I passed my drug test; got a 65 (thanks, Chris Rock). Aced my physical; the doctor said the same thing he always says: “Wow!” (Thanks, Sam Malone) I’m rested and ready for the rigours of another season.
The Best Picks Column in the World is back.
Now, bring on the football.
The off-season has been a long one; in fact, it probably seemed even longer due to the domination of one, stupid story that would not die. So, for my season preview, I’m going to try something radical. I’m going to stick to football. There will be plenty of time this season to talk about other things. Plus, I’m sure you’re all just dying to know what I think about Goodell’s latest fiasco. I’ll address that later in the week, when I do my Week One picks. It’ll be interesting, I promise. (There might even be something in there about how Roger Goodell is like Buffalo Bill… who knows…?!?)
Before I get to my divisional picks and wild card teams, let me say three things:
1) This is closest I’ve seen the competition since I started writing my columns; I see four of the six divisions being decided by the slimmest of margins.
2) The two division winners I see winning by the widest margins are my picks for Super Bowl 50.
3) I hope I’m right, because close races = excitement.
That’s enough for the preliminaries. Here we go!
Cowboys or Eagles? Eagles or Cowboys? Who do you like? For me, it’s the Eagles, by a hair (or feather). Chip Kelly’s offence is up-tempo and productive; only Green Bay and Denver scored more points last season. Kelly really wanted Sam Bradford to run his offence; the oft-injured Bradford should thrive in this fast-paced, get-the-ball-out-quickly approach. LeSean McCoy is gone, but newly-acquired RB DeMarco Murray will do well in an offence that won’t try to run him into the ground, especially since Darren Sproles is still around. As for the defence, a potent pass rush will be ably complemented by a spectacular LB group. Sure, the Cowboys can score too; any offence featuring the likes of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will get its points, and a solid OL should guarantee that the running game, minus Murray, won’t be terrible. Again, though, it’s the Cowboys’ defence that worries me. Though MLB Sean Lee should be returning to a unit that surprised everyone last season, the defence will have to do without LB Rolando McClain and DE Greg Hardy for the first four games of the season (suspensions) and, far worse, CB Orlando Scandrick for the entire season (ACL).
Besides mentioning Eli Manning and some talented receivers (how is Victor Cruz these days?), the best things I can say about the Giants is that at least Jason Pierre-Paul didn’t blow his entire hand off, and with Washington in the same division, the Giants have a better than average chance of not finishing in last place. And speaking of Washington, well, this is the only time you’ll see the team mentioned in my column this season. Since I’m sticking to football, you’ll have to guess the reason. I’m betting it won’t be that hard. In the meantime, here’s a link to an excellent article about one of, if not the, worst franchises in professional sports today.
The Vikings are on the rise, the Lions are ripe for a fall, and the Bears, well, who knows what to expect from that crazy crew. As for the Packers, they win this one comfortably. Despite the loss of top wideout Jordy Nelson, Aaron Rodgers and co. should once again be near the top of the league in offensive output, especially with the return of RB Eddie Lacy, and WRs Randall (not Tex) Cobb, and Davante Adams, who proved most effective in last year’s playoffs. The Vikings’ defence improved markedly last season, the first of Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure, and should only get better this year. As for the offence, QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR Mike Wallace, and the returning (and well-rested) Adrian Peterson should provide plenty of fire power. The Bears were arguably the most disappointing team in the league last season (I picked them to win this division). Expect the defence to improve a bit, with the hiring of John Fox as Head Coach and Vic Fangio as Defensive Coordinator. Lowered expectations for jay Cutler will take some of the pressure off, but the Bears are not nearly good enough to finish ahead of Minnesota. As for the Lions, I expect that the loss of DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly will cause this defensive unit to slip precipitously from the lofty heights it achieved last season. On offence, Lions fans can expect another season of decline from Calvin Johnson, as years of making Matthew Stafford’s off-target passes look good have taken their toll on the once invincible-seeming Megatron.
