We've analyzed and dissected the NFL all preseason long. At this point, there's really nothing left to do but make some predictions. Some of these are serious, some are fun, and some might actually come true. Without further ado...
Jets 9-7 - Wild Card
Discussion: With everyone so down on the Jets, Bills and Raiders after their miserable preseasons, it makes me that much more confident one of those three will make the playoffs. That's what happened with the 2011 Bengals when their rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, looked terrible in the preseason, and they grabbed a Wild Card. As a Bills fan, I'd like to think Buffalo can be that team, but I don't trust its defense, especially with rising star Stephon Gilmore set to miss half the season. The Jets, meanwhile, have a dominant defense even with Darrelle Revis in Tampa (68.3 QBR allowed in 2012). New York won't challenge the Patriots, but anything resembling decent quarterback play will get them a Wild Card in a weak AFC... Bilal Powell proves to be a more valuable fantasy asset than Chris Ivory... Rob Gronkowski returns in Week 4, stays healthy, and scores 11 touchdowns... Stevan Ridley leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns, while C.J. Spiller takes home a rushing title, surpassing 1,800 yards and 10 total TDs... Tom Brady has more rushing TDs than Daniel Thomas... None of the Patriots rookie receivers amount to much, as a healthy Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and Gronk take away their targets... Steve Johnson and Mike Wallace justify their ADPs... The Patriots lead the AFC in both interceptions and fumble recoveries in 2012, each by a wide margin. We don't think of them when we think of fantasy defenses, but New England's success is a good reminder that playing with a lead is more important for fantasy defenses than talent.
Discussion: I'm heavily invested in the Steelers this year, including at 22:1 to win the Super Bowl. Did I bet on them because I like them, or do I like them because of my bet? Perhaps a little of both, but I think they'll take this division... Le'Veon Bell returns from injury late in the year or not at all, making him useless for fantasy purposes and allowing Isaac Redman to become the most valuable Steelers back... Ben Roethlisberger finally plays 16 games, helping Antonio Brown go 85-1240-8... Giovani Bernard matches Brown's eight TDs and becomes an every-down back, relegating BenJarvus Green-Ellis to waivers in all fantasy leagues. His career in shambles, "Law Firm" joins Stopa Law Firm as an unpaid intern... Torrey Smith has more receiving yards than A.J. Green, but the latter reaches 10 TDs by again leading all NFL receivers in goal line targets... Bernard Pierce matches Ray Rice with seven touchdowns... The Browns resemble a playoff team before Trent Richardson gets hurt mid-year... Brandon Weeden has a better season than Andy Dalton, and the Browns are a trendy playoff pick entering 2014.
Discussion: The Texans are the class of a weak AFC South that challenges the AFC West as the NFL's worst division... Andre Johnson misses at least four games and is outside the top 20 fantasy WRs. ... Arian Foster stays relatively healthy yet he's relegated to a 60-40 timeshare with Ben Tate. In fact, Tate surpasses double-digit touchdowns and is a fixture in fantasy lineups for much of the season. The most valuable fantasy back in the division, though, is Chris Johnson... Many analysts have called the 2012 Colts "Luck"y, and rightly so, but it's interesting they recovered just three of their opponents' fumbles last year. (By comparison, the Patriots recovered 21.) The fumbles normalize, but the other "Luck" does as well, as the Colts lose several close games in the fourth quarter. ... Blaine Gabbert outproduces Jake Locker in real life and fantasy, not that you'll use either... Reggie Wayne finishes third on the Colts in receiving touchdowns, behind both Darrius Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton. Wayne gets waived after the season, then retires... Justin Blackmon finishes with better stats than Cecil Shorts despite missing the first four games. ... Kenny Britt approaches 1,000 yards and 7 TDs and keeps his head on straight as he enters free agency... Maurice Jones-Drew stays healthy but isn't the physical freak we saw from years past, struggling amidst an atrocious supporting cast to post 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns - kind of like Ryan Mathews circa 2012.
