Maligned as it may be—particularly by owners in areas with high populations of Cubans—the preseason power rankings were rather accurate. Out of the predicted top 15 from the preseason, 9 teams are currently sitting in the “actual” top 15: Yankees, Marlins, Royals, Astros, Indians, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Cubs, and Brewers. Not bad. That said, the predictions certainly have their outliers in the form of teams that are both defying expectations, and failing to meet them.
Here are the five teams that are defying the expectations most drastically thus far:
Los Angeles Dodgers (25-15, 348 points)
This isn’t as drastic a difference as the other teams, but in the preseason, the Dodgers were ranked #18, and as of now, they sit at #12 overall. The preseason prognosis suggested that they team may be negatively impacted by starting three players that were currently in the minors, but the team added Aaron Hicks and saw some timely call-ups, so they find themselves with a winning record as we approach the summer.
Colorado Rockies (24-16, 9454.779 points)
Projected to be the 22nd best team this preseason, the Rockies are currently sitting in 15th overall. As noted in the preseason, though, the pitching staff is still lacking. A very strong offense led by Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Eduardo Nunez has propelled them to a winning record, however. If you factor in a ‘bounce back’ from Trevor Story, there is no reason to believe that the Rockies won’t be able to win plenty of games throughout the season.
Miami Marlins (34-6, 11092.757 points)
For whatever reason, the preseason points projections had the Marlins at #13. Right now, they are the #4 overall team, and #2 in points overall. As I pointed out this preseason though, the Marlins were a lot likely to be in the top 5-10 than they were outside of it by the mid-season, and here they are. Barring injuries, I expect Miami to stay here for the remainder of the season, being led by someone pretending to be Ryan Zimmerman, Corey Seager, Christian Yelich, Mark Reynolds, Dee Gordon, and of course, Mike Trout, when he returns.
New York Yankees (28-12, 10651 points)
Preseason rankings had the Yankees sitting at #14 overall, but here they are #6, and one of only 7 teams to score 10,000 points or more at this point in the year. Last year, the Yankees made 59 mostly non minor-to-majors trades. Players acquired in these deals that are currently helping the team sit just outside of the top 5 include Justin Upton, Chris Carter, and Brandon Phillips. Goes to show that if you have the ammo and you think you can make a run, go ahead and trade those picks and prospects!
St. Louis Cardinals (25-16, 9232.787 points)
Sometimes, the predictions are way off. The Cardinals were predicted to be the 7th-worst team in the league in the preseason, but here they are, battling for playoff position, at #10 overall, at 25-15. Preseason notes indicate that the Cardinals had too many rookies in starting positions, and that the pitching staff was too thin. In looking at the roster now, all the starting positions have players that are active and scoring points (some more than others, granted). That said, the staff still looks thin, but once healthy, the Cardinals have a lot of depth on offense to either make up for it, or to trade for some pitching help. Consider this, if these players get healthy, between his current DL and bench he has: Marwin Gonzalez, Kolten Wong, Martin Prado, and Yasmany Tomas.
Tyler Lockett had 31, Matthew Stafford threw for 28, both the offense and defense broke the century marker, and Detroit cruised to an easy 45 point victory over the Eagles in the wildcard round – though since Lockett played on Monday Night, the victory appeared much more questionable up until that point. The Eagles were undone on the defensive side of the ball, where not a single player reached double figures. Combined with a Witten goose egg, it was simply too much for the Eagles to overcome.
Arizona Cardinals 198, Atlanta Falcons 150
The bright lights of the playoffs do strange things to teams. Atlanta and Cleveland are both teams that are vastly better than they showed in the Wild Card round, leading one to wonder just what sort of first time playoff jitters both teams were experiencing. Julio Jones came to play with 23 and Jay Ajayi got a respectable 16, but nobody else on the team scored more than 11 points as the Falcons stumble to a quick exit. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 4 point whimper will increase the cries for Goff over the off-season. Arizona, on the other hand, put in a strong, workmanlike performance that shows they know what the playoffs are about and are planning on a long stay. Shady McCoy led the way with 32, Brandon LaFell snared 22, and the Cardinal offense outscored the Falcon offense by 40, proving to be the difference in the game.
Kansas City Chiefs 244, Cleveland Browns 115
Cleveland’s drama and triumph happened in week 12, when the Browns posted a nice win and won a four team tie-breaker to make their first ever RDFL playoff. It was a huge milestone for what has been a struggling franchise, and a great step on the rise to success. Coupled with a bye week that away 5 starters and an injury to star receiver Marvin Jones, one could forgive the Browns for just being happy to be there. The Browns were lifeless from the jump, falling behind 25-9 on Thursday night and staying there. Both sides of the ball were abysmal as Cleveland posted 48 offensive points and 55 defensive ones on the way to their worst overall performance of the year. Still, a first ever playoff experience deserves congratulations. Kansas City, meanwhile, took advantage, feasting on defense. The front-line trio of Everson Griffen, Kyle Williams, and Dante Fowler combined for 66 defensive points, the defense put up 153, and Jordy Nelson added 31 to make this a convincing route.
Houston Texans 230, New England Patriots 201
The best game of the playoffs was never truly decided until Monday night, as the Houston Texans and New England Patriots both put up strong performances worthy of playoff teams. New England road strong games on each side of the ball, getting a well rounded 95 on offense and 92 on defense. Houston countered, however, with a preposterous ground and pound game all weekend long behind a 40 point explosion from David Johnson and a 36 point complement from Jordan Howard. As a result, Houston outscored the Patriots at RB (Frank Gore and Kenjon Barner) 75-15, more than enough to make up for the difference in the game. Still, a hugely successful year for the 12-4 Patriots, who would have advanced against 3/4 NFC teams in the Wild Card.
Divisional Round Predictions:
Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals: This battle of playoff veteran teams also appears pretty one-sided. The Panthers have the 2nd ranked offense and 6th ranked defense in football, while the Cardinals are on the middle of the list. Injury concerns do loom for Carolina though, with Luke Kuechly and Kurt Coleman still in the concussion profile, Eddie Royal and Robert Woods suffering from lingering injuries, and whatever the heck is going on with the real life Cam and the Panthers threatening to impinge. Still, the biggest danger to me is that the Panthers look past the Cardinals this week. Face to face and at full strength, Arizona would need a repeat from Shady and much more to knock off the Panthers. But if Carolina turns in a dud, Arizona is absolutely strong enough to capitalize
Prediction: In a startling break from my playoff rule about never predicting Carolina, I pick Carolina. This is largely because Carolina seems to have their own rule about winning every damn playoff game.
New York Giants vs. Detroit Lions: To my mind, this is the best matchup of the divisional round, and potentially one of the best 2 vs 3 divisional matchups we’ve seen in a long-long time. The Giants were the best team by far in fantasy points in the regular season, dropping out of the top slot by virtue of a pair of back to back losses against teams like LA playing their hearts out. Let’s be clear, though – they scored 3775 fantasy points, which is an AVERAGE of more than 230 per game. When they are on, they are massacring people. By contrast, the Lions won their division handily, are an outstanding team in their own right, and scored 3219.
Prediction: New York Giants. It’s hard to vote against Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, and the best point total in RDFL. I’m riding the Giants until Carolina beats them and makes me look bad.
Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans: Here’s where things get interesting. The red-hot Texans against the wounded but still powerful Bills. Houston is on a tear, winning some ridiculous number of games in a row (is it 11?) and posting 230 points in a very strong playoff performance. As Jordan Howard emerges in the Bears backfield as a stud, this team just gets stronger. Nobody wants to play them, and they are a brutal 12-4 four seed. At the same time, the Bills injuries are well documented, with Gronk, AP, CJ Prosise, and AJ Green suffering major injuries and Alshon Jeffery suspended. So does this bode well for an upset? Hard to say. Because of that defense. Just when everyone thought the Bills might be vulnerable, they dropped a 156 point defensive day to combine a still solid 80 points from the offense to score the most points in fantasy in the week #12 double and maintain the #1 seed. Same old Buffalo. Wounded? Yes. Still fighting? Absolutely. This is going to be one heck of a fun game.
Prediction: Houston. Going out on a limb here and saying Houston is too hot and the injuries are too much. But man this will be close.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Another one that should be close. The Baltimore Ravens have not lost since week 3. This team has done nothing but win, week after week, game after game, opponent after opponent. Add to that the sudden re-emergence of “good Joe Flacco” and Dennis Pitta, and this is a ferocious team that nobody wants a piece of. The Ravens make their hay with their #3 ranked offense that could get even better, and feature a complimentary #9 defense. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are riding high after their wild card round laugher, but will be watching the injury news all week anxiously for updates on Jordan Reed and Tavon Austin.
Prediction: Baltimore. You don’t go against a team this hot, especially not after seeing what they would have put up last week had they been playing!
Good luck to all, and condolences/congratulations to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland and New England.
In fairness to myself, I wrote a full and detailed apology, followed by a 3.5 hours treatise analyzing the playoff chances of 16 total teams before the season’s final week, as well as a detailed recap of the previous two. I clicked save draft. I shut my computer. I came back Thanksgiving morning to edit and post and found that I had only the first paragraph. I was demoralized, and had neither the heart nor the time to duplicate either the apology or the treatise.
So, as they say in Canada, “Sorry ‘boot that that!”
Anyway, ya hosers, thanks for sticking with me, and I am hear to predict the playoffs. A little drama in the commishing world today, so it’s Thursday night after games have started. “Sorry ‘boot that.”
In any case, here goes nothing!
#1 – Bye – Carolina Panthers
#2 – Bye – New York Football Giants
#3 Detroit Lions vs. #6 New… wait… Phil… wait.. New Orl!… wait. nope. It’s Philadelphia. It’s the Philadelphia Eagles.
After stat correction mayhem featuring the New Orleans Saints vs (ironically) these very same Detroit Lions, the Lions prevail in their final match of the season against the Saints and avoid a rematch, getting the Eagles instead.
It’s worth noting at this point that absolutely nobody has ever gotten more screwed by stat corrections than the New Orleans Saints, who had the only undefeated regular season in real deal history in 2013 – until they lost it in a stat correction the final week of the season. The constant state of anxiety Saints fans feel about Monday and Tuesday stat changes is downright legit.
The metrics, needless to say, like Detroit in this wildcard matchup. The Lions are 6 overall in fantasy points, the Eagles 13th. The Lions have the 7th ranked offense and 13th ranked Defense, while the Eagles are 12th and 18th respectively. The last time the Eagles outscored the Lions on an individual week was week 9. Add to all this that the Eagles have four starters questionable with injuries (not even talking about Jamaal Charles) and 10 ppg DT Jurrell Casey on bye. It’s rough. The Lions, to be fair, also have a #1 RB in Ameer Abdullah on the IR, and do lose Jaime Collins on bye. However, with Leonard Floyd returning to practice, it’s a much better week for the Lions, who have played better both all season and the last few weeks.
#4 Arizona Cardinals vs. #5 Atlanta Falcons
A classic example of the highest seed not necessarily being the better team, the Cardinals cruised through the year to an easy championship in a weak NFC West. The Falcons faced the exact opposite challenge, warring to a wild card in RDFL’s hardest division. The metrics in this one all point the Falcons way, though. Atlanta is 9th in fantasy points scored compared to Arizona’s 16th. The Falcons also have better offensive and defense metrics, finishing 11th on offense and 6th on defense. The Cardinals are consistent, coming in at a solid 16th on offense and 15th on defense. It’s got to be a little hard to win a playoff game when Ryan Fitzpatrick is your quarterback, but that defense is downright excellent and the receiving core of Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, John Brown, and Mohamed Sanu are going to be tough to beat in the playoffs. Arizona hasn’t scored 200 points since week 2 and hasn’t scored 100 points on either offense or defense since week 4. Just like in the other NFC playoff game, both the long-term and short-term trends predict an obvious result.
#1 – Buffalo Bills (246 patients in week #12 with all those injuries…)
#2 – Baltimore Ravens (nothing like a 12 game winning streak, eh?)
#3 Kansas City Chiefs vs. #6 Cleveland Browns
After winning the tie-breaker of the century through head-to-head victories and a brutal Tennessee Titans collapse down the stretch, and benefiting heavily from Pittsburgh forfeits, the Browns heroically claim the wildcard for a playoff berth… only to have a week #13 wild card round bye. My goodness. That is stinking horrible, as the Browns are only one of two teams with a scheduling quirk week 13 bye. It costs them star running back Isaiah Crowell, starting TE Gary Barnidge, and four defensive starters. Ouch. Cleveland’s strength all year has been its quietly underrated #4 ranked offense, compensating for a porous (#20 overall) defense. It’s going to be hard to maintain that without Crowell and Barnidge, but the Browns have been proving people wrong all year. They’ll need a huge game from their passing attack of Blake Bortles, Marvin Jones, Jeremy Maclin, MIchael Crabtree, and Mike Evans. The Chiefs, on the other hand, will be without Jordan Reed yet again, but totally avoid byes. The Chiefs scored the most points in the AFC in the regular season and have a top 6 offense and defense… it’s the sort of game KC should win hands down… but it’s also the sort of game where you almost want to pick Cleveland for just that reason.
Prediction (Oh man I hate to do this to myself!): Kansas City
#4 Houston Texans vs. #5 New England Patriots
A pair of two of the quietest really good teams you will ever see will rematch in the wild card round. The two hooked up in a nice week 3 game that New England won 211-193 behind 6 defensive takeaways (3 picks, 3 forced fumbles). Jameis Winston and Carlos Hyde went nuts to keep the Texans close, but couldn’t quite close the gap. Both teams hang their hats on offense, (Houston #5, New England #9) and try to keep their defenses off the field (New England #17, Houston #21). New England loses Delanie Walker, their star TE, and Damien Stafford to bye weeks – but its not as much as a curse as it might seem – Cameron Brate, Walker’s replacement, threw down 27 against Houston in week 3. A repeat of that would not be amiss at all. Still, Houston has been one of the best teams in the league after a slow start, reeling off a whole passel of wins behind an outstanding offense, and they are totally healthy and facing no bye losses.
For the record, here’s how I expect the playoffs to play out in total:
Wild Card Round:
Detroit over Philadelphia
Atlanta over Arizona
Kansas City over Cleveland
Houston over New England
Carolina over Atlanta
New York Giants over Detroit
Buffalo over Houston
Baltimore over Kansas City
New York Giants over Carolina
Baltimore over Buffalo (injuries finally catch up)
Just in the nick of time, we reach our last and final divisional preview of the 2016 year. The East.
