The NFL season is over three quarters of the way through, so it’s time to check in on some pre-season predictions and react to the season thus far.
AFC North: In our predictions for the season, I said of the AFC North, “This one is too easy”, and so far it has been. Despite some early season struggles and a surprising start for the Ravens, the Steelers are not only comfortable on top of their division with a 4-0 division record, but they’re also tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC. Can’t ask for much more than that.
AFC South: This one hurts. For a few magical weeks Deshaun Watson was one of the most exciting players in the NFL and a clear franchise quarterback. While his performance wasn’t directly leading to wins, the Texans were much more competitive with Watson under center. When he went down with an injury, so went the Texans’ chances to win the division. It didn’t help that they also lost their best defensive player to injury. This one is a tantalizing “what if?”, and I look forward to seeing what a healthy Texans team can do next year.
AFC East: This one is a bit of a mixed bag of a prediction here. Even though the Patriots have a big division lead and are a favorite to win the Super Bowl, they have been far from dominant so far thanks to a wildly inconsistent defense. Technically my bold prediction is still only off by a single loss, but this Patriots team isn’t nearly as impressive as I thought they might be.
AFC West: What a crazy division race this has been. A third of the way through the season, I didn’t think I could’ve been more wrong with my pick. Now? There’s an improbable three way tie for first in the division. Unfortunately, based on how the Raiders have played so far, I don’t like their chances going forward. It should be noted that this was another disappointing pick of mine where the team’s QB missed some time because of injury…
NFC North: Oh, and look, the poster child for a pick that looked good until their QB went down with an injury! I can’t feel bad about this pick at all, considering how well the Packers were playing with a healthy Aaron Rodgers. His injury wasn’t the only one, though. Green Bay’s running backs have been a rotating carousel (is there any other kind?) of banged up players. Minnesota deserves a special shout out, though. They’re much better than I expected to be this year despite dealing with their own QB issues.
NFC South: I’m starting to see a pattern here with my bad predictions: four bad predictions and four teams whose quarterbacks went down with injuries. Seriously, though, it’s hard to wave this off as just an injured QB since Jameis wasn’t playing particularly well even when healthy. In addition, the Bucs have been surprisingly bad defensively. What’s been most surprising to me, though, is how good the rest of the division has been. Atlanta has managed to avoid the Super Bowl hangover, the Saints somehow found a running game and a defense, and I forgot that it was an odd-numbered year for the Panthers.
NFC East: I thought the Eagles would be pretty good this year, but not this good. I thought Carson Wentz would take a step forward, but I didn’t think he would have a better QBR than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. I mostly expected the Eagles to be an above average team in a mediocre division. I’m still not sold on them being as good as their record, but it’s hard to argue against a team that can run the ball, play solid defense, and has a top-tier QB.
NFC West: Let’s end with perhaps my best call. Before the season, the Rams were given 25-1 odds by Vegas to win their division. Only the Bears, 49ers and Browns were given worse odds. Now? The Rams are tied for the 5th best record in the NFL and they have the 2nd best point differential. They have the division lead over the Seahawks. Most importantly? They’re favored to win the division. If only I had bet on them before the season. It would’ve been a return to rival bitcoin!
Right now, my picks are on track for a 4-3-1 record, which isn’t half bad. Most satisfyingly (in case it wasn’t obvious by the amount of bragging that I’ve been doing), my two boldest picks for division winner are not only winning their division, but in some cases running away with it.
AFC North: My prediction for the Steelers to easily win this division is holding true. All the offensive pieces have come together even better than imaged, including the surprise breakout of John Sherman “JuJu” Smith-Schuster. A three game division lead with four weeks left is pretty much insurmountable, so the plucky Ravens will have to continue fighting for a wild card. The Ravens can only hope to face the Patriots in the playoffs, then, as they have proved to be Brady and company’s kryptonite.
