couple of third downs and scored the final 10 points. Goff’s receivers let him down late, unable to make tough catches on money downs.

I recall coming away from that one thinking the Rams had a good shot in a rematch. Over the last seven games (including a Teddy Bridgewater start in Week 17), the Saints haven’t topped 31 points as the offense has regressed. They’re obviously better at home, but even last week the Saints only scored 20 points against a Philadelphia defense they annihilated for 48 points in Week 11. The Rams can certainly cook up a plan with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips to not make this a 45-35 repeat.

In rematches like this I like to look at the impact of injuries. Who have these teams lost since Week 9 and who is back this time? That area favors the Rams. While the Kupp injury sucks, they get cornerback Aqib Talib back and the Saints just lost Sheldon Rankins on the DL. Andrus Peat is banged up on the OL and will have his hands full with DPOY Aaron Donald. There was no sacks on either side in Week 9, but expect that to change this week.

As far as Talib goes, it has been the Rams’ strategy this year to play their CBs on sides. Michael Thomas moves around a lot, but if I was Wade, I would have Talib do shadowing this week instead of letting Marcus Peters get him again. Thomas went off for 211 yards, including this 72-yard TD to seal the game when Peters was caught not paying attention.

Thomas destroyed the Eagles last week too. The Saints don’t have a ton of weapons this year. Ben Watson is out at TE with appendicitis. Keith Kirkwood is out. Alvin Kamara only had 34 receiving yards in Week 9, so just don’t let him beat you deep (like Eagles in Week 11) or take a screen a long way (like Steelers in Week 16) and you should be good there. Let the gambling Peters guard someone like Ted Ginn. I’m not going to pretend the Rams are actually good enough on defense to dominate this offense on the road, but what I’m saying is they have a really strong cover corner and should utilize him appropriately against the Saints’ best weapon. If the Saints can do that with a bit more pressure this time around from Donald and company, then I really like the Rams’ chances to pull off the win.

Maybe this time there’s a Taysom Hill interception that leaves Twitter in a WTF? blaze of glory. “You have Drew Brees at QB trying to win a ring at 40 and you call that?” On 8 dropbacks this season, Hill has already thrown one pick and taken one sack. He’s best left to running on 3rd-and-2. Both coaches have been super aggressive at times this season, but McVay’s timeout management could be better.

I also keep pointing out how these teams have been the best in the league at winning close games and protecting small leads (7-0). The Saints especially have done well in closing with a league-high seven game-winning drives and zero blown leads in the fourth quarter. We also know that those types of streaks are always a mistake away from going the other way. The Saints won their first Super Bowl against an Indianapolis team that was 7-0 at 4QC opportunities in 2009 under Peyton Manning. One jumped route by Tracy Porter and that was that.

What (or who) will it be this week?

Final: Rams 31, Saints 28

Patriots at Chiefs (-3)

The Chiefs lead 30-27 in overtime. Tom Brady takes the field, under a SUPER BLOOD WOLF MOON, with a chance for another legacy-defining drive and Super Bowl appearance. Justin Houston, who was out in Week 6, strips him of the ball and sends to the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl since the merger. Brady can only see red as the dawn of the new AFC is upon us.

That would be some imagery. I already did my big preview on this game at FO, so check that out. Basically, I want to stress that I think the Chiefs have a great chance to win this game at home. We’d be singing a different tune if it was at Gillette, but it’s not. The Chiefs have played better this season, and their pass rush has the highest pressure rate at home as opposed to 26th in road games. That has a lot to do with why their defense is much higher in DVOA at home and terrible on the road, and why they haven’t given up 30+ at home yet. The Patriots will play better and smarter than the Colts did last week, but I still see Patrick Mahomes putting up his points at home. The Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home, but 31st on the road on defense. That’s because they’ve had truly dreadful games against the likes of the Jaguars, Dolphins, Titans, Lions. Now what do you think might happen when they get Mahomes on the road, who already put up 40 in NE this year? He just needs to get the ball last. Andy Reid has hung 40+ on the Patriots three times since 2014 now. This team is going to be way better prepared than the Chargers were last week.

Now the issue is that the Chiefs are 32nd in run defense and the Patriots already had one of their best rushing games all season in Week 6 on them. They’ll want to run the ball, dink and dunk, play-action looks to Julian Edelman, control the clock and limit Mahomes’ possessions. Throw in some classic Reid clock mismanagement that allows Brady to win the game late instead of Mahomes putting it away, and in the end do you trust a defense that ranks 32nd in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, and 26h in DVOA? That’s why it’s not a shock to see the Patriots win this one on the road, but there performances away from home leave much to be desired this season.

Final: Patriots 30, Chiefs 27

Regardless of what happens, we should get a fine Super Bowl matchup this season. Personally, I think a rematch of Super Bowl 52.5 (KC-LAR 54-41) would be very cool since that was such a hyped game that delivered at midseason. If that is the matchup, then we would have a record set for the most points scored by a Super Bowl winner. The first nine teams to score more than the 1999 Rams (526 points) all failed to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs (565) and Rams (527) will hope to rewrite that history for high-scoring teams, but there’s also a chance neither gets past this weekend.

