It’s that time of year where predictions come out, sports writers pontificate over who will make the playoffs, take a stab at who will hoist the Lombardi trophy, and who will be on the coaching hot seat. Typically everyone regurgitates the previous season’s standing while noting a few teams who were off-season paper winners. They will most likely all be wrong: no matter how much you stare into your crystal ball, last season’s results are only informative not definitive. Just think about all those who called Tampa a dark horse playoff team last season based on a free agent period and return of a favorite son as coach. Teams will have different strengths of schedule, injuries, issues, and opportunities this year than last. With that in mind I’m going to look at a few things the winds of NFL fortune deliver us every season:
Lies - The NFC South is the Weakest Division in the NFL
The NFC South was the worst division in football last season. Expecting that to be the same ignores the last decade of NFL history. Just about every year following a team winning a division with just 7 or 8 wins, invariably the consensus punditry is "9 wins could get you that division" Well its happened 4 times in the last decade, and each of those 4 times, the following year that division took 12 or 13 wins for a champion.
2010: Seattle won the NFC West at 7-9 with Tarvaris Jackson at QB in the weakest division in football. The next year San Francisco was the NFC’s second seed at 13-3. Today it's considered probably the strongest division in football.
2011: The "worst" division was the AFC West, led by the Tim Tebow-powered Broncos at 8-8. Next year they added Peyton Manning and came within one Joe Flacco floater of being in the AFC title game.
2013: The NFC North, saw an 8-7-1 Green Bay team with no defense win only because everyone else was terrible ..clearly the "worst division in football" at least until last season when the North had two playoff contenders.
My selection for worst division this season is the NFC East. Every one of those teams has major issues and question marks coming into the season. The Cowboys' window maybe closing with age and now I’m expected to rally behind a team whose best running back is Joseph Randle? The Eagles have the fragile Sam Bradford at QB and are starting wide receivers with one combined year of experience. Washington is running a dumpster fire all around and the Giants (who I think win this mess) still don’t have a great running back, healthy #2 receiver, and a defensive line that’s not fully healthy. I don’t think they’ll be as horrible as the South was last season or as bad as the West was in 2010, but I could see the competitors getting bunched between 9 and 7 wins on the year.
Someone will go from worst to first. Last year snapped a streak of 5 consecutive seasons where a team that had finished last in their division the season before won the division the following year. To be honest I really don’t care for many of the teams that finished last the previous year, as the Jets, Browns, Titans, Raiders, Redskins, Bears, Bucs, and Rams all have significant issues. If forced to pick one I’m mostly tempted to pick the Rams. On the other hand I love the way the Titans' schedule breaks down – their middling competitive opponents are at home, they have some tough road games against Indianapolis and New England but everyone else you see on their schedule is expected to have good defense and terrible offense. If they defend Nissan stadium and the Colts suffer some key injuries the Titans could lay claim here. So for worst to first, I’m going with a 10-6 Tennessee Titans team claiming a tiebreaker over the 10-6 Colts.
The New England Patriots will win the AFC East. Obviously this need not be a bold prediction, as the last time the Patriots lost this division was 2008 when Tom Brady was out and Matt Cassell got outdueled by Tony Sporano and the wildcat offense. Other than that from 2003 until 2014 it’s been the Patriots. Forget the cheating and Belichick for a second, I’d take the 2-4 years Tom Brady has left in the tank over the collective careers of any other QB in the division: Ryan Tannehill , Ryan Fitzpatrick , Geno Smith, Matt Cassell , Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel, Matt Moore , Bryce Petty, Logan Thomas ..yech. With the exception of Tannehill, I might even take New England backup Jimmy Garappolo over this crew. Miami seems on the right track. I like them as a playoff team but after years of ineffective QB play dooming the Bills and Jets, who do they hire? Two defensive coaches with no or poor records of QB development. I love Rex Ryan. He’s entertaining, but until one of those other teams comes up with something at QB that resembles a top 16 option as a starter, I’m playing Brady for their 12th title in 13 seasons.
