It's time for another round of bold predictions, but this week's edition of fearless prognostications includes a macho helping of audaciousness and abandon. Instead of simply making seemingly reckless predictions about this week's games, the ATNFL crew is forecasting what will happen by the end of the regular season. Warning: these predictions are not for the faint of heart.
Chargers come back from the dead to make the playoffs
The San Diego Chargers sit at 3-5 at the midway point of the season, but Philip Rivers' goose isn't cooked. The Chargers are one of two teams with a positive point differential (+13) and losing record -- currently better than their division counterpart, the Oakland Raiders (+12). San Diego blew several games early in the season, but have since stabilized their charge. Joey Bosa turned an already solid defense into a stout force and Rivers continues to fly under the radar as a top-five NFL quarterback. Injuries have been brutal, but the Chargers have the talent of a 6-2 team. In the second half, the record will even out. San Diego's two remaining division games are at home (vs. Raiders, Chiefs). They face bottom-five teams in the Bucs and Browns and an overrated Texans team. The next two weeks will tell the story. Wins at Tennessee and at home against the Dolphins will vault the Chargers back into the wild-card picture in a muddled AFC. Rivers will head to a Week 17 showdown against the Chiefs with a playoff berth on the line. The narratives will be off the charts for that New Year's Day game: Mike McCoy coming back from the dead to save his job, will they/won't they move to L.A., Rivers' legacy as an all-time great. By golly, a Chargers team laughed at, scoffed at, demeaned on the regular, will shut the world up and blast their way into the playoffs. (Dean Scream).
-- Kevin Patra
AFC South will come down to Titans-Texans in Week 17
The AFC South will come down to the final regular-season matchup between the Titans and Texans: The Titans are creeping at 4-4 with a running game that might just be getting started assuming coach Mike Mularkey is serious about upping Derrick Henry's carries. Marcus Mariota has been white hot over the last four weeks, throwing for 949 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception while completing 68.75 percent of his passes. Tennessee is starting to beat bad teams soundly, which is giving us hope that it can stay afloat for the remainder of the regular season and beat the teams it needs to -- the Colts, Bears and Jaguars again -- to really make this interesting.
-- Conor Orr
NFC East tests limits of tiebreak procedure
With three teams above .700, the AFC West has been the most dominant division in football so far this season. But it's the NFC East, the league's highly marketed object of oversaturation, that is and will continue to be the most competitive. With rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way, the 'Boys look pretty good now, but an ill-advised Week 10 switch to a 110-percent healthy, missile-lookingTony Romo dooms Dallas out of the break. The Cowboys go 3-5 down the stretch, only returning to Prescott after Zeke threatens to sit out Week 16 if his fellow rookie doesn't start and, in a flustered fit, Jerrah releases Romo. Elsewhere, Washington's up-and-down season continues as Kirk Cousins' play and the running game fluctuate week to week; the Redskins do, however, get up for divisional games, winning their final three in the NFC East. The Eagles paste the Giants this week and embark on a four-game winning streak during which Dorial Green-Beckham averages 10 catches and 55 receiving yards per game. But Andy Dalton outguns Carson Wentz in a blazing shootout of ginger-y-ginger in Week 13 and sends the Eagles into a brief nose dive. Finally, Ben McAdoo becomes a fashion icon when the weather turns in New York, sporting woolen en vogue turtlenecks and semi-ironic galoshes. Fifth Avenue's newfound adulation for McAdoo inspires his struggling Giants offense to earn similar accolades on the football field, and Eli Manning and Odell Beckham connect on at least nine catches and 113 yards in each of their last nine games.
When the dust settles in Week 17, there's a pileup: Each NFC East team has six losses. Despite boasting the best division record at 5-1, the 'Skins remain out of the playoff picture at 9-6-1, a karmic demerit for settling for a tie in Week 8. Out of the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants, who all finish 10-6, it is New York who claims the division, thanks to a head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker. When the 2017 schedule comes out, all 12 NFC East matchups are earmarked to be broadcast on Sunday Night Football, as a new reign of the Big Markets dawns.
-- Jeremy Bergman
Browns finish winless
I've written about the Browns a handful of times in the bold predictions this season, and for good reason: I learned football through the Browns. Starting with their first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings in 1999 at the then Cleveland Browns Stadium, I spent every Sunday with Tim Couch, Kevin Johnson, Darrin Chiaverini and the lovable losers. It has been in my family for decades and continues -- my niece attended her first Browns game (a 21-7 loss to the Chicago Bears) at six weeks old.
This is as much bold as it is sad. As the Cavaliers begin their title defense and the Indians recover from a heartbreaking defeat in the World Series, the Browns are careening toward rock bottom. But the future remains bright.
It's difficult to go 0-16. It's more likely that they'll eventually pull one out. But these are bold predictions, and we're going bold by placing the Browns among history's worst. They'll finish winless, joining the 2008 Detroit Lions, enter the offseason with the first pick in the 2017 draft and look ahead to better days. Coach Hue Jackson has begun the shift in culture, as evidenced by the effort the Browns put into each game, which inevitably ends in crushing defeat. Small strides will be made on the field, which will serve as encouragement for the future. The front office will continue to do its best to stock the team with talent. They'll give their best shot at retaining recently acquired Jamie Collins and work with a gob of salary-cap space in the coming years. But it will come with a meeting with the record books for the worst reason in 2016. The night is always darkest before the dawn.
-- Nick Shook