This was going to be the year I finally overcame my ridiculous habit of making predictions about professional football games that won’t be played for months to come. Because, a) it’s a damned stupid thing to do; and b) the NFL spent the entire off-season pissing me off and distracting me with its absurd vendetta against Tom Brady, which, among other things, has prevented me from keeping as close an eye as usual on developments around the league. It adds up to me being somehow even less qualified than usual to reach any kind of judgment about how any team is likely to fare in games played in September, let alone December.
But here we are. Maybe because I can’t help myself. Maybe because I’m itching to think about football again and this is as simple, and low risk, a way to accomplish that as I’m likely to come up with.
As always, even I’m not ridiculous enough to waste my time trying to guess at actual final win-loss records. To my mind, doing that moves you entirely to far away from the honest admission that this is an exercise in semi-educated guesswork. I mean, my balls are as fully inflated as the next guy’s, but neither of them is crystal. So once again, I’ll offer range of how many games I think each team is likely to win. (Or maybe I should say it’s how many games I believe each team is capable of winning. It’s something like that, anyhow.) I’ve got this weird idea that doing it this way gives me a better chance of getting it right even though it totally doesn’t. Last year 15 teams ended up with win totals inside my projected ranges. But, hey, I got the AFC Championship game matchup and outcome right. And I picked the Super Bowl XLIX winner (quite a stretch, I know) though I had the NFC champ wrong. So I’ve got that going for me.
Anyway, I’ve got to start getting football stuff wrong sooner or later. So here goes.
New England Patriots, 13-15
I can’t get into health here. Is there reason to be concerned about the number of Patriots players who have been sidelined during the preseason? Sure. Just like there’s reason to be concerned about every team’s ability to get through any season without being undermined by injuries to key players. But that’s about as far as you can take that kind of talk. A football team either is going to stay healthy enough to function through the season or it isn’t. Of greater concern, at least looking at New England from the outside, is the defensive secondary. Malcolm Butler may well be more than a one-hit wonder (or one pick wonder, I suppose), but he almost certainly isn’t Darrelle Revis. Butler’s not going to take an opponent’s best receiver out of a game by himself. Maybe there’s more to the Patriots secondary than anyone who isn’t part of the team realizes. Or maybe the Patriots feel like their pass rush is going to be powerful and aggressive enough (it sure as hell looks good) that they don’t need a secondary as formidable as the one that helped land them in the position of defending champs. I’m going to have to see it play out for a few weeks before I have any hope of understanding. The good news for New England, of course is that Brady is clearly going into this season loaded for bear. So unless this is the year when the O line disintegrates (which is possible, but not probable), the Pats can be expected to put more than their fair share of points on the board. And when you give your pass rushers a lead to protect, and free them to go hard after the opposing QB, you can usually realize pretty good results. The difference between a strong finish and a solid shot at the AFC one seed and blazing hot finish and a clear path another championship, to my mind, is all in how the secondary comes together.
New York Jets, 7-10
The Jets have a defense. The Jets may have backed into having a semi-talented starting quarterback. And there’s every reason to believe the Jets actually have managed to land themselves a talented, sane head coach. How it all falls apart remains to be seen. It’ll happen, but maybe not before New Jersey pulls off a few surprising wins and positions itself for a postseason berth.
Miami Dolphins, 6-9
I’ll say the same thing about the Dolphins heading into this season that I said heading into last. I think Ryan Tannehill has incredible potential. But no quarterback can complete passes from underneath a defensive end. If the Fins can prevent their quarterback from being killed, they could contend for the postseason. If not, they’ll have to hope their D can help them win a few games while they prepare for life under their next head coach.
Buffalo Bills, 3-8
I’ll believe Tyrod Taylor is a capable NFL starting quarterback when I see it. Until then, I figure this team is good for as many wins as its defense can produce. Might not be many. Might be enough to make the Bills a team to worry about heading into 2016.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-12
It’s all about the defense for the Steelers, but not in the way it used to be. Pittsburgh’s offense looks capable of piling on points. Its defense looks like it may allow almost as many. And with relatively few gimmes on the schedule (really, just the two games against the Browns), it’s all a matter of how often the D bends and how often it breaks. That’s the difference between a division title and a shot at the two seed and a seat on the couch for the postseason.
