NFL Week 3 Predictions

There really isn’t a Week 3 game I have any detailed thoughts on, so I’m just going to share brief feelings on each game.

WAS at NYG – Big swing game in the NFC East with the chance for the Giants to practically bury Washington at 0-3. The attention will be on Josh Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. Their matchup last year really highlights some of the problems with judging cornerback play. I don’t think Norman won the matchup. Beckham dropped a TD bomb to start the game and still caught the game-tying score over Norman late. If Beckham’s hands didn’t fail him, he absolutely won that matchup. I don’t think Eli will fear going that way again, but I just wonder if Norman will even bother to cover the slot or Beckham’s side of the field with any real frequency this week. It’s such a waste of money to bring in a corner who has to stick on one side, and it’s just not smart football at all. I like the Giants here with their 3-WR attack.

MIN at CAR – How fitting was it that the highlight game of Sam Bradford’s career was still just a 17-14 win? As my boss put it this week, it’s not like that was some vintage Joe Montana or Brett Favre kind of game where they were raining touchdowns. Minnesota’s defense scored two in Week 1. This offense needs to score more points, and while I’m not too concerned about Adrian Peterson being out, I think this is a tough matchup in Carolina when you basically go 1-deep at WR (Stefon Diggs).

DEN at CIN – Interesting matchup. I think Trevor Siemian should struggle in his first road test, and first real test against a talented secondary. Might be asking a lot for Andy Dalton to stay turnover free against this defense, but as long as he doesn’t make too many mistakes, I like the Bengals at home. They played well in Denver last year with AJ McCarron at QB.

CLE at MIA – 3 weeks, 3 QBs, that’s so Cleveland. Actually, that’s very unusual for any team, but still funny that Cody Kessler is going to start a game before Jared Goff. Good chance for Ryan Tannehill to look good in back-to-back weeks.

BAL at JAX – Jags need a good performance at home, or else the heat to fire Gus Bradley is going to amp up. At least it should. People seem to not care much about the Jaguars, but his tenure has been a huge disappointment as the team doesn’t seem to be improving.

ARI at BUF – Curious if the travel and early start time against a team that had 10-day rest and absolutely needs a win will hurt Arizona here. Again, a Carson Palmer turnover parade is the best way for the Bills to get this one, but it’s going to be a tough game with Sammy Watkins likely out.

OAK at TEN – Since 2012, the Raiders are 4-16 in early road starts. Want to see if Marcus Mariota can carve up a defense that is allowing over 50 yards per drive thru two games. That’s stunningly bad for a team that went on a bit of a shopping spree, and this has not been the year of Khalil Mack at all so far.

DET at GB – Would be most unusual to see Detroit win at GB two years in a row. Does Aaron Rodgers break his slump here? Great opportunity given the way Detroit’s defense has been playing, but I think the Lions can put up another good fight. They remember the sting of the Hail Mary defeat.

SF at SEA – Shocker: the 49es aren’t hot garbage so far. That game in Carolina was a lot better than the final score indicates. While I still think the team is headed for a lot of losses, they’re going to be more competitive than last year’s mess that overachieved by winning 5 games. Meanwhile, Seattle really needs to get healthy. Sometimes, resting an injured starter is better than trying to play him over a healthy backup.

LARM at TB – Jeff Fisher is 8-1 vs. Tampa Bay in his career, so I guess this will be the beginning of a 7-game losing streak to get back to 8-8. But man, two perplexing weeks by the Bucs. Never know what you’re going to get.

SD at IND – We’ll see if Philip Rivers still has some voodoo to work against the Colts, but I think they’ll play better at home and find a way to get that first win behind a vintage Luck performance.

PIT at PHI – I brought out all the member berries on their last meeting in Philadelphia in 2008. Hopefully the Steelers will remember to block this time, but the Eagles have knocked out two starting QBs already. I think Ben and Brown bounce back in a big way, and I still don’t get why Alshon Jeffery wasn’t a bigger part of the gameplan against this PHI secondary on Monday night. Steelers should make that correction, but it’s going to be a good game. I think the hype for Carson Wentz is absolutely ridiculous. Best rookie QB? Just look at the guy on the other team, not to mention what Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, etc. have done since 2008. I am concerned with the lack of pressure and takeaways for the Steelers defense, but they’re still keeping points down, and that’s frankly all this team needs from the D. Timely plays.

NYJ at KC – Can’t get a good read on this one, because the Chiefs are having a weird start to the season without some of their best players. Think being at home will help, but the defense is going to have to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into some mistakes.

CHI at DAL – Blah, who even thought back in April this would have been a good game? I know it’s influenced by the big markets, and they couldn’t have predicted Dak Prescott vs. Brian Hoyer, but we damn near need flex scheduling to start in Week 3 now. The Bears, arguably the most bland and aimless team in the NFL right now, getting two prime-time games in one week is a f’n joke.

ATL at NO – I was surprised to see that Drew Brees has been held to a single TD pass in each of his last four games against Atlanta. You always expect high scoring close game from these two, but it hasn’t always been like that in recent years. As much as I would like to watch this one in peace, I think I’ll be flipping over to the debate on Monday night for the real fireworks and entertainment.

2016 Week 3 Predictions

I really didn’t care that the Patriots were starting a third-string rookie QB, I still trusted them at home. The 27-0 final was a bit surprising though.

Winners in bold

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

Damn, that’s some strong home love, and you know how that usually turns out.

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Season: 17-15
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NFL Week 2 Predictions: Embracing Mediocrity

I always like it when the afternoon games I’m most interested in are on my local CBS and FOX affiliates, which is the case this week. Without failure, each season someone is shocked that I don’t have Sunday Ticket, but why would I ever want or need such an expensive service? I prefer to watch a full live game if I can, particularly the Steelers, but I also have the RedZone channel. Then there’s Game Pass and torrents. So I get the league-wide access I need at a favorable cost. If there’s a drive full of 4-yard papercuts to Jarvis Landry that I need to see, I’ll see it in due time. No worries.

Bengals at Steelers

This is easily the game of the week. That may not mean it will play out as the best, but it is the most important game — the next chapter in a heated rivalry. It also brings up one of the more fascinating stats in the NFL: Marvin Lewis is 6-7 in Pittsburgh, but 2-13 at home against the Steelers (including two crushing playoff losses). The road team just happens to play better in this series, and Cincinnati’s 6-7 record in Pittsburgh trails only Jacksonville (3-1) and New England (3-2) since 2003 among teams with at least 3 trips to Heinz Field. Part of this weird split is that Ben Roethlisberger’s stats are better in Cincinnati than at home where he has had some of the worst games of his career in low-scoring struggles, including last season’s 16-10, three-pick defeat. At least this won’t be a game where Roethlisberger is just returning from injury as was the case last year.

In his career, Roethlisberger is 54-4 at home when the Steelers allow fewer than 21 points, but three of those losses were to the Bengals. Lewis’ defense has a good feel for defending this offense, including pressuring Ben and containing Antonio Brown as a receiver (he does have 3 punt return touchdowns against the Bengals). In Brown’s last 48 games with Roethlisberger at quarterback, he’s had at least 5 catches in all 48, and at least 70 yards in 40 of them. Only the Ravens (4), Bengals (3) and Seahawks (1) have held this duo under 70 yards. I think the Bengals can limit his damage again this week, and A.J. Green is going to have the bigger game. He almost has to with both offenses experiencing many departures, putting the onus on their star receivers to dominate. Heath Miller retired, Ladarius Green and Tyler Eifert are injured, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are gone, Martavis Bryant is suspended and Markus Wheaton appears to still be injured. This means newcomers have to contribute, including Eli Rogers, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. While a game of HORSE between Brown and Green would be interesting, the offense that gets more secondary receiver contributions is likely to win this game. I do not think either running game is going to go off, though I’d give the Steelers the edge there with DeAngelo Williams still looking really good at an advanced age behind this offensive line. I’m still not sure what to think of Jeremy Hill after a disappointing 2015, and he’ll especially be happy if Ryan Shazier isn’t at full strength after Shazier’s dominant playoff game helped eliminate the Bengals. The Steelers ought to be happy that Vontaze Burfict is still suspended for this one after Burfcit injured Le’Veon Bell, Ben and Brown on hits last season.

Defensively, I would be concerned that the Steelers did not get much rush on Washington and gave up their share of plays, but got enough big stops to limit the points to 16. That is always key, but a similar offense in Cincinnati should get rid of the ball quickly and there really is no one capable of matching up with Green in this secondary. Andy Dalton is usually one of the best-protected quarterbacks in the NFL, but he took seven sacks on the road last week. The Steelers are going to have to get their front seven to deliver more this week. I would expect a few sacks from the Bengals of Roethlisberger, but he’ll be glad to see no Reggie Nelson in the secondary. The offense had few problems in the last three quarters against Washington, but must build off that performance. You saw the ugly first quarter and how a few turnovers could really change the game around. The Bengals have the better defense in this matchup.

So home field has been established as pretty irrelevant in this particular series, but I do give the Steelers a slight edge going into this one. They’ll be happy to be home given six of their last seven games were on the road thanks to being a 6th seed in the playoffs last year and opening this year on the road. Monday night’s performance was impressive enough for me to think this offense is clicking well enough early despite the personnel losses that they can pull out a close one here.

Bengals 21, Steelers 24

Colts at Broncos

I hope I’m not relying too much on “fighting narratives” to make game picks this season, especially after a bad Week 1. But this was a game where I picked the Broncos to win when I went through all 256 games before opening night. Yes, it is true that Andrew Luck has had great success against the Broncos (3-1), including the most efficient and effective game any QB had against them last year while he lacerated his kidney. Maybe he took those matchups with Peyton Manning personally, really wanting to impress the Indy fans. He doesn’t need any extra motivation to avoid going 0-2 this week, but he hasn’t seen this Wade Phillips’ called defense on the road yet. The Broncos are still very much led by that defense, which feeds on the crowd energy to play even better at home. Trevor Siemian threw one pass over 15 yards in Week 1 and it was intercepted. He may get a boost this week with the Colts’ beat-up defensive unit struggling to get pressure and cover receivers. The Demaryius Thomas injury is a little concerning given Denver is basically two deep at that position, but I like Emmanuel Sanders this week. Right now, Siemian looks like Alex Smith without the draft pedigree, but the Broncos can win with that as long as C.J. Anderson is making great cuts behind an improved run-blocking line. Luck looked great last week, but I fear his line on the road this week against a much tougher unit. I absolutely think the Colts can win this one since you really don’t need to score many points to beat Denver, but I just don’t see it working out this time. The Colts need more of a big defensive effort than a big game from Luck (smart will do).