The East is a Beast. Seems like that’s always the way in RDFL. There are ALWAYS Super Bowl contenders from an Eastern division. Dallas a couple of years ago. Buffalo last year. Could this be the year when two Eastern teams make a run? It’s a definite possibility.
Super Bowl favorites, right here. And I don’t think it’s even close. This team is loaded for the bear. Great offense. Great defense. Favorable schedule. This is a stacked squad. The curse of AJ Green favors it. Super Bowl tested last year, and coming off disappointment against Carolina, there’s a hunger for vengeance that I see carrying this team over the top. Most years I waffle. Not this one. Clear and obvious Super Bowl champs, right here.
I mean, look at this team. Tyrod Taylor averaged 19.16 ppg last year – comparable to Aaron Rodgers, who averaged 19.36. Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman are the starting backfield. AJ Green and Alshon Jeffery join DeSean Jackson in a loaded WR group. And Rob Gronkowski, the TE to smash all TEs, will also haul in a lot of TDs. Victor Cruz, and CJ Prosise are coming off the bench. Man it’s weird to jump from the NFC West to the Bills. Fantrax projects this offense to average 120 points per week, and I personally think that could be low, depending on what guys like DJax and Devonta Freeman actually put up.
Defense is the same story, possibly even better. Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald on the line? And a handless JPP (science has shown that when your hands are taken away, your other senses are amplified. JPP is going to hunt QBs with sonar and an acute sense of smell). That’s a top 5 player at both ends and tackle. Navorro Bowman and Brandon Marshall (the linebacker) join Mason Foster at LB, though the surprising loss of Manny Lawson hurts this group a little. The secondary has old veterans (Mike Adams and Tracy Porter) joining young and hungry backs like Deone Buccanon and George Iloka. While the group is a little light at CB depending on the play of Leodis McKelvin, it is still a fantastic young secondary group.
Put another way, this team has no apparent weaknesses. Every starting slot should put up starter to above average caliber numbers, with the possible exception of a single CB slot. There’s depth at most positions to cover injuries, and I see it as very realistic that this team averages somewhere in the 230-250 range on non bye weeks. Barring a number of serious injuries, I think this team is unstoppable and death marches to the Super Bowl a la Kentucky in the Anthony Davis era.
Miami Dolphins (8-8):
A quick glance at the Dolphins IR right now tells the whole story of their season. Sammy Watkins. Breshad Perriman. Josh Doctson. All three are unlikely to STAY on the IR. In fact, all three are most likely to be fully healthy early in the year, joining Kevin White, Niles Paul, and Chris Conley as targets for gunslinger Ryan Tannehill. No, the question isn’t injuries for this group – the question is simply how good can they be? Watkins is really the only proven player of the bunch, and even he has yet to live up to his lofty price tag as a very early first round pick – which could mean great things if he can finally hit that potential.
But man, the rest of the skill players: Breshad Perriman. Josh Doctson. Kevin White. Chris Conley. Tevin Coleman. Talk about a group of highly heralded young guns who haven’t quite gotten their chance yet. If all those guys hit, LOOK. OUT. And if Jordan Reed should happen to get injured eating jello and Niles Paul takes over… this offense could be extremely impressive. Of course, the questions always remain when relying on so many young, unproven players. There’s an old saying in Sweden – don’t count your chickens. It makes you seem rude and arrogant, particularly when you have lots of chickens. And it might inspire someone bitter and jealous because they have less chickens to dress up like Zorro, sneak into your chicken coop, and strike down your chickens with a crowbar vividly painted to resemble a coyote. So yeah. That saying was made for situations like this. Sorry to be cliche.
Defense is tough to figure out for this squad, particularly with suspensions and injury issues causing real problems up front. Randy Gregory’s suspension and subsequent rehab opened the door for Vance Walker… who promptly tore his ACL. Which left the door wide open for Dion Jordan – who has no timetable to resume football activity. This leaves Miami with one, single active defensive end – Marcus Smith. The jury is still out on whether Marcus Smith is actually active. In fact, he’s shown SO little in his time as a first round pick, that the jury remains out on whether he is a Marcus or a Smith or even a living being at all. Some think he’s a statue. Some an ent. Who can truly say? It’s a bad situation up front. The linebacking corps and secondary are better, with Dannelle Ellerbe, Perry Riley, Trent Murphy, and Shane Ray teaming up with Alterraun Verner, DJ Swearinger, and Kevin Johnson to form a serviceable defense. Still, it’s hard to see this group being particularly outstanding, even if it can get its pass rush sorted out.
End of the day, I don’t think this iteration of the Dolphins has much chance at the league crown under any circumstances. Buffalo is too good and the Fins defense is too porous. However, the volume of young talent at WR bodes really well for this team in the years to come – and I think is enough to get them to .500 this season.
New York Jets (7-9):
Another team that has dwelt in the shadows for years for whom I expect a big jump, the Jets take the leap in these predictions towards .500 and should compete for a (distant) second place in the AL East. The team’s chances recently took a big leap forward with the trade of Sam Bradford and the news that Carson Wentz will start from day one, removing one of the major holes. A number of pieces also remain in place, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where New York almost, but not quite, qualifies as a powerhouse.
The strength of the Jets defense is up front, where ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams join Sharrif Floyd for a strong front three. Promising rookie Vernon Butler stands behind Floyd and could easily force himself into the mix at some point this season. The 3-4 defense boasts a cadre of strong linebackers, including DeMario Davis, David Harris, AJ Klein, and rookie Jordan Jenkins. What Klein, Jenkins, and additional rookie Eli Harold will be able to produce isn’t crystal clear, but Davis and Harris are strong enough in their own right to make this LB group formidable. The secondary also boasts some nice pieces, both veteran and rookie, with newcomer Vernon Hargraves, thought by some to be the best corner in the draft, joining Ha-ha Clinton Dix and Brandon Flowers. All told, this defense isn’t good enough to challenge Buffalo’s, but it should be downright solid.
The Jets could have some trouble scoring points, however. New York will rely on the ground game behind Melvin Gordon and Chris Ivory, both of whom have the potential to put together very strong years (and both of whom I happen to believe in). 2015 revelation Stefon Diggs joins the party as well, and Bilal Powell may be surprisingly capable in the backfield. Besides Wentz, the key question for New York is what they can expect from guys like Luke Willson (he of the extra L), Jeff Heuerman, Jared Abbrederis (yet another Rodgers option with potential – there’s like 93 of those guys), and Rod Streater, another guy who has flashed but really come to naught. I think this team will struggle to score points, but I do think the arrow is pointed up, particularly when Wentz really starts to develop and with another year of picks under their belts.
New England Patriots (6-10):
The Patriots have an interesting collection of players – all of whom have some potential, but few of whom are sure fire stars. Interestingly, they also have a glut of talent at the TE positional group, and a middling defense, which I think is what leaves them just behind the Jets in the east.
The best word to describe the offensive group is intriguing. Brock Osweiler is relatively unproven, but a starter with some very decent weapons who will be given every chance to put up big numbers. Frank Gore looks better than he has in years, and should be ready to put up a very solid final campaign. Jamison Crowder flashed in 2015, but could get buried on a deep Redskins receiver depth chart, particularly with the arrival of much heralded prospect Josh Doctson. Mike Wallace is a household name from his days in Pittsburgh, but its not clear whether he’ll look more like his productive old self or more like his unproductive new self. Duke Johnson might be a 3rd down back or a stud starter, and DeAndrew White, Kolby Listenbee and Danny Amendola will duke it out for the final WR spot. Shane Vereen also finds himself on the depth list, illustrating just how deep this team is in mid-level quality.
Let me take a brief diversion to expound briefly upon a point of philosophy inspired by our dear friend Mike Wallace. Reinventing oneself is not always good. This is a message of hope for those of you currently undergoing mid or quarterlife crises – don’t leave your wives, abandon your children, change careers, and become a fish and chips vendor underneath the Blue Water Bridge. Yes, it’s an awesome bridge. Yes, your family is probably being a pain in your keester, and yes, being a fish and chips vendor sounds awesome. I get it. But be like Steve Smith. When you start to suck, stay the course. You’ll suck for a few years and then, if you just stick with it, you’ll be awesome again! Don’t be like Mike Wallace. He reinvented himself right onto the waiver wire and now spends his days disappointing fantasy football players. Which is what your fish and chips will do. And probably give them the runs. Which is something Mike Wallace might also do. Cautionary tale. Don’t be Mike Wallace. Stay you. Research shows your quality of life will begin to improve in your 50s and go up until around 80 or so. So your best is ahead of you. Very unlike Mike Wallace.
Interestingly, the strength of this team is really its unsung group of Tight Ends. Delanie Walker continues to be an absolutely boss, while Cameron Brate is apparently stealing much more highly rated Austin-Sefarian Jenkin’s job. Maxx Williams, 2015’s highest rated TE prospect is waiting in the wings, and even guys like CJ Uzomah have some potential, particularly with Tyler Eifert’s absence. It’s a fascinating group that could potentially produce three bona fide stars – which might help to generate depth elsewhere.
The “quantity over quality” problem rears its head again on the defensive side, where the Patriots boast a large number of intriguing players with talent, but not a whole lot of sure things. Stephon Gilmore is an undeniably excellent corner, and William Jackson will be good as well when he recovers from his injuries, but after that, there’s a whole lot of sparks, flares, and fire starters, but no blazes: Bronson Kaufusi, Akeem Ayers, Kelvin Sheppard, Bobby Richardson, Mo Alexander, Letroy Guion, Alan Branch, Jatavis Brown, Erik Walden, Zach Sanchez, Shareece Wright, Ed Reynolds, Duke Williams – so many players, so much hope, so little shining gold. If New England could start 30 players per week instead of 22, I’d be much higher on this team’s chances. As it is, I think the lack of star power, particularly on defense, keeps this team out of the playoffs for another year.
Ok. So I’ve kept politics out of these posts purposefully. Which has been hard. Because that’s where all the best jokes live. But it’s a Saturday morning at draft time, I’m drinking coffee, and it seems both relevant and obligatory. I’ve hit the Olympics. I’ve made Cleveland jokes. I’ve referenced AJ Green. I’ve talked about other sports. I’ve hit Game of Thrones. I’ve made literally all the obligatory sportswriter references except politics. So I figure I’m kinda obligated to in this last section here.
Full disclosure – I’m a bleeding heart northeastern liberal with most of what that entails. I’m elitist, largely incompetent with any tool that is not a computer, believe that “education” is a magic wand you can just point at shit to magically make it better, and that nobody is ever responsible for anything in their lives and that it’s all the system’s fault. Lose your phone? It’s the system! Lose your license from repeated reckless driving? Damn system. Lose to anybody from the NFC West? Man, dude, you suck. It’s not the system. There’s no hope for you. I also thoroughly love to bash the man while cheerfully doing research work in support of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. I have an epic mancrush on Bernie Sanders and an equally great abhorrence for the Donald, who, as a Canadian by birth, I believe to be Don Cherry’s evil twin. It all just makes it that much sadder to me. Look what you could have been, Mr. Trump! You could have worn ridiculous suits with that combover and produced Rock ’em Sock ’em Hockey #23! All that potential. And you threw it away. ::sigh::
So let’s talk about politics. NFC East politics. East coast, back-room, dark-alley politics. You’ve got the Giants and those crazy New York values in a dead heat with Dallas. The reddest of the red against the bluest of the blue in an epic struggle for dominance of potentially not just the division, but the entire NFC. The Southern champs may have something to say about that, but man oh man these two teams are good. And just like on the national scene, Philadelphia comes in third, blue collar bitter about not having the spotlight, but not quite having the horses to make a stir on the national scene. And, of course, as always, Washington doesn’t get a vote.
New York Giants (12-4):
Just like on the national scene too, it’s New York that’s up in my crude, very unhelpful and non-predictive model. The G-men got a post-convention bounce when it was revealed that not only would Eric Ebron not miss the entire year, he potentially wouldn’t miss any time at all – a huge bonus for the Giants who not only lack a quality backup for the Detroit tight end, but lack ANY back up at all, and not a whole lot of draft capital to trade for one either.
The fact that Ebron will be fully available cements this offense as spectacular. Led by Antonio Brown, the clearcut PPR champion of the world and the Michael Phelps / Bill Clinton equivalent of unbeatable. Possibly it’s cupping. Possibly it’s an infatuation with balloons. In any case, Antonio Brown has been the leading fantasy point-getter each of the past two seasons (blowing 500 points out of the water last year) and is expected to do so again. Joining him is 2015’s #4 leading scorer, DeAndre Hopkins. Eli Manning is a strong quarterback with some strong weapons in OBJ and Sterling Shepard, and DeMarco Murray is ensconced at the head of a committee of aging Running Backs.
Despite the sheer power of those players, there are some real concerns about age and corruption on this squad (again, a parallel! See how I’m forcing this! It’s completely unnatural and obviously contrived, but I’m making it work!). The Giants have a wealth of talent at Running Back, but literally ALL of it could lose its job by the midpoint of the season. DeMarco Murray faces incumbent Derick Henry, Justin Forsett and Rashad Jennings face a plethora of young competition and that nagging voice whispering in the backs of their minds “Wake up. You are a backup! A Backup! You’re not a starter. You imposter. You’re not this good at football. One day, one day soon everyone is going to figure out that you’re pretending to be a starting RB. And then they are all going to laugh at you and you’ll be back on the sidelines where you belong!”
Editor’s Note: Between drafting this and publication, this very scenario played out for Justin Forsett. Rashad Jenning’s time is coming too.
Facing such challenges within and without, can any of the three last the year? It’s a concern. The other concern is Terrance Williams, who has been expected to break out for literally years… but may not actually ever do so. I mean, he is feeling Cole Beasley breathing down his neck…
The defense, though, is flat out good. And frankly, doesn’t have all that many question marks. It’s a notable upgrade on years past, and, to my mind, what gives them the division. Call it the ground game. Which is a terrible parallel. Because the running game IS the ground game. But I was using the running game for the “Hillary’s old” parallel. So I can’t use it again here. Dammit guys, this is HARD. Yes, yes, I KNOW that’s what she said. Shut up. You were totally thinking it.
