NFL Week 2 Predictions: Big Sunday

In 2016, offenses dominated the league. Quite arguably the best defense (Denver) failed to even make the playoffs. The best defense on paper in the playoff field (Giants) folded in the wild-card round. In the NFC, we saw Atlanta outgun the Seahawks (without Earl Thomas) and Packers. The Patriots and Steelers met for the first time in the playoffs since the 2004 AFC Championship Games, but both defenses were a far cry from where they were that year. The Super Bowl was of course highly offensive.

Now if the first 16 games of 2017 are any indication, then the pendulum may be swinging back to the defense. It wasn’t a pretty start last Sunday, especially when it came to the QB statistics. We have a team like the Bengals doing impotent things that haven’t been done since 1939 like going eight home quarters without a touchdown to start a season.

But I wouldn’t stick a fork in offense yet. This weekend has some stellar matchups scheduled and scoring will undoubtedly go up. It just may not happen when your team is starting Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. I’m also not sure the Mike Glennon Revenge Game is going to be much of anything in Tampa Bay, but glad to see the Buccaneers (and Dolphins) get started. We’ll start with that other Florida team that’s been irrelevant for a long time.

The Biggest Jaguars Game Since 2010

This is without a doubt the biggest game the Jaguars have played since 2010 when they were 8-5 and lost out to lose the AFC South to Indianapolis. Jacksonville has since had some 0-6 starts and really never been in a position to do anything even in a weak division. This week, they have a chance to drop the preseason favorite Titans to 0-2 with a home win. The Texans are struggling at 1-1, the Colts look like they won’t win a game without Andrew Luck, and so the Jaguars can take a nice early lead in this division race with two wins already.

That means it’s also the biggest, and perhaps the first relevant, game of Blake Bortles’ career. Does that mean he becomes a garbage-time hero again? Not if the Titans start slow like they did last year and did last week. I also think this is a game with two of the most uninspired coaching hires in years (promoting Mike Mularkey and Doug Marrone from interim title), but if this is the new race for the AFC South, then this is one to keep an eye on. Leonard Fournette surprised me last week as I really thought the Texans would have a spirited effort defensively.

New England at New Orleans

What an interesting game. Sure, we all expect a 45-38 game here based on the quarterbacks and the way these defenses looked in Week 1. However, don’t you just trust Bill Belichick to figure things out with a few extra days off since the Chiefs loss? Also, that was one lousy game by the Patriots (offense included). The Saints have been lousy on defense for years and I see no resistance coming in this one. The interesting factors are that it is in New Orleans where Drew Brees is usually money, and he does have great career success against Brady/Belichick (should be 4-0, but #DatRobRyanD). Without Danny Amendola, will we see Brady continue to try being a deep thrower like he so uncharacteristically was vs. KC? Then again, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan should all have great matchups against a defense that made Sam Bradford look like the GOAT.

No Dont’a Hightower is another interesting factor to consider for the Saints, but I get the feeling they may try to get the running game going to calm Adrian Peterson down after some early rumblings. The Saints are also missing their tackles and Willie Snead (suspension), so they have key flaws too heading into this one. It’s not like Brees played poorly on Monday night, but the offense definitely seemed to lack efficiency and explosion without Snead (and Cooks off to NE).

I feel like the “remember what happened last time NE got killed by KC in prime time?” thing is a false hope for this year. This is a 40-year-old QB now. This is a defense that is not magically going to be more talented, especially without Hightower available. The best news for NE is that they still play in the AFC East, and who in that division is going to replace them in 2017? So even if the Saints light up the scoreboard and drop the Patriots to an inconceivable 0-2, I still don’t see a need to panic. They’re still likely to have a home playoff game just because of the state of the AFC East.

Minnesota at Pittsburgh

Another good game, though I wonder what’s going on with Sam Bradford’s knee injury. This doesn’t sound insignificant by any means, and we heard nothing about it Monday night, a seemingly perfect night for him. With that injury in mind, I liked the Steelers in this one to begin with. I think while the Vikings offer a tough defense, this is a week where the Steelers will be more comfortable at home in getting Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant better reacquainted with the offense. There was rust there, and it didn’t help that Todd Haley seemed to think he didn’t need to get creative to beat the Browns. The offensive line also didn’t get much push against that front seven (minus Myles Garrett), but I think they’ll put a much better performance on film at home.

Defensively, I think the Steelers contain Dalvin Cook. The bigger issue is defending Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Joe Haden did not have a good debut for the Steelers, and the secondary is still the weakness with this defense. If Bradford can deliver the ball on time, he’ll have great matchups with his wideouts, but I think Cook and Kyle Rudolph can be held in check. Ultimately, I think the Steelers get enough pressure against a quarterback on a potentially bad knee, and that’s enough for the edge at home.

Dallas at Denver

A few weeks ago I pegged this as a loss for Dallas, because I thought Ezekiel Elliott would be suspended. The run defense is the best way to attack Denver, which has suffered some injuries up front so far. Elliott seems to run well against just about any defense he faces, and I liked how Dak Prescott handled the Giants last week. I think this is a very winnable road game for the Cowboys, who can limit big plays for Denver’s offense. Rod Marinelli deserves a lot of credit for how he’s coached that defense. It lacks talent, they give up a lot of short completions, but they keep the play in front of them and tackle well. As long as Demaryius Thomas doesn’t take a short catch the distance, I think the Cowboys hold Denver to another low point total and get this win.

Green Bay at Atlanta

A very nice night cap to the day. I’m not sure much has changed for these teams from last year. It’s hard to outscore Aaron Rodgers three times in a row, but Atlanta certainly can do it with Matt Ryan and this offense. When Julio Jones has a quiet game like he did last week for his standards, he usually explodes the next week. We know he’s had some monster games in the past against Green Bay, including that NFC Championship Game win. Green Bay’s defense looked quite good against Seattle, but that’s probably going up against the worst offensive line in the NFL, and the Packers were not rolling offensively by any means. Ty Montgomery might have a big night here, but Falcons will be happy to have Desmond Trufant back to match up with Jordy Nelson. Ultimately, Atlanta needs the crowd to be fired up in opening the new stadium and to not be afraid to rush Rodgers like Dan Quinn did in the playoff game when they were very aggressive.

2017 Week 2 Predictions

Another Thursday game wrong. Damn those boring Texans and their low-scoring games with the Bengals.

Winners in bold.

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

Road teams were good last week. TNF excluded, I think home teams rebound this week.

Week 1: 8-7

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2017 NFL Predictions

In last year’s NFL predictions, Optimistic Scott made his debut, offering a beacon of hope for a few teams.

The 2016 season then crushed him after another historic offense collapsed on the game’s biggest stage, allowing New England to do what it does better than anyone in history: take advantage of another team’s stupidity. Thanks to that ridiculous Super Bowl LI finish, the 2017 season is basically being billed as New England vs. the NFL. To the despair of football fans across the world (minus one region), we’ve waited seven months just to begin a five-month journey of the Patriots dominating the NFL with no hope of a worthy contender in sight.

Eat Arby’s.

Eventually, a new power will rise, but is anyone really counting on a team like Tampa Bay or Tennessee to establish that level of play this year? That would be ending a near-decade drought of playoff appearances. Both teams went 9-7 last year, and I have them improving and finishing with the same record this year, though you’ll have to scroll to the bottom to see which one makes the playoffs.

This is the longest the NFL has ever gone without a repeat champion, with the Patriots being the last to do so in 2003-04. It is hard to recall another season where one team was seemingly so far ahead of the field going into Week 1 like New England is this year. What has beaten this team in the past? There sure wasn’t any help from the AFC East, which looks to be in extra embarrassing mode this season with the Bills and Jets tanking. Archie Manning’s Sperm has been the best defense against the New England dynasty, producing five playoff wins, but we know Peyton Manning is history. Eli’s Giants theoretically have a 6.25 percent chance of getting back to the Super Bowl, and their realistic odds probably aren’t that much higher, especially compared to Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, and Seattle.

The Ravens and Jets were once able to vanquish the Patriots (at home even) in the playoffs with Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, but those were strong defenses. The best defense in the AFC is likely still in Denver, but it’s the same story as last year with that team: no QB, likely to lose by a 16-3 score to the Patriots, and unlikely to return to the playoffs. Flacco’s not even good enough anymore to reliably get Baltimore into the playoffs, and the Ravens are 0-3 against the Patriots since 2013 anyway. Pittsburgh and Oakland don’t have the defense to slow down New England, and the coaching disadvantage is huge there. That leaves one team (Kansas City), and we’ll get a great view tonight of how that matchup looks this season. The season goes quickly, but it is still a long way between now and January. A lot can happen.

A Kansas City upset in the season’s first game would totally change the outlook of this season, one that has many predicting the Patriots to go 19-0. If you don’t believe one game can do that, well just look at Super Bowl LI, or “28-3” as it will be forever known. Had Atlanta done just one more thing right — and trust me, we can pick from a long list of things that went wrong after 28-3 — we’d be singing a different tune right now.

If every other personnel decision, roster move and injury this offseason was exactly the same following an Atlanta Super Bowl win, would the Patriots still get undefeated predictions and be such an overwhelming favorite? I highly doubt it, but what really would be different going into 2017? After all, they’d still have a loaded roster, a head coaching advantage over every opponent, and a schedule that we have projected at FO to be the easiest this season. Sure, the Kansas City game may have been played on Sunday afternoon instead of Thursday night (champions’ spotlight), but the schedule is still very much the same.

Yet that comeback, or epic collapse by Atlanta, does shape the perception going into this season that the Patriots are unbeatable. It’s up to the rest of the NFL to prove that wrong. I always start with the AFC East, so the Patriots are the first team up in my predictions, so let’s continue with why 19-0 is unlikely to happen, but another Lombardi just may be inevitable.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

A decade after the 2007 Patriots flirted with perfection, here we are again. In case you forgot, the Patriots ended 2016 on a 10-game winning streak including the playoffs. So any prediction of 16-0 or 19-0 this year means you would be predicting the Patriots to have a 26 to 29-game winning streak. The NFL’s all-time longest winning streak is 21 games by the 2003-04 Patriots (salutations to Olindo Mare, the Colts’ goal-line offense, Drew Bennett, John Kasay, and Mike Vanderjagt for keeping that one alive so long).

Unless Bill Belichick or Tom Brady wants to leave no doubt that they are Faust, I cannot imagine one team being so lucky for 29 games. A loss is bound to happen somewhere, and the front seven certainly doesn’t look like a unit that should be going undefeated. Perhaps this is the year the losses of Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich catch up to Belichick. Remember, the Patriots had some defensive struggles in 2009-2011 after losing a ton of defensive veterans from the beginning of the dynasty. Maybe David Harris (ex-Jets) looks too old and slow at linebacker, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (ex-Bills) is not the free-agent signing the Patriots were hoping for. I’m not saying we’ll see 2005 or 2011-caliber defense from the Patriots this year, but it’s unlikely to allow the fewest points in the league like last year.

Of course, this offense has the potential to be the most potent since that 2007 season. Or is it had the potential? The loss of Julian Edelman (ACL) in the preseason is very notable, and also a reminder that it doesn’t take much for a player to get hurt and change your season’s outlook. Does Edelman represent a drop in wins? Unlikely, especially not when the team has so much skill player depth and a very similar player in Danny Amendola.

However, I can see the Edelman injury costing this team at the end of the year, whether it’s that first regular-season loss or a season-ending playoff loss. There is no denying that Brady and Edelman have a special connection, as that slot receiver role that the Pats have defined in the modern game is crucial to this offense’s ability to move the chains and keep drives alive. Edelman had 159 targets last season. He had at least 73 receiving yards in each of the final 11 games last season. Part of that was the injury to Rob Gronkowski — oh yeah, arguably the best TE in NFL history is back now — but it’s also the style of this offense. Brady feasts on those short routes to Edelman, who is a tough sucker with the ball in his hands, always fighting forward for extra yards. The Patriots put an incredible amount of volume and responsibility on their slot receiver. Wes Welker was extremely durable in this role for 2007-2012. Edelman has not been as durable, and now he’s gone for the year. Amendola has often been injured in his career, and I seriously doubt he could handle 100-plus targets in this offense without getting hurt. He’s also just not as good as Edelman.

But beyond Gronkowski returning, what else is different? The Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, a young, top deep threat with Drew Brees in New Orleans. They also might throw a few deep balls to Phillip Dorsett after picking up the first-round pick in a trade from the Colts. Chris Hogan has been turned into a vertical receiver in New England, and he should see a lot more usage after his huge postseason. Do people realize that Hogan had 332 receiving yards in the postseason alone? That’s the 14th-most in a postseason in NFL history (note: Edelman’s 342 yards last year ranks 10th). Oh, they also picked up Dwayne Allen for some Gronk insurance (always have to buy some Gronk insurance), and they have about a million receiving backs, including James White, who could have been Super Bowl MVP.

