In less than an hour, the 2016/17 NFL season will kick off in a rematch of last year’s phenomenal Super Bowl match-up between the champion Denver Broncos and runner-up Carolina Panthers. Each team was arguably the best in their conference the whole year through, and were that they played for the championship was very fitting. However, some major defections from both teams- Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, and Danny Trevathan for Denver and Josh Norman for Carolina- has, perhaps, made it easier for some challengers to snatch the conference titles from the holders and battle for the big prize: a Super Bowl. Who’s going to win that big prize this season? Here’s my thoughts on how it will all play out:
Regular Season Standings
Seahawks (WC #1)
Last year, the Cardinals were only one game away from the Super Bowl, on their deepest play-off run since Kurt Warner was the quarterback, before running into the rampaging Panthers. However, it seems like Bruce Arians and his staff seem to get the most out of his squad than anyone not named Belichick, and I expect them to do so again this season, holding off the rival Seahawks for first place. The ‘Hawks will be pretty good themselves, but the uncertainty in the running game, and the corresponding increase in pressure on Russell Wilson, will cause Seattle to end up as a wild card team for the second straight season. The Rams and 49ers, meanwhile, will again be two of the worst teams in the league- they both have star running backs and a couple of good defensive players, but also have limited talent throughout the roster and very inconsistent coaching staffs. Los Angeles’s defense is a little better, so I give them the edge, but I don’t expect much from either of those two teams.
The Vikings gave the Pack a real run for their money last season- second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Stefon Diggs provided nice compliments to star running back to Adrian Peterson, and Aaron Rodgers struggled without Jordy Nelson on the field. Now, however, with Nelson back on the field and Bridgewater out for the year, and maybe longer, with a gruesome knee injury, Green Bay doesn’t have a team in the division that can compete with them on either side of the ball, which is why I think that they’ll claim the division, and the number one overall seed, with relative ease. Minnesota will still fight for a play-off spot, but without Bridgewater, I just don’t see it happening. As for the Bears and Lions, they are teams in the midst of transition. The Bears massively upgraded their offensive line and front seven, while the Lions seem like they are still reeling after the sudden retirement of star receiver Calvin Johnson. The Bears are on the up and the Lions are headed down, which is what I reflect in my standings.
Buccaneers (WC #2)
The Panthers were last year’s NFC champions by virtue of their explosive offense, helmed by MVP Cam Newton, and their ferocious defense. Losing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman will certainly sting, but Luke Kuechly and co. have enough talent to offset Norman’s departure fairly well, and with the offense gaining a new dimension with the return of the lanky Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers should be able to wrap up their third straight division title. Beneath them, everything is a little bit muddled- every team has some positives and some negatives. The Buccaneers have an up-and-coming quarterback and a solid front seven, but their secondary and running game aren’t very consistent. Atlanta has an explosive offense and a very inconsistent defense. New Orleans has Drew Brees and Mark Ingram, and the less that is said about their defense, the better. I think that Tampa has the most talent, and that Jameis Winston will be good enough to lead the Bucs to their first play-off appearance since 2007, but the other teams will be hot on their heels until the regular season comes to an end. Probably the deepest division top to bottom this year (in comparison to last year, when it was Carolina and under .500 teams).
Were Tony Romo healthy, I could see this division playing out to be a really interesting one- the Cowboys would be competitive and give every team a legit shot of making the play-offs if they could simply overcome their rivals. However, as much as I like Dak Prescott, he’s no Romo, and knowing that, I think that this division is the Giants’ to lose. They’ve bulked up their leaky defense by signing Oliver Vernon and Janoris Jenkins while drafting the dangerous Sterling Shepard to line up opposite Odell Beckham at receiver. While the team’s closest competitor, and last year’s division champs, the Redskins, also improved their roster by jettisoning Alfred Morris and signing Josh Norman, I simply cannot see Kirk Cousins maintaining the pace, or big-play ability, that he flashed last year. That isn’t to say that he’s a bad quarterback- far from it- but even a slight drop off from him, combined with the team’s relatively weak linebacking core, should keep them out of the top spot and out of the play-offs. The bottom two teams in this division will both be starting rookie quarterbacks- Prescott for the Cowboys and Carson Wentz for the Eagles- and that’s pretty much the main reason that I can see both of these teams finishing in the bottom 4 teams in the conference. I have slightly more confidence in Wentz than I do in Prescott, though, and that fact, combined with Philadelphia’s somewhat decent defense, gives them the edge over the ‘Boys, who will finish last for a second straight season.
