2017 AFC Preseason Playoff Predictions

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back, NFL!!

In this article I’ll explain my picks for the 2017 NFL playoffs.

This year, the AFC is a very diverse conference, containing the league’s best (Patriots) and worst (Jets) teams within the same division. As always, there are teams on the rise (Raiders), teams who peaked last season (Dolphins), perennial contenders (Patriots), and dark horses (Titans).

In making these predictions, I’ll try not to fly too close to the sun. I hope to make these interesting, but in a makes-me-look-smart way, not a makes-me-look-stupid way. I want to look over the NFL landscape, like Icarus did when he built his wax wings, but not make his same mistake (predict something that completely backfires).

Here are my picks for this year’s AFC playoffs. You can view the spreadsheet that contains my record predictions for each team here.

AFC East

DIvision Winner: New England Patriots: 13-3
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Come on now, did you really think it would be any other team? Belichick and Brady have continued to dominate, and the duo won their fifth Super Bowl in February.

After that dramatic win, the Patriots improved their squad tremendously in the offseason by signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore and trading for receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks should cover for the loss of Julian Edelman to a preseason ACL tear.

The Pats look as invincible as ever. Anything less than a Super Bowl berth will be a disappointment for this juggernaut of a club.

Other teams:

Miami Dolphins: 5-11

After losing their starting quarterback to an ACL tear, the ‘Fins were forced to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement and don’t figure to participate in the postseason.

Buffalo Bills: 4-12

The Bills fired much of the front office in the offseason, and this lost organization will most likely add to its 17-year playoff drought.

New York Jets: 1-15

New York has the least-talented roster in the league by a large margin, and will struggle to win a single game.

AFC North

Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4

Pittsburgh’s already-lethal offense added a new component this offseason in Martavis Bryant, who will join Antonio Brown in a loaded receiving corps. Bryant, one of the NFL’s best deep threats and most athletic players, returns to the team after a year-long suspension for substance abuse.

In addition, the Steelers have continued to select defensive players early in the draft — this was their fifth straight year taking a defender in the first round. This approach has led to a very young defense (six starters are 25 or under).

The Steelers have a great mix of veteran talent on both sides of the ball in addition to many talented young players. Now that they are finally healthy, they have a great shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

Other teams:

Ravens: 9-7

Baltimore has been mediocre since their Super Bowl victory in 2013. That level of performance will not likely change any time soon.

Bengals: 8-8

The Bengals roster — especially the offensive line — was depleted severely in free agency, making it difficult for them to remain competitive in a difficult division.

Browns: 4-12

The Browns improved one of the league’s most talent-barren rosters by selecting ten players in this year’s draft — including three in the first round.

AFC South

Division Winner: Tennessee Titans: 10-6
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I believe this is “the year” for Tennessee, a squad that probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for an injury to Marcus Mariota in week 16. The Titans saw incredible growth from their star quarterback last season and should contend in the playoffs this year.

Tennessee also upgraded their receiving corps and defensive backfield in the offseason, both in the draft and in free agency.

If the young Titans can defeat contenders like the Seahawks (week 3) and the Steelers (week 11), they will prove that they are ready for the playoffs.

Other teams:

Texans: 9-7

Houston’s great defense will always keep them in games, but I think their offense improves just enough for them to squeeze into the playoffs as the sixth seed.

Colts: 8-8

Andrew Luck has not practiced yet after offseason shoulder surgery, and if he misses the first few weeks, the Colts will not be able to reach the playoffs.

Jaguars: 4-12

Without a clear-cut starting quarterback, the Jags will fail to top five wins for the seventh consecutive season.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: 11-5
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Now, here is where I get a little bit unconventional. The AFC West is a very crowded division, a division that I believe is the best in football. All four teams have the potential to make the playoffs — the Chiefs and Raiders reached the postseason last year, the Broncos won the Super Bowl two years ago, and the Chargers made the the playoffs in 2013.

In 2017, I predict that the both the Broncos and the Raiders finish 11-5, but Denver wins the division thanks to a tiebreaker (better division record). The Broncos still have a dominant defense, and I believe that Trevor Siemian will improve enough to allow the Broncos to recapture the division title.