This sounds like an offense that will be going down the field more often, but is that really a smart move with a 40-year-old QB who is not at his most comfortable in a vertical offense? We’ll get to the age thing in a second, but just consider how this might hurt the Patriots against a quality opponent.

We saw some of this in the Houston AFC divisional game where Brady threw a lot of deep balls to deal with pressure, but the offense was having a difficult time that night. Brady threw two interceptions after throwing two all regular season. So what if some of those drives that get kept alive with a short throw and YAC to Edelman are replaced with a deep pass that sails out of bounds to Hogan or Cooks? If Brady is holding the ball longer to make these deep throws, then that could open him up to more pressure and sacks. Let’s face it: the offensive line is not that strong either. When Brady was pressured last year, he was off target on more than 45 percent of his passes, the worst rate in the NFL. This is a consistent trend in his career too, which is why getting pressure on him is more important than it is for other top quarterbacks.

Let this drop in efficiency from a more vertical strategy happen on two or three drives that otherwise get extended with a safer throw to Edelman, and that could be the difference in winning a close playoff game and losing a close playoff game. God knows the Patriots know better than anyone about being involved in close playoff games. The margins are often tiny with this team. So a 40-year-old QB missing his security blanket, not playing to his strengths (perhaps in very cold January weather) may end up hurting the Patriots in the end.

We’re entering rarely charted territory with a 40-year-old quarterback. Brett Favre was great at 40 for the Vikings in 2009, but terrible at 41 in 2010. Warren Moon still had a productive 1997 season for the Seahawks at 41. The only other quarterback to start 10-plus games in his 40s was Vinny Testaverde (2004 Cowboys). That’s it. Favre (2009) was the only time a quarterback started all 16 games in his 40s.

Father Time is undefeated, and he likes to swoop in quickly rather than let you die a slow death. Even Peyton Manning had a dominant 2014 start before things fell off late in the year. The torn quad was just the beginning of the end. Would even Belichick have the guts to bench a struggling Brady for Jimmy Garoppolo? I’m not so sure. Even with Garoppolo, this team should still easily win the AFC East and contend for a bye anyway. But if they stick with a struggling Brady and the defense isn’t top notch, then I can see some losses.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches from that regular season. You basically have to play this team at least once to correct your mistakes for the big rematch. Fortunately, we will see the Patriots play the AFC’s three heavy hitters in the regular season (Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Oakland). They’ll also play the NFC South, which boasts the last two Super Bowl teams (2016 Falcons and 2015 Panthers). Otherwise, the schedule isn’t too bad, and outside of those games, only a virtuoso performance by Drew Brees (Week 2) or a demolition of Brady by Von Miller and company in Denver (Week 10) should bother the Patriots in their pursuit of perfection.

Kansas City has the first shot at making 19-0 a moot point, but we’ll see if the Chiefs also have the best shot in January of ending New England’s repeat attempt for good. Barring catastrophic injury, this team is absolutely a lock for a home playoff game, and probably a bye. There is just no way of getting to the Super Bowl in the AFC without handling New England at some point.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Like I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, the only thing Miami is great at is being mediocre. There’s not a strong unit on this offense or defense, and the special teams weren’t that special last year. The Dolphins pulled off a few crazy comebacks, had multiple non-offensive game-winning scores, and escaped two game-winning field goals in overtime wins (Cleveland and Buffalo) to get to 10-6 last year. That’s not a sustainable formula going forward. Miami’s only quality win last year was the game against Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger tore his meniscus and Jay Ajayi broke out. We saw what happened when the QB1 injuries were reversed in the playoffs.

Now with Ryan Tannehill out, which is so very unfortunate, Miami has the perfect signal caller to head this parade back to mediocrity: Jay Cutler. He cared just enough to get out of his FOX gig to make $10 million this year. He’ll make some dazzling throws. He may even help DeVante Parker break out in his third year, which I think is far more crucial to this offense than feeding Jarvis Landry, which has had a negative impact on this offense’s production in the past. Cutler can even pull off some impressive game-winning drives of his own. But that “wow arm talent!” will also single-handedly cost your team a few games a year with mind-numbing decisions and game-changing turnovers.

Maybe Ajayi is a stud with Laremy Tunsil in his proper position at left tackle, but keep in mind that feat of three 200-yard rushing games means that nearly half of his rushing production came in three games. This was not a consistent rushing offense last year.

The defense is heavily reliant on Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake generating pressure. The rest of the defense lacks a great player, and with the linebackers, you just hope that Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons stay healthy at this point. Byron Maxwell wasn’t terrible last year like he was in 2015, but cornerback performance can shift in a hurry. The Dolphins still can’t be trusted in the secondary to do anything great against top passing offenses.

I also don’t think it helps that the Dolphins may have to play just six true home games due to the Hurricane in Week 1 and the London game with the Saints. (Update: game has been moved to Week 11, so they’ll play 16 straight.) When you look at the schedule, most of the teams Miami faces are just flat out better. I would be shocked if this isn’t a typical 7-9/8-8 Miami season. The saving grace was going to be Tannehill improving in Year 2 with Gase, but we get an unexpected Year 2 of Cutler and Gase. The problem is every Cutler year looks a bit too familiar, and as the last decade has shown, that’s usually not good enough for the playoffs.

3. Buffalo Bills (2-14)

Buffalo’s offseason has been so ass-backwards, I expect the team’s next announcement to be a new statue in honor of O.J. Simpson.

I wasn’t always this down on Buffalo this offseason. In fact, I expected the typical 7- 8 wins and no playoff appearance for the team in 2017, but recent moves have been stunning. It started when they fired the GM (Doug Whaley) after the draft, which was a bit of odd timing. Then the strange moves started with the team trading away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby. Those are young players who are supposed to be WR1 and CB1. Not to mention the Bills already lost Robert Woods (WR2) and Stephon Gilmore (old CB1) this offseason. Yeah, I’ve been at odds with the Watkins trade since the beginning, but his vertical style fits Tyrod Taylor’s strength well, and certainly much better than slot receiver Jordan Matthews and rookie possession receiver Zay Jones. Anquan Boldin joined this circus and after one lousy preseason game, basically said “Peace, Buffalo.  Call me if you need me, Pats.”

It really seems like Buffalo is trying to sabotage Taylor’s third season as a starter to have the excuse to move on from him in 2018. This is the problem you can face with a rookie head coach with no track record (Sean McDermott) and a new GM (Brandon Beane) who doesn’t have any heartstrings tied to the current roster. These are Carolina guys setting up shop in Buffalo, and they’re basically throwing in the towel on this season. Trading away Reggie Ragland, the 41st pick in the 2016 draft, was just par for the course in this housecleaning.

I certainly wouldn’t put any money on the Bills winning two games, but aside from sweeping the Jets and perhaps rushing all over New Orleans outdoors in cold weather, where are the wins coming from on this schedule? Hell, a win over the Jets in Week 1 isn’t even a guarantee like it almost would have been had this team still had its core of young talent.

The Bills have really outdone themselves in making their product even more unwatchable this season. Apparently they expect us to start paying attention again in 2018.

Rant Time: Before I somehow get into a worse team in the Jets, let’s merge together these topics of the AFC East’s inferiority and New England’s “brilliance thru other’s stupidity.” Let’s think about Chris Hogan. Like I said before, a prolific postseason and expected to do bigger things in 2017. This was a guy who had the nickname “7-11” because he was always open. Yet the 2012 Dolphins, a team in desperate need of wideouts, couldn’t even bother to keep Hogan on the practice squad for more than a couple of days before releasing him for good. He ends up in Buffalo and has some decent production for a team that has struggled to throw the ball since the 21st century started. Did Buffalo keep him? No, he signed an offer sheet with the Patriots, because Belichick knew there was talent there. The Bills didn’t match, and now we’re seeing a Bills team that has almost nothing at the wide receiver position, and will likely get burned at least once by Hogan this season. I’m not 100% sure if his whiteness plays a role in not getting enough respect from front offices (or opposing defenses). I mean, watch the coaches on Hard Knocks this year with Tampa Bay and notice how black linebacker Cameron Lynch was always said to “move better” than white linebacker Riley Bullough (Joe Dirt). Every time they were compared, that was the go-to line. There may very well be statistical support of that from GPS tracking data, but it screams code for “black guy is more athletic than slow white guy.” And maybe that’s fine in this situation pending that it’s true, but this is dicey when you start calling a white quarterback “smart” in a way you wouldn’t say that for a similar black quarterback, or that a white running back has to be “gritty” just to make a 53-man roster. I’m getting off track now, but that’s why I called this Rant Time. The point is the Patriots won’t care about things like skin color and draft status when evaluating a player. If they can find a quick, shifty player who can catch the ball and make things happen, they’ll kill you with him, even if he’s undrafted and white. Other teams are busy trying to find players who look the part rather than those capable to play the part.

4. New York Jets (2-14)

Seriously, is this not the lamest division race in the post-merger era? If you thought the Bills have given up, the Jets tossed the towel months ago. No, you won’t be watching Ryan Fitzpatrick throw interceptions instead of completions to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker this year. You won’t even see Quincy Enunwa make some impressive plays, but at least that one is due to an unfortunate injury. No, with this offense, we might as well be watching Josh McCown (or Christian Hackenberg) take the field with the cast from Little Giants, all grown up. There is nothing to get excited about on this offense anymore.

Of course, if tanking is your plan, then McCown is your man.

So maybe getting the No. 1 pick (over Buffalo’s dead body) and getting a quarterback like Sam Darnold is the plan all along for the Jets. But even the defense is likely to struggle with Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine taking over as the starting corners. That is a far cry from the days of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. At least the defensive line is still stout, but the Jets made sure to trade away malcontent Sheldon Richardson to Seattle, where he will likely shine now that he plays for a team he can actually give a damn for.

0-16 predictions are understandable, but if you are curious, I have the Jets winning at home against the Jaguars and Bills this year. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I know it will take a lot of help from Blake Bortles and another team that isn’t interested in even competing this season.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

Right after Super Bowl LI ended, Dallas was my Super Bowl LII pick for the NFC. As the months went on and the suspensions piled up, I cooled off a bit on that prediction. Now with the uncertainty surrounding the Ezekiel Elliott situation, I’m really not sure what to make of Dallas. Surprisingly, I still found 12 wins for them, including a huge head-to-head tie-breaker over Seattle in Week 16.

However, I think the Cowboys have some of their toughest tests early in the season. I think they’ll get over the Giants hump on Sunday with Elliott somehow allowed to play, but going to Denver and Arizona, those are games that could easily both be losses against talented defenses on the road. Green Bay may also be a close loss again in Week 5 if Elliott isn’t there. So it’s tough to really project Dallas with so many key players out for portions of the season, but I do believe Dak Prescott is for real. That wasn’t some RGIII misleading season. He had a season that was as efficient as some of the best from that group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. He just didn’t have the volume of them, but that’s to be expected for a rookie.

Sophomore slump, you say? Maybe, but it’s hard to improve on what could be arguably the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history. A few of the past candidates for that, including Dan Marino (1983), Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Russell Wilson (2012) all have something in common too: they reached the Super Bowl in their second season, with the last two winning a ring that early. Prescott has a chance to do that too.

I’m sure the interceptions will go up, but Prescott seems to have the proper skillset to be a low-INT guy on an annual basis. The last decade of QB play was dominated by the Manning/Brady/Brees pocket passer. I think the game is shifting towards the more athletic quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but also escape and make things happen on the run. Aaron Rodgers and Wilson have been doing this, and I think Prescott and Marcus Mariota can also be that type of quarterback.

The Elliott suspension could also be a great test for Prescott to show that he is the main reason Dallas improved to the No. 1 seed last year with one of the best offenses in the league. Remember, Dallas rested starters in Week 17, so could have been 14-2 as well, especially if Mark Sanchez didn’t play as much as he did that day.

The defense hasn’t been terrible despite the flaws, but it’s definitely not a unit that looks championship caliber. Maybe Jaylon Smith can contribute this year, and perhaps Orlando Scandrick plays better another year removed from a torn ACL.

If Dallas faltered to 8-8/9-7, I wouldn’t be shocked, but I just believe in Prescott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, this offensive line, and kicker Dan Bailey to get the job done.

