To read part one of my NFL season preview (individual award predictions), click here.
We are finally and mercifully on the doorstep of the 2015 season. It was a long offseason. But, regardless of the journalistic trash that is ESPN, it is time to focus on football and focusing on football is what we do best.
With week one kicking off in just two days, as the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Foxborough, let’s run through this year’s NFL Playoff predictions for the season as well as what to watch for this weekend.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (11-5, 3 seed). Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Whoever is Lucky Enough to Run Behind the Cowboys Offensive Line have more talent than the rest of the division. I don’t see Philadelphia catching up to the Cowboys this season. As long as Romo and Bryant are healthy, and the O-Line stays mostly intact, this is the team to beat in the East.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 4 seed). Last year the NFC South produced a division winner with a losing record, so the bar isn’t very high here. New head coach Dan Quinn should bring some much needed defensive polish to a team that has a stacked offense, and a return to the playoffs is in store for Atlanta. Unfortunately for Brees and Newton, the Saints (defense) and Panthers (offense) just have too many holes this season. The Kelvin Benjamin injury was brutal for Newton and their patchwork offensive line isn’t going to do much to protect him either. Meanwhile, Brees might have to score 40 points a game just to keep the Saints competitive.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (12-4, 2 seed). If Kam Chancellor is out long term in any way it will hurt this team, but not enough to knock them off from near the tops of the league. They have to solve their O-line puzzle and replenish their secondary, but history says they will. Jimmy Graham should bring a new element to their offense. My one worry is in the locker room. There’s a clear division here that could be worrisome. Last year they managed to pull it together down the stretch to get back to the Super Bowl. That Super Bowl loss was brutal and in every way was indicitave of this divide. Supposedly they solved all the problems with a team vacation to Hawaii but… will it stay that way if they don’t start hot?
NFC North: Green Bay Packers (13-3, 1 seed). An improving defense and the league’s best quarterback mean another good season in Green Bay. Before Jordy Nelson’s injury I had them pegged as Super Bowl Favorites. As it was, they only sat at home in February because of some terrible and overly-conservative coaching decisions, which I hope Mike McCarthy has learned from. I think they are an even shot to get back to the Super Bowl this year, although I do expect them to finish with a better record because they play in a worse division.
NFC Wild Card Spot 1: Philadelphia Eagles (10-6). The Eagles have a huge IF behind their center, and IF Sam Bradford can play 16 games I expect a wild card spot for Philly. Their offensive line is healthy and should return to dominance, and they are stacked at a lot of positions. I’m a fan of the off-season moves Chip Kelly made, especially improving their dismal secondary, and I think this team will be better than last year.
NFC Wild Card Spot 2: Detroit Lions (10-6). The Lions are juuuuust good enough to make the playoffs behind a bounce back season from Calvin Johnson (whereby he reminds us all that he’s the best receiver in the league) and a big rookie year from shiny new toy Ameer Abdullah (who has already drawn at least one comparison to Barry Sanders. He won’t be that good). The big question is on defense: can the Lions survive the loss of Ndamakong Suh? Replacement Haloti Ngata will be serviceable, but he won’t anchor a league-best run defense like Suh did.
AFC East: New England Patriots (13-3, 1 seed). Defending Super Bowl Champs who have won double digit games every single year since 03? Need I say more?
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts (11-5, 4 seed). I don’t think the Colts will be nearly as good as anyone else does because, despite all the skill position talent they added, they still don’t have an offensive or defensive line. They won’t stop anyone. Not sure Frank Gore is going to have a lot of fun after running behind those stacked San Francisco lines for the last five years. But, they are still more than good enough to kick the crap out of their creampuff division en route to the playoffs.
