The NFL preaches parity above all else, but there’s growing evidence that the league no longer has much. All offseason, the coaches and GMs I spoke to offered a shared refrain: The league that spent the last two decades enjoying storybook worst-to-first improvements has grown predictable.
Consider this: Four teams (New England, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Denver) are currently enjoying playoff streaks that are at least five years long, and all of them look primed to keep going. Two of those streaks, the Packers’ and the Patriots’, have been going for seven years. Meanwhile, six teams are currently enjoying the longest playoff streaks in franchise history. The last time the sport saw such a large group of repeat playoff teams was the late 1970s, when the Cowboys owned a nine-year stretch, the Steelers and Rams boasted eight-year runs, and Oakland and Minnesota went for six years apiece.
That was then. Now, a small group of teams (the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, Broncos, Panthers, and Bengals) have what appear to be yearly reservations for playoff spots. This wasn’t supposed to happen in the salary cap era, which began in the early ’90s. Yet last year, the only team to go from last to first was Washington, which benefitted from playing in the NFC East, where Tony Romo was injured, Philadelphia imploded, and Tom Coughlin and his squad fell asleep in September and never woke up. Washington, of course, didn’t win a playoff game. The “surprise” team last season was Carolina — which has now made the playoffs in three straight seasons. The Cinderella NFL story may be a thing of the past, because increasingly, the good teams are staying good, and the bad teams are staying bad.
One explanation for parity’s end is that in recent years there’s been a dip in the number of quarterbacks in the draft who could change a team’s fortunes and emerge as franchise cornerstones. This is a particularly problematic trend for bad teams, because in 2016, quarterbacks and contracts shape the league. The Rams can do whatever the hell they want on defense and in the running game, but Case Keenum’s not getting them to the playoffs — and the no. 1 overall pick, Jared Goff, won’t be getting them there either, as he’ll be inactive to start the year.
The next big problem for the have-nots is that teams that find good players tend to keep them, and can do so easily because of the rising salary cap and rookie salary scale that pumps cheap labor into the league. Look at the Seahawks, who kept their core of Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, and Earl Thomas intact, then supplemented it with 15 (15!) rookies. The Seahawks, Packers, Patriots, and other haves who signed their stars to good deals and then scouted well enough to balance out the roster are essentially playing a different sport from mediocre teams like the Falcons or Colts, who’ve failed to make the leap from good to great. It’s harder than ever to break into the elite, because the teams that are already there have perfected the strategy for staying put. Add in good coaching, which all of those teams have, and contenders are less vulnerable than ever to suffering down seasons.
And so as you set out to pick the winners for the first week of the 2016 season, remember not to try to be a hero. Too many people still buy into the old-world mentality that crazy stuff happens in the NFL all the time, but it’s not like that anymore. The sport is post-parity. On The Ringer’s Facebook Live Week 1 preview show, my colleague Ryan O’Hanlon predicted that through a series of insane events, Geno Smith would win a playoff game this season. Ryan is a Jets fan, and if he’s putting his faith in Smith, he’s also crazy. After two decades of NFL parity taught us to expect the unexpected, we need to recalibrate, because the teams that have been good will remain good. And with that in mind, onto the picks:
(Note: Home team in CAPS.)
Green Bay (-6) 30, JACKSONVILLE 17
It’s easy to picture this upset, to envision the fired-up North Florida crowd, delirious from months of Bortles-Robinson-Hurns hype, roaring as the Jags seal the franchise-altering win over a Packers team that just cut its most experienced offensive lineman and is easing its top receiver back to health. But it’s only easy because it’s exactly the kind of delusion that sets in entering every Week 1, after we’ve all had too many months to over think a game.
Unfortunately for the Jags, dreams aren’t enough to overcome a consistent failure to play at even a competent level against good teams. In 17 games against eventual playoff clubs, Gus Bradley’s Jags have covered just twice, and once was a ridiculous 26.5 spread against Denver in 2013. They’ve won zero of those games outright. Jacksonville might be talented enough this year to end that streak and pull off the upset against certain good teams, but not the Packers. If you’re getting fired up about Blake Bortles, you’re doing so at your own peril.