Other teams:

Raiders: 11-5

Derek Carr contends for MVP, leading the Raiders to a playoff berth.

Chiefs: 7-9

Kansas City has lost their number one receiver and number one running back from last year — and face the third-hardest schedule in the league — meaning they’ll miss out on the 2017 playoffs.

Chargers: 5-11

After hiring a new coach and moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers have taken a leap forward, but their unsteady defense will hold them back.

Final Conference Standings

Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
1 Patriots 13-3
2 Steelers 12-4
3 Broncos 11-5 Better division record
4 Titans 10-6
5 Raiders 11-5
6 Texans 9-7 Head to Head Record

Non-Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
7 Ravens 9-7
8 Colts 8-8 Head to Head record
9 Bengals 8-8
10 Chiefs 7-9
11 Chargers 5-11 Head to Head record
12 Dolphins 5-11
13 Bills 4-12 Conference record
14 Browns 4-12 Head to Head record
15 Jaguars 4-12
16 Jets 1-15

Special thanks to Pro-Football Reference for each team’s schedule, NFL.com for tiebreaker information, and ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger picture credit: By Keith Allison – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51367937

Stay tuned for my NFC Preseason Playoff Predictions, which will be released soon.

Burning Questions for each NFC team

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back! This post is a continuation of my previous article which detailed burning questions I had about each AFC team.

Like the AFC, some teams in the NFC are rebuilding and some are contending, but they all have at least one vital question that still needs to be answered.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

Here are the burning questions that each NFC team needs to answer.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Key Players: Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, Dak Prescott

Key Question: Can they keep up after losing significant talent in free agency?

The Cowboys were the surprise team in the NFL last year. They improved their record by nine wins after drafting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. However, their road to the playoffs this year will not be easy.

They lost nearly their entire secondary in free agency, as key contributors like Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all signed deals elsewhere.

The Cowboys still have the star-power needed for a shot at the Super Bowl, but they lost many important role players this offseason.

New York Giants

Key Players: Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Odell Beckham Jr.

Key Question: Who’s the answer at running back?

The Giants finished last year at 11-5, a record good enough to make the playoffs.

But even though they had a successful year, their offense ranked 26th in points scored and 25th in yards gained. Their rushing attack in particular was dreadful, ranking 29th in the league.

The Giants tried many different options at running back last year and none of them worked. Rashad Jennings was the team’s leading rusher, but he didn’t even crack 600 yards. The Giants didn’t address this problem in the early rounds of the draft, and they won’t be able to supplant Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys unless they improve their rushing attack.

Washington Redskins

Key Players: Kirk Cousins, Brandon Scherff, Ryan Kerrigan

Key Question: Are they going to commit to Kirk Cousins?

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The Redskins have had an awful offseason.

First, the ownership fired general manager Scot McCloughan on the first day of free agency, amid reports that he had relapsed with alcohol abuse and was drunk in the locker room. They still haven’t found a general manager, and team president Bruce Allen suggested that he might not hire one at all. (hold on–what???)

Amid all of the chaos, the Redskins franchise tagged Kirk Cousins for the second consecutive season. Washington is fortunate enough to have a top ten quarterback like Cousins, but they have failed to lock him up on a long-term deal. The Redskins need to stop playing their game of cat-and-mouse with Cousins, and either sign him to a long-term contract or let him leave.
Philadelphia Eagles

Key Players: Brandon Graham, Jason Peters, Fletcher Cox

Key Question: Is Carson Wentz ready?

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was maddeningly inconsistent last season, and he endured stretches where he looked like a genius and others where he looked lost and confused.

During the first three weeks of the season, Wentz seemed invincible; completing 65% of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions. But in a five game losing streak from weeks 10-14, Wentz completed just 60% of his passes, and threw for just four touchdowns against eight interceptions.

If Wentz can improve upon his performance from last year, the Eagles will have a shot at emerging from the basement of the NFC East.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Key Players: Aaron Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

Key Question: Is Ty Montgomery ready to handle full-time running back duties?

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After back-to-back disappointing years in Green Bay, Pro-Bowl running back Eddie Lacy headed for greener pastures and signed with the Seahawks in free agency. Now, wide-receiver-turned-running-back Ty Montgomery is expected to be the team’s lead back after a 77-rush cameo last season. Montgomery fared surprisingly well last year, averaging a brilliant 5.9 yards per carry.

