The 2017 NFL Season Preview and Predictions: The NFC
Here’s a link to the best postgame interview of all time. Can’t wait.
On Saturday afternoon, all 32 NFL teams announced their 53-man rosters heading into Week 1 of the regular season. In accordance with new league rules, every team had to pare their rosters down from 90 to 53 in a single day. This created an absolute frenzy of transactions and acquisitions, which turned twitter into a grime-fest carnival of football talk for about 40 hours. For those who participated and followed along, you know how much fun this weekend was. Good job, NFL. One gold star for you.
It’s now time for teams to reallocate their focus towards the ultimate challenge: winning a Super Bowl. This pinnacle of football achievement begins with a strong Week 1 outing. The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC heavyweight showdown on Thursday night at 8:30pm ET. Other notable games during opening weekend include Seahawks at Packers, Raiders at Titans, and Giants at Cowboys. Week 1 is immensely important for fledgling organizations who envision themselves on the periphery of a potential playoff berth. The momentum to be secured with an opening day win is undeniably important, especially for a team whose division is occupied by a New England or a Pittsburgh. However, the purpose of this article is not to provide keys to victory for every matchup this weekend. Rather, it’s important for fans to understand that the NFL is the most volatile professional sports league on a season-by-season basis. A lot of things have changed since the conclusion of 2016, and it’s wise to expect a healthy amount of postseason turnover. It’s the same story every year; many teams who found themselves playing in January of last season will not be making a playoff appearance in 2017. Conversely, it’s time to familiarize ourselves with the breakout potential of some NFL franchises. The inherent uncertainty within each NFL season is daunting and can promulgate underlying blood pressure complications, of which I am a victim. The caveat, of course, is the next five months will feature NFL football every Sunday. Giddyup, friends. The ride starts now.
The NFC East is the most intimidating division in the league. You have the Dallas Cowboys coming off a 13-3 season in which a tandem of rookies, QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliot, carried the Dallas offense to the #1 seed in the conference. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Elliot is currently appealing a six-game suspension for a domestic violence charge. Talking heads around the sports world have tried to argue that Dallas will be fine without Elliot because of their superior offensive line. This is a lazy assumption. First and foremost, the 2017 offensive line features much less star power than last year’s unit. Starting right tackle Doug Free retired in the offseason, and left guard Ronald Leary signed with the Broncos. Because Elliot is appealing the suspension, he’ll be on the field at least until his appeal has been ruled upon. The common narrative about the Dallas running game, that any running back could be effective behind the line, is a huge reach. Ezekiel Elliot isn’t a role player. The Cowboys drafted him in the first round for a very distinct purpose: pound the rock. Elliot provides the Cowboys with a dynamic weapon coming out of the backfield on an every-down basis. He’s tough and isn’t afraid to run it right into the defense’s teeth, yet he’s also smooth enough to break long touchdowns. He has a remarkable knack for finding the hole at the line of scrimmage, so much so that often times nobody will touch him until he’s gotten well into the second level. Don’t believe me? Ask an NFL middle linebacker how much better they’d feel if they didn’t have to worry about a bell cow back like Elliot for an entire game. The guy had 1,600 yards and five yards per carry. I think he’s maybe kinda good.
The team who accounted for two of the Cowboys’ losses, the New York Giants, seemingly have all the pieces to usurp the division title from Dallas. The Giants have arguably the best secondary in the NFL. They added veteran WR Brandon Marshall, who’s approaching the end of his career but still adds the intangible value of a seasoned veteran. It will be intriguing to see how the relationship between Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall unfolds. Both WRs are known for their big personalities (read: Wide Receivers), and they’ll both be hauling in passes from a much-less-big personality and postseason harbinger of death, Eli Manning. The Giants have an enormous issue on the offensive line, which is even more troubling when you remember that Eli Manning runs a slower 40′ than most toddlers and has the mobility of an 85-year-old from Kansas watching Fox News. If Eli can be given time to throw, the Giants should be competitive in every game they play. Their defense will keep them in the game when their offense is struggling. That being said, I don’t see the Giants as the Super Bowl contender they’ve been made out to be.
