NFL Week 3 Predictions: I’m Empty, Please Fill Me

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

The beauty of Week 3 in the NFL is trying to figure out which of the last two weeks was more telling for each team. This may be a fool’s errand in the grand scheme of things, but it’s what we do when we have nothing else to go on.

Still, the week got off to a surprisingly good start with the Rams-49ers putting on a show on Thursday night. We really could use a great Sunday of football after a slow Weeks 1-2 and after another difficult week in “the real world.” I doubt anything this weekend can match last season’s Week 10 timely greatness after the election, because that slate had awesome matchups in Seahawks-Patriots and Cowboys-Steelers.

But I have a few thoughts to share on several Week 3 games. A main theme this week is the idea of certain teams and players being in a desperate mode to avoid an 0-3 start. A guy like Brian Hoyer had to know he needed to play better to keep his job. He did even if the 49ers still lost. I think Mike Glennon is in a very similar situation in Chicago to hold off Mitch Trubisky, and while Eli Manning is in no real danger to lose his job in New York, the Giants need to start scoring some points again after this 0-2 start. The same thing can be said about Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. So this stuff is weighing into my predictions this week.

Bengals at Packers

I like for a huge game from A.J. Green, especially with Tyler Eifert out, but how do you go against Green Bay at home after a bad loss? Look for Aaron Rodgers to be much sharper as he usually is at Lambeau. He’s never beaten the Bengals (0-2), but those were Mike Zimmer-coordinated defenses. The Bengals just seem like a broken, lost team at this point. I think firing the OC will give some boost, but a lot of that can also be explained this week by playing a GB defense instead of the Ravens or Texans.

Browns at Colts

Weird to see Cleveland favored on the road, but without Andrew Luck, the Colts really are the most irrelevant team in the NFL right now. It’s like the season hasn’t even started for them yet. However, do I really trust the Browns to win here? If not for botching a 3rd-and-20 last week, I think the Colts would have beaten Arizona. Jacoby Brissett is an upgrade over Scott Tolzien, though the offense is still obviously a problem. I just think at home, the defense can get some hurries, sacks, and takeaways from DeShone Kizer, and the run defense hasn’t been that bad so far. So I’m going to stick with the Colts in this one, as I said they’d start 1-3 with a win over Cleveland if Luck was out the whole time.

Steelers at Bears

Is this not the perfect trap game for the Steelers on the road? Remember, they’re not good in these games away from the state of Ohio. Everyone expects them to win easily, but the Bears gave Atlanta all it could handle in Week 1. Mike Glennon beat the Steelers in one of their home letdown games in 2014 with Tampa Bay. He should have more success through the air against this defense than the Bears will have on the ground. Question is will the defense show up? I don’t think the Steelers have blocked well at all for Le’Veon Bell this year, and he hasn’t been a factor in the passing game. Blame that on skipping the offseason I guess. I also don’t think Ben Roethlisberger has been sharp despite a lot of advanced metrics suggesting things are just fine. He missed a lot of throws against the Vikings and only had success with Brown and the Outlaw in Week 1. This would be a good game to get Martavis Bryant going at a high level again, but either way, the Bears don’t have the defense to match up here so Pittsburgh should win.

But we’ve seen this movie play out before, especially with a big Baltimore game looming.

Giants at Eagles

I’d like to pick the Giants to get a win, but I just think the Eagles are playing better right now, and the defense should have its way with New York’s line. The Giants struggle as it is in Philly, but this is a bad time for this matchup. I think the defense has been fine for New York, so if Eli can get anything going, they have a decent shot here. But if you can’t score 20+ anymore, then you’re not beating the Eagles (or just about anyone).

Falcons at Lions

This could easily be the game of the week, a shootout expected for sure. I’d say Atlanta’s pass protection has been spotty at times again like last year, so Matt Ryan has to watch those drive-killing sacks. Detroit’s defense has been pretty solid, but I’m just not sure Carson Palmer and Eli Manning still have “it” this year at an advanced age. Ryan is in his prime and still on that MVP roll from last year. The defense also looks better for Atlanta, but Detroit’s small ball and tendency to throw to the RBs can definitely lead to points on this defense. Like I said, shootout expected and definitely a game that should come down to the final drive with two of the most prolific QBs at leading game-winning drives. I’m still picking the road team, because I trust Atlanta more than I do Detroit. This team has been pretty hot for a good stretch now with that one massive screw-up known as the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI. But I like the way they’ve started this year in response to that.

Broncos at Bills

Could have been an interesting first road test for Vance Joseph, but I don’t like the fact that Cordy Glenn is out at LT for Buffalo. This needs to be a game where LeSean McCoy dominates, because the Bills aren’t going to have any success with Tyrod Taylor scrambling and trying to throw into this secondary with his limited receiving corps. With Glenn out, I don’t see Buffalo winning up front too much, and they already give up a lot of pressure as it is. Marcell Dareus is also out, and lest we forget, Buffalo was a team pegged to be pretty awful coming into this season after getting rid of so many young contributors. Did you see Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins go over 100 yards each on Thursday for the Rams? The Bills could use some playmakers right now.

Buccaneers at Vikings

I wouldn’t count out Case Keenun making the game at least competitive at home. He did that a lot for the 2013 Texans, but just lost every close game imaginable that year. Vikings are talented, but QB injuries really suck. Tampa Bay was really good last week. Good opportunity for a 2-0 start with a win over another team expected to be in the playoff hunt.

Seahawks at Titans

At least it’s not a 10:00 A.M. start time for the Seahawks. This is the kind of game the Seahawks tend to lose: cross-country, aggressive defense that can get after Wilson, and a team that can run the ball offensively and has a quarterback with escapability too. However, are we sure this is the kind of game the Titans win? They don’t have much of a recent track record, and already flopped at home against Oakland in Week 1. I like this matchup since it’s two preseason contenders (division winners at least) and one is going to start 1-2. I’m still leaning towards Seattle, because I can’t believe that offense won’t be better than how it’s started, and I still like the defense very much.

Raiders at Redskins

In Week 1, Kirk Cousins tied for the team lead with 30 rushing yards. In Week 2, the Redskins had 3 backs go for over 60 rushing yards, a rare feat indeed. Cousins played much more of a dink-and-dunk game manager role in that one, though we are starting to see that the Rams just may not be that good defensively this season. But what kind of offense is Washington right now? Terrelle Pryor hasn’t quite acclimated himself well to the offense yet, Jordan Reed is eternally hurt, and Jamison Crowder has been less productive than RB Chris Thompson. Under Sean McVay as offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden’s offense was pretty consistent the last couple of years, but I see a unit that is struggling to find an identity after losing McVay and the top two wideouts. I’m just not sure what to expect from Washington in any given week, while I think Oakland brings a talented offense with a favorable matchup on any play since Josh Norman can only cover one of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper at a time. These are unusual teams to see on SNF, but hey, we need some new blood in this league. I don’t think the Raiders are anywhere near being locks on the road to beat an average team, but it’s a decent test for them and not a bad way to end the day.

2017 Week 3 Predictions

I finally got a TNF right by going with the Rams, who almost blew it of course.

Winners in bold.

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

That’s a hell of a lot of road teams to pick, but I guess we’ll just have to tune in to see how it goes.

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Season: 19-12

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

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

2017 NFL Award Predictions

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

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

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

Week 1 Games of Interest

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

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

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

2017 Week 1 Predictions

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

Winners in bold:

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

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

2017 NFL Predictions

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

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

Eat Arby’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Buffalo Bills (2-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. New York Jets (2-14)

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

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

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

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

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. New York Giants (10-6)

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

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

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

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

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

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

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

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

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

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

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

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

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

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

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

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

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

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

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

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

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

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

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

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

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

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

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

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

4. Chicago Bears (3-13)

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

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

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

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

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Houston Texans (5-11)

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

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

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

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

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

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

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

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

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

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

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

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

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

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Seasons finishing 7-9:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BreesPO

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

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

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

From FOA 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

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

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

From FOA 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least not to this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

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

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

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

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

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

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-10)

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

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

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

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

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

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

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

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

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

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. New England (14-2)

  2. Pittsburgh (12-4)

  3. Kansas City (11-5)

  4. Tennessee (10-6)

  5. Oakland (10-6)

  6. Los Angeles (9-7)

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

NFC

  1. Dallas (12-4)

  2. Seattle (12-4)

  3. Atlanta (11-5)

  4. Green Bay (11-5)

  5. Carolina (11-5)

  6. Arizona (10-6)

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

SUPER BOWL LII

New England 23, Seattle 20

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

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

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

SEANOBLOW

The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

RW37update

Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

batsb

I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

vino

Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

NFL Week 3 Predictions: Broncos vs. Seahawks, Take Two

I never wrote a formal recap of  the stunning domination that was Super Bowl XLVIII by Seattle over Denver. It’s the only time since the 2011 season I didn’t write a weekly recap of the NFL’s close games, because it’s the only week there weren’t any close games. We have been spoiled by great Super Bowls, and this one had all the right ingredients for a classic. It was the highest-scoring offense against a great defense. Then the highest-scoring offense in NFL history couldn’t execute a snap on the first play from scrimmage, and it was all downhill from there.

It’s probably the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced as an NFL fan in general. 43-8? Thanks for the unique score, I guess. Whatever happens in Week 3, where the schedule is seemingly titled to give this “rematch” full focus, won’t make up for the lack of competitiveness in February.

For me, the Seahawks need this win more, because they’re 1-1 in a tougher division and Denver is 2-0. It’s not like Seattle can’t rebound from 1-2, but some doubt will creep up for a team that’s as much of a favorite to repeat as any we’ve seen in years.

I think the Broncos need to show February was just an outlier. If these teams met 50 times, I’m not sure it would ever get more lopsided in Seattle’s favor than the one result that counted. Denver can’t afford a repeat, or else there will be major doubt in its ability to hang with this Seattle team. There’s nothing even close to a guarantee they’ll have to get through them to win a championship this year, but it’s certainly possible. Denver winning this game in Seattle, where we know the Seahawks are 18-1 with Russell Wilson at QB and have been extra dominant defensively, would be a big confidence builder and would help lower Seattle’s playoff chances in the process.

So what the hell went wrong on February 2, and what has really changed in seven months to expect a different outcome this time?

I wrote a really long preview for the Super Bowl, and some of it turned out to be relevant. Marshawn Lynch wasn’t a factor, Percy Harvin’s kick return value iced the game, and Seattle’s third-down pass defense was extremely decisive with two interceptions.

Denver had to be sick when watching the film on this game if only for the simple fact that the Seahawks wrapped this thing up on the strength of a couple of plays.

By the time it was 22-0 in the second quarter, Peyton Manning had thrown two incompletions of consequence.

Both were interceptions and both were the result of quick edge pressure. Now don’t get me wrong. Seattle made sure every yard and first down was like pulling teeth for the Broncos, but a long Denver drive was building when it was 15-0, then that fateful 3rd-and-13 happened. Cliff Avril again got the pressure, but this time he hit Manning while throwing and the ball just so happened to land in Malcolm Smith’s possession for a pick-six. That pretty much wrapped it up there, but Harvin’s kick return to make it 29-0 guaranteed the second half would be irrelevant.

The game was about pressure. Denver’s offense allowed the lowest rate of pressure all season, but Seattle’s defense generated the most of any defense in the last four years. Manning was only pressured about five percentage points more often than usual in this game, but it was extremely effective to get interceptions on third down. Meanwhile, no offense allowed more pressure than Seattle, but Wilson was not hit or sacked in this game by Denver’s defense, which also came away with zero takeaways (not even a forced fumble) in three playoff games last year.