AFC South: While my prediction of the Titans to win the AFC South certainly has a shot, there’s a bit of schadenfreude to that. The Texans were clearly on the ascent thanks to rookie quarterback sensation Deshaun Watson. As Paul already said, when he went down so did the Texans. Losing JJ Watt for a second year in a row also didn’t help matters. The Jaguars were the surprise here, with both a fantastic defense and an initially great rookie running back in Leonard Fournette.
AFC East: The Patriots will handily win the AFC East but it feels much more like a condemnation of the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets than a compliment to the Pats. The Bills in particular seemed to be finding a path with Tyrod Taylor rediscovering his mojo. But then the Bills traded away Sammy Watkins and benched Taylor, the Dolphins traded away Jay Ajayi, and the Jets are still the Jets. The Patriots will most likely be greatly challenged come January.
AFC West: Apparently I rolled my four sided die and chose the Raiders to win the AFC West. With the Chargers, Chiefs, and Raiders all sitting at a mediocre 6-6, it doesn’t really matter which team wins. The Chiefs started as the hottest team in the NFL but then remembered they have Alex Smith at quarterback and Andy Reid at head coach and swiftly returned to the pack. The Raiders are wildly inconsistent, although Marshawn Lynch has outperformed pretty much everyone’s expectations. I see the Chargers making their usual December push thanks to one of the best December quarterbacks in history to win this division and enter the playoffs on a hot streak.
NFC North: Obviously the story of the NFC North was Aaron Rodgers’ season ending injury that spelled doom for the Packers. But the Lions did not build on their playoff spot from last season and swoop in to claim the division crown. The Vikings have powered to the top thanks to a league leading defense and a surprise resurgence from Case Keenum and breakout by Adam Thielen; they haven’t missed a beat after letting go of Adrian Peterson, and should be a force to be reckoned with come January.
NFC South: Of course the one team none of us picked, the Saints, is leading the division. But I’m pleased with my Panthers pick even if they don’t wind up winning. Cam and company have perhaps exceeded expectations, especially considering they weathered a Greg Olsen injury and decided to lay their hopes on Devin Funchess by trading away Kelvin Benjamin. The Saints are the real story book surprise, though. A stout defense and incredible rushing attack (my fantasy team thanks you, Alvin Kamara!) are keys to a long playoff run and shot at a championship. Will Brees consider hanging up his cleats if the Saints do manage to win a second championship during his tenure? One has to image he would consider it.
NFC East: I’ll eat my crow with this division. My admittedly homer pick of the Redskins has proved to be a disaster. Injuries have plagued the team but the offense just has not found any rhythm, and supposed savior Terrelle Pryor isn’t even playing. At least my prediction that Cowboys’ wheels would fall of without Zeke has mostly proved true, even if they did crush the Redskins on Thursday Night Football. But enough burying the lede: the Eagles are one of the best teams in the NFL this season. They’ve managed to keep healthy, which has greatly aided them against the rest of the league, but one can’t deny their defense and multi-headed rushing attack. Oh, and Carson Wentz is having a magical season, although he should bear in mind what happened to the last Eagles quarterback who ascended just as quickly.
NFC West: And the Rams leading the NFC West rounds out the cast of new division leaders in the NFC. Can Goff and company continue their excellent play into the playoffs? Without a clear cut favorite in the conference, the Rams could certainly make it further than anyone (except Paul) thought prior to the season. And they’re doing it without featuring their splashy new acquisition, Sammy Watkins. But don’t forget my pick, the Seahawks. A battle tested unit that should capture on of the wild card spots, I would not count them out during the playoffs. A post season meeting between the Rams and Seahawks would be fun and could serve as a passing the torch, or the old guard could keep their bragging rights for one more season.
Overall, my predictions are 2-4-2. That’s not the most encouraging record. But it does show how unpredictable the NFL can be. Can one of the new division leader teams become the NFL’s Houston Astros? Or will the NFL follow the NBA’s limited set of champions1 and let the Steelers or Patriots win yet another Super Bowl?
Sometimes it’s nice to know everything you know is wrong.