Last season, Carolina emerged from a middling mess to take the division with only seven wins. This season, I’m picking the Falcons to improve just enough to emerge from the morass. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the rest of the offence will be fine as usual. With former Seahawks’ Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn taking over as Head Coach, I expect an immediate improvement in the Falcons’ defence, and that will be enough to propel them to first place. I was leaning heavily towards a Panthers repeat here, courtesy of an excellent defence that weathered some key losses last season. However, with all the injuries to their receivers, the pressure will be on Cam Newton yet again to carry the offence. That’s not good. With Drew Brees helming the offence, you can’t count out the Saints completely, but Brees is a year older, and lost one of his favourite targets, TE Jimmy Graham. Brees and co. will have a hard time matching the points the Saints’ awful defence is sure to surrender. There’s talent on both sides of the ball in Tampa; if their prized rookie QB plays well, the Buccaneers could surprise a lot of people. I don’t put much stock in rookie QBs, particularly ones with “character issues,” so I’m comfortable penciling the Bucs in for fourth.
No two ways about it; the Seahawks are vulnerable this season. Their vaunted secondary begins the year thusly: S Earl Thomas has only just been cleared for contact, S Kam Chancellor is holding out for a new contract, and 30 year old journeyman CB Cary Williams starts opposite Richard Sherman. The team brought in Jimmy Graham to help QB Russell Wilson, but the same problems that plagued the offence last season still exist, namely lack of receiver depth and poor pass protection. Expect another season featuring heavy doses of “Beast Mode,” as Wilson scrambles for his life. The Cardinals were on the brink of upsetting Seattle led by an excellent defence and a resurgent Carson Palmer, who seemed to have cut down on his tendency to turn the ball over. All was lost when Palmer blew out his ACL, however. Palmer’s back, and if he returns to form, a close race for the division title is in the cards. Watch out for the Rams, who added DT Nick Fairly to an already loaded defensive front that sets the table for a pretty solid defence. The offence will have to be much better if they want to challenge the top teams, though, so QB Nick Foles will have to play well right out of the gate. Whither the 49ers? Gone are Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Chris Borland, Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Ray McDonald, and Chris Culliver, not to mention Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, and Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio. They still have Colin Kaepernick, though. Their playoff chances are gone too.
NFC Wild Cards: Cowboys, Cardinals
Subject to the availability of a certain QB, I had to do two projections for this division. The one I ultimately discarded featured a much closer finish than what I believe will now take place. Realistically, the Patriots can be had. Having Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the lineup last year gave this defence the ability to dominate, but they’re both gone, and the offence is one (always possible) Rob Gronkowski injury away from having no big play threat. I expect the defence to hold, led by a deep and talented LB group (I was an early admirer of Jamie Collins), and the presence of S Devin McCourty will help steady the secondary until Bill Belichick can get things sorted out. Most importantly though, this has been a winning franchise ever since Mo Lewis put the big hurt on Drew Bledsoe. Brady always finds a way. Boy, that Dolphins defensive front sure does look scary, doesn’t it? With Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell creating havoc in the middle, and flanked by Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon (just one season removed from double-digit sacks), this Miami defence should have a decided advantage right from the snap. I’d have more faith in Miami if I didn’t have so many questions about the offence. I like Ryan Tannehill at QB, but it’s hard to get excited about a supporting cast that features Greg Jennings starting and wideout. Plus, I think Joe Philbin is a lousy head coach. The Bills and Jets are a toss-up. Both should feature solid defences. On this front, I favour the Bills; they’re solid up front and in the secondary, and will benefit from the tutelage of new Head Coach Rex Ryan, while the Jets’ defensive front, a huge strength last year, begins the season without DT Sheldon Richardson, suspended four games (with the potential for further discipline). Offence seems to be the problem with both of these teams. Buffalo needs to get healthy at RB, particularly LeSean McCoy, especially since the team has decided to pin its hopes at QB to Tyrod Taylor, a four-year backup in Baltimore who didn’t attempt a single pass last season. The Jets don’t look to be much of a threat to run the ball. They have some talent at WR, courtesy of the returning Eric Decker and newly acquired Brandon Marshall. Unfortunately, having Decker and Marshall will encourage QB Mark Fitzpatrick to attempt to throw the ball, with disastrous results.
