I’ll begin with a brief introduction here for readers who have gotten on this bus in the last year. This is an annual feature – one where I embarrass myself. What I am going to do here is to foretell the NFL season in detail; I will:
- List coaches on the hot seat and suggest which ones will not be returning for the 2018 season.
- Predict the final record for all 32 NFL teams and the conference seedings for the playoffs that start in January 2018.
Not only will these predictions stay up on the website, I will return to them sometime after the season is over and grade myself on the accuracy of these predictions. In almost every circumstance, the grading process is a humbling experience.
One other thing needs to be mentioned at the outset. There will surely be at least one case where I think a team will stink and I will assign them a record of 4-12 for the season. When the results are in and the team has won their division with an 11-5 record, I do not owe the team or the team’s fans an apology. I did not disrespect the team or the coaching staff; what I did was to make a serious mistake – and I will acknowledge that in the post-mortem after the season. Very often, fans of teams take it personally when I underestimate the success of their teams and fail to recognize the difference between disrespect and abject error.
With that as prelude let me begin with the NFL coaches I think are on hot seats for 2017. I will list them in alphabetical order because I have no intention of trying to rank order the hotness of those seats. I have 10 coaches on my list here and it would not surprise me to find 6 or 7 of them among the ranks of the unemployed next January.
- Todd Bowles (Jets): I hate putting him on this list because I think he is a victim of circumstance. In his first year with the Jets, Bowles’ team just missed out on a playoff berth on a tie-breaker; then last year, the wheels came off the wagon. Looking back, the Jets of 2015 were not as good as their record so the expectations for 2016 were overly high; that made the 5-11 record last year seem much worse than it was. He will need significant improvement over last year’s 5-11 record or the NYC tabloids will crucify him; the problem is that the Jets have gutted their roster and the real outlook for 2017 is that a 5-11 record would be a rosy outcome. As has happened to Jets’ coaches in the past, there is a lack of talent at the QB position. After pretending to have a “QB competition” in camp this year, the Jets will go into the season with Josh McCown under center. In the last 3 NFL seasons, McCown has started 22 games; the team record in those games is 2-20. Good luck with that… Given the hounding of the NYC press, Todd Bowles may be the first coach fired this year – and he does not deserve that fate.
- Jim Caldwell (Lions): In December of last season, the Lions appeared to have the NFC North division title in their hip pocket. The last time the Lions won a division title was in 1993 so things were looking up. The Lions then proceeded to lose their last 3 games – thereby losing the division title to the Packers – and the team went into the playoffs as a Wildcard. They went to Seattle and laid an egg out there losing 26-6; it wasn’t really that close. If the Lions miss the playoffs this year, I think Jim Caldwell will be looking for work elsewhere.
- John Fox (Bears): Before coming to Chicago, Joh Fox won an NFC Championship with the Panthers and an AFC Championship with the Broncos. His coaching accomplishments are significant. In Chicago, things have not gone nearly as well. In his two seasons there, the Bears have a cumulative record of 9-23; last year they were 3-13 and looked every bit as bad as that record indicates. The team has a significant QB conundrum to resolve – and there may not be a positive choice for 2017 on the roster. I suspect that this is John Fox’s last year in Chicago.
- John Harbaugh (Ravens): Yes, I know that he won a Super Bowl in Baltimore and that his regular season record with the Ravens is a cumulative 85-59. However, the NFL is very much a “what-have-you-done-lately league” and in the 4 years since winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens only made the playoffs once and have a cumulative record of 31-33. It would take a disastrous season for Harbaugh’s seat to get hot enough that he had to leave it, but with Joe Flacco missing most of training camp with a “balky back” and Ryan Mallett as the replacement, “disastrous season” might not be out of the picture. I mention him here as a long-shot; his seat is merely lukewarm.