2. New York Giants (10-6)

The Giants were the lowest variance team in DVOA history last season. Every week it seemed like the defense was holding onto a one-score lead to wrap up another win. The defense let down in Green Bay in the playoffs, but I still really like the defensive line and secondary. Janoris Jenkins changed my opinion of him from his play with the Rams. He was very good last year, and safety Landon Collins is quickly approaching great status. The linebackers seem JAG level to me, but overall, it’s one of the best defenses in the NFC and I think that will continue in 2017.

This team goes the distance if Eli Manning can find that 2011 touch again. He was not consistent enough last season, and I’m not sure how much an older Brandon Marshall and a rookie tight end (Evan Engram) help this year. But there is talent around him, including Paul Perkins, who I expect to be solid at running back. The offensive line is still a question mark, but Eli has always been pretty good at mitigating sacks and great at staying healthy every week.

If he just plays up to his abilities at the right moments again, then this team can be Super, but I just don’t see them sweeping Dallas again like last year.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

The Eagles seem like a good candidate for improvement after losing six close games last season. They already have a strong defense and special teams, and added offensive talent in Alshon Jefferey, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount. What ultimately kept the Eagles out of the playoffs was their passing game, led by rookie Carson Wentz. As you probably know, I think he was a bottom-10 QB last season by just about any metric, and anyone who sees otherwise likely stopped paying attention after September ended. I didn’t think his three-game start was the stuff of legends either, and that’s where the controversy started when I pointed out his very low ranking in air yards. By season’s end, Wentz threw the fifth-shortest passes in the league, but it’s always going to be difficult to sink to the bottom when Alex Smith and Sam Bradford are still QB1s.

When Wentz had his big day against Pittsburgh in Week 3, I pointed out that Darren Sproles made two great plays after the catch, gaining YAC of 46 and 50 yards. That’s not a repeatable strategy. In the season’s other 15 games, the Eagles never had a play with more than 30 YAC, and this was an offense that threw more than 600 passes.

By adding Jeffery and Smith, that tells me the Eagles will go downfield more this year, but is that really Wentz’s strength? That remains to be seen, as this is an Andy Reid/Doug Pederson style of WCO, and the Chiefs still neutered Jeremy Maclin a bit when he joined Alex Smith in Kansas City. Jeffery and Smith are low catch% receivers who can make big plays, but you have to be willing to give them shots. Jeffery in particular can win 50/50 balls. I don’t have a ton of confidence left in Smith after a putrid showing on the 49ers last year, but yes, he is better than some of the wideouts the Eagles had a year ago. Still, I didn’t think Jordan Matthews (traded to Buffalo), tight end Zach Ertz and Sproles were bad weapons for a quarterback to have. The Eagles certainly didn’t have the worst supporting cast in the league last year.

I’ve never made any kind of career proclamation about what Wentz will be. I just called his rookie year like I saw it: bad. Can he get better? Of course, but I’d be alarmed that he didn’t improve as last year went on. When people ignore the huge difference in stats of this era to the past, they do silly things like compare his rookie season to Peyton Manning’s in 1998. Okay, but can you not see that Manning shook off a terrible six-game start and was trending upwards the final 10 games that year? Wentz peaked so early last year. Maybe that’s irrelevant going forward, but I just think the expectations that low catch% wideouts and Lane Johnson are going to make this huge difference for him is a bit absurd. Seriously, Johnson has to be the 2nd most overrated Eagle at this point if you think he has that big of an impact on this team. No legit quarterback’s success is tied to his right tackle. You can make that argument for a play or a drive, but not for a full game or season. That’s just not how the NFL works.

Fact is the 2016 Eagles were 0-9 when opponents scored more than 20 points, 7-0 when they were held under 20. The offense needs to step up, and it’s not as simple as adding a few new players. Wentz himself just has to get a lot better in his second season, and while I think he’ll be better, I don’t think he’ll be great enough to carry this team to the top of the division.

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

It seems like the only real offseason story about Washington has been Kirk Cousins’ contract, and the fact that he may bolt for a team like the 49ers in 2018 to the tune of $30 million per season. If we’re being honest, he’s one more good year away from doing as much, if not more than Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford have in their careers, so why not have someone pay him handsomely too? I just don’t get why it hasn’t been Washington yet.

Last year, if the defense could defend a 75-yard field in Detroit or if Dustin Hopkins makes a 34-yard field goal in London in overtime, the Redskins make the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cousins was about the least of the team’s problems. In fact, when I looked at DVOA by routes, he was one of the most effective quarterbacks on several different routes. A lot of that production was with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who are both gone, but if he can continue his efficiency without those guys and without offensive coordinator Sean McVay, then what more does Cousins need to prove to Washington? They still have some talent around him in Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson (injured rookie year), Jordan Reed, a good offensive line, and options at running back. The offense won’t fall apart without those receivers and coordinator, but if it sustains itself without those pieces, then you have to give Cousins credit for that. He’s a good, but not great quarterback, and there aren’t too many of those around right now.

Defensively, does Josh Norman fare better in his second season with the team? He didn’t have the biggest track record in Carolina. Otherwise, we’re talking about rookie Jonathan Allen needing to make a quick impact, and the other stories here aren’t encouraging. Trent Murphy is suspended four games, DeAngelo Hall isn’t healthy, and Su’a Cravens has thought about retiring already.

So I see a bit of football purgatory here with Washington sticking around .500 and missing the playoffs again, but that’s still better to watch than quarterback hell.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

I could really just copy last year’s paragraph here. Can this team beat New England in a big game? That’s really what it boils down to again, because I trust the Steelers against any other AFC contender. But unlike in 2005, 2008 and 2010, you’re not going to avoid the Patriots in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. The AFC is too weak for that to happen now.

So what is different this time? For starters, it sure would be great if Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant could last a whole season together. They’ve only all appeared and finished 11 games since 2014. Bryant has never even played against New England. Bell went out with an injury early in the AFC Championship Game and he didn’t play in the 2015 opener. Roethlisberger missed the Week 7 game last year. So the Patriots have not seen more than two of those four guys for a full game in the last three meetings, all won by New England with the Pittsburgh defense looking bad. That’s really the bigger problem, but it doesn’t help when Pittsburgh has to invest so much money into three offensive players who are never together when the team needs them the most.

Maybe the defense actually looks at the 2011 game tape and what worked that day (press coverage). Anything would be better than the usual “how did we leave this guy so open?” game plan that Pittsburgh walks into these New England games with. They didn’t even look like they knew who Chris Hogan was in the AFC Championship Game.

I’m not sold that this is Roethlisberger’s final season. I think he’s going to Brett Favre this thing, which means at least one March retirement followed by an August return to the team for “one more try.” But if this is it, then the Steelers have made some uncharacteristic moves to help out with that. I’m just not sure that Joe Haden and Vance McDonald are the missing pieces to getting past the Patriots. Sure, those guys could be CB1 and TE1 on this team given the weakness at those positions, but Haden hasn’t been too good for a couple of years now. More than anything, the big four needs to stay healthy and I’d like to see T.J. Watt have a good pass-rushing impact as a rookie starter. The secondary is still question. Do you think the team would have moved for Haden and safety J.J. Wilcox if they were really comfortable with 2016 draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis?

I like the Steelers for a No. 2 seed, but even with a win at home against New England in Week 15, I still think the Patriots will win more games to make sure the playoff matchup is in Foxboro again. That’s where the Steelers really look lost against this team. What I described in the Patriots section about forcing deep balls to Cooks/Hogan instead of shredding the short stuff with Edelman could be Pittsburgh’s key to victory this year, but it will take an incredible effort to pull that one out based on how these matchups usually go.

Aside from basing everything on New England, it really could be exciting to watch this offense if Bell can make it through this season with such a heavy workload, and if Bryant returns to the athletic freak he was in 2014-15. Those are two big question marks, and the inevitable Roethlisberger injury has nearly kept this team out of the playoffs the last two years. Still, I think Pittsburgh has a significant edge over the AFC North.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

Every year I was waiting for the Bengals to miss the playoffs after that five-year run in 2011-2015. The team was rarely great at anything in that stretch, but only last year finally saw them finish under .500. Andy Dalton still had a respectable season with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert basically missing half of the season. If he can get those guys back to go with rookie John Ross and second-year wideout Tyler Boyd, then the Bengals have a pretty talented offense. Throw in Gio Bernard at receiving back and Joe Mixon stealing snaps from Jeremy Hill, and the Bengals have plenty of options.

However, the offensive line does look like the worst of the Dalton era. The good news is that he generally gets rid of the ball quickly, but this could be something that holds them back for sure. Dalton has never been that great under pressure.

The defense returns some standouts in Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, but Adam Jones (1 game) and Vontaze Burfict (3 games) are currently suspended. The Bengals should stick to their “solid, but not great” standing on defense.

I think the home schedule is very favorable, but don’t see the Bengals winning in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Denver, or Minnesota.

Add it all together and a mediocre 8-8 sounds pretty reasonable.

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

When I looked at QB-added value in 2016, Joe Flacco was the least valuable QB in the NFL last year. This is based on EPA by the QB relative to the rest of his team (running game, defense, special teams, penalties). Flacco wasted strong performances from his defense and special teams last year to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the third time in four years since he destroyed the QB contract market.

So with a $24.5M cap hit this year, the Ravens are paying out the ass for a quarterback who smashed the record for failed completions last year with 144. What ever will Flacco do with Kyle Jusczyczhkdsflhk off to San Francisco? I guess he’ll just have to throw passes 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to Danny Woodhead now. That’s actually a decent tradeoff for this offense, but it’s still an offense that is likely to struggle. Flacco’s not even fully healthy going into the season, so that’s another problem.

Oh, the defense should still be pretty good, meaning a pretty typical Baltimore year. Defense has to bail out the offense, and it won’t happen enough times to make the playoffs.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

If the Browns finally start to turn things around, the 2017 draft will be the main reason for that. They have a potential franchise QB in DeShone Kizer, a “best player in the draft” pass-rushing prospect in Myles Garrett, and talented athletes at tight end (David Njoku) and safety (Jabrill Peppers).

They also have a boatload of future picks to make, but none of this means anything if the Browns still struggle to identify and develop talent at the pro level. The fact that they drafted so many receivers a year ago and still signed Kenny Britt and traded for Sammie Coates isn’t a ringing endorsement for the 2016 draft. But I think Kizer has some solid weapons to work with now, and it is interesting that he’s the only rookie to start in Week 1 at quarterback after going in the second round. I think he’ll be too inconsistent to have a great rookie season, and the defense still isn’t ready to do anything big, but it should at least be more exciting to watch the Browns this year than it usually has been.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Packers and Patriots can both tie the NFL record with a ninth-consecutive playoff appearance this season. As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, I think that’s almost a lock, even if the Packers do like to wait until Week 17 to figure out their playoff fate. Rodgers was incredible down the stretch last year, but not so much when the Packers started 4-6. I’d like to see him return more to his 2009-2014 consistency rather than what’s gone in the last two seasons. I think he can, and that’s why he is my favorite for the MVP award this year.

I still don’t think the defense is going to be anything special, so Rodgers has to be. Martellus Bennett should be a fine upgrade at tight end for an offense that hasn’t had a lot there since Jermichael Finley. Ty Montgomery as a running back is an interesting opportunity, but I’m not sold that he’ll get a ton of touches until we see it actually happen. I still like Jordy Nelson a lot and Davante Adams came around last year after an ugly 2015. Rodgers will always extend plays with the best of them, though I’d like to see more conventional offensive efficiency. Those broken plays weren’t as successful as one may think last year.

While this team can hang its hat on making the playoffs again, one has to wonder at what point will GM Ted Thompson or HC Mike McCarthy take the heat for one Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots have three (two wins) since 2009. The Colts went to two Super Bowls (1-1 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 2002-2010. The Cowboys went to three Super Bowls (1-2 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 1975-1983. Green Bay has needed to do more with this high caliber of quarterback play from Rodgers, but the team is stubborn with relying on the draft. The Patriots just won the Super Bowl and immediately tried to get even better. The teams that have beaten Green Bay the last three years didn’t rest on their laurels either. The Falcons added Dontari Poe. The Cardinals traded for Chandler Jones last year. In 2015, the Seahawks traded to get Jimmy Graham. Green Bay’s biggest move in free agency in that time was replacing Jared Cook with Bennett. No, for real. It’s a way different approach to how the Patriots constantly try out new weapons for Brady, or defenders (see Gilmore) for Belichick to toy with.

