Archive for the ‘2016-2017 Season’ Category

Someone famous and cool once said the NFL doesn’t truly start until Thanksgiving. Well Turkey Day has come and gone and what we’re left with is a deep field of teams that look poised to play “real” football. Four teams in particular—Chiefs, Dolphins, Giants, and Lions—are a few of the hottest teams in football. It’s a typical NFL trope: who these teams are and how they win makes us skeptical of their potential. But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Nobody likes to be made a fool. Is what we’re seeing with these four teams a mirage? A closer look may reveal what we should expect in a post-Thanksgiving world.

First, let’s play a game. It’s that really awful game where any football broadcast takes some impressive stats, but puts a question mark over the owner of those stats. When the question mark is taken away, we’re all shocked!

“The guy ranked 2nd in first downs and 4th in rushing touchdowns is…Melvin Gordon??? How can that be?!”

Anyways, there’s a team in the NFL that is scorching hot. They are 18-3 in their last 21 regular season games. Some might call that the beginning of a dynasty. (Most people wouldn’t, but some might!)

Here we go, the big reveal…..it’s got to be the Patriots, right? They’ve been great for seemingly forever, with or without Tom Brady. But nope, not them.

Then maybe the defending champion Broncos? Think again.

Cowboys or Panthers?? They both lost just one game either this year or last year, so it’s not totally unreasonable. Except it’s not them by a long shot.

The answer, if not already given away by the title of the post, is…the Kansas City Chiefs! Shocked?? Ah, see, the game works!

Yes, the Chiefs are on a hot streak that has seemed to slip somewhat under the radar. Many Chiefs fans demand respect! Question is, do they deserve it? The idea of combining Alex Smith and Super Bowl triggers some cognitive dissonance. The way they win isn’t easy to trust. I believe Smith ranks just above WR Willie Snead in passes over 20 yards this season. TE Travis Kelce has consistently been Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher, snagging countless 10-yard seam routes. The defense has been consistently solid, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed for four straight years and never allowing more than 20 points per game in that span.

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The regular season is Alex Smith’s favorite time of year.

So why does it feel like KC is going to cruise into the playoffs, only to be knocked out by a “real contender?” They’ve beaten both the Raiders and Broncos already this year. At what point do we accept that they could make a run? Perhaps the latter part of their schedule could be a more in-depth litmus test for a playoff performance. They play @Atlanta, Oakland, Tennessee, Denver, and @San Diego (combined record 33-22). That’s a tough road to navigate, but if KC manages to squeak out just three, they’ll be sitting at 11-5 and almost surely in the playoffs. Even then, they’ll need to nab a couple playoff wins for people to take this team seriously.

In the deep AFC, the Chiefs are hardly the most interesting story at this point in the season. Many would likely hand over that title to the Oakland Raiders, but one scorching-hot team may be giving them some competition. That team is the Miami Dolphins, winners of six straight and now 7-4 on the season. There was a time when Miami was 1-4 and life made sense. This, once again, wasn’t a team we could trust and we could finally write them off early and move on with our lives. Jay Ajayi had different plans. Behind an offensive line that finally meeting expectations, Ajayi and the Dolphins have found a winning formula. They pound the rock with hard-hitting Ajayi and then toss the ball up to a budding superstar in DeVante Parker. Their defense is doing a better job of getting to the passer recently, but they still struggle to stuff the run game. One problem I have with this team that gives me pause is that they don’t seem to do anything spectacular. They are pretty good at a lot of things, but we often picture solid playoff teams with two or even one thing they’ve mastered. However, unlike the Chiefs, Miami may not have to be spectacular to find themselves playing in January. They face @Baltimore, Arizona, @Jets, @Buffalo, and New England (combined 28-26). Aside from the finale with the Pats, those are all games they could win with how they’re playing now.