The defending Super Bowl champion has missed the play-offs the year after their victory only four times in the past ten years. Of course, not every defending champion loses the two quarterbacks that have started every game for the team since the start of the 2012 season (Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler) and the anchor of their defensive line (Malik Jackson). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Raiders drastically improved under Jack Del Rio, and seem poised for even bigger and better things this year- they bulked up the offensive line to better protect budding star Derek Carr and block for speedy running backs Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington while also adding linebacker Bruce Irvin to make the front seven even more ferocious than it already is. Oakland will make the play-offs for the first time since their Super Bowl loss back in 2003 (!), leaving Denver’s ferocious defense and my boy Trevor Siemian, Denver’s new and unproven starting QB (who’s from Northwestern, which is about an hour from where I live), on the outside looking in. The Chiefs have the potential to be pretty good, too, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in an aging Alex Smith, or in a defense that will be missing the pass-rushing monster that is Justin Houston for six weeks. Oakland and Denver are just too good for them to overcome. As for San Diego, I think that they are the laughingstock of the NFL- yes, worse than the Browns. Spurned by Los Angeles, having engaged in fights with Eric Weddle and Joey Bosa’s representatives while throwing money at a receiver, with only one good year, that doesn’t fit Philip Rivers’s playing style. As much as I don’t want to see it, for their quarterback’s sake, I expect to see them struggle mightily this season.
Bengals (WC #1)
Even though Pittsburgh won’t have Le’Veon Bell and Ladarius Green to start the season, or Martavis Bryant for the whole season, the Steelers have perhaps the easiest schedule in the division to start the season, and once they get Bell back, Ben Roethlisberger will have an embarrassment of speedy riches to utilize on offense, and I think he’ll be able to do so well enough to claim the division and the conference’s number one overall seed. Cincinnati will give them a run for their money, though- I feel the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will hurt them more than I think many people realize, but with a healthy Andy Dalton and AJ Green pairing, along with a gritty, hard-working defense, the Bengals will make the play-offs as the number one wild card. Baltimore will be the best AFC team to not make the post-season- the return of Steve Smith and signing of Eric Weddle give them veteran leadership on both sides of the ball, and I have enough faith in Joe Flacco’s arm to get them to the play-offs. However, against better run defending teams, I think the Ravens will struggle, and that will ultimately be their downfall. Cleveland will continue to languish at the bottom of the division, but all hope is not lost- the front office seems like they’re on the right track now, and they should be in good shape for the future.
Jaguars (WC #2)
The Houston Texans won the AFC South last year, but after an offensive implosion against the Bengals in the play-offs, they made it their off-season priority to get star receiver DeAndre Hopkins some new companions. They largely succeeded in that quest, adding Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller in free agency and Will Fuller through the draft. Now, the team feels like their offense is on par with their excellent defense, which should allow them to take the division without much trouble. The battle for second place in the division should be interesting, though. The Colts, long the division’s top dog, return Andrew Luck from injury but still have a suspect defense. The Jaguars added a power runner and some studs on defense, but are still relatively inexperienced. In the end, though, I feel like the Jags have more overall talent, and that talent will help them overcome said inexperience to make the playoffs. At the bottom, while I don’t think that the Titans will be very competitive this year, the team is certainly on the rise; any team that is being built around exceptional talents like Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry definitely should be.
The Patriots lucked out a little bit in terms of their schedule difficulty while Tom Brady is serving his suspension- only the opener against Arizona looks remotely tricky for Jimmy Garopolo, and even so, I have a lot of faith in the former Eastern Illinois quarterback to adequately hold down the fort. After Brady’s return, though, I expect the Pats to click into another gear, pulling away to easily win their division. All the other teams in the division are capable of bigger and better things, and perhaps even a play-off win or two, but each of them has a very inconsistent aspect of their team that I think will hold them back from making the play-offs. For the Bills, it’s the offense- there’s a lot of good players in Buffalo, but the offense is mainly boom-or-bust, and that’s hard to maintain at a rate that’ll get you into the post-season. For the Jets, it’s their defense- it alternated between being very good and very bad, but with nobody getting any younger, I don’t see them getting any better than they were last year. And in Miami, it’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill- he has all the attributes to be a star, but just hasn’t put it together yet. If any of these aspects of any of those teams finds consistency, they can make a play-off push- otherwise, they’ll be left out again.
