Demonstrating my immunity to embarrassment, it is time again for my NFL analysis and predictions. The season is about to get underway and I will try to forecast how the regular season will end. I will leave these words on the website; they will not mysteriously disappear – unless the whole website crashes and burns – and then sometime in January/February 2015, I will go back and give myself grades on how well the predictions matched to reality. I am certain to offend the fans of some of the teams I think will do poorly this year. However, if I am wrong and those teams do well, I want to make the following very clear:
I do not owe those fans or the team or the coaching staff or the mayor of that city an apology. All I owe them – and anyone else who may be interested – is an admission that I was wrong.
Before we get too serious about all of this, let me give you an item from Greg Cote’s column last weekend in the Miami Herald:
“By the way my NFL fantasy draft is going on even as I write this. My first two picks are Josh Gordon and Sam Bradford. How am I doing so far?”
And here are some prop bets from Las Vegas for the upcoming season – plus one that Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times thought ought to be on the list:
“Among the hundreds of prop-bet odds available at Vegas sportsbooks:
200-1: That Seahawks or Broncos will finish with the league’s worst record.
7-2: That Peyton Manning repeats as league MVP.
3-1: That Dallas’ Jason Garrett is the first coach fired.
“Somehow not making the list:
1-2: That Johnny Manziel becomes the first QB to throw a TD pass with a lampshade on his head.”
I will start with the AFC West. Last year, this division put three teams into the playoffs. The Chiefs were expected to improve – but not to the degree they actually did – and the Chargers came on late to get the second wildcard slot. I think it is going to be very hard for the Chiefs to match last season’s record this year. All of the coaches and most of the staffs from last year are still in place for the 2014 campaign.
Denver Broncos: Assuming that Wes Welker can play, the Broncos will be the class of this division once again. They will have defensive issues – again – despite the addition of Demarcus Ware and Aquib Talib as a free agents; but with Peyton Manning running the show on offense, they should go wire-to-wire in the AFC West. The Broncos will welcome the return of Ryan Clady. I put the Broncos at 12-4.
San Diego Chargers: They finished strong in 2013 and played well in the playoffs beating the Bengals and playing the Broncos tough. It looks as if Philip Rivers has found the spark he lacked for a couple of seasons. The Chargers’ secondary was a weak link last year (29th in the league in yards allowed) and the team needs 1st round pick Jason Verrett to live up to his press clippings. I think the Chargers will finish second in the AFC West at 11-5.
KC Chiefs: Unlike the Chargers, the Chiefs started out like gangbusters and then went to the playoffs where they gagged is if they swallowed an avocado pit. Yes, it was only a loss by a single point; but, the reason it happened was that the Chiefs surrendered 35 points to the Colts in the second half. The Chiefs were +18 in turnovers last year; that will hard to duplicate this year. I put the Chiefs third in the division at 9-7.
Oakland Raiders: They were also-rans last year; they made a ton of changes in the off-season; they are going to be also-rans again this year. The Raiders need significant help on the OL and a big step forward at QB. The acquisition of Matt Schaub may improve their QB situation a lot – or it might just bite the team in the butt the way the acquisition of Carson Palmer did a couple of seasons ago. Schaub did not look good in the exhibition games. The Raiders have 5 games in November and the first four are:
Read that as “OUCH!!” I put the Raiders at 5-11; that is better than last year but not nearly competitive in the division.
Moving on to the AFC South… This division looks like a tire fire to me. The Colts are good – but that is all they are. The other three teams are simply not good at all. Unless Blake Bortles channels the rookie year of Andrew Luck for the Jags this year, Andrew Luck is the only NFL caliber QB anywhere in the division.
Indy Colts: Even if I figure that one of their divisional rivals can take a game from them, that starts the team off with 5 wins on the schedule. The team plays the AFC North (tough games) and the NFC East (a division living on past glory). Trent Richardson running like a high first round pick would surely help the Colts – although they will not need any help to win the division. They might have that wrapped up in the second week of December. I put the Colts at 10-6.
