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.
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.
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.
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.
Baltimore has been mediocre since their Super Bowl victory in 2013. That level of performance will not likely change any time soon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Without a clear-cut starting quarterback, the Jags will fail to top five wins for the seventh consecutive season.
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.
Derek Carr contends for MVP, leading the Raiders to a playoff berth.
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.
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
|3||Broncos||11-5||Better division record|
|6||Texans||9-7||Head to Head Record|
|8||Colts||8-8||Head to Head record|
|11||Chargers||5-11||Head to Head record|
|14||Browns||4-12||Head to Head record|
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.