With the varied prediction magazines for the NFL now out and minicamps proceeding, the prediction game for the NFL never really stops, so we'll take our own premature crack at the prediction game.
* - win-loss predictions carry this caveat - there will be overlap, thus over-unders are added
AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
New England Patriots (14-2), take the over
One can't remember the last time a defending Superbowl champion was so heavily favored entering the ensuing season, but that's what the New England Patriots have been, to where rivals are now trash-talking that the league "has a Patriots problem." Of course the league has a general AFC problem - the last twenty-two Lamar Hunt Trophies (and twelve Lombardi Trophies) have gone to the Patriots, Steelers, Broncos, Titans, Ravens, Raiders, and Colts. No matter how rivals change their schemes or personnel, the Patriots thwart the best-laid plans of mice and men. The player to watch is Brandin Cooks, who appears to have already established rapport with Tom Brady in minicamp. Keith Butler of the Steelers thinks sacking Brady a few times will ruin his game - ignoring teams have done this and Brady still comes back and wins.
Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Buffalo Bills (10-6), take the under
New York Jets (4-12), take the under
The Miami Dolphins have strikingly improved under first-year coach Adam Gase; with Ryan Tannehill healed up he needs to take the next step - something where there remains doubt with Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor, the key here being ex-Eagles and Panthers coordinator Sean McDermott bringing accountability and structure to a team that had little of either under freelancing players coach Rex Ryan. Accountability and structure seemed to disappear with the NY Jets last season, and Todd Bowles is proving yet another coaching bust for a team that some railbirds think will tank the season a la the Colts in 2011 in order to grab expected blue-chip picks for 2018. It seems clear quarterbacks Luke McCown, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg (by all scuttlebutt a failure with no drive) will be gone by the end of 2018.....if they even make it that far; Eric Decker (now with the Titans) and linebacker David Harris (now with the Patriots, who've lusted after him for ten years) got out while the getting was good.
Just how bad are the NY Jets? Their own fans want them to tank the season.
Tennessee Titans (11-5), take the over
Indianapolis Colts (10-6), take the under
Houston Texans (9-7), take the under
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
The culture shift in the Tennessee Titans by now is obvious, and it's also clear Mike Mularkey is a real coach; it became obvious right away Marcus Mariota is the real deal at quarterback, and beating five playoff teams plus the defending champion Broncos in 2016 showcased that. This is a program, not just a slapped-together assemblage, and it is showing it will be strong for quite some time.
Beating the Colts - something they shockingly haven't done since 2011 - remains the key for the Titans; the Colts fired Ryan Grigson and new GM Chris Ballard overhauled the roster; Andrew Luck is certainly very good, but one wonders if he really is as good as the Colts thought he was. One also wonders if Chuck Pagano was the right choice over Bruce Arians.
The Texans have won the division twice under Bill O'Brien but he was supposed to help develop a quarterback and has failed to do so; the Brock Osweiler fiasco perhaps best illustrates the weaknesses of the Texans in general - the story is Osweiler was signed with zero input from O'Brien - and O'Brien in particular; Osweiler got exposed as a surly, perhaps self-entitled punk who couldn't handle more than two reads on the field, and yet he may have been the best quarterback O'Brien has had as Texans coach. If O'Brien isn't in trouble by now, he should be; he'll presumably start Tom Savage early in 2017, but Clemson hero Deshaun Watson is the guy everyone will be watching.
The Jaguars meanwhile needed to get former coach Tom Coughlin to take over their front office and discipline returned after the failure of another players coach in Gus Bradley. One wonders if they now can get better play out of Blake Bortles after his sloppy regression in 2016; Bortles seems to know he needs help as he went to ex-MLB pitcher and present QB guru Tom House to fix mechanics that stunk.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5), take the under
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7), take the under
Baltimore Ravens (9-7), take the under
Cleveland Browns (2-14)
The Steelers are the ones chirping loudest about the league's "Patriots problem," but their vow they have to get home field advantage rings hollow; the had home field advantage in 2001 and 2004 with nothing to show for it and three straight playoff runs have produced three wins, one of them a shaky escape job against AJ McCarron of the Bengals. Good, undoubtedly - great, though, still seems beyond the Steelers.
