NFL Week 3 Predictions: Glad to Be Here Edition

After a rough couple of days personally, just time for a quick look at Monday night’s game. Just glad to still be here typing.

Steelers at Buccaneers

When I did my season predictions, I had the Steelers overlooking this one as a trap game and losing to a Tampa Bay team I had finishing 3-13. What a difference a few weeks can make. Now this game is a pick ’em and the Buccaneers are flying high behind Ryan Fitzpatrick while the Steelers are 0-1-1 and fading fast. They’re about one more bad headline away from getting their own Ronan Farrow feature.

Oddly enough, I like the Steelers to win on Monday now. I think they can put much of this drama behind them and play well against a team they should match up well with. So much of Fitzpatrick’s success so far has been nailing the deep balls. They have the weapons to do that with, but Fitzpatrick has never proven he can sustain this level of play for any extended period of time. It’s also typically not a sustainable strategy against Pittsburgh, a defense that for years is more vulnerable to spread, dink-and-dunk assaults. If Fitzpatrick holds the ball long to set up vertical shots, then I think T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward can get to him. Joe Haden returning to the secondary can help. Tampa Bay’s also dead last in rushing YPC (2.7) so it’s a pretty one-dimensional attack. Fitzpatrick came into this season with 13 TD passes of 50+ yards. He has four in two games with a pair in each win. I know the Steelers had some problems last year with giving up long scoring passes, but I really think they can avoid getting beat by the early deep balls that the Saints and Eagles couldn’t survive.

On the other side of the ball, there’s not much of a secondary in Tampa Bay. I think Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers, including Antonio Brown, can have another big game. Even if Ben and Brown aren’t on the same page yet, JuJu Smith-Schuster still looks great, Jesse James had a big game with Ben’s improvising, and James Washington caught his first touchdown last week. The weapons are there even without Le’Veon Bell. I also think the offensive line can hold up against that front seven, the strength of Tampa’s D.

It may very well have to be a shootout, but I like the Steelers to restore some order in this one and get a win before this season goes totally off the rails.

NFL Week 3 Predictions

I thought I was going to fall to 0-3 on TNF, but the Browns came through after putting Baker Mayfield in the game.

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I think this is a perfect week to do a teaser with some of the big favorites. Make it PHI -1, JAX -3.5, MIN -11, KC -1, LAR -1, NE -1. And I also like PIT +6 and ARI +12 (the latter because Steve Wilks might get fired before October if things don’t start to resemble an NFL team).

Trying something different with the weekly summary. I’m not a big fan of how the red comes through here so might tinker with it.

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NFL Week 2 Predictions: The Good Life Edition

I’m not going to say that Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season sucked, but when the first two full games I watched live were Falcons-Eagles and Steelers-Browns, it didn’t get off to the best start. The Week 2 schedule looks really good, but it didn’t take long for injuries to start having an impact. Some of the players missing in action this week include Devonta Freeman, Greg Olsen, David DeCastro, Olivier Vernon, and basically every long-time Seahawk not named Russell Wilson or Earl Thomas. We’re also waiting to see if Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Marcus Mariota are good to go this week at quarterback. We still must wait to see the 2018 debuts of Joey Bosa, Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Jack Conklin.

Game of the Week: Vikings at Packers

I really hope Aaron Rodgers plays this one, because it is a huge game for playoff seeding despite it only being Week 2. The Vikings knocked Rodgers out early in the first matchup last year and didn’t have to see him for the second one. They shouldn’t get that advantage again this year. They also have Kirk Cousins now in what is arguably the second-biggest game of his NFL career when you think about it. His only playoff game was also against Green Bay and Rodgers, a 35-18 loss at home in the 2015 Wild Card.

Over the last three seasons in Washington, Cousins was 3-10 on the road against teams that finished the year with a winning record. You’d expect Green Bay to be that kind of opponent this year. However, that 3-10 mark includes wins last season in Seattle and LA (Rams). Cousins also should have had a signature win in Kansas City, but Josh Doctson dropped a game-winning touchdown in the end zone. He can function in these spots and his Minnesota debut last week was solid.

Mike Zimmer’s had some decent success against Rodgers in his career, and this should be the most talented roster he’s taken into a Green Bay game yet. As I pointed out in FOA 2018, Zimmer entered this season with the best record against the spread (44-23) among active head coaches. Last week, his defense forced Jimmy Garoppolo into the worst start (and first loss) of his young career, and covered the spread.

HCATS

We don’t know what the spread is yet for this one because of Rodgers’ health, but clearly he isn’t 100 percent. I think a lack of mobility can be troublesome against such a talented Minnesota defense, and the Vikings should have scoring opportunities on the other side of the ball. That’s why, regardless of Rodgers’ status, I like the Vikings to pull this one off on the road with a superior roster. I know I’m already going against my season predictions where I had these teams splitting the series with each home team winning, but I also didn’t anticipate another Rodgers injury situation so soon.

Chiefs at Steelers

Under Andy Reid, Kansas City has beaten just about every contender in the NFL over the last four years. That includes wins over six of the last eight Super Bowl teams: 2014 Seahawks, 2014 Patriots, 2015 Broncos, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Patriots, and 2017 Eagles. (They didn’t play against the 2015 Panthers or 2016 Patriots, but notched wins against those teams the following season.)

One team Kansas City has not beaten is Pittsburgh, or at least not the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. They won a game at Arrowhead in 2015 when Landry Jones had to start. But Reid is 1-6 in his career against Roethlisberger going back to 2004 with the Eagles. That’s not even necessarily impressive for Ben, because he doesn’t play defense and the number that stands out in those seven games is 16. Reid’s teams never scored more than 16 points against the Steelers in those games.

That could really change on Sunday after the Chiefs come in hot behind new QB Patrick Mahomes after scoring 38 points in LA as underdogs. Mobile quarterbacks have been giving the Steelers fits as of late with Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer (Week 17), Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor (he actually stunk passing, but still ran well) hanging pretty good scoring numbers on the defense. Now the Steelers could be without Joe Haden and Artie Burns in the secondary, which is bad news with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins coming to town. This isn’t Mahomes’ first road start either so they can’t hang their hat on that advantage, though Heinz Field is a different beast from the Chargers’ small park. He looked pretty poised last week and this is one of the most talented offenses in the league. It just hasn’t clicked in the past against Pittsburgh, though James Harrison is no longer there to own Eric Fisher. T.J. Watt is coming off a huge multi-sack game, and the pass rush looked quite good in Cleveland albeit a very indecisive game from Taylor.

If Mahomes can avoid the turnovers on the road, then the Chiefs have a great shot to win this one. It’s a bad week for Roethlisberger to be questionable and missing practices with an elbow injury, because this defense looked really vulnerable for the Chiefs last week. Philip Rivers had huge numbers that would have been even better without so many drops. Roethlisberger should have success with his weapons at home where the Steelers obviously play much better. I think the conditions played a factor in several of the turnovers last week, a game that Pittsburgh almost certainly wins without the rain leveling the playing field.

It could be a really fun game, but I think the Steelers get a tight win at home to avoid an awful 0-1-1 start to what was supposed to be another season with Super Bowl aspirations.

Patriots at Jaguars

I wish this rematch of the AFC Championship Game was the Sunday night game instead of Giants-Cowboys, but you know we can’t let a September or October go by without getting that matchup at night. When you try to pick out one of the few games the Patriots are going to lose this season, you always start with road matchups against playoff-caliber teams. This should be one of those, though the Jaguars didn’t scream “playoff lock” to me coming into the season. The offense scored 13 points last week against the Giants.

Much of that has to do with Blake Bortles, who lost the two Allen’s (Robinson and Hurns) at WR, and Marqise Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL. I’m just not sure this team has enough firepower to keep up with the Patriots, who aren’t as loaded themselves right now, but still have the best TE in the game. For all the talk Jalen Ramsey did this offseason, I’d like to see him match up frequently with Gronk in this one. Walk the walk, if you will. That’s really the key to slowing them down right now without any Welker clones left (Julian Edelman is suspended for three more games).

It would take an excellent performance from the defense, which has the talent to pull it off, to keep the Patriots under 20 points (preferably under 17). I think that’s what the Jaguars must do to win this one, because I just don’t see Bortles putting up many points. NE played the Texans and Deshaun Watson well last week.

Alas, it doesn’t sound good for RB Leonard Fournette playing this week. I actually think that could help Jacksonville. Maybe they won’t lean so heavily on him, because in that playoff game, the Jaguars tried to run out the clock way too early and weren’t aggressive enough on early downs. Also, Corey Grant had three early catches for 59 yards in that game. Maybe this lets Jacksonville get more people involved and opens up the playbook instead of just trying to grind things out with Fournette.

NFL Week 2 Predictions

I started 10-5-1 for both ATS and SU last week, but fell victim (like many) to the Buccaneers’ shocking upset in New Orleans, the season’s first double-digit favorite to collapse. Starting next week I’ll post a fancier version of my results, but for now, here are my Week 2 picks with a Twitter update to come on my MIN-GB pick (likely going Vikings regardless of spread).

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My three favorite picks: NO -9.5, ATL -6, NYJ -3.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

NFL 2018 Award Predictions

Let’s start with my picks for the top awards this season. I was 0-for-8 last year after Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson and J.J. Watt all suffered serious injuries before Week 6 ended.

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer, Vikings
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Teryl Austin, Bengals
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, Giants
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, Chargers
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson, Texans

For comeback player, I’m sticking with my predictions that have the Texans edging out the Colts for the playoffs, so Deshaun Watson gets it over Andrew Luck (another great candidate for that) after proving he is the real deal over a full season. I had Aaron Rodgers as MVP last year, and I think that had a decent shot had he not broke his collarbone again. Give Rodgers a mediocre defense and a soft schedule and I think he’ll be on top of things again this year. I struggled with the coaches because I didn’t really pick surprise teams to come out of nowhere this season. So I’m sticking with my No. 1 seed in the NFC in Minnesota as Zimmer wins again with another quarterback.

NFL Week 1 Thoughts

Steelers at Browns

The weather for this one sounds brutal with a ton of rain in the area this weekend. I’d imagine they’ll keep the field in better working condition than the time Heinz Field had a 3-0 game with Miami in town (when the punt stuck in the ground). But it could be pretty nasty so I definitely like the under in this one.

It was only a 21-18 win by Pittsburgh in Week 1 last year, one of Cleveland’s closest calls on the way to 0-16. The offense scored just 14 points after getting a punt blocked for a touchdown to start things. That’s right, even with Le’Veon Bell, who finished with 10 carries for 32 yards, the Steelers’ starting offense scored 14 points on the Browns last year.

That’s why I’m hoping people can be rational, especially if the field is a mess, if the results of this game are not favorable to the offense with Bell holding out. For one, I think James Conner will be just fine in his absence. But as I just showed, the bar was already set so low for the offense with Bell in Cleveland last year. You know the Browns, with a much improved roster, will be fired up to finally win a game by beating their hated rival. If Myles Garrett and company wreck the line like they did a year ago, it wouldn’t matter if Bell was playing or not.

So I’m a bit worried about the outcome of this one driving a ton of irrational “Pay the man!” and “This is what you get Steelers!” hot takes. Since 2014 the Steelers are 12-6 without Bell. They score just about as many points without him as they do with him. Let’s not act like Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger haven’t had first-round bye seasons and been to multiple Super Bowls before Bell.

As long as the offensive line plays well, Conner should be just fine. However, this is a game the Steelers should win on the road against a team not expected to be anything this year. So you know I’m already skeptical of a good performance coming from Pittsburgh in this one. If the weather evens the playing field even more, well we could be looking at the upset of the week right here.

Texans at Patriots

This was one of the better matchups in 2017, a game that Houston should have won had it not dropped a late interception by Tom Brady. That was only Deshaun Watson’s second start and our first glimpse at just how exciting he can be as a dual-threat quarterback. He threw for over 300 yards in that game and had the Texans over 30 points in Foxboro, a very difficult feat to pull off. I’m excited to see him and J.J. Watt back, but the Patriots have done a very good job of limiting Watt in past matchups. It’s also a fact that we haven’t really seen Watt playing at a high level since the 2015 season.

DeAndre Hopkins won’t have Malcolm Butler to deal with, but the Patriots still have Stephon Gilmore and will likely make Houston’s other receivers try to beat them. Will Fuller did not play in that game last season. I’m interested to see how the Patriots operate without Julian Edelman (suspended) and Danny Amendola (Miami). At least Edelman will be back soon, but for a month they’ll have to go without one of their prototypical slot receivers. They still have Chris Hogan, Gronkowski and the receiving backs, but it’s another new-look offense for the Patriots, albeit one that’s less impressive than last year’s.

Bears at Packers

I usually groan at this matchup that we probably get in prime-time every single year, but this one could actually be good on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers is back, which is the only storyline Green Bay really needs. The Bears have a new offensive-minded coach, Mitchell Trubisky is no longer a rookie stuck in a dead-ball passing offense, they have noteworthy receivers again, and they managed to add Khalil Mack. The Bears should finally be watchable again, but how about good?

I think the Packers should feel very fortunate that they get this home game in Week 1. Chicago should be a much better team later in the season when the offense gets to mature together under Nagy. You get Mack and rookie Roquan Smith arriving very late in the preseason, so that too can take time to get the front seven going. I think they can give Green Bay a good fight tomorrow night, because most teams do with the Packers these days. But I wouldn’t count on an upset just yet unless Mack is an absolute monster to spoil several drives for Rodgers.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I’ll be picking every game against the spread this season. In my first partial season of trying that, I finished 60-59-5 (basically .500) last year. I’m looking to do better, but I already am 0-1 after picking the Falcons to win by a touchdown in Philadelphia, forgetting about the cursed red zone.

