Another season of football is upon us, and it’s always fun to put on our prognosticator hats and predict what we think might happen. Will Tom Brady succumb to the Madden Curse or will the Patriots win another Super Bowl after an amazing off-season? After such an amazing offensive output in 2016 led them so heartbreakingly close to a Super Bowl win, can the Falcons overcome losing their offensive coordinator and avoid the Super Bowl hangover? Which rookie head coach will make a big impact? Which disappointing team from last season will rebound? The Rampant Discourse crew have some opinions, and while there are some things we all agree upon, there are also many areas where we couldn’t disagree more. Who among us is right and who should be committed to an insane asylum? Let us know in the comments!
Andrew says: The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions and one of the toughest divisions to predict. The perennial punching bag of the Browns are just about the only team that is easy to predict but only in the sense that we can safely say they will not perform very well. Despite a strong draft, the team still has too many glaring weakness to pull off the upset. So that leaves the Steelers and the Ravens, who have slugged it out for this division the most in recent memory, with the Bengals constantly nipping at their heels and occasionally tasting victory. I think this year is as good as any for that. The Bengals have all of the talent they need on offense and a solid defense, while the Steelers team looks to be over-rated. Why not the Ravens, then? Frankly, it has as much to do with my animosity towards that team as for any practical reason. So I will pick the Bengals, though I will not be surprised by any team pulling out this division. Except for the Browns. And even then it would not be as much of a surprise as everyone else thinks it would be.
Paul says (Dissenting opinion): This one is too easy. Since the divisional realignment created the AFC North out of the AFC Central, the Steelers have won the division 7 times compared to 4 for the Bengals. While they’ve (surprisingly to me) split the division between them the past two years, Pittsburgh knocked Cincinnati out of the playoffs in the AFC Wild Card game in 2015. Oh, and while the Steelers were going 11-5 last year, the Bengals went 6-9-1. While neither team seems to have improved much during the off-season, the Bengals have lost more impact players than the Steelers. Absent any significant off-season moves, I see no reason to think there will be a 5 game difference from how the teams performed last year. That means another divisional title for the Steelers and another disappointing finish for the Bengals.
Travis says (his two cents): The Steelers have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Le’Veon Bell, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a proven winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and are getting back a very good wide receiver in Martavis Bryant. You can also add in a top 12 defense, but the same can be said of the Bengals and Ravens. In closing, this is what the Steelers have to say to the rest of the AFC North:
Paul says: Sometimes the obvious pick is the right one. The Texans won the AFC South last year and even pulled off an upset in the wild card round over the Raiders. Nothing in the offseason indicates to me that they should be taking any steps backward. In fact, they should be better after trading away historically ineffective Brock Osweiler. It would be virtually impossible for the Texans to get worse play from their quarterback in 2017. In fact, they might even get a quarterback who is better than “not historically bad” depending on how quickly first round pick Deshaun Watson can acclimate to the NFL game. In the meantime, Tom Savage still seems like an upgrade at quarterback and the defense still figures to be elite. There’s no reason not to expect the Texans to once again reign supreme in the AFC South.
Travis says: The Titans finished with the same record as the Texans in 2016. Young quarterback Marcus Mariota should continue to improve in his third season. DeMarco Murray is still a very serviceable running back. And first round pick Corey Davis promises to inject some excitement once he gets healthy enough to actually play in an NFL game. Of course, games aren’t won by offense alone, no matter how much my focus on fantasy influences my view of football. Even with a healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts have such a horrendous defense they have to sprint every game just to keep pace with their opponents. The Texans clearly have the best defense in this division. But I believe in the youthful Titans over the rest of the AFC South.
Andrew says: “How can you pick the Colts?! Don’t you know that Luck is PUP?” Yes, I know Luck got his horseshoe turned upside down and will miss several games to start the season (at least). But assuming he gets healthy on schedule, 10 games with Luck is enough to help the Colts beat the rest of this division. The Texans won last year, yes, but it was not in any impressive fashion, and they’ve shown no improvement. The Titans are a solid middle-team, but only a threat to the division title if Luck is gone for more than the projected time, and of course, there is Jacksonville. For all of that we mock them, Jacksonville could be the team that picks up the most value of any extra downtime from Luck. The Jaguars added a lot of premier players, deciding to finally spend some of their cap space, These new bodies will fill starting roles on defense and the offensive line. Those are my favorite kinds of acquisitions: defense and the line. With young talent at the skill positions, including rookie Leonard Fournette, this is a team that seems Bortles-proof. And that is being hard on him. Last season Bortles was above average, on a below-average team. All of this is to say that even if I am wrong about the Colts winning the division, and I don’t think I will be, my co-authors are still wrong. Yes, take it to the bank. The Jaguars have more of a shot at winning the AFC South than either the Texans or Titans.
