Thursday, September 8, 2016

Jeremy's Anything Is Possible NFL Preview

This guy isn't going to win the Super Bowl again. I think.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Football season is back!

Just like last year, I'm running through all 32 teams and offering three potential paths for their season. One has the glass half-full (or, really, the glass full-full), one has the glass half-empty (or, well, the glass all-empty), and one last path that I deem the most realistic, and hence will serve as my nominal "prediction" for that team.

I stayed mostly vague in terms of playoff results in the realistic sections. The reason for that is that I find most pre-season predictions to be largely stupid. Looking at the landscape of the league, the NFC is incredibly top-heavy (Carolina, Arizona, Seattle, Green Bay) but then a whole bunch of riff-raff (it was hard to talk myself into anyone at all taking the last playoff spot in the NFC). Meanwhile, the AFC really only has one truly great team (New England), followed by maybe nine different teams that seem to have a reasonable-or-better chance at grabbing a playoff spot (Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver, Indianapolis, Oakland, Buffalo, New York). But, each of those teams have obvious flaws that are likely to be exposed in the playoffs (which we'll talk about in their respective sections).

Here's where my complaint comes in - when you're picking a Super Bowl winner, you're really picking the team most likely to REACH the Super Bowl. There's no way to reasonably project what teams will look like in five months, so saying "I like Carolina to win the Super Bowl because I think they'd beat Cincinnati" is just stupid. Once you're in the Super Bowl, it's effectively a coin-flip. As such, the most logical pick is to take the team that has the biggest gap between them and the rest of the conference, and that team seems to be New England. They're the team most likely to win the Super Bowl, if only because they're the team most likely to reach the Super Bowl (unless you're convinced that each of the top four teams in the NFC is better than them, which I find dubious).

So, purely based on probability, I'd pick New England to win the Super Bowl. To pick an NFC team, using effectively the same criteria (the team most likely to dominate their division and get a first-round bye), I'd avoid both of the NFC West teams, because only one of them can win the division. I'd go with either Carolina or Green Bay, and probably end up taking Green Bay (just because regression is likely to hurt Carolina but help the Packers).

So, yeah. This is the roundabout way of saying I like New England over Green Bay in the Super Bowl. Death Threats can be sent to 321 Getoutamy Way, Dontmesswith TX

Without further ado, my best-case/worst-case NFL Preview.

(Just a heads up, this runs over 8,000 words, so just scroll down to your favorite team if you want to. All of the teams are made nice and bold and easy to find, hopefully.)

Happy Football.

Arizona Cardinals
2015 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9.5 (-230 Over; +190 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Carson Palmer continues to turn back the clock, and the deep stable of Arizona wide receivers provide the Cardinals once again with one of the best passing attacks in the league. Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington stay healthy and complement David Johnson, forming the deepest group of running backs in the league. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson anchor one of the league's top secondaries, buoyed by an improved pass rush with the addition of Chandler Jones. With Carolina regressing, Arizona steals the No. 1 seed in the NFC and rides home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: Carson Palmer falls apart at age 36 and Arizona can't pick up the pieces. Ellington and Chris Johnson fall to injuries again and David Johnson can't handle the load of being the feature back for the full season. Seattle re-claims the NFC West and Arizona stumbles to a 7-9 finish.

Real-Case Scenario: Palmer and the offense take a step back, but not substantially. The Cardinals are competitive, but not dominant. Their depth at running back and wide receiver keep the offense afloat regardless of how much, if any, Palmer regresses. The defense remains top notch, and Arizona cruises to a playoff spot in a suddenly-weak NFC. 

Atlanta Falcons
2015 Record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (+130 Over; -150 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Matt Ryan enjoys a bounce-back year and re-establishes himself as a top-flight quarterback in the league. Tevin Coleman (last year's Week 1 starter, everyone forgets) and Devonta Freeman combine for the league's best 1-2 combo at running back. Mohamed Sanu gives the Falcons a reliable 2nd receiver for the first time in years, and Julio Jones is as deadly as he's ever been. The defense starts to gel in Year 2 under Dan Quinn, and the Falcons upset Carolina in Week 16 for the NFC South crown.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defense regresses, Mohamed Sanu can't take pressure off Roddy White, and Matt Ryan continues to struggle with turnovers. Their second-half stumble from last year carries over and the Falcons find themselves in the cellar of the NFC South.

Real-Case Scenario: The offense finds more balance, and the defense performs well enough to keep them competitive. When Ryan plays well, Atlanta wins. When he plays poorly, Atlanta loses. Being a slightly above-average quarterback, that ends up being good enough for Atlanta to get to 9 wins and steal the final NFC Playoff spot.

Baltimore Ravens
2015 Record: 5-11 (3rd in AFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8.5 (+110 Over; -130 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Joe Flacco returns from his injury and returns to throwing some of the best deep balls in the NFL. Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken remain two of the best vertical threats in the league, and newcomer Mike Wallace enjoys a bounce-back year thanks to a quarterback willing to take shots downfield. Buck Allen and Justin Forsett form a good 1-2 punch at running back, and the Ravens surprise with a top-5 offense. The defense is respectable-or-better yet again, and the Ravens surprise their way to an AFC North crown.

