Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Semi-Official, Overly-Exhaustive, Probably-Incorrect NFL Preview

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

[Extremely Andy Williams Voice]

It's beginning to look a lot like football.

We made it, folks. It only took us seven months, yet another Cavs-Dubs NBA Finals, a total solar eclipse, the death of Chuck Berry, The Oscars almost screwing up the Best Picture winner, O.J. Simpson's release from prison, and a devastating hurricane in east Texas, but we made it.

Football season is finally here.

In this space you'll find some bold predictions, some predictions less bold, some picks, some extensive thoughts, and some thoughts not extensive enough. Let's just start here...

Some Predictions That Probably Could Be Bolder, But We Want To Ease Our Way Into It

The heading pretty much says it all. You probably aren't going to read anything that you haven't read already leading into this season, or something that you haven't already thought of yourself. But we're putting ourselves on record with the following:

The Tennessee Titans Will Win The AFC South

With Andrew Luck out for the first few weeks of the season, and the Colts generally having one of the worst non-quarterback, non-wide receiver rosters in the league, I think it's probably a good bet that Indianapolis will regress from their 8-8 season of a year ago. The same goes for Houston, who somehow finished 9-7 despite being outscored by almost three points per game for the season. The Texans will come into the season with Tom Savage under center, with rookie DeShaun Watson waiting in the wings, neither of whom inspire much confidence.

Tennessee came damn close to winning the division last year, and the team should be better, especially on offense. Marcus Mariota enjoyed a strong sophomore season despite his leading receivers being Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews, and Tajae Sharp. This year, they added Eric Decker, and spent the 5th overall pick in the draft on Corey Davis, one of the highest-regarded wide receivers in the draft. The division seems wide open, and Tennessee seems to be poised to make a step forward.


Baltimore and Pittsburgh's Defenses Will Return to (Near) the Top of the League

While I certainly don't predict that either of these defenses will dominate the way they did at different times during the first decade of this century (and obviously this goes out the window if either group battles the injury bug), you have to admit there is some talent on both units.

Firstly, Baltimore's pair of inside linebackers will rank among the best in the league, as C.J. Mosley and Kamalei Correa both continue to develop. A healthy Terrell Suggs will go a long way, and Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith can still help hold that secondary together.

But Pittsburgh seems in line to make an even bigger jump, if the Steelers haven't already made it. Former first round pick Bud Dupree came on strong at the end of last season at outside linebacker, while another former first round pick, inside backer Ryan Shazier, could challenge Mosley for the title of best LB in the AFC North.

Add in the continued development of former first round pick (sensing a pattern here?) Artie Burns next to new addition Joe Haden (a former first round pick himself), plus the return of (former first round pick) Cam Heyward up front, and you have a defense that has no business ranking outside the Top 8 in most categories.


Oakland, Kansas City, and Dallas Will All Win Fewer Than 12 Games

Woah, Jeremy, really going out on a limb here. It's hard enough to go 12-4 or better the first time, but it's even harder to do it twice, especially when you consider there are a lot of factors working against you.

Kansas City went 12-4 last year, but had the scoring differential of a team that you'd expect to go 10-6. They lost Jeremy Maclin and didn't really replace him, they have a number of injuries among their running backs, and for how long do we really expect Alex Smith to keep this up? I wouldn't be shocked if we see Pat Mahomes get a few reps under center this year - it's a bit strange to see a team go 12-4 with a handful of serious question marks take a quarterback with the 10th overall pick. That's not where you draft a quarterback if you plan on sitting him on the bench all season, that's just my hunch.

Oakland also went 12-4 but got even luckier in close games than Kansas City did. They played 6 games decided by less than a touchdown, and five more games decided by 7 or 8 points, for a total of 11 games that you'd call "one-possession games" (that's how math works). They won 9 of those games. Going 9-2 in games decided by 8 points or less is mostly luck. Historically, the numbers would suggest you're way more likely to finish around .500 in those games unless you have a quarterback that wore number 18 or 12. Even beyond that - five of their wins came on scores in the final three minutes of regulation or in overtime, which means just five plays over the course of the season was potentially the difference between the Raiders being an extremely lucky 12-4 team or an extremely unlucky 7-9 team. In fact, their scoring margin suggests they were closer in quality to a 7-9 team to a 12-4 team. I'd bet on them finishing closer to the field.