- Hue Jackson (Browns): I put him here only because the Browns were miserable last year in his first season and they project to be only marginally better this year. However, I also expect that the folks running the franchise in Cleveland now recognize the importance of some sort of stability when it comes to rebuilding a football team. The Browns were 1-15 last year and in some of their losses they were barely competitive. For 2017, they have to play such that they are not just a scrimmage partner for the opposition. The Browns BYE Week is in Week 9 this year (November 5th); when NFL teams make an in-season coaching change, they often use the BYE Week to do that. Now, if the Browns go into the BYE Week with an 0-8 record and three of those losses have been horrible blowouts …
- Marvin Lewis (Bengals): This will be Lewis’ 15th season as coach of the Bengals; the franchise he took over was a laughingstock; in the last 14 seasons, Lewis has had the team in the playoffs 7 times. That is the good news; here is the bad news. The Bengals have yet to win a playoff game under Lewis. In 2015, they had the game in their hands and then a total meltdown in focus and discipline cost them their first playoff win of the Marvin Lewis Era. You would have expected improvement in that area in 2016 and that Lewis would have made it a team objective. Well, that did not happen and the team finished a dispirited 6-9-1. One other factor working against him is that he only has 1 year left on his contract. Ownership in Cincy does not like to pay coaches not to coach … I think the Bengals have to make the playoffs for him to keep his job – – and if they do not win their first playoff game, they have to lose respectably.
- Bill O’Brien (Texans): This is a longshot guess on my part because O’Brien has been successful with the Texans despite never having a Top 25-QB on this roster. The Brock Osweiler experiment from last year was a disaster – and that is looking at it optimistically. This year, he has two young QBs with “lots of potential” which is NFL code-talking for two young QBs “who have not yet accomplished a damned thing.” This man does not look happy on the sidelines during games even though his teams win more often than they lose.
- Chuck Pagano (Colts): The facts are these. The Colts play in a not-very-good division and they have not made the playoffs for the last 2 years. They have a very good QB but they do not protect him and he will start this season basically having no training camp practice sessions as he continues to rehab from shoulder surgery brought on by the lack of protection he gets. I have not figured out how much of the Colts’ failures over the past couple of years is due to Pagano’s coaching and how much is due to the way the roster was built and how much of a role Pagano played in the roster building. The old GM is gone for this year so the Colts need to show improvement if Pagano is going to stay on as the coach.
- Sean Payton (Saints): Like John Harbaugh, some might ask what Peyton has done for the Saints lately. They had a great run from 2009 (winning the Super Bowl) to 2013 (making the playoffs each year and winning 11 or more games in each season). However, the last three seasons have come in at 7-9 with no playoff appearances. This is another longshot on this list – – but it is not impossible.
- Ron Rivera (Panthers): Last year the team suffered “Super Bowl Loser Syndrome”. From a record of 15-1, the Panthers descended to an unremarkable 6-10 which earned them a last place finish in the NFC South. Rivera has been the coach in Carolina for 6 years now; his overall record is 53-42-1 which is pretty good; interestingly, he has only had 2 winning seasons in those 6 years and with that overall record one might have expected more. There has been plenty of turmoil within the franchise recently with the GM getting fired in June after he oversaw the Draft and the signing of free agents. Logic would argue for Rivera to stay around to provide some stability but “logic: and “stability” are not always key ingredients in NFL decisions…
Let me go to the individual team records now and I’ll start in the AFC West. I project that the four teams here will have a total of 36 wins; only the NFC South will have more.
- Oakland Raiders 12-4: Derek Carr is back and the highlight reels say he is throwing the ball as well as he was before his broken leg last year. The Raiders’ offense can scare any defensive coordinator. The defense is good-not-great and the defensive weakness is stopping the run. The Raiders open the season on the road against the Titans – a team that wants to run the ball down your throat. That game should shed a lot of light on the level of improvement in the Raiders’ run defense. The Raiders’ schedule is back-loaded. After their BYE Week in Week 10, they host the Pats, Broncos and Giants; then they hit the road to visit the Chiefs and then come home again to host the Cowboys. I think the Raiders will beat out the Steelers for a playoff bye based on conference record. When the Raiders win the AFC West, it will be the first time they have done so in 15 seasons.
- KC Chiefs 10-6: The Chiefs were good last year and not much has changed in KC so they ought to be good again this year. The loss of Spencer Ware at RB for the season is certainly not a positive, but it is not disastrous either. Remember, they lost in the playoffs last year to Pittsburgh never giving up a TD – although they did yield 6 field goals. The Chiefs will be the top AFC Wildcard Team.