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2018 NFL Predictions

In last year’s NFL predictions, I invoked my inner Nihilist Arby’s and expected the 2017 season to be an inevitable death march towards another New England Super Bowl win. At least we didn’t have to worry about a 19-0 season as some predicted, because the Chiefs, the team I kept saying was best equipped to knock off the Pats, won in Foxboro on opening night. That gave fans some hope, but the alarming number of major injuries, especially at quarterback, led to a pretty disappointing season where fourth-quarter comebacks were way down. There were only 54 4QC wins after there were 68 to 73 in every season from 2012 to 2016. The games just weren’t as competitive or interesting last season.

It wasn’t the same to watch the Colts without Andrew Luck, the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, or the Giants without Odell Beckham Jr. Hell, I even missed the annual Ryan Tannehill Breakout Watch in Miami. Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games in Dallas. The 49ers didn’t really matter until the Jimmy Garoppolo trade happened. It wasn’t very fun to watch Hue Jackson and DeShone Kizer kill Cleveland’s chances of covering the spread each week, let alone win a game. Houston was finally an exciting team to watch again, but Deshaun Watson was lost for the season just 6.5 games into a thrilling rookie campaign that was going to shatter records.

That was the low point for me last November, which led to me writing about the Seven-Year Itch. Seven seasons covering the NFL full time, maybe I was starting to burn out and lost some interest. But then I took to betting on games and that reinvigorated my interest in a major way. A lot of early success also helped, but just like the NFL, success is hard to sustain.

Some of my predictions are a little too on the nose, but I purposely do it for fun. Sometimes my more specific ones end up on the money too, because I feel like the NFL runs in familiar narratives and sometimes I can see them coming months in advance. Some of my best predictions for the playoffs come later in the season, such as this one from November last year:

I did not see Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP coming though. I think the injuries led way to some teams making playoff pushes after being out of the tournament for a long time. The Jaguars, Rams, Bills, and Titans all ended playoff droughts of 8+ seasons. (I only have two of those teams returning to the tournament in 2018.) This is also how you end up with a season where Case Keenum is No. 1 in passing DVOA and Foles is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. I also think the injuries to so many key players had a big impact on passing numbers declining a bit after several years of constantly setting new benchmarks across the league. I expect to see those numbers go back up this year.

Scoring in general may go up a bit if the NFL doesn’t get a good grasp on its new helmet rule, or the flags where a routine sack is now roughing the passer. Just think of how many drives can continue with an automatic first down that otherwise would have ended in the past. We also may see more catches ruled a catch (Jesse James Rule), though that’s a necessary change that’s a few years overdue. I’ll wait and see on how the refs, which include four new officials, adjust to all these changes, but I’m leaning towards it making defense more difficult. Remember, the last game we watched, Super Bowl 52, featured a record amount of yardage (1,151 yards). The game is changing.

There are plenty of interesting storylines to follow again, but I think all the quarterback movement is what makes 2018 so compelling. Many teams either upgraded or at least made their offense more interesting this season. We’ll get to see rookie Sam Darnold in Week 1 with the Jets. Maybe we’ll see Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen later this season, but at least Tyrod Taylor and Sam Bradford are upgrades to what Cleveland and Arizona fielded last year. Rodgers, Luck, and Tannehill are back. Can Garoppolo and Watson possibly deliver such amazing numbers in a full season? All that connected movement with Kirk Cousins to Minnesota, Keenum to Denver, Alex Smith to Washington, and Patrick Mahomes taking over in Kansas City makes all four of those offenses more interesting in 2018. That’s a dozen teams right there, and we still have the old guard (Brady, Brees, Ben, Rivers, Eli), the middle aged (Ryan, Flacco, Stafford, Cam, Dalton, Wilson), the strangely similar Bortles and Carr, Year 4 for Winston/Mariota, and Year 3 for the 2016 class (Goff, Wentz, Dak). I just named the whole league except Buffalo and Mitchell Trubisky, but at least I’m excited to see the latter this season. The other makes me want to Eat Arby’s until the sweet, cold embrace of death engulfs me.

Fortunately, we’ve made it to opening night with the biggest injury losses only including Hunter Henry, Jason Verrett, Jake Ryan, Marqise Lee, Jerick McKinnon, Derrius Guice, and A.Q. Shipley. Travis Frederick’s non-football illness is also worth mentioning. Injuries are inevitable, but at least the season is starting with many of the key guys ready to go.

I think 2018 will be a much more competitive (and ultimately better) season than 2017. So let’s get into the predictions. I started with a different division just because I was sick of always starting this thing with New England up first.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Amazon does a great “All or Nothing” series in following an NFL team through the season. The 2018 Steelers feel like an All or Nothing team to me. This is either the year where this team gets over the hump to reach a Super Bowl (doesn’t necessarily mean they win it), or it’s all going to fall apart in spectacular fashion. The offensive-driven “Killer B” era that really started in 2014 has yet to put together a great playoff run, and this is Year 5 of that. I think the Five-Year Rule may apply here even though Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have been together since 2007.

This team is perfect for TV since there’s always so much drama whether it’s public comments about contracts, the Roethlisberger-Todd Haley saga, Facebook Live disasters, or looking ahead to opponents. There are also on-field concerns with the stars of this team. Maybe an aging Roethlisberger finds an injury bug he can’t shake off. Maybe Antonio Brown falls off, not because of the Madden Curse, but just because his high-volume output over the last five seasons is ridiculously hard to sustain and does leave him more susceptible to injury. He had a rough training camp in staying on the practice field. At least he showed up, unlike Le’Veon Bell, who remains a holdout. Either way I think we’re going to learn the name James Conner a lot more this season, and he has always looked impressive in the brief opportunities we’ve seen him. Ultimately, I predict Bell returns in a timely manner to play, because holdouts like this almost never come to fruition when real game checks are on the line.

You know I can write the same thing about the Steelers every year and it’d be right on the money. In order to get home-field advantage, can they avoid playing down to the competition like that loss in Chicago last season? I actually think they’re going to fall to that trap again in Tampa Bay in Week 3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting. However, I do have a revenge tour predicted with wins over the Jaguars and Patriots that lead to the Steelers getting the No. 1 seed on a tie-breaker over the 12-4 Patriots.

Can the Steelers ever get their big three to stay on the field for a full game against New England? The past four meetings have been absurd in this regard.

  • Week 1 2015: Bell was suspended. The Patriots won 28-21.
  • Week 7 2016: Roethlisberger missed one full start due to injury in 2016, and it was the New England game. The Patriots won 27-16.
  • 2016 AFC Championship Game: Bell left in the first half with an injury after six carries. The Steelers lost 36-17.
  • Week 15 2017: Brown was injured in the first half after dropping a touchdown. It was only the second time since 2013 that he had to leave a game due to injury. The Steelers lost 27-24 after a Jesse James touchdown, that would count now (I think) in 2018, was overturned and Roethlisberger threw the worst red-zone pick of his career.

So home-field advantage likely comes down to Week 15 again, but there are plenty of other challenges along the way for the Steelers. I think they can be better equipped to handle the loss of Ryan Shazier than needing to adjust on the fly last December. This team was in major trouble when quarterbacks such as Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco (2017 version), and DeShone Kizer were lighting them up late in the season. The offense had to be about perfect to win those games, and it wasn’t perfect against a tough Jacksonville defense in January. Oh the big three still made outstanding plays and helped the Steelers become the first team in NFL history to lose at home in the playoffs after scoring more than 38 points, but you can’t expect to go anywhere with 45-42 games against Bortles.

That’s why I was surprised that the Steelers went for another wideout (James Washington) and a third-round quarterback (Mason Rudolph) over more immediate defensive help. Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds should help in the secondary, but I think T.J. Watt needs to be a standout in Year 2. If they can get Watt going along with Cameron Heyward for the pass rush, and Joe Haden to improve on his Pittsburgh debut, then there are high-caliber players to work with at each level in this defense.

Sometimes you don’t field your best team when you get to a Super Bowl. You get there because you’ve been good and have a lot of the right pieces in place, but things just haven’t been falling your way. Maybe this is the year the Steelers have everything fall into place, but beating New England (either in Week 15 or in January) has to happen. They can’t expect to avoid them like in 2005, 2008, and 2010. The AFC just isn’t deep enough, which is another reason why this team really needs to capitalize on a Super Bowl if this is indeed the last hurrah for Bell with Ben and Brown.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Look, Joe Flacco was trash last season, but Baltimore was still a 4th-and-12 stop away from 10-6 and the playoffs. Then that Andy Dalton touchdown pass in Week 17 happened, the lousy tie-breakers in the NFL were applied to get Buffalo and Tennessee in, and the 9-7 Ravens were at home for the playoffs for the third year in a row.

John Harbaugh can still coach. Alex Collins broke out behind a solid offensive line that gets Marshal Yanda back. The receivers have been upgraded. The defense, which pitched three shutouts last year, still has some great players and gets Tavon Young back in a deep secondary. The special teams are usually great, and Justin Tucker might be the only kicker in the league who is the best player on his team. The problem has been Flacco, who ranked dead last in YPA last season, but he has the team around him to make the playoffs. He also should have the motivation to actually earn some of his contract now that the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round. Jackson doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to play this year, so Flacco should have great job security for 2018. If he just plays a little better than he has, then this team is dangerous enough to compete for the Super Bowl, because Harbaugh knows how to play against the top competition in the Patriots and Steelers.

The Ravens have been right in the playoff mix late in the season the last two years, but just couldn’t keep their division rivals out of the end zone in crunch time. Don’t forget the Antonio Brown touchdown on Christmas Day in 2016, then the Boyd touchdown last year. The margin is that small in this league. On the flip side, the Ravens beat up last year on 0-16 Cleveland twice, the Packers without Rodgers, the Colts without Luck, the Texans without Watson, and the Dolphins without Tannehill (or even Jay Cutler). Sometimes the win column can be just as misleading.  But I think the 2018 schedule, especially early, favors Baltimore to have a good start and be in the mix late again.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

You want to talk about slim margins and feeling snake-bitten? The Bengals finished 7-9 last year, but blew a 7-point lead in the final four minutes against Green Bay and Pittsburgh, losing by a field goal each time. They also gave up a late touchdown pass to Marcus Mariota in a loss in Tennessee. This team easily could have gone 10-6, and that’s even after a brutal 0-2 start that required the offensive coordinator to be fired. Sure, the Dalton touchdown pass on 4th-and-12 was a miracle play, but maybe the tables would have been reversed with Baltimore had the Bengals gotten to play the Packers and Texans with Brett Hundley and Tom Savage instead of Rodgers and Watson.

I really thought I might have the Bengals in the playoffs, but a tougher schedule has them at 8-8 for me. Still, I think there’s some great potential here with John Ross hopefully producing something after a bagel last year as a top 10 pick. Maybe Tyler Eifert actually stays healthy, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. A.J. Green is still great, the offensive line is revamped and should be much better for Andy Dalton, who had a long stretch of games (Weeks 3-13) last year with numbers quite comparable to none other than Carson Wentz in the same span. The defense, led by Geno Atkins, has some underrated players in Andrew Billings, William Jackson, and Carl Lawson.

Do I think this team is ready to win a playoff game yet? No, but I also think Marvin Lewis should have been fired many years ago. He’ll enter Year 16 with a 0-7 playoff record, a resume that is unrivaled (and unwanted) in NFL history.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Contrary to what Joe Buck said on FOX during a preseason game, the Browns do not have better Super Bowl odds than the Falcons and Jaguars this year. I see people picking the Browns to make the playoffs, and perhaps crazier things have happened, but at least the 2008 Dolphins (from 1-15 to 11-5) hired a new coach (RIP Tony Sparano) and added a pretty good quarterback (Chad Pennington). The Browns have definitely upgraded the QB position with Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, but somehow 1-for-32 Hue Jackson is still there. He still has Gregg Williams aligning the defense in center field on third down, and now we add surly Todd Haley to the mix. It’s a coaching trio nightmare, and I don’t think this is the right group to develop what is actually a pretty respectable roster for a team coming off 0-16.

Personally, I would start Mayfield right away. I think like Myles Garrett in 2017, he was the right pick at No. 1 and will be a good one, but Taylor isn’t a bad option for now too. I’m hoping Josh Gordon is the leading receiver on this team, because he’s a special player when he’s active. But somehow I get the feeling that Jarvis Landry will find a way to get way more targets and catches. The only question is will they come with the value to warrant it? With multiple head coaches and quarterbacks in Miami, Landry produced a lot of the same results for four years, and it was not valuable to his offense, especially relative to other top-tier wide receivers. So that’s definitely something I want to look at with Cleveland this year in how they use Landry. David Njoku is also an exciting young tight end to develop, Antonio Callaway may have been a fourth-round steal, and Duke Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the league. In fact, Johnson averaged more yards per catch (9.4) than Landry (8.8) last season. Imagine that.