Jax Jaguars: I have not lost my marbles; I think the Jags are moving up the NFL pecking order. Yes, I know that from where they have been, there was no real room for them to move down. However, the Jags won four of their last five games in 2013 – those were all of their wins for the season. Blake Bortles might be the answer at QB when he gets the starting job over Chad Henne who is not the answer at QB. I give the Jaguars a record of 6-10.
Houston Texans: Calling their 2013 season a “disaster” does a disservice to disasters worldwide. It was apocalyptic. After starting 2-0 and having Super Bowl aspirations, the Texans proceeded to “lose out”. Their defense might be very good with Jadeveon Clowney on one side and JJ Watt on the other side. Houston’s problem will be at QB; Ryan Fitzpatrick is listed as the starter; newly acquired Ryan Mallett will back him up with rookie Tom Savage (Pitt) holding the clipboard. Houston will improve from 2-14; I put the Texans at 6-10.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans were mediocre last year and proceeded to lose RB, Chris Johnson, and their best CB, Alteraun Verner, in the off-season. Jake Locker is a decent QB but he never stays healthy. Behind him are Charlie Whitehurst (who knows coach Whizenhunt’s system) and rookie Zach Mettenberger who played well in exhibition games. Is that QB tandem better or worse than the one in Houston? I give the Titans a 5-11 record.
Next up shall be the AFC North. The teams in this division play the AFC South and the NFC South. That should give the top teams here plenty of opportunities to stack wins on their records. The difficulty is that the top teams (Cincy, Pittsburgh and Baltimore) all have to play each other twice; no picnics there. And then, there are the Browns…
Baltimore Ravens: I like the Ravens to return to the playoffs and the top of this division. Their new offensive coordinator is Gary Kubiak who has had plenty of success doing that in the NFL. The defense will also have had a year to adjust to the absence of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They will need to find a replacement for Michael Oher on the OL. The Ravens kept 7 WRs on their roster for opening day; that led Mike Preston of The Baltimore Sun to observe:
“Since defensive linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban suffered season-ending injuries in training camp, the Ravens appeared to have just kept the best players instead of being too concerned by the position they played.
“I just hope one of those reserve receivers like Kamar Aiken, Deonte Thompson or Michael Campanaro can play defensive line.”
I like the Ravens to finish 10-6.
Cincy Bengals: They must really love Andy Dalton as their QB because they gave him a $115M contract in the offseason. I think Dalton is a good QB, but not nearly THAT good. If he plays like a $115M QB, the Bengals will be tough to beat. The loss of DC Mike Zimmer to a head-coaching job cannot help this team. I put the Bengals record at 10-6.
Pittsburgh Steelers: They have retooled the defense and the effectiveness of those changes will decide how the season unfolds. The Steelers have enough offensive weapons to compete; they have to be able to find ways to stop other teams. Ike Taylor is still listed as the #1 guy at CB; he sure looked as if there was no gas left in the tank last year. The Steelers need a fast start; their early schedule is a lot softer than their late schedule. I give the Steelers a 9-7 record.
Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer will start at QB speaking volumes about the performance of Johnny Manziel at the Browns training camp. Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times had this question about one of Manziel’s less-than-successful actions in the exhibition season:
“Since Johnny Manziel’s obscene gesture came in a preseason game, shouldn’t any resulting fines qualify for an early-bird discount?”
On the other end of the passing game, the Browns’ best WR by a wide margin, Josh Gordon, is out for the season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy for the umpteenth time. The defense is young but has a couple of emerging impact players such as Joe Haden and Barkevious Mingo. Add that young squad and a first-time head coach to the mix and fans in Cleveland can look forward to another high draft pick next year. I give the Browns a 4-12 record.
Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot put the Browns’ “QB Competition” into perspective here:
“I make a point not to watch NFL preseason games, only the highlights. But in the case of Browns quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, there have been no highlights to see unless you’re a fan of dumpster fires.”