Paul says (why the Patriots will go 18-1 again): My favorite fantasy football writer is Matthew Berry of ESPN. He has a recurring “You heard me!” column where he makes bold predictions that he doesn’t necessarily think will happen, but are things he think could happen. Well, here is my “You heard me!” prediction. Few teams had a better off-season than the Patriots (except, obviously, the Rams… *foreshadowing*). Considering the team won the Super Bowl last year, the idea that they’ve improved is a scary one. The already impressive offense should be even more unstoppable with Brandin Cooks, who is already drawing hushed comparisons to Randy Moss during his stint in New England. The Patriots also managed to re-sign a number of critical defensive players, so their defense should be stout again. With the Jets looking like a team that will struggle to avoid going 0-16, the Bills in clear rebuilding mode, and the Dolphins needing to replace their quarterback with somebody they had to pull out of retirement, the division looks to be a cakewalk. There are some challenging trips to Denver, Oakland and Pittsburgh in the latter half of the schedule, but barring something unforeseen, I don’t see any games where the Patriots won’t be favored. The Patriots went 11-1 with Brady last season, with the only loss being to the Seahawks (who are not on the schedule this year).
However, that doesn’t mean I think the Patriots are perfect. The Edelman injury could be huge, as he had a knack for coming up with key catches in big moments. His success running short routes will be difficult to replace. And while the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year in dramatic fashion, let’s not forget that the comeback was only possible because they fell into a 28-3 hole to begin with. For two solid quarters, the Patriots weren’t only losing, they looked completely outmatched. The last time the Patriots completely “won” the off-season was in 2007 when they acquired Wes Welker and Randy Moss. That team looked unstoppable on paper and proved to be unstoppable in the regular season, going 16-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the Giants. Don’t be surprised if something similar happens again.
Andrew says: Look, Tom Brady is the GOAT. I get that. But the Patriots will not go 19-0, or 18-1, or 16-0 or anything close to that this season. I would have said this before the Edelman injury, but it is particularly true now. Tom Brady should have retired. He has done essentially everything that can be done in a pro football career. Hang up the boots, partner, and go home to your super-model wife. By pressing his luck, Brady risks another ACL tear, or worse. One of those “worse” is tarnishing his image. In spite of accusations of team cheating, and a personal suspension, in general, Brady’s positives are very high. People regard him as great, even if grudgingly. Tack on a bad season (or a few) here at the end of his career, and those positives will fade and Brady may be remembered more like less charismatic Brett Favre. Obviously, I still think the Patriots will win this division, but it has more to do with the division’s other glaring flaws than any strength of the Patriots. I would guess the Bills had the best shot at unseating the world champions, but then they traded their best player away for the future. The future is now in Westboro, so the AFC East is theirs. But expect it to be a 10-6 kind of theirs.
Travis says: Tom Brady did indeed miss his opportunity to ride off into the sunset like his old arch rival Peyton Manning did after winning a Super Bowl. Based on the rest of the AFC East, though, it’s unlikely the Patriots won’t make the playoffs yet again. Which means he automatically has a better season, from a team perspective, than the aforementioned Brett Favre. And it’s unlikely to torpedo the season like Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour, or even Michael Jordan’s final tours with the Wizards. But the Patriots have shown they can surmount almost any obstacle, from Brady’s suspension to Gronk’s annual injuries. Maybe things would be different for the Patriots in any other division, but when you spot any team 6 wins each season it’s tough to pick any other team.
Andrew says: I will certainly admit that I could be wrong about the Broncos winning the AFC West. This is not the same team that won the Super Bowl two years ago. Many of the defensive players that made their defense so strong have left for other teams and the offense without Peyton Manning took a step backward last year. But while we can acknowledge Peyton’s greatness, he was on the decline, and all he did to win the Super Bowl was not make mistakes. If the Broncos can get better on offense than they were last season and improve the still strong, but depleted, defense, there is no reason to believe they won’t go the distance again. Even with my favorite monkey at QB, Trevor
Simian Siemian. But if the Broncos do not improve, I can believe they won’t win the division. But I do know that it won’t be the Raiders again. If it isn’t the Broncos, it’ll be the Chiefs.