AFC West: Denver Broncos (12-4, 2 seed). Their defense is what makes them 12-4. I am of the opinion that Peyton Manning is not long for this league – the man can’t even feel his fingertips. Partly, it makes what he’s done since joining the Broncos even more impressive. But it’s also clear to see why he hasn’t won a Super Bowl in that time. Unfortunately for Peyton, it’s not going to get any easier. Luckily they don’t have much to contend within their division.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens (11-5, 3 seed). I fully expect this division to be a bloodbath again, just like it was in 2014. However, I’m also a person who puts a LOT of stock into O- and D-Lines (because they are the crux of your team), and the Ravens are loaded at both. While the Steelers look to have a better offense, especially at the skill positions, losing Pouncey hurts a lot; and their defense looks like a shell of its former glory.
AFC Wild Card Spot 1: San Diego Chargers (10-6).. They’re returning a lot of starters to a defense that was improving but decimated by injury last season. On offense their running backs were massacred in 2014. Adding Melvin Gordon, the top rusher in the FBS last year, is a huge addition for them. Remember how good the Chargers were when they had an actual running back? They could get back towards that level this season.
AFC Wild Card Spot 2: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7). This is the toughest call of all of the spots. Cincinnati has a legitimate shot at it, as do the Houston Texans and the Miami Dolphins. At the end of the day I’m going with quarterback play; and Big Ben is by far the best of the bunch. They have a brutal schedule, but just because they lose the division doesn’t mean I expect them to be out of the playoffs! Big Ben is a top-10 quarterback (at the very least), and he returns an offense that has Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They’re going to be potent when they have the ball. It’s the defense I’m worried about; and that’s what will relegate them to a Wild Card spot and an early playoff exit.
Wild Card Round:
(5) Philadelphia Eagles 24, (4)Atlanta Falcons 20. This will be a battle of offenses, but I expect the now-veteran head coach Chip Kelly to be better equipped for the environment than rookie head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn is also still piecing together a defense that could be pretty good, but more likely will max out at mediocre (a significant upgrade from being absolutely terrible in 2014). Kelly is a game planner on offense; and that should give him the advantage in this matchup.
(3) Dallas Cowboys 28, (6) Detroit Lions 17. Without the big man in the middle Dallas has an easier time running the ball and scoring on Detroit’s defense. Matt Stafford’s pension for mistakes gets the best of him and we’re once again left wondering what on earth would happen if Calvin Johnson got to play with a good quarterback. No, I don’t expect revenge for the picked up flag in last year’s game. This ain’t a fairy tale.
(3) Indianapolis Colts 41, (6) Pittsburgh Steelers 34. This would be a wild one filled with deep bombs and open wide receivers. No one on either defense has a shred of hope of containing the other’s #1 wide receiver. And I hope that’s the case, because it would be a blast to watch a game with five or six 50 yard TD passes, right?
(4) Baltimore Ravens 20, (5) San Diego Chargers 17. The Ravens will win because, of course. They’re the Ravens. And I hate them passionately.
(1) Green Bay Packers 31, (5) Philadelphia Eagles 24. A comfortable victory for Rodgers and the Packers as they kick off the divisional round of the playoffs. Don’t expect even the Eagles’ high powered offense to be able to keep pace with the Packers.
(2) Seattle Seahawks 21, (3) Dallas Cowboys 17. There are very few teams that can stand up to the Cowboys offensive line with their defensive front. There are very few teams with a player who can cover Dez Bryant, especially one on one. The Seahawks have both. I don’t expect it to be high scoring, but Seattle will win.
(1) New England Patriots 27, (4) Baltimore Ravens 24. Let’s just hope I reverse curse this because I have no freaking interest in watching these two teams play each other. It’s a nightmare for every Pats fan. On the flip side, it’s always a close and highly entertaining game. I’d take the Colts any day of the week. However, with a much improved front seven and with the secondary not having Torrey Smith to deal with, this shouldn’t be quite the fiasco of a game it was last year. I hope. Fingers crossed.