2018 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Even though the home team wins 71.4% of the games in this round since 1970, it’s often the most dramatic and best weekend of the year. In the 32-team era, 2002, 2004 and 2015 are the only seasons where the home teams finished 4-0 in the divisional round. Someone is likely getting upset and leaving their fans upset in the process. Even the Patriots have an actual challenge this week with the smallest spread (-4) of the weekend.

Colts at Chiefs (-5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there and read that one. Basically, I’m going to assume the snow isn’t a big deal today. The game comes down to Andrew Luck playing efficiently and effectively to limit Patrick Mahomes’ drives and make him score more than 30 to win. The Colts defense isn’t that good, but the Chiefs are certainly worse in that area despite better numbers at home. I see Mahomes putting up his usual points, but Luck will have a chance for a late game-winning TD drive and this defense is going to have to make a play to stop him. So do something this time, Orlando Scandrick.

Final: Chiefs 30, Colts 26

(IND +5, Under 56.5)

Cowboys at Rams (-7)

Both offenses are a little shaky to me. Dak Prescott takes way too many sacks and isn’t aggressive enough on third downs this season. That’s bad news against Wade Phillips’ defense, and especially with Aaron Donald against this interior OL. Dallas is 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season and they’ll definitely need to hit that total here. It should be noted that Dallas only surpassed 17 points on the road three times, though LA isn’t a huge home-field advantage yet and the Cowboys may actually feel at home with more fans in the seats. Still, the Rams have scored 23+ in every game this season except for the disaster in Chicago (15-6). Jared Goff has been shaky since the bye, but at least the last two games were good. Dallas has a good defense but I’m not blown away by it or anything.

With this week’s coaching hires revolving around finding the next Sean McVay, it would look really bad if McVay lost this game to fall to 0-2 at home in the playoffs. He was a favorite of 6.5+ points in each game too. I’m going to back the Rams in this one, but I think it’s still an underrated story of how the offense misses Cooper Kupp in the slot.

Final: Rams 26, Cowboys 20

(DAL +7, Under 49)

Chargers at Patriots (-4)

The Chargers have played better than the Patriots this season, but there’s just something about this opponent where San Diego Los Angeles goes into extra Chargering mode. I’ll spare the lowlights of Nate Kaeding or Marlon McCree from many years ago, but just look at this Travis Benjamin punt return from a 2017 game coached by Anthony Lynn in New England:

There’s a good reason why Philip Rivers is 0-7 against the Patriots with Tom Brady at quarterback. They are their own worst enemy in these games. Now Rivers can stand to play better against Bill Belichick’s defense, but at least his ACL won’t be torn this time around. He however has not been sharp in the last month and will need to play better. And it figures it could be a snow game when Melvin Gordon has been banged up for the Chargers. On defense, the Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home and 31st on the road. Nice to get this game at home against a team with a better record. Don’t let the fact that NE is 4-0 against playoff teams hide the fact they lost five times to non-playoff teams.

Again, I think the Chargers are a better team this year, but I can’t bring myself to picking them in this venue. Especially not with the Patriots coming off a bye, which I think is huge for their old offensive players (not just Brady, but Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman). Also, despite the loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Belichick is still money against new playoff opponents and the Chargers have only seen this team once in the last four seasons. It was a comedy of errors in that 21-13 loss last year, and I can just imagine what they’ll cook up this time. Maybe Hunter Henry fumbles in the red zone in his season debut (I cribbed this from Marvin Harrison vs. 2007 Chargers in AFC-DIV). Maybe their kicker (Michael Badgley) gets hurt so the new guy they signed for kickoffs blows a game-winning field goal.

This is the game where the Chargers can show it truly is a different year, but do you trust them?

Final: Patriots 27, Chargers 20

(NE -4, Under 48)

Eagles at Saints (-8)

This would definitely be a huge upset if the Eagles can continue their late run here behind Nick Foles. In Week 11, the Saints waxed Philly 48-7 with Sean Payton and Drew Brees pouring it on with a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles come in with virtually zero pressure to win while the Saints are the favorites to go all the way.

I’m ultimately picking the Saints to win, but let me just state some facts and thoughts why an upset is possible here:

