For new readers, this is another of the annual features where I purposely – and purposefully – embarrass myself in public. What will follow here is my forecast for the NFL team-by-team where I predict the final standings in all of the NFL Divisions and the team records for each team. I will try to explain/justify/rationalize my selections knowing full well that many of them will be off target by astronomical distances. I do want to make something clear before launching into this essay:
I do not hate any team in the NFL. I can say confidently that I did not inflate any team’s projected record because I “love them” or deflate another team’s record because I “hate them”. Looking at rosters and schedules, I think some teams are going to do better than other teams and that is all that is reflected here.
Therefore, when it happens – as it always does – that a team that I have picked to have a 3-13 record winds up with a 9-7 record and perhaps sneaks into the playoffs, please do not tell me that I owe that team and its fans an apology for disrespecting them. That is not what happened and I will not apologize for something that did not happen.
What did happen was that I made a huge mistake in terms of analysis and forecasting and I will indeed admit that I was wrong.
Before getting to the individual teams and their records for the season, let me begin by identifying 5 coaches who are – or ought to be – on a hot seat already. I will list them alphabetically lest anyone try to derive some priority order from the list that is not there.
Gus Bradley (Jax): After a handful of successful years in Seattle as the defensive coordinator, Bradley got the job in Jax two years ago. Granted, he has been saddled with poor quarterbacking down there and the rest of the roster is not populated with Pro Bowl players either. Nonetheless, his record going into this season is 7-25. Let me just say that record is not sufficiently inspiring to induce the folks down there to take the tarps off the seats that the Jags cannot give away let alone sell.
Jay Gruden (Washington): I know, he has only been in the job for one year but in Washington under Danny Boy Snyder’s regime, two years is long time in the job. Gruden’s “calling card” as a coach is that he is a “quarterback-whisperer” and he came to DC in hopes that he might bring RG3’s performance to mythic levels. RG3 will be the clipboard-holding #3 QB as the season begins… Now, if the two QBs ahead of RG3 also play poorly, Gruden’s “calling card” may decline significantly in value.
Joe Philbin (Miami): Expectations are high in Miami this year; Greg Cote of the Miami Herald ranks the Dolphins as the 6th best team in the NFL. I do not agree with that assessment but that is some of what Philbin needs to deliver against in South Florida. Philbin has been in Miami for 3 seasons and has posted a cumulative record of 23-25. A repeat of that kind of record is not commensurate with the “6th best team in the NFL”.
Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay): Like Jay Gruden, this is only his second year on the job. Nonetheless, the Bucs were as bad last year as they had been under Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris. Like in Jax, there are plenty of empty seats in Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs need not win their division for Smith to stay on the job, but another year near last year’s 2-14 record and he may be collecting on whatever remains in his contract starting in January 2016.
Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee): He took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl after the 2008 seson and to the playoffs after the 2009 season. Since then, his teams have not been above .500. Like Lovie Smith above, the Titans went 2-14 in Whisenhunt’s inaugural year there. The team has to do better than that.
There are two other coaches in the league who might endure fan pressure or media pressure should their teams “under-perform” this year. I do not think either coach ought to be on a hot seat – let alone fired for a bad season in 2015 – but I will mention them here just because…
Tom Coughlin (Giants): The reasons he should not be on a hot seat are myriad:
Two Super Bowl rings
A 96-80 record with the Giants
Nine playoff appearances in his coaching career.
Nonetheless, the Giants have missed the playoffs for 3 straight years and in those 3 seasons the team record has been 22-26. In the last 2 seasons the Giants have been 13-19 but that less-than-stellar record is inflated to a degree with a 4-0 record against the Skins – meaning against real competition, the Giants are only 9-19. The Giants’ fans and the NYC tabloids may not take kindly to another slightly less than mediocre season.
Chip Kelly (Philly): He has been with the Eagles for two years and has won 10 games in both of those seasons. So why might he be on a hot seat? Well, in those two years, he has released or traded or lost to free agency some of the team’s best and best liked players. If the 2015 season craters, the fans in Philly will be in full throat…
Enough preamble… Getting down to business here, I shall begin with the AFC East. I believe the Pats will win the division again this year and that the Jets will finish last. I think both the Dolphins and the Bills will do well and that this will be one of the strongest divisions in the league as measured by the total wins by the teams there.
Patriots 12-4: The sturm und drang of Deflategate is behind us and it will not be necessary to analyze how the Pats might do in 4 games with Jimmy Garoppolo under center and what – if any – lingering effects that might have on the team. The question for the Pats’ fans and coaches ought to be this:
Did the Pats’ defense take a big step back from last year in losing Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Vince Wilfork to free agency?
Losing two really good CBs from the defense puts the pressure on the front 7 to generate pressure. It is difficult to imagine that Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have not already figured that out and have been working on ways to do just that. The Pats get an early Bye Week (October 4) and return from that Bye Week to play Dallas and Indy both on the road. That is a speed-bump in any schedule.