Pressure’s not very consistent from year to year, but if Seattle can get some in key spots at home, they’re going to disrupt this offense again. The reconfiguration of Denver’s offensive line should help with a superior player like Ryan Clady at left tackle, but the noise is going to be an issue. Denver stupidly didn’t prepare for crowd noise in the neutral-site Super Bowl, despite having a head coach that’s been there before and Manning also should have known better. I’m sure a tactic like the silent count has been worked on this week and we’ll see Denver more prepared for the noise, but it’s obviously a significant factor in playing at Seattle.

Besides Clady, what else has changed? Seattle still looks very similar on paper, but the Broncos have 13 new starters compared to who started at each position in February. That includes a secondary Seattle didn’t see any of with Rahim Moore (IR), TJ Ward (CLE), Aqib Talib (NE) and Chris Harris (IR) plus rookie CB Bradley Roby. That also includes DeMarcus Ware (DAL) and Von Miller (IR), who must generate pressure on Wilson to have success in this game. On offense there’s Emmanuel Sanders, who will take over for Eric “Charmin Soft” Decker, who had a pathetic performance in the big game. That’s a lot of guys that don’t know anything about 43-8, because they didn’t play that day.

For Denver to keep it close in Seattle, this new defense must get after Wilson and continue containing Lynch on the ground. Keep in mind Seattle actually ranks second to Denver in points per drive thru Week 2 this year. Denver’s defense has had two suspect performances at home against the Colts and Chiefs. Alex Smith was moving well and dealing on third down last week. Denver’s new-look defense looks a lot like last year’s struggling unit despite all the changes. Harvin gave them some nightmares with the jet sweep, but defenses league-wide have to start getting prepared for that better. Seattle may also chill a bit after a horrible time to run it in San Diego with the game on the line last week (the play lost six yards).

Offensively, I would imagine Sanders or Andre Caldwell will occupy Richard Sherman, but I strongly disagree with the strategy to avoid him for the entire game like we saw in Week 1 with Green Bay. You can’t just surrender a side of the field to the defense like that. If the guy Sherman’s covering is open, throw it there. Philip Rivers didn’t show that fear last week and it turned out fine for him. Denver can keep Demaryius away from Sherman, but there’s no reason to purposely stay away from him all game long.

Demaryius also hasn’t played that well to start this season. He had an interesting Super Bowl with a lot catches, but not for a lot of yards, because Seattle’s defense swarmed and tackled so well. There just wasn’t much YAC, and that’s the kind of offense Denver has evolved into with “Old Peyton”. He’s going to have to try loosening them up a bit more with intermediate (15-25 yards) routes. It can’t be a lot of screens or Seattle will continue stifling this offense.

The key to this game is Julius Thomas, but after the trouble Antonio Gates gave Seattle last week, don’t you think both sides expect that? Julius has looked great this year, but I’m skeptical he can make the tough catches the veteran Gates did last week. He’s still young and learning. He wasn’t much of a factor in the Super Bowl, but for Denver to win this game, he has to play big this week. I’m not fond of Wes Welker’s return to a physical matchup like this one. He might leave with yet another concussion. No matter who Peyton targets, you know the ball is coming out very quick. It was still coming out in 2.6 seconds in the Super Bowl, but that wasn’t enough against some of that crucial edge pressure.

What Denver must do differently is stick with the running game even if it’s not that efficient. Before two garbage-time carries by C.J. Anderson in the Super Bowl, the Broncos had 11 carries for 18 yards — the same numbers Denver had in a Week 15 loss to San Diego. That’s the worst rushing support Manning’s had in his 265-game career. The score had a lot to do with that, but Denver still abandoned the run.

San Diego stuck with the run despite its inefficiency last week so that Rivers didn’t have to make every play. He also got his running backs involved with nine catches, which I think Manning needs to do more of with Montee Ball and Anderson. Attack the short middle of the field and flats. I feel like last year Denver watched San Diego shred Dallas, albeit a horrific defense, and used some of that knowledge (similar offense with Mike McCoy) in the following week in that classic 51-48 win in Dallas. The Broncos could once again learn a few things from San Diego’s trial run against Seattle.

All the talk after the Super Bowl was that Denver’s just not physical enough to beat Seattle (or San Francisco). Well, it just so happens they caught a break with the schedule and will play this NFC West this year. So the first litmus test is this week in the toughest place to play in the NFL right now. I’m not sure how a team gets “tougher” without a simple dose of more running plays. This is still a Manning-led offense, which has pretty much looked the same as it always has this season. It’s always been about execution, but rarely has the execution ever been so poor as it was that night in February, and while Seattle had a lot to do with that, there are some opportunities for Denver to make corrections and give us a more competitive game this time.

I think that’s enough analysis for a Week 3 game, so onto the prediction.

Final prediction: Seahawks 27, Broncos 20

NFL Week 3 Predictions

Can we get a Thursday game that’s not won by 20+ points by the home team? I picked Atlanta to win, but that was embarrassing, Tampa Bay. I’m glad I picked you to finish last place in the division, but 7-9 is looking far too kind.

Winners in bold:

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

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Total: 17-15

I only picked six of them, but I like a lot of the road teams this week. Ravens can certainly win, but I like Cleveland’s rushing attack right now and maybe the football gods will intervene here if you’ve been following the news.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Year of the Seahawks, Part II

Last year was my “Year of the Broncos” and for most of the season, that’s exactly what it was. Then the Super Bowl happened and Seattle proved to be the best team. Things shouldn’t be much different in 2014, and if Thursday night was any indicator, the Seahawks can be a stronger team overall this season.

Green Bay used to be the league’s most consistently competitive team, but the Seahawks have taken that crown too. Seattle hasn’t been blown out in 52 games and now holds the record for most consecutive games without losing by more than seven points, surpassing McCarthy’s Packers. Seattle also has what I believe to be the all-time NFL record with a fourth quarter or overtime lead in 31 consecutive games (including playoffs).

SEATBLS

Beating up the Packers by 20 points is pretty noteworthy given Aaron Rodgers has only lost four starts by more than 14 points in his career. Seattle did it with its usual formula: great defense, great running and timely pass plays.

It’s scary that Seattle doesn’t even need Russell Wilson to throw for 200 yards to lead teams like Denver and Green Bay by three or more scores. Wilson has never thrown more than 37 passes in any game in his career, and even the game with 37 went to overtime (3 passes there).

How long can these streaks, which certainly are connected and correlated with a team playing great, complementary football, exist? Let’s just take the last one. I looked at 50 quarterbacks I already had numbers on to see how long it took them to have a regular-season game with more than 37 pass attempts (sacks excluded). The number of starts is more telling than the number of games due to some guys who played on special teams early (Joe Montana and Tony Romo).

37pa

The average was 7.4 starts. I’ve been comparing Wilson to Tarkenton since his rookie year, so this is fitting. Tarkenton did play in a much different era though, as did Fouts, Unitas and Staubach. The best modern comparison is Ben Roethlisberger, but even he had to put it up 41 times on a day his defense let him down against the 2005 Bengals. Wilson’s time will come, but for now, Seattle has a proven winning formula not in any need of changes.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I had Seattle winning 24-20, so it’s a 1-0 start, but I better keep my ATS picks to myself until I learn better.

Winners in bold:

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

I see a lot of possibilities for the 49ers/Cowboys game, but they all tend to end with a lot of points on the board. Yes, this could be a San Francisco blowout given that Dallas defense, or it could be a game where the Cowboys are up big at halftime and another collapse takes place. Either way that’s the game I’m looking forward to because it could be such a tone-setter for the rest of the season for both teams.

I don’t think the Colts have much of a chance to win in Denver without Robert Mathis, but this could be a much different game in January should they meet again with different lineups. Don’t see Manning going 0-2 against his former team. In 19 home games with Denver, he’s 16-3 with 68.6% completions, 56 TD, 11 INT, 8.07 YPA and 111.6 PR.

This season I’ll have my usual Clutch Encounters column on Tuesday at Football Outsiders, fantasy start/sit on ESPN Insider on Wednesdays and a random topic on certain Fridays at one of those sites. I’ll also probably write here from time to time beyond just predictions every Saturday.

One thing I left out of my 8,000-word season predictions were the awards, so here’s a ballot.

  • MVP: Drew Brees
  • OPOY: Drew Brees
  • DPOY: Robert Quinn
  • Coach: Marc Trestman
  • OROY: Brandin Cooks
  • DROY: Jadeveon Clowney
  • Comeback: Von Miller? Never liked this award. Not my kind of comeback.

2014 NFL Predictions

I just want something I can never have…a perfect week of NFL predictions. But before we get into my weekly picks every Saturday, here are my full season predictions for the 2014 season.

Last year I had Denver beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl. Half right. Okay, more like a quarter right. Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my record was 152-103-1 (.596), or one game worse than just picking every single home team. That’s still not bad given the ebb and flow of an NFL season, but I’m striving to do better this year.

I predicted 20 teams within two games of their actual record, but had some notable misses in a year where three teams declined by at least seven wins for only the second time since the merger.

2013smiths

Dramatic falls and rises shouldn’t happen again this year, but you never know. Chad Henne could tear his ACL on Sunday and Blake Bortles ends up leading the Jaguars to an AFC South title. The pieces to this 2014 puzzle have been moving for seven months already, but the real fun starts tonight.

This year’s band to set up each team’s theme is Nine Inch Nails. It’s hard to believe Pretty Hate Machine is 25 years old and The Downward Spiral is 20 years old. We’re also up to season 95 of the NFL.

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

 

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Nine Inch Nails: “Closer”

Stat: The 2013 Eagles averaged 7.04 yards after catch, the highest since 1992 according to STATS LLC.

If you read my Eagles chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (purchased here), then you might think I want to feel Chip Kelly from the inside. Unlike DeSean Jackson, who won’t be a big loss, I have fully bought into Chip’s offense. However, where’s the improvement coming from on defense when not much has changed from last year’s lackluster group? As much as I want to push this team into the next tier in the NFC, I’m hesitant because of that defense. There’s also a 2012-13 Washington feel with this team minus the quarterback nursing a torn ACL. Remember, the Eagles were 3-5 before rallying and had the fewest injuries in the league. Nick Foles only threw two picks. These things regress to the mean and he was living off play-action passing down the winning stretch. Sounds like RGIII’s rookie year a bit, doesn’t it? I’m not one for teams “catching up” to Chip, and I think this offense almost has too many weapons, but it wouldn’t shock me to see some decline here. Still, this is the best team in the division and they could get closer to the top of the conference.

2. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Hurt”

Stat: No team in NFL history has ever finished .500 in four consecutive seasons, but the 2011-13 Cowboys are only the fourth team to spend three seasons in purgatory.

Based on my stat, I shouldn’t pick 8-8 again, right? Well, things just broke that way as they usually do for Dallas. Jason Garrett’s never won more than four in a row; never lost more than two in a row. He does just enough to keep his job. The offense should be effective as long as Tony Romo’s behind center, but good lord this defense gets worse every time I look at it. Beyond players who left in the offseason, there are a bunch of injuries, disappointment and underachieving. It’s hard to get worse than last year, but where will the impact plays come from? I feel like 8-8 would actually be an achievement this season for Dallas. The bottom could fall out here.

3. New York Giants (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Downward Spiral”

Stat: Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric.

A ton of injuries (especially at RB/CB) and Eli Manning led the league in interceptions (27). Sounds like a good candidate for regression, but this is the downward spiral choice as the Giants have gone from my division winner to 5-11 over the past few months. The new offense with the laughable goal of 70 percent completions for Eli has been a mess so far. What if he doesn’t recover? There’s a lot of turnover on the line and Hakeem Nicks has moved on. Rookie Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t been able to get on the field. The starting tight end is a nobody. This team has to be carried by its defense, which fortunately should be pretty good with additions like Stevie Brown (hurt in 2013) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I can see 7-9 happening, but the Tom Coughlin/Eli era is deep into its third act and we’re probably not going to get a happy ending.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Disappointed”

Stat: Washington has used the second-highest rate of play-action passing since 2012 (roughly 35 percent). In three years as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, coach Jay Gruden used play action sparingly: 16.4% (2011), 17.1% (2012), 18.9% (2013).