  • Carson Wentz had the worst game of his career in Week 11. He’ll be replaced by a QB in Foles who has incredible playoff stats in five starts and is simply better at getting this team to win games of this magnitude, not to mention better in crunch time and in shootouts. The Eagles aren’t just a front-running team with Foles under center.
  • Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive coaches on fourth downs and two-point conversions, so knowing he has nothing to lose here, look for him to take advantage of +EV chances.
  • The Saints are a below-average passing defense and struggle with wide receivers, especially on deep throws (32nd in DVOA). Foles gets the WRs involved in this offense and is willing to take deep chances.
  • Brees struggled down the stretch this season, though most of those games were on the road. He took off Week 17 as the Saints really didn’t put much effort into that game period. Now with a bye week too, could we see some rust and a slow start? It’s happened before to teams that rest early in addition to the bye.
  • Perhaps we can keep talking about this if Saints advance, but it’s incredible to me that this passing offense is so successful despite how much it relies on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas is great, but he’s not the all-around athlete Julio Jones is, he’s not as good after the catch as Odell Beckham, not as good at the catch point as DeAndre Hopkins, and not the kind of deep threat Tyreek Hill is. He has a great connection with the accurate Brees, but I would often double team him and make other players step up to beat you. Kamara is dangerous after the catch and on screens, but he’s still limited as a RB in just how much damage he’ll do to you. His only catch vs. Eagles was that 37-yard run-up-the-score TD. Now the Eagles are too banged up in the secondary to really afford to double team, but it’s something to think about should Thomas have a bad game. Where else will the production come from?
  • Finally, in Week 11 there was this stat (see below) where Brees had a completion rate that was +20.5% above expectation based on next gen charting data. He was on fire that day, but obviously with that being his best performance this season, it’s hard to expect him to repeat that. So what if the Eagles are able to get him to throw into tight windows with good coverage again, but some of those passes just don’t connect this time? I think this is a good sign for the Eagles going into this one.

I mean, if the 2010 Jets can go from 45-3 to beating the Patriots with Mark Sanchez at quarterback a month later, is it really asking that much for the defending champion Eagles to turn 48-7 around with Foles going into the Superdome? This wouldn’t be the upset of the decade, but it would create one hell of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, if we aren’t already there. For that reason alone I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win, but I’m not betting on it.

Final: Saints 30, Eagles 27

(PHI +8, Over 52)

2017 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The Titans, Rams, Bills, and Jaguars are playing this weekend. Are we sure it’s the playoffs, or is it January 2000? I can’t help but feel that something strange is going to happen this postseason, but here we go.

Titans at Chiefs

I already did my big preview on this one at FO, so check that out. I just think the Chiefs are on a good run going into the playoffs and they should be able to get this win without too much trouble. Too much offense for the Titans to overcome on the road. Good offenses all put up 25+ on the Titans this year. This could be the start to an incredible playoff run by the Chiefs a la the 2011 Giants/2012 Ravens.

Final: Chiefs 27, Titans 17

Falcons at Rams

I think this game has the widest range of outcomes this weekend. The Falcons should have won the Super Bowl last year, and are lucky to be in the tournament this year. Don’t forget the dropped game-winning touchdown by the Bears in Week 1, the Golden Tate GW TD coming up inches short in Detroit, the way Seattle and Tampa Bay missed game-tying field goals at the end, or Drew Brees’ unthinkable pick in the red zone in a 3-point game. The Falcons can be 4-12 just as easily as 13-3 right now. It’s just been that kind of year.

Meanwhile, the Rams bring inexperience and unpredictability to the tournament. They rested starters last week, and this is all new for Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Buffalo’s wide receivers, and Aaron Donald. The Rams had the highest weekly DVOA variance this season while the Falcons had the lowest. The Rams really stomped some teams, including Seattle in Seattle, and they play great special teams and give Goff incredible field position. They also struggled to get the offense going against some better defenses like the Vikings and Seahawks (first time when they were healthy).

The matchup seems to favor the Rams in that the Falcons were 25th in QBR against play-action passes, and Goff uses play-action more than anyone. He also loves throwing to Gurley, who is on a tear, and no defense gives up more catches to running backs than the Falcons. However, Goff still worries me. He had the third-highest rate of off-target passes this year according to ESPN Stats & Info. So you’re talking about a quarterback who relies heavily on YAC and play-action in a QB-friendly system. When it comes to making big throws in big moments, the Falcons have a big edge there with Matt Ryan, who’s had a stellar run in the postseason going back to 2012 even. Sure, this season wasn’t what we thought he could do, but he really did have an epic amount of tipped interceptions and some egregious touchdown drops. He’s clearly not leading an offense as great as 2016’s, but this is still a talented bunch who can score on this defense and won’t be afraid of the big stage. It also doesn’t sound like a strong home-field advantage is going to be there for the Rams yet, but win this game and that will change too in the future.

Atlanta’s only allowed more than 26 points once this season (31 to Seattle), so I think the game can remain close. This is the smallest spread this week at 6 points, and I really think Atlanta might be the underdog to back on that front.

Final: Falcons 26, Rams 23

Bills at Jaguars

Not only are the Bills and Jaguars in the playoffs, but one of these teams is guaranteed to advance to the next round. It’s too bad LeSean McCoy isn’t 100 percent, because he’s sorely needed in this matchup. Buffalo is a low-volume passing offense to begin with, but you don’t want to throw much against the top pass defense in football when you are so limited in receiving weapons. Not only could McCoy be a threat on the ground, but he can catch a lot of passes too. He led the Bills with 59 catches, 10 more than any other teammate. I’m sure McCoy is going to suit up to give it a go, but I can’t see him being too effective after his ankle injury. Tyrod Taylor gets pressured enough as is, but throwing him against the wolves of Sacksonville? It can’t be a pretty day for this offense.

