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 fail spectacularly? Our staff has some predictions.
The Eagles Will Make It to the Super Bowl and Convince Everyone They Can Win (They Can’t)
John Gonzalez: The Eagles are 7-1. That’s the best record in the NFL. Carson Wentz has thrown for more yards than anyone in the league not named Tom Brady or Alex Smith. Zach Ertz has finally become the Zach Ertz that was promised when he came out of Stanford. The Philadelphia defense is allowing fewer than 20 points per game, which makes them a top-10 unit on that front. Overall, they lead the league with a plus-76 point differential. The Eagles are really good.
The Eagles will win the NFC East. The Eagles will win the NFC. The Eagles will play in the Super Bowl in that weird glass case that Minnesota calls a stadium these days. But that’s not the wild prediction part. This is: Along the way, the Eagles will convince a lot of people—the media, the fans, other teams, themselves—that they will not only play in the Super Bowl but win the Super Bowl. If you have watched them only this year, you might believe they can win it all. But if you have watched them for longer than this season—if, perhaps, you have watched them for decades, as I have, or if you are familiar with their long history of tantalizing promise but ultimate defeat—then you surely understand that they will not win it all this year. In fact, the last time they won it all was back in 1960, which predates the Super Bowl. The last and only time I thought they could win the Super Bowl was when they fell to the New England Patriots more than a decade ago. Around the same time, I stopped believing in things as a general rule. The two events were not unrelated. But other people will forget the lessons of the past and believe in them this year. Eventually, the Eagles will remind them why that was a bad idea.
The Browns Will Lose All of Their Remaining Games
Shaker Samman: I’m going to be frank: I like when bad teams do poorly. I like watching overmatched offensive lines let terrifying defensive ends through for direct hits at frazzled quarterbacks. I like dumb fumbles and ill-advised arm-punt interceptions. And I love when winless teams keep losing. Some of this is a result of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome–esque relationship I have with the Detroit Lions (the 2008 iteration was the worst team in the history of the sport). The rest? Well, that’s just a love of schadenfreude.
The Cleveland Browns are one of two winless teams left in the NFL this season. They’ve thrown six more interceptions than any other team, scored the fewest points of any squad that’s played eight games, and are fourth worst in yards per play. Their stadium is nicknamed “The Factory of Sadness.” They almost gave up second- and third-round picks for career benchwarmer A.J. McCarron, and would have if not for logistical ineptitude. They’re the closest thing we have to genuine football malpractice, and they won’t win another game for the rest of the year. Book it.
The Two Quarterbacks From the Worst Offense in Football Last Season Will Both Win Playoff Games
Robert Mays: The 2016 Rams’ offense was about as bad as it gets. Jeff Fisher’s team managed just 14 points per game, the worst mark in the league by 2.5 points. They averaged 22.36 yards per drive, dead last in the NFL. And maybe most impressive, the Rams managed to go three-and-out on 26.8 percent of their drives. Almost one in every three possessions ended without a first down.
That miserable season is a big reason why the NFC playoff picture this year feels so bizarre. The two quarterbacks of that awful Rams offense from last season—Jared Goff and Case Keenum—are both piloting two-loss teams that seem destined for the playoffs, and ya know what, none of it feels like a fluke.
Goff hasn’t put together the lights-out campaign that his 2016 draft-mate Carson Wentz has in Philadelphia, but the glimpses of great play from the Rams’ 23-year-old quarterback couldn’t be further removed from the player we saw a year ago. This offense has been downright thrilling at times, which is still a weird sentence to type even halfway through the season. The Rams appear to be for real, in large part because of head coach Sean McVay’s work in turning this offense into a functional unit, and made truly dangerous by a Wade Phillips-led defense that’s emerged as one of the best in the league. At this point, there’s no reason to think the Rams won’t get the top wild-card spot in the NFC if the Seahawks pull away down the stretch, and even with the Saints playing well, this team could absolutely go into New Orleans and come away with a win.
