In Part 2 of my 2016 NFL Preview, I provide the Super Bowl, playoffs, and postseason award predictions that everyone needs to know (at least in my opinion, anyway).
1. My Super Bowl Favorites — The Seattle Seahawks are not only my pick to win the NFC and represent the conference in the Super Bowl, but they’re my pick to win the whole damn thing next year.
Carolina and Denver once again proved that elite offenses are well and good, but elite defenses are what matter in the playoffs. To me, there isn’t a defense more loaded than that of the Seahawks. They’ve got at least two blue chip players at every level of their defense: Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on the defensive line, Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright at linebacker, and Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor in the secondary. That’s just an incredible amount of talent they have assembled.
And on offense? In Russell Wilson’s last 10 games last season (his last eight regular season games plus the Seahawks two playoff games), he threw for 2,564 yards, 29 touchdowns, and five interceptions. The offense around him is loaded with speed and skill, from receivers like Doug Baldin (who was tied for first in the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions) and Tyler Lockett, to a crowded backfield comprising Thomas Rawls and rookies CJ Prosise (who could be a lethal addition in passing situations) and Alex Collins (a short yardage specialist). Then there’s Jimmy Graham, who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury from last year. If the offensive line can actually keep Wilson upright, that offense could put up plenty of points, or at least enough to where the game would be out of reach because of the Seahawks defense.
I just don’t see a team that’s got the talent, depth, and swagger to beat Seattle.
2. The Curse Of The Super Bowl Loser — It’s hard to bet against a team that’s lost a grand total of one regular season game since November of 2014, and still has the reigning MVP — and the ultimate realization of every defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare of a true “dual threat quarterback” — under center. But if nothing else, history says the odds are heavily stacked against the Panthers returning to “the show” next year.
No team since the 1993 Buffalo Bills have lost the previous Super Bowl and appeared in the title game the following year. All of the last four teams to lose the Super Bowl made the playoffs the very next season, but three of those four lost in their respective divisional playoff games (San Francisco made it to the 2013 NFC title game after losing the Super Bowl in the 2012 season). And from a purely on-the-field standpoint, I find it incredibly difficult to think the Panthers can replicate the magic they had last season.
For one, the Panthers might’ve lost the services of the top free agent in this year’s market: cornerback Josh Norman. Whether you buy into the idea that he was overrated, and/or a product of the Panthers’ defensive scheme, his former teammates all said that Norman was one of the very best players on defense, and that the talent and energy he brought will be missed; rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley might be fine players, but none of them will be able to bring what Norman brought last season.
On offense, even with the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the growth of second year receiver Devin Funchess, and the perennial presence of All Pro tight end Greg Olsen, it’s still almost impossible to expect an encore performance from Cam Newton, after he accounted for a combined 45 touchdowns last year. And do we really believe the Panthers could once again have the second-ranked rushing offense in the league, given that Jonathan Stewart is turning 29 years old this year and his 950+ yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns was his highest output since 2009? Plus, what if Stewart — who hasn’t exactly been a bastion of health throughout his career — goes down with an injury? Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Artis-Payne are nice players, but is that really enough?
I think the Panthers are still one of the three or four best teams in the conference, and a shoo-in to win the still-depleted NFC South. But I don’t see another deep postseason run for them this season.
3. New England is (still) the team to beat in the AFC — As the legendary “Nature Boy” Ric Flair often shouted: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” For the past seven consecutive seasons, the Patriots have been “the man” to beat in the AFC East, and even with Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season, they’re still the heavy favorites to win the division in 2016.
The Patriots 2016 schedule, in my mind, really has three chapters: the first four games (without Tom Brady), the next four games (the return of Tom Brady), and the last eight games (the wrath of Tom Brady).
Over those first four games, the rest of the country is going to learn the secret that many people in New England know but don’t want to admit: Jimmy Garoppolo stinks. That “it” factor, which Brady oozes? Yeah, Garoppolo doesn’t have “it.” That being said, after New England gets their asses kicked by Arizona in Week 1, they’re they should still be able to slug out a couple of wins over their remaining three games, even with Garoppolo spending most of those games chasing his own proverbial tail. They get the Dolphins (whose secondary has been busy getting smoked like brisket in training camp), the Texans (with J.J. Watt still likely not at 100% after getting back surgery right before training camp), and the Bills (whom the Patriots have beaten 14 out of the past 15 seasons in Foxborough, where this game will take place).
