In US society in the 2020s, there seems to be only one “profession” where one can make predictions, find out via experience that those predictions were very wrong – – and yet keep one’s role and professional status in good repair. That profession would be:
Well, I am about to enter the murky world of “predicting the future” concerning the upcoming NFL season. I do this because I find it a source of fun for me as the NFL season is about to begin. Yes, many of these predictions will be off target – – some laughably off target. And I will not hide from them; sometime after the NFL regular season ends, I will call up these predictions and hold them up to reality giving myself grades for their accuracy or inaccuracy. I will make three categories of predictions here:
- Coaches on a hot seat who are likely to be fired.
- Teams that might go from “worst-to-first” in their division – – or vice versa.
- The final record for all 32 NFL teams – – and thereby the playoff structure for the season
Before I set out on the quest, let me put a couple of points aside.
- I bear no animus toward any team or coach or GM. None of the predictions here that are negative ones are predicated on the idea that any person or team should suffer scorn. I admire how some NFL teams are managed/run and I think some other franchises are run with all the poise and aplomb of gerbils on cocaine. I recognize that no one in an NFL franchise cares even a smidgen about my assessment of them. So, none of that sort of thing enters here.
- Similarly, I am certainly going to underestimate some teams this year. When that happens – – not if, when – – I have not disrespected that team or its fanbase. What I have done is to make a big mistake. Therefore, in such a circumstance, I do not “owe that team or its fans an apology”. What I owe them – – and everyone else who reads this – – is an admission of my erroneous ways.
So let me begin the predictive portion of this essay with coaches on a hot seat. I have seven coaches on this year’s list and will present them in alphabetical order:
- Dennis Allen – Saints: He took over the Saints last year when Sean Payton “stepped aside” and led the team to a 7-10 record. Last year, the Saints’ failure to do well in a particularly weak division was attributed to mediocrity at the QB position where Jameis Winston and Andy Daulton “manned the fort”. The Saints went out and acquired Derek Carr in the offseason and I suspect that the owners are looking for something better than 7-10 with a significant upgrade at QB and with the division looking no stronger than it did last year. If the Saints’ record this year shows only 4 or 5 wins, I think Allen is history.
- Bill Belichick – Pats: No, I have not lost my marbles. Bill Belichick is the second winningest coach in NFL history – – only 18 games behind all-time leader, Don Shula. Over the years, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have had a mutually successful association but some of that “prior success” is beginning to recede into memory. The Pats did not make the playoffs last year; their last playoff win came in 2018. Robert Kraft is 82 years old, and it would not be a surprise to learn that he wants another time in the limelight. The AFC East is stronger this year than last. This one is a longshot, but I would keep an eye on it.
- Mike McCarthy – Cowboys: He was on this list last year and survived despite the Cowboys making only a cameo appearance in the playoffs. McCarthy exists in an almost impossible world; his fanbase and his owner think that the team is hands-down the best in the league when that is not the case. This year, the Cowboys will be without offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, and McCarthy has announced that he will take over the play-calling duties. I’m not sure adding more duties to McCarthy on game day is a good idea. If the Cowboys miss the playoffs in 2023/2024, I think McCarthy is gone.
- Ron Rivera – Commanders: He is on this list simply because the team has new ownership and I think the new folks will want to bring in “their own guys”.
- Robert Saleh – Jets: This will be Saleh’s third season in NYC; the Jets were 4-13 in his first year and 7-10 last year. Those numbers may not look good to you but given the 4 QBs he had available for game days; those records are not so embarrassing. (Joe Flacco, Josh Johnson, Mike White, Zach Wilson). This year the Jets have Aaron Rodgers to play QB and expectations are sky-high among the Gang-Green fanbase. Saleh is on this list because if the season goes south on the Jets, I think he will be the scapegoat.
- Brandon Staley – Chargers: Somehow, he survived the “firing season” last year even though his team took a 27-point lead in the first half of a playoff game and wound up losing the game. Making the playoffs is the absolute minimum standard for Staley in LA this year – – and once in the playoffs, they cannot lose as ignominiously as they did last year.
