I know, I know. The month of May can hardly be described as football season. In fact, it’s pretty much anything but football season. Now’s the time for the NBA and NHL playoffs, early season baseball, and even a little bit of horse racing.
But I can’t help but hear something in the distance…..
That’s right. The countdown for opening night on September 7th has begun. No, seriously. And not only is it not too early to get excited for the upcoming NFL season, but it’s OK to start making reasonably informed predictions with free agency and the draft in the books.
Granted, there’s still plenty of time between now and next season. These predictions you’re about to read are by no means final. Nonetheless, I have a rather general idea as to how I see the 2017 season playing out, so I figured I’d share my thoughts.
Note: it may make for an even more enjoyable read to let the Sunday Night Football theme continue to play. I happened to do it, and it was pretty sick. I actually think I’m going to start reading all NFL articles with the SNF theme song in the background, along with Bob Costas’ voice narrating in my head.
1 New England Patriots (13-3)
2 Miami Dolphins (7-9)
3 Buffalo Bills (7-9)
4 New York Jets (2-14)
It’s clear that the Patriots will continue to run the East. After having what many experts declared was the most impactful offseason, next year’s Pats might even be better than the team that just won the Super Bowl. Not only did they acquire players like Brandin Cooks (1,173 receiving yards last season) and Mike Gillislee (NFL-leading 5.7 yards per carry in 2016) to add even more firepower to their offense, but they retained their two most important defensive players, Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler, as well.
New England projects to have a difficult schedule, as five of their eight road games are against teams who finished with a winning record in ’16. But since I project the AFC East to be even weaker than usual next season (Miami is poised to regress after outperforming their pythagorean win expectation by nearly three wins in ’16; Buffalo was 7-9 last season and lost some of their better players this offseason; and the Jets seem set on securing a top three pick in next year’s draft), the question isn’t whether the Patriots will win the division, but how quickly will they clinch.
1 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
2 Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
3 Baltimore Ravens (7-9)
4 Cleveland Browns (2-14)
With an offense that features two of the NFL’s premier playmakers in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is still the team to beat in the AFC North. Having said that, the Steelers do have some concerns. Their offense was lackluster when it really mattered last season (they averaged only 17.5 points in their final two playoff games) and their defense still isn’t what one would consider “elite.” Plus, Big Ben is coming off a down year (relatively speaking) in which his completion percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt, and Total QBR all declined.
Since Pittsburgh may not be quite the Super Bowl contender they have been in past years, there could be room for the Bengals or Ravens to steal this division. I’m particularly intrigued by Cincinnati because they were a 6-9-1 team whose point differential (+10) suggested they should’ve been over .500 last season. With better success in one-score games (they were 1-5-1 last season), the Bengals may be able to make a sixth trip to the playoffs in seven seasons. In the end, however, I still like the Steelers to repeat as division champs.
1 Tennessee Titans (9-7)
2 Houston Texans (9-7)
3 Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
4 Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
I have no idea who will win the AFC South, and I don’t think I will by the time September rolls around, either. I think Houston is the best team. They have one of the NFL’s better defenses and they potentially upgraded the quarterback position by drafting Deshaun Watson. But here’s the problem: the numbers say the Texans are almost assuredly in for a decline next season. Teams that outperform their pythagorean win expectation by over 2 wins, like Houston did last season, regress by 2-3 wins the following year on average. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the Texans buck that trend because a) their defense is great, b) said defense is going to get J.J. Watt back, and c) their offense can’t get much worse after having Osweiler last season.
Nonetheless, I’m going to look elsewhere to pick my AFC South champion, mainly because I have faith in what history says will happen to the Texans. I’m wary of taking the Colts, even though they have the division’s best quarterback. Their roster is still weak in a few too many areas. And I’m not taking Jacksonville as long as Blake Bortles is still under center, despite the fact that they quietly had one of the NFL’s best defenses last season. So I’ll settle with the Titans. They have a good young quarterback in Marcus Mariota and they’re particularly stout on the lines. On the offensive side, Tennessee finished with the league’s 4th best run-blocking last year, per Football Outsiders. Their front seven, meanwhile, finished in the upper half of the league in run-stopping and adjusted sack rate. Teams that win the battle at the line of scrimmage tend to have success, so that’s why I’ll hesitantly side with Tennessee to win this log jam of a division.