After that, Brady spends the Patriots next four games — at Cleveland, at home against Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, and at Buffalo — knocking off the rust, getting back into rhythm, and figuring out who his guys will be. That takes them into the bye week (which, coincidentally, also happens to be right about the time when Dion Lewis is projected to return to the lineup). After the bye, the Patriots schedule features six teams that didn’t make the playoffs among their last eight games; the only two teams that did make the playoffs in that stretch are Seattle (who they’ll get to face at Foxborough) and Denver (who will be dramatically different from the Broncos team they lost two games against last year).
I think the Patriots will go 4-4 over their first 8 games (probably going 2-2 in their first four games without Tom Brady), and 7-1 over the last 8, finishing with an 11-5 record. With no major free agent losses, this New England isn’t much different than the squad that went 12-4 and lost in the AFC Championship game last season.
4. The Dismantling of Denver — Assuming the Broncos do head into 2016 relying on the formula that helped them win in the postseason — relying on the defense to keep the game close, and scoring just enough points on offense to eek out a win — i’m not sure how realistic it is for them to expect their defense to play at that same level.
Starting defensive lineman Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan are both gone, and the guys they got to replace them (defensive lineman Jared Crick and inside linebacker Todd Davis) aren’t nearly the same caliber of players. Von Miller missed all the team’s offseason workouts as part of his holdout for a new contract; other players will tell you that this is the fastest way to either lingering or long-term issues during the season. Cornerback Aqib Talib suffered a small gunshot wound as part of an off-the-field incident, and may be in some legal trouble involving Texas gun laws. DeMarcus Ware missed a career-high five games in 2015, and he isn’t getting any younger (he just turned 34).
I will admit that i’m a little intrigued by Trevor Siemian, the Broncos’ recently-declared starting quarterback, as he’s shown some interesting flashes of professional polish. Denver isn’t asking him to be Peyton Manning and throw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. He just needs to hand the football to C.J. Anderson (and talented rookie Devontae Booker, who the coaches love), and throw it to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (who are still one of the top five wide receiver duo’s in the NFL). But at the same time, what happens if Siemian plays even worse than how Manning and Brock Osweiler did last year?
Denver won’t get any help from their schedule, either. As the defending Super Bowl champs, teams are going to come right at them. Their first three games of the season are against Carolina, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati. Later on, they also have to play Houston and New England; we haven’t even gotten to their divisional slate yet, in which all three teams in the AFC West look to be stronger than they were last year. Oakland invested heavily in their defense and their offensive line. Kansas City — who came within one game of taking the division title from Denver — is deceptively balanced team. San Diego badly underperformed versus expectations last year, and should add to their four wins from 2015.
There were a lot of questions as to how good this team really was last year, and whether they just caught lightning in a bottle at the end of the season. There’s also the question as to whether Gary Kubiak won the Super Bowl with John Fox’s guys, much in the same way Barry Switzer won a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson’s guys or Jon Gruden won it with Tony Dungy’s guys. Look how things fared for those teams after that.
Add all of that up and you’ll see why the odds are against the defending champs. I honestly don’t see them making the playoffs next season.
5. Potential “Black Monday Casualties” for 2016-2017 —
I’m not exactly one to take joy in seeing anyone lose their job (unless we’re talking about someone like Greg Hardy), but considering that almost one-quarter of NFL head coaches change jobs shortly after the season is over (give or take), here’s an early look at some potential changes that could take place on “Black Monday” (the Monday after the last regular season game, when most teams start making changes) and shortly after:
Interestingly enough, it looks like Rex Ryan is at the top of that list. I would’ve thought that the buzz and spotlight — and subsequent ticket sales and national interest — that brings to the team would’ve helped keep him around. But, it seems like the Bills ownership wants to see actual results that back up his bluster and bravado, meaning Ryan is basically under a “Playoffs, or Else” ultimatum with the Bills right now.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy is 22-26 over his last three years in San Diego, and coming off a season where San Diego lost 10 of its last 12 games. Owner Dean Spanos signed him to a one-year extension, meaning he’s coaching for his job this season. They’ve also go offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt on the staff as well, meaning the Chargers could fire McCoy anytime during the season and make Whisenhunt the interim coach, if things start to go south (again).
After a bunch of astute free agent acquisitions and a home run group of draft picks among the 2016 class, there’s a lot of optimism in Jacksonville. But, if they don’t show enough competitive improvement this season, Gus Bradley is likely a goner.
