Another NFL season is upon us, which means the only thing in greater demand than football itself is the rampant speculation about a team’s chances that follow. When the games are jammed into a four-day period, we might as well put the other three game-less days to use, right?
Jokes aside, everyone’s eager to kickoff the season and get the ball rolling toward Super Bowl LI in Houston. So far, 2016 has already experienced a slew of shake-ups with the upheld suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and recent injuries of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Outside of the latest injury report, many other teams have handled an offseason full of acquisitions and departures that they hope culminates into many successful Sundays this fall.
However, as well all know too well, the NFL’s notorious parity will level the playing field throughout in some way and turn more than a few teams on their head. And more often than not, teams we predict to be great in August fizzle out come crunch time in December, while other teams we write-off arise from the ashes and claim a division crown. Every season at least two divisions become a toss-up, and who ends up on top usually has more surprises in store.
Now, let’s a take a closer look at who’s on the up-and-up in the NFL, and who’s in for a nosedive to the bottom.
16 AFC North - Most Improved: Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh and his Ravens had a rough go in 2015. Terrell Suggs was lost for the season a few plays into Game 1, then-rookie wideout Breshad Perriman never made it to the field while Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. both suffered their own major injuries. All-in-all, a bad case of the injury bug kept this team on the losing end of close games and cemented a disappointing 5-11 record.
Don’t expect that to repeat. With the four core players back in action combined with Harbaugh’s coaching intellect and general manager Ozzie Newsome’s personnel savvy, the Ravens are primed to regain their competitive form and knock off the defenseless Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals with their best days behind them and the Cleveland Browns on the verge of irrelevance once again. Expect the Ravens to go 10-6 and claim the AFC North once again.
15 AFC South - Most Improved: Jacksonville Jaguars
Technically, the Jaguars weren’t the worst team in the division last year (though neither were the Ravens). That honor belonged to the Tennessee Titans. However, Jacksonville definitely has the most to gain from an upcoming 2016 season (just like the Ravens).
A defensive overhaul in free agency and the draft combined with the rising stardom of quarterback Blake Bortles and tandem receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson make the Jaguars top candidates to usurp the Indianapolis Colts atop the division. I know, technically, the Houston Texans won the division and it’s, technically, their crown to lose. But we all know barring Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s lacerated kidney mid-season last year, Indianapolis was on its way to another division title and fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Point being, a revamped defense that’s flooded with talent plus an emerging quarterback to duel Luck head-on makes Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley a lucky man entering a critical fourth year of his tenure in Jacksonville. Look for the Jags to go 9-7 and claim another weak division.
14 AFC East - Most Improved: Miami Dolphins
With young and relatable coach Adam Gase at the helm, the Dolphins are ready to move on from their stagnant tenure under Joe Philbin and begin a new era.
And they’ll get to do just during their opening road game against an established powerhouse in the Seattle Seahawks. Gase will look to channel the positive strides Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has made over the past two seasons to, finally, make him into a consistently competent NFL signal caller. It shouldn’t be hard as Gase is a supposed quarterback whisperer, and given Tannehill has great help on the outside with receivers Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker and reclaimed running back Arian Foster behind him, he’ll have little excuse for failure now.
Not to mention, the Dolphins already boast a defense that’s stacked with talent but remiss on execution. The room to grow is there, this team just has to be able to wrap their heads around the schemes Gase and his staff have cooked up. If the Dolphins can cross their T’s and dot their I’s on game days this year, expect them to make a strong jump from mediocrity and contend with New England for the division title, going 10-6.
13 AFC West - Most Improved: Oakland Raiders
Again, this is another team that wasn’t last place in their division, but has the most to gain from a new season of NFL action. Besides, Oakland has felt like the division’s worst even when they’re not, as they’ve missed the playoffs ever since the club’s Super Bowl appearance against Tampa Bay.
