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Way Too Early Season Predictions: Vol. 1

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The draft is over. Free agency has settled down. Mini-camp has begun. What better time to take an early look at the regular season?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Minicamp Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

I’m back for the third straight year with my “Way Too Early Predictions.” For those of you don’t know (or remember) how I set up this madness; I go through the entire schedule picking wins and losses for all 32 teams. Normally there are a couple surprises in here (and there are again this year).

Personally, I found this to be the most challenging year yet. With some teams I feel like should be good, but maybe aren’t, and teams that were surprises last year (looking at you Tampa Bay and Miami) that I’m not 100% sold on.

I’ll mention some notable wins or losses I have for some teams (especially the Colts). But if you have any questions about how I got to a certain win total for a team, just ask in the comments.

NFC East

  1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4) - I think every year I do these, I have the Cowboys on top. Dallas actually has a very easy start to the season, only playing one team that made the playoffs (Green Bay). I don’t think Dallas will be quite as good this year, as teams will begin to figure out Dak Prescott a little bit more. This is still arguably the most talented roster in the NFC, though.

That being said, I have the Cowboys only going 3-3 in the division. On that note, the NFC East wound up as my strongest division in football in these predictions. I had the Cowboys’ fourth loss coming against the Oakland Raiders.

2. Washington Redskins (11-5) - This one honestly might be a bit of a stretch. The Redskins lost a ton of talent on the offensive end when both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon left town. This leaves Washington with Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson as the top two receivers. But the tight end combination of Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis could help carry a bit of that receiving load.

Ultimately the Redskins (and the NFC East) benefit from a fairly easy non-division schedule. As a whole, the AFC and NFC West don’t scare you outside of the Raiders and the Seahawks. Plus, I might be crazy, but I’m a big believer in Kirk Cousins.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) - If Carson Wentz continues to improve, then the Eagles will continue their resurgence back to NFL relevance. Wentz has been given some excellent offensive weapons (seriously, look at that depth chart) which will help take the second year QB to the next level.

My main concern with the Eagles will be how their defense holds up; specifically the secondary. As of now, their expected depth chart slots former Colts corner Patrick Robinson as a starter. Not good. If the offense is as good as it looks on paper, though, the defense just has to be decent for the Eagles to be successful.

4. New York Giants (9-7) - The window is all but closed for the Giants. Eli Manning is nearing the end of his career, and this team really doesn’t have a scary running attack. Yes, the receiver duo of Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham should be tough to cover, but the combo of Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey was supposed to be tough to cover in Chicago, and it wasn’t great.

On the other side of the ball, the Giants aren’t as fearsome as they once were. Jason Pierre-Paul is the only established pass rusher that the team has. The secondary is actually pretty stacked, but it won’t matter if the Giants struggle to get pressure on the QB.

NFC North

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) - When you have the best QB in the league and a schedule that features only five teams that made the playoffs a year ago, you’ll be in good shape. It seems like every year the Packers offense shakes up a few pieces, but always finds success as long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback. I expect this year to be no different.

As is typically the case with the Packers, the defense is an issue. Most of their cap is tied up in Clay Matthews, whose play isn’t up to the level that it used to be. To go along with that, the secondary hasn’t really had a legit play-maker since Charles Woodson left. It isn’t normally an issue in the regular season, but come the playoffs, Green Bay needs to hope someone in that secondary can step up.

2. Minnesota Vikings (8-8) - Coming in at .500 seems right for the Vikings doesn’t it? This is a team that honestly does have a top notch defense. The problem is that Vikings do not have a top notch offense. Losing Adrian Peterson isn’t going to be an issue, but the lack of receiving weapons could be. Throw in the fact that we still don’t know if it’ll be Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater playing QB, and you have some problems on offense.

The key for the Vikings is how they are able to rebuild the offensive line. As the season wore on, Bradford got absolutely crushed behind multiple back-up tackles due to injuries. If Bradford (or Bridgewater) can stay upright, the Vikings would have a shot to win more than eight games.

3. Detroit Lions (5-11) - Every once and a while the Lions seem to catch lightning in a bottle, and they did so last year. I think the Lions come back down to Earth this season. Matthew Stafford is one of the better QBs in the league, but can be a little erratic, and doesn’t always have a lot of weapons. The middle of the schedule doesn’t do the Lions any favors either, as they have Carolina and New Orleans going into the Bye, and Pittsburgh and Green Bay coming out of it.

Assuming the Lions do finish with a losing record this year, I think we’ll see the end of the Jim Caldwell era in Detroit.

4. Chicago Bears (1-15) - You had to know the Bears would be here. I’m not a believer in Mike Glennon (or Mitch Trubisky) as a starter in the NFL. And the receives leave a lot to be desired. The projected top targets for Glennon? Kevin White and Cameron Meredith.