So I think the only way for Jacksonville to blow this at home is for Blake Bortles to turn the ball over multiple times (or once for a touchdown). We have called Buffalo an opportunistic defense all season long with takeaways. Tre’Davious White is not just a guy who Gronkowski delivered a cheapshot to, but the rookie was involved in a lot of takeaways this year. The Bills were actually a subpar defense (26th in yards per drive, 23rd in points), but eighth in takeaways per drive, which really helped this team win nine games to sneak into the playoffs.

Look, the Jaguars held eight teams to 0-10 points this year. That’s impressive stuff. I think they’ll hide Bortles enough this week, lean on the running game and defense, and the Jaguars will go to Pittsburgh next week for a rematch.

Final: Jaguars 24, Bills 13

Panthers at Saints

Again, I think the AFC games are pretty one-sided this week, but the NFC ones could easily go either way. The Saints got the best of Carolina in both games this year, and neither was really that close. You always hear how it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year, but it’s not so hard if you’re already 2-0. In fact, it’s the expected result as it’s happened 65% of the time in this scenario. Part of what helps there is that usually the 2-0 team gets the third game at home in the playoffs. If this game wasn’t in the Superdome, then I could see trusting Carolina a lot more. But that’s not the case since the Panthers bombed in Atlanta last week when winning the division was possible.

Neither of these teams are charging ahead into the playoffs on a good note. Both lost in Week 17. The Panthers also nearly lost to Tampa Bay in Week 16. This is a real Jekyll and Hyde team, and it starts with the erratic Cam Newton. I think he’s had some downright incredible games this year (NE, DET, MIA, GB), but then you remember the 4 losses to CHI/NO/ATL/PHI where he threw 2 TD, 11 INT. Cam actually had a career-high in rushing yards (754), but I don’t think you can really trust him to deliver in this matchup. He’s also failed to pass for 200 yards in his last three games against this defense, and he’s only topped 260 passing yards three times in 14 career matchups with the Saints. Remember, there were a lot of terrible defensive seasons from the Saints in that span. Things have certainly improved this year, but like I said before, the Saints have looked like a .500 ball club ever since that dominant 7-game winning streak where none of the games were too close.

Mix in the familiarity these teams have with each other, and I think you could see Carolina find a way to pull this one out if Newton brings his A game. He needs to get Greg Olsen involved heavily again, who hasn’t been much of a factor in an injury-plagued season.

All I know is I’m just glad to see Drew Brees in another playoff game. It’s been a while, and he’s been one of the most prolific postseason passers ever (see below). I think he’ll get the job done at home.

Final: Saints 27, Panthers 21

(That means my spread picks are KC, ATL, JAX, CAR)

PODVOA

2017 NFL Full Playoff Predictions

This is where I pick the whole tournament. I came pretty close last year, only missing on KC beating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, and Atlanta beating New England in the Super Bowl (d’oh). You don’t know how badly I want to pick the Chiefs to get some revenge this year by knocking off the Patriots and Steelers, two teams who eliminated them the last two years.

Wild Card:

  • Titans at Chiefs
  • Falcons at Rams
  • Bills at Jaguars
  • Panthers at Saints

Divisional:

  • Falcons at Eagles
  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Jaguars at Steelers
  • Saints at Vikings

Conference Championship:

  • Steelers at Patriots
  • Falcons at Vikings

Super Bowl LII:

Patriots vs. VIKINGS

Super Bowl MVP: The home crowd in Minnesota

  • 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
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Season: 162-94 (Spread: 60-59-5)

NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Best Week?

Week 14 just might be the best schedule the NFL has on paper all season. There are six games between teams with at least a .500 record. Maybe more importantly, there just aren’t any real “gimme games” where you can feel very confident that one team is just going to roll over the other. I’m going to quickly go through the remaining 15 games this week to show my concerns with picking a winner.

IND-BUF: Sure, the Colts stink, but they’ve blown five fourth-quarter leads and we don’t know if Tyrod Taylor is good to go. Nathan Peterman and his turnovers could be the key to an Indy win on the road, unless he turns into Rob Johnson vs. Indy.

CHI-CIN: I’d be worried about the Bengals having blown their emotional wad vs. Pittsburgh on Monday night. Chicago is bad, but good enough to pounce on some mistakes for return touchdowns/short fields.

SF-HOU: I can see the headlines already. “49ers 2-0 in close games with Garoppolo at QB.” This would be an interesting game if, you know, Tom Savage wasn’t the Houston QB.

OAK-KC: Trust the Chiefs these days? Impossible, and they already lost a game they should have won against the Raiders this year. Throw in a suspension to Marcus Peters, the return of Michael Crabtree, and I’m hesitant as hell about going with the Chiefs.

DAL-NYG: I believe in teams getting a boost the next game after a major firing, such as getting rid of Ben McAdoo. Add in the return of Eli Manning at quarterback, home field, and the fact that Dak Prescott has struggled to score points on the Giants in three tries. I don’t trust Dallas period these days, but this is a matchup I especially would not trust them in.