Dolphins 10-6: If I am correct, Joe Philbin will keep his job in Miami and the Dolphins will be an AFC Wild Card team. The centers of attention for the Dolphins will be QB Ryan Tannehill, DE Cameron Wake and free agent signee DT, Ndamukong Suh. The Dolphins’ OL allowed 46 sacks last year; that was the worst in the league. Like the Patriots above, this is another case where a DL needs to generate pressure to prevent its DBs from being exploited. That defense – and particularly those DBs have time to work on their game because here is the schedule for the Dolphins from the start of the season until October 29. No matter how hard you look there are no great QBs the defense will have to contain:
At Washington (Kirk Cousins)
At Jax (Blake Bortles)
Vs. Buffalo (Tyrod Taylor)
Vs. Jets (Ryan Fitzpatrick)
BYE (Probably the toughest QB on the list so far…)
At Tennessee (Marcus Mariota)
Vs. Houston (Brian Hoyer)
The defense needs to use those games as learning experiences because in its last 3 games it will face:
At San Diego (Philip Rivers)
Vs. Indiana (Andrew Luck
Vs. New England (Tom Brady).
Despite his prediction that the Dolphins would be the 6th best team in the NFL, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald did have this cautionary note for fans in Miami:
“An AFC East study by StubHub of fans who bought tickets to both NFL games and concerts reveals that Jets and Patriots fans tend to like Billy Joel, Bills fans go for Garth Brooks and Dolphins fans prefer Ariana Grande. Based on that, Miami clearly is going to finish last in the division.”
Bills 9-7: Rex Ryan will indeed keep it interesting and the presence of Richie Incognito and Percy Harvin on the roster portends interesting storylines in Buffalo. Ryan takes his “ground and pound” offense about 350 miles northwest from East Rutherford, NJ to Buffalo NY. It’s a good thing he likes to run the ball because after a training camp competition, he settled on Tyrod Taylor as his QB with EJ Manuel as the only backup on the squad. The Bills acquired LeSean McCoy from Philly last winter and they are going to need McCoy to gain at least the 1300 yards he did in Philly last year so that Taylor is not in the position of having to win games on his own. The Bills had an excellent defense last year; Ryan is a good fit to coach a team with that kind of defense. The schedule in not all that kind to the Bills in September; here is how the start the season:
Vs. New England
It gets a lot lighter in October and November.
NY Jets 4-12: New head coach Todd Bowles earned his stripes as a defensive coordinator and he takes over a team that is strong on defense. In addition to a solid DL, the Jets have reunited CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. You might be tempted to wonder if this pair who were in NY together from 2010 – 2012 can still play; after all, CBs have a shelf life in the NFL. Absent injury, both of these guys can still play… The Jets’ problems are on offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a journeyman QB at best; when Geno Smith’s jaw heals, the Jets can only pray that this is the year when Smith rises up from being a miserable NFL QB all the way to being a slightly-below-average NFL QB. When Geno Smith was coming out of college into the draft, there were questions about his throwing accuracy and his leadership. His first years in the NFL seem to have confirmed that he is not the most accurate thrower ever and the fact that his coach and his teammates have not rallied behind him in the aftermath of “the sucker punch” sort of says he is living down to his “lack of leadership” expectations. Look for the Jets to continue to be a “run-first team” again this year.
Moving along to the AFC North, I do not think this division will be as strong as the AFC East but I do believe it will be a closely contested division race with the Ravens as the class of the division.
Ravens 11-5: The Ravens’ defense was very good last year and should be just as good this year. Yes, they lost Haloti Ngata to free agency but they had some depth behind Ngata last year and things should be just fine on that side of the ball. On offense, the Ravens will have a new offensive coordinator yet again; I believe that makes three years in a row. The incumbent is former Bears’ coach Marc Trestman and he does like the throw the ball and often to throw it deep. Last year, Justin Forsett was the #5 rusher in the NFL with more than 1200 yards. Was he a “1-year wonder” or can he do something like that again in 2015? In Week’s 3-5, the Ravens face each of their division opponents with the middle game against the Steelers on Thursday night. That is not a fun schedule. And the last five games in December and January are not a cake-wale either.
Steelers 8-8: Yes, James Harrison is still playing LB for the Steelers but truth be told the Steelers’ defense had gotten old as a unit and needed help. In that sense, the Steelers added by subtracting Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu during the off-season; they both had very good careers but both had gone past their sell-by date. Football-lifer, Dick LeBeau also left town to take up the head defensive chores in Tennessee. The Steelers will have to win on offense this year until the defense rebuilds itself. To that end, the 2-game suspension for LeVeon Bell and the loss of center, Maurkice Pouncey are not a good things but the presence of Antonio Brown to haul in passes from Ben Roethlisberger is indeed a good thing for the Steelers. In games outside the division, the Steelers will face top QBs who will test that defense:
Sept 10 Tom Brady
Oct 12 Philip Rivers
Nov 29 Russell Wilson
Dec 8 Andrew Luck
Dec 20 Peyton Manning
Given that scheduling fact, the Steelers had best be prepared to outscore their division rivals quarterbacked by Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and whomever the Browns feel like playing whenever.
