NFL Week 3 Predictions: Statement Games

I have always thought Week 2 was the hardest to predict in the NFL season, because you end up instinctively relying too much on what happened in Week 1.

The 49ers and Vikings were polar opposites from Week 1 to Week 2. Were the Titans really that good and were the Buccaneers really that bad as in Week 1? No. Are the Jets really that good on defense and are the Colts in some trouble on offense? Maybe. Week 1 isn’t worthless and it’s definitely important, but it is still just one data point.

This week I want to see which teams build off a good start and which ones turn around a poor beginning, because there are some really interesting names sitting at 0-2. History suggests some of those teams are not going to be successful this season. Only 24 of 199 teams to start 0-2 since 1990 (12.1%) have made the playoffs. At least one team from the hyped group of the Seahawks, Colts, Eagles and Ravens is probably not going to turn things around.

Some teams are in position to have a statement game where the winner could really put the loser in a huge hole. Those are the games I’m most interested in for Week 3.

Bengals (2-0) at Ravens (0-2)

Come on, Cincinnati. This is exactly the spot where people expect the Bengals to fall flat on their faces as they always do. They swept the Ravens a year ago, but Baltimore is at home for the first time in 2015 and will pretty much have to play with the intensity and importance of a playoff game at 0-2. With a trip to Pittsburgh looming on Thursday, the 2015 Ravens basically have their fate on the line early. You’re likely not coming back from an 0-3 or 0-4 start. The Bengals have looked good with Andy Dalton playing clean, efficient football and Tyler Eifert emerging as the team’s best weapon behind A.J. Green. I’m not sure why Jeremy Hill hasn’t been able to get things going yet, but the offense has been good and so has the defense. This team certainly has looked better than the Ravens, who had no offense in Week 1 and no defense in Week 2. I think the Bengals can limit Steve Smith’s damage and simply have too many weapons for the Ravens, who aren’t getting much pressure now without blitzing. While I think it will be another close game decided in the fourth quarter, I actually like the Bengals to pull this one out.

Colts (0-2) at Titans (1-1)

We always expect the Colts to clean up in division games (won 13 straight), but what happens if they lose? Chuck Pagano’s seat just gets that much hotter and I have to say this has been the worst 3-game stretch of Andrew Luck’s career going back to the 2014 AFC Championship Game. I’m not sure any other QB takes 0 sacks vs. 11 hits like he did in that Jets game, but the hits and pressures were still very effective at forcing him into turnovers. I think the Titans are improved on defense, though still not very good, but good enough to cause some trouble again for the Colts. Indy has won seven in a row against Tennessee, but this is a big one on the road. I have really no great reason for picking the Colts other than they need the win more, which is a scary thought for where this team is currently situated in the AFC. Can Marcus Mariota tear up a defense with a limited pass rush and several of its top corners out? Absolutely. I think Mariota has been pretty impressive so far through two weeks. This won’t be an easy game by any means for the Colts.

Steelers (1-1) at Rams (1-1)

Really not a statement game; I just feel like mentioning it briefly. The Rams are inconsistent as hell and the Steelers are getting Le’Veon Bell back. Both defenses seem pretty susceptible to having a blown coverage down the field, so this one could be very high scoring. So given it’s the NFL, expect a 13-9 game. I still worry about the Steelers in road games following a big week like the masterclass performance Roethlisberger put on against the 49ers last Sunday. Let’s see this offense sustain the good offensive line play, precise vertical passing and now the added element of Bell as a runner and receiver. The Rams have a talented front seven even if it doesn’t show up for long stretches. Bell didn’t exactly dominate good defenses on the ground in 2014. This game is very interesting as I can see 34-31 just as likely as 13-9. You never know what you’ll get from Nick Foles.

Broncos (2-0) at Lions (0-2)

Not sure it was a good idea to schedule the Broncos and Chiefs, Week 2’s TNF game, for road prime-time games in Week 3 too. With Denver all eyes will be on Peyton Manning, but I expect the Denver defense to play well against a struggling Detroit offense. This could have been a  high-scoring game in past years, but I just am not seeing it this year. With Manning, we’ll get another dose of seeing him deal with the Gary Kubiak offense versus doing what actually works (the shotgun and no-huddle offense with him calling the shots). My biggest fear all summer was Kubiak being the only coach too stubborn to let Manning do his thing, and we’ve seen glimpses of that so far. Plain and simple, I don’t think Manning has the foot speed anymore to run Kubiak’s offense from under center, then combined with the piss-poor OL, by the time Manning completes his drop he’s getting pressured or he’s throwing the ball away immediately without setting his feet. That’s why it’s not working out and he needs to be in shotgun. And let’s dump the bootleg pass with Manning going to his left. This isn’t 2006 anymore. If Kubiak can’t adjust to his players’ strengths, then he is just the shoddy coach I’ve always expected he was from Houston.

2015 Week 3 Predictions

My streak of non-losing weeks came to a crashing halt with a 6-10 finish in Week 2. I had the Giants on TNF, so let’s rebound here.

Winners in bold

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

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Season: 16-16 (.500)
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NFL Week 2 Predictions: TD-or-Bust Drives

I didn’t write about it here last week, but I was mentioning on Twitter before the game how Russell Wilson still hasn’t thrown more than 37 passes in a game in the NFL. I believe the last time I wrote about it on here he had 37 the next day in Philadelphia before stopping. Wouldn’t you know on Sunday in St. Louis Wilson hit 41 attempts, albeit in overtime. So that streak is over in his 49th regular-season game.

A lot of times I’ll post a table about a streak and see it broken the next game or sometime soon after. Following Week 1 last year, I showed that the Seahawks had a record 31 consecutive games with a lead in the 4th QT or overtime. In their very next game in San Diego that streak ended with San Diego’s 30-21 win. Are these just strange coincidences or do I have some special kind of jinx power? The answer is really neither, but it’s usually not by accident either. I find a lot of obscure streaks that are records, which means no one else has ever done it before. So if you’re doing something that’s never been done before, it’s very difficult to sustain that. Records are meant to be hard to obtain. So when I keep mentioning Seattle’s NFL record 70-game streak of being at least within one score in the 4th quarter, don’t be surprised if that streak-ending blowout loss is just around the corner.

Last week I highlighted Antonio Brown’s receiving streaks. Odell Beckham’s 9 games with 90+ yards came to a crashing end. Hopefully with Brown on several of my DFS rosters, his streak-stopping day won’t come against the 49ers.