The last division in this conference is the AFC East. Notwithstanding the bombastic remarks of Rex Ryan, this division has one very good team, one mediocre team and two bad teams. P.S. The Jets are not the one very good team…
New England Patriots: At least at the start of the season, Tom Brady will have “Gronk” and Danny Amendola on the field together at the same time to catch his passes. Both of them are excellent receivers; both of them have a history of injuries. If they stay healthy all season, the Pats will lock up the division title here in early December. The Pats traded Logan Mankins to the Bucs about a week ago for what seems to be a paltry return given Mankins’ Pro-Bowl status. Then they traded backup QB Ryan Mallett to the Texans for a conditional 7th round pick which is next-to-nothing. However, I am not about to argue with Bill Belichick on matters of this kind; he must see something promising in Josh Kline as a replacement for Mankins and obviously did not see a future need for Mallett. On defense, the Pats lost Aquib Talib to free agency; so they went out and signed Darrelle Revisand Brandon Browner. Oh, and they get Vince Wilfork back healthy too. I put the Pats at 12-4.
NY Jets: On offense, the Jets added Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. Assuming Johnson returns to form, that will help an offense that had to rely on Geno Smith to make plays last year. The problem was that Smith made far too many plays in favor of the opponents. On defense, the Jets listed Dee Milliner and Dimitri Patterson as their starting CBs. Milliner will miss several games due to an ankle injury according to the NY papers; the Jets suspended Patterson “indefinitely” after Patterson allegedly went “AWOL” and skipped an exhibition game. The “indefinite suspension” was better defined when the Jets cut Patterson to get down to the 53-man squad limit. What the Jets might lack in DB excellence, they make up in quantity; as of this morning, the Jets’ depth chart lists 10 defensive backs our of 53 men on the roster. I think the Jets will be 8-8 once again this year.
Buffalo Bills: Let’s see… They added Sammy Watkins to the roster to stretch the field and catch bombs from EJ Manuel. If this combo turns out to be the latter day equivalent to “Montana-to-Rice”, the Bills might break even for the year. The Bills just signed Kyle Orton to back up Manuel; unless Manuel plays a lot better than he did in exhibition games, Orton may be the starter sometime this year. With Kiko Alonzo missing on defense for at least the first 6 games, the Bills will have to outscore opponents to win games. I do not think that is going to happen very often. I give the Bills a 5-11 record.
Miami Dolphins: The OL has to be rebuilt; Mike Pouncey may or may not be ready to play even if he is not suspended; Dion Jordan is indeed suspended for 4 games; here’s how bad the QB situation is:
The Dolphins just signed Brady Quinn away from an announcing booth.
Here is how Greg Cote of the Miami Herald reacted to the signing of Quinn:
“My reaction when told Dolphins had signed Brady Quinn: Did general manager Dennis Hickey lose a bet?”
I think the Dolphins will wind up 4-12.
To recap, the AFC Playoff Teams will be:
Moving over to the NFC, let me start in the NFC West. This division presents a bunch of warning flags that are attached to very good teams. Back in March/April, I thought I knew just how this division would play out; now, I am not nearly as sure. For example, I had been thinking that Aldon Smith would get a “minor suspension” – say 2-4 games – based on NFL history and then the Ray Rice “incident”. Now we know he is getting a 9-game suspension [Aside: Where did that number come from? Is there a dartboard in Roger Goodell’s office?] and that removes a very good defensive player from the Niners.
Seattle Seahawks: This is a young and solid team. They have a tough defense – assuming that their DBs can adjust to the new officiating emphasis on hand checking. There are a few question marks, however. Golden Tate left in free agency and that leaves Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse as two of the top WRs. As of this morning, Justin Britt (rookie from Missouri) is the starter at RT. Remember, every opponent will be prepping to give the Seahawks a tough game; to be the man, you have to beat the man… I think the Seahawks will wind up 12-4.
SF 49ers: They gave Colin Kaepernick a fat contract in the off-season (not as fat as the one Andy Dalton got but still fat) and he has played like he has “fat-wallet syndrome” in the exhibition games. He has three top-shelf pass catchers to throw to in Michael Crabtree (despite what Richard Sherman says), Anquan Boldin (probably shares DNA with Methuselah) and Vernon Davis. The Ray McDonald situation hangs over the team and if he too gets a long suspension, the rugged Niners’ defense might be pretty porous. Here is how Scott Ostler of the SF Chronicle framed the situation the Niners find themselves in with McDonald’s arrest last weekend:
“The 49ers are already hurting on defense, big time, but how much of your soul will you sell for a win?