Colts 17, Broncos 20

Seahawks at Rams

I always like to say I get a lot of predictions wrong throughout the season, but I still get more right. It never fails to amaze me when I mention a long streak and it gets broken in the next game or two. All throughout the summer I feared a Russell Wilson injury this year due to his unusually good durability despite a frantic playing style behind a porous offensive line. Was this the year that would catch up to Seattle? Then he hurts his ankle in Week 1 and just barely limps to a late win over Miami. Unless the Seahawks are covering it up, Wilson seems to have avoided the dreaded high-ankle sprain and will start on Sunday. We don’t know anything about what Injured Russell Wilson looks like since he’s always been healthy. However, if his mobility is limited, then that’s a huge problem against a Rams defense that always gives him fits even when he’s on his game. Who saw the Rams going into Seattle in Week 16 and pulling out that win? Jeff Fisher can’t sniff a real Super Bowl again, so he treats these Seattle games as his team’s Super Bowl, and the success has been pretty good given Seattle’s overall dominance since 2012.

After the game on Sunday, I was determined to pick the Rams to win this game in their home Los Angeles opener given the Wilson injury. And then Monday night happened — an embarrassing 28-0 shutout to Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers, projected to be a bottom-two team this year. They drafted Jared Goff No. 1 to be inactive for this shit? Forget 7-9 bullshit, this looked like the start of 2-14 c*cksucker blues. And they want to give Fisher an extension? It’s madness.

And yet, as much as that game cooled me off the Rams’ upset, I still think they’re going to give Seattle a game here. I just don’t think it’s going to be enough because of that horrific offense against this great Seattle defense. Wilson may not need to throw for 100 yards. Just don’t turn the ball over.

Rams 6, Seahawks 16

Packers at Vikings

Opening a new stadium should be a joyous occasion, but in Minnesota, the throng of yawns in the air have already given the new place a stale smell of boredom and disinterest. Nothing can suck the life out of a fan base more than having to start Sam Bradford at quarterback after trading a first-round pick for him. Vikings fans, get ready to embrace mediocrity.

Mediocrity would actually be an improvement over most of Bradford’s career, but it’s really the best-case scenario this year. He plays at a league-average level, but does just enough in the right moments to get this team enough wins. Adrian Peterson is going to have to play much better than last week, though the Titans were built to stop the run and stink at the pass. Green Bay is a solid, but not great defense, and Sam Shields being out should help. I wouldn’t expect much from Bradford, but honestly, why would you ever expect much from Sam Bradford?

The other side of the ball is what interests me most about this one, because what the hell has happened to this Green Bay passing game? It went from years of being one of the most efficient attacks ever to a broken mess. Where are the timing plays and the chemistry on the back-shoulder throws? Anymore this offense works best by producing broken plays and taking advantage of offside penalties. It’s not sustainable, and it hasn’t been effective even though the Week 11 game in Minnesota is one of two times the offense has scored 30 offensive points in the last 13 games.

Aaron Rodgers has five seasons with at least 8.2 YPA.  He still ranks 5th all time in YPA (7.99). So it’s incredible when one of the most efficient passers ever has been held under 6.0 YPA in five of his last six games. That’s something Rodgers has only done in 12 other starts in his career. He’s been held under 7.0 YPA in 11 of his last 13 games (including playoffs). One of those two was the Hail Mary in Detroit to boost him up. Even though Jordy Nelson returned last week, he wasn’t the same receiver as he didn’t make the big plays. In fact, his 6 catches for 32 yards (5.33 YPC) is the lowest YPC he’s ever had in a game with more than 1 catch.

The effect this stretch of play is having on Rodgers’ career stats is interesting. He was at 8.22 YPA thru 116 regular-season games. Now after going a Joey Harrington-esque 5.96 YPA in his last 11 games, he’s down to 7.99. He still manages his TD-to-INT ratio well, but it’s hard to call this depressed passing game effective. Keep in mind the Packers are 6-7 since a 6-0 start last year. Rodgers has tore up the Vikings many times in his career, but not last year against Mike Zimmer’s defense. I think that defense rises to the occasion in this one, but the offense lets them down as Green Bay does just enough to sneak away with the win in the new stadium.

Packers 19, Vikings 16

2016 Week 2 Predictions

Well I was some 7-9 bullshit in a bad opening week. At least I changed my mind on the Jets starting 0-6 to give them the Thursday win over a growing mess in Buffalo. See, Ryan Fitzpatrick sucks against Rex Ryan defenses, but that Rob Ryan D is another story.

Winners in bold

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

Week 1: 7-9

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Upsets & Awards

I almost refuse to work on Saturdays during the offseason, but I don’t mind it during the season when it comes to making predictions here or doing that last-minute research for Sunday.

I even got a rare Saturday article at FO, the first of its kind for me. I interviewed a former NFL player, picking Jamal Anderson’s brain over what was different for the 1998 Falcons, one of the biggest surprise Super Bowl teams and quick turnarounds ever. And you know I had to ask about the Dirty Bird and Curse of 370. So that was something cool and different for me to do.

Now back to the stuff I’m used to doing. The full season predictions posted below were an epic-length post even by my standards, so I left the award predictions for today.

Award Predictions

  • MVP: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  • OPOY: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  • DPOY: Aaron Donald, Rams (think J.J. Watt’s health fails him)
  • Coach: Mike Tomlin, Steelers (really couldn’t think of a good answer for this one based on my playoff seeds)
  • OROY: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (would be cool if it’s Tajae Sharpe)
  • DROY: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
  • Comeback: Andrew Luck, Colts (the “because he sucked the year before” variety)

In the last two years I picked the MVP from my top-seeded team, and both picks were disasters with the 2014 Saints (Drew Brees) and 2015 Colts (Luck). Hopefully I didn’t put the jinx on Roethlisberger and the Steelers, though you can read in my predictions why I’m already cautious about their success this year.

The reason I pick Roethlisberger is that I think he’s playing as well as he ever has in the last couple of seasons. I think QB should pretty much always win MVP, so when you look at his competition this year, it’s not very deep and there are some real question marks, including how Luck will play. But with Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady suspended, Aaron Rodgers coming off his worst year, Drew Brees on a bad team, and Tony Romo hurt, the field has really shrunk. Yes, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson are right there, and I think it comes down to these guys staying healthy and they should all be high up there again by the end of the season. Yes, I see some people picking Cam Newton for back-to-back MVPs, but I never thought he deserved it last year and he’s off to the wrong start this season. In fact, I put together a chart of every first-team All-Pro QB season since 1989 and Newton’s season stands out in a bad way.

dyarap

Newton is the only season with fewer than 1,100 DYAR. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has had passing DYAR of 1,114 (missed four games) and 1,572 (1st in 2014). In addition to his play, shouldn’t he have a preset argument with all the skill guys that have been injured or suspended around him? Le’Veon Bell suspended for three games, Martavis Bryant gone for the year, Heath Miller retired and they put Ladarius Green on PUP for at least six weeks. Now that gives me some concern about how good this offense will be, but I think as long as Ben and Antonio Brown stay healthy, they’ll have enough to be successful. And therein lies the rub. Instead of debating Roethlisberger for MVP, I see Antonio Brown for MVP, which would be the first wide receiver to ever win the AP’s MVP award. That’s some 7-9 bullshit thinking right there. They call it a passing league, not a catching league. What has Brown accomplished without QB1 in the lineup? Not much, and for a wide receiver to truly win MVP, I think he’d have to have a mediocre QB at best and make some unbelievable plays that tip the balance of several high-profile games for a team that makes the playoffs. You would need a passing offense with stats where the QB was significantly more efficient and productive when throwing to this wideout than the rest of the receivers. Calvin Johnson may have been able to do this in past years, yet he never even came close to being MVP in Detroit.

But it’s really just typical mainstream NFL media giving Roethlisberger the Rodney Dangerfield “No Respect” treatment. I wrote about this during the 2014 season, and not much has changed. I know he doesn’t help himself by missing games most years, but few quarterbacks play at his level on a yearly basis. As long as the health is there, he has to be a top MVP candidate.

Week 1 Upsets

I have a few games I wanted to share some thoughts on in particular this week.

Pittsburgh at Washington

Well, this might not help the Roethlisberger MVP campaign. My thinking on Monday night’s opener is that Washington is going to pounce on a weakened Pittsburgh roster. While the pre-game narrative is going to be “Washington didn’t beat a good team last year and is Kirk Cousins legit?”, I think the Redskins and Cousins will put on a show in this one. Or at least for 3.5 quarters before maybe a PIT comeback, but it’s a tough matchup when you lose Bud Dupree, don’t have much in the secondary, and will be without RB1 (Bell), WR2 (Markus Wheaton) and TE1 (Green). Washington may not be able to run much, but I think the receiving corps is very deep and will give the Steelers trouble as long as Cousins is getting rid of the ball quickly. I’ve just seen too many instances of the Steelers laying an egg, especially offensively, on road games in prime time. I think the offense will need to step up in this one (24-point minimum), and while I don’t have any real fear of Josh Norman shutting down Antonio Brown, it is a limited PIT offense this week and Brown shouldn’t go off all night. I’d play Sammie Coates a lot because I think he’s the closest thing to Martavis on the roster, but the coaches seem to be emphatically in favor of Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. And then Jesse James is the best TE at this point. Ho-hum.

I still have Pittsburgh going 12-4 and Washington 7-9, but at least for one night, I think it’s Hail to the Redskins.