- LA Chargers 7-9: There were times last year when the Chargers had so many injuries that I expected to see the guys who run onto the field with the water bottles during timeouts pull up with hamstring injuries. The football gods wouldn’t do that to the same team two years in a row, would they? The Chargers offense is OK; the Chargers’ defense needs to improve; that is why Gus Bradley is the defensive coordinator. The most interesting thing about Chargers’ games this year will be to see what the atmosphere is in their new stadium that seats less than 30,000 folks. And on top of the atmosphere, it will be interesting to see if the Chargers can even sell out so small a venue.
- Denver Broncos 7-9: The Broncos’ defense is still a premier unit and will be the source of the team success this year. On offense, the Broncos have questions at RB and most importantly at QB. Once again, Paxton Lynch failed to earn the starting QB job over Trevor Siemian who started 14 games last year. Broncos’ coach Vance Joseph said the decision came down to the fact that Siemian was the more consistent QB in the Exhibition Games. Does that translate into something like “I wish I had some other option here – – but I don’t.”? The Broncos went 8-6 with Siemian under center and none of his stats jump out at you and say “Hey, look over here!” In the John Elway GM Era, the QB position has been questionable. Some of the Broncos’ acquisitions at QB were Tim Tebow, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian. That is a pretty vanilla bunch surrounding the acquisition of Peyton Manning for one last run at a Super Bowl ring which turned out to be successful. Still …
Next up I’ll move to the AFC South. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 32 games meaning the four teams will average 8-8 which is pretty much the definition of mediocre.
- Tennessee Titans 11-5: I think the Titans’ time has come. Marcus Mariotta has a dominant running game that will allow him to pick and choose when to throw as opposed to having to wing it 50 times a game. Mariotta may not be an All-Pro; but in this division, there is not a lot of QB competition if indeed Andrew Luck is still not able to throw a football in anger with only a week or so to go until kickoff. The Titans’ defense is nothing to write home about but that strong run game will help that unit also. The schedule maker gave the Titans an easy glide path to the playoffs this year. Their last 3 games of the season are at the Niners and then home to host the Rams and the Jags.
- Houston Texans 9-7: Of course the Texans will go 9-7; that is what they have done under Bill O’Brien in each of his 3 seasons at the helm. Last year, the Texans made the playoffs even though they gave up 49 more points than they scored; let’s just say that is atypical. Tom Savage has been named as the Week 1 starter; I suspect we will see Deshaun Watson in that role before Thanksgiving. The Texans’ defense was excellent last year and should be even better this year with the return of JJ Watt although the loss of CB, AJ Bouye, and S, Quinton Demps, to free agency creates a challenge for the defense. The worst part of the schedule for the Texans is a 3-game stretch at the Patriots and then home to host the Titans and the Chiefs. That rough patch is followed by a visit from the Browns and then a BYE Week. The Texans will be the second AFC Wildcard Team.
- Indy Colts 6-10: This projection assumes that it will be a while into the regular season before Andrew Luck is ready to play QB the way Andrew Luck is capable of playing QB. If that does not happen this year and the Colts have to embark on the start of the Scott Tolzein Era, this might be a generous projection. Fans in Indy have to hope that the Scott Tolzein Era is mercifully brief. The Colts seemed to recognize their shortcomings during the NFL Draft this year. With their first four picks, the Colts took 3 defensive players and an offensive lineman. The running back listed first on the depth chart at the moment is Frank Gore. I love Frank Gore’s drive and dedication; on the other hand, he is 34 years old. That is not the usual recipe for a solid run game to support your QB …
- Jax Jaguars 6-10: This prediction is another one that could be wildly optimistic. I am basing this on the continued solid play by the defensive unit. Were it not for those guys, this team would struggle to win 2 games. If you believe the reports coming from the Jags’ training camp, Blake Bortles and Chad Henne were in a neck-and-neck race to see who would be the starting QB. That is a sad state of affairs. Things got so loose after the 2nd Exhibition Game that the owner of the Jags said he would be open to bringing Colin Kaepernick onto the roster if his “football people” said they needed him. Then time went by and the “football people” made no such entreaty. The Jags begin the season with 3 difficult games – at the Texans and then home against the Titans and Ravens. The Jags close out the season with a challenging 4-game stretch – home versus the Seahawks and the Texans followed by two on the road at the Niners and at the Titans. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel had this to say about the QB situation in Jax:
“Everybody I talk to keeps saying that if Blake Bortles struggles again this season, he will be done as the quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In other words, I guess you could say that this is a Make-or-Blake season.”