Now let’s travel over to the NFC, where the Cowboys own the conference but their toughest competition might be found in their own division. New York (8-3) owns the 2nd best record in the NFC and are just two games out from the division lead. They won the crucial season-opener over Dallas and have another matchup (at home) approaching soon. However, even with the six-game win streak and the proximity to Dallas, something feels off. The expectations for this team before the season rested heavily on the defense. Many (including myself) figured that if those highly-paid free agents could just elevate that defense to average, a high-powered offense could carry them to interesting places.

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Not exactly the formula for a playoff contender.

Well, in true Giants fashion, the defense has done their job (16th in total defense), but it’s the offense that is struggling mightily. An offense with a two-time Super Bowl MVP QB, Odell Beckham, Victory Cruz, and Sterling Shepherd only ranks 22nd in total offense. To be fair, the passing game itself ranks 13th. But you can see the difficulties on the field. Punt after punt after punt against the Bears and Browns doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. With the offense still figuring it out 12 weeks in, we’re left with a similar question to Miami’s: what is this team actually good at? If you want to tab “clutch defense at the end of games” as reliable trait, then maybe that. Game after game the defense holds the opponent from that back-breaking touchdown that cost them so many games last year. That’s the real difference this year, isn’t it? New York isn’t that much different of a team from last year, they’re just winning the close games with a slightly-more-reliable defense. For New York, December looms as a potential wake-up call. They’re @Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, @Philly, and @Redskins. Something tells me those teams won’t forgive stalled drives as much as the Bears and Browns.

Finally we come to the black magic that’s disguised as the Detroit Lions. In a division we expected Aaron Rodgers to control, but then thought Minnesota would run away with, the Detroit Lions hold the lead at 7-4. How are they doing it? Oh, you know, that old fashioned football strategy where you win seven games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Think about that. In all 11 games this season, Detroit has trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve won seven of those games. It takes a brighter mind than I to figure out how they are getting away with that. Keep in mind this is all without star receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. We’ll see if they can manage to keep a lead against their upcoming schedule of @New Orleans, Chicago, @Giants, @Dallas, and Green Bay. It wouldn’t surprise me if Detroit begins to drop some of these late game. Their matchup with New York should be especially interesting given both those teams’ ability to close games out this season.

The NFC and AFC are incredibly deep this year, filled with many more interesting teams than just these four. However, there’s a great chance more than one of these teams gets into the playoffs on the back of their hot start. It may be hard to imagine now, but teams like these just need a few wins in January to luck into a Super Bowl birth.

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It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

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Are we about to see Sam Bradford’s career defining year?

The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.

Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.

Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.

What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).

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Peterson didn’t have a great rushing start to the season, but his injury still leaves a huge hole to fill.

The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.

He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.

Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?

It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.

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Using players we’ve never heard of before, New England picked up where they left off.

Week 1 of the NFL has a knack for shattering expectations and throwing a wrench into the status quo. We’ve gotten so used to the shake-ups from the first Sunday, that Overreaction Monday is practically an NFL holiday at this point. This year, however, we were surprised by the lack of surprises out of the first week of football.

The “same old, same old” should be music to the ears of Patriots fans. Not only have they dominated their division for the past 13 years, but they’ve earned six straight first-round byes with records no worse than 12-4. On Sunday night, they traveled to face the Cardinals without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and looked poised for a little shake-up (called losing). Instead, Jimmy Garoppolo led the Pats to one of their more impressive regular season wins in a few years. It took a missed field goal by Arizona late in the game, but New England nonetheless survived, and that’s a story the AFC East is all too used to hearing. After the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills lost their season openers, the Pats are alone on top and that’s nothing new.

The same old story is a painful one for the Cleveland Browns and RGIII. Against a rookie QB and an uninspiring Philadelphia Eagles team, the Browns had reason to be optimistic. Instead, Cleveland relived the disappointment of the past two decades with an abysmal loss. Even worse, Griffin will miss an extended period of time after sustaining an injury. He took a huge hit near the sideline after he failed to slide. Sound at all familiar? Week 1 did nothing to quell the fears of a long season for Browns fans.

