About Rajan Nanavati

Rajan Nanavati is a professional sportswriter with over 15 years of experience covering the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college football, and fantasy football. His work has been featured on ESPN and the Washington Post, among other publications. He runs a successful sports podcast with several hundred listeners per month at http://www.hailtothedistrict.com/.

Game Preview: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, October 15, 2017)

Riding high after their huge victory against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers are riding high as they enter brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium this Sunday, as 3.5-point favorites against the Minnesota Vikings according to NFL betting odds for Packers vs Vikings gameAnd that’s exactly why they could be in position for a big upset this weekend…

When we think of the Vikings, we first think of their defense, thanks to the organizational philosophy laid down by head coach Mike Zimmer. Minnesota enters Week 6 of the NFL season with the 11th-ranked defense in the NFL. They have star players at every level of the defense. Defensive end Everson Griffen is third in the NFL in sacks (six). Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been one of the best in football this season. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr is a freakish athlete that does so many things for them.

But even with the in-and-out from Sam Bradford due to various injuries, this offense has been deceptively good as well. Minnesota actually averages more passing yards per game (357 — 5th most in the NFL) than Green Bay (336.6 — 11th most in the NFL). It’s even more disparate when you look at each team’s rushing attack: Minnesota averages 118.2 yards per game (#11 in the NFL) versus Green Bay’s 91.6 yards per game (22nd in the NFL). In place of promising rookie Dalvin Cook, who was lost to a season-ending injury to his ACL, Jerick McKinnon provided a spark to Minnesota’s offense, evidenced by his 146 total yards against the Chicago Bears on Monday night. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is in the midst of a breakout season of his own, sitting in 5th place in the NFL with 395 receiving yards. And the Vikings are just as likely to spread the ball around to the rest of their offense, as they are to force-feed their stars. On Monday evening, quarterback Case Keenum — playing in place of the injured Bradford — threw 16 of his 21 passing attempts to his running backs and tight ends.

Of course, the great equalizer in this entire game — or any game Green Bay plays in — is Aaron Rodgers. At some point, it just feels like we’re going to run out of superlatives to describe his level of play. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time right now, but Rodgers is the best in the game as of today. His stats don’t tell the whole story (although his league-leading 13 touchdown passes certainly help), but the way he puts the Packers on his shoulders, week after week, is unlike anything we’re seeing in the league today (this side of New England, anyway).

Minnesota’s defense has held Rodgers to less than 220 passing yards in each of the last three games these two have played in Minnesota. Of course, the Packers are 2-1 in in those games, thanks to the balance provided by the Packers rushing attack.

Minnesota handled two very potent offense at home already: New Orleans in Week 1, and Tampa Bay in Week 3. They should be well aware of this, given that they play them twice a year, but if Green Bay is not careful, they could have their hands full.

But as of right now, Green Bay looks like they’re one of the two best teams in the NFC, alongside the Atlanta Falcons. While this game should be a really good matchup, the Vikings aren’t quite as dangerous as the Packers… or as Rodgers, anyway.

My Pick: Green Bay.

 

ALERT: FF-Winners.Com Warns On the 2017-8 Falcon Team: TAKE THE UNDER!

Some Las Vegas oddsmakers have sent the “over/under” on the win total for the 2017 Atlanta Falcons at 9.5 wins. At least initially, that number seems ridiculously low, given the fact that this team finished with an 11-5 record last season, and beat the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers en route to representing the NFC in Super Bowl LI this past February.

And yet, we’re not only telling you to bet the “under,” wagering that the Falcons will win less than 9.5 games this year, but we’re also saying that the 2017 Atlanta Falcons will not only fail to win the NFC South division this year, but also fail to make the playoffs.

Here’s a fact for you: over the last 20 years, the team that lost the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs 9 times. Over the last 15 years, the Super Bowl loser failed to make the playoffs the ensuing year. In other words, it’s basically a 50/50 chance that if you lose the Super Bowl, you’re not making the postseason the following year.

But specifically, in terms of the Falcons, there are two big reasons why we’re confident enough to make such a statement:

1. We think everyone overlooked an Atlanta defense that really wasn’t all that great

2. The difference between Kyle Shanahan’s offense and Steve Sarkisian’s offense is going to be jarring, in a really, really bad way if you’re a Falcons fan.

While the offense was busy putting up franchise-best numbers last season, the defense finished 26th in defensive DVOA last season, 25th in total yards allowed per game, and 28th in passing yards allowed per game. They allowed the fifth-most touchdown passes in the NFL to opponents last year, and didn’t have anyone on the entire team (outside of Vic Beasley Jr.) register more than five sacks. Does that sound like a “good defense” to you? In fact, name a player on the Falcons defense, outside of maybe Beasley, who opposing teams really need to worry about. If you polled 100 relatively knowledgeable NFL fans, could they name more than three players on the Falcons defense?