This offseason, Montgomery has changed uniform numbers and bulked up, preparing to be the team’s starting running back. The Packers need Montgomery to deliver a solid season, or else opposing defenses will zero in on Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack, and the Packers will falter.

Detroit Lions

Key Players: Matthew Stafford, Taylor Decker, Devin Taylor

Key Question: Was last season a fluke?

The Lions squeaked into the playoffs last year on an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins by Matthew Stafford.

Detroit had a bottom-half offense and a bottom-half defense last year, with a negative point differential (-12), a number that contradicts their 9-7 record. Detroit won just one game last season in which they weren’t behind in the fourth quarter.

No disrespect to Matt Stafford and his incredible fourth quarter exploits, but last year’s magic will be incredibly hard to reproduce. And if the Lions can’t repeat what they did last year, they won’t be able to sniff the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Key Players: Everson Griffen, Sam Bradford, Linval Joseph

Key Question: Who is the starting running back?

Last season, the Minnesota Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL in terms of rushing yardage. Their mark of 1,205 was not even half the mark set by the league-leading Buffalo Bills.

This offseason they’ve rectified that issue by drafting Dalvin Cook and signing Latavius Murray in free agency.

If Murray can replicate his exploits with the Raiders last year, and if Cook can deliver on his Pro-Bowl potential, the Vikings will have a terrific one-two punch at running back.

Murray and Cook have enormous shoes to fill after Adrian Peterson’s departure, but if they’re up to the task, the Vikings can challenge for a playoff berth.

Chicago Bears

Key Players: Jordan Howard, Akiem Hicks, Cameron Meredith

Key Question: Will Mitchell Trubisky receive any snaps this year?

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The Bears shocked the NFL world when they traded two third round picks and a fourth rounder to move up one slot and select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky number two overall in the draft. This was a bit perplexing, as the Bears had given Mike Glennon a 3 year, $45 million contract during free agency.

Glennon deserves the starting nod and he will get it, but Trubisky deserves consideration too. The Bears clearly believe in him after spending so much draft capital to move up in the draft, and I hope he gets a chance this year.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Key Players: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Vic Beasley

Key Question: Can they avoid a Super Bowl hangover?

The Falcons lost last season’s Super Bowl in nearly the most demoralizing way possible, and they need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.

Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — whose record-setting offense earned Matt Ryan the MVP —  left and became the 49ers head coach.

Last season’s Carolina Panthers are a perfect example of what the Falcons must avoid next year. The Panthers dropped from 15-1 to 6-10 after their Super Bowl loss, meaning that next season is extremely important for the Falcons. If they succeed next year, they will have laid the groundwork for years of potential dominance. But if they falter, their magnificent 2016 season will be remembered as a fluke.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Players: Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Jameis Winston

Key Question: Are the young Bucs ready for the playoffs?

Playoffs? Yes, playoffs. The Buccaneers finished 9-7 last year, missing out on those elusive playoffs because of a tiebreaker.

This offseason, Jameis Winston and company have added players like speedy receiver DeSean Jackson and powerful tight end O.J. Howard.

Last year the Bucs secured their first winning record since 2010, as Jameis Winston grew and the defense turned around. They led the league with 18 takeaways over the last eight weeks of the year.

The Bucs now have one of the scariest offenses in football. And their young defense is built to stop high-octane offenses like the Saints and Falcons. No matter if the rest of the NFL is ready or not, here come the Bucs.

New Orleans Saints

Key Players: Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Nick Fairley

Key Question: Can their defense catch up to their offense?

The Saints have finished with a top-ten offense and a bottom-five defense in the past three seasons. Last year, New Orleans finished first in yards gained and second in points scored. But they finished 31st in yards allowed and 27th in points conceded.

The Saints have continued to reinforce their defense through the draft and free agency, but to no avail; the defense has been horrendous the past few seasons. If the Saints can’t shore up their historically bad defense, their historically good offense will be wasted, and they will stay marooned in mediocrity.