Another close call, but I’m sticking with the Bengals. I think that their defence, solid last year, will be even better this year, primarily because DT Geno Atkins will be more like the dominating player he was pre-injury. On offence, I see an enviable RB tandem in Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, a deep receiving corps led by top 5 wideout AJ Green, a solid OL, and a QB who’s not afraid to let it rip (has to cut down on the picks, though). In short, there’s too much offensive talent to fail. The Ravens should be solid on both sides of the ball. Terrell Suggs leads one of the stingiest defences in the league. What the Ravens lack is depth at receiver. The Steelers’ defence is a huge question mark heading into this season. A healthy Ben Roethlisberger, plus RB LeVeon Bell, carried this team to first place last season. Will the injury-prone QB survive the first two games without the suspended Bell, without starting WR Martavus Bryant for the first four games (suspension) and C Maurkice Pouncey for who knows how many games due to a broken ankle? If the Steelers struggle early, it’s a long way back to the top. The Browns have an excellent secondary, led by CB Joe Haden, but not much else to brag about on defence. On offence, a really talented OL is wasted on mediocre QBs and RBs. Oh Cleveland; don’t ever change.
Andrew Luck vs. Brian Hoyer seems like a no-brainer, I know, but this isn’t a QB competition, it’s a football season. I’m picking the Texans by the slimmest of margins mainly because of their defence. They have a good secondary and depth at LB, provided they stay healthy (Hear that, Cushing and Clowney?) I’m really excited to see what JJ Watt does playing alongside Vince Wilfork. Hoyer shouldn’t have to do too much, and the offence will be even better once RB Arian Foster recovers from his injury. With the Colts and their bad defence (particularly against the run), Luck has to do a lot more to keep his team in games. Indy went out and got him some veteran help in RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson. Johnson could experience resurgence, provided he has anything left and can overcome the shock of actually playing with a good QB. Gore has managed to thus far avoid a drop off in production, but he’s 32, and has carried the ball almost 1100 times over the past four regular seasons. When RBs reach their expiry date, it’s never pretty. Well, the Jaguars did it; they freed Blake Bortles. He has a ways to go yet, and the team needs a few more complementary pieces for him, but he’s good enough to keep the Jags out of last place. I’m not a follower of the college game, but I’ve heard the raves about Titans’ rookie QB Marcus Mariota’s athleticism. He could have a huge impact. The problem is that Head Coach Ken Wisenhunt likes an offence featuring a big-armed QB slinging it. Will he ruin Mariota by ignoring the kid’s natural gifts and shoehorning him into an ill-fitting QB mould?
The Broncos have plenty of talent at the receiver positions, including newly-acquired TE Owen Daniels. I’m worried about Peyton Manning, though. Watching him struggle in the playoffs last year, then hearing recently that, since his neck surgeries, he has NEVER regained the feeling in his fingertips, made me realize just how quickly and loudly the clock is ticking on his career. Throw in a sketchy OL, and I’m legitimately concerned. So, why pick Denver? The defence. They have one of the best CB tandems in the league in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., complemented nicely by S TJ Ward (minus a one game suspension), and a formidable pass rush featuring DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Manning might not be able to do it all, but he shouldn’t have to. The Chiefs will be right there until the bitter end, though. A stellar pass rush anchors one of the most solid defences in the league. RB Jamaal Charles carries the offence. If QB Alex Smith can open things up a bit more in the passing game while avoiding mistakes, KC could take this division. I expect the Chargers to be in the thick of the race as well. Their defence is solid, and Philip Rivers is still a top-tier QB. The offence might struggle early, though, as the running game struggles to find its identity, and the team awaits the return of suspended TE Antonio Gates. The Raiders have some young talent, and it will be interesting to see how QB Derek Carr develops in his second season. Carr showed signs that he could be Oakland’s QB of the future. I hope he survives the Raiders growing pains.
AFC Wild Cards: Chiefs, Colts
That’s all for now. I should have my Week One picks posted some time Thursday afternoon.
Enjoy the season!
(Oh, and did you figure out my Super Bowl picks?)
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