Baltimore Ravens, 7-10
Sooner or later, the old chunking the ball up the field and hoping one of your guys comes down with it thing is bound to catch up with Joe Flacco. I suspect it may be now. And how the Ravens fare will depend on how they, and their quarterback, adjust. Baltimore is a well coached team with a formidable D. That may carry them to a division title despite any struggles Flacco and the O experience. Or it may not.
Cincinnati Bengals, 6-10
Sooner or later, it’s all going to fall apart for Andy Dalton. With the Bengals schedule, it could happen this season. But I don’t think it will. I see the Bengals taking a step back, maybe two, and probably missing the postseason. But a couple of good bounces of the ball, and they could be playing (and losing) on wild card weekend once again.
Cleveland Browns, 2-6
It’s not always easy to predict exactly where it will all fall apart for the Browns. All you can ever say with confidence is that it will all fall apart for the Browns. Then again, maybe this season it’s easier than usual to ID a likely weak spot.
Indianapolis Colts, 9-12
The Colts spent the offseason adding offensive weapons with an eye toward helping get Andrew Luck to his first Super Bowl. That would be a reasonable plan if scoring had been a problem for Indy. But the reality is that the Colts offense ranked sixth in scoring last year with 28.6 points per game, just 1.8 behind the league-leading Packers, and 0.7 behind the eventual champion Patriots, who routed the Colts in the AFC Championship. You’d almost think someone would have suggested improving a defense that allowed 23.1 points per game, 14th most in the league, and second most among playoff teams after the Panthers (who backed into the playoffs with a losing record). But apparently not. So, yeah, assuming their O line holds (not a given), the Colts should be able to increase their scoring. Add 5 points a game and they’ll likely lead the league. Add 9.4 and they’ll set a new single-season record. In either case, they’d land among the top 9 scoring offenses of all time. Nice, except only two of the other eight made it to the Super Bowl, and none of them won. So that should work out great. Only, I don’t even expect the Colts to do that well. I think they take a step back this season, possibly even losing the division to the Texans.
Houston Texans, 9-12
Bill O’Brien is on track to become the first former Bill Belichick assistant to succeed as an NFL head coach. And it looks to me like O’Brien’s Texans are headed for a big step — a postseason berth — this season. The Texans fought their way to 9-7 last year. And they appear to be a stronger team heading into the 2015 campaign. I certainly don’t see them taking a step back, and I think with the way their defense is constructed, they’re going to be in a position to earn a split with the Colts, and perhaps to reverse last year’s result by sweeping their rivals. In the former case, the Texans should at least grab a wild card spot. In the latter, they take the South and contend for the two seed.
Tennessee Titans, 3-7
It’s entirely possible that the Titans have solved the quarterback position. Which will be nice as soon as they solve some of the others.
Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-7
The Jaguars may actually make it through the 2015 season without getting Blake Bortles killed. That’s something, right?
Denver Broncos, 8-13
The defense is going to keep this team in games no matter what. It’s hard to imagine them missing the playoffs. It’s impossible to imagine them finishing with less than a .500 record. Everything else is about the new offense and how Peyton Manning fares within it. You’d be a fool to write off the Broncos. But I think the folks in Denver may want to hold off on parade planning, at least until week 12-ish.
San Diego Chargers, 9-11
One hates to make the same prediction about a team two years running, but I can’t help it in this case. The Chargers once again have a chance to frustrate Peyton Manning’s attempt to fight his way to one last Super Bowl. The Chargers look formidable on both sides of the ball. If they can avoid the health issues that plagued them last season, they should be able to take advantage of a schedule that puts both of their games against Denver solidly in Manning’s now traditional duck season. Take away the run and force Peyton to try to win with his arm and the Chargers should finish with a division title. If not, they’ll still finish in strong contention for a wild card spot.
Kansas City Chiefs, 8-10
I keep hearing that this is the year the Chiefs overtake the Broncos. And maybe it is. We’ll have a better sense of whether that’s possible when Denver travels to Kansas City for the week two Thursday night game. If you’re going to take the division title away from your biggest rival, you have to be able to beat them when they travel to face you on a short week, right? Me, I think even if KC can get the best of Denver, they’re still destined to finish behind San Diego.
