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.

 

 

 

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Super Bowl LI Preview

Before the playoffs started, I picked Atlanta to beat New England in Super Bowl LI. I’m 9-1 this postseason, and have found the games to not be very enjoyable for the most part. This is the first time since 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers when both teams entered the Super Bowl after winning each of their playoff games by 16+ points. Yeah, that 2002 postseason was a bit of a bore too outside of wild-card Sunday, and the Super Bowl was a joke.

Super Bowl LI should be a competitive game, because I see two great offenses that are never out of a game, and two vulnerable defenses. In fact, this is probably the most offensive-oriented in Super Bowl history, so the record-setting O/U makes sense. I don’t think the score will be really high, but we could see long drives and a high points per drive average in this game. The Patriots deserve to be 3-point favorites, but don’t play that “Atlanta has no shot” noise. This game is a pretty strong step up in competition for both teams, and both teams belong in this year’s Super Bowl.

Supplemental reading:

Film Room: Receiving Backs in Super Bowl LI – a look at every pass thrown to a RB in games with NE and ATL this year

Sneaky stats that could swing SB LI – ESPN Insider article that basically serves as a mini-preview from me on things like the scoring defenses, blitzing the QBs, YAC and comeback ability/holding leads.

Super Bowl LI Preview – Aaron Schatz’s game preview at FO

Super Bowl LI in a Nutshell

The wrong framing for this game is to call it the No. 1 offense (ATL) vs. the No. 1 defense (NE). We had that in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Dan Quinn’s defense (Seattle) prevailed in a big way over Denver. We had the same thing last year, but I thought Carolina’s offense was a fraudulent No. 1 scoring offense, and Denver’s defense was very legit. I see the same thing this year, but flipped around. The Falcons are a strong No. 1 offense, but the Patriots might be the biggest frauds to ever claim a scoring defense title. That matchup is likely going to determine who wins this game, which is really a meeting of the top two offenses. However, while the Patriots may not be a great D, they are clearly better than the Falcons on that side of the ball, and that is why you should trust the Patriots more to win this game. Well, that and the better head coach. While both offenses can be great, there’s just an easier path (of less resistance) to success for the Patriots, who can get big games from a variety of players depending on how they choose to attack a young defense. With the Falcons, guys like Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are going to have to deliver, because I don’t think it can just be a big Julio Jones and/or Devonta Freeman evening. When both teams should score a good amount, it’s a game that comes down to turnovers (both very good here), red zone (advantage: NE) and third down (advantage: NE).

It will be very difficult for Atlanta to win this game without a stellar offensive performance, and while the offense has been so good this year, we have seen so many top offenses crash and burn on this exact stage through decades of NFL history. I don’t think that will happen, but I think you’ll be hearing at the end of the night how “defense wins championships” even if there was no such thing as a truly great D in this postseason. It’s just going to come down to being the best on Sunday night, and that should be New England again.

That’s really my summary of the game, but continue on reading if you want to see the statistical support and research, as well as some ranting about legacies, weapons and such bullshit. If not, then scroll down to the bottom to see my final score.

New England’s Misleading Defense

The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Fewest per drive too, though this was nowhere close to the caliber of your usual No. 1 scoring D. The Patriots only ranked 16th in DVOA, which is a far cry from where No. 1 scoring Ds have ranked in the previous 19 seasons.

neno1

Since 1997, a total of 60 teams have ranked in the top 3 in Points per Drive allowed. Only the 2007 Patriots (11th) and 2016 Patriots (16th) ranked out of the top 10 in DVOA. This is Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break shining through. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed, if not illogical style of playing defense, but the Patriots tend to make it work. It’s even easier to pull off when you play the easiest schedule of offenses in the league, and then you draw the worst offense in the playoffs (Houston), and then you get a team that’s been leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, only to see him go down after six carries in the first quarter. The Patriots also lucked out in the postseason when Brock Osweiler finally threw a great pass, only to see Will Fuller drop a touchdown in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger’s best throws down the field in the AFC-CG were also not caught by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton. If the Falcons can get their skill guys to make the big plays that Matt Ryan should find down the field, then the offense is going to continue scoring as it has all season.