Worst-Case Scenario: Flacco is back, but it's clear that he's not recovered from his ACL tear. The vertical passing attack never materializes, and defenses just load the box to take away the ground game. The lack of top-end talent on defense finally catches up with them, and the Ravens crater to a 3-13 finish.

Real-Case Scenario: Forsett and Allen are good, but not great. Smith, Aiken, and Wallace are good, but not great. Flacco is good, but not great. The defense is good, but not great. The Ravens finish around .500, but not good enough to make the playoffs in a deep AFC.

Buffalo Bills
2015 Record: 8-8 (3rd in AFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8 (+130 Over; -150 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Tyrod Taylor was no fluke. He's a legit dual-threat quarterback, and together with a healthy LeSean McCoy and an improved Sammy Watkins, put together the most surprisingly explosive offense in the league. The secondary remains perhaps the best in the AFC, and Rex Ryan's creative blitzes put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to turn the defense into a top-10 outfit. The Bills steal a game in New England with Tom Brady out of the lineup, then upset the Brady-led Pats when they come to Buffalo at the end of November. With the tiebreaker in tow, an 11-5 record steals them the AFC East crown.

Worst-Case Scenario: Tyrod Taylor was a fluke. In Year 2, now that there's ample tape to study, defenses figure out that he's really not that accurate of a passer. His interception rate spikes upwards, and the defense crumbles a bit with so many possessions starting in their own territory. LeSean McCoy once again goes down with injury, and the passing attack takes a huge step back with no second receiver to deflect attention from Watkins. The Bills finish 4-12.

Real-Case Scenario: Taylor's interception rate does spike, but not enough to ruin the season. Maybe he gets hurt and misses a start or two, but Cardale Jones surprises everyone by playing well and starting a semi-legitimate quarterback controversy. McCoy also misses a few games, but Buffalo's depth at running back keeps them semi-afloat. The Bills are good but not great, and their injuries trip them up just short of a playoff spot.

Carolina Panthers
2015 Record: 15-1 (1st in AFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 10.5 (-105 Over; -115 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Remember the team from last year? Take them, subtract an overrated cornerback (really, it's Carolina's front seven that makes life extremely easy for the secondary) in Josh Norman, and add a wide receiver that went for 1000 yards and 9 touchdowns in his rookie season in Kelvin Benjamin. Oh, and put another year under the belt of Devin Funchess. With two of the biggest, most physical receivers in the league on the outside, Carolina's offense becomes somehow even more deadly than last year and they make another run at an undefeated season.

Worst-Case Scenario: Jonathan Stewart goes down with an injury early in the season and suddenly Carolina's underratedly bleak depth at running back is exposed. Norman proves to be way more valuable than anyone even realized, and a weaker secondary combined with a suddenly disappearing pass-rush makes the defense suddenly not so untouchable. Teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay are vastly improved, and Carolina is suddenly in a fight to even with the division.

Real-Case Scenario: Cam Newton returns from the loss in the Super Bowl with something to prove, and lays waste to the league for at least the first half of the year. In a weak division, Carolina sets the tone early and opens up a three-game lead almost immediately. A few hiccoughs and natural regression prevent another 15-1 campaign, but Carolina remains an elite team in the NFC.

Chicago Bears
2015 Record: 6-10 (4th in NFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (+145 Over; -165 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: As the great Stan Marsh once said to Jay Cutler, "you kinda suck but my dad said you might be good someday." Well, inexplicably, at age 33, Jay Cutler finally breaks through with a career season. In 2015, he posted the highest QB Rating of his career, and the lowest interception rate of any full season, not that anybody noticed. This year, with 2015's 1st-Round pick Kevin White finally healthy, an improved offensive line, and an underrated group of running backs, Cutler finally puts it all together and leads Chicago to a playoff berth thanks to the decline of pretty much the entire NFC outside of Carolina, Seattle, and Arizona.

Worst-Case Scenario: Cutler's sudden "improvement" last year was a mirage. His turnover rate spikes back up, and Chicago's offense is thrust into chaos with the loss of their engine, Matt Forte. The defense is once again hapless, and John Fox is the first coach fired.

Real-Case Scenario: The NFC North is slightly worse than it was last year, with an injury to Teddy Bridgewater and Detroit likely taking another step backwards. Chicago is able to pick up some of the pieces, enough to leapfrog them out of last place in the division, but not quite enough to put them in line for a playoff spot.