Paul says (Dissenting opinion): The Raiders had 3 more wins than the Broncos last year and had the second best record in the AFC (tied with the Chiefs) and there’s little to think they’ll be worse this year. In fact, if anything, they should be even better offensively after adding tight end Jared Cook and upgrading from Latavius Murray at running back to Marshawn Lynch. If he has anything left in the tank after taking a year off, the Raider running game could be scary behind that offensive line. The Raiders scored the second most points in the AFC last year, and while I don’t think they’ll be catching the Patriots this year, finishing second again is very possible. On the flip side, Denver appears to be in complete disarray. They’ve replaced their Super Bowl winning coach with a rookie head coach and lost underrated defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Their offensive line was shaky even before they lost Russell Okung and I doubt the plan was to have 7th round pick Trevor Siemian start over 1st round pick Paxton Lynch for two consecutive seasons. Here are the teams that the Broncos outscored in the AFC last year: Jets, Bengals, Browns, Texans, and Jaguars. Those teams averaged 4.8 wins. Even an elite defense can only do so much. Look for Denver to struggle again in a division that might be the best in the AFC.
Travis says: At first I didn’t even give a second thought to picking the Packers to win the NFC North. Then I double checked the 2016 standings and was shocked at my terrible memory. The Detroit Lions made the playoffs and were only a single game behind Green Bay. Worse yet, the supposedly lowly Vikings were only two games behind the Packers and sported a fearsome defense. But am I seriously going to pick against Aaron Rodgers and company? That just doesn’t pass the discount double check, I’m afraid.
Paul says (Concurrence): While I do think the Packers have some serious issues (notably their defense and a questionable run game), none of this is new during the Aaron Rodgers era, and it hasn’t stopped them from winning the division 5 out of the past 6 years. Chicago is a mess and Detroit is primed for some regression. I do think Minnesota could provide an interesting challenge, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them unseat Green Bay, but until Sam Bradford can show a little more than he’s shown so far, I’m sticking with the team with the future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback.
Andrew says: There is no hangover like a Super Bowl hangover, and the Falcons will have a doozy even for that. Coming off an unprecedented collapse on the biggest of stages, how can the psyche of any player on the Falcons be prepared to start another season? But that is what they will do. That is where the question will be. Can they have the short memories required of professional defensive players? Forget the last play. Forget the last season. Focus on the guy in front of you and don’t let him have the ball. They have tremendous talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball but also a lot of young unrecognized players still on defense. If the defense doesn’t stumble, the offense will grind up enough wins for an easy division title. Then it just comes to the pressure cooker of the playoffs. The competition for this division comes from the Panthers. Cam Newton wants back in after a bad Super Bowl hangover of his own.
Paul says: There’s a recurring theme to my picks: I like teams that had good off-seasons. When I look at the NFC South, I see a Falcons team that had a Cinderella season on the back of a ridiculous offensive output, an over 50% increase in points scored per game from the year before. I don’t necessarily believe in the Super Bowl slump, but I do believe that coaching matters, and I’m very worried about the Falcons losing Kyle Shanahan and their offense taking a step back. The Saints were 7-9 last year, and I find it hard to believe they’ll be much better after trading away their best wide receiver. The Panthers could improve upon their 6-10 record, but it’s hard to identify the catalyst which will give them the double digit wins likely needed to take the division.
That leaves the Buccaneers, who were quietly 9-7 and just barely missed out on the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker to the Lions. They went 9-7 despite scoring the fewest points in the division, an offensive output that is unlikely to repeat this year. Jameis Winston has improved each year in the league and is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. That doesn’t figure to change with the addition of DeSean Jackson through free agency and OJ Howard in the draft. Winston has an abundance of weapons now, which should increase Tampa’s offensive production and decrease Winston’s turnovers (the biggest flaw in his game so far). It’s not at all unreasonable to expect these off-season additions to increase the PPG that the Bucs score, and that could easily lead to the one or two more wins necessary to snatch the division away from the Falcons.
Travis says: The Falcons needed a stupendous season from quarterback Matt Ryan to make it as far as they did in 2016. While it’s possible “Matty Ice” finally figured things out, it’s also more likely he’ll regress to his norm. And whether or not you believe in the Super Bowl hangover or slump, that wasn’t simply a loss in the Super Bowl, that was an utter collapse. And considering the Falcons’ poor track record in the playoffs leading up to last season, that has to be extra damaging to the team’s psyche. I would lean toward the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then, who figure to be in a similar situation as my pick for the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans, continuing to link Mariota with Winston. But I think Cam Newton wants his shot at another playoff run. If he can manage to stay healthy, he’s a better, more seasoned version of Winston. Speaking of injury recovery, Kelvin Benjamin should also return to his 2014 form. Throw in rookie sensation Christian McCaffrey. But this is one of my picks with the least conviction behind it.