1 Oakland Raiders (10-6)
2 Denver Broncos (10-6)
3 Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
4 Los Angeles Chargers (8-8)
Speaking of log jam divisions…where do I even start with the AFC West? Well, every team is good, for one thing. Even the Chargers, who are coming off a 5-11 season. San Diego…wait…Los Angeles suffered the second most injuries in the NFL last season and was a horrific 1-8 in one-score games last season. Neither of those things are remotely likely to happen again.So assuming that the likes of receiver Keenan Allen and defending Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa are finally all able to suit up at once, I think the Chargers could be this year’s surprise playoff team.
As for the three heavyweights in this division, choosing any one of them to take the West wouldn’t be a bad call. I like Oakland to win it, but they actually weren’t as good last season as people think. Their defense was horrendous, finishing 30th in opponent yards per play. Plus, they outplayed their point differential by a staggering three wins, suggesting that they profiled more as a 9 or 10 win squad rather than a 12 win team. Having said that, I think the Raiders clearly have a top flight quarterback and offense. The same can’t be said about the Broncos or Chiefs, although both are certainly strong enough in multiple areas to make the playoffs.
1 Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
2 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
3 Washington Redskins (8-8)
4 New York Giants (7-9)
People talking about a Cowboys regression next season should pump the brakes. They have concerns defensively, but Dallas unequivocally has one of the NFL’s very best offenses. And with so much help around him (e.g. an elite offensive line, ‘Zeke Elliott, Dez Bryant), I don’t think we’re going to see a “sophomore slump” from Dak Prescott, either. All in all, the Cowboys will easily win double-digit games once again.
With that said, they aren’t a lock to repeat as division champs. For starters, the NFC East has changed hands every year since 2004. Plus, I think Philadelphia is due to become one of the NFL’s biggest surprises next season. Think about how often NFL teams come out of nowhere. I mean, the Falcons went from 8-8 in ’15 to being up 28-3 in Super Bowl LI. I don’t see the same thing happening with the Eagles because Carson Wentz likely is not at that point in his development, but I love Philadelphia’s defense–they finished last season 4th in defensive DVOA despite playing the league’s hardest slate of offenses–and I think a couple of their offseason acquisitions–most notably, receiver Alshon Jeffrey–will improve their offense and make life easier for Wentz.
I’m still taking Dallas to repeat as champs because I think they’re too good offensively. But in what may come as a surprise, I think the Eagles, rather than the Redskins, who did not significantly improve their 25th ranked defense, and the Giants, whose offense I’m actually not that enamored of as Eli Manning ages and regresses, are the likeliest Wild Card team in this division.
1 Green Bay Packers (10-6)
2 Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
3 Detroit Lions (7-9)
4 Chicago Bears (4-12)
It’s simple: the Packers have the division’s best quarterback, hence why it’s a no-brainer to pick them to once again win the North. Perhaps Minnesota can make things interesting because, for the first half of last year, they arguably had the NFL’s best defense. But with a poor offensive line, there’s little reason to think the Vikings will be consistent enough offensively to surpass Green Bay. I also highly doubt the Lions will be a playoff team again. They had one of the NFL’s worst defenses last season and were overly reliant on Matthew Stafford to bail them out in close games. As for the Bears…well, their incompetency has been well documented of late.
Aaron Rodgers has enough weapons at his disposal to make Green Bay’s offense one of the most difficult to stop. That alone is enough for them to retake the North, but with holes at running back and a defense that routinely got ripped apart against superior competition last season (i.e. the NFC Championship game), the Packers aren’t as safe of a Super Bowl bet.
1 Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
2 Carolina Panthers (10-6)
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
4 New Orleans Saints (7-9)
I’m tentatively penciling in the defending NFC champs to win the South, but I’m actually not that confident in this claim. Atlanta is certainly a playoff team. After all, they had the league’s best offense last season according to a variety of metrics (e.g. yards per play, DVOA, points per game, etc.). But I think people are sleeping on the loss of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now the head coach of the 49ers). Plus, their defense is still young.