I do think John Fox is a good coach, but he literally has no pieces in place to help this Bears team be successful.

NFC South

1. Atlanta Falcons (9-7) - The NFC South might be the toughest division in football to predict. The Falcons are defending NFC Champs, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl just two years ago, the Bucs improved greatly, and the Saints are always a threat with Drew Brees.

I know I would have the Falcons drop from their juggernaut season a year ago. I’m honestly surprised they still came out on top of the division. The offense will still be good, but probably not record setting like a year ago. Losing the Super Bowl will affect this team as well; but maybe not as much as losing Kyle Shanahan from the coaching staff. This team should still be good, but won’t be great.

2. New Orleans Saints (8-8) - Impressively, my game by game predictions landed me with a three-way tie in the NFC South. I think I have the order right with tie-breakers. But coming in second are the New Orleans Saints. As I mentioned, having Brees will always make the Saints dangerous, but trading Brandin Cooks has basically removed the last legitimate weapon he had.

Adding Peterson might help, but not much. An aging running back isn’t going to push the Saints to the next level. Sure Peterson will have a good game here and there, but almost certainly won’t elevate the Saints to playoff level.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8) - I thought I would have the Panthers higher, but they (and the rest of the division) fall victim to scheduling. A very even South, plus games against New England and Green Bay, and NFC East opponent don’t help any of these teams.

I think Greg Olsen is one of the most underrated players in the league, and really needs to be utilized by the Panthers more. The receiving duo of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess has size, but is mostly unproven. The X-Factor on this unit will be how Christian McCaffrey plays. If he can be close to the type of playmaker he was at Stanford, then this Panthers offense could be very dangerous.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) - This might be a little low for Tampa. In the off-season they stacked the receiving unit by adding DeSean Jackson to pair with Mike Evans. The key is obviously if Jameis Winston continues to develop the way the Bucs need him to.

Like I said, I think this is low for Tampa. It’s the way my initial predictions fell, but if I were to straight up pick a team to win the South, it would be Tampa Bay.

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4) - The Seahawks feel like a team that’s window is closing, don’t they? However, they have stayed in tact and kept their main core players on the roster. That alone is starting to give them a little more separation from the rest of the NFC West.

As long as Russell Wilson and that secondary stay healthy, the Seahawks will keep winning. Yes, we’re hearing more grumbling from the team about “rifts” in the locker room, but this team is full of competitors, and they’ll continue to tear through an increasingly weak NFC West.

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-9) - Speaking of teams that have closing windows, the Cardinals window is closed. This is an aging roster, especially on offense, and the Cardinals haven’t made a huge effort to improve the team. Mainly, they’ve officially stuck with Carson Palmer too long, and I don’t expect him to start for the entire season. This is David Johnson’s team now, but a running back can’t carry you as far in this NFL on his own.

The secondary (if healthy) should remain the strength of this team. However, Arizona could fall into the hole the Vikings were in last year. A strong defense that gets almost no support from the offense.

3. Los Angeles Rams (3-13) - I simply don’t see it with the Rams. I think Jared Goff was a huge miss at QB, and that mistake will cost the Rams again. Throw in that outside of Todd Gurley, the Rams have virtually no legitimate offensive weapons and you have a problem. Sean McVay could be a good coach, but he has no pieces in place to work with.

The defensive line will remain the strength of this Rams team. If they can shut down opposing offenses, they could have a chance to steal some low scoring games. And the Rams do normally steal a game or two that they shouldn’t win because of this.

4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13) - This roster doesn’t even resemble the one that Jim Harbaugh had so much success with. It has been completely gutted. It looks like John Lynch could be building a winner in the future, but it’ll take a while to get there. I don’t even know who the starting QB will be. The top three guys on the roster are Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, and C.J. Bethard. If I’m the 49ers, I give it to Bethard to see what he can do.

Fortunately, the future is bright in San Fran. It looks like Lynch drafted well this year, and the 49ers have lots of picks to work with next year after fleecing the Bears in the draft. The 49ers could return to relevance in a few years, but the 2017 season will be a rough one.

NFC Wild Card Teams: Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (14-2) - This can’t be a surprise can it? The defending champions managed to improve the roster by adding notables Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC East can never quite get their ducks in a row to catch the Patriots.

Unless Tom Brady’s play falls off a cliff this season, the Patriots will win the division.

2. Miami Dolphins (9-7) - The team closest to the Patriots in the division is the Miami Dolphins, and they aren’t that close. Ryan Tannehill has improved his play most every year, but he still isn’t a top notch QB, and probably never will be. I don’t see Jay Ajayi being a 16 game legit running back either, and he was a huge part of the team’s success.

The defense still has some playmakers, but both Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh are starting to age. The Dolphins showed flashes last year, but I’m not convinced they are ready to challenge New England yet.