So the quarterback for this team has weapons to work with, an offensive line that looks to have moved on well enough from Joe Thomas’ retirement, and the defense looks pretty solid on paper. I can see the appeal of picking Cleveland to finish around 8-8, but I just think the coaching is still going to hold this team back, and the schedule should be tough. The AFC North is a solid division and the NFC South is one of the best in the league with three playoff teams last year. I think if Tyrod remains the quarterback, then his lack of turnovers should be a godsend to a team that was hurt badly by DeShone Kizer’s turnovers (especially in the red zone and in crunch time) last year. That’s reason enough to think the Browns could play more grind-it-out games with running the ball and defense leading the way to victory.

I just think it’ll have to be a new coach in 2019 leading this team, with budding stars in Mayfield and Garrett, back to winning records in an AFC dying for change.

NFC NORTH

1. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)

My thought process on Minnesota has been simple. Mike Zimmer and his staff have gotten the best out of Teddy Bridgewater (2015), Sam Bradford (2016), and Case Keenum (2017) over the last three years. Kirk Cousins is more consistent and has more sustained success than all three of those players. He’s less likely to be fool’s gold like Keenum last year. What Cousins didn’t have in Washington was a consistent defense, running game, or a healthy squad around him. Yet he still had Washington flirting around .500 for three years in a row. If you give him one of the best rosters in the NFL to work with, then why can’t he also see a boost in play like those other Zimmer quarterbacks have had? And that could be more than enough to push this team all the way after reaching the NFC Championship Game last year.

Now my concern is that the offensive line is not a strength, and Keenum was pretty great (in the regular season at least) at making things happen under pressure. It was one of the biggest advantages to his season since he had positive DVOA under pressure (done three times by a qualified starter since 2010). Play under pressure isn’t as consistent as play without pressure, but Cousins has never been anything special under pressure. He’s more likely to take a sack or do something silly with the ball. So I would be a bit concerned that this is one area where the Vikings may actually be regressing in that the offensive line has allowed a lot of pressure over Zimmer’s tenure. But I do like Cousins as a fit here with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Just a bit worried about the receiver depth should one of those players get hurt. At least Dalvin Cook returns to the backfield this year.

Defensively, they’re clearly one of the best units in the league, but again, great health last year and that’s hard to repeat. The depth at most positions doesn’t look too promising, so they have to hope all their stars have relatively healthy seasons again. We also need to see more takeaways from this defense. They only had one takeaway in the four losses last year (including none in the playoffs where the Eagles destroyed their historically great third-down defense).

I hope this prediction from March is way off:

I didn’t tweet that to say I want any of those things to happen, but as a comment on how expectations are going to be so high for Cousins this year, and things that could be totally out of his control could make this not work out the way everyone hopes. Consistently winning in the NFL is hard, but I think the Vikings made the right move with Cousins, who was briefly the highest-paid player in the league. I mean real briefly.

That may look like a bargain in a few years, but a failure to return to the playoffs in 2018 will not go over well in Minnesota. This team’s window is now.

2. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

We’ll start with the usual disclaimer: as long as Aaron Rodgers remains healthy, the Packers should be good for double-digit wins. Last season, he broke his collarbone again, so there went Green Bay’s season after eight straight trips to the playoffs.

What’s different this time around? For one, I think the schedule is very favorable, the defense should be at least mediocre under new coordinator Mike Pettine, and those two factors combined with a healthy Rodgers give the team a great shot at 12 wins for the first time since 2014. I still think Minnesota has a better roster, but at least the Packers did some free-agent spending under new GM Brian Gutekunst and added Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham. The defensive line could be special and the secondary is loaded with young talent.

This does feel like the weakest the wideouts have been in Rodgers’ time there with Jordy Nelson gone, but maybe one of the youngsters (J’Mon Moore or Equanimeous St. Brown) can step up. Graham should also help in the red zone a lot.

I think the craziest table I put together for FOA 2018 was the way Rodgers’ YPA has dropped off in various splits since 2015 compared to his peak years of 2009-2014 when he was incredible. It’s not fair to hold anyone to not maintaining that standard, but I think he should be at least above the NFL average over the last three years when he hasn’t been. So I’m curious to see what we’ll get this year with new coordinators in town (Joe Philbin came back), a new tight end, a decent RBBC, and hopefully what is great health for his age-35 season.

3. Detroit Lions (7-9)

The Lions have flirted with 7-11 wins for the last five seasons. The final number is basically dependent on how many 4QCs Matthew Stafford leads that season. As predicted, Detroit stunk in close games last year after setting the record with eight 4QC in 2016. Even though the Lions were 9-7 again with better stats, this time it wasn’t enough for the playoffs.

So now there’s a real change with Matt Patricia taking over as head coach. Bill Belichick’s assistants have flopped after leaving him. One of the toughest things to project is just how much of an impact they had versus Belichick’s control in New England. Patricia oversaw some pretty odd defenses the last few years. The Patriots give up a lot of successful plays, but still kept the scoring down after good situational play. I think the bend-but-don’t-break style was already going on in Detroit last year, but we could see even more of it this year. I just don’t think the defense has enough studs after Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah to rely on yet.

Fixing the defense and running game has been a common theme in the Stafford era, but it’s going on a decade with no one able to offer a solution. They drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round, but call me skeptical to trust any Detroit RB after the way things have gone at that position since Barry Sanders retired. The Lions haven’t had a 100-yard individual rusher since Reggie Bush on Thanksgiving in 2013. It’s not like the individual numbers matter, and the Lions have a RBBC in place with Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount offering different skillsets. But I just don’t see the Lions suddenly developing a strong running game behind a line that is still best suited to protect the passer.

One thing I really want to see is if Kenny Golladay can be a huge playmaker in his second year. He was cut short by injury as a rookie. I know the projection looks low at 7-9, but remember that Detroit got to sweep the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers last year, a team that often gives them fits when he’s active. He’s back now and the Bears are also better. It’s a tough division. We also know that Detroit just never shows up for the tough games. Stafford’s record as a starter in games against winning teams is now 6-52 (.103). That includes a 4-25 record under Caldwell and a 2-27 record in road games. Hey, at least Detroit beat the Vikings in Minnesota last year.

That’s the legacy that Patricia has to change, but I’m already seeing headlines where he’s discovering just how hard his job is, and the Lions had a pretty uninspiring preseason. I think it’s fair to be skeptical in Year 1 of Patricia.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

I did a lot of work on the Bears for FOA 2018, mostly focusing on the impact of a rookie head coach on a young quarterback and how Vic Fangio’s defense will hopefully have more takeaways (fewest picks since 2015). Also how the Bears have been the most injured team under John Fox, so hopefully better health as well. Little did I know that the team would make a huge trade for Khalil Mack right before Week 1. I don’t think it makes a big impact on the W-L record in 2018, but I like the move. Your quarterback is early into his rookie contract, so now is the time to pay an elite defender, which Mack certainly is. Just remember that Oakland’s defense was still often terrible with him, and they only had one winning record in four seasons. That’s why I said he doesn’t move the needle much by himself, but it is a good move for Chicago.

I keep saying 2019 is the year for this team to make the playoff push, because I think it’s going to take time for things to jell under rookie head coach Matt Nagy. Not only did Mack come in late, but Roquan Smith (another great move) signed his rookie deal late because of a weird dispute. With the offense, you’re asking a lot if you think this unit can improve to the level of Nagy’s Chiefs last year or what Sean McVay did for the Rams. Everyone wants to make that Nagy-Trubisky to McVay-Goff comparison, but I did the research on that and most rookie coaches, even offensive-minded ones, don’t do much with a young quarterback like Trubisky. Hell, Ken Whisenhunt barely waited before he benched Matt Leinart for Kurt Warner in 2007 (Arizona). Dennis Erickson didn’t get anything out of bust Rick Mirer. Those pairings don’t usually work out well, and McVay-Goff was such a historic improvement that you just shouldn’t expect it to repeat again.

Also, Trubisky does have a lot of room to grow. He was one of the least effective quarterbacks in the league last year with the highest failed completion rate and the worst ALEX. So Nagy may not be the best to bring out the aggression in him given his work with Alex Smith in Kansas City. But he does bring a better offensive system and this team should be able to run the ball well again. They also greatly upgraded their weapons, but let’s keep a few things in mind. Allen Robinson may very well be a one-year wonder (2015) and he’s coming back from a torn ACL. Taylor Gabriel is more of a role player (fills the Albert Wilson role for Nagy) than big contributor. Trey Burton was more of a TE3 in Philly and never had to be a TE1, but I would expect a career year. Anthony Miller, though intriguing, is a second-round rookie. It’s asking a lot for all of these guys to come together to produce a great offense right away. Like I said in the book, the Bears could finish 8-8 and still be lucky to finish 10th in the conference. But that’s why I keep saying 2019 is when Chicago should finally be back in the playoff picture.

And now with Mack to boot.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

I don’t have the rest of the AFC East winning more than five games. The division is a foregone conclusion with this team — we’re talking about the Super Bowl with New England.

So what are the new stories this time around? Tom Brady is 41 years old, which is the age when Brett Favre’s body finally broke down. Of course, in 2010 Favre didn’t report until mid-August and his diet likely didn’t consist of the atrocities that Brady and his shady doc pass off as food. Age 41 was also the last good year for Warren Moon in Seattle, so we are getting deeper into unchartered territory here with Brady. Brian Hoyer is the backup rather than Jimmy Garoppolo now, but you get the sense that Bill Belichick can still win with Hoyer. Could he make Hoyer look like Nick Foles? That I don’t think will happen, but they could survive a stretch if something happened to Brady.

It was about to look like a repeat of 2004-05 when the Patriots repeated and lost both coordinators in the offseason. But the Eagles shut the door on this repeat opportunity, and Josh McDaniels weaseled his way back to Belichick. Matt Patricia is gone, but that may not be much of a loss after the defense was shredded in the team’s four losses last season. I can’t help but feel like this is the weakest New England defense on paper in years after the latest departure of Malcolm Butler from the secondary. However, the secondary still looks like the strongest part of the defense with all the veterans in place (the McCourty brothers, Patrick Chung, Stephon Gilmore). That doesn’t say much for the front seven, but at least Hightower is back.

The attention on New England right now is that the wide receiver depth chart basically consists of Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett. That’s not reassuring, and it’s a far cry from having Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola like last year. However, Julian Edelman will be back after a four-game suspension. In the meantime, they still have the best tight end in NFL history and some capable receiving backs. Those guys will put in a lot of work in September, and Hogan may even benefit from the targets sure to come his way. Patterson will probably take one bubble screen to the house, though he is a limited receiver. The burning irony here is that Patterson and Dorsett are both first-round picks. We heard Patriots fans for years criticize other quarterbacks for playing with first-round receivers, but now Patterson and Dorsett will be used as part of Brady’s latest burden. Gee, it’s like whether or not a player is good actually matters too. With Gronk, Edelman, Hogan and the backs, this offense will have enough firepower down the stretch to score with anyone.

In the end, it comes down to what it always comes down to with the Patriots: that coin-flip finish in the postseason. Can a team get pressure on Brady in the fourth quarter? Can the opposing quarterback lead a game-winning drive against Belichick’s defense that has only blown 18 fourth-quarter leads in 17 seasons? As I posted after SB 52, getting more pressure on Brady in the fourth quarter in the playoffs is the key. The Broncos (2015) and Eagles (SB 52) did so, but the other defenses did not.

I think Houston in Week 1 is a very interesting matchup as the Texans should have won that game last season, but dropped an interception late and gave up a game-winning touchdown to Cooks. I don’t think the Chiefs will have the offensive maturity (Mahomes is raw) to win in a postseason setting this year. The Jaguars have the defense, but can they trust Blake Bortles to throw on first down? I actually like Jacksonville to win that game in Week 2. I also think the Steelers get revenge on the Patriots in Week 15, which is why New England will be the No. 2 seed instead of No. 1. So like last year, Week 15 at Pittsburgh should define the regular season for this team. Oh, and I also snuck in another loss at Miami the week before. Otherwise the Patriots should finish 5-1 in division games.

This feels like the most vulnerable that New England has been in years, but I don’t think the conference, especially in the division, is ready to overthrow them from another first-round bye just yet.

2. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

I got into it with Miami fans again last season. It was probably an extension from 2016 when I said Miami was one of the worst 10-6 teams ever (supported by data). After the Dolphins were stomped out of the playoffs by Pittsburgh, I really wanted to see how Ryan Tannehill would fare in Year 2 with Adam Gase as his head coach. Of course, we never got to see that, but we were treated to Jay Cutler throwing 3-yard passes on third-and-14 to Jarvis Landry. The Cutler experiment never worked and the Dolphins were their post-Dan Marino irrelevant selves again last season.

Of course, the team was 4-2 at one point, but I think I may have stirred the pot again by calling them the worst 4-2 team ever (again, supported by data). This team was manhandled 40-6 to the Jets and Saints, only scoring that touchdown on the final play of the game against the Jets. The wins came via a missed field goal by the Chargers (typical), a 16-10 shitshow over the Mariota-less Titans, a 20-17 win over Atlanta after a tipped interception late in scoring territory, and a 14-point 4QC over the lowly Jets. You knew Gase wasn’t going to win every single one-score game ever, but the Dolphins only won twice the rest of the season. Sure, the win over New England was very impressive, but the Dolphins seem to do that often to that team in Miami. At least that was a highlight win for Gase’s first two years.

I want to believe Tannehill can come back better than ever, but two straight season-ending knee injuries is scary stuff. But he at least played well in the preseason and is healthy now. The move away from Landry may also be a blessing in disguise if it gets DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki more involved instead of what felt like force-feeding targets to Landry at times. Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake make for a pretty solid running back duo, and the defense isn’t without talent either. Cameron Wake can still get after the quarterback and Minkah Fitzpatrick made a ton of sense in the first round.

