In five of the last six seasons, at least one division champ has won fewer than 10 games:
That's what you call a trend, and it's one that figures to continue as long as the NFL schedule makers stick with the rotating divisions model (in which each division plays one of the three other divisions within it's conference and one of the four divisions in the opposing conference). So which division will slide this year? Well, if you assume everyone's gotta take their turn at the bottom, then time is up for the AFC West or AFC East or AFC North. Until Tom Brady retires, though, it's hard to imagine the Patriots not winning at least 10 games.
The AFC North is less of a lock, but a season's worth of relative good luck in avoiding injuries for either Pittsburgh or Baltimore oughta be enough to ensure at least one team gets to double-digit wins. (You can, however, talk me into an 8-8 Bengals' season. We'll get to that in a bit.)
Again, one of the biggest factors in determining why a division collectively moves up or down is based on which other two divisions they'll be playing. That said, here's a look at the where the big wheel of rotating schedules has landed here in 2016:
» AFC East vs. AFC North and NFC West
» AFC North vs. AFC East and NFC East
» AFC South vs. AFC West and NFC North
» AFC West vs. AFC South and NFC South
» NFC East vs. NFC North and AFC North
» NFC North vs. NFC East and AFC South
» NFC South vs. NFC West and AFC West
» NFC West vs. NFC South and AFC East
Seems to me that the NFC East got the short straw, but I'm also anticipating better seasons from the Cowboys and Giants thanks, respectively, to improved health and a talent infusion via free agency. Besides, building on the recent trend we laid out above, the previous seasons' bad divisions generally move up the following year:
Based on this trend, the 2016 NFC East and the AFC South champs should both exceed the nine-game win totals of their divisions' 2015 victors.
What about the NFC North? Well, the headline there feels like the return of Jordy Nelson, whose absence last year proved his value to the Packers. Between him, a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy, and the emerging D in Minnesota, it's hard to conceive of a big step backwards for the division. (Oh, and don't sleep on those Lions: If there was ever an NFL candidate for Bill Simmons' "Ewing Theory," the Megatron-less Staffords are it.)
Who's left? Look west. No, not the AFC West. You've no doubt heard at least a few optimistic types declare the Raiders as "back" (as in: ready to win the division right now), but while they probably need another season of polish before they get up to full speed, they're undeniably headed in the right direction. The 2015 Chiefs survived the loss of Jamaal Charles to follow the lead of most Andy Reid-coached teams by making the postseason ... and the 2016 Chiefs will survive possibly having to play the whole year without Justin Houston. (Thanks, Dee Ford!) Even the defending champs -- right now the butt of jokes with Mark Sanchezinstalled as their starting QB -- oughta be just fine. Before you bury Denver, just think about how atrocious Peyton was during its Super Bowl run. Could the Sanchise really be any worse?
No, the pick here is the ... NFC West.
I know, I know, I'm crazy and shouldn't be allowed to have a job, and I'm stupid and should have a wall built around me and I should have to pay for it. (Trust me, I'm already anticipating dozens of "Your a idiot" tweets.)
Also don't forget the 10-6 Seahawks didn't right their ship 'til late November last year, when they survived a shootout against Pittsburgh but Jimmy Graham's knee didn't. Coincidence? Up to that point in 2015, the conversation focused on the team's inability to integrate Drew Brees' former fave into the offense. You convinced that little pigskin melodrama has been resolved by the passage of time? Meantime, Tom Cable -- who deserves heaps of credit for what he's already done with that patchwork O-line -- will have to work late into the night at the sweat shop to stitch something together with what threadbare assets remain from the Super Bowl units. (Also, Thomas Rawls might be OK, but he's a major step back from his chatty predecessor.)