Pittsburgh 16, Washington 24

Green Bay at Jacksonville

So much great, young defensive talent in Jacksonville after the last two draft hauls and bringing Malik Jackson over from Denver. The problem is this unit has never played together in a meaningful game, and Dante Fowler, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey have yet to play a regular-season game period. They’ll get a great test right away with the Packers, especially if Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy are playing at a high level. But I think with the recent offensive line shuffle and the Jaguars being at home, the Packers are going to face some good pressure and struggle to run the ball. When healthy, I think Jordy Nelson is one of the best in the game, but I’m a little skeptical of him this week. No reason to think too highly of Davante Adams or new tight end Jared Cook either. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have plenty of options in their skill players, but Blake Bortles needs to avoid the mistakes that plagued him last year. He can make a lot of good plays, but just hasn’t been consistent enough in his first two seasons.

Much like with Pittsburgh, I still think Green Bay has a great season and the Jaguars lose double-digit games, but for one week, it’s about the home team.

Green Bay 20, Jacksonville 24

New England at Arizona

If you know me well, then you know I basically always pick New England to win its game. This would have been a good one to test myself as I think it’s a loss even if Tom Brady was the quarterback. Arizona is a very talented, tough road opponent. This is  rough spot for Jimmy Garoppolo to make his first start, and when you take Rob Gronkowski and Nate Solder out of the game too, that’s just asking for trouble. Bill Belichick would be pulling off a major upset with a win here, which I think can only happen if Carson Palmer really has turned into 2009 Jake Delhomme and implodes again with turnovers. Maybe a Jamie Collins pick-six, because I do think the defense for New England will keep this at least competitive.

The Gronkowski injury news coming late in the week intrigues me as potential out-of-the-box thinking from the Pats again. Keep an eye on his status next week to see how quickly he heals. I honestly believe Belichick is the only coach who would not go all in on a Week 1 non-conference game that he doesn’t think his team has a realistic shot to win. If you expect to lose, why play one of your most important players at less than 100% health? I doubt Gronk will miss a division game coming up.

New England 19, Arizona 27

2015 Week 1 Predictions

I took an L to start the year with Carolina losing a 10-point lead in Denver and Graham Gano missing a 50-yard field goal at the end. Real “game of inches” stuff to start the season.

Winners in bold

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

Oh fudge, that’s 13 home winners including Denver. You know that’s not right, but this is part of what makes Week 1 so fun. And it is very important too. That Bills at Ravens game was my deciding factor in which team I picked for the AFC’s second wild-card team.

2016 NFL Predictions

 

Finally, we’ve made it to another season and don’t have to watch Mark Sanchez take the field tonight. I had hoped to do some off-season content on the blog, but life can be as unpredictable as an NFL season.

Many of you are here because you follow me on Twitter (thanks), so you probably are aware that my health has recently gone downhill. In late July, I had a blood clot in my leg that moved to my lungs and caused a pulmonary embolism. That latter term has always scared me, and it was devastating to actually hear I had one. Thankfully it was detected early before it got larger, and after a two-day hospital stay, I am now on blood thinners, which presents its own set of problems. I also did a sleep study and blew everyone away with apparently the worst case of sleep apnea ever studied in western PA. I stopped breathing 150 times in an hour. Normal would be…roughly zero. My oxygen level dropped as low as 35 percent. Anything under 90 could be deadly. So I now have a CPAP machine with a liter of oxygen. In struggling with having to sleep on my back so much to get good use of the CPAP, I’ve apparently caused a pinched nerve or made my sciatica flare up, causing a burning pain in my outer thigh that has been very disruptive to my sleep.

It’s like if a coach has a bad defense, but the rest of the team is good, then he can focus on improving that one problem. That’s not too bad. But right now, I’m like a coach with a shit defense, a shit offense and a shit special teams. I’m Rod Marinelli in Detroit. It’s too much at one time. Add in the fact that we had to permanently put my grandma, who has been like my second mother for the last 30 years, in a nursing home, and it has just been a terrible, stressful summer. These should be my best years, but it’s just been the worst of times going back to 2014.

But I’m still here, and I have a group of doctors trying to help me get better. I also just want to thank everyone again that has shown their support and care for me on Twitter in this time. It was especially helpful while I was hospitalized.

I haven’t missed much work time despite all of this either. I fortunately had my work for Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 done by the time of the clot, and I’m proud of what I did in my third FOA, covering the Seahawks, Cardinals, Steelers, Ravens and 49ers. You can purchase the book here. I also just put out a 15,000-word, three-part opus on building a Super Bowl winner, which can be read here.

But this is the time for 2016 previews and predictions. I may not be as stat-heavy as usual just due to the time crunch, but let’s be real. I’ve had seven months to form an opinion about where these 32 teams are heading into Week 1. While I have often taken cynical views even before my health fell apart, I am going to try something different this year and offer what Optimistic Scott thinks about the teams that do not look like real contenders.

Some might accuse me of just hedging my bets on the teams that I get the record really wrong for, but if I’ve learned anything about the NFL and life in general, things can change in an instant. Some team is going to get derailed by injuries and some team is going to really improve for reasons we may not have expected. I’m just trying to enjoy it all while I’m still here, and I hope you continue to enjoy the way I cover this crazy game.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

Let’s just get these sons of bitches out of the way first. With each passing year the Patriots tempt history with their stranglehold of the AFC East. When I looked at QB stability in the 32-team era, New England has had a huge advantage with the other teams struggling to find a signal caller that can rival Tom Brady enough to steal some division titles. Chad Pennington is the best the three teams have come up with since 2001. That’s pretty pathetic, and helps explain the lack of playoff success for the Bills and Dolphins going back to 2000.

So the Patriots cruise into each season, damn near 12 wins already in the bank, with the best quarterback and coach in the division. But is this the year things maybe fall off? Brady is 39, and the crash usually happens suddenly. We saw it happen to Dan Marino in 1999, Troy Aikman in 2000, Brett Favre in 2010 and Peyton Manning at the end of 2014 really. Brady’s health seems to be good and he’ll have four games to rest, but when you watch him take all those hits in the AFC Championship Game loss in Denver, you have to wonder how many more games like that he can finish.

But it’s going to be Jimmy G for four games because of a certain suspension. I think the Arizona game was a loss with Brady due to a strong opponent on the road, but I never really saw the Patriots going worse than 2-2. Of course, I ended up making them 1-3, but the schedule really isn’t that tough overall. When you have Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the Receiving Back of the Week, it’s a QB-friendly, YAC-based offense with the best coaching in the league. Garoppolo should be fine, and he definitely has more talent than 2008 Matt Cassel, a QB with high-school level starting experience. The defense has a lot of players hitting their prime and should be a top 10 unit.

The AFC is definitely weakened with the retirement of Manning in Denver, and major questions about Andrew Luck and the roster in Indianapolis. I think the game of the regular season in the AFC is Week 7 when New England travels to Pittsburgh. That should go a long way in determining home-field advantage. I still find it extremely interesting that every New England playoff loss in the Belichick era has been a rematch from the regular season. Is this the year Cincinnati or Pittsburgh breaks through with a big January win against the Patriots? If not, then it might just be another Super Bowl year for New England.

2. Buffalo Bills (8-8)

I wanted to believe this could be the year Buffalo ends the second-longest playoff drought (16 years) in the Super Bowl era, but I just couldn’t do it after a bad summer with so many defensive injuries and suspensions. Then you have a situation like Karlos Williams’ lack of professionalism costing the team a very good backup running back. I really am enamored with Tyrod Taylor, the East Coast Russell Wilson, and hope he stays healthy to play all 16 games. This offense could be very efficient if he matures and continues to hit the big plays to Sammy Watkins, who is getting better even if I still think the Bills traded too much to get him in such a rich WR draft. But the offense is getting there and this team still went 8-8 last year despite a hugely disappointing 24th-ranked defense in Rex Ryan’s debut. He must do better as a defensive guru, but some injuries to promising starters definitely will not help. At least Ronald Darby looks like a very good draft pick last year, and he can team up with Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey as one of the best trio of corners in the league. Pass defense is king, and Jerry Hughes is going to have to play his ass off to generate pressure for a unit that lost Mario Williams to Miami. The Bills had just 21 sacks last year.

3. New York Jets (7-9)

I actually have the Jets starting 0-6 before finishing strong for a 7-9 season. It’s not that I feel this team is bad, but I just think that opening schedule is absolutely brutal. The Jets start with CIN, at BUF, at KC, SEA, at PIT, at ARI. Sorry, but five of those teams are clearly better, and while Buffalo is on the same tier, the game is in Buffalo against a defense Ryan Fitzpatrick shit his pants against last year with the season on the line. Would I bet on the Jets to start 0-6? No, because this is the NFL and weird shit just happens all the time, but 0-6 is what I think should happen if these teams all showed up with their best effort.

I was definitely not in favor of bringing Fitzpatrick back, because this guy will always screw you in the end. He has the worst interception numbers in 4QC/GWD opportunities since 2005, throwing a pick on 7.2% of his attempts. The Jets have some fine skill players, they don’t really have a tight end (shocked by Amaro cut), but a good quarterback makes an offense with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Matt Forte work. Will it work enough against superior teams with Fitzpatrick at quarterback? Nope. I would have saved the $12 million and given Geno Smith the opportunity to start as a last shot in New York. I never would have carried four quarterbacks, but then again, I never would have drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Todd Bowles seems like a solid coach, but the Jets would be arguably my top choice for a team to regress from last season by a few games. Again, it’s that daunting opening schedule.

Optimistic Scott: Fitzpatrick did have his best season in 2015, and the Jets were a game out of the playoffs at 10-6. The blitz-happy defense is still very talented and Bowles may have a better feel of game management in his second season. And for all we know, some of that early daunting schedule could be a cakewalk if say Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt.

4. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

I think I drank the Miami Kool-Aid in a 10-6 prediction last year. Not doing that again until this team actually shows us a winning season. While I am okay with the Adam Gase hire and loved the Laremy Tunsil draft pick falling in their laps, this roster just does not give me much confidence in the AFC. The defense is the worst in the division thanks to a secondary that lacks quality starters, let alone depth. I’ll miss Brent Grimes falling down in every big moment, but it’s not like Byron Maxwell is a huge upgrade if he’s going to play like he did in Philly. Kiko Alonso, is he hurt yet? The defensive line would have been awesome a few years ago, but Mario Williams wasn’t much of a factor in Buffalo last year, Cameron Wake is coming off a serious injury at 34, and Ndamukong Suh was never going to live up to that ridiculous contract.