And Dallas is somewhere in between Oakland and Kansas City - they weren't especially lucky in close games, but they didn't really have any "lay the smack down on another good team and put the league on notice games." They were just a generally above-average team that played pretty consistent football. Why will they regress? Well, it looks like they'll still be spending six games at some point without Ezekiel Elliot, who was effectively their entire offense last season. As a team, the Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards per rush, good for 3rd in the NFL. But among carrier that aren't named Ezekiel Elliot or Chris Jones (their punter who had one rush for 30 yards, we'll call that one an outlier), they ran 176 times for 735 yards, for 4.17 yards per carry, which would have been 18th in the league. If you just look at their non-Elliot running backs, they ran the ball 102 times for 361 yards, or just 3.5 yards per carry. That's not going to get in done. After playing the Giants in Week 1 (who they lost to twice last season), their next six games include road games against Denver, Arizona, and Washington, plus they host Green Bay. Those are five easily loseable games if their offensive engine isn't running. Throw in the usually-tough NFC East schedule, plus games against the above Chiefs and Raiders, as well as the Falcons and Seahawks, the Cowboys have one of the more difficult schedules in football this year. If they stumble out of the gate, then get a little less lucky in close games and with injuries, Dallas could finish a lot closer to .500 than people are expecting.


Tom Brady Won't Win the MVP

Taking the field over a particular player? HOW BOLD!

Well, it kind of is, seeing as Brady was basically snubbed for the award last year, and will have the added rub of "he's doin it without his best receivah! Lemme donate mah fahkin ACL to Edelman!" Seriously, Brady is going to put up huge numbers, lock up a first round bye, and have people saying he should have won it last year.

He's as close to a sure thing as you can get for this award, but I'm going with… Anybody else. The most likely candidate is probably Aaron Rodgers who, should he lead Green Bay to 12 or 13 wins, could prove to be the actual most valuable guy in the league. I mean, that defense blows, and I'm not sure the Packers front office ever remembered to add running backs.

But how about Russell Wilson? If he leads Seattle to the NFC's top seed behind a terrible offensive line, with "pretty good" weapons and a slightly regressing Legion of Boom, can we really deny him the award? How about if Le'Veon Bell comes out of his holdout fresh and leads the league in all-purpose yards, while helping the Steelers secure a first-round bye?

Look, I still think Brady is the heavy favorite, but if you're gonna let me pick the field, I'm almost always gonna do it…


Bold Predictions That Sound Way Less Bold When You Have To Couch Them This Much

(For the purposes of these predictions, we're calling them "bold" not because it's something we necessarily believe or want to convince you of, but because something probably unexpected that we wouldn't be at all surprised to see and in fact would recommend you keep an eye out for in case you're the type of person that would like to wager money on things if gambling were legal.)

Miami, Buffalo, Tennessee, Baltimore, Cincinnati and/or Denver Will Win At Least 12 Games  

I know, I know, it really doesn't mean much when I list half of the AFC and say someone in here is going to be good. But the idea here is that all of the teams listed here finished at least three games behind the team that won their division, or, in the case of Tennessee, finished a mostly forgettable 9-7 and were eliminated before Week 17 even kicked off. None of these teams finished that close to the playoffs, but one of them is going to be really, really good, at least on paper.