Barring injury to their QB the Ravens will win 8 or more games. The last time the Ravens fell short of that mark was 2007, when Joe Flacco was playing at Delaware State, Steve McNair(RIP) would be injured to be replaced by Kyle Boller and eventually by rookie Troy Smith. They finished with 5 wins. No one does a better job than Baltimore of drafting day 3 talents and developing them. While they seem to be at least 1 impact player away from being a perennial Super Bowl contender again, they have too much talent and depth to go away.
A Sad Truth
Someone will go 2-14 or worse. It is just not nice to predict someone will go 2-14 or worse in an NFL season and if you are really wrong that fan base may mock you for all time. This is the reason most pundits avoid predecting what is an ugly truth. In the last 5 seasons 8 teams have gone 2-14 and at least one team has done so each year. Prior to that the 1-15 St. Louis Rams and 0-16 Lions set the bar even lower. Lots of things have to go wrong for your team to have that sort of implosion, however for the 2-14 teams one aspect of the formula appears quite simple: a really bad QB situation.
Back in 2010 the Panthers had decided to release Jake Delhomme and Josh McCown in the preseason and trusted in Jimmy Clausen. The following year the Colts lost Manning trusting Curtis Painter and beat the Rams in a 2-14 tiebreaker to draft Andrew Luck. After that, the Jaguars trusted Chad Henne while the Chiefs went from the injured Matt Cassell to Brady Quinn; a veteran playing above his head and a former first round bust led to another 2-14 season. Then Matt Schaub went from okay to horrible and T.J. Yates wasn’t starting caliber. Just last season, despite preseason stories of Tampa being a dark horse playoff candidate, they trusted in Josh McCown and Tennessee went with injury prone Jake Locker followed by never-will-be Charlie Whitehurst and got a cult following around the very marginal Zach Mettenberger.
It feels like a two 2-14 team season again. Obviously the most obvious name that comes to mind would be Washington. Despite all the drama though, having watched RGIII play in person last season and in this preseason he looked like more of a cause of losses than a man who can suddenly turned on fates arrow.
My first 2-14 squad is the Chicago Bears. First off the Bears' schedule is brutal: while they play 3 of the first 4 at home it’s against Green Bay, blitz happy Arizona, Seattle, and a resurgent Raiders team. At one point this preseason they had lost WRs 1-4 to injury. If things go wrong for them early and Cutler goes down it’ll be the Jimmy Clausen show. If you think John Fox is too good of a defensive mind to go 2-14, Fox and Clausen combined for 2-14 in 2010.
My other 2-14 squad is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are the ostrich in the sand on the status of their roster. It’s a shame because the offensive line is great, but skill position wise they have absolutely no weapons. What few weapons they did have either drank themselves off the roster, injured themselves, or left via free agency. Beyond that they draw the NFC West and AFC West out of conference. Their schedule is easier early, on the road against the Jets, home vs. Titans, and home vs. Oakland. Then it gets brutal: between October 4th and the end of the season their easiest games are either at St. Louis or Arizona at home.
New England Patriots (11-5): I can't think of a more hated dynasty in professional sports history, but they are still the best in the business and best in this division by far.
Miami Dolphins (10-6, wild card): Pretty close to competing, but I don't see enough big play ability to overcome the Patriots. Home wins late against the Colts and a resting Patriots squad give the Dolphins the edge in a three-way playoff race.
Buffalo Bills (8-8): It's addition by subtraction for Rex Ryan, he may have a bottom-25 quarterback but he's got a top-five defense and a bevy of talented receivers and running backs.
New York Jets (4-12): If you don't have a quarterback, one should at least have a good running game. The Jets don't. I think highly of Todd Bowles, but this isn't a good situation.
Baltimore Ravens (11-5): Too deep and talented at a number of positions. A near-lock at 10 wins.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6): The Steelers should score early and often this season, but the defense is not the Steelers of old. Their defensive line isn't good enough to keep the linebackers clean.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-9): Cincinnati looks really solid all the way around, but between Jeremy Hill and Andy Dalton I just see too many turnovers for them to overcome.