To be perfectly honest, Miami was my go-to team just to help some teams accumulate wins instead of having teams under 3-13. So I had them split with the Bills and Jets, for example. I also ended up putting the Dolphins at 0-8 on the road.

It may not make sense to most fans for a team to lose Landry and Ndamukong Suh and get better, but I’ve honestly never thought either of those players moved the needle much. So in a quarterback-driven league, Miami likely breaks .500 in a true breakout year by Tannehill — a tall order in Year 7 of a career. I’m not counting on that to happen obviously, but I’m at least able to see why the pieces are here for an improvement to happen. So take a bow, Miami fans, because I won’t surprise myself if I’m off by 4+ games on this one.

3. New York Jets (4-12)

One preseason prediction I got right last year was that the Jets would draft USC quarterback Sam Darnold in 2018. I thought it was going to be the first overall pick, but instead they moved up to third and got a break from the other New York team when they took the running back instead. I think much like when Leonard Williams (USC too) fell to the Jets in the draft, Darnold just fell and they made the no-brainer move.

GM Mike Maccagnan’s drafts have not been very good since 2015. At least he didn’t wait long to let the stain of Christian Hackenberg in the second round set in, but Bryce Petty, Devin Smith, and Lorenzo Mauldin haven’t worked out well either. He absolutely needs Darnold to be a hit.

I don’t know if the quarterback situation is exactly improved in 2018, because Josh McCown really had a career year in many ways last season. He helped Robby Anderson develop as a vertical threat, and Jermaine Kearse rebounded from a terrible 2016 in Seattle. Terrelle Pryor was a total bust in Washington, but maybe he can get back on track in New York. The leading receiver should be Quincy Enunwa, who looked impressive in 2016 before missing all of last year with an injury. The Jets are still nothing to write home about with the line or at tight end. Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell are serviceable in the backfield, but again, nothing special there.

So Darnold isn’t exactly going to start with a strong cast, but he should at least have a respectable defense. The Jets have really revamped the secondary after drafting two safeties in 2017 and adding Trumaine Johnson from the Rams. Morris Claiborne has improved from his Dallas days, but this isn’t a secondary that any of the top quarterbacks will fear throwing against. Williams lost Sheldon Richardson a year ago and now Muhammad Wilkerson went to Green Bay, so that defensive line isn’t what it used to be.

The Jets are still another draft or two away from really competing, but you just hope that Darnold shows improvement throughout the season and the team is ready to strike by the time Tom Brady finally retires in New England.

4. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

While the Jets seem to have a plan, can anyone explain what the hell the Bills are doing? They have over $50M in dead money going out to players. The gutting of this roster that once featured some impressive young talent continued in 2018. Some things were out of Buffalo’s control, such as Eric Wood retiring from injury, or when Richie Incognito finally flew over the cuckoo’s nest. But the draft was in Buffalo’s control, and the idea of a bold trade was floated around in March. They wouldn’t possibly trade up for Josh Allen at No. 7, right? That’s just crazy.

Welp, they did. So like I said, imagine gutting your roster, getting rid of Tyrod Taylor (your best QB since Jim Kelly), signing AJ McCarron, trading up to draft Josh Allen, cutting McCarron, and starting Nathan Peterman in Week 1. That’s where we are with this team. Whether it’s Peterman or Allen at quarterback, how in the world could this offense be effective? The offensive line has looked terrible after losing Wood, Incognito and trading Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati (another move that didn’t have to happen). You have a low catch rate receiver in Kelvin Benjamin who doesn’t have much value outside of trying to win jump balls. You have a possession receiver in Zay Jones who was horrific last year in catching 36.5% of his passes. Jeremy Kerley and Andre Holmes are low-production journeymen. Charles Clay is just a solid tight end. LeSean McCoy, assuming he faces no legal or suspension issues, is still quite good, but will see an inferior line in front of him this season. It’s just going to be one big bag of suck, relying on even more fluky turnovers to keep coming from a defense that actually wasn’t that good last year. At least I like Tre’Davious White a lot.

So while the Bills ended their playoff drought last year, that’s more about the NFL’s weak tie-breaker system that lets a team that was outscored by 57 points get in over two much stronger teams in Baltimore and the Chargers. This wasn’t a good team last year and it’s by large gotten worse this year. That’s why I have the Bills with the worst record in the league.

I know I picked Buffalo (and the Jets too) to finish 2-14 last year and was way off by the final record, but I think the fans who turned on Taylor after the New Orleans game are going to wish they had someone who can make something happen under pressure and doesn’t turn the ball over like crazy. Peterman’s not the long-term answer. Allen should start Week 1, but the fact that he’s not just further confirms the fact that trading for him was absurd. You make that move if you’re getting Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to be the savior of your team. The kid who couldn’t find the broad side of a barn at Wyoming is not that type of prospect.

Maybe the day will come where I have to eat crow on Allen in the NFL. Trust me, Buffalo having a good quarterback and actually being worth watching would be fine with me. I’m beyond tired of New England ruling the AFC East. But I think this is just another draft pick that explains why the Patriots continue to dominate this division while the Bills are a laughingstock.

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

We’re still in the longest stretch in NFL history without a repeat champion (none since 2003-04 Patriots). We can thank the Eagles for keeping that alive by beating the Patriots last year, but can they repeat themselves now? You have to believe the Eagles are right in the mix in the NFC again, because this is one of the few teams that can reasonably finish in the top 10 on offense and defense. They have balance.

But I don’t really think there’s much that separates the Eagles from the other contenders in the NFC right now (Rams, Vikings, Packers, Falcons, and Saints). That should be a nice six-team battle all year long. Attrition might just win out. The Eagles did a great job of surviving injuries to Carson Wentz, Darren Sproles, and Jason Peters last year. They’ll get those players back, though Wentz’s return is TBD, and Super Bowl hero Corey Clement showed a lot of promise in Sproles’ absence last year. The losses aren’t too bad at all with Mike Wallace replacing Torrey Smith and Michael Bennett replacing Vinny Curry in the pass rush. You could really say first-round pick Derek Barnett is replacing Curry, which just goes to show how loaded that DL rotation is with Fletcher Cox, Haloti Ngata, Brandon Graham, and Chris Long. The rest of the defense is nowhere near as intimidating, and they did lose slot corner Patrick Robinson. At least we should get to see 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones play this season.

One thing I will say that separates the Eagles from those other NFC teams is they have the best backup quarterback in the league right now with Nick Foles. The Super Bowl MVP will start the season tonight, but his career has been so up and down that it’s hard to say what to expect from him. I also think it’s reasonable to say that his postseason run was so good that Wentz could play 15 more years and never match it. So even if the Eagles return to the playoffs, it’s not like we know what to expect there given that Wentz wasn’t able to participate last season.

The lack of track record here makes this prediction that much more difficult. The Eagles won the Super Bowl after missing the playoffs for three years. That’s very rare, and teams close to that don’t always return the following year (see 1982 49ers or 2002 Patriots). It’s not like Doug Pederson or Wentz are finished products yet. The offensive-minded Pederson has to show he can replace Frank Reich and John DeFilippo on his coaching staff without missing a beat.

As for Wentz, while he made big improvements on his rookie year, I didn’t think his season was MVP caliber. I think the way Foles performed in his absence further cemented the thought that he shouldn’t be an MVP front-runner yet. Wentz only completed 60.2 percent of his passes with 7.5 YPA. There’s a ton of room for improvement there. The stat where Wentz soared was TD%, which was heavily influenced by the great field position he worked with. That’s hard to sustain year after year, so look for his TD% to drop this year. What was more impressive was how he handled third down and the red zone. Very strong performances there that will need to continue for the Eagles to keep a leg up on the competition. The knee injury shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s believed that it’s not until that second season back when a player is truly 100 percent. For example, Donovan McNabb tore his ACL in 2006, and his 2008 season was better than his 2007. Tom Brady’s 2010 was better than his 2009. With Wentz not returning in Week 1, which I thought was pretty likely given the ACL return timetable, we can’t assume there won’t be any ill effects from that injury this season.

I’m not going on some anti-Wentz rant here, but I am going to be logical about the Eagles’ chances this season. Are teams quarterbacked by Goff, Cousins, Rodgers, Ryan and Brees any worse off than one with Wentz coming back from a major knee injury? I don’t think so, though I do think Goff is a clear step down from that pack so far. Is Jay Ajayi and the backfield better than having Gurley, Cook, Green Bay’s RBBC, Freeman/Coleman, or Kamara/Ingram? I think Rodgers has the short end of the stick there, but those are favorable backfields for the other teams. Defensively, again I think Rodgers gets the short end, but he’s also the most talented QB here, and the other players have potentially strong defenses too. If you give a Ryan or Brees or Cousins a defense for a change, then why couldn’t they do something great too this season? The NFC playoffs basically came down to a few miracle completions (the deflected Foles completion before halftime that wasn’t picked off and the Minnesota Miracle) and one disastrous red-zone sequence with an incompletion (Ryan to Julio). I also don’t think the Eagles have the best receivers out of this group of six teams (tight ends included), though I did find the Dallas Goedert draft pick to be very smart.

While I’d be a bit surprised if the Eagles regressed out of the postseason, I don’t think they enter 2018 with any major advantages over their top competition. Winning the ring last year was great, but as this era has shown, repeating is extremely difficult.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

So there’s that. At 5-3, Dallas was in okay shape last season, losing a couple of high-scoring heartbreakers at home to the Rams and Packers. Then the Atlanta game happened. Not only did that begin Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension, but left tackle Tyron Smith missed the next two games. The Falcons, Eagles and Chargers destroyed Dallas 92-22 in a three-week period. The Cowboys won four of their last five, but lost a big game (with Elliott and Smith back) to Seattle in Week 16 to miss the playoffs. A friendly reminder that the Cowboys scored 18 points in the last two weeks with Elliott back, so you can’t put all the struggles on “Dak’s nothing without Zeke.”

Now obviously Elliott and Smith are very important to this offense, but the offense still had talent without those players and could not score for three weeks. That also doesn’t excuse the pathetic defense that could not get a second-half stop for three weeks. Jason Garrett seemed to completely forget how to coach for those three weeks. Case in point, how do you keep letting Smith’s backup, Chaz Green, get beat for six sacks by the same move by Adrian Clayborn in Atlanta? That was a nightmare stretch for Dallas, the No. 1 seed in 2016.

Prescott’s second season certainly wasn’t on par with his rookie year, but it overall wasn’t that bad for a sophomore effort. I think with Smith and Elliott back this year, this offense has the potential to still be very good. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were no longer getting separation or YAC. Prescott never had a good connection with Dez even in 2016, so I think they get over that loss. I’m just not convinced that Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and rookie Michael Gallup are the right trio of receivers to make up for those losses. They also didn’t fill the hole at tight end, but Rico Gathers has looked impressive at times in the past. Maybe he’s the Witten replacement, but we’ll just have to see.

Honestly, I’m surprised the Cowboys didn’t draft tight end Dallas Goedert in the second round. The Eagles just snagged him ahead of Dallas. When I mentioned this on Twitter in the preseason, there was this huge backlash as if Dallas could do no wrong in wanting left guard Connor Williams instead. “They never wanted Goedert” was a common response. How do we know Williams is going to work out? What if Goedert goes on to be a great tight end for your big rival? I don’t see the logic in how ignoring a potentially great player at a position you clearly needed is a good thing for Dallas. The offensive line was already supposed to be a strength, so why not fix tight end? We’ll see how it shakes out, though now the line doesn’t look so hot with the Travis Frederick health news. Always interesting in Dallas.

This is going to be Garrett’s eighth full* season as the head coach in Dallas. He has yet to reach a conference championship game. If it wasn’t for Marvin Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati, I would say this just doesn’t happen in NFL history, but it shouldn’t happen in Dallas where expectations are always high.

*Well, we’ll see if it’s a full season. His eighth Week 1 at least.

If Dallas finishes with a losing record this year, I don’t see how this team doesn’t finally move on at head coach. They’re going to end up wasting Prescott during his rookie contract.

3. Washington Redskins (8-8)

My dark horse for most surprising team in 2018 would probably be Washington. I know 8-8 doesn’t sound like much when the Redskins were 7-9 last year, but that’s just because I was ultra conservative with picking wins and losses on their schedule.

What if Alex Smith, coming off his finest season yet, is actually a solid addition at quarterback? Personally, I would have paid Kirk Cousins, who is younger and perhaps hasn’t peaked yet, but this team basically burned that bridge already. Smith was a decent rebound option. I think he has a solid trio of wide receivers, gets to play with Vernon Davis again (you stay healthy too, Jordan Reed), and Chris Thompson is a receiving back that Smith should fall in love with quickly. Oh yeah, they also added Adrian Peterson after Derrius Guice tore his ACL, but at least Washington is a better fit than New Orleans for Peterson.

The defense has a pretty solid mixture of young players and veterans. Just imagine for once if this team actually stays healthy. Jay Gruden has dealt with some of the worst injury luck of any coach I’ve studied. So if you can get Smith to continue his low-turnover, somewhat efficient level of play, and the defense improves, then you’re talking about a team that can hang with just about anyone. The Redskins should have beaten the Chiefs and Saints last year, but Josh Doctson dropped a game-winning touchdown in the end zone and the Saints made a ridiculous 15-point comeback late in the game.