Bengals 8-8: The good news in Cincy is that the Bengals have made the playoffs for the last 4 seasons and no other team in the AFC North can make that statement. The bad news is that in all four of those years, the Bengals have been one-and-done in those playoffs. I think this year will break the cycle because I think the Bengals will be watching the playoffs on TV this year. Last year, the Bengals’ defense was more porous than it had been in prior years. If that was due to the aging process, that is not a good omen for 2015. On the other hand, maybe the decline in the defense last year was merely due to the loss of LB Vontaze Burfict who should be back this season.
Browns 5-11: The Browns open the season:
Those may be the “Barking Dog Games of the Week” three weeks in a row. Josh McCown arrives in Cleveland in his mid-30s to serve as a placeholder at QB until the Browns can either decide that Johnny Manziel is their guy or they go out and acquire their guy. Somehow, the Browns never seem to be able to find “their guy” at QB no matter how hard they try. Here is their history of high QB draft picks since the re-launch of the franchise in 1999:
Tim Couch 1999
Brady Quinn 2007
Brandon Weedon 2012
Johnny Manziel 2014
The Browns won 7 games last year; I just do not think it was skill and cunning that achieved that record. It still seems to me like “smoke and mirrors”. Hence, my prediction of a regression for 2015. Realize that the Browns were the worst team in the NFL in rushing defense last year giving up 142 yards per game. The Browns may have something going for them on offense for at least the early part of the season. New offensive coordinator, John DiFilippo, has never been an offensive coordinator before so his opposing defensive coordinators will have no “book” on him. The schedule is a difficult one notwithstanding those opening 3 games and they will have 6 difficult in-division games. I think the Browns will take two steps back this year.
The AFC South is a division of “Haves” and “Have Nots”. It is not the only division like that but it is the one where the distinctions are the starkest. The AFC South is also the weakest division in the NFL this year counting the number of predicted wins by teams in that division. I believe the four teams will only win a total of 28 games.
Colts: 11-5: The Colts offense was very good last year so all they did in the offseason was to acquire some more talent on that side of the ball. Andre Johnson is not the player he was 5 years ago; so what, he can still play. Frank Gore is not the runner he was three years ago; so what, he can still play. Rookie WR, Phillip Dorsett is another addition to a receiving corps that can haul in deep balls from Andrew Luck. The Colts are loaded with skill position players but they seem not to have addressed two weaknesses:
Offensive Line: Andrew Luck gets hit too often and the Colts’ running attack has not been threatening let alone fearsome.
Defensive Line: The Colts do not get nearly enough pass rush without blitzing a couple of linebackers.
Those issues may haunt the Colts when they face top-shelf competition/playoff teams but make no mistake, the Colts are one of the AFC South’s “Haves”. Look for them to get off to a fast start with the first month of the season looking like this:
There is a tough patch in the middle of the season but just in case the Colts need a win in the final weekend of the year to secure a Bye Week in the playoffs, they can close out against the Titans at home.
Texans 9-7: I think Bill O’Brien has the makings of a good coach in the NFL meaning he may have what it takes to get his teams to overachieve. There is little doubt that he a no-nonsense fundamental-football guy. He has a team in Houston that has a very good defense and an offense that desperately needs a QB. The Texans had a training camp competition and Brian Hoyer beat out Ryan Mallett for the job. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the most positive thing on both of their résumés is this:
Both QBs were in New England as understudies to Tom Brady and under the tutelage of Bill Belichick.
An injury to RB, Arian Foster in training camp will not help the Texans’ offense at all. The Texans get to play the Colts twice; if they are going to win, the defense – stronger this year with the addition of Vince Wilfork and a potentially healthy Jadeveon Clowney – will have to keep Andrew Luck and company under control. I mentioned how the Colts have a soft landing in the final weekend of the season should they need it; well, the Texans have soft games for the last two weeks facing the Titans on the road and then the Jags at home. Like the Colts, the Texans are one of the AFC’s “Haves”.
Jaguars 5-11: That prediction may not look like much but it is significantly improved over last year’s 3-13 mark. The Jags signed former Broncos’ TE Julius Thomas as a main target for QB, Blake Bortles. In the buzzard-luck tradition of this franchise, Thomas broke his index finger and needed surgery about a week ago meaning he will not be available for the first 4 or 5 games. Bortles can use a reliable pass catcher; this is his second year in the league and that is a key developmental season for guys who ultimately develop into something other than long-term straphangers in the league. None of the Jags’ WRs will cause defensive coordinators sleepless nights so it falls to the other TEs on the team to carry the load for a month. Those TEs are not superstars but they are capable enough to fill in:
The Jags running attack will need to up its game too; they have decent if not eye-catching talent there. Defensively, the Jags are pretty good and they added Jared Odrick from the Dolphins to a D-Line that has Ziggy Hood and Sen’Derrick Marks. I see improvement in the Jags for the season but they still remain one of the AFC South’s “Have Nots”.