I write a lot of the same things about the Packers every year, because what’s really changed? They try to win by the draft and home-grown talent. They rely heavily on Rodgers to be amazing. They still can’t be trusted to make a big comeback. 2010 is still a major outlier for Dom Capers’ defense. Green Bay has a stagnant status in this league, and while most teams would trade spots with the Packers in a heartbeat, year after year we’re left expecting more by season’s end.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

A 58-yard field goal by Detroit’s Matt Prater was really the difference in Minnesota making the playoffs as a wild-card team versus missing out at 8-8. This team is right on that cusp, but I don’t see a whole lot changing this year. The defense should play closer to the early-season dominance than the late-season fallout it displayed against the Colts and Packers. I still don’t trust Sam Bradford to win high-scoring games or elevate a team to the playoffs. They have to win with defense and play much better along the offensive line so that the running game can be better with rookie running back Dalvin Cook. I think the offensive line is better this year after adding Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and rookie center Pat Elflein. A strong unit? Not likely, but anything would be better than this:

I think that late-season stretch where the Vikings go on the road against Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina and Green Bay in five weeks is what will ultimately keep this team out of the playoffs again. Let’s hope Teddy Bridgewater can resume his playing career soon in Minnesota. There are some good pieces in place here.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

By now you know a lot of the numbers. Detroit broke the NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season, and those teams usually regress, especially in close games (drops from 66.8% wins to 40.1% wins). Matthew Stafford is the highest-paid player in NFL history despite never getting a single vote for MVP or first-team All-Pro, never winning a playoff game (0-3), and never finishing higher than 10th in passing DVOA. Yes, that 5-46 record against teams with a winning record is hard to believe, and not anywhere close to other quarterbacks of his caliber since 2009.

Stafford isn’t a typical top 10 quarterback, but we can inflate him as one in a league where Peyton Manning and Tony Romo recently retired. He’s fine, he can keep your team competitive, but he is ultimately a volume passer who can be mistake prone. He’s basically this generation’s Drew Bledsoe without getting carried to a Super Bowl appearance yet.

As I wrote in FOA 2017, Detroit was like a 5-11 team that pulled off four miracles, often on the arm of Stafford, but also with help from Matt Prater and some huge interceptions by a defense that was otherwise terrible. Stafford’s best years may very well be ahead of him, but until he reaches that point, Detroit will still be scraping by just to finish around .500. I thought I could find them more than six wins, but I simply like teams such as Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota better this year. I do like the draft pick of Kenny Golladay and the potential of a healthy Ameer Abdullah behind the revamped right side of the line (T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner). I’m not thrilled about injuries to Taylor Decker and Kerry Hyder. I’ve never been a Jim Caldwell fan, and I think this is a season where those close games that so often fell Detroit’s way last year go the other way this year, keeping the Lions out of the playoffs.

And let’s face it, you wouldn’t pick them to win a wild-card game anyway.

4. Chicago Bears (3-13)

It certainly is worth noting that the Bears had the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in our database going back to 2000. Health should be better this year, though Cameron Meredith may have a few words about that. That’s an awful loss after his surprisingly good performance last season.

Last year, the Bears went 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only won home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. In 2017, I have them going 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only winning home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. Oh, and they’re still paying out the ass for quarterbacks, but instead of a Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer/Matt Barkley three-way, it’s Mike Glennon and rookie Mitch Trubisky.

Look, I don’t feel good about the record, but I haven’t felt good about Chicago for several years now. They’ve lost Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White hasn’t been able to show anything. The offensive line is solid, but I think Glennon is a bit slower to get rid of the ball than a Hoyer or Barkley. Jordan Howard was a great find last year, but I don’t think the defense will be strong enough to keep enough games winnable for the Bears to rely on the run. I like the linebackers a lot and Leonard Floyd could have a breakout year, but the secondary is pathetic. Seriously, you just have to do better than starting Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper at corner.

Even if the Bears win six games, it’s another pointless season for this franchise. As much as I thought Glennon deserved a starting job somewhere, I don’t understand the contract he was given at all. He should be making the $6 million or so that Hoyer and McCown are making this year. Then to trade up for Trubisky, it’s just a messy situation. Best-case scenario is that Glennon plays well enough so that the Bears can move him for a high draft pick. Hell, his track record by then will be greater than that of Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Flynn, and Matt Schaub when they were given big deals elsewhere. Guess the only problem is his name isn’t Matt Glennon, but I’ll be damned if Gumby can’t stand nice and tall for every anthem this season.

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)

I’m a little hesitant about buying into Tennessee like many people have. But I also know that the best way to end an eight-year playoff drought is with strong quarterback play. You like to think the Titans have that with Marcus Mariota, and they’ve built around him well with adding Corey Davis and Eric Decker. They also have two solid backs and TE Delanie Walker. The offensive line is pretty solid, especially at tackle.

The criticisms I have on Mariota so far are durability and too many turnovers in 4QC/GWD situations. With the latter, this team likely wins the AFC South last year if not for some untimely turnovers (several returned for touchdowns) by Mariota late in games. With his durability, in two years he’s already had three injuries that caused him to miss starts. That’s more than most top QBs in this era have in their whole careers.

If Mariota can stay healthy and play like he did after last year’s slow start, then the Titans have a good one here. On defense, I expect better results than last year, but still not a top unit. Brian Orakpo was a good pickup last year. A player I think can become a household name in 2017 is safety Kevin Byard. It seemed like every time this offseason when I went to look up a play or something involving the Titans defense, there he was doing something valuable for the team. He was one of the best against the run and the pass last year. The Titans could use a strong force in the secondary after letting long-time corner Jason McCourty go.

I think the Titans have a few statement games on the schedule that can show they’re a contender this year. They’ll host Seattle in Week 3, and they really need to beat the Colts at home in Week 6. The Titans haven’t beaten the Colts with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at quarterback since the 2008 season, the last time they were a playoff team. Luck will hopefully be back for that one, but it’s a big mental hurdle to get over for this team. I think there’s a stretch late in the year that’s really tough when the Titans travel to play the Steelers, Colts and Cardinals in a four-game span.

But we know 10-6 is more than enough to win the AFC South these days. Hey, Sunday’s game with Oakland could easily be a wild-card preview. Some new blood for a change. But again, don’t get crazy in thinking this team will seriously challenge New England and get to a Super Bowl. It’s a process. Plus, we’re talking about a team coached by Mike Mularkey and a defense led by Dick LeBeau. The Patriots shouldn’t have to worry about the Titans this year, but the future finally looks bright here.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

The Colts have somehow fallen into NFL purgatory: not good enough to make the playoffs (not even in the AFC South), not bad enough to get a top 10 draft pick. Well, at least the explanation for why this team isn’t one of the AFC elites going into Andrew Luck’s sixth season is obvious. Ryan Grigson was a horrible GM and the barrage of hits on Luck year after year has had an effect.

Oh, Luck was still fantastic last year. Arguably his finest season yet. Sure, he’d like to have a few throws against the Texans and Jaguars (London) back, but he did more than enough to drag this team what could have easily been a 10-5 record in his starts. That would have meant a home playoff game against the Raiders with Connor Cook at quarterback. But the defense couldn’t hold up a 35-34 lead in the final 37 seconds against Detroit. The defense somehow blew a 14-point lead in the final seven minutes to Brock Osweiler. There’s your postseason gone.

Now the Colts open 2017 with Scott Tolzien at quarterback, because Luck still isn’t healthy enough after offseason surgery. We knew this could be the case months ago, so why didn’t the Colts do something more reasonable like bring in Colin Kaepernick or make this shocking trade of Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett weeks ago? They’re stuck with Tolzien now, and what looked like a winnable opener against the Rams now looks like a likely loss. By the time Luck comes back, this team could be in a 1-3 hole, and that’s assuming Cleveland is a win at home.

I still have the Colts at 8-8, because I expect Luck to return and think the post-bye schedule is where they can really clean up. But this expected rough start is likely going to ruin any chance at a return to the playoffs. The defense is still a huge eyesore, so I don’t see Tolzien being able to rely on that or the running game with Frank Gore to win games in Luck’s absence.

If you’ve been a fan of this team recently, then the NFL’s just not the same right now without Peyton Manning and with the Colts relying on backup quarterbacks to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. The Colts were an annual contender for the better part of two decades, but they’re just another team these days.

3. Houston Texans (5-11)

Houston ranked 29th in DVOA last year, one of the worst marks ever for a playoff team, but thus is the benefit of the AFC South. Getting the best defender in football (J.J. Watt) back should be a boost, and it’s hard to do much worse than Brock Osweiler last year, but let’s not count out Tom Savage just yet. Yes, the fact that Savage is the starter in Week 1 is rather annoying, as he is clearly a poor stop-gap to Deshaun Watson. However, I have grown used to Bill O’Brien making our NFL viewing lives as miserable as possible.

I really had high hopes that Watson, who the Texans traded up to get, would have a Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott impact on Houston this year, which could be a team to deal with provided competent quarterback play. We saw this in the playoffs in New England where the defense did a respectable job, but that brutal special teams unit and Osweiler (along with Will Fuller’s hands) were not up to the task. Unfortunately, Watson did not seem up to the task this preseason. Granted, preseason isn’t everything, but Wilson and Prescott dominated there to help them win the Week 1 starting job. So I’m skeptical of Watson’s impact this season, but I doubt Savage makes it through 16 starts. We’ll see the Clemson star soon enough.

I don’t feel great about the 5-win projection here, because O’Brien churns out 9-7 seasons with subpar quarterback play, a passing offense that generates the least YAC, and now has Watt and Clowney together for a change. But I just think the road schedule is tough on Houston, the offense will struggle to score points, and the rest of the AFC South should be better this year.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Blake Bortles made his NFL debut against the Colts in 2014. He entered the game in the third quarter with Jacksonville down 30-0. “The Garbage Man” was born.

But if he still stinks this year, then that has to be it in Jacksonville. Sure, he’ll probably hold onto an NFL job for the next eight years, because he’s white and stands for the anthem, but there’s no way he should start for this team in 2018 after four years of mostly lousy play. 60-plus starts is plenty of evidence.

I have said a few times in light of the ridiculous contracts signed by Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford that Bortles is one strong season away from becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history. You may laugh, but I am a little serious.

Does this scenario not sound plausible? Bortles does improve his statistics in a noticeable way (TD:INT ratio) this year. The Jaguars shock everyone and win about 10 games to capture the AFC South. At that point, what’s stopping the team from signing him to at least $25 million per season? I could even hear a ridiculous Tom Coughlin statement like “I’m sure this was the Blake they expected to get when they drafted him third overall in 2014, so we’re glad to keep him in the fold long-term” after the bogus signing.

Yes, a guy who we just talked about being benched for Chad Henne days ago is one big stat season and playoff appearance away from having a resume that’s not that far off from the other “highest-paid players in NFL history.”

And I would love to see it happen in the most farcical way possible. I’m talking like a 2007 Derek Anderson or 2010 Josh Freeman type of season, but far worse.

Things I want to see before Jacksonville pays out the ass for him:

  • Bortles throws single-digit interceptions, but leads the NFL with 14+ dropped interceptions.
  • Bortles fumbles 12 times, but somehow loses 0 of them.
  • His receivers drop the fewest passes in the league.
  • His receivers make the most YAC+ plays in the NFL, including several long touchdowns on screens, blown coverages, and broken tackles.
  • Clear splits that his numbers were beefed up against terrible defenses.
  • For him to set an NFL-record for 1-to-3 yard touchdown passes.
  • For The Garbage Man to absolutely crush garbage time in the six games Jacksonville loses en route to that 10-6 division title, inflating those season stats even more. I’m talking Matt Cassel vs. 2010 Broncos Hall of Garbage Time Fame stuff.
  • We’ll be able to say “he played the Colts without Vontae and J.J. Watt missed the second Houston game.”
  • Jacksonville’s young, super talented defense rises to the top five in the league and is the main reason for this winning record, QBWINZ be damned.

Basically, the most misleading stat line and record you’ll ever see attached to a quarterback’s name. Please, sign him after all of that happens.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

I saved the Falcons as my last team to write about. Maybe I’m viewing this as my eulogy to the 2016 season.

With Atlanta, there’s the football stuff and the mental stuff to talk about this year. The football part is pretty simple. The historic offense will regress this year, because that’s what historic offenses do. You don’t just improve on what the Falcons did last year, especially when you lose your offensive coordinator and don’t make any significant roster upgrades. Having said that, Kyle Shanahan is not a special soothsayer. In fact, he’s the No.1 reason “28-3” happened. Run the god damn ball. It’s that simple. When Shanahan left Houston, the 2010 Texans improved to No. 2 in offensive DVOA. He was also in Atlanta in 2015 when things were at their worst in the Matt Ryan era. So he’s not irreplaceable by any means.

