2017 NFC Preseason Playoff Predictions

By Connor Pignatello

For this post, I’ll be predicting each NFC team’s record for the upcoming NFL season, as well as predicting which teams make the playoffs. This is a continuation of my last article, which detailed my predictions for each AFC team in 2017.

After the season ends, I’ll revisit these predictions and analyze my incorrect picks. You can view my record predictions here.

Let’s get started!

NFC East

Division Winner: New York Giants: 11-5
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The Giants reached the postseason last year, and they figure to reach the playoffs again this year, thanks to their $200 million spree on defensive players last spring. This spring, the Giants signed veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall in free agency, forming one of the league’s most explosive receiving corps.

New York also retains its fearsome defense from last year, a unit that was top ten in the league both in points and yards allowed.

Big Blue should be able to squeak past the depleted Cowboys and capture the division title.

Other teams:

Dallas Cowboys: 10-6

The Cowboys won the division last year, but this year I predict they will make the playoffs as a wild card team, because of a much harder schedule and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension.

Philadelphia Eagles: 9-7

The Eagles have a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they are still a year or two away from making noise in the postseason.

Washington Redskins: 6-10

Washington lost its top two receivers from last season and their shaky defense will prevent them from contending in the crowded NFC East.

NFC North

Division Winner: Green Bay Packers: 13-3
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Aaron Rodgers had possibly the best streak of his career last season, and at 33 years old he has not shown any signs of decline. During the Packers’ eight game winning streak from week eleven to the divisional round, Rodgers threw for 21 touchdowns against just one interception while averaging 298 passing yards per game.

The Pack have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, one of the league’s deepest receiving corps, and a coaching staff that is always thinking of new ways to get past their opponents.

As long as the Packers have Rodgers at the helm, they will be one of the elite teams in the NFL.

Other teams:

Minnesota Vikings: 8-8

The Vikings fierce defense kept the team out of the NFC North basement last year, but the offense just doesn’t have enough playmakers to make a playoff run.

Detroit Lions: 6-10

The Lions magical 2016 season will be extremely hard to repeat, and without a top-half offense or a top-half defense, the team won’t sniff the postseason.

Chicago Bears: 2-14

The Bears are in full-rebuild mode and are years away from contending for a playoff berth.

NFC South

Division Winner: Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
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I believe the Falcons will escape the dreaded Super Bowl hangover (see Panthers, Carolina) because of the tremendous talent they have on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off of an MVP season, Devonta Freeman is now the highest paid running back in football, and linebacker Vic Beasley led the league in sacks last year.

Even though Atlanta lost its talented offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, they have retained the majority of their talent from last year. I believe that Atlanta is motivated by their Super Bowl collapse and I predict that they win the division for the second year in a row.

Other teams:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11-5

The Bucs missed out on last year’s postseason because of a tiebreaker, but they added talent in both free agency and the draft, and are poised to make a run in the playoffs as a wild card team.

Carolina Panthers: 9-7

Carolina followed up their Super Bowl berth with a perplexing 6-10 campaign last year, but they’re healthy this year and will return to relevance.

New Orleans Saints: 8-8

The Saints, as always, will possess a top-five offense, but their bottom-five defense will hold them back.

NFC West

Division Winner: Seattle Seahawks: 12-4

I’m betting on Seattle to return to the postseason for the sixth straight year: a streak bested only by the Patriots and the Packers.

Seattle’s record-breaking defense just added another piece on September 1st: ex-Jet defensive end and Pro-Bowler Sheldon Richardson. The Seahawks own one of the best defenses in modern NFL history — the unit has ranked in the top five both in fewest points and yards allowed in each of the past five seasons.

I believe Russell Wilson will have a bounceback year, and the Seahawks will reach the ten-win mark for the sixth straight year.

The Seahawks always seem to be in the thick of things come playoff time, and I don’t expect that to end any time soon.

Other teams:

Arizona Cardinals: 10-6

Arizona reaches the ten win plateau thanks to David Johnson, who becomes just the second player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.

Los Angeles Rams: 5-11

New head coach Sean McVay injects life into the Rams organization, and the team improves to 5-11.

San Francisco 49ers: 3-13

The Niners improve thanks to new head coach Kyle Shanahan, but still finish at just 3-13.

Final Conference Standings

Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
1 Packers 13-3
2 Seahawks 12-4 Head to Head Record
3 Falcons 12-4
4 Giants 11-5
5 Buccaneers 11-5
6 Cowboys 10-6 Head to Head Record

Non Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
7 Cardinals 10-6
8 Eagles 9-7 Head to Head Record
9 Panthers 9-7
10 Saints 8-8 Head to Head Record
11 Vikings 8-8
12 Redskins 6-10 Common game win%
13 Lions 6-10
14 Rams 5-11
15 49ers 3-13
16 Bears 2-14

2018 NFL Draft Order

Non-Playoff Teams

*SOS = Strength of Schedule

Pick Number Team Record Division Finish Tiebreaker
1 Jets 1-15 4th
2 Bears 2-14 4th
3 49ers 3-13 4th
4 Jaguars 4-12 4th SOS
5 Browns 4-12 4th SOS
6 Bills 4-12 3rd
7 Rams 5-11 3rd SOS
8 Dolphins 5-11 3rd SOS
9 Chargers 5-11 4th
10 Lions 6-10 3rd SOS
11 Redskins 6-10 4th
12 Bills (from Chiefs) 7-9 3rd
13 Colts 8-8 3rd SOS
14 Bengals 8-8 3rd SOS
15 Vikings 8-8 2nd SOS
16 Saints 8-8 4th
17 Ravens 9-7 2nd SOS
18 Panthers 9-7 3rd SOS
19 Eagles 9-7
20 Cardinals 10-6 2nd

Playoff Teams (based on record, because I didn’t predict the playoff games themselves)

Pick Number Team Record Division Finish Tiebreaker
21 Browns (from Texans) 9-7 2nd
22 Titans 10-6 1st SOS
23 Cowboys 10-6 2nd
24 Buccaneers 11-5 2nd SOS
25 Giants 11-5 1st SOS
26 Raiders 11-5 2nd SOS
27 Broncos 11-5 1st
28 Steelers 12-4 1st SOS
29 Seahawks 12-4 1st SOS
30 Falcons 12-4 1st
31 Patriots 13-3 1st SOS
32 Packers 13-3 1st

*Houston and Kansas City both traded away their 2018 first-round picks during the 2017 NFL Draft to Cleveland and Buffalo, respectively.

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

Russell Wilson photo attribution: By Larry Maurer – http://www.flickr.com/photos/larrymaurer/8195990017/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22773967

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