Cleveland wasn’t the only team to be dealt a familiar dose of disappointment. The San Diego Chargers were a different team last year after Keenan Allen sustained a lacerated kidney in Week 8. This year they’ll find out what it’s like to miss him for an entire season after Allen tore his ACL in Week 1.

Both the Saints and Colts showed eerily similar signs of the struggles they faced last year. A poor defense costing an elite QB the win is the losing formula we saw time and time again for the past few years.

Perhaps one Week 1 surprise was the Giants topping the Cowboys in a season opener. As shocking as that was, the real story was the Cowboys’ inability to overcome the missing veteran leadership and play of Tony Romo. Will Dallas be able to string together any wins without him? Even in the loss, Dak Prescott showed he’s a vast improvement over the replacements Dallas trotted out last year.

And how can we forget about the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Week after week we (myself included) refused to take this team seriously in 2015. They had a struggling Peyton Manning as their QB trying to see how far he could get on the back of a fantastic defense. This time, it was untested rookie Trevor Siemian with the great defense behind him against a Panthers team itching for revenge. I fell for it again and picked the Panthers. Then I watched as Denver’s defense thoroughly dominated and allowed Siemian to control the game with smart, safe passes. Why should I have expected anything different?

Week 1 looked awfully familiar and that makes me uneasy. Should we get ready for a repeat of 2015? Or is the NFL just setting us up to look like fools halfway through the season?

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Ok, maybe not everyone, but take a look at some expert picks and betting sites and you’ll be convinced the AFC belongs to two teams: New England and Pittsburgh.

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Tom Brady will sit for the first four games of 2016. How much ground will he have to make up when he returns?

A July post from USA Today has New England and Pittsburgh as the top two seeds in the conference, then meeting in the AFC Championship. For The Win poses six teams as Super Bowl favorites, the only two from the AFC being the Pats and Steelers. Look at Las Vegas odds and you’ll see, you guessed it, New England and Pitt as the top two AFC contenders. It’s a lot more consistent than the race for the NFC, where it’s a take-your-pick between Carolina, Green Bay, Arizona, and Seattle.

It’s not like this doesn’t make sense. New England has been a staple of the AFC elite for about 100 years now and Pittsburgh looks to field what will be the top offense in the NFL, even with some of their top playmakers serving suspensions. But expectations and reality are very different and both these teams have flaws that could undo them, as well as AFC foes that can sneak up in a hurry.

To me, the New England Patriots are once again the most complete team in the AFC. If it’s not a two-team race or four-team race, it could be a solo act from the Pats. They may have lost Chandler Jones to the Cards, but staples such as Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Jamie Collins can lead a solid defense that ranked in the top 10 last year. Their top-5 passing offense took no steps back either, bringing back a plethora of weapons in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski. They even added TE Martellus Bennett to open up some room for Gronk in two-TE sets (as if he needed any). Sounds a lot like last year, which is both good and bad. Despite the Pats rolling to a 12-4 record in 2015, they lost the 1-seed to Denver with two late losses. This proved to be the Pats’ undoing as they struggled on the road in Denver, losing 20-18 in the AFC Championship.

One year later and that top seed is as crucial as ever. This is why Tom Brady’s four-game suspension should be taken as a serious threat to New England’s 2016 campaign. Jimmy Garoppolo will start Weeks 1-4 and how they come out of that will seriously shape the AFC. With limited exposure to Garoppolo in the regular season, I won’t try to predict (yet) how he’ll do against Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo. What’s not up for debate is the fact that a 1-3 or 0-4 start is possible and would set the Pats back tremendously. With Brady at full strength, the Pats looked like one of the best teams in the NFL last year at 12-4. Three or four early losses would force Brady to go nearly undefeated just to match that mark. On the flip side, a perfect 4-0 start from Jimmy could be the start of the solo act we mentioned earlier. The pressure is on early and the Pats know how they perform in the first four weeks could determine if they play in the last four.