Offensively, here we go with the fifth take of This Is the Year Ryan Tannehill Figures It Out. Or maybe he remains below average again. I think Gase gets a little too much credit for past successes, but he could definitely help the efficiency of this offense. I think they have a nice setup for what Gase does, but DeVante Parker being such a candybone is a problem. Ideally, Parker would be the do-everything athletic freak like Demaryius Thomas or Alshon Jeffery. Kenny Stills would be the vertical, outside threat like Emmanuel Sanders or Kevin White (had he stayed healthy for Chicago last year). Jarvis Landry would be the slot guy a la Wes Welker or Eddie Royal. But with Parker’s nagging injuries, can we really trust him to be a star No. 1? Landry sure as hell should not be a No. 1 as I explained here.

jarvislandry

By the way, Royal was horrible in Chicago last year because the depth of his passes were so short that it was nearly impossible for him to make a meaningful gain. If Gase applies this screen-heavy, dink-and-dunk attack in Miami, expect to see Landry catch even more ineffective passes this season. I still worry about Tannehill’s deep accuracy, so Stills is nowhere near as effective as he was with Drew Brees in New Orleans, though I will admit Tannehill had some better success in this department last year. Jordan Cameron was arguably the worst tight end in the NFL and can’t play any worse this season. However, I still think Tannehill is a guy that’s very susceptible to pressure no matter how many first-round picks you put in front of him to block.

With Gase being an offensive guy and rookie head coach on a team that looks weak defensively, I just cannot see good results coming from this team. And remember, my goal every year is to be within two games of the team’s record. With so many close games in the NFL, there’s usually not much difference in teams separated by two games. So if Miami goes 7-9, that doesn’t prove me wrong, because that still makes them a below-average, non-playoff team. You know, the last decade in Miami, save for 2008.

Optimistic Scott: Gase is the quarterback whisperer and this is the year Tannehill puts it together. Jarvis Landry actually catches some passes beyond the first-down marker. Arian Foster has a strong return year behind that offensive line with four first-round picks. Wake, Suh and Williams dominate as one of the best defensive lines in the league, and one of those young corners surprises. Miami can take advantage of New England’s suspensions, Buffalo’s injuries and the Jets’ early schedule challenges.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

Even before the Tony Romo injury, I felt 2016 was either a division title or disaster year for the Cowboys. Legitimate Super Bowl contender? No, not with that defense and all its suspensions and general lack of talent, but a 9-7 division winner in a weak division. Then with the way Dak Prescott played in the preseason, I still felt confident enough to give the Cowboys the East. Romo should be back eventually, unless Prescott plays so well that it’s over for Tony in Dallas. That would be a damn shame, but I honestly can see it happening. He’s in a nice situation with the offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris, Dez Bryant (please stay healthy) and Jason Witten. Dallas was a likely regression candidate with last year’s serious injuries (don’t forget Orlando Scandrick, a very good corner) and plethora of close losses. The Cowboys had 9 failed comebacks last year and had four starting quarterbacks.

I really do not want to put too much stock in the preseason because of how often we’ve been fooled before. Remember when Blake Bortles looked like Ben Roethlisberger in his rookie preseason, averaging over 10 YPA, then looked more like Blaine Gabbert in the real games in 2014? Yeah, it happens all the time. Sam Bradford is most likely to throw 3 touchdown passes in a Week 3 preseason game than a game that actually counts. It’s not real, but playing good can never hurt and I’m intrigued by Prescott’s skillset. FO’s QBASE projection system also really liked him for a fourth-round pick, so this should be interesting to watch for the next two months (or longer).

I just hope people are quick to criticize the fourth-round rookie as they have been to bash the undrafted Romo, one of the greatest rags-to-riches success stories in NFL history. But I somehow don’t see that happening unless maybe Prescott starts dating Rihanna or someone famous in the mainstream music industry that I try to avoid at all costs.

2. Washington Redskins (7-9)

I’m pretty much conditioned to not expect Washington to be good in back-to-back years. I think this is a classic example of a team that took advantage of its division’s injuries and rode a hot streak (“you like that!?”) to 9-7 and the playoffs. Washington did not beat any good teams last year, and while I have the Redskins beating Pittsburgh in Week 1, I think you’ll see a lot more up-and-down play from Kirk Cousins this year. The franchise tag was the right move over a long-term deal, because he needs to prove it for more than 10 games. I never buy into low-interception streaks, especially from guys that have previously shown they throw a high rate of picks. I think he’ll regress in that department, and while I really like the receiving corps, especially if Jordan Reed stays healthy, I’m not a big fan of the offensive line and running back situation. Alfred Morris was a decent back that I probably would have kept in town.

Defensively, I think they’re still searching for that pass rusher opposite of Ryan Kerrigan, and losing Junior Galette for the second year in a row blows. But this unit will be measured by how well Josh Norman plays. Personally, I find him to be one of the league’s most annoying players. He talks way too much trash and demanded way too much money for someone with a limited track record of success, and who did not shadow the best receiver all over the field. You want to get out of the Norman matchup? Just move your receiver into the slot, which is apparently poisonous to Norman. I think he’s going to get exposed this year without that great front seven in Carolina helping him.

Optimistic Scott: Cousins makes me like that and earns himself a long-term deal with another fine season. I do like Jamison Crowder as a fourth-leading receiver, which just goes to show how deep this corps is. But it’s going to have to be offense that carries the way in Washington.

3. New York Giants (7-9)

“I’m not even supposed to be here!”

Honestly, how does promoting an offensive coordinator and spending a bunch of money in free agency equate to fixing this team? I don’t think Ben McAdoo knows more about fixing the defense than Tom Coughlin. I like the Sterling Shepard pick and hope Victor Cruz can contribute, but the offensive line is still an issue. Odell Beckham has been fantastic, but I’m not sure how much this offense can really elevate itself this year.

As for that expensive defense, my recent research on huge single-year improvements shows that adding a quality defensive back or pass-rusher as well as a coaching change can really help. The coaches are basically the same with Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. Janoris Jenkins is more scrub than stud. Actually, he’s like DeAngelo Hall in that he’ll be in the right spot enough times for a return touchdown that makes you think he’s good, but that’s just highlight syndrome. He’ll also lose focus on the field and get beat for huge touchdowns the other way. I didn’t like that signing at all. I can understand why the Giants wanted to draft Eli Apple, but that may not have been the best value in the first round for this year. Damon Harrison should help the run defense, but that’s not worth extra wins by itself. Olivier Vernon could be good, or he could be another marginal pass-rusher that changed teams in his mid-20’s. His track record was not worthy of such a huge contract. The guy to watch is an old pro: Jason Pierre-Paul. He only played in eight games after the fireworks accident, but he had 32 hurries and just one sack. Expect a much better ratio this year of his pressure turning into sacks. The defense will be improved, but not by enough to justify some of these silly signings.

Hell, even with the bad defense this team probably should have made the playoffs last year, but really struggled to close games on both sides of the ball. The defense was one thing, but for a veteran that’s been in these games dozens of times, Eli Manning had some shockingly bad clock management. He struggled with knowing when to throw the ball –away, when to take a sack, when to conserve clock, and when to throw for the end zone, and that alone probably cost the Giants 2-3 wins.

I think the final product here is going to be mediocrity again, and keep in mind the Giants have missed the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons.

Optimistic Scott: Hey, maybe the Giants won’t be the most injured team in the NFL for the fourth fvcking year in a row! Eli figures it out and has his finest season since 2011 with Shepard making a big impact right away. Jenkins and Vernon prove me wrong and the defense climbs to the top 12 in the league, good enough to get this team to 9-7, which might be all you need for the NFC East.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

Perhaps no team confused me more this offseason than the Eagles.

Then by a stroke of luck, Teddy Bridgewater’s leg spontaneously combusted and the Vikings got drunk on Friday night and concocted a trade with a first-round pick for Sam Bradford. It’s the most brilliant thing the Eagles did all year, and it’s all due to the Vikings panicking. Now with Carson Wentz set to start Week 1, the plan starts to come in better focus, but I still think this thing stinks in 2016.

Doug Pederson’s embarrassing introduction as head coach of the Eagles included him talking about running a take-forever-drive in the playoffs in New England, down 14 points, because he didn’t want to give Tom Brady the ball back. I’m sorry, but what? Time is precious. I know you didn’t learn this because you’re an Andy Reid disciple, but you were basically begging your team to recover a low-percentage onside kick. I really look forward to the decision making Pederson will make in crucial moments this year.

On the field, again, expect to see a copycat version of what Reid has done with Alex Smith in Kansas City. That means hiding the quarterback and coddling him with a run game and defense. Now the D does look improved in Philly, but the running game is not quite on the level of Jamaal Charles, though I do think Ryan Mathews can be good until he’s hurt. As for Wentz, I’ve said it all year that I just hated that trade to get him. He has too many red flags for me. He was injured in college and he already suffered a rib injury in his lone NFL appearance this preseason. He only had one game in college with 30+ attempts, because he played in a run-heavy offense with a great defense that rarely allowed more than 17 points. He only had three games with 250+ passing yards. He never showed he can carry a team, and he played against weak competition, and didn’t even play that much (612 pass attempts). That’s not the kind of quarterback I trade up to draft at No. 2. He’ll have to get the Alex Smith treatment to have success in the NFL, and I don’t see the Eagles pulling that off in 2016.

