After an offseason filled with talk about deflated balls, deflated balls and more deflated balls, it's nice to talk about inflated ones for once. The NFL's golden season begins with hopefully (for their sake) far fewer off the field bits of hilarity meant for South Park and talk almost exclusively about the game on the field. And if you've read my MLB season predictions for this past year, you'll be aware that what you see below might not mean much if anything at all. Get hyped.
NFC East: 1) DAL 11-5 2) PHI 9-7 3) NYG 8-8 4) WSH 4-12
It's entirely conceivable that the Eagles run away with this division like they may run away from their opponents with their offensive pace. Their defense is light years better than it was a season ago, many thanks to the Seahawks connections now percolating in the secondary. The biggest question is still Sam Bradford and his durability. If the offense puts him in harm's way, the Eagles season could go down the drain in a millisecond. Dallas is a more consistent team even though their lack of running game is a concern. Defensively they should be solid, and they're more likely to be consistent. The Giants lack of any defense will outweigh their ability to throw the ball to Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham and in Washington... does anyone have a sitcom laugh track I could borrow?
AFC East: 1) NE 12-4 2) MIA 9-7 3) NYJ 8-8 4) BUF 8-8
Now that Tom Brady isn't suspended for the first four games of the season... he and Bill Belichick may rain hellfire on the entirety of their schedule. Sure their secondary is markedly worse than it was a season ago, but no one doubts the ability of the Patriots staff to mend that quickly. And so long as Tom Brady has his weapons on offense, they'll be too much for everyone else. The Dolphins have a stellar defensive line, underrated QB and the potential to break out at long last. But it's coaching that holds them back. Todd Bowles has been dealt a shaky hand already, which will put the Jets too far behind the eight-ball to succeed this season. Ground and pound can work in theory, but the Bills have already been hit with numerous injuries to key players. And does anyone seriously believe in Tyrod Taylor?
NFC North: 1) GB 11-5 2) DET 10-6 3) MIN 9-7 4) CHI 5-11
In spite of Jordy Nelson's injury, the Packers still are favorites in this division. Even with the competition getting better behind them, the division title will still stay in Green Bay because Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers. So long as the Packers have him, they'll be eternal division favorites. The Lions have some adjustments to make on defense, but a unit that was surprisingly one of the league's best last season will still be good enough to keep Detroit in the playoff hunt. With Adrian Peterson back, the Vikings could well be the apple of everyone's eye, especially if Teddy Bridgewater takes the next step towards greatness. And for the Bears, the quicker Jay Cutler is out of that building, the better, but the biggest problems may be on defense. Yeesh.
AFC North: 1) PIT 10-6 2) BAL 10-6 3) CIN 9-7 4) CLE 5-11
This might be the NFL's toughest division to predict. Any one of three teams could easily come out on top. The Steelers are not the Steel Curtain Steelers of old thanks to an electrifying offense that can still do massive damage even in the early weeks of the season when the offense will be shorthanded. If the defense is passable, they win the division. Both the Ravens and Bengals are solid if unspectacular, although the Bengals perpetually being one year away doesn't elicit much confidence. It seems that the Ravens despite their drafting prowess might have just a little too much to replace this season to win the division, which once again will come down to Steelers/Ravens games to decide it. And in Cleveland well... wait on the Cavs.
NFC South: 1) ATL 9-7 2) CAR 8-8 3) NO 7-9 4) TB 6-10
Remember what I said about the AFC North just above? Scratch that. The NFC South is the toughest division to forecast. Carolina was the favorite thanks to their improving defense and streamlined offense, but then Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season. The receiving corps are incredibly unproven, and Jonathan Stewart is still made of glass. The Saints no longer have Jimmy Graham and underwent some serious changes in an attempt to stay fresh, but their overpayment of some players in free agency has hamstrung the bottom end of the roster, and there just might not be enough across the board. Jameis Winston and the Bucs will have some growing pains, but there is promise for the future in Tampa Bay. The first team to nine wins may well snatch the division, and right now the quickest to that punch may well be Dan Quinn's Falcons. He has a revitalized defense to tune up, and still has Julio Jones and Roddy White as weapons for Matt Ryan. Honestly, picking teams out of a hat might be a more effective process than what I've just tried to do.
