NFL Week 2 Recap

Here are some general observations, questions and notes from Week 2.

The Chiefs might be unstoppable

The Patrick Mahomes thing is real and I could not have been more wrong.

Mahomes was ridiculous on Sunday.  He only completed 23 passes, but six of them were for touchdowns.  The Chiefs scored 42 points on Sunday and Mahomes’ passing touchdowns were responsible for all six of them.

Pittsburgh’s defense had no chance.  Kansas City spread the ball around to seven different receivers; Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins each had 100 yards, and Tyreek Hill finished not far behind with 90.

Most of the throws were the result of open men, rather than ridiculous throws by Mahomes.  Except this one.

That ball is a MISSLE.  Look the velocity of that thing in the air.  It zips.

And it was in a perfect location too.  Watch the replay and see where Conley’s hand are.  Right at the crown of the helmet.  Just perfect.

Oh, and maybe except this one as well…

This ball was another laser.  Travis Kelce’s route was a go-route, which means he’s not supposed to turn around until he’s in or close to the end zone.

Watch the video again and imagine you’re Kelce on this route.  Notice how the ball is right there as soon as Kelce turns his head around?  That’s incredible work by Mahomes; getting the ball to his receiver right as his head turns around.  That ball is coming at a million miles per hour.  You’re not looking at it and then boom, it’s right in front of your face.  Catching Mahomes takes just as much as talent making the throw.

The Chiefs might have the best offense in the league.  Their cache of weapons who are explosive is second to none.  And now they have a quarterback who, as a rookie, might already be pushing the top ten.  Yikes.  You’re gonna have to outscore this team to win.  With the way we’ve seen some QBs start to decline this season, there seems to be a lack of teams who are capable of doing that.

Should we feel bad for the Browns?

A line I wrote in the AFC Preview stands tall after these past two weeks…

I mean, this is the Browns we’re talking about.  One of the biggest things this team has going against it is that right there: That they’re the Browns.

Two weeks into the season and the Browns have been through an excruciating tie and a devastating loss.  And it’s not like they’ve played horrific football!

Sunday was the latest example of “You gotta me kidding me(s)” from the Browns.  They played the Saints close all game.  It wasn’t exactly a defensive showdown; it was more of a display of bad offense rather than good D.  But Cleveland’s front made things difficult for the Saints.  Alvin Kamara only ran for 46 yards, and no one else ran for more than 18.  It didn’t affect him too much, but Drew Brees was sacked three times Sunday, thanks to immense pressure by Myles Garrett (His quickness off the snap is unbelievable).

The Browns front didn’t get any help though.  Tyrod Taylor, though the stats don’t show it, struggled again.  He was 22/30 for 246 yards with a touchdown and interception, but there was a large amount of dinking and dunking by the Cleveland offense.  Especially evident on his brutal interception, there’s just certain throws that Taylor can’t make, and the Browns need him to.  Baker Mayfield is right there if they want him.

Cleveland hung in despite their struggles.  New Orleans’ slow start cancelled it out, and with just six minutes left Cleveland was up 12-10.  The Saints got the ball and drove down the field to score, thanks to a sick catch by Michael Thomas (There was no play on that ball.  The Browns could do nothing.).

That put New Orleans up 18-12 with 2:40 left.  The Browns had a chance, and it was gonna be up to Tyrod Taylor to come through.

He did.

Cleveland ran the two minute drill nicely.  They got short yet chunk plays to get them yards and save time.  A brutal sack on a terrible decision by Taylor almost cost them the game; in a situation where time was critical, he held onto the ball too long and took a massive 10 yard loss.

He made up for it later.

On 4th and 5 after failing to make up all the yards lost on the sack, Tyrod stepped up.  He threw a heave downfield in a play that is criticized to death if it doesn’t work out.  Antonio Callaway caught it and the Browns were an extra point away from going up one.

Somehow, after all the craziness this game had been through, the real madness was just getting started.

Zane Gonzales missed the extra point.  And that wasn’t even the most Browns thing that happened in this game.

The Saints got the ball and for the first time all game, looked like the Saints.  Drew Brees turned into the scary Drew Brees he is in late-game situations.  Ted Ginn helped out with that, as he was left wide open and took a short pass 42 yards to get the Saints in field goal position.

That left things up to Will Lutz, who incredibly made the kick (I say incredibly considering 1) How trash the kicking was in this game and 2) How trash the kicking had been and was about to be throughout the weekend; it somehow only got worse throughout the day).

Once again the Browns had a chance, and they actually made a little something of it!  They got two big plays downfield before running out of time, which led to them sending out Gonzalez again for a 52 yard field goal.

What do you know, he missed.  As bad as it was, there were a couple things the Browns could have done for him.  First of all, 52 yards is no gimme.  That’s a long field goal for any kicker, let alone a struggling one.  Secondly, the Browns oddly decided to send Gonzales out to kick on 1st and 10 with eight seconds left.  Eight seconds!  That would be plenty of time to run a quick, 8-10 yard out route to make it a shorter kick.  Considering Gonzales shanked it so bad, it may not have mattered, but it’s not like they didn’t have time, and it’s not like it was 4th down.  They had the opportunity.

So should this trigger some sympathy for Cleveland?  Possibly.  The main case for feeling sorry revolves around the fact that they’re the Browns, and only something like this could happen to the Browns.  Only the Browns could employ that bad of a kicker and have that bad of luck.  As we’ve established, the Browns are going to do Browns things.  Sunday was yet another time they did that.

But at the same time, only the Browns would have the stupidity to run out Gonzalez so quickly, and only the Browns would not have the balls to spice things up with Baker Mayfield, who even though was my QB3 in the draft, probably has a higher ceiling than Tyrod Taylor at the helm of this offense; I’ll admit defeat on that one as well.

The answer to the Browns sympathy question isn’t solved yet.  It’s gonna take a little bit more time, but given the way they’ve battled and stayed in games, hopefully it shouldn’t take too much longer.

What in the world is going on in Tampa Bay?

We have and are about to talk about the top three quarterbacks in the league so far this year.  Here they are…

  • Patrick Mahomes
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
  • Aaron Rodgers

My reaction(s) to this list…

  • Alright, fine, he’s good
  • WHAT?!
  • What else did you expect?

Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers did it again Sunday.  They torched one of the league’s best defenses again, beating Philadelphia 27-21 behind Fitzpatrick’s 402 yards and four touchdowns.  OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson each had a 75 yard touchdown; Jackson’s on the first play of the game and Howard’s in the late 2nd quarter, on a short pass that Howard took the distance, shredding tackles along the way (He has a little bit of Gronk in him.  It was evident at Alabama too.  His size and strength makes him impossible to tackle, even though he’s not really that fast).

I just don’t have any answers anymore.  The Bucs turned Fitzpatrick and their big, tall and strong wide receivers loose and this is what we got.  Who would have thought?

Assuming we get it, the regression that comes from this will be drastic.  I don’t know if it will involve a classic four interception game, or just some plain bad play.  Or maybe the regression involves the Bucs egregiously starting Jameis once he’s eligible, then quickly realizing their mistake, forcing Fitzpatrick back in after two weeks and killing the hot streak.

What if we don’t get regression though?  What if the Bucs, who a lot of people had as the worst team in the league this season, turn into the miraculous “How TF did that team win 10 games?” team and are in the playoffs?  What if this season teaches us that the only thing better than the RPO is just slinging it 25-40 yards down the field every time and hoping for the best?  The Air Raid/”sling it” mentality is currently employed by the two best offenses in the league through Week 2.  If the RPO is last year’s thing, then is slinging it this year’s?

I cannot believe the words I just typed.  I have no answers.  Perhaps Week 2 is just as prime for overreactions as Week 1 is.

Can the Vikings and Packers play every week?

In my NFC preview, I had the Packers and Vikings pretty much neck-and-neck, but for different reasons.

The Vikings were gonna be ridiculous because they had the “loaded” trait, something that only about three teams in the NFL can hold the distinction of.  They had the best defense in the league, amazing skill position players and an above average quarterback.

The Packers were gonna be ridiculous because they had Aaron Freaking Rodgers, who lived up to that name in Week 1, and Jimmy Graham, who was one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.  They had good enough weapons to make Rodgers earn that name, and some talent on the defense.  Basically, mostly Rodgers.

This game was meant to be a showdown and it was.  You can’t get more neck-and-neck than this.

The things that made each team ridiculous came through in this game.  The Vikings defense swallowed any attempt the Packers made to develop whatever running game they had, while Aaron Rodgers made more ridiculous throws on what looked like 1.5 legs.  Only Rodgers (and Nick Foles.  Wait what?) can penetrate this Vikings defense.

The Vikings skill position players came through.  Adam Thelien and Stefon Diggs had 131 and 128 yards while respectively Kyle Rudolph had 72 more.  Kirk Cousins threw a couple beautiful balls, including these to tie the game.

The touchdown was not only clutch, but was one of the best throws I’ve ever seen Cousins make.  That ball is in such an incredibly tight window; so tight that we’d probably say “Why would he dare throw that?” if it was incomplete or intercepted.  Kentall Price came flying in at the last second on that play; he was in perfect position to pick that ball off.  But Cousins had the timing just right.  And that was only one of the two most impressive throws of the game.

Everything about this two point conversion is beautiful.  Stefon Diggs might be the only receiver who makes a fade route a good idea.  The ball from Cousins is perfect; part of what makes fade routes a horrible idea is the fact that most QBs can’t throw the ball.  Cousins put it in the perfect spot, and Diggs did an excellent job extending his arms and using his hands to make the catch.

But this Cousins parade probably shouldn’t have happened.  The worst call of the weekend (By the way, there hasn’t been an insane amount of bad calls this season so far.  I’ll take missed kicks over that!) was the roughing the passer on Clay Matthews on the first play of this drive.

Cousins got away with a lot here.  Lets first disregard the penalty.  Hit or not, this was a terrible decision and a horrible throw.  His receiver Stacey Coley (who’s been cut now) is behind rookie Jaire Alexander the whole route; the only way Cousins can save him is by throwing the ball towards the middle of the field, so that Coley could possibly undercut Alexander and be open.  But Cousins throws this ball towards the sidelines, which gives Alexander even more of a chance to catch it.

When Kirk Cousins signed, I got it.  He was gonna be better than Case Keenum no matter what, and even though the money was absurd, it made sense.

But this was the type of stuff I was concerned about.  I wrote before the season and in the Spring that we had never seen Cousins step up to the moment before; that Cousins always seemed to commit brutal turnovers when it mattered the most.  For a second, it looked he had done it again.  And for me, that was to no surprise.

But he got away with it, thanks to the egregious call by the referees on Clay Matthews.

Yikes.  Cousins has barely let go of the ball when Matthews hits him.  It’s not like there was a two second gap between Cousins letting go of the ball and Matthews making contact.  It was whatever the word is for “one step below simultaneous.”

The call gave Minnesota the ability to go down the field and score the touchdown and two point conversion we saw above.  Those two passes were pretty nice makeups for the interception.

But this game was far from over.  The Packers got the ball with 31 seconds left and made as much as they could of it.  Aaron Rodgers went into Aaron Freaking Rodgers mode, and got the Packers in range for a 52 yard field goal.  It was long, sure.  But this is Mason Crosby we’re talking about.  He should be able to make this.