Optimistic Scott: Making Wentz a game manager pays off right away and he plays just efficient enough to lead a decent offense with Mathews staying healthy. The defense rises to the top 10 and it’s all enough to get this team up to 8-8, which means they’re right there for the division title with a Week 17 game at home against Dallas. That could be fun.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Pittsburgh has been a trendy Super Bowl pick all offseason, but as Week 1 draws near, it seemed like the team kept giving us reasons to predict a down year. The first big blow was Martavis Bryant’s suspension for the entire season. That core group of Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will only have played together in 11 of their first 51 games as teammates (including 2016) due to all the injuries and suspensions this team has had. Bell is suspended again for three games, but at least he’ll return to face the Chiefs in a key AFC game. Heath Miller retired, meaning the Steelers had to hunt for a tight end for the first time in over a decade. Ladarius Green seemed like an excellent choice, but he’s on the PUP with concussion problems. This makes that position rather weak, and apparently Sammie Coates never impressed enough to win the third receiver job. He’s definitely the most Martavis-like option on the roster, but I wouldn’t expect much early this year.

This is why Brown has such a good shot at major records like 150 catches and 2,000 receiving yards if he and Roethlisberger stay healthy. Of course, when does Roethlisberger ever last all 16 games? He did in 2013-14 and his protection has improved, but you always worry about him missing some games. And there is no good backup option in Pittsburgh. Forget scoring 30 points per game, let’s just see if this offense can remain a top-five unit and stay healthy into the playoffs. They rarely have in Mike Tomlin’s tenure. If Roethlisberger stays healthy, he should be the MVP favorite given the state of other quarterbacks around the league.

The injuries have carried over to the defensive side too. Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, could miss a ton of time after sports hernia surgery. So much for that sophomore surge in the pass rush. Injuries have destroyed Senquez Golson’s opportunity to play in his first two seasons as a second-round pick, leaving the Steelers pretty thin (and pretty shitty) at corner. I really don’t expect much from rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis as the Steelers have been one of the poorest teams at developing defensive backs. It’s now or never for Jarvis Jones, and a 38-year-old James Harrison is probably still the best pass rusher on the team. I really like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but this sure does not look like a championship-caliber defense, does it? They played well enough to win in Denver, but were missing some key guys and lost the lead late after that huge Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble.

I trust this team to outscore the likes of the Chiefs, Colts and Bengals in a big game, but I still don’t trust the Tomlin vs. Belichick mismatch when they play New England. Pittsburgh must play a fantastic game in Week 7 when the Patriots come to town in what could help secure home-field advantage. Because there is a shot at Heinz Field, but I cannot see this team winning in Foxboro in January. That remains the biggest hurdle.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Each year I expect the Bengals to fall off after losing some talented coordinators, or that Andy Dalton will just have that awful season, but it hasn’t happened yet in all five years that he’s been the quarterback. He was definitely at his best last season and it was a shame he got hurt when the Bengals were in position to be a No. 1 seed. Was that the new Dalton or just a hot streak? This season will help answer that, but I really think it’s going to be a huge year for A.J. Green with the losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and the injury that will keep Tyler Eifert out to start the season. Green is almost underappreciated with the way he makes so many great catches on not-so-accurate Dalton passes. This could be his best year yet, though that may also mean the ball is not being spread around and the Bengals are throwing more due to trailing.

I think Marvin Lewis can’t keep losing coordinators and expect to keep winning, but this roster is still pretty solid on both sides of the ball. I trust the defense more than the offense, but that’s fine in the AFC where the top contenders (NE/PIT) are offensive-focused teams. If the Bengals are going to break through in the playoffs, it’s going to be with a strong defensive run and improved play from Dalton. He did not get that chance last year, and the Bengals still should have won with AJ McCarron against the Steelers.

Again, an off year wouldn’t surprise me, but it’s tough to look at the AFC and go with other teams over Cincinnati.

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Baltimore rarely has back-to-back down years, and I believe John Harbaugh, as petty as he can be at times, is one of the best coaches in the NFL. Injuries were absurd last year, losing Terrell Suggs in Week 1 and practically every skill guy (and his main backup) the rest of the way. Now Joe Flacco was struggling and leading this team to nowhere before he tore his ACL, but he really needs to play better than he has been post-Super Bowl win.

Like Dallas, Baltimore was an easy regression pick with the injuries and absurd close-game losses (10 of them). I wouldn’t bet against Steve Smith since he’s crazy, but I think he’s more likely to just hit 1,000 receptions for his career rather than have a huge season at age 37 after an Achilles injury. He’s 39 catches away. Breshad Perriman, who the hell knows what he can do at this level? Ben Watson was a tough loss at tight end, but really, I didn’t get what the Ravens were doing with their skill guys this year.

Mike Wallace? Also, Stanley over Tunsil in the draft? Eh, we’ll see. I think the running back depth is better, you hope for better health, better play from Flacco, and the defense still has some really good talent, even if some of the best players (Suggs, Dumervil, Weddle) are in their 30’s. Throw in a favorable schedule and I think Baltimore can do just enough to secure the sixth seed, though I must admit I first had them in a five-way tie at 8-8 in the AFC. I ended up giving them the Week 1 win at home against Buffalo to get to 9-7. Like I wrote in their FOA essay, it’s going to be down to the wire with this team and a bunch of others in the AFC for that final wild card. I just don’t think these Ravens can go deep into the tournament like the 2008-2012 teams did. This is more of a one-and-done roster.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

Good lord, this roster looks pretty bad, though a lot of it is due to young players (ton of rookies) that we have yet to discover if they are any good. That’s the tough task Hue Jackson has in taking over this mess known as Cleveland 2.0. But hey, at least LeBron brought home the ‘ship this summer.

Optimistic Scott: I’m struggling here, but as I always say, those teams with a new coach and new quarterback are worth keeping an eye on for significant improvement. At the very least, it will be interesting to see if Jackson can get a resurgence out of Robert Griffin III. Can Josh Gordon come anywhere close to his 2013 level when he returns? I think I like Duke Johnson as a lead back. Will Corey Coleman have an instant impact as a highly-targeted wideout? Can Terrelle Pryor actually make the transition to starting wide receiver? Was Gary Barnidge a one-year wonder, or can he still catch a pass with his ass cheeks this year? Even the optimist in me has absolutely no interest in watching this defense play, but at least there are some interesting things to watch on that offense this year. And good luck, Andrew Healy. Pull some strings behind the scenes.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Seriously, the Packers drew the AFC South, the NFC East and Teddy Bridgewater’s leg exploded? I loved this schedule so much that I’m kind of regretting not giving the Packers a 14-2 No. 1 seed. But then again, when I tend to go all in with a 13-14 win season for a team, it ends in disaster. So we’ll stick with 12-4 with the thought that Aaron Rodgers is going to return to a high level of play, Jordy Nelson will eventually get back to being a major threat, and the receiving depth will be better this year with the addition of tight end Jared Cook, and Eddie Lacy seems motivated again. I flat out don’t understand the Josh Sitton release this late in the game, but I don’t think that’s a deal breaker here. Sure, a blown block come playoff time may come back to bite the team, but I don’t think Sitton was moving the win needle for this team.

But as is always the case with this Green Bay team, do I really expect them to make a comeback in a big game or not blow one with terrible Mike McCarthy decisions? The Hail Mary’s last year were cool, but even Tim Couch hit two of those in his career. I’m also pretty sure a phantom facemask did not precede either one. Green Bay’s schedule may push them to a high seed, but their home-field advantage has not been a strength in January and I think those teams like Carolina, Seattle and Arizona can all come into Lambeau and push this team around.

2. Detroit Lions (9-7)

“How are the Lions going to win two more games without Calvin Johnson?”

If it sounds crazy, it might just happen, because that’s the NFL. And in the NFL, the great wide receivers aren’t as impactful as people want to believe. I was surprised to see where I ended up ranking this Detroit team, but I believe in the improvement last year after a horrific start. The defense was solid after the bye week, and Matthew Stafford was all about that Jim Bob Cooter dink-and-dunk. While Megatron will be missed, I actually think this can help Stafford spread the ball around more, getting Golden Tate, Marvin Jones (solid catch radius; he’ll make some big plays) and Anquan Boldin heavily involved. I think Tate is a really special talent and hope he gets more variation in this system this year without Johnson around for the big plays. Tate can beat you short and long. This system also loves throwing to running backs, and I expect more rushing success from Ameer Abdullah in his second season. The offensive line has been given considerable draft capital and must produce results. I’m still not thrilled with Eric Ebron at tight end, but he’s better than Brandon Pettigrew at the very least.

Last year, we saw Detroit battle in Seattle, only to lose after a crazy Johnson fumble/illegal bat in the end zone. A bogus call and the worst Hail Mary defense ever cost the Lions a sweep of the Packers. They finally won up in Green Bay, and they’ll get to host the Packers in Week 17 this year. It’s not like I’m in love with this team, and I still think Jim Caldwell is perfect for a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s, but there is solid talent here with Haloti Ngata, Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy and Darius Slay on the defense. 9-7 is nothing to write home about, but that’s big news for Detroit.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Look, it’s a damn shame that Teddy Bridgewater’s leg was amputated. It may be bad karma that I made a running joke (three mentions) in this preview about that horrific injury, but I really am sad for the kid and disappointed that we won’t get to see him in his third season. Takes the life out of those Derek Carr and Blake Bortles debates, but does it crush the souls of the Vikings this year? It’s not like this was a pass-reliant team, and the defensive talent is nice, Adrian Peterson is still there, the offensive line and receivers were upgraded, and there were real expectations here before last week’s incident.

What crushes the soul is giving up a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, who at best is going to give you league-average quarterback play for a premium price. He’s actually a great con artist, showing teams just enough to keep hope alive that he’ll develop into something he never will. The talent of this team and coaching of Mike Zimmer should keep them floating around 8-8, and I truly believe that was still possible even with Shaun Hill (that’s my quarterback). Yes, Hill is older now and a significant injury risk himself, but what are people seeing in Bradford to continue wasting so many valuable resources on him? He actually may have been at his best last year (thanks Chip), but it was still him leading an unproductive offense in Philadelphia.

Some of Bridgewater’s best 2015 games were the close losses in Denver and Arizona. Those are games he helped bring Minnesota to the brink of winning against great competition. Maybe with an extra year of progression, he could have got them over the hump. Bradford and Hill aren’t doing that. Sorry, Minnesota. Hopefully we can see a healthy Teddy in 2017.