Washington might sneak up on some people this year, but at least this is one that would make some sense.

4. New York Giants (4-12)

Look, with a 37-year-old Eli Manning near the end of his rope, I don’t know how the Giants could pass on a quarterback for a running back. Even if Saquon Barkley is the real deal, this team had its pick of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and yes, even Josh Allen with the No. 2 pick. I was always strongly against the Giants making the Barkley pick, because it’s a replaceable position where you can easily find production anywhere. It’s a position that is increasingly going to a committee approach to help with fatigue and feature specific skillsets (receiving, blocking, goal line). It’s a glamour position that doesn’t bring in rings like it used to. Did the Giants win a Super Bowl with the great Tiki Barber? No, he retired and they won it the next year with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. They won it again four years later with a fairly weak running game too. Why? The quarterback was at his peak, but Peak Eli was seven years ago.

Maybe Pat Shurmur has better success in his second stint as a head coach, but I think he’ll have to look for a quarterback again next year. If Eli can’t improve in this offense, then it’s definitely time to move on. It’s actually a pretty attractive offense for a quarterback with Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and if Barkley is as good as advertised. They made some adjustments to the o-line with Nate Solder and rookie left guard Will Hernandez.

I think the defense is still pretty suspect after losing Jason Pierre-Paul. Eli Apple hasn’t worked out yet as a high draft pick. At least they have pieces in place such as Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon, but it’s not one of the stronger defenses for the Giants.

So I still see this team finishing in last place. If Shurmur can work some magic with the talent that we know Eli has (it just doesn’t show up consistently like it did for his brother), then maybe there’s a rebound here. But just remember, the 1981 Saints drafted George Rogers first overall. He was about as impressive as he could be for a rookie, finishing with the most carries (378) and rushing yards (1,674) in the league. He also scored 13 touchdowns and was first-team All-Pro and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Oh yeah, the Saints also finished dead last in scoring and were a 4-12 team. It’s not that important of a position.

Barkley’s going to give us highlights that Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Gallman could only dream of, but from a team building perspective, this looks like a draft the Giants will regret.

AFC SOUTH

1. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The AFC South was the toughest division for me to predict. I think it’s the one where the four teams are the closest together, and has some of the biggest question marks on star players returning from injury or a limited sample of NFL play.

In the end, I have the Jaguars repeating after a really strong 5-0 start before things cool down. I think at some point last year I compared the 2017 Jaguars to the 2006 Bears, but what if they were the 2005 Bears and the 2018 team is the 2006 Super Bowl team from Chicago? Either way, it’s a reference to Blake Bortles having Rex Grossman’s erratic play and relying on the running game to pound out carries and the defense to just be incredible.

Teams like this usually don’t sustain success in the NFL, because it’s just harder to be that great on defense year after year than it is on offense. We’ve seen this happen in Denver just recently. It’s also a fact that Jacksonville picked up 20 sacks in two games last year against bad teams starting quarterbacks not named Andrew Luck or Deshaun Watson.  That made those four games, all easy Jacksonville wins, much easier than they should be this year with those players back.

Bortles loved throwing drag routes last year, which Marqise Lee was great on (the other Jacksonville receivers were terrible). Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL. The Jaguars survived Allen Robinson’s ACL tear in Week 1 just fine last year after Keelan Cole stepped up. They have Dede Westbrook too and added Donte Moncrief, but it’s not a well-developed passing offense. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the TE1 and he was very ineffective with the Jets last year. Leonard Fournette should still be a workhorse, but keep in mind that the Jaguars were dominant in the three games he missed. He’s not a top-tier back yet.

It’s not like the defense still can’t be great, but I just don’t see the same dominance happening again. They were also very healthy last year, which is always important.

One thing I found interesting was the lack of talk about Doug Marrone last year. He finally got production out of a talented roster that Gus Bradley was wasting. Then I saw the AFC Championship Game where Marrone kept trying to run for a yard on every first down to get out of New England with a win. Yeah, we know that’s not going to work, and eventually the Jaguars were doomed like so many before them that played conservatively against the Patriots.

Then on Wednesday, I saw an article where Marrone said he wants zero turnovers from Bortles this season. Now as a goal on each Sunday, that’s a reasonable request of your quarterback. However, I hope Marrone doesn’t actually think any quarterback could get through a whole season without several turnovers. It’s just not feasible. Truly the worst part about the article was when Marrone said he would not exchange five more interceptions from Bortles if it meant an extra 15 touchdown passes. Are you kidding me? What coach would turn down that kind of trade-off? That’s a guaranteed +105 points for the offense assuming all extra points are made. As for the five interceptions, that’s 35  opportunity points your offense missed out on, and 35 points that may go to the other team in return. So worst-case scenario you’re looking at a net -70 points from the picks, which would still leave you +35 on the scoreboard. And when you expect your defense to be great, you don’t expect to give up five touchdowns on those picks.

It’s just frustrating to see coaches talk about turnovers like this. The Jaguars lost two games by a FG last year, and another one to Tennessee by 5 points. Just one extra touchdown in those games means a 13-3 finish and first-round bye.

Long story short, and #MylesJackWasntDown aside, I don’t expect Marrone to outwit Belichick any time soon, but maybe Calais Campbell can come up with a late strip-sack on Brady to make him look like he did. It’s all about finishing in this league and the Jaguars just didn’t put New England away. Lesson learned, hopefully.

2. Houston Texans (9-7)

J.J. Watt coming back from a major injury would usually be a huge deal, but we had that story last year and he just got hurt again. This team is about Deshaun Watson now after we got a brief glimpse of what could have been the greatest rookie quarterback season ever until a non-contact ACL injury in practice ended it.

Watson was electrifying last season. The Texans scored an extra 21 points per game with him compared to Tom Savage and T.J. Yates. It was only 6.5 games, but Watson had the highest DVOA without pressure since 2010, and the highest pressure rate in Football Outsiders’ database since 2010. He was on pace to rush for over 500 yards too. The TD% was a ridiculous 9.3 percent, which will surely go down this year, but to what exactly? That’s why I’m anticipating Watson’s season as much as any young quarterback’s season that I’ve ever seen.

Watson is the main reason I’m picking the Texans to return to the playoffs, but it also helps to be in the AFC where nine wins are probably good enough. The return of Watt and Whitney Mercilus could really help out a defense that struggled last year. Remember, for all of Watson’s brilliance, the defense couldn’t stop Brady and Wilson at the end of those games. So while I don’t think Houston is ready to overtake the division just yet, there is arguably more potential with this team than any in the league given what a healthy Watson and Watt could mean for both sides of the ball. I’m just hesitant to go above 9-7 based on a sample of 6.5 games from the quarterback and the fact that Watt hasn’t been at a dominant level since the 2015 season.

3. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

I know, eight wins sound like a lot for a team that has a rookie head coach and arguably the worst non-quarterback roster in the NFL. That quarterback also hasn’t played since 2016 and was very shy about throwing downfield in the preseason (I wouldn’t worry about that yet until he does it in real games.) Drafting a guard with the 6th pick isn’t the most exciting addition in the world either.

But hear me out.

The 2017 Colts also had a pretty trash roster, Chuck Pagano was the head coach, Jacoby Brissett had to learn on the fly to start 15 games, and that team should have been way better than 4-12.

The 2017 Colts lost seven games after leading at halftime, the second-highest total in NFL history (1979 49ers/1990 Broncos – 8). Indianapolis blew five fourth-quarter leads, two more than any other team in 2017. The defense couldn’t hold the lead and the offense often went into the tank after halftime.

If — and it’s a big if — Luck returns at the level he has played in the past, then he can carry this team to at least twice that win total. He likely would have had this team with 8-9 wins last year, because he is great at finishing games off. The Colts’ problems under Pagano were usually the days where they were just blown out so badly right away on both sides of the ball that even Luck couldn’t dig out of the hole.

Frank Reich is a fresh set of eyes that the Colts needed after enough of the Pagano era. He wasn’t the first hire in mind, but he very well may be better than Josh McDaniels would have been anyway. But this all comes back to getting Luck back to throwing downfield and extending plays at a level that few in the league can emulate. I don’t like the weapons much at all. I think going overkill with the tight end position (Jack Doyle AND Eric Ebron?) is the wrong move here, because Luck likes his wideouts usually, and T.Y. Hilton is about all he has left anymore. To be fair, Ryan Grant had some decent metrics with Washington and might work out, but this is a pretty thin receiving corps on paper.

It’s not likely going to be a pretty season for Indy, but at least Luck is back. The last time we saw him in a game that mattered, he led a 17-point comeback against a Jacksonville defense that was starting most of the talent it has now. He definitely has to be conscious of getting rid of the ball more quickly at times, but as long as Reich doesn’t have him totally neutered in this return, I think the Colts stay in the playoff race all year long.

4. Tennessee Titans (7-9)

I think the Titans are hurt the most by the changes in the AFC South this year. This team doesn’t have an incredible defense like the one in Jacksonville, and Marcus Mariota’s down year puts him behind what Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson can bring to their teams. The Titans also just about never beat Indy when the right quarterback is under center there (going back to 2009). Houston beat Tennessee 57-14 with Watson last year, but lost 24-13 in the rematch.

So I think that alone can change that 9-7 record into 7-9, but I am interested to see if Mariota picks things up now that Mike Mularkey is gone. It won’t be rookie coach Mike Vrabel, who has little resume to speak of coaching-wise, making the big impact there, but new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. He was Matt Ryan’s position coach for his 2016 MVP season and the offensive coordinator with the Rams last year under Sean McVay. Now I think projecting a McVay-type impact is a bit shaky, but if it means more play-action passing for Mariota, then that could be a great thing for the offense. I also think Corey Davis should show much more at wide receiver and Dion Lewis was a good pickup to the backfield.

Malcolm Butler was a good signing in the offseason on defense, and safety Kevin Byard had the breakout year I expected him to last season. The secondary will likely be the best part of the defense, but it still doesn’t look to have the makings of a great unit.

Lack of greatness is really a roster-wide problem with the Titans right now. There’s enough here for Vrabel to get to 9-7 as a first-year coach, but I think that’s more of a ceiling than the floor for this team.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

A 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI against the 2016 Patriots — didn’t hold up. A first-and-goal at the 9, down 15-10 to the 2017 Eagles — didn’t get in the end zone. Two of the most memorable plays in those games were passes that should have been intercepted, but somehow ended up as completions for the Patriots (Julian Edelman on the game-tying drive) and Eagles (Torrey Smith before halftime). In between those games, we charted just five passes where a defense dropped an interception that turned into a completion for the opponent. Five times all season, but twice in the last two playoffs for Atlanta.

The Falcons have to be kicking themselves after giving the last two champions their biggest scare in the playoffs. This team has been that close to greatness. Just about everything that could have gone wrong after 28-3 went wrong last year, but this time in Philadelphia it was more about a horrible red-zone sequence of plays called by Steve Sarkisian. While some will say Julio Jones dropped that fourth-and-2 pass, I think he would have struggled to get his feet down in bounds, and it was just a terrible play call anyway.

So now the Falcons return with basically the same offensive cast, swapping Taylor Gabriel for rookie Calvin Ridley. Sarkisian has a year under his belt, and remember, Kyle Shanahan wasn’t too good in his first year with Atlanta. The defense should probably be better than the statistics suggest given all the talent (Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal). There’s enough young talent there to still get better, and we’re talking about a 15-10 loss last year, so the defense did a good enough job. You just have to finish the game, and the Falcons haven’t done that in the last two postseasons.

I’m going all in on Atlanta this year to finally get the job done in Dan Quinn’s fourth season. I am a believer in certain teams needing a few heartbreaks before getting over the hump. The 1996 Packers, 2006 Colts, 2012 Ravens and 2015 Broncos are all proof of that. With those last three teams, you can definitely say that wasn’t the “best” team those franchises fielded during their run, but it was the one that finished in the postseason.

With Atlanta, I see a similar story unfolding, because I have the Falcons starting strong, including wins in both Pennsylvania trips. Yes, I think Atlanta avenges the Philadelphia loss tonight with Nick Foles under center for the Eagles. Yes, I realize something could happen tonight that throws off my whole story here, but I’m fine with that. I also have the Falcons struggling late in the year, losing on the road in New Orleans, Green Bay and Carolina. Just enough doubt late in the season for the Falcons to fly under the radar into the postseason, where they have been successful lately, winning at least one game in each of the last three trips.

The added bonus of the Super Bowl being played in Atlanta this season could be just the edge this team needs to get over the hump. Imagine a true home-field advantage in the Super Bowl. We know the Vikings came up a game short of hosting last year’s big game, but I think Atlanta pulls it off this year.

2. New Orleans Saints (10-6)

As I showed in FOA 2018, last year was really a tale of three seasons in one for the Saints, who broke their 7-9 funk streak to get back to the playoffs.

There were the first two games where the defense looked as putrid as ever, albeit against elite competition (Vikings and Patriots). Then the team finally found a defense and running game for Drew Brees, led by dominant rookie performers in Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara. The Saints won eight in a row and looked Super Bowl ready. But then the defense and running game fell closer to the middle of the pack, and the Saints were a mediocre 4-4 to finish the year, losing in the playoffs on a miracle touchdown by Stefon Diggs in Minnesota.