DET-TB: I think Matthew Stafford will be fine health wise, but you know I already suck at predicting Tampa Bay games. I can say fade Mike Evans in fantasy (DFS), and he’ll probably go off for 140 yards and 2 TD.

MIN-CAR: I feel oddly confident about the Vikings like I did last week when they won in Atlanta, but Carolina has shown some real quality play at times this season. Just don’t know which Cam will show up, and everyone seems to be waiting for Case Keenum to have that fall back to Earth game, which is certainly possible on the road against a decent defense. But MIN should win.

GB-CLE: Hey, I think this might be the week for the Browns to avoid 0-16. Another big firing (GM Sashi Brown) took place here, and it’s really just a good matchup for Cleveland. The Browns should be able to stop the run, forcing Brett Hundley to throw more. He hasn’t been that consistent or sharp. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon could feast on the secondary. The only concern here is DeShone Kizer, who continues to make crippling turnovers for this offense. But I could already see the headlines for this one too. “Packers expecting a win with Aaron Rodgers coming back next week suffer a huge loss in Cleveland; playoffs much in doubt.” Not my preferred narrative, but just something that I could see happening.

NYJ-DEN: Do you really want to start trusting Josh McCown and the Jets? Sure, they have no doubt been playing better than Denver this year, but doesn’t the losing streak have to stop eventually? The Jets aren’t the Eagles or Patriots. and Mile High is one of the best home-field advantages in the league. I could see some McCown turnovers helping out the struggling Denver offense. Not a game I’d want to bet on.

WAS-LACH: This is another one with a probable narrative. “The Chargers had been playing so well, but choked away another late lead to a Washington team that has now won twice in LA this year, as well as in Seattle.” Redskins had a long time to rest after that shitshow in Dallas. Not sure what we’ll get from them, but they’ve played pretty solid football outside of that game.

TEN-ARI: The Titans are one of the worst 8-4 teams in NFL history, and Arizona can still be competitive at home even with Blaine Gabbert. Bruce Arians should know Dick LeBeau’s scheme well. I’m sure I’ll have to write about this game in Clutch Encounters either way.

SEA-JAC: Oddly enough, this might be the game I feel the best about this week. I just think Seattle will go in there, like the Rams earlier this year, and win the game by making Bortles play bad and cough up turnovers. The Seattle defense is still very good. Not better than Jacksonville’s this year, but I was impressed with the way the Seahawks handled Philadelphia’s front last week to allow Russell Wilson time to make things happen. If they can do that on the road, and it’s not a 10:00 AM body clock game, then they should win this one, underdog status be damned.

PHI-LARM: The game of the week, I suppose, but still a lot of things for both teams to prove. I think Jared Goff’s stats are still as misleading as anyone’s this year, and he’ll have to play well against a very solid defense. Carson Wentz has to clean up the mistakes from last week on the road again, but I think this is a game for the Rams defense to remind us how good they can be too. I’ll take the Rams in a close one at home, but obviously the Eagles winning wouldn’t be any surprise.

BAL-PIT: The Steelers can’t really overlook their main rival for their main obstacle (NE) to a Super Bowl, plus this game is to clinch the AFC North. We know the Steelers play much better at home on offense, especially in prime time. Jimmy Smith being out is a huge loss for the Ravens, which should give Antonio Brown a better chance at a huge night. He might need it with the suspension of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Obviously the loss of Ryan Shazier is big too, and the losses in the secondary (Joe Haden most notably) are troubling for a defense that has started to give up many big plays. If Joe Flacco can throw the ball like he did against Detroit, then we definitely have a game here, but I think the Steelers will take care of business at home. I just don’t feel overly confident about it, because these teams love to split and play 3-point games. The Steelers aren’t going to keep winning every one-score game either.

NE-MIA: I’d say it’s the lock of the week, but no Rob Gronkowski makes things interesting. Not to mention we’ve seen NE go down to Miami and lose when no one expected in 2004, 2006, and 2013-15. Yeah, you say Jay Cutler, but don’t forget about A.J. Feeley (2004) and Joey Harrington (2006). Weird things happen to NE down there. Plus I’ll probably have a ton of money at my fingertips on parlays waiting for the Patriots to give me a Merry Christmas, and they’ll screw me like they always do.

2017 Week 14 Predictions

The Saints quickly ended my dream of a 16-0 week, not like I ever had a shot at that in this particular week.

2017Wk14V2

  • 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
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Season: 120-72 (Spread: 31-28-1)

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Island Game Gold

Making an NFL schedule months in advance isn’t easy, but things really lucked out for the schedule makers this week. TNF was a great choice between the Raiders and Chiefs, and SNF (ATL-NE) and MNF (WAS-PHI) are really the other highlight matches of Week 7. Will the games actually be worth a damn to watch? We’ll see, but it’s a perfect prime-time lineup.