Oakland Raiders, 5-8
The Raiders almost certainly are the most improved team in the AFC West. Of course, that’s due in large part to the fact that they had the most room for improvement. Things are looking up for Oakland, but this team is still a year removed from making a serious push for the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles, 9-12
The Eagles managed 10 wins last season, and they appear to be a marginally better team this year. And they’ve got a few soft spots in their schedule. So, um, let’s pencil them in for 11 wins, which could be enough to earn them a division title, followed by the usual early bow from the tournament.
Dallas Cowboys, 9-11
I seriously underrated the Cowboys last season. Didn’t realize they had discovered that a running game is still part of playing offense in the NFL. This year, I fully realize that Dallas appears to have forgotten that lesson. So I like them to finish a game or two worse than the 12 wins they managed in 2014. Maybe that gives them another division title, but it won’t do much more.
New York Giants, 8-11
Given how many experts are counting them out, you have to like the Giants chances at winning not only the NFC East but the Super Bowl. Because that’s who they are. The Giants are probably a slightly stronger team than the squad that finished 6-10 last season. If they can pair stronger with healthier, they can make a run at the division championship. Don’t be shocked if they find a way to put it together.
Washington Racists, 2-5
What are the two most important elements in building a successful team in the NFL? Good coaching and good quarterback play. So, um, yeah.
Green Bay Packers, 12-15
As good as they are, the Packers have no chance of advancing to the Super Bowl this season. How do I know? Because the Packers clearly aren’t going to make it back to the Super Bowl until I (and a bunch of others) stop picking them to get to the Super Bowl. And I just can’t back off. So, sorry, Aaron, I’ll try my best to pick against you next year.
Detroit Lions, 8-10
The Lions were an 11-5 wild card team in 2014 with a stronger defense than the one they bring into the 2015 campaign.
Minnesota Vikings, 8-10
I’m not as confident as some that the return of Adrian Peterson to the lineup means the Vikings are headed to the playoffs. But neither am I inclined to write Minnesota off. If the Vikes can manage six wins over their first eight games, I’ll start to believe. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy.
Chicago Bears, 3-6
It is simply never going to happen for, or with, Jay Cutler.
Carolina Panthers, 8-10
A team is going to win the NFC South title. Might as well be the one with the defense. And, you know, Cam Newton.
New Orleans Saints, 8-10
Or maybe it will be the Saints. They’ve got a pretty good quarterback, too. But not much else. I suspect that’s the difference. Again.
Atlanta Falcons, 8-10
Or the Falcons. They couldn’t compete in most divisions in football, but they have a chance to win this one.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-8
But not the Buccaneers. Not yet.
Seattle Seahawks, 11-14
I hate it when other people say stuff like this, but … you know, the Seahawks came within a single play (more than that, the single greatest play in Super Bowl history) of winning back-to-back championships. And they improved on offense. I don’t know how you pick against a team like that. I sure can’t.
Arizona Cardinals, 10-12
The Cardinals are going to win games the old fashioned way: With a crushing defense and a hard-pounding run-centered offense. That may not get them past the Seahawks, but I think it will get them into the playoffs again. And I suspect they’ll win a game, maybe two, once they get there.
St. Louis Rams, 7-9
The Rams also will win games the old fashioned way. Just not quite so many as the Cardinals. And not enough for it to really matter.
San Francisco 49ers, 3-6
The Niners are just plain headed in the wrong direction.
Let’s just get on with this annual exercise in stupidity, shall we?
1. New England
4. San Diego
1. Green Bay
6. NY Giants
Wild Card Playoffs
Pittsburgh defeats Denver
San Diego defeats Indianapolis
Arizona defeats Carolina
NY Giants defeat Philadelphia
Pittsburgh defeats Houston
New England defeats San Diego
Seattle defeats Arizona
Green Bay defeats NY Giants
New England defeats Pittsburgh
Green Bay defeats Seattle
Super Bowl L (Sorry, I’m just not ready to concede the Arabic numeration yet)
New England defeats Green Bay
So there’s your 2015 NFL season at a glance (or two). Except for all wrong.