Last year I picked Washington to win 10 games and miss the playoffs. They disappointed greatly with a 3-13 finish. The offense couldn’t score early in games, the defense was a sieve, so there was no controlling of games with the run and play-action like in 2012 when Robert Griffin III had great numbers. Expecting about seven wins this year, my run through of the schedule only produced a 4-12 record. What we know is this receiving corps is loaded with talent, including the Drag King (DeSean Jackson) and Drag Qu–better not (Garcon). Very interested to see Jordan Reed play a full season at tight end. That’s a nice group, but will the quarterback get them the ball consistently? Will Griffin stop taking horrible hits on the sidelines and will he ever learn to slide so that it doesn’t look like he’s trying to shit in the woods?

Griffin’s going to play somewhere in between his first two years, but I’m skeptical of what he does in an offense that seemingly won’t be so dependent on making things look like zone read and play-action. For all we know, Gruden did a hell of a job getting everything he could out of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, but this is going to be an adjustment for RGIII. The defense is pretty much a dumpster fire after Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Too many guys on the wrong side of 30 and some of the most overrated multi-time Pro Bowlers in NFL history (DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather).

 

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “Wish”

Stat: I jinxed them on every interesting streak last year, so I’ll have to find new stuff.

Repeat after me, Patriots fans.

  • 2005: We wish Tom Brady didn’t throw that pass to Champ Bailey in the end zone.
  • 2006: We wish we didn’t blow an 18-point lead in Indianapolis.
  • 2007: We wish Rodney Harrison decapitated David Tyree so he couldn’t make the helmet catch.
  • 2008: We wish Bernard Pollard was never born.
  • 2009-10: We wish we could outscore Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez at home.
  • 2011: We wish Eli Manning didn’t save his best throws for our defense.
  • 2012-13: We wish Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib didn’t break so easily late in the season.

Since last winning a Super Bowl over nine years ago, it’s been a lot of the same for the Patriots each year. You can pencil them in for 12+ wins. You can also take an opponent on the schedule and pick them to beat the Patriots in a playoff rematch, because that’s exactly what happened in their last eight playoff appearances. This year they play the likes of Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, San Diego and Green Bay. Take your pick.

I expect Brady to play better, Gronkowski to play more games and Bill Belichick will use Darrelle Revis the way he’s supposed to be used. This is probably the best defense the Patriots have fielded since the rebuild began about five years ago. I like the Patriots to get the No. 1 seed simply because they play an easier schedule than Denver and get home-field advantage for the third year in a row when they play the Broncos in Week 9. Just have to wish everything goes right in the playoffs like they did a decade ago.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Into the Void”

Stat: Despite a league-worst 58 sacks, Ryan Tannehill had the 13th-lowest pressure rate of qualified quarterbacks last year.

Tannehill and Joe Philbin are starting to run low on chances to prove they’re the right people for their jobs. It’s a tough task: bringing the Dolphins out of sustained mediocrity/general irrelevance ever since Dan Marino retired. For Tannehill, he’s really struggled with pressure the last two years. His offensive line should be a little better this year, though Mike Pouncey needs to get back on the field ASAP. Mike Wallace has been on a steady decline since the midpoint of 2011, but it’s hard to get any worse than last year when he just couldn’t generate the big plays down the field. A new offensive coordinator will help too, but the offense is going to have to pick things up to carry this team over the hump. The defense should be okay, but the annual story of waiting for a quarterback to blossom in this post-Marino era remains the most critical part of any Dolphins season. A good start with the Patriots at home — that was probably Tannehill’s most impressive game last year in December — is huge.

 3. New York Jets (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Down In It”

Stat: The 2013 Jets had the worst scoring differential (-97) for an 8-8 team in NFL history.

Last year’s Jets were of the “win close, lose big” variety. With Geno Smith leading five game-winning drives, it was a poor man’s version of the 2012 Colts, who still rebounded to make the playoffs in 2013. I’m not confident in Geno as I am Luck, but he does have better weapons this year. Eric Decker will show up against the lousy defenses and disappear against the good ones. His vertical game matches up well with Geno’s skillset. I know I predicted terrible things for the Jets (and Bills) last year too and was burned, but I just think last season’s record was a mirage and there’s more to fix on the defense than we imagine. The secondary, especially cornerback, is a mess right now. Rex Ryan can coach defense and he might have the best defensive line (in the AFC), but we haven’t truly seen a top-notch unit since 2010. That’s also the last time the Jets were anything better than a .500 team with a bunch of bad losses on their resume.

 4. Buffalo Bills (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Something I Can Never Have”

Stat: The only team in the 21st century to not make the NFL playoffs.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I hate writing about Buffalo because it’s the same stories every year. Will the quarterback be any good? Can they score points? Is the defense good enough to carry the offense to a winning record? And the answer is always no. This year especially, I see a team wallowing for the top pick in the draft. How can the defense improve on last year when it lost its defensive coordinator, its two best players (Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso) and had career-years in sack production from Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes? That just screams regression, especially given the success without getting pressure.

Speaking of pressure, EJ Manuel had the third-lowest DVOA without pressure (10.3%) in 2013. I found 40 examples since 2010 where a quarterback had a DVOA without pressure under 20.0%. Not one of those quarterbacks was a good starter after that point. This is something reserved for the worst quarterbacks in the league or guys on the decline. Matt Schaub did that last year and he’s already lost his job to Derek Carr. Eli Manning also did it and I’m skeptical of his future. Manuel hasn’t looked good this preseason, but that is just preseason football. This could be a run-heavy offense again with two good backs, but Manuel has to step up with what is a talented receiving corps.

 

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Even Deeper”

Stat: 2009-14 Packers can tie franchise record for most consecutive playoff appearances (6; 1993-98).

Insert mandatory line about as long as Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the division, the Packers are the NFC North favorites. That’s still the case. What I don’t see is a defense good enough to make this a Super Bowl team in the loaded NFC. The year the defense actually played up to that level was 2010 and we know what happened then. The offense will be very good as long as Rodgers is healthy, but when matched up with a team like the Seahawks or 49ers, I’m not sold on the Packers. They’re 0-5 against those teams since 2012 and I like Seattle in the opener. Green Bay also has to travel to New Orleans for an expected shootout, but it’s those tough road games that make me think the Packers won’t be getting a first-round bye, meaning they’ll likely return to the same difficult venues in January. If they can’t dig deeper and grind out those road wins, they’re not ready for another title run.

2. Chicago Bears (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Mr. Self Destruct”

Stat: In 2013, Josh McCown (8.0%) and Jay Cutler (-23.8%) finished 1st and 2nd in DVOA with pressure.

My initial run through the games produced a 13-3 record for Chicago. That’s not happening. I like Marc Trestman, but this team’s still a bit flawed for that kind of record. Jay Cutler has shown almost no progression since the first start of his career since 2006. He’ll make beautiful throws. He’ll make horrible throws. He’ll come through in the clutch. He’ll get you blown out before halftime. He is what he is, but he can lead this team to the playoffs with talented skill players and their wide catch radius. Alshon Jeffery was more impressive than Brandon Marshall last year in my eyes. The defense used to be so reliable, but the core has gotten old and there were too many injuries right down the middle last year. Safety play leaves much to be desired. Still, better health and talent can get this group to being at least mediocre, which is good enough mixed with a high-scoring offense.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Kinda I Want To”

Stat: Mike Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator for the last 14 seasons. His defense’s average rank in points per drive is 14.6, finishing as high as third last year with Cincinnati.

Last year I was really hard on the Vikings, and rightfully so. This year, I kind of wanted to make them a playoff team, but the tough schedule made that too hard. I also wish they would have just let Teddy Bridgewater take over as QB1 from the start and insulated him with a very talented offense, a strong running game and Norv Turner’s knowledge. The weapons and line are there, but they’re going to start with Matt Cassel and the book’s been out on him. He’ll look good against the soft defenses, but match the Vikings up with a better opponent and the mistakes will shine through. Bridgewater rarely threw picks in college. He’s the future, but I wish he was the present. Zimmer’s going to make the defense better after an awful 2013, but he doesn’t have a full deck yet like he was getting close to in Cincinnati. Maybe next year, Minnesota.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: “Head Like a Hole”

Stat: The 2013 Lions tied the NFL record (2000 Chargers) by blowing seven fourth-quarter leads.

I’m just going to post this copy of Jim Caldwell’s resume I “found” one day…

jimcald

Lions needed a change at the top, but I’m not sold Caldwell is the right guy for the job. Mike Tanier made a great point in FOA 2014 about the Lions being hit hardest by the old CBA in having to dish out huge contracts to top picks like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. Johnson has lived up to the hype, but Stafford still has the funky mechanics and bad decisions. Suh leads a defense that’s been mediocre at best and he’s not consistently a force in the middle. He’s pretty good at getting fined though.

These players take up so much of the cap space that it’s hard to build the rest of the team. They have more receivers than ever before around Stafford this year, but the defense doesn’t have much outside of the line, especially in the secondary. That’s why there will be plenty of high-scoring games and the more put on Stafford’s plate, the more likely he starts making those costly mistakes. A lot of people are high on the 2014 Lions, but FO’s projections were not. Based on this team’s history, I think another losing season should surprise no one. As much as the Lions want to taste victory, their mouths are dry in the end. They’ll probably score too many points to only win six games, but this isn’t a playoff team in a conference with contenders who can do multiple things at a high level.

 

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”

Stat: The 2004-2013 Steelers are the 8th team in the Super Bowl era to go a decade without a losing record and having outscored their opponents in each season.

You knew I’d pick that song, right? “The standard is the standard” for Mike Tomlin. So we’re just waiting for the Steelers to get a few ball bounces and break out of this 8-8 mediocrity. I originally didn’t want to pick the Steelers to win the AFC North, but we’ll probably have at least one new division winner in the AFC, right? The elements of a few great players, an easy schedule and a division without a juggernaut help the Steelers, but those same things all existed in last year’s 8-8 finish.

The fear with the Steelers is they only got marginally better this offseason. Dri Archer could grow into having a Darren Sproles-type impact if Todd Haley uses him right (holding my breath there). Mike Munchak could be huge for the offensive line if he maximizes the talent David DeCastro has. Ryan Clark was too old at safety, so insert Mike Mitchell. Ryan Shazier’s speed is going to create a lot of plays. However, the rest of the secondary remains intact and that’s not great news if Ike Taylor is going to keep giving up completions and amassing penalties.

Does Ben Roethlisberger actually get his no-huddle offense this year? We’ll see, but that would be one welcomed change to a team that seems to be slow in keeping up with evolving trends.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ruiner”

Stat: Andy Dalton has increased his touchdowns, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt each year of his career.

In a three-team race for the division, the Bengals probably have the best roster, but the least trustworthy quarterback. We’ve at least seen Joe Flacco go on a great run against superior competition. Andy Dalton has been absolutely dreadful in playoff games. My opinion of him really soured this offseason when I looked at the catch radius for A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. Dalton takes advantage of his playmakers by allowing them to create a great highlight reel on difficult catches that aren’t great throws. When people talk about a quarterback being made better by his weapons, Dalton is the example to point to. While after looking at more receivers I felt better about Dalton, but then I looked at his playoff loss to San Diego and again found instances of Jermaine Gresham, a 6’5″ tight end having to leap off the ground and fully extend his arms above the head for a catch. Dalton is not an accurate quarterback by any means, but he’s still very rich now.

JGreshb

Marvin Lewis has somehow made it to a 12th season in Cincinnati without a single playoff win. Expectations will be high again, but both coordinators are gone. This is a crucial season in Cincinnati and while I think the talent is there to win 10 games, a decline out of the playoffs wouldn’t be surprising. After all, how many teams consistently win with average quarterback play?

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Only Time”

Stat: Despite one of the worst rushing attacks in the last 25 years, Joe Flacco had his highest DVOA yet on play-action passes.