Cardinals vs. Rams

I thought this might have also been an island game (London), but it’s actually being played at 1 p.m. EST. Figures, they finally get a somewhat decent London game and it’s lumped together with the other early-afternoon slate. The fact that this is a division game is pretty wild, and definitely not fair to the Rams who will have to go to Arizona for the rematch in Week 13. Maybe that game should have been scheduled for Mexico City just to make things even and not rob one team (Rams) of a true home game.

Adrian Peterson balled out last week in his Arizona debut, but I think the defenses will stiffen in this one and he won’t have nearly the same success. Ditto for Carson Palmer through the air. Aaron Donald should feast on that line. I think some of the shine has come off Jared Goff again, but he did play the Seattle and Jacksonville pass defenses. Still, throwing a lot of off-target passes and relying on superior field position and YAC this year. Not a long-term formula for success. Still, I cautiously side with the Rams to pull this one out due to protecting the QB better than I expect Arizona will. Rams have also been playing well on special teams while Arizona remains one of the worst.

Saints at Packers

Very interesting one after the Aaron Rodgers injury. Yes, Saints defense has played better after the first two weeks, but still not a good unit by any means. I want to give Brett Hundley and Mike McCarthy a good shot here at home before I bury the Packers for 2017. Back in 2010, Rodgers left a game in Detroit with a concussion and Matt Flynn came off the bench in a 7-3 loss. With a week to prepare as a first-time starter, Flynn came out in New England and tossed three touchdowns in a competitive 31-27 loss. Hundley was a better college prospect than Flynn, and he’s had a few years in the system and got a lot of preseason experience (similar to Tony Romo in 2006). I like to think McCarthy can prepare Hundley to play well in an offense that still has good receiving talent. I think I’m actually going to back the Packers in this one, because the Saints haven’t been as explosive on offense this season as usual, and I think they’ll rally behind Hundley to play a strong team game without Rodgers.

Falcons at Patriots

Ah yes, the Super Bowl LI rematch. I wasn’t fooling around when I said the other day that these could easily be 1-win teams right now.

Falcons beat GB comfortably, but the Bears were inches away from a game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds in Week 1. The Lions were inches away from a touchdown (Golden Tate) on the final play in Week 3 that would have won the game. Atlanta just blew two home games to the Bills and Dolphins, including another 17+ point lead. So there’s your inches away from a 1-4 start.

As for the Patriots, their only comfortable win was in New Orleans. They really should have been 1-3 after Tom Brady had a fumble and dropped interception on what became the game-winning drive against Houston. Stop and think about that one for a second. Deshaun Watson might be the MVP front-runner right now if his safety held onto a Brady pick and the Texans would be 4-2. Something not even in his control. Ugh. But that’s 1-3, then we’ve seen the Patriots skate by the Buccaneers (two Nick Folk missed FGs and Jameis Winston’s last pass was terrible to win the game) and Jets (blew a 14-0 lead, awful calls went against NY, and yes the ASJ fumble was weak).

The point is these teams aren’t playing very good football this season, records be damned. They were both on hot runs going into SB LI, but I’m not impressed with what we’ve seen this year. The Patriots give up a 300-yard passer every week, but have still kept the points down on defense in the four wins (20, 26, 14 and 17). Yards don’t really matter if you’re not turning them into points, and with Atlanta, we see the offense No. 1 in yards per drive, but third in points. Last year it was 1 and 1 for the Falcons. Matt Ryan’s had some pretty awful luck with tipped INTs (4 of his 6 picks hit his receiver). Julio Jones has been very quiet, but I think he’ll come alive in this one. Still, I can’t possibly trust the Falcons to go on the road and win this one even if the Patriots look vulnerable enough to drop several home games this season. The Atlanta defense still isn’t good enough at getting stops, and the Patriots are still doing a fine job offensively this season.

Redskins at Eagles

In a season without any real great teams, these two are quietly in the top 6 in DVOA right now. This is a rematch from Week 1, won 30-17 by the Eagles, but that final score is a bit misleading. There was a late fumble-six that really should have been ruled an incomplete pass with Washington still having time to win the game with a touchdown. Earlier in that quarter, Kirk Cousins threw one of the worst interceptions of anyone this season when he panicked against a blitz and missed a wide-open receiver in the red zone in a 2-point game. Cousins has only tossed one INT since then, and that was a bomb on third-and-long that served as a punt. He’s played well, but he has to be sharper against the Eagles. I think the injuries on defense (Josh Norman and Jonathan Allen) leave the Redskins too short handed to deal with all of Philadelphia’s weapons, and the Eagles also are one of the best special teams this year. I’ll take Philadelphia at home.

2017 Week 7 Predictions

I actually had the Chiefs by 6 points on TNF, so I would have been fuming if I went through with that bet after the 31-30 loss on the final play(s).

Winners in bold.