Titans: 3-13: The Titans were 2-14 last year so it is not surprising that there were few if any bright spots on the roster. The defense was terrible; the offense seemed lost at sea. The Titans bright in 77-year old Dick LeBeau from the Steelers to try to get the defense up to slightly-below-average – which is all that one might really expect in one year. LeBeau has been around the block a few times; he came into the NFL as a defensive back in 1959; Dwight D. Eisenhower was President at that time. To goose the offense, the Titans drafted Marcus Mariotta virtually assuring that whatever play they get at QB this year it will not be consistent from game to game; such is the way of rookie NFL QBs with very few exceptions. They signed a couple of WRs in free agency and drafted Dorial Green-Beckham one round after Mariotta. Green-Beckham is one of those guys with lots of talent and an equal amount of off-field baggage. Since the season has not started and everyone still sees the glass as half-full, let me point out that my prediction of 3-13 is a 50% improvement over last year. Big deal; the Titans are definitely one of the AFC South’s “Have Nots”.
The AFC West has three good teams and an improving fourth team. Measured by the yardstick of total wins by the 4 teams, I have it ranked as one of the top three divisions this year. I like the Broncos to win the division but it will not be easy.
Broncos 11-5: For a team that went 12-4 last year, the Broncos sure did a lot of personnel shuffling. Coach John Fox is gone and replaced by Gary Kubiak; Terrance Knighton and Rahim Moore moved on too. The team lost TE Julius Thomas to free agency but it still has Owen Daniels to man that position – assuming that Daniels can stay healthy. The offensive line undergoes big changes this year after trading away the center, losing a guard to free agency and then watching the starting left tackle go down for the year with a knee injury. That could be very important because Peyton Manning was never a nimble QB and he is in his 18th season. He can probably still outrun an oak tree – but it might be close. A key thing to watch with the Broncos this year is their running game. They may need it to keep pressure off Manning. The defense was top-notch last year and should stay that way again; Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware form a formidable pass rush tandem and the Broncos drafted another pass rusher in Shane Ray. I think the Broncos will win the division.
Chiefs 10-6: People like to chirp at Chiefs’ QB, Alex Smith, because he never throws any TD passes to WRs. Make no mistake, I am not going to try to convince you that Smith is a top-flight QB; he is not. However, the Chiefs have not had a great corps of WRs recently either. This year, in free agency, they picked up Jeremy Maclin from Philly and he should make a difference in KC. Recall that Maclin was in Philly with Andy Reid so he does not have a steep learning curve when it comes to his “new offense”. As long as Jamaal Charles is healthy and running the football, the Chiefs will not need to win games solely through the air. For the last two years, the Chiefs’ defense has been really good and there seems to be plenty of rubber left on the tires of that unit. Last year, the Chiefs lost LB Derrick Johnson and DL Mike Devito in the first game of the year. Surely the injury bug will find another team to bite this year, right? The schedule for the Chiefs is very tough especially at the beginning:
Week 1: At Houston
Week 2: Vs. Denver
Week 3: At Green Bay
I see the Chiefs as a wild card team in the AFC.
Chargers 8-8: The injury bug bit the Chargers in the offensive backfield last year to the point that the team saw their 3 top RBs miss a total of 25 games. Presumably that will not happen again this year. Early on, the Chargers may need to rely on running the ball more than usual because TE Antonio Gates will serve a 4-game suspension through 4 October and drafting Melvyn Gordon last May gives the Chargers a featured back. Fortunately for the Chargers, that portion of their schedule is not as tough as other parts:
Week 1: Vs. Detroit
Week 2: At Cincy
Week 3: At Minnesota
Week 4: Vs. Cleveland
Even with Gates in civvies in the stands, the Chargers could be 3-1 when he makes his way in to the locker room for Game 5 at home against the Steelers. Actually, the offense is not what concerns me about the Chargers. Last year they only had 7 INTs as a team and only sacked opponents 26 times. Unless the ball always bounces in your favor, that kind of defense is going to lose games for you. I like the Chargers this year – it is just that I like the Chiefs and the Broncos more…
Raiders 6-10: Since the Raiders lost to the Bucs in the Super Bowl back in 2003, the team has been a hot mess. Twice they finished 8-8; in all the other seasons they never won more than 5 games. In the last 3 seasons, the Raiders are 11-37. Nonetheless, I see the Raiders as a team on an uptick; 6 wins this year would double their total from last year. They are not going to contend in the division; they are not going to the playoffs; however, they are better than they were and they are not going to be walkover opponents this year. The additions of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper to play with Derek Carr were good moves. The additions of Curtis Lofton and Nate Allen will improve the defense where the presence of Khalil Mack should start to get some national attention. Putting a no-nonsense guy like Jack Del Rio in the head coaching slot has to help too. Most importantly, the Raiders OL seems to be improving to the point where QB Derek Carr is not in mortal danger every time the offensive coordinator calls a pass play. The Raiders’ schedule is brutal especially at the end of the year; here are their last 5 opponents:
Vs. Kansas City
Vs. Green Bay
Vs. San Diego (Thursday night)
At Kansas City
One other miserable feature of the Raiders schedule is the distance they have to travel for their road games. They have 4 road games in the Eastern Time Zone and none look to be “national games” meaning they will begin at 1:00 PM EST which is 10:00 AM on the Raiders’ biological clocks.