TENNESSEE (+2) 14, Minnesota 10
When asked about his quarterback situation this week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer quipped that the team was going to run the Wing-T. The joke is that with uncertainty at QB following Teddy Bridgewater’s injury and Sam Bradford’s acquisition via trade, Minny might be best off letting whoever starts just run around with the ball. Well, here’s a modest proposal: This shouldn’t be a joke. It’s actually what the Vikings should do. Shaun Hill, who is 36, was bad before he also got old. Bradford, acquired mere days ago, is giving some Vikings fans flashbacks to the Josh Freeman signing in 2013, when the club threw out its new passer on Monday night on two weeks’ notice.
You’re probably thinking that Bradford is way better now than Freeman was then, but NFL teams need months to properly prepare for the season; Bradford simply arrived too late to be fully ready for the opener. The Vikings are going to recover, and I still think they’ll sneak in as the second NFC wild card. But expecting them to bounce back this quickly from losing Bridgewater would be to underestimate how hard it is to craft and execute an NFL game plan. (Yes, even against Mike Mularkey.)
Tampa Bay (+3) 24, ATLANTA 20
You might be familiar with these two teams from the 20 minutes you spent making absolutely sure you didn’t think anyone could challenge the Panthers in the NFC South this year. Sadly, you now have to think about them again. There are plenty of reasons to pick the Falcons here: Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter is starting his NFL head coaching career on the road, and the Bucs are the type of preseason darling who often come crashing back to earth early in the season.
But, uh, Atlanta is flashing even more warning signs. Already, Matt Ryan has had to deny a disconnect with his offensive coordinator, and Julio Jones is banged up. The beleaguered front seven didn’t get much better this offseason, and the team that famously couldn’t tackle Jameis Winston last season will now be starting two rookie linebackers. There’s also the Mike Smith factor, as the former Falcons head coach is now Tampa’s defensive coordinator. Koetter also worked in Atlanta until two years ago, and coaches always have advantages when they face their former teams. Maybe we’ll get a repeat of the totally unhinged moment when the Bills carried Jim Schwartz off the field after they beat his former squad, the Lions.
PHILADELPHIA (-4) 17, Cleveland 12
This week, the Browns denied that they’re tanking, and head coach Hue Jackson had to take a shot at Brian Billick for predicting Cleveland would go 0–16. Most teams have to do this kind of stuff midway through the season, not before the season even starts. The Browns were accused of tanking not because of lack of effort, as NBA teams often are, but because people looked at their roster — and when that’s the reason, it’s never a good sign.
Rookie Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz saw limited action this preseason, has been nursing a rib injury, and spent part of his offseason trapped in a New Jersey gas station bathroom. But at home, against a team that’s somehow in even worse shape, the Eagles look like the smarter play.
Cincinnati 20, NEW YORK JETS (+3) 18
This week, I did a podcast with a group of researchers from Ohio University and the University of West Florida who have made football betting an academic pursuit. They’ve written three scholarly papers about early season betting, and the most interesting thing they’ve found is that taking nonplayoff teams against playoff teams in Week 1 is a good way to earn free money. They found that if you’d done this over the last nine seasons, you would have made an astounding 22 percent profit, because Vegas bases too much on how teams performed the prior season.
One of the researchers pointed to this game as a classic example. The Bengals should not be favored by three points here. The Jets have a talented roster, a competent quarterback, and are themselves coming off a 10-win season. In short, they’re good. The Bengals may have made the playoffs, but they’re breaking in new receivers and a new offensive coordinator, and they’ll be without crazy person/outstanding linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who’s suspended. The Bengals have been remarkably consistent in recent years, especially on the road, where they went 7–0–1 against the spread last year, but they have some things to figure out this September. They’ll win, but it’ll be closer than the line would indicate.
Oakland (+1) 33, NEW ORLEANS 27
Let’s talk about sleepers for a second, because we hear that word often this time of year. Oakland is not a sleeper. If the Raiders fail to win 10 games, their season should be considered a disappointment. They have a defensive force, Khalil Mack, who was an All-Pro at two positions last season. They have a quarterback, Derek Carr, who put up 32 touchdowns last year. And they have a wideout, Amari Cooper, who broke 1,000 yards as a rookie. Add in their offensive line and their improved secondary (Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith were inspired pickups), and the Raiders look like the team that should legitimately win the division.