Great is well beyond the Bengals, and one wonders who will finally replace Marvin Lewis; one remains surprised McCarron has not replaced Andy Dalton after McCarron proved capable of handling playoff football in 2015, something Dalton has proven he has zero ability to handle. Talent-wise the Bengals seemed to dip in 2016; a damning anecdote is that left tackle Andrew Whitworth signed with the Rams because he saw his teammates were not committed to winning. The player to watch is new receiver John Ross.
The Ravens have sunk into a non-contending .500 club with just thirteen wins the last two seasons. Ozzie Newsome committed to defense in the draft, but the real issue is Joe Flacco has been in regression the last two seasons, ranking near the bottom last year despite improving from five to eight wins; his poor handling of reading defenses has become an issue as well as his pocket presence.
Forget it with the Browns; more and more it appears they made a complete mistake embracing analytics; no matter what the Browns touch, it turns to poison.
Oakland Raiders (12-4)
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Denver Broncos (8-8)
San Diego Chargers (5-11)
No, the mistaken city name for the Chargers is not an accident - it is merely reminder that they made a mistake going to Los Angeles and one should not buy they will stay there. Philip Rivers' play is still good; his game has been largely irrelevant since losing to the NY Jets in the 2009 playoffs. Anthony Lynn comes from a dismal one-game tryout with the Bills and inherits the inept Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator; one also right now is weary of the new defensive coordinator, Jacksonville washout Gus Bradley.
The Broncos won five straight AFC West titles but have sunk to a .500 club with two mediocre or worse quarterbacks in Trevor "Don't call me Trevor Langan" Siemian and Paxton Lynch; Siemian did earn respect as he showed improvement as the season went on, though teams seemed to figure him out as they got film on him. The defense actually played better in 2016 (there were a whopping fifty three-and-outs and the Broncos were fourth in fewest points allowed) than the previous two to three seasons yet could not stop opponents from winning five of the last eight 2016 games, and only a Derek Carr-less Raiders prevented the Broncos from falling to 8-8 in the final game. The coaching staff is new, led by Vance Joseph, and a subplot will be the phaseout of zone blocking in favor of power schemes.
The Broncos won just two division games, and Kansas City is on a three-game streak in that rivalry. The key remains Alex Smith, now with a presumptive successor on the roster in draft pick Pat Mahomes II; the wildcard is what looks like an All-Everything back in Tyreek Hill and his 1,836 all-purpose yards and twelve touchdowns - not quite Mack Herron-esque but surprisingly close. On defense the Chiefs get gouged on yardage but prevent scores (seventh in fewest points allowed) and this should continue. Andy Reid's extension is a no-brainer, but the firing of GM John Dorsey was a surprise.
The Chiefs beat the Raiders twice in 2016 and Oakland, now a lameduck in its present city with Las Vegas now an absurd fait accompli will have a hard time usurping that rampart. There's no question the Raiders have the tools to do it now and the big extension to Derek Carr was the ultimate no-brainer, though coaching issues are popping up - the new offensive coordinator is Todd Downing, who is a rookie at that position, while ex-Seahawks assistant coach Ken Norton Jr. lost some of his power with the signing of John Pagano, recently of the Chargers, as Jack Del Rio's assistant head coach on defense. One also wonders why the Raiders signed Marshawn Lynch, who'd regressed before taking 2016 off. Keeping Derek Carr healthy is priority.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
New York Giants (10-6)
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
Washington Redskins (8-8)
The fear is Dakota Prescott and Zeke Elliott will hit a sophomore slump with the Cowboys; they might but they look good enough to still win twelve games. Beating the NY Giants is the priority; the Giants spent $200 million to rebuild their defense a year ago and now have Brandon Marshall as a receiver. The O-line, though, has been mediocre, Eli Manning played better but his game didn't score enough points in the end, and the Giants' star player is Odell Beckham Jr., a guy who hasn't shown commitment or focus; he wastes time practicing one-handed catches instead of more important nuances, and promoting his brand has become more prominent than perfecting his game - his awful effort in the Green Bay playoff loss showcased that Beckham is the kind of guy who isn't going to get it.