Given the talent still here, I expect Ryan to have a top-five QB season and lead this offense to a lot of points. TE Austin Hooper might have a breakout year. The defense is where the Falcons have to get a lot better, and I think that’s possible with young players getting better, Dontari Poe coming over at NT, and the return of CB1 Desmond Trufant. Atlanta improved on defense down the stretch last year, but as we know, couldn’t get that final stop in SB LI. I don’t think the defense will be top 10 or anything, but it should fare better than 2016’s No. 26 ranking in DVOA. There won’t be as many shootouts necessary for Atlanta to win this year.

The Falcons were a strong 11-5 team. They led in the fourth quarter of every game after Week 1, but still lost five times, including you know what. This team played very well for much of the season, but just didn’t close out a few games like you have to if you are to win a championship.

So many people are going to write off the Falcons this year for not being able to get over the devastation of 28-3. I get that, but it’s just not very true of NFL history. These are professionals. They get over things by getting better. The 1971 Dolphins were embarrassed 24-3 in the Super Bowl (only team to not score a touchdown), but came back to go 17-0 in 1972. The 1990 Buffalo Bills lost on a last-second field goal in the Super Bowl, but still rallied to make three more trips to the big game (all losses). They even had to overcome an NFL-record 32-point deficit against the Oilers in 1992. How did Houston handle that choke? Well, it started 1-4 in 1993, but rallied to finish 12-4. Oh, they still choked away another postseason game to the Chiefs, but that’s besides the point. The 2005 Colts had a horrible ending to their season when Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide and they lost in a dramatic game to Pittsburgh. At that point, you didn’t know if they would ever win a Super Bowl after blowing a season where they looked like the best team. They still started 9-0 in 2006, overcame a rough patch and won the Super Bowl.

So teams do come back well from devastating losses all the time. I don’t think Atlanta is going to worry much at all about 28-3 this year. If there’s a game where there could be a mental block, it would be in New England. And if they happen to meet again in the Super Bowl, then okay, I can see that being a bit of a problem. Maybe some embrace the opportunity, and maybe some try too hard that night. I’d sign up to see that though, and I think every Atlanta player would sign up today for that game if they could. The Falcons were the better team for much of the game, but it’s just incredible how they never delivered the knockout punch. I said earlier you can list the moments that went wrong after 28-3, and I’m going to try doing that now. I’m sure I’ll forget a few too as I’ve tried to erase these memories.

  • 6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.
  • 1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.
  • 8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.
  • 5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.
  • 3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.
  • 3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.
  • 2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.
  • 0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion. I even could have mentioned a couple of third-and-longs that would have put NE in troubling fourth-and-longs. Even if the Falcons rip off two Super Bowl wins here, they’ll always feel sick about the one that got away. But if you’re on this team, then you have to know that you were really that close to pulling it off. Some of these teams feel so far away from competing for this, but the Falcons are built well and in good shape to finish the job this year.

2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

If you told me the Panthers could win anywhere from 5 to 13 games this year, I’d agree with you. One of the hardest teams to predict this season; such  a wide range of options. Much like the accuracy of a Cam Newton pass, you never know what you’re going to get here. It could be great like 2015, or it could be lousy like 2014 and 2016.

I was very adamant about the 14-0 start in 2015 being a fluke, and after the Broncos stifled Carolina’s offense in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers had the biggest drop (nine wins) in NFL history for a 15-1 team. That didn’t surprise me too much, but I did expect a playoff team last year. Clearly, the defense was not as good without Josh Norman, and Luke Kuechly also missed six games. When the offense wasn’t playing with a bunch of great field position thanks to the takeaways on defense, we saw struggles to score, and a lot of incompletions from Cam. Health was also an issue and he had his fewest rushing yards yet in a season by a margin of 180 yards.

This is why I like the selection of running back Christian McCaffrey, who has looked very fast on an NFL field this preseason. Carolina still has to show they will use him in multiple ways in games that count, but I don’t see how you draft a guy that high and treat him like he’s Jonathan Stewart. So that should be a big add and help keep the offense centered more around the run where the offensive line can play to its strength better.

But this really is about the defense getting back to an elite level and helping Newton take advantage of short fields. I think the schedule is pretty favorable to the Panthers, and only the road game in New England feels like one where they’ll be significantly disadvantaged.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

I believe Tampa Bay is on the right track, but just had them missing the No. 6 seed due to a head-to-head loss with a team I haven’t mentioned yet. I think you’ll see a team that improves in DVOA on both sides of the ball, led by Jameis Winston on offense and Lavonte David on defense. I just don’t think Tampa Bay is ready to do things like beat New England or win in Green Bay.

Winston really is Cam Newton’s doppelganger. They both throw the deepest passes in the league at over 10 air yards per attempt. They led the NFL in off-target throw rate, partially due to the difficulty of their throws. They love to make things happen under pressure, and Winston actually had the highest QBR under pressure of any quarterback season since 2006 according to ESPN’s database. They both need really tall receivers to bring down some of those high or wide throws. I think Winston has a chance to become a more consistent passer than what Newton has done through six years, but we’ll see. Winston really does throw some dumb interceptions, and we saw that this preseason as well.

You have to love what the Buccaneers did in the offseason for Winston by adding DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard. Jackson should give Winston the speedy deep threat that Vincent Jackson (height, but age) no longer could be. Howard has a lot of potential, but I wouldn’t expect much this season as that is usually the case with rookie tight ends. Cameron Brate is a solid player too. They have weapons, they don’t have a great offensive line, but the mobile quarterback helps make up for some of that.

I just think the team is still too young to take that next step, and starting Chris Conte at safety doesn’t do them any favors either. But the Buccaneers should be fun to watch this year and will definitely be a trendy playoff pick in 2018.

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Seasons finishing 7-9:

  • Jeff Fisher (four in 20 full years)
  • Sean Payton (four in 10 years)

What’s that? For almost half of his coaching career, Sean Payton has been 7-9 Bullshit. I actually had the Saints at 8-8 after the first run through, but gave another win away to have them at 7-9 for the fourth year in a row.

It’s really sad that this has become the expectations for the Saints given the continued stellar play from Drew Brees. I wanted to write something very detailed about Brees before Week 1, but ran out of time. I guess next offseason works too, because I don’t see the Saints improving enough on defense to get back to the playoffs this year. It would take just a move up to mediocrity really, but I’m just not sold yet when I look at the starting lineup on that side of the ball.

Even the offense makes me worry a little with the trade of Brandin Cooks and three-game suspension for Willie Snead, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Brees. He helped Michael Thomas to the most rookie DYAR ever last year. The running back depth chart is deep, though I don’t have high expectations for Adrian Peterson anymore.

Brees can seemingly throw for 5,000 yards and be one of the most accurate passers with any supporting cast, but it’s just not enough when your defense hemorrhages points at the rate of New Orleans’ defense.

I recently looked at what keeps a great QB out of the playoffs. The fact that Brees has had seven healthy seasons with 16 starts where he missed the playoffs is staggering. It’s the most in NFL history.

I looked at every QB season since 1989 when a team missed the playoffs. Brees has 9,485 total DYAR in the 10 seasons where he missed the playoffs. That’s almost double the next-closest quarterback (Philip Rivers, 4,878 DYAR).

BreesPO

Once we add 1986-88 for Dan Marino, he’ll be second to Brees, but still not even close. We always think of Marino as the best example of a quarterback who had his career wasted by his team’s lack of running game and defense. Well, fortunately Brees had an efficient running game in 2009, and when it disappeared in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, he had Tracy Porter picking off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Marino never had that luxury, but Brees is really the one who should have more playoff starts where he has been amazing in his career.

To be continued (because I’m sure things won’t change in 2017 for the Saints)

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

From FOA 2017:

“How do you get Alex Smith to throw for 4,000 yards? Tell him it’s third down with 4,500 yards to go. In all seriousness, Smith passed for a career-high 3,502 yards last season. Since Smith was drafted in 2005, quarterbacks have passed for more yards than he did last year 164 times. By this point, we know exactly what type of quarterback Smith is. The same can likely be said for the Chiefs, hence the aggressive trade to get Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.”

I compared the Chiefs to the Broncos circa 2003-2006. That team made the playoffs three years in a row with Mike Shanahan getting the best out of Jake Plummer, but couldn’t get past teams like the Colts and Steelers. Jay Cutler was drafted in the first round in 2006 and eventually replaced Plummer for the final five games of the season. I can see Mahomes doing that to Smith, but maybe the Chiefs will wait until 2018. Then again, who thought the Chiefs would fire their GM and let Jeremy Maclin go after June? It was a strange offseason for what should be a top contender in the AFC.

What Smith can do is play well to keep Mahomes on the bench. I’m not sure a player can suddenly reach a new level in Year 13, but I guess Steve DeBerg did it for the Chiefs in 1990 (his 23 TD, 4 INT year).

I really thought I’d have Oakland jumping ahead of the Chiefs, but it just didn’t turn out that way when I went through each game. I have the teams splitting this year rather than another KC sweep, but they certainly have Derek Carr’s number at this point.

There are plenty of reasons why I think the Chiefs have the best shot to beat the Patriots in the AFC. If you haven’t noticed by now, that’s kind of the whole point of this season. Everyone’s trying to dethrone New England. The Chiefs have a good coach in Andy Reid, certainly better than Mike Tomlin and Jack Del Rio. Sure, he has his time management screw-ups, but the clock doesn’t matter if you kick New England’s ass 41-14 like the Chiefs did in 2014, the last time the Patriots looked that bad. Reid also had the Chiefs in a 27-20 game in the 2015 playoffs in NE that really swung on a Knile Davis fumble. He didn’t get blown out like Tomlin. As a 25-ponit underdog, Reid gave the 2007 Patriots all they could handle after their dominant 10-0 start, and nearly pulled off the upset with A.J. Feeley as his quarterback. There was also that close Super Bowl XXXIX loss to the Patriots. Reid can hang with Belichick despite the inferior QB play.

One thing about Smith’s safe style is that he usually avoids turnovers, so the Chiefs could win the turnover battle in New England given their ball-hawking secondary led by Marcus Peters and Eric Berry. The Chiefs like to run the ball, and while the loss of Spencer Ware sucks, maybe Kareem Hunt is the rookie for the task. The Chiefs could put together some time-consuming drives (to their benefit this time) in NE, because remember, that defense looks shaky on paper in the front seven. The strength is in the secondary, and it’s not like Smith will go crazy in forcing it there. They can rely on Travis Kelce to out-Gronk Gronk instead, and Tyreek Hill offers a lot of flexibility. Kansas City also annually has great special teams thanks to coordinator Dave Toub. That’s another area where they could outplay the Patriots. Justin Houston and Dee Ford make up a nice pass-rushing duo, which could get after Brady without the Chiefs having to blitz too much.

Sure, there are flaws here. I don’t think Hill is a legit WR1, I think he’s more like Percy Harvin at best, so the Maclin release was odd. The corners after Peters aren’t very impressive either. The OL is hardly going to be confused for Dallas or Oakland. Smith’s limitations are well documented, but it’s not like you go into New England to win 35-28 games. You win 21-14 games there, doing it with defense. Pittsburgh and Oakland just don’t have the defense. Tomlin and Del Rio have a putrid history against Brady’s offense. Simple as that.

I know many will predict the Chiefs to fall off this year, and maybe Smith regresses and loses the job to Mahomes sooner than we expect. None of that would surprise me, but I still think this is a very talented roster, a balanced team, and the best hope in the conference of keeping the Patriots out of another Super Bowl.

Christ, did I really just say that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are the AFC’s best hope against New England? If you told me this would be the future back in 2005-07, I might have started paying more attention to the NBA and NHL.

2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

Yep, that about sums it up, but I’ll explain. Oakland was arguably the worst 12-4 team in NFL history last season. The Raiders’ plus-31 scoring differential was the smallest ever for a 12-win team. The seven fourth-quarter comebacks were the second most by a team in NFL history. The Raiders were the NFL’s only team to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2016. While no one had more penalties than Oakland, the big calls largely went in their favor. Derek Carr’s 19 drawn defensive pass interference penalties are the most by any QB in a season since 1986, and perhaps the most ever given the NFL’s history with passing volume and penalties. Carr was the only QB to throw a dropped interception (Eric Weddle in Baltimore) on the same drive that he threw a game-winning touchdown (the very next play) in 2016. Carr also had two terrible throws on fourth down in the final minutes against the Saints and Buccaneers that were erased by bogus penalties on the defense. So for all the “clutch” talk about Carr last year, I basically saw a guy get away with three game-losing throws for a team that easily could have been 9-7 with a fairly lousy defense. Let’s not even get into every call and decision going Oakland’s way in Mexico City against Houston on a Monday night. Oakland’s offense also had the best starting field position in the league.