Jeff Fisher is the guy whose teams perpetually toil in mediocrity, yet nobody ever wants to fire him. If the Rams lose nine or more games this season, that’ll be Fisher’s fourth straight losing season as head coach of the Rams, and it’ll give him more career losses than any coach in NFL history. Even though he’s got the “we’re starting a rookie QB” excuse, he’s done so little with so much for so long that it’ll be baffling to see him keep his job if the Rams don’t have a winning season.
One of the bigger surprise names to keep an eye on might be Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Even though the Bengals have won the AFC North two of the past three seasons, the usually stoically patient Bengals ownership may opt to make a change if Lewis is one-and-done in the playoffs for the sixth season in a row.
6. Postseason Awards Predictions, and Other Parting Thoughts:
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay — As I previously wrote: between Rodgers himself coming into camp in the best shape of his life, Jordy Nelson — Rodgers’ favorite target — returning from his ACL injury, and the Packers likely having an actual running game (with Eddie Lacy looking far more svelte than the overfed gastropod he resembled in 2015), I think we’ll see Rodgers once again look like the guy who rained fire and brimstone on defenses between 2011 and 2014.
Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh — There isn’t a more singularly dominant player in the NFL than Antonio Brown. Even if the Steelers other young receivers (Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates) can’t make up for Martavis Bryant’s absence, teams can try and triple-team Brown and it won’t matter. He and Ben Roethlisberger are the best QB-WR combination in the NFL today.
Defensive Player of the Year: Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia — Cox was already one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL last year. That being said, I truly believe that new Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is going to push Cox from “very, very good” to “a singular offense-wrecking menace,” like he did for Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee and Ndamukong Suh in Detroit.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas — Look, it would be an absolute travesty of Elliott doesn’t run for 1300 yards and 10+ touchdowns between that behemothic offensive line the Cowboys have. I don’t like saying anything nice about the Cowboys, but Elliott has to be the presumptive favorite to win this award. That being said, I think two players — both taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft — could give him a real run for his money: wide receiver Sterling Shepard of the New York Giants (who’s looked like a star in training camp and could turn into a “Victor Cruz 2.0”-type receiver there) and wide receiver Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints (who many draftniks argued was the best receiver prospect in this draft, and reminds you of a much faster and more athletic Marques Colston). Also, Titans running back Derrick Henry is one injury to DeMarco Murray away from also throwing his hat into this race.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Tampa Bay — Last year, Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs became the first cornerback in 18 years to win the defensive rookie of the year award. Yet, i’m still going to double-down on that position and say that Vernon Hargreaves — the 11th overall pick in this year’s draft — wins it this year. He already looks like the best cornerback on the Buccaneers, meaning he’s going to be asked to cover the opponents best receiver early and often. Considering he’s playing in the NFC South — a division that features Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Julio Jones — he’s going likely going to get tested VERY often; but, he’ll also get plenty of opportunities to intercept a few of those passes, too.
* I think the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco will lead the race towards the rights to draft Clemson University quarterback Deshaun Watson in the 2017 NFL Draft (but don’t count out Buffalo as a darkhorse in this race). The Browns are putting a lot of eggs in the Robert Griffin III basket, which any Redskins fan can attest to being a VERY risky gamble. I don’t see the 49ers winning more than four games this season, and I strongly doubt Chip Kelly will make it through another season after this one in San Francisco before getting fired (again) and running back to college football.
* Deshaun Watson is the early favorite to be taken #1 overall next year, but the 2017 NFL Draft class looks like it could be absolutely loaded with elite talent in general. Myles Garrett (a freakishly athletic junior defensive end from Texas A&M) looks like the second coming of Von Miller. Leonard Fournette (the ballyhooed junior running back from LSU) might be the most dominant running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Dalvin Cook (the dangerous dual-threat running back from Florida State) looks like a bigger and stronger version of Jamaal Charles. Jonathan Allen (defensive end from Alabama) might be the best defensive prospect to come out of Tuscaloosa since Nick Saban has been the coach there. Jabrill Peppers (defensive back from the University of Michigan) is a almost a perfect prototype of the “dime linebacker” that’s so en vogue in the NFL right now. Jamal Adams (defensive back from LSU) might be the next great game-altering cornerback/safety hybrid to enter the NFL. And the newest name to keep an eye on? Quarterback DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame, who’s got the size (6’4 and 230lbs) and arm strength of an elite quarterback prospect, and flashed a lot of his football IQ and polish as a pocket passer in the Irish’s loss to the University of Texas this past weekend.