(3) Indianapolis Colts 27, (2) Denver Broncos 17. Did I just set up the exact same AFC Divisional round as last year? Oops. Either way the Broncos doom themselves by having to play outside, in January, with a quarterback who can’t feel his fingers on a warm day. Peyton really did himself in when he chose to play outdoors in Mile-High instead of down in Miami, or somewhere else warm. I think he wanted to shake the “fair weather quarter back” label, but he has failed.
(1) Green Bay Packers 28, (2) Seattle Seahawks 20. I think the Packers learn from their mistakes and attack the Seahawks more aggressively. Not to discredit what is one of the NFL’s all-time great secondaries, but Seattle does a lot of its work on reputation. Tom Brady threw an NFL record for passes in the Super Bowl, to go along with 4 touchdowns. If you attack the Seahawks with short passes, and can get some ground game going (which the Packers can do, unlike the Patriots), you can win. Luckily for the Packers they have the only quarterback in the NFL currently better than Tom Brady.
(1) New England Patriots 41, (3) Indianapolis Colts 24. Yes, this again. The Colts have lost four straight games to the Patriots by getting bowled over on the ground. Knowing that, they went into this off season and….spent a bunch of money on skill position players. They’re best run stuffer, Arthur Jones (Chandler’s brother!), is now out for the season. I, quite honestly, can’t for one iota of a moment fathom why the heck the Colts didn’t address their D-Line issues. It’s almost as if their owner is a drunk drug abuser. Oh wait… too soon? One thing I do know is that they had a perfect player in the draft in Malcolm Brown, and instead opted to take Phillip Dorsett – who is basically T.Y. Hilton 2.0. The off-season certainly does not win Super Bowls; but it most definitely can lose them.
Super Bowl L:
New England Patriots 31, Green Bay Packers 27. Sorry readers. I can’t pick against Tom Brady in a Super Bowl even if Aaron Rodgers is healthy. In all honesty this is too close to call. It comes down to how Malcolm Butler and the Patriots’ secondary plays all season, and whether they can step up and be above average. Without Jordy Nelson Bill Belichick can get a lot more creative with how the defense attacks; and he doesn’t have to worry about one of the league’s best receivers. Randall Cobb is great in the slot, but he’s largely great because he’s Jordy’s #2. He will put up big numbers as the #1; but he lacks Jordy’s downfield speed and his hands, and that’s tough.
I know people out there will be disappointed I chose the Patriots again… and tough cookies. If there was another team in the AFC that was remotely as good as they are there might be a chance. But there isn’t. And as good as the NFC team will be in the Super Bowl (be it the Pack or the ‘Hawks) there is no one better at game planning specifically for one team than Bill Belichick. Regardless of the gap between the ’14 defense and the ’15 defense, one thing is for sure: they are a heck of a lot better than the ’07 and ’12 defenses that were both one missed play away from a title (excuse me while I go vomit).
Now that we’re done looking ahead let’s do picks for this weekend. A reminder that these are based on point spread not pick-em (home team in CAPS)
NEW ENGLAND (-6.5) over Pittsburgh. Does anyone expect this to be close? No Martavius Bryant or Le’Veon Bell for the Steelers and a whole lotta steam to blow off for Brady and the Pats. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them drop 50. Key Thing to watch for: in his first game as the #1 cornerback, Super Bowl Hero Malcolm Butler has to contain Antonio Brown. Talk about getting thrown into the fire.
ST. LOUIS (+4.5) over Seattle. Let me be clear: I’m not saying the Rams are going to win. But they are at home, and I think they are going to be a lot feistier than people think this year. Key Thing to watch for: I expect Seattle’s re-tooled O-line to struggle against the Rams’ stacked front seven.
Green Bay (-3.5) over CHICAGO. Can someone explain to me why this line is only 3.5? Has anyone watched the Bears recently? Key Thing to watch for: How the Pack adjusts to the loss of Jordy Nelson.
