Season Five y’all. We’re moving into our fifth season of existence.
And as always, to honor the legacies of those, who have won before, I’ll begin the preview with a reiteration of Super Bowls past.
In 2013, the Green Bay Packers, in their one and only season being run by the immortal Shane Katz, defeated the Indianapolis Colts 186-171.
In 2014, Darren Leung’s Pittsburgh Steelers used clutch catches from one Albert Wilson to knock off the favored Dallas Cowboys 216-206.
In 2015, Pedro Canteiro’s Carolina Panthers quietly assassinated a series of powerhouse squads before finally claiming the Championship over the Buffalo Bills, 232-220.
Then, last year, in 2016, Michael Seraphim’s infamous Detroit Lions mashed through the NFC to overcome the Houston Texans, 200-189.
Four years in the books. Four different champions. Eight different Super Bowl participants. Only one team has made the playoffs in every year of the league’s existence. This is a tough league to win. All of which makes this coming year all the more exciting. Who will win it all in 2017? And who can possibly wait for the end of the year to find out?
No worries, my friends! The season is largely unnecessary. A mere formality. I’m about to tell you who is going to win. So pull up a chair and get ready to have your mind filled with brilliant prognostication! With my 0/4 record of predicting championships and 1/8 run of predicting Super Bowl participants (Buffalo 2015, I see you), you can certainly trust my analysis.
But before I get to it, one final apology. Detroit and Houston both had epic playoff runs last year on the way to Super Bowl glory. They deserved to be covered, chronicled, an heaped with praise week in and week out. But I was a slacker last year and did not give either of them the writing or the credit they deserved. I can’t really fix that now – but please guys, accept my heartfelt apologies for not giving you the column space you both so richly deserved!
On to the predictions – this year, we begin with the South divisions. I’m pretty sure I haven’t started there before. But it’s also possible that I think that every year, and have started with them three years running. Whatever. I’ll get to everyone, so hold your horses! 🙂
Houston Texans (11-5): It’s hard to repeat as the AFC Champion. And in a division as competitive as the AFC South, it may be hard to even get a repeat playoff berth. But the Texans, my friends, are loaded for the bear. How so? Well, the Texans have pursued a startlingly effective strategy I eloquently like to call “Find the scarce resource and hoard the shit out of it”. In this case, that scarce resource is workhorse running backs. With the rise of platoons, actual stud workhorse running backs have gone the way of the Dodo bird and the well-paying coal mining job. You can’t find them. You can’t bring them back from China. They are extinct. Except for in Houston. That’s the one place you can still find a classic RB1. At one point this off-season, Houston had David Johnson, Jordan Howard, Mike Gillislee, and Carlos Hyde all chilling on the roster. Even after flipping Hyde for a king’s ransom, the Texans are still sitting on what could be three of the leagues top ten backs, and very likely two of the top five. That’s silly, and as a liberal, I am well within my rights to demand running back redistribution.
The problem for the rest of the league is that the rest of this team is good too. Jameis Winston looks like a franchise QB, Austin Hooper is poised to break out at Tight End, and while the receiving corps won’t finish among the league’s best, a combination of Chris Hogan, Donte Moncrief, Ted Ginn and Tonic, and Kenny Golladay should get the job done. Defensively, this time is well set up to stop the pass with an excellent secondary of Jonathan Cyprien, Desmond Trufant, and Earl Thomas anchoring the defensive backfield. The ancient and oft-injured Brian Cushing is joined in the defensive secondary by the less ancient but still injured Bruce Irvin and the rarely injured but sometimes high Chandler Jones. It seems complicated. But it’s a good complicated. Even the defensive front line, which should be this squad’s weakness, received a solid infusion of talent with Solomon Thomas.
This team isn’t a super team. It’s not going to death march folks the way we’ve seen with some squads. But it’s very good. It lacks weaknesses. And I anticipate a lot of games where the Texans bring in the jumbo set, hand it off a billion teams, and pound the rest of us to dust.
Tennessee Titans (8-8):
Every year, I declare that Tennessee is an up and coming young team. Improving. Young stars. Getting better and better. Last year, I thought they were in contention, but potentially a year away. They got close. And Houston was supposed to get old, paving the way for the rebuild to become the winner. Somehow, though, Houston got young instead of getting old. I’m not sure how that works. And I’m not sure Tennessee has the horses to get over the top – despite being a better team with increasing star power.
There’s no question that this squad will go as far as Odell Beckham Jr. will take them. He’s a stud, and one of the best receivers in the game when his head is on straight, finishing second only to Antonio Brown in WR points. He’ll get some help too, as Sam Bradford is clearly ensconced as the starter in Minnesota and Paul Perkins is set to take over as the unquestioned starter for the Giants. Ndamukong Suh and Danielle Hunter anchor what should be a vicious, fantastic front line, and the Linebacking group and secondary were solid pieces even before the addition of Jaylon Brown.