TD-or-Bust Drives

We already had a great start to Week 2 with one of the craziest finishes in NFL history when Jamaal Charles lost a fumble for a game-deciding touchdown in the final minute. I already wrote a 3,000-word recap of the game on Friday, so please check that out.

In that article I mentioned Peyton Manning has had 25 opportunities to start a drive in the final 3:00 of the fourth quarter, down 4-8 points and absolutely needing a touchdown. I just couldn’t let Phil Simms get away with saying Manning’s been in that situation hundreds of times. It’s rare and the number is 25. I showed all 25 of those drives in the article and found that Manning threw an interception of eight of his first nine attempts, all under Jim Mora in 1998-2001 when he was still feeling his oats. When Manning took his game to a new level in 2003 you saw the success start to pile up and he led a total of 8 touchdown drives in this situation. He’s been money in recent years, but how does this compare to his peers? I used Pro-Football-Reference to quickly gather that data, so it’s possible some drives are being omitted due to some timing differences with the kickoff. Example: PFR might say a drive started at 3:03, but it actually started at 2:58 in my data because of the five seconds spent on the kickoff. I base things on when the offense took the field to start the drive. With that said, here are the results for some key active QBs:

Drive3

Thursday night’s success pushes Manning ahead of the pack in TD%, but he also has the highest INT%. Again, all but one of those picks happened in his first four seasons (5 as a rookie in 1998 alone). We also see the Manning brothers had the most average time left while Aaron Rodgers got the short end of the stick there. I’m surprised Roethlisberger is that low, but a lot of his great touchdown drives came in 3-point games (SB 43) or just outside of the 3:00 mark (2008 Ravens). By the way, Tony Romo’s drive last Sunday night is included here so we’ve already seen a couple of great ones this season.

Take away from this what you will, but what I want to highlight is that drives like the one Manning had on Thursday night against the Chiefs are rare and shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s the kind of moment you remember for years as a fan, whether you were on the winning side or the losing side. NFL Network still airs that 1994 game where Joe Montana threw a late TD to beat John Elway’s Broncos on Monday Night Football. Twenty years from now you might see this game replayed too.

2015 Week 2 Predictions

The quest for one perfect week of picks continues as I’m already 0-1 after picking a team with Alex Smith to beat a team with Peyton Manning starting. Silly me.

Winners in bold

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

The 49ers are still a pretty talented team, but I don’t think they’ll take advantage of the poor pass defense the way you should when playing the Steelers right now. Pittsburgh’s offense pushes them ahead to a home win.

If the Saints lose at home to Tampa Bay, I seriously may not pick that team in another game until 2016. I’ve had it.

The Titans shouldn’t blow a 25-point to Cleveland this year. I’m interested to see Johnny Manziel start, but I expect this offense to continue struggling. Ken Whisenhunt and Dick LeBeau have a lot of experience at beating the Browns. Mariota won’t have to throw too much again.

After having no running game on Monday night and playing Dallas this week, DeMarco Murray is someone I expect to have a huge Week 2. The only thing that might stop him is Chip Kelly’s rotation of the three backs, because that’s a very difficult thing to manage with the talent you get from Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews. But I expect Murray to get most of the touches this week. Eagles clean up some things defensively and no Dez Bryant is a big blow to Dallas.

The Jets are a sneaky-tough opponent for the Colts at home, but I think Indy finds a way to win that one at home. Or for Ryan Fitzpatrick to lose it. Either way.

Seahawks at Packers is indeed the big one on SNF. This time it won’t be in Seattle and Kam Chancellor won’t be playing, but neither will Jordy Nelson (and Bryan Bulaga). This is Aaron Rodgers’ best shot to have a good game against this defense, and I think this could be the week Davante Adams actually shines like he was so hyped to do. Remember, he was supposed to be the x-factor in the NFC Championship Game. He caught one ball for 7 yards. With James Jones coming on last week and Randall Cobb always a threat, Adams could have some favorable matchups against a secondary that just isn’t as deep with all the injuries (Jeremy Lane) and holdouts going on this year. This game can basically decide who gets the No. 1 seed in the NFC and it’s only Week 2. Still, I can’t fathom Seattle starting 0-2. I think Marshawn Lynch is a huge part of the gameplan — no 41 throws this week — and the Seahawks grind out a close one.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6

NFL Week 1 Predictions: At Least Try Covering the Best Receivers

Maybe next year I’ll remember to include this part at the end of my season predictions.

Award Predictions

  • MVP: Andrew Luck
  • OPOY: Andrew Luck
  • DPOY: J.J. Watt
  • Coach: Chip Kelly
  • OROY: Amari Cooper
  • DROY: Vic Beasley
  • Comeback: Sam Bradford

I guess that completes the jinx for Indy (top seed, MVP, SB team) I bestowed upon the 2014 Saints a year ago. At least Rob Ryan isn’t in Indianapolis (or T-Rich).

Antonio Brown and Historic Receiving Streaks

Whether it’s real football or fantasy, the wide receivers have been stealing the show lately. 2014 was the greatest rookie class of WR’s ever, as it seems to be one of the few positions colleges are developing these days. A.J. Green is the latest in a line of wideouts to sign a huge contract. He deserves every penny for having to deal with Andy Dalton’s inaccurate throws.

With one game in the books for 2015, we saw more greatness from two members of the 2010 draft: TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Antonio Brown. Gronk might already be a HOF lock if he retired today. He’s just that dominant with 58 TD in 68 games. The 2015 Steelers are just that stupid to leave him so frequently open as they did on Thursday night. That game was also proof that you don’t need a 41-38 final to be an offensively-dominated game. Those defenses were both lost. In the rare event they were in position someone usually just made a play anyway. That someone was usually Brown, who continued his unmatched streak of consistency. Just how consistent has Brown been? I dug into the regular-season streaks since 1960 at PFR.

ABrownHist

Not only does Brown continue to have 5+ catches and 50+ yards in 33 games, but he recently set the record for consecutive 80-yard games at 11. He’s still on record streaks for 60+ and 70+ yards as well. We see Calvin Johnson’s recent dominance, Josh Gordon’s incredible 2013 feats and Odell Beckham Jr. has a shot to set a new mark for 90-yard games with a 10th on Sunday night.

How about receptions?

MostREC

No one has ever had consecutive games with 13+ receptions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen soon.