So, to recap the AFC I see the Playoff Structure looking like this:
Patriots (Home field advantage)
Ravens (Bye Week)
Miami (Wild Card)
KC (Wild Card)
Moving over to the NFC, I will take the divisions in the reverse order from the AFC for no particular reason than that is how I listed my notes on my clipboard. If anyone reads something of cosmic importance into that choice, please let me know because I think it is unintentional.
I think the NFC West joins the AFC East and the AFC West as the three best divisions in the NFL for this year. If I am correct, all three divisions will house teams that win a total of 35 games for the year.
Seahawks 12-4: The Seahawks have had a balanced offensive attack for the last several years and managed to add TE Jimmy Graham from the Saints in a draft day trade. My guess is that deal made Russell Wilson break out into a happy dance; Graham is that good. I also think the Seahawks got a steal in the draft with Tyler Lockett who is a WR that always seems to find an open spot to catch a pass and who also returns punts and kicks. Unless Marshawn Lynch breaks a leg, the Seahawks will be able to run effectively. Oh, and the defense is pretty good too even with Kam Chancellor holding out for a new contract. If my math is correct, missing a game costs Chancellor approximately $275K. He wants a new and larger contract and it will be interesting to see just how many $275K game checks he is willing to forego to put pressure on the team. The schedule is not all that kind to the Seahawks; in addition to their 6 tough in-division games here are some other tough games:
Sept 20: At Green Bay
Nov 1: At Dallas
Dec 13: At Baltimore
Rams 10-6: I think this is a big step forward year for the Rams. The Rams’ defense is keyed by its defensive line where there are 5 first round picks on the roster and the oldest one is only 30 years old. Nick Foles is 14-4 as a starter and Jeff Fisher obviously does not think he was a “system guy” in Philly. A big plus for the Rams will be a healthy Todd Gurley at running back. He comes off a knee injury last year at Georgia but he is a horse at 225 lbs and he can break big runs too. Second year back Tre Mason will provide an interesting change of pace from Gurley. What the Rams need is for a WR – say Tavon Austin – to develop this year into a reliable lead receiver. The Rams have experience and stability on the sidelines; Jeff Fisher is an excellent coach and this year could put him into the playoffs. A game on November 8 may decide the Rams’ playoff chances; more on that later.
Niners 7-9: The changes on this team are too numerous to mention so let me just name a couple:
Coach Jim Harbaugh – gone
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio – gone
RB Frank Gore – gone
LB Patrick Willis – gone
DE Aldon Smith – gone
DB Perish Cox – gone
You get the idea; this year’s iteration of the Niners will bear little resemblance to the teams in recent years. Moreover, I do not see the replacements for the missing players as upgrades. Yes, the return of NaVorro Bowman from injury is a plus and an upgrade; the same goes for the return from injury of Glenn Dorsey but the numbers just do not add up in favor of the Niners. The first nine games of the season – leading up to their Bye Week – are difficult. If they are 4-5 at that point in the season, it will be a good thing. What they must avoid is being 2-7 at that point.
Cards 7-9: I am just not a believer in the Cards this year. I know they played well last year before Carson Palmer got hurt and that Palmer is back now and says his leg is better than before the injury. Here is my problem in a nutshell:
The Cards won 11 games last year but only outscored opponents by 11 points. That is called getting a whole lot of lucky bounces of the ball – and footballs are of a shape where the results of bounces can be very random.
So, I have to decide if the cards are going to win 13 games this year because they have their #1 QB back and that will lead to more points and more wins – OR – will the Cards regress to the mean in terms of having the ball bounce their way.
I choose the latter outcome here.
