Two weeks ago I wrote my over/under win total predictions for both conferences. Now with less than two weeks until opening night, it’s time to get more specific and predict the playoff field. Today I’ll reveal my six playoff teams in the AFC. Later this week, I’ll do the same thing with the NFC. A lot of time and thought goes into these picks (perhaps too much), but I take pride in my predictions and can confidently say that most of them will look good by season’s end!
1. New England Patriots (13-3)
Even in the wake of Julian Edelman’s season-ending injury, there’s still a consensus that the Patriots are overwhelming favorites to not only win the AFC, but repeat as Super Bowl champions. In fact, according to sports betting dime, New England’s Super Bowl odds (5/2) are nearly twice as high as the team with the second-highest odds, Green Bay (19/2). There hasn’t been a unanimous preseason favorite like the Patriots in quite some time.
We know New England is going to score. Behind arguably the most efficient year of Tom Brady’s career (28 TD/2 INT in ’16), the Pats ranked third in scoring and first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA metric last season. They somehow did this without the best tight end in football for most of the year, too. With Rob Gronkowski now back healthy (at least to start the season) and new weapons in receiver Brandin Cooks and running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, New England will once again finish near the top in every major offensive category.
The question is whether their defense will hold up their end of the bargain because the unit that led the league in scoring defense last year is definitely in for some sort of decline. New England feasted on the league’s easiest slate of opposing offenses in 2016. They won’t have the same luck this year, as they’ll face many great offenses like New Orleans, Atlanta, Oakland, and Pittsburgh. The Pats are also thin in a few key areas. Their pass-rush is weak, outside of Trey Flowers, and the linebacking corps will rely heavily on Dont’a Hightower, who is terrific but often injured.
Depth will be an issue on defense and facing a bunch of high-caliber quarterbacks will make things even more difficult. But there’s still no team that is as well-coached and well-quarterbacked as New England. They’ll win upwards of twelve games once again.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
When we talk about Pittsburgh, the conversation always starts with Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. And for good reason: Roethlisberger is on his way to the Hall of Fame; Bell and Brown are arguably the best players at their respective positions. But another key for the Steelers is their offensive line. In 2016, they finished 3rd in run-blocking and 4th in pass-protection, according to Football Outsiders. With all five starters returning for a fourth consecutive year, Pro Football Focus has Pittsburgh ranked as the third best o-line heading into the new season.
Meanwhile, the Steelers’ defense remains respectable. They don’t stand out in any particular area, but Pittsburgh’s D ranked just outside the top ten against both the run and pass last year. Linebackers James Harrison and Bud Dupree also helped Pittsburgh finish with the 9th best sack percentage in the NFL. With many of their key players, minus linebacker Lawrence Timmons, returning, the Steelers should again be solid on D.
Pittsburgh also projects to start fast out of the gate: their first game against an over .500 opponent from last season doesn’t come until Week 6. Overall, their projected strength of schedule ranks just 27th. Navigating such an easy slate should be no problem for Mike Tomlin and company, so I can confidently say that Pittsburgh, with all that talent on offense, will easily reclaim the AFC North.
3. Houston Texans (10-6)
I’ve had a change of heart in recent weeks: I now like the Texans, not the Titans, to win the AFC South. Do people realize how good their defense is? Let me throw some numbers at you: Houston finished 3rd in opponent yards per play and 5th in pass defense last season, according to Football Outsiders. Sure, they may have “only” finished 9th in overall defensive DVOA, but they played the 6th toughest offensive schedule. Oh, and they were also without J.J. Watt for practically the entire season.
If the three-time defensive player of the year returns to form, the combination of him, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and linebacker Whitney Mercilus will be terrifying. Makes sense why Pro Football Focus has their front-seven pegged as the league’s best entering 2017. And there’s little to worry about in the secondary. As mentioned, they ranked fifth against the pass last season, though they will have to cope with the loss of cornerback A.J. Bouye, arguably their best defensive back.
Of course, the key question for Houston, as usual, is whether they can score. I don’t think they’ll be a juggernaut, but there should be marked improvement with Tom Savage under center in place of Brock Osweiler. Call it a hunch. Savage has very little regular season experience, but I like what I’ve seen from him this preseason (75% completion percentage; 102.3 quarterback rating). Plus, he can’t be worse than Osweiler, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year.