Credit to Denmark NFL writer Soren Hygum Hansen for sharing with me weeks ago that the Patriots are the first team since the 1970 merger to make the Super Bowl without playing a QB that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. They’ll get the best QB in 2016 in Ryan, so if they want to make their mark defensively, they’re certainly going to get a shot with the Falcons coming in hot. The Falcons do have some banged up players in Julio Jones and Alex Mack, but neither injury appears to be a serious one in the vein of what Dwight Freeney (2009), Rob Gronkowski (2011), or the whole Legion of Boom (2014) went into past Super Bowls with, limiting their effectiveness. All of those teams lost by the way, because an injured star isn’t much help.

Matt Ryan’s 2016 vs. “Curse” of MVP/500-Pt Club

Matt Ryan has been playing the best football of his career, and you could see it from an early point in the season.

Well, three months later, here we are. Ryan has been phenomenal and consistent. His YPA has been at least 7.91 in all 18 games — the previous benchmark for every game in a season was 6.87 by Kurt Warner in 2001. It’s that consistency that makes Ryan’s season one of the best in NFL history by a quarterback. Yes, it’s been that good. He does have the benefit of using the most play-action passing in the league, but he has been great in almost every situation this season, and has done so against a schedule that ranked as the second toughest in the league defensively. In the playoffs, the Seahawks were missing Earl Thomas and the Packers were really banged up in the secondary too, but again, Atlanta has been more battle tested than NE this season. The game is a step up in competition for both sides though.

Ryan is trying to become the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win the Super Bowl in the same season. The Falcons are also trying to become the highest-scoring team to ever win a Super Bowl with 540 points. Only four of the NFL’s 500-point club has won a Super Bowl. The losers averaged 16.7 PPG in their playoff loss. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” indeed. Big-time offenses tend to fall apart in the playoffs.

500club

Now these MVPs and high-scoring teams aren’t cursed. It’s actually a simple explanation for why they keep losing in the playoffs. The team is not balanced enough, and too much reliance is put on the quarterback to play great. In the playoffs, you usually can never get a quarterback and offense that play at a high level in each game. There’s usually that one off game, and these teams tend to not have the defense or running game or special teams to save their bacon when those off-days occur.

Atlanta is a perfect example of imbalance. The 11 wins were the most ever for a team that allowed 400 points in a season. The six wins in games where the Falcons allowed at least 28 points are another single-season record. These reflect well on the offense Ryan was able to lead this season, but it’s not a good sign for him to pull out a high-scoring win over the Patriots, a defense that rarely ever allows a 30-point game, especially without return scores involved. In fact, just look at the MVP race this year where Brady was the runner-up. NE did allow the fewest points and still went 3-1 without Brady. Do you see Atlanta going 3-1 without Ryan? Of course not. The Patriots could still beat Houston by 18 points with a subpar Brady performance, but if Ryan has a game where he throws two picks and completes fewer than 50 percent of his passes, then you can bet the Falcons are getting their ass kicked. OK, maybe it wouldn’t happen against Houston, but if Ryan is just “alright” on Sunday night, the Falcons will not win this game. He has to be great; one of the best games of his career.

Yet, in keeping with my 2006 Peyton Manning = 2016 Matt Ryan comparison, I think Ryan is going to have to probably lead a high-scoring comeback win to knock off these Patriots, much like Manning did in the 2006 AFC-CG and the 2009 “4th-and-2” game. In fact, in his last game against NE in 2013, Ryan nearly led a Manning-like 17-point comeback in the final 6:18. He trimmed a 30-13 deficit to a 30-23 game, and the Falcons reached the 10-yard line in the final minute. Belichick had his defense double team Tony Gonzalez, basically holding him out of the play, and the Falcons failed in the red zone again (shades of 2012 NFC-CG loss vs. 49ers). That game is ultimately meaningless to Sunday night, but I just think Ryan is going to have to throw for at least 350 yards in this game and be on point.