Last year was the only time John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco failed to make the playoffs together in six seasons. It’s the only time Flacco failed to throw no more than 12 interceptions (career-high 22). It’s the only time Ray Rice punched…Okay, it was a really bad year and not a great offseason for the Ravens. Basking in the glow of their Super Bowl title, a poached roster had a difficult time last year with sustaining offense.

I think Gary Kubiak could be huge for that running game, which was so ineffective all season regardless if it was Rice or Bernard Pierce. The play-action game oddly worked, but Baltimore rarely used it. Some of the best play-action attacks in recent time were Kubiak’s in Houston, so I think he can do a good job here with a pretty talented receiving corps. There’s a deep threat (Torrey Smith), a veteran underneath (Steve Smith), a tall/red zone guy (Marlon Brown), another deep threat/return specialist (Jacoby Jones) and tight end Dennis Pitta is healthy again. I also think Michael Campanaro could be a good slot receiver. The offense will get better, but this is still a team led by defense. The front seven is loaded with talent, but they are old. At least rookie C.J. Mosley is there to bring the snap-weighted age down. Secondary depth and the safety position in particular concern me, but I have the Ravens getting off to a nice start and they’ll be a factor in the playoff race.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Wretched”

Stat: Browns are 3-22 (.120) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities since 2011.

One of the most agonizing stories this offseason was Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel. It’s Hoyer in Week 1, but it doesn’t matter which quarterback starts, because this will be one of the worst offenses in the league. Even with Josh Gordon’s incredible effort last year, the Browns ranked 28th in offensive points per drive. Where will the points come from this year? The ghost of Miles Austin? Ben Tate? Manziel scrambles? It’s no longer Brandon Weeden and T-Rich, but there’s not much here. The defense will keep this team competitive in many games and Mike Pettine should have a solid impact there. However, Pettine seems cursed to work with terrible offenses each year and I see no reason why the 2014 Browns will be any different. I’m glad Hoyer is starting too. After the impending bad September, we can stop saying he has a winning record as Cleveland’s starter in a stretch that wasn’t all that last year.

 

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Perfect Drug”

Stat: We think of the Saints as a scoring juggernaut, but nine teams actually scored more points than New Orleans (414) in 2013.

I’ve been high on this team all offseason. The defense is getting closer to the offense, which should be great with better wide receiver depth to go along with Jimmy Graham. Drew Brees is my MVP pick. He might even avoid the annual stinker game against an inferior opponent he has every year. He’ll have to if the Saints are to have a shot at the top seed and not have to worry about traveling to Seattle where they are 0-3 since 2010. I’m all in on the Saints in this division. They just better get that four-minute offense fixed, because it stung them against the Patriots and Panthers last year.

2. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Where Is Everybody?”

Stat: Panthers lost 80.2% of its secondary snaps from 2013.

panth

The Panthers burned me in last year’s predictions by finally winning several close games on their way to the playoffs. Then they burned a lot of their roster. Who are these Panthers? One of the league’s very best front sevens is still there, but the secondary, offensive line and wide receivers have gone through major changes without many great additions. I don’t think they’re that bad off at wideout now with veterans and Kelvin Benjamin should be productive right away. Greg Olsen should have his best year. The line is a little scary and we’ve already seen the usually durable Cam Newton have some rib issues this preseason. The secondary was the weak link last year, but it actually didn’t play that poorly and the Panthers were still very good on defense without getting pressure. They didn’t draft any studs or sign any great free agents to replace those guys, so I think the weakness just got weaker. I also think Riverboat Ron was overblown last year and this is still a team with several holes that need fixed before we can entertain the thought that this is a Super Bowl contender.

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Starfuckers, Inc.”

Stat: The 2013 Falcons had the highest pass ratio on offense in NFL history (68.7%). And there’s an 87% chance Bryan Cox owns Wild Hogs on DVD.

When did the Falcons become the boring version of the Cowboys? They have a couple of stars (heavily slanted towards offense), a lack of depth and they barely try to run the ball anymore. Jake Matthews has big shoes to fill at left tackle, but he has the pedigree. Matt Ryan had a better year than most will give him credit for, but this offense has sputtered out in the red zone in crucial situations way too often since 2012. It cost them a Super Bowl appearance and a couple of games last year. Take away a HOFer like Tony Gonzalez and replace him with nothing proven and that’s going to be hard to overcome. At least Julio Jones is back, but for how long? He hasn’t been a pillar of health. The offense has to compensate for the defense, which has lost defensive captain Sean Weatherspoon again. After cornerback Desmond Trufant, I’m not sure there’s much on this defense for the long-term. I still think Ryan and Mike Smith are one of the league’s better QB-HC pairings and this team will be better, but they’re not ready for a playoff return.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “With Teeth”

Stat: Last season, Josh McCown became the only QB since 2010 to have a positive DVOA (8.0%) while under pressure. Yeah, life doesn’t make much sense.

We’re going to see the impact of coaching here. Greg Schiano had a great player at every level of the defense (Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis) and still didn’t get good results last year. Lovie Smith will turn that around and get this unit playing well with Alterraun Verner replacing Revis. David is one of the most underrated defenders in the league.

They’ll be fine defensively, but where the coaching may hurt is on offense where Lovie’s teams usually are lackluster. McCown doesn’t have Marc Trestman this time. He does have two big receivers again, but Mike Evans is a rookie and perhaps not ready to break out like Alshon Jeffery last year. Doug Martin returning will help and the Logan Mankins trade was good, but the offensive line will have to quickly build chemistry. I just can’t trust McCown to continue his success in a different system and personally, I would have never signed him and just let Mike Glennon keep the job. Sure, Gumby the Gargantuan looks awkward as hell out there, but he was slicing and dicing the Seahawks in Seattle for a half as a rookie. Give the kid another shot. I bet we see him this year too. McCown is 35.

 

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Survivalism”

Stat: Colts are 16-2 (.889) in games decided by 1-8 points since 2012. #Luck

The 12-4 record doesn’t match the direction I feel this franchise is headed, but if any team’s going to post a 12-4 record with big flaws, it’s the Colts. Who will generate pressure without Robert Mathis as he serves his four-game suspension? Even when Mathis comes back, you have to raise your eyebrows about his career season resulting in a suspension for PEDs. Why is the defense so old with an average age of 29.5 for the main starters and nickel back? Who the heck is the interior offensive line this year? Will Trent Richardson even get back to being “3.0” and how long can Pep Hamilton keep giving him the ball?

I’ve bounced around this offseason from having the Colts in the Super Bowl to remembering they have Delano Howell at starting safety, so how would that be possible? They don’t even have Howell (neck) now, because this is one of the most injured teams year after year. Andrew Luck has his best group of receivers yet, but the Colts need to utilize them with empty sets and using Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen together at least 80 times this year. That’s a tough formation to defend, especially when Luck can scramble so well. Last year wasn’t the huge leap forward for Luck, but he did get better and I think he can improve more with this receiving cast.

I’m not sure how I got 12-4 when the Mathis-less Colts start with Denver and Philadelphia. Are the Colts ready to take down a Denver or New England to get to the Super Bowl? I don’t really see it, and the AFC South should be getting better in a hurry. Luck continues to give the Colts the edge here, but that window is closing until the Colts decide to open things up a little more.

2. Houston Texans (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Becoming”

Stat: Since 1970 merger, only two teams have ever declined by 10 wins excluding strike seasons: 1993-94 Houston Oilers and 2012-13 Houston Texans.

Damn that was almost a perfect draft with Jadeveon Clowney and one pick away from getting Teddy Bridgewater too. That combination of Clowney and J.J. Watt will be tough on bad lines, but we’ve seen even with the greatness of Watt the Texans can get torn apart defensively or lose 14 games in a row. They’ll win a handful this year with new coach Bill O’Brien and a new quarterback: bearded-hasbeen Ryan Fitzpatrick or neverwas Ryan Mallett. But I think the quarterback of the future resides in next year’s draft for Houston. Get that piece in place and this team can be in a good position very soon.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Find My Way”

Stat: With Maurice Jones-Drew gone, the 2014 AFC South is the first division since 2002 to not return a single rushing leader from the year before (Donald Brown in Indianapolis, Chris Johnson in Tennessee and Ben Tate in Houston).

Blake Bortles. I can’t believe Jacksonville has gone with Chad Henne to start the season and a plan to keep Bortles on the bench all year. That’s just not the NFL anymore, and Bortles was very impressive this preseason with his Roethlisberger-esque style. If Luke Joeckel wants to “forget” his blocking assignment and get Chad Henne destroyed, that might be the best thing for this team. I kid, only a little. But I think we’ll see Bortles at some point this year and he’ll make the Jaguars one of the trendiest playoff picks in 2015. Hell, I’m already seeing it this year, but as long as it’s Henne, that’s not happening.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “You Know What You Are?”

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

I picked four wins for the Titans last year and they surprised with seven. This team’s hard to figure out, but let’s review some facts. Jake Locker isn’t very accurate or durable. Ken Whisenhunt hasn’t had any success in his career unless he’s had a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner or Philip Rivers last year. Ray Horton’s defenses have been fairly mediocre the last few years, and the Cardinals didn’t miss a step without him last year. Will Jurrell Casey get as much pressure as a 3-4 DE? That’s hard to do, and he is one of the few real bright spots in place on this otherwise bland, directionless team.

The 2013 AFC South had a rotten year, but playing the AFC West and NFC West had a huge impact on the records. The schedules should be easier this year, and that fact alone should help some of these teams win more games, though I think this division is a big part of why the AFC is so top-heavy right now. We’re still waiting for something to spark in the South besides Indianapolis. To me, the Titans have the least going on of these three teams.

 

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ringfinger”

Stat: Seattle has had a fourth-quarter lead in 30 consecutive games (including playoffs). I’ll have to dig, but this could be the all-time record.

The defending Super Bowl champion hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots, but that’s going to change this year. Seattle’s in as good of shape as any team to repeat. The defense won’t be as historically great, but it will still be dominant. The offense could really get better with a healthier offensive line and actual snaps from Percy Harvin on offense. Doug Baldwin is underrated and I like Jermaine Kearse too. Russell Wilson didn’t really grow from his rookie year, but his level of play was so consistent and high enough already. His best days are ahead of him, but the time for winning rings is now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “And All That Could Have Been”

Stat: The 2011-13 49ers are the 11th team to lose to the eventual champion in three straight postseasons. In year four, the previous 10 teams missed the playoffs six times, lost a Super Bowl and won three championships.

The NFC West is the best division in football, but I feel like the 49ers are a clear No. 2 behind Seattle. The gap was much smaller last year, but the 49ers are down too many key defenders for me to believe they’ll still be a 12-4 team. I like Colin Kaepernick and his deepest set of weapons yet, but the identity of this team has been running and defense. Those teams have a short shelf life of success and you wonder how long Jim Harbaugh’s intensity will carry the way. The 49ers are a playoff-caliber team, but it’s another long trip as the Wild Card, which means an extra game and all road appearances. I think we’ll be looking back at this team and how it was one play or one score away from winning or at least getting to multiple Super Bowls. That’s not to say the run is over, but the off-field issues and some shaky drafting the last few years could start to catch up.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: ‘Somewhat Damaged”

Stat: Since moving to Arizona/Phoenix in 1988, the Cardinals have had one running back rush for 1,000 yards and average 4.0 yards per carry in the same season: Beanie Wells, 1,047 yards, 4.27 YPC (2011)

A surprise 10-6 team last year, the Cardinals are going to take a step back with that hard schedule and too many losses on defense. Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby are big losses in the front seven. Larry Foote and John Abraham (who was great last year) are really up there in years. Antonio Cromartie had a horrible season in 2013. Patrick Peterson takes on a tough responsibility each week, but he’s not exactly a shutdown corner. I think the defense regresses and this becomes a more offensive team, which is really where the pieces are right now with a bunch of Notre Dame guys and Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals actually have options at tight end for a change with John Carlson and Troy Niklas. Andre Ellington could have a huge year, but as the stat above shows, running backs usually die out in the desert. I was never a fan of Carson Palmer in a Bruce Arians offense, and I think he played to expectations last year. When protected, he was quite good. When pressured, he was a bottom five quarterback in the league. He’s not Luck or Roethlisberger, but Arians don’t currr. Palmer will pile up volume numbers, but Arizona’s not going to live up to last year.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Fragile”

Stat: No St. Louis receiver has had 700 receiving yards in a season since Torry Holt in 2008.

