Touring the NFL: We Begin In The AFC North & East

While we wait impatiently for a couple more weeks to pass—at which point we can confidently predict all the important things that will take place during the 2014 NFL season—it’s time to take a tour through all eight divisions. These posts will be part schedule breakdowns, part commentary on the buzziest aspects of each division and part stream of consciousness from the world’s leading stream of consciousness writer.

I’ll be tackling two divisions per post. The AFC gets to be the boring appetizer (because, seriously, the AFC is so boring), and the NFC gets to be the main course (coming next week).

AFC North

afc north

Best known for…

  • Suspensions, pending suspensions, apparently holding some very incriminating photos of the Commissioner with a tranny hooker (only possible explanation for the Ray Rice suspension), and the world’s most famous quarterback who hasn’t accomplished a single thing worthwhile

Most likely to…

  • Be the most boring division in all of football

Quick Hits

  • The AFC North certainly has all the makings of being extremely mediocre. Pittsburgh and Baltimore finished last year at 8-8, and you can make the argument that Cincinnati will do worse than last year’s 11-5 season while Cleveland improves on their 4-12 record. I see a likely scenario where all four teams finish with either seven, eight or nine wins. YAWN.
  • There’s definitely some intrigue with the five quarterbacks in this division. Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton get to hear about how much they’re overpaid every time they come up short, which will likely be often. Ben Roethlisberger tries to play in 16 games for just the third time in his career (seriously) and easily retains the title of oldest looking QB in the league. And of course, there’s the Messiah vs the Journeyman over in Cleveland.
  • You know how Cleveland has that awesome sports luck? I fully expect Josh Gordon to win his appeal on the pending season-long suspension only to see him sustain a serious injury in the third preseason game.
  • The Bengals are far and away the most talented team in this division, which is exactly why I expect them to miss the playoffs entirely.
  • Here’s what Cincy’s dealing with for a schedule this year: Outside of their normal divisional games, they’re also @New England, @Indianapolis, @New Orleans and home vs Denver. So they get the top three teams in the AFC and one of the NFC’s best. And to pile even more bullshit on the Bengals, five of their final seven games are on the road! (And their bye is in week 4, meaning no rest for a drained and battered team when they’re going through the tough part of the season later in the year). They better jump out to an awesome start if they have any aspirations to repeat their annual playoff disappointment.

Quick Hits On Johnny Manziel (per the NFL’s requirement that if you cover their league, you must over-cover their newest star)

  • He’s an injury waiting to happen. Why? Have you seen his playing style? He despises the pocket. And while a constantly scrambling and rolling out QB is exciting, it ultimately leads to careers like Michael Vick’s and Roethlisberger’s. Sure, those two guys aren’t bad, but just don’t expect 16-game seasons from Mr. Manziel.
  • The other reason for his very predictable health problems? Once again…Cleveland’s luck.
  • Speaking of that incredible luck, any doubt that Lebron James either suffers a torn ACL, gets caught up in a PED scandal or has a heart attack while doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Sorry, Clevers, but I know you’re nodding in reluctant agreement right now.
  • After watching the Browns’ first preseason game, I think I’d pay $150 for access to Cleveland’s local football announcers throughout the season. I’m pretty sure they required a pants change every time Johnny touched the ball. There’s a lot of overstimulation going on among Browns loyalists right now.
  • Brian Hoyer is absolutely the better quarterback at this time, but there’s no way Johnny sits on the bench for long. If the Browns start 0-3 with Hoyer, I think they insert the rookie after their week 4 bye. It’s a pretty easy five game stretch at that point to ease him into things.
  • But if the rest of the AFC is as bad as it appears to be, the Browns would be a borderline playoff team with a healthy Hoyer at the helm all year (and a non-suspended Gordon).