Here's why - there are wins to be had in the AFC. The conference altogether will have 96 wins within the conference (not counting games against the NFC). They have to go somewhere. We know that the Jets and Browns are both going to be atrocious. The AFC South is a dumpster fire. Kansas City and Oakland have regression written all over them. The Chargers are, well, the Chargers. The Patriots are obviously going to be stellar, and the Steelers will almost definitely be well above the curve, but who else is there? Let's assume everything that I've written in above, less bold predictions, is at least vaguely accurate. Let's also assume the Jets finish closer to 2-14 than 5-11, and teams like the Browns and Chargers don't really improve all that much (maybe a win or two). Put all that together, and you could very reasonably say that somewhere between 12 and 15 wins will suddenly be up for grabs. Could Miami (who very quietly went 10-6 last year, and 10-4 against teams that weren't the Patriots) suddenly take a leap forward? Sure. Could Baltimore, now a full year-plus removed from Joe Flacco's knee injury, dust off the cobwebs and get back into the playoff picture? Absolutely. Could Tennessee come out of nowhere to finish 13-3 and get a first-round bye? It happens just about every year (the 2016 Cowboys improved by 9 wins, the 2015 Panthers improved by 8 wins, the 2015 Vikings improved by 4 wins). Could Denver's defense carry them back to the top of the AFC West? No Doubt.

I'm not 100 percent sure who it's going to be, or if it's even actually going to happen, but the trends definitely point towards some AFC team surprising their way into the playoffs this year. For example, if there was a prop bet in Las Vegas along the lines of "a team to miss the playoffs in the AFC in 2016 will receive a first-round bye in the 2017 Playoffs," I would bet yes. For now, I guess I'll have to settle on betting the over for all of those teams win-loss lines.


A Defensive Player Will Be (Somewhat) Seriously Considered for the League's MVP

No defensive player is going to win the MVP, not with Brady, Rodgers, Ryan and every other quarterback doing big things, but there are a few guys who will have us each asking our friends to "define valuable" while we enjoy a drunken Sunday afternoon football brunch. The three guys I'm zeroing in on are Oakland's Khalil Mack, Denver's Von Miller and Houston's J.J. Watt. The latter two have the "advantage" of playing on a team with a limited offense, and having plenty of help around them defensively.

I could see either one of them challenging for the sack record this season, while their respective defense carries a barely-functioning offense into the playoffs. Come on, if one of these dudes grabs 25 sacks are their defense leads the league, you'll be making arguments about them being the actual MVP that you don't totally buy, but you love making.

Mack is a bit different, in the sense that he plays on a team with a pretty fantastic offense, but he has little help around him. If Mack leads the league in sacks while facing double-teams every play, and helps Oakland secure a bye, you'll be saying things like "well, he's not the most valuable player, because of his position, but he's certainly the most outstanding player" in no time.


One Of The NFC Tent-Poles Will Miss The Playoffs

For the purposes of this bold prediction, I'm going to use one from each division - the Cowboys, the Packers, the Falcons, and the Seahawks. These teams have either had first-round byes in two of the last three years (Dallas), made the playoffs in each of the last five-plus seasons (Seattle, Green Bay), or, was the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl last year and also has two other 13-3 finishes in this decade (Atlanta). This year, at least one of them is going to miss the playoffs.

Again, I'm not sure it will actually happen, but if I could bet on an NFC Division winner from last season whiffing on January football, I'd slap a few simoleons down and hopefully laugh my way all the way to the bank a few months later.

The case for Dallas has already been laid out above, combined with a reasonable likelihood that Washington, Philadelphia, and New York will ALL be better than they were last year. Once again, the NFC East looks like the most competitive division in football, and a (potentially) regressing Dallas team might have a tough time.

The case for Green Bay is simply that weird stuff happens. They almost missed the playoffs in 2013 when Aaron Rodgers got injured, they almost missed the playoffs in 2015 when Jordy Nelson got injured, and they were a Week 17 loss away from missing the playoffs last year when their defense stumbled and they gave up 30+ points in five out of six games through the middle of the season. The Packers are far from bulletproof. The offense is obviously still among the elite units in the league, but sooner or later there's going to be a year when the wheels come off and Mike McCarthy is (finally) shown the door.