Savage also doesn’t need to do much for the Texans to be good this year. He has solid complementary players around him (i.e. DeAndre Hopkins, Lamar Miller) and the defense should be outstanding. Houston can clearly win ten or eleven games this year, particularly since Indianapolis and Jacksonville both project to be mediocre (at best). I’ll take them to sneak past Tennessee on the strength of J.J. Watt and their defense.
4. Oakland Raiders (10-6)
I’ve been asked a few times over the past couple of days this question: are the Raiders going to regress this season? My answer is…well, sort of. In terms of their win-loss record from a year ago, 12-4, the answer is yes. Oakland will decline because they weren’t nearly as good as their stellar record from ’16 suggested. They were incredibly lucky in close games, going 8-1 in one-possession contests. That won’t repeat itself: teams that perform exceptionally well in these situations regress to the mean the following season, which usually corresponds to a 2-3 win decline overall. Moreover, the Raiders play in an incredibly competitive division. Every team in the West is a playoff contender, even the Chargers, so it’s likely that they’ll each beat up on one another.
However, the Raiders can certainly make a deeper playoff run this season. Remember that Derek Carr’s season-ending leg injury last season cost them a first-round bye and led to a listless performance in their wild-card loss at Houston. If Carr had stayed healthy, Oakland conceivably could have played New England in the AFC Championship. They still have that ability this season. Provided his leg is healed, Carr (28 TD, 6 INT, 96.7 rating in ’16) should continue to progress as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. And it helps that the Raiders have the reigning defensive player of the year, Khalil Mack, to put fear into opposing QB’s.
Speaking of defense, though, Oakland will need to improve their 25th-ranked pass defense if they want to seriously contend in the AFC. There’s hope that their young defensive backs, like safety and second-year starter Karl Joseph, will come into their own, but it’s certainly not a guarantee. With questions like these looming, the Raiders could be on the bubble for a playoff spot. My take, however, is that their offense will be just enough to earn a hard-fought AFC West title.
5. Tennessee Titans (10-6)
The Titans lead the way as my first wild card, mainly because they’re tremendous in the trenches. Tennessee has arguably the best offensive line in the AFC thanks to Pro Bowl tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan. Credit the Titans front office for hitting on each of those recent first round picks. They’ve certainly helped their other recent first round pick, Marcus Mariota. Like the aforementioned Carr, Mariota took a significant stride forward last season, finishing 12th in Total QBR among all qualified starters. He’ll need to show that he’s healthy after he too suffered a serious leg injury late last season, but there’s little reason otherwise why the 23-year-old won’t continue to impress.
In addition to their offense, the other thing to like about Tennessee this year is their schedule. Football Outsiders has it pegged as the 4th easiest in the league. Simply put, everything seems to be pointing to a Titans breakout in ’17.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
Any number of teams–Kansas City, Denver, Cincinnati, Miami–could occupy this last slot. However, I’m ultimately going with the Chargers, a team that I think will improve dramatically this season thanks largely to better health and better luck in close games (I wrote about this in more detail here).
But that’s not the main reason why I’m choosing the now Los Angeles Chargers over teams like the Chiefs, who won 12 games a year ago, and the Broncos, who still possess one of the league’s best defenses. This is the NFL: crazy stuff happens on a yearly basis. Last season Dallas went from having the NFC’s worst record in 2015 to the conference’s best in ’16–and that was with rookie Dak Prescott instead of Tony Romo. Who saw that happening? And in other years, there have been even more improbable stories like the ’08 Dolphins, who went 11-5 and won the AFC East after finishing 1-15 (!) the year before, and the ’99 Rams, who had even longer preseason Super Bowl odds than the Jets, Browns, and 49ers have this season yet somehow still claimed the Lombardi trophy.
This all relates to the Chargers, who went 5-11 last year, being my pick to claim a second wild-card spot because everyone needs to have at least one bold prediction. Preseason prognostications of this sort are never 100% right anyway, but copy/pasting all of last year’s playoff teams into the 2017 field guarantees that you’ll be both boring and wrong.
Stay tuned for my NFC predictions, coming later this week.