The Eagles and the Redskins are the dark-horse candidates for the NFC East title. The Eagles are seemingly on the right path. The secondary is young, inexperienced and thus prone to mistakes, but their defensive line is truly terrifying and should be able to bolster the secondary to a higher level. They are riding on the back of 2nd-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who at times looked like a viable franchise signal-caller last year. He’s going to need to be more accurate with the deep-ball this year to take Philly to the postseason. He has a shiny new potential star receiver Alshon Jeffery, who came from Chicago during the offseason. I expect Wentz’s play to be much more refined this year, and with Doug Pederson earning his keep as head coach, Eagles fans have a lot to be excited about in the future. The Washington Redskins, on the other hand, are trending downward. Kirk Cousins is regarded around the league as being much better than what he’s given credit for by his own organization (Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder called him “Kurt” something like 12 times during a press conference, in which Snyder was addressing his decision to place the franchise tag on Cousins instead of offering a long-term deal- Yikes). Cousins is a top-14 QB in this league, as he’s proved the last two seasons, yet there’s always a bit of uncertainty with him. For example, if I asked you how comfortable you’d feel with Cousins in the 4th quarter, down by a touchdown, I think I’d be able to guess your general sentiment. The Redskins are built to lose in the NFC East. They rely heavily on Cousins to throw multiple touchdowns every Sunday, and then pray their well-below-average defense (28th in YPG in 2016) doesn’t surrender the points back. The rest of the division sports mean defenses that can keep the game close from start to finish. I’m selling on the Redskins this year for that very reason. The rest of the division is going to scratch and claw their way through the regular season, which owes respect to tough and physical defenses. I have the Cowboys as repeat champions, but they’ll have to overcome their Giants problem.
End of season prediction: 1. Dallas (10-6) 2. New York (9-7) (uh-oh) 3. Philadelphia (9-7) 4. Washington (6-10)
I bet some of you read my first sentence in the NFC East section and thought, “No. The NFC South is the best division. You’re dumb Andrew, and you probably like orange Starbursts the most.” Something you may already know about my assessment of modern NFL teams is that I place more value on a dominant defense than a high-powered offense. The NFC South features four gunslingers that can engorge themselves on secondaries with World War I style artillery barrages. A quintessential Saints at Falcons matchup usually includes multiple Drew Brees/Matt Ryan touchdown passes, with combined total yardage approaching the 1,000 mark as if it were a Pac-12 Saturday night game. The division will be the most closely contested, but I don’t necessarily believe it’s the best the NFL has to offer.
The Atlanta Falcons are coming off of the most humiliating choke-job in NFL history, where they squandered a 28-3 third quarter lead in Super Bowl 51 to the Patriots. I’m not going to beat this to death because the Falcons are still a very good football team. If you take a look around that offense, it’s staggering. Julio Jones has the ability to rip off a 250-yard, 3-TD game any given Sunday. Mohamed Sanu would likely be a WR1 on most offenses. Davonta Freeman just signed a long-term contract and has been a steady source of production coming out of the backfield. Tevin Coleman had a bit of an anomalous season last year and will struggle to produce the same degree of success this year, but is still a great alternative at RB when Freeman needs a rest. Taylor Gabriel is the shifty hybrid WR/RB that’s become a highly coveted asset in the NFL. The only real difference between this year’s Falcons and last year’s NFC-winning squad is the new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. There’s no reason to believe that the Falcons will be worse this year, save for those who buy the Super Bowl hangover narrative. Behind defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn, I’m confident that Atlanta will come out of the gate strong in 2017.