Expect that all to change this year as the Raiders look to ride quarterback Derek Carr’s raw talent and terrifyingly good defense to team’s first winning season and playoff berth since 2002. Carr flashed more than a few times in 2015 and was able to give Oakland natives hope that things were finally turning around for the franchise. The arrival of Khalil Mack through the draft last year and signing of Bruce Irvin this offseason ensure that Oakland’s defense is taking steps to becoming a vaunted front to spar with respectable divisional offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.
By identifying A). They’re future guy under center and B). a talented mix of young and old defenders, the Oakland Raiders are about to put silver and black back in style. Look for Oakland to surpass all expectations and earn an 11-5 record and their first AFC West division crown in 14 years.
12 NFC North - Most Improved: Detroit Lions
Coming off a season that started out 0-6 before they finished with a 7-9 record, the Detroit Lions are looking to bounce back resoundingly in 2016.
However, the impromptu retirement of Calvin Johnson leaves a team that’s lived and died on the perimeter passing game without an identity. Still, it’s too early to count this crew out. Wide receiver Marvin Jones had a great preseason and built a strong rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Fellow wideout Golden Tate has already made his mark in Detroit and been a racking up yards-after-catch ever since arriving in 2014. Lastly, Eric Ebron, a prolific pass catcher in college, has steadily made strides toward his former self in the pros, going from one touchdown his rookie season to five last year.
A season’s worth of solid play from defensive standouts like DeAndre Levy and Ziggy Ansah will help tame rival offenses and give Detroit a good chance to flip their record from 7-9 to 9-7 and get a shot at a wildcard spot.
11 NFC South - Most Improved: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Even after Tampa Bay upsettingly cut ties with head coach Lovie Smith this offseason, new head coach Dirk Koetter and quarterback Jameis Winston have a shot at putting together something special.
Twin towers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson out wide give big-man Winston some eye-level targets, while running back Doug Martin will look to live up to his “Muscle Hamster” nickname with another big season on the ground. Two X-factors do come into play: Jameis’ own progression as a starting quarterback, and the return of oft-injured tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. If those two things both end up positively for the Bucs, they’re offense is on the right track.
Now, it rests on the defense. Lovie was able to squeeze a lot of toughness out of the star-less group last season, and with Koetter’s principal focus on offense it’s likely to drop-off this coming year. But (and this is a big ‘but’) if the defense can land within the top-20 in the league and Winston becomes who we think he will be, you’ll most likely see Tampa Bay sparring with the Carolina Panthers for division supremacy.
10 NFC East - Most Improved: Washington Redskins
It’s hard to fathom the Redskins, who were division champs in 2015, have much room to improve. Especially when history tells us that somewhere during their upcoming season they’ll faceplant into oblivion and any aspirations for the first repeat playoff campaign since 1992 will come to an end sooner rather than later.
Yet with the news of Tony Romo’s injury, Sam Bradford’s trade and New York Giants ineptitude along the line, the Redskins are the only ship without a punctured hull and look to be the season’s best of the worst once again. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has subscribed to head coach Jay Gruden’s system and is now reaping the rewards as the west coast offense thrived last season in a career year for Captain Kirk.
The signing of cornerback Josh Norman also brings some firepower to a secondary that relied on converted wide-receivers to cover guys like Odell Beckham Jr. last year. If the Redskins can shore up their much-maligned run defense, then expect the team to land another playoff spot by winning their division with back-to-back 9-7 records.
9 NFC West - Most Improved: Seattle Seahawks
The 2015 season saw Russell Wilson finally become a vaunted pocket-passer as he led the Seahawks to a 10-6 record after starting out 2-4.
Wilson’s arm was a defining trait of the Seahawks, especially after Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch went down midseason with an injury. The lack of a fiery run game prompted Wilson to take the reigns and steer Seattle safely through a somewhat peril-less second-half of the season, with the only big wins coming against Minnesota and Pittsburgh.
