I gave most of my predictions in the podcast, but a summary for those who prefer the written word:
!FC East: 1. Buffalo 2. Team Trump (*) 3. Miami 4. NYJ I am extremely reluctant to pick the Bills, and even more so now that they’ve become close to a chalk pick, for the obvious reason that everything about the team is impressive except the QB. And I still think Allen will prevent the team from attaining ambitions beyond winning a weak division with a dynasty in transition, but his below-average-to-replacement-level play was good enough to make them a playoff team, and adding Diggs could produce better results even if he doesn’t develop much. The Patriots obviously could still win, and between signing Newton and the COVID opt-outs I probably would have picked them. But these are big concerns: Newton has much more upside than Allen, but he’s coming off 3 off years in 4, and he’s got an extensive injury history but is being backed up by a old-boy’s-network clipboard holder and the struggling middle class man’s Christian Hackenberg. And the between the decimated front 7, the near-total lack of offensive weapons, the retirement of Dante Scarnecchia — it’s a tribute to how much respect I have for Belichick that I’m even picking them for a wildcard. The rest of the division is a bad but well-coached team heading in the right direction, and the other is letting Adam Gase blow a QB prospect’s rookie contract for no discernible reason.
AFC North 1. Baltimore 2. Pittsburgh (*) 3. Cleveland 4. Cincinnati The Ravens are one of the best organizations in the league and if Jackson stays healthy they’ll be contenders again. The Steelers nearly made the playoffs with sub-replacement-level QB play last year; if Big Ben is even 75% of himself they should be a playoff team. Much as I’ve enjoyed making fun of the total flameout of EXTREM SILICON VALLEY TANKING THEORY the Browns still have talent and with a real NFL coach could still be good this year, but I’ll believe they’re better than the Ravens or Steelers when I see it. The Bengals will at least be a bad team with one of the most interesting prospects to come into the league in a while, and you have to respect the possibility that Burrow is a Wilson/Luck caliber QB who can make a team respectable virtually by himself.
AFC South 1. Indianapolis 2. Tennessee (*) 3. Houston 4. Jacksonville The models all like Indy and I’m only going to go against them if I strongly disagree, which I don’t — as with the Steelers they were competitive with poor QB play last year, and even sub-peak Rivers figures to be a major improvement. Both the Titans in general and Tennehill in particular are also major candidates for the Pexiglass Principle, although I think both will retain more of the gains from last year than might be expected — Tannehill won’t be as good as he was last year, of course, but he’s better than he looked under Adam Gase. This will be the year Bill O’Brien’s world-historically inept general managing creates a barrier DeShaun Watson can’t overcome, and the Jags are my bet for worst team in the NFL. (Note for teams who think you can reliably pick the extremely rare RB who justifies the top 5 pick: you can’t.)
AFC West: 1. KC 2. Las Vegas 3. Den 4. LAC It strikes me that having the best QB and offensive coach and a lot of weapons are highly desirable things, and would pick the Chiefs to win the AFC again. I don’t really like a lot about the Raiders but Carr was a top 10 QB last year and while you can’t trust him you can do a lot worse. Von Miller’s imjury puts Denver’s season out of its misery early, although at least John Elway didn’t waste most of his career dicking around with random replacement-level white guys at QB. The Chargers are at least well-adapted to playing in an empty stadium.
NFC East 1. Dal 2. Phi (*) 3. NYG 4. Wash The thing about Dak Prescott is that he’s one of the best QBs in the NFL, and while I wouldn’t have hired Mike McCarthy he just has to be an improvement over year 30 of Jason Garrett, not exactly a high bar. The Eagles have the best coach and organization in the division, but they’re already depleted by injuries. Daniel Jones showed some promise last year but was ultimately pretty terrible, and apart from a good-if-somewhat-overrated RB the latest branch of the Belichick coaching shrub doesn’t have a lot else to work with. The Washington football club, meanwhile, is an all-too-rare example of a rich asshole getting exactly what he deserves.
NFC North 1. Uh….Minnesota, I guess? 2. GB 3. Det 4. Chi I don’t really like any of these teams, so I’ll go with the best coach/organization. Despite last year’s fluky record Aaron Rodgers remained good but distinctly sub-elite despite McCarthy leaving; it’s only a question of how far down they’ll be this year. The Lions have a sneaky-good offense and I would be tempted to pick them except that I trust Matt Patricia and Darell Bevell to run a football team the way I trust Jared Kushner to run COVID response. Call me crazy, but I think that history may not be kind to the decision to trade up to draft Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson.
NFC South 1. NO 2. TB (*) 3. Atl 4. Car You never know when the cliff will come, but Drew Brees remains a top 5 QB by any metric and the roster is loaded with a good coach. Tom Brady was not a top 5 QB last year, but to make the playoffs the Bucs don’t need him to be TOM BRADY, they just need a QB who can hit open receivers and not throw 2 picks a game, which is eminently doable. Ryan and Jones give the Falcons a decent floor and they could certainly fill the void if Brady is done, but what Dan Quinn is doing back for another year I have no idea. The Panthers are, ah, rebuilding.
NFC West 1.SF 2. Sea (*) 3. LA 4. Ari The best division in football. The models see the Plexiglass Principle coming for the 49ers, but while they would probably be down a little I still think they’re the best team in the division. The Seahawks are what they are — a Hall of Fame QB in his prime with better weapons than usual will keep them competitive, but he’ll be dragged down by a Gentleman’s C offensive coordinator running concepts from Chuck Knox’s abandoned file cabinet, plus the team has no pass rush at all and doesn’t seem to care. The Rams remain a talented team, but they’ve lost considerable ground, and a pandemic is a rough context for a stars-and-scrubs team several stars down from two years ago. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Cardinals are a playoff team — Murray seems like the real deal and Bill O’Brien generously donated him the best wideout in the league in exchange for a Martha McSally bumper sticker. But with their defense in a brutal division I think they’re more likely a year away.