Warning: Not your usual predictions
Hopefully by now everyone who has read my season predictions realizes that I don’t use the same prediction methods as the rest of the world. It’s not that I predict wild and crazy things solely for the purpose of click bait or reader outrage, I simply go off long-term historical trends as opposed to the short-term ones. The usual prediction article you see involves looking at last year’s finish, trades, draft picks, and age in the off-season. They boil it up, adjust a few wins and bang: complete predictions.
Here I use my “Lies, axioms, half-truths, and heartbreakers”:
- Things that are often repeated but almost never correct (Lies)
- Predictions you can generally rely on to be true even in the worst of times (Axioms)
- Things that are almost always true but never predicted (Half-Truths)
- Predictions that are, well, not so nice to say (Heartbreakers)
“The AFC South is the worst division in football. You can win it with 8 or 9 games”
Every preseason game I watched that featured Houston, Indianapolis, Tennessee, or especially the Jaguars I heard this false hope peddled. This is the NFL: very seldom does one division “repeat” as the worst division in football. Teams improve, young players mature, and the scheduling snake evens itself out. This time last year the NFC East looked like worst division in football, the year before the NFC South, which went on to produce the next two NFC Champions.
A big reason is that most people overlook the effect of maturity on teams that were young but had a season or two of seasoning and are building the correct way. The other aspect is those teams that were headed in the wrong direction are more willing to make radical changes. True, Houston did just win back-to-back division titles with 9 wins, but that’s an exception. Since the NFL went to its current divisional format, four times in the last 14 years someone has won a division with eight or fewer wins. The next season those divisions were won by teams who put up 12 or more wins.
So far I’m batting .500 on calling out the worst division before the year starts. I missed badly last year trying to call out a Patriots team with a suspended Tom Brady, and an otherwise weak AFC East as the worst division. However, it’s a pretty safe bet someone is winning a division with just 9 wins: the last time all division winners had double-digit win totals was 2010. So this year’s “worst division” is the NFC West.
Why the west?
Usually the worst divisions tend to have just a single franchise QB in them. While my hat is off to Russell Wilson , Carson Palmer is showing real signs of deteriorating, hasn’t stayed healthy and is still behind a pretty shoddy offensive line. Brian Hoyer in San Francisco is a well established no, and they start what should be a multi-year rebuild from Harbaugh’s Super Bowl runs. Jared Goff, not close to being ready for primetime.
So why not Seattle as the banner carrier, winning a dozen games with an easy division schedule? The defense is indeed still great and getting Sheldon Richardson could help immediately. However, their secondary is showing signs of age and may give up some chunk plays that in the past would be unthinkable. Worse than that, I’m looking at Russell Wilson’s supporting cast and it is still not a good one. Jimmy Graham is not what he was with the Saints, I don’t buy Doug Baldwin’s production as sustainable, and Paul Richardson, who I loved in Colorado, hasn’t developed in the pro’s.
The 49ers are way far away, Hoyer to Garcon isn’t Montana to Rice; it’s not even Smith to Crabtree or Boldin. The Rams have some nice pieces but I’m not prepared to bank on breakout rookies like Cooper Kupp or reclamation projects like oft-injured Sammy Watkins and Jared Goff still needs more development. Arizona’s defense is still too turnover dependent. And while Larry Fitzgerald is still great, the supporting WRs are mediocre at best.
The Patriots will win the AFC East. This seems the safest prediction in the history of the NFL, 14 of the last 15 years they’ve claimed the AFC East. I almost feel guilty making this easy prediction but I’m beginning to think they could win it even if Brady missed half (or even most of) the 2017 season. Worse still, this may be the best supporting cast Brady has had in the last 5 years.
The Steelers will win 8 or more games. The last time the Steelers lost more games than they won was 2003. George W. Bush was in his first term, Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch were QBing, Mike Tomlin was coaching Tampa Bay’s defensive backs, “When I’m gone” by 3 Doors Down and “In Da Club” by 50 cent were the most played songs on the radio. This year the Steelers are beyond loaded and just added Joe Haden to pair with emerging CB Artie Burns. Barring Big Ben retiring tomorrow don’t expect a loser in Pittsburgh.
Someone is going worst to first. This is almost becoming an axiom: in the last 7 years, 6 times a team has gone worst to first in their division. Last season the Dallas Cowboys were fortune’s favorite. Behind Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot the Cowboys flipped the script from 4-12 to 13-3, claiming the NFC East in the process.
This is honestly the hardest call to make: which team that finished in last place turns it around so well that they win their division next season. This year our candidates are: the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, and San Francisco 49ers.