The Steelers have suspensions of their own to deal with, but they might be able to deal with them a little better. Martavis Bryant, the second-most targeted WR on Pittsburgh last year, will serve a 1-year suspension. LeVeon Bell, Pitt’s top rusher, will serve four games. With both these guys, Pittsburgh’s offense might be unstoppable. Without them, they’re pretty damn good. Clearly, it’s not the offense that bothers me.

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DeAngelo Williams filled in great for injured LeVeon Bell. Until Williams got injured himself.

The Steelers defense ranked 21st in the NFL last season and I’m skeptical that they will greatly improve in 2016. With 2014 draft picks coming into their own, Pittsburgh fans are excited to see a new, young defense emerge. Seeing how they perform in tests against Cincy, New England, and New York (Giants) could show us how they might look in a playoff run. The biggest concern with the Steelers, however, is their health. A midseason injury to Big Ben cost him four weeks, LeVeon Bell played only five weeks total, and Antonio Brown was kept out of a crucial playoff game against Denver. Altogether, the hobbled Steelers couldn’t live up to their potential. Saying “if they’re healthy” is really easy and fun, but just one bad hit to Ben, Bell, or Brown could derail Pittsburgh’s hopes once again.

Even if things go great for these two AFC powerhouses, they shouldn’t ignore a couple teams that showed us flashes of greatness last season. Cincinnati won the AFC North last season and it seems like everyone is overlooking them. Cincy will return a lot of the same talent that helped them go 12-4 a season ago. Their defense allowed the fewest most points in the conference while scoring the third-most. Andy Dalton was on pace for his best season yet until he got injured late in the season. In his first four seasons, all of which he played a full 16 games, he never cracked 90 in passer rating. Last year, he posted a 106.3 in 13 games. I see no reason why Dalton can’t repeat this success in his 6th season as a pro. TE Tyler Eifert’s early injury is a cause for concern, but Cincy’s solid all-around squad should be able to win a few without him. Don’t overlook this 12-win team that was a rare Dalton-injury away from competing for a Super Bowl spot.

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Following 10 straight regular season wins, are the Chiefs poised to shock the AFC?

Similarly, the Chiefs are demanding respect after a fantastic 11-5 season. First, let’s back up a couple seasons. In 2012, this was the worst team in the league (2-11). After hiring Andy Reid, they surged to an 11-5 record in 2013 and dipped to 9-7 in 2014. They were a pretty decent team going into last season, but a 1-5 start dropped them off everybody’s radar. Ten straight wins later and Kansas City was the NFL’s hottest team. Sound at all familiar? Try last year’s Super Bowl runner-ups, the Carolina Panthers. Following a great 12-4 season in 2013, Carolina fell off our radar with a 3-8-1 start. Five straight wins (including a playoff win) later, the Panthers were somehow the hottest team. In case you don’t remember, they carried this momentum into a dominating 15-1 season in 2016. Oh and by the way, Carolina hired a new coach (Ron Rivera) in 2011 following a 2-11 season.

Eerily similar events aside, continuity is a powerful force in the NFL and a staple of the NFL’s top teams. Carolina clearly has it now with Rivera and Cam Newton, and it would appear the Kansas City Chiefs have the same in Reid and Alex Smith. I loved the way this team looked last season and I’m optimistic (perhaps too much?) for their chances to contend in the AFC on 2016.

New England and Pittsburgh look great on paper, but as we see every year, paper is rendered meaningless after one bad event or one surprise team. Beware of a simple two-team race turning into a much more complex AFC mess.

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A familiar sight for Dallas will force them to test Dak Prescott sooner than they would’ve liked.

The race for the NFC East was a sight for sore eyes last year. Sorry, I meant it was a sight that made my eyes sore.

It was a classic best-of-the-worst division battle and for the first time since 2012, the Washington Redskins came out on top. Washington’s 9-7 record marked just the second time since 1982 that the division was won with less than 10 wins (2011 Giants). The division race was largely shaped, however, by the team that placed last.