That said, I just think there are two many question marks here – still. Tennessee needs high caliber contributions from guys like Dwayne Allen, Jimmy Smith, Russell Shepard, Tajae Sharp, and Devin Funchess, and outside of the linebacking group, just doesn’t have a lot of depth. Aside from OBJ, the team also doesn’t have the super high end players that can make up for that lack of depth.
I think this team will be good. I think it has the potential to be very, very good. But some how, some way, this squad doesn’t have the same feel of magic I’ve been looking at for the past couple of years – and it will be one of the season’s more intriguing story lines to see if they can recapture it.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9):
Luck… to Edelman…. Touchdown! Luck… to Edelman… Touchdown! Luck… uhoh… looks like they have 7 guys covering Edelman… Luck… uh… throws it away.
That was the 2016 addition of the Colts. A solid defense, a quarterback who defines franchise, a stud receiver (when not posing for the body issue or fighting Stephon Gilmore), and a whole lot of nothing else. It’s hard to win with 35 point offensive performances in this league.
Will it be different in 2017? It could be. Will Fuller is a oozing with potential. Err… never mind. The pundits are saying good things about Troy Niklas, who certainly has the inside track to a starting role. Deonte Thompson… well. Ok. I’ll stop. To make the playoffs, the Colts would need a series of breaks including an injury to Spencer Ware freeing up the massively overpriced Charcandrick West for a starting role, Bruce Ellington surviving both competition and the offensive dead zone that is San Francisco, and rookie additions like Jonnu Smith and Wayne Gallman making unexpected noise. It’s bleak.
The defense is solid, but a little nondescript. Landon Collins is fantastic, and anchors a secondary that should be the strength of the defense with both cagey vets like Antoine Bethea and rising youngsters like Eli Apple. It’s a similar meshing of the old and new inside where the Colts are hoping to coax one more your from the dessicating body of Brian Orakpo while young guns like Blake Martinez continue their rise to prominence.
As I always do, I’m going back and forth on this roster. It’s got some nice pieces, and some decent depth. But the offense…. but maybe Gallman and Niklas will be great… but it’s still only four players… but the defense… is it good? Or decent? Or bad? Maybe this team could be sneaky good? Maybe… In the end, I think this famous graphic sums up my feelings…
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): The Jagulars (spelling intentional) have become the new Tennessee Titans – full of potential, burgeoning with young talent, and not quite ready to win yet. If this was 2020, I would be all in on the Jags. A finally starting Jimmy Garoppolo would be chucking touchdowns to veteran statesman Marqise Lee and all around studs Cooper Kupp and Rashard Higgins, while David Njoku has ascended to a top 5 TE role and Kareem Hunt is a first round pick in normal fantasy drafts. On defense, guys like Jalen Ramsey and Malik Hooker form a new legion of boom, and Yannick Ngakoue continues to sack everyone who can’t spell his name (which is everyone). This team looks silly good then.
However, it’s 2017, not 2020. So Jimmy Garoppolo continues to languish on the bench behind the Darth Vader of
football, putting up a weekly zero. Kupp, Higgins, Njoku and Hunt will face depth chart struggles and rookie bumps. Like Indianapolis, this team has the potential to score an exceptionally small number of offensive points on a weekly basis. Unlike Indy, this team does not have a starting QB, and Marqise Lee is not Julian Edelman. There will be growing pains.
That said, Jacksonville is going to be a pain in the arse to play against this year for contenders. The reason is that defense. It’s straight up exceptional, and doesn’t need to wait a long time to be so. We’ve already mentioned Ngakoue, who is a bone fide stud. But listen to this group of young stars: Ngakoue, Jabaal Sheard, Bud Dupree, CJ Mosley, Linval Joseph Mark Barron, Bashaud Breeland, Jalen Ramsey, Malik Hooker, Kamalei Correa. That’s without even mentioning Trae Waynes, Obum Gwachum, and Kevin Byard.
Very quietly, the Jags have put together a core of talent on both sides of the ball that could position them to dominate the AFC for years to come. The defense is ready much earlier than the offense – but that could just mean another high draft pick or two while the young guys develop.
That said, young talent is notoriously unreliable. Guys you think will be franchise players don’t pan out and randoms ascend to stardom. Will Jacksonville take Tennessee’s path on an exciting ride to fizzle-city, or actually make the leap? It will be fun to see, and I like the plan.
