NFL Week 4 Predictions: Ground Control to Major Tom Brady, Your Circuit’s Dead

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”

I’m not here to shovel dirt on Tom Brady’s career today. Technically, everyone’s career is closer to death with each passing day, but the boldness of declaring Brady finished is something I would need far more evidence to dare write.

However, let’s evaluate some troubling numbers.

Just passing for 200 yards and/or multiple touchdowns has become a struggle for Brady dating back to late last season. Brady hasn’t thrown multiple touchdown passes in his last seven games — one shy of the longest streak of his career (came in 2001).

In each of his last eight games, Brady has been held under 8.0 yards per pass attempt, one of the longest streaks in his career. The lowly Oakland defense held him to 6.32 YPA at home last week.

For the second year in a row the Patriots have gotten off to a slow start offensively, but this year isn’t about a massive turnover at receiver. Julian Edelman is impossible to cover underneath and he’s caught 22 out of 28 targets. Rob Gronkowski is back, though he’s been limited in his recovery from a torn ACL. Danny Amendola is there, but he’s not been the success the Patriots gambled on when deciding to move on from Wes Welker. Then there are the outside wide receivers that tend to occupy milk cartons in this offense. Brandon LaFell has caught 4-of-14 targets from Brady. Kenbrell Thompkins has 53 yards on 11 targets. Aaron Dobson has barely seen the field with injuries.

This year’s new problem is the offensive line. Subtract Logan Mankins, and more importantly, subtract OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, and without that pristine pass protection or consistent run blocking, you get an offense that ranks last in the league in yards per play (4.3). Yes, even below the Jaguars (4.6).

Some of the problems are new, but some have been there for Brady’s entire career. They’ve just been masked better by superior coaching and talent. Brady’s not a scrambler. He’s not one for extending plays. He won’t break out of sacks. He’s not a great vertical passer able to stretch the field on any given play. He’ll dink-and-dunk a defense to death, only to set up a big play at the opportune moment.

And at 2-1, the Patriots are still technically winning, even if it’s all about a defense that’s allowed a total of 16 points to Minnesota and Oakland the last two weeks.

Brady winning despite inefficiency with passing the ball is an old story. He has the best record of any QB since 1960 in games with 6.5 YPA or worse (minimum 15 attempts). Only 7 quarterbacks (min. 40 games) have a winning record when they average no more than 6.5 YPA:

  1. Tom Brady (41-25, .621)
  2. Roger Staubach (25-16, .610)
  3. Jim McMahon (25-18, .581)
  4. Kordell Stewart (26-23, .531)
  5. Jake Delhomme (21-19, .525)
  6. Jay Schroeder (21-19, .525)
  7. Jack Kemp (25-24-2, .510)

Some of these players had rushing value you don’t get with Brady, but dominant defense was also a common theme here.

If you lowered the bar to 6.0 YPA (minimum 30 games), Brady again has the best record ever at 27-20 (.547) when including playoffs. That’s more than a full yard per attempt below the league average. Only five quarterbacks since 1960 have a winning record in that situation (McMahon, Stewart, Len Dawson, and Jim Kelly) with a minimum 30 games.

Does that make Brady special? Not really, but it does say a lot for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They find different ways to win, but if Brady’s playing like this against competition like Miami/Minnesota/Oakland, then how can the Patriots expect to win a championship this year?

I had another theory about Brady’s winning record with bad YPA. Not all sub-6.0 YPA games are created equally. Maybe Brady does other things well on those days, such as a higher completion percentage and good touchdown-interception ratio. So I looked at my growing database of QB game logs (regular season only) and looked at every game (min. 10 attempts) thru 2013 where the QB averaged no better than 6.0 YPA. Then I summed those numbers together to produce the following table (click to enlarge). It’s not a conclusive list — I have about 90 players and many of them are very good — but it gives us an idea of general performance.

Using 85 quarterbacks with a minimum of 400 attempts, I ranked everyone best-to-worst on sub-6.0 days for stats like completion percentage, YPA, TD%, INT%, passer rating (PR) and win pct. I also ranked each QB based on his team’s scoring averages: points for (PF) and points allowed (PA). These scoring numbers were not adjusted for return scores.

sub6

Brady ranks well above average here in everything, but especially in regards to TD% and INT%. Where he’s not as impressive as some of his peers are completion percentage (13th) and the stat this table is built around, YPA (27th). Brady’s 7th in scoring, but he’s had the luxury of the 8th-best scoring defense here, which is true for most of the quarterbacks with a winning record. A guy that actually shows up very well here statistically is Andy Dalton (highest TD%, passer rating and team scoring average), but these numbers could use some opponent adjustments.  Peyton Manning was a tenth away two Dallas QBs from having the highest completion percentage and highest YPA.

