Two weeks ago I wrote my over/under win total predictions for both conferences. Now with less than one week until opening night, it’s time to get more specific and predict the playoff field. Earlier this week I revealed my six playoff teams in the AFC. Today, I’ll do the same thing for 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. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
The Green Bay team that showed up in December and January of last season is good enough to win the Super Bowl. The Packers averaged over 32 points per game over eight consecutive wins before falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship; and for some of that stretch, they didn’t even have Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. Nor did they have an actual running back: receiver Ty Montgomery, who wore #88 last season, was forced into the odd position of carrying the Packers’ backfield.
Credit Aaron Rodgers, obviously. He posted the second highest Total QBR mark of his career last year (78.2) while finishing with a phenomenal 40/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Sensational seasons like this are nothing new for Rodgers: he has totaled a quarterback rating north of 100 seven times. As long as he’s healthy, the Packers will be favored in nearly all of their contests.
Concerns remain on the defensive side of the ball, however. Green Bay had trouble stopping quality offenses in 2016. In fact, they allowed a staggering 38 points per game to the four teams they played that finished in the top ten of offensive DVOA (Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, and Tennessee). That’s potentially another recipe for disaster come playoff-time for Green Bay. But until then, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers still look to be the most likely team to earn the top seed in the NFC.
2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)
The Panthers were last season’s most disappointing team; this year they’ll be one of the biggest surprises. A month ago, I detailed a few reasons why Carolina is poised to improve. Among others is the plexiglass principle, which states that teams who regress dramatically tend to rebound the following season. A dramatic example is Dallas, who declined by eight wins in 2015 and then improved by nine in ’16.
Carolina may not return to the same heights they reached two seasons ago, but they should take advantage of a last-place schedule that projects to be the second-easiest in the NFL. Moreover, there’s reason to believe that Cam Newton, who posted just a 75.8 quarterback rating last year, will perform more in-line with his career average rating of 86.1. It should also help Newton that rookie Christian McCaffrey, who’s likely to be my pick for offensive rookie of the year, has joined a once-depleted backfield.
And let’s not forget that the Panthers can still play defense. Sure, their secondary may never be as good as it was with Josh Norman; but with Kawann Short, Pro Football Focus’ third-highest graded interior lineman last season, clogging rushing lanes and Luke Kuechly patrolling the entire field, don’t be surprised if Carolina’s defense performs more like the unit that was one of the league’s best in ’15. Combined with a turnaround on the offensive side of the ball and a weak schedule, the Panthers should be formidable in 2017–so formidable that I think they’ll grab a first-round bye.
3. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The problems in the Seahawks’ locker room were discussed at length this offseason, but I’m confident these issues won’t prevent them from winning another NFC West title. Seattle is still elite defensively. They ranked fifth in the NFL last season in opponent yards per play. However, that’s deceptive (in a good way). Before losing All-Pro safety Earl Thomas to a broken leg in Week 13, the Seahawks ranked fifth in the NFL in pass defense, according to Football Outsiders. In their following games, which concluded with a 36-20 loss to Atlanta in the divisional round, Seattle’s pass defense ranked in the bottom five. With Thomas projected to be back healthy, it makes sense why Pro Football Focus projects the Seahawks to have the league’s third-best pass defense. And as an aside, PFF also has their underrated front-seven ranked as the second-best in football entering the new year. No big deal!
Seattle’s Achilles heel, however, is their offensive line: it’s slated to be one of the worst units in the NFL once again. We know Russell Wilson can play, but he clearly wasn’t as effective last season behind this atrocious line. He posted a career-low Total QBR (62.9) and had the lowest TD/INT ratio of his career. He deserves a pass because he played at least some of the season on a gimpy ankle, but there’s no bet that he’ll make it through this year unscathed, either.
The Seahawks should still find ways to be successful–they’re just too talented on defense. But their offense is a concern because they again project to be overly reliant on Wilson. He alone may not be enough to overcome poor protection and a scarcity of impact skill-position players for Seattle to make another deep playoff run.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
I think this explanation from one of my recent articles as to why the Eagles will significantly improve will support this rather surprising prediction:
The Eagles’ defense was quietly one of the league’s best last year. Despite playing the NFL’s toughest slate of opposing offenses, Philadelphia’s D finished 4th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric. That unit is legit. Also, like the aforementioned Chargers, the ’16 Eagles had terrible luck in one-score games, going 1-6 in such contests. Assuming they ascend to the mean in this metric, as history suggests they will, Philadelphia is likely to see enough of an increase in their win-loss record to put them in playoff contention. And if the gap between their offense, which ranked 29th in yards per play last year, and their terrific defense closes, the Eagles will be a dark horse in the NFC.
It’s also worth adding that Philadelphia’s offense, and specifically quarterback Carson Wentz, should benefit enormously from continuity on their stellar offensive line (Pro Bowl tackle Lane Johnson missed the first ten games of last season) as well as the additions of receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith to bolster their receiving corps. The Eagles are a team on the rise, and they’ll do just enough to take the NFC East.
5. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
I don’t expect the Falcons to have much of a hangover after their brutal loss in Super Bowl LI. Atlanta’s offense, coming off one of the most prolific seasons in NFL history, should be great again in 2017. Even though former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to take the head coaching job in San Francisco, the Falcons still have an above-average offense line, a fast backfield with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and a largely uncoverable receiver in Julio Jones. Oh, and there’s Matt Ryan, the reigning league MVP. He’s good too!
Atlanta’s defense may get even better, as well. Their secondary is young, comprised of many players going into their second and third seasons like safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Brian Poole. Plus, let’s not sleep on this: cornerback Desmond Trufant, a Pro Bowler in 2015, returns after missing the second half of last season, including the playoffs, due to injury. And if their integral players up front, like edge-rusher Vic Beasley and linebacker Deion Jones, continue to improve, the Falcons’ defense could be very good.
Atlanta may play in a difficult division, and perhaps I’m underestimating the lingering effects of their Super bowl defeat. But even if their offense isn’t as great as it was last season, Atlanta is too talented offensively to decline significantly. Simply put, they’re one of the best six teams in the NFC.
6. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
No, Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension shouldn’t impact the Cowboys too much. Darren McFadden, who ran for over 1,000 yards in ’15, should still be able to run the ball effectively behind Dallas’ great offensive line. Dak Prescott should have little trouble commanding the Cowboys’ offense, too. All the talk of him being “the next RGIII” is ridiculous. Prescott did not run a gimmicky offense last season, and he posted a far better Total QBR than Griffin did in his rookie season. It’s also clear that Prescott simply looks like a confident quarterback capable of thriving in a variety of situations. No need to worry about the Cowboys’ offense.
The problems are on the defensive side of the ball. Dallas lacks an imposing front-seven, as they ranked only 24th in pass-rushing last season according to Pro Football Focus, and are projected to have just the 26th best front-seven by PFF this year as well. The Cowboys’ struggles on defense were evident in their season-ending loss to the Packers last season, in which they provided very little resistance to Aaron Rodgers. And that’s particularly concerning because three of their biggest contributors in the secondary–cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and safety J.J. Wilcox–departed during the offseason. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have his work cut out for him finding new players to replace those starters.
Yet the biggest concern of all for Dallas is their schedule: it projects to be the toughest in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Seven of their games are against playoff teams from last season. They also play only two road games against teams that finished under .500 in ’16 (and one of those teams is Arizona, who is certainly no slouch). The Cowboys will have a tough time navigating a brutal schedule, so even though I expect them to ultimately return to the playoffs, their season will be a grind.
Stay tuned for my official 2017 NFL predictions, coming early next week!