He didn’t, but that was just the start of the kicking fiasco.

Minnesota got the ball to start overtime, and as they did all game, carved up Green Bay’s still underwhelming defense.  A drop by Laquon Treadwell, who is brutal when he’s bad and is enjoyful when he’s good, on 3rd down led Minnesota to have to kick.  Daniel Carlson had already missed one kick on the day, and was about to miss his 2nd.  On any other day, Carlson’s miss would have been the epitome of the kicking catastrophe that occurred that day.  But oh boy, was there more to come.

The Vikings defense stood tall when the Packers got the ball, sacking Aaron Rodgers on 3rd down and forcing Green Bay to punt.  Once OT hit, offense past the 50 yard line died.

Minnesota had one more chance.  I was surprised they took their time on their last drive, given that the confidence in Carlson was low.  They got some big plays, but I would have been ultra-agressive, doing all I could to avoid having the game come down to him.  That’s exactly what happened, and the worst possible result came out of it.

For both teams, there’s some luck and some resentment in this game.  Things that happened could and couldn’t be controlled.  Controlled things include Minnesota cutting Carlson, which was the easiest decision Mike Zimmer has ever made (as evident here), and the Packers improving their defense, which might be a season-long effort at this point.

Quick hits:

  • The Ravens are bad.  It was shocking to see Andy Dalton and company tear their defense apart.
  • The Bengals offense is sneaky-dynamic!  Even more so than I gave them credit for in the season preview.
  • The Cardinals are also bad.  START ROSEN!
  • The Panthers lack of weapons and it cost them big time against Atlanta Sunday.  There just has to be more creativity from their offense if they’re going to have a chance.
  • The defensive showing was even worse, mostly because it was a surprise that they would play that poorly.  They’re a little banged up, but this team has no chance of doing anything if the defense keeps preforming like it did this past week.
  • The Bills scored 20 points and only lost by 11.  Congratulations!
  • Josh Allen missed guys he threw to the most and hit on guys he threw to the least.
  • About a third of the guys he threw to in that game I have never heard of.
  • Pretty embarrassing loss for the Texans.  If Blaine Gabbert is winning a game he is the starting quarterback in, it’s not great.
  • I have no idea what DeShaun Watson was doing at the end of that game.  That was something Russell Westbrook would do at the end of the shot clock.  I just don’t think he knew the situation.
  • If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to treat him like a rookie still.  Maybe the Texans are a year away.
  • Houston’s defense was fine; the punt return unit got tricked on a fake punt, and that play was the difference in the score of this one.
  • The offense has to improve; that’s the bottom line.
  • Was I supposed to watch Dolphins-Jets?
  • I did actually watch a little.  Sam Darnold’s a rookie on a bad team, and we can’t forget that.
  • How are the Dolphins 2-0?  Are they really gonna be 3-0 after next week? (home vs. Raiders)
  • Once again, it’s really nice to have Andrew Luck back.  What a delight.
  • The Redskins looked like the team we thought they’d be Sunday.  Alex Smith and the offense went nowhere, and Luck dominated a very average defense.
  • The Lions might be taking on the role of the Chargers this season; the constantly underachieving team that has talent but can’t go anywhere.
  • There’s also a chance that they’re just plain bad.
  • They just make a ton of mistakes and don’t have anything or anyone to make up for them.
  • What a horrible loss for Oakland.  They were the better team against Denver, as Derek Carr made some impressive throws and Case Keenum did the exact opposite.
  • Similar to Watson in the Texans-Titans game, I have no idea what Amari Cooper was doing at the end of the Oakland-Denver game.  Just didn’t know the situation.
  • Phillip Lindsay is awesome, you guys.
  • The Jaguars have found the key to beating the Patriots:  Attack their defense where it hurts and steal the Pats’ formula of taking away their No.1 option.  That option was Rob Gronkowski, who had two catches for 15 yards Sunday.
  • Jacksonville was flawless against the run, something that hurt them in the AFC Championship Game last year.
  • I didn’t buy the case that the Pats defense was better than last year’s, and this game is a perfect example of that.  Blake Bortles now becomes the 2nd below-average quarterback to completely torch this defense.
  • Against good defenses, the Pats might be screwed this season.  They don’t have their own D to fall back on if the offense can’t get going.
  • Speaking of offenses not getting going, the Giants on Sunday night were a gigantic fart.
  • That’s really all there was to it.  The Giants defense couldn’t stop Ezekiel Elliot and gave up too many big plays, and the offense is just completely nonfunctional.
  • The Giants defense was probably a little overrated before the season…
  • Last night was another example of offenses laying a gigantic fart.  Granted, Chicago’s D is much better than Dallas’s, but the Seahawks could not get anything going until it was too late.
  • Do you think the Kahlil Mack trade is going to work out for Chicago?
  • I was really impressed with their offense again.  Trubisky’s raw in a couple areas (Decision-making, deep balls), but he gets the job done for now.
  • The Bears just have so many weapons.  Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen on the field together is a hassle to deal with.

Week 1 Overreactions

Like usual, Week 1 was confusing.  Weird stuff happens.  We overreact to it.  We’re gonna do that now.

The Saints are a disaster

One of the funniest moments in this game was the Saints secondary picking up right where it left off, giving up a 58 yard touchdown to DeSean Jackson on the Buccaneers first drive.

There were many more touchdowns given up.

The Bucs, who had Ryan Fitzpatrick/Fitzmagic as their quarterback, came out and threw the ball around like the Saints did last year.  He threw for 417 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Usually his stat line looks like 237 yards and three interceptions.

The Saints had no match for the Buccaneers big, tall receivers.  Mike Evans scorched Marshon Lattimore, catching seven balls for 147 and a touchdown.  Evans only had seven targets; he caught every ball that was thrown to him.  O.J. Howard had a 35 yard reception, and rookie Chris Godwin, a favorite of mine at Penn State, caught a tough ball for a touchdown in the middle of the 2nd quarter.

Godwin perfectly positioned the route, putting himself in a place where Ken Crawley couldn’t make a play on the ball in the corner of the end zone.  This made it tougher on Godwin, but his talent came through.

Perhaps the most improbable thing about the Bucs’ offensive explosion wasn’t the passing game, but the read option Tampa Bay ran at the end of the first quarter… with Ryan Fitzpatrick!  Tampa Bay came out in a RPO set and actually ran one!  Fitzpatrick took it himself and went right into the end zone, in about the most old guy/unathletic QB way possible.  It was absolutely amazing.

And it was the epitome of the Saints defensive performance.  They were good against the run; Peyton Barber got one long run out of them.  But Fitzpatrick legitimately torched them.  I don’t know if Fitzpatrick has ever torched anyone.

In the NFC Preview, I wrote how the Bucs should consider running some type of air raid system once Jamies Winston returned, since accuracy and error in a scheme like that doesn’t matter as much.  The Bucs must of liked the idea, and they liked it so much that they let Ryan Fitzmagic try it out.  And somehow, he succeed.

The Bucs should be encouraged with Sunday’s performance.  If Ryan Fitzpatrick can succeed in it, shouldn’t Jameis?

That’s the way it should be, but with Jameis, you never know.  Plus, we know there’s a four interception game coming from Fitzpatrick at some point.

As for the Saints, it’s a bad day.  And it happened to come against the worst team possible and in Week 1, where first impressions are unfortunately everything.  They’ll be fine.  The offense put up points, and with the Saints, that might actually be the more important part.

The concerns we had about the Steelers have already arrived

With or without Le’Veon Bell, an offense this talented shouldn’t ever be involved in such a low scoring tie.

The good and bad news revolve around the same player:  Ben Rothlisberger.  The good news is that he represented the only issue with the Steelers’ offense.  They didn’t miss Le’Veon Bell too much, as James Conner rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns.  Receivers were able to get open and be productive assuming the events we’re about to talk about didn’t happen; Juju Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown both had over 90 yards.

The bad news is that Ben Rothlisberger cost them a win by throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles.  Rothlisberger, who was one of the guys I was giving the benefit of the doubt to when it came to evaluating how close to the cliff he was, only completed 56.1% of his passes as well.

If this is a continued trend for Rothlisberger, Pittsburgh’s in real trouble.  He was bad enough to cost them the game, and as you read in the preview, that type of continued performance is bad enough to tank a season.  The good news is that he’s the only problem they have to fix.  The bad news is that, if it’s not fixed, it wastes the whole roster.

I was very wrong about Patrick Mahomes

The scariest part about what the Chiefs did on Sunday was the fact that they lost the game in just about every way besides the score.

Los Angeles had 14 more first downs, ran almost 20 more plays, won the time of possession battle and gained almost 200 yards more than Kansas City Sunday.  They lost by 10 points.

A couple things killed the Chargers:  Two turnovers, some dropped balls and Tyreek Hill, who took a punt return for a touchdown and caught two more, one on a bomb from Patrick Mahomes.

Oh yeah, about that guy.

Mahomes threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, airing it out multiple times while completing 15 of his 27 passes.

KC didn’t throw as much as I expected them to.  But when they did, Mahomes was dazzling.  The completion percentage wasn’t great, but that’s expected when you throw as deep as the Chiefs do as often as they do.  The bottom line is that he didn’t screw up.  If he can keep that going, the Chiefs are in good shape.  They squeezed this one out; the Chargers did just one or two Chargers things but it still cost them.  What happens when they play a team that doesn’t make mistakes?  It’s not Kansas City’s defense was excellent Sunday; it felt like Los Angeles had dudes always running in the open field with no one around them.  The Chargers got multiple big plays, and Rivers threw for 424 yards.  The Chiefs kinda got lit up.  Combine a team that’s more foul-proof than the Chargers and a Mahomes rookie quarterback game and you’ve got a loss.  Don’t worry, those are coming.