Cincinnati Bengals
2015 Record: 12-4 (1st in AFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9.5 (-110 Over; -110 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: All the hand-wringing over Cincinnati's lack of depth at wide receiver proves to be unfounded. Tyler Boyd steps in from day 1 and takes the baton from Keenan Allen, Odell Beckham, and Amari Cooper as The Rookie Wide Receiver Who Is An Impact Player Right Away, and Brandon LaFell proves that last year's disastrous season in New England won't carry over into this one. Andy Dalton remains healthy all year, and Cincinnati cruises to the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

Worst-Case Scenario: A.J. Green goes down for the season in Week 2, and nobody else on the receiving corps is ready to pick up the slack. With Cincinnati's most "reliable" receivers being James Wright (five career catches) and Giovani Bernard (a running back), Cincinnati's passing offense plummets to the bottom-five in the league. The defense is good enough to keep them competitive, but Pittsburgh surges to the AFC North crown and improved seasons from Indianapolis, Oakland and a few AFC East teams leave Cincinnati missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Real-Case Scenario: Green stays healthy, but people are right - the Cincinnati passing attack just isn't as good with no reliable second receiver. Tyler Boyd is good, but not good enough to take Cincinnati to the next level. Dalton does the best he can with the pieces he has, and the running game and defense are good enough to put Cincinnati back atop the AFC North. However, they have enough holes on offense to keep them short of the Super Bowl yet again.

Cleveland Browns
2015 Record: 3-13 (4th in AFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 4.5 (-135 Over; +115 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Reasonably healthy for the first time in four years, Robert Griffin quarterbacks a suddenly "how-the-hell-are-they-this-good?" offense. Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell complement each other perfectly at running back, Corey Coleman is the dynamic downfield threat that he promises to be right away, and Josh Gordon returns after four games to give Cleveland the best wide receiver combination in the division. The defense performs at near league-average levels and the Browns somehow steal a playoff spot at 10-6.

Worst-Case Scenario: There's a reason why Robert Griffin didn't play at all last year despite being healthy - it's because he's just not good anymore. Johnson and Crowell and mediocre at best, Coleman learns that there's more to being an NFL receiver than just running fast in straight lines, and Gordon finds himself incredibly rusty after playing just five games in two years. With the offense never getting off the ground, there's no rest for the defense. Both units bottom out and the Browns go 2-14.

Real-Case Scenario: The Griffin reclamation project goes well enough that it's not considered an unmitigated disaster, but not well enough that it makes much of a tangible difference for Cleveland's season. The offensive weapons all have their moments, but there just isn't enough consistency on that side of the ball to make up for a bad defense. The Browns show promise, but still bring up the rear in the AFC North.

Dallas Cowboys
2015 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8.5 (+120 Over; -140 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Tony Romo's injury proves to be not such a big deal when Dak Prescott lights the world on fire and turns out to be the Tom Brady to Romo's Drew Bledsoe. Prescott is a Russell Wilson-esque dual-threat quarterback, and utterly unleashes Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliot. Behind what remains the best offensive line in football, Dallas explodes with the most efficient offense in the league. When Romo returns, Prescott transitions into a package player and remains one of the most valuable pieces on the team. When Romo goes down with injury again later in the year, Prescott is named the permanent starter and leads Dallas back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the mid-90s.

Worst-Case Scenario: Prescott's pre-season prowess is irrelevant, and defenses completely swallow up the Dallas offense. By the time Romo is ready to return to the lineup, the Cowboys have already fallen to 2-6 and are all but out of the NFC East hunt. The Cowboys turn it around (to a degree) in the second half, but still finish well out of the playoff picture.

Real-Case Scenario: Prescott plays reasonably well, but not nearly enough to start a quarterback controversy. Elliot is the best running back in his class, making an impact right away not unlike Todd Gurley did last year. The Cowboys remain in the hunt until Romo gets healthy, at which point an efficient offense reminiscent of their stellar 2014 season returns, leading Dallas to the NFC East crown.

Denver Broncos
2015 Record: 12-4 (1st in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9.5 (+130 Over; -150 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Trevor Siemian is the real deal, and Denver's offense actually takes a step forward after last year's disappointment with a never-quite-that-healthy-or-effective Peyton Manning. Demaryius Thomas re-establishes himself as among the best handful of wide receivers in the league, and Emmanuel Sanders reclaims the throne as the best No. 2 receiver in the league. Running back remains a fungible position in Denver, as anyone they plug in seems to find seams in their zone-blocking scheme, and the still-dominant defense carries them the rest of the way back to the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: Siemian plays exactly like you'd expect someone who was the 250th selection in the draft to play. With the quarterback play below-average at best, Thomas and Sanders both struggle to make plays. With no passing attack to protect it, the ground game struggles as well behind a poor offensive line. Denver's offense drops to the cellar of the league, and with the defense seeing regression of it's own, Denver goes from Super Bowl champions to the worst team in the league in just a single season.

Real-Case Scenario: The defense is still going to be great. Everyone knows this. There's just too much talent on that side of the ball for them not to be. However, Siemian can't hack it and the Broncos turn to Paxton Lynch by Halloween. Lynch is better than Siemian, but it's clear that he's still at least a year away. With such an important position in flux all year, Denver slips substantially and spends the last few weeks clawing to even just (maybe) get into the playoffs.

Detroit Lions
2015 Record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7 (-140 Over; +120 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Detroit moves on surprisingly well after Calvin Johnson's retirement - Golden Tate steps into the No. 1 role, and an improved Eric Ebron and newcomer Marvin Jones pick up a lot of the leftover slack. Theo Riddick cements himself as the best receiving back in football and Ameer Abdullah picks up where he left off during the second half of last season. Ziggy Ansah emerges as the best pass-rusher in football and Detroit somehow pieces together an above-average defense. With Minnesota taking a step back, Detroit wins 10 games and snags a playoff spot.