- Kevin Stefanski – Browns: By now the Browns must have adapted to all the “distractions” provided by their trade for and then their contract offering to QB, Deshaun Watson. That is no longer an excuse nor is any “rust” that may exist on his performances. Stefanski has been with the Browns for three years; the team has won 11 games, then 8 games, then 7 games … That trend must be reversed.
Moving on to an assessment of teams that might go “worst to first” in their division this year:
- Jets – AFC East: The highest probability of teams listed here simply caused by the upgrade at QB from Zach Wilson to Aaron Rodgers.
- Broncos – AFC West: I know Sean Payton is a certified genius, but I don’t see the Broncos leapfrogging three other teams in this division.
- Browns – AFC North: There are too many very good teams above the Browns in last year’s standings to let me think they can surpass them all.
- Texans – AFC South: The football gods would have to be on a rampage to make this happen …
- Commanders – NFC East: They finished last in the division last year with an 8-8-1 record which is better than any of the other last-place finishers.
- Cardinals – NFC West: Not happening …
- Bears – NFC North: They won 3 games last year; if they triple that total (not easy to do) that will not be enough to win this division.
- Falcons – NFC South: This is a mediocre team in a mediocre division so it will not require a huge change of fortune for the Falcons to make this sort of jump.
So, keep your eyes on the Jets, Commanders and Falcons as potential worst-to-first candidates for 2023.
And in the spirit of symmetry, are there any teams in danger of going first-to-worst in 2023?
- Bills – AFC East: Highly unlikely but there are no “bad teams” in the AFC East so a few slip-ups here could bring the Bills down a bit. But last place …???
- Chiefs – AFC West: Moving right along …
- Bengals – AFC North: Nothing to see here …
- Jaguars – AFC South: I cannot imagine the devastation that would have to befall the Jags for them to finish behind the Colts or the Texans.
- Eagles – NFC East: I expect the Eagles to pull back from their 14-3 record last year – – but not enough to put them at the bottom of the division.
- Niners – NFC West: Cannot see the Niners below the Cardinals in the standings come January 2024.
- Vikes – NFC North: They won just about every close game they played in last year; if they lose just about all of them in 2023 …???
- Bucs – NFC South: They struggled to win this division in 2023 with Tom Brady at QB; the team record was 8-9. This year it will be Baker Mayfield and/or Kyle Trask at QB. That could be the recipe for first-to-worst in the division.
And so, keep the Bucs in mind as a serious contender to be a first-to-worst team in 2023 with the Vikes out there as a live longshot.]
Now, before I get to the team-by-team predictions for the season, let me make a few generic comments:
- Bucs: Last year the team finished below .500 with Tom Brady directing the offense. Tom Brady is no longer the Bucs’ QB …
- Cardinals: This looks worse than a trainwreck; this looks like a tsunami-magnet. Kyler Murray is still physically rehabbing and will be unavailable for the first 6-12 games depending on the report you choose to read. Is he studying film or playing Madden Football in his spare time? The Cards just released Colt McCoy who appeared to be their starting QB leaving the job to the tandem of Josh Dobbs and/or Clayton “Name That” Tune.
Quick Quiz: Three QBs were drafted in the top 4 picks of last April’s Draft. They each bring hope to three fanbases that really need a QB upgrade but here is a stat for fans to consider before getting carried away. Who was the last rookie QB to win a playoff game in his rookie year and when was that? [Answer Below]
- Eagles: It is not uncommon for a Super Bowl team to see its roster and its coaching staff “raided” but the 2022 team saw many folks pick up and leave Philly in the offseason. Is this the same organization?
- Lions: How high are hopes and dreams in Detroit for this season? Consider that the Lions play their games in Ford Field, a stadium inaugurated in 2002. Never in the history of the Lions’ tenure in Ford Field have they sold out the allocation of season tickets. This year, those season tix were gone in May.
- Raiders: The team thinks they upgraded at QB; I think they performed a classic lateral arabesque.
- Titans: Ryan Tannehill is in the last year of his contract; and at age 35, he is not the long-term answer at QB for the team. If the season starts poorly for the Titans, might they be interested in benching Tannehill to see what if anything they have in either Malik Willis or Will Levis?