New England’s defense ranked 28th in DVOA in Late & Close situations, so if he can get the opportunity, then we know he’s good at delivering in these moments. We also know the Patriots are the best at preventing comebacks, though not quite as good at it away from home.

The Falcons had more than one turnover in just one game this season (at Seattle), though technically Ryan did throw two picks to Eric Berry, including a pick-two that provided the winning score for Kansas City, the last time the Falcons lost. Still, I always get nervous with these low-turnover teams imploding in the playoffs. 11 giveaways in 18 games is crazy low. The Falcons will have to win the turnover battle here to win this game. The Patriots probably capitalize on mistakes better than any team.

Atlanta’s Defense

Simply put, the Falcons are in the conversation for the worst defense to reach a Super Bowl.

Before the season, I did a three-part study on building a Super Bowl winner, looking at balance since 1989.

The conclusion was that balance is a little overrated, and it doesn’t hurt to have one really dominant unit (offense or defense). Well, the Falcons would be the most imbalanced SB winner yet with the No. 1 offense and No. 27 defense. Yes, that’s DVOA, but the Atlanta defense also ranked 27th in points per drive allowed. They were dead last in red zone TD%, and 29th in red zone DVOA. They were 27th on third down, while the NE O was No. 1. This is a huge problem.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, the NE offense is still scoring at a high level. They can beat the Falcons in a variety of ways. Brady has eaten up the blitz this season, but I don’t think Quinn will blitz him much at all. Seattle didn’t, and was able to get decent pressure in the only win over the Pats with Brady this season. Quinn likely studied the heck out of that tape, and the only issue is that his D just isn’t as good as Seattle’s. Vic Beasley had a lot of sacks, but overall it’s not that strong of a pass rush. The Falcons will have to tackle well, which has not been a strength for them, and mix things up against Brady.

In a game like this, it’s about getting timely pressure. We can reasonably predict that the Pats will hold up pretty well against Atlanta’s rush, but it’s going to come down to when the Falcons can get pressure. They got Aaron Rodgers on some key third downs last time out, but that was also their most aggressive (read: blitz happiest) game of the season. They can’t afford to do that against Brady, but they have to pick some spots. Atlanta was 7-1 when getting a pass pressure rate of at least 30 percent.

Let’s say the Atlanta defense registers five pressures all game. Not a good number by any means, but what if one produces a takeaway, one produces a drive-killing sack, one forces a field goal attempt, one brings out the punting unit on fourth down, and one makes it third-and-10? That’s all extremely helpful to a defense that will need a lot of help in this game. So it’s about timely pressure.

Also, the Atlanta defense has improved in the second half of the season. In starting four rookies, gains in experience should matter. After allowing 26+ points in eight of the first nine games, the D has only done so in one of the last nine games, and that needed a late Drew Brees TD drive to happen in Week 17. Kansas City scored 29 points, but that was 9 points by Eric Berry on pick returns. Now you can choose to look at the whole season as being more telling, but the Atlanta defense has gotten better.

#QBWeaponz Rant

I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the pre-game coverage for the last two weeks. Namely, I don’t leave NFL Network on as much as I usually do, because I’m sick of hearing about the underdog Falcons against the planned coronation ceremony for the Patriots. Yes, we get it, the Patriots have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than Atlanta.

But I still had the TV on enough to hear Deion Sanders talk about how Ryan has the Julio’s and “the Gabriel’s” while Brady has the “Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s.” Yes, Deion is the kind of guy who wants you to think Brady still doesn’t know who Hogan is, while at the same time praising Brady’s leadership and work ethic. Well, if he was that hard of a worker, wouldn’t he be getting on the same page with his new teammates in the offseason? It’s a contradiction, as well as a lazy narrative that “Brady makes his receivers better.” As if he’s the only QB capable of doing this.