Unique Quarterback Debuts

Tyrod Taylor will start his first game in his fifth season in the NFL. That’s pretty rare. The only relevant QB I can think of who did not start a game until his fifth season was Jeff Hostetler with the Giants. That also might be the best-case scenario for Taylor’s career prospects, because late-blooming quarterbacks are almost unheard of.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the first two picks in the draft, will start their first game against each other. Think the NFL had a good hunch on how the draft would turn out to schedule that one? Otherwise it’s pretty hard to hype up these two franchises. I believe this is the first game in the modern era (since 1950) where two rookie quarterbacks started against each other in Week 1. Forget the top two pick part, I’m talking about any rookie QB.

I’d write some more but I’m really tapped out at this point and just want to see some 2015 action.

2015 Week 1 Predictions

I had the Patriots beating the Steelers ever since I knew this was going to be a game in New England. I slightly hesitated when it didn’t look like Tom Brady was going to start, but all along I figured the Steelers would start 0-1. They played closer than I expected at least.

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

I was getting worried when I kept picking road team after road team, but it evens out to 8-8 in the end. Hopefully I’ll finish better than 8-8 after no losing weeks in 2014. My only .500 weeks in 2014 were Week 1 and the Divisional round.

The Rams won’t get their special teams advantage this time over the Seahawks, though I think it can be a close one. I like the Colts to pull out an ugly one in Buffalo, because you still have to score a decent number of points to down that team. The Bills aren’t the type of team the Colts usually lose to. Maybe I’m drinking some Hard Knocks kool-aid, but I like the Texans to get a minor upset at home with Bill O’Brien helping to make Brian Hoyer look competent. I think Mariota outplays Winston, but the run game and a late turnover gives Tampa a close win. It’s important for Peyton Manning to get off to a quick start in Gary Kubiak’s offense. How they look in this game will weigh heavily in how I project the Thursday game in Kansas City. Finally, I can’t wait to see Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray in this Chip Kelly offense. That could be a very entertaining game in Atlanta.

2015 NFL Predictions

(In before the kickoff). This morning I read my 2014 predictions and I thought this part from the intro was appropriate.

“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.”

I could probably say that every year now, but this offseason especially was tough for personal reasons, the absurd ending to the Super Bowl (“Run to Win”) and the ridiculous Deflategate story that simply won’t die. We just need to get back to watching football games. I think every team has a good share of flaws this year. There are a few favorites, but I didn’t find picking the Super Bowl to be as obvious as some past years.

If you want some really specific research and detail on every team, you can still buy Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 here. I covered the AFC West, the Colts and had some input on the Steelers this year.

Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my 2014 record was 157-98-1 (.615), or a few games better than the 152-103-1 (.596) record in 2013. As always, I hope to do better, but I’m sure the results this year will be in the same range.

One thing I won’t be doing is picking a team to go 14-2 like how I went all in on the Saints last year. That was by far my biggest miss. This season, every team is projected for 4-13 wins, and it wouldn’t shock me if 12-4 was the best record like it was a year ago.

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Stat: In St. Louis, the Rams scored at least 24 points in just 22.4% of Sam Bradford’s 49 starts.

I think both East divisions got a lot more interesting this year, and the NFC East in particular is where I expect something peculiar to happen. What would be peculiar? A breakout year from Sam Bradford or Kirk Cousins, a return to the playoffs for the Giants and a Dallas meltdown.

Chip Kelly has started his NFL coaching career with back-to-back 10-6 seasons, yet some — like a former fullback on a certain network — don’t buy what he’s selling. I’m hesitant to buy the roster moves from Kelly this offseason, stocking up on some players with high injury risk, but his belief and application in sports science is strong. I think DeMarco Murray could be great in this offense as long as he stays healthy. I’m curious to see how Jordan Matthews, so often in the slot, fares as a de facto No. 1 WR. Chip’s offense has seen huge years from DeSean Jackson (2013) and Jeremy Maclin (2014) in that role, but Matthews is a different player. I’ve never been a Bradford fan and I think he was too dink-and-dunk with the Rams, but if anyone can mold him into an above-average quarterback, it’s probably Kelly. His system just gets receivers wide open down the field, and we saw Nick Foles miss too many of those to start 2014. I also expect the secondary to be considerably better after dumping Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nate Allen.

Ultimately, it came down to the schedule here and I just think the Eagles have an easier path than Dallas. Not having to go to Green Bay in December like Dallas does could make all the difference. I think my first run through of the games had the Eagles at 13-3, but I knew that was too high. I’m not letting preseason results sway me at all, but it certainly wasn’t discouraging to see this team kick some ass in those games.

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

Stat: Still going to call him a choker? Tony Romo is the first QB in NFL history to lead at least four game-winning drives in four consecutive seasons.  And #DEZCaughtIt

Jason Garrett has still never lost more than two games in a row, and his longest winning streak is now six games. I say it every year, but Romo makes this team relevant at the end of the season. The defense is still not going to be great, and the loss of Orlando Scandrick might even be bigger than losing Sean Lee a year ago. Scandrick is one of three cornerbacks (Chris Harris and Vontae Davis the other two) to rank in the top 15 in FO’s adjusted success rate in coverage. Dallas has added some talent for sure — some of it is suspended for four games though — but last year’s success was in part to the offense keeping the defense off the field, and the defense finishing first in takeaways per drive. That’s a stat that will regress and the Cowboys will have to make more regular stops this season.

The 8-0 road record in 2014 was very impressive and totally unexpected. Dallas going .500 at home however was not that surprising, because this team has had some issues in the new stadium. Check where the Cowboys are after Week 9, because the early schedule is a doozy. If they’re doing well by then, I expect a playoff team for sure. If not, then it could come down to another Week 17 playoff game. At least this one would be at home against Washington.

3. New York Giants (9-7)

Stat: It’s like Groundhog Day. Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric for the second year in a row.

Injuries are expected to regress to the mean, but the Giants couldn’t avoid them again in 2014, especially in the secondary. This year we’ve already seen the secondary lose some bodies, but at least they still have all their fingers. Come on, JPP. Fireworks? Odell Beckham Jr.’s sophomore season is the most heavily anticipated one since Randy Moss, but I think he’ll deliver. He just may not be as spectacular on a per-game basis, but he is legit and not Michael Clayton.

The Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, but here we are again in a year they play the AFC East. Maybe Pierre-Paul and Victor Cruz return to form late in the season and the 9-7 Giants pull it off again. The Giants are like a leap year too: they show up every four years in February. We saw it in 2008, 2012 and if 2016 is next, then we already have a vision of the outcome: Beckham’s one-handed catch sinks the Patriots and Eli Manning becomes the highest-paid player in NFL history*. Don’t even front. This is probably like the 83rd-most likely outcome of the 2015 season, because the Giants do weird shit like this under Tom Coughlin.