The rest of the division is stuck in mediocrity - Carson Wentz played well for the Eagles and needs to improve; so do his receivers; the Dorial Green-Beckham experiment failed with the Titans and shows no hope with the Eagles, and the hope is being pinned on ex-Bear Alshon Jeffrey; tight end Zach Ertz hasn't made enough plays when it matters.
For the Redskins the Kirk Cousins soap opera is baffling and just one subplot of larger team dysfunction with the front office being in essence blown up. Jay Gruden will now call plays and has Terrell Pryor as one new weapon; it remains to be seen if the Redskins can actually become a real team after flirting with legitimacy for most of the last five seasons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5), take the under
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Carolina Panthers (9-7)
New Orleans Saints (7-9)
Surprisingly, people are overlooking an improved Bucs team, a team that won six of its last eight games, including against playoff contenders Kansas City and Seattle. Jameis Winston is looking better, though over forty turnovers in two seasons remains disconcerting; the other offensive player to watch is rookie tight end OJ Howard.
The Superbowl collapse by the Falcons presents Atlanta with the longtime jinx where Superbowl losers don't make the game the next year. The talent is obvious but weaknesses got exposed and Matt Ryan's long-term playoff liability is a question again.
The Panthers no longer look like the playoff power they were two years ago, and between Cam Newton's regression and how much the defense surprisingly missed Josh Norman, the path back to the playoffs is a lot longer than expected. Likewise the Saints have become irrelevant as far as the playoffs go; four 7-9 seasons in the last five indicate an organization that doesn't know how to elevate to the next level anymore; Sean Payton may now be done.
Green Bay Packers (10-6), take the under
Minnesota Vikings (9-7), take the under
Detroit Lions (9-7), take the over
Chicago Bears (3-13)
The experts are gaga over Aaron Rodgers' play and harp on his eight-game winning streak before getting crushed in the NFC Championship game. Nowhere in that string, or in the entirety of the season, did Rodgers win a single game where he had to stage a comeback, and he had a paltry two game-winning drives; that he won the Cowboys game after blowing a two-touchdown lead is mystifying. Reading Jason Wilde's piece on Aaron Rodgers in ATHLON SPORTS 2017 NFL PREVIEW, it becomes more clear how much Rodgers relies on freelancing and athleticism with his legs as well as arm strength - a formula for spectacular play but which has never proven to be a championship winning formula.
This is what makes Matthew Stafford's game all the more interesting - there is no case to be made that Stafford is in any way better than Rodgers, yet Stafford the last year-and-a-half has changed his game - said one unnamed scout in ATHLON SPORTS, "(Stafford) is finally 'playing' the position" - where he is now truly playing small-ball offense, aka "a controlled short passing attack." It is small ball that is the championship winning formula, proven year after year after year. But the biggest problems remain beating quality opponents - Stafford's only wins over quality opponents last year were against the Colts and Redskins, both just eight-win clubs; in contrast the Titans team that beat him in Week Two had six wins against quality foes - and also stopping opponents.
The collapse of the Vikings after a 5-0 start indicated a team nowhere near ready for prime time; having an offseason to get used to new coordinator Pat Shurmer's version of the West Coast should help. With Teddy Bridgewater's career perhaps over, Sam Bradford has to lead the offense; this time it won't be as a last-minute trade acquisition. If the defense - deceptively good last year - plays better the Vikings may beat the odds this time.
It is unrealistic by now to have much hope for the Bears, especially with Mike Glennon as quarterback; one wonders when Mitchell Trubisky will take over in 2017. It is surprising given John Fox's success developing quarterbacks in his two previous jobs.
There's little to say about the NFC West. The biggest weakness for the Seahawks is they've regressed back to the bad road team - six losses and the tie came on the road last season - they became under Mike Holmgren; the Richard Sherman soap opera became a surprise, but also a suggestion Pete Carroll is making some of the same mistakes made in New England. Everyone else in the division is struggling to better .500; aging Carson Palmer remains Cardinals quarterback despite the complete loss of any useful mobility. The 49ers and Rams are in long-term rebuild mode.
So it goes as we await training camps.