Worst-Case Scenario: Without his favorite target, Matthew Stafford can't find a rhythm, and without a reliable deep target, the entire offense falls apart. Ziggy Ansah is a singular talent and Glover Quin is among the best safeties in the league, but there isn't enough talent throughout the rest of the defense to make the unit good enough. With Stafford throwing interceptions left and right, the Lions finish 5-11.

Real-Case Scenario: Losing Calvin Johnson is obviously going to hurt, but Marvin Jones and the ageless Anquan Boldin are going to help out. It will be a more balanced attack - not necessarily a better one, but more balanced. The defense should hopefully be better just thanks to continuity - they're returning just about every relevant player. They'll be better than they were last year, but not quite good enough to steal a playoff spot.

Green Bay Packers
2015 Record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 11 (-110 Over; -110 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: With Jordy Nelson back in the fold, Green Bay's offense returns to 2014 form when they led the league in scoring. Eddie Lacy has a bounce-back season, as does Randall Cobb, and Jared Cook gives them the vertical threat at tight end that they've lacked for years. With four defensive selections in the first four rounds in this past draft, they've once again re-stocked on defense and they're a top-10 unit on that side. Aaron Rodgers wins the MVP and Green Bay wins the NFC.

Worst-Case Scenario: Despite returning to the lineup, Jordy Nelson still isn't right physically and can't make the plays Green Bay needs him to. Without a reliable outside receiver, Cobb and Cook struggle in the middle. Eddie Lacy once again disappoints and the Packers' offense is average-at-best again. If anyone else in the NFC North gets to 9 wins, Green Bay might not even make the playoffs.

Real-Case Scenario: With Teddy Bridgewater out of the picture, it would take an act of God for Green Bay to not win the division. If Nelson is at his worst, the Packers will be around 10-6 and probably won't have much of a bite in the playoffs. If Nelson is at his best, the Packers might go 13-3 and be the best team in the NFC.

Houston Texans
2015 Record: 9-7 (1st in AFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8.5 (-120 Over; Even Under)

Best-Case Scenario: They were 9-7, won their division, and they just upgraded at quarterback and running back, invested a first-round pick on another high-upside wide receiver, and are returning the entire core of last-year's No. 3 defense. If the newcomers impress, and Jadeveon Clowney can turn his career around, and the Patriots struggle early in the year without Tom Brady, this could be the best team in the AFC.

Worst-Case Scenario: What if it turns out that Brock Osweiler isn't actually that good? What if it turns out that J.J. Watt's injury is more serious than Houston is letting on? If both of those questions turn out for the worse for Houston, this could be a 5-11 team.

Real-Case Scenario: Indianapolis is poised for a bounce-back year, but top to bottom, this is still the best team in the division. Osweiler and Lamar Miller are obvious upgrades over Brian Hoyer and Alfred Blue, and it will be interesting to see what the offense is able to do with Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. Houston shouldn't have much trouble getting into the playoffs, and they might be able to make a decent run.

Indianapolis Colts
2015 Record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9 (+125 Over; -145 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Andrew Luck is back and ready to put himself back on the map, and T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief combine for more receiving yards than any other duo in the league. First-round pick Ryan Kelly steps in immediately at center and revitalizes the offensive line, and Frank Gore rushes for 1000 yards after struggling last year. The defense is still a work in progress, but the offense is good enough to put Indianapolis back atop the AFC South.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defense is terrible. There's really no getting around that. So is the offensive line. Andrew Luck takes a pounding again, and they can't open running lanes for Gore. With no time in the pocket to set up a vertical passing game, the Indianapolis offense once again falters. This season, their luck in close games (6-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown in 2015) finally runs out and they fall all the way to 6-10.

Real-Case Scenario: Luck will be back and be healthy, but the offensive line and the defense are still well below average. They'll be entertaining to watch, and will score enough points to keep themselves competitive, but they're a class below Houston in the division. If the Texans stumble, Indianapolis has a puncher's chance to make the playoffs, but it's a slim chance.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 Record: 5-11 (3rd in AFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (-125 Over; +105 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Blake Bortles takes a huge leap in Year 3, and Allen's Robinson and Hurns each accrue over 1000 yards again. T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory provide a nice thunder-and-lightning combination in the backfield, and a healthy Julius Thomas gives them another target over the middle of the field. Gus Bradley gets all the young talent on defense (Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Dante Fowler) to mesh and the unit improves substantially. Houston and Indianapolis both struggle out of the gate and Jacksonville takes advantage of an easy early schedule to build a lead in the division that they never relinquish.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defense continues to be among the worst units in the league, but this year, Hurns and Robinson struggle to repeat last year's performance, and Chris Ivory proves to be a bad fit for the offense. They struggle in the trenches and can never find an offensive foothold. With no defense to buoy them, Jacksonville finishes 3-13.