Atlanta plays in a division where they’ll face Drew Brees, Cam Newton, or Jameis Winston in more than a third of their games this year; that’s not even mentioning the fact that Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson are all on teams who are on the Falcons’ schedule this year as well.

And before you say: “well, Atlanta can win those games in a shootout,” that brings us to the Shanahan-Sarkisian issue, with that issue specifically being the fact that the Falcons are replacing one of the BEST offensive minds in the NFL with someone who has NEVER called plays or ran an offense in the NFL at any point in his career.

What Shanahan did for the Falcons offense last year was his career’s magnum opus. He found a way to masterfully utilize Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, the incomparable Julio Jones, and a veritable pupu platter of tight ends, taking all of those random ingredients and concocting an offering in a way that would’ve made an Iron Chef proud.

But Shanahan is gone, and being replaced by Steve Sarkisian. Here’s what you need to know about about Sarkisian: 1) the last time he was a head coach, he was fired because of a history of alcohol abuse; and 2) Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

In the three seasons prior to 2016, Atlanta finished 21st, 12th, and 20th in the NFL in points per game. So tell us what sounds more realistic: Sarkisian implementing another league-leading, well-oiled offensive juggernaut? Or Atlanta’s offense reverting back to the mean, thanks to a coordinator who was so toxic that most college programs gave tremendous pause to the idea of hiring him?

So, scoff at our less 9.5 wins projection. Go ahead and overlook the fact that, in the three seasons before last year, Atlanta failed to reach nine wins, or the fact that they’ve ranked in the bottom six in the NFL in points allowed per game in three of the past four seasons.

We stand by our prediction that the Falcons will be suffering the “Super Bowl loser hangover” this upcoming season.

FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC West Preview

For all the buzz around the other teams in the division, it gets easily overlooked that the Kansas City Chiefs are the reigning division champions, coming off a 12-4 record last year. But the question around the Chiefs is whether this team can take that next step forward and make a deep postseason run, or will they take a step back given all the questions they have on offense. The defense shouldn’t miss a beat, with as many as five Pro Bowl-caliber players on defense — cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Eric Berry, outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson — along with an emerging stud in defensive end Chris Jones, and a very solid free agent acquisition in defensive tackle Bennie Logan. But the offense, which ranked in the bottom half of the league in total yards (20th) and passing yards (19th) per game, has plenty of questions left to be answered this season. How does the Chiefs selection of quarterback Patrick Mahomes with their top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft affect the play of quarterback Alex Smith, whom Mahomes was drafted to replace? How will the Chiefs running game fare with rookie Kareem Hunt (the team’s 3rd round pick) taking over for Spencer Ware, who was lost to a season-ending injury in the preseason? And does the team have any receiver they can reliably trust, outside of Tyreek Hill, after releasing Jeremy Maclin in the offseason? It’s going to take every ounce of guidance that head coach Andy Reid can muster to get this team to the heights that many believe they’re capable of, given the aforementioned challenges.

Nobody will question whether the Oakland Raiders will have the capability to move the football and score a lot of points with their offense. Derek Carr is one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league. Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are one of the most productive wide receiver duos in the NFL. The offensive line doesn’t get quite as much credit as it should, but it’s easily one of the three or four best units in the league. The unretired Marshawn Lynch should, at least in theory, provide some punch to the running game. No, the thing that everyone will question is whether Oakland can stop anyone from moving the football up and down the field against their defense, which finished last season giving up the seventh-most yards per game in the league last year. While the team used six of their nine draft picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on defensive players, the unit remains largely the same as the group from last year. Will the continuity, coupled with the addition of John Pagano as the Assistant Head Coach — Defense, be enough to get a serviceable performance from that side of the ball?

Less than two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos now find themselves amidst a major transition in the team’s direction. Gone are surefire Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, head coach Gary Kubiak, and venerated defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. New head coach Vance Joseph seemingly has his hands full, with a team that has a bevy of talented players, but a roster that’s been slowly depleted because of free agent defections and ineffective draft classes. The team’s calling card will remain its defense, considering the team still has the best pure edge rusher in the NFL (Von Miller) and the best pair of cornerbacks in the league (Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.), but it may not be safe to assume they’ll be just as dominant has they have been in years past, considering how many key veterans they’ve lost from that group in recent years — most recently safety TJ Ward, whom the team released just days before the 2017 roster cut down date. On offense, the team still has yet to find it’s answer at quarterback, as they’ll continue to start Trevor Siemian under center, behind an offensive line that still has plenty of questions of its own.