Todd Bowles no longer runs the Cards’ defense; he is now the head-guy for the Jets. His replacement is a promotion from within meaning that new coordinator James Bettcher is familiar with the talent and what it can and cannot do. There is one other inescapable fact; Bettcher has never been a defensive coordinator in the NFL. Like the Raiders, the Cards have 4 games in the Eastern Time Zone presenting “biological clock challenges” and the Cards’ schedule has 5 tough games to end the season:
At St. Louis
Vs Minnesota (Thursday Night)
Vs. Green Bay
The NFC South was an embarrassment to the NFL last year. Carolina made the playoffs with a record of 7-8-1. Three teams will be bunched together in this division again this year and the Bucs will be looking up at them all.
Saints 9-7: The addition of CJ Spiller at RB gives the Saints a “lightening option” at RB to go with the “thunder option’ of Mark Ingram. That will be good for the Saints because with Jimmy Graham now playing in Seattle, the Saints will probably run the ball a bit more. Another area of improvement for this year would seem to be the defensive secondary where Brandon Browner comes in from New England to man one corner position and Jarius Byrd returns to the safety position from Injured Reserve last year. I do not think the Saints are a very good team but they are playing in a division bereft of very good teams. As Carolina proved last year, someone has to win the damned division. The schedule provides me the feather I will put on the scale to make the Saints the division winners. The Saints are an indoor team; they have been that way for years and years. Every year they get 8 indoor games at home as they will this year. In addition they will get road games with:
Sept 13: Arizona (indoors)
Oct 25: Indy (indoors)
Nov 29: Houston (perhaps indoors – retractable roof)
Jan 3: Atlanta (indoors)
That adds up to 11 indoor games plus a possible 12th one if the weather in Houston demands.
Carolina 9-7: The Panthers reupped Cam Newton to a long term deal worth something north of $100M in the offseason. He is not a bad QB but he is not one of the Top 10 in the league either. The loss of WR, Kelvin Benjamin, for the season is not a positive portent for the Panthers. The current stable of WRs headed up by Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Jerricho Cotchery is something less than “inspirational”. Jonathan Stewart is the feature back but he has been in the league for 7 years now and has about 1100 carries; if Father Time catches up with him, there is not much else to turn to. Luke Kuechly is an outstanding defender and – put simply – is not replaceable by anyone on this roster. Like the Saints, I do not think much of the Panthers as compared to some other squads but they do have some easy division games and someone has to win those games. The Panthers have a very tough run in the middle of the season:
Oct 18: At Seattle
Oct 25: Vs. Philly
Nov 2: Vs. Indy
Nov 9: Vs. Green Bay
Note that three of those games against good opponents are in Carolina. The Panthers need to win at least two of them…
Atlanta 7-9: The good news for the Falcons is that their defense this year just cannot be worse than the defense was last year. New coach Dan Quinn has the reputation as a defensive guru having been the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks for the past couple of seasons. Before getting too carried away here, Falcons’ fans need to recall that before Quinn had that job in Seattle, it belonged to Gus Bradley who has been toiling in Jax for the last two seasons without sterling results. The best of the DBs on the Falcons last year was Desmond Trufant; he will turn 25 early in the season and the questions about him are very simple and very direct:
Is he capable of becoming a reliable shut-down corner?
If he has that capability, is this the year he might demonstrate it?
The Falcons offense last year was pass-dominated; it featured Matt Ryan and Julio Jones so that is not such a big surprise. On the other hand, the running game stunk to be blunt about it. That will have to improve for this year; how much it improves will determine if the Falcons can still harbor non-miraculous playoff thoughts past Thanksgiving. The schedule is not all that fearsome for the Falcons and so I will propose a modest one-game improvement for this year.
Bucs 4-12: There is no way to sugar-coat this; the Bucs were downright awful last year and they took Jameis Winston with the top pick in the draft with the idea that he is the cornerstone of their rebuilding effort. Winston’s physical skills are not now – and never have been – in question. The uncertainty about Winston remains:
How is he between the ears?
Is he 21 going on 25?
Or is he 21 going on 13?
NFL fans will observe and derive the answers to those questions from afar; the Bucs and their coaches will live through the answers. The Bucs start the season at home against the Titans with their new rookie QB who is supposed to turn the franchise around. If the Titans lose, they can say it was a road game and postpone their dealings with reality. If the Bucs lose at home to the Titans, it will be the mirror image of a moral victory; it will be a gut-wrenching defeat. The schedule for the Bucs is not horrendous; at one point in the midst of the season they look at the following:
That is not like facing “Murderers’ Row”… I am predicting a 100% improvement for the Bucs this year based on a gentle schedule and the fact that even as a rookie, Jameis Winston will have games where he outshines what Josh McCown and Mike Glennon did last year.
[Aside: Do you realize that in the recent past the Bucs have had Josh Johnson, Josh McNown and Josh Freeman all start at QB? Seriously, I am not joshing…]
Moving on to the NFC North, I see a two-team race there but it may surprise you to know which two teams they are.