- Young QBs: there will be plenty of focus on the play of young QBs this year and it should be interesting to look beyond the three guys who were picked at the top of the NFL Draft in April – – Bryce Young, CJ Stroud and Anthony Richardson. Yes, it will be interesting – and important – to check on their development or lack of development as NFL QIBs, but do not lose sight of Jordan Love who will finally take over the reins in Green Bay or Sam Howell who just might be the Commanders’ QB-of-the-future or Will Levis who should get a look from the Titans’ braintrust in Tennessee sometime this year.
Quiz Answer: That would be Mark Sanchez with the Jets in 2009.
Enough with the appetizer courses and general comments, it is time for the meat and potatoes of this presentation. So, let me begin in the AFC West:
I see this as a very strong division with a total record of 36-32. That may not sound awfully strong but consider that 12 of these games are in the division meaning there must be a losing team in those games. In the end that makes the division record look weaker than the division really is.
- KC Chiefs: I have the Chiefs wining the AFC West with a record of 13-4. The Chiefs’ schedule has plenty of tough games, but the Chiefs are a tough team. The team is clearly built around its offense, but they did go pass-rusher in the first round of last year’s Draft. The only real “loose end” here is that Chris Jones remains unsigned with opening weekend clearly in sight.
- LA Chargers: I think the Chargers will finish second in the division at 9-8. Justin Herbert has his contract extension, and the Chargers have a new offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore. The Chargers should be in the wild-card race to the end. The Chargers’ first six games should be interesting:
- Denver Broncos: I have the Broncos finishing third in the division with an 8-9 record. I believe that the arrival of Sean Payton as the head coach is a plus and my projected record represents a 60% increase over last season.
- Las Vegas Raiders: The team finished the 2022 season with a 6-11 record; I think this team is no better and no worse than last year’s team and I project then to finish 6-11 once again.
Moving on the AFC South, I think this will be the weakest division in the NFL this year posting a cumulative record of 26-42.
- Jax Jaguars: I think the Jags can coast to a division title here. I think this team came of age last January when they trailed the Chargers 27-0 in the first half and rallied to win the game 31-30. The addition of Cavlin Ridley – – back from a gambling suspension – – gives Trevor Lawrence yet one more target downfield. I think the Jags will go 11-6 in 2023 and easily win the AFC South
- Tennessee Titans: I have the Titans finishing with a record of 6-11 in the AFC South. I think the Titans are offensively-challenged. Derrick Henry is still a stud at RB and DeAndre Hopkins may not be what he was two years ago, but he is still a formidable WR. Other than those two however …
- Houston Texans: I think the Texans can escape the division cellar this year and finish the season at 5-12. The Texans finished 2022 with a record of 3-13-1, so this is not some pie-in-the-sky projection for 2023; I think the team is improving and other division rivals are not.
- Indy Colts: I think the Colts will bring up the rear in this not-so-strong division with a 4-13 record which is about where they finished in 2022. The key to the Colts’ season in 2023 is Anthony Richardson who reminds me of a young Cam Newton. He is big, fast, strong, athletic – – and an inconsistent/inaccurate passer. Newton was the offensive Rookie of the Year; is that in store for Richardson in 2023? The Jonathan Taylor saga and his availability (?) after injury rehab have not made this a great offseason for the Colts.
Next, let me try to tackle the AFC North – – the division that I believe will be the strongest one in the league in 2023. I project the cumulative record for the division at 42-26.
- Cincy Bengals: I will put the Bengals on top of this division with a 13-4 record. In doing that, I am trusting that Joe Burrow’s calf injury incurred in training camp is both minor and completely healed such that it does not limit him during the season. The Bengals’ already potent offense managed to add Irv Smith Jr. as a tight end/possession receiver. The defense was bend-not-break in 2022 yielding the fifth fewest points in the league. Lots to like about this team…
- Baltimore Ravens: As positive as my outlook is for the Bengals, I also have the Ravens right next door at the top of the AFC North finishing with a 12-5 record. Just having all the acrimony about Lamar Jackson’s contract in the rearview mirror has to be a big plus for the team. The Ravens schedule has a couple of twists; the Ravens play their three division road games by October 8th. Then they host the Browns and Bengals on consecutive weekends in mid-November and then are home to the Steelers on the final weekend in January.
- Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin continues his streak of “no losing seasons” for another year; I have the Steelers finishing third in the division at 9-8. The continued improvement/maturation of both Kenny Pickett and George Pickens will make the offense more dynamic and having TJ Watt around for a full season without injuries will make an already very good defense even better.
- Cleveland Browns: The melodrama about Deshaun Watson’s suspension along with what was potential criminal liability is over. He got to start 6 games last year to “shake the rust off”. The Browns finished at 7-10 last year and I think that is what they will do once again in 2023. The Browns will play the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens all by 1 October. Then they come back from an early-season BYE week to host the Niners. Not a good way to start a season …
So, to round up the predictions for the AFC, let me move to the AFC East where I project a division record of 39-29.
- Buffalo Bills: I have the Bills on top of the division with a record of 12-5. This is the prediction that could be off by the widest margin if rumors of clubhouse tensions between Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs turn out to be persistent and accurate. The Bills open on the road at the Jets; if they win that game, the team could be 8-0 when they go and visit the Bengals in early November. Winning manages to cure lots of locker room “issues”.
- NY Jets: I have the Jets finishing second in the AFC East with a 10-7 record. The Jets were not an easy out in 2022 despite their 7-10 record and to say they upgraded their QB position would be like saying that guy Pavarotti “could sing a little bit”. Consider:
Aaron Rodgers will be the best starting QB for the Jets since Joe Namath – – and in my opinion Rodgers is better than Namath meaning the Jets stating QB in 2023 will be the best in franchise history.
Namath was the last Jets’ QB to pass for 4000 yards in a season; he accomplished that feat in 1967 or 55 years ago.
[Aside: This drought for the Jets is not the longest in NFL history. The Bears have NEVER had a 4000-yard passer in franchise history going back to 1920.]
The first 8 games on the Jets’ schedule are brutal pairing them against the Bills, Cowboys, Pats, Chiefs, Broncos, Eagles, Giants and Chargers. If the Jets can get to December within striking distance of the playoffs, the schedule turns dramatically in their favor. The final 6 games are Falcons, Texans, Dolphins, Commanders, Browns, Pats.
- NE Pats: I have the Pats finishing third at 9-8. I think the goofy idea of having a career defensive coach act as the offensive coordinator will not resurrect itself and the Pats’ offense will have to be a bit better. For the first time in a long time, the Pats’ have the worst starting QB in the division. The defense is good enough. The early schedule is hardly a cakewalk:
Versus the Eagles
Versus the Dolphins
- Miami Dolphins: I have the Dolphins finishing last in the division at 8-9. The Dolphins face 5 difficult road games this year against the Chargers, Bills, Eagles, Chiefs and Ravens.
So, if my crystal ball has cleared away the fog for the AFC, here is how the seedings for the playoffs should proceed in the AFC next January:
- Chiefs – – BYE Week
- Bengals – – host #7
- Bills – – host #6
- Jags – – host #5
- Steelers – – via head-to-head tiebreaker with Pats based on Dec 7th game.
And so, now we go off the visit the future of the NFC and again for the sake of symmetry, I shall start in the NFC West. I believe this division is the plain vanilla flavor of the NFL for 2023. My projected composite division record for the NFC West is 34-34.
- SF Niners: They are clearly the class of the division; I have them finishing with a 13-4 record and coasting to this division title. The team decision to bring the Trey Lance experiment to its less-than-satisfactory end is a plus for the team. There is no controversy left behind; there are no stories to be pursued regarding locker room intrigues. The team tried a QB gambit three years ago and it did not work; the team moved on. At this point, I think it will take more than a couple serious injuries to key players to take the Niners down from the top of the division.