Then there are the Cardinals, of whom I'm a fan thanks to good guys like Bruce Arians, Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Listen, the roster still looks mighty, but let's not forget where things left off for them in January, even if Carson Palmer wants us to. "You can't let one game define you. You just have to move on." No, Carson, you have to move on. But what evidence, exactly, is there to prove your tepid-to-terrible close to last season (including a blowout loss at home to Seattle, the fortuitous win against the Jeff Janis-led Packers, and that shaming in Carolina) isn't who you really are? While you conjure your response, here's some more reckless speculation:
Zeke E will provide big O in Big D
Put yourself in Jerrah's (presumably expensive) shoes for a second: Your team is in need of an impact defender, a role guys named Bosa, Buckner and Jack all seem capable of filling. Then again, you've got a 36-year-old franchise QB whose health will be in question 'til the day he hangs 'em up (assuming he can still lift his arms over his head); you've got one of the two or three most talented receivers on the planet; and you've got the game's best O-line. If you had a hunch the draft offered a gifted runner who could give your team something akin to what Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell gave theirs, wouldn't you have to take him? By the way, that's not saying Ezekiel Elliott is as talented as the other two aforementioned gems (I said three years ago on DDFP that Gurley would be a generational force), but putting a home run hitter behind that line -- combined with the omnipresent Romo-to-Dez threat -- would make the 2016 Cowboys' offense more lethal than the 2014 version. (With the exception of Greg Hardy -- and the alleged almost-drafting of Johnny F) Jerrah has made a number of sound personnel decisions over the last few years. But while a defender might be more sensible here, the chance to forge a dominant offense in a win-now situation will be a temptation too strong for Jerrah to resist. And I don't blame him at all. (By the way, Elliott will rush for over 1,500 yards.)
The Bengals will miss the postseason
As J.J. Wattexposed last season, BB Gundy Dalton is emotionally brittle. As Vontaze Burfictreminded us last season, Vontaze Burfict is unstable. And as Marvin Lewis has taught us over the last 13 seasons, consistency -- in and of itself -- can be overrated. Making the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons is nice, especially after being a punchline for so long ... but 0-7 in January is a consistent embarrassment. If your black-and-orange glass is half full, you believe Marv would've gotten off the career postseason schnide had Dalton just not hurt his thumb, but this year, without the departed Mohamed Sanuand Marvin Jones and with the pressure of a capable backup weighing on the fragile psyche of a QB whose career highlight is an October comeback, that thumb injury may prove to have been just a stay of execution.
Eli Manning is going to the Hall of Fame
All right, this one's more of a slow burn but if you can hang in there for another decade (and a half?), you'll see I'm right. Did you know 35-year-old Eli is already 11th all-time in passing yards and eighth in TDs? By the end of the calendar year, he'll have climbed even higher in both categories -- and there's a good chance he hasn't hit his statistical peak with Victor Cruz rejoining Odell Beckham Jr. in 2016. Speaking of stats, it says here OBJ -- in his third pro season -- will go over 100 receptions and 1,800 yards.
The Browns will make a savvy draft choice on Day 1 - but not a QB
The cynic in me says investing in Robert Griffin III is a show of Hue-bris (which refers to the self-confidence of the Browns new head coach, NOT his involvement in an ancient Jewish ritual surrounding the birth of male child), but RGIII's presence buys Cleveland the freedom to take the best player available, whether that's Myles Jack or Jalen Ramsey. Sure, the team will still need a long-term answer at QB, but no matter who they put under center in 2016, the season won't end with a Super Bowl victory ... so building overall depth is more important. And by the way, in-state stud Cardale Jones will still be there for the taking at the top of Round 2, and maybe even Round 3.
The Saints will finish at the bottom of the NFC South
The Panthers are still the class of the division, Dan Quinn's Falcons continue adding brawn to their talented core and Dirk Koetter's Bucs offer -- at minimum - intriguing potential with Famous Jameis at the trigger of a loaded offense. The Saints, on the other hand, seem stale, even with 37-year-old Drew Brees coming off an underrated 2015. The home-field mystique has vanished along with a number of the big, bad contracts GM Mickey Loomis brought in over the last several offseasons ... but without much to replace them.
Among NFL fans, Heinz Field season ticketholders have the most enjoyable autumn in store
Writer's note: This isn't a proclamation regarding the quality of the home team (although, even with Martavis Bryant's season going up in smoke, the offense should be mighty if the Big Three -- Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown -- can just stay healthy). Rather, the bounty of menacing foes will offer the locals an up-close look at the league's best: Along with the eternally-loathed Birdies of Baltimore and the new-era, would-be bully Bengals of Burfict, the Steelers also host Odell Beckham (against that secondary? Sheesh ... ); their '70s rival (a.k.a. the Decade of the Super Powers) Dallas; legit playoff contenders in the Chiefs and Jets; and the AFC's 21st century bully, the Patriots. Also, the Steelers will host a team with the word "Browns" on their pants.
Paxton Lynch will replace Kevin Richardson in the Backstreet Boys and no one will know the difference
What reckless speculation about a football season that won't start for another five-plus months would be complete without seeding all the teams who'll still be playing in January (10 months from now)?