But I think the main thing everyone should realize is that this division is damn good. Think about it: the worst team, on paper, is still quarterbacked by a future Hall of Famer who hasn’t exactly slowed down in recent years. On top of that, I think Carolina, who is one-year removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and Tampa Bay, an upstart team that looks poised for a breakthrough sooner rather than later, could easily make the playoffs. The Panthers, in particular, are a good bet to make some noise. According to the plexiglass principle, teams that regress significantly in one year tend to improve significantly in the next. So after a nine-win drop off in ’16, a three or four win increase based on natural regression alone could be enough to get Carolina back into the playoffs. Add rookie of the year candidate Christian McCaffrey into the mix and factor better health (Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly both missed time last year) into the equation and I think the Panthers will challenge the Falcons for the division title.
1 Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
2 Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
3 San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
4 Los Angeles Rams (3-13)
Similar to Carolina, Arizona was another team who disappointed mightily last season after a deep playoff run in 2015. However, I actually like them to knock off Seattle for the NFC West crown. Don’t blame the Cardinals’ defense for underachieving last season: they finished second in the NFL in opponent yards per play and allowed the fewest yards per drive. Their relatively average points per game ranking can be explained by poor special teams and an uptick in turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, which routinely put them in difficult field positions. If Arizona can alleviate both of these problems, which I think they will because a) their special teams can’t get much worse and b) I trust Bruce Arians to regroup an offense with talented guys like RB David Johnson, the Cardinals will make the playoffs.
But will Arizona improve enough to overtake Seattle? Not necessarily. The Seahawks are still very well-coached and quarterbacked. Their defense may not be quite the force it was a few years ago, but they are still a force nonetheless. With that said, I think it would be both boring and wrong to predict that essentially every division winner and playoff team from a year ago will be back in the dance in ’17. There’s got to be disruption somewhere. I see enough in Arizona to make this rather bold prediction.
Wild Card Round
3) Oakland over 6) Kansas City
5) Denver over 4) Tennessee
3) Green Bay over 6) Carolina
5) Philadelphia over 4) Arizona
1) New England over 5) Denver
3) Oakland over 2) Pittsburgh
1) Dallas over 5) Philadelphia
3) Green Bay over 2) Atlanta
AFC Championship: New England over Oakland
NFC Championship: Dallas over Green Bay
Super Bowl LII: New England over Dallas
You can say I’m biased, but I’m hardly the only one who’s picking the Patriots to win it all once again. In fact, in all the years that I’ve followed football, I can’t remember an overwhelming preseason favorite quite like this New England team heading into 2017. Vegas has them currently at 18/5 odds to win Super Bowl LII. The next closest team is Dallas at 11/1. That’s borderline insulting to the rest of the NFL.
Objectively, however, I think it’s conceivable that an NFC power can knock off the Patriots. Atlanta should’ve done it last year, for one thing. And I think if Dallas makes the Super Bowl like I expect them to, they can give New England lots of trouble. The Cowboys’ offense is multi-dimensional, and if Prescott manages to build on his stellar rookie campaign, he may even be a more formidable quarterback for the Patriots to contend with than Ryan was last year.
And yet…here’s why none of the NFC’s elite teams, or any of the strongest AFC teams for that matter, are likely to beat the Patriots. Those that can potentially go toe-to-toe with New England offensively (e.g. Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, Oakland, Pittsburgh) remain unlikely to have a defense capable of slowing the Patriots down. Those that do have that sort of defense (e.g. Seattle, Arizona, Denver, Houston) have serious weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball.
Simply put, it’s unlikely that any challenger to New England will be terrific both offensively and defensively. Granted, this isn’t to say the Patriots are even outstanding in both respects, either. Their defense, which benefitted from an easy slate of quarterbacks last season, only finished 16th in defensive DVOA in 2016. But with respect to slowing down Brady and company next season, a team must have the ability to outscore New England’s offense and contain it.
Perhaps this reality will only be true for one more season. By then, though, the Patriots will have already captured their record-tying sixth Super Bowl.