So I’m a little concerned that the Saints are closer to a mediocre team that is still led by its most consistent part (Brees), a part that turned 39 in January. Brees didn’t have to do as much heavy lifting last season, but he still completed 72 percent of his passes (NFL record again) and led the league in YPA. He was throwing the shortest passes in the league relative to the sticks, but the running game was so efficient and the receivers were so good after the catch that it worked out. Still, Brees fell out of the top 8 in converting third-down throws for the first time in New Orleans. Sometimes you still have to throw beyond the sticks and be aggressive, so we’ll see if the Saints continue to rely so much on the running backs in the passing game.

Mark Ingram will be suspended for four games, but I’m really excited to see what Alvin Kamara can do if they increase his workload. I’m skeptical that they will, but maybe he can handle a peak Jamaal Charles type of workload. He had such an efficient, versatile year as a runner, receiver, and returner. It’s hard to expect he’ll be as good this year, but the Saints should still be balanced on offense.

Defensively, I did not care for the trade of a first-round pick to get Marcus Davenport, who won’t be a Week 1 starter this year. I thought the Saints could have used some more immediate help or keep that pick to get better next year. The window is very small for Brees here.

In the end, it all comes down to finishing. The Saints couldn’t close out Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Minnesota late in the season. This team otherwise may have been in the Super Bowl instead of Philadelphia. It would be nice to see Brees get one more shot at a ring at 39, an age where Manning and Brady won their last rings.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

In the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era, the Panthers have had three winning seasons and four losing seasons. I think this is the first 8-8 season. Again, the division/conference are deep, and I just trust Matt Ryan and Drew Brees to be more consistent than Cam Newton.

Norv Turner is the new offensive coordinator, and I’m curious to see how he uses Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson. Turner typically likes a workhorse back, but we’ll see if McCaffrey can sustain touches like that. McCaffrey had one game with 15 carries last season and generally wasn’t effective as a rusher. Would Turner ever think to use both together with McCaffrey playing in the slot?

This is probably the deepest Carolina has been at receiver in the Newton era with the additions of D.J. Moore, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, and the return of tight end Greg Olsen.

The front seven still looks solid and the secondary still looks shaky. Carolina played well against most offenses last year except for the Saints, the only team to gouge them for more than 30 points in a 3-game sweep. I actually have the Saints ending Carolina’s season again in Week 17. A win at home by New Orleans puts the Saints into the 6th seed, dropping Carolina to 8-8.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)

I may regret this one, but I had Tampa Bay at 10-6 last season and it was a really disappointing season. This year I found the Buccaneers the hardest team to find wins for in the NFC. The Jameis Winston suspension is a small part of that, because I think even with him starting 0-3 is a real possibility based on the schedule. It’s a really tough schedule when you play in a division where the other three teams made the playoffs last year and all have well-established quarterbacks. I covered this in FOA 2018 that it’s a disadvantage facing Winston that no other quarterback in the 32-team era has faced. Every other quarterback in his division has either won an MVP or Super Bowl MVP.

I don’t think center Ryan Jensen is the magical answer to making the OL better, and Ronald Jones had a very disappointing preseason. Now preseason doesn’t often mean much, but it would have at least been inspiring if he was productive in it. A lot of rookie backs usually do look good in August if they work out in the real games. So the running game may still be an issue. Defensively, I like what they did to revamp the line, but the secondary still leaves me unimpressed. In a division where everyone can throw (and a conference that’s deep at QB), that’s a big problem.

Maybe Winston returns with a new focus that brings out his very best and the team gets to 7-8 wins, but my gut says it’s a real down year that leads to Dirk Koetter getting fired. Possibly the first coach to be fired in 2018.

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

I’m sticking with the Chiefs to win the division, because for all his shortcomings, Andy Reid is still the best coach in the AFC West. He knows how to get the most out of his quarterbacks, and Patrick Mahomes is such an exciting prospect to play in this system. I remember writing once that by going to Kansas City, he might actually have a defense unlike his days in college. Welp, the Chiefs have fallen off a good bit on defense, so it very well may look like Texas Tech all over again for Mahomes. That’s why I’m only going 9-7 in a tight division.

The good news is that this offense is stacked with athletes. Tyreek Hill might be the fastest wideout in the game, and that 60+ yard touchdown bomb the two connected on in the preseason could be a sign of things to come. Travis Kelce only looks up to Gronk in the TE rankings in this league. Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie. Sammy Watkins should be a solid addition and another vertical threat. It’s just about the perfect setup for Mahomes, who may end up leading the league in ALEX, aDOT, and the lowest failed completion rate. He’s the complete opposite of Alex Smith when it comes to being aggressive.

Having said that, I will acknowledge that Mahomes may not be an upgrade to Smith in 2018. For one, Smith was at his best in 2017. He still wasn’t overly aggressive, but when he did throw deep, he was often on the money and delivered some big throws in big moments. So the success of the deep passing game may not actually improve this year (quantity will though). The other big thing is turnovers. Smith always kept his low, but with Mahomes, I get the feeling we’ll be routinely shaking our heads wondering why he threw that ball. He’ll offset it by making spectacular, highlight-worthy plays too, but I think the growing pains of being a first-year starter are going to lead to more turnovers than usual in a Reid offense, which could be a problem with a defense that’s not up to par.

But Mahomes is no longer a rookie, and we’ve seen first-year starters (non-rookies) light it up before. Daunte Culpepper in 2000 is a great example of that. I don’t see any reason why Mahomes couldn’t be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback right away with the talent around him and the coaching advantage he has. The only quarterbacks I’m more excited to see this year are Watson and Garoppolo, but we just may be talking about the Chiefs as the most explosive offense out there.

Unfortunately a division win means another playoff game at cursed Arrowhead.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

I have the Chargers barely in the playoffs, but I’m really skeptical of picking this team to do big things like get a bye or even win a playoff game. Philip Rivers has been consistently putting up big numbers for years, but his efficiency peaked in 2008-09 if we’re being honest. We also know the team can’t stay healthy as they already have the worst injury luck with Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett going down before Week 1. At least Antonio Gates re-signed with the team and they are used to playing without Verrett (deep at corner too). But it sure would have been nice to have those two guys ready this season.

The other issue I have is that the Chargers have folded against good competition for years. The Chargers are 3-20 in their last 23 games against teams that made the playoffs that year. That includes two wins over the 2016 Texans (Osweiler trash team) and 2017 Bills in the infamous Nathan Peterman start. About the only impressive win this team has in four years was the 33-30 comeback win in overtime in Atlanta in 2016. (In case you haven’t heard, the 2016 Falcons liked to blow big leads.) But that’s it. And when Rivers has played the Patriots in his career, well let’s just say Murphy’s Law unfolded almost every time. We saw that again last year when the Chargers self-destructed in a 21-13 loss. They somehow intercepted Blake Bortles twice after the two-minute warning (with the lead) and still lost in Jacksonville. Plus, when the Chargers had a chance to take control of the AFC West with a big road win in Kansas City last year, they folded in a 30-13 loss, their worst score of the season.

But I do really like the depth at wide receiver, new blood on the offensive line, and they have an elite duo of edge rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Casey Hayward can be a No. 1 corner. Caleb Sturgis hopefully won’t choke at kicker. A lot of the right ingredients are there, but it’s just a matter of whether or not you can trust this team.

3. Oakland Raiders (6-10)

In true 1998 fashion I wish this Oakland prediction was hosted on an Angelfire site, which might take a couple of minutes to load with your dial-up connection.

When Jon Gruden made his $100M return to NFL coaching after a decade, I thought the “I am trying to throw the game back to 1998” line would sustain jokes all season long. You know, Gruden was going to show the team this new comedy called There’s Something About Mary after practice. He’d have to get a new tablet each week after always digging into the screen with an actual pencil. He’ll try to use Oakland’s 2018 first-round pick on Charles Woodson, because it worked in 1998.

Lest we forget, Gruden was not an aggressive coach in his day. He also wasn’t very successful after his 2002 Super Bowl win with Tampa Bay, his first year there with a defense essentially crafted by Tony Dungy. Gruden went 0-2 in the playoffs the rest of the way.

I didn’t think this would be an epic blunder by the Raiders on the scale of bringing Art Shell back in 2006, but Gruden sure seems to be trying his hardest to make this an actual joke. It was cute when he wanted a fullback or blocking tight end to play smash-mouth football again. It raised eyebrows when he cut the team’s solid punter who danced too much. It started to get really troublesome when the Raiders were signing a stock of over-the-hill veterans (some with recent ACL/Achilles injuries), or damaged goods like Doug Martin. Gruden’s wandering eyes seemed to be scouting players from the Pro Bowl rosters back when his broadcasting career began.

But nothing compares to the batshit-craziness of not speaking to Khalil Mack, your best player, for months and eventually trading him because you didn’t think you could pay him. Oh, Gruden’s getting paid, and they already once made Derek Carr the highest-paid player in NFL history. But you really don’t have the money to pay an elite defender at age 27 that’s really the only great part of your defense? It’s madness to not get Mack signed to a second contract.

Granted, the Raiders have generally been poor on defense with Mack, but I don’t know how they ever expect to get better without him. Those draft picks, namely two first-rounders from Chicago, are unlikely to provide that type of value. The Raiders already cut 2017 second-round pick safety Obi Melifonwu. Hopefully we’ll see more from Gareon Conley this year, but it’s a pretty sad group the Raiders have on that side of the ball.

You probably know I don’t think Carr is anything special, though he might like a back-shoulder fade to Jordy Nelson this year. The Martavis Bryant trade was a total flop (third-round pick lost) after Bryant may face another drug-related suspension. No value there. The idea that Amari Cooper might soon command $18 million per year just about turned my stomach. Imagine paying an average of $43 million per year to Carr and Cooper, a duo that didn’t even connect for 700 yards last year at a time they should be hitting their prime together. Jermaine Kearse had a better year with Josh McCown throwing him the ball for the Jets last season.

I actually have the Raiders starting 0-6 going into the bye, which should be enough time for Gruden to reset his clock from 1998 to at least 2008. And I think the Raiders actually will pick up some big wins late in the season so that this doesn’t look like a total clusterf*ck.

This guy. Wild, man.

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

I’ve only been off by a game on my Denver predictions in the two years since Peyton Manning retired. But Denver might be the hardest team in 2018 to predict, because what are we going to get from Case Keenum? He’s better than Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch at least. But he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL with the Rams in 2016, though some of that is on Jeff Fisher. He led the NFL in passing DVOA last year with Minnesota in a real Cinderella season and breakout Year 6 that just doesn’t happen. The guy threw for a million yards in college, so it’s good to see him having some success, but I can’t help but feel like 2017 will always be his peak. So much of the success was based on his play under pressure in the way that he avoided sacks to get rid of the ball to great receivers. That type of play usually doesn’t sustain itself well from year to year, and Keenum was putrid under pressure in 2016 for example.

In Denver, Keenum will have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, which is solid, but not as good as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The hunt for a third wideout and a tight end has been on for years in Denver, but maybe Courtland Sutton and Jake Butt can help there. I liked the pick of running back Royce Freeman, though I still don’t think the offensive line is anything special in Denver.

The defense added Bradley Chubb, which should probably work out better as a pass-rushing mate for Von Miller than Shane Ray did. However, the secondary lost Aqib Talib, so the no-fly zone isn’t quite what it used to be. But this defense was not as bad as the scoring numbers suggest last season. The offense and special teams constantly put the defense in horrible field position. The Broncos were No. 2 in yards per drive allowed, but 14th in points allowed per drive because of the worst field position in the league. So if Keenum can protect the ball (not a given), then maybe he’ll be able to reap the benefits of a defense that should keep him in the game more often than not.

If you can promise me the Keenum of 2017 in 2018, then I’d say the Broncos are playoff worthy with Miller still leading a strong defense. However, I’m not optimistic about Keenum carrying over his play to Denver, and I’m not yet sold on Vance Joseph as a head coach. That’s why I think the Broncos still struggle and miss the playoffs for the third year in a row. Maybe Josh Rosen should have been the pick at No. 5. That’s one we’ll have to keep an eye on in the coming years. At least the team has moved on from the mistake that was Paxton Lynch.

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

Sean McVay was a very deserving winner of the Coach of the Year award. He turned around a struggling offense in historic fashion on the way to a 11-5 finish. While some teams like this have been one-year wonders in the past, I think the Rams have a great chance to be different after adding Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Brandin Cooks. That’s pretty rare to be able to add four players of that caliber in the same offseason. You add that to MVP runner-up Todd Gurley and arguably the best defender in the game (Aaron Donald), and it’s a pretty stacked roster.

Of course, these off-season champions don’t often do too well when the real games start. Maybe Suh doesn’t gel as well with Donald as one would expect. Maybe the lack of an edge rusher (Robert Quinn left for Miami) makes the defense a little too reliant on interior pressure. Maybe the offensive line with three over 30 starters starts to show some decline. Almost certainly the big YAC plays from last year won’t be sustainable — certainly not a 50-plus yard touchdown on third-and-33. Todd Gurley averaged over 12 YAC/catch, a real outlier going back to 2006.

I still have questions about Jared Goff, who I thought had the most misleadingly great stat line of 2017. He certainly improved over a brutal rookie year and I at least have confidence in him to get this team back to the playoffs. But I’m not sold he’s an upper-tier QB just yet. They really helped him out last season with an offense that had the most YAC and throws to slot receivers. Cooper Kupp was a great rookie, and I think Sammy Watkins was underappreciated last year, but Cooks seems like a good replacement. I still don’t have a ton of faith in the tight ends, but perhaps Gerald Everett gets more work this season.