*Wrote this before the extension. Feck.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Stat: In 2014, Kirk Cousins’ knockdown rate when passing was 7.1%. Robert Griffin III’s was 29.5%.

That’s right, the offensive line doesn’t block better for the other guy. The other guy gets rid of the ball better and without limiting the odds for a first down by throwing so short of the sticks. The problem Cousins has is he can be a turnover machine, so the Redskins are pretty f*cked either way.

Morgan Moses is the new right tackle. I charted his first start against the 49ers last year. He allowed three sacks. Washington apparently used a very high pick to stick Brandon Scherff at right guard. DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed may be poised for big fantasy years, but I don’t see a lot of good to come from this offense.

And yet somehow I feel even less confident about the defense coming around. They replaced defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, but who is going to get the job done on the field? They’ve rented their defensive line and secondary from other teams. Well, David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland (susp.) are draft picks, but neither had a good 2014. The linebackers are about the only drafted players with talent, led by Ryan Kerrigan. If DeAngelo Hall is still starting for your team in 2015, that about sums up where you’re at in this league.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Stat: Since 2001, the Patriots are 11-0 in the playoffs when playing a team for the first time that season (10-8 in rematches).

You just have to pencil in the Patriots for double-digit wins. The postseason is what it is. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. I think the AFC East is improved, but not enough to the point where someone is going to overtake New England this year. However, I think this squad feels closer to the 2005-06 teams than anything like 2007 or even 2010-12. Or last year of course. The loss of Vince Wilfork won’t be huge, but the massive turnover in that secondary is likely to haunt them a few times this season. But I’d expect the offensive line and defense to shape into form after Thanksgiving, which seems to always happen in NE (defensively at least).

Last year I thought the schedule would help the Patriots to the top seed. This year I think the schedule could knock them to a three seed, which is something they’ve never been under Belichick. Road games with the Cowboys, Colts and Broncos are going to be huge for seeding, not to mention the nemesis Giants and the Week 17 finale in Miami.

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

Stat: Mike Wallace was +15.9 in receiving plus-minus (adjusted for where ball is thrown) with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. In Miami, Wallace was just a -0.6 with Ryan Tannehill. Kenny Stills was an incredible +21.9 in New Orleans with Drew Brees. This stat is heavily influenced by the quarterback, so we’ll see if Tannehill can find the connection deep with Stills that he never found with Wallace.

This is the fifth team from the East divisions that I’m predicting to have a winning record. Is that too many? They’re going to beat up on each other, or maybe more appropriately they’re going to beat up on the scrubs on their schedule and have some great games against each other. I just think this is the year Miami’s spending pays off with a playoff berth. Ryan Tannehill’s arrow is pointing up and he has a very solid receiving corps with Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and TE Jordan Cameron. I also really like Lamar Miller, and here is an example of the type of content you’ll find in FOA 2015’s player comments for hundreds of players. (I wrote this one – click it to enlarge)

LMiller

I ranked Miami 2nd in under-25 talent this year, and while someone like Walt Aikens or Jamar Taylor needs to step up in the secondary, it’s the veterans like Brent Grimes and Ndamukong Suh who will have to play at a high level to get Miami back to the postseason. I think the offense is poised for great things under Bill Lazor and the defense steps up. Though if it’s another 8-8 finish, then say goodbye to Joe Philbin in Miami. He has to win this year.

3. Buffalo Bills (7-9)

Stat: Tyrod Taylor is making his first career start in the 65th possible game of his career. The QB in my top 64 of all time to take the longest to start was Tony Romo (55th game).

Taylor doesn’t have to be great for Buffalo to win, but this is the third year in a row I’m picking Buffalo to have a losing record. That didn’t work last year, but I didn’t foresee Kyle Orton taking over so quickly. I think the receiving weapons are pretty good, and Sammy Watkins deserves better QB play and offensive design. I’m not sold he can get it this year, but Taylor’s going to be very fun to watch as a scrambler and play-fake QB. This is Greg Roman, so he should do some Colin Kaepernick-type things with Taylor and LeSean McCoy in the backfield. Show us some read-option and spread. I think Taylor could rush for 800+ yards if he lasts all season. Unfortunately I see Rex Ryan attached to a team and I just expect shit offense, but there’s talent here to be better than the usual poor Buffalo standard on this side of the ball.

The defense was great last year and returns a lot of talent. Of course I’m skeptical about sustaining defensive success, but the change of coach should help keep things fresh. I believe in Rex as a defensive play-caller, but I just don’t trust his offense, the side of the ball I swear he doesn’t put much effort into. That’s why I see Buffalo as another version of his Jets teams, and they weren’t successful since 2010. When you look at the schedule (IND, NE, at MIA to start), it’s not crazy to see Buffalo in a 0-3 hole. Things need to be clicking right away, and while I think they’ll win at least one of those games, I don’t see a strong start or finish this year. The streak continues.

4. New York Jets (5-11)

Stat: Remember when the 2013 Jets were 8-8 thanks to a 7-2 record in close games? Last year that record in close games fell to 3-8, dropping the Jets to 4-12. Know who is awful in those situations? Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 9-32-1 at game-winning drive opportunities with more turnovers in losses than any quarterback in that situation since 2005.

I actually think Fitzpatrick is an upgrade over Geno Smith, and this could be the best Jets defense since 2010, but here’s what that really means. Instead of having a quarterback commit a lot of early turnovers in a 28-17 loss, the Jets will watch Fitzpatrick toss game-ending picks in 19-16 defeats instead. He can give you league-average QB play, and certainly has some weapons around him, but he’ll make big mistakes in big moments the way people think far more successful QBs do. Fitzpatrick is factually that guy.

Good luck to Todd Bowles, because he’s had a very up-and-down career in the last few years. I think he earned this with his great work in Arizona, but let’s not forget how awful the Eagles were under his watch in 2012. The Sheldon Richardson situation takes away a little from a talent-heavy defensive line.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Stat: Adjusted for where the ball was thrown, Aaron Rodgers has completed 56.8 more passes (11.7 percentage points above expectations) than an average quarterback would have completed to Jordy Nelson.

arod

Yes, the Jordy Nelson torn ACL is terrible, but the Packers still have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Davante Adams already had high expectations in year two, and now they’ll be even higher. James Jones was moonlighting as a No. 1 in Oakland last year. He only has to be the No. 3 here and has depth behind him with Richard Rodgers getting better at tight end. There’s also Eddie Lacy for defenses to deal with.