The next stop will be the AFC North. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 31 games.
- Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4: The Steelers have a ton of talent on offense. Ben Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown and Martavious Bryant to throw the ball to on the outside. The Steelers do not have a great tight end on the roster but Jesse James and Vance McDonald will not embarrass the team. Big Ben can also hand the ball to LeVeon Bell – once Bell decides that he will show up and play a season of football for something in the neighborhood of $12M. If it takes Bell a moment to “get his sea legs”, the Steelers have Knile Davis on the team to be the lead back. The Steelers’ defense for 2017 may not be equal to the Steel Curtain guys from 40 years ago, but the Steelers’ defense is better than merely present and the signing last week of Joe Haden from the Browns should help the defense a lot. I think the Steelers will lose out on a bye week in the playoffs to the Raiders based on conference records.
- Baltimore Ravens 8-8: This prediction is based on Joe Flacco being able to play like Joe Flacco has shown he can play for most of the games this season. He has not played in any Exhibition Games and has been treated with kid gloves in training camp due to a “balky back”. His backup is Ryan Mallett. You can decry Flacco all you want about how he is not an “elite QB”; none of that matters here; he is many rungs of the ladder higher than Ryan Mallett. And if you want to get really frightened, the other QB on the roster during training camp was Thad Lewis. The Ravens’ offense was anemic last year and the loss of Steve Smith Sr. on the field and on the sideline will not help that situation or help Joe Flacco be highly productive. The Ravens’ defense will keep them in plenty of games but that unit needs help from the offfense. The Ravens have three tough road games on the schedule – – at the Raiders, at the Packers and at the Steelers.
- Cincy Bengals 7-9: The Bengals offense looks solid if – and this is a big IF – the OL improves significantly over last year’s performance. Andy Dalton needs more time/better protection than he got last year; if he gets protection, he will be able to get the ball to AJ Green, Tyler Eifert and some talented running backs. If opposing defenses can force Dalton to scramble and throw on the run, the Bengals will struggle. The defense has not changed a lot from last year and the presence of Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones on that unit always provides the potential for a meltdown. Burfict will serve a 3-game suspension; if that is enforced at the start of this season AND later he contributes to some other Bengals’ misfortunes with more on-field meltdowns, the team may struggle to reach my predicted record. I suspect this will be the end of the line for Marvin Lewis in Cincy and I am sad to say that. Marvin Lewis appears to be a very good person when he is on TV as well as a good football coach.
- Cleveland Browns 4-12: If I am right on this projection, that means the Browns will improve their win total by 300% over last year. The thing that will be the measure of the Browns this year is their competitiveness; last year, too many opponents had a stroll down a primrose path when they played the Browns. The schedule maker chose to throw this team into the deep end right away. They open the season hosting the Steelers; then they have two road games at the Ravens and Colts followed by a home game against the Bengals. That’s right; three of the first four games are division games. Later in the season they have a string of games that is daunting. From late November to mid-December the Browns face the Bengals and Chargers on the road followed by home games against the Packers and Ravens. In Week 16, the NFL schedule maker gives us the Browns and the Bears in Chicago. If that is a “blizzard game”, it might be fun to watch just for comedic value; other than that …
To wrap up the AFC, here are my predictions for the AFC East. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 27 games – tying it with the NFC West as the weakest overall division in the NFL.