- Seattle Seahawks: I have the Seahawks finishing at 9-8. I know that Geno Smith had a great year in 2022 – – far and away the best of his career. That great season produced a 9-8 record, and I am not convinced that Smith has another quantum leap in performance in his arsenal. Hence, this year’s duplicate record …
- L A Rams: I think the Rams will also finish at 9-8 making the two head-to-head games with the Seahawks important as to determining which team finishes second and which team finishes third in the division – – and maybe which team makes the playoffs as a wild card. The first game between the two teams is in Week 1 in Seattle; the rematch will be on Nov 19th in LA. Speaking of schedules, the Rams’ early schedule is daunting:
- Arizona Cardinals: As noted above, things are not looking up for the Cards in 2023. In addition to having a new first-year head coach and questions galore at the QB position even after Kyler Murray returns to action some time this season, the other fact that cannot be ignored is that the Cards’ defense in 2022 gave up 26.4 points per game – – second worst in the NFL. I see aa final record of 3-14 here.
Moving along to the NFC South, I see the weakest division in the conference. My projected record for the NFC South is 27-41. Someone has to win this race. I think it will come down to a tiebreaker with late season games involving this division having playoff implications making those late season division games more meaningful than the records might indicate.
- Carolina Panthers: I see the Panthers finishing at 8-9 with first-year QB Bryce Young showing lots of promise and experiencing lots of growing pains. The schedule maker did the Panthers no favors this year:
Four of their first six games are on the road.
In late-Nov/early-Dec, the Panthers are on the road three weeks in a row.
- N.O. Saints: I see the Saints also finishing at 8-9 meaning the two head-to-head games with the Panthers could determine the team from the NFC South to make the playoffs. The Saints had QB production and consistency woes last year; their acquisition of Derek Carr now gives them the best QB in the division. Here are the two head-to-head games:
September 18 in Carolina
December 10th in New Orleans
- Atlanta Falcons: I see the Falcons finishing at 6-11 this year. The team finished last year at 7-10 and made the decision to move on from the idea of Marcus Mariota as an NFL franchise QB. That is a plus. However, the tandem of Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke as the conductor of the train is not exciting at all to me. The acquisition of Bijan Robinson in the Draft has lots of folks excited to see him take his game to the NFL level; I expect he will show very well in the Falcons’ run-focused offense.
- Tampa Bay Bucs: The Bucs went for it all signing Tom Brady a couple years ago and adding pieces to the offense to let him lead them to another Super Bowl win. Now Brady is retired, and it is time to pay of the mortgage; I see the Bucs with a final record of 5-12. Baker Mayfield and/or Kyle Trask will not replace Tom Brady comfortably. The fact that the team is in a contract stare-down with Mike Evans is anything but helpful.
For perspective, Mike Evans has posted 1,000 yards or more in receiving for the last 9 consecutive seasons. The only WR with a longer streak in NFL history is a guy you probably have heard of – – Jerry Rice.
Next up is the NFC North which will be a less-than-average division as a whole for 2023; I predict a cumulative record of 31-37 for the division.
- Detroit Lions: After starting last season with a 1-6 record, the Lions rallied to win 7 of their last 10 games to finish at 9-8. I think the Lions will finish this season at 10-7 and that will be good enough to put the Lions in the playoffs as the NFC North champions. When that happens euphoria will abound among Michiganders and here is a point of perspective to remember about the Lions and the NFL playoffs:
The Lions’ last playoff victory was in January 1992 – – 31 years before this year’s playoffs.
Here is how long ago that was.
Brett Favre was still on the Falcons’ roster in January 1992; he had not yet been traded to Green Bay.
Jerome Bettis was still a year away from his NFL debut – – AND – –
The Washington Commanders (under a previous name) had the best season record at 14-2 and went on to beat the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl in February 1992.
- Minnesota Vikings: I have the Vikes finishing 2023 with a 9-8 record. Yes, I know that is a significant pull-back from last year’s 13-4 record; so, let me cast a bit of shade on last year’s performance. The Vikes won every close game they were in last year – – every one. In fact, the team won 9 more games than it lost And Yet the Vikes gave up 5 more points than the team scored over the season. The Vikes won 9 games where the score differential was only one score by the opponent. The football gods usually do not repeat such largesse in two consecutive seasons.
- Chicago Bears: I see the Bears finishing at 7-10 taking them out of the division basement this year. Last year, the Bears finished first in the NFL in rushing and last in the NFL in passing yardage gained. Moreover, the difference in the two offensive outputs was not trivial; the Bears gained 795 more rushing yards than passing yards. Given the way the NFL game is played in 2023, that is a difficult feat in and of itself. I suspect that QB Justin Fields has worked on his passing game and his accuracy over the offseason and the only reason to think that the running game will be diminished in any way is because the Bears will be able to throw the ball better.