So what I’m telling you is simple: Oakland wasn’t as good as its record last year, and I think this team will win fewer games this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t actually get better and be in better position to beat a team like Kansas City or New England. Last year, the Raiders beat single-digit win teams, but went 0-3 against the Chiefs (12-4) and Falcons (11-5). And regardless of Carr’s broken leg and the efforts of Khalil Mack, that defense made Brock Osweiler look decent. Twice.

From FOA 2017:

“It is not an insult to believe that the Raiders will regress and win fewer games this season. Stacking 12-win seasons is a very difficult thing to do in this league. Joe Montana, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan have never stacked together consecutive 12-win seasons, to give a few notable examples. A team basically has to have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady at quarterback to consistently win 12 games a year, and Derek Carr is not at that level yet.”

No, Carr is most certainly not at that MVP level yet despite the six votes he actually received for the award last year. He’s improved a lot from his rookie year, but when you’re barely beating out Sam Bradford and Trevor Siemian in yards per pass attempt, how good are you really playing the position? Carr has yet to lead the Oakland offense to a top 10 ranking in yards per drive or points per drive, which is something a top QB routinely does.

Carr is the Cautious Gunslinger, an oxymoron if there ever was one. He’s “checkdown or touchdown” personified. Sure, he’ll force some dangerous throws into small windows, but he’ll also check the ball down with no pressure around him behind an excellent offensive line. He even set a single-game record (back to 1989) for failed completions with 18 against Tampa Bay last year. He’s hard to pressure, but I think his sack avoidance, undeniably built from watching his brother get pummeled, can be a detriment to this offense at times. Carr’s red-zone production has also dropped each year, and he missed a lot of close touchdowns with Amari Cooper last year on throws that were caught out of bounds — the rare slim margin that didn’t go Oakland’s way last year.

This is an offensive-driven team, but the defense was again quite good at holding the late lead. I just don’t think they’ll hold up as well in those moments this year, which is why Oakland could win fewer games despite better performance on both sides of the ball. Again, going 12-4 or better is really hard in this league. It’s not as easy as the Patriots make it look sometimes. The AFC West is also very deep and challenging. Carr has yet to have a really good game against the Chiefs or Broncos.

I think a lot of people want to pick Oakland just because it’s been a while and we can’t stand watching the Patriots win year after year. That’s fine, but it’s just not very likely that this team will out-coach or outplay the Pats this year. The defense has too many flaws to stand up to that Brady-led offense that has always given Del Rio fits. The offense’s strength are the outside receivers in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, but that plays into the hands of Belichick’s corners. Sure, Marshawn Lynch is a wild card and I’m thrilled he’s back in the league, but I’m keeping my expectations low after a year off and a bad 2015 from him. He should enjoy the line in front of him though.

So we’ll see if Oakland can get better this year without it actually being reflected on the W-L record. I think that’s likely, but I was still able to find one extra win for the Chiefs to take the division title. The Chiefs have a better coach, defense and special teams than Oakland. The quarterback edge still goes to Carr, but it’s not by the wide margin some people think.

At least not to this point.

3. San Diego Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

I can’t help it, I still want to call them San Diego. The Chargers are a trendy pick this year, and I totally get it. The starting lineup looks pretty nice on both sides of the ball. Mike McCoy is gone. The injuries can’t possibly always be this bad, can they? They can’t blow another handful of fourth-quarter leads, can they?

Well, if 2015 to 2016 is any indication, they sure can repeat those bad things. The Chargers have blown 11 fourth-quarter leads since 2015, including six last year. That’s incredible when you consider the team has nine wins in that time. The injuries were really bad last year, especially at wide receiver and to cornerback Jason Verrett.

But with Verrett back, the Chargers have a nice corner duo for Gus Bradley (new DC) to work with Verrett and Casey Hayward. The Chargers also have a good pass-rushing duo in Joey Bosa (let’s see a full year from him now) and Melvin Ingram. Those are very desirable things for every defense, and the Chargers have both locked up.

You still like Philip Rivers as a competent QB, even if he peaked back in 2008-09. I think new coach Anthony Lynn will be good for him, especially if he gets Melvin Gordon off to a career year. Lynn has that ground-and-pound mentality, and while Rivers will still throw 500+ passes, the Chargers should be more balanced this year. They still have strong WR depth in Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and maybe will get something out of No. 7 pick Mike Williams (another one!?) after all. Hunter Henry, after a nice rookie campaign, is ready to replace Antonio Gates as the top TE. The downside is that offensive line, but Rivers has always managed to survive it and start every game. His teammates have been less fortunate. Guard Forrest Lamp has already been lost for the season, and the rookie was a draft favorite. That sucks, but we’ll see if Russell Okung can get the job done at the all-important left tackle position.

I really like the starting lineup, but I’m just waiting for the injuries to pile up and ruin this thing. The Chargers should remain competitive in most games and definitely challenge for a wild card all season long. I’ve seen some pick them for the AFC West, but I still think Kansas City and Oakland have more top-tier talent and less impending sense of doom.

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

Much of what I wrote last year still applies. I was all on the 8-8 bandwagon for Denver last season, and I think barring a few special teams mistakes from Carolina (Gano GW miss on opening night) and New Orleans (blocked XP returned for GW 2PC), I’d have nailed that one. The Broncos also got to finish 2016 with a home win against the Raiders without Derek Carr, and even second-stringer Matt McGloin went down with injury in that one.

With Denver this year, I understand why Trevor Siemian is getting the starting job, but this is really bad news for Paxton Lynch’s future.

Siemian was better than I expected last season, but there’s still a pretty low ceiling on his career. I don’t think there’s much left to see that we haven’t already seen from him, and regardless of QB choice, the Broncos still have big question marks at OL, inconsistent running backs, and no real third receiving option. Yeah, I would like to see Jamaal Charles get back to contributing in a big way, but that ship has likely sailed by way of injury in his career.

So it comes back to the defense, which will have to stand up against a pretty tough schedule with the six division games and NFC East (10 quality opponent games right there if you ask me). The Broncos also have to play the Patriots again, and scored just three points last year at home. The lack of scoring doomed Denver late in the year during a three-game losing streak. That can certainly happen again to this offense, which returns Mike McCoy to his old post of offensive coordinator. But I think the loss of veteran coaching in Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips cannot be ignored. Rookie head coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods are new to these roles, and don’t have anywhere near the acumen of their predecessors, who were two of the few coaches capable of going toe to toe with a Belichick.

It’s also really hard to sustain such defensive greatness for three years in a row. Players get hurt, they get old, and they move on. We’ve already seen DeMarcus Ware retire, T.J. Ward get released in a pretty surprising move. Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett have battled injury, leaving little depth behind Von Miller on the edge right now. The defense should still be quite good, but it needs to be incredible to compensate for this offense.

The Broncos should take a step back this year until they can take a step forward at the quarterback position. I would have loved to see Tony Romo leading this team, but at least he’s spared us from Phil Simms. I’m willing to sacrifice seeing quality offensive football in Denver again if it means no more Phil.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Last year: “Maybe there’s a Russell Wilson injury behind a suspect offensive line that’s the main culprit for a decline.”

Whoops, didn’t mean to bring some bad voodoo his way, but that’s exactly what happened, and it was as early as Week 1 against Miami. Wilson’s leg injuries certainly impacted his usual playing style and playmaking ability.

I also wrote last year that Seattle started to show some cracks and the historic streak of games with a lead or being within one score in the fourth quarter was going to end. It did end at 98 games in Tampa Bay in Week 12, but what a streak that was. Even if the streak continued, it would have ended in Green Bay (Week 14) or in Atlanta (NFC divisional loss). Seattle got spanked twice last year after Earl Thomas went down with injury, and Richard Sherman was also playing injured for much of the season.

Seattle was still good enough to go 10-5-1 and win a playoff game at home, but expectations are for so much more than that. I think a healthy Wilson will make a huge difference, even if the cheap offensive line is still heavily flawed. Yes, last year’s injuries that threatened to keep him out of action are the main concern with a bad line, but it’s not like Wilson hasn’t been dealing with this for most of his career. That’s the risk you take, and it has allowed Seattle to spend elsewhere, namely in keeping together a great defense. Add Sheldon Richardson from a trade with the Jets to that mix, and a Seattle defense we already projected to be No. 1 at FO should be even stronger.

Tyler Lockett is another Seattle player who should return from injury. Between better health, a deeper running back corps (look out for receiving back C.J. Prosise too), and the Richardson move, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks don’t get back to first-round bye status. It’s just that they have to open in Green Bay this Sunday, and that game could go a long way in deciding home-field advantage. Hell, it did in 2014 when Seattle beat Green Bay in Week 1 and both finished 12-4. You may recall how that matchup played out in the NFC Championship Game. This weekend is huge for the Seahawks in pursuit of that second Lombardi. The Legion of Boom era does have a closing window, so opportunities like this cannot be wasted.

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

I was so worried about picking Arizona to do great things in 2016 due to the age of star players (namely Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald) and the durability of Palmer and Tyrann Mathieu. Well, some of my fears were confirmed. Mathieu missed six more games. Palmer only missed one game, but his efficiency did take a big drop from that stellar 2015, and he was the most hit quarterback in 2016, which I didn’t expect. However, that part really isn’t that unexpected in a Bruce Arians offense. John Brown’s health also wasn’t there for this team, and Michael Floyd fell apart. Fitzgerald led the NFL in catches, but averaged a career-low 9.6 yards per reception. I’d be worried a little about him as far as producing efficient gains given his age (34 now).

But in the end, special teams failed the Cardinals as much as anything last year. We saw it on opening night when Belichick willed another kicker to miss a game-winning field goal against his team. Chandler Catanzaro also choked on a gimme FG in that 6-6 tie with Seattle, which I especially hated to see happen. A botched FG returned for a TD in Buffalo didn’t help matters either, nor did allowing a 104-yard kick return TD to Cordarrelle Patterson in a 30-24 loss to the Vikings.

So it would have been pretty easy for this team to win 9-10 games with a competent ST unit. Catanzaro has been replaced by Phil Dawson, a good move.

Palmer also has David Johnson to feed the ball to in many different ways. Johnson was used out of the slot more than any other RB in the passing game last year. On defense, the line looks pretty shaky without Calais Campbell and his awesome voice no longer there. But this is why you draft a Robert Nkemdiche in the first round. He has to step up after a no-show rookie year. Left tackle D.J. Humphries was once in the dog house too, but is starting to pan out for the team. They need Nkemdiche to follow a similar path. This is still a pretty talented defense with Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Chandler Jones, and of course Patrick Peterson.

Protect Palmer better. Improve the special teams. That should do the trick to get back to that 10-6 range the Cardinals were at in Arians’ first three seasons.

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-10)

As sure as the sun rises in the East, Jared Goff ranked last in just about every 2016 statistical category. I don’t know how many QB stat studies I wrote this offseason that had to point out how awful Goff was. Not just worst of 2016, but the worst season in many of our advanced stats going back to 2006. Sometimes by a wide margin too. The most discouraging stat of them all is -45.2% DVOA without pressure. Yes, without pressure. Anything under +10% is usually indicative of a quarterback who cannot be a worthwhile starter in this league. The next-worst season for any quarterback with at least 200 passes since 2010 was Brady Quinn, who had -6.7% DVOA without pressure for the 2012 Chiefs. Yes, we’re talking about a drop at the bottom from -6.7% to -45.2%.

You remember that hole Christian Bale had to climb out of in The Dark Knight Rises? Quadruple that and that’s about how far Goff is away from being NFL average.

Sean McVay has his work cut out for him, but at least he’s an offensive-minded coach who just happens to look like the latest cast member on a CW show. He has to get the offensive line fixed, and Todd Gurley back on track. At least they’ll be helped by the additions of Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, rookie TE Gerald Everett, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Right about now, Tyrod Taylor is like “can you believe this shit?” Goff has enough help to at least elevate this offense back to something respectable. After all, he was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason, right? We try to keep thinking there’s a glimmer of hope since it was just seven starts on a Jeff Fisher-coached offense that has stunk for a decade. But it was so nightmarish-ly bad, and Goff’s numbers were so much worse than even Case Keenum’s in the same offense, that it is scary to think what he’ll do this year.

I simply cannot wait until next offseason to do a huge table comparison of Goff’s 2016 vs. 2017. I can’t imagine he doesn’t improve, but he still might easily be a bottom-three starting QB in the NFL.