Ahem. Sorry. Anyway. The defense. Robert Quinn, Carlos Dunlap, and Kawann Short form a top 5 defensive line, with Charles Johnson coming off the bench. It’s very solid. Pacman Jones (“I can’t cover, but look at those Kickoff return points pile up at the CB position!”) joins Prince Amukamura, Reshad Jones, Andrew Sendejo, and Trumaine Johnson in a permanent and excellent nickel. The LBs need a little work, particularly that long-awaited step forward from Arthur Brown, but Dont’a Hightower gives this team a solid presence in the middle (like Chris Christie – that dude has a solid presence in his middle fo’ sure) and it should be enough to fill out what should be an excellent defense.
Look, end of the day, it’s star power. There’s questions about running backs, questions about Terrence Williams, and questions about Linebackers. There’s questions about Benghazi and questions about emails. But the built in advantage of having an Antonio Brown and a De’Andre Hopkins is pretty significant. Antonio Brown averaged 32 ppg last year. DeAndre Hopkins averaged 25. A stud offensive player breaks the 20 point barrier. A good starting caliber player breaks 15. Just having the two of those guys in the lineup is literally like adding somewhere between a starting caliber WR and a stud caliber WR for FREE. Even if Terrance Williams WERE to throw up a zero each game, they have him covered. Everything they get from Williams and Ebron is basically gravy. It’s a huge advantage, and to my mind is the reason that the Giants eventually win this division – and the NFC – and is the best shot this league has at keeping the Bills from hosting the Fantasy Lombardi trophy.
Which makes me wonder, actually – what is a Fantasy Lombardi trophy? Discuss.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6):
So look. Dallas CAN win. It’s possible. If the economy tanks. Or Eric Ebron’s knee tanks. Or an act of terrorism takes out Antonio Brown all Tanya Harding style, Dallas could be right there. This team is flat out good, particularly on offense, but with enough defensive chops to get into the playoffs and make it a prohibitive second. But I don’t think the Cowboys can win. The star power isn’t quite starry enough and the question marks are a little bit too question-y. It would take everything to break right for this squad to reclaim the Division Title and the Super Bowl.
What do I mean? Well, it’s a tale of two Trumaine’s. New York’s Trumaine, Johnson, is a starting caliber player and will serve in a Nickel back role for the Giants this year. Dallas’ Trumaine, McBride, just got himself cut. Like Trumaine McBride, Dallas will need to replace injured, released and suspended players who were expected to play a key role – Chris Clemons and Jeremiah Ratliff up front, and possibly Sio Moore inside, depending on his health situation. There are solid replacements for sure – Akiem Hicks, Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Carr should slot in ably, though the DE situation still feels a little light to me. And certainly there’s no need to fret over players like Devin Hester and Roddy White on offense, or elsewhere on defense where the linebacking core of Moore, Rey Maualuga, Jasper Brinkley, Thomas Davis, and Sean Lee should be outstanding. But it still makes the situation just a little more tenuous.
As is so often the case, though, it’s on offense where the biggest potential and biggest question marks lie. Aaron Rodgers should be his usually fantastic self, particularly with Jordy Nelson back in the fold. But after that, it’s a series of potentially spectacular players with major question marks. Thomas Rawls is in position to be the #1 option on a run first squad – but is facing major competition to even hold on to the starting role, from Alex Collins, Christine Michael, and CJ Prosise. Jeremy Hill likewise could put up another top 5 rushing season, but his unforced fumbling errors could leave him in the doghouse with voters – and his coach. Dez Bryant’s a stud, but has had his share of injury issues and hasn’t shown the ability to overcome a poor QB situation – which makes him a little less durable than Antonio Brown. Allen Hurns is another one who just seems to produce out of sheer lack of knowledge that he’s not a very good player. It might catch up with him in the form of Marqise Lee this year. John Brown’s a speedster who could be a star, and both Jordan Cameron has tons of potential at TE – but neither one is a sure thing.
I’m not trying to be harsh on Dallas. They’ve run a bold, aggressive team-building campaign and have put together a really nice squad. I like the players on offense and I like some of the players on defense. If everyone pans out, the Cowboys can definitely one. But a lot has to go right to catch a team as good as the Giants. We’ll see.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9):
I’ll be the first person to tell you that this team does not deserve to be 7-9. It’s a solid squad with some good players. But this is a brutal division, and the hard truth is that just as Philly doesn’t quite compare to New York as a metropolitan area, it’s the same situation in RDFL.
Let’s start with what does work for the Eagles – the hard nosed, physical defense. You’ve seen that over and over again. Some teams (and it seems like some divisions) pay attention to the defensive side of the football. Those teams and divisions are routinely better than teams with outstanding offense and a hoard of 6-pointers on defense. It’s critical in RDFL, as evidenced by just about every team that went to the playoffs last year. And the NFC East gets that. Philadelphia gets that. Remember the Giants D-Line? Philly’s is better, with Ezekiel Ansah, Fletcher Cox, and Jurrell Casey putting it a solid #2 in RDFL, behind only the ridiculous pairing of JJ Watt and Aaron Donald in Arizona. Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks join stud rookie Deion Jones and potential beneficiary of the “Purple Drank” suspension of Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens. The secondary is excellent too, anchored by the newly wealthy Honey Badger and rising stars Kyle Fuller, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Tashaun Gipson. This defense is good enough to keep even Damarious Randall on the bench. It’s a 100 point a week defense.
On the flip side, Derek Carr and Latavius Murray are both strong, young, players. Even if Latavius is threatened for catches by DeAndre Washington, he should still put up RB1 numbers in a way that DMC never reliably could. And Carr should simply continue to get better. Jason Witten probably has one more good year in him as Dak Prescott’s security blanket. Even Stew Beef, a young 29 from perennial timeshare status should put up solid starting running back numbers, if not stud numbers. There is a STEEP drop-off after the top four, though, with Philly needing to rely on starting level contributions from Josh Huff, Malcolm Mitchell, Lance Kendricks, Larry Donnell, or Chris Thompson. But still, a serviceable offense combined with an outstanding defense.
So why not the love? Why 7-9? It’s that Star Power thing again. The issue is really this. Even the solid guys, like Murray, Stew Beef, and Witten are all going to produce starting caliber efforts – 15ppg or so generously. That means it would take more than three of them having outstanding days to equal the top two on NYG. And then it really does go down from there. The offense is serviceable, but it puts Philly in an approximately 30-50 point hole just about every game against the division leaders – which is hard for a defense to make up. I could make a case for 8-8 if they play well outside the division. But it’s a tough road to hoe for a Philly team that has struggled to crack the top of what has been the best division in RDFL cumulatively since it’s inception.
Washington Redskins (4-12):
Washington DC never gets to vote. Ever. Districting gives it a measly single vote in the electoral college. There’s no Senate presence. Residents feel that nobody cares about them – they host the pols – but the pols don’t listen. The cost of living in DC is obscenely high, rivaling cities like Manhattan, making it difficult to get ahead. And you’re not allowed to build anything more than 5 stories off the ground to avoid overshadowing the important monuments and such. And on the football side of things, you have Dan Snyder as an owner, a legacy of Shanahans, and more drama about your nickname than competing for the playoffs. It’s rough.
It’s rough in RDFL too. Probably even rougher than in real life. There’s no quarterback, with EJ Manuel and Christian Hackenburg duking it out for the coveted prime benchwarmer role. The immortal Larry Fitzgerald continues to stave off father time to provide the only offensive firepower on the squad.
Editor’s note: Erp. Now he’s gone. No firepower.
And after that? Denard Robinson (who drove his car into the purple drank). Brandon Tate (nope, not the good Tate with opportunity – the not good Tate without much opportunity). Tyler Kroft (I’m only here until the better Bengals TE named Tyler shows up). Adam Humphries (who? No, seriously. I can’t even make a sarcastic remark because I don’t know who this fool is). Cecil Shorts III (Dude, lose the “III”. You aren’t allowed to have roman numerals after your name while you are this far down on the depth chart. It’s pretentious. You can have your III back when you start catching passes. Maybe you can have some pants then too. It’s going to be fall, dude. You’ll be cold in shorts.)
This is an offense that belongs in the NFC West. But unfortunately for Washington, it is in the NFC East. What that means is that instead of being pseudo-competitive with 30 points offensive weeks, this team is going to get obliterated in divisional matchups.
Things look better on defense. But not better enough to matter. And like many teams, Washington has a difficult situation on its hands, with some of its best defensive players aging. Paul P (still can’t spell his name. Still not willing to try) anchors a linebacking group that is the strength of this team, supported by Ryan Shazier, JT Thomas, and the once more employed Stephen Tulloch. The secondary is also excellent (which it has to be, in this division), with rags to riches story David Amerson playing alongside Xavier Rhodes, Kenny Vaccaro, Michael Griffin, and the still good DeAngelo Hall. The line is a mess, though, with self-styled philosophy hipster Robert Nkemdiche already the best player, and no real worthy starters.
The defense is better than the offense – but it is still the worst defense in the division by a significant margin. Worse for Washington, DeAngelo Hall and DJ Pauly P. are nearing the end of the careers, leaving the defensive without a true youth movement, though Savier Rhodes and Ryan Shazier do provide some potential. It’s a tough spot to be for the Redskins, who need to translate some of their aging stars into draft picks and future potential – but face a brutal year in a serious contender for the best division in football.
PLAYOFFS BONUS SECTION:
AFC East Champion: Buffalo Bills
AFC North Champion: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC West Champion: Oakland Raiders
AFC South Champion: Tennessee Titans
AFC Wild Card: Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Wild Card: Cleveland Browns
AFC Championship Game: Buffalo vs. Tennessee
AFC Champion: Buffalo Bills
NFC East Champion: New York Giants
NFC North Champion: Detroit Lions
NFC West Champion: Arizona Cardinals
NFC South Champion: New Orleans Saints
NFC Wild Card: Carolina Panthers
NFC Wild Card: Dallas Cowboys
NFC Championship Game: New York Giants vs. New Orleans Saints
NFC Champions: New York Giants
Super Bowl Champions: Buffalo Bills
Good luck everyone! 2016 is year #4 of RDFL. Here’s to the best one yet!
And we’re back for the 3rd of four sets of divisions in our 2016 preview. Good times will be had by some. I spent some time in California when I wrote the initial draft, so you’ll forgive me if I default to the Western divisions in honor of my geography. I’ll finish things up on the East Coast shortly.
The Raiders have played a high-risk, high-reward brand of fantasy football since the inauguration. It’s their style. And while it hasn’t yet put them over the top, it’s come very close – the unluckiest team of 2015 could have been West division champion EASILY if just a couple of points had swung the other way. If I recall correctly, they lost something like 3 games in 2015 by margins of less than a couple points. It was nuts. At some point that luck has to turn. And it might be this year.
But man this squad is risky. Carson Palmer’s solid. But after that? Arian Foster could be a total bust or he could be a top 5 RB again after a veritable year off. Oakland will also trot out Jay Ajayi – but he’s also quite unproven. This could be a hell of a tandem – or it could timeshare itself into oblivion. Eddie Lacy was one of the most disappointing players in the league… but he’s also a contender for top pick if he gets back to form. Josh Gordon has finally gotten away from the devastating influence of Johnny Manziel and looks to put his extensive suspension experience to work in actual football. But will his suspension experience transfer to the field? Possible top 10 WR… possible total bust. Davante Adams? Jordan Matthews out of Chip’s offense? Brandon Coleman? When DOES Tyler Eifert actually return. How does he play when he does? If the offense plays out, Oakland could have two top-5 RBs, 2 top 10 WRs and a top 5 TE. If it doesn’t, they could literally have Carson Palmer and a squad of ineffective backups and timeshares. Oakland has wisely handcuffed RB investments, but still. The range of possible outcomes here is insane.
The defense is really good, but there are still a lot of high-potential low-floor guys here. Jordan Hicks was spectacular at LB as a rookie before going out for the year. Can he stay healthy AND avoid a sophomore slump? Is he for reelz? Preston Brown has a huge role due to a Reggie Ragland injury… but he needed a rookie to get injured to get that role. Can he take advantage? TJ Carrie is a nice young player, but can he translate that to points? Is Karl Joseph ready to produce from day #1?
I will say this – on defense, I think the probability of “yes” answers are very high to most of these questions. This is a team with a good Carson Palmer and a good defense. Whether or not this is the AFC West division champs is going to depend on the wide range of outcomes with the skill players. As it always is, the Oakland Raiders should be an funsquad to follow – and a not very fun squad to play.
San Diego Chargers (9-7):
As I sit here typing on Ventura Blvd, looking out at the Palm Trees and the Poke-mon-ers, contemplating that noblest and manliest of pursuits that is fantasy football, I think it is possible (even likely) that I am sun-poisoned. The San Diego Chargers? Where the HECK did they come from? This team has been bad since day 1, and did not seem to have a real credible path to excellence as early as last year. But as I review this division, lest my eyes deceive me, the Chargers have somehow become good. And not just good, but potentially fantastic – on both sides of the ball.
Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates are back for one more campaign in the sun. With DeMarco Murray gone and Darren Sproles elderly, Ryan Matthews is all of a sudden the bell-cow back for a new look Eagles team. Doug Baldwin somehow turned from a mediocre at best WR on a run-first offense into a star. Travis Benjamin emerged from the Cleveland purgatory of high-potential Wide Receivers come to naught (looking at you Greg Little – which is more than can be said for any of your quarterbacks!) to also become a star. Jermaine Kearse is not half bad either. This offense is suddenly, solidly excellent.
On the flip side, the defense strikes me as sneaky-good. Poor man’s Carolina Panthers sneaky-good. Beyond DeMarcus Ware, the star-power isn’t there, and Rolando McClain’s “purple drank” hurts pretty significantly. But the thing that really is compelling about this squad is that everybody is solid. There’s no real drop off. They can field a team 11 deep and expect to see starter level outputs from all of them – even if the name recognition isn’t quite star caliber.
Here’s the issue for this team – DEPTH. This is a starting 20 that can compete for the division and a playoff spot. The issue, though, is that there is literally NOTHING after it. Jacob Tamme is literally the only piece of value outside of the starting lineup, and that depth is already going to be tested. There’s no good replacement for DeAngelo Williams if Le’Veon can stay off the ganja, and Stevie Johnson’s season ending injury (rumor has it that he picked a fight with Batman. The conclusion is unsurprising) means that there’s no backup at either of the other skill positions either. But it’s worst on defense, where the Chargers are absolutely reeling at Linebacker. Donald Butler, a past star, was surprisingly cut, Rolando McClain is suspended for the entire regular season, and Pernell McPhee will start the season on the PUP list and miss at least 6 games (9 in real deal land). That leaves the San Diego with only two starting linebackers – pending any additional injuries.