Travis says: This might be a homer pick for me, but I just don’t believe any of the other NFC East teams can best my beloved Washington Redskins. The Dallas Cowboys will be without Ezekiel Elliott for the first six games, and even with a fantastic offensive line I don’t see Darren McFadden leading that rushing attack well enough to replace Elliott’s production in games against the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, and Green Bay Packers. The Philadelphia Eagles appear to have some talent at wide receiver. But good luck keeping Alshon Jeffery healthy all season. Torrey Smith was dreadful in San Francisco, and I have a feeling Carson Wentz is closer to those 49ers quarterbacks than the Ravens’ Joe Flacco. Which really only leaves the New York Giants to contend with the Redskins. Obviously, Odell Beckham is a huge receiving threat, and the cornerback duo of Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins is intimidating. But it feels like the Redskins have loaded up with Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Doctson to complement Jordan Reed, Kirk Cousins, and Rob Kelley.
Andrew says: The Redskins are my hometown pick as well, but even though that means I hate the Cowboys with a burning passion, I still have to make the pick. The Cowboys are for real. The power of their offensive line is not just critical for the running game, no matter who has the ball, but also for protecting the young Dak Prescott. Dak lit things up last year because he is a talented quarterback and because he had time, not to develop as a player, but in the pocket. Now with a year of experience and an offseason to grow, he can take the next step. The offense is loaded at the most important positions and has a cheap quarterback, allowing the team the luxury of splurging on defensive talent. That is a recipe for success, regardless of location. First in San Francisco with Kaepernick, then in Seattle with Wilson. The Cowboys can benefit from this recipe for success this year and are my pick for the NFC’s Super Bowl team because of it. As a result, they will certainly win the division against the largely mediocre teams that are swimming along side this shark. As of this writing Ezekiel Elliot is still suspended for the first six games of the season. Yes, that will hurt the team because he is an incredible talent, but quality running backs are fairly common, and having a few games off after a rookie season where he carried the ball over 300 times is not all bad. It will keep him fresh. Don’t worry. Zeke will be ready for Christmas.
Paul says: The Redskins were third in the NFC last year, and that was before they lost their top two wide receivers (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon) and their offensive and defensive coordinators (including highly respected Sean McVay to the the Rams). Dallas had a magical season last year, but it felt like their defense overachieved and frankly got a little lucky. Oh yeah, and they might be missing their stud running back for half the season. My co-writers have joined me in not believing in the Giants, so nothing else needs to be said there. That brings us to lowly Philly, who finished last the the NFC East last year. However, despite finishing last in the division, they scrapped their way to an impressive 7 wins. Carson Wentz turned in an extremely effective rookie season despite a pretty mediocre group of receivers to pass to. That shouldn’t be a problem this year, as the Eagles brought in Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith, either of whom should be better than anybody they had last year. This upgrade in the wide receiver corps along with continued improvement from Wentz in his second year should easily boost the Eagles to the top half of the league in passing offense. If the defense can continue to improve under Jim Schwartz, then four or five extra wins and a division title are easily within reach in a division where the other teams are treading water or taking a step back.
Paul says: What!? The Rams? One of the worst teams in the league last year? In a division that includes such heavyweights as the Seahawks and Cardinals? Yes, because I think the Rams had the best off-season of any team in the NFL. It all starts with the head coach. I’m a big fan of Jeff Fisher, but even I had to admit by the end that his head coaching stint with the Rams just wasn’t working. Their new head coach, Sean McVay, is incredibly well respected in the league and is known as a bit of an offensive guru. That’s good because the Rams ranked dead last in many offensive stats last year with a rookie QB who didn’t look like he deserved to be taken in the first round, let alone first overall. While Goff didn’t play well, he wasn’t helped by the lack of talent at wide receiver. The addition of Sammy Watkins should go a long way towards solving that problem. Although he was perennially injured in Buffalo, he was electric when he was on the field and by all accounts is healthy now. With Gurley at running back, a new talented #1 receiver and an offensive minded head coach, there’s very good reason to believe that Goff will have a much-improved sophomore year. Don’t forget that Kirk Cousins was written off as a franchise quarterback before McVay started working with him, and now he’s been franchise tagged in consecutive seasons. Cousins didn’t have nearly the same pedigree coming into the league and had a longer track record of struggling. If McVay can turn Cousins around, there’s no reason to think he can’t turn around Goff.
But wait! There’s more! We haven’t even discussed the defensive side of the ball. Despite the ineptitude of the offense last season, the Rams defense was actually decent and there seems to be some solid talent on that side of the ball already. Cue Wade Phillips, one of the most criminally underrated defensive coordinators of his time. Phillips might not have the Rams playing quite at the level of the Denver defenses that he left behind, but they should be much improved, especially if the offense can help them out by staying on the field longer and putting up some points. I like almost every move the Rams made in the off-season, and really believe this is a team that can surprise people in 2017.