Meanwhile, apparently the Falcons signed two mega stars this offseason known as Tyler Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. The state of Ohio wasn’t interested in keeping them around, and while neither has ever cracked an 800-yard receiving season, apparently they give Ryan a cast better than when he had Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.

Huh? Since when is Taylor f’n Gabriel a gem to have?

Oh, but what this really is is nothing more than the way quarterbacks get perceived differently based on playoff success. If you win a ring early as a starter, like Brady did, you get a pass for failures and extra credit for your team’s success. If you take too long to win a ring, like Ryan in his ninth season and first Super Bowl, then you have years of blame being placed on your shoulders for not getting that done. Without question, Ryan’s career season is fueling this offense more than the supporting cast, which I wouldn’t rank that high at all among QB MVP seasons.

Sure, Julio is great, but he also was the target of more than half of Ryan’s picks this year, including some pretty big drops in key moments.

This is really old hat. Star receivers are put on this pedestal, and it’s as if they can do no wrong, and people refuse to credit the QB when playing with one of these guys. Meanwhile, Ryan had better stats when throwing to players not named Quintorris in 2016. He had two awesome games, albeit against weak competition, when Julio was out entirely. Sure, then it turns to “oh, but Kyle Shanahan!” but we can save that for another day. Yes, Shanahan has done a great job for his career this season, but Ryan is the one driving this offense at a historic level. He has a lot of good guys along for the ride this time, but he is still the driver.

We know if Gabriel was in NE, Brady would get all the credit for his season. Same with Sanu. It’s basically the David Givens and Deion Branch thing there, yet Ryan won’t dare get that kind of credit just because his team hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet. It’s nonsense, and we need to stop acting like one great receiver dictates everything in this game. Matthew Stafford, as I predicted, just had arguably his best season without Calvin Johnson. There’s an advantage to playing with several good receivers that the defense can’t key on versus that mega-star who runs the deeper routes down the field, draws the toughest assignments and faces the most complex coverages to beat. Try forcing that guy the ball when you need to versus throwing to a guy that’s so wide open just because the defense doesn’t understand he should be respected.

And the Patriots make a killing out of those types (the Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s). They take talented players inferior franchises discard, and use them properly to maximize their talent. You can add LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to that list too. Hogan had Julio-esque stats in the game against Pittsburgh, because it looked as if the Steelers had no clue how to defend the guy. He was wide open all night, and it was all about scheme and defensive breakdowns more than the talent of the passer and the receiver himself. Without Gronkowksi, the Patriots don’t have great weapons right now, but they have a lot of very good ones who can do a variety of things.

Sunday night is an opportunity for the non-Julio players on Atlanta to step up and prove that they can be as good as advertised. I’m not of the belief that Belichick will be able to take Jones away. The Patriots were just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 WRs this year. Jones can do a lot of things from different spots on the field to have an impact. Still, even if he is contained, the Falcons were 4-0 this season when Jones was held to 35 yards or fewer (6-0 counting the games he missed entirely). In fact, domination by Jones might be a bad thing for Atlanta if it means his teammates aren’t stepping up. Atlanta was 2-4 in Jones’ top six receiving games this season.

X-Factor: The Running Backs

The running backs could be huge in this game for both teams, and that’s why I spent time doing a Film Room study of them in the passing game in particular. With the Patriots, it could be LeGarrette Blount on the ground AND Dion Lewis/James White through the air. You never know with NE, but the Falcons need to tackle much better than they have this season. Still, Atlanta is 8-2 when allowing 100+ rushing yards this season, which is a very good record in that situation. Obviously they have the firepower on the other side to counter.