I actually tend to believe Shaun Hill is a better quarterback than Sam Bradford. He’s been in this spot before, replacing what was a disappointing No. 1 overall pick (Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford) and keeping the team competitive. He has one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios (1.78) ever. He doesn’t have to carry the team, and I think they can max out at eight wins. However, I had a hell of a time with the difficult schedule in giving them any more than five wins. It’s not that the Rams are bad, but they’re just not great at most levels beyond that front seven. Most of the teams they will see this year are simply better.

 

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “We’re In This Together”

Stat: Peyton Manning is 80-0 when his team allows fewer than 17 points, excluding a 16-10 loss he left after two series in Week 17, 2007.

I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that was in XLVIII. Remember when the highest-scoring team ever came out in the Super Bowl and couldn’t even get the first snap off correctly? Can we just jump to the postseason? The regular season is a formality for the Broncos. They’ll lose in Seattle, lose in New England and split with the Chargers. That’s 13-3, but I think losing the game in New England is why the Broncos will drop to the second seed. Yes, they were still the top seed the last two years despite losing in Foxboro — again, this is an awful scheduling quirk by the NFL where teams are playing at the same site three years in a row — but that won’t happen for a third year in a row. Playing the AFC West and NFC West is going to be tough. The Patriots have the easier road.

Come playoff time, let’s see what Denver has learned. The schedule works out beautifully in the sense that they played the Seahawks and 49ers in the preseason and in the regular season. If “being more physical” is the key to not letting 43-8 happen again, then they’re going to get a good litmus test. Frankly, I don’t know what more the offense can do to match up with Seattle. They’re still going to run Peyton Manning’s offense, and we know what that looks like. Can the receivers separate or do anything after the catch? Can they block that quick edge pressure that caused some huge problems last year? Can they run the ball at all? This isn’t suddenly going to be the 1998 Broncos. Montee Ball isn’t Terrell Davis.

That’s why I think the way for Denver to win this year’s Super Bowl is for the defense to step up and turn the tables on those top teams. Get after a Russell Wilson (wasn’t hit in Super Bowl) or Drew Brees. Cause turnovers, which Denver failed to do even once in three playoff games last year. Keep the game competitive. The Super Bowl was 15-0 Seattle and Manning had only thrown one incompletion to that point. Things got out of hand so fast.

Maybe this is the year the Broncos play more complementary football and the ball bounces their way. Somehow, the Broncos are 28-8 with Manning despite a -9 turnover differential (same as 6-26 Jacksonville). That team in Seattle? It has a +41 turnover differential since 2012 (Patriots are +36). The Denver offense won’t be record-setting against a tougher schedule. I predict they’ll score 492 points, down from 606 last year. The defense should be much better. For all the talk about the new additions (and they are nice), I think Von Miller and Ryan Clady returning is as big of news as any move.

Wes Welker and Danny Trevathan missing early games? Forget about that. It’s Super Bowl or bust for this team. We’ll see if the new additions on defense pay off. It worked for the 1994 49ers, who had to get over the Dallas hurdle in the playoffs. Three Dallas turnovers set up a 21-0 lead for the 49ers halfway into the first quarter of the 1994 NFC Championship. They held on for the win on a day where Steve Young only completed 13-of-29 passes for 155 yards. It’s not about just having a record-setting offense or superior defense. It’s getting your units to play together and that’s what the Broncos have to do against better competition.

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Just Like You Imagined”

Stat: San Diego had a league-low 158 offensive drives in 2013, but ranked second in points per drive (2.46) to only Denver (2.98).

Once upon a time Philip Rivers was essentially the sixth-best quarterback in the league and very consistent, getting San Diego in the playoffs in 2006-09. Then he started making more mistakes, especially in situational football and appeared to be on the decline. Last year, he was back to form and there’s no reason not to expect he can stay there in Mike McCoy’s offense. I still say Keenan Allen should have won OROY, and there are several other quality receivers in this offense along with three running backs who can play and fill every role. They’ll be fine on that side of the ball. The improvement has to come on defense, which shouldn’t be hard after how bad things were for most of last season. The fewest drives per game was the result of an efficient, ball-control offense for both San Diego and its opponents. The Chargers couldn’t stop teams until later in the season when they fared well with Cincinnati (especially in the playoffs) and even stole a win in Denver on a Thursday night. The division’s really not up for grabs, but I like San Diego as a solid Wild Card team with a chance to upset just about anyone in the AFC.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Big Come Down”

Stat: After starting 9-0, the Chiefs finished the season 2-6, including a 28-point blown lead in the playoffs.

This is the Carolina of the AFC. The quarterback’s basically average, but he’s right up there with Peyton and Brees if you ask John Lynch. The offensive line has lost several players, including the left tackle (Branden Albert). Eric Fisher was awful last year, but fortunately he was just a rookie. Brandon Flowers left the secondary where there’s question marks at cornerback and the safety next to Eric Berry. They didn’t really add anything to the receiving corps besides getting a healthy (but unproven) Travis Kelce back at tight end. The draft didn’t add an instant impact starter. Dee Ford’s not likely to steal much playing time from Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. There’s not a lot to like here in terms of a playoff team. Going from the easiest schedule to what’s projected as the second toughest is a big deal. Having the second-fewest injuries means you’re probably going to have more this year. At best, this is maybe the eighth-best team in the AFC.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

Nine Inch Nails: “Help Me I Am In Hell”

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

Eleven seasons without a winning record or a playoff appearance sums it up enough. At least we’ll see Derek Carr early, which could provide some hope (Matt Schaub is washed up), or could tell the Raiders they need to take Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston next year. Khalil Mack should be pretty good, and hey, that’s one piece for the future. The other pieces are relics of the past with Oakland’s spending spree at the thrift store adding LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Donald Penn, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones and Carlos Rogers.

It’s about damn time the Raiders had a roster ready to win the 2009 AFC West.

 

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. New England (13-3)

  • 2. Denver (13-3)

  • 3. Indianapolis (12-4)

  • 4. Pittsburgh (10-6)

  • 5. Cincinnati (10-6)

  • 6. San Diego (10-6)

Ruh-roh, Indy’s old nemesis San Diego comes in and works its voodoo magic again for a win. Pittsburgh keeps Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton winless in the playoffs, but Ike Taylor gets a bout of PTSD against Demaryius Thomas in Denver. San Diego once again fails to get past the Tom Brady-led Patriots, setting up the fifth (and final) Manning vs. Brady playoff meeting. The rubber match. The guy with HFA has always won in the playoffs, but this time the Denver defense hardens and leads the road win in a low-scoring game.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (14-2)

  • 2. New Orleans (14-2)

  • 3. Green Bay (12-4)

  • 4. Philadelphia (11-5)

  • 5. San Francisco (10-6)

  • 6. Chicago (10-6)

Bears and Packers part three? I like Green Bay in that one, which sets up a more ideal meeting in New Orleans, but Brees gets the best of that duel. The 49ers are unable to continue their road success in Philadelphia, earning Chip Kelly his first playoff win. However, the Eagles are no match in Seattle with that crowd and defense. The Saints return to Seattle, giving us two straight final fours with only bye teams. It’s more competitive this time, but again the Seahawks find a way to beat the Saints.

 

SUPER BOWL XLIX

Seattle Seahawks 27, Denver Broncos 17

I hate this prediction, but I’d rather be right than try to be different. This is 1992-93 Dallas vs. Buffalo all over again to me. This time it will be closer, but the Seahawks pull away in the second half to intensify the dynasty talk.

If you don’t like that outcome, well consider Richard Sherman is on the cover of Madden.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better?

Super Bowl XLVIII Predictions: Peyton Manning’s Legacy vs. NFL’s Next Great Team

The Denver Broncos are as likely as any team to win Super Bowl XLVIII.

That was the opening line to my March preview of the 2013 Broncos. I have been riding the Denver bandwagon for a long time now. In April I called it “The Year of the Broncos” after the schedule came out. On numerous occasions I have compared the 1996-97 Broncos to the 2012-13 Broncos, thinking they’d bounce back and go the distance this season. I picked them before the season started in spite of the Von Miller suspension.  I only wavered when San Diego was the first opponent in the playoffs, actually believing the Chargers had the right stuff to pull the upset. I was wrong.

So how can I go against Denver now that they’ve reached the destination I always believed they were headed for?

With Wilson’s development and continuous improvement to the roster, the Seattle Seahawks are primed to have the NFL’s next dynasty.

That was the closing line to my piece last May on the NFL’s next dynasty. I chose Seattle and a championship this season would certainly put the Seahawks on the right path to becoming that.

So both of my babies have made it and we get the perfect Super Bowl matchup. These were the two best teams down the stretch last year and both had heart-breaking losses in the Divisional Round, surrendering the lead in the final 40 seconds. They were the best teams again this year and make this only the second Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds in the salary cap era (1994-present).

We have all the potential for an instant classic and I have a ton of thoughts to share on this game, which may not flow together well, but my goal was to finish this in less time than it will take me to watch the game.

I’m all about that action, boss.

NO. 1 DECIDING FACTOR: HOW WELL THE RECEIVERS ARE COVERED

I cannot see anything more decisive in this game than how well each defense covers the receivers. We know Seattle’s going to get grabby and physical and there is concern over whether or not Denver’s group of receivers can handle that for 60 minutes. The Seahawks are mostly built like the 2001-04 Patriots where it’s hard to key in on any one receiver and they’re all capable of making a big play. And you can bet Russell Wilson will be looking for the bombs, either off play-action or one of his Fran Tarkenton-esque scrambles. Denver’s had some big problems with covering receivers down the field.

If you’re expecting some pass interference calls, don’t. In the last 10 Super Bowls, only two defensive pass interference penalties have been called (4 OPI). The receivers are going to have to work hard on Sunday to win battles.

DENVER’S OFFENSE SHOULD WIN BIG MATCHUP WITH SEATTLE’S DEFENSE

First the big disclaimer: Denver’s offense has not played a defense anything close to Seattle. Seattle’s defense has not played an offense anything close to Denver. It’s a big step up in competition for both sides.

The more I think about this dream matchup the more I think it favors Denver. Sure, things will not look as pretty as they have this postseason (SD/NE) and Denver will probably have more punts by the end of the first quarter than the one they have this whole playoffs. Seattle’s defense will win some battles (series), but I think Denver’s going to win the war (overall matchup).

These units are amazingly talented and rely on that talent to execute what is not an overly complex scheme built on variety, trickery and deception. Denver’s going to load up in “11” personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) for most of the game with Manning often in the shotgun. Seattle’s going to mostly rush four, not blitz much, play a lot of Cover-3 and you can count on Richard Sherman lining up on the defensive left and Earl Thomas often in the middle.

When you give Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for such a defense, I have to believe he’s going to figure out the mismatches quickly. Seattle’s vaunted pass rush is something I don’t remember hearing much about until the last two weeks. The attention was all about the secondary. Manning gets the ball out so quickly that most of the rush gets neutralized when the ball’s coming out in under 2.5 seconds. Kansas City was supposed to have a great pass rush and could barely breathe on Manning in the first meeting this season when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were healthy. Those are more talented rushers than Seattle’s and Manning’s not playing his first game with a taped-up high ankle sprain like he did that night.