Chiefs 9-7 - Wild Card
Discussion: Peyton Manning and the Broncos steamroll the AFC, clinching the top seed after Week 15. Manning, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker all perform as their fantasy owners expect them to, aided by a surprisingly mediocre Broncos defense. ... Wes Welker is a fantasy disappointment, though, losing red zone targets to Denver's two tight ends. ... Vincent Brown and Denarius Moore are solid WR3s, and both finish ahead of Welker thanks to consistent garbage time... Montee Ball is the Offensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the Broncos feature back in Week 4 and finishing second in the NFL with 14 rushing touchdowns... Jamaal Charles makes me regret not having him on any of my fantasy teams, and while Alex Smith is solid in two-QB leagues, Dwayne Bowe is a mild disappointment. The Chiefs defense surprises, though, aided by a favorable schedule, helping lead Kansas City to a Wild Card birth... Philip Rivers leads the NFL in turnovers and angry scowls. Even Mark Sanchez mocks Rivers after an ugly butt-fumble. The Chargers draft in the top five and Rivers doesn't start for San Diego in Week 1 of 2014... Ryan Mathews stays relatively healthy and out-produces Darren McFadden by a wide margin. ... Did you know Matt Flynn had the lead role in his high school play, but during dress rehearsals the director decided to promote his understudy? And that Flynn's fiancée dumped him three days before their wedding day, choosing to marry his best friend instead? Seriously, it's telling that Flynn has begun two straight training camps as the presumed starter for two different organizations yet couldn't begin the year in that role for either team... The Chargers and Raiders combine for six wins despite playing each other twice. Even those two games produce just one win, as the other is an atrocious, 3-3 tie. The quality of play from that game is so subpar the Canadian Football League argues its teams could beat the Chargers and Raiders, while Sean Payton openly trashes Roger Goodell for the lack of competitive balance between the AFC and the NFC. All MLB teams in the AL East silently nod in agreement... The Raiders have a -240 point differential and finish just 5-11 ATS despite being big underdogs most of their games. They're on the clock for Jadeveon Clowney after Week 15, proving sometimes the crummy preseason teams are beyond saving.
Discussion: All the Michael Vick hype dies down quickly when he gets hurt in Week 3. Chip Kelly is forced to slow down his offense when he realizes the Philly defense is terrible, a problem worsened by being on the field so often and so quickly after the offense keeps going three-and-out. Seriously, why is nobody mentioning that Vick lost his top wideout, Jeremy Maclin, for the season and his other targets are a talent-starved racist (Riley Cooper), the biggest wimp in the NFL (DeSean Jackson), and bottom-five tight ends? None of these guys would start on any other team in the NFC East, so how are they going to propel Vick to fantasy stardom? (Okay, maybe DJax would be the second wideout for the 'Skins, but you get the point). If you think Vick has fantasy upside, it exists only from running, yet it's that running which gets him killed. That's the irony of Chip Kelly's offense - more plays = more risk for injury. Right? What am I missing here? ... In the "fun stat" category, Philly was last in the NFC in 2012 in both turnovers and takeaways. While some like to think turnovers even out over time, a -24 turnover differential is what happens when you pair a turnover-prone quarterback (nobody misses pass rushers right in his face quite like Vick) and a defense with no playmakers. (Quick, name an Eagles defender, even one, without looking.) The coach may be different, but everything else is the same for Philly in 2013. ... All of that said, LeSean McCoy salvages his first-round fantasy status. ... The Dallas defense is awful, but it's a fantasy carnival in Big D for much of the season - the NFC East's version of the Saints - as Dez Bryant helps Tony Romo become a top-five fantasy quarterback. ... Jason Witten finally breaks down, missing half the season to injury, but Miles Austin stays healthy and is a solid WR3. ... Hakeem Nicks is better than Pierre Garcon and Victor Cruz, parlaying a big year into a free agent payday. The Giants are content to let him sign with Carolina, seeing glimpses from Rueben Randle while Cruz and Nicks are shelved for a few games. ... David Wilson approaches 1,600 yards and 9 total TDs, drawing repeated comparisons to C.J. Spiller. Andre Brown returns in Week 6 but gets hurt again a few weeks later. ... Fred Davis is the best fantasy tight end in the division, taking advantage of Robert Griffin III's pocket passing to become a top-8 fantasy TE. Alfred Morris scores 11 TDs and is more involved in the passing game but is held to 1,200 rushing yards. ... Roy Helu is fantasy-relevant at some point in the season. ... The Redskins defense is surprisingly strong, at least compared to the others in the division. Fantasy owners enjoy the divisional games in the NFC East, several of which are played in the 30s.