Just on general principle I’m kicking out the teams quarterbacked by McCown, Kizer, Bortles, Glennon, and Hoyer. This may be unwise because generally speaking rapid QB improvement, even temporary, seems to be key fuel for these teams. Still, that leaves the Newton-led Panthers, Rivers-fueled Chargers, and Wentz’s Eagles. Far from being in easy situation, each of these QBs is in an incredible tough division, not one with an elite team but plenty of tough competitors.
I seriously considered the Eagles but their schedule is brutal and so is their running game. They have some nice pieces on defense but are hardly complete. That leaves me with the Chargers and Panthers. The Chargers burned me last season blowing 3 huge leads early in the 2016 season after I projected them to go from worst to first. I’m tempted to call myself a year early but.....teams moving cities have such a poor record on inaugural seasons. The Ravens first year in Baltimore: 4-12. The Rams went 7-9 their first year in St. Louis, and 4-12 last year in their return to LA.
So my choice (sadly) for worst to first is the Carolina Panthers. This isn’t simply a process of elimination, as the Panthers were not as good as their 15-1 record two years ago, but despite the loss of Josh Norman were not as bad as their 6-10 record last season. Pretty much everyone who could be hurt on the Panthers defense was hurt and their pass defense turned into something out of a Stephen King meets Greg Schiano defensive nightmare.
The corners are better this year, the defense is healthy and even if Cam Newton is not ready to start the season, Derek Anderson is capable for a game or three. Beyond that they’ve added Christian McCaffrey who is a matchup nightmare underneath. Roll your safety to Kelvin Benjamin or Greg Olson if you want, but be prepared to concede getting nickeled and dimed to death underneath. Opponents may be stuck playing in nickel the entire time with Christian in the backfield and with a guy like Cam Newton under center that’s going to be a problem.
Someone is going to win 2 or fewer games. Just as reliable as the Patriots or Steelers since 2003, someone in the NFL is going to win 2 or fewer games. It’s not nice to predict someone having that kind of abysmal season but other than 2015 it’s happened every year since 2003. In fact to “make up” for missing the 2 win crater in 2015, two teams managed to stay under the limbo of 2 wins last year.
For 2016 I picked the 49ers (after picking the Browns the year before who snuck over the total with 3 wins), so my record at picking colossal losers is much better than the worst to first. Of course its also easier to divine. Usually you need a complete dumpster fire of a team by design at QB, and an exceptional amount of other things to go wrong. So who should start scouting Josh Allen of Wyoming, Darnold at USC, or Rosen at UCLA already?
Some obvious candidates come to mind: Cleveland because hey, they are Cleveland, but the Browns have some positives this year which I’ll detail below. The Colts if Andrew Luck is out for an extended period and Scott Tolzien or Jacoby Brissett has to QB this team. That would be Pagano’s last season in charge. The Buffalo Bills are apparently starting Nate Peterman week 1 and had a whole drawn out drama with Tyrod Taylor in the offseason. However, I think they have too much defense to get unloaded on that regularly, and Shady McCoy makes up for a multitude of short comings. The Jaguars are a fine candidate given their QB situation but Doug Marrone’s return to the coaching circle after ducking out of EJ Manuel in Buffalo seems enough to power them to a few wins over the total.
The 49ers are an option as going back to back is possible but not likely. I think the 49ers run the ball well enough that they skip a few wins over this total, though. How about the Bears? Mike Glennon could be that bad given the lack of supporting cast he’s working with. I seriously considered the Bears at length but counting up all the tough games I keep coming up with 3 wins just on general principle.
Winning 2 or fewer games this year will be the NY Jets. Todd Bowles is still one of the best defensive minds in the NFL but this team design is beyond pathetic. Complete and total mismanagement at the hands of incompetent GM Mike Maccagnan and meddling owner Woody Johnson have absolutely decimated both sides of a once talented team albeit poorly directed team. Christian Hackenberg was a bad pick at the time and worse mistake to stick with him through the summer. His mechanics have never produced consistent accuracy on even simple throws, his footwork is a hot mess and their belief that he would challenge journeyman Josh McCown was the definition of head in the sand management.
The other bride of QB Frankenstein is Bryce Petty, a late round pick who has athletic talent but never ran a playbook at Baylor and is still a long, long, long way away from understanding the ins and outs of an NFL offense. McCown is 18-42 lifetime as an NFL starter. Making matters worse, 12 of those wins came prior to 2007 during his stint with the Arizona Cardinals. Twice in the past 3 seasons the team that started their season with McCown at QB ended up with the #1 overall pick (Cleveland & Tampa) ; another time he helped Cleveland play their way into the #2 overall pick which they traded to Philadelphia.