Remember, these are all regular-season numbers. Including the playoffs would actually improve Brady’s record, because he somehow went 5-3 when averaging <=6.0 YPA. There’s the rub though. Brady started 5-0 in the playoffs when doing that, but since the 2007 season when the Patriots shifted to an offensive-first team, he’s 0-3 like you would expect from that low average.

When the Patriots take on Kansas City on Monday night, which Brady will show up? A KC win would bring the Chiefs even in record with the Patriots and further add to the AFC’s mediocrity this season. It’s hard to imagine Brady not having his best game this month under the bright lights, but maybe we need to temper expectations for this 37-year-old quarterback. Maybe those dominant performances from 2007-2012 are a thing of the past. Maybe last year was the beginning of the end. All careers have to wind down and end eventually.

Any previous matchup between a Tom Brady offense and an Alex Smith offense would be a no-brainer. But this week, it’s not so clear which quarterback is the one who struggles to stretch the field and must rely on his defense and running game. This is the closest in caliber Brady and Smith have been in their NFL careers.

If that’s not cause for concern in New England, then I don’t know what is. But I like the Patriots this week, because I know this has never truly been a team that lives or die by its quarterback play. Bill Belichick versus Andy Reid is the real mismatch, and I expect The Hood to improve to 5-0 vs. Big Red.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Chiefs 16

Bonus prediction: Brady will end his streak of games without multiple touchdown passes…barely.

NFL Week 4 Predictions

I screwed up my first Thursday pick after Kirk Cousins went full Buccaneer against the Giants. Not every defense plays like Jacksonville and Philadelphia.

Cousins only has 341 official dropbacks in the regular season, but his turnover rate is 5.87 percent. How bad is that? Let’s just say Mark Sanchez (5.29%) and Rex Grossman (5.30%) think it’s too high to remain a starter in today’s NFL.

Winners in bold:

  • Packers at Bears
  • Panthers at Ravens
  • Bills at Texans
  • Lions at Jets
  • Dolphins at Raiders
  • Titans at Colts
  • Buccaneers at Steelers
  • Jaguars at Chargers
  • Falcons at Vikings
  • Eagles at 49ers
  • Saints at Cowboys
  • Patriots at Chiefs

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Total: 28-20

Roethlisberger is Bortles, Bortles is Roethlisberger

The comparison for Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has often been Ben Roethlisberger. On Sunday, Bortles made his official NFL debut in the second half of a blowout loss against Indianapolis. The numbers just happened to catch my eye and made me realize this was as close as a start as Bortles can have to Roethlisberger, almost 10 years to the date of his debut.

benbort

Same TD:INT ratio and passer rating? Really? About the only major difference was Indy’s lazy defense didn’t feel like tackling Hurns on a 63-yard touchdown.

I don’t expect Bortles to go undefeated as a starter with the league’s worst defense, but for one half, he has lived up to the Roethlisberger comparison.

Quarterbacks: Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives by NFL Team

Lost even on me in Sunday afternoon’s chaos was the fact that Tony Romo moved past Roger Staubach for the most game-winning drives in Dallas Cowboys history. He has 24 now. Last season Romo took the lead in fourth-quarter comeback wins (21 now) in Cowboys history as well.

That’s newsworthy by itself, but what about the other 31 NFL teams? Who are their all-time leaders in fourth-quarter comeback wins and game-winning drives? I compiled the table, which will be added to the NFL STAT TABLES section I plan to do much more with in the near future.

TM4QCGWD

As usual, playoffs are included. How typical of the Jets to feature three different quarterbacks here. Not much else surprised me, but I’ve been working with this data for years so that’s to be expected. Let’s just say the bar is really low in Tampa Bay, but I doubt Mike Glennon will ever step his big ass over it.

Matt Ryan needs two more 4QC wins to move past Bartkowski for the outright Atlanta lead. He would be the 9th active quarterback to hold the lead in 4QC and GWD for his team, which just goes to show how impressive this current crop of quarterbacks really is.

All nine of the active leaders have been with their team since at least 2009. That’s when Jay Cutler was traded to Chicago and Matthew Stafford was the No. 1 pick in the draft.  If we think about that season some more, Marc Bulger (STL), Jake Delhomme (CAR), Donovan McNabb (PHI) and David Garrard (JAC) were still on their teams, so that’s 13 quarterbacks who went on to become their team’s GWD leader all active in 2009. Peyton Manning (IND) and Matt Schaub (HOU) were still on their teams too, so that’s 15. Brett Favre was in Minnesota, but he was already Green Bay’s all-time leader, so that kind of makes it 16, which is half the league.