Kansas City (+2.5) over HOUSTON. The Arian Foster injury is HUGE for Houston. Alfred Blue is just not very good. Houston’s defense is. Brian Hoyer is going to be eaten alive. Key Thing to watch for: Jeremy Maclin makes his Chiefs debut; will the Chiefs throw a TD to a wide receiver this year? I can’t wait to find out!
NEW YORK JETS (-2.5) over Cleveland. Because Josh McCown is not the answer (P.S. I would suggest not betting on this game). Key Thing to watch for: How will New York’s defense look under new coach Todd Bowles?
Miami (-1.5) over WASHINGTON. I am not aboard the Dolphins band wagon, but I also think that the Washington Professional Football Team might be the worst in the NFL this year. Key Thing to watch for: Kirk Cousins is worse than RG3. I guarantee it.
Carolina (-2.5) over JACKSONVILLE. With Julius Thomas out this line should be higher. The Panthers are going to have problems on offense, but the Jags aren’t remotely good enough to challenge them. Key Thing to watch for: Will Blake Bortles suck again in year two?
BUFFALO (+2.5) over Indianapolis. UPSET OF THE WEEK ALERT! Yes, I think the Bills might even – *gasp* – win this game! Sure, their offensive line is terrible. But it’s not as bad as the Colts’ defensive line. Run to victory LeSean, RUN! Key Thing to watch for: Tyrod Taylor’s goal for the season is to not lose the team any games. How will he fare in week 1?
Detroit (+2) over SAN DIEGO. Remind me: who is covering Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate? Key Thing to watch for: How fast does Melvin Gordon come out of the gate?
New Orleans (+2) over ARIZONA. This line mystifies me as well. Arizona was highly overrated last year and, while I think they will be decent this year, they still don’t deserve to be favored in this game. Key Thing to watch for: How run-heavy will the Saints’ re-tooled offense be?
Cincinnati (-3) over OAKLAND. Yep, they’re still Oakland. Key Thing to watch for: my Rookie of the Year pick Amari Cooper appearing in his first game! I can’t wait to watch him run routes.
Baltimore (+4) over DENVER. I just have a feeling that Peyton is going to get eaten alive in this game. First game for Gary Kubiak, and I have no idea what to expect from their offense. Kubiak traditionally revolves around a run-heavy zone-blocking scheme mixed with lots of play action. It worked great with Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Unfortunately, Peyton Manning has legs of stone. Plus, I’m pretty sure the Ravens are familiar with the scheme…. Key Thing to watch: How does Kubiak combine his offense with the one Peyton has run for the last decade?
TAMPA BAY (-2.5) over Tennessee. I don’t expect Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota to fare very well during this game. So I expect Tampa’s D to carry it to a close victory. Key Thing to watch: The #1 and #2 picks in the draft going at it? Duh.
DALLAS (-5) over New York Giants. I just don’t know what to think about the Giants anymore. I do know that I expect Dallas to be pretty damn good. So I’m taking them. Key Thing to watch for: Who starts at running back for Dallas and can they take advantage of the routinely massive holes in front of them?
Philadelphia (-1) over ATLANTA. If this line was any higher I might move on it. Either way it’s Dan Quinn’s first season as head coach, and I think this playoff preview (see above) will end with the Eagles taking the victory lap. I don’t think the Falcons defense will be ready to deal with the polish of Philly’s offense. Key Thing to watch: How does Chip Kelly split snaps between his shiny new RBs (DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews) and Darren Sproles? Fantasy owners need to know.
Minnesota (+4.5) over SAN FRANCISCO. The team that just lost its head coach and half of its defensive starters is favored by 4.5 over a team that many are picking to make the playoffs? No thanks. I think AP is going All Day on this one, and I’m looking forward to the continuing development of Teddy Bridgewater. That, and I expect another rough season in the Bay. Key Thing to watch for: Can the Niners offense begin to take a step forward after being carried by its defense for years? That’s their only hope.
We’ll be back next week. Until then, follow me on twitter: @swarbleflop.