Fun with gambling

  • Apparently Vegas doesn’t have a clue what to make of these teams any more than I do. There’s essentially no favorite to win the division. Pittsburgh’s +200, Cincinnati is +200, Baltimore is +275, and Cleveland’s +500.
  • As for who will win the AFC: After Denver, New England and Indy, the oddsmakers basically threw the entire AFC North into the mix not daring to pick one with significantly better odds to get to the big game.
  • Who in the division has the best MVP odds? That would be Mr. Old & Dirty himself, Ben Roethlisberger (50/1).
  • My favorite bet in this division is: Manziel to win MVP at 100/1 odds.
  • RELAX, I’M JOKING. My real favorite is: Pittsburgh to win more than 8.5 games (-150). When in doubt, go with the best quarterback in the division.

 

AFC East

afc east

Best known for…

  • Being the most dominated division of the past decade (seriously, the Patriots must be so bored at this point)

Most likely to…

  • Finish exactly the same as the past three years where New England wins 12+ games and the other three teams can’t crack .500

Quick Hits

  • Everything begins with the Patriots when discussing the AFC East. I know it’s obnoxious, but these other three teams haven’t even made an effort to unseat them during the Brady/Belichick era. Is that why New England struggles in the playoffs these days? Because while the other playoff teams are being tested weekly in their respective divisions, New England’s sleepwalking its way through the regular season?
  • I fully expected to review the 2013 Patriots results and see that they decimated their division like usual. Actually, they went 4-2 and only outscored those opponents by 22 total points. Maybe the division’s finally catching up?
  • More interesting than thinking about that pipe dream…if you combined the Bills, Dolphins and Jets and made the best 53-man roster out of all possible players, would that team be able to keep up with New England? For the skill players you’d have to go with Ryan Tannehill, C.J. Spiller (?), Mike Wallace, Sammy Watkins, Erick Decker and Scott Chandler??
  • Jesus, the Patriots are truly blessed.
  • But in the perpetually watered-down AFC, could one of these three lesser teams sneak into the playoffs? Of course! But who could it be? As of now, I’m only willing to eliminate the Bills. On offense EJ Manuel might suck, C.J. Spiller probably isn’t going to turn into the next 2,000 yard rusher like we thought, and they seem to be expecting WAY too much from rookie receiver Watkins. On defense, they’ve only gotten worse in the past year.
  • I’m giving the Dolphins the nod over the Jets. Just barely, like 8-8 vs 7-9.
  • For once it seems like this division got stuck with a tough schedule. They face the AFC West, which produced three playoff teams last year, and they also get the NFC North, a division that people seem very bullish on (besides the Vikings).

Fun with gambling

  • Unlike the AFC North, the oddsmakers seem to think this division has already been won. The Patriots are -300 to win it while the Dolphins and Jets are both +650. The Bills pull up the rear at +900.
  • This division provides no good Super Bowl gambling options. You either have to take the team with the second best odds to win the the Championship (New England at 15/2) or expect an outright miracle in the form of the Dolphins or Jets (both 66/1).
  • Who in the division has the best MVP odds? Tom Brady, of course (9/1). Next best odds after him? A tie between Spiller and Rob Gronkowski (100/1).
  • My favorite bet in this division is: Patriots over 11 wins (-135).

That’s all I’ve got for this first installment of the division by division tours. It’s sad to think that out of these eight teams only two or three are even the tiniest bit interesting. I’m already looking forward to previewing the NFC, but I still have to get through the other eight AFC teams. More coming on Friday.

Round 3 of NFL Predictions: Playoff Qualifiers and Super Bowl Champion

If you look at ESPN.com’s expert picks for the 2012 NFL Super Bowl winner, you don’t see a lot of variety or ballsy predictions. Out of 16 “experts,” nine of them selected the Green Bay Packers to win the title and four chose the Patriots. As a matter of fact, only three out of 16 DIDN’T have the Packers at least playing in the Super Bowl. Whether the Packers truly are the best team from a talent standpoint or not, these predictions are very boooooring.