Carolina is the team in the NFC South everyone is eager to see in 2017. To provide an easy argument against my prediction for the Falcons, the Panthers went through a bleak 2016 campaign in which every facet of the team’s performance and results spelled “Super Bowl Hangover.” Carolina went 15-1 and lost Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos, then proceeded to slap down a pathetic last-place 6-10 effort in 2016. There’s no real ambiguity here. Carolina had no business finishing at 6-10. Their roster has talent everywhere on offense and defense. Their quarterback won the MVP in 2015. Some have argued that Cam Newton’s once-impossible 2015 quandary of dominance has since been solved by NFL defenses. The Panthers have publicly admonished Newton for trying to do too much with the ball. By always wanting to improvise and break off a scramble-turned-60-yard run like he did in college, Newton exposes himself to an unsustainable rate of hits. This adds up over a quarterback’s career, and it’s generally an ominous sign of future deterioration. Further, the Panthers fired their general manager a week before the preseason began, which makes fans wonder if the franchise has issues of dysfunction at the front-office level. This year is the biggest season yet for Cam and the Panthers. With rookie RB Christian McCaffrey showing promise early in training camp, I think this team is ready to put 2016 behind them. I’m buying on the Carolina Panthers in 2017, and I think they ultimately win the division.
The Saints and the Buccaneers are in a troublesome predicament, much like the Eagles and Redskins in the NFC East. The fact of the matter is both teams are close to being good enough to earn a wild card playoff berth, but the teams in their division are going to be a severe impediment to that goal. Tampa, much like every other team in the South, has a more than noteworthy offense. For those of you who’ve been tuning in to Hard Knocks on HBO, you know that Jameis Winston has the intangible assets of a true leader in this league. In his first two seasons, the former #1 overall pick has shown signs of NFL superstardom at his peaks, and disoriented confusion at his troughs. Jameis has the talent to lead Tampa Bay to a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007. He has the potential to be a serious force in this league for a very long time. His problems now are the same as they’ve been his entire career. Jameis needs to limit his bad decisions. In a sense, you could say that for any quarterback who’s on the precipice of becoming great. For Jameis, however, there’s too much at his disposal for him to struggle through an interception-laden 2017. His offensive weapons are even more terrifying now that he has Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. When not tending to the aerial attack, Doug Martin provides the much-needed offensive versatility the NFC South has featured the last couple seasons. The Bucs’ offense will be just as exciting as any in this division, so long as Jameis can control the game and take care of the football.
The Saints are one of the NFL’s strangest teams. It’s rare to be in a position in which you have a future HOF quarterback and a potential HOF head coach, yet the team struggles to break even. The Saints were 7-9 last year and featured much of the same kinds of things you’ve come to expect out of New Orleans. Drew Brees was in god-mode all season, torching opposing defenses for plentiful yards and touchdowns. Their new star WR Michael Thomas is entering his 2nd year and is expected to pick up right where he left off. The Saints’ offense doesn’t need to be deliberated over too much, because it’s, well, pretty good. The defense is a different story. The Saints’ secondary was awful last year, ranking last in several metrics. Obviously, it was a point of concern heading into this year’s draft. The Saints took CB Marshon Lattimore and FS Marcus Williams to bolster the unit, but they’re still rookies. It’s rare for defensive backs to make a smooth transition in their first season because playing defensive back in the NFL, cornerback in particular, is probably the second-hardest position to excel at behind quarterback. The Saints are relying on rookies to carry their defense, and they’re going to have to face three of the most explosive offenses in the league, twice. That doesn’t sound very fun. I like the Saints and they’re definitely fun to watch, but I simply don’t see how they make it out of this division in one piece. It’s going to be another year of ‘meh’ in New Orleans.
