The Denver Broncos and, more importantly, Peyton Manning are Super Bowl champions. With the season freshly ended, the Internet has been filled with game recaps, discussion about Peyton Manning's future, memes of Eli Manning's less than thrilled reaction, and dissections of the halftime show.
What is also already showing up are writers getting ready for next season. I read somewhere this morning (I think on ESPN) that the Panthers are already favorites to win next year. The new 2016 power rankings have been released (the Colts are 11th).
Much like I did last year, I'll be joining the fray and releasing some WAY too early predictions for the 2016-17 NFL season.
Last year, in my first set of predictions I got some things correct. Notably, I pegged the Panthers as the South champions (a pick I later backed away on in my final predictions. I also picked the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl in that first article. Oops.
Anyway, let's dive on in and see what happens as I try to project the upcoming season before free agency, the draft, or the pre-season. Here we go.
I didn't give the Redskins a shot last year, and they went and won the division. I just can't see that happening twice in a row. The drama with the team has settled down, and Robert Griffin III will likely be let go this off-season. Talent-wise, I would maintain Washington has the worst team in the East. However, this past year, they were the least dysfunctional.
The Giants and Eagles kind of fell into the same bag last year. Both talented teams which underachieved, in part because of questionable coaching. In lieu of that, both the Giants and Eagles have hired new coaches. The Giants promoting their offensive coordinator, while the Eagles basically admitted firing Andy Reid was a mistake by hiring Doug Pederson.
And then there's the Cowboys. All season it has sounded like if Griffin is released, this is his destination. I don't know what to think about Dallas, though. A team that probably should have reached the NFC Championship game a couple years ago floundered its way through injuries this year. When healthy, this Cowboys team is good. But how much does Tony Romo have left in the tank?
Division Winner: Philadelphia Eagles (I guess)
The North is also interesting. The Packers will get Jordy Nelson back next year, and should spend most of the off-season and draft fixing a porous defense and offensive line (sound familiar Colts fans). I still maintain that Aaron Rodgers is the best player in football, and because of that alone the Packers will be in the hunt.
The Bears and Lions should bring up the rear in the division again. However, the Bears showed improvement as the year wore on, and they should only get better with John Fox. The Lions seemed improved once Jim Bob Cooter was elevated to OC. However, the loss of Calvin Johnson will probably sink any hopes the Lions have of a playoff berth this year.
There aren't many worse ways to drop a home playoff game than missing a chip-shot field goal. The Vikings open up their new stadium this year, and on-field product should be even better. I would expect Teddy Bridgewater to continue to improve, and the same goes with the defense. The question, I think, is Adrian Peterson. Can he continue to be a top flight running back?
Division Winner: Green Bay Packers
Logic would dictate that the Panthers should win the division again. Tampa Bay isn't a threat, especially after inexplicably firing Lovie Smith. The Saints are probably a year, maybe two, away from a complete rebuild. The Falcons looked unstoppable early in the year, but collapsed down the stretch.
The Panthers, though, must rebound from a crushing Super Bowl loss. Historically speaking, the loser of the Super Bowl doesn't always fare the best the next season. Keep in mind though, the Panthers put this season together without their best receiver in Kelvin Benjamin.
My gut is telling me that the Panthers don't win the division. But at the same time, I can't see anyone else passing them up. Maybe the Falcons. Maybe.
Division Winner: Carolina Panthers
Here I think we see the biggest steps back as a division. I maintain that the door is closing on Seattle. Lots of high profile (and highly paid) players are great, but it leaves the rest of the roster dependent on great drafts. I don't think the retirement of Marshawn Lynch will affect the team too much, as Lynch barely played down the stretch anyway.
While I like to see Bruce Arians and the Cardinals do well, I feel like their window is closing as well. This is a team with a primarily veteran core of players. Common sense says Larry Fitzgerald has a lot left, but we thought that about Andre Johnson. And the last time we saw a QB performance as bad as Carson Palmer's in the playoffs was Jake Delhomme. And Delhomme played what, less than a season more after that?