The case for Atlanta is, well, they missed the playoffs for three straight years before breaking through last year. And even with all of last year's success, they still finished 27th in the league in scoring defense, 25th in total defense, and 26th in defensive DVOA from Football Outsiders. Pretty much all of their success came from their explosive offense, which could see regression for a number of reasons. Most obvious - explosive offenses the caliber of Atlanta's in 2016 almost always see regression. Green Bay's 2014 offense (No. 1 in the league, +24.7% DVOA) finished 11th by the same metric the following year. Denver's 2013 off-the-charts offense (+33.5 DVOA) finished third the following year, at just +20.0%. It's extremely rare to see an offense as explosive as Atlanta's actually improve in year two. It's way more likely that they'll slip. Another knock against them is that Kyle Shanahan left for greener pastures. Shanahan had a great deal of success in Washington with Robert Griffin, then took over Cleveland's offense in 2014 and it suddenly didn't totally suck for a season, then moved on to Atlanta where he spent two years building the offense into what you saw last year. Their new offensive coordinator is Steve Sarkisian, who has spent a grand total of one year in the NFL, as Oakland's quarterback coach in 2004 (Oakland finished 22nd in the league in passer rating that year). You probably know him best from being fired by USC a few years ago after allegedly showing up drunk to team events (including multiple reports that claimed several of his assistants believed he was drunk during a game against Arizona State). So, I guess you could say there won't be as much continuity as you'd like in Atlanta this year. If their offense isn't the elite unit it was last year, the Falcons could slip considerably.

The case for Seattle is similar to that of Green Bay's. Teams just don't make the playoffs indefinitely without a lot of things going right (or, having Tom Brady and Bill Belichick prominently involved with your football team). The Seahawks have made the playoffs in six of their seven years under Pete Carroll, and each of the last five. However, their offense slipped considerably as their offensive line turned into a pumpkin, and their defense "slipped" as well (technically true, although going from four consecutive first-place finishes in points against, to third, and dropping outside the top four in yards against for the first time since 2011 seems like nitpicking, because it is). Now they're going into the season with some uncertainty at running back and not much depth at wide receiver. The defense should still be outstanding, but the offense might continue to slide. If you expect Arizona to return to their 2014 and 2015 caliber (I tend to lean towards yes), and you expect improvement from teams like Washington, Carolina, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay (I tend to lean towards yes here as well), Seattle could suddenly find themselves fighting for a wild card spot. Whether or not you think Seattle makes the playoffs comes down to whether or not you can see two divisions in the NFC other than the West capable of putting two teams into the playoffs, or perhaps more simply - how many 2nd-place teams in the NFC do you think are better than Seattle? If you assume Seattle as the slider, could Dallas and Washington, Green Bay and Minnesota, and/or Atlanta and Carolina all finish better than the Seahawks? I'm not ruling it out.


Jeremy's Totally Last-Minute Haphazard Record Predictions For All Teams That He Hopes Add Up To The Right Amount of Total Wins

New England 14-2
Miami 10-6
Buffalo 9-7
New York Jets 1-15

Pittsburgh 11-5
Cincinnati 10-6
Baltimore 9-7
Cleveland 3-13

Tennessee 11-5
Indianapolis 6-10
Houston 5-11
Jacksonville 5-11

Kansas City 10-6
Denver 10-6
Oakland 8-8
Los Angeles Chargers 6-10

Washington 10-6
Dallas 9-7
New York Giants 8-8
Philadelphia 8-8

Green Bay 11-5
Minnesota 9-7
Detroit 7-9
Chicago 4-12

Carolina 10-6
Atlanta 10-6
Tampa Bay 7-9
New Orleans 6-10

Arizona 11-5
Seattle 10-6
Los Angeles Rams 4-12
San Francisco 49ers 3-13

Jeremy's Last Minute Super Bowl Pick Because He Realized He Forgot To Write One At The Last Minute And That's Kind of The Whole Damn Point of These Things in The First Place 

Look, here's the thing.

I say it every year. When you make your Super Bowl pick, it's effectively useless to say something along the lines of "I think New England will win the AFC, and I think Seattle will win the NFC, and I think Seattle matches up pretty well with New England, so I'll pick Seattle to win the Super Bowl."

