Eight weeks of professional football are in the books. Now it’s November, which means the playoff hunt is in full gear. Who will sneak in? Who will win the MVP? Who will take the Lombardi Trophy? Our staff has some predictions.
The Titans Will Sneak Into the Playoffs
Danny Kelly: The Titans — yes, the freaking Titans, who won five games in 2014 and 2015 combined; who are laughed at by everyone; who are led by Mike Mularkey, the most uninspired coaching choice in league history; and who feature the much-maligned Exotic Smashmouth offense — are going to the NFL playoffs.
DeMarco Murray is quietly second in the NFL in rushing with 756 yards (behind Ezekiel Elliott) and Tennessee is built similarly to the NFC-leading Cowboys. They have a tough, punch-you-in-the-face offensive line featuring a couple of former first-round bookends in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. They have a varied blocking scheme that will mix up styles to keep the defense on their heels.
And it’s not just Tennessee’s run game that has been better than everyone thinks, either. Marcus Mariota has come alive his last four games (three of them wins), connecting on 69 percent of his passes for 949 yards, 10 touchdowns against one pick, and a 120.7 passer rating. Oh, and he’s run the ball 19 times for 149 yards and another score. The Titans have the league’s ninth-ranked offense per DVOA through eight weeks. Kendall Wright has come on strong. Rookie Tajae Sharpe has been excellent. Delanie Walker is still one of the most underrated tight ends in the league.
At 4–4, Tennessee still trails the AFC South–leading Texans, who are atop the division at 5–3. But with the way that Brock Osweiler is playing (read: he sucks), that lead is not safe. The Titans don’t do anything great, but they’re the most balanced team in their division. While that is really not saying much, it will matter down the stretch.
Book it: Tennessee will be hosting a playoff game come January.
Jack Del Rio Will Be Carried Off a Football Field on a Shoulder-Chariot of Glory
Katie Baker: When Jack Del Rio’s Oakland Raiders racked up an NFL-record 23 penalties in a game last week, his reaction was to accuse the league of “put[ting] viewers to sleep” with its officiating (and then to do his best Al Davis impression). Down a point in the closing seconds of Week 1, “Black Jack” opted to go for 2; the Raiders won the game on the play. In Week 5, he went for it on a fourth down and added a two-point conversion for good measure. It will not surprise me when the dude eventually breaks out Shooter McGavin finger pistols after a particularly good playcall. (He’s already been known to introduce deadly weapons into his locker rooms.) The 6–2 Oakland Raiders have won some ugly, hilarious games in the first half of their season, and there’s no reason to believe there won’t be a few more where that came from. I can see it now: Some crazy-like-a-fox Del Rio decision may well propel the Raiders into their first postseason appearance since 2002. No matter what happens, at least it’s certain that the guy will keep you awake.
The Falcons Will Emerge As the NFC Favorites
Robert Mays: Halfway through the season, the Cowboys look like the class of the conference, and despite the Seahawks offensive line struggles, they are still looming thanks to their defense. But I have a sneaking feeling that when it all shakes out, the Falcons will be left standing in the NFC.
Atlanta’s offense is the real deal in Kyle Shanahan’s second season as offensive coordinator. Matt Ryan is playing the best football of his career, the line is much improved from a year ago, and along with having a centaur that wears no. 11, the Falcons have a complementary set of weapons led by two versatile, dangerous running backs. Anyone expecting a second-half swoon from Shanahan’s group like it had last year is going to be disappointed.
What truly makes Atlanta dangerous, though, is the steady growth of its young players on defense. In his second season, Vic Beasley has nearly twice as many sacks in eight games as he had all of last year, and with rookies Deion Jones and Keanu Neal also playing well, the Falcons have enough young talent to piece together a respectable unit by season’s end. Paired with that offense, it’s enough to make them a terrifying bunch come January.