The Chargers, who officially moved to Los Angeles this past offseason, will also have a new head coach along with a new home town. After parting ways with Mike McCoy, they brought in Anthony Lynn — the former interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills — as the new lead man, along with Gus Bradley as the new defensive coordinator. Lynn helped guide the Bills to the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL in 2016, which only bodes well for running back Melvin Gordon, who enjoyed a breakout season of his own last year. On defense, Bradley will oversee a defense featuring breakout edge rusher Joey Bosa — the Defensive Rookie of the Year last year (voted by his peers) — and Melvin Ingram, along with cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward (the latter of whom led the NFL in interceptions last year). With Philip Rivers under center, the return of Keenan Allen at wide receiver, and second year tight end Hunter Henry emerging as yet another red zone weapon, the Chargers could be the biggest wildcard of this division, and a darkhorse playoff contender.

FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC South Preview

There’s a reason why many people believe that the AFC South is essentially the Junior Varsity division of the NFL. All four teams have plenty of interesting young players and essential pieces needed to build a successful team, but they have even bigger questions that are hindering them from truly being among the contenders in their conference.

Perhaps no team in the NFL fits the “this team could be really good if they just had an answer at quarterback” description more than the Houston Texans. Needless to say, the $64 million gamble they took on quarterback Brock Osweiler last season turned out to be an utter catastrophe, to the point where they actually gave Cleveland a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, in exchange for the Browns taking Osweiler off the Texans’ hands. If they can even get replacement-level play from under center, courtesy of either Tom Savage or first round pick Deshaun Watson, this team has a lot of interesting pieces assembled. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most lethal wide receivers in the NFL. Lamar Miller is a very capable running back. There might not be a defense in the AFC with a better front seven than that of the Texans, and no team in the NFL has three fear-inspiring pass rushers like Houston has with Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and the return of JJ Watt. If Houston’s offense doesn’t do its job this season, the seat that head coach Bill O’Brien is currently sitting on may begin to get uncomfortably warm.

The Tennessee Titans have become one of the “trendy” picks to win the AFC South and/or make the playoffs in 2017 by the media and fans, especially given the fact that they finished the season with a 5-2 record over their last seven games, en route to a 9-7 record overall. But for all the intrigue around the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the “exotic smash mouth” running game featuring Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the bevy of pass catchers this team has assembled, and a workmanlike group of defenders on the other side of the football, this team still has a lot to prove before they’re anointed as the next up-and-comer in the NFL. Mariota has sustained season-ending injuries over each of the past two seasons. Head coach Mike Mularkey has a career head coaching record of 27-46, and has never taken a team to the postseason. Murray is a few months away from his 30th birthday, the age when running backs start to fall off the proverbial cliff. The secondary was one of the worst in the NFL last season, and while they invested in the cornerback spot via free agency (signing Logan Ryan) and the draft (taking Adoree’ Jackson from USC), it’s far from solved. So, while t wouldn’t be that big of a surprise to see the Titans usurp the AFC South crown from the Texans, it wouldn’t be any surprise if they fell surprise if Mularkey’s crew fell short of expectations either.

The darkhorse team in this division is undoubtedly the Indianapolis Colts, but the entire outlook of their season rests on the surgically-repaired shoulder of Andrew Luck. Only days away from the start of the 2017 regular season, head coach Chuck Pagano claims that he hasn’t seen Luck throw the football normally this year. Indianapolis is planning to start backup quarterback Scott Tolzien in their season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, but how long will Tolzien have to continue to play in place of Luck? That’s a question that virtually nobody in and around the team has been able to answer, and that dark cloud of uncertainty has cast a big shadow over what was otherwise a promising offseason. The Colts finally rid themselves with the general ineptitude of former General Manager Ryan Grigson, and replaced him with well-respected personnel czar Chris Ballard. In Ballard’s first draft, he took three guys who can help the perpetually beleaguered Colts defense immediately: safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Quincy Wilson, and edge rusher Tarell Basham. Running back Marlon Mack, whom the team also took in this year’s draft, presents an interesting change-of-pace option for the ageless Frank Gore as well. But as long as the cornerstone of this franchise is standing on the sidelines and not wearing a uniform, this team is still running in place.

Ironically, who continually rounds out the bottom of the AFC South — the Jacksonville Jaguars — find themselves in the same boat as the team that won this division last year. Blake Bortles was supposed to be the franchise quarterback for this team, and yet he’s turned into a quarterback version of Benjamin Button: he only gets worse with more experience. There have been plenty of headlines this offseason about Bortles’ teammates making their displeasure towards his poor caliber of play publicly known, to the point where the team seriously considered replacing him with backup quarterback Chad Henne; Henne didn’t get the job because he played equally as terrible in the preseason, during what was presumably his audition to be the starting quarterback. The mess under center overshadows what is otherwise a deceptively loaded roster. The depth this team has at both the running back (Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and TJ Yeldon) — and wide receiver (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, DeDe Westbrook) positions would be the envy of many teams around the league. The defensive front four has the potential to be one of the very best groups in the league. They have two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks (Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye) and a pair of the rangiest linebackers in the NFL (Telvin Smith and Myles Jack). But the sheer incompetence this team has received from the quarterback position is the main reason they have never been able to finally emerge from the basement of this division.

FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC East Preview

The story of the AFC East in 2017 remains the same as it has for 14 of the past 16 NFL seasons: this division belongs to the New England Patriots, and everyone else is just competing for second place.

To use a line made famous by legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair: “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And right now, there’s simply no two ways about it: there doesn’t appear to be a single team in the NFL that can go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots, and beat them on a neutral field. Let’s start off with the fact that the Patriots are returning 17 of their 22 starters from the team that won the Super Bowl. Now, add in the fact that they might have actually gotten better at four of those five positions that will feature new players, like wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Mike Gillislee, cornerback Stephon Gillmore, and defensive end Kony Ealy. This was already a team that lost a grand total of one game after Tom Brady returned from suspension last year. What team, across the entire NFL, is capable of beating these guys?

You can make an argument that no team has been ravaged by injury before the preseason even started than the Miami Dolphins. Pretty much every single NFL fan is well aware of the season-ending knee injury to Ryan Tannehill, which led head coach to call up old friend Jay Cutler and convince him to take over as the starting quarterback of the Dolphins (after Cutler had decided to retire this past offseason).  But that was far from the only blow the team was dealt by the injury bug. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, looked like he was set to take over the starting middle linebacker spot for the Dolphins, but then suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Cornerback Tony Lippett, who started in 13 games for Miami last season, was lost for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon. Offensive guard Ted Larsen, who was both an opening-day starter and their insurance policy at center in case Mike Pouncey got hurt, tore his biceps muscle in training camp, and will miss a significant portion of this season. It’s going to take a borderline miraculous coaching job for Gase to help Miami move out from underneath the dark cloud they’re currently under.

No head coach will ever admit that they’re willing to lose more games in the short run if it means the team will improve in the long run. That’s why you’ll never hear head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills say anything other than the fact that he’s positioning his team to compete in the AFC East immediately. But after spending much of the offseason waffling on whether to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor (whom they brought back on a deal that allows them to easily part ways after just one year), and then opening training camp by trading players like wide receiver Sammy Watkins, cornerback Ronald Darby, and quarterback Cardale Jones, the message is clear:  they’re willing to take one step back with the roster, if it means they can take two steps forward in their rebuild. McDermott is going to try and win games the same way the Carolina Panthers — his former employer — have in recent years: run the ball down the throats of the opponents, and use their stout defensive line to keep opponents from scoring.

As far as the New York Jets, you may have heard many NFL analysts around the league say the same thing over-and-over again, because it’s the truth: there isn’t a NFL roster with less talent across the entire league than the one the Jets have currently constructed. Frankly, it’s a miracle that head coach Todd Bowles and General Manager Mike Maccagnan weren’t fired by the notoriously fickle owner of the Jets, Woody Johnson. Bowles and Maccagnan are gambling on Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback of the Jets this season, and so far, the early word out of New York is that Hackenberg still looks as broken and as hopeless as many people believed he was after his star-crossed career at Penn State.  But even aside from Hackenberg, the Jets starting offensive line, wide receivers, and cornerbacks are all easily among the three worst units in the entire league, and two of the team’s former building blocks — defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson — have been malcontents that have spent time on the team’s trade block. Things are looking very, very bleak in Gotham, with Bowles and Maccagnan likely to be the first ones without jobs by Black Monday of 2018.

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 AFC North Preview

The AFC North is another one of those divisions which, theoretically, could be up for grabs for (almost) anyone… except the poor Cleveland Browns, of course. After all, the division hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since 2011 and 2012, when the Ravens won the title both years and ended up winning the Super Bowl after the second division crown), and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have spent the past four seasons handing the division crown back and forth each year since.

This year, the Steelers head into the season as the favorites to win the division, and make their fourth straight appearance in the postseason. After briefly (but legitimately) contemplating retirement during the offseason, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back to orchestrate an offense that finished seventh in the NFL in yards per game last year, and fifth in passing yards per game. Plus, with Le’Veon Bell primed to be available right from the regular season get-go (for the first time in his career), and with the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant from a season-long suspension (after violating the league’s substance abuse policy), there’s a very good chance that Pittsburgh’s offense could be even more prolific this year. True to the franchise’s long-time modus operandi, they spent their top pick in the draft on a defensive player — outside linebacker T.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin — for the fifth straight year, as they continually rebuild a defense that was very “un-Pittsburgh-like” in it’s 2016 performance, ranking in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yards (20th), passing yards (17th), and points allowed (23rd) per game. For a team with a history of totally stifling opposing offenses, time is running out for defensive coordinator Keith Butler — and head coach Mike Tomlin, who installed Butler in place of the venerated Dick LeBeau — to stop this group from being the hindrance from being a real contender in the AFC.