The good news is that Wade Phillips should do wonders with the defense, which he usually does when he changes jobs. The problem is Aaron Donald’s holdout might be legit. I expect the Rams to make him the highest-paid defender in NFL history, and given the makeup of the team, why the hell wouldn’t they do it? But he really needs to get out there for this team to try clawing back to 8-8. I feel like I was generous in picking some of the wins for the Rams this year, including another one over the Seahawks (Wade calling pressures vs. that OL is scary). This could easily be another one of the 3-13 teams if Goff plays like he did last year.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

If the young defensive talent produces quicker than expected, then this could easily be a 5-6 win team, but still in last place this year. Get ready for about 50 in-cuts from Brian Hoyer to Pierre Garcon this year. Marquise Goodwin might catch the occasional play-action bomb in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, but Garcon is the only guy to really trust in this receiving corps.

But this could be a nice destination for a Kirk Cousins in 2018, provided that the defensive front seven lives up to the draft hype: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Reuben Foster are all first-round draft picks. NaVorro Bowman is still there, as is Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, and Eli Harold. Cornerback can really use an upgrade, but I’d imagine that will be addressed next offseason.

If I don’t wrap this up I’ll be writing these predictions into the offseason. This is my longest single piece ever at 16,444 words.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. New England (14-2)

  2. Pittsburgh (12-4)

  3. Kansas City (11-5)

  4. Tennessee (10-6)

  5. Oakland (10-6)

  6. Los Angeles (9-7)

The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since the 1993 season. That finally happens as they take care of the Chargers in a third matchup of the year. Oakland gets by Tennessee, kicking off the irrational Derek Carr vs. Marcus Mariota argument for the next 10 years. The Raiders fall hard in New England, a surprise after their emotional win over the Patriots in Mexico City (yes, my prediction). The Steelers take care of the Chiefs with a little more than six field goals this time, and we’re right back where we were last year: Pittsburgh at New England. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, right?

NFC

  1. Dallas (12-4)

  2. Seattle (12-4)

  3. Atlanta (11-5)

  4. Green Bay (11-5)

  5. Carolina (11-5)

  6. Arizona (10-6)

Arizona just edged out the Giants and Bucs for the final playoff spot. The Cardinals fall in Atlanta, which doesn’t blow a huge lead this time. The Packers stand tall at home against the Panthers in an exciting shootout, but can’t outgun Dallas for a second year in a row. Atlanta falters in Seattle again, setting up Seahawks at Cowboys for the NFC Championship Game. This one goes to the more experienced Seattle team, denying Prescott that sophomore Super Bowl trip like Marino, Roethlisberger, and Wilson had.

SUPER BOWL LII

New England 23, Seattle 20

Ugh, this again. Pete Carroll figures his past ghosts (LenDale White vs. Texas, Malcolm Butler) won’t come back to haunt him, so he goes for the win at the 1-yard line with the Seahawks down 23-20 on fourth down in the final seconds. Eddie Lacy gets buried in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on the most predictable run-heavy formation look you’ll ever see. So someone finally runs the ball when they should have against the Patriots, but now we’ll have to complain they ran it the wrong way for the rest of our meaningless existence.

Tl;dr version: Patriots win everything and 31 other teams mean nothing anymore. Eat Arby’s.

Rant About Tom Brady and YPA

It must be July, because here we go again.

I knew immediately that the events on the evening of February 5th would make this a long offseason, but I haven’t really felt the need to go on a long rant about that game or the Patriots in general in the last five-and-a-half months. In fact, this might be the least writing I have done from February to mid-July in any of the last six years.

Personally, I had a string of bad luck — you know, things out of my control — and heartbreak that started around late January (Donald Trump’s inauguration day to be exact) and continued through late March before things eased up. I don’t want to go into details, but I suffered losses (family and pet) and had another health scare that required another CT scan (result: clear). I’ve been working hard on FOA 2017 (available soon) since May or so. In doing six teams (AFC West plus Miami and Detroit), and pushing most of the essays well past 4,000 words, this is probably the most work I have ever done for one of the books. I hope people appreciate it, even the Raiders and Dolphins fans.

But now that work on that is practically complete, I have more free time to think about random things as we wait for training camps to start. So Super Bowl LI has been back on my mind, ranging anywhere from Atlanta’s horrible game management to the history of big comebacks to that Tedy Bruschi style of “heart and leadership” that only Tom Brady can will his teammates to believe in.

I was going to write something in detail about that last part, but maybe we can save that for later this week if I’m still feeling the need to be cathartic. Today is about YPA, because I feel like I need to explain a tweet better from Monday where I admittedly spent way too many hours tweeting.

I often forget that some things that have become obvious to me are completely lost on others. The calculation of YPA and how it works should not be one of those things, but Twitter never ceases to amaze me.

I can only hope that a lot of those favorites are for comical reasons. There were other similar remarks, including the thought that 6.7 YPA is Bill Belichick playing to his team’s strengths, as if any offense would actually plan to have an inefficient attack. I was also told that 6.7 YPA means Brady is dominating. You know who has 6.7 YPA as his career average? Ryan Fitzpatrick. So dominant.

This was all a response to a tweet I made last night that didn’t go over so well once Peter King replied to it. Telling someone like me to “watch the games” is madness, but when typing 140 characters at a time, you can’t always explain nuance.

The “obvious” here was actually not so obvious, especially without turning it into a thread with follow-up points. What I meant was that Brady fans tend to think that he has winning records even in suboptimal situations (6.7 YPA is below average) because he is just that good or “clutch.” In the particular case of the 5-2 Super Bowl record, I see it as a quarterback fortunate to have that team record based on his play. It was the other non-Brady elements of the games that helped produce the record. Things like a Ty Law pick-6 helping the Patriots win a game in which Brady only led the offense to 13 points and failed to convert a third down. The Malcolm Butler interception at the 1-yard line. The absurdity of Seattle and Atlanta not running the ball in the fourth quarter in key spots. Every game was very close (decided by 3-6 points), so going 5-2 is quite fortunate in that regard.

YPA is a stat that has always correlated well with winning. In 2016, the team who won the YPA battle won over 70% of all NFL games. That’s not bad for a stat that does not care about rushing, sacks, turnovers, penalties, special teams, etc. Even in Super Bowl LI, Brady’s YPA was just 6.28 when the Patriots fell behind 28-3. It was 8.61, a league-leading type of number, the rest of the way during the comeback.

YPA correlates well with scoring points, which correlates well with winning games. This has been the case for decades in the NFL regardless of how the Patriots perform. And isn’t that really the point: how the Patriots, not just Brady, perform? His performance alone was rarely good enough to be the difference maker in these games. While Brady fans want to believe their guy has some special skill to win with a low YPA, I am saying he has no secret sauce that makes YPA invalid. The Patriots have just won a lot of close playoff games since 2001 for a variety of reasons.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 9-7 (.563) in the playoffs when Brady averages less than 7.0 YPA (min. 30 attempts). The rest of the NFL is 28-85 (.248) in that time.

The Patriots’ averaging scoring margin in those 16 games was +2.5. The rest of the NFL was -8.2. There were 14 wins by 1-4 points, and Brady’s Patriots had five of them.

Tell someone this, and it will likely get framed as “Brady won 56.3% of the time where other QBs only won 24.8% of the time. UberClutch! GOAT!”

We probably shouldn’t lambaste someone for wanting to think this way, but just so it’s clear, I will never agree with them or see things that way. When I look at the 16 games for Brady, and especially the nine wins, this is what comes to mind:

TBPOgames

(Yes, how fitting is it that of the last two times a quarterback threw a fourth-quarter, fourth-down interception that was fumbled back to his team, it benefited Tom Brady and “hurt” Peyton Manning. At least the Broncos were still up big at the time, but man, you can’t make this stuff up.)

I’m not saying the Patriots should have gone 0-16 in these games, but clearly there were a lot of favorable circumstances to aid Brady in the nine wins, and not many positives to speak of for him in the seven losses. While he still met his demise in 2006 and 2011, those were trips that could have easily been cut shorter if Marlon McCree and Lee Evans didn’t act the fool with the ball in their hands. Or without the greatness of kicker Adam Vinatieri on the types of 40-plus yard field goals that Mike Vanderjagt, Nate Kaeding, Pete Stoyanovich, and Scott Norwood choked on for other quarterbacks, Brady is doomed to start his playoff career 0-2 at home, averaging 12 points per game.

So many fans go wild when you suggest that their player has been the beneficiary of luck, but I think that’s mostly just a semantics issue. Anyone who understands the basic concepts of football can see that this is a team game where many pivotal plays are out of the quarterback’s control. When most games are close, especially in the playoffs, and a lot of improbable events have happened to swing those games, a lot of outcomes are not determined directly by the quarterback’s actions. So many good quarterbacks can repeatedly lead their team to a winning position, but it typically requires much more from the rest of the team to get to a large number of Super Bowls, for example. Luck is even defined as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” There’s a lot of skill involved in what the Patriots did in those wins (the field goals, the takeaways), but the common bond is that they weren’t the actions of Brady, but he still benefited with a win on days where he wasn’t at his best.

This isn’t me picking on Brady. This is what tends to happen when inefficient quarterback play is lifted by the slimmest of margins in the playoffs, and I can’t help it that Brady has been in that spot more than anyone in history. I said there were 14 wins by 1-4 points by quarterbacks under 7.0 YPA. Brady had five of them, but I can say similar things about the other games and quarterbacks.

For instance, Matt Hasselbeck needed Terry Glenn to fumble and for Tony Romo to botch the extra point hold in that infamous 21-20 win in 2006.

Donovan McNabb needed a 4th-and-26 conversion against the Packers in 2003, and a Brett Favre arm punt in overtime to get the 17-14 win.

Ben Roethlisberger should have lost his first playoff game against the 2004 Jets, but Doug Brien, after a Ben pick, missed his second field goal in the final two minutes. The Steelers won in overtime.

Mark Sanchez used a long kick return by Antonio Cromartie, and a terrible Jim Caldwell timeout, to down the Colts 17-16 in Peyton Manning’s final game with the team.

Eli Manning’s two NFC-CG wins are on the list. He didn’t play that poorly, but certainly used the field position boost from Brett Favre’s INT (2007) and two Kyle Williams special teams turnovers (2011). Eli did not complete a pass on either GWD in those games, because opponent mistakes did not require any of him.

A Favre interception also helped get Drew Brees to overtime in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, an overlooked “subpar” game for Brees that day. The Vikings had five turnovers in all, and Tracy Porter is the biggest reason Sean Payton isn’t just another Don Coryell at best.

Winning may be the only thing that matters to a team, and it is perfectly fine if a fan wants to feel that way too. However, the source of conflict is when those fans refuse to accept the fact that not everyone’s contribution to the win is equal. Sometimes a team wins in spite of its best player. I feel like we can always debate why a team won or lost a game, and which players were the most responsible for that result. It’s not always going to be agreeable or easy, but I know damn well there’s more to it than “YPA doesn’t matter because they won.” If that’s your logic, then scoring doesn’t matter either if you win. 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess. Turnovers don’t matter if you win. Quarterback threw five picks in a 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess.

I know this sounds crazy to some, but just check my Twitter mentions sometimes. These people really do exist, and I guess I’ve taken them on as my sworn enemy. Some fanbases are more rabid than others.

It will always be a losing battle when the opponent just wants to count rings, recheck the scoreboard, and deduce that 6.7 YPA is a dominant, never-punt strategy. I know this, but I continue to fight on, because I don’t know any other way to get through this job year after year. So I’ll continue to watch games, add old ones to my always-growing collection, take notes, crunch stats, and just call it like I see it.

Dating back to a snowy night in January 2002, I have simply never once watched Tom Brady play a game and thought I was watching the greatest quarterback ever. Unless he plays deep into his 40s at a level we’ve never seen before, I can’t imagine that I ever will feel that way about him. This ticks some people off, but I really don’t care about that, because I know what I’ve seen and I know I can back it up.

The effort just doesn’t always come across as clearly 140 characters at a time. Maybe I’ll just have to write that book one day, putting 16 years of knowledge to use.

 

 

 

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

SEANOBLOW

The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

RW37update

Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

batsb

I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

vino

Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

NFL Week 13 Predictions: Patriots vs. Packers

I had this big Patriots-Packers matchup circled months ago as I was going to do an article I started in summer 2012 about Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. It’s one of only a few articles in my files that I started without finishing a full draft. This was going to be a very eye-opening piece that I still expect to complete at some point. Missing from my plans was the fact that Week 13 was Thanksgiving week, so that put a damper on my hopes of generating a lot of discussion over my article with the holiday. Throw in the fact that I’m experiencing pain in the bottom right side of my body every time I move and I haven’t been able to do much at all this week.