The Seahawks rotate in a lot of guys to rush the QB, but Manning, the least-pressured QB in the league, should be able to stop that by going with the no-huddle offense and not allowing for substitutions. So much of Denver’s offense works with the 11 personnel and they still have flexibility. Julius Thomas can line up at wide receiver and create a mismatch thru speed with any linebacker or even Earl Thomas. The three wide receivers are a lot for Seattle to cover even if Sherman locks up Demaryius Thomas.

I also don’t see Sherman being a big factor for the reason that he does not shadow the top receiver from side to side. Manning’s old offense was more rigid in how Reggie Wayne would almost always line up on the left. In the 2010 playoffs against the Jets and Darrelle Revis, Manning showed Revis too much respect, throwing just one target (a screen) to Wayne all night.

But in Denver, guys move around and I fully expect Demaryius to get his targets on the offensive left with a guy like Byron Maxwell in coverage. I saw the 49ers accomplish that with Michael Crabtree, but Kaepernick was not seeing the field or throwing the ball as well as Manning.

STATS LLC show that Manning does not favor one side of the field over the other and is great in every area:

PMSTATSLLC

Demaryius will likely not have a huge game, but he’s going to get Sherman-free opportunities in this one.

Seattle’s worst defensive game of the season was in Indianapolis (season-high 27 points allowed). The Colts have arguably the closest comparison to the Broncos in terms of a good QB and multiple receiving options (Saints just didn’t have the horses on the outside this year; so much of it was RBs and Jimmy Graham, who played really soft in press coverage in 2013). Remember, that was the Colts with Reggie Wayne.

In that game against the Colts, the Seahawks faced a season-high 46 snaps from 11 personnel used by Indy. Denver used 11 personnel 33 times against New England…in the first half alone of the AFC Championship. Yeah, that’s their base offense and Seattle’s going to get a ton of looks at it.

As Aaron Schatz notes, the Seahawks only faced shotgun on a league-low 45 percent of snaps. They were still No. 1 against shotgun offense. The Broncos used shotgun a league-high 78 percent of the time, so once again Denver will be running an offense with more talent than Seattle has seen and in formations the Seahawks are not as used to having to defend this year.

I’m a strong believer in any defense Matt Schaub and Mike Glennon can have success against, Peyton Manning can have success against too.

I also think the running back screen will be more important than those wide receiver screens that Seattle snuffs out very well. Seattle has been vulnerable to passes in the short middle and we may see Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball eat up some catches. Remember, Joseph Addai had 10 catches in SB 41 from Manning who was playing a very good, but also very predictable Tampa-2 defense from Chicago, so he should know where to pick and prod. The crossing routes and pick plays will also give Seattle some trouble.

Manning has already played the six best passing defenses for a playoff team since 2006, based on defensive passer rating. His results speak for themselves:

pmtDEF

Running backs in general are important for Denver in this game, though I think a 30-carry, 110-yard night would be more than adequate to get the win. It can’t be Manning throwing 50 times into that secondary, but this does not have to be a huge rushing performance. When the pre-snap look is there, Manning has shown he’s willing to take it.

I just think unless Seattle does show some defensive wrinkles exclusively for the SB, then Manning has an opportunity to pick them apart. Remember, the Saints had a different game plan for every quarter of SB 44. I’m not sure any of them really worked, but all it takes is one play for a corner to jump a route and that can be the ballgame.  Of course, Seattle’s offense matching the potent efficiency of the 2009 Saints sounds very unrealistic based on the last six games of the season.

WHICH SEATTLE OFFENSE SHOWS UP?

Remember how brilliant Russell Wilson looked in Week 13 on MNF against the Saints? I think it was after that night I started picturing this matchup and how Wilson and Lynch could give this Denver defense fits in New Jersey. Well, a lot has changed in two months. Seattle’s really resorted to relying on big plays on offense and getting great field position from mistakes to score points on short fields. The defense of course obliges them, but this is not a game the Seahawks can win with a low score. The offense, which ranks 30th on third down since Week 14, needs to step up.

While Marshawn Lynch should get his touches and opportunities, the game really comes down to young Wilson. He threw a great game-winning TD pass on fourth down against San Francisco, but the rest of his game was very uneven. He was impotent against the Saints as well, showing some major accuracy issues on easy slants. Some point to the defensive schedule in recent weeks, but then look at how the Broncos have stepped up and held down better offenses from San Diego and New England. The defensive line is getting it done with the emergence of “Potroast” and a surprisingly good pass rush without Von Miller. Now Wilson is far more mobile than Brady or Rivers and I expect him to rush for 40+ yards and give Denver fits, but many of his wild scrambles are also unproductive plays for Seattle. He’s the most pressured QB, so I expect Denver will have some success, but the secondary better plaster downfield. Champ Bailey is back for Denver, but he hasn’t been tested much at all (3 targets in the playoffs).

Wilson will need to exploit the secondary of Denver and hit on some deep balls, which is a strength of his. The Seahawks love to use play-action. Brady had the perfect play-action bomb setup on Denver in the AFC-C, but terribly missed a wide open Julian Edelman. Wilson is better on those throws, though I wonder if his accuracy will be an issue early if nerves get to the 25-year-old.

I don’t expect nerves to be a problem by the end of the game for Wilson, but for that portion to matter, he’s going to need some help.

BEAST MODE?

Who knew Lynch was like a prisoner on a chain gang from Cool Hand Luke? “Wiping it off here, boss!” The shame is if he has a bad game or a big fumble, some will blame his handling of the media for why he blew it. Let’s do the right thing and give Denver credit or Lynch some criticism.

Lynch is a trendy pick for Super Bowl MVP, but I don’t see it. Denver’s been very good against the run all season, so Lynch gashing the Broncos would be a surprise. Lynch has only topped 100 rushing yards five times in 18 games this year. That’s really not impressive for an elite RB. Someone asked me how many 95-yard games he had, but who cares? If Lynch has 95 yards, advantage Broncos. If Lynch has a game like he did in the NFC Championship where half of his production (3 carries for 56 yards, TD) came on one drive, then advantage Broncos (unless it’s late in the game and he puts Seattle ahead with that TD, but you feel me, boss). For Lynch to truly dominate and have a MVP performance, he’ll need to consistently rip off good runs and have a 25-carry, 150-yard night. I don’t see that happening.

Then I hear how there’s “Playoff Lynch” where he “raises his game” in the playoffs. Nope, don’t buy it. One week after he put himself on the map with that TD run against the Saints, Lynch had 4 carries for 2 yards in Chicago. Last season he had 16 carries for 46 yards in Atlanta (a “soft” defense) in the playoffs. He’s also had multiple fumbles in his playoff career. His numbers look fine the last two weeks, but Denver’s defensive line has really stepped up and this game is more on Wilson’s arm to win it, not Lynch’s legs.

Should Denver score like they’re capable of, that just makes it even less likely Lynch has a big impact.

WILSON NEEDS TO FINISH, MANNING NEEDS TO START AND FINISH

While I think Wilson has to come through for Seattle to win, he may only need to play his best in the fourth quarter instead of all four quarters, which is exactly what Manning needs to do for his offense to work against this defense. Wilson can get by with a pedestrian start, which I think will happen. He’s young and we’ve seen nerves get the best of quarterbacks before. Colin Kaepernick looked a bit shaky last year before getting back on track in the second half. Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck never really calmed down in SB XL. I think Wilson’s a gamer and will be at his best in the fourth quarter.

CLOSE GAME?

The last 10 Super Bowls have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity (only 13 of the first 37 did). Hopefully that streak continues, because I want to watch something great. It should given these teams’ competitiveness.

Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in 13 straight playoff games (NFL record).

Seattle has been at least within one score in the fourth quarter in 50 straight games. Seattle’s led in the fourth quarter of 29 straight games:

SEA50GM

Going back to college, Wilson is on a 64-game streak of being this close late and not getting blown out. Denver actually just ended New England’s 63-game streak in the AFC Championship, keeping the Patriots down by 10+ the entire second half. Breaking Seattle’s streak too would be epic, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Seattle’s too good and balanced.

BIG COMEBACK?

Yep, the Super Bowls have been much closer, but remember when it was 28-6 Baltimore last year shortly after Beyonce shit the house down (in the words of Joe Theismann)? Well, it still ended up close eventually, which is my saying for all Russell Wilson games.

But which team is more likely to make a big comeback in the second half? Believe it or not, I lean towards Seattle, just because of the difference in defenses. That would be very tough on Manning to abandon the run and keep throwing against that defense and pass rush. For Wilson, look no further than the way the Broncos have let up in the fourth quarter with three-score leads to the Chargers and Patriots. But you might think taking advantage of a prevent requires cutting down on risk and Rivers/Brady are far more likely to take what the defense gives them while Wilson looks for big plays.

That sounds logical, but then I remember Wilson being down 27-7 in the fourth quarter in Atlanta last postseason and making big play after big play to put his team ahead in the final minute. Can he do it again in this game? Absolutely, because that plays right into Denver’s weakness (big passes) and away from their strength (stopping the run). I actually think Wilson’s best playoff game was the only one he lost.

Seattle is 34-5 (.872) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Only the Steelers (4) have fewer losses in that time. The Seahawks have lost three games after leading by 10+ points since 2010. Denver certainly has the firepower to pull it off, but both teams better stay close. Super Bowls aren’t known for big comeback wins:

SBDEF

MOTHER NATURE

Looks like Manning’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong for Peyton Manning’s teams in the playoffs, is getting a break. The weather was fantastic for the AFC Championship and it looks like the weather should not be a factor on Sunday night. Manning doesn’t magically turn into Scott Mitchell when the temperature dips below 40 anyway, but there’s no doubt good conditions (that’s more about wind and precipitation than temperature) are a big positive for the pass-heavy team.

PERCY HARVIN: SUPER BOWL MVP?

Though if there is some Manning’s Law at work here, it would be Percy Harvin having a monster game and MVP performance after giving the Seahawks nothing all year. We don’t really know what Seattle’s offense with Harvin looks like since they never had him healthy long enough. He can definitely have a big impact even if it doesn’t show up in his individual stats. Denver being down their top pass-rusher and a very good cornerback (Chris Harris) makes the passing matchup difficult, but I’ll be surprised if Harvin has a lot of catches. He just hasn’t had the reps with Wilson, who is not exactly playing his best football right now. Harivn’s also a bit of an overrated receiver. He’s known for big plays, yet his longest catch in the NFL is 53 yards (that’s out of 281 receptions). In three career playoff games, he has 9 catches for 60 yards, or the Trent Richardson equivalent for a wide receiver.

Where Harvin can dangerously impact the game is with kick returns. He could be like Desmond Howard for the 1996 Packers. But of course, more kick return opportunities only come after Denver scoring drives.

SH!+ I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT

  • Tim Tebow having anything to do with any NFL team, but especially the 2013 Broncos.
  • The officiating in Super Bowl XL.
  • Dominic Rhodes being the real MVP of Super Bowl XLI. Seriously, did people not see how well Manning threw the ball in the rain? Look at the six drops that cost him a 300-yard day.
  • Denver “only” averaging 25 PPG in the playoffs. Look at the freakin’ drive stats. More efficient than regular season.
  • Anything about “Omaha.”

BRUNO MARS

So he’s like a 2010’s version of Prince? Not interested.

SCORE BIG TO BEAT MANNING

All seven of Denver’s losses under Manning have seen the opponent score 27+ points (Denver had at least 20+ too). Manning is 80-0 when he starts and finishes a game where his team allows 0-16 points. You’re not going to beat him 16-10 (Jim Sorgi on the other hand…).

UNUSUAL PASSING PRODUCTION FOR A CHAMPION

No matter which team wins, it will be historic for passing standards. The Broncos set a NFL record with 5,444 net passing yards. Those teams never win a Super Bowl. The Seahawks ranked just 26th with 3,236 passing yards. That would be the lowest ranking in passing for any Super Bowl winner.

