Re­cal­i­brat­ing pre­dic­tions mid­way through tu­mul­tuous sea­son

Jerusalem Post - - SPORTS - By NATE DAVIS

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.

NFC East

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.

NFC North

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.

NFC South

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.

NFC West

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.

AFC East

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.

AFC North

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.

AFC South

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.

AFC West

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.

AFC play­offs

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

NFC play­offs

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)

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