If your QB is among the league’s worst 5 (if not the worst) you should at least try to get some help for them at WR or RB. Not with the NY Jets, as they have arguable the worst set of WRs in the league and you can’t make a credible argument that anyone but the Browns and 49ers are anywhere close in terms of yech factor. Robbie Anderson and recently acquired Jermaine Kearse are not viable options as starters. Matt Forte is turning 32 this season, Lakeland native Bilal Powell is a fine backup but not a starter.
A once elite defense has been allowed to become a shell of its former self. Buster Skrine is a nice nickel but Morris Claiborne and another Lakeland native Darryl Williams are just good, not shutdown cornerbacks. The DL is still top notch with Leonard Williams and Muhammed Wilkerson, but the edge rushers leave quite a bit to be desired. If Todd Bowles wins 4 games with this crew he should get serious coach of the year consideration...it’s simply that bad.
All Teams & All Predictions
New England Patriots (13-3 Division Champions) - Might actually be the best team Brady’s had in last 5 or 6 seasons. The schedule maker does them no favors after opening with Kansas City, they travel to the Saints, Bucs, Jet’s Broncos , and Raiders in their first 10 games. That’s not a 5-game road schedule I like as all are tougher at home than on the road. Their secondary also isn’t quite as deep as it has been in years past, but they still also have The Hooded One on the sidelines.
Miami Dolphins (9-7) - Adam Gase knows offense and Jay Cutler is looking better than at any time since he was in Denver. Sometimes when a man has nothing left to lose he finds himself. This is a really strong team on both sides of the ball but I’m a little concerned with matchups against the NFC South and AFC West if they are able to improve on the 10-6 record from last season.
Buffalo Bills (4-12) - Nate Peterman under center week 1and talk of a QB controversy already? 2nd Round WR forced into early action in Zay Jones? Marcell Dareus is quietly one of the league’s best interior linemen and the secondary is superior, but the edge rushing is still missing something. Shady McCoy is a great back but that’s not enough to make up for all their other problems.
NY Jets (2-14) - So which QB do the Jet’s take next season, who is coaching them and who is working the front office? These questions are not premature.
Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1 Division Champions #1 AFC Seed) - Absolutely loaded this season on both sides of the ball. When I look at team strengths I start with QB, then pass rush, then offensive playmaker(s), then secondary. Then I look for weaknesses, offensive line, balance between run and pass, range versus outside rushers on defense. Try as I might, the Steelers look poised to dominate. Too many strengths and not enough weaknesses.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7) - I don’t love any part of this team on offense or defense, but I think Flacco finally has some respectable weapons with Wallace, Maclin, Woodhead, and Perriman. Plus the offensive line is good and the defense is still respectable.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8) - Bengals are without Burfict for the first part of the season but still have plenty of weapons on offense and a good enough pass rush to do damage. Games on their schedule with “hidden” playoff value involve a home game week 2 against the Texans and a road game Nov 12th against the Titans. I think those two come back to haunt the Bengals as swing games that turn the season from playoffs to mediocre.
Cleveland Browns (5-11) - Don’t look now but the Browns are 1 player and two seasons away from having the most dominating defensive line in football. Danny Shelton is a monster in the middle. Myles Garrett is a special player and the Browns did the right thing taking him over reaching for a QB answer. Emmanuel Ogbah was passed on by too many teams in 2015 and showed some splash last season. He’s ready to man the strong side end. Hue Jackson is one of the NFL’s better coaches. I don’t trust Kizer at all but the Browns have been down for so long I can’t see teams putting in enough preparation to beat them as often as they have the past few seasons.
Houston Texans (10-6 Division Champions) - J.J. Watt is back and even without him that Houston defense is a nightmare. I expect Tom Savage to hold the job longer than people expect him to and launch a few surprises before Watson gets the call. If Savage avoids turnovers and lets Hopkins do his thing the team defense is more than good enough to beat all but elite opponents on their own.
Tennessee Titans (10-6 Wild Card Team) - The Titans don’t have an elite offensive skill player but they’ve got plenty of variety. Matthews , Decker, Murray, Davis, Henry, and Walker. Plenty of options for Mariota on a game to game basis. Add that to an ever improving defense and the Titans are starting to show some promise.