That's not how it works. There's no point in trying to break down the X's and O's of two teams that might not even get to Minneapolis next February. It's roughly the same as filling out an NCAA bracket and picking Kentucky to beat Duke in the Final Four because Kentucky has matchup advantages. Like, it's all well and good, but what if Kentucky and Duke don't even play each other? You can certainly think that Seattle matches up well against New England (and you might even be right), but all of that forethought goes into the garbage can if Seattle's offense sputters, they don't win the NFC West, and all of a sudden they have to go on the road to Green Bay in the playoffs and the Packers wipe the floor with them. Then, all of a sudden, your Super Bowl pick looks pretty dumb.

As a handicapper and prognosticator, all you need to do is project which team will get to which line on the bracket, regardless of who their opponent is. All else being equal, totally independent of opponents, which team is more likely to win the AFC, New England or Cincinnati? Obviously, it's New England. So picking Cincinnati to win the Super Bowl would be a very, very strange thing to do.

Instead of thinking about which team matches up well with which other team from the opposite conference, all you need to concern yourself with is which team is most likely to even reach the Super Bowl in the first place. If you think the Patriots have roughly a 40 percent chance of getting there (like Las Vegas does), compared to roughly a 17 percent chance that a team like Seattle or Green Bay do (again, like Vegas does), it makes more sense to pick New England. It's just a safer bet. They have the fewest roadblocks to getting to the Super Bowl, so obviously they have the fewest roadblocks to winning the Super Bowl.

So, yeah, I'm taking the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. It's not exactly an exciting pick, but it's not like making outlandish predictions would get more people to read this website and generate more ad revenue (wait, shit, am I doing this wrong?).

The Patriots are the safest pick, the most logical pick, and the most fun pick to make for me because I'm a Patriots fan and it makes my heart feel good when I say it. So there. If you don't like it, read Joe's picks instead.

Joe's Playoff Seedings, Records and Picks, Because He Doesn't Feel Like Picking Exact Records for Terrible Teams (Except the Jets, who are going 1-15. Yeah, they'll win one) 


1. New England Patriots (14-2)
2. Oakland Raiders (12-4)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
4. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
5. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
6. Denver Broncos (10-6)

Wild Card Round: Pittsburgh over Denver, Baltimore over Tennessee
Divisional Round: New England over Baltimore, Pittsburgh over Oakland
AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh over New England 


1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
3. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
4. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
5. Arizona Cardinals (11-5)
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

Wild Card Round: Atlanta over Tampa Bay, Dallas over Arizona
Divisional Round: Green Bay over Dallas, Seattle over Atlanta
NFC Championship Game: Seattle over Green Bay

Super Bowl: Pittsburgh over Seattle 

Yeah, let's get my homer pick out of the way, and let's also forget that I am ignoring all of Jeremy's (correct) advice about picking a Super Bowl winner, in favor of the much more fun "this team will play this team on Wild Card weekend" model.

Anyways, I'm a Steelers fan, but that isn't (totally) why I'm taking Pittsburgh to win it all. I just feel like we're due for a curveball, what with everyone assuming New England is going to steamroll the AFC again.

I actually don't think Pittsburgh will be a great regular season team, as you can always pencil them in for a bad loss to a sub-.500 team, and four games without Ben Roethlisberger. Still, if the Steelers do get into the playoffs, they now have a pair of corners who can play man coverage in Haden and Burns, and the Patriots are down a weapon in Edelman. Plus, are we really trusting Gronk to be healthy for another playoff run?

Give me the Steelers as the surprise team playing on Wild Card weekend that builds momentum and carries it all the way, on the back of the league's most complete and explosive offense, plus its most improved defense.

In the NFC, I want to pick the Packers, but I'll go with Seattle to slow down Rodgers in the title game. I'm not as keen on Atlanta regressing as others are, though I could certainly see that happening, and I think Dallas emerges from a division that will take a step back as a whole in 2017. Throw in my annual "Tampa Bay is gonna be good this year... Seriously, this is the year!" pick, and you have my thoughts on the 2017 season.

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