- Green Bay Packers: I see a major backsliding here where the Packers finish 2023 with a 5-12 record. Let me put my cards on the table; what little I have seen of Jordan Love in real NFL action has not been impressive. However, the Packers’ braintrust for ferreting out QBs clearly has a better history than do I; so, if Jordan Love is the new Aaron Rodgers just about to emerge onto the NFL scene, then I am going to look the south end of a northbound horse. I might be less harsh on the Packers if I thought their defense was good enough to win a game or two on its own, but I do not think that is the case.
As Frank Sinatra famously sung:
“And now the end is here
And so I face that final curtain …”
So comes the final NFC division for prognostication – – the NFC East. I believe this is the strongest of the 4 divisions in the NFC and it will post a cumulative record of 38-30.
- Philly Eagles: I see the Eagles finishing 12-5 and winning the NFC East. Why the pullback from last season that saw them lose in the Super Bowl by 3 points?
Both the offensive and defensive coordinators are gone
They lost to free agency, their starting safety, a starting CB, their leading tackler at LB, the best free agent defensive lineman of the season plus their leading rusher.
Based on 2022 records for their opponents, the Eagles have the most difficult schedule in the NFL this year.
But the OL remains intact, and Jalen Hurts gives every impression that he is dedicated to “doing the work necessary” to succeed in the NFL and not a guy who just relies on his God-given physical talents.
- Dallas Cowboys: I see the Cowboys finishing second in the division at 11-6. The Cowboys have two certified stars on defense – – Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs – – and have handed over the running game to Tony Pollard as Ezekiel Elliott tries to show that there is mileage left on his tires up in new England. You must know that there is no love lost between Eagles’ fans and anything related to the Cowboys; so, here is a stat sent to me by someone who bleeds Eagle’s green and knows it will annoy any Dallas Cowboys’ fan. [Aside: I have not verified the data here; doing so is more work than it is worth…]
“Dak Prescott played 12 games in 2022 and threw15 interceptions.
“That makes him the first QB in NFL history to lead the NFL in interceptions even though he missed 5 games in the season”.
- Washington Commanders: I have the Commanders finishing at 9-8 in 2023 and being right in the thick of the wildcard race in the NFC. I believe my projection is fact-based – – but I do acknowledge that there would be a juicy bit of karma associated with the Commanders making the playoffs the year after Danny Boy Snyder had to sell the team and thus, he would be denied one more opportunity to strut and preen in front of cameras as an NFL owner with a team in the playoffs. Sam Howell takes over the QB chores in Washington and he bears watching. He is big, agile (not fast) with a big arm and loads of confidence in his big arm. Do not misunderstand here; he has lots of developing to go through as an NFL QB, but he has offensive weapons around him, and he has talent. Moreover, the Commanders’ defensive unit is a Top-Ten, caliber unit in the entire league.
- NY Giants: I see the Giants finishing last in the division with a 6-11 record. Why the pullback from last year’s playoff team?
I think several players had career years or close to career years in 2022.
The team pissed off Saquon Barkley in the contract extension process.
The team overpaid Daniel Jones.
The team gave up more points than anyone else in the division and I don’t see a huge defensive improvement.
So let me show how the NFC playoffs should shake out come January 2024:
- Niners – – BYE Week
- Eagles – – Host #7
- Lions – – Host #6
- Panthers – – via tiebreaker with Saints – – Host #5
- Commanders – – via tiebreakers
- Seahawks – – via tiebreaker with Rams
Later in the same Frank Sinatra song I mentioned above there are lyrics that say:
“Yes, there were times I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way.”
That is sort of how I am feeling about now having finished thinking about 32 teams and a season’s worth of 272 games. Just remember, when you find yourself in strenuous disagreement with some – or even all – of the above. I did this my way; you may do it your way and that is just OK with me.
Finally, do not lose sight of these words from former Auburn head coach Shug Jordan whenever you think you have football prognostication down to a science:
“Always remember ,,, Goliath was a 40-point favorite over David.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………