So in 2009, there were 16 active starting quarterbacks who have eventually led an NFL franchise in career game-winning drives.

Some people disagree that this is a really special era of quarterbacks, but I keep finding evidence to support that it is. When teams like Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and St. Louis keep going through quarterbacks, I gain more respect for the players who keep starting year after year.

Even Flacco and Eli.

him

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 2 Predictions: The Matthew Stafford Playoff Predictor

Boy, after this week Roger Goodell could use an Oswald Cobblepot-type scheme to rescue a “kidnapped” baby to regain public support. Just don’t get caught with the “I played this stinking city like a harp from hell!” audio afterwards.

No matter how many times I try to run through a Ray Rice/Peterson-related monologue in my head, it just doesn’t come out right. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about this stuff all week, so adding to it wouldn’t be very beneficial to anyone. It’s dominated the headlines, so instead of talking about how the Vikings can use Cordarrelle Patterson to drop the Patriots to 0-2 (would be huge), it’s all Peterson talk in Minnesota.

These stories aren’t the NFL I know. They’re the stories we hear every day on the local news, but now replaced with names of people we actually recognize. I just went to a local news’ website and found this familiar headline:

lnews

Following the NFL for a living is a bit of an escape from all the constant reminders of the terrible things that happen across the world each day. Sometimes they happen in the NFL too, but this week (and month, really) has been especially bad.

This is still a human problem, far bigger than the NFL. How does it get better? That’s really not up to Goodell or the league to regulate human indecency. Unfortunately, we’ve had many years to find solutions with little progress. Someone, whether they’re a rich athlete or just living in Wilkinsburg, is going to beat their kids or spouse this weekend. If you listened to that dumbass woman with her Ray Rice jersey, some will think it’s justified.

Every time you justify, another good in you dies.
Faith and fear sears me, and love and you pull all the right strings.
“How we get older, how we forget about each other” she said.
Entwined within the sadder of days.

— Converge, The Saddest Day

Matthew Stafford: Playoff Predictor?

Before the 2013 season I had a stat on how Matthew Stafford was 1-23 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. Now obviously that’s not all his fault. He had good wins over 8-8 teams (otherwise 8-7), he played an unusually tough set of winning teams (none were-9-7) and had some good performances. Arguably the best game of his career was a comeback win over Seattle in 2012. But how did this progress last season when the Lions collapsed after a 6-3 start?

Early in the season, it was easy to joke that the Vikings and Redskins (2012 playoff teams) must be in store for a bad year after losing to Detroit. Then when the Bears were swept and the Cowboys were swept away by a last-minute drive, there were similar sentiments of these teams not finishing above .500. Of course, by season’s end none of those teams did finish above .500, but on Thanksgiving something unusual happened. The Lions mopped the floor with the Packers, who entered with a 5-5-1 record, but had their 4th starting quarterback after the big injury to Aaron Rodgers. That seemed to lock up the NFC North for Detroit, but it would never win another game and Stafford had a brutal December finish.

So he’s upped his record to 2-27 against winning teams, but that Green Bay win almost needs an asterisk. When the Packers had Rodgers earlier in the season, Detroit lost 22-9 in a game without Calvin Johnson.

Staff9

After Week 1, I feel pretty confident in saying the 2014 Giants are destined for a losing record, so Monday night’s game, which was one of Stafford’s best, tells me very little going forward. This week’s game in Carolina will be a much better test. I didn’t have the Panthers finishing above .500 this year, but they were good without Cam Newton in Tampa Bay last week. Derek Anderson really surprised me and the defense was pretty much as dominant as 2013. Cam’s back and this should be a highlight on Sunday’s schedule. Carolina had the best defensive DVOA in Week 1. Another strong performance and Stafford’s stock will deserve to  rise, but another dud and we could have a new addition to the table by December.

NFL Week 2 Predictions

Just .500 last week. I always feel Week 2 is one of the toughest of the year, because how much of last week was useful going forward? I had the Ravens on Thursday night, but the point spread would have killed me the last two weeks. I thought Ravens would win by 3 (the norm in this rivalry), but 26-6 was completely unexpected.

Winners in bold:

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

This is more about the schedule than actual quality of team, but a great shot for Houston to start 2-0. If all goes well for Denver, it could be 2-0 in  a division with three 0-2 teams by Sunday evening. I think Dallas gets back on track offensively and Tony Romo guides a narrow win on the road. The Colts rarely lose back-to-back regular-season games. The Eagles are a tough test, but I like a game-winning drive from Luck in a 31-28 final on Monday night.

Maybe this coming week the news will actually be on the games again.

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?