Well, Fidelity faithful, you had to wait a while for this NFL preview, but it’s finally here. It’s been a busy month at my other, non-sports-writing job, but I’ve got my mind back where it belongs—this afternoon anyway—on football.
Now, I know by now you’ve already read season preview from second-tier journalistic institutions like SI, ESPN, and Yahoo (just kidding), so I’ll spare you the long-winded team-by-team projection (my favorite of which is 538’s weekly ELO ranking/projection infographic) and get right to the big money picks and projections.
So what’s going to happen in the NFL in 2015-16? Let’s break it down into five categories: Underachievers; Overachievers; Off-Field Drama; Playoff Projections; and Super Bowl 50.
Five Underachievers for 2015
We all know a few teams are going to be bad. The Titans, Buccs, Browns, Raiders, Jets, Jaguars, and Lions. We know these teams will stink, because they’re rebuilding, and they’re not worth the key strokes explaining why they’ll each win two to five games. What I’m talking about here are the teams that are projected to be playoff teams—even SB50 contenders—that will significantly underachieve in one form or another. How do I know they will underperform? Because the media has a way of falling in love with simple things and then everyone falls suit and gets stupid, ignores the analytics, and predicts the same thing. What fun is that?
I know these teams will underproduce—and some have already demonstrated that in Week One—because they either have a fatal flaw (Steelers) or can’t possibly live up to the unwarranted hype this year, even though they were good last year (Seahawks) or two years ago (Broncos) or will be good in a year or two (Colts).
Colts 10-6 (lose in first round of playoffs)
Seahawks 9-7 (ditto)
Broncos 9-7 (miss playoffs!)
Steelers 8-8 (no investment on defense)
Texans 6-10 (no QB and average everywhere else)
Of course folks are going to be bullish on the Colts and Seahawks—many of the talking heads point to them as conference favorites (along with the Patriots and Packers). Andrew Luck will be a star one day, and Seattle has an unbelievable track record among master-motivator Pete Carroll. But the Colts have the running game of an 8-8 team, the defense of an 8-8 team, and the general look of an 8-8 team. Giving them two full additional wins just for having Luck might be a stretch; don’t be shocked by an 8-8 season—in which case the Texans (not good), Titans (bad), and Jaguars (awwwwfulllll) will enable the AFC South become this year’s NFC South of the, well, AFC.
Meanwhile, if you’re a football fan with half a brain, you know that Seattle just overpaid its “jersey players” (guys who have their jerseys sold in stores; typically 2-4 guys per team) by so much they had to fill out the rest of their roster with Jaguars castaways. 9-and-7 for the Seahawks could even be a bit high, especially in the packed NFC West with playoff hopefuls St Louis and Arizona (more on them in a moment). Lastly, the Broncos—as I wrote during last year’s playoffs—have already watched Peyton’s last playoff game. Nine wins is a good season, but in the full American Football Conference, it’s not enough to play into the New Year.
Now, you’re thinking to yourself, “Fidelity Sports just waits to see what happens the first week of the year, then puts out their preview…” but these under/over-achievers were settled months ago, so just keep those thoughts to yourself.
These are the five teams that are going to surprise the big wigs at ESPN-et-cetera but not really surprise anyone with a sharp insider’s understanding of the game.
Chiefs 11-5 (win division)
Bengals 10-6 (ditto)
Cardinals 10-6 (ditto)
Rams 9-7 (narrowly miss postseason)
Vikings 8-8 (ditto)
The Cardinals and Rams are anything but sexy, so of course they’re going to be overshadowed by Seattle out West. But when you put together strong lineman, undervalued QB’s, good coaches, and stingy defenses, you get yourself a dark horse divisional winner. The Vikings looked downright Jagauar-esque in Week One, but once Bridgewater, Peterson, and Co. get their act together, they’re going to knock off a few good teams and come into 2016 as a playoff pick. In the American, the Bengals have made the playoffs four straight seasons and have their best squad this year. The question is, “Can Dalton win in the playoffs?” And to be sure, we don’t know yet. We have learned that he is no gunslinger, but if the stud RB’s continue to run well, that shouldn’t be an issue—just as it wasn’t for Trent Dilfer, Eli Manning (2x), Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson in winning Super Bowls with great supporting casts.
The last decade has made this abundantly clear: you can win an NFL championship without an all-star QB. By the time January rolls around, players are injured and worn down from 25 consecutive weekends of headbutting each other, and as the temperatures drop into the teens and teams run far more than they do in September, QB play is just not that big of a factor. As long as your guy isn’t throwing a bunch of INT’s and can just keep the chains moving, you’re going to have a chance.