In Keenum’s case, his redemption was less publicized but no less surprising, and it’s been buoyed by a stellar supporting cast that’s lifted both him and the entire Vikings’ offense. Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Jerick McKinnon—performing in the absence of the injured Dalvin Cook—have strung together plays every week to turn Minnesota into a frightening team no matter who’s under center. That group, combined with a defense that’s still as deep and talented as any in the league, should—and probably would—be a significant favorite against whoever snags the second wild card in the NFC.
Sacksonville Will Rule the NFL
Danny Heifetz: After years of toiling in darkness, the Jaguars now bask in the north Floridian sunlight, and the shadows you see are merely your eyes adjusting to the new world order. The Jaguars are a good football team, and better yet, well-designed for January.
I know what you’re thinking: Blake Bortles. But as the saying goes, “If you can’t beat the other team’s quarterback, beat him up.” Jacksonville, the no. 1 defense by DVOA, leads the league in sacks. Their defensive line trio of Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler Jr. has more combined sacks (22) than 22 teams. Their secondary has subsequently thrived, as rising star Jalen Ramsey and free-agent addition A.J. Bouye are no. 3- and no. 8-graded cornerbacks respectively by Pro Football Focus. Jacksonville has only allowed four passing touchdowns through eight weeks—something no team has done since the 2011 Jets, who were coming off two consecutive AFC championship appearances with Mark Sanchez. The Broncos won the Super Bowl just two years ago with Peyton Manning’s noodle arm. Hell, the Texans should have knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs last season with Brock Osweiler. The NFL playoffs are a crapshoot, and having the best defense can create chaos amongst the establishment. 2018 will be more absurd than 2017, and it will start with Jacksonville winning the Super Bowl.
Not Only Will the Buffalo Bills Make the Playoffs for the First Time in the 21st Century, They’ll Defeat the Patriots Once They’re There
Katie Baker: Along with the usual late summer rites like back-to-school sales and the Sabres breaking in a new coach, there’s that forbidden, unspoken feeling of irrational hope among Buffalo Bills fans. Every dog has its day, after all; maybe this is the year. There was the overtime win in Chicago to kick off the 2014 season; there was the swaggering promise of Rex Ryan in 2015 and that season’s dear sweet attempt, in Week 2 against the New England Patriots, to set a new Guinness record for crowd noise. Like the Bills’ ongoing quest to make the playoffs in the 21st century, it was not a success.
It’s hard to know which Big Bad the Bills have more trouble vanquishing: the Patriots, or themselves. But I choose to believe that this year, they could finally conquer both. The Patriots seem more human than usual; Tom Brady’s expected heir has been banished to distant shores. The Bills are second in the league in interceptions, and also second in the league in Trade Day intrigue. (Congratulations, Browns fans: At long last, you’re no. 1!) Their acquisition of Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers demonstrates an encouraging vibe of “all in,” and gives the Bills the kind of jump-ball ability that can help win wacky playoff games. Perhaps one of those games will be against the Patriots, against all odds. I can feel it. This is Buffalo’s year.
The First-Place Titans Will Miss the Playoffs
Danny Kelly: At this time last year my bold prediction was that the Titans (then 4-4) would sneak into the playoffs, and that came close to happening—up until Tennessee lost Marcus Mariota and their control over a postseason spot in the team’s Week 16 loss to the Jaguars. This year, I’m going the other way with it: Despite Tennessee’s 4-3 start and their position at the top of the AFC South, I think we could see this team fade down the stretch. The Titans’ once-dominant offensive line hasn’t been as good as it was last year, the passing game under Mariota (which finished ninth in Football Outsiders DVOA) hasn’t been as efficient (it’s currently 20th), and perhaps most importantly, the offense has faltered badly in the red zone. Tennessee was the league’s best red zone team last year, finishing first in touchdowns and points per red zone trip; this year, they rank 31st and 23rd in those metrics, respectively.
With the way that the Jaguars are playing on defense, it’s going to be tough for Tennessee to hold on to the top spot—or maybe even the second-place spot—in the division, and they’re going to be on the outside looking in by the time the postseason rolls around.