Keep in mind that almost every year there’s a surprise team to reach the Super Bowl. The Giants did it in 2011 and 2007; the Packers did it in 2010; the Cardinals did it in 2008; the Steelers did it in 2005. We’re almost never seeing the top seed from each Conference face off in the Super Bowl.  Some team will get hot at the right time and randomly make a run through the playoffs. It’s likely to be a team that wins only nine or 10 games, and possibly it’s a team that doesn’t even win its division. So in my opinion, you’ve gotta go for a bit of a reach with at least one of your Super Bowl picks. Should the Packers at least reach the Super Bowl in 2012? Yes. Will they? Who knows? But my philosophy on these type of predictions is to be bold, make a prediction that no one is expecting. Because if you’re wrong about it, no one’s going to remember six months from now anyway. But if you’re right, you make sure to tell the whole world to go read your preseason predictions where you were 100% certain that this crazy thing was going to come true. It’s a win-win.

So on the eve of the NFL’s regular season opener, Nkilla and I are making our bold predictions on which 12 teams are making this year’s playoffs and who is ultimately advancing to and winning the Super Bowl.

I heard a stat last week that in each of the past seven years, five teams made the playoffs that didn’t make it the previous year. Lots of turnover in the NFL, and let’s see if Nkilla and I projected that with our picks (bold = team that did not make 2011 playoffs):

AFC Predictions

Rmurdera:

1). New England

2). Houston

3). Baltimore

4). San Diego

5). Buffalo

6). Denver

In the wildcard round, the Broncos immediately become the team no one wants to play because two-time AFC Champion Peyton Manning has rounded into form and is definitely capable of having a few “Peyton from 2004” kind of games. The Broncos knock off the Ravens, and the Bills stun nobody by beating a Chargers team that aspires to underperform in the playoffs each year. The San Diego ownership immediately gives Norv Turner a four-year contract extension while the Ravens provide plenty of postgame sound bites about how they should be in the Super Bowl, they should have won it all last year and the Patriots are lucky they don’t have to see the Ravens this year. I love when the two teams who have been acting like they’ve actually won something important in the past 10 years (Chargers and Ravens) get booted in the opening round.

The top two seeds in the AFC, New England and Houston, are handed some late Christmas gifts when the 5 and 6 seeds advance. The Texans take care of the Bills without a problem because the Bills are the “just happy to be there” team. The Patriots welcome their old friend Manning back to Foxboro for the second time this season and hang 40 points on the Bronco defense in a boringly easy game.

The Patriots, of course, take care of business against Houston in the AFC Championship to get back to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the last 12 years. Patriot haters across the country start talking about another year of the Pats having too easy of a schedule and not being a Super Bowl-worthy team. Patriots fans ignore them and dig through the back of their fridges to make sure they still have that bottle of victory champagne that’s been sitting on ice since January 2007. Maybe this is the year they finally get to pop it.

Nkilla:

1). New England

2). Baltimore

3). Houston

4). Denver

5). Buffalo

6). Cincinnati

In the wildcard round, Buffalo beats Denver. Peyton is good enough and healthy enough to get Denver to win the division, but I actually think Buffalo ends up with the second best record in the conference. Cincinnati takes care of Houston. The Bengals win the regular season tiebreaker and knock Pittsburgh out of a playoff spot setting up this rematch from last year. This time it’s a different result with A.J. Green having a huge game and carrying the Bengals to round two.

Cincinnati’s momentum (Uncle Mo for short) doesn’t last long as New England crushes them in round two. This game is almost as ugly as the New England vs Denver game last year. In the other second-round game, Buffalo upsets Baltimore. The Ravens blame the Patriots for paying off the refs so they could play Buffalo in the AFC Championship game. Also, Baltimore blows everything up in the offseason. They do not resign Flacco and start to rebuild their aging defense.

In the AFC Championship Game, New England handles Buffalo. Great year, Buffalo, but no way you’re going into Foxboro and winning the AFC Championship.

