2016-17 Inside NFL Predictions

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Everyone is making the AFC into a two-team race, but is it?

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.

NFC East: Trying new things

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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.

There’s something worse than being the worst team in the league, and it’s the San Diego Chargers

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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.

What ever happened to 2014’s cellar-dwellers?

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Many times, it takes a breakout performer to complete the turnaround every team dreams of. (Photo credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Back in August before the season kicked off, I took a look at one of the most interesting recent trends in the NFL. It’s a trend that certainly plays a part in making the NFL the most engaging sport year after year and it’s repetitive as hell:

In eight of the past nine seasons, at least one team with four wins or less made it to the playoffs the very next season.

In short, it’s the epic turnaround. A terrible team turned great in the span of one offseason. We love these comeback stories whenever they occur and the best part is, it happens all the time. Only one time in nine seasons did this remarkable trend fail to repeat itself and that happened to be last year (2014-15 season). That made this past season all the more interesting: will the trend get back on track?

You bet it did.

The “terrible” teams from 2014 were the Jets, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, Buccaneers, and Redskins. In the preseason, it was seriously hard to imagine any of these teams playing past December. The Titans and Bucs were just starting to rebuild with rookie QBs, the Jets and Redskins seemed to lack legitimate “playoff talent,” and the Jags and Raiders were just so bad for so long that we were getting used to it. As you know by now, the team that extended the trend to nine out of ten years was the Washington Redskins.

Washington took advantage of an awful division to clinch a playoff spot as NFC East champs. They only went 9-7, but that’s a 5-win improvement from their 2014 campaign. Kirk Cousins will be the person most people credit for this jump and rightfully so. Cousins had a breakout year, throwing a touchdown in every single game this season (playoffs included) and ending the year with a top-5 passer rating (101.6). The defense should get a little credit, too, for allowing about 3.7 less points per game this season. That may not seem like much, but it can make the difference in a division where everyone is racing to finish 8-8.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Raiders, Bucs, or Jets coming pretty close to joining the Redskins. The Raiders and Bucs were in the thick of their conference’s respective wildcard races with about four weeks to go, but fell apart in the end. The Jets, on the other hand, were just a single win away. The cutthroat nature of the wildcard race didn’t let them get away with a loss in Week 17 and we saw the Steelers squeak in instead.

So, the trend lives! The Redskins were the chosen team. This, of course, now raises the question, “Who are our cellar dwellers in 2015?” Knowing how strong this trend is, can we pick a bad team to tab early and look smart when they miraculously make the playoffs? If we do, it’ll be one of only four teams that finished 4-12 or worse: Browns, Titans, Chargers, and Cowboys. Dallas is the obvious choice here, as they were playoff-hopefuls last year before Tony Romo was sidelined for the season with an injury. Unfortunately, this isn’t too exciting of a choice. The trend almost seems destined to repeat itself now. However, if you want to take a more ballsy approach, the Browns are a team nobody will be looking at. Could Cleveland be the team that shocks us all? According to the trend, they have a 25% shot right off the bat. For a city that hasn’t seen its football team make the playoffs since 2002, that’s hope.

Did the 0-2 rule hold up?

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Andrew Luck look poised to take the Colts to the playoffs in 2015. Instead, they fell into an 0-2 hole and couldn’t find their way back. (Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Waayyyy back in late September I took a look at a trend involving 0-2 teams and the playoffs. It’s probably the most repeated stat after two weeks of football, but in case you forgot, the rule is basically this: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 end up making the playoffs.

This year, we had a staggering nine teams drop their first two games. According to the rule, only one of these teams (1/9 = 11%) would end up making the playoffs. This was hard to believe at the time given some of the heavy-hitters in the group (Ravens, Colts, Seahawks, etc.). Now that the season has come to an end, we can take a look back and answer the golden question:

Did the rule hold up?

I’ll make this simple. Below are the teams that started 0-2 and then whether or not they later clinched a playoff spot:

Detroit Lions? No

New York Giants? No

Philadelphia Eagles? No

Indianapolis Colts? No

Chicago Bears? No

Baltimore Ravens? No

New Orleans Saints? No

Seattle Seahawks? Yes

Houston Texans? Yes

So did the rule hold up? No! Not exactly, anyways.

It held up in the sense that at least one of these teams would still make the playoffs, but if going to be strict with that 12% figure, then no, the rule did not hold up. Two teams (22%) managed to find their way into the postseason, showing us that an 0-2 start is not quite as deep a hole as we thought. Or maybe it tells us that the more 0-2 teams there are, the better chance there is of multiple teams making it out alive (duh). We hardly ever see nine teams start this poorly and it’ll be interesting to see how many of these teams we’re left with next season. If it’s around the number we’re used to seeing (5-7), then I don’t expect more than one team to get so lucky.

It’s worth noting that six of the remaining seven teams on that list finished with losing records, the lone exception being the Colts at 8-8. The dreaded 0-2 start may not be a death sentence, but it still remains an ominous indication of where your season is headed. Super Bowl hopefuls Baltimore and Indianapolis learned that the hard way this season. Who will fall victim to the 12% rule next? See you in eight months.

I want to stay ON Cam’s wild ride

There’s seemingly nothing more polarizing than honesty. We respect it, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Cam Newton has shown us that first-hand.

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We all love honesty until it’s the wrong time to be honest. (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Newton seems to know himself really well and owns it. His smiles, first-down dabs, touchdown tradition of handing footballs to children, and sideline photoshoots have all been genuine. He’s living the life of a football star the way we wish we could, and boy do we love that (most of us, anyways).

What don’t we seem to love? A sullen press conference that not only provides three-word answers, but is also cut short because of frustration. If you’re going to celebrate during the wins, you better be gracious during the losses. Anything less than humility after a loss? We don’t take too kindly to that.

But even that can be forgiven and defended. Give the guy a break, he just lost the biggest game of his life. You’d act the same way. Regardless of whether that argument is fair, Cam was still being himself. Writhing on the ground, complaining to the refs, quiet during the press conference…that’s as honest as every dab he’s ever performed. And because it’s at least honest, we can respect it and defend it.

But you know what we absolutely hate? What is apparently inexcusable? Beyond even saying the unpopular, not-so-humble thing? When you’re honest but say the wrong thing:

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Yeah, we hate that.

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For once, it’s unanimous: Cam was wrong here. He should’ve swallowed his honesty for once and said the thing we all wanted to hear.

Seriously, now we’re all going to turn on Cam? After his most honest answer of all? I’m not going to say I love his explanation, but I actually don’t mind it. He evaluated the situation and decided his body couldn’t make the play without enduring serious pain. Are we really crushing him for following his instincts in a split-second decision? We all want honesty until it’s disrespectful and selfish. Don’t get me wrong, criticism is fine and more than fair. Just because Cam is honest doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. But don’t ask him to lie when the truth doesn’t fit your values.

Some of Cam’s antics rubbed me the wrong way (especially at the expense my Giants), but I wasn’t asking him to change then and I won’t now. I don’t want him to hire a PR team that specializes in canned answers. I want a potential face of the league to say what he means, even if it bothers people. We’re running out of Cam Newtons. Please don’t give me another Russell Wilson.

Cam’s wild ride of honesty will, hopefully, not end with this. These type of athletes are one of the best parts of professional and collegiate sports. They interest me beyond the game itself at times and because of that, I can’t get mad at Cam for these type of quotes. Give me the person, not the robot.