What amazes me is just how many of the 2014 Packers are returning in 2015. This team kept damn near everyone, so the results should be pretty good again, right? Green Bay’s made six straight playoff trips. This is one of the teams that you can pencil in and just have to hope for some breaks in the playoffs. They didn’t get all they needed last year with the excruciating loss in Seattle. I still think the defense is under par from 2010, which really spearheaded that title run, but the offense is good enough to make this team a serious contender again. They just have to find a way to deal with Seattle, but the good news is they get them at home in Week 2. Win that game so you don’t have to go back to Seattle in January. However, Green Bay has not defended home field well in the playoffs, but their chances are still significantly better at Lambeau.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

Stat: Teddy Bridgewater’s strong finish was marked by a considerable drop in the distance of his passes as he relied more on the short game. His DVOA under pressure was consistently below average.

teddybridge

I thought Bridgewater was the best QB in the 2014 draft and so far nothing has proven otherwise. However, I’m hesitant to buy into him this year based on the way he finished last season. It was impressive, but not enough to the point where he’s going to be like a top 10 guy this season. I think he still has to work on the deep ball and it’s not clear if Mike Wallace is still a real threat for that. He had a much better red-zone season than usual in 2014. I liked the cheap pickup, but the Vikings have some interesting receivers in Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson as well. Bridgewater seemed very comfortable with them last year while Cordarrelle Patterson is simply not comfortable as an NFL WR. At least Kyle Rudolph and Adrian Peterson are back, so this offense could be fun to watch, though two big blows on the offensive line — and Matt Kalil isn’t even one of them — could hurt with Phil Loadholt (done) and John Sullivan (IR-DFR).

I like what Mike Zimmer has done with the defense and the talent is there for a top 10 season on that type of ball. This is a year where I see the Vikings breaking through to beat a team like Green Bay at home, but not doing enough things consistently to make the playoffs. They’re going to just miss out.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)

Stat: Golden Tate is the only WR in the NFL to rank in the top five in receiving plus-minus and YAC+ since 2012.

I whiffed on the Lions last year. I think a conservative 8-8 is the right approach this year. Rmember, the 2013 Lions blew a league-record seven fourth-quarter leads, so they were better than their record. The 2014 Lions had five fourth-quarter comebacks, so they weren’t really as good as 11-5. They also saw some career years from DeAndre Levy and Glover Quin, and career years aren’t easy to repeat. Golden Tate was great and that was a huge addition to give Calvin Johnson help. Eric Ebron had a usual slow start at TE, so maybe he can make them better at that position. I’m very interested to see what Ameer Abdullah can do in the backfield. Stafford also targeted three backs 50 times last year, so the backs are a big part of the passing game. I just think the career-year performances and loss of Ndamukong Suh, combined with a tough schedule drops this team out of the playoffs.

And as if you needed a reminder, the Lions simply don’t beat good teams in the Stafford era: 3-32 vs. teams who finish with a winning record.

4. Chicago Bears (5-11)

Stat: Jay Cutler still doesn’t care. Though he does have the highest conversion rate on two-point conversion passes since 1994. Those will come in handy down 42-6.

The Kevin White injury sucks for the offense, which traded Brandon Marshall to the Jets. I really didn’t care for all the screens and shortening of Alshon Jeffery’s game last year, and that might continue with Adam Gase, because no one told him the jig is up after Seattle exposed Denver’s screens in the Super Bowl. Matt Forte will catch fewer passes with Marc Trestman gone, but he should still be effective. It’s just hard to run the ball when you’re down 42-0.

John Fox should eventually fix the defense, but I don’t think the talent is there in 2015 for any remarkable improvement. It’s going to be another long year in Chicago.

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Stat: Only two of Baltimore’s 15 playoff games in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era have been played at home.

A lot of people are picking the Ravens for the Super Bowl. I’m not, but I could see it. The talent is there to get into the tournament. The consistency at head coach and quarterback is there. The front seven is one of the league’s best. The secondary should be better with the return of Jimmy Smith and some safety upgrades.

Should we be worried about the offense with Gary Kubiak leaving (Justin Forsett regression alert) and the fact that Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro are the depth behind old Steve Smith while Breshad Perriman (a rookie) is hurt? Dennis Pitta’s permanent status now is hurt, Owen Daniels is gone, Crockett Gilmore is skinning coons before practice and Maxx Williams is just a rookie. Yes, these are concerns, but this team usually finds a way to get into the tournament where anything can happen. One year you throw a pass that should have been caught to get to the Super Bowl. One year you throw up a prayer that gets answered. The next year you throw a game-ending interception. I just think the schedule favors the Ravens in this division since they don’t have to go to New England and Seattle like Pittsburgh does. They are also a more balanced team than Pittsburgh, and the duo of Harbaugh/Flacco is better than Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Stat: Bengals are first team in NFL history to go one-and-done in four consecutive Wild Card games.

I have run out of things to say about this team having done several AFC North pieces each offseason. How many Wild Card exits can you keep going through before a team moves in a different direction at coach and quarterback? This run has been remarkable for the wrong reasons, and here we are again with another 10-win season projected from me. Cincinnati has beaten good and great teams in the regular season, but not in the playoffs where the contests haven’t even been contests for the most part.

I love A.J. Green because of how hard Dalton makes his job with inaccurate throws. I think Jeremy Hill can be a stud this year. Geno Atkins should be stronger, two years removed from the ACL now. The talent is there, but do you trust this team to win in Baltimore or Indy or New England? But hell, with all of my Bengal bashing they’ll probably go to Denver and knock off the Broncos with Dalton having a dominant game, sending Peyton Manning into retirement. You know it’s either going to be Dalton or Alex Smith delivering that karma on me.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Stat: Steelers are the first team since 1940 to intercept fewer than 12 passes in four consecutive seasons. Their 76 takeaways are the fewest in the NFL since 2011.  

I have the Steelers beating the Broncos in Pittsburgh in December, but also losing at home to Oakland. Don’t laugh. That’s basically what happened in 2009 when Oakland won here, but Green Bay didn’t in that epic shootout. This is what the Steelers do: get up for good teams, play down to the competition. We’ll see how much they have left for the brutal finish after a Week 11 bye: at Seattle, Indy, at Cincy, Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland.