Prediction: 1. Carolina (11-5) 2. Atlanta (10-6) 3. Tampa Bay (8-8) 4. New Orleans (6-10)
The NFC West has gone through a pretty dramatic upheaval since its dominance in the first-half of the decade. The 49ers underwent a not-so-quiet organizational purge from 2014 to 2017. In what was likely the worst ever handling of a premier head football coach, the niners fired Jim Harbaugh after 2014 and watched him walk right up to Ann Arbor where he has since been, wait for it…. a very good football coach. Nice job, Jed York. The next item on the 49ers agenda of football malpractice was to hire Jim Tomsula, under whom San Francisco posted a meaty 5-11 record in 2015. Tomsula, out. Bring in Chip Kelly! Oh, oh no. Oh no no no no no. Bad Chip! No! Outside! San Fran went 2-14 last year with a roster that very well could’ve lost to Alabama on a neutral field. The 49ers fired Kelly after the season, and made it a 2-for-1 by also excising General Manager Trent Baalke from the organization. The disaster that has transpired on the west side of the Bay (except not really because they play in Santa Clara now) has lead the 49ers down a path where there’s only one option. Rebuild. The niners hired Jon Lynch as their new general manager, who’s long been a broadcaster but has zero NFL front office experience. Honestly, I liked the hiring of Lynch, and my original thoughts were only further supported by the 49ers draft choices. They picked DL Solomon Thomas out of Stanford with the 3rd pick, and LB Reuben Foster with the 31st pick. They continued on the defensive path by selecting CB Ahkello Witherspoon out of Colorado in the third round. I thought it was really smart to focus on grabbing defensive talent in the first stages of the rebuild. It provides an aura of toughness, an attitude of being the underdog, that has often been the impetus of successful future franchises. Notably, the 49ers are starting Brian Hoyer at QB in 2017. That definitely does not point to victory, but the future is what matters here. If the 49ers get one of the top-three picks in the 2018 draft, they’re almost certainly going to select one of the promising quarterbacks coming out of college next year. Such choices include Josh Rosen out of UCLA, Sam Darnold from USC, Josh Allen from Wyoming, or even Luke Falk from Washington State. Next year’s draft has a lot of the fabled ‘franchise-QB’ type players. With new head coach and QB guru Kyle Shanahan coming from Atlanta, be on the lookout for draft implications this year in San Francisco. They’re young, rebuilding, and are probably going to get one of the best quarterbacks in the draft. That spells trouble for the NFC in 2021-onward.
The Los Angeles Rams continue to be the island of misfit toys in the NFC. It is nothing short of outrageous that this team hasn’t put together a playoff run in the last 12 years. A virtual revolving door of talent has been the theme for the Rams since they last went to the postseason. If you know me personally, and you’ve ever heard me talk about the Rams, you understand my unmitigated disgust with the product this team has put onto the field each year. I watched “All or Nothing” this offseason, where viewers got a firsthand look into the annual disaster that is the LA Rams. Look, I would never hope for someone to lose their job. I’ve said a lot of not-so-nice things about Jeff Fischer since he burst onto the NFC West scene. I’m sure he’s a good person, and I know players like playing for him. But the truth of the matter is, where he excels in motivating his players, he has serious limitations in play-calling and situational football. His teams were an erratic torrent of talent and physicality mixed with disarray and sloppiness. That, my friends, is the sign of a bad head coach. The Rams this year are almost entirely reliant on Jared Goff to carry them to a respectable record. Rookie head coach Sean McVay has supposedly initiated a complete restructuring of the offense, which should allow Goff to make better decisions, while simultaneously awakening Todd Gurley from his 2016 slumber. The Rams’ offense really could not be much worse than it was in 2016, but it remains to be seen if Goff is anywhere close to the worth of draft capital that the Rams traded to get him. With star DT Aaron Donald holding out for a better contract (he deserves one), the defense will be worse than it was a year ago, which is certainly not good at all.
The way things are looking, it appears that Bruce Arians will have one final chance in Arizona to wrangle the Cardinals to glory. QB Carson Palmer is 37 years young, and it’s no secret that he’s had injury problems the last few years. Palmer can still play at a high level, but one would think that if Palmer goes down mid-season in 2017, Arizona’s postseason dreams will be crushed. Such are the tribulations of relying on an aging NFL QB. Larry Fitzgerald isn’t so young either, which hasn’t ever slowed him down but quite obviously will become an issue sooner than later. It’s not all bad news for Arizona; they have a premier running back in David Johnson, who is a legitimately superior weapon in both running the ball and lining up as a receiver, hauling in passes. The defense has been upgraded, with rookie safety Budda Baker and Pro-Bowler Tyrann Mathieu. They lost Calais Campbell to free agency, but they still have two premier pass-rushers in Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. Robert Nkemdiche, a 2016 first-rounder, has recovered from his ankle issues last season and is looking to inflict mayhem on the interior of the line of scrimmage. I wouldn’t sleep on the Cardinals. There isn’t a ton that’s changed since they won the division in 2015 with a 13-3 mark and eventually lost to Carolina in the NFCCG. While the primary narrative with Arizona is that they’re too old at key positions, they also have a healthy surplus of youthful talent ready to take back the division title. I’m wary of Palmer’s health in the 2nd half of the season, but if he stays on the field, this team has a lot to aspire to.