Real-Case Scenario: Baby steps. They were 5-11 last year, and should expect improvement from their young talent. The rest of the division all improved in their own way, however, so don't expect Jacksonville to grab the division by the throat anytime soon. They'll be a fun underdog and score enough points to keep games interesting, but 7-9 is about the best they can hope for.

Kansas City Chiefs
2015 Record: 11-5 (2nd in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9.5 (-135 Over; +115 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: With Denver's quarterback situation in flux, Kansas City is the heir apparent in the AFC West. Their 10-game winning streak to end last season continues into this one and the Chiefs surge to the top of the division. Now that they know Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware can hold their own in the running game, they can afford to spell Jamaal Charles, keeping him fresh for the full season. Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce give the passing game some pop and the Chiefs ride a 13-3 record to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Worst-Case Scenario: Jamaal Charles goes down with yet another knee injury, and joins defensive stars Justin Houston and Tamba Hali on the sidelines. The loss of cornerback Sean Smith in free agency also hurts, and the defense free-falls to the bottom half of the league. With an offense that lacks explosion, the Chiefs can't muster enough points to take the division crown, and they miss the playoffs at 7-9.

Real-Case Scenario: It seems logical that Denver would take a small step back. If Kansas City can just go 11-5 again, they should take the division. They're banged up to start the year, but they've spent the last handful of years building depth at important positions (pretty much everywhere except wide receiver). Their stable of running backs should keep the offense efficient enough that they can wait for their defense to get healthy. From there, 10 or 11 wins gets them the division crown.

Los Angeles Rams
2015 Record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (+190 Over; -230 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Jared Goff is a revelation immediately, forever altering the careers of Tavon Austin and any other wide receiver that crosses his path. After what was by far the worst passing offense in the league last year, any improvement represents a potential leap forward in offensive production. Todd Gurley makes his case for being the best running back in the league, and the defense once again is the best unit in the league that nobody seems to talk about much. The NFC West is a bloodbath, but the Rams navigate their way through it well enough to eek out a playoff bid at 10-6.

Worst-Case Scenario: Jared Goff isn't any better than Nick Foles and Case Keenum. Their talent at wide receiver is sparse enough as it is, and with Goff struggling, they just can't make plays in the passing game. Despite all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the defense struggles without enough talent in the back seven. Jeff Fisher's nightmare of mediocrity is over, and this is the year the Rams finally bottom out at 3-13.

Real-Case Scenario: They'll probably go 7-9 again.

Miami Dolphins
2015 Record: 6-10 (4th in AFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7 (+110 Over; -130 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Adam Gase steps in and turns Miami's offense into an explosive force. Ryan Tannehill is a great athlete who can throw on the move, and Miami has four supremely talented receivers in Jarvis Landry, DaVante Parker, Kenny Stills, and Rishard Matthews. Arian Foster stays healthy for the first time since 2012 and Miami pieces together a top-5 offense. All of the assembled talent on defense (Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, Kiko Alonso, Byron Maxwell) work together to give Miami a top-10 unit on that side of the ball as well, and Miami shocks the league by beating New England twice (once with Brady, once without) en route to a 12-4 season and a first-round bye.

Worst-Case Scenario: As it turns out, Ryan Tannehill just isn't that good. Sure, he's got a big arm and he can run, but he doesn't quite grasp the nuances of being a quarterback. Arian Foster gets hurt again and there's no depth behind him. The assembled talent on defense looks great on paper until you realize that (a) they've never played together before, and (b) outside of them, there's no talent on defense anywhere. Miami struggles through another embarrassing season and finishes 5-11.

Real-Case Scenario: For as long as Foster is healthy and Tannehill is on top of his game, the offense should actually be pretty good. And for as long as the defense can play as a unit, the defense should actually be pretty good. The obvious questions are how long (if any length at all) those time frames will be. If we split the difference with a reasonable amount of time (say, half the season), Miami will probably finish around 8-8.

Minnesota Vikings
2015 Record: 11-5 (1st in NFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 9 (-110 Over; -110 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: It turns out everything that went wrong in Philadelphia was Chip Kelly's fault. Back in a pro-style offense in Minnesota with the best running back of the generation behind him, suddenly Sam Bradford looks like the former No. 1 overall pick that Philadelphia thought they were getting last year. The Stefon Diggs we saw from Week 4 through Week 10 re-emerges, supported by rookie Laquon Treadwell (all things considered, the best candidate to be this year's standout rookie receiver). With the defense once again one of the best in the league, Minnesota doesn't miss a beat and wins the NFC North once again.

Worst-Case Scenario: It wasn't Chip Kelly's fault. Sam Bradford just isn't any good. With a bad quarterback and nobody that dangerous at receiver, Adrian Peterson has a season to forget. The defense is once again stellar, but not good enough to save Minnesota's season. They finish 6-10 and start counting the days until their real quarterback returns.

Real-Case Scenario: Bradford is an upgrade over who they would have had to use (Shaun Hill), but ultimately, not worth the first-round pick they had to give up to get him. Ultimately, it's a year of Peterson's (seemingly endless) prime wasted, and the clock is ticking.