Tom Brady Will Win the MVP
Kevin O’Connor: “I feel better at 39 than I did at 29,” Tom Brady said in a WEEI radio interview last month. Brady is playing better now than he did at 29, too. Brady’s 1,319 yards, 12 touchdowns, no interceptions through four games extrapolate out to 5,276 yards and 48 scores over 16 games, which nearly matches his 2007 MVP season. Brady has managed to improve despite his age and four-game suspension. He’s now rolling out of the pocket and throwing darts with more accuracy than ever. If Brady has a notable weakness, it’s the deep ball, and so far this season he’s been precise on his bombs.
The door is wide open for Brady to snag his third MVP. That’s especially true because the Patriots’ schedule will only get easier. Over its final eight games, New England is mostly facing teams with poor quarterbacks or shoddy defenses — or both. Here’s New England’s remaining schedule, with their team’s record, current starting quarterback, and Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ranking through eight weeks.
Each game is winnable, and there are a handful of cupcake opponents on the slate. The Patriots’ toughest game is against the Seahawks, but that’s coming out of a bye and Seattle has a short week after playing on Monday night. The next toughest is against Denver on the road, but quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled. The real season doesn’t start until the playoffs, where the Raiders or Broncos could be challenges, as could a healthy Steelers squad. But the Patriots are clear favorites at this point of the season, and they historically get better as the months get colder, the snow begins to fall, and other teams are planning their offseason vacations. The North Remembers and the Patriots are ready for war.
Darrelle Revis Will Retire Before Season’s End
Sam Schube: No football player has ever won the game of football quite as convincingly as Darrelle Revis. I don’t mean on the field, where he’s been (until this season) the best cornerback money can buy, with a Super Bowl ring to show for it. I’m more interested in the winning he’s done off the field — how he’s earned the money that being the best corner gets you. Because Revis, at every turn, has managed to generate supreme negotiating leverage in a league that’s designed to let ownership hold all of it, at all times. This hasn’t always been pretty: Revis sat out three weeks of training camp his rookie year to get the contract he wanted (he got it), sat out of all of the preseason in 2010 to get the contract he wanted (he got it), forced a trade to the Buccaneers to get the contract he wanted (he got it), jumped to the Patriots the next year to get the ring he wanted (he got it), and hardballed the once-bitten Jets again to get the contract he wanted (he got it). All of this — the holdouts, the negotiations, the extra years, and guaranteed salary — contributed to an image of Revis as selfish, greedy, and in it for the money. But that’s not quite right — because he was the best player in the game, he had all the leverage. And he used it. Good for him.
Have you ever seen leverage flushed down the toilet, in real time? Here’s what it looks like:
It’s a bummer. And it makes me think that Revis, owed $17 million by the Jets for just next year, knows he’s no longer in a position to win a negotiation. And that he’s noticed his peers hanging it up at a moment’s notice. And that he’s been dropping hints for a reason. When Darrelle Revis can’t get the deal he wants, well, he’s never been shy about his willingness to walk away. This time, I think he just might.
Tom Savage Will Start a Playoff Game for the Texans
Ryan O’Hanlon: While I’m enjoying the “Brock Osweiler: Dinosaur or Quarterback?” art installation in Houston as much as the next high-concept bad-quarterbacking aficionado, the NFL’s conservative principles can handle such an insurrectionary project for so long. Osweiler’s refutation of the forward pass is heartbreaking and his 5.8 yards per attempt certainly should make us all reconsider the validity of both quarters and backs, but this project won’t make it to Week 17 — and nor should it.
Enter Tom Savage, whose first-most notable attribute is that he is a quarterback named Tom Savage and whose second-most notable attribute is that he has the exact kind of jaw you’d expect from a quarterback named Tom Savage. After transferring through three schools and performing with varying levels of mediocrity in college, Savage was somehow drafted by the Texans in the fourth round of the 2014 draft — presumably because he was both compared to Troy Aikman and called worse than Ryan Tannehill in the same scouting report.