The 2016 iteration of the San Diego Chargers should be the best one yet. But every player should live in one of those plastic bubbles that are all the rage in youtube videos (where they roll down the hill and crush stampeding college students), because this team is susceptible to injuries, benchings, and suspensions in a way that very few others are. Below is what I see as the optimal scenario for your 2016 San Diego Chargers.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-7):
The Kansas City Chiefs are in the market for both a good trainer and the fountain of youth. Possibly both. Season-ending injuries to starting Linebackers Justin Houston and Reggie Ragland coupled with uncertainties about Jordy Nelson’s return, Jordan Reed’s status (will he get banged up sleep testing posture-pedic mattresses? Touching feathers? Blowing up balloons? Cuddling kittens or baby chicks? Absolutely everything is perilous when you are Jordan Reed), and the capacity of young linemen Caraun Reid and Dante Fowler to start games and make tackles place some question marks around this year’s Chiefs squad. It’s not just health that’s uncertain for this team, but also roles – where does Giovani Bernard fit in Cincinnati’s backfield tandem with Jeremy Hill? Will Tavon Austin still get touches in a Jared Goff system – and if he does, can he maintain the # of big plays he made last year?
Also, can someone please explain to me why Tavon Ausin is NOT returning kickoffs? Please?!? I can just picture the conversation.
Coach A: So, we have this guy who goes from 0 to 60 faster than the Flash. He’s absolutely deadly in open spaces. Every time he touches it with some room, he is a real threat to take it to the house. He’s also a super tiny for a receiver, which means he’s not going to win a lot of 50-50 balls. Hmm. How can we possibly get him the ball?
Coach B: I have it! Let’s take our rookie quarterback and have him try to throw passes to him while he’s covered by a guy who is 7 inches taller than he is. He’ll probably be able to see him. Or, we can throw telegraphed check passes or hand it off to him and ask him to break tackles with his 73 pound frame.
Coach A: I love it! It’s foolproof.
Coach C: What about returning kickoffs? That way, he would catch the ball in space and could get acceleration…
Coach A: That’s absurd. Go sit in the corner. You’re such a damn fool you probably think zebras are real animals and not just what line judges look like when you get concussed!
The Chiefs should be a good team – Alex Smith is a serviceable scrambler, and the pass-catching group of Nelson, Austin, Reed, Randall Cobb and Pierre Garcon should put up some points. There are starting caliber defenders at every position and even in the absence of Houston and Ragland, the linebacking core of D’Qwell Jackson, KJ Wright, and Derrick Johnson should be strong for one more year. Everson Griffen and Fowler should form a strong pass rush, and newcomers Corey Graham and Malcolm Butler should bolster what was a flagging secondary. The trick isn’t whether the Chiefs will contend – they will – it’s whether they will win. And while the chances are there, Oakland has a higher ceiling and San Diego’s starting twenty may have a lower floor. Only time will tell if the Chiefs can get back to the playoffs for the 4th consecutive season.
Denver Broncos (6-10):
The post-Peyton era is alive and well for the Denver Broncos, who are faced with a bit of a “reload and see what we have” year. Paxton Lynch is safely ensconced as the Franchise QB of the future, and Demaryius Thomas is going to be a stud no matter who is throwing him the ball. And frankly, the defense the Broncos can trot out this year is going to be surprisingly good for a team that’s gotten a “focus on the offense” rap. Guys like Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, George Johnson, Duke Ihenacho, VInce Wilfork, Chris Harris Jr. and Rahim Moore are going to keep this year’s Broncos competitive in a lot of games. And there are young players coming up for this team, with Javon Hargraves, DeAndre Washington and Paxton Lynch portending a promising future.
But the 2016 edition of the Flying Elways is going to feature one prominent question every game they play. Can they score? Demaryius can. Dion Lewis cannot. The reason being that he’s injured. It makes it hard. And after that? Anquan Boldin just celebrated his 93rd birthday, and while he can still make some grabs as a possession receiver, particularly in a Lions lineup seeking to fill the Calvin Johnson void, there’s a real question of just how many catches he can still make. Jeff Janis is fighting with what seems like about 62 other promising young receivers to be a tertiary option for Aaron Rodgers. DeAndre Washington should catch some passes, but isn’t likely to have a starting role as a rookie, and there’s no real TE to speak of. It’s a very real possibility that the Broncos could run out a team with a zero from QB, Nick Vannett, Cole Beasley and Jeff Janis on a regular basis. That would make it very hard to get it done in what is shaping up to be a surprisingly competitive AFC West.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5): “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” That should be Arizona’s motto this year. But actually, there’s no bear. There’s more like a chubby little chimpanzee with a stick. Basically, it’s like that old “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” program where you are driving a car and you have to win by typing a certain number of words per minute. The super-fast typers would set it to like 70 to train for careers in clerical work. The slackers would set it to about 20 wpm so they could hunt and peck and not have to learn. That’s sort of what it’s like for Arizona this year. The pace car is set to about 12 wpm. So Arizona could field a football team consisting of nothing but pygmy otters and lepers and still win the division by about 5 games. Below is a video detailing what I expect the NFC West division race to look like. The dude is Arizona. Unfortunately, I can’t embed this one, but watch it anyway.
This year, Arizona runs away with the division largely by virtue of not having a serious of massive, gaping holes big enough you could drive a tractor-trailer through at major skill positions. Matt Ryan and Shady McCoy give some solid star power on the offensive front, and the defense is good, bordering on excellent, particularly up front. The combination of Calais Campbell and JJ Watt are set to average nearly 30ppg from the Defensive End position alone – which is a very nice built in competitive advantage. An extremely strong secondary (Barry Church, TJ McDonald and Rashad Johnson at Safety, with Josh Norman and DRC doing the covering) should also put up a lot of points. It’s an interesting defensive strategy by Arizona, which has built up a surplus of strength at positions of scarcity (DE and S) throughout the league. Where most teams are scraping by for capable starters, Arizona has loaded up at these positions to bolster a good but not great, linebacking corps.
The offense is sketchier, but actually has a lot of potential. The jury is still out on whether or not Kamar Aiken, is, in fact, good at football. Signs seem to be pointing up for him, though, and he may well be the most productive Ravens receiver this year. The jury does, however, seem to have returned a verdict on Reuben Randle (not good enough for football. Let’s hope he can type!). Michael Floyd continues to be “on the edge of a breakout year” (for the record, I think he gets it) and both Brandon LaFell and Richard Rodgers have solid opportunities on their respective teams.
End of the day, I’m probably being too hard on the poor Cardinals. They are going to win this division by six games again – not just because they are the best of a bunch of bad teams – but because they are a legitimately good team. Lock this one up, it is in the bag.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9):
Being the second best team in the NFC West is a little bit like being the second best quarterback the Browns have had in the last 25 years. It’s not exactly much of an honor. That said, let’s take a second to stop and appreciate what the Seahawks have accomplished in terms of a quick rebuild. One year after selling literally everything, the Hawks are already rebuilding to the point where I expect them to finish SECOND in their division. Now, keep in mind that doesn’t mean a lot. But it is a nice step forward for the rebuilding Hawks.
It’s going to be a show me year for a lot of the young and promising players, starting with #1 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, who joins Sterling Shepard as high class weapons for Russell Wilson, who literally had NO weapons last year. He had so few weapons that not even Ryan Lochte could have claimed to feel threatened by meeting him in a dark alley (he could, however, have seriously injured Jordan Reed).
This year, Shepard and Elliott alone should provide some rejuvenation for the offense – and for many years to come. With the notable exception of Tight End (where MyCole Pruitt really shouldn’t be anybody’s Cole Pruitt, he’s just not good enough to want), the Seahawks offense is actually filled with some promising young players – Paul Richardson is an absolutely gunner (runs like Usain bolt – though it is unclear how that will work for him to catch passes, as he tops out at 4’3” wearing wooden dutch platform shoes). Pharoh Cooper may find a role in the highly unsettled group of Goff-targets. Alex Collins is pushing for a role in a suddenly Beast-less Seattle backfield, though the re-emergence of pre-season hero Christine Michael puts a little doubt on that. Long and short, there’s young talent on the offensive side of the ball, though most of it will take some time to really develop.
There’s young talent on the other side of the ball too, though not quite to the same extent. Most notably, rookie Kamali Correa (not Kai’oahu’injured’guy, though the names are confusing) joins Denzel Perryman and Bobby Wagner to form a powerhouse linebacking corner. Other young guns with promise include Kenneth Acker, Deon Bush, and Jihad Ward, who join other young guns without promise (looking at you, Cassius Marsh) and stabilizing veterans in Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor. The Legion of Boom this is not, but good enough to be second in this division? Absolutely. Just as exciting for the Seahawks are another trifecta of first round picks (all coming potentially in the top half of the first round) to help complete the rebuild. This team still needs another year to get really good – but its on the right trajectory
San Francisco 49ers (6-10):
So I will say this for the 9ers – this is a team that could surprise. It’s an intriguing plan that’s been put into place, and it could certainly pay off – just like Oakland, this team seems to have captured the bay area penchant for high risk, high reward players. Unlike Oakland though, I have more concerns about these risks – and I’m not sure there are enough sure things to warrant quite as much optimism.
For one, it all starts with the dynamic QB to WR1 duo that every team covets to score major points. RGIII to Corey Coleman. How the heck do you evaluate this pairing? By all accounts, RGIII has looked pretty excellent in camp (dude even SLID the other night – Dayumm! Times, they are a-changin’) and pretty mediocre in the preseason. And also by all accounts (this is actually probably an overstatement, as there are a LOT of accounts. The internet causes accounts to proliferate and everybody has a different one. It’s kind of like Olympians filing police reports. Ooh. Lochte-burn), Corey Coleman is the real deal. But man. Coleman is a rookie. RGIII is a multi-bust. It’s Cleveland. This could be a 20/20ppg pairing and the foundation of a better than expected offense. But the bust chances seem high too. Just hard to evaluate.
It’s like that all the way down the roster. Michael Thomas could catch a lot of Drew Brees passes (there are usually lots of them), or he could be confused for various other Mike Thomas’ and disappear. Austin Seafaring-Jenkins could be the stud we’ve been expecting for years, or he could lose his job to his landlubbing counterpart, Cameron the Brate. Similar story for Matt Jones. Hunter Henry is a very promising TE for the long-term of this team, but he’s also a rookie TE – who traditionally don’t do very much. D-liners Benson Mayowa and Erik Armstead may or may not be all the way back from injury. Slick Willie Young and Duron Harmon’s roles are up in the air in the secondary (or were, before the trade), and it remains to be seen how much the SF IDPers will see statistical bounces due to the preposterous number of snaps Chip Kelly (and his minions Blaine and Colin) will make them play on the field.
The trick for me is that none of these risks feel great for 2016. I like Corey Coleman, and to a real degree RGIII. I like Armstead. But I like Brate over Jenkins, Mike Thomas as a role-player, not a starter, Matt Jones to time share, and Hunter Henry to be a rookie. I don’t like Slick Willie Young. And even if all these risks were to pan out, I think a second place divisional finish is the ceiling for this squad. I don’t doubt that this team can play way ahead of where I expect them to be – and the pieces are there for a nice dynasty squad (oh, and Sheldon Richardson is a vengeful Aztec deity), but my prediction is a 3rd place finish for this team.
Los Angeles Rams (5-11):
The only thing with less dignity than the acronym LARM is potentially going to be the LARM offense this year. Unfortunately, that is going to undercut what could actually be a surprisingly decent defense to keep this team at the bottom of the NFC West pecking order.
In many ways, the Rams seem to be in the same place that the Seahawks were last year, but with a better defense and fewer draft picks. There’s promising young quarterback Marcus Mariota – and not a whole lot else. Interestingly, the Rams second best player on offense is another quarterback – Slammin’ Sammy Bradford. After that? Well, Chris Sims could be ok with the Muscle Hamster’s sloppy seconds. But man. Cordarelle Patterson and Bishop Sankey are two high-profile rookies who have busted HARD looking to resurrect their careers away from the Detroit spotlight. It’s hard to see either one doing it. Sankey has already been cut, along with starting WR Chris Givens. Jared Cook has been a breakout threat forever, but he’ll be about the 11th option on the Packers. Darrius Heyward Bay is another high-profile bust who has shown occasional flashes, but looks stuck behind Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton in Martavis Bryant’s absence. Moritz Boehringer should bring in six or seven German fans, but not nearly as many footballs. And Jeff Cumberland, always a favorite of this author, is both injured and not actually very good at scoring fantasy points, despite his sheer awesomeness. That offense is going to STRUGGLE, a la Seattle 2015.
It’s a shame, because the offense is going to undercut what should be a very nice defense. The Rams have some real riches in the secondary, with Senquez Golson, Rodney McCleod, Janoris Jenkins, Darian Stewart, Marcus Cooper, and EJ Gaines all looking starting caliber. Bob Ayers Jr. and Cedric Thornton provide some nice power up front, and James Laurinitis and Nick Perry are no slouches in the middle, though the Linebacking corps is weaker than either the front-line or the outfield.
End of the day, it’s possible that the defense is enough to put this team up to a third or even a second place finish if things break right. But that offense is going to hamstring this team’s ceiling and keep them in contention for a top five pick throughout the year. The tough part for the Rams is that that pick will be their only real draft asset of value for next year unless a QB can be flipped or they can turn some of that secondary depth into draft capital. It’s a rebuild in SoCal, but it’s not looking like a fast one.
We return for another edition of the Real Deal Report Previews! This time, I’m in LA (or was, at first draft), frantically typing at a Starbucks while my jet-lagged body marvels that it is somehow still morning. It is also, 107 degrees. Therefore, I have elected to preview the Southern division.
We return today to our contemplation of history by remembering a time in which sports were pure and disciplined. We remember smash-mouth, three-yards-in-a-pile-of-dust football. We remember the New Jersey Devils utterly ruining hockey with their BS dump and trap nonsense that totally took all the fun out of the game while at the same time being undeniably effective. We remember the “raised mound” era of baseball in which ERAs under 2 were commonplace and runs were like gold. We remember the 20XX Seattle Mariners in which all opposing pitchers had ERAs under 2 and runs were like gold. We mock the 20XX Seattle Mariners in which all opposing pitchers had ERAs under 2 and runs were like gold. Oh we mock them. And oh how we cry. We cry.