What I will do is provide some thoughts on this important game which should have major playoff implications. After Sunday, I’m not sure either team will lose another regular-season game this year. 

Coaching – The Patriots are believed to have a big advantage with Bill Belichick matching wits with Mike McCarthy, who still rarely gets credit as one of the best coaches in the league. Also, Dom Capers and his 3-4 defense havea lot in common with Dick LeBeau’s system, which Belichick and Tom Brady have picked apart better than anyone. I’m inclined to agree with all of that, but I know in 2010 McCarthy took his team with Matt Flynn at QB and played very well in Foxboro. At a time when the Patriots were blowing everyone out, the Packers only lost 31-27. A few tactical errors did doom them, such as a short kickoff late in the first half that a NE lineman returned for 71 yards. In the fourth quarter, McCarthy chickened out on a 4th-and-1 at the NE 1 and kicked a field goal for a 27-21 lead. Has McCarthy improved as a decision maker, especially in close games? I wouldn’t say  he has, but he’s better than most of the coaches the Patriots have faced this year.

The Quarterbacks – You may have heard five million times already this is the first start between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. I was listening to Sterling Sharpe and the NFL Playbook crew break down the matchup and found their takeaways to be intriguing and accurate. Basically, they said Rodgers just has to show up and be himself, which means making great throws into tight coverage to beat those NE cornerbacks. For Brady, they talked about how he’ll take advantage of your mistakes, especially in the red zone and with breakdowns in coverage that leave guys wide open like Tim Wright on just about every touchdown he has this year.

In layman’s terms, Rodgers can credit a higher percentage of his success to his own greatness while Brady benefits more from schematic advantages.

In caveman terms, Rodgers succeeds by being great and Brady succeeds because the opponent fucked up.

That might sound harsh, but I can’t really disagree with it. That’s a big part of the reason I never bought into Brady being the “best” because you rarely see him make the tough plays. There are throws that Rodgers can routinely make that Brady and just about every other QB in the NFL simply can’t make. When pressured, we know Rodgers will take more sacks because he’s really cautious to not throw picks, but he’s still much better than Brady at making something out of nothing. He has the better individual tools for the position.

But the question is which quarterback will have to do more to win this game? That should be Rodgers, because I think he’s playing the tougher defense. Forget the early-season results. The Patriots held Denver and Indianapolis, two of the best offenses in the league, to 21 and 20 points. Rodgers has gone from having the deepest receiving corps in the NFL to basically playing catch with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, yet he’s still playing like a MVP this year. He’ll have to play at a high level to consistently beat Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in coverage with those receivers. I think Nelson is more dangerous and so much of his success comes near the sideline by adjusting to throws from Rodgers where only Nelson can get the ball. Revis will have studied this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see if they play the size matchups and Revis sees a lot of the faster Cobb. But if the Patriots are winning these matchups, then Green Bay could be in trouble due to a lack of production from tight end and other receivers.

The Running Game – I didn’t even consider the running game in Patriots-Colts, because NE didn’t show any real consistency in that area this season. Of course, the RB position was critical and the Colts made Jonas Gray a star for one night. Of course, the Patriots are the only team in NFL history who would have a guy go off for 200 yards and 4 TD and not even play the following week to teach him a lesson. I have no idea if Gray will contribute this week or if the reacquired LeGarrette Blount will get most of the action. Eddie Lacy has been anything but consistent for GB this year, but he’ll need to have a decent impact. His receiving has been a huge benefit lately, but rarely do you see a Belichick-coached defense look so pathetic on a screen or tackling the way the Bears and Eagles have in recent weeks against GB.

For the year the Patriots have done a better job of stopping the run. A big part of containing the Broncos and Colts was holding those offenses to pathetic rushing numbers. If Lacy has 10 carries for 23 yards, I can promise you the Patriots will win this game decisively. I expect better than that, but I also expect the Patriots to have a better rushing day to help complement Brady’s passing.

Home-field Advantage – It’s good for Green Bay the game is at Lambeau, because they have been landing fatalities before halftime there this season. The problem is they’ve done it against a bunch of weak teams except for the Eagles, who still don’t match up as well as the Patriots can. There’s a pretty big step up in competition here for Green Bay. Still, this is one of the toughest road tests for the Patriots in years, and Indy game be damned, they rarely pass these tests anymore. Keep in mind the Patriots had a bye week to prepare for that Indy game where they went unorthodox by utilizing a sixth offensive lineman to much success in the running game. These are fairly unfamiliar opponents, though I’m not sure that benefits or hurts either team too much after a normal week to prepare. Belichick was playing against a Peyton Manning offense for the 23rd time this year. He was facing the Colts for the 12th season in a row. Did that experience help with those performances? Maybe. I’m just trying to figure out how Geno Smith and the Jets had more offensive success than those teams, and if the Packers are added to that list, then I’m going to be even more confused.

Close Game? – Speaking of first-half fatalities, these teams aren’t playing close games this year at all. They each only have one 4QC/GWD opportunity and both were in Miami. The Packers are 1-0 at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which is stunning since they have three losses. That means they were beaten thoroughly, which is unusual. The Patriots are 0-1 at 4QC/GWDs, because they got their asses kicked in Kansas City and have mostly blown teams out since then. If you want to see a classic shootout between these quarterbacks, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This is more likely to be a rout the Patriots haven’t seen since Drew Brees destroyed them in 2009, or it could be a stomping the Packers haven’t taken under Rodgers since the 2012 Giants made us think they were prepared for another run.

Gronkowski Factor – He’s regained his status as the best TE in the NFL, but Gronkowski can have a big impact without even touching the ball now. Defenses are so afraid of him they’ll allow other guys (like Wright) to get open and Brady has no problem picking out the open guy. Gronk’s actually been held under 80 yards the last two weeks, yet NE continued to score 34-42 points. His touchdown against the Colts, as impressive as it was, came with the game basically decided already. So you can hold down Gronk to respectable numbers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stop the Patriots. They have too many ways to succeed, and that’s the overall theme I’ve been driving towards with this matchup. Hell, Brady didn’t even average 6.6 YPA against Denver (6.28) or Detroit (6.59), yet the Patriots won by 22+ points. If it’s not Gronk’s amazing catch radius or taking advantage of a poor run defense, you get the defense setting up short fields with takeaways or Julian Edelman making a monster punt return. Did I mention the Patriots are better on special teams? Brandon LaFell has also really come on during this run as a trustworthy third receiver and I wouldn’t be shocked if he outproduced Cobb and Nelson on Sunday. I’m assuming his injury wasn’t a big deal at the end of last week’s game.

Rodgers is certainly having more of a MVP season than Brady, and he could take a significant lead in that race with a brilliant performance here. But it’s also for that reason — needing one player to do more to succeed — that I think the Patriots, the more complete team, get this win.

Final prediction: Patriots 33, Packers 24

NFL Week 13 Predictions

Should the Broncos be worried if Julius Thomas doesn’t play on Sunday night? I don’t think so. Last week’s dominant offensive display was done without Thomas, as was last year’s 35-28 win in Arrowhead. In both games Virgil Green played over 70% of the snaps to give Denver better blocking. While I think the Chiefs will come out strong looking to make up for the Oakland loss and rally around the terrible Eric Berry news, I still think Denver will score enough to get the win. Hopefully this game and NE-GB will live up to the hype, because Thanksgiving really sucked. I picked Detroit, Dallas and Seattle, so there’s a 2-1 start.

Winners in bold:

  • Redskins at Colts
  • Browns at Bills
  • Saints at Steelers
  • Raiders at Rams
  • Giants at Jaguars
  • Chargers at Ravens
  • Titans at Texans
  • Panthers at Vikings
  • Bengals at Buccaneers
  • Cardinals at Falcons
  • Patriots at Packers
  • Broncos at Chiefs
  • Dolphins at Jets

Heavy on the road teams late in the week, I guess.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Week 9: 11-2
  • Week 10: 10-3
  • Week 11: 8-6
  • Week 12: 12-3
  • Total: 117-58-1

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Manning vs. Brady Is Coke vs. Pepsi

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are like Coke and Pepsi, the two biggest brands in the world.

You can appreciate both for what they are, but Coke (Manning) has always been better.

That’s my opinion and nothing I’ve seen in 14 years (and even longer on the Pepsi-Coke front) has been good enough to change my mind.

They meet for the 16th time on Sunday and I have already done a game preview at FO, so I implore you to read it if you haven’t yet.

There’s no denying this is the biggest game in the AFC this regular season. It usually is. The winner has had home-field advantage over the other except for the last two years. One of these quarterbacks has had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in eight of the last 11 seasons.

MB1

Rarely does this rivalry bring out the best in each quarterback. Only about half of the games featured both quarterbacks playing very well. An even smaller number of meetings were actually decided by one of these quarterbacks.

Last year’s 34-31 overtime classic in Foxboro was a perfect example. In a 31-31 tie, these quarterbacks had a combined seven drives to put their team ahead, but neither could do so. The Patriots only won after Denver muffed a punt return at its own 15-yard line.

Manning hasn’t won in Foxboro since the 2006 game in which he played very well, but Brady threw four interceptions in his worst performance of the series. Manning’s worst game, the 2003 AFC Championship, saw him throw four interceptions, but Brady tried his hardest to match on a sloppy day.

When you look at the nine games in Foxboro, Manning-led teams are 2-7 and constantly shot themselves in the foot on every side of the ball. Sometimes it was in the most unlikely of ways. I got a copy of the first Brady-Manning game from 2001 and somehow Edgerrin James turned this low pass into a juggling interception for the Patriots:

int

Remember the 2012 game with Denver? Demaryius Thomas fumbled in the red zone after a long gain. Danny Woodhead converted on the ground on a third-and-17 run. Manning lost  a fumble. In the fourth quarter, Willis McGahee single-handedly blew Denver’s comeback attempt by dropping a fourth-down pass and fumbling at the NE 11 with 3:42 to play.

The Brady-Manning game with some of the best quarterbacking from both was the 2004 season opener. In the fourth quarter, down 27-24 with 3:51 left, Edgerrin James fumbled at the 1-yard line on first down. Manning was later sacked by an unblocked Wilile McGinest and Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal with 19 seconds left.

Some have compared this week’s game to the 2005 meeting on Monday Night Football simply due to the alleged superiority of Manning’s team. That 2005 game was the biggest team advantage Manning’s ever had over Brady and it was a 40-21 beatdown. Both quarterbacks played at a high level, but the Colts were just too much for NE that night.

I don’t think the Broncos are that much better than the Patriots right now. It’s also not lost on me that in his five wins in the rivalry, Manning has thrown for a minimum of 321 yards and scored at least 26 points. Can he do both on Sunday? Sure, but it still feels like he’ll have to do both if Denver’s going to win. The teams aren’t uneven enough to expect he can get by with an average day.

If the game was in Denver it would probably be a comfortable win for the home team, but on Halloween weekend, I know Foxboro has been a house of horrors for Manning teams and Belichick will have Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis at his disposal this time around.

Final prediction: Broncos 20, Patriots 24

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I cautiously picked the Saints on TNF, but they delivered on the road.

Winners in bold:

  • Cardinals at Cowboys
  • Redskins at Vikings
  • Chargers at Dolphins
  • Jets at Chiefs
  • Eagles at Texans
  • Jaguars at Bengals
  • Buccaneers at Browns
  • Rams at 49ers
  • Broncos at Patriots
  • Raiders at Seahawks
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Colts at Giants

Whether it’s ailing Tony Romo or old-but-inexperienced Brandon Weeden, I’ve been big on Arizona this week. This should be the game where DeMarco Murray’s 100-yard game streak ends, but I get the feeling he’ll be force-fed the ball (30 carries if possible) because of the quarterback situation. But I like the aggressive Cardinals on the road in another tight one.

Speaking of tight ones, the Steelers and Ravens should get back to a usual 3-point outcome this week. I think the big hit Ben Roethlisberger suffered at the start of the Week 2 game threw him off that night and the Steelers are playing much better now. I like them to win 23-20 here. Roethlisberger’s stats might be cut in half after last week, but 260 yards and 3 TD sounds more than adequate against Baltimore without Jimmy Smith at CB.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Total: 76-44-1

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

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

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

However, let’s evaluate some troubling numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sub6

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

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

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

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

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

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Chiefs 16

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

NFL Week 4 Predictions

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

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

Winners in bold:

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

Season Results

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