We’ve gotten to a point where everybody knows what they’re getting with Seattle. The Seahawks have made it to the postseason five straight years; 6 appearances in the last seven; four division titles; two conference championship titles; a Lombardi Trophy. They have been a formidable staple in the NFC’s geopolitical landscape for a long time, despite slipping a little in 2015 and 2016. Seattle had an especially peculiar 2016 campaign. There were moments where they looked like the best team in the league, when they won in Foxborough against the Patriots in week 10. There were the moments where they looked offensively inept and defensively porous, like their blowout loss to Green Bay in week 14. The offensive line was horrible throughout the season and it remains to be seen if it’ll be much better this year. However, 2017 is shaping up to be very prosperous for this Seattle team. FS Earl Thomas has returned from his broken leg and apparently has been even stronger in camp than his former self. Russell Wilson, who spent all of 2016 nursing injuries to both of his legs, has gone through an intensive fitness reboot and has supposedly lost weight while simultaneously increasing his strength. SS Kam Chancellor, CB Richard Sherman, MLB Bobby Wagner, OLB KJ Wright, DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, and DL Frank Clark are all returning (holy). You’d think that this team would have enough to make another Super Bowl run with those names alone. Hold on there, sport. John Schneider’s in town, and he’s wheeling and dealing like Robert Griffin III in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Seahawks’ general manager John Schneider took a fat old check to the bank this weekend and traded fledgling WR Jermaine Kearse and a 2nd round pick for the Jets’ Pro-Bowl DT Sheldon Richardson. The addition of Richardson makes the Seahawks’ defense nothing short of a nightmare for opposing offenses. A couple weeks ago, we were all wondering if the Seahawks would have to rely on the offense to win close games. There’s no doubting it now, the Legion of Boom is going to have at least one more shot at a Super Bowl title, which would all but cement this Seahawks team into the exclusive ring of super-dynasties.
Prediction: 1. Seattle (12-4) 2. Arizona (9-7) 3. Los Angeles (5-11) 4. San Francisco (3-13)
The Green Bay Packers are going to win the NFC North. Don’t feed me any “wait but the Lions…” bullshit. You know it; I know it; we ALL know it. Rodgers is coming off a season in which the Packers were 4-6 after ten games. Fans and commentators alike began to question if Rodgers was actually a good quarterback. These preposterous deliberations were soon hushed, when the not-so-average QB unleashed his prophetic visions of the Packers “running the table.” Curiously, Green Bay proceeded to run the table. Weird, right? They stole the division title from Detroit (lol) and defeated #1 seed Dallas in an absurd divisional round game, only to be put down by the invincible-unless-they’re-winning-by-25 Atlanta Falcons in the NFCCG. This year, Green Bay looks to pick up right where they left off. Rodgers is still in his prime and has a core of receivers who mesh well with him. My only criticism of Rodgers is that he’s reluctant to take chances that could potentially result in an interception. Many fans commend Rodgers for his low interception rate, which is fair, but it’s also a result of his desire to throw it away instead of taking chances. If Rodgers were to indulge himself with more risk, I think he’s talented enough to benefit even if his interception rate climbs a little. The usual suspect WRs are still in Green Bay, and I don’t expect the offense to lose a step in 2017. On defense, the Packers drafted CB Kevin King out of Washington in the 2nd round. King adds a long, athletic and physical presence in the secondary, which has been of crucial necessity for recent Green Bay teams. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix also returns, further beefing up the oft-suboptimal Green Bay secondary. Ultimately I think Green Bay cruises through their divisional schedule and finishes tied with the Seahawks for best record in the NFC. This team has as good a chance as any to win the Super Bowl.