NFL MVP: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
While Palmer is certainly not getting any younger, he still has his mind and phenomenal accuracy, and the supporting cast he has this year is better than ever- David Johnson is an up-and-coming star at running back, and the receiver trio of John Brown, Michael Floyd, and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald is the best in the league. That gives Palmer, who is completely healthy to start the season for the first time in three years, a great opportunity to win the MVP while leading the Cards deep into the play-offs.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
This is a fairly straightforward pick. It’s not “sexy,” so to speak, but nobody will be getting the type of usage, especially with Tony Romo out, that Elliott will, and no running back is fortunate enough to run behind the best offensive line in the entire league. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was unanimous.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jaguars rookies Jaelen Ramsey and Myles Jack are more talented players than Spence, and probably more common picks for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I think that Spence is the best pass rusher in the draft, and since most teams will seek to beat Tampa Bay through the air, I think that the former Eastern Kentucky man will get a lot of chances to show off his skills.
Best Acquisition: Eric Weddle, FS, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens secondary simply hasn’t been the same since Ed Reed’s departure. Ladarius Webb hasn’t ever really seemed himself, and Jimmy Smith hasn’t exactly developed into the elite corner that everyone said he would be. Enter Weddle, a wily All-Pro safety that will be hungry for wins after being stuck in turmoil in San Diego. His presence and leadership should improve Webb and Smith’s performance as he continues his trend of dominating games, with all of this coming at a reasonable AAV of $6.5 million.
Worst Acquisition: Chris Ivory, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Look: I get that the Jaguars needed to spend their cap space this off-season. I get that the free agent market wasn’t really all that plentiful in compared to previous years. But signing a guy like Ivory, a running back that will steal carries for the young and underrated TJ Yeldon, a running back that isn’t much of a pass catcher, a running back that will cost over $6 million a year in a league that doesn’t value the run game as high as it used to, doesn’t seem like a bright move.
Coach of the Year: Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars
After all the put downs I’ve been giving Jacksonville, here’s a light in the dark- after many years of futility, GM Dave Caldwell and Bradley have done a good job of shaping this team into a kind of Seattle-lite through the free agent market (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson) and the draft (Jaelen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson). Bradley’s handling of Bortles has been especially admirable, and after he and Bortles lead the team to the play-offs for the first time since 2007, Bradley will be duly rewarded.
Biggest Surprise: Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. So has Ladarius Green. DeAngelo Williams is aging, and Heath Miller retired. Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year. Somebody needs to step up to draw some attention away from star receiver Antonio Brown, and while Bell and Williams will still be important, I expect that all the uncertainty in Pittsburgh will give the speedy Wheaton ample opportunity to have a breakout season, and I’ll think he’ll take that opportunity and run with it.
Giants defeat Buccaneers
Seahawks defeat Panthers
This is probably the most unheralded of all the play-off matchups, but I think it will be a pretty good one. Neither team has a really good secondary, so I believe that it’ll be a relative shootout, but when it comes down to it, as good as I think Jameis Winston can be, he is still not at the level, in terms of both experience (duh) and ability (not so duh), as Eli Manning. Manning and Odell Beckham will help the G-Men move on to the next round.
In a rematch of last year’s divisional matchup, the defending NFC champs take on the team from which they took their crown. Seattle’s loss last year was down to uncharacteristic turnovers, but when they found their groove in the second half, they were nearly unstoppable, coming within a touchdown of the host Panthers. As good as Carolina is, the Seahawks are better overall, and will be anxious to avenge their loss from last season. Seattle moves on.