The 49ers will be interesting to watch. With Chip Kelly in house, you know roster moves will be made. Kelly also has a QB that fits his system a little better as well. And then there are the LA Rams. The Rams are a team that has been on the cusp for a couple of years now. Could this be the year they go over the top and finally win more than eight games?
Division Winner: LA Rams
Wild Cards: (5) Minnesota Vikings and (6) Seattle Seahawks
Now we move over to the AFC
This is probably the easiest division to pick a winner. Barring a season ending injury to Tom Brady, the Patriots will win the East. After them, the picture becomes fuzzier.
Much to everyone's surprise, the Jets were knocking on the door of the playoffs, while the Bills and Dolphins fell back down to Earth after lofty pre-season predictions and expectations. I don't see the Dolphins taking a big step forward this year, even with a new coach.
I see the Jets falling back as well. The defense should remain stout, but the offense is a question mark. I can't envision Ryan Fitzpatrick having a second straight career year, and do we really think Geno Smith is any better? The Bills questions revolve around their QB situation and, surprisingly, their defense. As one of the best defenses in the league, the unit was supposed to become dominant under Rex Ryan. It didn't.
Division Winner: New England Patriots
This division is a toss up. A healthy Andy Dalton should vault the Bengals to the top. However, with the way the season ended, one has to wonder about the psyche of the Bengals. The talent is there, but will they keep their heads screwed on straight?
The Steelers should be just as good this year, if not better. Imagine if Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell are healthy all season? Add in Antonio Brown and the Steelers could have the best offense in football. And you know the defense will be in the upper half of the league.
The Ravens almost have to be better. Mostly because the odds of half their team being injured again are so low. The Ravens will be back, but I'm not sure if this is a playoff caliber team. And the lock of the division is easy. Cleveland will be last. Book it.
Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
Recently on ESPN I read a piece that said the Jaguars were the least dysfunctional team in the South this past year. Yeah, I think that's true. Jacksonville is another team on the cusp, and the improvement of Blake Bortles was huge for this team. The offense can score, now they need the defense to stop others from scoring.
Houston and Indianapolis should fight over the top spot again. Having Andrew Luck healthy will mean the world for the Colts, and that alone should propel them to a division title. The team should also (hopefully) be free of off-field distractions (Grigson vs. Pagano) this season. For the Texans, the question, to me, is at QB. Do they stick with Brian Hoyer, or try to find someone else?
Tennessee should be improved, but I can't envision them fighting for the division title. Aside from Marcus Mariota, the team lacks consistent talent. Additionally, they need Mariota to stay healthy to even be competitive.
Division Winner: Indianapolis Colts
The World Champion Broncos will probably be without the services of Manning next year. Do they re-sign Brock Osweiler, or try to go a different route? The defense will remain mostly intact, assuming they give Von Miller his huge payday.
Arguably the most impressive team in the division was Kansas City. After losing Jamaal Charles, it looked like KC was done. Then they reeled off 11 straight wins (including the playoffs). With Charles back, the Chiefs should pick up right where they left off, but will they?
The Raiders also showed drastic improvement, and they have an elite young core of players as well. An offense than can throw and run, paired with a strengthening defense is good news for the Silver and Black. Their brethren to the south, though, was one of the most disappointing teams in football. The Chargers couldn't get anything going on the field, and will be faced with the questions of moving to LA or not this year.
Division Winner: Denver Broncos
Wild Cards: (5) Cincinnati Bengals and (6) Oakland Raiders
(5) Minnesota at (4) Los Angeles - I went out on a limp and gave the Rams the nod to win the West. Unfortunately for them, in this scenario I have them drawing the Vikings. If this happens, I see this as a case where the away team has a better record, and is better, than the home team. This year, it doesn't come down to a field goal for Minnesota. Winner: Minnesota Vikings
(6) Seattle at (3) Philadelphia - For some reason I'm still riding the Eagles hype-train. It was a mistake in my picks (and in Fantasy Football) this past year and will probably be a mistake this time around as well. For now, I'll roll with it. However, I won't roll very far. Playoff experience is huge once January rolls around. The Seahawks have that experience. Winner: Seattle Seahawks
(5) Cincinnati at (4) Denver - I think Denver makes the playoffs on the strength of their defense. I can't see them clinching home-field in what will be a very tough AFC this year. Unfortunately, the champs draw a hungry Bengals team in the first round. I'm gonna give this one to the Bengals, ending their playoff drought. Winner: Cincinnati Bengals.