Optimistic Scott: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is finally the right play-caller for Sam Bradford, who has a 2011 Alex Smith-like enlightenment, which means the team is still going to win because of the run game and defense.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

Not sure I understand the move to replace Robbie Gould with Connor Barth, but not a good sign that I’m leading off talking about kickers. The Bears have been kind of stuck in a malaise the past few years. They’re just not a very attractive team to follow. Jay Cutler has a 90.0 passer rating since 2013, but only a 16-25 record as Chicago’s defense fell apart and had to be rebuilt. It hasn’t been a good rebuild, the secondary is going to be a problem, but I at least dig the additions of Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan and rookie Leonard Floyd. John Fox should eventually get that unit turned around, but it’s going to take another offseason or two. The offense was interesting last year with a lot of big injuries. I want to see Kevin White in meaningful games. He should be an improvement over last year’s secondary receivers. Cutler played pretty well, but the Bears lost some really close games they easily could have won. Josh Sitton was a wise signing to be the new left guard, but I’m just not feeling this offense as taking any major steps forward. This is more of a reset year with Jeremy Langford replacing Matt Forte full time, as well as Zach Miller taking over TE1 from Martellus Bennett.

Optimistic Scott: Fox Ball reigns supreme again as Cutler pulls out enough games late for the team to flirt with 9-7 and the sixth seed. Kevin White is way better than we expected after missing his entire rookie season. Hope is much higher going into 2017.

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

So the healthiest Colts teams since 2006 were the 2011 Peyton-less version and the 2015 half Luck-less version. Ain’t that a bitch? The last two times the Colts missed the playoffs, they were generally healthy, except at the most important position. I’m not sure if a healthy Luck would have been a huge advantage to the Colts last year based on the way he played, but I sure believe he beats Houston at home to get this team to the playoffs. I want to believe 2015 was an aberration caused by injury, but I’m not 100 percent certain. Luck looked really bad at times last year, like in the Carolina game where he missed some inexplicably easy passes.

Then again, for how out of sorts Luck was in 2015, this team still had arguably its best showing yet against the Patriots, at least before the GRIEF WHALE happened. They came back from 17 down in the fourth quarter in Carolina, becoming the first team in NFL history to lose after leading in overtime. And Luck’s season ended with a lacerated kidney, but only after he had the most efficient and effective game any quarterback had against Denver’s No. 1 defense.

I don’t see great things for Indy this year, but I don’t see anything great about the AFC South in 2016. 9-7 can win it, and I was actually surprised at the lack of wins I had to give the Titans and Jaguars as I thought I’d have the four teams more closely bunched. But I think Luck plays better and squeezes out enough close wins, because it’s going to be necessary to compensate again for that injury-riddled defense without a pass rush or secondary.

Ryan Grigson, you failed this city.

2. Houston Texans (8-8)

“Bill O’Brien has put up back-to-back 9-7 seasons with QB slop. He brings in Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, still has the best defender on the planet, and you think he falls back to 8-8?”

Again, if it sounds crazy, it just may be what happens, because that’s the NFL. I’m not an Osweiler fan. I think he was really up and down last season, and he is going to be someone that takes too many sacks. Houston’s offensive line does not look like a strength to me either. I wouldn’t have paid Osweiler what he got, and I think John Elway made the right decision not to tie himself down to this kid for $18 million per year. O’Brien has done a decent job of getting more out of quarterbacks, but I think the pocket presence and inconsistent deep ball (his numbers were similar to Old Manning’s last year) are going to be issues again in Houston. I did like the Miller signing and he should improve the running game, assuming he gets his touches this time.

The defense does again look rather solid on paper, but you wonder if J.J. Watt is rushing back from injury too fast for Week 1. Maybe that has a huge negative effect on his season, because when healthy, no one’s better. Would like to see Clowney make a big impact this year to live up to that draft pick. Imagine if they got Teddy Bridgewater in that 2014 draft. Teddy might not be on crutches for the rest of his life (and that’s a fourth mention…I’m going to hell).

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Trust me, Jacksonville fans. I wanted to get you guys 7-8 wins, but it just wasn’t happening as I went through the schedule. I actually have Jacksonville starting 4-0 before the bye, then going on a 10-game losing streak, so we know I’m wrong as hell here on the individual games, but let’s think about it. Last season, the Jags went 5-11 with four game-winning drives. That sounds good for Blake Bortles, but they were not very pretty moments when you dig into them. Against Buffalo, a Bortles pick-six made the comeback necessary in the first place as they nearly blew that game in London. Good thing EJ Manuel was the opposing QB instead of Tyrod Taylor. The real stinker was against Baltimore where Bortles had a game-ending interception dropped, then a miserable fourth-down attempt that never should have counted saw him fall down, get up and take a facemask, leading to a 15-yard penalty and untimed down for the Jaguars to win on a 53-yard field goal. The GWD against Tennessee started at the 5-yard line after a 63-yard punt return.

Bortles was still very much garbage-time hero than clutch in 2015. Bortles threw 13 touchdown passes when trailing by multiple scores in the second half. The previous NFL record was 10, which is why I can comfortably say Bortles had the least effective 35-touchdown season by any quarterback in NFL history. Sure, Allen Robinson is fantastic and Allen Hurns has become a very good No. 2. Julius Thomas might be better this year if he can ever stay healthy. Yeldon and Ivory makes for a good backfield. They have a nice offense, but a sloppy quarterback and a struggling offensive line.

I’m not sold the offense will get much better until the defense does, and the amount of drafted talent there is outstanding with Dante Fowler, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey. If Gus Bradley gets to coach these guys and still can’t turn things around, he has to go. But then again, there are injury concerns with these players. Fowler missed his whole rookie season. Jack’s injury concerns dropped him from a top-5 pick to the second round. With Ramsey, rookie corners often struggle. This is why it could be 2017 when the Jaguars finally take that step forward. The playoff buzz for this year is still a bit premature.

Optimistic Scott: Bortles cleans up the sacks and turnovers, the offense doesn’t rank 30th in the second quarter, leading to tighter second halves where the young, improved defense can help win more games. Who knows, maybe 2016 is the year the Jaguars take it to the limit and…steal the show.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-11)

“Exotic Smashmouth” sounds like a series of porn videos I’d stick in my “Blowjobs” folder. Mike Mularkey was the most uninspiring head coach hire since Jim Tomsula a year ago. I would love to see Marcus Mariota in a shotgun-heavy, quick passing attack. The Titans want to turn back time and run DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry 500 times. At least Henry has looked good, but I hated the Jack Conklin pick with Tunsil still on the board. I still think the “tackle the catch” defense is one of the least imposing in the league, and any team playing this defense should target Antwon Blake any time he’s on the field.

But at the very least, I’m interested to see Mariota in year two and to see if this crazy Tajae Sharpe story can turn into something historic. I wrote a great deal about his rise to the top receiver spot as a fifth-round rookie, and he has not disappointed in the preseason. I still think he’s a possession receiver and won’t hit the big plays to have anywhere near a Randy Moss or Odell Beckham kind of rookie season, but 800-plus yards should be in his grasp to make him the most productive fifth-round rookie wideout since the merger.

Optimistic Scott: Playoffs!? You kidding me? That’s a load of Mularkey.

NFC SOUTH

1. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

Yes, I kept calling this team last year the worst 7-0 team ever, the worst 14-0 team ever, the worst 15-1 team ever, etc. I didn’t believe the No. 1 scoring offense was really as good as the point total suggested because of the dominance in field position and turnovers. I didn’t think Cam Newton was the MVP, though his second-half performance in the season was at that level. Still, it was not what you’d expect from a MVP/All-Pro season.

This year, I think Carolina is still the class of the NFC South, but will fall back to the pack. The schedule should be tougher, they shouldn’t dominate turnovers and field position as much as they did, and the secondary definitely looks vulnerable even if the front seven is still excellent. Offensively, people automatically assume Kelvin Benjamin’s return makes this a better unit than last year. I think this is what will happen. Newton will play at a more efficient level consistently for 16 games, but won’t have the same 45 TD total, meaning people will think he regressed from 2015. Baloney. He still has plenty of room for improvement and needs to cut down on the overthrows. I think Carolina’s offensive DVOA will be better than last year, but they’ll score fewer points this year just due to the aforementioned changes in schedule/turnovers/field position. Still a Super Bowl contender, but more like the third or fourth-best team in the NFC this season.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)

This team did a solid job of fighting its way to 6-10 last year, and the young core should improve to make that move up to .500. But I still think the playoffs are a year or two off. Jameis Winston’s rookie season was definitely not as mistake prone (sacks and picks) as I expected. In fact, it reminded me in many ways of Andrew Luck’s rookie season in the way that Jameis was the most hit quarterback, he played in a vertical offense with receivers that had some bad drops, and he still threw for 4,000 yards. I see a lot of Cam in him as he led the league in overthrown passes and was pretty scattershot with his accuracy, but you could see the talent and ability to run. I expect Mike Evans to play at a higher level after some bad drops last year. That could be a beloved stack in DFS this year. I’m not sold Doug Martin repeats last year’s success and the offensive line is still a work in progress, so this team is going to be involved in its share of close games. Always love Lavonte David, but that secondary is an eyesore with Brent Grimes and Chris Conte expected to start. That’s why I really can’t see a playoff team here.

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

I guess I can no longer bash “that Rob Ryan D” but man was last year abysmal. One of the greatest passing seasons in NFL history belongs to the “2015 Saints Opponents.” The good news is they really can’t play any worse, and still went 7-9 since Drew Brees was still great. His accuracy was the worst it’s been in 10 years, but that’s just because of how great he’s usually been. It didn’t help that the Saints lost so much offensive talent and Marques Colston was on his last legs. I dig this new group of Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks, Brandon Coleman and rookie Michael Thomas. It should be better than last year’s group, and they’ve added Coby Fleener at tight end. He’ll make some horrible efforts on the ball, but Brees will find him down the seam for some big gainers too.

The defense has added a bunch of veterans like Paul Kruger, Nick Fairley, James Laurinaitis and Dannell Ellerbe, so you will see some change. It just may be the 25th-best defense instead of dead last, but hey, that’s an improvement. It sucks that Sheldon Rankins, the first-round rookie, was lost with an injury. The Saints need impact defenders, and it’s hard to see any here outside of Cameron Jordan. Brees got paid again, but it’s hard to see more than another 7-9 type of season.

