Recalibrating predictions midway through tumultuous season
Let’s try this again.
Prior to training camp, we projected the records for all 32 NFL teams – before that rash of prominent injuries, various performance issues (good and bad) and other manner of adversity began to define the 2017 season. It took shape quickly, the Kansas City Chiefs’ opening night upset of the Julian Edelman-less New England Patriots instantly nullifying our belief the Super Bowl LI champs were primed to be the league’s first 19-0 team.
Now that we’re halfway through the schedule and have a better idea how to assess each club, here are revised forecasts – based on picking the outcome of each contest left on the schedule – plus a bonus look at the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3): They’re cruising along with a leaguebest 8-1 mark. They’ll be severely tested on the other side of this week’s bye, their next three road games at Dallas, Seattle and LA to face the Rams. Still, with QB Carson Wentz playing at an MVP level, a potent offense buoyed by the addition of RB Jay Ajayi and a defensive front seven that’s capably compensated for any issues on the back end, Philly seems like a safe bet to hang onto the conference’s No. 1 seed. Dallas Cowboys (9-7): A threegame win streak has gotten them into gear. But a brutal second-half schedule includes two games with the Eagles, a trip to Atlanta and a visit from the Seahawks. And RB Ezekiel Elliott’s unresolved suspension continues to loom as the ultimate asterisk. Washington Redskins (9-7): They’re actually through the worst part of their schedule. However a 0-3 division record – including a sweep by Philadelphia – and a decimated offensive line may ultimately haunt these scrappy ’Skins. New York Giants (1-15): Um, the G-Men have provided ample evidence to suggest they’re perfectly “capable” of going oh-fer the rest of the way.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5): From Weeks 12-14, they’re at Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina, a gauntlet likely to determine whether the Vikes win the division or fall into the wildcard scrum. Minnesota’s resume is not impressive, and the quarterback position may experience further flux if rusty Teddy Bridgewater eventually gets the nod over Case Keenum. But an elite defense should keep this club relevant.
Detroit Lions (10-6): They host the Vikings on Thanksgiving, Detroit’s only remaining contest against a team that currently owns a winning record. A golden opportunity to make successive postseason trips for the first time since 1995, however the Lions’ controversial Week 3 loss to the Falcons serves as the decisive tiebreaker for the second wild-card slot in this projection.
Chicago Bears (7-9): Certainly reasonable to think this up-and-coming outfit can split its remaining games and sow hope for what could be a breakthrough in 2018. Green Bay Packers (5-11): They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008 and haven’t finished last in the division since 2005. Proof positive that Aaron Rodgers may be the most valuable player in the league.
New Orleans Saints (11-5): QB Drew Brees is in the midst of his least-productive season – at least
statistically – since he arrived in The Big Easy 11 years ago. Yet this team is riding a six-game win streak thanks to massive defensive turnaround and a balanced offense that features RBs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara as much as Brees. Looks a lot like the 2009 edition that won Super Bowl XLIV.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6): They’ve got too much talent to continue plugging along at .500, right? On the plus side, they’ve got five more home games and are showing signs of an offensive breakout. But they must navigate a schedule that includes Dallas, Seattle, Minnesota, Carolina and New Orleans – twice.
Carolina Panthers (9-7): The delta between their peaks and valleys may be greater than any other team in the league. Adapting to life without jettisoned WR Kelvin Benjamin adds a hurdle, though getting TE Greg Olsen back from a broken foot would provide a major boost. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13): Pay attention, Cam Newton, this sinking ship is what the Titanic looked like.
Los Angeles Rams (12-4): A year after posting the fewest points in the league, they’ve now got the NFL’s highest-scoring attack. That high-octane offense overshadows a dialed-in defense that makes these Rams seem highly capable of a deep playoff run.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5): History suggests they’ll make a huge run in the second half. History also suggests they’ll have a few maddening performances like last week’s near-inexplicable loss to Washington. But with QB Russell Wilson catching fire and now protected by LT Duane Brown – not to mention a fairly open and unpredictable NFC field – we like them to go deep into January whether or not they’re playing postseason games at CenturyLink Field. Arizona Cardinals (8-8): Four of their next five are at home, and the lone foray out of University of Phoenix Stadium during that stretch is a trip to Houston. So expect them to hang around as long as RB Adrian Peterson can continue to carry the mail. San Francisco 49ers (2-14): They’ve been in too many close games to not eventually win a few, especially if QB Jimmy Garoppolo gets into the lineup at some point.
New England Patriots (13-3): Far from perfect and probably not even among Bill Belichick’s better teams, admittedly a very high bar. Regardless, the division is in the bag, and a defense that’s steadily improved after a catastrophic start should enable Tom Brady & Co. to make a legitimate run for a sixth Lombardi Trophy, particularly given an apparent lack of juggernauts elsewhere in the league.