NFC South: A word to the wise, the moderately wise, and the dumbass who traded Paul Perkins for Wendell Smallwood straight up (what a fool, that guy!): the NFC South is a brutal division. I maintain that all four squads last year were playoff caliber, with Atlanta, Carolina, and New Orleans all in possession of Super Bowl Champion rosters. Not only has this division produced one out of four of our Super Bowl champions, it has also produced the closest thing we’ve seen to an undefeated season (New Orleans) and some of the best divisional races year in, year out.
It’s going to be the same old story this year.
Carolina Panthers (10-6): Never start a land war in Asia. Never draft a kicker before the last round of a fantasy draft. Never bet against Carolina. Remember those three maxims, my son, and you will do well in both life and afterlife. The Panthers are quiet, unassuming, and deadly. Like a Canadian Jason Bourne with bruised vocal cords.
It starts at the top this year, where the great Dabbasaurus Rex is ready for a rebound year, replete with running and passing scores. It continues on defense, where the linebacking trio of Luke Kuechly, Alex Okafor, and Melvin Ingram should be one of the league’s best. It continues in proximity to Philadelphia where the recently arrived LeGarrette Blount should grab a feature back role (albeit in a pass driven offense), the recently departed Bennie Logan should dominate up front for KC, and the recently rich Zach Ertz should hopefully get over that sophomore and junior slump and emerge into stardom.
Beyond that, this team has solidity and depth at every position. Mark Ingram is a strong second back (unless AP steals his job, which I doubt), Fast Willie Snead and Robert “Are we out of the Woods yet?” will provide some excellent receiving options. Steve Smith and Eddie Royal will even keep Carolina competitive in the retirement home league, and MIchael Floyd and Michael Thomas will keep them competitive in the rehab league. Carl Lawson and Jamal Adams show that this team still has youth, and the roster on both sides of the ball is filled out with quality players. Depth. Everywhere.
So what’s the problem? The lack of sure things and the level of competition. What if Ingram does lose his job, or end up
in a platoon? What if Ertz is eclipsed by all the Eagles new receivers, Wentz has a sophomore slump, and Doug Peterson inexplicably forgets to hand the ball off to LeGarrette Blount at the goal line? What if last year was not a fluke for Cam, but the new reality? What if Kuechly gets inured? A lot would have to go wrong for Carolina to be a bad team. But like the Tony the Tiger challenge, in this division, it’s not enough to be good, you’ve got to be Grrrreeeaaat!
Atlanta Falcons (10-6):
On paper, the Falcons look like the best team in the AFC South. After repeatedly fleecing the old Cowboys owner in trades, triumphantly drafting Jared Goff, and then somewhat less triumphantly grabbing both Carson Palmer and Mike Glennon to start until Jared Goff starts playing like a quarterback at the level of a Brian Hoyer or Brock Osweiler, the Falcons should be ready to fly.
And I mean fly. This team packs a silly one-two punch at receiver with Julio Jones and Kelvin Benjamin, and backs that nonsense up with Mohammed Sanu and John Brown. There’s a lot of speed and a lot of receptions to be had in that wide receiving corps. Julius “not so caesar-like now” Thomas underwhelmed last year, but is looking to bounce back with his new strategy of “think like a defensive back”. It apparently doesn’t work to try to catch balls when Blake Bortles is trying to throw it to you, so if you have an interception mindset, it should double your receptions. If it sticks, he could be good. Training camp concussions are a concern for Jay Ajayi, and being Eddie Lacy is a concern for Eddie Lacy, but there’s enough firepower and depth here that the offense should be excellent.
On defense, this team’s strength is in the middle, with Zach Thomas, Christian Kirksey, Thomas Davis, and Sean Lee providing a silly Linebacking group that could also be a law firm (Davis, Thomas, Lee, and Kirksey – Attorneys at Law). Interestingly enough, all the last names could be first names too, though the guy named Kirksey would probably get made fun of). There’s also some major beef in the middle of the front line, monsters like Ra’Shede Hageman (warcraft villain), A’Shawn Robinson, Michael Bennett and Clinton McDonald. The trick is that some of these guys are better at eating blockers than ballcarriers, so actual tackles and points could be harder to come by. But it’s a big, high potential group of guys. The secondary could be the Falcs achilles heel. Brett Grimes is good, but on the downside of his career, the Robinsons (Josh and Patrick) aren’t quite there yet, and aren’t quite good either, and Tony Jefferson faces injury concerns.
End of the day, it should be a high-scoring pass-happy affair when the Falcons play anybody, and I think this could be the year when Atlanta gets over the top. But I don’t ever bet against Carolina. That’s not a game you can win. It’s rigged by the house. Or the Russians.
New Orleans Saints (7-9):
Oh N’awlins. I love your accents. I love your mysticism, your haunted cemetary tours, your voodoo peoples, your catfish (so, so good!) and your strange housing styles. I love your team. I love your QB. And I love what this could look like if everything broke right.