Quick hits:

  • I wanted to believe in the Falcons, but Thursday night showed us that nothing has changed.  They’re going to always be plagued by horrible play-calling.
  • They got rocked by injuries in that game.  Keanu Neal is out for the season and Deion Jones will miss a significant portion of it.  Jones is a huge loss as their linebacking core is very weak.  Neal as well.  Damontae Kazee is the replacement, a second year player who I honestly haven’t heard of.  Watch out for these injuries.  If Ryan continues to play like this, the Falcons could be in real trouble.
  • While we’re here, now might be the time to make a list of quarterbacks who sucked in Week 1.  These are guys who I was making fun of as their crappy performance, asking questions like “How old is he now?” and “Should we add him to the ‘Is he over the hill?’ list?’  Here’s the list: Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ben Rothlisberger, Derek Carr, and Eli Manning.  Yikes!  A lot of those names are ones we didn’t not expect to fall off yet.
  • The Cardinals are just bad.  They gained just 213 total yards against Washington, and were doubled in first downs.  This is what happens when Sam Bradford is your quarterback; the offense does not move.
  • Also, can someone explain why David Johnson only got nine carries compared to Bradford’s 34 pass attempts?
  • Bradford and the offense’s performance makes me want to start Josh Rosen next week.  Just for some entertainment.
  • Good for the Browns not losing.  The tie was the most Cleveland thing that could possibly happen.
  • I know I wrote 500 words about Pittsburgh above, but it may be smart to not evaluate anything from that game.  The weather, the tie, everything involved.  What a crapfest.  Just wash it off the schedule.  It never happened.
  • Poor Andrew Luck.  He did all he could before his team let him down again.  It’s good to have him back though.
  • So long for the Titans hype.  The Miami-Tennessee game might be another one that should be evaluated as if it never happened due to the almost four hours worth of delays suffered in two different stints.
  • That doesn’t change the fact that the Titans lost their most consistent receiver in Delanie Walker for the season due to a broken foot.  Without Walker, the Titans now desperately need Corey Davis to step up in a No.1 role.  I’d also expect Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry to see even more targets out of the backfield, as they can hopefully make up for the intermediate yards Walker would be able to gain.
  • Jimmy Garappolo looked liked someone who was making their 6th start Sunday against Minnesota.  The Vikings defense completely shut down the Niners offense, swarming to the ball on essentially every play and making things hard on Garappolo with extreme pressure.
  • That forced a lot of bad decisions.  Three of them turned into interceptions,  while on most of the other incomplete passes it was Garappolo holding on to the ball way too long and throwing it away.
  • The Vikings looked ridiculous as expected.  The defense was dominant, and Stefon Diggs started right where he left off.  Kirk Cousins also had a couple beautiful throws.
  • DeShaun Watson certainly looked a little rusty, and that’s okay.  It’s been awhile since he’s played competitive football.
  • That game got off to a rough start for Houston with the fumbled snap and never turned around.  They never really deserved to win.
  • I was intrigued by the Giants offense but the performance by Eli Manning still makes me very hesitant.
  • Saquon Barkley is gonna be sooooooooo good.
  • The Jaguars defense won them that game.  Blake Bortles wasn’t much better than Manning.
  • Hey Bills, start Josh Allen next week.  For your fans and for NFL fans.  Just do it.
  • Carolina did a fantastic job getting pressure on Dak Prescott Sunday.  That was impressive considering Dallas had most of their offensive line healthy. It goes to show how much they miss Travis Frederick though.
  • The Panthers offense couldn’t get going though.  They were bailed out by Dallas’ incompetence on that end.  16 points is not getting it done against opposing NFC South teams.
  • It won’t get better with the loss of Greg Olsen, who though a fine target seems to miss at least eight games a season.
  • It’s amazing that we haven’t heard anything about whatever injury Aaron Rodgers had Sunday night.  I’m not degrading his performance by any means, but it must not be that serious.
  • What an incredible game and gutty show by Rodgers though.  He was literally on one leg and brought Green Bay back single handily.
  • That is with some help by the Bears coaching staff, who went into Falcons Super Bowl mode and took the foot off the gas once they were up big.
  • The first half was a glimpse of what this Bears offense can be though.  The concerns I had about them shined brightly in the 2nd half, but that doesn’t degrade the show before that.  Mitchell Trubisky looked the best I’ve ever seem him, and Chicago spread the ball around to all of their dynamic weapons.  Where did Trey Burton go though!?
  • These are the struggles I imagined the Bears having, and it’s why I couldn’t project their record too high.  It’s frustrating, but know it’s only part of the process.  They’ll be fine.
  • Did anyone see the Rodgers post-game interview Sunday night?  No wonder he came out and put 21 points on Chicago in the 4th quarter.  That man was jacked up on something.
  • Last night was a classic Lions game.  Starts out great, then crumbles.  The Lions still have no running game, as the Jets defense swarmed them whenever they tried to do anything.  Stafford looked like he was 35, which didn’t help.
  • Seriously, two of those picks had be to the worst balls Stafford has ever thrown.
  • The Lions defense was in some ways a bigger let down.  They let a rookie QB torch them all night.  Every time Sam Darnold threw, there was an open Jets receiver.  This Jets receiving core is awful!  How do you let that happen?
  • There was one time Darnold threw without an open receiver, and that was on the very first play of the game when he made the dumbfounding decision to throw the ball across the field after scrambling out of the pocket with a safety coming down on his receiver.  It’s hard to justify saying this now after rebounding last night, but throws like that pick six are the ones that made Darnold my QB4 in the draft.  He always tries to do too much.
  • The theme Monday night was QBs who should be good sucking.  Stafford took that responsibility in the first game, and Derek Carr held it in the 2nd.    Both were so bad that it seemed like they were hurt over the course of the game, which may not be entirely off course because both were shaken up twice during the game.
  • Besides Carr being a disaster, the Raiders offense actually looked quite good.  Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook couldn’t be tackled, and that was by one of the best defenses in the league.  If Carr is on, this offense might be a little better than we think.  At the same time, Amari Cooper completely disappeared, which is not surprising at this point.  To make that into a positive, we could say that anything Cooper contributes only adds to the potency of this group.
  • The Raiders defense had no chance against LA.  Todd Gurley ran all over them, and they got no pressure on Jared Goff.
  • Oakland had a chance last night.  Carr and the penalties killed it though.
  • Last quick hit is an important one:  It’s Week 1.  This column was written somewhat sarcastically, at least the top section was.  Some teams haven’t played competitive in nine months, others seven.  Some players haven’t played in a whole year.  Everyone’s rusty, and that means anyone can have a bad week.  A lot of teams and players did.  It’s gonna take awhile before whether we know what happened was legit or not.

2018-2019 NFL Preview: AFC

Apologize for the delay in the AFC preview; had something come up Friday afternoon and didn’t have time to edit.  Enjoy!

AFC East

New England Patriots

Projected Record: 11-5

Strengths: Everything that’s not a weakness

Weaknesses: Weapons, front seven 

If there was any other 41 year old quarterback surrounded with this cast of weapons, I’d have many concerns.

The Patriots let go of Danny Amendola for no reason whatsoever; it’s not like he was gonna cost a lot.  Kenny Britt didn’t make it through training camp, and it felt like the Pats gave up on Malcolm Mitchell a little too early.

That leaves New England with Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarelle Patterson and Matthew Slater as pass catchers.  For two of those guys, this is their last chance.  Patterson’s bounced around the league, never really finding a consistent role due to inconsistent play.  He’s not even a 3rd receiver, and is hit-or-miss as a returner.  If the Patriots can’t use him correctly, no one can.

Dorsett has a longer leash.  He wasn’t featured enough last year, and therefore couldn’t make a huge impact.  Now is his chance with the Pats lacking weapons.  They won’t cut ties fast, since he was the return in the Jacoby Brissett trade that the Patriots probably regret a little more now.

Julian Edelman’s suspension leaves the Patriots with only two reliable weapons.  It’s probably not gonna matter, because they’re the Patriots, because Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick, and because Tom Brady is Tom Brady.  I’m not gonna worry about his age and performance until it’s an issue.  He’s amazing until he’s not.

The defense, which was torched by Nick Foles in the Super Bowl and finished 31st in defensive DVOA last year, didn’t really get any better.  They added Adrian Clayborne, but he’s not transcending what was a bad pass rush and run defense last year.  Danny Shelton is still a nice flyer, but he wasn’t productive last season either.

The Patriots have concerns every year and they always are never a huge deal.  If the defense takes another step back, then we might worry a little bit.  But for now, I’m not doubting them.  I’ll be late to that party.

Miami Dolphins

Projected Record: 7-9

Strengths: Lines, Competency

Weaknesses: Linebackers, Weapons, Star power

Somehow, a classic 7-9 Dolphins season is a massive success.

With Ryan Tannehill hopefully competent and healthy, the Dolphins should be able to bank on a non-disastrous season.  Him playing at an average level is a win, especially with this paltry group of receivers.  Trading Jarvis Landry was mind-boggling; they have no No.1 receiver for Tannehill to throw 90 balls to.  DeVante Parker has to step up; Kenny Stills can’t be relied on too heavily and Amendola is a 3rd option.  Kenyan Drake would be able to catch passes out of the backfield, but he’ll have a massive workload already given that Frank Gore (Is he 40 yet?  Are we close?) is currently the 2nd running back.

A good offensive line should help, though.  Josh Sitton magically appeared on this roster, bolstering an already underrated line.  I’m a little skeptical about Kenyan Drake as a lead back, but the line should help his production and take the weight off Tannehill to deliver to these receivers.

The Dolphins’ biggest problem is that they are average all around.  Even when completely healthy, Tannehill is hanging around the 13th-16th best quarterback in the league conversation.  They got rid of their best receiver and best defensive player.

I don’t know how much the defense will suffer though.  Even without Ndamkong Suh, the Dolphins are still loaded up front.  Cameron Wake is still a star, and Robert Quinn on the other side means no one is getting double-teamed.  Akeem Spence, Jordan Phillips and Andre Branch create a nice rotation up the middle as well.

That front should be enough to hide a weak core of linebackers who can’t stop the run.  The secondary, another underrated part of this team, can cover well enough that they won’t have to drop linebackers into coverage either.  The hope is that the linebackers can just take up space and clog the middle of the field.

Like the rest of the team though, the collective product is the problem.  The group might be just above average, and no one really stands out.  As you’ve read, one of the biggest themes this year is team’s defenses carrying an offense to an average record.  Miami’s defense might be sneakily underrated, but it’s not impactful enough to carry them to the playoffs.

Buffalo Bills

Projected Record: 5-11

Strengths: Defense, Running game

Weaknesses: Offensive line, Receivers

The Bills are caught right on the border of the “Should we start a rookie quarterback?” game.  They have a defense that can take pressure off the offense and a running game that can reduce possible bad decisions by whoever the quarterback is.  On the flip side, they have a dangerous (That is, dangerous to the quarterback) offensive line and zero weapons for him to get the ball too.

There’s no real upside to starting Nathan Peterman.  If you start Allen now, this is the worst he’ll be, and he can learn from those mistakes whether they are his fault or not.  You risk him getting hurt, but that’s a worst case scenario.  Peterman’s a fiasco as we learned last year.

But maybe this is an important step being taken by the Bills front office.  It’s a step of pure competence, which has been lacking over the past couple of years.  Maybe we should applaud them for having the balls to admit that this team is a disaster, in fact, such a disaster that we maybe shouldn’t put our franchise quarterback at risk.  Sure, it’s not a great look, because they’re admitting to idiotic decisions over the past two years, but at least it’s not getting worse.

At the end of it, their record probably doesn’t change much no matter who plays the majority of the snaps.  Whatever quarterback gets the majority of the snaps is inexperienced; neither Peterman or Allen are making their receivers better this season.

The Bills defense is good enough to get the team to eight wins (They can generate pass rush and have talent in the secondary), but that’s ambitious when factoring in quarterback play.  Allen, who was my QB1 in the draft, will have growing pains when he plays, and Peterman is Peterman.  The talent at that position alone drops the Bills a couple of wins.

New York Jets

Projected Record: 4-12

Strengths: Back seven, running back depth

Weaknesses: Everything else

It was a struggle to find strengths on this Jets roster.

Four wins might be generous.  The Jets have pieces here and there, but no group stands out enough to make them even frisky.  This is the only team in the league where we get to say things like “Thank God for Isaiah Crowell!”

Seriously!  Crowell is a lead back who can run the ball 25 times a game if needed.  That might be the workload considering what rookie QB Sam Darnold has to work with.