NFC Predictions

Rmurdera:

1). Green Bay

2). Atlanta

3). San Francisco

4). NY Giants

5). Chicago

6). Philadelphia

In the wildcard round, the two NFC teams that faced each other in last year’s NFC Championship game have their playoff runs end before they even get started. The Eagles beat the 49ers and the Bears knock off the Giants. The good news for San Francisco fans? Maybe a 9-7 regular season record and an immediate playoff exit will cause 49er management to realize Alex Smith cannot be the starting QB for a Super Bowl contender. But hey, at least you got eight years out of him, even if those years can best be described as “uneven.”

Just like the AFC side of the league, in the next round the #1 seed Packers take care of business against the Eagles. But unlike the AFC, the NFC’s #2 seed, the Falcons, have another one-and-done playoff showing when they’re ousted by the Bears.

And finally, just when everyone expects to get a Super Bowl matchup of the league’s two best quarterbacks—Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers—the Bears screw shit up by somehow upsetting Green Bay to earn a date against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVII.

Nkilla:

1). Atlanta

2). Green Bay

3). Philadelphia

4). Seattle

5). Chicago

6). Tampa Bay

In the wildcard round, Chicago gets to be this year’s team that goes 11-5, has three more wins than the NFC West winner (Seattle), and loses a playoff game on the road at said NFC West winner. Tampa has a nice bounce back season as they beat out New Orleans via a tiebreaker to get the final playoff spot. But they lose to the Eagles in their first game.

Green Bay handles Philly in the second round, and Atlanta beats the Seahawks…lots of talk this year about Atlanta and Matt Ryan finally making the leap until…

Green Bay beats Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. Does not mtter that the game is in Atlanta. Green Bay steam rolls them again, just like they did two years ago when they won the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Predictions

Rmurdera:

New England vs Chicago

Come on, you don’t think I can possibly pick the Bears to beat the Patriots, do you? If future hall-of-famer Rex Grossman couldn’t deliver a championship to Chicago in 2006, then I can’t see Jay Cutler being able to do it. The Patriots finally figure out how to play like the Patriots in a Super Bowl game. Tom Brady gets one step closer to the 10 Super Bowls I predicted he’d win back in 2005.

Nkilla:

New England vs Green Bay

Final score: New England 34 Green Bay 30. Safe pick, but the two best offenses, the two best QBs, and each added enough defensive pieces to get to the Super Bowl. Patriots win it because they have Gronk and Green Bay does not.

Final Note: Fine, so neither of us went crazy by picking a long shot to win it all. And sure, both of us were absolute homers in picking the Patriots as the 2012 Super Bowl Champs, but you had to expect that. At least I went out on a limb and projected a #5 seed to get to the Super Bowl.

We’ll be back later today with our final predictions of the preseason.

Round 1 of NFL Predictions: AFC’s “Closest to the Pin” Contest

As mentioned in a post last week, Nkilla and I have made a wager on who can be the better predictor of each NFL team’s exact record for the 2012 season.

The Setup: We both privately picked the number of total wins we thought each football team would get this year and sent them to each other for comparison. Before disclosing the predictions, I had to put a “+” or “-” next to half the teams, and Nkilla had to do the same. This was to ensure that if we both picked the same number, there would be a tiebreaker. For example, if we both picked 10 wins for Pittsburgh and it was my team to pick the tiebreaker, I’d put a “+” next to them if I wanted to up their win total to 11 in the case of a tie, or I’d put a “-” next to them if I wanted to down their win total to 9 in the case of a tie with Nkilla. Confusing, I know. Luckily we only picked the same number of wins for three teams out of 32 (all of our ties were for teams in the AFC North randomly).

The Wager: If Nkilla wins, I agree to a full day and night of babysitting for him and his wife at a future date to be determined. If I win, Nkilla is paying for my buy-in to a $60 poker tournament in Vegas next March (Fine Print: If I win $1,000 or more in that tournament, Nkilla will receive 40% of my profit. Seems fair considering the most he gets out of me is babysitting, but I could possibly win thousands of dollars off him).

We’re starting with the AFC. I’ll name the team, and then share both of our guesses and a comment we each made that elaborates on our prediction.