Despite finishing the 2016 with only six total wins, the Cincinnati Bengals still lurk as a team with the potential to steal back the division crown from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast as Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but the Bengals have quietly assembled a very talented group of pass catchers around quarterback Andy Dalton, including superstar wide receiver AJ Green, second year receiver Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati’s second round pick in 2016), veteran Brandon LaFell, newcomer John Ross (the ninth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft), and tight end Tyler Eifert (who has the most touchdown receptions of any tight end in the NFL over the last two seasons). Cincinnati’s rushing offense was already in the top half of the league last year (13th in rushing yards per game and tied for 6th in rushing touchdowns), and with the addition of second round pick Joe Mixon, it should be even better.  On defense, Cincinnati will rely on (young) quantity versus quality, largely built on their recent years of good drafting. Edge rushers Jordan Willis (their 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and Carl Lawson (their 4th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) will come in on passing downs opposite of ace edge rusher Carlos Dunlap. In the secondary, cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson III, and Darqueze  Dennard — all first round selections in the five drafts prior to 2017 — gives the Bengals as deep a group of cornerbacks as any in the NFL.

Five years removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. Despite year after year of savvy drafting by General Manager Ozzie Newsome, this team perpetually seems to running in place, never able to take that next step towards being in the mix among contenders in the AFC.  Things have not fared well for the Ravens heading into the 2017 season. Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t been able to practice at all during training camp, thanks to back soreness that has been lingering since July. Starting inside linebacker Zachary Orr retired right after the 2016 season due to a spinal condition. John Urschel, who was slated to be the team’s starting Center this year, abruptly retired in the offseason amidst concerns around CTE. Running back Kenneth Dixon, who was supposed to work in tandem with Terrance West in the backfield this year, was first suspended for four games to start the year, and then declared out for the year after undergoing knee surgery. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, the team’s top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, continues to struggle to stay healthy. Baltimore’s defense has some interesting pieces, including stud middle linebacker CJ Mosley, pass-rushing stalwart Terrell Suggs, the immovable Brandon Williams (one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL that nobody talks about), and free agent signees Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. But that might not be enough for the perennially heralded Baltimore defense, if the offense continues to struggle to put points on the board.

And then, as always on the bottom of the AFC North, there’s Cleveland. In fairness, this is only year two of the total renovations this team undertook starting last offseason. Unfortunately, the product on the field last year reflected that, culminating in their 1-15 record (and questions as to whether head coach Hue Jackson should be fired after just one year on the job). Their league-low win total did secure them the right to draft defensive end Myles Garrett from Texas A&M University with the #1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and make him one of the central cornerstones of their rebuild. There are interesting players on this roster. Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio might be the best left guard and tackle combination in the NFL. Running back Isaiah Crowell finished just shy of 1,000 yards rushing last year, and Duke Johnson Jr. finished 7th in the NFL in most catches by a running back. Linebacker Jamie Collins, acquired from the New England Patriots during the 2016 season in exchange for one of the bevy of draft picks the Browns have, is one of the most talented linebackers in the NFL. Edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, the team’s second round pick in 2016, led the team in sacks last year and will rush the quarterback opposite of Garrett. Wide receiver Kenny Britt and guard Kevin Zeitler, acquired in free agency, will come in and contribute right away. But this team still has so many holes to fill, with none more glaring than their long-term solution at quarterback (although they might have found an answer in second round pick DeShone Kizer).

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC South Preview


Among all the divisions in the National Football Conference, the NFC East might be the one with the most parity, the NFC West might be the one with the best team overall, and the NFC North might host the best quarterback in the conference (if not the entire league). But it could very well be the case that the NFC South might feature the most entertaining race to the division crown this year.

How does a team recover from blowing a 25-point lead in the third quarter of the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance? That’s the question that’s going to hound the Atlanta Falcons all year long. It’s already been talked about ad nauseum, and if the team has any stumbles along the way this year, it’s certainly going to be brought up repeatedly. History is not on the Falcons side, either; nine of the last 20 teams to lose the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs last season. Atlanta’s defense will be better this year, thanks to the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the selection of edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in the 2017 NFL Draft, and the return of cornerback Desmond Trufant from injury. But what type of drop off will Atlanta’s ultra-prolific offense see from last year’s performance, with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has enormous shoes to fill, considering Shanahan guided the Falcons offense to the eighth-highest point total in NFL history, and helped quarterback Matt Ryan to an MVP award along the way; to make matters even more challenging, Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL. In a division in which the Falcons top competitors certainly look to take a big step forward this year, the idea that Atlanta is a lock to repeat as the champions of the NFC South is far from a given.