- New England Patriots 13-3: No, the Pats will not be undefeated in 2017. They will have the best regular season record in the conference and in the league; they are the defending Super Bowl champion and they may have a better overall roster this year than they did last year. The training camp injury to Julian Edelman does not help them a bit, but there are still plenty of weapons on that offensive unit. One of these years, we will witness Tom Brady’s performance decline significantly. As they say in the NFL, Father Time has never missed a tackle. However, I do not think that 2017 will be that year – and oh, by the way, I believe that the Pats have THE best backup QB in the league on the bench in Jimmy Garoppolo. If you are a Patriot-hater, I think this will not be a good year for you. I have the Pats with home field advantage throughout the playoffs in 2017. [As of this morning, the odds on the Pats winning the AFC East yet again stand at -1000 or -1050 at various Internet sportsbooks. Those folks think that outcome is a “mortal lock”.]
- Miami Dolphins 8-8: Let me say something sort of outrageous here. If Jay Cutler has a really good year in Miami – meaning he still has plenty of gas in the tank at age 34 – that might be a factor in whether John Fox keeps his job in Chicago because the Bears got little if anything out of Cutler in the John Fox Era. The Dolphins made the playoffs last year and then proceeded to lay an egg against the Steelers in a Wildcard round game. I do not think they will get to the playoffs this year. The schedule maker seemed to stick pins in a Miami Dolphins bobblehead in the offseason. They have road games in LA against the Chargers, in Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina and KC in addition to their customary road games against their division opponents. Oh, and one of their home games will be in London. That is tough sledding … Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian Pilot had this to say about Jay Cutler’s arrival in Miami:
“Miami signed Jay Cutler. Apparently ownership was impressed by all the passes he completed to Dolphin cornerbacks when he played for Chicago.”
- Buffalo Bills 4-12: I feel sorry for Tyrod Taylor. Even if he improves a lot over last year, it may be hard to notice given who he has to throw the ball to. The Bills shipped Sammy Watkins out of town and traded for Jordan Matthews who promptly broke his sternum in practice. The Bills also signed free agent Anquan Boldin who stayed in training camp for a week or so and then retired. Other wide receivers on the depth chart include Andre Holmes [No, he is not Sherlock’s younger brother.], Zay Jones and Brandon Tate. In reality, none of those players will inflict insomnia on any defensive coordinators around the NFL. LeSean McCoy is still there as a competent running back; if McCoy has to miss any significant playing time this year, the Bills’ offense might be listed as “moribund”. Rookie coach Sean McDermott will take his lumps this year.
- NY Jets 2-14: No; just as the Pats will not go 16-0, the Jets will not go 0-16. There are too many winnable games on the schedule even for a team with a gutted roster that seems to be tanking so they can draft one of the many promising QBs coming out of college this year. Instead of focusing on the question, “Will the Jets go winless in 2017?”, I think the more appropriate question is “Will the Jets equal the 1-15 record they posted in 1996 under Richie Kotite?” The Jets play the Browns on October 8 in Week 5; that may be the nadir of the NFL season. Jets’ fans will need to vent their spleen by December 3rd because the Jets play 3 of their last 4 games on the road. Maybe the schedule maker took pity on the Jets’ fans and kept them out of the cold weather this year with such a bad team on the field… The NY Jets will be “on the clock” for the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as of January 1, 2018. Unfortunately for Todd Bowles, he will not be participating in that draft preparation. By the way, I am not the only one to think that the Jets/Browns game in Week 5 will be a “snoozer”; here is a comment from Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times:
“Yawning is contagious, University of Nottingham researchers have confirmed.
Which probably explains why pundits are predicting 70,000 open mouths in the stands at next month’s Jets-Browns game.”
To summarize the AFC:
- Patriots – Home field advantage throughout the playoffs
- Raiders – First round bye beating out Steelers on conference record
- Steelers – Home field for the Wildcard round
- Titans – Home field for the Wildcard round
- Chiefs – First Wildcard team
- Texans – Second Wildcard team
Now I will move over to the NFC and begin with the NFC West. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 27 games – making it tied with the AFC East as the weakest division in the NFL.