Optimistic Scott: This team was a play away in each game from sweeping Carolina last year, and that includes a start by Luke McCown. With Sean Payton and Drew Brees, you always have a chance with that prolific offense. Beating the Lions at home in Week 13 and the Falcons on the road in Week 17 could be the difference between 7-9 season and 9-7 wild card.

4. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

I originally had this team at 5-11, but ended up finding two more wins. I really think last year was a huge blown opportunity. They were healthy, the schedule was so favorable, and they just fell apart after winning all those close games early in the season. How do you lose to Blaine Gabbert? Oh yeah, you kick a field goal from the 1-yard line in the last three minutes, down by 4 points. Then Matt Ryan regressed and threw some really awful picks, like when they blew the 14-point lead at home to Indianapolis with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback.

I just think Ryan is not what he used to be, the offense is too reliant on Julio Jones, don’t think Mohamed Sanu is a WR2, don’t care for Jacob Tamme as TE1, and while the defense should be better, it’s still not a strong unit. Devonta Freeman was not that impressive down the stretch last year, though I still think he deserves the majority of the carries over Tevin Coleman. I’m curious to see if Vic Beasley can have a bigger impact this year. He didn’t do much this year, though at least made a signature stop of Newton to win that game against Carolina. Again, that was the kind of year Atlanta had. Lose to Gabbert, knock off the 14-0 Panthers.

Optimistic Scott: Ryan gets back to his past higher level of efficiency, Julio dominates again, Freeman puts together a full season, and Dan Quinn has the defense looking more in line with the improvement he was expected to bring. Still, this is more about competing for a wild card than anything more significant.

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

While I did bash the Chiefs’ 9-game winning streak in 2013 and 11-game winning streak last year for various reasons, this is a good team with a sound roster. KC did not win the division in either of those seasons because of Denver, but the Broncos are taking a step back this year and the Chiefs are the most talented team in the division. You know what I think about Alex Smith, but Andy Reid is managing him properly and they’re going to beat teams with defense, running the ball and him not turning it over. This team can run the ball very well even without Jamaal Charles. Spencer Ware was really good last season. Obviously you prefer Charles, who is always a 5.0 YPC back, but they have the depth at that position. Justin Houston’s health does concern me since they’re going to need him for the big games to apply pressure. Marcus Peters could fall victim to the random variation in cornerback success in his second year. I doubt he gets as many picks this time, and losing Sean Smith was not addressed too well.

I wouldn’t trust the Chiefs to win a playoff game in Pittsburgh or New England, but this is still one of the top teams in the AFC and not many people are talking about them right now.

2. Oakland Raiders (8-8)

Again, I had about five teams vying for that last wild card at 8-8, and Oakland is right there in that tier with Houston, Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver. I think I said my share on Derek Carr being overrated, but I do expect a better overall season from him this year. Just think he’s too gunslinger and struggles with accuracy to really sustain a highly-efficient offense, and they barely changed that side of the ball, expecting the youth to just get better together. I’m definitely not one for believing Kelechi Osemele is a godsend as the highest-paid guard in history (without even a single Pro Bowl). The line is a real strength, but they still have to get more rushing production than they have.

If the offense is counting on young draft picks to grow, the defense is expecting to get better by bringing in other team’s players. Bruce Irvin joins Malcolm Smith as two former Seattle linebackers starting in Jack Del Rio’s defense. David Amerson is playing ahead of D.J. Hayden, who has been a bust. Sean Smith was a good signing to help improve the corners and weaken Kansas City at the same time. Nate Allen has never been anything special and Reggie Nelson is a good veteran safety from Cincinnati. I think they’ll miss Charles Woodson for various reasons. But then there is one great draft pick in Khalil Mack, and he’s going to have to have that type of All-Pro season to really get this defense in playoff shape. I just don’t have enough faith in Del Rio and Carr to get it all together this year, but maybe 2017 is finally the year to end this awful streak of not winning.

Optimistic Scott: Well, you have them right there at 8-8. All it takes is one more great Carr performance or one huge Mack game to get over that hump to 9-7, the first winning record in Oakland since 2002.

3. Denver Broncos (8-8)

The great Tom Moore once said “If [Peyton Manning] goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.” Now Denver is going from the greatest quarterback in NFL history to a guy with a name that sounds like a sex machine or cum. I guess either way the Broncos are practicing fucked.

But seriously, how do you go from winning the Super Bowl to starting such a bland seventh-round pick in his second year in Trevor Siemian? The guy stunk in college, posting the type of numbers that would rarely get you drafted in this era. I would have prepared Paxton Lynch from day one to be the starter and just roll with my defense, which I expect to be the best in the league.

Cornerback Chris Harris scoffed when FO initially projected the Broncos to go 7-9. It’s true, Denver rarely is below .500 going back to the early 1970’s, and even the Tim Tebow-led team went 8-8 in 2011. But I think 8-8 is a good prediction as this team was living on the edge all year in 2015. Denver’s 7 4QC/GWD wins led the league, and those teams usually always regress the next year, unless they have Peyton Manning in their prime. These Broncos don’t even have Manning coming back at his worst.

My expected regression for Denver is built on two ideas as I highly disagree with two notions many Broncos fans share going into this season.

First, this idea that the defense will be just as good, if not better this year. No, just no. For starters, it’s not even the same defense since Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson are gone. Great defenses can last for several years, but Denver was a very strong No. 1 defense in 2015. Since 1989, only the 1993-94 Steelers and 2013-14 Seahawks finished No. 1 in defensive DVOA in consecutive years. Wade Phillips has a history of D’s starting great, but not sustaining that improvement. Don’t get me wrong, Denver’s D should be the best in the AFC, but it’s very unlikely they match last year’s dominance.

Just consider the takeaways alone. No, Denver did not force an astronomical number (27), but look at how they happened. They rip away a pass in the end zone to beat the Ravens 19-13 in Week 1. Jamaal Charles has an unfathomable fumble returned for a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds in Week 2. That almost never happens. Huge pick 6’s against Baltimore, Oakland and San Diego. They strip Bridgewater with the game on the line. They pick off Josh McCown late in Cleveland. They get a fumble off AJ McCarron in overtime to end that big game in Week 16. They get a fumble off third-string back Fitzgerald Toussaint in the playoffs when the Steelers were driving with a 13-12 fourth-quarter lead. We know fumble recoveries are pretty random, but Denver snatched 13 last year. The 14-point difference in the Super Bowl was almost entirely created by Von Miller’s two strip-sacks of Newton occurring so close to the end zone.

What if the Newton fumbles in the SB happen at midfield or closer to Denver scoring territory? They likely don’t put two touchdowns on the board then. Now what happens if that Charles’ fumble occurs at midfield, and the Broncos have to go to overtime? Do you think the Patriots muff a punt again in the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead? You just can’t expect to keep getting such monumental takeaways on defense. The 2016 defense could end up with more takeaways than 2015, but it’s unlikely they will be as impactful as last year.

Then there’s the idea that the offense will be better, because it couldn’t get any worse. Nope, it can get worse. For one, this was not a good offensive lineup last year. The running game was hit or miss, Demaryius Thomas struggled, they really didn’t develop a WR3 or receiving TE after losing Welker & Julius, the OL was arguably the worst in NFL, and yes, both quarterbacks made too many mistakes.

However, those quarterbacks still moved the ball (4,216 passing yards on 7.0 YPA) and made timely plays (the 7 4QC/GWD). You want to see ugly offense? Wait until Siemian is struggling to pass for 200 yards or averaging 6.4 YPA while taking bad sacks behind a revamped OL that still may not be any good. I love how Emmanuel Sanders is playing and I think Benny Fowler should be a WR3, but again, I don’t see much receiving depth on this team. The idea that Cody Latimer can be better now that Peyton is gone is just absurd.

Good quarterback play can be efficient, effective or timely. Last year, Denver really only got the timely part, but what do you think Siemian is going to do? Can he lead a team 80 yards down the field in Arrowhead in the final minutes with a 24-17 deficit like Manning did? That’s why I don’t want to hear this bullshit that anyone like a Ryan Fitzpatrick could have won a Super Bowl with Denver’s defense last year. So many quarterbacks would have flopped in that Week 2 spot, which would’ve made the Chiefs the division winner and the Broncos a fifth seed. The Broncos aren’t going anywhere in last year’s playoffs as a fifth seed. They needed that top seed, so they needed all of those close wins. Manning is the record holder at that, and Brock Osweiler did well against tough teams like the Patriots and Bengals. I was glad to hear from Kubiak in that “Worth the Wait” special that the Week 2 KC win was the biggest moment for this team last year. So many quarterbacks blow the division title right there in that moment.

Denver’s won five straight division titles, but so much of that past success was built by people no longer on the team. Winning the Super Bowl was great, they deserved it after getting close in previous years, but I can’t see any serious title defense happening here.

Optimistic Scott: Maybe Paxton Lynch takes over after a 1-3 start and proves to be the right talent to run Gary Kubiak’s offense. The defense remains the best in the league, giving the team a chance to win any game. They win just enough to get back to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

Originally I was thinking a 9-7 dark horse with this team, but as the summer wore on and I went through the schedule, I just don’t like what the Chargers are selling. The Joey Bosa saga was absurd. I didn’t think that could happen with the rookie wage scale in new CBA, but here we go. Bosa is not expected to play this week and that defense could really use the help. I like Jason Verrett and Denzel Perryman as two recent draft picks, but they lost Eric Weddle and Brandon Flowers was nowhere near as good in 2015. It’s not a quality defense by any means.

Offensively, Antonio Gates is going to hit the wall at some point, right? They drafted his replacement in Hunter Henry, though I wouldn’t expect much in 2016 there. The offensive line is still a big issue for Philip Rivers, who has had some rough stretches over the last two years. There have also been bright spots, but he hasn’t played consistently at a high level since 2013. I like Keenan Allen, I believe Travis Benjamin can do Malcom Floyd things, but where is the depth at receiver? Stevie Johnson got hurt and they didn’t think James Jones was worth a roster spot. Dontrelle Inman is a JAG. This looks to me like another 75+ catches for Danny Woodhead, which isn’t very fun to watch. Hopefully Melvin Gordon has more success, including finding the end zone at least once in a game that counts, because last year makes that pick look awful.