The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 2014 NFC East title, looked poised to do something that hadn’t been done in over a decade: repeat as NFC East champs. They had a fantastic 12-4 campaign in 2014 that ended in heartbreaking fashion to the Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was without a doubt the Cowboys’ most successful season since 2007 and had many feeling that something bigger was going to come soon. The Cowboys entered 2015 as a somewhat bold, but not unreasonable, Super Bowl pick.

Then, Tony Romo was sacked in Week 2.

Before Cowboys fans could even celebrate the 2-0 start, the team’s playoff hopes took a major hit. Romo was expected to miss 8-10 weeks due to a broken collarbone suffered as a result of the sack. You generally remember what happened next: Romo returned to action in Week 11, delivered a win, and then was injured yet again in Week 12. Dallas went 1-11 without Romo and finished the nightmare of a season at 4-12. All this after going into 2015 with Super Bowl aspirations.

Now here we are in 2016. A few things have changed. Recognizing the need for improvement in the backup/future QB department, Dallas used their 4th round pick on QB Dak Prescott. They also took RB Ezekiel Elliott with their first pick, hoping to return to the powerful ground game they used to have with DeMarco Murray and perhaps also take some pressure off Romo to drop back and risk injury so often. One huge thing has stayed the same, however: on paper, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, but the health of Tony Romo will determine just how great they can be.

This year, it didn’t even take until Week 2 for Dallas’ season to be put in major jeopardy.

On just the third play in Dallas’ third preseason game, Romo was hit hard and suffered a broken bone in his back. Despite the optimism of head coach Jason Garrett (he hasn’t ruled him out for Week 1), Romo is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. It appears that we will find out if Dallas’ attempts to patch the backup QB problem will make a difference, just a lot sooner than we may have expected. Dallas lost Tony Romo, not the great team around him. With new pieces in place, can the Cowboys tread water until his return? That’s the question for now, despite a much darker question about Romo’s future looming. But I’ll save that for another post.

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Kirk Cousins could be under more pressure than any player in the NFL.

If we look back to Washington, we’ll see the Redskins trying out their new QB of the future. Bring the Redskins to the playoffs once and you’re a hero. Bring them twice and you’re a god. Kirk Cousins officially took over the reigns of the Skins’ offense in 2015 and ascended to hero status, winning the NFC East and earning himself a 1-year shot to perform under the franchise tag. A long-term contract looks inevitable if he can repeat his success. But this is more important for Washington than it is for Cousins.

Forgive Redskins fans and the front office for not jumping at the chance to crown Cousins after a year, as they’ve been through this before. Robert Griffin III looked about as sure a thing as you can get, living up to huge expectations in his rookie year. Injuries and poor play followed, sending Washington right back to the cellar they worked so hard to crawl out of. Here we are again, but instead it’s Cousins with a chance to replicate greatness. After years of playing under RG3’s shadow, is Cousins actually the savior Washington has been looking for?

The New York Giants are as big an enigma as any in the NFL. Slipping in a couple of Super Bowl victories in between brief stretches of playoff-less seasons isn’t a bad way to keep the brutal New York media and fans at bay, but it’s now been four years since their last one and patience is at an all-time low. This latest period has been marked by a staggeringly poor production from draft picks, outside of obvious highlights such as Odell Beckham and Jason Pierre-Paul. Seeing Eli Manning’s years tick away like seconds, the NY front office decided to go a different route and spend more in free agency than we’ve seen in a while. Most notably, New York added DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins, and DT Damon Harrison to help improve a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last year. It’s hard not to improve after a performance like last season, but will it be enough to make a meaningful difference? Spending big in free agency has been shown to be a fool’s errand in the past, but the Giants are hoping that a stacked passing offense can carry an average defense to the NFC East title.

Last and maybe least, the Philadelphia Eagles are moving on from the failed Chip Kelly experiment. Despite two winning seasons in his first two years, Philly was sick of Kelly’s unorthodox tactics and personality, sending him on his way in 2015 after a 6-9 campaign. The Eagles will now turn to Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2013-15. They’ll pair him up with QB Sam Bradford and perhaps 2nd overall pick Carson Wentz, if things start to go south with Bradford. It’s an odd time for the Eagles, following a season of middling success and lukewarm attitudes toward the team’s stars. Is a new coach all they need to tap into the potential of this team? The defense still heads into 2016 with many questions and although it could be worse, the QB situation won’t excite anyone for the time being.