I like the Jets’ weapons more than the Bills, but I like Allen and the Buffalo defense more than Darnold and the Jets’.  That’s how Buffalo finishes two games ahead of New York, assuming this Peterman thing only lasts a week or two.

But Darnold has more reliability in his receiving core than Peterman/Allen.  Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enuwa is a nice group.  Ardarius Stewart is suspended for the first two games, but could be a deep threat when he returns.

It’s not great, but it’s a better group than Buffalo.

When you’re battling the symptoms of the rookie QB disease, your defense matters immensely.  The Jets can’t count on their’s.  Leonard Williams is the only impact player on the defensive line, and a weak linebacker core will give up a crap ton of rushing yards.  The secondary is sneakily talented, but it won’t make up for the deficiencies at other positions.

I’d expect Darnold to struggle no matter how the productive his weapons are.  That will be a common theme throughout all areas of this Jets roster.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Projected record: 11-5, 1st in AFC North 

Strengths: Weapons, offensive line, secondary

Weaknesses: Linebackers, health/age

It’s hard for me to understand all the Steelers backlash coming into this season.  The Steelers might have the best set of weapons in the entire league.  They added Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, who shredded college secondaries for years with his amazing route running and after the catch feats.  He’ll be incorporated immediately, especially so considering Eli Rogers’ Week 1 suspension. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in football, and JuJu Smith-Schuster will look to follow up an impressive rookie campaign.

The Le’Veon Bell situation is a lot more legit than I expected it to be.  He’s probably not playing tomorrow, and who knows how long it will be before he does.  Even with Pittsburgh’s surrounding cast, Bell is a massive missing piece.  That’s due to the fact that Ben Rothlisberger wasn’t exactly great last year!  Health has always been Big Ben’s main concern, but we might be at the point where performance also comes into question.

The offensive line and weapons surrounding him should limit Big Ben’s downfall a little bit.  Like Brady (This doesn’t mean Big Ben is Brady), I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  He’s good till he’s not.

But the Bell thing could accelerate this.  What if he actually sits out the whole season (By the way, that’s not Le’Veon’s best interest either)?

Another (slight) concern with Pittsburgh is the front seven.  From a pass rush perspective, they’re fine.  But I worry about their ability to stop the run; their lineman are better pass rushers than run stoppers, and the loss of Ryan Shazier all the sudden looms even larger.  They’ll need TJ Watt and Jon Bostic to step up and clog the lanes.

The Steelers’ division projects to be a competitive one.  There’s a chance this falls apart on them.  But even without Le’Veon, this offense is too talented.  They’re going to be fine until the day that they aren’t.

Cincinnati Bengals

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense, Weapons

Weaknesses: Offensive line, scheme

This is the 5th time I’ve written this column and I’m pretty sure I’ve had the Bengals at 8-8 every time.  Okay, maybe not, but it’s probably the maximum win total I’ve ever given them.

Literally nothing has changed with the Bengals.  It’s the same average team whose defense is the only reason they’re average.

It starts with Andy Dalton.  Stuck somewhere between the 16th and 20th best quarterback in the league, Dalton just isn’t taking any offense to the next level.  He’s so average that this offense, which is loaded with some talented weapons, is actually hurt by his bare competence.  AJ Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd and Tyler Eifert is deadly arsenal, but Dalton and Marvin Lewis’ inability to turn this offense into a dynamic one wastes it.  Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard also have the capability to be useful, but not in a boring, old-fashioned offense.

The saddest part about the Bengals is that they have the two most important pieces for success: A great defense and a cache of weapons to make life easier for a flawed (or not) QB in a good system.

Yet they haven’t found that success.  I mean, I guess success is not losing more than you win?

Cleveland Browns

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Relevance, secondary, offensive line, running back

Weaknesses: Linebacker, history, “The Browns”,  coaching

I cannot believe I typed “7-9” after letters which arranged to say “Projected record” underneath a title called “Cleveland Browns”.

I mean, what.

Let’s make the case.  Cleveland has at least one quarterback who can be competent (We should keep in mind that Tyrod Taylor was more than competent with a horrible set of weapons last season), a running back who can take on a 20 carry load (Carlos Hyde), another who can serve as a secondary runner and pass catcher out of the backfield (Duke Johnson Jr.) and a third who can be a third down back or takeover as a primary rusher incase of injury or underperformance from Hyde (Nick Chubb).  They made an awesome trade for a No.1 receiver (Jarvis Landry) and might have another No.1 returning to superstar status (Josh Gordon).  The offensive line is sneakily one of the best in football despite losing Joe Thomas, which will help whichever QB is manning the pocket.

The defense took a hit with the odd loss of Mychal Kendricks, who I believed would’ve been super effective for them.  He’s now gone, which only leaves the sketchy Jamie Collins and some other dudes in the linebacker core.  They’re also a little weak on the defensive front, though Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah can torture QBs.  Run defense, given their tackles and linebackers, is an issue.

I am a fan of the secondary.  The Damarious Randall trade was creative and worked; shedding DeShone Kizer and bringing in a starting caliber safety while not giving up too much draft capital.  The trade allows Randall to play his normal position, safety, rather than at cornerback, where Green Bay had him playing the past two years, mostly due to massive holes left by injury.  They have youngsters Denzel Ward and Jabril Peppers back there as well.  Ward at No.4 overall was high for me in the draft, and Peppers was a point of conflict for me in his respective draft.  His versatility fits this Cleveland well; they need him at safety and at linebacker.  Still, the two are at least interesting and promising.  If Peppers takes a step forward and Ward plays like the No.4 overall pick, then it’s going to be sneakily hard to throw on the Browns.

0-16 to 7-9 seems insane, and it actually is.  I mean, this is the Browns we’re talking about.  One of the biggest things this team has going against it is that right there: That they’re the Browns.  But I do believe there is talent here, and that some of that talent is real.  It’s real in the secondary, it’s real at quarterback (no matter who is playing), it’s real in the offensive line, and it’s real with their weapons.  It doesn’t really fit any of the formulas I’ve crafted for teams this season, but it just feels good.  And I’m rooting for it.

Baltimore Ravens

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Lines, secondary 

Weaknesses: Linebacker, quarterback, weapons

You know what I’m not rooting for?  The Ravens to be any better than they deserve.

If you read Thursday, I wrote that I was tired of the teams who had average rosters in general getting away with mediocre seasons due to the fact that their defense was extremely good or that their owner didn’t want to fire a coach or whatever other stupid reason (Cough, Detroit.  You can cough for Washington and Cincinnati for the previous two sentences).  You have to have something going for you to earn that 8-8 “We have a good defense but no offense” record.  The Jaguars have Leonard Fournette.  They get it.  The Giants have Saquon Barkley.  They get it.

The Ravens don’t have anything.  Lamar Jackson makes a case, but I find it unlikely they’ll make that change this season unless Joe Flacco sinks to levels we haven’t seen (or levels that the Ravens are finally horrified by).

Baltimore’s offense isn’t exciting.  It’s Flacco and receivers who are mediocre, unproven or haven’t had a big enough sample size to be properly judged (That’s Willie Snead, who I am a big fan of).  Alex Collins seems like he’s the future back for Baltimore, but could be in for a regression season after bursting onto the scene last season.

That’s countered by their offensive line, which, with Marshall Yanda and Ronnie Stanley, is anchored on the ends.  I worry about the interior, but Yanda is so good that it may not matter too much.

Still, an offense with no star receivers and Joe Flacco is not promising.  The defense is gonna have to save them.  It’s good enough to.

The line is stacked.  Brandon Williams is one of the best run stuffers in the league, and Terrell Suggs is still chugging along and terrorizing QBs.  The pass rush besides Suggs is a little weak, but Williams and Brent Urban can get to the quarterback.  Linebacker is also a bit weak besides CJ Mosley, but the run defense is good enough up front to make up for it.

The most dominate part of the defense is the secondary.  Marlon Humphrey will only get better in his 2nd year, and Brandon Carr is a solid corner.  Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are a ridiculous pair.

Maybe I’m being too mean.  I’m just bored of Flacco.  I’m not sure how much better Jackson would make them from a wins perspective, but from an excitement/”lets switch this up” perspective, it’s needed.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Projected record: 10-6

Strengths: Skill positions, defensive line, secondary

Weaknesses: Offensive line, linebacker

I am in love with this team.

The offensive line is a massive concern, especially considering that the Texans probably won’t want DeShaun Watson running around as much given he’s coming off an ACL.  But it’s the only real concern this team has.  Their middle linebackers don’t have a ton of talent, but with JJ Watt at the core of the run defense, it’s not a huge concern.

DeShaun Watson is back, and that’s the key to this team.  His electric play is unpredictable, and he has one of the three best receivers in the league to throw too. Every play has the potential to be a touchdown with this offense.  Deandre Hopkins can catch anything, and Will Fuller is a boom or bust receiver.

But the Texans can be consistent offensively as well instead of relying on big plays.  Lamar Miller is an above average lead back.  He’s good enough to somewhat overcome the line.

Watson being the key to this team seems strange when they possess one of the best defenses in the NFL, but it’s more about Watson being the key to some serious success, rather than just winning the division.  The defense can get them to the playoffs alone.  Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is terrifying; you have to double team both, which means you’re lining up with a tight end every time and can’t block whatever blitz is coming.  You can’t win against this front.

The pressure is one thing, but having no open receivers is worse.  The Texans’ secondary is stacked.  The addition of Tyrann Mathieu hurt my feelings deeply and took this secondary to a new level.  Mathieu’s performance was up and down in his last few seasons as a Cardinals, but he’ll excel in Houston’s scheme.  They have two solid cornerbacks in Jonathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson, and Aaron Colvin as a nice 3rd option.

I think Houston has a chance not only to go deep in the playoffs, but even make the Super Bowl.  There’s only three teams in the AFC that I think can make it there, and I’ve written on all three.  If the Patriots are hurt by their lack of weapons, poor defense or a potential decline from Brady, and if Pittsburgh is without Le’Veon Bell and/or Big Ben is done, the Texans are sitting right there.  They’re ready.

Tennessee Titans

Projected record: 9-7

Strengths: Defense, offensive line 

Weaknesses: Quarterback, playmakers 

This Tennessee team projection came in a lot higher than I thought it would. The defense is very talented, and I like Mike Vrabel as head coach.  There still a lot of questions on the offense end, however.

The debate between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the 2014 draft is still ongoing, and that’s in the worst way possible. Neither have been the quarterback we expected them to be. With Mariota, it feels more like it’s been a scheme issue rather than a talent issue. The Titans have never put adequate weapons around him, and have failed to do so this year as well.  They need Corey Davis to step up after being complete afterthought last season.  Rishard Matthews is a decent slot receiver, but can drift out of games.  Delanie Walker is a nice target, but has the same problem as Matthews.  There’s no real playmakers on this roster.

The Titans can rely on Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, two power runners who are both able to come out of the backfield and catch passes, but that would be too predictable at times especially if there’s no RPO action being used. It’d be interesting to see Mariota in that type of system, one more similar to the one he ran in college. But once again, the weapons are a serious issue.