The Carolina Panthers can provide first-hand attestation to the “hangover” that comes after losing the Super Bowl. After finishing the 2015 season with an NFL-best 15-1 record, the Panthers endured a season filled with all sorts of bumps and bruises, headlined by injuries to arguably the team’s two best players: quarterback Cam Newton, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton played in 15 of 16 games las tyear, but as a result of the merciless beating he endured all season long, he put up the lowest completion percentage and yards per attempt of his career, his second lowest passing touchdown total, and his second highest interception total. Newton is unquestionably the team’s franchise player, so Carolina went out and signed tackle Matt Kalil from the Vikings to protect Newton’s blindside as the left tackle, and drafted tackle Taylor Moton from the University of Wisconsin with the intention of him coming over and manning the right tackle spot. And to add to Newton’s oft-maligned group of pass catchers, the Panthers used draft pick on “hybrid” run-pass options like Christian McCaffrey (their first round pick) and Curtis Samuel (the first of their two second round picks). With nine of 11 starters returning from last year’s defense, the Panthers are banking on the continuity of their group to keep opponents out of the endzone, and the young secondary to make a big leap forward from last year’s campaign that saw the team finish with the fourth-worst passing defense in the NFL.

There might not be a more intriguing team in the NFL heading into this season than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league made a brilliant decision featuring them on HBO’s Hard Knocks television show, because they have the star power to absolutely compel audiences. After finishing among the top 10 quarterbacks in touchdown passes last year, Jameis Winston looks primed to make a big leap forward in year three of his young career. To facilitate that, his front office has given him a repertoire of weapons that would make any quarterback envious: wide receiver DeSean Jackson (brought in via free agency), tight end O.J. Howard (the team’s first round pick in the draft), and wide receiver Chris Godwin (the team’s third round selection), to join incumbent tight end Cameron Brate (who led the league in touchdown catches among tight ends last year) and superstud receiver Mike Evans. If the defense can improve on its performance from last year (they were ranked 22nd in most yards allowed last season), this team could make serious noise in the NFC.

The question for the New Orleans Saints (and its fans) for this year is pretty simple: can the team break free from the treadmill of 7-9 finishes they’ve had in each of the past three seasons? In each of those three years, the storyline seemed to be the same: a top three offense in the NFL (in yards per game), and a bottom five defense (in points allowed per game). There was a point in time where the idea of a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards in a season was a mind-boggling feat, and yet the incomparable Drew Brees is coming off a year in which he exceeded the 5,000 yard mark for the fourth time in six years. That’s a big reason why the Saints were the only team in the NFL with two receivers to finish among the top 10 in yards receiving. One of those two receivers was rookie Michael Thomas, whose 92 catches last year was the second highest total in NFL history for a rookie. With Brandin Cooks (the other thousand-yard receiver) now gone, Thomas becomes the focal point of the passing offense, and seems more than capable of handling those responsibilities. Of course, with such a prolific passing maestro like Brees orchestrating the offense, it certainly won’t all be on him to make things go. Meanwhile, New Orleans’ annually porous defense went through yet another overhaul, resulting in as many as six new starters for the group this year. The headline addition would likely be cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the team’s top draft selection this year, who could turn out to be a steal of a pick. Still, the question is the same in the Big Easy: can the Saints’ defense stop anyone from moving the ball up and down the field at will, in order to let the offense do its magic?

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC North Preview

Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.

Green Bay Packers

During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.

The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.

Minnesota Vikings

This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.

Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.

But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).

The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?

Detroit Lions

In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.

Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears

For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”

It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.

So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.

Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.

Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC West Preview

The story of the NFC West for the 2017-2018 season doesn’t really appear to be any different than the story we’ve seen in recent years: there are two teams in the division with legitimate aspirations of a deep playoff run, and then two teams that are still mired in a prolonged rebuilding process.

At the start of the season, it’s really hard to see anyone other than the Seattle Seahawks being the favorite to win the division crown. While the team sputtered to a 6-4-1 record over its last 11 games last year, they were decimated by injuries to so many key players. Even from a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s difficult for a team to endure that level of injury issues for yet another season. In doing his part to stay healthy through the course of the season, Russell Wilson came into training camp this year in the best shape of his life, working with celebrity nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia in the offseason, losing 10lbs of weight and dropping his body fat by 6%. With no real superstud at running back — the team will cobble together a ground game featuring Green Bay Packers castoff Eddie Lacy, incumbent Thomas Rawls, and 2016 draft picks C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins — this offense really belongs to Wilson now. It’s much more about him running the show, throwing the football to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. If the patchwork offensive line can simply give him any time to actually get the football out, he could be poised for an MVP-caliber season. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Seahawks without mentioning the defense. The unit will return nine of 11 starters, including defensive backbone Earl Thomas, meaning it should once again be as stout as we’ve come to know it in recent years.