In any case, what all of these disparate eras had in common were one single, undeniable trait – nobody could score. Offenses were inept compared to the powerful defenses that terrorized them. It was like Mark Sanchez was starting for everybody – ALL. THE. TIME. We shudder and shake our heads violently to clear them of such disturbing visions.
Welcome, my friends, to the 2016 AFC South – a division of powerful defenses and apathetic, castrated offenses (don’t worry, no images).
Tennessee Titans (10-6):
We begin with Tennessee, another team whose rebuild has seemed to last forever – but who, this humble author believes, has finally turned the corner and will contend for a championship. We begin with that offensive collossus Odell Beckham Jr. striding across the land and catching everything that moves in his mighty two-finger grip. We move on with the mostly unproven but filled with potential supporting cast of Teddy Bridgewater, CJ Anderson, Devin Funchess, Dwayne Allen, Mohamed “I’m next to Julio Jones instead of AJ Green, perhaps the curse will be lifted” Sanu, and newcomer Tajae Sharp. We speak of Justin Hunter, Andre Williams, Kenny Stills, and Wendell Smallwood, and consider them yet more young and fantastic potential.
We do not mention the poster child for potential come to naught, Ladarius Green, who was been heir apparent to Antonio Gates since Kennedy’s assassination. Every year has been his year. Every year has come and gone. And now his career stands in jeopardy, a warning to children of the dangers of relying on “potential”. We do not mention Ladarius Green, and we drink to forget. We turn our heads away from the horrifying sight, and put it out of our mind. The young players WILL develop. The potential WILL become reality. It must. Ladarius who? I HAVE NO SON.
We think also of a ferocious and veteran defense, like all in this nil-nil draw of a division. Anchored by Mario Edwards and Ndamukong Suh, bolstered by the “I’m so mighty I have an “e” at the end of my name for absolutely NO REASON” Stephone Anthony, and outfielded by the capable McCourty twins (Devin and Jason). We wonder what the hell is up with a team that has two guys with the last name of “McCourty” and two guys with the first name “Devin” starting for it at the same time. That’s weird right? And we conclude by looking at Rookie Scooby Wright, chuckling at his name, and instinctively making the “Scooby-dooby-doo” noise in our heads and fetching our hallucinogens.
And at the end of the day, we realize that Tennessee is about to complete it’s rebuild and win the NFC South. Unless… unless “LADARIUS” comes to pass for them all… No. No. That won’t happen. Of course it won’t. It won’t…
Houston Texans (8-8):
Speaking of three yards in a pile of dust, Da Coach loves Da Texans, who seem to have adopted on old school ground and pound philosophy. Da’meis Winston lines up behind center, and is ready to hand it off over and over and over again to the two best players on offense, David Johnson and Carlos “I’m going to carry the ball 53 times a game this year and then Chip Kelly is going to trade me next year for Ladarius Green and a mesh bag of athletic socks” Hyde. In all likelihood the best RB tandem in the league, this duo combined with Winston and Donte “I have a hoity-toity name that makes it sound like I could be a count of some random territory in Southern France” Moncrief should keep the Texans competitive.
Like all the AFC South, this defense should also stay competitive with Chandler Jones and Malcolm Brown joining new draft pick steal Kenny Clark to form a fearsome front-line, and a solid defensive backfield of the flying Jonnies (Joseph and Cyprien) joining Earl “I have a hoity-toity name that it sound like I could be an Earl” Thomas and Desmond Trufant.
The trick for the Texans is going to be their depth. While Tennessee can bring out starting-caliber players 18 deep, the Texan line-up runs a little thinner. Guys like Angelo Blackson and Damien Swann are not players you want starting for a championship calendar team, and even true stalwarts like Bruce Irvin tend a little cold in fantasy. It’s less pronounced, but no less dangerous on the offensive side where Jaelen Strong, Levine Toilolo and Chris Hogan need to produce FAR beyond what they have ever produced before. They may. But we’ll talk about counting chickens later.
Look, there’s really potential here. Toilolo and/or Austin Hooper could start catching lots of touchdowns from Matt Ryan, Brock Osweiler to Jaelen Strong could be a household combination by the end of the season, and Chris Hogan could become Tom Brady’s after-Gronk go too. It’s possible. But to my mind, the Titan potential has a better chance of panning out (and more wild cards with the chance to do so) than the Texan potential, which means it all comes back to just how good those running backs are… Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9):
The Jacksonville Jagulars (that’s how they say it in Winnie the Pooh. Heffalumps and Woozles steal hunny. Beware.) has
theyselves a ferocious defense. Potentially the best defense in a division full of them. It’s young. It’s fresh. It’s ferocious. It features some of the best players in fantasy football and the best names in fantasy football. Guys like CJ Mosley at LB, Bashaud Breeland at CB, and Linval Joseph and Jabaal Sheard on the line provide the football skills and serious scoring. Then there’s this guy called Obum Gwacham, who takes over from, get this, Hau’oli Kikaha. Seriously. No joke. Hau’oli Kikaha got injured. They replaced him with Obum Gwacham. My prevailing theory is that absolutely nobody had been able to say the first name, so they just figured “since we’ve just been grunting and making coughing noises and calling out “hey you” with the last guy, may as well just do the same thing with the new guy.
Anyway, the defense is really good. Could be a 100 point defense on a regular basis if it plays to potential. I mean, when Mark Barron and Donte Whitner are forgotten role players and the GM has been frantically trying to sell Richard Sherman all season like Count Moncrief trying to marry off his sister for political reasons all Game of Thrones style, you know you have a defense that is strong and deep.
The trick is that this team really ain’t going to score no points. Kirk Cousins is genuinely good. He has always been great at throwing passes that other players catch. Now that he’s figured out that he should throw the ball to only guys who look like a McDonalds and are labeled offensively to Native Americans, he’s become borderline unstoppable. Travis Kelce is also fantastic. I bitterly resent the day I traded him away. He’s going to score a LOT of touchdowns. We can even give this team the benefit of the doubt and assume that Marqise “I have a hoity-toity name that makes it sound like I could be a Marquis of some random town in southern France” Lee will actually do something this year.
But after that? The lineup is as follows, and I quote “Seth Roberts, Tyler Ervin, Rashard Higgins, Marcedes Lewis, Duron Carter, Tre McBride.” There is an excellent chance that Odell Beckham Jr. will outscore everyone on this offense but Cousins and Kelce on a fairly regular basis. Ouch.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10):
Same as it ever was for the Indianapolis Colts. Fortunately for you, they do NOT have Duke Johnson, so you won’t have to put up with me making the same tired nobility pun. Unfortunately for Indianapolis, they don’t have Duke Johnson, which means that after Andrew Luck and Julian Edelman, they will be trotting out Bruce Ellington, Charcandrick “no longer starting but still costing 12M” West, Troy Niklas, Chris Johnson, and Will Fuller.
Here’s the thing, this offense could be ok. But it’s full of question marks. Will Luck be better? Will Edelman stay healthy? Will Bruce Ellington truly take hold of a strong role in a Chip Kelly offense – and can whoever starts at QB get him the ball? Will Charcandrick West get any touches? What happened to Troy Niklas’ “c” and “u”? Did he lose them in a poker game to some rough and tumble mates at a bar while in college? Will Chris Johnson maintain his resurgence? Will Will Fuller get anything done as a rookie? It’s a lot of questions. And while some answers may be positive, at least some answers are unlikely to be, and Indy really doesn’t have the depth to sustain any “no” answers.
The defense too is a step back from the rest of the division’s stalwarts, possessing a lot of compelling youth, but not enough short-term answers. Guys like Artie Burns, Eli Apple, Tavon Young, and Shaq Barrett will bolster the team in the future, but will struggle to score points today. Jerrell Freeman, Brian Orakpo, and Antoine Bethea are all on the wrong side of 30 and even they can only do so much. Landon Collins is a strong player for the future and present, and Perrish Cox could be the same, so it’s not as if this defense is weak – but it’s also not as exceptional as some of the others in the division.
I have a bad habit of betting against Indy at the beginning of the year, and usually look foolish for doing so. It could happen again. If the vets on D have one more great year in the tank and the kids develop quickly… if the opportunity is there in the right places for the young guys… this team could get to a place of being Super Bowl worthy if everything pans out. I just think it’s more likely that the old guys decline faster and the young guys are a year away… in which case, it could be a long season in the land of Eli Lilly. NFC South
Now this division is straight up impossible to predict. Carolina won the Super Bowl and brings back the whole team. The Saints have a strong but shallow offense and the best defense in the division. Atlanta is a trendy offensive pick with some star power and some defensive liabilities. Tampa Bay might well have the best composite team on both sides of the ball – but also may not have a starting QB – or may have two. It’s a predictor’s nightmare.
But who am I kidding. When have I ever been any good at this anyway? Time to solicit the aid of the stars, owl pellets, and least reliable of all, ESPN analysts. Let’s start from the top.
New Orleans Saints (10-6):
New Orleans gets the benefit of the doubt because of the starting lineup, a very solid defense, and a history of excellence. The Saints and Chiefs are the only teams in RDFL to have made the playoffs in every season of the league’s existence, and this team still has all the parts on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham join forces with newly minted #1 WR Golden Tate to anchor what should be a decent offense, while the defense remains a strength of this team – as it has since day #1. While the New Orleans secondary is a little porous, the front seven is insane: Jordan Cameron, Rob Ninkovich, Damon Harrison, William Gholston, Kiko Alonso, Anthony Barr, and Brandon Graham. Mercy. That’s a 4-3 defense that can GET AFTER the quarterback and generate some points. As I mentioned, there are some weaker spots in the secondary, but a combination of Malcolm Jenkins and that front seven will mask a lot of coverage weaknesses!
So why am I so hesitant about putting the Saints as the clear-cut #1 here? Well, first and foremost, because this division is GOOD. All four teams in this division have star power and the chance to put it all together. Hell, Carolina is the defending Super Bowl Champions – it’s certainly possible they should be getting the benefit of the doubt!
More importantly, though, New Orleans needs things to break right. The Saints don’t have a lot of margin for error. If Jeremy Langford (he of the 3.3 ypc) loses his starting role to Ka’Deem Carey or Jordan Howard, there’s no real viable replacement on the roster. If Sammie Coates struggles to replace Martavis Bryant, there’s no real solid replacement at WR. If the legs fall off Darren Sproles, same story. If Rob Ninkovich’s injury is longer and more debilitating than expected, the drop-off could be significant depending on how well Nick Fairley plays in his new digs. At the end of the day, New Orleans is already being forced to start JJ Nelson due to a lack of depth on offense. If the rest of the team plays to its potential, this should be easily overcome – but if things break badly for the Saints (and many things happen in an RDFL season), this offense could go from excellent to potentially bad. And given the strength of this division, a bad offense is probably not going to be enough – even with the grade A beef the Saints are running out there on D each week.
Carolina Panthers (9-7):
Carolina has to be feeling a little bit like “I win the Super Bowl and all I get is this bloody Tee-shirt?”. Sorry, man. If it makes you feel any better, I completely underestimated your team last year because of how it looked on paper, and you made me look like a fool at every turn. I picked against you in the division, and you won. I picked against you in the playoffs, and you won. I picked against you in the Super Bowl, and you won there too. So, basically, think of it this way – when I pick against you, you win! So really, you should probably be mailing me a 20 spot for picking you second.
Carolina really has the same strengths and same weaknesses as last year’s team. The strengths are a fantastic defense headlined by human Robocop Luke Kuechly, edge-rusher extraordinaire Marcell Dareus, and anchored by Patrick Patterson and Kurt Coleman. This is the same defense that every week put the Panthers over the top and led them to some 300 point games. It returns largely intact, and is bolstered by the karmic and spiritually uplifting preference of DE Greg Hardy, who is making a cool 12M to cheerlead. That’s a problem for me. But aside from that, this defense will be wonderful once again.
Also once again, the offense looks a little underwhelming on paper. Cam Newton is back to dab and dance his way to victory, all the while fielding complaints about his leadership when they lose and being praised for his maturity as a leader when they win. Gotta love sports narratives. Greg Olsen, his favorite target, should put together yet another fantastic campaign. There’s even an argument that the return of Kelvin Benjamin and the maturation of Cam’s other receivers should lead to an even better campaign for one of the best quarterbacks in Fantasy.
Mark Ingram, who for some reason my mind still can’t fully trust as a running back worthy of starting, should actually put up another solid campaign, as should young guns Willie Snead and Zach Ertz. One huge question for Carolina is how much juice Steve Smith still has in the tank. He’s clearly front and center of a bad Baltimore receiving corps, and was on pace for a career year last year before his devastating injury. But can he maintain a comeback to post solid numbers? If so, that Carolina offense could suddenly look pretty compelling. Even if he fades hard (37 year old receivers returning from devastating injuries have that tendency), Robert Woods has looked great in Buffalo by all indications, and Eddie Royal always seems to put up numbers…
Man, I don’t know. The Panthers have snuck up on me again. I like them more than I did when I started writing this. For some reason, it’s very hard for me to vote FOR this team… but the more I look at it, the more I think the Panthers are a legitimate threat to defend their title, at least within the NFC. Carolina and Indianapolis both do this to me… and I don’t know why. Something about the owl pellets just doesn’t work when these teams are around.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7):
Man. This division is tough. I had to put New Orleans on top given that D and their consistent history of success. And Carolina brings just about everybody back from a team that just won the stinking Super Bowl. But man. The Buccaneers at third? I LOVE the Buccaneers. This is a team that I am extremely high on for this year. In fact, I’m high enough on this team that I would have absolutely no surprise if it was the Bucs representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Why the confidence? Well, it starts in the heart of the defense, where LaVonte David, Von Miller and Clay Matthews form what will almost certainly be the best linebacking core in the league. Jaye Howard and Gerald McCoy may well be the best DT pairing in the league as well. And while Darelle Revis and Aqib Talib are clear-cut “better in real life than in fantasy” corners, they are still no slouches. This isn’t as strong a defense as the Bills and Panthers defenses that carried them to the Super Bowl last year – but it is fantastic nonetheless, and is in the top 5-10 in the league.
And not only can the Bucs defend, but they can CATCH. Tampa Bay comes into the year intending to go four-wide and do so with Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Vincent Jackson, and Torrey “I may not be good, but Chip’s going to throw it to me 83 times a game and he made RILEY COOPER good” Smith. Clive Walford is a TE with some high potential as a 5th pass catcher, and they are joined by by pass-catching Running Back Doug Martin, whose Muscle Hamster nickname is good enough that I don’t even have to give him another one.