Discussion: Aaron Rodgers is the NFL MVP. (Peyton Manning is second but is discounted for winning so many blowouts in an inferior AFC.) ... Eddie Lacy helps give the Packers the run-pass balance it's lacked in recent years. Lacy and Jermichael Finley both finish with 11 TDs. Finley wants to parlay his big season into a huge, free agent contract, but the Packers franchise him this offseason. ... Jordy Nelson plays in Week 1 and finishes the year with better stats than Randall Cobb. ... Michael Bush has more touchdowns than Matt Forte, who misses three games with an ankle sprain. ... Jay Cutler struggles through another lackluster season, joining Rivers as big-name quarterbacks who change teams in 2014. ... Brandon Marshall is suspended two games for an off-field incident, helping Alshon Jeffery earn fantasy profits. ... The aging Bears defense regresses, drawing comparisons to the 2012 Steelers... Reggie Bush and Forte each show the enormous difference between PPR and standard scoring. Bush has six games with more receiving yards than rushing yards. ... Realizing his career is starting to wind down, Adrian Peterson openly complains about Minnesota's quarterback play and inability to contend, drawing media comparisons to the guy who beat him out for the Madden cover, Barry Sanders. Nobody else in Minnesota is worth owning in fantasy circles, including Kyle Rudolph or Greg Jennings. After a bad drop by Jennings costs the Vikings an upset win over the Packers, Aaron Rodgers grins like a cheshire cat but has "no comment" after the game about his former teammate.
Falcons 10-6 - Wild Card
Discussion: This is a really tough division to handicap, as you could shuffle the four teams in any random order and nothing would surprise me. The Saints and Falcons are great on offense but terrible on defense, while the Bucs and Panthers are surprisingly solid on defense but missing some pieces on offense. If Cam Newton were on the Bucs, for instance, I'd see them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That said, I like the Saints to finish first because they have the two people I trust most in the division - Drew Brees and Sean Payton. The Who-Dats have the bounce-back factor in play coming off a frustrating 2012, and much like the Patriots after their Spygate season, there's a "burn it to the ground" factor in play as well (h/t Andy Behrens). The Saints defense is truly awful in all facets - 8.1 YPA, 5.2 YPC in 2012 - but that just means there's potential for historic fantasy seasons from Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and crew. ... If betting on the NFL's passing yardage leader for 2013, I'd take Brees and Matthew Stafford and give you the field. ... Mark Ingram is more useful in fantasy than Darren Sproles, who can't repeat his 7 receiving TDs from the past two seasons... Kenny Stills and Nick Toon are both more relevant in fantasy circles than any of the rookie receivers in New England, particularly when Marques Colston hits the shelf... The Falcons passing game lives up to the hype, even as Tony Gonzalez begins accepting Medicare, but Steven Jackson doesn't justify his fantasy ranking. Jacquizz Rodgers isn't much better, and Jason Snelling (yes, Jason Snelling) is discussed in fantasy circles in midseason... Josh Freeman avoids a bacterial infection but not the bench, making way for rookie Mike Glennon after the Bucs fall out of playoff contention. ... The Panthers lose several close, heartbreaking games, making them a popular sleeper team for 2014... DeAngelo Williams has the best fantasy stats of any running back in the division besides Doug Martin, ahead of Steven Jackson and all Saints backs... Greg Olsen is a top-6 fantasy tight end.
Seahawks 11-5 - WILD CARD
Discussion: Marshawn Lynch is a top-5 fantasy running back, putting all the Christine Michael hype to rest until next season. Frank Gore, though, can't say the same. Age 30 bites Gore in the rear, allowing Kendall Hunter to become a common fixture in many fantasy championship teams... Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson both outplay Robert Griffin III, making the race for the third Pro Bowl quarterback in the NFC (Rodgers, Brees) insanely competitive. Wilson edges Kaepernick for that honor but Kaepernick's 49ers take the division based on a better division record, learning from last year and not overlooking the Rams... St Louis and Arizona are far better than their records suggest, each going 3-1 against the AFC South but struggling against the NFC powerhouses. ... Darryl Richardson is a solid RB2 all season, joining Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Jared Cook as fixtures in fantasy lineups in deeper leagues... The Cardinals are an entertaining 4-12, as Carson Palmer owners never know if he's going to throw for 300 yards and 3 TDs, get sacked 8 times, throw a pick-six, or all three. Michael Floyd posts better stats than Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald returns as a fantasy WR1, but no Cardinals running back emerges behind a putrid offensive line. The 49ers and Seahawks are the only two fantasy defenses in the entire NFL, much less the NFC West, which prevent fantasy owners from wanting to stream.
AFC Wild Card:
Steelers over Jets
Texans over Chiefs
NFC Wild Card:
Seahawks over Redskins
Saints over Falcons
Steelers over Broncos
Patriots over Texans
49ers over Saints
Seahawks over Packers
Steelers over Patriots
Seahawks over 49ers
Super Bowl: Seahawks over Steelers
Enjoy the season, everyone.
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