Wilson had a season-high 25 completions in Week 1. Manning’s had 25+ completions in 15/18 games this year. Different strokes…

ERIC DECKER

I get the feeling Decker’s going to have some really pathetic play that turns into an interception for Seattle. He needs to play his most physical game to match up with Seattle’s secondary. That goes for all of Denver’s skill players, but especially the reality TV star looking for big bucks in free agency.

WES WELKER

I know you don’t really make that catch in Super Bowl XLVI, Wes, but how about catching the ones in your wheelhouse this week? Too many drops from this guy in the last few years and he should be an important part of Denver’s success if he’s up to it. A big performance and a ring could be a difference maker for his legacy when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame. Manning and Champ Bailey could play the worst games in Super Bowl history and both should still be first-ballot HOFers. Welker will be viewed as the guy who redefined the slot receiver in his era, but he could use a signature moment here.

TIPPED BALLS

According to the NFL Network, Seattle has 18 of its 30 interceptions off tipped balls this season. That sounds way too high to be random luck, so there’s some skill involved here. Richard Sherman’s tip-to-a-pick in the NFC Championship is a replica of a play he made to force Eli Manning’s fifth interception last month.

BALL SECURITY

Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.

Since 2012 (including playoffs), Seattle is +37 in turnover differential compared to -5 for Denver.

That’s just a stunning difference, and yet Denver has reached the same playoff round in both years as Seattle. But this is not a game that can be won with a poor turnover differential. Seattle capitalizes too well on mistakes. Denver has the #ObligatoryDenverFumble to worry about and Seattle is very good at stripping and tipping the ball. That could be huge.

THIRD DOWN

I did a big third-down study for this game last week at ESPN Insider.

In summary, Seattle’s offense is mediocre, has been poor lately, but Denver’s pass defense is historically bad in these third-down situations. Seattle has the best third-down pass defense since 1989 by DVOA, but Manning’s still pretty elite on these plays too.

The big stat: quarterbacks are 1/39 at converting on 3rd-and-11 or longer against Seattle this season.

Yep, Carson Palmer somehow had the one conversion. I believe Manning has 7 such conversions in 2013.

NEUTRAL-FIELD ADVANTAGE?

These are two teams that actually have a tangible home-field advantage they won’t have this week in New Jersey. I think the neutral field favors Denver, just because the Seahawks have a decade of evidence that they really do play much better in Seattle than on the road. In terms of DVOA, Denver is basically the same offensive team on the road versus at home and a bit worse on defense, but the Seahawks have considerably larger declines on the road on both defense and offense. They’re still the No. 1 road defense, but not as dominant.

HRS

Seattle also hasn’t played a road game since going to MetLife a month ago.

COMPARISONS TO PAST SUPER BOWLS

This is one of those meaningless things we talk about before the game and can better answer after the game. I see a lot of comparisons to the 2007 Giants/Patriots. I don’t think the game will be like that and the New England offense was slumping down the stretch anyway. Giants showed some cracks in that matchup in Week 17.

I’ve seen comparisons to 1990 Bills/Giants. I highly doubt the Seahawks will hold the ball for 40+ minutes and keep Denver to 1/8 on third down. Seattle’s boom or bust on offense right now. It takes a lot of successful plays to do ball-control offense.

Carolina (8) is the only offense to have fewer than nine possessions against Seattle this year.

2002 Bucs/Raiders – kill that noise. Jon Gruden knew what plays were coming and the 2002 Bucs had the best pass defense this century. Denver’s offense is much better than Oakland’s and these teams have little familiarity at all.

The game I actually might think compare best is Super Bowl 34 between the 1999 Rams/Titans. I think Denver will move the ball well, but may struggle in the red zone while the Titans struggle for the better part of three quarters before mounting a comeback behind their mobile QB. No, Demaryius Thomas won’t beat Richard Sherman with a great move for a 73-yard touchdown like Isaac Bruce had, and there won’t be a bad slant from Wilson to Harvin that gets stopped at the 1-yard line, but I think that might be the Super Bowl this compares to best when it’s over.

COACHES

John Fox and Pete Carroll are two of the league’s better coaches. I don’t see any significant advantage in this area of the game. This isn’t like Jim “Bernie” Caldwell matching blank stares with the calculated, aggressive genius of Sean Payton. Both had equal time to prepare and like I said earlier, their strong units really are more about execution than the scheme.  Denver is usually a dominant second-half team, though that did start to slip after Fox had his heart surgery and Jack Del Rio took over on an interim basis. In the last four games, the Broncos have allowed a total of 16 points in the first three quarters (that’s 12 quarters total), and only 3 points in the last 3 games, but obviously the late prevent is giving up points.

I don’t put stock in preseason games. These teams haven’t met since 2010, but have changed dramatically from that year to the point where it’s not even worth any analysis.

One thing I did find interesting is how Seattle struggled with the AFC South this year. Indy beat them, Houston had them down big, the Titans were tied in the 4th quarter in Seattle and well, the Jags were the Jags. What’s interesting is Carroll never coached against that AFC South, which last played Seattle in the 2009 season, a year before Carroll was hired.

So unfamiliarity is an interesting topic in this game, but I imagine these teams will quickly get acquainted with each other Sunday night.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This favors Seattle, but it’s a game involving Peyton Manning, so what do you expect? Take the last 47 Super Bowls and the 94 teams and rank them by special teams performance on Super Sunday. I’d be shocked if the 2006 Colts and 2009 Colts didn’t rank 93rd and 94th. In 2006, the Colts allowed an opening-game kickoff score to Devin Hester, botched an extra point and missed an easy field goal in the first half. That’s an 11-point difference, which is the only reason the Colts didn’t win in a blowout. In 2009, the Colts had the third-worst starting field position in any playoff game I have studied (2nd worst for a Super Bowl) and of course Hank Baskett botched the onside kick recovery to start the third quarter. Matt Stover missed a long field goal in the fourth quarter while New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley was great on his long kicks.

Trindon Holliday has been very quiet and still hard to trust with fumbling.

I trust Matt Prater, who has missed twice all season (incl. playoffs), not to pull a Scott Norwood, but there will be no Denver altitude here. His ability to get touchbacks is another huge part of the game as Harvin is likely to get some opportunities to give Seattle great field position.

FIELD POSITION

Oh, and in case you missed it, Wilson’s had the best starting field position in the playoffs (34.81) of any quarterback I’ve studied, and this is in the era where starting at the 20 is oh so common. Manning (27.34) ranks 30th out of 32. Could be a lot more shorter fields for Seattle.

MANNING AFTER A BYE WEEK

I was asked by a few people how Manning’s done with a bye/extra week to prepare. I think that’s lessened in the Super Bowl when both teams have the same time, but here’s the table:

PMBYE

As you might expect, the results are favorable. Manning’s worst game was in his rookie year (his 8th career game). In the 23 games, Manning had at least 224 yards and scored at least 16 points all 23 times.

Oh noes, he’s 3-5 in the playoffs!!

Yeah, I think I’ve handled those games before. Not concerned with his play. He’ll be prepared.

MANNING VS. ELITE PASS DEFENSES

Clearly Denver did not get here with records by playing a tough defensive schedule. The highest-ranked pass defense Manning played was Kansas City (7th) twice. Of course, had the Chiefs not played Manning twice, they may have ranked in the top five, but it is what it is.

I had the table earlier about Manning against the top pass defenses, but that was for playoff teams and based on DPR. Based on DVOA, here’s Manning since 2003 against top 5 pass defenses (playoffs in blue, Weeks 16-17 rest games in tan):

PMT5DVOA

Again, a lot of favorable results.

Since I’m getting into “Manning table” mode, might as well jump into the next section before I make my final prediction.

PEYTON MANNING’S LEGACY

She’d have been a legend with or without that god damn song.Quote from a bad movie that works better in a song

I promised I was not going to walk down Idiocy Boulevard with another Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearance. I spent the week on it four years ago when the narrative was “with a win on Sunday, Manning will be the greatest quarterback in NFL history!”

That’s a label that will never reach a consensus, and there’s nothing to stop me from already saying Manning is the greatest ever regardless of what happens on Sunday. We know even with a win, all it will take is a close playoff loss at home next year coupled with a Tom Brady Super Bowl win for the conversation to change again. I’ll just let 15 years of evidence speak for itself when I talk about who is the greatest.

When asked about his legacy this week, Manning had the perfect response:

“If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along in that time is fine with me. Those are things that I care about.” – Peyton Manning

That’s basically become my go-to argument for Manning over the years. No quarterback has ever done more to put his team in a position to win regardless of circumstances. That’s all you can ask for from the quarterback in this team game.

Now don’t get me wrong. Winning on Sunday night by any means necessary would be huge for Manning — about as huge of a win as any quarterback could ever have. There’s far more to gain with a win and hardly nothing to lose with a loss this week for Manning.

Becoming the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams would be the perfect accomplishment for Manning’s career. It proves his style works and that he was able to transplant it perfectly from Indianapolis to Denver, even after four neck surgeries. He’d have won it his way (twice), not putting the share of the offense on a young running back like his boss John Elway did at the end of his career. He’d put a cherry on top to the greatest quarterback season ever, even surpassing what Joe Montana did in 1989 with a loaded San Francisco team. Montana was very good in Kansas City, but he wasn’t dominant like Manning’s been in Denver. Brett Favre’s first year in Minnesota was great, but how did the encore go?

Can anyone picture Tom Brady, without Bill Belichick, going to any of the 31 other teams in the league and having the type of impact Manning’s had in Denver? Not a chance. Manning’s in his third Super Bowl with his third head coach. Someone like Bart Starr was an embarrassment without Vince Lombardi. Manning’s impact on a whole team is unlike any other quarterback’s impact.

Yet somehow being “the best regular-season quarterback” has become an insult. The same regular season that makes up 91.3 percent of Manning’s career starts somehow takes a backseat to the postseason, where Manning has been one of the best playoff quarterbacks by every measure except the one he has the least control over: the win-loss record. He can get over .500 with a win and pick up his 12th playoff win (sixth most).

By recognizing Manning as the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, you’ve just eliminated over 99 percent of the competition for the GOAT. And there is no argument against that either. No quarterback has ever been so individually decorated with 5 MVP awards, 7 1st-Team All-Pro selections and 13 Pro Bowls. He has the records and longevity to back that up.

For those who care about more intangible things, a record 13 postseason berths (#winning) and changing the standards of the game with regards to the no-huddle offense and how to call plays is more than enough proof of his legacy.

So at the end of the day, we’re talking about the postseason. Manning will pass Brady for the most passing yards in playoff history, doing so in three fewer games. He’s already engineered some of the best playoff games in NFL history, including the largest comeback in a championship game ever. With one more win, he would have beaten the league’s No. 1 defense in the playoffs in all three of his Super Bowl runs. If Manning should lead a game-winning drive against Seattle, it would be his 52nd, moving him past Dan Marino for the all-time record.

Then there’s the fact that no leader in passing yards has ever won a Super Bowl (0-47). Manning would do that, all while likely throwing over 60 touchdowns and for over 6,400 yards (another record). Of all the 48 Super Bowl wins, this one would be the most quarterback-dependent of them all.

That’s a hell of a lot to gain from one game, so no pressure, Peyton. But even if he comes up short, show me another quarterback capable of having a chance to accomplish all of these things.

I do not expect Manning to retire even with a win, but there would never be a better opportunity to go out on top. There is nothing he has left to prove, and that’s just as true on February 1 as it will be tomorrow night.

THE NUMBER 24

I think the number 24 is huge in this game, and that’s not really a reference to Marshawn Lynch. I’m talking about points. Seattle’s only exceeded that point threshold in half of their games (9 games with 27+, 9 games with <24). Denver’s hit 24+ in 17/18 games and can join the 1983 Raiders as the only teams to score 20+ in 19/19 games.