After spending five years in college, the 26-year-old Savage has all of the measurables you’d want from a professional quarterback — except for “experience being a good quarterback.” However, that sort of limitation hasn’t mattered to Houston at any point in the franchise’s history. The Texans are lucky and not good, but their one-game lead amidst the sadness of the AFC South feels bigger than it would among a more competent group of teams. Just look at this list; “Tom Savage” belongs right at the top.
The Saints Will Win a Wild-Card Spot
Micah Peters: Here’s the thing: The current NFC picture looks sort of like that hopeless and parched Mad Max dystopian future, but instead of rusted-out, souped-up muscle cars roving an endless desert in search of water and “blood bags,” you’ve got like, rusted over “Priuses” and “Nissan Cubes” or whatever. Everyone’s still wearing football pads though, obviously.
In short, everything is kind of fucked.
In Week 8, only two of the top 10 teams in the conference behind the apparently indomitable Cowboys won their matchups. The Vikings, Seahawks, Packers, Eagles, Bucs, Lions, and Cardinals all lost, the Redskins tied, and the Rams were on a bye. As it sits now, every team in the NFC is either on pace for a playoff berth or a win away from being on pace. This is to say: The door is completely off its hinges and everything is possible at this point.
The Saints, who stumbled out to an 0–3 start but just beat the Seahawks this past Sunday — on the strength of their defense, no less — for their second win in three games, will sneak into the postseason with a 9–7 record. Considering the conference is a raging dumpster fire, this isn’t all that farfetched. It’s actually very plausible. In fact, it feels almost certain.
The Saints will clinch a NFC wild-card spot. Don’t @ me.
Not Just the Wild Card — the Saints Will Win the Division
Kevin Clark: Everyone knows that the Saints’ biggest flaw is that they stopped playing defense after the 2013 season. Here’s the twist: This year, everyone in their division did! In fact, the division hosts four of the eight worst defenses in points per game allowed in the NFL. The NFC South is like college football in that there can be high-scoring games every week. But it’s unlike college football in that Dirk Koetter is winning games.
What separates the Saints is that they have the highest-ceiling offense in the division and that fact alone will propel them to the 10 wins needed to grab the division. Even though the Falcons are now 5–3, they were 6–2 at this point last year and collapsed. Matt Ryan, who is having a career year but has a habit of peaking in September, will need a solid defense to help him avoid another rudderless November and December — and that’s a big ask of an awful Falcons defense. The 2–5 Carolina Panthers forgot how to play football at some point in the last eight months. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, let us never forget, squandered a real chance to compete this year when they drafted a kicker in the second round. Excuse me, they traded up to get a kicker in the second round. Oh wait, one more thing: The kicker is bad.
Drew Brees is leading the NFL in passing yards per game with 337.9 — he’s going to put up a ton of points and Sean Payton is still (we think, at least) a decent coach. The Saints would win the Super Bowl all the time if defense wasn’t a part of the equation. That’s not in the cards, but the next best thing is: Having a bad defense is no longer a handicap in the NFC South. When that’s happening, it’s a good year to be the Saints.
The No Fun League Actually Becomes Fun
Jack McCluskey: Ed Hochuli, holed up in his hotel before Week 9, catches Footloose on TV. Inspired, Hoch shoots off an email to a few of his referee pals:
The missive strikes a nerve with Hochuli’s zebra brothers, who forward it to others, who forward it to others, and … this is the internet, you know how chain letters work … then the herd mentality takes over. So Antonio Brown scores another touchdown on another ridiculous grab, and twerks away in the end zone … without any yellow hankies flying through the air. And Earl Thomas picks off a pass and runs it back for a pick-six, then hugs another end judge … and no flag is thrown.
The fans rejoice. The ratings begin to stabilize.
Fun will save the (not-at-all-at-risk) NFL. (That, or the intrinsic intensity of the best teams jockeying for postseason berths and then competing in said postseason against other elite teams improving the viewing experience.)