New England Patriots
2015 Record: 12-4 (1st in AFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 10.5 (-135 Over; +115 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Wouldn't you know it, but Jimmy Garoppolo might have learned a thing or three sitting behind Tom Brady for the last few years. The Patriots jump out to a 3-1 start, and Brady returns to the lineup with something to prove. In full-on F-You mode, the Patriots finish 14-2 and kick ass and take names through the AFC Playoffs on their way back to the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: With Tom Brady, the Patriots seem to go 12-4 every year. The last time they finished worse than 12-4 was 2009. It's been that long. So, if we prorate that 12-4 year into the 12 games that Brady will play, that's a 9-3 record. Now, let's say the Patriots struggle with Garoppolo and win just one of the four games. That makes a 10-6 season for the Patriots. If someone else in the division steps up and ties the Patriots at 10-6, New England could miss out on the division crown. If the AFC North and AFC West were as strong as they were last year, 10-6 might not even be enough for a wild card.

Real-Case Scenario: The Patriots will probably go 2-2 with Garoppolo, and around 9-3 with Brady. The AFC East doesn't look particularly strong, so 11-5 will, in all likelihood, be good enough to take the division. Once they're in the playoffs, the Patriots are clearly the class of the AFC. With Denver's quarterback situation such a huge question mark, as well as Cincinnati's depth at the skill positions, the Patriots are the most likely pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

New Orleans Saints
2015 Record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (+110 Over; -130 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: The additions of Coby Fleener and Michael Thomas give the Saints two more weapons than they had last year, when they only threw for over 5200 yards as a club. Mark Ingram was on a roll until he got hurt, then Tim Hightower came in and continued their improvement on the ground. This year, both are healthy and ready to go. They added talent on defense with two high draft picks (Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell) and it's seemingly impossible for them to be any worse on that end than they were last year. With a vaguely improved defense and the usually explosive offense, the Saints grab a wild card berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: The reason the defense can't be any worse than it was last year is because they finished dead last or next-to-last in just about every relevant category. Opposing quarterbacks threw for 4500 yards and 45 touchdowns. They also surrendered 4.9 yards per carry. Somehow, those numbers get even worse this year, and the Saints never overcome their defensive woes on their way to a 4-12 season.

Real-Case Scenario: The defense is bad. Really bad. But hopefully, it should be better with an infusion of young talent. The offense is good, as it always is. If Fleener and Thomas can contribute, and their running backs can stay healthy, there's no reason why the Saints can't stay in the fight for the playoffs all the way through Week 17.

New York Giants
2015 Record: 6-10 (3rd in NFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8.5 (-110 Over; -110 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: The Giants are rolling back every relevant player from last year's offense, plus they've worked Victor Cruz back into the lineup. Cruz hasn't played since 2014, but if he's healthy, he makes Odell Beckham even more dangerous. Rashad Jennings was able to stay healthy all year in 2015, and if he can do it again, New York will have a respectable running game to match their explosive aerial attack. They added Eli Apple in the draft and Janoris Jenkings in free agency to curb a porous pass defense last year, and also cut loose half of their starting secondary (Brandon Merriweather, Prince Amukamara). With a revamped back line, the Giants surge to an NFC East crown.

Worst-Case Scenario: Janoris Jenkins only looked good in St. Louis because of their awesome pass rush. Eli Apple flops in the same way Amukamara did when the Giants invested heavily in him. With another terrible defense, Eli and Odell aren't able to turn the season around, especially after Rashad Jennings goes down with an injury like he always does.

Real-Case Scenario: If Tony Romo comes back from injury quickly and/or Dak Prescott plays well in his absence, Dallas is the best team in the NFC East. If Tony Romo takes the full 10 weeks to recover and/or Dak Prescott plays like wet garbage in his absence, these New York Giants are the best team in the NFC East.

New York Jets
2015 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (-105 Over; -115 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Fresh off a career year at age 33, Ryan Fitzpatrick proves he was no fluke as he continues to sling the ball all over the field, and Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker again combine for north of 2500 receiving yards. Matt Forte takes over for Chris Ivory in the backfield, and while he's not as proficient as a runner, he's still one of the best receiving backs in the league. The defense once again added pieces in the draft, and another stellar year from that unit leads the Jets into the playoffs.

Worst-Case Scenario: Ryan Fitzpatrick completely falling apart, never to be seen from again, isn't exactly outside the realm of possibility. 2016 being the year that 31-year old Matt Forte and 32-year old Brandon Marshall totally crumble isn't either. If the engine of the offense can't get going, the defense just isn't good enough to keep them afloat. 6-10 would be the best they could hope for.

Real-Case Scenario: I think we've established over the last half-dozen years what Ryan Fitzpatrick brings to the table for your football team. He's not going to totally ruin your season, but he's not going to throw the team on his back and carry them to the playoffs, either. You can really only hope he limits the turnovers. If he has another season like he did last year, the Jets are probably a .500-or-better team. If the interception rate spikes, it's curtains for the Jets.