Indianapolis Colts (5-11) - Scott Tolzien at QB or perhaps a pre-season campless Jacoby Brisett, neither option is appealing. The defense is competent but lacks elite playmakers. Without a healthy Andrew Luck this could quickly be a lost season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12) - Doug Marrone hit the “eject” button in Buffalo when faced with EJ Manuel under center. Blake Bortles after an impressive 2015 campaign regressed and now looks to have the YIPS.
Denver Broncos (10-6 Division Champions , wins tie-breaker on better divisional record) - another year of progress for Trevor Siemian and still a solid ground game. NFL’s premier defense still led by the great Von Miller.
Oakland Raiders (10-6 Wild Card) - Carr’s back, the O-line is better, the pass rush is ferocious. The run defense doesn’t look good to me, though, and I don’t buy the underneath coverage either. Teams who can play 12 package personnel on offense should have their way with the Raiders.
Los Angeles Chargers (8-8) - A really popular worst-to-first pick by pundits, but the injury bugs are biting as the first 2 picks went down before training camp even began. Joey Bosa is ready to be one of the top 5 defensive players in the league but the supporting cast needs to get better.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9) - Fantasy gurus are calling for Kareem Hunt to lead all rookie rushers, but I watched him at Toledo and he’s not that kind of guy. Tyreek Hill needs a more steady compliment but the receiver corps doesn’t present one. Defense is still tough but, in the face of adversity, how long will the team continue to back Alex Smith? Mahomes taking over midway through seems a real possibility.
NY Giants (13-3 Division Champions) - Best defense in the division, check. Best WR and set of receivers in the division, check. Top 6 defense, yes indeed. All that plus Eli Manning makes for a great season for Big Blue.
Washington Redskins (6-10) - Jay Gruden is doing a good job, the front office is not. The defensive secondary I like but not the pass rush. Cousins is good but he needs a better supporting cast than Pryor, Crowder, Kelly, and Reed surrounding him. Washington has turned this season into a three-ring circus with their offseason moves and I’m not sure anyone could coach this dysfunction to a consistent winner. Look for Gruden to end up fired and get a new job about a week after the Redskins part ways with him.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-11) - Young QB, no running game, no thank you.
Dallas Cowboys(5-11) - Prescott surprised quite a few last season, now the team comes cratering back to earth. The offensive line is still really good but not dominating, no Elliot for 6 games and the defense is hollowed out.
Green Bay Packers (13-3 Division Champs #1 NFC Seed) - Aaron Rodgers looks dialed in, the defense looks rejuvenated, the receiving corps is deep and adds Martellus Bennett. It’s likely time for the Packers to go on one of their runs.
Detroit Lions (7-9) - The Lions are a tad overrated: they still have no offensive balance and no elite playmakers on offense or defense aside from Ansah, if he reverts to form. Last season they made a living beating teams with bad secondaries and this season it doesn’t appear the schedule makers were more kind to them.
Minnesota Vikings (5-11) - Sam Bradford is QBing this team, Dalvin Cook has ball security issues and the defense while still good, isn’t good enough to compensate for what should be more than a few offensive miscues.
Chicago Bears (3-13) - Mike Glennon is going to have some economic security, that’s about all he has though, because the receiving options are terrible and as soon as the Bears go out of contention Turbinsky is going to get the nod.
Carolina Panthers (12-4 Division Champs ) - I explained this above, but back to healthy on defense and with some experience for their younger players plus McCaffrey: I smell a return of the Panthers in the south.
New Orleans Saints (11-5 Wild Card) - Incrementally have been rebuilding the worst defense in the NFL over the past few years. Drew Brees should be in for what could amount to a swan song.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5 Wild Card) - I am really concerned about Tampa’s lack of offensive line depth and depth at CB. However, as constructed this roster is “priced to move” especially once Doug Martin returns. It’s a nice schedule as well, especially early and down the home stretch.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7) - Yes 4 winning teams in one division would be a record. The Falcons are still good but last year they caught teams with their pants down on the thunder and lightning backfield , if teams can stay patient and work middle routes against the Falcons they’ll do better than playing from behind.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7 Division Champions) - I covered some of this above but I’m not in love with the weapons on offense for Wilson and the defense is getting older.
LA Rams (7-9) - I think they are a little more diverse on offense than people think and McVay is a lot brighter than most expect, he was on my best young coordinators list several years ago, here is his time to shine.
Arizona Cardinals(7-9) - Time is not on their side; Johnson is a really good player but Palmer’s accuracy and health are falling off. If teams can load against the run they won’t be able to put it all together.
San Francisco 49ers (5-11) - Hoyer isn’t exactly the answer but they are not pretending he is. The 49ers are in win tomorrow mode but they are getting better, of course it would be hard to get worse.