Jim Caldwell has only further proven that Indianapolis is a steaming pile of excrement during his tenure with the Lions. In three seasons, Caldwell has taken Detroit to two playoff appearances. The Lions lost badly in the wild card round to Seattle a season ago, but there’s a lot for this team to be hopeful about. QB Matt Stafford signed a contract last week that made him the highest paid player in the NFL. Stafford was pumping out hundreds of yards on a weekly basis during the middle of 2016, until he hurt his finger in week 14. Before the finger injury, the Lions were 9-4. After the injury: 0-4. It’s easy to write off Stafford and the Lions, especially after their dismal final four weeks of the season, but I believe that Stafford carries an otherwise-abysmal Detroit. If you want to point fingers, leave Stafford out of it. The Lions have been more-or-less an atrocious franchise since they were conceived. Not a lot has changed, except they have a good QB and head coach. The rest of the team, however, is bad. Bad=not good. The defensive line is a shell of its former self from the earlier half of the decade. The secondary was ranked 18th by Pro Football Focus last year. The receiving corps is now in desperate need for a true WR1, since Calvin Johnson retired a year ago and Golden Tate can only do so much with his repertoire of skills. Last season was fun for Detroit, but I think the Lions are going to struggle mightily this year.
Minnesota is going to continue to uphold its reputation as a tough, physical run-first defensive-minded team. The Vikings underwent a series of devastating injuries in 2016, including their former starting QB Teddy Bridgewater. With their hands tied behind their backs, the Vikings traded with Philadelphia to bring in QB Sam Bradford. Forced to learn the playbook in a matter of days, Bradford wasn’t given much freedom in the Minnesota system last year. The team rarely threw downfield more than 10-15 yards, which resulted in an artificially high QBR for Bradford due to very few incompletions or mistakes. The team drafted Dalvin Cook out of Florida State. They also have RB Latavius Murray, who showed promise at times with the Raiders. Everything about the way this team is built suggests they are going to be run-heavy. Bradford has TE Kyle Rudolph and promising young WRs in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, which provides ample play-action potential after the Vikings have established the run. The offensive line still undoubtedly has question marks. On defense, Minnesota’s star power consists of CB Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, and Anthony Barr. This unit quietly finished 3rd in the league in YPG last year. I expect Minnesota to compete with the Packers for the North title, but I think their offensive stagnation will render them just short of a playoff berth.
After Jay Cutler went down for the season last year, Matt Barkley was tasked with stepping into a ~difficult~ situation in Chicago. After last season ended much the same way most Chicago seasons end nowadays, and with the Cutler era officially over, the Bears decided it was time to select their FUTURE FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK. Chicago traded up in the draft to pick North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky, which was a little bit strange since they had just broken the bank to sign long-time backup QB Mike Glennon. Chicago head coach John Fox has said that Glennon will be the starter Week 1, although I’d be willing to bet literally everyone else wants to see Trubisky get the keys (myself included). The Chicago roster isn’t as bad as the usual narrative would suggest, but there’s certainly many areas of concern going into 2017. Aside from breakout RB Jordan Howard, the offense has no real threat to opposing defenses. On the flip-side, the Chicago defense is one of the youngest in the league. The inexperience and lack of continuity are going to be an enormous hurdle for the Bears if they want to build anything meaningful this year. The story to watch in Chicago is how long Mike Glennon holds onto the starting quarterback position, and if Mitch Trubisky does eventually start, how does he handle the stress of playing against NFL defenses. Other than that, I don’t expect much out of the windy city this year.
Prediction: 1. Green Bay (12-4) 2. Minnesota (8-8) 3. Detroit (7-9) 4. Chicago (4-12)
NFC Playoff Seeding:
- Green Bay (12-4)
- Seattle (12-4)
- Carolina (11-5)
- Dallas (10-6)
- Atlanta (10-6)
- New York (9-7) haha not worried.