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

I think you could put Seattle and Pittsburgh on upset alerts. Long travel for the Seahawks against a good secondary when the passing offense hasn’t been too hot yet. Bengals play the Steelers tougher in Pittsburgh than they do at home. Also point out how close the 49ers have been to a win, and they gave Dallas about all it could handle last year too. Not a lot of games I feel confident in here, but it’s just been that kind of season. I mean, look at this awful track record I’m putting up in 2017:

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Season: 48-43

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Embracing Mediocrity

I always like it when the afternoon games I’m most interested in are on my local CBS and FOX affiliates, which is the case this week. Without failure, each season someone is shocked that I don’t have Sunday Ticket, but why would I ever want or need such an expensive service? I prefer to watch a full live game if I can, particularly the Steelers, but I also have the RedZone channel. Then there’s Game Pass and torrents. So I get the league-wide access I need at a favorable cost. If there’s a drive full of 4-yard papercuts to Jarvis Landry that I need to see, I’ll see it in due time. No worries.

Bengals at Steelers

This is easily the game of the week. That may not mean it will play out as the best, but it is the most important game — the next chapter in a heated rivalry. It also brings up one of the more fascinating stats in the NFL: Marvin Lewis is 6-7 in Pittsburgh, but 2-13 at home against the Steelers (including two crushing playoff losses). The road team just happens to play better in this series, and Cincinnati’s 6-7 record in Pittsburgh trails only Jacksonville (3-1) and New England (3-2) since 2003 among teams with at least 3 trips to Heinz Field. Part of this weird split is that Ben Roethlisberger’s stats are better in Cincinnati than at home where he has had some of the worst games of his career in low-scoring struggles, including last season’s 16-10, three-pick defeat. At least this won’t be a game where Roethlisberger is just returning from injury as was the case last year.

In his career, Roethlisberger is 54-4 at home when the Steelers allow fewer than 21 points, but three of those losses were to the Bengals. Lewis’ defense has a good feel for defending this offense, including pressuring Ben and containing Antonio Brown as a receiver (he does have 3 punt return touchdowns against the Bengals). In Brown’s last 48 games with Roethlisberger at quarterback, he’s had at least 5 catches in all 48, and at least 70 yards in 40 of them. Only the Ravens (4), Bengals (3) and Seahawks (1) have held this duo under 70 yards. I think the Bengals can limit his damage again this week, and A.J. Green is going to have the bigger game. He almost has to with both offenses experiencing many departures, putting the onus on their star receivers to dominate. Heath Miller retired, Ladarius Green and Tyler Eifert are injured, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are gone, Martavis Bryant is suspended and Markus Wheaton appears to still be injured. This means newcomers have to contribute, including Eli Rogers, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. While a game of HORSE between Brown and Green would be interesting, the offense that gets more secondary receiver contributions is likely to win this game. I do not think either running game is going to go off, though I’d give the Steelers the edge there with DeAngelo Williams still looking really good at an advanced age behind this offensive line. I’m still not sure what to think of Jeremy Hill after a disappointing 2015, and he’ll especially be happy if Ryan Shazier isn’t at full strength after Shazier’s dominant playoff game helped eliminate the Bengals. The Steelers ought to be happy that Vontaze Burfict is still suspended for this one after Burfcit injured Le’Veon Bell, Ben and Brown on hits last season.

Defensively, I would be concerned that the Steelers did not get much rush on Washington and gave up their share of plays, but got enough big stops to limit the points to 16. That is always key, but a similar offense in Cincinnati should get rid of the ball quickly and there really is no one capable of matching up with Green in this secondary. Andy Dalton is usually one of the best-protected quarterbacks in the NFL, but he took seven sacks on the road last week. The Steelers are going to have to get their front seven to deliver more this week. I would expect a few sacks from the Bengals of Roethlisberger, but he’ll be glad to see no Reggie Nelson in the secondary. The offense had few problems in the last three quarters against Washington, but must build off that performance. You saw the ugly first quarter and how a few turnovers could really change the game around. The Bengals have the better defense in this matchup.

So home field has been established as pretty irrelevant in this particular series, but I do give the Steelers a slight edge going into this one. They’ll be happy to be home given six of their last seven games were on the road thanks to being a 6th seed in the playoffs last year and opening this year on the road. Monday night’s performance was impressive enough for me to think this offense is clicking well enough early despite the personnel losses that they can pull out a close one here.

Bengals 21, Steelers 24

Colts at Broncos

I hope I’m not relying too much on “fighting narratives” to make game picks this season, especially after a bad Week 1. But this was a game where I picked the Broncos to win when I went through all 256 games before opening night. Yes, it is true that Andrew Luck has had great success against the Broncos (3-1), including the most efficient and effective game any QB had against them last year while he lacerated his kidney. Maybe he took those matchups with Peyton Manning personally, really wanting to impress the Indy fans. He doesn’t need any extra motivation to avoid going 0-2 this week, but he hasn’t seen this Wade Phillips’ called defense on the road yet. The Broncos are still very much led by that defense, which feeds on the crowd energy to play even better at home. Trevor Siemian threw one pass over 15 yards in Week 1 and it was intercepted. He may get a boost this week with the Colts’ beat-up defensive unit struggling to get pressure and cover receivers. The Demaryius Thomas injury is a little concerning given Denver is basically two deep at that position, but I like Emmanuel Sanders this week. Right now, Siemian looks like Alex Smith without the draft pedigree, but the Broncos can win with that as long as C.J. Anderson is making great cuts behind an improved run-blocking line. Luck looked great last week, but I fear his line on the road this week against a much tougher unit. I absolutely think the Colts can win this one since you really don’t need to score many points to beat Denver, but I just don’t see it working out this time. The Colts need more of a big defensive effort than a big game from Luck (smart will do).