I think if your team is weak up front and not strong at wide receiver, then the Rams are designed to blow you out. Imagine a quarterback hurrying a pass to avoid Donald and Suh in his face, and he throws blindly outside the numbers to the waiting hands of Peters or Talib. This defense could easily lead the league in pick-sixes this year. So I think the Rams are going to roll some teams, but can they win the tough games on their schedule? We didn’t see much of that last year as they lost to the Eagles, Vikings, and then Falcons in the playoffs. If you finish off the Eagles in the game that Wentz was injured, then we could have been talking about the Rams as the No. 1 seed and best path to the Super Bowl.

So I’m definitely looking forward to how these new players fit in, but I wouldn’t write this off as a super team that’s going to roll everyone on the way to a Super Bowl. There are enough question marks and contenders left to keep this interesting.

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)

This is such an interesting one. Teams that finish strong haven’t been shown to often carry that over into the following season, because usually there are too many changing variables from one season to the next. But the 49ers went from losing every close game last season to inserting Jimmy Garoppolo and pulling out every close game behind strong quarterback play. I don’t think the TD:INT ratio is a good way to judge what Garoppolo did, because he was stellar on third downs, stellar under pressure (positive DVOA), and engineered scoring drives at a high rate with 8.8 YPA. Playing in the same offense with largely the same players around him, you saw the big difference he made over C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer. This is also building on a couple of starts in New England where Garoppolo again had great numbers in a small sample size. Now a full season of Garoppolo in Kyle Shanahan’s offense?  I really can’t wait to see it.

Overall I don’t really love the roster right now. I think there’s a lot of potential on defense, but few proven players, especially in that front seven where so many high draft picks have been invested. Richard Sherman should help out a secondary that still looks like a work in progress. The Jerick McKinnon ACL injury is a bad break, but Alfred Morris has been good everywhere he’s gone, and Shanahan’s system just works for backs time and time again.

I actually have the 49ers starting 2-4, because I think the schedule is tough early on the road. One thing you have to remember about the 5-0 finish last year is that they weren’t beating great teams. They snuck by the Bears, Texans, Titans, looked impressive against Jacksonville, and finished by beating up the Rams’ backups in a meaningless game for Los Angeles. It’s a bit different when teams come in knowing who your quarterback is and you’re on the road against Minnesota, Kansas City, Chargers, and Packers.

But I like Garoppolo and believe he can be the real deal. I just think they’ll need another year to get in the playoffs, so I have the 49ers as the No. 7 seed this season.

3. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

I really want to believe that Russell Wilson is good enough to get this team to at least 8-8 on his own merit, but the departures have been too much to overlook. This is probably the weakest the defensive line has been after losing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. This is definitely the worst the secondary has been in years after Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor departed. Earl Thomas still might get traded. The Legion of Boom just fell off the Titantron. It’s also the weakest the tight ends have been in Wilson’s tenure after losing Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson. The offensive line, it is what it is by now and I think Wilson is used to dealing with that. The wide receiver depth may be the weakest it has been in Wilson’s time too. I love Doug Baldwin and think Tyler Lockett still has untapped potential, but they lost Paul Richardson (made some crazy catches in his time) and Brandon Marshall looks washed up.

Like I said in June…

Then there’s the Brian Schottenheimer angle at coordinator, and the talk about establishing the run and a first-round selection on a running back. This team hasn’t drafted well for years and it’s showing in a major way with the current state of the roster. Maybe Chris Carson is the right featured back, but that just makes the Rashaad Penny pick look that much sillier. Wilson had a nice year last season in carrying the team to 9-7, and the potential was there for more wins with better special teams play. However, Wilson also disappointed in some games with game-winning drive opportunities. He seemed to be pressing more than ever and that could get even worse this season as he tries to drag this team back to the playoffs.

I originally had Seattle at 8-8, then I saw how the team practically never scores (or wins) in Week 1 under Pete Carroll, and the Broncos are notorious for being dominant at home in September. So 7-9 it is, the first losing season under Wilson. If he proves me wrong, definitely throw his name back into the MVP race.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

I know, David Johnson is back after going down in Week 1 last season. The Cardinals should feel better than 4-12, but again, I had to find wins for other teams. Months ago, I felt like the Cardinals were the easiest pick in the league to regress from an 8-8 finish spawned by five game-winning drives led by three different quarterbacks. I always talked about Bruce Arians’ magic beans in close games, and I’m doubtful that Steve Wilks is going to replicate that kind of close-game success. I’m already leery after hearing Wilks described as an old-school “run the ball and stop the run” coach. I was wrong about Arians as a head coach in Arizona, but I just don’t have a good gut feeling on Wilks so far.

I liked the Josh Rosen draft pick, but understand why Sam Bradford is here to collect millions of more dollars until he inevitably gets hurt again. So maybe we’ll see Rosen anyway, and hopefully it’s a certainty we do late in the year if the Cardinals are out of the playoff picture. I like Johnson in the backfield, but I don’t think the receiving corps is very good outside of Larry Fitzgerald. The defense lost another key player in Tyrann Mathieu. Bradford’s not terrible anymore, but unless Johnson is transcendent, Robert Nkemdiche breaks out, and Christian Kirk has a monster rookie year, I just don’t see a ton to be excited about in Arizona right now.

They have to let Wilks, a one-year coordinator, get his feet wet and get the roster better for Rosen to compete in 2019. The NFC is too deep right now to realistically expect much this season.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
  2. New England (12-4)
  3. Jacksonville (10-6)
  4. Kansas City (9-7)
  5. Los Angeles (9-7)
  6. Houston (9-7)

I have Pittsburgh edging out New England for home-field advantage based on a Week 15 H2H win. The Chiefs get the division over the Chargers thanks largely to a Week 15 home win in their rematch, setting up a Round 3 in the playoffs. Yes, Arrowhead gets to work its curse again, but the Chargers bring their own voodoo to that one. I also have a Round 3 between the Texans and Jaguars, which actually gets set up by Jags laying down (No. 3 seed locked up) in Week 17 to the Texans, who edge out Baltimore (9-7) for the final spot. If we give the Jags and Chiefs those wins, then it’s some recent AFC playoff rematches (KC-PIT, JAX-NE), which very well may set up another NE-PIT AFC Championship Game, but back at Heinz Field this time. I know, it’s insanity to think this team is going to beat the Pats in Week 15 and a month later too, but you just get tired of picking the same thing. Besides, the Patriots have been swept before by the 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2015 Broncos. It can happen.

NFC

  1. Minnesota (12-4)
  2. Atlanta (12-4)
  3. Los Angeles (12-4)
  4. Philadelphia (11-5)
  5. Green Bay (12-4)
  6. New Orleans (10-6)

I was killing myself with the tie-breakers with four teams at 12-4. I think I got it right though. The Vikings get the division over Green Bay based on a better division record, which makes Green Bay the No. 5 seed. The Rams fall to the third seed based on the worst conference record out of them, Vikings, and Falcons. Finally, the Vikings get the top seed over Atlanta based on a better record in common games (4-1 vs. 3-2). I think Aaron Rodgers pulls off a mini upset in Philadelphia to knock out the champs, setting up shades of the 2010 run that started in Philly. But the Vikings take two out of three meetings against the Packers, and the Falcons knock out the Rams for the second year in a row. This sets up a rematch from 20 years ago when the Falcons stunned Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game after Gary Anderson missed a field goal that would have sealed the deal. Because it’s Minnesota, something crazy happens again, and Matt Bryant kicks the Falcons back into the Super Bowl.

SUPER BOWL LIII

Atlanta 28, Pittsburgh 24

Make that a home Super Bowl for the Falcons since the game is in Atlanta this year. The Falcons jump out to another big lead, but this time they hold on. Bell fumbles in the fourth quarter a la Rashard Mendenhall in XLV, and Julio Jones wins Super Bowl MVP because god forbid Matt Ryan ever gets that type of recognition. At least a ring should lock up his HOF spot after 11 seasons.

TL;DR version: it’s finally Atlanta’s year.

Super Bowl LII Preview

To say another Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles is less than ideal for me would be an understatement. I didn’t think I could swing a dead cat without hitting angry tweets from both fan bases the last two weeks, but I think my Mute and Block lists have done a good job there.

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My SB LII feelings.

This idea that I want the Eagles so badly to lose is an odd one. You guys realize the Patriots are the other team in this game, right? No matter how much I disagree with Eagles fans*, you’re the anti-hero we non-NE people need this week. You let us down 13 years ago in what was really the least dramatic finish in the last seven Patriots Super Bowls. It was also the last time the NFL had a repeat champion, so this is the longest span in NFL history without one, and here are the Eagles with another chance to stop the Patriots from doing so. Sure, I think jokes about the Eagles having an empty trophy case are fun, but who the hell wants to live in a world where the Patriots have won three out of four two times? Philly, you’re losing your shot to become the most insufferable fan base in this country if your team doesn’t win this game. They’ll have it on lockdown if they win.

*And let’s face it, this stems from the Carson Wentz stuff going back to September 2016. I didn’t think he was all that at 3-0, and I still didn’t think he was MVP caliber this year. The fact that the Eagles are here in the Super Bowl without him supports the idea that this is a quality team with a talented offense and a system that is very beneficial to the quarterback. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl behind game MVP Nick Foles would be the best possible outcome for me, so let’s get that part straight on what I’d prefer to see happen.

I’m not going to do a super long preview of the game here like I usually have in past years. It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s because I’ve already shared my research and talking points elsewhere for this one.

Supplemental reading:

How the Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs against new opponents, and how the Eagles can end that streak that’s been built on some of NE’s luckiest playoff moments. Statistically, they don’t actually play better against new opponents.

Sneaky stats that could decide Super Bowl LII – a look at weighted DVOA (Patriots are No. 1, Eagles are No. 7), another unique New England defense, how these offenses handle pass pressure, and the all-too-familiar Super Bowl script for the Patriots.

Football Outsiders Big Super Bowl II Preview – I co-authored this with Aaron Schatz this year, and it’s probably not that hard to tell which paragraphs each of us wrote. But it is a long read and I think we covered everything we possibly could between two teams who only meet every other four years.

Like last year with Atlanta, I think this is a game where the Eagles could win, but I’m not going to predict it to happen. It’s just way easier to trust the Patriots’ big-game experience and track record of finding ways to win. I thought the Eagles were outstanding against Minnesota, but this is a whole different beast.

To summarize why I think the Patriots win

It starts with the offensive matchup for New England. I think running backs, slot receivers and tight ends are where the Eagles are most vulnerable, so look for Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Dion Lewis/James White to combine for a big game. The secondary is not as good as Jacksonville’s was, and the Patriots even broke some tendencies by challenging the outside corners with Brandin Cooks, yet another big weapon in their arsenal. Even if the Patriots fall behind, we know they can come back, and the Eagles have struggled against the no-huddle offense. The Patriots just wear you out (ask Atlanta), and we always hear about the second-half fatigue in a Super Bowl after a long halftime. The Patriots are used to this environment while the Eagles simply are not. I strongly believe in success against New England requires experience and success against them (learn to beat Belichick) — look at Gary Kubiak’s Denver teams (both as OC and HC), teams led by a Manning, John Harbaugh’s Ravens, and even Rex Ryan took 3-of-5 games with the Jets in 2009-2010. I don’t trust defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to back off and effectively pressure Brady with four pass rushers, and I think Foles is going to be asked to do more than he’s comfortable with the biggest game of his life. I also think there’s some possible turnover regression there since Foles has never thrown a pick in the playoffs and the Patriots have one takeaway in the last six games. Maybe James Harrison makes his mark on another Super Bowl with a strip-sack, making the entire state of Pennsylvania groan in disgust.

When it’s all said and done, I think there will be a moment in this game where we’ll look back and say “boy, if the Eagles just did that, they would have had them.” But that’s how the Patriots win Super Bowls. They either make the big plays in the big moments, or they take advantage when you pass those opportunities up.

To summarize why I think the Eagles have a shot

This game could very well be about Doug Pederson and Nick Foles rather than Belichick and Brady. They have an opportunity to do something memorable here. The plan behind beating the Patriots is not a complex one. You generally have to score a fair amount and can’t keep settling for field goals. You have to limit Brady’s possessions and get pressure without blitzing much. You have to win the turnover battle and play from ahead. It’s not rocket science, but few teams in the NFL are talented and prepared enough to pull off that type of team effort.

The Patriots make you play your A game to beat them, but any team that lost to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins can surely be beat. It will just take quite an effort from Pederson in mixing up his gameplans on both sides of the ball to deal with the inevitable Belichick adjustments. Foles can’t play hero, but he has to avoid the big mistakes and continue his success in moving the chains on third down and possessing the ball. The Falcons and Vikings only had nine possessions in the playoff games. When the Giants beat NE twice in the Super Bowl, Brady only had nine possessions in each game. You have to shorten the game by sticking with the run, even if you’re averaging 3.0 YPC, and making plays on third down with smart passes. Remember, the Patriots were awful on defense for the first four games of the season. Things have really improved since then, but they don’t have Dont’a Hightower, they have gotten away with several overturned touchdowns, kickers have been bad against them, and they haven’t been tested by many great offenses since Week 5. Remember, the Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the second quarter of the Week 15 matchup. Even with Foles, the Eagles are clearly a better offense than what the Titans and Jaguars brought with them to Foxboro. This defense held up very well against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last time out. The Eagles have the talent and stats on defense to be a Super Bowl-caliber defense — certainly moreso than with the Patriots.