Based on the talent of the rosters and the situations these teams are in, the Raiders should not be the underdog. The Saints are favored by one because they’re home and the Raiders have been bad for more than a decade. In the next few weeks the widespread assessment of both teams will turn on its head, but for now, Oakland remains a sneaky value pick. Oakland may be the “sleeper” at the moment — but New Orleans is going to stay asleep all season.
KANSAS CITY (-7) 30, San Diego 16
Kansas City looks like a classic slow starter: Safety Eric Berry was late for camp due to a contract holdout, running back Jamaal Charles is still recovering from knee surgery, and linebacker Justin Houston is on the PUP list. If the Chiefs were playing any of about 25 other teams, I’d pick against them.
But don’t overthink this, especially with the game in Kansas City: The Chargers have as many issues as the Chiefs, and less roster talent to help patch up the holes. San Diego’s top draft pick, Joey Bosa, held out until August 29 and likely won’t even play in the opener.
HOUSTON 16, Chicago (+6.5) 14
This will be the ugliest game of the week involving teams other than the Browns. The Texans are trying to break in a new offense with a new quarterback, a new running back, and two rookie receivers. On the other side, the Bears are starting a 16-game journey of being bad. The swing here is that J.J. Watt is healthy. Of course Watt, whose off-field actions were chronicled brilliantly by The Ringer’s Claire McNear this week, couldn’t simply announce that he was fit to return. He tweeted a bloody photo, then said there was a time over the winter when he thought he would never play football again. (He won’t miss a regular-season game.)
Despite Watt’s courage, the Texans likely won’t be able to light it up in Week 1. But the Bears likely won’t be able to light it up for the next 17 weeks, giving this contest all the earmarks of a low-scoring slog. Chicago won’t actually threaten to win, but it’ll hang around.
BALTIMORE (-3) 23, Buffalo 19
I visited Baltimore’s training camp in August, and the more I talked to people, the more I realized how rare Baltimore’s predicament is. Typically, NFL teams with question marks are waiting for young guys to make the jump from raw-but-talented to productive starter. In Baltimore, however, the vast majority of the finger-crossing centers on really old guys staying healthy: Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil (who already said he won’t play against Buffalo), Eric Weddle, and, somehow, Devin Hester. The Ravens are one of the most if-everything-breaks-right-they-could-be-good teams in the league.
Another one? The Buffalo Bills, who, as of now, don’t seem positioned to have everything break right. Marcell Dareus and Seantrel Henderson are suspended; second-round pick linebacker Reggie Ragland partially tore his ACL in camp, foiling the Bills’ plans for him to contribute immediately; and first-rounder Shaq Lawson has no timetable to return following shoulder surgery. That said, they still have a bunch of guys who, if they stay healthy, can turn this into a 10-win team — chiefly Sammy Watkins, who underwent offseason foot surgery, but is ready to play. Both of these teams need everything to break right, but since they’re opening against each other, something’s going to break wrong for one of them immediately.
NY Giants (-1) 31, DALLAS 17
The scariest thing for Cowboys fans this week had to be seeing rookie starter Dak Prescott say that when he was in high school, he loved learning about Eli Manning’s demeanor at the Manning Passing Academy. “They’d go out there and have the throwing competition, and him and Peyton would be challenging against each other and Peyton would be so serious and Eli was just like whatever, but he would hit every single target and Peyton was over there mad and Eli would just laugh. So I’ll never forget that,” Prescott said. This is great for impartial fans, who need more quarterbacks with Eli’s “I can’t believe I’m on an NFL football field!” demeanor, but for Dallas fans, it must be terrifying to consider Prescott going full-doofus for the next decade.
Anyway, I’m prepared for anything on Sunday: Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 150 against an allegedly improved Giants D-line? I could see it. Prescott throwing for 250 and putting up 30 points? I could see it. For now, though, I’m going by what I’m hearing from most GMs and coaches about Prescott, which is consistent with what you hear about most preseason wonders: Looking good in the preseason is not a major accomplishment, especially considering how vanilla defenses are at that time of year. Prescott may well be Tony Romo’s heir apparent, and his reign may begin in full soon, but playing well in regular-season NFL games is going to require a huge jump regardless of the quality of the opponent, and the Giants just happen to be pretty good.