If Tevin Coleman, who led all NFL backs with 3 catches of 40+ yards, doesn’t go deep against these linebackers at least once, then I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan was watching the last two weeks. 49ers lowlights? The LBs are a weakness in this defense, and I would be using Freeman and Coleman together (only played 5 pass snaps together in 2016) to exploit that. I really do like that matchup more than one of the non-Julio wideouts against an Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan. Freeman could be good on the ground too, but I really think this game is about Ryan and the passing game, and I would be making sure the backs are a huge part of that.

The Forgotten Tight Ends

Without Rob Gronkowski, this position is a bit of a dead zone in this matchup. The Falcons’ best tight end is whichever one is open, and there’s not much attention drawn to Levine Toilolo or rookie Austin Hooper. Now Hooper might turn into a good player down the road, but he’s not really established yet. I feel like Kyle Shanahan does a really good job of scheming these guys open more than their own skills, but they have to get them involved at some point here. I still think it’s asinine that the Seahawks did not throw a single pass to a TE in SB XLIX even though the NE D was 32nd in DVOA against tight ends. Can’t ignore the position even if most of American can’t even guess a name of a TE on Atlanta. No, Jacob Tamme is on IR.

As for Martellus Bennett, he’s only surpassed 35 receiving yards once in his last nine games since Gronk got hurt. That’s surprising, though it seems like he has to scrape himself off the field once a week, so health is an issue. Is this the game where he explodes for 100 yards? Doubtful, and the Falcons were a solid 11th in DVOA against TE, but you never know with the Patriots.

Protection, Blitzing and YAC

Talked about NE O/ATL D earlier on this, but the Patriots might want to consider blitzing Ryan, who had the third-highest pressure rate when blitzed this season. Of course, he still killed it with 9.5 YPA, but he took 15 sacks vs. blitz compared to two for Brady. Performance under pressure is a tricky thing. We know guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are usually good each season in a messy pocket, but a lot of performance under pressure is inconsistent. After all, pass pressure leads to chaos on the field with QBs scrambling, receivers making new routes on the fly, improv plays, backyard football.

Ryan has been great this year when pressured, and it’s the highest pressure rate of his career. Yes, the OL is quite good for Atlanta, but that’s moreso in the run blocking department. Ryan has seen his share of pressure even though the Falcons still have him get rid of the ball quickly as he always has. So if the Patriots can get some timely pressures of their own, they might get a game-changing turnover out of it. Sometimes, it just takes one of those to decide a game. So it’s a fascinating chess match with how these defensive coaches will approach these varied offenses, but aggression is going to have to come into play at some point. You can’t just sit back the whole game, though the Patriots were far and away the leaders in 3-man rushes this season. It just so happens that Ryan was below league-average against such rushes, so maybe that’s the strategy again to maximize the defenders in coverage against these receivers. You know Belichick likes to have his defenders get grabby with great passing offenses, and I’d expect that again on Sunday.

Ryan and Brady led all QBs in YAC per completion, though Ryan did throw deeper passes. Both offenses have a lot of skill with the ball in their hands, so tackling is crucial. This is just another area where I see an advantage for the Patriots. Including the playoffs, Atlanta was 10-0 when allowing less than 4.2 YAC per completion, but only 3-5 when quarterbacks surpassed that mark. Brady has surpassed that YAC mark in 12 of his 14 games this season, and in 83.0 percent of his games since 2011.

Brady Legacy Rant

My thoughts on this are really the same exact thing they were two years ago. There’s really nothing that Brady could do on Sunday evening to change my opinion on his place in history. He can’t go up or down with this one game. Why should he, or any player be judged so strongly by one game’s outcome? You already should have known going into Sunday night where you had Brady ranked all time, and I still think I’d have to put him fifth all time behind Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning. I can definitely see myself putting him ahead of Marino after some offseason reflection, but I doubt I’d go any higher than that unless he really does continue playing at a high level into his mid-40’s. That would be a first.