(6) Oakland at (3) Indianapolis - Remember what I said about playoff experience? It plays a rolls here. The Raiders haven't been to the playoffs in ages, and going on the road to Indianapolis is no easy task. The Raiders could be on the cusp of being elite, but they aren't there. I don't know if the Colts are there yet either, but they're closer than the Raiders. Winner: Indianapolis Colts
(5) Minnesota at (2) Green Bay - Two of the best teams meet for the third time in the season. You would think that in January, a Vikings team with Peterson should have the edge. Of course, we thought that this past year too. The Packers seem to find a way to shut down Peterson when it matters most, and the Vikings can't seem to do that consistently to Rodgers. Winner: Green Bay Packers
(6) Seattle at (1) Carolina - Yes, I did give the Panthers the top seed. This mostly has to do with having a weaker division than the Packers. Carolina again meets the Seahawks in the divisional round. This time, though, Carolina doesn't jump out to a huge lead early on. The window may be closing on Seattle, but it isn't closed yet. Winner: Seattle Seahawks
(3) Indianapolis at (2) New England - Well this is disappointing. The one place I think all Colts fans dread having the team go in the playoffs. The Patriots have had Indy's number ever since Luck took over at QB. Mostly, this is due to the fact that the Colts can't stop the Patriots offense. Unfortunately, I don't see that changing this year either. Winner: New England Patriots (I hate myself for this pick)
(5) Cincinnati at (1) Pittsburgh - Oh boy, wouldn't this be a dandy? The hatred between these two teams seems to escalate every time they play. After a Wild Card game this past year, imagine what a Divisional game would look like? With a healthy Dalton, the Bengals are a much scarier team. However, assuming they don't knock out (literally) half of Pittsburgh's weapons, the Steelers are scary too. Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
(6) Seattle at (2) Green Bay - You know the hatred for the Seahawks is real in Green Bay, and that Packers fans would love to see their team get revenge on the Seahawks. I think it happens when the Packers finally get to host a meaningful game against Seattle. Rodgers puts on a show to head back to the Super Bowl. Winner: Green Bay Packers
(2) New England at (1) Pittsburgh - One could argue that, if Pittsburgh was healthy, this would have been the championship this year. This time around, I think the Steelers do remain healthy and return to the title game. Speaking of returning, this would be what, the sixth straight for the Patriots? Incredible. Still, I think this Steelers team is too good to drop a home game. Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers.
(1) Pittsburgh vs. (2) Green Bay - In a weird quirk, Super Bowl LI will be the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl I (played in 1967), despite being the 51st Super Bowl. This would mark the second meeting in the big game between the Steelers and Packers, and the second time it happened in the state of Texas. It would also represent two of the winningest teams in Super Bowl history. The Steelers have six titles, and the Packers have four. It would also keep alive the ridiculous stat of the AFC being represented by Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger every year since the 2003-04 season (with the exception of Super Bowl XLVII).
As for the game itself, this one should be a barnburner. Two of the league's best offenses playing in a dome? What more could you want? I think I give the nod to the Steelers here because I foresee them with a better overall offense (as in, they can run the ball) and probably a slightly better defense. This would be a wildly entertaining game though. Super Bowl Champions: Pittsburgh Steelers
I sincerely hope I'll be wrong about how the AFC unfolds. And I probably will be. Here's hoping the Colts prove me way wrong, and take home the Lombardi next year around this time.
Feel free to let me know how wrong I am about these predictions in the comments (I know you all will). And if you do disagree, chime in about what teams you think will surprise (in a good or bad way) and what team will win it all.
Happy off-season, friends!