But when that opportunity comes to put the Patriots away, will Pederson come through with the right call that the Seahawks and Falcons failed to make? It’s Saturday night and I hate to keep looking up stats on this matchup, but the Eagles were only a mediocre 16th at power runs. LeGarrette Blount has had issues in the past with that, so maybe running him (or Jay Ajayi) up the gut isn’t the smartest move, but that doesn’t mean a play-action pass with a moving pocket for Foles that shrinks the field on third-and-1 is the right call either. It’s that balance between smart and aggressive that so many teams fail to make work against the Patriots.

I debated whether or not to write about the Patriots’ legacy at the end here. I’m talking more about the run as a whole rather than Brady or Belichick specifically. Like I’ve said before, where you rank those guys should have been decided before this game or the Atlanta game or maybe even the Seattle game. Ultimately, I decided to just let the game play out. Maybe if they win easily for the first time in a Super Bowl, I’ll swap my usual Clutch Encounters recap for a commentary piece on their run’s place in history.

If not, then I’m sure I’ll still have plenty to write about tomorrow night after another close New England Super Bowl.

FINAL: PATRIOTS 29, EAGLES 23

Remember, eat Arby’s.

2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Going back to September’s preview, this 2017 season was my pessimistic “Eat Arby’s” and “Patriots vs. the NFL” season. Here we are for Championship Sunday and…it’s the Patriots again, and the Three Stooges/Sacrificial Lambs.

OK, that’s not fair to some really good defensive teams, and we should respect that Case Keenum had a career year for the Vikings, and that the Eagles essentially earned a bye before the Carson Wentz injury. Blake Bortles also can’t help that he’s Blake Bortles, but I still think this is one of the weaker simulations that the 2017 season could have spit out for us. Hopefully the games will actually be good, and I think at least one of them will be.

Jaguars at Patriots

You might say I saw this one coming a few months ago.

I’m not going to actually predict 20-9 as the final, but I think we have our story for how this one will be perceived. Tom Brady has a right hand injury. It was feared to be serious at one point, but now it’s sounding more like a cut that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice (he practiced Friday), and maybe he’ll wear a glove. A big deal? Doubtful, because we’re talking about a cut rather than some actual ligament damage or something that would impact his strength. It basically comes down to pain tolerance, and Brady often gets irritated on the field no matter how healthy he is. I’m chalking this up as a non-story, but that won’t stop Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from giving every throw and close-up replay the Zapruder analysis.

This also offers Brady a “he gutted it out against the No. 1 defense with a bad hand” storyline. Great. I will stick to my prediction that Brady won’t have a great game against this defense, which plays a Seattle style of defense and can rush the passer and cover without needing to blitz. I think Brady has seen several better defenses than this one, including the 2015 Broncos and 2009 Jets, but it’s a pretty talented unit.

Brady generally doesn’t impress in the AFC Championship Game, unless he’s playing the Steelers. I definitely like the under in this one, because I think the Jacksonville offense is going to struggle to score. This isn’t Pittsburgh. The Patriots actually figured out how to improve on defense this season after a bad four-week start. They’ve done everything they could to change the perception of how the season started, but those perceptions are hard to shake. This defense has caught some lucky breaks with dropped or overturned touchdowns, missed field goals, and the schedule easing up, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have figured out how to keep the score (and yards even) down without the services of Dont’a Hightower. If you’re going to blame the Steelers’ defensive collapse on Ryan Shazier’s injury, then how do you explain the Patriots doing what they’ve done without Hightower? It’s just better coaching, simple as that.

Jacksonville’s running game isn’t efficient. Leonard Fournette is not that big of a difference maker as some think, and I expect the Patriots to contain him on the ground while taking away the play-action options for Bortles and forcing him into third-and-long situations. Bortles should try to scramble in this one as much as he can, but I just don’t think he has the receiving weapons to make plays against this defense that does still allow a good number of successful plays in some weeks. You absolutely have to finish drives for touchdowns instead of field goals and that’s really hard to do in Foxboro.

I think Bortles will flop in the biggest game of his career and those mistakes (setting up short fields) will be capitalized on by Brady and the offense. I’d be alarmed with how Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big plays down the stretch of the season. They also haven’t played NE yet, and the Patriots are 14-0 in the playoffs since 2001 against new opponents. Jalen Ramsey might cover Gronkowski, but that’s not something the Jaguars are used to doing. I’d do it though, putting my best player on their best. Gronk is the player who can make some jaw-dropping catches like the Steelers did last week in their effort to hang 42 points on this defense. The 49ers also scored a lot on the Jags with Jimmy Garoppolo, but there was a return touchdown and some short fields involved in that output. Still, the Patriots can do the same thing, and they can do it by using their running backs and Gronk. If Brady tries to win this game by going bombs away to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, then I like the Jaguars in an upset, but we know the Patriots understand matchups too well for that to happen. It will be getting rid of the ball quickly and this is probably the deepest backfield in the NFL.

For Jacksonville to pull off the upset, it needs to control the game early with a turnover or two, don’t fall behind, and make sure Brady is getting hit repeatedly. Doug Marrone may even need to get brave with a big fourth down or fake punt or surprise onside kick. It’s all just asking too much from this team if you ask me. At least when the 2010 Jets won in New England with Mark Sanchez, they had the experience of the 2009 AFC Championship Game and already beat the Patriots earlier that year. When the 2012 Ravens won in New England, that completed a season sweep and we know they should have won the 2011 AFC Championship Game too (Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other plans). This is all still new for Jacksonville, who matched up well with Pittsburgh this year, but we’re talking about the Patriots here. That’s going from checkers to chess.

Final: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16

Vikings at Eagles

I previewed this game at FO, so definitely check that out for the stats and my thoughts. Basically, I think it comes down to which unlikely QB1 screws things up the most. I don’t think there’s enough of an advantage with special teams or the running games for it to be about that. It’s going to be about whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum throws a pick parade or takes some dreadful sacks or just has that one big giveaway in the fourth quarter that so often highlights a team’s run to the Super Bowl. I also think the Eagles’ front seven can be a tough matchup for Minnesota’s OL, so Keenum especially can’t panic and throw a terrible pick like he did last week at home.

While I lean towards Minnesota having the better team, I do think home-field advantage matters here. Not just playing outdoors with the rowdy crowd, but the Vikings also had a huge emotional win against the Saints thanks to the miracle play by Stefon Diggs. They need to come off of that with a good start on the road instead of playing flat. This should be low scoring with two strong defenses, but look for the turnover battle to be extra decisive.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a kicker, but I could definitely see that too.

Final: Vikings 20, Eagles 17

2017 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

It’s my favorite weekend of the NFL year, but I fear we might not get a really good game to watch until Sunday this time.

Falcons at Eagles

It’s the first time a No. 1 seed is an underdog in the divisional round in this format. Obviously there are some unusual circumstances here with the Eagles losing their quarterback while they were leading the conference. The Falcons also have some clout after what they did in the playoffs a year ago and last week in Los Angeles. Atlanta was my only road dog I liked to win last week, but even I didn’t see a wire-to-wire 26-13 win where the defense was pretty impressive. The Falcons have flipped the script from last year when they were an offensive juggernaut and one of the worst defenses to reach a Super Bowl. The defense has improved in the second half of this season and the offense is still talented, but not nearly as productive. Still, the Falcons have grinned out 22-10 and 26-13 wins over Carolina and LA, two teams thought to be better than Atlanta this year.

But I can’t help but think this is going to be an ugly, low-scoring game. Maybe not as ugly as Eagles-Raiders from Christmas night, but nothing pretty about the offenses. I do take notice of the indoor team going to frigid Philly, which also features a pretty good defense in case we forgot. In 2016, the Falcons scored a season-low 15 points and really struggled that day. The Eagles will have to rely on defense to win this one, but at least Nick Foles has a playoff start in his past, and he did throw four touchdowns against the Giants. He didn’t screw up the LA game in the fourth quarter. Oakland game was awful, and he barely played in Week 17, so there’s a lot of doubt in Foles, which I can understand. He hasn’t been good on third down. The thoughts of him forcing 50/50 balls against this secondary is a scary thought. But if the Eagles can get Jay Ajayi and the RB stable going against a defense that is vulnerable to that position, then Foles may not have to do a ton in this game.

Again, it comes down to defense in this one. Matt Ryan’s had some bad luck with tipped interceptions this year, so if that were to continue today, I can easily see that being the difference. The Eagles are likely going to need a break like that. I think Vegas did another outstanding job with the spread, because this easily could be the closest game of the weekend, with an ugly 1-3 point win by the road team. That’s right, the team who barely made the tournament is the team I’m going to pick to go to the NFC Championship Game. Things have just broken the right way for Atlanta down the stretch here.

Final: Falcons 19, Eagles 17

Titans at Patriots

I don’t want to make it sound like the 2017 Patriots are a juggernaut (best of a weak bunch), but this would be a top 5 upset in NFL history if the Titans won. Tennessee was already so fortunate to get the comeback win in Kansas City., and yes, I’m still pissed we’re not watching Chiefs-Patriots tonight. The botched call (forward progress on a sack/fumble) went their way. The big injury (Travis Kelce) went their way. The lucky bounce (Mariota’s tipped TD pass to himself) went their way. The missed FG (KC) went their way. Good luck repeating that strategy in New England where you’re more likely to get screwed on a call, see your star get injured, suffer a bad bounce, and miss an important FG.

Somehow the Patriots have drawn a “double bye” so often since 2011. I think the 2014 Ravens and 2015 Chiefs were respectable divisional round opponents, but the other years were a joke. Some of the worst teams to advance in the playoffs have drawn New England. Think about the 2011 Broncos (Tebow), who won in overtime against a Pittsburgh team that was missing its RB (Rashard Mendenhall), center (Maurkice Pouncey), and Ben Roethlisberger was playing on a high ankle sprain. Safety Ryan Clark couldn’t play in that game in Denver’s altitude because of his rare sickle cell trait. The 2012 Texans slumped hard to end the year, but since everyone beats Cincinnati in January, they ended up going to New England first instead of Denver. Meanwhile, the Ravens knocked out New England a week later. The 2013 Colts were always a heavily flawed team led by the one-man show known as Andrew Luck. They were lucky to get past the Chiefs after trailing 38-10 in the third quarter. Then you have the awful 2016 Texans, who only got past Oakland thanks to a late injury to Derek Carr. Even in a game where Tom Brady played poorly, the Patriots still covered a 16-point spread last year.

Now the Patriots get the 2017 Titans, who were outscored by 22 points this season. This is a Dick LeBeau defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA against short passes and struggled with tight ends, and that’s what Brady and Rob Gronkowski get to feast on today. The recipe for a Tennessee upset is difficult to make. Derrick Henry would need to have the game of his life after arguably doing so a week ago. Running backs usually don’t dominate against the Patriots. You need a quarterback to step up, and Marcus Mariota has not been trustworthy enough this season. While the Titans keep every game pretty close, they lost 40-17 in Pittsburgh in that stretch, and this is the most similar caliber opponent to that game.

Reminder: since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches.

Final: Patriots 30, Titans 17

Jaguars at Steelers

This was my big preview at FO, so check that out. Simply put, the Steelers can’t play hero ball against the best defense in the league. Just take a conservative approach, shake off the rust from the stars who haven’t played since Christmas, and hope that Blake Bortles will screw up enough. I don’t think you can just dismiss Bortles in this one. Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, and DeShone Kizer averaged 30 PPG with their offenses at Heinz Field late in the season. The Steelers might actually have the worst defense of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs. Still, I think the Steelers prove Week 5 was a fluke and win this game with a big second half that puts the clamps on Bortles.

Final: Steelers 24, Jaguars 16

Saints at Vikings

Perhaps the most interesting game this weekend. The closest thing we have to a quarterback duel without one major liability, though I’m still stunned that we’re talking about Case Keenum in these terms. Maybe he completely flops in the biggest game of his career, but he was No. 1 in passing DVOA this year. That’s not a six-game hot streak either. He had over 500 pass plays and still finished No. 1. Can he be as great as Sam Bradford was in Week 1 against this defense? Probably not, but the Saints were also playing worse than they are now on that side of the ball. The offense is obviously still dangerous too with Drew Brees, who is statistically the best active playoff quarterback in the NFL. He’s always up for games like this, but he’ll have to be great against a top defense.

The Vikings quietly recorded the best third-down defense since 1991, only allowing conversions just under 26% of the time. The Saints were able to score a lot last week without rarely getting to third down, but it’s also a down where Brees wasn’t as good as usual this season. He only ranked 14th in conversion rate on third-down passes, the first time he ranked out of the top eight in any season with the Saints. The Saints have been a much more conservative passing offense this season, and Brees had his first completion of more than 55 yards last week to Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown. The great running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram was really shut down against the Panthers, and I think the Vikings can also do a good job against them this week.

It basically comes down to Keenum (or perhaps a Minnesota kicker) not shitting his pants, if we’re being honest. He has the skill players around him, he had the bye week to prepare, he has a great defense, and Mike Zimmer is one of the better head coaches in the league. I think Keenum can avoid some of the sacks that got Cam Newton in trouble last week, and he’ll make enough plays to get the Vikings this win and likely host the NFC Championship Game.

Final: Vikings 27, Saints 20

(My spread picks are PHI, TEN, PIT, MIN)

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Wild Card: 3-1 (Spread: 2-2)
  • Season: 165-95 (Spread: 62-61-5)