The biggest reason the Titans came in at 9-7 is their sneakily good defense. They have a surplus of run suffers upfront, and have a ridiculous linebacker corps featuring two rookies who I really liked in the draft in Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.  With Evans and Landry, the Titans can bring Derek Morgan and Brian Orakpo off the edge to help the pass rush. With their big men up front, they can’t generate a lot right now.  Orakpo and Morgan can help fill that role assuming Landry and Evans are as NFL ready as I believe them to be.

The secondary is equally as talented.  They went out and signed Kenny Vaccaro Malcolm Butler and poached Logan Ryan as well. Ryan and Butler are both former players of new head coach Mike Vrabel.  Both should fit the system well and won’t have too much of an adjustment to make.  Also, they have the electric Adoree Jackson in the secondary, but he may not get too much playing time with the caliber of their starters.  He’ll make an impact on special teams though, and if Tennessee want to get funky they can use Jackson on offense more often since they lack that spark.

Jacksonville and Tennessee are in similar places offensively, but I like the potential with the Titans a little more.  There’s more talent and a higher ceiling.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense

Weaknesses: Quarterback, weapons 

8-8 seems mean for a team that made it to the AFC Championship Game last season.  But the first thing we need to consider is that the trip to that game didn’t exactly have everything to do with Jacksonville and more with their competition.  They played a Bills team that didn’t want to be there and a Steelers team that was incompetently coached.  They got amazing production out of Leonard Fournette, and made things easier for Blake Bortles, who miraculously put together a non-disastourous season.

What are the odds that happens again?  Fournette was key to Bortles’ success last year.  He reduced the amount of times Bortles had to throw an interception, and got chunk yards with big plays.  Could he be in for a simple regression season?

Couple that with the fact that this team is depleted with receivers and you have an offense that’s consistently bailed out by its defense, leading to the good ole’ reliable 8-8 record.

Seriously, what was Jacksonville thinking when they let teams steal their weapons? Even with Marquis Lee lining up on the outside, there’s no one to throw to.  Kaelin Cole is in no way a No.1 option, and Donte Moncrief can’t stay healthy.  I do like the prospectus of Dede Westbrook and DJ Chark.  Chark is a lightning rod, and Westbrook brings some big play ability.  Still, it’s not a group that is going to get Bortles to play exceptionally well.

There’s a ton of loaded defenses in the NFL and this another one of them.  It looks like a defense you’d draft in Madden franchise mode.  Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Marcel Dareus are big men who can make things happen in the trenches (The run defense issue is strange.  On paper, this works).  Myles Jack is a fierce player, and Telvin Smith is criminally underrated.  They might have the two best cornerbacks in league in addition to one of the best safeties.  I mean, it’s just totally unfair.

Not only do the Jags have a defense good enough to get them to eight wins, but it’s probably good enough to exceed that.  They will probably win more than eight games.  But I don’t feel great, and I don’t think you can blame me about not betting on Blake Bortles to any way elevate a team.  The most success Jacksonville is going to get out of this core is what they did last year.  Without a change on the offensive side, they’re only gonna be heading downward.

Indianapolis Colts

Projected record: 3-13

Strengths: T.Y. Hilton, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Malik Hooker, Jurrell Casey, Jabaal Sheard, Andrew Luck (?)

Weaknesses: Everybody else

My god this team is terrible.

You know it’s bad when you have to individually list players as the team strengths and weaknesses.  They have no collective group that can be considered a strength. Most of their position groups are weaknesses. It’s not great.

They have a couple position groups where there are more than two good players.  Quenton Nelson was the most NFL ready player in the draft, and Ryan Kelly should be able to return to his rookie self after suffering a season ending injury last season year.

Jurrell Casey is one of the best run stuffers in the league, and Jabaal Sheard is a quality edge rusher.

The rest of the guys are on their own.  T.Y. Hilton is the only real weapon they have, though I do like the potential of Eric Ebron finding himself again and Jack Doyle being productive.  No matter what, all this circles back to the biggest question surrounding the Colts.

As long as he’s not horrific, it’s gonna be really good to have Andrew Luck back.  It may not be the case with this team, but he has that Aaron Rodgers/LeBron James like quality to bring any team to the playoffs, no matter how bad the talent is surrounding him.  That is, assuming he’s healthy.

That’s the biggest question here.

A fully healthy Andrew Luck could pull this team to seven wins.  But the man has literally not played football in over a year and a half.

It’s scary doubting someone as talented as Luck, but I think it’s a pretty genuine concern.  If he shows any signs of rust, meaning, if he can’t play to his full ability, then this team is screwed.  He’s their only hope.  I don’t know if we see his peak this year.  Throughout the course of his injury, it seems like no one, not even the Colts, have known how long this would take.  I’m tired of guessing.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Offense, secondary

Weaknesses: Run defense 

First of all, let’s recognize the fact that I published this year’s column without calling them the San Diego Chargers.

I never know what to do with this team anymore.  They always let me down.  And I’m assuming I’m like everyone else.  The Chargers Super Bowl picks make sense, the team is ridiculously talented, especially on the offensive end. But we have to remember that these are the Chargers.  They carry the same weight as the Browns these days.  It’s the fact that they’re the Chargers and the Chargers are going to do Chargers things.  The Browns are the Browns, and they’re going to do Browns things.

The Chargers have already had multiple Chargers things happen.  Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett are both out already with season ending injuries. I’m not projecting them this way, but we know that at least two more Chargers things are going to happen over the course of the season.  That doesn’t account for the stupid games they might lose by missing kicks, throwing interceptions, or whatever else the Chargers can manage to do in tight situations.

So again, take this projection with a grain of salt.  It’s probably not going to happen. Our projection and is based on talent and the Chargers have the most out of any roster in the division.

The offense is loaded. With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams healthy, they have two dynamic receivers who can make plays downfield.  Allen’s one of the best route-runners in the league, which will help Philip Rivers as he continues to age. Los Angeles also has Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin as big play guys.  This offensive can be dynamite.

The offensive line is in good shape, which means the Chargers can ground and pound with Melvin Gordon if Rivers really falls off.

The Chargers have multiple ways they can score.  They have one of the best weapons corps in the league and have a dominant running game. 

I do however, feel like this defense might be a little over-hyped.  Joey Bosa’s a beast, but he’s already slated to miss Week One. They have Melvin Ingram, but part of what makes them dominant is the fact that they can play both of those guys at the same time.  It makes life hell for offensive tackles.  

The run defense is also a serious issue.  Their linebacking core isn’t great, as they’re relying on multiple rookies to make an impact.  That includes guys like Kyzir White and Justin Jones. If teams are going to score on this defense, it’s going to be that way, because they won’t dare throw ball on them due to the pressure and the secondary.  

The secondary is extremely deep, even with the loss of Jason Verrett.  Before Verrett’s injury, the Chargers had two of the 10 best cornerbacks in the league. They still have one in Casey Heyward, and Trevor Williams is a pretty good third cornerback.  They also have Desmond King, who stepped up big time when Verrett went down last year as well.  They also have Derwin James; he’s going to get playing time right away and might be able to be interchangeable back there. 

If we are going based on talent, the Chargers should be one of the best teams in the league. But with all the Chargers things they’ve had happen over the past years, and their weird stadium situation, we can’t put too much hope into them.

Kansas City Chiefs

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Weapons, linebacker

Weaknesses: Run defense, quarterback

Like San Francisco, the Chiefs enter the season as one of the more overhyped teams of the season.

I understand the case for them.  Patrick Mahomes has a big arm, and that’s attractive.  He’s a gunslinger that we really haven’t seen before.  The Chiefs have a dynamic, explosive offense that might be really tough to stop.  They have a good but not great defense that’ll have to rely on multiple young pieces.

The overall theme here is that the Chiefs are relying on a lot of youth.  It’s all over the roster, but it’s also at the helm of the offense.  

I was out on Patrick Mahomes his 2017 draft class.  I thought the idea of him being a first rounder was insane, let alone the Chiefs drafting and not starting him right away.  No matter how bad he was, it would’ve been worth it considering that the other option was Alex Smith. 

Now is his opportunity.

I am notably out on college quarterbacks who came out of an air rate system; there’s hardly any track record of those QBs having success in the NFL.  However, the Chiefs are doing the best they can to replicate the offense for Mahomes, in a way that will make him successful at this level.  They went out and gave Sammy Watkins a little bit too much money, and have Tyreek Hill as a dynamite player.  I can see former Oregon stand-out DeAnthony Thomas having a big role in this offense as well, given his big play potential.

Where I am probably underrating Kansas City is in the run game.  If Mahomes seriously struggles, they can at least rely on Kareem Hunt to rack up yards.  No matter what, the offense is much more potent than the one they’ve had in the past, because even if Mahomes’ big plays are limited, they are at least big plays. 

But there was another element to the Kansas City teams of the past three years, and that’s the defensive side of the ball.  I don’t believe it plays as prominent as a role this season, and that is not a good thing.  The defensive roster is much less talented than it has been in years past.  Guys like Donteri Poe and Tamba Hali are gone.

Their defensive linemen are a tough evaluation.  Chris Jones and Justin Houston can get to the quarterback, but they don’t have run defense in the middle.  Their linebackers, however, can make up for that.  I’m a big fan of Reggie Ragland, and Anthony Hitchens is fine.

The secondary got a lot better per the Alex Smith trade, where they picked up Kendall Fuller for basically nothing.  He, Steven Nelson, and Orlando Scandrick make a pretty decent cornerback rotation.  Eric Berry and Ron Parker in the middle aren’t a bad pair either.

Besides the secondary though, there’s a lot of  “meh” on this defense.  It’s just fine.  We were never saying that about the Alex Smith-era Chiefs defense.  That’s why I am not totally sold on this team for this season.  Mahomes is not going to have the defense Smith had to fall back on.  The idea that that Mahomes is automatically going to be a stud is very daunting.  He has extreme accuracy issues, and the offense that KC is going to run is not going to help him improve that.  He’s going to make mistakes, and the defense will not have his back.  In no way is that a team that can go deep in the playoffs.  

Denver Broncos

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense 

Weaknesses: Quarterback

This is about as simple as it gets.

The Broncos are the simplest evaluation out of the mediocre/going nowhere/lackluster offense/good defensive teams.  They have an amazingly talented defense and a very average quarterback.

As you can tell, I’m still not ready to believe in Case Keenum.  I’ll die on the hill that proclaims last year was a fluke.  He had the best defense in the league as well as two of the top 10 receivers, along with amazing coaching.  The Broncos have one of those three things.

The defense, as it has been for years, is still ridiculous.  Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should not be able to come off the edges; it should actually be illegal.  The secondary is anchored by Chris Harris, who is one of the five best cornerbacks in the league, and the hard-hitting Darian Stewart.

It’s legitimate, and it will get Denver eight wins.  But the talent on the offensive side of the ball is nowhere close to what Minnesota had last year.  Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are good, solid receivers, but I’m not sure they’re helping out a quarterback.  I like the prospectus of DaeSean Hamilton and Cortland Sutton; Hamilton was a beast at Penn State, and Sutton was a first round talent they got in the 2nd round.  They have the have weapons, I’d just like to see them in use with a different quarterback.

I do not understand how anyone can justify the contract the Broncos gave Keenum. The contract essentially says “We think you can get us to the Super Bowl, and oh by the way, nice job last season.” Keenum is getting above average QB money, when his ceiling is probably average.  

