As has become my tradition in baseball, I will post my 2007 NFL predictions for the world to see. There probably aren’t a lot of surprises, but I do lean heavily upon the work of Football Outsiders, which undoubtedly is the best NFL site on the internet. It is one of the few NFL sites that bases predictions and player analysis on anything resembling a solid statistical foundation. The best NFL writers, like TMQ’s Gregg Easterbrook, have come to depend on them, and I have as well.
Here are my predictions and comments, by conference division:
NFC East: Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys, Giants
I heard Mike Golic picking the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl this morning on the way to work, but I don’t see it. The offense is decent, but last year they didn’t have enough sense to give their best running back (Marion Barber) the full-time job, and I’m not sold on Tony Romo as a great QB. Plus, they’re the Cowboys and they have Terrell Owens, so I just want to root against them. Dallas has one of the league’s toughest schedules, while the Eagles aren’t getting enough credit for what is perhaps the NFC’s best offense (and certainly one of the two best) and a still-solid defensive unit. FO has the Cowboys last, but I think the Giants could be very bad if Eli Manning’s development process doesn’t improve.
NFC North: Packers, Bears, Vikings, Lions
The argument for the Bears seems to go something like this: Grossman was decent toward the beginning of the year, and the defense is outstanding. My argument against them is that the defense would have to continue its complete domination for them to fend off a rising Packers team. Brett Favre is still pretty good, and even though the Packers don’t impress at the other skill positions, the line is great, and the defense could be every bit as good as the Bears’. The Vikings are strong defensively, while the Lions could rack up a ton of passing yards. You can take your pick at the bottom, but I’ll take the Lions. At any rate, Jon Kitna’s predictions are not likely to come true.
NFC South: Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers, Falcons
This is by far the toughest division to predict. Pretty much everyone is going with the Saints, but their defense is the same bad defense they had last year. The offense may be great, but that will only get them so far. To me, they’re the Colts-lite. The Bucs made some defensive improvements and have a decent quarterback this year, so I think they may actually be the team to beat. Then again, the Panthers have the same kind of look. I don’t really know what to pick, but I feel confident enough in the Saints’ (possibly mild) regression not to pick them first like everyone else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the top three are completely switched around, but I do expect the Falcons to finish last.
NFC West: 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams
Like a lot of people, I’m not sure Nate Clements is worth $10M per, but it’s hard to say the 49er defense won’t be much improved over last season. I’m banking on less of a comeback from Shaun Alexander than most seem to expect (his line is still not as good as it was in 2005), and the 49ers would appear to be the main beneficiary. The Cardinals still have some issues up front, so it’s possible that Leinart may be running for his life once again. The Rams aren’t going to scare anybody on defense, and the offense is basically Bulger (who I don’t think is a top QB), Steven Jackson and an aging group of core players from the Super Bowl team. Schedule strength is a pretty big factor in this division, as the 49ers play the NFL’s easiest schedule, and that trend lessens down my rankings, where the Rams are toward the middle of the pack.
Wild Cards: Seahawks, Bears
I like the Eagles as the top playoff seed, and I’m not sure about anyone else, so I’ll pick them for the Super Bowl. They are possibly the only NFC team that has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to make them a contender against the top AFC team.
AFC East: Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins
The Pats are clearly loaded, and even though they’re nicked up, and even though Harrison is suspended, I think there’s little doubt they’re the prohibitive favorite here. Brady has some good receivers at his disposal, and Maroney will get the ball a lot late in their games. The Jets’ defense looks decent enough, and Jones and Washington should help them grind some games out. Chad Pennington is basically finished, so the pressure will be on the Jets’ run game, and defenses will line up knowing that they won’t be throwing deep. The Dolphins have Trent Green and an overrated set of receivers, so Ronnie Brown will have to carry them on offense. Marshawn Lynch will be in a similar position for the Bills, who have a better group around them, so I think they can finish third even with the league’s toughest schedule.
AFC North: Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns
This is another division with a great offense on an overrated team. Carson Palmer and the Bengal receivers are fantastic, but Rudi Johnson has a lot of mileage on him and not a lot of help carrying the ball. Unfortunately for them, the other teams in this division also have decent offenses, and they also play some pretty good defense. The Ravens are not as good on defense as they once were, but they have quietly put together a solid group around McNair and should be considered a decent offensive team. The Steelers still have some ground to make up on offense, but their defense is possibly the best in football. The Browns obviously have lots of issues, but they’ll be handing the ball off to Jamal Lewis a lot and trying to grind out some games.
AFC South: Jaguars, Colts, Titans, Texans
I think the last two teams are basically interchangeable, but the first two might surprise some people. The Colts were really the first champs with a historically bad run defense, and that doesn’t appear to be changing this year. They put things together for a few games and made their run, but I’m not sure that the best non-49er QB in history can win them enough games to beat out a loaded-but-confused Jaguar team. Jack Del Rio’s defense is outstanding, his offensive line is great, and he has a pair of outstanding running backs. The recent turmoil at QB shouldn’t be able to keep this team out of the playoffs. I’ll back FO and say the Jags win the division.
AFC West: Chargers, Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs
Two reasons people are picking Larry Johnson way too early in fantasy drafts this year: the Chiefs’ passing game and the Chiefs’ defense. Even if you can look beyond his ridiculous workload last year and think he’ll stay healthy, he won’t be able to control the game by himself. When his team is losing late in the game, Herman Edwards may choose not to destroy LJ’s legs and his team’s chances by running the ball. No one else should be a big surprise here. Lane Kiffin can’t decide on a QB, but his Raiders’ defense is great, and they do have some weapons at other offensive positions. The Broncos are just decent on both sides of the ball, and the Chargers are (Schottenheimer or not) a sure-fire contender.
Wild Cards: Colts, Broncos
I’d pick the Steelers over the Broncos, but the AFC West is an easier road than the AFC North. I think the Jaguars are the Super Bowl contender no one’s really talking about (probably because of Leftwich and Garrard), but the Patriots still look too good on paper to lose. New England is my pick for the AFC champion and the Super Bowl winner.
I know my AFC picks by division are the same as FO’s, so I guess I trust them a lot. Check in there for DVOA rankings throughout the season.