Despite that, this is a Seattle team that was embarrassed in its divisional playoff game against Carolina and has had dirt shoveled on it all offseason thanks to Arizona’s rising status. The Seahawks won’t take to those notions too kindly, and will continue to ride Wilson’s arm to victory once again.
The only variable will be the defense. After another offseason of talent flight, Seattle’s terrifying unit from years past is a fraction of its former self. If the defense is able to impersonate its old self successfully and ride the energy of the 12’s, then Seattle will be right back in the mix come January.
8 AFC North - Most Regressed: Cincinnati Bengals
Oh Cincinnati, when will you ever come out on top? The short answer is: not anytime soon.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has made a name for himself as repeatedly getting teams to the playoffs and, repeatedly, losing every appearance he’s had in NFL playoffs.
It’s a tough draw for Lewis, since he’s deemed as a less-effective as a coach even though he’s really a top-12 coach in the league. It’s an even tougher draw for quarterback Andy Dalton, who could also be deemed a top-12 player at his position, but is looked at as lesser-than as well for poor postseason performances.
Fair or not, 2015’s AFC Wildcard game between the Steelers and Bengals was possibly the worst ending to a season they’ve had in recent history. Player misconduct ruined Lewis’ chance to win a game and has carried over into this year as Vontaze Burfict will start the season on a suspension. Fighting through all that negativity is hard, and a Cincinnati franchise that has been characterized by its bend-don’t-break persona will finally crack this year and tumble out of the playoffs. Don’t expect anything positive in 2016, Ohioans. The 2015 hangover will continue.
7 AFC South - Most Regressed: Houston Texans
This pick wasn’t rocket science. After signing 6-game starter Brock Osweiler to a hefty contract, the Texans have pretty much tied their future to an unproven and unpromising prospect behind center.
Osweiler has ability, but not enough to be the man Houston wants him to be. Too many airy throws and bad decisions last year were compensated by Denver’s league-leading defense. Houston is no slouch defensively, but they’ll have their hands full once Osweiler begins to fumble away their chances at a winning season early into the year.
It’s a shame, too. Wideout DeAndre Hopkins and running back Lamar Miller both have major upside. Head coach Bill O’Brien also can get his teams to play hard for him. Although, that will all be for naught as Osweiler and his noodle arm will fail to turn dreams into reality down in Southeast Texas.
6 AFC East - Most Regressed: Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan is another curious head coach who’s personnel decisions often challenge better judgment.
For one, he hired his brother, Rob Ryan, to be defensive coordinator after Rob’s failure of a season in New Orleans the previous year. Another would be Ryan’s antics, which supposedly spur confidence and bravado in his team, but rarely materialize into anything statistically trackable other than penalty yards. And lastly, the biggest failure of Ryan as a coach is his inability to produce offensive talents.
Ryan lucked out last year thanks to the maturity and poise of a once ambiguous Tyrod Taylor and his chemistry with a skilled Sammy Watkins. However, beyond that Rex fostered nothing other than the same hard-nosed running scheme that led him to repeated mediocrity in NYC.
Rex means well, but executes poorly, and will likely lose his job at the end of another dismal season for Buffaloons.
5 AFC West - Most Regressed: Denver Broncos
Much like it was with the Houston Texans, this is the obvious pick because of their situation at quarterback. Even when it was the uncertain carousel between Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, things never looked good for Denver in any offensive respect.
Defensively, of course, this team is set. Even with the loss of key starters, the team has the depth to continue their reign as the Orange Crush 2.0 and could clinch a playoff spot off that reality alone come December.
However, on the offensive side of things there’s a lot to want. C.J. Anderson returns to the backfield to take some pressure off of Siemian, the now proclaimed starter, but that won’t make his reads downfield any easier. Siemian will have his hands full trying to ingratiate star wideout DeMaryius Thomas and solid second-man Emmanuel Sanders into the mix.