Interestingly, Tampa Bay faces huge questions at Quarterback, where they may legitimately have anywhere between 0-2 strong starting quarterbacks, though the trend line is pointing more towards 0 than 2, which is a legitimate concern and a major reason for the third place finish. By all accounts, Josh McCown has basically lost the QB competition in Cleveland to RGIII, and Blaine Gabbert remains in a bitter struggle with Colin Kaepernick to inherit a role as Chip Kelly’s signal chucker. It’s hard to say how that contest is going to turn out, but when you are relying on Blaine Gabbert to win anything (and I mean ANYTHING. A quarterback competition. A game. Fricking Yahtzee. A stuffed bear from one of those carnival games where you have to knock over the bottles. The claw game at Denny’s…)
That reminds me. When I was in high school, I had a buddy named Dan. Our posse (yes, I can call them a posse now. It was 20 years ago. You can’t tell me it wasn’t. You weren’t there.) had been up all night and were out at 6am at Denny’s, a high class establishment if ever there was one. Some of my buddies bet Dan a dollar that he wouldn’t drink the full bottle of Tabasco sauce sitting on the table in front of him. Dan, being a sleep deprived 17 year old male who knew the value of money, agreed and downed the whole damn thing. After spending a good chunk of time writhing in agony and drinking way too much Denny’s “chocolate milk” (true substance remains unclear), he triumphantly claimed his dollar – which he immediately spent on two 50 cent attempts at the claw game. He failed both. All he had for his trouble was pride and fiery anguish in his bowels which persisted for several days.
I love the Bucs. I’m high on the team. But man I feel like Gabbert and McCown are two attempts at a Denny’s claw game, and that anguish in the bowels might be in the cards for a Bucs team that has the potential to win it all – but might not even make the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9):
There is perhaps no more compelling case to be made for the NFC South as the best division in RDFL 2016 than this 4th place pick for the new and improved Atlanta Falcons (now with a Quarterback!). This team could win several divisions in this league. And in truth, it is entirely possible it could win this division. These four squads are all good and they are all tightly bunched. And it’s not as if Atlanta would really have to improve that much over last year – burned out of the gate by a brutal start during the early weeks with multiple games, the Falcons never really had a chance to recover, but were not nearly as bad as their record indicated.
Newly minted franchise QB Jared Goff has by all accounts looked good in Ram’s camp, and your devoted author seriously hopes he is the real deal, because somebody needs to get the ball to my man Tavon Austin. But a rookie QB in a Jeff Fisher system that has Todd Gurley is more of a void-filler than a “light the world on fire for 20ppg” guy. But y’all, this offense is really compelling. Goff is throwing to Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin, and Kelvin Benjamin (now with a belly) – and he is handing off to some guy named Jamaal Charles, who, if he can stay healthy, should have another season or two as a top 10 Running Back. Aside from QB and J-Mail’s hammies, the only real question is at TE, and there Atlanta has loaded up on high potential wild cards like Vance McDonald, Anthony Fasano, and Ryan Griffin. This should be a strong offense – how good will depend on Goff’s development and the training staff.
The defense is also compelling, though honestly still a small notch down from some of the league’s best. DeAndre Levy and Michael Bennett are great at football, and Brent Grimes’ wife is a ferocious, aggressive tackler who is the vocal leader of this team, but gets flagged for too many unsportsmanlike penalties. Beyond that, though, there’s a lack of star power on this defense. Shamarko Thomas? Daryl Smith? Captain Munnerlyn? Good players. But not stars on the level of TB’s lineback trifecta or guys like Luke Kuechly.
It’s tough. This is a good team. No obvious weaknesses and Atlanta’s offensive skill players are
really good. This would be a serious candidate to win the NFC North. But this is a tough division. And my hunch is that something goes wrong. Jamaal Charles is actually closer to done than we think. None of the Tight Ends pan out. The defense underwhelms. Danny Woodhead gets concussed. It’s not really realistic. The Saints probably have more TRUE question marks. But they also have a track record with depth and lady luck. Atlanta’s had a rough go of it. And my sixth sense just wonders if there’s more of that coming this year…
It is 10:21 at night. I’ve worked 87 hours in the last 8 days and my brain is absolute mush. What does that mean? It means that this year’s Real Deal Report predictions are coming at you with ZERO filter. NONE. No filter at all. I thinks it, I types it. Nothing is off-limits. Not politics. Not global issues. Not the many psychological issues of your beloved league mates. I calls it like I sees it. Beware.
You know what else it means? I have absolutely no effective thematic intro to this particular prediction. Nothing. I am eating a Chipotle burrito and typing things. That’s all I got.
We’re starting with the Northern divisions this year. Why? I have no idea. I think I usually start with the East divisions or the West divisions and the North and South end up in the middle. Flyover divisions. Not anymore though. This year, the northern divisions get their due. And they get their due in the Real Deal Report, largely because they probably aren’t going to get it in the Super Bowl. What do I mean?
Well.. here come the predictions!
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): A super bowl berth. Consistent playoff berths. The Steelers of RDFL are a heck of a lot like the Steelers of the NFL. Consistently good, oscillating between decent and outstanding, but lacking those trips to the garbage heap the rest of us take. It’s going to be another good year in fantasy steeltown, and how good depends on Le’Veon Bell’s lawyer. (UPDATE: Le’Veon Bell’s lawyer got him off for week #4 – which is not, it is a shame to say, a double week).
I will note that injustice is evident everywhere in our society, and nowhere is this more true than in the suspensions handed down to key players. Ray Rice commits an awful and heinous act and is banished from the league forever. Ben Roethlisberger does the same and gets a suspension. Josh Gordon fails multiple drug tests and gets banished from the league for years – moreover, he is forced to room with Johnny Manziel, who never ever does his dishes. Le’Veon Bell fails multiple drug tests and gets… suspensions. It’s almost like there’s an agreement with the league offices that Pittsburgh guys never get huge suspensions – but throw the book at the rest of the division. Well, except for Vontaze Burfict. Who should probably be in jail.
Anyway. Pittsburgh has STARS. Fantrax projects the Steelers to have the #3 QB (Big Ben), the #1 RB (Le’Veon Bell), the #4 WR (Jarvis Landry), and the #7 TE (Coby Fleener). And yes, Coby Fleener should be a huge step up. The TE who catches passes from Drew Brees is always awesome in fantasy. A top 5 skill guy at every single position is a spectacular foundation. The only saving grace for the entire division is that they don’t have Antonio Brown. Because that would be silly. Still, the projections are already preposterous. Fantrax predicts 19ppg for Big Ben, 21 for Le’Veon, 24 for Jarvis, and 13 for Coby. 77ppg from their top four offensive skill players. And of course, the Wild Card – Mr. Albert Wilson. Oh, and did I mention that one of the guys we didn’t talk about is TJ Yeldon (the Jacksonville RB who didn’t randomly drive his car into a pond). That means that the Steelers are likely to hit for the century on offense more often than a bollywood cricket movie.
The Steelers defense lacks the same sense of explosive star power, with the exception of LB Alec Ogletree, but did add DeForest Buckner in a draft day steal. He’ll be even more of a steal when he gains the DE eligibility he lacked in the draft and which scared off so many owners, including the still bitter yours truly. Still, the squad has 6 guys projected for double digit points and no true weaknesses, though the secondary could use an upgrade (it’s unclear who Jamar Taylor is and Brad McDougald, Mike Mitchell, and Byron Maxwell form an uninspiring tandem without a lot of depth).
The Steelers do have some depth issues on both sides of the ball, and don’t seem to this humble author to be in quite the same league as the Fighting AJ Greens over in Buffalo, but this team should walk away with yet another AFC North division title. Same as it ever was.
Cleveland Browns (9-7): Wait. What? NOT the same as it ever was.
Yes. Cleveland. Guys. This is important. There is a spiritual change going on in the world today, a spiritual shift that would have been unfathomable in the time of our forefathers. Something shifted in the heavens over the NBA finals, and nothing will ever be the same again. We should be expecting bad football movies to be made on par with “Angels in the Outfield” and epic miracles to occur like sea partings, plagues of boils, and RGIII making good decisions with the football. Well. Actually. That’s going too far, even for angels. Let’s just stick with RGIII not making horrific decisions with the football.
Observe: Le’Bron James actually looked dominant and aggressive. He rejected Steph Curry. He mouthed off. He would have rejected Riley Curry. Don’t mess with a big man who rides a freaking banana boat. He pulled out one of the greatest finals ever to knock off the team with the best record in NBA history and bring a world freaking championship to CLEVELAND.
Observe: The Cleveland Indians lead the American League Central and are moving aggressively, poised for a an AL Championship.
Observe: The Chicago “Billy Goat named Bartman” Cubs are favored in the National League and running away with the Central division.
Observe: The Cleveland Browns didn’t do stupid ($#*& at the draft.
Next: Wars, and rumors of wars. Signs in the sky. Cincinatti getting obliterated by a fiery volcano hurled down from heaven. The dead rising. Get ready.
I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know how to explain it. Some prince found true-love’s-first kiss, hence breaking the curse upon the land. Some prince tried to give an unconscious princess true-love’s first kiss and a pair of muscular swedes beat the tar out of him for being a perverted creep, hence breaking the curse upon the land. Chris Christie WAS and IS the curse upon the whole damn land, but now he’s out campaigning with Trump and so he can’t manifest. I don’t know.
But guys. Cleveland’s viable. Blake Bortles has hisself an offense that’s the real deal. Some folks think he’ll be a top 10 QB. Isaiah Crowell could end up the work-horse stud back in the Browns offense. Michael Crabtree and Mike Evans are joined by Marvin Jones – who has an inside track to serious work now that Calvin Johnson just happened to retire. Coincidence? I think not! The redoubtable Gary Barnidge is a top 10 TE, and as long as they can find a replacement for the fat, suspended, and now released Karlos Williams, that O could be a force.
Now there are questions in the secondary, where both Bene Benwikere and Joe Haden will start the year on the IR, and where the only non-injured CB has under 100 career points. But the linebacking core is solid between Karlos (the in-shape Karlos) Dansby and Manti Te’o and the safety play is excellent.
Look, on paper, this team doesn’t have the horses to get past Pittsburgh. But man. The times they are a’changin’. Remember when the Boston Red Sox were the team of futility? Cleveland man. They might set the Cuyahoga on fire for actually good reasons this year.
Baltimore Ravens (7-9):
And which will thou be, O Baltimore? City of promise? City of peril? City of pain? I guess this is what happens when I have no sleep and no filter. I get biblical.
I don’t really know what to make of Baltimore. Keenan Allen and Amari Cooper are two of the best young wide-receivers in the league. These two guys are loaded for the bear, and should both be uber-productive #1 WRs for a solid decade. It’s a massive built in advantage for the Ravens. One might label them “the Sons of Thunder”, if one were so inclined. Telvin Smith provides a similar young, valuable stud presence on D.
But man there’s a lot of question marks after that – but some question marks are trending in positive directions. Joe Flacco, like LeBron and others who have recently been glorified, never quite gets much love, despite winning a super bowl with no offensive weapons and being able to chuck the football a good 200 cubits at a toss. Will he be exalted? Or will defensive wrath topple him?
Christine “the archangel” Michael is looking like the surprise favorite in Seattle to replace beastmode. Fitting, if you ask me. Terrelle Pryor appears to have been redeemed from his former sins and reborn as a wide receiver – who might actually be a productive one. Ken Dixon looks good in Baltimore by all accounts, and might ascend to the starting job by the end of the year. There are others – Mychal Rivera, Kendall Wright, Andre Ellington, Zach Miller, Eric Redi. Shaq Lawson. Elvis Dumervil. Kevin Dodd. All these guys have the potential to be studs, or at least starters. But mediocrity or worse is also clearly in the cards for each one.
The problem, for me, comes down to the defensive side of the ball. If we’ve learned nothing over the past couple of years, it is this – the offense looks flashy and fantastic – but it’s those double digit consistent defensive scorers that make good teams great and get mediocre teams into the playoffs. I just don’t buy the Ravens defense. The Pass rush is excellent with Cliff Avril, Olivier Vernon, and Dodd and Lawson. But after all the beef up front, the linebacking core and the secondary are underwhelming. Greg Toler, Bradley Roby, Lardarius Webb, and Isa Abdul-Quddus (a proper unpronounceable biblical name right there) will all need to step up their game for this squad to contend. I don’t think it’s enough to get them over the hump this year – even with Allen, Cooper and Smith – and even if some of the question marks turn into lightning in a bottle – but who knows? Perhaps the meek will inherit the earth?
And the fact that I’m referring to the Baltimore Ravens as “meek” shows you perhaps just how much sleep I actually need.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): Ok, i’m tired. So I might be missing something. It’s possible. But I can’t see for the life of me how the Cincinnati Bengals are going to score any points. I also can’t figure out how the heck to spell Cincinnati right the first time. I AM the Cincinnati franchise in Ultimate, and I still can’t figure out how to spell the darn city!
Anyway, let’s start with what’s good here – a downright serviceable defense. The Bengals have populated their defense with strong, starter-level guys who play above their skill level in fantasy. Will Compton. Erin Henderson. Patrick Chung. Reggie Nelson. Shawn Williams. And then they are joined by a couple guys who are truly fierce and talented, like Geno Atkins and Cam Heyward. What it means is that this defense should be able to hold its own with most other defenses. The trick is that none of the defenders truly rise to the level of star power – everyone is a 10-pointer, nobody is a 15 pointer, which keeps the D from being truly exceptional. And this team needs an exceptional defense to overcome what is going to be an anemic offense.
Look, the last time someone with flaming red hair got THIS little support was in the Christmas Story when Ralphie beat up Farkus and his toadie weakly tried to pull him off before running screaming to his mother. Andy Dalton is Scott Farkus. That poor guy is about to get beat up by a snot-nosed kid in classes and a pudgy snowsuit because he’s got no. where. to. go. with. the. football. The excitement of who is going to emerge as Dalton’s number one target features such worthies as Crockett Gilmore, Rishard Matthews, Jeremy Kerley, and Theo Riddick. It’s a collection of serviceable role players – the kind of guys who round out the Steelers bench or maybe even get that coveted bye-week replacement start, but should not be starting for a competitive team. Which leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that the Bengals might not be a competitive team this year.