“Isn’t the 49ers’ defense over the criminal cap? You’ve got Ahmad Brooks allegedly beating a teammate over the head with a beer bottle, and threatening to shoot him (the DA opted not to file charges). You’ve got cornerback Chris Culliver allegedly threatening an auto-accident victim with brass knuckles. You’ve got Aldon Smith and his bill of particulars.”
The Niners have played miserably in the exhibition games. Oh, and their new stadium is already on its third sod covering after the first two were “found wanting”… I give the Niners an 10-6 record.
Arizona Cardinals: I was going to drop the Cards to last place in this division based on three major losses to their defense – (Darnell Dockett – injury –, Daryl Washington – suspended – and Karlos Dansby – free agency). However, as long as Carson Palmer is throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd the Cards will be competitive. I like the Cards to finish 8-8.
St. Louis Rams: The season-ending injury to Sam Bradford changed everything for the Rams. I thought their defense was going to push them up into the midst of the playoff hunt. Now the QB depth chart reads:
Ooops… they cut Gilbert loose and have only 2 QBs on the roster. You might as well add Joe Flabeetz to the list; he might be competitive.
Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had this comment on the ESPN story regarding how teammates showered with Michael Sam during training camp:
“Why would his teammates feel uncomfortable taking a shower with Michael Sam? Does he use Axe Garlic and Rotten Egg Body Wash?”
I was ready to give the Rams 9 or 10 wins for the year; now I will have to curb my enthusiasm and put the Rams at 6-10.
Next up is the NFC South. Last year, the Falcons cratered; the Panthers played well and the Bucs were sufficiently dysfunctional that they went out and got themselves a new coaching staff. Reading the tea leaves for this division for the upcoming season is not easy but one thing that seems clear to me is that the Saints are the class of this division by a wide mark.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints ought to be able to put it on cruise control to win this division sometime around Thanksgiving. The Saints were very good last year and look to be at least as good this year. Yes, they lost Darren Sproles to free agency but they added speed at WR – as if Drew Brees needed even more space to throw the ball into – and they signed Jarius Byrd to make a good defense even better. I see the Saints with a 12-4 record this year.
Tampa Bay Bucs: This is my dark-horse team for the year; last year the Bucs were 4-12 and they looked like a 4-12 team. However, this year they have a new staff and more good players on the defensive side of the ball. The Bucs need to pick a starting QB and stick with him; Josh McCown did well in Chicago in a relief role last season and has been under Lovie Smith before; Mike Glennon is a young QB who will be in the NFL long after McCown is retired. Doug Martin is a serviceable RB; there is not much behind him though. I think the Bucs will double their win total from last year and go 8-8.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton continues to improve but the Panthers’ receiving corps has taken a step backward. Unless Kelvin Benjamin – first round pick out of Fla St. is a stud –, the rest of the receiving corps looks like an assemblage of part-time players and fill-ins. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart provide a quality running game. The defense will be more than good and Ron Rivera is a good coach. I see the Panthers taking a step back from their 12-4 record last year to 8-8 this year.
Atlanta Falcons: Their 2013 season went off the rails the moment Julio Jones went down for the count. Jones is back but his absence shone the light on another significant problem for the Falcons; their OL is underwhelming. That unit has to improve – and improve a whole lot – in 2014 for the Falcons to do something important. The defense is nothing more than OK. I see the Falcons going 6-10 this year.
Moving on to the NFC North… Here we have one team that ought to be very good, two teams with huge question marks and one team that should be sucking wind by mid-November.
Green Bay Packers: The Pack were a disappointing 8-7-1 last year and the problems were on the defensive side of the ball. Adding Julius Peppers should make the pass rush a bit better and first round pick, HaHa Clinton-Dix, should make the secondary better. However, the loss of BJ Raji for the season at nose tackle will not make the defense better; as of today, the depth chart for nose tackle consists of two undrafted college free agents. Aaron Rodgers and friends will move the ball and score points; it is on the defense to make the Packers a playoff team this year. I think the Pack will be 10-6.