We had never seen Keenum be good until last year, when he had the best defense in the league, two of the ten best receivers in the league, and excellent coaching.  He was put into the most perfect situation and played pretty well in it.  Thinking Keenum is the type a quarterback who can do it him himself is incredibly flawed.

I won’t crap on Keenum too much, because in this offense, which has failed to move the ball the past two years, he won’t have a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. That said the Broncos can go 8-8 because Keenum won’t squander the defense’s performance.  He may not add on to it, but he won’t waste it.  That’s the definition of an 8-8 team.

Oakland Raiders

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Secondary 

Weaknesses: Age, coaching

I don’t think this team is terrible, but there is certainly nothing interesting.

The offense feels like it’s going to have trouble moving the ball, due to a lack of playmakers and explosiveness.  The defense is incredibly old and in no sense is better than last year‘s.  And they downgraded at coach.  And they traded their best player for nothing.

I want to like the offense, but I just can’t.  I am a Derek Carr fan; I don’t think he’s the issue.  Amari Cooper is one of the more up-and-down receivers in the league, and Seth Roberts cannot be relied as a second option. Jordy Nelson is probably the second option, but at 33 you have to wonder how much he’s got.  It’s going to be weird seeing Nelson in another uniform, and I wonder if a new offensive scheme may bring down his effectiveness.

Again, there’s a lot of age here.  You have to wonder how much Marshawn Lynch has left in the tank.  If he’s out, your offense is featuring yet another up-and-down player in Doug Martin.

The defense, aside from the secondary, is the weakest spot on this team, as it has been for years.  They have some pass rush after the Kahlil Mack trade; Bruce Irvin, Arden Key and Frostee Rucker is decent.  But Irvin and Rucker are old, and you have to wonder how effective Key will be given that he’s a rookie.  Their linebackers are a little troubling, Derrick Johnson is a good run stuffer, but like the rest of the team is getting up there in age.  Tahir Whitehead looks good on paper, but he wasn’t exactly making plays for Detroit the past few years.

I do like the secondary.  Gareon Conley and Nick Nelson are both pretty young, but the Raiders need that given the rest of the roster.  Nelson is someone who I think can be a shutdown corner someday; expect him to have an impact right away.   

The Raiders are confusing.  I could see them being horrendous, or I could see them at 9-7.  I went kind of in the middle.  But the 6-10 record is reflective of one thing: I didn’t have any trust in Jon Gruden when he was hired, and nothing he’s done since has help me gain any.  And the scary part is that he hasn’t even coached a game.

AFC Playoff Picture

  1. New England Patriots
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Los Angeles Chargers
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Tennessee Titans
  6. Jacksonville Jaguars

The 6th seed came down to four teams that I had very little nice things to say about: Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Denver.  Welcome to the AFC, everybody!

2018-2019 NFL Preview: NFC

As you’ll see tomorrow, the NFC is certainly the more interesting and better conference.  That’s why I’m not making you wait for it.

I mean, the NFL also isn’t making you wait for it, given that two NFC teams play tonight.

The AFC preview will go up tomorrow afternoon.  I’m splitting them up because 1) We’ve done it this way almost every year.  2) College is A LOT of work.

A couple rules for this column first.

  1. People have mentioned to me that, if you add up all the records of all 30 teams in the NFL, it should equal a .500 winning percentage.
  2. I know that, and have known that every year writing this column.  The point here isn’t to predict every game right.  It’s to project each team based on what they should be and what they can be.  We can’t predict injuries, for example.  That can make a 10-6 team go to a 5-11 team.  Teams lose games they aren’t expected to lose.  We can’t predict that in this column either.  The record projected is based how much talent the team has and how hard their schedule is.  That is the greatest indicator of performance, not predicting each and every game throughout the season.

Anyways, now that that’s out of the way, enjoy the game tonight.  And enjoy 6,100 words on a conference that has six playoff teams and six Super Bowl contenders.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker, wide receiver 

Can you name any other team this equipped to handle their starting quarterback not playing in Week 1?

I’m not too worried about Nick Foles starting even multiple games this season if necessary.  No evaluation of anything should ever come out of the preseason, and the Eagles have, as we saw last postseason, one of the best support systems in the league for an average-to-below average QB.

An 11-5 record with Carson Wentz not starting is ambitious, but it seems like the Eagles are just being cautious right now with him, which is the reason for Foles starting Week 1.

Once they’re full strength, the Eagles have a couple minor holes.  Their main weapons at wide-out are still tops in the league, but they lack the depth they had last season.  That’s made up for with their running back rotation though, which features multiple pass catchers and dynamic runners.

Another minor nit-pick with this Eagles team is their linebackers.  It’s minor because the Eagles defensive line is equally equipped to defend the run and rush the quarterback, but an injury up front could put more pressure on the middle men.

This is where the loss of Mychal Kendricks hurts, but it’s not like he would have been there even if he remained an Eagle.

The two minor issues, and more importantly Wentz’s uncertain return, gives the Eagles only 11 wins, rather than a 12-13 win season that we expect from this type of powerhouse.

Dallas Cowboys

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Ground and pound, linebacker

Weaknesses: Weapons, secondary 

I’m not as sour on this Cowboys team as most people.  It starts with their almost completely healthy offensive line, and the premise that Dak Prescott is a good quarterback.

Travis Frederick is the only Cowboys starter on the O-Line who won’t play in Week 1.  It’s a loss, but it doesn’t have the same impact that losing Zack Martin and Tyron Smith on top of Frederick would.

With their line mostly back, Ezekiel Elliot should return to his rookie form.  Last season was a combination of two things:  Suspension taking him out of the season’s flow, and normal, expected regression after a fantastic first year.

The rest of the help surrounding Dak Prescott isn’t great.  The Cowboys essentially have three receivers in Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams.  Calling Williams a legitimate target is stretching it, and their so-called 4th receiver is Tavon Austin, who’s been nothing more than a utility guy who only excels in certain schemes.  The Dallas power and play action scheme is not his best fit.

Dallas’ defense got better though.  They signed Datone Jones and drafted Leighton Vander-Esch, who was one of the most NFL ready players in the draft.  Assuming injuries don’t destroy them like usual, a linebacking core of Vander-Esch, Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith is pretty intriguing.  The run defense, even with the newly-signed Jones, is the weaknesses of the line.  Vander-Esch and Lee should be able to make up those for deficiencies since they aren’t the type to drop back in coverage.

But, the secondary is still a disaster; so bad that it could bring this defense down to the level it was at last season.

That, combined with the offense’s potential to stutter, and stutter bad, is why I can’t go higher than eight wins for this team.  Like multiple other teams that you’ll see below and tomorrow, there’s nothing that points to this offense being a dynamic one; their scheme and plays are going to be too predictable.  Defenses will figure it out, and the offense won’t be able to rely on the other side of ball to bail them out in games.

New York Giants

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense 

Weaknesses: Weapons, quarterback

On paper, the Giants are better than the Cowboys.

I have both teams at 8-8 but Dallas finishing higher.  Why?  Though Saquon Barkley could have just as productive of a season as Elliot, Barkley’s a rookie and has a much worse offensive line, which won’t help him battle through those rookie ups and downs he may experience.  Plus, if the running game isn’t there, I’ll take Dak Prescott over 37 year old Eli Manning to make things happen.  The lack of weapons cancel out even though New York has the 2nd or 3rd best receiver in the league; the Giants don’t even have a Tavon Austin like-flyer to take a chance on.

The Giants have the potential to exceed 8-8 though.  The defense alone gets them there.  They’ll be great against the run and have Olivier Vernon to put pressure on opposing QBs (If there is a weaknesses, it’s the pass rush).  The secondary is talented, but they’ll need Eli Apple to not be a complete disaster.

Making the case that a Manning-led offense can be above average is daunting, but the hope is that Barkley can make such an impact that Eli doesn’t have to do a whole lot.  That, combined with Odell Beckham Jr. being one of the best receivers in the league, is all there is to it.  Yeah, it’s really not a strong one.  Dallas gets the edge because of that.

Washington Redskins

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Offensive line, front seven

Weaknesses: Quarterback, competence 

I’m out on this team.  The simplest way to look at the Redskins is by crafting it this way:  It’s a Alex Smith-led offense with a defense not good enough to bring a team to eight wins.

Not great.

The offense is very much like the one the Chiefs had during Smith’s tenure there:  A cache of running backs who can catch passes out of the backfield and have speciality roles, but none who can be given 20+ carries a game (Obviously that changed last year) and receivers who are good when they’re playing their best, but playing their best is the hard part.

Alex Smith has been the only consistent part of any offense he’s been on, and that’s also the problem.  Without a dominant defense, you aren’t going anywhere with an average quarterback.   Even Andy Reid couldn’t get him out of his ways.

I don’t believe Washington got a whole lot worse at quarterback this offseason, but they certainly didn’t get better.  The belief that Smith will radically change an offense, which is the belief the Redskins made with that awful February trade (Kendall Fuller and a 3rd round pick?  When your secondary was one of the worst in the league last season?), is false hope.  Smith’s never made his receivers better and can only get the ball 10 yards downfield.  So long for Josh Doctson ever turning into the downfield threat we expected him to be.

Washington has neither a dynamic offense nor a dominant defense.  That’s the path to a below .500 record.

I like the front seven, but it’s a couple years away.  The Redskins are starting Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne, young Alabama players who I both liked in their respective drafts.  But Allen’s heading into his 2nd year and Payne’s a rookie.  Relying on those two as your whole run defense is problematic.  Their linebackers are good enough to make up for that, but the 3-4 system generates no pass rush.  Combine that with a secondary that should improve but was one of the worst groups in the league for no reason last year, and nothing really stands out.

Washington should rebuild, but a delusional owner won’t allow that.  Instead, their drastic change won’t get them any farther.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings

Projected record: 12-4

Strengths: The whole roster

Weaknesses: Quarterback?

It’s not often where we get to toss around the word “loaded” when it comes to NFL rosters.

This is one of those times.

When Kirk Cousins (Even though I’ve never been a massive fan of him, he’s still an above average QB), is listed as a weakness on a NFL team, you’re loaded.

The Vikings have the most talented defense in the league.  Their secondary was shutdown last season and only got better.  They have immense depth at corner and safety.  Mike Hughes (their first round pick), Mackensie Alexander (their 2nd round pick two years ago who dominated at Clemson), George Iloka and Marcus Sherels make up their backups in the secondary.  That’s a young, promising starting group anywhere else.

I’d expect the young corners to get snaps right away.  With Terrence Newman retiring and Trae Waynes as close to being called a bust as we can get, the Vikings should start trying out new faces.  Sure they’re young, but this defense can get away with that.

The offense is also one of the most talented groups in the league.  Dalvin Cook’s return gives Minnesota an element they didn’t have last year: A dominant runner who doubles as an incredible pass catcher.  Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs are two of the ten best receivers in the league, and perhaps Laquon Treadwell can lose his bust label.

And then there’s Kirk Cousins, who is the only source of doubt I have with this Vikings roster.

It’s worth pointing out that a poor performance from Cousins probably won’t matter.  We’ve talked quite a bit about defenses that can bring a team to eight wins. Minnesota certainly has that, and their defense might be the only one that exceeds that benchmark.  Think about it.  If you put Andy Dalton on this team, would they win 10 games?  Probably.