3. Buffalo Bills (5-11) - The Bills have a tough looking schedule, which isn’t good for a less than average team. I will admit that I think Tyrod Taylor is a very underrated QB, but Buffalo seems focused on building a rush first team with LeSean McCoy. This is likely why their only receiving threat is the oft-injured Sammy Watkins.

The defense was the strength of this Bills team for years, but most of those playmakers are aging or gone. What we see here is a team in decline with no clear direction back to contention.

4. New York Jets (2-14) - And then there are the Jets. The projected offensive depth chart of this team in a disaster. I don’t think going into a season with Josh McCown, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg at QB is a good start. And when your starting receivers are projected to be Charone Peake and Robby Anderson, that isn’t good. At least they have Matt Forte?

The Jets are undergoing what is basically an entire roster overhaul. I think it’ll be a while before the Jets return to AFC relevance.

AFC North

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) - If you’ve read my past predictions, you know that I perennially overrate the Steelers. And it happened again this year. I do want to say that I could easily pull a couple more losses to the Steelers, but those questionable games are in Pittsburgh, so I gave them to Pitt. But this team could go 10-6 and I wouldn’t be shocked.

Ben Roethlisberger is aging, but is still a top QB. And no matter how you slice it, both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are two of the best at their positions. It seems weird to say, but the defense is really the question for this Steelers team. the front seven has some good players, but the Steelers need an infusion of youth. They did draft T.J. Watt, which would start an influx of youth to that defense, if he turns out as a good player.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7) - In recent years, the Ravens have been mired a bit in mediocrity. Part of that, though, has been due to the injury bug. This year, the Ravens offense could be an intriguing one to watch. Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, and Breshad Perriman bring a ridiculous amount of speed to the receive position. And the addition of Danny Woodhead could add a dimension to the offense.

The defense looks so good on paper, but I’m just not sure if it will be. A secondary sporting Eric Weddle, Jimmy Smith, and Brandon Carr could anchor the defense, though.

3. Cleveland Browns (6-10) - The Browns will most definitely be better this year. Plus, the Browns schedule isn’t that tough, as they face the Bengals twice, the AFC South, and will get to play the NFC North (not too tough minus the Packers).

The Browns drafted some good talent and stayed away from reaching for a QB in this draft. And call me crazy, but I think Brock Osweiler could be a solid starter for the Browns this year. He has talent and has something to prove. That’s sometimes a good combination.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (5-11) - The Bengals face a tough start to the season, and I don’t think they can recover from that. The talent is definitely there for the Bengals, but the team has seemed unhinged ever since the Steelers playoff game a couple years back.

A big problem with this team is that Andy Dalton just doesn’t have weapons. Outside of A.J. Green, does anyone on this offense really scare you? Not exactly. If John Ross turns out as a good receiver, that will help the offense immensely.

AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5) - God, I’m such a homer. The Colts actually have a ridiculously easy (on paper) start to the season playing the Rams, Cardinals, and Browns in the first three games. And in general the Colts have a weak schedule overall as the AFC South plays the NFC and AFC West.

If Andrew Luck returns to form after off-season shoulder surgery, the offense should continue to move the ball fairly well. The biggest question for the Colts offense (as it has been) is how well they can move the ball on the ground. Frank Gore will be the workhorse again, and Robert Turbin will probably see an expanded role. Plus, I’m excited to see what rookie Marlon Mack can do.

On defense, the Colts have again reworked the front 7. Jonathan Hankins should be able to anchor that unit, but we’ve seen the Colts go after defensive lineman before in free agency and have them no pan out. The secondary should be improved with the additions of rookies Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson.

I have the Colts losing to the Seahawks, Titans, Texans, Steelers, and Jaguars

2. Houston Texans (8-8) - I was surprised I only had the Texans slot in at 8-8, but that’s not a bad place for them. The big question, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, will be at quarterback. The Texans moved up to draft Deshaun Watson in the draft, but could start Tom Savage to begin the year. I think their best bet is Watson, but Houston may want him to sit for a little while.

On defense, the Texans are still mostly set. A strong unit remains mostly in tact. Plus, they should return a healthy J.J. Watt, which will give them a huge boost. The Texans do have a tougher schedule, though, with the Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, and Chiefs all looming outside the division. Oh, and I have Osweiler leading Cleveland to a win over the Texans as well.

3. Tennessee Titans (7-9) - The Titans shocked just about everyone last year by nearly making the playoffs. The Titans run first strategy worked well in large part due to the attack of DeMarco Murrary, Derrick Henry, and Marcus Mariota; and that all with the help of a stout defense.

The question this year will be about Mariota. How will that broken leg effect his play? As a mobile QB, it obviously will have a large effect on how Mariota can play. I think he’ll be pretty much fine. And if he is, the Titans will need to put the ball in his hands a little more this year.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) - How many years have we said the talent is there in Jacksonville? And yet, they can’t put it together. I’m surprised the team didn’t move on from Blake Bortles, but there weren’t many better options out there.