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler is back under center this year after an injury plagued 2013; if he goes down again this year and the Bears have to turn to either Jimmy Clausen or rookie David Fales, you can toss this prediction along with the Bears’ season in the dumpster. The return of Charles Tillman to the defense in a state of good health is a big plus. I see the Bears at 9-7 for the season.
Detroit Lions: Adding Golden Tate to play opposite Calvin Johnson ought to make Matthew Stafford a fantasy football star. The question marks for the Lions include:
The running game. (flashy but inconsistent)
The defensive secondary (could not cover a corpse last year)
The team’s innate and persistent boneheadedness.
New coach, Jim Caldwell, had a “smart team” in Indy; he needs to be sure he brought that magic potion with him to Detroit. I have the Lions finishing at 7-9.
Minnesota Vikings: If you have 3 QBs, you don’t have a QB – or so the saying goes in NFL circles. Well, the Vikes have 3 QBs and none of them can play to the NFL standard yet – the jury is still out on Terry Bridgewater. Adrian Peterson is a stud and he makes watching the Vikings interesting because of his abilities. However, the team is not ready to “make some noise”; in fact, I think they will whimper their way through the season. I see the Vikings with a 5-11 record.
Here is how I see the NFC East. This is a division that has been over-rated in terms of its depth and toughness for several years now. The fact is that there are no excellent teams in the division and there is at least one that could be downright awful.
Philadelphia Eagles: The offense will be good again this year despite the departure of DeSean Jackson so long as Jeremy Maclin is around to provide opposing defenses with the threat of a deep ball. LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles is the most interesting tandem of RBs in the league. The question here is how well the Eagles’ defense can stop the other guys. Last year, the Eagles’ defense gave up lots of yards but staved off points by being +12 in turnover differential. They may need to do that again this year. I see the Eagles finishing 9-7.
NY Giants: In the first two exhibition games, the Giants’ offense looked like a myth. They have changed systems and it may take time for Eli Manning and his receivers to adjust – but I think they have it in them to do that. The defense should be solid – assuming that the interior DL holds up. I see the Giants with an 8-8 record.
Washington Redskins: Despite the fact that RG3 was outplayed by his understudies in the early exhibition games, the fact is that the Skins’ season depends on him playing at or near the way he played in 2012 and not the way he played in 2013. The fact is that his performance went from brilliant (2012) to incompetent (2013). The OL was problematic last year and most of the folks from that unit are back again this year; that is hardly good news.. On defense, the team has to be better than last year – unless they simply cannot find anyone to replace London Fletcher as a leader on the defensive unit. I think the Skins will improve under rookie head coach, Jay Gruden, and finish 7-9.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys defense last year was pure misery. For this year, Demarcus Ware is gone via free agency; Jason Hatcher is gone via free agency, Sean Lee is out for the year with an injury; Orlando Scandrick is out for the first four games as a result of a suspension. It is possible the Cowboys’ defense will be worse this year than last year. Tony Romo is recovering from back surgery. If he goes down, the backups are Brandon Weedon and Dustin Vaughn. Bonus points for anyone who can tell the difference between Dustin Vaughn, Vince Vaughn, Mo Vaughn and/or Squirt the Wonder Clam. Come December, the Cowboys will end their three-year streak of 8-8 seasons because their record will be 5-11.
Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News also predicts a 5-11 season for the Cowboys and said this about the outlook from Jerry Jones regarding the upcoming season:
“The Cowboys’ ultimate optimist chose the team’s kickoff luncheon as the proper place to deliver a “this is an uphill climb’’ speech. If Jerry Jones is struggling to see the glass as half-full, how are the rest of us supposed to find it?”
For the NFC, the playoffs will shape up this way:
Saints (#1 seed or #2 seed)
Seahawks (the order REALLY matters here)
So let it be written; so let it be done… Or something like that.
Finally, Greg Cote had this in the Miami Herald recently regarding pre-season predictions:
“Predictionmachine.com computers put the Dolphins’ playoff chances at 26.1 percent and the shot at winning Super Bowl at 0.4 percent. Shouldn’t there be a law that you can’t rain on a parade before the parade has even started?”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………