But I do not like your questions marks. I do not like them Sam I Am. Not in a division like this. Not in the mighty South. Atlanta and Carolina have certainty at key spots, and redundancy behind them just in case. It’s more layers of redundancy than a Trump speech. They have good players. They have the best players. People tell them all the time they have the best players.
New Orleans, though, is risky. New Orleans is a Casino. New Orleans is a huge bet on self-driving cars. And in this division… I can’t take that bet.
So what are the sure things? Well, Drew Brees is as sure as they come. And I suppose we can put Golden Tate in that camp as well. He’s not certain, but signs definitely point to him being a really good bet this year. Brandon Graham and Jordan Cameron gonna sack some folk. Malcolm Jenkins will show up with his patented blend of great plays and blown coverages to score fantasy points and receive acclaim for his “leadership.” James Harrison will be reasonably productive on the field and exceptionally productive saying mean things about Roger Goodell. And Kiko Alonso will get hurt a couple weeks in. Dude is as bad as Jordan Reed for that nonsense…
But that’s about where it ends. There are question marks about literally every other player on the roster, including both the kicker and the punter. This roster resembles nothing so much as one of those hideous “summer math packets” the teachers used to assign when you were in middle school because it has so many questions. Those summer-ruining bastards. And it’s being perpetuated, you know. My 13 year old daughter has a 23 page math packet to do over the summer. The summer. There’s a lot of bitter divide in Washington, but can’t we all come together to ban this nonsense? Literally nobody is in favor of summer homework, and if you are a teacher, and you assign it, you are a bad person and lack moral agency. Period.
Ahem. Anyway. Let’s talk about the question marks and associated questions:
- Darren Sproles: When does your age catch up with you? It’s chasing you like the wolf in the Duran Duran song, and it wants to eat you. Also, when does graduating from K-State catch up with you? That’s a huge negative, and I have no clue how you’ve been a productive member of society with that ball and chain.
- JJ Nelson: Do you get passes thrown to you this year? Or nah bro?
- Jimmy Graham: Can you be good again?
- Joe Williams: Can you supplant Carlos Hyde? If not, how do you deal with that? How do you find the self-esteem to keep going? Also, do you work at a button factory?
- CJ F.: Can you finally beat Ryan Griffin? I thought platoons at running back were bad, but platoons at tight end? No thank you because fuck it very much.
- James Connor: How did you get so much hype on a team with Le’Veon Bell? How? You have a fabulous publicist, my good sir.
- Sammie Coates: Are you a possible stud, or is your confidence shot to Venezuela?
- Anthony Barr: Does your coach like you?
- Steven Nelson: Wait, who are you? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you before.
- Rafael Bush: Will you be productive as a third guy like you have in the past? Also, how have you been that good and never been a starter for literally your entire career?
- Andrew Franks: Are you the kicker?
- Anthony Dixon: Are you my mother?
See? Question marks everywhere. If things break right (Sammie Coates is a star, Jimmy Graham returns to form, Anthony Barr becomes a boss, CJ Fiedorowicz catches touchdowns, and the various defensive guys I didn’t list because I ran out of pithy questions play up to their potential, this could be a great team and the Saints could return to the top of the division. But when you have questions against sure things, I’ll go with the sure things. It’s all about probabilities… which I apparently now do in the summer for fun. ::SIGH:: I have become that which I hate.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10): Poor, poor Tampa Bay. This team keeps getting this close to being good, and can’t quite get over the top. Tampa Bay is to RDFL is what Hillary Clinton is to the presidency. A favorite for the presidency for like twelve years. Super closer in two elections. Wins the popular vote. Not president. Tampa keeps pulling the same stunt – good team for the last three years. Strong players. Good drafts. Good free agent pickups. Not quite able to get over the hump.
More of the same, this year, unfortunately, as the division has stayed strong, but Tampa Bay has taken steps back. Doug Martin is facing threats to his job. Vincent Jackson isn’t on a roster anymore. Josh McCown plays for the Jets. Alfred Morris and Jermaine Gresham have successfully recovered from idiopathic bouts of talent, and the roster, tragically, has Blaine Gabbert on it. Jadaveon Clowney is a bit of a bust and Chris Conte is losing his job to JJ Wilcox.
The defense is still going to be fantastic. Any squad with Lavonte David and Von Miller starting next to each other is going to be absolutely ferocious. Gerald McCoy is still a good player with a good personality, and Aqib Talib is still a good player with a bad personality. The defense is going to put up points, and the offense is going to be much better than say, Indy and Jacksonville. But in this ridiculous division, I just don’t think it’s enough. Not by a long shot. I like Tampa Bay, and I keep rooting for them. But end of the day, it will not be Tampa Bay atop the South for another division. It’s a conspiracy!