I guess my concern with Cousins isn’t his regular season performance.  The Vikings surrounding cast, offense and defense, is good enough to make up for it.  The concern comes when Minnesota is a high seed in the playoffs.  When have we ever seen Cousins succeed in high pressure situations?  The downside with Cousins has always been the interceptions and fumbles, especially in the clutch.  Minnesota’s good enough to be in those situations.  How will he play?

As we’ve seen in the past, Cousins’ turnovers and poor decisions have cost teams a whole season before.  Costing this Minnesota team a season means possibly costing them a Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers 

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Secondary, Quarterback

Weaknesses: Weapons, pass rush

This division is fantastic and a lot of that is due to the fact that Aaron Rodgers is back.

Oh, and he has Jimmy Graham to throw to.

A slight problem may be that he’s the only person to throw to.

Though he doesn’t need much, what’s surrounding Rodgers is concerning.  Jordy Nelson’s release didn’t make any sense, and the Packers are left with Davante Adams as their No.1.  Adams has teetered between a No.1 and No.2 option throughout his career so far.  Drops and injuries have plagued him at times.  If either occur, the Packers offense could be in real trouble.  Green Bay only has two other viable targets after Adams: Randall Cobb and Graham.

It’s not a very deep or talented core.  The scheme, as we’ve seen over the past two years, isn’t great either.  Maybe Rodgers should just throw to Jimmy Graham every time.

I defended that contract when it signed and will still do so.  Graham isn’t the same player he was in New Orleans, but he’s still a deadly weapon, especially over the middle of the field, where the new helmet rules might give him even more open looks.

I don’t think we’re talking enough about how ridiculous this pairing could be.  You could make the case Rodgers has never had a target like this.  He’ll utilize it well.  I mean, it’s not like he has many other options.

The defensive side of the ball was another serious issue for the Packers last year.  Considering the task, they actually did a good job fixing those issues.  Muhammed Wilkerson gives them at least some pass rush, and they upgraded a secondary which was absolutely horrific last season.

I love what the Packers did in the secondary.  Whether it works or not is dependent on injuries and how well the youth plays, but it’s a promising group.  Kevin King should take a step forward given that his shoulder issue doesn’t re-emerge; in-case it does, the Packers invested heavily in cornerback depth.  That’s also incase age catches up with Tramon Williams, who will start the season as the 2nd cornerback.  Green Bay took Louisville’s Jaire Alexander with their first round pick, a pick that I thought should have been used on Iowa’s Josh Jackson.  They ended up with both, as Jackson stunningly fell to the 2nd round.  I was higher on Jackson; he was the best cornerback in the Big Ten last season and tortured quarterbacks.  He’s ready, which is fantastic news for Green Bay given Williams’ age.  Their depth allows them to rotate guys frequently, and gives their young guys critical experience.

If you put any other quarterback on this team, it wouldn’t be pretty.  We experienced that last season.  A roster depleted of the two most important pieces to a NFL team (Pass rush and weapons) should not win 11 games.  When Aaron Rodgers is in charge though, anything’s possible.  I’m not doubting that man.

Chicago Bears

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Weapons, pass rush, secondary

Weaknesses: Quarterback, experience, chemistry

If the Bears were a NBA team, they’d be very high up on the league pass rankings and would be just on the cusp of the playoffs.  This year’s Bears team is what the Denver Nuggets have been for years.

I didn’t have time to write a column about the Kahlil Mack trade, so let’s evaluate the Bears side of it now.  The draft capital they gave up was significant, but Mack is one of the three best players at not only a loaded position, but the most important position on defense and one of the two most important on any team.  Mack takes this Bears defense from a talented but young one to a defense that can boost an average team to eight wins, or even better.  The Bears now have Mack and Leonard Floyd on the edge, and a good run defense up the middle.  The linebackers are a little concerning, but they have some good depth thanks to their draft day and the flyer contracts they signed in the offseason.  Sam Acho is a decent backup, and Roquan Smith should be able to contribute in Week 1 assuming he’s fully ready to go.  I also like Aaron Lynch as a 5th linebacker.

The picks given up almost made me sick, but Oakland’s side of the trade made me even sicker.  The Bears have surrendered a ton of future picks between this trade and the Mitchell Trubisky trade-up, but both are looking like they’ll pay off.  Mack is Mack, and as we’ll get into later, the offense is very close.

Two first round picks, a 3rd and a 6th is a mind-boggling amount for any player.  But the Bears absolutely finessed Oakland by getting a future 3rd rounder along with Mack.  That, considering how much they gave up, is worth the equivalent of a 1st.

This deal couldn’t have been better for Chicago and couldn’t have been worse for Oakland.  Handing Mack the largest defensive contract ever is daunting, but given his rank at his position, he’s 100 percent worth it.

The Mack trade takes the Bears defense to another level, but it may not pay off this year.  That’s fine since Mack’s contract is six years long.

Chicago has a 2nd year quarterback who may or may not be good, brought in a new head coach, and completely revamped their receiving core.  There’s a lot of new faces here, and that includes Mack.  Pass rushers as dominant as Mack aren’t totally affected by scheme, but his impact may be reduced as the whole team will be learning a new system.  Also consider that one of the defenders they’ll rely on the most is a rookie (Smith).

The offense is extremely talented.  The Allen Robinson contract was the bargain of the offseason.  Assuming his Achilles tear doesn’t have too drastic of an impact on his athleticism, Robinson is automatically the No.1 option, and a pretty dang good one for a developing QB.    Taylor Gabriel gives them a quick underneath option in the slot, and Anthony Miller caught everything in his sight in college.  Trey Burton can get open across the middle, and should be a great RPO option in the passing game.

The Bears are so loaded that the two receivers they counted on (and didn’t get anything out of) two years ago are just depth guys.  It’s a plus if Kevin White is anything at this point (If he’s the dude we thought he was gonna be coming out of college… hoo boy), and Josh Bellamy as a 5th receiver is a ridiculous display of riches.

Oh yeah… we haven’t even gotten to the running backs.  Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are an electric pair; Howard can be a touchdown machine on the ground and the same can be said of Cohen in multiple ways.

Cohen’s not a reliable option like Howard or Robinson, but when he breaks out, no one can catch him.  Whether it’s on the ground, out of the backfield or on kickoffs, Cohen is a wild-card on every play.  If he disappears during games, it doesn’t matter.  The good plays make up for it, and it’s not like the Bears are toast without him.

So how is this team only going 7-9?  I think it’s fair to say that this will be like a 2nd rookie year for Trubisky; he wasn’t good last season, has a whole new offense to learn and all new weapons around him.  Everyone’s adjusting in Chicago.  Trubisky has the toughest adjustment to make.  And remember, a bad quarterback can be bad enough to squander even the best defense.

Detroit Lions

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Secondary 

Weaknesses: Competence 

Like Washington, the Lions are stuck in the middle.

Not bad enough to be terrible but underwhelming and average enough to not get a lot of respect.

It’s the same thing every year and nothing changes.

And I’m tired of projecting the same record for them, so this year I’m going a little lower to show my displeasure with their team.

It’s just so average.  They don’t have a star running back, though I love Kerryon Johnson and think he could emerge as a lead back someday; they just need to feed him the ball and give him a chance.  The offensive line is okay.  They lack a quick, slot receiver who can be useful in RPO sets, but they have downfield receivers.  Why don’t they just go to an air-raid system?  Stafford would excel, and they have the firepower to make it happen.  The lack of depth at running back doesn’t matter in that system.

That style of play would put less pressure on the defense, which, like the rest of the team, is very average.  Ziggy Ansah is their only real pass rusher, and there’s a lot of youth on the line.  Run defense will also be an issue with their linebacking core.

I do like the secondary though.  Darius Slay is underrated when healthy, and Glover Quin is a good safety.  It’s not impactful enough to bring the defense to an above average level, but it’s at least a strength.

The Lions, unless they start really tossing it around, should probably be kept off your TV screen.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Projected record: 13-3

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker depth 

Probably the biggest surprise of the NFL preview so far.  I was not expecting the Falcons to come in at 13 wins.  This team is really solid!  You can’t find a real weakness.

The Saints are the same way.  The two teams probably have the same weakness: Linebacker and the lack of options there.

It took a quick scan of each team’s schedules to determine who’d come out on top, and for whatever reason the Falcons came out a win higher.  I’m putting way too much confidence in Steve Sarkisian.

We have to remember that we’re projecting regular season record here.  The Falcons will somehow figure out a way to screw it up or choke in the postseason; that’s just a given at this point.  But when the stakes are low, they’re close to unbeatable with this team.

Calvin Ridley being the 4th receiver on any team is ridiculous, and is even more unfair considering Matt Ryan is his quarterback.  The offensive line is one of the best in the league, and Devonta Freeman is a beast.

I also like their defensive front more than New Orleans’.  Grady Jarrett and Terrell McClain is a monster in the middle, and Vic Beasley is a terrifying block.  They have some good depth up front too with Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby.  As mentioned above, linebacker is a little sketchy, but their secondary is talented and physical.  Keanu Neal is not someone you want to meet in the middle of the field.

The Falcons might be the team in the NFL during the regular season.  They have the best record of all the teams we’ve covered so far.  But that doesn’t mean it will translate come January.  If it doesn’t, we’ll see some big changes, because there are no more excuses.

New Orleans Saints

Projected record: 12-4

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker 

I expected the Saints to come in here wins wise, just not 2nd in the division.

Them and the Falcons are neck and neck.  Both teams are loaded and have the same weakness.  The Saints’ schedule is a tad bit tougher, therefore they fall one game back.

Another way I can see New Orleans falling to 2nd place and even a couple wins lower is due to their success last year.  The Falcons made the 2nd round of the playoffs, but, as per usual, we never felt confident in them.  The Saints kicked butt during the entire course of last season.  In fact, I thought they were the best team heading into the 2nd round of the playoffs.  At that point, Philly was without Wentz, I still wasn’t believing in Case Keenum (and never did), and the Patriots defense concerned me (Boy, did that hold up or what?).

The Saints might be in for some tough yet expected regression.  Does Alvin Kamara have a sophomore slump?  Do they stay completely healthy?  Also, doubting Drew Brees is a scary proposition, but he’s 39 years old.  Again, QBs are good till they’re not, and we can usually give them the benefit of the doubt.  There’s no reason or evidence that Brees should fall off this year, but at some point it will happen.  If it’s this season, it’s just another way New Orleans falls behind the Falcons.

I still have New Orleans going 12-4.  The talent on this roster is undeniable.  Alvin Kamara is one of the best talents the league has since I launched this site.  Michael Thomas is a top five receiver, and the Saints’ investment in the offensive line a couple seasons ago is paying off.  New Orleans also quietly signed Cameron Meredith, who saw an immense amount of targets in Chicago and their No.1 receiver before their overhaul this offseason.  He’s the 4th receiver on this team.  Talk about firepower.

The defense has some questions.  There is a lack of pass rush besides Cameron Jordan, and the linebacking core isn’t exactly stacked like the rest of the team.  Sheldon Rankins should be able to help stop the run, limiting some of the pressure put on the linebackers.