Add in the fact that Siemian will also be facing stout defenses like the Kansas City Chiefs and up-and-coming Oakland Raiders twice a year and there is little to be optimistic about. The Super Bowl hangover is clearly in full effect at Mile High Stadium, so we’ll have to wait until 2017 for the Broncos to put another competitive product on the field.
4 NFC North - Most Regressed: Minnesota Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater being injured actually didn’t affect this ranking at all. If anything, Sam Bradford being added to the team gives Minnesota more of a fighter’s chance than Bridgewater, but even with that blessing in disguise, this team has a lot to handle.
Minnesota’s simplified offense does it no favors once the game’s get tight. If the Vikings are playing from behind by anything more than a possession, they have a huge uphill battle to climb out of since receivers Stefon Diggs and rookie Laquon Treadwell offer little physical advantage in the league. Kyle Rudolph is another solid option but lacks the athleticism Bradford had in tight end Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. Pretty much, if Adrian Peterson isn’t getting at least 125 yards/game on the ground, Minnesota is playing behind the 8-ball.
It’s true that their defense will provide some cushion and keep the team in more games than they should. But the fact remains: if Minnesota is playing from behind by anything more than seven points, they’re likely to end up on the losing end of that contest. Don’t expect big strides from this team with or without Bridgewater.
3 NFC South - Most Regressed: Carolina Panthers
When you go 15-1 and make it to the Super Bowl, chances are your team is going to regress somewhat.
However, the Panthers are also dealing with the rising tide of Jameis Winston and scrappy New Orleans and Atlanta teams that are looking to erase the embarrassments of last year. With the target firmly placed on their backs, Carolina will likely be upset by at least two or three games their favored in this year.
Of course, Cam Newton can nullify my bold prediction here by producing another MVP-caliber season. Though that is also unlikely, especially given all the extra noise Newton has been surrounded by, starting with his pouty postgame press conference at the Super Bowl to the video’s he’s recently released detailing his supreme confidence in his ability.
Players don’t like Cam, and as a result, they don’t like the Panthers. Heads will be hunted anytime the blue and black show up on the schedule, meaning Carolina will take a slight fall from grace this upcoming season and end up on the lower-end of double-digit wins.
2 NFC East - Most Regressed: Philadelphia Eagles
Following their crosstown brethren in Philadelphia, the 76ers, the Eagles have already waved the white flag on their season before a single snap has been taken. Put simply, it already appears they’re tanking and banking on a more profitable 2017 season.
That was always the thought people had when the Eagles traded up to get Carson Wentz second overall in the draft. But what was supposed to be a respectable 5-8 win campaign with Sam Bradford under center is now a 1-6 win toss-up with Wentz taking command.
This is the same Carson Wentz who also cracked a rib in the second preseason game and hasn’t played since, so it’s clear Philadelphia is throwing no caution to the wind and risking their future haphazardly. It’s a big gamble, and the Eagles impatience to play Wentz and get the growing pains over with might cost them more than the 2016 season if they aren’t careful.
1 NFC West - Most Regressed: Arizona Cardinals
We all know this story: quarterback plays terribly in postseason game previous season, wheels come off in following season. It’s what happened to Jake Delhomme after a bad playoff loss in 2009 and is what many are expecting to happen to Carson Palmer after his dismal six turnover performance in NFC Championship game last year.
This is familiar territory for head coach Bruce Arians, who had to endure a wobbly quarterback situation in 2014 after Palmer and back-up Drew Stanton went down. Sadly, it’s also familiar territory for the Cardinals bevy of talented players on offense and defense, who would surely be frustrated if their season was derailed by one bad apple.
Even with that in mind, it seems Palmer is bound to crash and burn. His performance in the playoffs is historically less-than-optimal, and now that he’s a broken man and, more importantly, 38 years old, he has little left in the tank to bounce back. Arians & Company need to limit the amount of damage Palmer inflicts on the team, or else they could be watching the playoffs from home this year.
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