- Seattle Seahawks 11-5: The defensive backfield for the Legion of Boom is starting to get up there in years and watching how Darrele Revis’ play fell off a cliff last year makes one pause for a moment here. Richard Sherman is 29; Kam Chancellor is 29; Earl Thomas (back from injury to the delight of Seahawks’ fans) is 28 and Jeremy Lane is 27. Their experience and savvy will make up for any “age issues” this year but it is an issue to keep in mind. Another plus for the Seahawks is that Russell Wilson had to battle foot/leg injuries for much of last year but he seems to be fully recovered from all that. The schedule maker did the Seahawks no favors this year. In the first 7 weeks, the Seahawks have 4 road games against the Packers, Titans, Rams and Giants. [There is a BYE Week in there between the Rams and Giants.] On Christmas Eve, they will be in Dallas to play the Cowboys. The Seahawks will win the division comfortably. I have them in a 3-way tie-breaker situation with the Falcons and the Packers to see which two of them will get playoff byes. These three teams play each other this year so the tie-breaker situation could get very interesting.
- Arizona Cardinals 8-8: I am just not sold on the Cardinals. Running back, David Johnson, is a top-shelf player and Larry Fitzgerald is the kind of role model you would want to hold up in front of your kids if they were athletic. But when I consider the rest of the team, I am lukewarm at best. Last year, the Cards were 7-8-1; basically, this is the same team the Cards put on the field last year, so I don’t see much of anything different happening at the end of this year. On the positive side, this could be the last year for both Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald and perhaps the two “old pros” can make the rest of the team play a lot better than they really are. It could happen…
- LA Rams 5-11: The Rams will play in a bigger stadium than the Chargers and will draw bigger crowds but they will not win as many games as the Chargers will win. The Rams have a new coach in Sean McVay who is just outside the age range for a “teen idol”. The Rams have a really good defense – – assuming that DT Aaron Donald ever shows up in football shape ready to play to his capability. In addition, they have a very good running back in Todd Gurley. What they also have is a humongous question mark at the QB position. Jared Goff looked terrible last year in all those times when he did not look bewildered. Sean McVay is there to prove to Rams’ fans and the rest of the NFL that Goff as a #1 overall pick is able to bear that burden. The jury is out – – but Jared Goff has to play better than he did last year because last year he could barely play dead.
- SF 49ers 3-13: This is a step up from last year’s walk in the wilderness. The roster last year was awful; I guess it is a tad better this year but still not nearly good enough. The presence of Kyle Shanahan is supposed to convey some degree of competence on the QB position; that is Shanahan’s calling card in the coaching game. He does not have a lot to work with. Brian Hoyer is nominally the starter with Matt Barkley as the backup. Those two guys saw a lot of action in Chicago last year and fans there saw a lot of ugly action as a result. Also on the depth chart is rookie CJ Beathard from Iowa who could be this year’s version of Dak Prescott or this year’s version of Spergon Wynn. NaVorro Bowman will make his presence felt from his MLB position on defense and maybe rookie Reuben Foster will be a top-shelf linebacker too. Other than that, the defense is not much to write home about.
I’ll just move along here to the NFC South. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 37 games making this the toughest division in the NFL for 2018.
- Atlanta Falcons 11-5: The Falcons will suffer the “Super Bowl Loser Syndrome” and that is why they are going to lose 5 games this season. The team is extremely talented; Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones is scary by itself but the Falcons have plenty of other pass catchers to take the pressure off the Ryan/Jones connection and they have a solid running game. They lost the Super Bowl on a boneheaded bit of play-calling and because the Falcons’ defense was totally gassed for the final 6 or 7 minutes of the game. It will not require much of an uptick on defense to take care of that little problem. The rematch with the Patriots will be in Foxboro on October 22; it is probably worthwhile circling that date on your calendar. The Falcons take on the Cowboys at home in Week 10 and that game could be a preview of an NFC playoff encounter.
- Tampa Bay Bucs 10-6: Jameis Winston takes his next step down the path to NFL stardom here. The off-season acquisition of DeSean Jackson will help the Bucs offense a lot. Jackson is not a high-volume pass-catcher; he averaged less than 4 catches per game last year. However, what he does is to get the ball downfield; he led the NFL in average yards per catch (17.9 yards per catch). With his speed, he will make opposing defenses play the whole field and that will open up a lot of targets and catches for his companion wide-out, Mike Evans. Doug Martin and Jacquiz Rodgers provide more than competent running back skills. The Bucs defense needs to improve and Jameis Winston needs to cut down on his INTs this year. I see the Bucs in the playoffs as the NFC’s first Wildcard team.