AFC South: 1) IND 13-3 2) HOU 8-8 3) JAX 7-9 4) TEN 4-12
In contrast to the last two divisions, which were very difficult to predict, this one is the exact opposite. The Colts may well wrap up the division officially in November. They have no challengers, and an easy schedule to fatten up their record for possible home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Andrew Luck has lead the Colts to consistent playoff improvements in each of his three seasons, so is the Super Bowl next? Quite possibly. There are problem spots for sure, especially on the offensive line and some spots on defense, but this division won't challenge them. Houston has the defense for sure, but Brian Hoyer as your QB, no Arian Foster because of injury and almost no weapons at receiver or TE to speak of? I don't care if JJ Watt is Superman, he can't do it all on his own. So many are predicting doom and gloom for Jacksonville, and maybe it is my eternal optimism, but if Blake Bortles improves even slightly the Jags will double their win total. They are still young almost everywhere, but if they can find a bit of a pass rush they may be fun to watch. The Titans are perpetually three years away, and Marcus Mariota has plenty of work to do to get this team into even respectability this season with a lack of weapons on offense and a porous defense on the other side.
NFC West: 1) SEA 12-4 2) ARZ 10-6 3) STL 8-8 4) SF 5-11
Even without Kam Chancellor and some of their other important pieces, the Seahawks are still the NFC pace setters. Somehow, they may be even better on offense with Jimmy Graham in the fold, and Russel Wilson isn't just a game manager, if you were concerned. The offensive line might bite them down the line, but even with a tough schedule, that seems unlikely until the bitter end. Arizona was the best team in football last season when Carson Palmer was healthy, so it makes sense to say that with him healthy now the Cardinals will be back? That offensive line is very concerning, and the defense is naturally going to take a step back with attrition on the coaching staff and on the field. But they are still a playoff contender for sure. The Rams are going to finally get a chance to see what all of their supposedly impressive drafting has done for them if Nick Foles gives them enough on offense. They may pound other teams into the dirt, but if Foles can't lead the offense, it'll be another typical Jeff Fisher season. Don't count the 49ers out, however. Out of the race for the #1 overall pick, that is. What an absolute tire fire. It's quite possible that the last biggest exodus humanity has ever seen was the biblical Exodus story.
1) DEN 11-5 2) KC 9-7 3) SD 9-7 4) OAK 5-11
Denver is going to have some stiff competition for the division this year. Both San Diego and Kansas City have good chances to knock the Broncos off their perch. Gary Kubiak might not be the best coach, but he should help stabilize a team that seemed to wobble a bit towards the end of last season. Don't sleep on that defense either, especially after how they shut down Seattle and Houston in early preseason games. Speaking of defense, the Kansas City Chiefs have it in spades, especially with Justin Houston anchoring the pass rush, which can be frightening. They can truly win this division, but many if's have to become yes'. Namely, they need to see if Alex Smith can throw TD's to wide receivers, and if his offensive line can keep him upright. Andy Reid's teams seem the epitome of solid if unspectacular, but if the stars align, they could be truly spectacular this season. The Chargers once again left it late last season and nearly made another postseason run out of it, but fell short. Philip Rivers is becoming ageless, and he still is one of the NFL's most solid QB's, even if everyone forgets that. If Melvin Gordon gives them any semblance of a running game, the balance on offense could be lethal. The defense too is not bad, but has more questions than Kansas City. In Oakland, usually the Raiders are discounted almost immediately, but there are signs for optimism. Jack Del Rio is the epitome of an Oakland Raider: gritty, tough, grizzly, and patient. He has a promising young QB in Derek Carr, a flashy young receiver Amari Cooper who is ready to explode, and Khalil Mack, a linebacker that is a true throwback to when the Raiders were feared around the league. There will be struggles, but they could surprise anyone they play this season.
NFC Playoff Order: 1) SEA 2) DAL 3) GB 4) ATL 5) DET 6) ARZ
AFC Playoff Order: 1) IND 2) NE 3) DEN 4) PIT 5) BAL 6) KC
NFC Playoffs: 3) GB over 6) ARZ
5) DET over 4) ATL
1) SEA over 5) DET
3) GB over 2) DAL
3) GB over 1) SEA
AFC Playoffs: 3) DEN over KC
5) BAL over 4) PIT
1) IND over 5) BAL
2) NE over 3) DEN
1) IND over 2) NE
Super Bowl 50: Green Bay over Indianapolis
MVP: Andrew Luck (IND). It's his time.
OPOY: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT). These aren't your father's Pittsburgh Steelers anymore.
DPOY: J.J Watt (HOU). He's the only reason that team is worth watching.
OROY: Amari Cooper (OAK). He and Derek Carr are going to be fun to watch this season and next, wherever they end up playing.
DROY: Vic Beasley (ATL). His emergence might be a large part of the reason Atlanta outsluggs the rest of the NFC South.
Coach: Mike Zimmer (MIN). His team won't make the playoffs in my predictions, but their improvement has been steady and considerate. The Vikings are the preseason darlings of so many for a reason.
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