It’s early August. The preseason begins in earnest later this week. A million things can change between now and January. The Fact Fantasy Fiction staff realizes this, but it’s never too early to throw out playoff predictions. Without further ado, here are our projections for the 2017 NFL season:
No surprise here, but the Patriots are the only AFC team unanimously chosen to capture their division. Tom Brady eventually has to hit a wall after turning 40 – it just won’t happen this year. New England loaded up on both sides of the ball to give Tommy one last ride.
The AFC West remains the most competitive in football. It is the only division that received first place votes for three different teams. Although the Chiefs won the three-team race last season, only Andrew believes they remain atop the division. An offseason that saw Kansas City release Jeremy Maclin, fire GM John Dorsey, and draft a quarterback of the future has them slipping to a wildcard birth.
Lame duck franchises have not succeeded historically. The Browns entered 1995 as a Super Bowl favorite. Art Modell announced a relocation mid-season. Cleveland went 1-6 in the aftermath. The 1996 Houston Oilers’ attendance and support dropped dramatically. The future Las Vegas Raiders appear powerful enough to overcome this pitfall. Derek Carr broke out last year. He should continue his development with Amari Cooper. The Marshawn Lynch signing has also bolstered expectations behind a stellar line. Oakland’s inconsistent defense (20th in points allowed) must take another step to make this prediction a reality.
Decades removed from their aforementioned relocation, the Titans may become the biggest surprise of the season. Tennessee is an overwhelming favorite to not only break an eight-year playoff drought, but also win the AFC South. Marcus Mariota has a handful of new toys, especially Eric Decker and speedster Corey Davis, to complement the Titans’ exotic smashmouth running game. Their ascent comes at the perfect time. Andrew Luck’s shoulder remains a question mark. The Houston Texans require too many bounces their way to win the division a third consecutive time without an established quarterback.
The AFC North has not had a back-to-back division winner since the 2011-2012 Baltimore Ravens. That Ravens team is in a more precarious situation presently and doesn’t seem likely to unseat the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower is simply too much as long as Martavis Bryant returns and Le’Veon Bell ends his holdout. Look for them to begin a new back-to-back streak.
The Cincinatti Bengals are in line for a bounce back season and could join Kansas City as the AFC’s second wildcard team. The Wildcard picture appears relatively clearcut before regular season action begins. Only the Colts, Broncos, and Texans received other votes.
The Dallas Cowboys came out of nowhere last year, led by a pair of rookie stars. While Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot can provide fans with a steady postseason presence for the next decade, a bruising schedule stands in the way of another division title. The New York Giants, their 2016 kryptonite, are our favorites to take the NFC East. New York’s stout defense and the team’s new offensive weapons (Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram) should help Eli Manning stave off his oncoming decline.
If the Cardinals fail to return to form, the Seahawks will waltz their way through NFC West. San Francisco and Los Angeles are still years away from competing. The aging Legion of Boom has unfinished business. Don’t expect offseason rumors of locker room strife to derail a team that thrives on a “me against the world” attitude. Those headlines just add fuel to the competitive fire.
The FFF staff doesn’t expect a Super Bowl hangover from the Atlanta Falcons, even after the team suffered an epic collapse. The weapons in both the passing and running game should allow Matt Ryan to keep the offense chugging in Kyle Shanahan’s absence. Atlanta’s young defense came on strong in the second half of the season. If their playmakers continue at that level, there’s no reason the Falcons can’t recapture the South.
Despite needing a 6-0 finish to steal the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers join the Patriots as the only other unanimous selection. Aaron Rodgers makes any team a contender, and the offense could become unstoppable with Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks running up the seams. A defensive rebound is imperative for another playoff run, which is why the Packers committed their first four picks to that side of the ball.
The Cowboys should reach in the playoffs as a fifth seed, essentially swapping positions with the Giants. The second wildcard spot remains wide open. The Carolina Panthers won the “consensus” tiebreaker by receiving four actual wildcard votes, but the Cardinals and Buccaneers also received four combined votes through division and wildcard selections.
Both the Panthers and Cardinals will require their quarterbacks and defense to return to 2015 form. Cam Newton and Carson Palmer’s struggles last season have been well documented. Carolina’s scoring defense dropped from 6th to 26th, while Arizona’s fell from 7th to 14th. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has to count on Jameis Winston’s continued improvement. They have given him the weapons to succeed. Whichever team sneaks into the postseason will make the Detroit Lions the only NFC team not to return. The “Cardiac Cats” achieved eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season. That’s not sustainable. They didn’t receive a single playoff selection.
Super Bowl Picks
There’s little consensus in regards to the Super Bowl’s NFC representative. The Seahawks received three votes, but four teams warranted consideration. A noticeable omission is the Atlanta Falcons, who are expected to make a postseason run but fall short of redemption.
The Patriots are once again a heavy favorite to reach the big game. The league’s best team somehow managed to get even better between seasons, much to the chagrin of 31 other franchises. The Steelers and Raiders appear to be the only AFC teams that possess the tools to stand in New England’s way.
By a slim margin, New England looks primed for another year atop the NFL. There’s no need to laud Belichick and Brady’s accomplishments any further, so let’s take a look at the proposed matchups instead. Every single prediction involves a poetic Super Bowl rematch.
The Packers are predicted as Super Bowl contenders twice, once against the Patriots and once against the Raiders. A Super Bowl XXXI rematch would pit two of the game’s greatest quarterbacks against each other in a clash of offensive powerhouses. In a Raiders-Packers showdown, Derek Carr would look to avenge a loss dating back all the way to Super Bowl II. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers will push their all-time Super Bowl record against the Dallas Cowboys to 3-1 if Rahim has his way.
Liam and Nick are both predicting Giants-Patriots III. Eli takes down Goliath once again in their vision of the 2017 season. If Brady actually lost to Eli for a third time, it’s entirely possible he’d refuse to retire until he defeats Manning in a Super Bowl. Perhaps Eli quits before that happens. Who knows? Tom might stubbornly stick around until a third generation of Mannings enter the league.
Brad, Miles, and Andrew have all proposed a Super Bowl XLIX rematch, with only Miles having the Seahawks getting revenge. The Seahawks-Patriots encore is our consensus matchup. Time will tell if such a pairing can live up to the exhilarating 2015 showdown.
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