Cleveland Browns (2-14): This isn't because of McCown, though he doesn't help. The Browns just don't have anyone on offense outside of their line. In fact, most these player are third-string or practice squad options.
Tennessee Titans (10-6): My surprise pick. They are not this good, but their schedule may be. Every game where the opponent is just slightly better than them, the Titans play at home.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6): Andrew Luck is that great, but the Colts are not. I don't see a running game, and the defense is not going to generate enough takeaways.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): The Jaguars might surprise a few people this season. They've been improving year-to-year and have some weapons. Right now whether they actually can win is another matter.
Houston Texans (5-11): I'm not buying Brian Hoyer, especially not with the limited weapons Houston has, no matter how smart Bill O'Brien is. J.J. Watt is phenomenal but they can't pitch shutouts every game.
Kansas City Chiefs (13-3): I love a Chiefs defense that's emotionally charged by the return of Eric Berry. Add that to the addition of Jeremy Maclin, who will be missed in Philadelphia, and the Chiefs have just enough to nodge the Broncos aside.
Denver Broncos (11-5, wild card): The Broncos offense gets all the attention, but the defense has a vicious pass rush. I think it may take them some time to adjust to Kubiak and I wouldn't want to match up against them in the post-season.
San Diego Chargers (9-7): They're still missing some key pieces and are probably a year away. I still don't see an impact player on offense or defense that scares me to death.
Oakland Raiders (5-11): They still have a serious talent deficiency. They didn't get into this position in just one season -- it took a decade of mismanagement. It'll take a couple more years to fix, but they're on the right track.
New York Giants (9-7): Tom Coughlin always seems to produce his most successful teams when people are doubting him the most. Manning has good enough targets, and I could see them struggle early but come on late.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8): They will score, but not enough to make up for a defense that's simply not very good.
Dallas Cowboys (7-9): This defense has been playing over its head for a while. Time to return to reality.
Washington Redskins (4-12): Kirk Cousins? Not the answer, but Washington's major problems are team unity and not just the quarterback, though RG3 is part of the problem.
Green Bay Packers (12-4): I don't trust their defense at all, but Aaron Rodgers is simply too good. Add in Eddie Lacy and this is the most dynamic offense in the league, Nelson or no Nelson.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5, Wildcard): Zimmer's defense, Bridgewater emerging, the return of Adrian Peterson, the acquisition of Mike Wallace...a lot of things coming together for the Norsemen.
Detroit Lions (5-11): Detroit has been hemorrhaging defensive talent for the past few seasons. I think it finally catches up with them and they need a season to reload.
Chicago Bears (2-14): While I'm sure this will irk Bears fans, Chicago is attempting lots of scheme changes and doesn't yet have the pieces. Injuries have already hurt them.
Atlanta Falcons (13-3): Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are fantastic, top 10 and top 5 at their respective positions. I have faith in anyone named Shanahan teaching a team to run the ball, and Dan Quinn has their underachieving defense playing opportunistically this year.
New Orleans Saints (8-8): I like the plan to run the football more, but I'm still not sold on the defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): Winston brings hope, but I think a resurgent Doug Martin and solid zone defense keep Tampa Bay in many games.
Carolina Panthers (6-10): Injuries are mounting early. I think this is a transition year for the Panthers, who are better than this but could come part as key weapons are missing or developing.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5): Bruce Arians is amazing. If Palmer can stay healthy, I think they take the West.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6, wild card): I like the Jimmy Graham acquisition, but I still don't see a #1 receiver. Kam Chancellor is holding out, but what really concerns me is the offensive line. I think they will miss Unger more than they expect.
St. Louis Rams (7-9): Nick Foles is a lot of things, but I don't think he's capable of getting the Rams over the hump. Jeff Fisher is a fine head coach but not an offensive innovator. The last time he was challenging for divisions regularly he had Steve McNair at quarterback. Nick Foles is no McNair.
San Francisco 49ers (4-12): For all the Kaepernick complaints, show me a real offensive weapon in this team. The defense is temporarily healthy, but their depth in the secondary is appalling.