Now there are definitely degrees of how impressive a win here could be. I don’t think 5 SBs free of context proves anything. After all, Bart Starr won 5 championships as a starter, yet we don’t hear about that just because three weren’t called Super Bowl. It was still the same decade though. But obviously playing a huge game and winning a high-scoring game will reflect better on Brady than slumping to a 21-14 win just because the D’s were unexpectedly great, and Brady’s D was again the best on the field. Maybe he does get the Montana treatment here. Montana twice played against MVP QBs on the No.1  offense in the league, but Marino’s 84 Dolphins and Boomer Esiason’s 1988 Bengals failed to crack 17 points in the Super Bowl. Montana, dropped pick in the red zone aside, was great, but didn’t even need to score many points to get those wins. If the Patriots shut down Ryan and this prolific offense, then I think that’s a much stronger statement for Belichick more than anyone here.

After all, Belichick is constant that has been there for every game during this run for the Patriots, not Brady. If anyone should be cemented with GOAT status from one game, it could be him on Sunday night. Of course, you should already have strong feelings about this either way and one game against Atlanta shouldn’t be your last needed piece of evidence.

Special Teams

Both units are pretty solid here, and not spectacular on returns. I trust both kickers, though I like Matt Bryant a tad more with the game on the line. He is 35-of-40 on clutch field goals in his career. He just has to hope that Belichick doesn’t have a voodoo doll prepared for him to add to the collection with Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff.

Comeback?

Atlanta has scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, which is a very impressive streak. If the Falcons can do it again to get an early lead, it would be New England’s first deficit since Week 12 against the Jets, the longest span in the NFL without trailing by a team since the 2005 Colts. Of course, the Patriots haven’t been challenged much in that stretch, but it’s an impressive streak since even a 3-0 deficit would count for ending it. The Falcons need a good start here, and New England has historically had very slow starts in Super Bowls under Brady and Belichick. Of course, even a 10-0 start by Atlanta would be far from game over like it technically was for Carolina against Denver last season.

I post this table in every SB preview, because no team has won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 10 points.

sbcbw

This could be the matchup for it to happen, and you can see several New England games already on this list. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowls have had a 4QC opportunity. The Falcons have also blown four 4Q leads this season, so keep that in mind.Brady has the best active 4QC/GWD record at 50-37 (.575), but Ryan is fourth at 34-37 (.479), and Ryan has the most one-minute drills (5) to win a game in NFL history. This is the kind of game where you definitely want the ball last.

And you want to run the f’n ball from the 1-yard line, four times in a row if you have to. Hopefully Dan Quinn has learned that the hard way.

FINAL SCORE

I see another precarious New England lead hanging in the balance in the final minute, and while no Malcolm Butler interception this time, a stop in the red zone happens again. Because you know who willed it to happen.

Final: Patriots 28, Falcons 24

2016 NFL Predictions

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

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

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

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

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

2. Buffalo Bills (8-8)

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

3. New York Jets (7-9)

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

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

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

4. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

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

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

jarvislandry

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

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

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

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

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

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

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

2. Washington Redskins (7-9)

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

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

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

3. New York Giants (7-9)

“I’m not even supposed to be here!”

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

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

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

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

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

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

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

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

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

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

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

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

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

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

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

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

2. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

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

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

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

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

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

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

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

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

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

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

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

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

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

2. Detroit Lions (9-7)

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

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

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

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

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

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

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

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

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

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

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

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

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

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

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

Ryan Grigson, you failed this city.

2. Houston Texans (8-8)

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

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

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

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

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

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

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

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

4. Tennessee Titans (5-11)

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

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

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

NFC SOUTH

1. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

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

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

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)

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

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

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

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

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

4. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

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

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

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

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

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

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

2. Oakland Raiders (8-8)

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

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

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

3. Denver Broncos (8-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

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

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

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

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

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

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

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

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

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

2. Arizona Cardinals (11-5)

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

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

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

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

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

3. Los Angeles Rams (7-9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

goodlaugh

4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

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

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

PLAYOFFS

AFC

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

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

NFC

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

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

SUPER BOWL LI

Seattle Seahawks 23, New England 17

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

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