Packers 11-5: The loss of Jordy Nelson for the season is a big deal; Nelson was the target for more passes from Aaron Rodgers over the last three seasons than anyone else – and it was by a large margin. It is also a big deal in this sense:
If the Packers lose another WR or two to serious injury, Aaron Rodgers will be throwing to “JV players”; that would be like asking the best NASCAR driver ever to win the Daytona 500 driving a Dodge Minivan.
Nevertheless, do not forget that absent a brickheaded play on an onside kick in the NFC Championship game against Seattle, the Packers would have been in the Super Bowl. Absent a calamity of injuries to the offense, the Packers will score points; the question is how many points will the defense give up? Dom Capers is the defensive coordinator in Green Bay and his reputation is that he comes up with creative ways to use the personnel on hand. Fans in Wisconsin have to hope that reputation has a basis in fact for the 2015 season. I have gotten all the way into this team analysis and have not yet mentioned Eddie Lacy who is a quality running back that adds a run dimension to the Packers’ offense. The schedule for the Packers is interesting right out of the gate:
Sept 13: At Chicago (huge rivalry game0
Sept 20: Vs. Seattle (grudge match from last year)
Sept 28: Vs KC (MNF game against a good team)
Later in the season, the Packers play 2 Thursday games which is not quite as bad as it sounds. On Thanksgiving night, the Packers play the Bears for the second time in the season and then on the next Thursday night they take on the Lions.
Vikings 10-6: The Vikes are my team to take a big step forward in the NFC this year. Last year the Vikes were 7-9 but it sure did not seem as if they were that close to being a “break-even team”. My optimism here is based on the fact that Teddy Bridgewater will take a; significant step forward this year on his path to becoming a good NFL QB; his play at the end of last year was significantly better than it was earlier in the year; I like to think of that as a positive omen. Moreover, the addition of Adrian Peterson to the backfield – even with a year of “football rust” on his chassis – can only be a plus for the offense. Here is a Vikings’ question with potentially negative implications:
Will Cordarelle Patterson show this year that he is something more than a fast guy who is a return man?
The Vikings lost a stud on the OL – tackle Phil Loadholt – to a season-ending injury in training camp; somehow, they need to find a way to replace him with someone more skilled than a guy who was a piano-mover two weeks ago. The schedule is relatively kind to the Vikings but I foresee that their key game is on November 8. More on that later…
Lions 6-10: The Lions had a fearsome defense last year that kept them in games until the offense could figure out what the offense was there to do. Then in free agency the Lions lost Ndamakong Suh and Nick Fairley and replaced the two of them with Haloti Ngata and a rookie. With no offense to Ngata who is a quality player, he cannot fill in for two guys who were standouts as DTs. And that is not all that is missing from last year’s Lions’ defense that ranked second in total defense in the league. Also gone are George Johnson and LB, CJ Mosley. The Lions were 11-5 last year; my prediction for this year represents a precipitous if not calamitous drop. Yes, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are still in Detroit but with Reggie Bush having moved on to SF, can you name any Lions’ RBs without peeking? You are correct, the Lions drafted Ameer Abdullah last May and he may need to be a key part of that offense this year. The schedule is not a killer but there are two small segments that might prove challenging:
Sept 27: Vs. Denver
Oct 5: At Seattle (Monday nite)
Nov 15: At Green Bay
Nov 22: At Oakland
Nov 26: Vs. Philly (Thanksgiving Day)
Dec 3: Vs. Green Bay (Thursday night)
Bears 4-12: The collapse of the Bears in 2014 cost the coach and the GM their jobs. Last year the team went 5-11; I think this year is going to be worse. One of the offensive “improvements” the Bears are touting is the reuniting of Jay Cutler with WR Eddie Royal; they had a grand old time of it when they were teammates in Denver. The problem is that grand old time happened in 2008; in NFL terms, that is Paleolithic. The good news is that new coach John Fox has been successful in Carolina and again in Denver. He showed that he was adaptable in Denver when he took a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked team to the playoffs and won a game there. He will indeed need that kind of magic touch in Chicago this year just to aspire to a .500 record. Let me explain why I say that. If Jay Cutler falters or gets injured, the #2 guy on the Bears’ depth chart is Jimmy Claussen. There are currently two guys behind him on that chart which is a frightening thought. Vic Fangio was cut loose by the Niners in their housecleaning at the end of the year and he found a landing spot with the Bears as defensive coordinator. He may provide a spark – but he does not have the ability to rush the passer or provide tight pass coverage. An important element in Fangio’s success with the Bears’ defense will be how much gas Jared Allen has left in his tank. In the first three weeks, the Bears have to face the Packers and the Seahawks; later in the season they have this scheduling stretch:
Nov 9: At San Diego (Monday night)
Nov 15: At St. Louis
Nov 22: Vs. Denver
Nov 26: At Green Bay (Thanksgiving night)
Finally, we arrive in the NFC East as our circumnavigation of the NFL world completes itself. This division will have a highly contested two-team race at the top which the Cowboys will win and a pretty-much guaranteed bottom feeder down the line.