ESPN actually ran an article today stating that Doug Marrone would prefer to run the ball. And can you blame him? The Jaguars boast Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, and Chris Ivory in the backfield. They should be able to run the ball well.

AFC West

  1. Oakland Raiders (13-3) - Put me firmly on the Oakland Raiders bandwagon. This team was rolling last year before Derrick Carr’s injury. Much like Mariota, I expect Carr to return to form this season. The Raiders will show that last year was no fluke.

And then there’s the addition of Marshawn Lynch. The Raiders struggled to, at times, run the ball last year. If Lynch is even close to the player he was in Seattle, then he adds another dimension to an already dangerous Raiders offense.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) - The Chiefs aren’t done yet. Despite a significant amount of playoff disappointment, this is still one of the top teams in the AFC. And Alex Smith is still the starter, although not for much longer.

This team is built to win games by playing good defense and not making mistakes. That should be enough this year again for Kansas City to make the playoffs. If the Chiefs drop another first round playoff game, then it’ll likely be the end of the Alex Smith era.

3. Los Angeles Chargers (8-8) - Another 8-8 year for the Chargers? Yep. Rivers still has almost no help on offense, and his best weapon (Antonio Gates) is nearing the end of his career. Melvin Gordon should continue to provide some quality running through.

The move to LA could impact the Chargers as well, especially with having to essentially play in a Little League stadium. Not that Qualcomm was a great place, but it’ll be better than what the Chargers have this year.

4. Denver Broncos (3-13) - This might be a bit of a steep drop for the Broncos. But aging offensive weapons, a defense that showed some holes, an unproven coach, and lack of a QB will hurt this team badly. The window is closed for the Broncos.

AFC Wild Card Teams: Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins (tie-breaker over the Ravens)

Wild Card Round:

(5) Kansas City Chiefs at (4) Indianapolis Colts - Haven’t we seen this match-up before in the playoffs? I’m a big fan of the way the Chiefs play and are operated as a franchise. However, they do have an issue being able to out gun teams with better talent. They won’t be able to keep up with Luck and the Colts. Winner: Indianapolis Colts

(6) Miami Dolphins at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers - And would you look at that, another rematch! This likely would be a slightly better game with Ryan Tannehill in the lineup. That being said, I don’t think the Dolphins can keep up with Pittsburgh. Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers

(5) Washington Redskins at (4) Atlanta Falcons - Almost every year we see a team go on the road in the playoffs to face a division winner with a worse record. It happens here again. The Falcons still have plenty of firepower to get the job done at home in the playoffs, but I’m not sold on them still. Winner: Washington Redskins

(6) Philadelphia Eagles at (3) Seattle Seahawks - this one is pretty straightforward. The Seahawks probably won’t lose at home to a QB making his first postseason start. Winner: Seattle Seahawks

Divisional Playoffs

(4) Indianapolis Colts at (1) New England Patriots - Crap. I want so badly to pick the Colts here, but until they prove they can compete in Foxboro in the playoffs, I just can’t. Winner: New England Patriots

(3) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Oakland Raiders - Now this would be fun. A playoff rivalry renewed. This one would likely be a high scoring game with two of the best offenses in the league. This one is a bit of a toss up, but I’ll take the Raiders at home. Winner: Oakland Raiders

(3) Seattle Seahawks at (2) Dallas Cowboys - This would be an intriguing game. The Cowboys are one of the few NFL teams that can win by running the ball, which gives them a big advantage against the Seahawks. Seattle has also been slowly descending in the NFC as their window closes. I think Prescott and Co. get their first playoff win. Winner: Dallas Cowboys

(5) Washington Redskins at (1) Green Bay Packers - I like Cousins, but he won’t be leading an inferior Redskins team past the Packers in the playoffs. It just won’t happen. Winner: Green Bay Packers

Championship Round

(2) Oakland Raiders at (1) New England Patriots - The matchup that everyone was hoping for in last year’s playoffs arrives this season. The established Patriots against the up and coming Raiders. In a game where we would see footage of the Tuck Rule enough times that we would be sick, I’ll take the Raiders. Winner: Oakland Raiders

(2) Dallas Cowboys at (1) Green Bay Packers - This would be a fun rematch, and another classic game between these two franchises. This would be the third playoff meeting in four years between these two teams, this time with a Super Bowl on the line. If the weather is poor (which is probably will be in January) the Cowboys are better built to win. Winner: Dallas Cowboys

Super Bowl

Dallas Cowboys vs Oakland Raiders - This would be a fun Super Bowl with two of the NFL’s most historic franchises facing off. Two young teams making their first deep playoff run. I think it would be a shoot out between these two. This is a toss up, but I’ll take the Raiders. Super Bowl Champion: Raiders