In fact, the Bengals haven’t really been competitive since AJ Green left town…. Perhaps that’s the new curse if the Browns are entering into a fresh season of blessing… Watch out for that fiery mountain, y’all… and if you should flee Cleveland, don’t look back lest ye be turned into a pillar of salt…
Detroit Lions (10-6): The division of champions has fallen on hard times, y’all. Between Green Bay and Detroit, this division has had a pre-season Super Bowl contender (or two) in every season RDFL has been in existence. The first year, they even won the darn thing. The star power (rookie and veteran) has been top of the line, and with the exception of Minnesota’s long and arduous rebuild, this has always been an outstanding division.
It’s a down year, friends. Even in Detroit, where the Lions are the clear favorites, the trend line is sideways at best. Calvin Johnson has ridden off into the sunset, taking with him the Lion’s biggest star and built in day #1 advantage, and the drop-off from Megatron to Phillip “Hot Rod at best. At BEST.” Dorsett is a big one.
The Lions are still going to be a strong team, by far the strongest in the North. Matthew Stafford has not retired, and while he won’t have Megatron to throw to, he’ll still throw. A lot. Some suspect that his numbers will even improve when he isn’t trying to forcefeed CJ in quadruple coverage 11 times a day. With the exception of Dorsett who is merely good, the receiving corps of Tyler Lockett, Brandin Cooks, and Martellus Bennett (in New England, a place that seems to have a good read on how to use a TE) is outstanding. The two-headed monster of Todd Gurley and Ameer Abdullah is one of the best running back tandems in the league. And any defense that is led by Jamie Collins and Mario Williams can’t be bad. With all that, this team isn’t losing to a diminished GB, a not quite over the hump Chicago, or a still 1.5 years and a QB away Minnesota.
That said, to really compete, Detroit needs a lot of question marks to flash. This is the hallmark of the Lions strategy year after year – rely on upside guys to hit. Sometimes it works (Cooks, Lockett, Collins, Abdullah, etc.). Sometimes, it doesn’t (we hear Bishop Sankey is on pace to score his tenth career fantasy point sometime this year!). But it remains the Lions strategy, particularly on defense, where guys like Todd Davis, Kyle Van Noy, Stephon Tuitt, Tre Boston, Nickell Robey, A’Shawn Robinson, and Tyrunn Walker will need to go above and beyond to get Detroit out of the first round of the playoffs.
Chicago Bears (8-8):
Ahh Chicago. The Belgium of RDFL. A timeless land surrounded by rising and falling great powers, never becoming one of those great powers itself, but never being crushed by them either. Simply maintaining decency, and possibly chocolate, while battles for domination pass by its sleepy hamlet.
The Bears wave merrily as Green Bay plummets by it, having fallen off a cliff, exhausted by its quest to maintain NFC dominance. They chuckle in awe and not a little bit of mortification as those crazy Lions ping-pong around them, one week way up, the next week way down, living vicariously through the thrill ride that never touches their tranquil fantasy existence. They salute and watch with intrigue as the long desolate Vikings erupt from the bowels of the earth and soar towards championships, their star ascendant. The world changes around them as teams rise and fall. But for the Bears… life is as it always is. Tomorrow’s tomorrow will be the same as Yesterday’s yesterday. Just as the Shy-towners like it.
Chicago is not like the one who wore pants.
The Bears, as one would suspect, boast a balanced offense and defense. The team is both old (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Terence Newman, Desmond Bryant, Tamba Hali), and young (Kwon Alexander, Adolphus Washington, Markus Wheaton, DeVante Parker). There is a decent-caliber starting player at almost every single position (except you, Ronnie Hillman – you suck), but besides Kwon (who I always want to call Tron), there is a distinct lack of starpower. Every defensive starter is projected for at least 7 ppg. Only one (the aforementioned Tron) is projected for double digits. On “O”, every player is projected for double digits (except you, Ronnie Hillman – you suck), but only the ageless but name-duplicated Brandon Marshall is projected for a star-level performance.
There are few things we can count on in this crazy game called fantasy football. But for those of you like who like Hondas, the Bears are your team. Brandon Marshall will be great. Ronnie Hillman will suck. And the Bears will finish around .500. Tomorrow is as Yesterday, passing on into time immemorial…
Minnesota Vikings (6-10):
There’s a fantastic scene towards the end of Naked Gun where the villain is deservedly run over by a steamroller. In the scene, the villain turns and sees the steam roller coming from about 100 yards away, moving impossibly slowly, slower than a sleeping sloth can crawl. I mean, moving Peyton-Manning-avoiding-the-rush slow. The villain has more than enough time to step out of the way. Heck, he could make it to Fiji on a stage coach by the time the steamroller gets to his location. But he doesn’t. He just screams in terror for about 30 seconds, occasionally refilling his breath to continue screaming, before being eventually crushed by the steamroller.
In our analogy, the Minnesota Vikings are the steamroller, the rest of the league is the villain. Minnesota has been rebuilding since the Dawn of Time. The Vikings long-term strategy was firmly in place when the first dynasties rose in ancient China. Hell, the only major setback the rebuild has experienced was when that damn meteor took out the dinosaurs and eliminated some nicely developing draft picks. Dude, they had this Stegosaurus on defense who could GET TO the quarterback. I mean, that tail was CRAZY!
Finally, though, finally the team appears to be on the upswing. Pick after pick after top half of the first round pick has been sunk into this team, filling it with more talent than anybody this side of Buffalo. And now that talent is starting to grow…
It’s starts with the wide-outs: Dorial Green Beckham, Allen Robinson, Nelson Agholor, Tyler Boyd, and Laquon Treadwell could be scary good together. Jace Amaro and Kyle Rudolph are solid at TE. Derrick Henry and Devontae Booker are chomping at the bit to replace Alfred Blue. All they lack is a good quarterback and one more year of development…
On defense, the embarrassment of riches is the same – Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Myles Jack, Vic Beasley, Harrison Smith, Marcus Peters, Jonathan Bostic, Vinny Curry – the young riches are outstanding. And the Vikings have six more selections in the first two rounds of the 2017 draft to add to the embarrassment of riches.
They aren’t there yet. They lack just a little more maturity. And a quarterback. But they are coming. Inevitably. Inexorably. Invincibly. And there’s very little the rest of the league can do to stop them. Fantasy Football hasn’t looked this exciting and promising in Minnesota since the late Cretaceous.
The question now becomes what happens first – do the Vikings find a quarterback? Or does another extinction level event render such questions moot? That apocalypse in Ohio seems very concerning right about now…
Green Bay Packers (6-10):
Keeping to the ancient dynasties and timeless civilizations theme, it is always painful when dynasties fall. Usually, the ruling power oppresses and dominates its neighbors, enslaving them and crushing them into the dust with a tyrannical hand. Decay, corruption, and complacency sets in. The empire decays from the inside. It clamps down harder, trading away youth for veterans to desperately hang on to its dominant place in society. Until, finally, the rebellion is too strong and too violent, the infrastructure too strained to withstand. The empire falls. Chaos reigns. And like in the French Revolution, the Persian overthrow of the Babylonians, and the ejection of colonial powers from Africa – it does not go well for the ousted tyrants.
Such is the place that the Green Bay Packers find themselves in 2016.
Oh it was a glorious heyday. A Super Bowl. Division Championships. Constant contention. Constant relevance. The golden years of the Green Bay Packers will go down in history. But, all things (except maybe Chicago and/or the curse of AJ Green) must end. And Green Bay must now chart a new and humbler course – with a new and humbler roster.
It’s not that the Packers don’t still have good players – they clearly do with the likes of Tom Brady, Lamar Miller, TY Hilton, and Morgan Burnett – it’s just that they don’t have nearly as many, the ones they do have are stars, not super-stars, and the one super-star they do have is suspended for the first EIGHT games of the real deal season – yep, that’s what makes 4 game suspensions hurt quite a bit more in RDFL than they do in real life.
Beyond that, it’s a major step down to role players like Knile Davis and Dwayne Harris. While other teams like Minnesota and Detroit re-load with power-house rookies, Green Bay’s roster is replete with fossils like Andre Johnson, Vernon Davis, and Marshawn Lynch, memories of a bygone era that has sadly passed us by.
The trend is less palpable on the defensive side, where Aldon Smith could provide a notable boost to the team’s prospects. No, here the issue isn’t age so much as lack of depth. Green Bay currently has only twelve players on defense, and only one is projected for double digits – Morgan Burnett at 10.75. I believe a couple of these players could be better than advertised, but it still projects to be a long season for the Pack. And with only a 5th round draft pick next year, the Packers could face a long and daunting rebuild. Probably not as long as Minnesota’s… But long.
Not a particularly competitive divisional round, as every game was decided by at least 28 points. But a week of excellent fantasy football, as every team but one broke the 200 point barrier, and the sole exception scored 194. Every winning team scored at least 228 points, and every team is projected to score over 200 points in the divisional championship round.
Detroit Lions 237, Arizona Cardinals 209: Despite a strong Thursday night start by Michael Floyd (25 points) for Arizona , this game came down to Detroit’s offensive firepower. Both teams scored 108 points on defense and were within 5 of each other on special teams, but Detroit outscored Arizona on offense by 30. It was the youth movement too, with Todd Gurley justifying his first overall selection by coming up big in the playoffs with 32 points, and Tyler Lockett joining him for a 30 spot. Arizona, on the other hand, was let down by its offensive big names, with Matt Ryan and CJ Spiller producing only 4 points apiece, and Richard Rodgers crashing back to earth after his Wild Card Hail Mary catch. The Cardinals had a memorable and dominant run through the NFC West and as large a turn around from one year to the next as we’ve ever seen in RDFL, but underperformance by big players down the stretch doomed the Cardinals against the Detroit powerhouse.
Carolina Panthers 246, New York Giants 209: No Mark Ingram? No problem for the Carolina Panthers who posted the second highest score of the week and nearly broke 250 against the Giants. Cam and Willie Mays Snead both broke 20 points for the Panthers, but it was really a defensive and special teams story. Chris Boswell posted 18 points for Carolina and 7 defenders scored in double digits (though not one scored more than 20) as the Panthers posted 126 defensive points. Once again, the Panthers posted the sort of sustainable, workmanlike dominance that has kept them under the radar all season – not a single player scored more than 24 points, though 14/20 active players scored nine or more. The Giants got a great game from Eli Manning (31) and a couple of standout defensive performances from Kawann Short (2 forced fumbles, a recovery and 3 sacks) and Trumaine Johnson (Pick six) to keep it respectable. However, I wrote that the game would came down to whether Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins played like stars – and they did not – combining for a respectable but not worldbeating 28 points. A disappointing finish for the Giants, who were the NFC’s dominant juggernaut for most of the year, but faded a little down the stretch.
Buffalo Bills 277, Oakland Raiders 204: Enter the team that has taken the mantle of juggernaut and Super Bowl favorite from the Giants – the Buffalo Bills. Mercy. Strong games from the Bills’ offensive stalwarts, with AJ Green and Alshon Jeffery combining for 58 parts on the way to 114 offensive points (if Antonio and DeAndre equal that, the Giants win), but it was the Mack Attack and the rest of the Bills defense that made this game such a blowout. Mack led all defensive scorers with 32 points, but nobody else on the team scored less than six points as the Bills came very close to breaking the 150 point defensive barrier – a bit like Mach 3 in Real Deal. This game was never really very close for all that Oakland played well behind a resurgent Eddie Lacy (24) and a sometimes dominant Lamarr Houston. The Bills advance to the AFC Championship game with the well deserved favorite label, while the Raiders move to the off-season encouraged by their first RDFL playoff appearance and looking to add more offensive pieces to mount a true challenge next season.
Kansas City Chiefs 228, Pittsburgh Steelers 194: And down go the defending champions, in what had to be an extremely frustrating game for the Steelers, who simply had a collective bad game all at once. It was reminiscent of the Steelers mid-season losing streak, where, for whatever reason, the whole team simply underachieved as a unit. You kept waiting for the trademark Pittsburgh explosion… and it just never came. By the time Jarvis Landry finally blew up for 33 points on Monday night, it was too little too late. Big Ben scored just 9 points, only one defensive player scored over 11, and the daunting Steel Curtain defense didn’t break 100. This team will be great again next year with the return of Le’Veon Bell and (hopefully) a full year of healthy Roethlisberger. But this wasn’t the way they wanted their title defense to end. For Kansas City, the Chiefs got huge games out of Jordan Reed (33) and D’Qwell Jackson (26) which covered up otherwise middling offensive and defensive performance. The Chiefs, one of only two teams in RDFL (New Orleans is the other) to make the playoffs in every year of the league’s existence, face the Buffalo juggernaut as their reward.
Championship Game Predictions: I’m 7-1 so far, so trust me on what I’m about to say next…
Carolina Panthers over Detroit Lions: Why do I do it? Every week I write about how impressive the Panthers have been. Every week I note that they have flown under the radar due to a slow start to the season, a lack of flashy players, and owner Pedro Canteiro’s soft spoken style. And every week I’m lulled to sleep by it myself and pick against them. Not again. Carolina has scored the most fantasy points in the NFC, ranks 3rd overall in RDFL in total offense and second overall in total defense. They have 16 players who average double digit points per game (and that is not including anyone on IR), and Cam Newton is capable of dropping a 40 spot on any given night. The Panthers have had some rough luck at RB with Ingram and Blount going down on consecutive weeks, and the roster looks nowhere near as good as Detroit’s when you just consider the eye test – but this is a solid football team that will quietly put up 240 again. A machine.
Detroit, on the other hand, is a wildcard of variability. Todd Gurley can throw down 32 as he did last week against the Cardinals. Or he can score 4. The Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson can produce 3 or 4 touchdown passes in a given week – or it can look like it did early in the season when the Lions were scuffling. Tyler Lockett (30 or bust). Zach Miller. Ameer Abdullah. Brandin Cooks. The offense has a MASSIVE range of true outcomes on any given week. The defense is vastly more stable, largely because few of Detroit’s defenders rely on the big play for their stats and points. The Detroit defense is a tackling, pass-defending machine – but is only 10th overall on defense, well back of the Panthers.
Carolina wins if: Cam Newton has an enormous game, they get a serviceable performance from spot starting RB Tim Hightower, and/or the rest of the team can continue its inexorable consistency.
Detroit wins if: The offense blows up the way it is capable of doing.