Cowboys 12-4: The Cowboys have an injury problem they will have to resolve quickly; Orlando Scandrick was their best DB last year and he tore both his ACL and his MCL in a practice about 2 weeks ago. Obviously, he is done for the year. Lots of folks have said that the Cowboys’ loss of RB DeMarco Murray from last year’s team was the thing it would miss the most; while I agree that Murray is a quality RB, the loss of Scandrick is to me significantly more important. The front seven for the Cowboys is solid and the addition of Randy Gregory seems to be a big plus – assuming that he can continue to steer clear of the substance abuse policy and testing by the league. The schedule gives the Cowboys a soft landing at the end of the year if they need one. Their last 3 games are:
Vs. NY Jets
Eagles 10-6: Chip Kelly has had his Eagles teams go 10-6 in each of his first two years with the club. I do not see any reason this year should be different. In the offseason, Kelly seemed to be morphing into the NFL version of Dr. Frankenstein by trading quarterbacks with the Rams, trading away his most productive RB, losing his top WR to free agency and letting a Pro Bowl guard become a cap casualty. Nevertheless, it looks as if the team is not crippled by any/all of that. Sam Bradford takes over the controls here; the Eagles’ offense involves lots of quick throws and lots of speed; will that game fit Bradford’s style? It sure was not what he was asked to do in St. Louis. Moreover, can he stay healthy? In those first two 10-6 seasons, Kelly has won games with Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles at QB. Not to be too snarky here, but no one in Canton is taking measurements for either player so they can get a head start on casting a bronze bust. What the Eagles need to do to improve their record is to improve their defense. The Eagles gave up more plays of 20+ yards than any other team in the league. Adding Byron Maxwell and rookie Eric Rowe to the secondary will hopefully reduce that number; adding Kiki Alonzo to the linebacking corps should help too.
NY Giants: 6-10: The Giants were 6-10 last year and I do not think they are going to be any better or worse this year. Here is an unabashed bottom line analysis for the Giants:
Last year their defense was horrible – which is pretty much what their defense was two years ago.
If it doesn’t get a LOT better this year, the Giants will be mired in this level of mediocrity.
One way to address that needed improvement is to change defensive coordinators and the Giants went back to Steve Spagnuolo who had held that job with the team back in 2007. That may have been a big addition for the team but the hand injury to Jason Pierre-Paul was a big subtraction for that defense. In the secondary, the Giants had to go out and sign Brandon Merriweather as a safety; Merriweather could not make it on the Skins’ roster so you sort of have an idea what his level of productivity might be. The Giants will win games where they get into shootouts with other bad defensive teams who cannot also keep up with the likes of Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, Jr. and Victor Cruz. The schedule is not that bad for the Giants but the prediction of 6-12 assumes that the team breaks even at home and wins two road games – against Washington and Tampa Bay.
Skins 3-13: It will be a long and winding road to rebuild this roster. New GM, Scott McCloughan, began the process last year but the amount of “has-beens” and “never-weres” on the roster means it will take multiple seasons to get to a competitive state. The Skins have 3 QBs and all of them have flaws. Kirk Cousins will start the year and he has the best chance of developing into a serviceable QB in the Jay Gruden offensive system. Behind him are Colt McCoy who is a career backup and RG3 who could not be a poorer match for the Gruden offensive system without undergoing at least one amputation. In the event that Cousins shows well this year, the Skins will have an interesting dilemma at the end of the year; Cousins’ rookie contract is up then. What to do…? On offense, the Skins will employ a power running game with two big backs; Alfred Morris is also in his walk-year and Matt Jones is a running back who seems to like contact so much that he goes looking for it whenever he has the ball. On defense, the Skins will give up big pass plays with receivers running in broad open spaces in their secondary. The Skins have a 3-week stretch in October where they may be able to catch their breath;
Oct 18: At NY Jets
Oct 25: Vs Tampa Bay
Nov 1: BYE Week.
When the Skins get that Bye Week they will have played 7 games. I think their best scenario is a 2-5 record but 1-6 is more likely. That home game against the Bucs might be a win going into the Bye Week which might engender talk of momentum and all that stuff. Well, just look past the Bye Week and you will see that after stewing for 2 weeks on their lousy record, the Skins get to travel north to pay a visit to the Patriots in Foxboro. Hello, momentum…
In order to make my prediction for the NFC Playoff structure, I need to explain the significance of “the November 8 game”. On that day the Vikings will play the Rams in Minnesota. That game will provide the tie-breaker between those two teams each with 10 wins. Only because the Eagles are not going to play either team will I concede them a wild card spot and declare that the other wild card spot will go to – – the St. Louis Rams.
Therefore the NFC Playoff Structure is:
Seahawks (Home field advantage)
Cowboys (Bye week in the playoffs)
Saints (Via a tie-breaker0
So, let it be written; so, let it be done…
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………