Carolina Panthers

Key Players: Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly

Key Question: Can Cam Newton and the Panthers bounce back after last year’s disastrous season?Embed from Getty Images 

 
The Panthers followed their 2015 NFC-winning 15-1 season with a bumbling 6-10 record in 2016. GM Dave Gettleman, who oversaw the most successful four-year period in franchise history, was shockingly fired in mid-July.

Carolina’s QB Cam Newton struggled mightily last year, scoring 21 fewer touchdowns than he did in his 2015 MVP campaign.

The Panthers defense also struggled last season after the loss of star cornerback Josh Norman, dropping from sixth in points allowed in 2015 to twenty-sixth in 2016.

Overall, the team seemed disinterested last year and Cam Newton’s usually-vibrant enthusiasm was clouded over. Carolina is facing a make-or-break year that will determine whether their magical 2015 was an anomaly or not.

NFCWest

Seattle Seahawks

Key Players: Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Cliff Avril

Key Question: Who will be the starting running back?

The Seattle Seahawks have been an NFL power for many years, making the postseason the past five seasons. However, their offense scuffled around last season, and Seattle finished 25th in the league in rushing yards.

Thomas Rawls, who led the league in yards per carry (5.6) during his breakout 2015 campaign, struggled with injuries last year, and his yards per attempt dropped to just 3.2. Eddie Lacy, Rawls’ main competition, has struggled with injuries and weight problems the past two years, and hopefully the Seahawks can resurrect his once-promising career. Lacy and Rawls will fight for the starting job, and the Seahawks will need a strong running game to challenge the other heavyweights of the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals

Key Players: David Johnson, Carson Palmer, Patrick Peterson

Key Question: Is Carson Palmer finished?Embed from Getty Images

The Cardinals endured an odd season last year as they followed up their NFC Championship game appearance in 2015 with a 7-8-1 record. The Cardinals lost six more games in 2016 than they did in 2015, and this was chiefly because of quarterback Carson Palmer.

As you can see by the chart below, Palmer’s production fell off a cliff in 2016.

Carson Palmer’s 2015 vs. 2016
Year Age G QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate QBR Sacked NY/A ANY/A Sack% 4QC GWD AV
2015 36 16 13-3 342 537 63.7 4671 35 6.5 11 2.0 8.7 9.1 13.7 291.9 104.6 78.6 25 8.04 8.41 4.4 2 5 16
2016 37 15 6-8-1 364 597 61.0 4233 26 4.4 14 2.3 7.1 6.9 11.6 282.2 87.2 58.9 40 6.20 6.03 6.3 1 3 12

Palmer will be entering the 2017 season at the ripe old age of 38, and he may not be able to carry the Cardinals any longer. Arizona should start looking to find his replacement.

Los Angeles Rams

Key Players: Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Todd Gurley

Key Question: Can Todd Gurley bounce back?

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Like the rest of the Rams last year, Todd Gurley endured a horrible 2016 season. The open holes that Gurley found in his rookie year were simply not there last year, and Gurley averaged 30 fewer yards per game.

Gurley depended on long runs during his rookie season. Among running backs with at least 150 carries, Gurley had the highest percentage of runs that lasted 25 or more yards (8 out of 229). In 2016 though, Gurley ranked dead last in this metric, failing to have a single run of 25 yards or more in 278 carries.

The Rams recruited vital offensive line help this offseason, so hopefully Gurley will be able to rebound.

San Francisco 49ers

Key Players: Zane Beadles, DeForest Buckner, Carlos Hyde

Key Question: Can the new front office rebuild the team?

Many analysts, including myself, criticized the 49ers heavily when they hired John Lynch as their general manager. Lynch never had any front office experience, but he has had an excellent offseason.

First, he hired Kyle Shanahan, the former Falcons offensive coordinator, to be the 49ers new head coach. Shanahan is considered to be one of the brightest young minds in the game.

Then, Lynch signed underrated veterans like Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, and Kyle Juszczyk in free agency.

Lynch also made off with a king’s ransom in the draft, trading down to select Solomon Thomas and then trading up to select Reuben Foster.

Although Lynch inherited possibly the most talent-baren roster in football, he has started to piece it back together.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference, Spotrac, and Pro Football Focus for all of these helpful statistics.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Thanks for reading!

Carson Wentz picture credit: By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons