Last year, I did a massive NFL Preview spanning 9 articles and 20,000+ words. I shit you not. Some of the predictions were good, some were bad, and some were just more in depth than others. This year, I am striving to be just as right, wrong, and detailed but in a much briefer, easier to handle NFL Preview. I will talk about each team, but some teams just deserve more talk than others coming from our wider point of view.
One more thing to keep in mind going into this is that every year there are lots of surprises in the NFL so some of my projections may seem a bit crazy. However, just about every year, there is a team in the NFL that did not make the playoffs the year before, wins 5 more games and makes the playoffs with a first round bye. Almost every year, a team that was 5-11 or worse the year before makes the playoffs. Almost every year one team that had a first round bye misses the playoffs. Most years there are 3 playoff teams that make a 5 win jump and 3 playoff teams that fall 4 losses or more. Last year, the Falcons jumped 4 wins to a first round bye, the Seahawks made the playoffs after going 5-11 the year before (the Rams almost fit as well), and the Cowboys and Vikings both missed the playoffs after being the top seeded teams in the NFC. The three that picked up 5 wins were the Rams, Bucs, Chiefs, and (almost at +4) Bears, and the three that dropped were the Vikings, Bengals, and Cowboys. We will get to our predictions of who these teams will be in a little bit, but let’s run down each division first.
Disclaimer: I missed the NFL Draft while in Spain, and as a result, I missed out on that phase of my analysis coming into the season. Take it into consideration while weighing my thoughts on each team.
Quick note about the NFL Schedule before we start. In case you did not know, each division plays one division from the AFC and one from the NFC on a rotating basis. Along with conference games, this adds up to 14 games. The other two games are the other teams in the same conference who got the same place in their division as the others. That is a difficult wording, but if you get 2nd in the AFC East, this year you will play all the AFC West and NFC East, plus the 2nd place teams in the AFC South and AFC North.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the AFC West and NFC East
Hey hey hey!
- Patriots (12-4), First Round Bye, #2 seed
- Jets (10-6), Wild Card
- Bills (6-10)
- Dolphins (4-12)
This is pretty clearly two-horse race and I like the Patriots to take it. They addressed their pass-rushing need in the off-season, still have all the components to that vicious offense, and have the stability overall that so many organizations would kill for. The Jets made some nice strides as well, addressed some of their needs at WR, and kept the defense strong. I don’t think Mark Sanchez will ever be a top 10 QB in the league, but he doesn’t need to be right now. I think some offensive depth issues keep the Jets from catching the Patriots in the regular season. As for the rest of the division, I think the Dolphins are going to flounder about and do what they normally do. They will run the ball a little (though I am not sure who will do it), will throw it poorly, and will play solid defense. Sometimes that only gets you 5-11 or 4-12 in this league.The Bills, on the other hand, are a team I would absolutely pick to surprise people if they played in another division. Shawne Merriman looks like the old Shawne Merriman, they bolstered the defense overall via the draft and I think they can do enough on offense via Fred Jackson and (maybe) Ryan Fitzpatrick to be a respectable team with a bad record. I don’t even know if Fitzpatrick will be the QB by the end of the season but I do not think it will necessarily matter. The Bills will make strides this year.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the AFC East and NFC North
- Chargers (13-3), First Round Bye, #1 seed
- Raiders (6-10)
- Chiefs (5-11)
- Broncos (5-11)
I really dislike him but he will have a great year
The Chiefs had a wonderful year last year. As a reward, they get to play the Steelers, Colts, Patriots, Jets, Packers, and Bears, none of whom they are better than. They also have to face a getting-scary Lions team, a solid Vikings team, and a couple other of nail-biters. I don’t care how good you are, most teams are going to struggle mightily with that schedule, which opens the door for other teams to step up. Chief among them (pun not intended, but endorsed) are the Chargers, who have a chance to go nuts this year. I think Philip Rivers is the MVP, and even without Ryan Mathews being a consistent contributor, the Chargers will be co-team-to-beat going into the playoffs. Keep in mind I am saying all this while fully expecting them to get off to a bad start as usual and still finish 12-4 or 13-3. As for the other teams, there is not a ton to say about the Raiders except that they are going to sorely miss Nnamdi Asomugha and regret being so content with Jason Campbell at QB. They have the running game and just enough defense to be decent but they are no contenders for the division. Oh, and bet against them going 6-0 in division again. Same goes for the Broncos who could have a very good defense and a good QB (Orton) but with the fans clamoring for Tebow and the interior of the defense being a little shaky, I cannot see them mounting any serious charge beyond a couple of weeks. The Broncos could probably get to 7 wins, but their schedule is less than favorable and I just have too many doubts.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the AFC South and NFC West
- Steelers (11-5), 3 seed
- Browns (8-8)
- Ravens (6-10)
- Bengals (2-14)
Did you know this is an NFL coach and not a PGA Tour member?
For a long time, I thought about the Bengals as a sleeper here. They have a very, very soft schedule by the looks of it and if they could be a run-first team that limited Andy Dalton’s effect on the game they could sneak up to (gasp) 11-5. Then I saw their offensive line play. Andy Dalton is going to get the ginger beaten out of him and Cedric Benson is the DeMarcus Cousins of the NFL, and he is in his doughnut/jail phase right now, not his chip-on-his-shoulder phase. However, someone has to take advantage of that softer schedule and I think that team can be the Browns. They have an offense that suits their situation well (Colt McCoy and a West Coast offense with power-running), a defense that was pretty solid last year, and a stable of reliable offensive players. I think Monterio Hardesty will have a better season (at least in yards per carry) than Peyton Hillis too. They don’t even have to be a .500 caliber team to get there. They get to play the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders, Bengals (x2), and the NFC West for 9 of their 16 games. It is far from a sure thing but that is a schedule that begging for a sleeper to emerge. On the other side, I think the Ravens are in for a tough year. Joe Flacco does not have it and his favorite target (Derrick Mason) is gone. The defense, a tradition in Baltimore at this point, looks poised for a bit of a decline if you ask me. One poorly-placed foot from Ray Rice and this team is in serious trouble. Do not take this to mean that I think the Ravens suck, just that they are set up for a sub-par season. Frankly, I have my questions about the Steelers too, but if you can make it to the Super Bowl with an offensive line that bad, and with so few options at WR, I bet you can make it back to the playoffs. I would not be shocked if the Steelers were to fall instead of the Ravens, but after picking the Super Bowl runners up to go 5-11 last year, I am hesitant to pick against them.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the AFC North and NFC South
- Texans (11-5), 4 seed
The Fountain of Youth overfloweth
- Colts (9-7), Wild Card
- Titans (7-9)
- Jaguars (5-11)
There is no player who is more valuable to his team than Peyton Manning in any sport. With Peyton Manning, the Colts won 12 games in 7 straight years before last year. Without Manning, the Colts win 6 games in an sbsolute dream scenario. I am not kidding. I am not sure if I buy the Texans as the team ready to make the jump to usurp the Colts’ divisional dominance, but I am pretty sure the Titans and Jaguars are not ready either. I think Arian Foster has a bit of a down year but the improvement on defense helps this team finally escape the mediocrity of Middle Earth and go in search of the ring. Manning will not miss a ton of time, but he will miss enough for it to matter. It doesn’t hurt that the Texans finished third last year which means that instead of playing the Chargers and Jets, they will face the Raiders and Dolphins. Oh, almost forgot to mention the Titans and Jags. They are kind of the same team sometimes. They both run it very well and with power. They both usually have middling veteran QB play that feeds off the running game. They both play fairly good but unspectacular defense. They both play the Colts tough every time.They are both grooming young QBs, neither of which is too scary (though I like Gabbert over Locker). They will be about equal this year, but the Jags play a 2nd place schedule and the Titans play a 4th place schedule. That’s the difference between 7-9 and 5-11 sometimes. This pick is much more a Colts fan being worried about Manning, assuming they will not win the division and not seeing any other real viable candidates. Texans it is.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the NFC West and AFC West
- Eagles (11-5), First Round Bye, #2 seed
- Cowboys (10-6), Wild Card
- Giants (9-7)
- Redskins (5-11)
Take this prediction/projection with a giant grain of salt. The entirety of the Eagles’ season depends on Michael Vick’s health. If he misses 2-3 games they will be fine. If he misses 4-6 they will be fighting for their playoff lives. If he misses more than that they are screwed, not only on the field, but as far as the salary cap too. We know about all their excellent acquisitions (Rodgers-Cromartie, Asomugha, Steve Smith, Ronnie Brown, etc.) but it all goes for naught without Vick. With him, they are the 2nd best team in the NFC. The Cowboys should bounce back too with the running game finally a focal point under Jason Garrett and Tony Romo coming back. I have serious doubts about their defense, but I trust Rob Ryan (not Rex) to smooth it out to the point where it can at least serve its purpose and rush the passer when the Cowboys grab the lead. Bounce-back year for them. The Giants will stay the same, but have to play the Saints, Packers, Patriots, Jets, Chargers and more, none of which bodes well for a team that has been decent but not especially good over the last few years. The Redskins are not going to be as bad as everyone things, but that is only because it seems everyone thinks they will be going 1-15 or something. They have enough pieces (though limited) to get a handful of wins but nothing more.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the NFC East and AFC North
Still not good
- Rams (8-8), 4 seed
- Cardinals (7-9)
- Seahawks (5-11)
- 49ers (4-12)
The Rams have a very difficult schedule, especially early but I do not see any other team here ready to win the division. They get their receivers back after most of them went on IR last year, they added Mike Sims-Walker, added Josh McDaniels, who knows how to run an offense but not a team, and maybe most importantly, were able to make sure that Tarvaris Jackson had to start for the team that beat them last year. It will not be pretty and it will not be an especially good team, but the Rams will win this division. However, they will just sneak it by the Cardinals who are not especially appealing either. I don’t believe in Kevin Kolb, but I believe he is better thn Max Hall. I do not believe in that defense, but I believe it is enough to contain most of the NFC West offenses. I do not believe in Bean Bag Wells because it is rumored RBs who bruise easier than over-ripe fruit are a bad investment. The saddest part is that that is good enough for 7-9 in this division given their schedule. Do not confuse 7-9 here with one game worse than the 8-8 I gave the Bears coming up here. I can analyze the 49ers in 2 words: Alex Smith. The Seahawks, however, are somewhat harder to summarize. I am not the gigantic Tavaris-hater most are. I don’t think he is a good QB but he almost lead the Vikings to the playoffs once! I know, I know that doesn’t necessarily mean a ton and this team is much worse, but so is the division. The reason the Seahawks drop 2 wins from last year is their schedule, which I just do not think they can handle.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the NFC South and AFC West
The Motor City Maulers?
- Packers (12-4), First Round Bye, #1 seed
- Vikings (8-8)
- Bears (6-10)
- Lions (6-10)
If you ask me, the Packers are the prohibitive favorites in the NFC. They had SIXTEEN guys on IR last year when they won the Super Bowl! 16! That includes Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and a bunch of really solid defensive guys. They have all those guys back now AND the assurance that they can weather the blows every team takes due to injuries. Not sure if I have to even defend this prediction. As for everyone’s sweethearts, the Lions, I have two major concerns: Matthew Stafford’s glass shoulder and Calvin Johnson’s porcelain knee. Their defensive line is truly terrifying, their offense, even with those guys out is not at all bad, and things are looking up for the Lions. However, without those two guys, the Lions are not so different from the Bills, and that means “not ready” and “not special”. If those two guys stay healthy, the Lions could maul a good part of the league, but the likelihood of that happening are the same as Nigel Lythgoe not saying something creepy on So You Think You Can Dance. Not happening. I actually like the Vikings this year too because I think Donovan McNabb can be pretty solid for them and the defense can be alright, but losing Sidney Rice will hurt this team, as will a pretty tough schedule paired with a team that is 8-8 as a team that falls out of contention late. As for the Bears, I think I have to defend this since I seem to come off as a Bears-hater. Here’s my logic: Cutler gets zero protection and a pretty great deal of the offense lays on his shoulders. With the pass rushes in that division, the chances of him getting injured and killing their season is not at all unlikely. The defense should be good, but I do not think that is a sure thing at all if Peppers coasts a bit. Bears will flop and I will gladly eat my words if I am wrong (again) on the Bears.
(Team, Predicted Record) Plays the NFC North and AFC South
- Saints (10-6), 3 seed
- Buccaneers (9-7), Wild card
- Falcons (9-7)
- Panthers (5-11)
Really unsure what to think about this division sometimes. I like the Saints the most, but that isn’t saying much. They had a good deal of bad luck last year and 10-6 is a very reasonable prediction. The Bucs are a bit trickier as I am still not sure if their run last year was more driven by a soft schedule or genuine development from their youngsters. As usual, it is likely a bit of both, but I am leaning toward genuine development a bit. Their schedule looks fairly manageable, they have a young, good QB and look to have a pretty respectable defense and they just keep adding young talent. I think there will be a couple weeks where they look like a real playoff team and there will be weeks where they look like they are in line for a top 10 pick next year. That is just something that comes with the territory of depending on unproven players. I have the Falcons falling to 8-8 as well, but for a different reason. I think the addition of Julio Jones was a good one because he can block in a run-heavy offense while still being a very good WR, but I am not sure how that dynamic will work out. If the coaches decide that he provides them the opportunity to throw more, this team could turn into the Wade Phillips Cowboys offense, and few want that. If that even happens a little bit, I smell a Matt Ryan interception onslaught and too many turnovers can really kill a team. They will still be pretty good, but I would be surprised if they had a repeat of last year. It seems most questions about the Panthers revolve around “do you believe in Cam Newton”? I do. I think he can absolutely win games in the NFL, and with a little help he can be pretty solid. Now it is going to be a steep learning curve and the Panthers are probably going to struggle a lot, but I can easily see Cam Newton getting a lot of buzz and hype toward the end of the year. I like the Panthers to improve, but not win, and there’s nothing wrong with that for Carolina.
So there you have it. I see a few things I was not a huge fan of in my rankings, and we will get to those but let’s start with basics.
The following non-playoff teams jumped almost 5 games: Texans (5), Chargers (4), Cowboys (4). Other candidates are the Cardinals (would have to go 10-6) and Panthers (would have to get to 7-9 in a best-case Newton scenario).
Playoff teams who are going to drop 4 games or more: Ravens (6), Chiefs (5), Bears (5) Other Candidates: Colts (if Manning misses a lot), Falcons (4) Giants (3), Seahawks (3), Eagles (if Vick misses a lot). I may have gone a bit overkill here but I like it.
Team(s) that goes from first-round bye to missing playoffs: Falcons, Bears
The Steelers are a definite candidate here that would make my Ravens-flop pick look bad but I am going to stick with my pick in spite of the Super Bowl Runner-Up Curse.
Team that wins 5 more games and makes the playoffs w/ 1st round bye: Read paragraph below
The Chargers would have to win 14 to qualify, which is possible but not especially plausible. The Texans would have to have a better record than the Steelers, Chargers or Patriots and I can’t see that. So I do not have any team picking up 5 wins and earning a bye, but I do have the Chargers jumping significantly and grabbing a bye, just not with 5 extra wins. Other than that, the Cowboys have a real shot and they can definitely jump 5 wins and grab a first-round bye but I am too skeptical of their defense to just go with that. Thus, I do not have a team that fits exactly but several that fit broadly.
5-11 team that makes the playoffs: I had two 6-10 teams that made it instead of a 5-11, so close enough. Cowboys and Texans.
Awards and Super Bowl Prediction
MVP: Philip Rivers
Defensive POY: DeMarcus Ware
Coach of the Year: Jason Garrett
Rushing Title (most yards): Adrian Peterson
Playoff Teams: Chargers, Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Jets, Colts, Packers, Eagles, Saints, Rams, Cowboys, Buccaneers
AFC Champion: Patriots
NFC Champion: Saints
Patriots 29, Saints 27
Well, there you have it, OTC’s NFL Preview in under 3500 words! In five days we will be watching NFL football again. Give me the Packers over the Saints in a close one on Thursday. See you Friday for the week’s picks.
EDIT: After Manning’s neck surgery, here is my new projection for the Colts.