The defense is not going to dramatically improve this year, and the offense won’t be as good to compensate, hence another 8-8 season, wasting another year of Roethlisberger’s remaining prime.

The injury to Maurkice Pouncey (after he lived up to the hype in 2014) and suspensions to Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant already mean the Steelers have far less continuity than they had on offense last year when they had almost no games missed. Despite the prowess of the 2014 offense, they had about five “off” games. You’d like to see that number drop to three or less if you want to be a top-tier offense, which is what the Steelers need to have to make up for the defense.

I almost feel bad for Keith Butler taking over at defensive coordinator for Dick LeBeau. He waited so long for this job that the talent core of the defense is almost entirely gone now. The 2015 draft has already been a disappointment with three picks not making the 53-man roster, Sammie Coates not impressing and Senquez Golson on IR. I loved the trade for Brandon Boykin, but I still can’t trust the secondary.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Stat: Joe Thomas has never missed a single offensive snap in eight years.

This year’s Cleveland offense looks like something you’d find at a flea market with the one fancy showroom saved for the offensive linemen. “Look, a two-for-one deal on a broken Josh McCown and Dwayne Bowe. And there’s Brian Hartline, complete with no touchdowns!” Can’t Mike Pettine ever enjoy a consistent offense? Starting McCown is basically throwing in the towel on the season. They have to see Johnny Manziel this year, but I already predicted Cardale Jones as the future of this team.

At least the defense has some pieces in place.

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

Stat: Drew Brees is deadly accurate. If there’s a +/- stat, he likely bests everyone since 2006 (click to enlarge).

accQB

This division was pathetic last year, and it’s not going to be worlds better in 2015 I don’t think. I’m very hesitant to pick the Saints after getting burned so bad last year, but this is my trust in Drew Brees and Sean Payton. They let some games slip away last year that should have been won. I know Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills were big losses, but the braintrust here know how to get guys ready to play. Look at Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and company.

When I look at the schedule, I think it’s probable the Saints are favored in eight straight games starting in November. The schedule’s just not that daunting. In past years I’d predict 11-13 wins for the Saints with this schedule, but given the deficiencies we’re seeing, I’m content at 9-7. That should be enough in the NFC South.

2. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

Stat: In 22 losses since 2013, Matt Ryan has thrown for 6,137 yards and 36 touchdowns. The next closest quarterback in losses is Eli Manning (5,085 yards and 27 touchdowns).

I think Dan Quinn was the type of coach the Falcons needed and Vic Beasley was the type of defensive player they needed to draft. That’s the side of the ball causing them the most trouble, though the offense is not without fault, especially up front and in the running game. I respect Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but I’m not a big fan of what they’re doing at tight end and the secondary wide receivers. I think the defense only gets so better in year one, but it’s not enough to push this team back into the playoffs.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Stat: Cam Newton overthrew a league-high 17% of his passes in 2014. He was at 15% in a healthier 2013.

Basically I have the Panthers as the same subpar team they’ve been in three of the last four years under Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. The exception was 2013 and that was thanks to a great defense. I don’t think they have the offensive line, the wide receivers and the secondary to win at that level this season. Seven wins aren’t going to get you a home playoff game against Ryan Lindley this year. I’m just disappointed Kelvin Benjamin was injured in practice, because he was very interesting to watch in 2014. I think Newton will miss him dearly and Devin Funchess won’t come close to replicating Benjamin’s 2014. They are going to have to rely on Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. and that’s just not enticing with a quarterback who has accuracy issues.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Stat: 43.6% of Mike Evans’ receiving yards came in a three-game stretch against the Browns, Falcons and Redskins.  

I should have researched it, but 5-11 sounds like a reasonable next-year record for a team coming off a 2-14 season. Everyone seems to have Jameis Winston penciled in to lead the league in interceptions. That would be funny if Marcus Mariota threw more after the annoying hype over preseason practice stats. I think Winston will do his share of forcing the ball, but he could be a sack machine too. Not to the level of David Carr, but he’s going to have to get rid of the ball this year and that could mean some extra picks. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are good receivers for him, though I don’t see an efficient offense at all here. More like bottom four. What should be better is the defense, led by Lavonte David. Lovie Smith should tighten things up in year two and I think we started to see that after the bye last year.

The 2014 Buccaneers were a league-worst 1-10 in close games. I think they’ll surprise a few teams this year and steal a handful of wins.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)

Stat: Colts are 33-4 (.892) in the Andrew Luck era when allowing fewer than 29 points. The Colts have allowed at least 40 points in half of their 18 losses since 2012.

This feels like a boom-or-bust year for the Colts. They’re trying to become the first team to ever advance another step in the playoffs in four straight years, which would be to the Super Bowl. The schedule gives them the best path to the No. 1 seed thanks to playing in the QB-starved AFC South and having home games with Denver and New England. However, if the Colts implode two more times against the Patriots or falter in a major way (say, miss the playoffs) I could see Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson fired for it.

I think Andre Johnson and Frank Gore will pay off, but those are rentals. I think Phillip Dorsett may work out too, but he’s a luxury pick and won’t help them stop [random Patriot RB] from rushing for 160 yards and 4 TD. Obviously the Colts have some flaws on the offensive line and the consistency of the defense, especially against better opponents. But the biggest problem this team has is getting completely outclassed, outcoached and outplayed about a handful of times every year. This doesn’t happen to annual playoff teams. In FOA 2015, I looked at 158 cases of a team making the playoffs in three consecutive years. The 2012-14 Colts truly stand alone in how they win and lose games:

ColtsFOA

How do you stop doing that? Hopefully it involves cutting off the fat from the offense like Trent Richardson. Gore and some changes along the offensive line should improve the running game. The defense is filled with veterans, but you just hope some of them step up and start rushing the passer. They sure have enough bodies to try. The defensive line could be a big weakness with an injury to Arthur Jones putting some inexperienced players in the spotlight. The season does not 100% hinge on how the Colts handle the Patriots, or if they have to see them twice again, but that’s certainly the biggest hurdle in getting to the Super Bowl for this team. They match up better with everyone else.

2. Houston Texans (6-10)

Stat: Brian Hoyer overthrew or underthrew 24.5% of his passes in 2014, the highest rate in the NFL.