Enduring an injury-riddled season in 2016 themselves, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to rebound closer to the form which saw them win an NFL-high 13 games in 2015. The biggest question for the Cardinals — along the lines of staying healthy — will be whether Carson Palmer’s arm can hold up for all 16 games, especially in an offense that demands a lot of vertical throws. Palmer has shown a penchant in recent years for starting out the season hot, but demonstrating arm fatigue as the year goes on. Of course, the latter the could be mitigated as the team begins to rely more on superstar running back David Johnson, whose combined 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year was second most in the NFL. Johnson’s ability as a running back and pass catcher make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, and will likely make him the focal point of a somewhat aging Cardinals offense. Arizona’s defense faces questions of their own around health and personnel, especially as they’re looking for the return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu — who finished last season on injured reserve for the third time in four years — and to overcome the loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell. However, Arizona has done an excellent job in “restocking the cupboard” on defense with young talent, starting with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft), linebacker Haason Reddick (taken with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and safety Budda Baker (their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft). There are still plenty of core players left on this team to lead them to one last deep playoff run, if things can finally break right for them.

During an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams chastised his team for resembling a football team destined for a 7-9 record. Little did Fisher realize that his team would be so lucky as to finish with a 7-9 record. The Rams finished a 4-12 record at season’s end, and Fisher didn’t even make it through the season before he was dismissed from his position (which many saw as long-overdue move). As his replacement, the Rams went in the total opposite direction, hiring offensive wunderkind Sean McVay — the former offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins — and making him the youngest head coach in NFL history (he was officially hired just days before his 31st birthday). McVay’s primary responsibility will be to rectify all the damage that Fisher and his staff did to quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, McVay smartly hired defensive guru Wade Phillips, the latter of whom is only two years away from overseeing a defense that led its team to a Super Bowl victory (in Denver). Supposedly, the early whispers from the new regime are filled with glowing optimism, and everything you hear out of Los Angeles is that the player recognize what a difference in experience, leadership, and intellectual horsepower the new coaching staff has already brought. However, this roster still has major holes to fill — mostly on offense — before it can consider itself a contender in this division.

Rounding out the NFC West is the San Francisco 49ers, who underwent a much-needed housecleaning of their own last season, dismissing long time General Manager Trent Baalke and embattled head coach Chip Kelly. In their place will be new head coach Kyle Shanahan, fresh off leading the Atlanta Falcons to one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and new General Manager John Lynch, a surprise hire who lobbied Shanahan for the unorthodox opportunity of jumping straight from the broadcast booth to being the man in charge of a team’s front office. The two of them went to work adding numerous players to a roster that was badly in need of a talent infusion all over the board. At quarterback, journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will vie for the team’s starting job in the near future, but it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see them them address the position with one of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft (which looks to have a quarterback class absolutely loaded with talent). Early on, they’ll look to the defense to keep them in games, after spending a first round pick on a defensive lineman — Soloman Thomas from Stanford University — for the third year in a row, and then trading up into the latter part of the first round to select linebacker Rueben Foster from the University of Alabama. The defense has some really intriguing players in pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumvervil, stalwart linebacker NaVorro Bowman, free safety Jimmy Ward, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (their first round picks in 2016 and 2015 respectively). But, with a much-needed roster turnover taking place over the long-term, this team is still years away from being ready to make any real noise in the division.

Playoffs!? Wtf? Playoffs!? Rating the New NFL Head Coaches

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While almost everyone remembers that the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, few people realize that they did so with a head coach that was brand new to the team heading into that season in Gary Kubiak. In 2016, of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs at the end of the 2016-2017 season, two of them were led by first year head coaches: Ben McAdoo of the New York Giants, and Adam Gase of the Miami Dolphins. So, it would stand to reason that the teams who made head coaching changes during this offseason are looking for their new head coaches to immediately replicate the type of success the aforementioned guys had. But who are the coaches in the best positions to lead their teams to the postseason? Here’s our list from least likely to most likely:

Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers — Shanahan and new General Manager John Lynch will start the process of rebuilding the great San Francisco 49ers franchise with the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The problem is, they got the second overall pick in the draft because the team was so bad last year in general. The 49ers could basically use a major infusion of talent at the vast majority of positions on the team, most notably at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert and/or Colin Kaepernick are clearly not the answer, and the new braintrust will likely move quickly in trying to figure out who is the guy that’s going to lead their team for the near and long-term future. But outside of running back, where they have Carlos Hyde, and defensive lineman, where they drafted Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in recent years, there isn’t really a single position on the team that you could point to as a strength moving forward. Shanahan and Lynch will need a few years to restock the proverbial cupboard.