Here we go…AFC in alphabetical order:

Baltimore

Rmurdera: 10- wins (becomes 9-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Watch this defense get torched in back-to-back weeks early in the season by Philadelphia and New England. Terrell Suggs will probably say the Patriots are cowards for playing the Ravens while he’s not healthy.”

Nkilla: 10 wins “I’m thinking average year for them in a tough division. They probably win the division, but I think a relatively quiet year.”

Buffalo

Rmurdera: 12 “Feeling like the Bills can go 8-2 outside the division. Whether they can pull off a win against the Patriots this year or not, I think they’re in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.”

Nkilla: 9 “I feel like they made a lot of noise before the draft with free agents, and then everyone forgot about them. I don’t think they challenge the Patriots for the division title, but barring a meltdown from Fitzy I think the playoffs are in play.”

Cincinnati

Rmurdera: 9- (becomes 8-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Does the AFC North get 3 teams into the playoffs for the 2nd straight year? Is 9 wins good enough once again for the Bengals? Looking at a very weak AFC landscape, it seems like only Cincy, Buffalo and San Diego have a shot at the 2nd wildcard spot (assuming of course that Baltimore or Pittsburgh get the 1st wildcard).”

Nkilla: 9 “Year 2 of the Ginger Prince at the helm. Year 2 of the Ginger Prince to AJ Green. I can’t imagine why they don’y keep progressing. Well, other than the fact that they are the Bengals.”

Cleveland

Rmurdera: 4 “I’m predicting a 4-11-1 record for the Browns this year. Week 15 against the Redskins screams “tie” to me.”

Nkilla: 5 “Assuming that Richardson comes back fine, and assuming that Weeden plays better than the average rookie because of his age, they could be frisky. Unfortunately ‘frisky’ in The Cleve probably means ‘an entertaining 5-6 wins.'”

Denver

Rmurdera: 10 “I believe Peyton will be healthy all year and the offense will immediately jump from 25th in points per game to something like 14th. And the young defense will continue to improve. Weak AFC West = 10 wins and playoffs for Manning & friends.”

Nkilla: 8 “Not sold on Manning’s health, and I think the defense regresses some from last year. I would have gone even less wins if the division was decent.”

Houston

Rmurdera: 13 “If their running game and defense is as good as last year, it almost doesn’t matter if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy. They get to play in an extremely weak AFC South once again.”

Nkilla: 9 “They lost some key pieces on defense, plus they have a first-place schedule for the first time ever. That being said, their running game still makes them a dominant team in a division where the other three QBs are Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and a rookie.”

Indianapolis

Rmurdera: 4 “100% increase in wins from last year gets the Andrew Luck era started off on the right foot. Indy fans try their hardest not to get upset when they see Manning and the Broncos in the playoffs.”

Nkilla: 6 “It has been ten years since we knew before the season started that the Patriots/Colts game would not be meaningful and not be a primetime game. It feels strange.”

Jacksonville

Rmurdera: 2 “Someone has to tie Arizona as the worst team in football. Maurice Jones-Drew or not, this is a terrible team that will only win a 2nd game because the Jets will be in full meltdown mode by the time they visit Jacksonville in December.”

Nkilla: 5 “Vegas should post this prop bet, right? – ‘over/under for combined wins by NFL teams from Florida in the 2012 season: 16.5′”

Kansas City

Rmurdera: 7 “Jamaal ‘fast black’ Charles is back, and I believe he’ll be a top 5 running back, but Matt Cassel is still Matt Cassel. The Chiefs take a backseat to Denver and possibly even San Diego in the AFC West.”

Nkilla: 8 “I cannot figure out why KC is the trendy pick to win their division. The Romeo ‘RAC’ Crennel error (pun intended) in Cleveland was only two seasons ago. How does everyone forget so quickly? I actually think on paper the team is solid and could be a 9-10 win team with an average performance out of Cassel, but Crennel should have followed McDaniels’ lead and gone back to being a Patriots assistant.”