The front seven has a chance to be very good if Vince Wilfork and Jadeveon Clowney can help out J.J. Watt. I look forward to charting the catch radius of DeAndre Hopkins, and there’s not much else I can really say about the offense. Oh, Arian Foster needs to get back soon. I gained some newfound respect for coach Bill O’Brien after watching this team on Hard Knocks. I just hope he can find a competent quarterback soon, because one does not exist on the current Houston roster. I think he can get more out of Hoyer than Cleveland did, but it’s not going to be up to the level of where this team can seriously compete for anything, even in a bad division. Don’t let last year’s 9-7 record fool you.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

Stat: Blake Bortles’ passing YPA in the final six games of 2014 was 5.41, 5.54, 5.26, 5.68, 4.42 and 3.55. You have got to be kidding me.  

Yeah, I said last year Bortles would have people making Jacksonville a trendy pick for the playoffs in 2015. More like a trendy pick for the No. 1 overall pick. Fooled by his preseason performance, I didn’t see much at all last year from Bortles, who rarely had a chance to shine anyway behind this offensive line. I think T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson can give the running game a boost Toby Gerhart couldn’t, and I’m curious to see Allen Robinson in year two. I hated the Julius Thomas signing, because he is an injury prone player (oh, and look…) and he should thank Peyton for the millions. They basically overpaid for Marcedes Lewis 2.0.

It sucks that Dante Fowler is already done for the year with an injury. The Jaguars needed some type of cornerstone on defense, because this is largely a collection of guys who probably wouldn’t start on most teams in the league. CB Aaron Colvin might be a breakout player, but there’s just very little for the Jaguars to hang their hat on here and expect consistency from.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

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.

Is Ken Whisenhunt stocking up on mediocre running backs because he thinks he can maximize Mariota by limiting his attempts the way he did Roethlisberger a decade ago? That’s not going to work if your defense is trash, and I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic about this group. Maybe if Brian Orakpo stays healthy and Blidi Wreh-Wilson stays on the sideline they can finish 20th or so, but the highlight of this season will be seeing how Mariota handles the NFL. I want to believe a QB who threw 105 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in college can succeed in this league, but recent results have not been favorable to young quarterbacks. Either way, I expect the Titans to lose a large number of games and for Whisenhunt to be fired at season’s end.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Stat: Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 70 consecutive games, an NFL record.

This team is historically great, but can it stay together? Kam Chancellor doesn’t seem to think so, and that’s a damn shame with a huge game looming in Green Bay in Week 2. That could be the difference in where the NFC Championship Game is played. We know Seattle has enough talent to win 10+ games. They’re clearly the best team in this division, with or without Chancellor. Russell Wilson has Jimmy Graham and recovery water, so maybe he’ll throw 38 passes in a game this year (56 games and counting of him not). I also can’t wait to see what Tyler Lockett can do. He might be a big-play rookie threat the way Mike Wallace was in 2009 for the Steelers. The offense can pick up any slack on the defense, which should still be great. The offensive line is the biggest weakness, but we write that every year. This team is still a couple of Marshawn Lynch runs away from being 8-0 in the playoffs with a 2012 NFC Championship Game to be played in San Francisco. You don’t blow them out and you can’t keep them down for 60 minutes.

2. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

Stat: The 2014 Cardinals were 11-3 in close games featuring a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. That’s incredible.

We keep doubting Bruce Arians and his magic beans, but he keeps defying the odds with all these close wins. Does losing Todd Bowles and some defenders hurt? Probably, but I think the philosophy is still going to be aggressive and the Cardinals have quite the group of defensive backs to use with the athletic ability to tackle hard and cover speed. Offensively, it’s good to see Carson Palmer back, especially after we were forced to watch Ryan Lindley in national settings. John Brown is a receiver everyone’s counting on to break out, but this offense still has Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald too. There may not be a lot to love on this team, but there’s a lot to like and I think they’ll be right in the thick of the playoff race all year. They’ll just suffer some close-game regression, but I’ve been wrong before about “BA.”

3. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)

Stat: The 49ers have 6-of-22 starters from Super Bowl XLVII remaining on the 2015 roster

I almost had to go back and reconfigure my records when I saw I was giving the 49ers seven wins. That sounds like way too many for a new coach who would definitely wear a deep V-neck with no undershirt to an important press conference. That’s just how guys from western PA roll. I’ve walked the same streets and hallways Tomsula did years ago growing up, and while I wish him well, I see a pretty short-lived, difficult tenure in stepping in for Jim Harbaugh. The incredible roster turnover probably wouldn’t have all happened if Harbaugh was still there. So how do I get seven wins for this team? I guess I still have some confidence in the talents of Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Antoine Bethea and NaVorro Bowman. They’re all still playing, right? This could be a pick I regret, but I just think the 49ers will be able to compete and win some games this year. But I should have probably found a way to make it five wins instead of seven.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Stat: There have been 278 individual 800-yard receiving seasons in the NFL since 2008. Zero of them have happened in St. Louis.

I’d probably be more right if I swapped the records for the 49ers and Rams, but it’s behind me. I hated the Jeff Fisher-reeking Todd Gurley pick since the Rams continue to try building an offensive line and already had Tre Mason. That’s not going to turn them into a playoff team. I’m not sure what to make of the Nick Foles trade. I know I’m not a Sam Bradford fan, but what exactly is Foles without Chip Kelly? He’s been like a different QB in each of his three seasons, so I really look forward to seeing who he is in 2015. I think Foles is better than what the Rams have usually had at QB recently, and he could be a good fit for a run-heavy, play-action heavy offense. I still don’t like Tavon Austin the NFL, and I think Brian Quick had the lightbulb turn on last year before injury. Curious to see if he could break the 800-yard mark.

But am I curious enough to want to watch the Rams every week? No, it’s still a Fisher team, and I think the secondary will hold the defense back from reaching its full potential again. Too many breakdowns and miscommunications there. The front seven can be fantastic, but as Bruce Arians said, there’s a reason this team is always 8-8. I don’t even see them doing that well this year.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (12-4)

Stat: Peyton Manning has the top three seasons with the lowest pressure rate of any quarterback since 2010. He did this with two teams, three offensive coordinators and 18 different starting offensive linemen.

I have written plenty about Denver in FOA 2015 and elsewhere this offseason, including the reasons behind last year’s second-half slump (a very unique scheduling of road/home games and Manning’s torn quad). The absurd gameplan and statistical outlier that was that playoff loss to Indy where the Broncos amassed more failed completions (15) than any of the 13,320 offensive performances since 1989. I wrote not to panic about the offensive line, which is still the roster’s weakest link even after the Evan Mathis addition. I think Wade Phillips will do a great job with the defense, which alone should have the team in contention even if the offense takes a step back. And yes, I have some serious concerns that the Manning-Kubiak mixture doesn’t come out as expected. Fortunately this team gets the Patriots and Bengals at home this year instead of on the road.