Buffalo Bills over Kansas City Chiefs: I just keep looking at Buffalo’s roster and I just keep reciting the names on offense. Tyrod Taylor, followed by AJ Green, Alshon Jeffery, Adrian Peterson, Rob Gronkowski and Devonta Freeman. That is insane. That’s a championship team in a standard ten team league. In the 32 team Real Deal format, it is so far beyond absurd that it is barely comprehensible. The Bills just posted 277 points in one of the best playoff performances ever (if not the best ever) and only got 114 from THAT group. They got 147 from their defense. It could be said that offensive group under-performed and they STILL hit 277. The Bills are #1 in overall fantasy points (which they did WITHOUT Freeman and AP for most of the year) and #1 in overall defense by a wide margin. They haven’t lost since week 4 (NYG) and haven’t come particularly close to doing so either. Gronk is getting healthier by the day, and this team just has that look about it…
Kansas City has played second fiddle to the Bills throughout the season – much like one of those younger Gronkowski brothers who played in the NFL for half a second but whose first name you have totally forgotten right now. Second in total RDFL fantasy points. Second seed in the AFC. Only loss since week #2 directly to Buffalo. The Chiefs have a strong team on both offense and defense, but have enough holes (particularly in the running game, where Frank Gore and Gio Bernard are not Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman) that this one should not be terribly close. Buffalo continues to play Mario, Kansas City stays as Luigi – and tries not to end up as Toad.
Buffalo Wins If: Yeah. Not if. We’ll just change this to Buffalo wins.
Kansas City Wins If: Buffalo forfeits. Tavon Austin returns multiple kickoffs for touchdowns and Buffalo experiences Oakland Raider syndrome, with multiple in game injuries.
What a comeback. What a finish. At least I think it is finished. It’s over, right?
In the best playoff game we’ve seen in this league in some time, maybe ever, the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints put on a show for the ages. After Sunday night’s games, it looked to be New Orleans’ game, in control 231-190. But Arizona put on a never say die comeback behind 16 points from Barry Church and 18 behind Chris Baker to eke out a 237-236 victory over the New Orleans Saints that was literally not confirmed until midnight Wednesday when stat corrections locked. Mercy.
Arizona Cardinals 237, New Orleans Saints 236: Game of the week. Game of the year. Game of the playoffs. Whatever you want to call it, this game had absolutely everything. Both teams scored over 100 points on both offense and defense, both teams got a goose egg from a top defensive contributor (Calais Campbell and Anthony Barr), and both teams got a huge game on offense from an unsung hero (Darren Sproles and Richard Rodgers). This game also had more swings than a barrel of monkeys. It looks to be all ‘Zona after Richard Rodgers’ massive hail mary catch and 36 point game. But then New Orleans stormed back behind Sproles 31 points and Malcolm Jenkins 99 yard pick six of Tom Brady on Sunday afternoon, putting them solidly in control of the game. Arizona kept pace with 8/11 defensive players scoring in double digits and a big 21 point game from Malcolm Floyd. But things still looked doubtful for the Cardinals until those big Monday night games gave them the win by the narrowest of margins. Phew.
Carolina Panthers 262, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 192: It’s really hard to beat a really good team like Carolina three times. Especially when they mad about it, and determined to show the world that they ain’t no Wild Card team. Tampa Bay played fine (192 is nothing to scoff at), but this was all about Carolina showing up and posting the best score of any playoff team. Cam’s 40 was a huge performance, and Olsen’s 27 were nice, but every other performance was repeatable and sustainable. This was not a fluke. It was a well-balanced offensive and defensive showing and a rather systemic elimination of a league rival. Sustainable. For Tampa Bay, it was not even Gabbert’s fault, as the 9ers QB threw for 25 fantasy points. Instead, it was enough zeros and threes and really low scores to keep them from being competitive. Outstanding year. But Carolina’s a juggernaut.
Pittsburgh Steelers 218, Cleveland Browns 182: Another game with multiple twists and turns, this game featured some pretty spectactular QB play on both sides. The apparently invincible Ben Roethlisberger was on the field and chucking it everywhere on his way to 38 points. Not to be outdone, though, Blake Bortles was just as impressive with a 36 point afternoon. Pittsburgh’s running game was… hehehe “On fleek” against the Browns, with 28 from D-Willy and 23 from TJ Yeldon. Le’Veon who? But Cleveland also got nice games from their receiving core of Crabtree, Evans, and Jones. At the end of the day, though, it was a defensive meltdown for the Browns who managed only 58 defensive points and saw only one guy hit double figures, compared to 94 for the Steelers. A nice season for Cleveland that had the chance to go farther – and another game closer to defending the title for the Steelers.
Oakland Raiders 187, Tennessee Titans 159: A workmanlike, unremarkable performance from the Raiders proved to be enough to overcome the fighting Odell Beckhams of Tennessee. Carson Palmer chipped in 27 and they got enough decent outings from their supporting cast to win. By contrast, the Titans got 35 from Odell and 23 from Stephone Anthony – but almost nothing from anyone else. An unpredictable team this year, the Titans move to the off-season much as they entered the season – chalk full of young talent and just waiting for enough of it to crystallize to make a run. Time to build on the post-season appearance. For Oakland, the Raiders now advance to face the herculean task of slowing down Buffalo’s juggernaut.
New York Giants over Carolina Panthers: Ok, so I feel honor bound to stick with my original pick of the Giants in this game, but I am no longer anywhere near certain of that. Despite a couple dips at the end of the regular season, Carolina looks to be in fine form and more than capable of putting up something in the mid-200s week in and week out. The Giants, on the other hand, haven’t broken 200 since week 10 and appear to be scuffling a little bit. They are still the #1 seed in the NFC and have the best record in RDFL for a reason – but they need that reason to show up this weekend. The problem for New York has been a downtick in their defensive production, and I’m not sure I see that changing. Antonio Brown can go off for 100 on any given night, and DeAndre Hopkins is in the same boat, but beyond that the Giants have a number of question marks. The Panthers have a lot fewer question marks and appear more consistent, but the loss of Mark Ingram hurts big time and they simply don’t have the star power besides Cam to match NYG. To me, this game is simple. If Hopkins and Brown have huge games, the Giants advance. If they don’t, it’s the Panthers.
Detroit Lions over Arizona Cardinals: It’s all chalk in the NFC. Arizona put on an outstanding show to survive New Orleans, but needed a lot of players to go well above their seasonal averages to get it done. Take away Richard Rodgers and his improbable hail mary and this team looks a lot more beatable (though, one could argue that JJ Watt might just pick up some of that slack)! To me, though, the question marks in this game are less about Arizona and more about Detroit. Todd Gurley. Calvin Johnson. Matthew Stafford. Brandin Cooks. If those guys go off, Detroit should win. But all of them have had curiously down weeks at times, including a 4 point effort from Gurley in week 13 on Detroit’s bye. We’ll see. I think the stars come out to play just fine for Detroit this week, and that Arizona comes back to earth after an emotional victory. But would I shocked to see it go the other way? Nope.
Buffalo Bills over Oakland Raiders: Every year in college basketball, announcers start the year talking about how “there is no great team this year.” Then, come March, somebody death marches through the NCAA tournament, takes the crown, and suddenly there is a great team. I tend to think that team in RDFL this year is Buffalo. While not always blowing people out flashily like Carolina, NYG, or even Detroit, the Bills have systematically made the 200 point marker their floor, quietly blown all comers away, and traded for Adrian Peterson coming down the stretch. The Bills are starting Tyrod Taylor, Adrian Peterson, AJ Green, Devonta Freeman, Rob Gronkowski, Alshon Jeffery, and Kenbrell Thompkins (which one of these is not like the others?!) against Carson Palmer, Late Eddie Lacy, Old James Jones, Hit or Miss Jordan Matthews, young Davante Adams, Ben “Elementary my Dear” Watson, and Brandon No Nickname Coleman. That second lineup isn’t bad. But it’s a bit like the JV team vs. the pros. It’s been a tough, resilient year for the Raiders, who have overcome a lot of adversity to make a playoff run and reach this spot. But this game goes to the Bills. And it’s not going to be close.
Pittsburgh Steelers over Kansas City Chiefs: Same as it ever was in the AFC. The truth is that these two teams are pretty evenly matched. But Pittsburgh has recovered from its slump, found its stride, and has a healthy starting QB and a healthy, productive running back tandem doing serious damage. They also lost their regular season matchup to the Chiefs and are hungry for revenge. On the flip side, the Chiefs face the game with a slumping Pierre Garcon and potentially without both defensive leader Justin Houston and cornerback William Gay – and may be forced to start a 2-3 point CB in a divisional matchup. These two teams are evenly matched – but all the intangibles point to a Pittsburgh explosion – and a Pittsburgh / Buffalo rematch in the AFC title game – though, of course, maybe I’m just writing that to give my guys bulletin board material…
Good luck to all those still in it, and congratulations on a great season to New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Cleveland.
This week, at the conclusion of the regular season, we take this time to honor three teams. Three teams who deserved to be in the playoffs, but to whom we must now bid adieu.
The Chicago Bearsfinished the season 11-5 and ended the season on an eight game winning streak. They did everything within their power to decide their fate – including a 220 point week 12 performance and wins over both Tampa Bay and Green Bay. They traded for Ronnie Hillman down the stretch to bolster their chances and finished with the 10th best record in RDFL, second in the NFC North. However, the Bears miss the playoffs on a points tie-breaker to the equally scorching New Orleans Saints.
The New England Patriots finish the year 9-7, losing a tie-breaker to the Cleveland Browns on points for the 6th and final wild card spot in the AFC. However, the Patriots lost two games to forfeit that they had won due to a practice squad violation and would ostensibly have finished 11-5 – the top wild card in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens began the year 8-3 and found themselves in control of the AFC East. However, a devastating injury to Keenan Allen combined with a couple of tight losses and a concussion to Joe Flacco down the stretch proved too much to overcome, as the Ravens lost their last five games – including a week 12 loss to eventual Wild Card winner Cleveland by 2.5 points. Yes, that’s right. The Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs by 2.5 points – with both their best WR and starting QB out with injuries.
Fantasy football isn’t fair. And only the winners advance, regardless of the reason. But before we move into playoff predictions, it seemed fitting to mention three teams that missed the playoffs – but who have every reason to deserve a spot. We honor you, Chicago, New England, and Baltimore.
Game of the Week: Buffalo Bills 258, Kansas City Chiefs 235 – Interestingly, the game of the week had nothing to do with making the playoffs. But Buffalo and Kansas City came into the game as the top two teams in the AFC and with the top two point totals. This game did not disappoint. AP went off for 39. So Jeremy Maclin went off for 40. Back and forth it went, until the defense of the Bills came through with six players in double figures and edged out the Chiefs for the #1 seed in the AFC.
Other Noteworthy Performances:
Cleveland Browns: Karma. At long last. The cursed franchise benefits from the curse. Despite getting no points from the Running Back position, the Browns got a monster performance from Blake Bortles and a big day from Gary Barnidge when it mattered most. Even more important, Karlos Dansby’s pick six on Monday Night Football, coupled with major injuries to the Ravens, saved Cleveland’s season in a 184-182 win. Mercy. The Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs, as Jeff Hemlick has now taken two franchises to the postseason.
Tennessee Titans: How do you get into the playoffs in the AFC South? Act like you want to be there. After a tepid period, the Tennessee Titans came out with a 204 point performance, led by 34 from CJ Anderson and 38 from the already immortal Odell Beckham Jr. That was enough to edge Oakland 204-203 (the poor Raiders, despite their playoff spot and 10-6 record, could THIS easily have been 14-2) and more importantly, bounce Houston 204-159. Couple with Indianapolis losses, the Titans move into the playoffs at a semi-respectable 8-8 – and get another shot at the self-same Raiders.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Talk about making a statement, the Steelers were having none of this whole “Wild Card” nonsense, and threw down 273 points behind 35 from Big Ben and 46 from Jarvis Landry. The rest of the league is on notice that the Steelers long losing streak is officially history – and the defending champions are back and ready for the playoffs. Like some of LeBron’s old Heat teams, the regular season got a little boring for these guys… but they are now in the playoffs and ready to defend their title against all comers.
Wild Card Round Predictions:
Onto what happens next!
Carolina Panthers (5) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4): It is extremely hard to beat a team three times in a season. It’s even harder to beat a team three times in the same season when they are the third ranked team by points and outscored you 3500-3150 (more than 20 points per game). It’s especially hard to do so when your starting QB for the matchup is Blaine Gabbert. Tampa Bay deserves major props for winning the best division in Real Deal, finishing 12-4, and capturing the three seed in the playoffs. But Carolina is due for a win here, and unless either the Muscle Hamster goes crazy or the defense makes some huge plays, it’s Carolina’s turn for a win. Blaine Gabbert just ain’t going to get it done.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3) over Cleveland Browns (6): This one feels like the classic case of a savvy, veteran team on a mission vs. a team that is just happy to be here. With all props to the Browns for surviving to make the playoffs, Blake Bortles won’t score 25 every night, Karlos Williams may not play, and while Ben Roethlisberger may well be out too, the Steelers are still capable of posting a monster night – particularly as their offensive players get almost universally favorable matchups against porous defenses. The curse on the Cuyahoga is broken, but it will take a complete reversal of fortune to get the Browns to the second round.
Arizona Cardinals (3) over New Orleans Saints (6): In all honesty, this was by far the toughest game of the four to pick, and I went back and forth several times. The Saints have been better than the Cardinals recently (though the Cardinals have been a little better overall) and last week’s struggles were particularly concerning for Arizona. Drew Brees and the Saints offense has more spark in them than they did early in the season as well, though last week’s slump was disconcerting. At the end of the day, though, my gut is that Arizona has their fluke performances out of the way – they can’t get that few points again from the likes of Matt Ryan, Danny Woodhead, and Michael Floyd – can they? And at the same time, the Saints have won so many consecutive games that they are due for a dud – I think it happens this week and the Cardinals move on.
Oakland Raiders (5) over Tennessee Titans (4): We don’t do Pythagoreans here in RDFL, but if I was to look at the entire league, I can’t think of a team that is more underseeded than Oakland – and I can’t think of a team that is more overseeded than Tennessee. The Titans sneak into the playoffs at 8-8 over multiple teams with better records, barely made it to 8-8, and needed spectacular performances of 35+ points from multiple players to do it. The Raiders finished comfortably at 10-6, could EASILY have been 14-2, and scored the 8th most points in RDFL despite significant injuries to Eddie Lacy and Davante Adams. More to the point, they have everyone back healthy, Eddie Lacy is finally looking something like an NFL running back again, and they want revenge on the Titans for last week’s two point defeat. Oakland can make the Super Bowl in the AFC, they are that good. And I don’t think Tennessee stands in their way.
Good luck in the playoffs everyone who is still alive!