Andrew says: Paul is partially correct. The Rams are all upside. The move to LA is problematic but bound to invigorate the franchise. Meanwhile, the stunning trade to get Watkins in the late off-season shows that the team wants stars to shine in the LA spotlight. Where Paul is wrong is in how much upside there actually is. The Rams do not have the one thing that every other successful team of the era has: a solid quarterback. There are two ways to succeed. First is the previously mentioned (by me) young and cheap quarterback. The alternative is a stud quarterback, like a Brady or a Rodgers. At quarterback the Rams have… Jared Goff? Or is it Case Keenum? I’m not feeling particularly confident about either. Goff could fit the mold of the young cheap QB that leads the team to moderate success and lets the team build a strong defense. But all of the examples I mentioned had success in their rookie year. Goff did not. He completed less than 55% of his passes as a pure pocket passer. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns, at a rate of more than one per game. He showed no arm for a deep game (5.3 YPA) and most importantly, his team lost all five games he started. Players grow and get better, but if Paul is right, Goff is going to make a historic improvement. All current evidence, including what we saw in the pre-season, indicates that Goff is a poor to mediocre starting quarterback or a serviceable backup.
Paul says (Rebuttal): Let me tell you about a quarterback in his rookie year who completed 56.7% of his passes as a pure pocket passer, with more interceptions than touchdowns and 6.5 YPA while leading his team to a 3-13 record. His name? Peyton Manning.
Paul says: What? Boldly predicting that the Patriots will go 18-1 again isn’t enough? Fine. One major storyline I am watching in the coming season is the effect that rookie coaches will have. Coaching changes had a pretty major impact on which teams I picked to win their division. No offense to Vance Joseph, but if Gary Kubiak was still the coach of the Broncos, I likely would’ve picked them to win the AFC West as he had a track record of success. Joesph is an unknown quantity to me, and so I had to knock Denver down a few pegs. On the flip side, I’m thrilled with the possibilities of Sean McVay in St. Louis, and the addition of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. Yes, he’s just as much of an unknown as Vance Joseph, but he’s going into an entirely different situation. Gary Kubiak had won a Super Bowl just two years ago and the Broncos were coming off a 9 win season. Jeff Fisher hadn’t won a playoff game in well over a decade and the Rams were coming off a 4 win season.
It’s not just the teams with new head coaches, though. The team on the wrong end of a historic Super Bowl comeback lost their offensive coordinator to the 49ers and I’m very worried about how the Falcons offense, which put up incredible numbers last year, will perform without him. The uncertainty around their offense was one reason why I didn’t feel confident picking the Falcons to repeat as NFC South champions. I likely wouldn’t have picked the Redskins to win the NFC East anyway, but losing Sean McVay worries me greatly and I don’t see how that offense doesn’t take at least a tiny step back this season. Keep an eye on the new head coaches and the missing coordinators. I anticipate those changes will be widely felt this year.
Andrew says: Watch Brady and remember my words. Tommy Boy, you should have retired. But that’s a single story, not a storyline. If there is a storyline in football right now it is that the game is in decline. I grew up on football. My passion for the game and my love of my home team would be hard to express, and harder for a non-fan to understand. But my beloved game is not what it once was. Part of me believes that this is just a change in me. I’m older and have more responsibilities, so I don’t have the time to watch people play a game anymore. But another part of me knows that is not the truth. I still watch people playing games, but it is not football. And I know I am not alone. Last year we saw a precipitous ratings decline early in the season. Late season storylines and the drama of the playoffs saved the season from being a disaster, but expect further declines this year. I know a lot of very smart people are attributing the decline of football’s ratings to the concern over player safety. I don’t think they’re wrong. In the 1980s and 1990s when I saw a big hit it was satisfying; now it is just sickening. The fact that we have learned so much about the medical impacts on the long term for players of violent sports like football explains a lot about how this video could have been used as an in-arcade demo/trailer for a video game then, but now it seems almost obscene.
I don’t know the future of football more than anyone else, but I feel the pressure. The combination of lower ratings and higher expenses due to medical issues, insurance and the like, along with the general concern about the well-being of players and the possibility of government regulation all put a damper on the spirit of this once great game. Are we at another Theodore Roosevelt moment for the sport? Even if the perfect solution is found, the game will be significantly changed from the one we know now and even more from the one that I look back to my former self’s love for; a love that I see is mostly gone. Except for the wash of nostalgia, I find myself wondering, if football were gone tomorrow, would I even miss it?