But really, what I want to focus on here is some of the ridiculous talk all offseason surrounding the Broncos. Any time I hear “Manning has a running game and defense now!” I know better than to believe it, because it usually doesn’t come together. He might have those things, but we’ll see. More than this, I can’t stand the notion that Kubiak and John Elway know exactly how to manage Manning and how to win championships just because of what the Broncos did in 1997-98. Those teams still threw 500 passes. Elway was still injured multiple times, even hurting himself in pre-game warm-ups and while lifting weights. Bubby Brister had no problem filling in those games on those loaded teams. Manning had the flu and then had the torn quad happen in games where he threw just 20 passes. Injury can happen on any play. I understand not having him throw 600+ passes this year, but he’s still going to be around 500 I bet. It’s 2015. You just signed Demaryius Thomas to a huge contract. You have Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels. These are some of your best players. Use them.

The Broncos did basically nothing in the postseason after Elway retired, running Kubiak’s/Shanahan’s offense. Why did things work in 97-98? Elway had all the help you could ask for in the playoffs (click to enlarge):

ElwaySBs

A defense that allows 12.9 PPG, forces 3.1 turnovers per game, and a running game that averaged 178.6 yards per game at 5.3 YPC. They were nearly scoring 30 per game with Elway only having to contribute a little over 140 yards towards the scoring each week. When Elway had a down game in each run (97 SB vs. Packers, 98 AFC-C vs. Jets), the team was there to pick him up.

If you could promise me the Broncos will play like a team like that this postseason, then I’ll pick them to go all the way. But I haven’t seen it the last three years, and I’m not sure I trust Kubiak to get this team to that point in 2015. We’re going to look back at the 2012 Broncos as the best shot this team had to win a Super Bowl. That team was on a roll playing complementary football, but one big mistake killed them. They haven’t been the same ever since.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

Stat: How about a stat debut? “ALEX” is Air Less Expected and it’s named after none other than Alex Smith. This metric looks at the average difference between how far a quarterback threw the ball (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. This is most informative on third and fourth down. This graphic comes from FOA 2015 and looks at the main quarterbacks since 2011 on third down and their ALEX. It’s like Smith is playing his own sport, throwing nearly two yards short on average of the sticks on third down. You can see the best quarterbacks tend to be at the top.

ALEX

We’ll see if Alex Smith can start throwing deep with more success, but how many teams have a RB/WR/TE trio like the Chiefs have with Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce? That’s pretty good. Albert Wilson is a competent slot receiver, so who cares if this team doesn’t have much of anything to stick on the outside? They have a lot of weapons around Smith. He just has to stop being so shy to pull the trigger. We know by now you have to coddle him a bit to succeed, but this team is built to do that against a large chunk of the NFL. The Chiefs need a good start with Denver and Green Bay on the early schedule. That could be tough with Sean Smith’s suspension, but it’s a good measuring stick for where this team is offensively. You have to score a decent number of points to beat teams like that. I think the Chiefs at full strength have a competent enough defense to win it all, but a poor (1-3 for example) start might just short-circuit the whole season. Ultimately I have them stuck in 8-8 purgatory with a lot of AFC competition this year.

3. San Diego Chargers (8-8)

Stat: Philip Rivers’ YPA dropped two full yards in the final 10 games of the season, apparently due to a rib injury he played through.

I’ll be honest, it’s less than an hour before Thursday night kickoff and I really want to relax, so apologies to San Diego fans. Please check out my Q&A with Bolts from the Blue where I gave very detailed answers about the Chargers this year. My gut is they’re right in that Wild Card mix, but I guess I just didn’t see enough wins on that schedule when I ran through it.

4. Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Stat: Oakland finished 4-12 or worse in 38.5 percent of Football Outsiders’ season simulations — highest rate of any team.

Derek Carr thought he was Aaron Rodgers last year, but he only had a used James Jones. I think he’ll like the receiving corps much better this season with Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and a healthy Rod Streater. However, I’m still not sold on Carr as a franchise quarterback and I think this offense will still struggle. Jack Del Rio will improve the defense and Khalil Mack is a stud. My tone in the book was optimistic for a change, but when push comes to shove, I still think the Raiders struggle like hell to avoid double-digit losses in 2015. One of my handful of teams finishing 4-12.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Indianapolis (13-3)
  2. Denver (12-4)
  3. New England (12-4)
  4. Baltimore (11-5)
  5. Cincinnati (10-6)
  6. Miami (10-6)

Some accuse the Patriots of intentionally letting Miami “show their cards” in a win in Week 17 to set up an ass-kicking at Foxboro in the Wild Card round. The Ravens knock off the Bengals in another divisional rematch, maybe signaling the end of Lewis and Dalton. Yeah, probably not. The Colts can handle Baltimore’s lack of dynamic weapons at home in a defensive battle. Manning will finish his career with a losing record against Brady, but he’ll have the 3-2 postseason edge, which would be so delightfully awkward for NE fans to swallow. Denver at Indy in the AFC Championship Game, think that would get a lot of hype? I’m going with the Colts to get it done at home, possibly ending Manning’s career where it began, but after a hard-fought classic instead of this past January’s funeral march.

NFC

  1. Seattle (13-3)
  2. Green Bay (12-4)
  3. Philadelphia (11-5)
  4. New Orleans (9-7)
  5. Dallas (10-6)
  6. NY Giants (9-7)

The Giants won a tie-breaker (I checked) over the Cardinals and Vikings for the final Wild Card spot. They upset the Eagles at home, giving Heath Evans an erection until he realizes this could be bad news for his Pats and Saints. Here come the Giants again. The Cowboys lose in New Orleans, because Dez didn’t catch enough balls. Seattle quickly silences the Giants’ hype with a decisive win. The Saints give Green Bay a good one, but the Packers win at home. Green Bay returns to Seattle for some revenge, but the Seahawks stifle them again.

SUPER BOWL 50

Seattle Seahawks 28, Indianapolis Colts 20

No, that’s definitely not four 1-yard touchdown passes to Jimmy Graham. Marshawn Lynch runs all over the Colts to earn Super Bowl MVP before retiring on the spot. Then the internet sets the scene for Fallout 5 after the destruction caused by the Andrew Luck vs. Russell Wilson debate.

This was just my vision of 2015. Let the real thing begin.

The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

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Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

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The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

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Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

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