- New Orleans Saints 8-8: I’ve seen the movie before. The Saints’ offense will move the ball and score lots of points; then the Saints’ defense will go out on the field and allow the opponent to move the ball and also score lots of points. Sometimes the Saints will win and sometimes they will lose. Hence, my predicted record. The Saints’ 5 games in December include 4 division games including the Falcons twice with a visit from the NY Jets in the middle of those 4 games.
- Carolina Panthers 8-8: Cam Newton is still recovering from shoulder surgery and while the Panthers have a reasonable backup in Derek Anderson, the Panthers will not survive without Cam Newton playing near his level of competence. The Panthers already had a good corps of running backs and then they added Christian Mc Caffrey in the draft. The Panthers’ defense is quite good with solid players at most of the positions. Nevertheless, they have to have the Cam Newton of the 2015 season on the field this year and not the Cam Newton of 2016. That is the bottom line…
Next up is the NFC North. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 30 games in the 2017 NFL season.
- Green Bay Packers 11-5: In recent seasons, the Packers have started slowly and hit their stride later in the season. This year they open at home against the Seahawks and then travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons in Week 2. If my projections are correct, they cannot afford to start 0-2 because that would make them lose out on the tie-breaker that I believe will come to pass among those three teams. However, even if they do start 0-2, I do not think there is reason for the Cheeseheads to panic; the Packers are the class of this division and should coast to the division title and the playoffs. In an atypical move, the Packers dipped into the free agent market earlier this week signing Ahmed Brooks – late of the Niners – to play linebacker; that cannot hurt this team. By the way, the schedule maker did the Packers no favors toward the end of the season either; they will be on the road for four of their final six games.
- Minnesota Vikings 9-7: The Vikings will field a tough defense once again in 2017 and their offense will be pretty much plain vanilla. Normally, that sort of overview would lead to a break-even record but the Vikes play in a division with two very weak teams meaning they get four division games that are perfectly winnable. The schedule maker has also given the Vikes games against the Browns and the Rams; those are also perfectly winnable. On that basis, I think the Vikes will squeeze themselves above .500 for the season but will not be involved in the playoffs.
- Detroit Lions 6-10: The Lions looked like division winners last year and then threw up on their shoes losing the last three games of the year and the division title to the Packers. They did make the playoffs as a Wildcard team but lost badly to the Seahawks in the first round. In building their division lead, the Lions won lots of games by very close margins of victory and seemed to have the power to pull rabbits out of hats. In fact, they came from behind in the 4th quarter in each of their first 7 wins of the season. The Lions record last year was 9-7; had they gone 3-4 in those 7 games where they trailed in the 4th quarter, their record would have been 6-10. Big difference … That sort of football-fortune tends to even out over time and that is not a good omen for the Lions in 2017. The Lions would benefit from a strong performance by RB, Ameer Abdullah this year. Overall, I do not think this season will save Jim Caldwell’s job.
- Chicago Bears 4-12: The Bears were terrible last year; in the offseason they off-loaded all three QBs on their roster and replaced them with Mike Glennon (on an expensive contract), Mitchell Trubisky (a rookie the team traded up to draft early in the first round) and Mark Sanchez (yes, that Mark Sanchez). Under the most benign circumstances, you would expect the Bears to take a few games to get all the pieces working together properly. That is where the schedule maker did the Bears no favors. Here is how the Bears’ schedule plays out for the first 6 weeks – – home against the Falcons, at the Bucs, home against the Steelers, at the Packers, home against the Vikes, at the Ravens. The Bears will be underdogs in all 6 of those games and will likely be underdogs in the next two games just prior to the BYE Week. If the Bears are 0-8 at the BYE Week, it would not surprise me to see John Fox lose his job right there. The schedule gets a bit easier in the second half with winnable games against the Browns, Niners and Lions (twice) on the dance card.
The last division up for attention is the NFC East. I project that the four teams here will win a total of 36 games this season meaning that this division like the AFC West is only one game behind the NFC South in terms of total wins.