It’s a series of experiments for the NFC East, some voluntary and some not. While another poor showing for the division as a whole seems possible, the fun part will be waiting to see if one team actually got it right. In a division full of questions, one thing still remains certain after all these years: the NFC East is up for grabs.

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Will we look back on 2016 as the start of something new? Or as another in a long list of wasted seasons?

Edit: At the time of this post, the Chargers pulled their contract offer from third overall pick Joey Bosa. He has since been signed by San Diego to a 4-year, $28.5m contract (similar contract to what was originally offered).

The San Diego Chargers are in a bad spot.

This isn’t a revelation by any means, but in a year where nearly every NFL team has a reason to be hopeful for 2016 or beyond (yes, even Cleveland), it’s worth acknowledging that San Diego is lost.

Since the great era of LaDainian Tomlinson came to a close in 2010, the Chargers have missed the playoffs in every year but one. As if consistently missing the playoffs isn’t bad enough, it’s how San Diego is failing that is giving them some serious long-term issues. Save for last year’s abysmal 4-12 campaign, the Chargers have won between 7 and 9 games since 2010, preventing them building a team through high-quality drafts. Things were looking a bit better when last year’s 4-win season finally yielded a top-5 draft pick, but they even managed to screw that up, failing to lockdown third overall pick Joey Bosa. Another 6-9 win season looms in 2016. The years following hold many questions and I fear the answers leave the city of San Diego without an NFL team.

The consistent heart, soul, and face of the Chargers has been Philip Rivers, who is in a unique position of being one of the better QBs in the league on a struggling team. He’s been remarkably healthy and successful in his career (individually, that is), playing in every game since 2006 and throwing for over 3000 yards in every season (most years over 4000). If there’s been one bright spot for Chargers fans to look for in the darkness of the past few years, it’s Rivers. But at 34, his retirement looms and the window for building a better team around him is rapidly closing. Soon, Rivers will be gone and the Chargers will be left pondering an even darker future: the search for a new franchise QB, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns.

Another “franchise” player in Eric Weddle was let go this offseason after nine seasons with San Diego. His departure not only leaves the team with a defensive leadership hole to fill, but it revealed a level of dysfunction that is scary to realize. There was a lot of buzz about Weddle being fined by the team in 2015 for watching his daughter perform at halftime instead of joining the team in the locker room. In the following months, Weddle was extremely vocal about how poorly the Chargers front office and coach treated him in subsequent contract negotiations. The three-time Pro Bowler joined the Ravens this offseason.

Who really knows how poorly Weddle was treated, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is perception and draft picks like Bosa and countless free agents have to decide if they want to bet their career on Weddle exaggerating the truth.

As if all that doesn’t paint a bad enough picture for the future, remember the fact that San Diego narrowly evaded relocation for the upcoming season. The franchise agreed to remain in San Diego for at least one more season while they review plans for a possible move to LA (to share a stadium with the Rams) or Las Vegas. Pay close attention to the sights and sounds of the Qualcomm Stadium crowd and you’ll wonder why they cheer for a Philip Rivers interception. It’s because the seats are filled with visiting fans, so much so that you’ll see a sea of orange when they host division rival Denver. With the San Diego faithful getting drowned out in their own stadium, relocation seems inevitable and that’s any fan’s worst nightmare.

As a San Diego Charger fan, what do you realistically root for in 2016? Another 8-10 win season that leads to an encouraging playoff berth, but still leaves them floating in NFL draft purgatory? Or another bottom-dwelling campaign that grants them a chance at a total rebuild, but sends them to Los Angeles to begin that rebuild?

Philip Rivers’ final years are sliding away with nothing to show for it and how they perform in 2016 could finally determine where they go in the future, figuratively and literally.