Buffalo Bills (8-8): We’d like to see the people of Western New York rejoice as this team punches its first playoff ticket since 1999. Unfortunately, last week’s loss to the Jets reinforced a suspicion the Bills’ margin for error may be too thin, especially with two upcoming dates against New England among other tough outs (Saints, Chargers, Chiefs).
New York Jets (8-8): Just a remarkable coaching job by Todd Bowles. Given the talent they parted with after last season, eight wins – heck, even four wins – seemed well beyond Gang Green’s grasp. But unlike the veteran-laden 2015 team that went 10-6 but fell shy of a wild card, this young group seems to be laying a foundation to build upon.
Miami Dolphins (7-9): Three cold weather trips lie ahead for a team that’s blown, uh, tepid and cold all season long.
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3): Perhaps the most-anticipated game league-wide left on the schedule will be their December 17 matchup at Heinz Field against the Patriots, who will be playing a third consecutive road game on a short week. Let’s give that one (and home-field advantage) to the Steelers, who appear to have a cakewalk the rest of the way if QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Le’Veon Bell stay healthy for a change. Baltimore Ravens (9-7): It’s been ugly so far. But QB Joe Flacco looked the best he has all season in their most recent game, and the defense is far more formidable with DT Brandon Williams healthy. A very soft schedule gives Baltimore an excellent shot at another five or six wins, which would be enough for a wild card in our model.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): They might at least be compelling if QB AJ McCarron started a few games, or rookie RB Joe Mixon got significantly more touches. Alas... Cleveland Browns (2-14): Two wins seem like a stretch, right? Perhaps. But golden opportunities are coming against the Rodgers-less Packers, while the Browns’ Week 17 trip to Pittsburgh might entail a matchup against a team resting its stars.
Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5): It almost doesn’t matter what QB Blake Bortles does. No team has recorded more sacks. The defense is also allowing the fewest points and passing yards per game. And their ground game is the league’s most effective – with or without rookie sensation Leonard Fournette in the lineup. Back to Bortles. He may not be back in 2018, but he’s been more than serviceable in recent weeks, and that’s plenty good given the talent around him. Tennessee Titans (10-6): Frankly, they’ve been rather disappointing holistically. But plenty of teams would love to underwhelm their way to a 5-3 record at the turn. It’d be nice to see crisper football the rest of the way, but – at minimum – the Titans’ talent should enable them to notch another five victories even if they never hit on all cylinders. Houston Texans (4-12): The three healthy quarterbacks on their roster (Tom Savage, T.J. Yates and Josh Johnson) have a combined NFL record of 6-12, with newly re-signed Yates accounting for five of those Ws. Enough said. Indianapolis Colts (4-12): Let’s review. Two of their three victories came against winless teams, and the other was against the post-Watson Texans. Their next three games are against first-place opponents. Locker room complaints about coach Chuck Pagano are becoming public. And Andrew Luck isn’t walking through that tunnel. Might as well pack it up.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4): After a start that looked Super, they hit a speed bump. Yet a smoothly paved road lies beyond their bye, with Buffalo they only club left on the docket that presently sits above .500. That Week 1 win over the Patriots could loom large if the Chiefs remain in the race for one of the top seeds.
Oakland Raiders (8-8): That four-game tailspin from Weeks 3-6 will probably cost them. With the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Eagles on the menu, the Raiders don’t appear to have enough wins in the bank to get QB Derek Carr into the playoff crucible for the first time. Los Angeles Chargers (6-10): What do they have to look forward to? Two 1 p.m. starts on the East Coast. A Thursday game on the road. A Saturday game on the road. And four more dates in front of the league’s least-supportive home fans. Happy Holidays, fellas.
Denver Broncos (5-11): Hard to believe they were 3-1. Since that promising start, which included a 25-point dismantling of Dallas, nada. When you give the ball away 19 times, not even a defense this good can compensate. Unless Paxton Lynch had an epiphany while rehabbing his injured shoulder, no reason to believe they pull out of this nosedive.
Wild card: (3) Chiefs defeat (6) Ravens; (4) Jaguars defeat (5) Titans Divisional: (2) Patriots defeat (3) Chiefs; (1) Steelers defeat (4) Jaguars AFC Championship Game: (2) Patriots defeat (1) Steelers
Wild card: (6) Falcons defeat (3) Vikings; (5) Seahawks defeat (4) Saints Divisional: (5) Seahawks defeat (2) Rams; (1) Eagles defeat (6) Falcons NFC Championship Game: (5) Seahawks defeat (1) Eagles
Super Bowl LII
Patriots defeat Seahawks (USA Today/TNS)