Detroit (+3.5) 27, INDIANAPOLIS 23
There’s been a lot of talk about whether a healthy Andrew Luck can turn a Colts team that went 8–8 last season into a playoff team this year. Is Luck worth three wins? Uh, maybe, but that line of thinking obscures the real problem in Indianapolis: a 25th-ranked defense that didn’t appear to improve in any way this offseason.
For example: Second-round pick T.J. Green will start at safety due to an injury to Clayton Geathers, and here was head coach Chuck Pagano’s ringing endorsement of the apparent best rookie on the defense: “He has no choice.” Encouraging!
SEATTLE 26, Miami (+10.5) 20
The Seahawks are better than the Dolphins at every position except offensive line. Miami’s Adam Gase is starting his head coaching career on the road against a great team, so there’s no reason to think the Dolphins can actually win this game. But that line! Oh boy, that line!
There were nine games last year in which a team was favored by 10 or 10.5 points — the underdog covered eight times and actually won four of the contests. This line is too high considering it’s too early to declare the Dolphins totally incompetent. If the Dolphins were traveling across the country at 1–3, I wouldn’t take Miami no matter how high the line was. But in Week 1? With the maybe-not-very-good Seahawks offensive line just learning that first round pick Germain Ifedi will miss a few weeks with a high-ankle sprain? And the Seahawks’ tendency to start the season slow? It’s no sure thing that this will be a blowout. By the way, the Dolphins left for Seattle on Thursday to reduce jet lag, an approach that’s catching on around the league and could influence picks the rest of the way.
ARIZONA 28, New England (+6.5) 23 (Sunday night)
Bill Belichick is a massive football nerd, so he probably likes the challenge of having to craft a game plan around an inexperienced quarterback set to face a great team. He’ll surely miss Tom Brady, whom he loves and talks about in a way that he otherwise reserves just for his beloved special teams, but as much mutual respect as coach and QB share, it’s always hard to know who’s really responsible for what in New England. Brady’s suspension, then, is a chance for Belichick to reaffirm his genius during Jimmy Garoppolo’s four games under center. Belichick even gets to try to exploit Chandler Jones, whom he shipped to Arizona in March.
This is the ultimate Belichick game. I think the Cardinals are going to win the Super Bowl, and I think they’ll win on Sunday night, but I also think a motivated Belichick getting five months to prepare is a scary thing for the Cardinals. Belichick has won 11 of his last 12 opening week games, and that was before the prospect of propping up Garoppolo’s trade value became a factor. The Pats might not win, but they won’t get blown out.
WASHINGTON (+3) 28, Pittsburgh 27
Ben Roethlisberger throwing to Antonio Brown over and over and over again is enough to get the Steelers to 10 wins, but let’s not forget how weird the early part of the season will be for them: They’ll be without Le’Veon Bell for three weeks, and they’ll be without Martavis Bryant all season. They’ll be working in second-year receiver Sammie Coates, who was known as a raw route runner before becoming a camp darling this August, and they’ll need some big seasons from young defensive pieces like rookie cornerback Artie Burns and rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave. Their attempts to improve the defense took a serious hit when they put 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree on injured reserve, though.
The Redskins, meanwhile, got Josh Norman, drafted more weapons for Kirk Cousins, and have potentially game-changing rookies like Su’a Cravens and Kendall Fuller filling holes on the defense. I’m in!
SAN FRANCISCO (+3) 22, Los Angeles 19
It’s tempting to say “Case Keenum” and leave it at that, but I could do the same for “Blaine Gabbert.” The Monday night doubleheader is typically when all hell breaks loose. Remember when Niners coach Jim Tomsula, on a quick and straight path to getting fired after one season, somehow crushed the Vikings 20–3 last year? How about Chip Kelly, on the Eagles’ Monday opener in 2013, putting together such a dominant first-half performance against the Redskins that we assumed he wouldn’t, you know, get fired two years later?
This game will be, for lack of a better term, weird. It’s become oddly anticipated for nonfootball reasons, as it will be the first regular-season game in which Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem. It’s also our first look at how Kelly will try to make something out of Gabbert in the weirdest coupling the NFL has seen in years. I’m betting on Chip having a game plan to take advantage of an average Rams team that’s somehow trotting out a worse quarterback than Gabbert. I believe in Chip’s ability to let his no-huddle spread fly despite a dearth of talent, and I definitely believe in Jeff Fisher’s ability to once again march toward 7–9.