Giants defeat Packers
Cardinals defeat Seahawks
The Giants-Packers match-up is a battle between two of the best play-off quarterbacks in the game, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. Both have the weapons and the know-how to pull this one out, so I think it will come down to who is able to limit the other team’s star receivers the best. Unfortunately for Green Bay, I think that the trio of Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Leon Hall is good enough to prevent Jordy Nelson from really getting into the game, and we saw how much of a problem that was for Rodgers last year. The Giants move on in an upset.
This game was so tough to call- I think that the Seahawks have more talent, but the Cardinals get more from their players. Both coaching staffs are evenly matched. Last year’s games saw each team win the game where they were the visitors. In the end, though, I think that Bruce Arians and his staff will be better prepared than they were for last season’s finale, and without the threat of Marshawn Lynch, they can throw pass rushers at Russell Wilson and force him to make plays, which is a hit-or-miss type of thing. I think he’ll miss just enough for the Cardinals to move on.
Cardinals defeat Giants
East meets West in a game to determine the NFC champ. Both teams will come into this game coming off of relative upset victories, and emotions will be running high. Because of that, I expect this game to be a very fast-paced one, and the team that can control the ball, and the clock, better will be able to move on. In this case, I think that means that the Cardinals will win, since their tandem of David Johnson and Chris Johnson is better anything than the Giants can throw at them. Bruce Arians and his squad advance to The Big Game.
Raiders defeat Jaguars
Texans defeat Bengals
I really wish that these teams wouldn’t meet in the first round of the play-offs, because it means that a team that has been in the dumps in recent years gets to make it to the post-season, only to lose their first game. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, I think it will be them going home- the Raiders monstrous front seven will be able to limit the Jags’ running game and force Blake Bortles to beat him on their own, and while Bortles is very talented, it would be hard for any young quarterback to stand up to such a task, especially in the play-offs. Jacksonville moves on.
Last year the Bengals absolutely tore apart the Texans, and it was mainly because Brian Hoyer could get absolutely nothing going on offense for Houston. This year, the Texans are back and reloaded, and the offense they’ve formed is now on par with Cincinnati’s. In the end, I think it’ll all come down to defense, and I believe that the JJ Watt-led Texans have a slight advantage in that department. Houston moves on in a squeaker.
Raiders defeat Steelers
Patriots defeat Texans
When Derek Carr was drafted, I felt that Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL quarterback he should look up to- they are very similar physically (big, strong arms) and came into the league to very similar situations (mediocre team with great tradition, not necessarily expected to play right away but did anyways). Now, Carr has a chance to top Big Ben. While Roethlisberger is certainly a better quarterback at this stage of his career, Oakland’s strong defense and Pittsburgh’s weak one are the difference makers- the Raiders advance.
Bill Belichick comes up against his old protégé, Bill O’Brien, in a game to determine who makes it to the AFC championship. I really feel like Houston can keep this one pretty close- Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller are dynamic enough to give the Patriot defense some trouble, and the uncertainty around New England’s offensive line situation is music to JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus’s ears. However, this is the Patriots we’re talking about, and as competitive as the Texans can be, I just don’t think that their secondary has enough skill to truly limit Tom Brady. The Pats will win in a low-scoring game.
Patriots defeat Raiders
A rematch of the infamous “Tuck Rule” game back in 2002, Derek Carr and the Raiders will have a chance to avenge the controversial win that the Patriots picked up en route to their first ever Super Bowl victory. Alas, it just isn’t meant to be- Bill Belichick has Jack Del Rio’s number, having beaten him when he was the Jaguars head coach and Denver’s defensive coordinator, and if there’s any place where the Raiders aren’t excellent, it’s in the secondary. That’s not a good thing when you’re facing Tom Brady. The Patriots move on, perhaps with ease.
Cardinals defeat Patriots
A battle between the oldest projected starting quarterbacks in the league (Brady and Palmer will be 39 and 37, respectively, at the time of the Super Bowl) and a Week One rematch. While it’s hard to bet against Brady, especially coming off of his suspension and shocking loss to Denver last season, the Cardinal offense should have little problem picking apart New England’s secondary, and while Arizona’s defense isn’t of Denver quality, it was 5th overall in total yards allowed last season, and should be able to do enough to limit Tom Terrific to allow their offense to build a lead. There’ll be a lot of points, and it’ll be close, but ultimately, I think Arizona will prevail, 34-27.