Oakland Raiders
2015 Record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 8.5 (-120 Over; Even Under)

Best-Case Scenario: In Amari Cooper, Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, and Latavius Murray, the Raiders have a young core that can grow old together. In 2016, they unexpectedly make a huge leap forward, thanks to some veteran additions like Sean Smith and Bruce Irvin. As the Broncos slide backwards, Oakland shocks the league with 11 wins and a division crown.

Worst-Case Scenario: After showing great progress last year, the Raiders decline in 2016. The new faces on defense just don't mesh well, and opposing defenses find ways to confuse a still-not-quite-ready Derek Carr. Lacking depth at the skill positions, any minor injury becomes a full-fledged cause for panic, and the Raiders fall to 5-11.

Real-Case Scenario: The Raiders have made incremental progress in each of the last few years, and this is the year they finally get over the hump. The Raiders haven't had a winning season since 2002 (and nine coaches over that span), but their budding talent on both sides of the ball, as well as a declining AFC West gets them to 9 wins - at least.

Philadelphia Eagles
2015 Record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 6.5 (+130 Over; -150 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Everything was Chip Kelly's fault. Under Doug Pederson, the Eagles are clicking on both sides of the ball. Carson Wentz is the surprise star rookie, Ryan Mathews stays healthy for the first time in forever, and the offense is shockingly efficient. The defense was good even before Kelly left, and the Eagles win the NFC East.

Worst-Case Scenario: Wentz sucks, Mathews gets hurt, and the defenses regresses. The 49ers win the Super Bowl, the Eagles go 2-14.

Real-Case Scenario: Well, they're starting a rookie quarterback out of North Dakota State, they have no depth at the skill positions (or really, anywhere), and they have a rookie coach. How would you expect this to go?

Pittsburgh Steelers
2015 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 10.5 (Even Over; -120 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league, and everyone knows this. But this is the year that Le'Veon Bell emerges as the de-facto best running back in football. Between that and a full season of Ben Roethlisberger (he only played 12 games last year), plus an improved defense, this is the year the Steelers finally break through grab a first-round bye. They upset the Patriots in the playoffs and advance all the way to the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: Roethlisberger gets hurt again, as does Bell, but this year, Landry Jones and DeAngelo Williams aren't able to step in and adequately replace them. Despite investing their top three picks all on defensive players, the unit struggles with a lack of top-end talent at any position. The Bengals surge to the AFC North title, and with improved seasons from Indianapolis, Oakland, and the AFC East, Pittsburgh finds itself on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Real-Case Scenario: Even with all the injuries last year, Pittsburgh was 4th in scoring offense and 3rd in total yards. They project to be a healthier team this year, so that can only mean the offense is again going to be top-notch. In a down year for the AFC North, Pittsburgh is all but guaranteed a playoff spot.

San Diego Chargers
2015 Record: 4-12 (4th in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (-120 Over; Even Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Joey Bosa signed just in time to turn San Diego's defense around. A singular force on the defensive front makes life easier for each of the other 10 guys on the field, and the Chargers put together a respectable run defense to go along with a quietly-actually-pretty-decent pass defense. Phil Rivers is still Phil Rivers, and with a new deep threat in town (Travis Benjamin), the offense opens up and the Chargers make the leap that everyone is expecting Oakland to make. The Chargers go 10-6 and win a wild card spot.

Worst-Case Scenario: Bosa signed just too late in the process to make an appreciable difference right away. He has talent, but he's not in football shape and can't be an impact player on every down. Melvin Gordon turns out to maybe be a bust, and with no running game to speak of, the offense can't survive by throwing the ball 50 times a game. With a bad defense and unreliable offense, the Chargers suffer double-digits in losses again.

Real-Case Scenario: Natural regression to the mean was going to help San Diego this year anyway (they were 4-12 but had the scoring margin of a 6-10 team). They added Bosa and Benjamin, and hired a new offensive coordinator in Ken Wisenhunt (say what you want about the guy, but he's had a lot of success as a coordinator). They're going to be better than they were last year, probably 6-10 or 7-9, but not good enough to fight for a playoff spot.

San Francisco 49ers
2015 Record: 5-11 (4th in NFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 5.5 (+125 Over; -145 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Chip Kelly is a genius after all, he just didn't have the pieces he needed in Philadelphia. Now that he's back to having a zone-read quarterback (Kaepernick) and a zone-read running back (Carlos Hyde), he's back to being an offensive wizard. The offense carries them, and with the North and East in shambles, and only one good team in the South, the 49ers make a surprise appearance in the playoffs at 9-7.

Worst-Case Scenario: Nah, Chip Kelly sucks after all. He goes with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, the Colin Kaepernick story becomes a huge distraction all year, and the 49ers just can't get out of their own way. Kelly gets fired and is dismissed as his generation's Mike Martz. The 49ers finish 1-15 and Michigan wins the College Football Playoff.

Real-Case Scenario: On paper, and in theory, this offense should be at least half-decent (assuming that Kaepernick is still capable of playing like he did in 2012 and 2013). If it comes to pass that Chip Kelly is a sane person, this San Francisco offense could surprise a few folks on their way to an unexpected 8-8 season.