Off Field Drama
I’ve spent a good bit of my limited free time the last six weeks doing the most extensive research I’ve done on the nature of head injuries in football. The importance of this issue is deserving of its own essay, or even an entire series of articles, so I won’t get into it here, except to whet your pallet. I wrote last year of the seven issues facing the NFL, but this one, IMHO, is about to hit a tipping point—that point when the general consensus completely flips from one position to another—some time next year. More on this later, but mark 2016 in your calendars for The Year Football Changed Forever.
** Intermission: Chiefs vs. Broncos Tonight **
Tonight at 8:25pm EST, the Chiefs and Broncos face off at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs are, surprisingly, a 3.0-point favorite, owing largely to KC’s easy win over Houston four days ago and Denver’s struggles at home with the Ravens. While many have picked Denver to win the AFC this year, Peyton picked up last weekend where he left off last year: old and slow. Last year, in the middle of the season, Peyday began to crumble before our very eyes.
Young Peyton (first 7 games, 2014): 21 TD, 3 INT
Old Peyton (next 5 games, 2014): 14 TD, 6 INT
Old-as-Sin Peyton (previous 6 games, 2014-15): 4 TD, 7 INT
Ouch. In a single year, he went from Peyton to Eli to Jake Locker. It could be a long year in Denver if that trend continues. Expect it to for at least one more night, as 53-year old Manning and the Bronc’s come into the loudest stadium on earth on three days rest. (Have I mentioned how much I hate Thursday Night Football? It’s just a terrible idea.) Meanwhile, KC is hype, healthy, and at home. The pick? Chiefs get vengeance for the last five years of mostly losing to Denver. I’m thinking Chiefs 26-16.
Without further adieu, here are your 2015-16 NFL playoff teams.
AFC East: Patriots (12-4)
AFC North: Bengals (10-6)
AFC South: Colts (10-6)
AFC West: Chiefs (11-5)
Wild Cards: Ravens (10-6), Bills (9-7)
NFC East: Cowboys (11-5)
NFC North: Packers (12-4)
NFC South: Panthers (8-8)
NFC West: Cardinals (10-6)
Wild Cards: Eagles (9-7), Seahawks (9-7)
In the American, these projections give us (3) Bengals over (6) Bills and (5) Ravens over (4) Colts in the first round, followed by (5) Ravens over (1) Patriots—Baltimore always beat N.E. in the playoffs, plus this is sports karma against the lying-and-cheating Pats—and (2) Chiefs over (3) Bengals by a FG. The AFC Championship will be an old school grinder in Kansas City, and look for the Chiefs’ superior personnel and coaching to pull out the cold weather victory, roughly 23-16.
In the National, we get (3) Cardinals over (6) Seahawks and (5) Eagles over (4) Panthers, followed by (1) Packers over (5) Eagles pretty easily and (3) Cardinals over (2) Cowboys in an upset. The NFC Championship will be a fun, cold one too. Are there better places to see football in January than KC and Green Bay? I suggest not. Packers over Cards 30-17.
Super Bowl Fiffftyyyyy!!!
It’s football destiny: the fiftieth championship of America’s greatest invention, the NFL, is a rematch of SB I. On January 15 1967, in the Coliseum in LA, the Packers beat the Chiefs 35-10. (Read a history of Lamar Hunt and the founding of the SB here.) The history is palpable. You can almost taste it. Plus, the Super Bowl isn’t hosted by NBC, so we won’t have to endure a 12-minute teary-eyed monologue by Bob Costas, America’s worst invention.
So, I know what you’re all thinking, why the Packers? Well, for starters, they have the second best player in the NFL, QB Aaron Rodgers. They boast one of the top young backs in the league in Eddie Lacy, and despite losing farmer-turned-WR Jordy Nelson to injury, plenty of receiving depth. Add an above-average defense and you get the league’s best team. (Side note: look for Tom Brady to have a late season physical breakdown the way Peydey did last year.)
But for those of you who don’t religiously follow football, why the Chiefs? Not only do they have a super-safe QB in Alex Smith, whose 24-to-6 touchdown-to-INT ratio over the past two seasons is at the top of the league, but they finally have an All Pro wideout in Mizzou grad Jeremy Maclin to take pressure off the NFL’s best player, RB Jamaal Charles. Add the best pure pass rusher in the game—LB Justin Houston—and additional Pro Bowlers in TE Travis Kelce, LB Tamba Hali, DT Dontari Poe, and S Eric Berry. Six all-stars, an above-average QB, the game’s best defense, and it’s all built for cold weather and low scoring playoff games? That’s your AFC winner, folks.
As for SB Five-Oh itself, it’s unfortunately being played in sunny California instead of an outdoor ice box like the Meadowlands in January 2014 (no surprise the run-and-D heavy Seahawks beat up on the pass-happy Broncos), so it’s not even really a fair football game. So I give Aa-Rod and the Packers the advantage here.
Green Bay 24
As always, you are welcome. Where else can you find 1500 words of pure sporting genius and surefire projections? That’s a rhetorical question, people.