It’s very difficult to score that much on Seattle, but if any offense can do it, it’s this one. The Seahawks have allowed 24+ points only five times since 2012 and they are 1-4 in those games with an overtime win over Tampa Bay this year.

If Denver has even one of its worst games of the season, that should still force Seattle to have to score 24+ to get the win.

FINAL PREDICTION

So what more can I even say? A lot of the numbers and history tell me to go with the Seahawks, because they’re the more balanced team for both offense/defense and run/pass. They’re younger and more physical. They’re even better on special teams and have the health bonus (though it’s no given Harvin lasts long). The offensive juggernaut with the MVP QB tends to flame out against the No. 1 scoring defense, which is 12-3 in the big game.

I tried to hide the heart from the head.Rites of Spring

I make no secrets about it: I want Manning to win. I love having a real rooting interest in the Super Bowl and have been fortunate to have a lot of them in the last decade.

But I really do like Denver’s chances this week. I just don’t love them and can see many reasons why Seattle could (should?) win the game.

In the end I see Denver protecting a 4-point lead and the most fitting ending would have to be a Hail Mary from Russell Wilson. Fans of Wisconsin and the Packers know how big that play has been in his football career. It’s the play both teams have to overcome from last season. Golden Tate needs a Hail Mary everyone believes he caught. The Broncos need to get over the Rahim Moore debacle. Knock it down if there’s no one trailing the play. I really do think it comes down to the last drive, producing an instant classic.

It’s a game like this that makes you wish the NFL would stop all talks of expanding the playoff field and instead make a best-of-3 Super Bowl.

Win or lose, Seattle should be the favorite to win it all next season. This is Denver’s best chance as the roster is going to experience a lot of changes. Denver started the season in historic fashion with a 7 TD takedown of the defending champions. Why not end it with another groundbreaking performance over a proud defense?

Final prediction: Broncos 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Peyton Manning

NFL Week 4 Predictions and More Golden Tate Hail Mary Response

Well this has been the most interesting week yet in the brief time I have covered the NFL. It started with a Sunday full of crazy games, which resulted in a nice stat of the week I jumped on first after the New England loss.

Then Monday night came, bringing in the biggest overreaction to a correct call in NFL history. But this wasn’t about injustice as much as it was scorn for the replacement referees, and the only positive is it did end the lockout.

But the controversial Golden Tate Hail Mary touchdown is a classic example of groupthink and media manipulation. How one views this play really separates the sheep from people willing to think for themselves and not be influenced by Jon Gruden’s second-half disgust, which is an entertaining thought because he still looks like a Chucky doll.

At the very least, any objective person should see this was too close of a call to make in real time for anyone, and that there’s no way you could have clearly called it an interception. It  is completely understandable why they ruled what they did, and upon further analysis, it was the right call just as the NFL and that replacement referee have said.

So in writing the article, I tried to put as much as I could into it. That’s why I write long articles, as I try to cover all bases and leave little for anyone to nitpick over. But I will reply to a few of the same things I’m seeing in response to it on Twitter or in your e-mails. And no, I won’t use anyone’s name.  Reaction has been 50/50, even though it seems like reaction to the call has been 90/10.

Well Allow Me To Retort

Worthless Picture – First, it is always easy to see which people actually read the article and which respond after reading only the headline. Anyone still trying to use this picture as proof of anything needs to get a clue.

This is several seconds after both players have landed on the ground. The catch was already over as all aspects of a catch have been satisfied (control and possession through the process of going to the ground). Just because the refs came in late doesn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a fumble and two players battling on the ground for the ball, in which refs will often let them fight it out. This was a (TD) catch.

Back judge – He never signaled touchback like some have said. That has a distinct motion — like a vertical spanking/tap that ass motion — which he never used. What the back judge even ruled was never going to be more reliable than the ref on the spot, because look how far away the back judge is at the moment both players have hit the ground:

He is barely past the goal post at this point. How could he possibly been able to tell who controlled the ball first? From the point of contact with the ball to this picture where the second foot hits for Jennings, a total of 0.7 seconds passed. Over three additional seconds pass before the back judge runs in to take a look at the players on the ground, which makes for a call from him that was never going to be conclusive or even confident.

Semantics – Lots of semantics mess again this week with control, possession and catch. I have seen people say simultaneous possession, even though the only thing in the rule book is “simultaneous catch.” I have heard comments from a ex-NFL referee talking about possession in the air, even though the NFL clearly said in their statement possession cannot happen in the air. A player must get two feet or an equivalent like a knee down to legally gain possession.

It is also indisputable that Tate gains possession first, but the most important part of the play comes at the very beginning.

Physics of the play – First let’s talk about control, since that is the common complaint.

You can control a ball with one hand. That was the point of the one-handed examples I used to refute the article from ProFootballTalk or Hochuli’s mumbo-jumbo about four arms. You do not need two hands/arms, and this Randy Moss TD is another nice example pointed out by @DeeepThreat. You can move your hand/arm off the ball (see Reggie Wayne) if you want, but as long as you have sustained control with one hand, it counts.

As for Tate, I have yet to see anyone explain this. First, let’s recall the fact Tate was in front of Jennings and should have been the first to contact the ball. I proved the ball made first contact with his left hand. Do not even try and say it hit Jennings’ right hand first, as that is just depth perception. If you watch the video in conjunction with making the frames, the ball hits Tate first, and it did much more than just touch him.

Why does the ball get stuck in the air at this point if Tate didn’t have control, or only had his fingertips on the ball? Go outside and have someone throw you a football and try to hold it up in the air without any real control or grip. It won’t happen. The ball will deflect off your hand. Any non-sticky object would if you don’t actually initiate some type of grip on it.  Jennings only closed his hands around it after Tate stopped it in the air first for the play to even develop into a catch.

How else are you going to stop a football traveling roughly 45 yards in the air in 2.85 seconds if you didn’t initiate a good grip to control it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t grip an object with just your fingers. Having a big, strong hand would definitely help make it more possible.

Tate has a very interesting Twitter background pic  that shows him hauling in a ball with his left hand on a more difficult looking play in practice. These guys get drafted high for a reason. They are great athletes capable of making tough catches.

Notice that Jennings does a horizontal close on the ball with his hands. It does not move backwards or fall forwards after Tate’s initial grab. That supports his grip of the ball. It’s not like Jennings had to keep the ball up from being deflected away incomplete. Tate controlled it. Watch most catches in football. The receiver’s initial contact with the ball is when he gets the grip on it, and it is possible to do so with one hand.

Less than a tenth of a second passes between Tate’s contact and Jennings’ close on the ball. If you are trying to judge this in real time, how could that not look simultaneous? Makes perfect sense why referee Lance Easley made the call he did.

Consider the initial contact Point A, and we know from the end of the play when Jennings struggles to wrestle the ball away from Tate that Tate has that grip with his left hand still on the ball (Point B). So where between Point A and Point B does Tate ever lose the ball from his left hand? No one has any evidence that he loses control. That is why this is a TD, because he maintained that control from the start of the play through the process of going to the ground.

Other criticisms – Some people talk about the ball being in Jennings’ chest. For starters, there is no rule that says you have to have the ball in your chest, so just ignore Steve Young’s revisionist, agenda-pushing history. More importantly, everyone who thinks this is ignoring the fact that Tate’s hand was in the way of his chest throughout the play. Pretty hard to pull something to your chest if a guy has his hand lodged in there the whole time.

The NFL would have admitted they blew the TD call and it should have been an interception if that was actually the case. They did admit the OPI, which also would have ended the game. People don’t think the NFL admits such game-changing errors, but the fact is they do. What they don’t do is change the final outcome because of one.

Listening to some people, you’d think Jennings caught it first and Tate just fingered the ball on the way down. Some of the reaction has just been embarrassing. Not sure how long this play will be in focus, but expect to hear about it more should the season continue going sour for Green Bay. But hopefully by that point people would just realize this game didn’t decide their season, and it was their disappointing play starting in Week 1 that was the real culprit.

Not a right call that Mike Tirico initially made himself in the heat of the moment, only to bash for the last 12 minutes of the broadcast.

Take emotion out of it, and you will understand why Seattle got the touchdown.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 3: What the Hell’s Going on Out There? – Cold, Hard Football Facts

After 12 games with a fourth quarter comeback opportunity, this was a jammed-packed edition of Captain Comeback. It has only received about 4,900 fewer Facebook likes than you know which article.

Crazy Season Even Affecting NFL’s Best Quarterbacks – NBC Sports

For the first time in 58 opportunities, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger all lost on Sunday. If that’s not enough, Week 2 (1-3) was their first losing week. It’s just a reflection of what’s been a crazy season so far.

New Orleans Saints’ Disastrous 0-3 Start Goes Well Beyond Sean Payton’s Absence – Bleacher Report

The Saints are 0-3, but before we give Sean Payton coach of the year in his absence, let’s call a spade a spade. Drew Brees is playing like an average quarterback at best, and the defense might be the worst in the league.

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 3 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars – Colts Authority

Luck came very close to his first 4QC, but a shocking 80-yard TD put that out of reach. Check the analysis of every drop back.

The Thinking Man’s Guide to NFL Week 4 – Bleacher Report

Included: the greatest 0-3 at 1-2 game ever, San Francisco’s Jet lag, must-win weekend for the century’s best quarterbacks, and no-huddle nuggets.

Shame on the Angry Mob: Golden Tate’s Touchdown Was Legit – Cold, Hard Football Facts

I just call it like I see it.

2012 NFL Week 4 Predictions

After an all-time worst 4-12 record in Week 3, it’s time for some redemption. Baltimore has started me off 1-0, but that was closer than it should have been.

Winners in bold:

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

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Season: 27-21

You can keep e-mailing me if you want, but I am less likely to reply and really would like to move on from Monday night starting with Week 4 Sunday action. Believe it or not the season has continued. More bad calls will be made. A lot more bad plays that lead to losses will also happen. That’s football.

Seattle Seahawks and Terrell Owens: Age More than a Number

While I’m excited to see young receivers like A.J. Green and Antonio Brown take the field this year, those old diva receivers have been hogging up the headlines again. If Randy Moss in San Francisco and Chad Johnson in Miami weren’t enough, Terrell Owens signed with the Seattle Seahawks.

Good move? Of course not. While Pete Carroll is juggling a three-man QB circus, I guess he wanted a ringmaster to steal the show. If signings of Braylon Edwards and Antonio Bryant (was Joey Galloway not interested?) weren’t enough to show that Pete’s not sure what he’s building for a pass offense, they bring big mouth back to the NFC West.

Owens didn’t play in the NFL in 2011, and he is 38 years old. He turns 39 on December 7.

While T.O. is an athletic freak, reportedly running under 4.5 in the 40, the fact is he has been declining ever since 2008. He will put up numbers, but only if you force enough balls to him.

He will no longer break many big plays after the catch, and he is down to catching just over half of his targets.

Just making the team at his age and year off would be impressive, so putting any real expectations on him would be silly. Very few receivers dominate this age. You basically have to be Jerry Rice.

Someone on Twitter predicted over 600 yards. As receivers age, that type of production just gets more rare to the point where you’re left with Rice’s old-man dominance, a few Charlie Joiner seasons, and yes, Owens’ had good years at ages 36 (2009) and 37 (2010).

With Pro-Football-Reference’s play index, we can find these stats quickly. At age 38+, only 17 players in NFL history even have one reception, and that includes five quarterbacks and two kickers on trick or broken plays.

That leaves just 8 WRs and two RBs as the only 10 skill players with a reception at age 38+.

Move it to age 39, which Owens will be, and you’re talking about 268 catches by Rice, 34 by Joiner, 12 by Galloway, 5 by FB Tony Richardson, and that’s it for skill guys.

Terrell Owens may have a Rice/Joiner season left in him, though it’s going to come at the sacrifice of a lot of attempts, a lot of incompletions, and probably some headaches and tantrums.

Why bother?