Seattle Seahawks
2015 Record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 10.5 (-150 Over; +130 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Marshawn Lynch isn't missed at all as Thomas Rawls immediately emerges as a top-5 back in the league. Joined by Christine Michael (underrated power back) and C.J. Prosise (promising receiving back), the Seahawks have the most complete backfield in the league. Doug Baldwin continues on his tear from the second half of last season, and Tyler Lockett becomes the new Percy Harvin. The defense is dominant, as usual, and Russell Wilson emerges as the leading MVP candidate as Seattle plows through the league en route to a 14-2 season and a return to the Super Bowl.

Worst-Case Scenario: Very quietly, Seattle has been losing depth at key positions steadily over the last handful of years. Having cheap labor from star players (thanks to landing blue-chip talent in the late rounds) led to being able to spend a bunch in free agency to turn weaknesses into strengths and strengths into dominance. However, now that guys like Russell Wilson are making big bucks, they've had to tighten their belt in other places. What that means is - if they have rotten injury luck like the Giants or Ravens did last year, the Seahawks could suddenly find themselves a .500 team with a bunch of practice squad guys thrust into major roles.

Real-Case Scenario: As long as Wilson is healthy, the offense is going to be good. As long as the secondary is healthy, the defense is going to be good. It's really that simple. Barring catastrophic injuries to Wilson or half the starting secondary, the Seahawks should have no problem navigating a quietly cupcake schedule (two games against Arizona, plus Carolina and New England... but that's it) to at least 11 wins and yet another deep run in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2015 Record: 6-10 (4th in NFC South)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (Even Over; -120 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Based on his rookie season, it really seems like Jameis Winston is the real deal. He makes a huge leap forward in Year 2, and with career seasons from Doug Martin and Mike Evans, and a breakout year from Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, and a bounce-back year from Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay puts together an offensive somehow both explosive and efficient. Their talent on defense carries them the rest of the way to a playoff berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: Doug Martin has never been healthy for two consecutive years. He goes down, and the motor behind Tampa Bay's offense is suddenly gone. Winston struggles to adjust without a reliable running game, and the offense stalls. The secondary continues to slip and the Bucs find themselves unable to stop the pass, and hopeless of getting off the field on third down. The team has the worst time of possession in the league and they ride that curse all the way down to 5-11.

Real-Case Scenario: Winston takes a marginal step forward in Year 2, and Charles Sims serves as a nice safety blanket in case anything happens to Martin. The defense might regress a bit without Lovie Smith, but it also might improve with better health. The Bucs find themselves in the mix for a wild card spot for most of the year, but ultimately fall short.

Tennessee Titans
2015 Record: 3-13 (4th in AFC West)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 5.5 (-200 Over; +170 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Marcus Mariotta emerges as The Next Big Thing at quarterback, flanked by the angry, something-to-prove DeMarco Murray and rookie sensation Derrick Henry. The Titans rush for more yards than any team in the last decade, and it doesn't even matter that their best wide receiver is a rookie from UMass. Houston and Indianapolis stumble and the Titans find themselves winning the division at 9-7.

Worst-Case Scenario: DeMarco Murray is over the hill, and it had nothing to do with being in an offense that was a bad fit. Derrick Henry is just another big stiff Alabama running back that can't transition from college to the NFL (cough Trent Richardson cough cough sometimes Mark Ingram cough). With no running game and no weapons at wide receiver, the Titans have the worst offense the league has seen in the last decade and go 2-14.

Real-Case Scenario: The likelihood of Murray being washed up AND Henry being a bust is exceedingly unlikely. One of them is (or more likely, both of them are) going to be pretty good. If the running game is good enough, they can scheme ways to make plays in the passing game, even without great receivers (look at what Seattle and Carolina have done). However, that's a little bit down the road, and the defense isn't going to be scaring anybody. If they're lucky, they go 6-10, but they aren't coming anywhere close to the playoffs.

Washington Redskins
2015 Record: 9-7 (1st in NFC East)
2016 Vegas Win Expectation: 7.5 (-125 Over; +105 Under)

Best-Case Scenario: Kirk Cousins. You like that? Cousins returns and slings his way to another NFC East title. Jordan Reed makes a claim to be the best tight end in the league not named "Gronkowski," Matt Jones runs over would-be tacklers with aplomb, and Washington's stable of all-pretty-good-but-nobody-spectacular wide receivers causes fits for secondaries that lack coverage ability in their nickle and dime packages. Washington wins 10 games and the division.

Worst-Case Scenario: Cousins' interception rate spikes back up to its 2012-2014 levels (4.7 percent, compared to 2.0 percent last year). Matt Jones turns out to be, well, not that good (he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry last year - nobody is talking about this). DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon wash up, but Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson aren't ready for prime time. With a disappointing offense, Washington finishes 6-10.

Real-Case Scenario: Washington should expect some regression, but exactly how much will depend on Cousins' turnovers and Jones' ability as a feature back. If Jones sucks, it's not the end of the world - as a team, they were 30th in yards per carry last year and it didn't totally matter. If Cousins protects the ball, Washington is probably the favorite to repeat as division champions. But with as weird as this division has been over the last decade, it's more likely than not that someone else takes it and Washington misses the playoffs. 

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