Colts 17, Broncos 20

Seahawks at Rams

I always like to say I get a lot of predictions wrong throughout the season, but I still get more right. It never fails to amaze me when I mention a long streak and it gets broken in the next game or two. All throughout the summer I feared a Russell Wilson injury this year due to his unusually good durability despite a frantic playing style behind a porous offensive line. Was this the year that would catch up to Seattle? Then he hurts his ankle in Week 1 and just barely limps to a late win over Miami. Unless the Seahawks are covering it up, Wilson seems to have avoided the dreaded high-ankle sprain and will start on Sunday. We don’t know anything about what Injured Russell Wilson looks like since he’s always been healthy. However, if his mobility is limited, then that’s a huge problem against a Rams defense that always gives him fits even when he’s on his game. Who saw the Rams going into Seattle in Week 16 and pulling out that win? Jeff Fisher can’t sniff a real Super Bowl again, so he treats these Seattle games as his team’s Super Bowl, and the success has been pretty good given Seattle’s overall dominance since 2012.

After the game on Sunday, I was determined to pick the Rams to win this game in their home Los Angeles opener given the Wilson injury. And then Monday night happened — an embarrassing 28-0 shutout to Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers, projected to be a bottom-two team this year. They drafted Jared Goff No. 1 to be inactive for this shit? Forget 7-9 bullshit, this looked like the start of 2-14 c*cksucker blues. And they want to give Fisher an extension? It’s madness.

And yet, as much as that game cooled me off the Rams’ upset, I still think they’re going to give Seattle a game here. I just don’t think it’s going to be enough because of that horrific offense against this great Seattle defense. Wilson may not need to throw for 100 yards. Just don’t turn the ball over.

Rams 6, Seahawks 16

Packers at Vikings

Opening a new stadium should be a joyous occasion, but in Minnesota, the throng of yawns in the air have already given the new place a stale smell of boredom and disinterest. Nothing can suck the life out of a fan base more than having to start Sam Bradford at quarterback after trading a first-round pick for him. Vikings fans, get ready to embrace mediocrity.

Mediocrity would actually be an improvement over most of Bradford’s career, but it’s really the best-case scenario this year. He plays at a league-average level, but does just enough in the right moments to get this team enough wins. Adrian Peterson is going to have to play much better than last week, though the Titans were built to stop the run and stink at the pass. Green Bay is a solid, but not great defense, and Sam Shields being out should help. I wouldn’t expect much from Bradford, but honestly, why would you ever expect much from Sam Bradford?

The other side of the ball is what interests me most about this one, because what the hell has happened to this Green Bay passing game? It went from years of being one of the most efficient attacks ever to a broken mess. Where are the timing plays and the chemistry on the back-shoulder throws? Anymore this offense works best by producing broken plays and taking advantage of offside penalties. It’s not sustainable, and it hasn’t been effective even though the Week 11 game in Minnesota is one of two times the offense has scored 30 offensive points in the last 13 games.

Aaron Rodgers has five seasons with at least 8.2 YPA.  He still ranks 5th all time in YPA (7.99). So it’s incredible when one of the most efficient passers ever has been held under 6.0 YPA in five of his last six games. That’s something Rodgers has only done in 12 other starts in his career. He’s been held under 7.0 YPA in 11 of his last 13 games (including playoffs). One of those two was the Hail Mary in Detroit to boost him up. Even though Jordy Nelson returned last week, he wasn’t the same receiver as he didn’t make the big plays. In fact, his 6 catches for 32 yards (5.33 YPC) is the lowest YPC he’s ever had in a game with more than 1 catch.

The effect this stretch of play is having on Rodgers’ career stats is interesting. He was at 8.22 YPA thru 116 regular-season games. Now after going a Joey Harrington-esque 5.96 YPA in his last 11 games, he’s down to 7.99. He still manages his TD-to-INT ratio well, but it’s hard to call this depressed passing game effective. Keep in mind the Packers are 6-7 since a 6-0 start last year. Rodgers has tore up the Vikings many times in his career, but not last year against Mike Zimmer’s defense. I think that defense rises to the occasion in this one, but the offense lets them down as Green Bay does just enough to sneak away with the win in the new stadium.

Packers 19, Vikings 16

2016 Week 2 Predictions

Well I was some 7-9 bullshit in a bad opening week. At least I changed my mind on the Jets starting 0-6 to give them the Thursday win over a growing mess in Buffalo. See, Ryan Fitzpatrick sucks against Rex Ryan defenses, but that Rob Ryan D is another story.

Winners in bold

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

Week 1: 7-9