Miami

Rmurdera: 4 “Feels like I’m being generous with 4 wins. The Dolphins basically gave up on the season the moment they announced the rookie, Ryan Tannehill, was their starting QB.”

Nkilla: 5 “With the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins select…”

New England

Rmurdera: 15 “I’m having trouble even finding their one loss…at Baltimore is the obvious one to look at, but in a nationally-televised game against a weaker-than-usual Baltimore defense, I think the Pats’ offense can outscore Joe Flacco and the Ravens. But I refuse to predict a 16-0 season for New England, even if it seems like a good possibility once again.”

Nkilla: 13 “Even if they pump the breaks in December, I think 13 wins is in play. Also, there is an 87% chance my son’s first word is ‘Gronk.'”

NY Jets

Rmurdera: 7 “Might be worst offense in the NFL this year. I have them starting the season 0-5. If they start 0-6, that means a week 6 loss to the Colts at home. Looking forward to Tim Tebow’s first start in Week 7 at New England.”

Nkilla: 9 “Emotional hedge. If they somehow pullout 9 or 10 wins, I probably win this one. If someone told me I could either have A) The Patriots go 19-0 and the Jets go 6-10 or B) The Patriots go 8-8 and the Jets go 1-15 and fire Rex Ryan, I would obviously pick A, but I would also at least think about it for five minutes before I decided.”

Oakland

Rmurdera: 5 “More fun than predicting how few wins the Raiders will get this year is trying to guess at which point in the season they’ll be calling JaMarcus Russell’s agent to see if he can come in and compete with Carson Palmer for the starting QB job.”

Nkilla: 7 “I like that McFadden’s goal is to play 16 games this year. Nice to see he has no aspirations of making the playoffs. Or is that 13 regular season games plus a Super Bowl run?”

Pittsburgh

Rmurdera: 10+ (becomes 11-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Predicting all 4 AFC North teams to go 3-3 within their division makes life easy and may just be the way things go this year.”

Nkilla: 10 “I actually think 10 wins might be a little high, but they have a good coach and they always seem to get about 10 wins, right? I don’t think it is more than 10. Could be less. Their running backs all seem banged up and Roethlisberger has been hit a lot for a not-so-old-yet QB.”

San Diego

Rmurdera: 8 “Going to be a tough year offensively for this team. By the way, is Norv Turner still the Chargers’ head coach? Didn’t he get fired by the fans about 13 times in the past five seasons?”

Nkilla: 6 “Sure seems like they are in for an injury plagued season, doesn’t it? Can I lock them up for a bounce back year and 10 wins in 2013 though? Do I get any advantage by doing that right now?”

Tennessee

Rmurdera: 6 “This team is starting the season 0-7, especially with Jake Locker at QB. They play four games against playoff teams from 2011 and three tough road games in that opening stretch.

Nkilla: 7 “Even if Chris Johnson returns to 2012 form and Kenny Britt played every game, I feel like 8-8 would be the ceiling for this team.”

Final Thoughts on our AFC Picks:

1). The largest gap we had for a single team was 4 wins, for Houston. It sounds like Nkilla expects them to be a little worse on defense this year than last year (I disagree). Regardless of the defense, it seems like we both expect them to win their division even if their top offensive players were to miss some time…that pretty much sums up the AFC South this year.

2). Nkilla and I are really locked in on the AFC North. We picked the same number of wins for three teams—Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pitt—and we would have had the same for Cleveland if I hadn’t come up with my wacky “Cleveland ties Washington” idea. Are we both geniuses with this division?

2). Since I’ve gotten to see all of Nkilla’s picks—NFC included—I can tell you he has the worst record in football being a 5-11 team and the best record being 13-3. I wonder if he realizes that in each season over the past 10 years, there has been at least one team with 4 or less wins. And in eight of those 10 seasons, there has been at least one team with more than 13 wins. Seems like Nkilla is “playing it safe” by not picking anyone to be too good or too bad. Time will tell if that strategy pays off or not.

We’ll be back with the NFC predictions next week.