The secondary is completely back and only got better.  Though it cost them their season on one fluke play, there’s no denying this is one of the best groups in the league.  Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Marcus Williams are all shutdown players, and are backed up by Patrick Robinson, Vonn Bell, and PJ Williams.  The Saints backup secondary starts on most teams in the league, and does pretty well.

Again, I have the Saints going 12-4.  They are not going to suck.  Their problems only hurt them against Atlanta, not against the rest of the league.

Carolina Panthers

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Front seven 

Weaknesses: Weapons, Secondary 

Carolina struggled immensely to the move the ball last season, despite finishing at 11-5 and making the playoffs in the once again loaded NFC South.

It didn’t get any better.  They “fixed” their offense by signing Torrey Smith (who though is a long favorite of mine, should not be a No.1 option on any team) and hiring Norv Turner, which’ll help their offense stall even more.  Christian McCaffrey is obviously here, but his presence brings a problem in itself.

He, like the Panthers offense, is too predictable.  When he’s on the field, he’s getting the ball, and defenses know that.  Carolina doesn’t have anyone as a decoy for McCaffrey, though DJ Moore’s speed and route running might open things up.  That was a fantastic pick, and was easily the best move they made.

Still, Torrey Smith isn’t taking eyes off of McCaffrey.  Moore might, but that’s cancelled out by whatever scheme Turner comes up with.

The front seven is scary.  Julius Peppers is still dominating, and he’s opposite Kawaan Short on the edges.  Dontari Poe is an underrated run stuffer, and Mario Addison is a fine 4th lineman.  Shaq Thompson is still raw in a couple areas, but his versatility can help out a weak secondary while also adding to a ridiculous front.

The secondary is in a weird spot.  James Bradberry is their No.1, but elsewhere there’s questions.  The Panthers are probably going to split snaps between Captain Munnerlyn and Donte Jackson.  Munnerlyn was terrible last year, and Jackson’s a rookie who’s bound to make mistakes.  Mike Adams gives them some certainty, but the other spot is occupied by Da’Norris Searcy, who’s been up and down for most of his career.

The secondary’s mediocre, but isn’t bad enough to tank the rest of the defense.  The terrifying pass rush gets them to 8-8.  They have the potential to be better, but it’s going to take some creativity on the offensive side of the ball.  Will we see it?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected record: 5-11

Strengths: Defense

Weaknesses: Quarterback, offensive line 

If only the Buccaneers had a quarterback…

They should.  Jamies Winston’s fall on and off the field has been detrimental to Tampa Bay, a team that’s extremely talented but has never been able to piece everything together.  With Winston suspended for the first four games of the season, the Bucs are left with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who at this point may not be much worse than Winston, but doesn’t have any of the skills to even attempt to take advantage of the talent on this offense.  Fitzpatrick is not a deep ball thrower, and with DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, there couldn’t be a worse match.  All are big time play-makers, and Fitzpatrick is the exact opposite of that.

Winston would at least try to make those plays, but it’ll result in interceptions most of the time.  An explosive, almost air-raid like system is the last type of scheme Winston should be inserted to given his turnover rate.  His weapons are made exactly for that.

Tampa Bay’s offense isn’t going anywhere no matter who the quarterback is.  Winston is a turnover machine, and when Fitzpatrick isn’t one, he’ll be dumping it off to Peyton Barber, who has never had any real playing time and won’t be supported by a good offensive line.

It’s really a shame, because this defense is one of the six-to-eight most talented in the league.  Their depth up front is deep, with Noah Spence and Vita Vea at the back-end of the rotation.  Jason Pierre-Paul and Gerald McCoy are ridiculous together, and Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David double that.  The secondary is physical and young with Vernon Hargraves, Chris Conte and Carlton Davis (Don’t be surprised if Davis gets playing time over Brent Grimes at some point).

But it just won’t matter.  Tampa Bay fits that depressing category of teams who have talent squandered by poor coaching or poor quarterback play.  No matter who’s at the helm doesn’t have my trust, and the record will suffer.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams

Projected record: 13-3

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker

This team is just ridiculous.

On offense, they can run it down your throat with Todd Gurley and an offensive line that is anchored by John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth.  They can throw it to one of their five proven weapons, now including Brandin Cooks and the solid Cooper Kupp.  Josh Reynolds, the young one out of Texas A&M, gives them a downfield threat.  And Jared Goff, assuming last season wasn’t a fluke, should only get better in Sean McVay’s scheme.

The Rams more than fixed their issues on defense.  To take care of their weak linebacking core, they signed Ndamkong Suh and locked up Aaron Donald.  Suh and Donald are the two best run defenders in the league, so that should limit the pressure put on their linebackers.  From a traditionalist perspective, they don’t have  a great pass rush, but Donald is just as good at getting to the quarterback as he against the run.  Him and Michael Brockers take care of that issue.

If teams try to attack the linebackers, they’ll have to penetrate one of the best secondaries in the league.  The Marcus Peters trade was an aggressive yet necessary move, and they doubled it up with Aqib Talib, completely remaking their cornerback rotation.  Pair those two with the hard-hitting Lamarcus Joyner and together we’ll send some good luck to offensive coordinators looking to throw on this team.

I don’t like projecting what will happen in the playoffs before the season, but here’s how the Rams stack up.  Their defense is better than Green Bay’s, New Orleans’ or Atlanta’s, I somehow trust their quarterback more than Minnesota’s, and it’s really, really hard to even go to the Super Bowl two years in a row.  The NFC is loaded, and anything can happen, but the Rams should be the favorites to make the Super Bowl.  They’re that good.

Seattle Seahawks

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Linebacker

Weaknesses: Offensive line, weapons

My projection for the Seahawks is high compared to what I’ve read on them so far.  This team is not great, but it’s also not as brutal as some are making it out to be.

I think we’re forgetting that Russell Wilson can get the maximum out of any set of weapons.  He still has Doug Baldwin, who’s a No.1 target on most teams throughout the league.  The rest is bleak.  Jaron Brown, a former Cardinal, is fine as a 4th option; he can go up and snag balls, but he disappears in games (Perhaps that is a scheme issue, though I’m not sure how much better Seattle’s scheme is than Arizona’s).  Tyler Lockett got a lot of money, perhaps a little too much for what he is, and Brandon Marshall is still chugging along, though it’s hard to see him actually contributing.

Seattle doesn’t have anything reliable on the offensive end besides Wilson, and when you don’t give him receivers, it means he’ll be difficult to count on.  The offensive line is still garbage, and Marshawn Lynch’s absence still looms large.  Chris Carson is getting a lot of buzz, but so have many former Seahawks running backs (notice former).  Nothing ever came out of Thomas Rawls, and CJ Prosise can’t stay healthy even though he’s been effective when playing.  They reached for Rashaad Penny in the draft, who even though is an extremely explosive player, could be very hit-or-miss, especially considering he’s a rookie with no offensive line.

Usually, a bad offense wouldn’t be as big of an issue for the Seahawks, because the defense would be there to bail them out.  That’s not the case anymore.  Even though Earl Thomas showed up yesterday, the defense has many holes.  They’re very young up front, and lack a consistent pass rush.  They only have two of their four secondary positions taken care of, with holes at one of their corner and safety spots.  Linebacker is loaded though; they’ll have to make up for the mistakes of the defensive front and help out in coverage (That shouldn’t be a problem for Shaquem Griffin).  Even though they have options in the middle, it can’t make up for the issues up front and in the back end.

This will be the year Seattle realizes they need to truly rebuild.  This what happens at the tail end of title windows; it’s depressing and sad.  You’re stuck in the middle and don’t really have anywhere to go.  It’s a lot better when you’re out of it, above or below.

San Francisco 49ers

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Defensive line, quarterback, coaching 

Weaknesses: Youth, back seven

I come in high on Seattle and low on San Francisco.

I get the sleeper buzz.  Jimmy Garrapolo is awesome, and Kyle Shanahan is the perfect coach.  They did a good job in the offseason of adding weapons and getting more creative.  The defense is young and talented.  But there’s just too many holes for me to hop on this bandwagon.

The biggest issue is the youth.  The defensive line, arguably the most talented position group on this team, is still incredibly young and struggled immensely last season.  They should take another step forward; all have the potential to be dominant at their positions someday.  DeForest Bucker and Arik Armstead are nasty, and Solomon Thomas is a huge presence in the middle.

But the rest of the defense is concerning.  They brought in Richard Sherman not only to serve as a veteran presence, but bring some competence to this secondary.  It’s a raw group of a lot of 2nd year players.  The linebacking core is mostly new faces, anchored by Malcolm Smith.  It’s a rough cast, and is the biggest reason I can’t get too excited about this team.  You need a good-to-dominate defense to make it in this league.  The 49ers don’t fit that range.

I want to believe offensively, but Jerick McKinnon’s injury hurt that quite a bit.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the contract and what his role was gonna be, but he gave them a dynamic presence who could be used in multiple ways.  That’s gone now, and San Francisco is relying on Matt Brieda to takeover.

Then there’s Jimmy G, who could turn this thing completely on its head and lead San Francisco to the playoffs.  All the concerns defensively could be uprooted by him.  What we saw at the end of last season was magical.  It’s unlikely it carries over, but the 49ers sleeper case is that it does.  That’s the issue.

It’s a raw, young team.  If Garappolo is a franchise guy immediately, then there is a good enough group of receivers around him for the offense to click.  But I expect there to be some struggle to start.  A five game sample is just too little.  The Niners are a year away.

Arizona Cardinals

Projected record: 5-11

Strengths: Secondary

Weaknesses: Weapons, competence 

This is painful to write.

It’s a transition year.  New coach, new quarterback(s).  Hardly any weapons.  Like a couple other teams, nothing really stands out, which why competence is a weaknesses.  For one team in particular tomorrow, that will be a strength.  The Cardinals just got out of a successful run.  Competence is a downgrade from that.

The Cardinals, for now, have Washington’s formula.  It’s a Sam Bradford-led offense with a defense not good enough to get the team to eight wins.  With Bradford at the helm, expect the Cardinals to check-down to a healthy (!!!) David Johnson once every four downs, and force the ball to Larry Fitzgerald (That’ll be the case no matter who the quarterback is).

I had a serious problem with starting Bradford over Josh Rosen, but after examining the receiving core, it’s probably a good move.  There is no one for Rosen to throw too besides Fitzgerald, and even though that’s not a bad option, defenses will figure it out and be able to take advantage of the rookie quarterback.  We’ve seen this too many times in the past.  Bad QBs force the ball to Larry, and he ends up having to play cornerback instead of receiver on his routes.

Rosen should play at some point this year.  We know Bradford is either going to get hurt or have a meltdown game.  That will be the time to act.  Maybe a receiver emerges (Christian Kirk?) and David Johnson can serve as a No.2 option.

There’s a chance they’re worse than my projected record suggests.  When you’re not good at really anything, the lows can be lower than you imagined.

NFC Playoff Picture

  1. Los Angeles Rams, 13-3
  2. Atlanta Falcons, 13-3
  3. Minnesota Vikings, 12-4
  4. Philadelphia Eagles, 11-5
  5. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  6. Green Bay Packers, 11-5

What a bloodbath.  Can’t you see all these teams making the Super Bowl?

AFC Preview coming tomorrow afternoon…