I think Mike McCoy is one of the most likely coaches to be fired after this season.

Optimistic Scott: Again, the division is going through some changes and the opportunity is there for San Diego to rise. Rivers is still a top 10 quarterback, so you always have a chance with one of those.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

It’s like Pessimistic Scott or Cautiously Optimistic Scott is writing this part, because I have strong championship expectations for Seattle, yet this odd concern that this is the year they fall off. We’re talking about the DVOA dynasty. Four straight years of finishing No. 1 in the stat, something no team has ever done, and we feel that’s true even if you went back to WWII. It’s an unprecedented run of strong, competitive, efficient play, and the reality is all of these runs have to end eventually.

I keep thinking the historic 88-game streak of having a lead or being within one score in the fourth quarter is going to end, as it almost did twice in the last four games of 2015 alone. Things are starting to crack defensively. The blown leads are a consistent problem, as they should have blown another playoff game if not for Blair Walsh’s 27-yard miss. Maybe there’s a Russell Wilson injury behind a suspect offensive line that’s the main culprit for a decline. Maybe it’s Jimmy Graham not being a factor after his 2015 injury, or Thomas Rawls not repeating his success. I still don’t buy into Christine Michael being legit.

Overall, I still think the roster is great, and Wilson was just at another level down the stretch of 2015. I’ve always been big on Doug Baldwin, I think Tyler Lockett has star potential, and Jermaine Kearse always seems to make big catches in big moments. It’s a very underrated receiving corps. The defense still has great talent at every level and they made the wise decision to not keep Brandon Browner.

So why am I so worried? I guess that’s just how I am these days with everything that’s going on personally.

2. Arizona Cardinals (11-5)

Here I go again worrying. Pittsburgh, Seattle and Arizona are three of the top Super Bowl picks for people this year, yet I somehow keep finding ways to think they’re all going to flounder.

Last year, Arizona was arguably the best team in the league for most of the season. They have balance and great talent on both sides of the ball with one of the top coaches. Then the Philadelphia game happened, Carson Palmer messed up his thumb and Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL. It was never the same after that, and as Arizona’s two most important players, they have a history of multiple ACL tears. I’m not really worried about Mathieu, but Palmer, going on 37, has me thinking Jake Delhomme in 2009 right now. Sure, I thought Palmer was the regular-season MVP as no quarterback was more consistently great from Week 1 to Week 17. He was outstanding with the best receiving corps in the league last year. But down the stretch, whether it was the injury or the pressure or better competition, he looked like the Palmer of old, which is a bad thing. He turned the ball over six times in Carolina in the biggest game of his career. The Cardinals played a really piss-poor game that day, but Palmer was especially bad.

I just fear Palmer’s going to carry over the bad play into 2016, but if he doesn’t, then this is still a top offense and I can’t wait to see David Johnson as a full-time workhorse back. Larry Fitzgerald is still going strong and John Brown is there to take over as the No. 1 if he has to. They still don’t have much at tight end, but that’s okay in this style of offense. The defense looks to be one of the best again, though I don’t think Chandler Jones is going to have a huge impact. He turns a lot of his pressures into sacks, but he doesn’t generate as much pressure as you’d like to see.

Bruce Arians lives on the edge with an aggressive style that has served him so well in pulling out close games. Arians is 19-8 (.704) in 4QC/GWD opportunities. No other active coach is above .500. Arians is 31-1 when leading by one score in the fourth quarter. Pete Carroll is just 23-15 in Seattle since 2012. I like that Arizona gets the Patriots without Tom Brady, while the Seahawks have to travel to New England with Brady back. The schedule slightly favors Arizona over Seattle, but I ended up finding another road loss (Buffalo) for Arizona to finish 11-5 and a wild card team.

But again, for a team that loves downfield passing, heavy blitzing and plays so many close games, that’s all just asking for a year where the coin flips the other way too often. This team’s Super Bowl window is right now, so it can’t afford to have a slip-up year like that.

3. Los Angeles Rams (7-9)

It’s fitting that the Rams are in Hollywood now. For years I have been saying no film genre has suffered a bigger decline in quality than comedy. The greatness of old comedies was all the quotable lines.

  • “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” (Animal House)
  • “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” (Dumb & Dumber)
  • “Surely you can’t be serious. I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.” (Airplane!)
  • “(Singing) Fat guy in a little coat” (Tommy Boy)
  • “The shitter was full!” (Christmas Vacation)
  • “If things go well I might be showing her my O-face. Oh…oh…oh! You know what I’m talkin’ about. Oh!” (Office Space)
  • “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older. They stay the same age.” (Dazed & Confused)
  • “Well, nobody’s perfect!” (Some Like It Hot)

American comedy in the 21st century has been ruined by a small group of powerful people such as Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. They’ve created more jobs than Obama, but it’s ruined the genre with someone like Seth Rogen playing the same character in every movie. It’s not that these comedies are unwatchable, but the main problem is they lack quotable lines or memorable scenes. The Apatow crowd in particular has basically two forms of writing comedy lines: heavy use of swearing built around sexual innuendo or a “You look like [pop culture reference likely linked to a sex joke]”. Seriously, without looking it up, try quoting something really funny from Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, This Is the End, Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc. I double dog dare you. Ahh, see what I did there? While the classics had lines that became part of pop culture, these new hacks just rely on quoting that old pop culture without adding anything new. What will writers take away from this era in future decades? There’s nothing here.

So thank you Jeff Fisher for bringing back some real comedy with your quotable lines on this season of Hard Knocks. “7-9 bullshit” is going to be quoted so many times, and it’s the perfect way to describe the majority of his coaching career. It certainly fits this Rams team, because what else would you call locking up gadget player Tavon Austin for over $10M a year when he can’t even put up a 500-yard receiving season? That’s the kind of 7-9 bullshit that makes me laugh.

Another hilarious thing the Rams did this year: traded a fortune to move up to the No. 1 pick so they can draft Jared Goff and make him the third-string quarterback behind Case Keenum and Sean Mannion. Now that might be 5-11 fuckery. It’s unbelievable that a quarterback, who did have to carry his team weekly unlike Carson Wentz, could be the third-stringer behind two totally unaccomplished players. I’m all for starting a quarterback right away. I know Goff has struggled and really hasn’t earned it yet, but you can’t move into a new city, make a power move to No. 1 and try selling Case f’n Keenum to the new fans. The fact that GM Les Snead talked up Keenum last year is absurd. He was very good against Tampa Bay and had a nice touchdown pass in Seattle. Beyond that, his five starts showed very little. Now I thought Keenum was a fun QB to watch in college where he was prolific against lesser competition, but he’s not NFL starter material. Yes, the defense should be quite good led by Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, though the secondary will hurt them against better passing teams. They have Todd Gurley expecting to be the next great back, so it is a decent setup for a weak quarterback. That’s also why I thought they’d want Wentz since he fits this style much better than Goff, who had to throw it a ton to combat Cal’s awful defense.

I honestly didn’t have to change anything to get a 7-9 record for the Rams. It’s almost like that’s the natural order for a Fisher team. You just expect it. I knew once Fisher said “I’m not fucking going 7-9, or 8-8, or 9-7, okay. Or 10-6 for that matter” that the Rams were the greatest comedy of 2016. You tell them, Jeff. 10-6 isn’t good enough in a division with two powerhouses when you’re going to start Keenum at quarterback.

goodlaugh

4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

Chip Kelly inherited a weaker roster with a worse quarterback situation in a tougher division than what he had in Philadelphia. I don’t think he matches Jim Tomsula’s 5-11 record, though that doesn’t mean this team won’t be better. I think the 2015 49ers were quite arguably the worst team in the league, and got lucky on three field goals. That could have been a 2-14 year easily. I absolutely can’t believe that Blaine Gabbert is the starter over Colin Kaepernick. I felt that way well before the national anthem controversy, which I’d prefer not to get into here. There’s just not much hope for anything good to come of this year outside of perhaps getting the No. 1 pick and being in line to draft a quarterback (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson) to rid themselves of Gabbert and Kap next year. Carlos Hyde should benefit from Kelly’s scheme, Torrey Smith should have a huge year with such a weak cast of receivers, and I think the defense has something to build on with the two Oregon defensive ends. This is going to be a long process to get back to relevance, so hopefully people give Kelly a break. I believe in his coaching, but I think he was a lousy GM. Hopefully he’ll form a better relationship with Trent Baalke than Jim Harbaugh did.

Optimistic Scott: Bruh, this is almost 13,000 words, the longest single-part thing you’ve ever written. Let’s wrap it up.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
  2. New England (12-4)
  3. Kansas City (11-5)
  4. Indianapolis (9-7)
  5. Cincinnati (12-4)
  6. Baltimore (9-7)

The Chiefs finally get a home playoff game and win one, but fall in New England again. The Bengals knock off the Colts in Indy, but can’t get past Pittsburgh again. Pittsburgh loses a third AFC Championship Game at home to New England since 2001.

NFC

  1. Seattle (12-4)
  2. Green Bay (12-4)
  3. Carolina (11-5)
  4. Dallas (9-7)
  5. Arizona (11-5)
  6. Detroit (9-7)

Detroit still can’t get a playoff win as Carolina holds at home. The Cardinals take care of Dallas, setting up a third matchup with Seattle, which the Seahawks win at home. Carolina at Green Bay could be really interesting. I think I’d go with Carolina there, setting up another rematch, but this time the Seahawks get the early lead and hang on to beat the Panthers.

SUPER BOWL LI

Seattle Seahawks 23, New England 17

What, another rematch? This time half of Seattle’s defense isn’t injured, and Russell Wilson knows better than to throw a pass into congestion from the 1-yard line. In fact, Jimmy Graham high-pointing a fade over Malcolm Butler would be a heck of an image.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. – Bill Cowher after Super Bowl XXX