Sean McVay, Los Angels Rams — The Rams went in the total opposite direction of their previous head coach, when hiring their most recent one. They went from a grizzled NFL-stalwart in Jeff Fisher, to hiring the youngest head coach in NFL history in Sean McVay. McVay was considered somewhat of a “wunderkind” after guiding the Washington Redskins’ offense to the third-best ranking in the NFL last season. His job will largely be tied to the development of Jared Goff, the top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Even though it’s still way too early to make any type of judgment on Goff, we saw much he struggled last season. The Rams offensive line remains awful for yet another year. They’ve had one wide receiver top 1,000 yards receiving in the past decade. After a superstar-caliber rookie season, running back Todd Gurley looked painfully mortal last year. McVay might be responsible for helping Goff develop, but he’s got his work cut out for him with the rest of this offense. The saving grace for the Rams is that the defense still has talent, including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who’s one of the five best defensive players in the NFL.

Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills — Halfway through October, the Buffalo Bills looked like they might end up being one of the surprise teams in the NFL. They had a 4-2 record, including a shutout victory over the New England Patriots. But, from there on out, the bottom fell out for the Bills, as they finished with a 3-7 record down the stretch. That led to Rex Ryan’s dismissal, and the hiring of new head coach Sean McDermott. The first order of business for McDermott and Doug Whaley will be to find a starting quarterback, as it looks like Tyrod Taylor’s tenure in Buffalo is all but over. Many people think they’ll use the 10th overall pick in the draft to address the position, but let’s not forget they still have Cardale Jones as a developmental player, and perhaps the long-term answer. Still, the Bills don’t have much in the way of building block pieces around whoever fills the quarterback position. Running back LeSean McCoy looked great last season, but he’ll be 29 years old next season, and hasn’t played in all 16 games as a member of the Bills. Star wide receiver Sammy Watkins has missed 11 of his last 32 games. The offensive line has been inconsistent. The defense was ravaged by injuries and inconsistency last year. Buffalo proved they can be a good team if things break well for them, but they still have more questions than answers.

Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars — In reality, the Jacksonville Jaguars could end up being one of the most interesting and dangerous teams in the AFC, if not the NFL. It all depends on whether Marrone’s staff can resurrect the career of quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles appeared to be on an upward trajectory in his second year, leading a young and talented offense. But last year, Bortles badly regressed, and the offense — as well as the whole team — struggled as a result. But this is still one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the NFL.  It’s not out of the question for young stars like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns to bounce back, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. to take another step forward. Their group of linebackers is one of the more underrated units in the NFL, and they have talent at both Safety positions. If Jacksonville can make a few upgrades on their still-porous offensive line, and perhaps add a little more consistency from the running game, they could help fix what ails Bortles. But this team will only go as Bortles does.

Anthony Lynn, San Diego Chargers — As snakebitten as this team was with injuries and plain old bad luck last season, San Diego sits near the top of this list for one simple reason: they still have quarterback Philip Rivers, who made the Pro Bowl last season (as an alternate). Even with an offense that continued to lose players seemingly on a weekly basis, Rivers still finished the year ranked among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards, yards per attempt, and touchdown passes. While he’s not exactly getting any younger, he’s still in the prime of his career.  The Chargers will also have some balance on offense, thanks to the second year breakout of running back Melvin Gordon. On defense, they have two of the best young talents in the NFL in defensive end Joey Bosa, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, and cornerback Jason Verrett, who admittedly missed much of last year after suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Still, with the offensive and defensive pedigrees that new head coach Anthony Lynn and new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, this team is not that far away from contending for a playoff spot.

Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos — Vance Joseph, the highly-regarded former defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins, is probably the one coach in the best position to guide his team to the playoffs in his first year as head coach, mostly on the basis of the defense he’ll be inheriting. That group still has Von Miller, who is still perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, as well as the best pair of cornerbacks in the league in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Even with all the injuries and defections via free agency this team had after winning the Super Bowl, those guys represented the foundation of what was still probably the league’s best defense. Obviously, then, the biggest questions for the Broncos will be on the offensive side of the football, namely at the quarterback position. While most people believe that incumbents Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will battle for the starting job, it’s hard to rule out the possibility of the team acquiring a veteran quarterback — say, Tony Romo? — who could step in and lead this team immediately. If they can get even an average-level of play from the quarterback position, they can rely on their skill position players like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and second-year running back Devontae Booker to help spark an offense that sputtered down the stretch of last season.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]