Wonderfully and thankfully, the NFL is about to totally consume our lives once again. On the road to Houston, there promises to be many thrills, spills, craziness, trumped up drama as well as surprises. But even though this league always changes thanks to parity, it seems that this year, the expected might once again become the norm. Although, this is the NFL and as has been proven before, anything is possible.
In some ways then, this should be one of the easiest seasons to predict in recent NFL history, but in many ways, mediocrity has become the coin of the realm, and there's a distinct possibility that two division winners will win fewer than 10 games. For the very few truly great teams, it seems like there will be a scrap among themselves for supremacy, while everyone else toes the line. So here are quick blurbs for each division, plus a fantasy player to watch.
1. New York Giants (9-7)
2. Washington (7-9)
3. Dallas (6-10)
4. Philadelphia (5-11)
Mediocrity personified. Every team in this division has major flaws, and the winner is the one with the fewest flaws by far, and that would be the Giants. They have the best player in the division with Odell Beckham, and the least bad defense. And hey, when they won their Super Bowl's, they weren't all that special during the regular season. Washington has Kirk Cousins needing to prove himself, an interesting offense and a defense with big playmakers, but not the supporting cast. With the attrition due to injuries and suspensions on both sides of the ball, it has to take its toll on the Cowboys once again, and it will this season. And the Eagles are starting from zero, which means their performances this season will go as it sounds.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Ezekiel Elliot
1. Green Bay (12-4)
2. Minnesota (9-7)
3. Detroit (7-9)
4. Chicago (6-10)
Green Bay is healthier than they were a season ago, and their defense has slowly been improving. With the unfortunate events in Minnesota, the Packers have a clear opening to take back this division. While Minnesota is clearly in "win-now" mode, the trade for Sam Bradford makes sense, but might only be a band-aid for a team that needs stitches, at least this year. Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions lack the playmakers on offense, though Ziggy Ansah could become a defensive star. And the Bears will have an underrated defense but little else worth mentioning.
1. Carolina (11-5)
2. Atlanta (9-7)
3. New Orleans (8-8)
4. Tampa Bay (7-9)
The defending NFC Champions get Kelvin Benjamin back and still have Cam Newton and a terrifying front seven. Since those things aren't likely to change, they are favorites in the NFC South. The Saints aren't quite a playoff team, but it feels like they're getting better on offense at least, or back to where they were at the start of this decade. The Falcons still have many of the same problems that have dogged them for years, but they're not truly bad enough to plummet at the moment. And for the Bucs, the change in coach probably won't change much in terms of their immediate fortune, though Jameis Winston's continued improvement is exciting.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin
1. Arizona (13-3)
2. Seattle (11-5)
3. LA Rams (6-10)
4. San Francisco (3-13)
The two best teams in the NFC may reside in the NFC West, and they will once again slug it out for supremacy. The Cardinals might be the most faultless team in football, with Seattle not far behind. The drop off in this division from the top to the bottom of it is astonishing, and watching the top two play the bottom two will be quite a bit of fun, in a perverse sense. It'll be the 49ers and Browns competing for next year's #1 overall draft pick, and beyond that, the Rams won't finish 7-9 for once, because they're going to finish 6-10.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Thomas Rawls
1. New England (11-5)
2. New York Jets (9-7)
3. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
4. Miami (7-9)
Even though the Patriots are Tom Brady less for four games, those four are against Arizona, Miami, Houston and Buffalo. They would have been favored in the three games they're favored in anyway. And angry and scorched earth Tom Brady is a terrifying prospect. The Jets still have a ferocious defense and if they can get out of their own way, they'll have every chance of making the postseason once again. Buffalo and Miami are not bad, just not outstanding or special. Both have areas of personnel weakness that are going to hold them back from being true playoff contenders right now.
Fantasy Player to Watch: DeVante Parker
1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
2. Cincinnati (11-5)
3. Baltimore (7-9)
4. Cleveland (2-14)
Pittsburgh's offense is going to be legitimately terrifying this season, even with the pieces that they're missing. We saw plenty of it last year, and it's helped Ben Roethlisberger's career renaissance. As of now, they're the best team in the AFC, though they have stiff competition from the team right behind them. The Bengals have had a talent and coaching drain because they've been so steady despite their lack of playoff successes, but doesn't this feel like the year they finally break through? That front seven is a monster, and if they can escape their opening schedule 4-2 or better, watch out. Baltimore will improve after injuries decimated their 2015 season, but they're not at the Bengals or Steelers caliber yet. And for the Browns well... they're tanking.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Tyler Boyd
1. Houston (9-7)
2. Indianapolis (8-8)
3. Jacksonville (7-9)
4. Tennessee (5-11)
The best way to describe the AFC South is this: it is the NFC East sans the brand names. Once again: mediocrity personified. Houston paid a lot of coin for Brock Osweiler, and to my eye he's still unproven. He has Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as major weapons, but little else around that. On defense, there are the established stars but beyond that there is questionable depth. But they still have more than everyone else in the division. Andrew Luck's return will stabilize the Colts, but they still have no running game, a sieve of an offensive line, a major talent deficiency on defense that Luck will not be able to overcome. While so many are high on the Jaguars, and for good reason, coaching is going to be their downfall. So many head-scratching decisions and now there are no excuses because of a lack of personnel. Individual performances may have to save this team from itself if they want to make the postseason, which they absolutely can do if Gus Bradley coaches better than a coach who has won only 25% of his games (and if they start fast, which they need to do). The Titans are coached by Mike Mularkey. Enough said.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Derrick Henry
1. Kansas City (11-5)
2. Oakland (10-6)
3. Denver (8-8)
4. San Diego (5-11)
Kansas City will be steady on offense, terrifying on defense as they have been in recent years, but with the factors turned up a notch. Their questions at running back are concerning, and Alex Smith is Alex Smith, but their defense should be able to overcome some of those worries. Oakland is the young team to watch more than Jacksonville, largely because of the presence of playmakers and better coaching (I can't believe I said that about Jack Del Rio). Denver has the defense, though it's been gutted somewhat, but they're still starting Trevor Siemian. That's hard to get over, and defense in today's NFL can only get you so far. And for the Chargers, their cheapness is costing them once again and wasting the back end of Philip Rivers' career.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Derek Carr
NFC Playoff Teams: 1. ARZ (13-3), 2. GB (12-4), 3. CAR (11-5), 4. NYG (9-7), 5. SEA (11-5), 6. MIN (9-7).
AFC Playoff Teams: 1. PIT (12-4), 2. NE (11-5), 3. KC (11-5), 4. HOU (9-7), 5. CIN (11-5), 6. OAK (10-6).
Wild Card: CAR over MIN, SEA over NYG
Divisional Round: ARZ over SEA, GB over CAR
NFC Championship Game: GB over ARZ
Wild Card: CIN over HOU (They've done it!), OAK over KC
Divisional Round: PIT over OAK, CIN over NE
AFC Championship Game: PIT over CIN
Super Bowl LI: Green Bay over Pittsburgh (must be a Texas thing).
MVP: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
OPOY: Odell Beckham (NYG)
DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK)
OROY: Ezekiel Elliot (DAL)
DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) (I couldn't think of anyone else for fear of jinxing him)
Coach: Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Comeback Player: Kelvin Benjamin (CAR)
So these are my NFL season predictions. Feel free to once again tell me how wrong I'm going to be.