- Dallas Cowboys 10-6: This projection assumes that Ezekiel Elliott serves at least a 4-game suspension from the NFL. At the moment, his “sentence” is for 6 games and is “up on appeal”. This projection also accounts for defensive coordinators spending a lot of time during the offseason analyzing whatever weaknesses may exist in Dak Prescott’s game and exploiting some of them this season. Notwithstanding all of the above, the core of the Cowboys’ offense remains intact; the outstanding OL is still there and Jason Witten is still there to catch the ball and move the chains. The challenge for the Cowboys in 2017 is a continuation of their challenge from 2016; can the defense play anywhere near the level of competency as the offense? You will get to see a lot of the Cowboys on TV this year. They will be on in prime time 5 times; they will be on the “late Sunday afternoon game” 9 times. The Cowboys draw ratings on TV and all the networks want to show you the Dallas Cowboys.
- NY Giants 10-6: The Giants made the playoffs last year mainly due to an efficient and effective defense. The 2017 squad will field mostly the same defense but the Giants have added some offensive weapons in the offseason – notably Brandon Marshall to play WR opposite Odell Beckham, Jr. The running game is still suspect but I expect that Eli Manning will have a big year throwing the ball. The Giants open the season on the road against the Cowboys and they play 4 of their first 6 games on the road; in December, the Giants have 2 road games – – at Oakland and at Arizona where they traditionally struggle.
- Philadelphia Eagles 9-7: It appears that the Eagles’ defense has come to a point where it can reassert itself after a couple of seasons where it went AWOL. The challenge for the team is to continue to develop QB, Carson Wentz, after a promising rookie season. The Eagles made major changes to their receiving corps over the summer adding Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith and the Eagles can present a diversified running game with LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles and Donnell Pumphrey. The Eagles start the season at the Skins, at the Chiefs and home against the Giants; the final three games will be at the Giants, home against the Raiders and Cowboys. Those 6 games at the start and end of the season will decide how well – or how poorly – the Eagles do this year.
- Washington Redskins 7-9: Football coaches love to talk about getting rid of distractions. Well, the Skins have a distraction built into the core of the team for this year and that distraction is the “Kirk Cousins Contract Conundrum”. If you don’t know what that is, you should not have read this far into an NFL prediction piece for the 2017 season. In the offseason, the Skins lost two prominent WRs in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon; they replaced them with Terrelle Pryor. I am a big fan of Terrelle Pryor, but I wonder if he can replace the production of both departed WRs. The Skins’ defense last year was just plain bad; they have a new defensive coordinator and plenty of new personnel in the front seven. They almost have to be improved over last year – but that is a low standard for this unit to have to meet. The Skins’ schedule from the end of October until mid-December is daunting. They face a seven-game stretch starting with a visit by the Cowboys, then a trip to the Seahawks followed by a home game against the Vikes, a road trip to play the Saints, the Giants at home on Thanksgiving and ending with road games against the Cowboys and the Chargers.
The playoff picture in the NFC according to my projections will be a muddled mess. So here is my prognostication:
- The Cowboys will be the NFC East Champions on tie-breakers over the Giants.
- The Giants will be in the playoffs as a Wildcard team
- The other three division winners (Falcons, Packers and Seahawks) will have the same record and I think the Seahawks will be “odd-team out” in terms of playoff byes.
Therefore, my overall NFC Playoff prediction looks like this:
- Packers – Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. [True confession here – I make this prediction because I like to watch winter games in Green Bay where everyone is freezing their butts off more than I like watching winter games in a dome like Atlanta.]
- Falcons – First round bye in the playoffs
- Seahawks – Home field advantage in the Wildcard round
- Cowboys – In the playoffs as the NFC East champ
- Giants – First Wildcard team from the NFC
- Bucs – Second Wildcard team from the NFC.
I’ll check back with you – and with these readings of goat entrails – sometime early next year. We shall see then how close I came to being right – – or how far off the mark I could be.
Finally, to conclude on a light note, consider this comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:
“According to a website’s survey, 54.2 percent of Jacksonville fans would sit on a hornet’s nest to win a Super Bowl. Which could produce an oh-so-rare Jaguars standing ovation.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports ………