Giants to pace NFC East
August 29, 2018 3:07 AM
by Andy Iskoe
Just one week of preseason football remains with all 32 teams in action this Thursday before the regular season gets underway seven nights later as the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons.
This season’s opener will be a rematch of last season’s NFC Divisional round contest in which the Eagles began their Playoffs run with a hard earned 15-10 win over the Falcons in which the Eagles were, surprisingly in retrospect, 2.5 point home underdogs.
Last season was unusual in that eight teams that made the 2017 Playoffs did not make them in 2016 and half of those eight had not made the Playoffs in at least nine seasons. Thus is would not be surprising if we see seven or eight teams make the Playoffs this season after not making them last season.
Note that depending on the interest within each Division some of the following Divisions will have significantly more commentary than the Divisions for which there is considerably less intrigue.
It appears to be very well balanced but schedule difficulty will likely keep the record of the team that wins the Division rather ordinary for a Divisional champ. Perhaps 10-6 or even 9-7 will be good enough to earn at least one home game in the Playoffs. That is because all four teams must face the four teams from both the AFC South and NFC South.
Super Bowl champion Philadelphia seeks to become the first NFC East team to successfully defend its Division title in nearly a decade and a half. The Eagles remain a talented but hardly dominant team and, as defending champs, will be the team each opponent will place extra emphasis on in preparing to play.
Dallas finished second last season but suffered key losses on both sides of the football. The biggest may turn out to be the retirement of TE Jason Witten. His departure may be felt even more than having released WR Dez Bryant.
The Giants had a lost season in 2017 but with major upgrades to the offense through free agency, the draft and the return of injured players the G-men have a realistic chance to dethrone the Eagles. Washington has suffered several setbacks during this preseason that provide little reason to suggest they will have a winning record. The forecast is for the Giants to win the Division with Philadelphia second but the Eagles are likely to fall short of earning a Wild Card due to their tough schedule, which also includes games against 2017 Division winners Minnesota and the Rams. Dallas should edge out Washington for third place.
Should be a two team race between Minnesota and Green Bay. Minnesota has the better defense with the Packers the better offense as QB Aaron Rodgers seems fully healthy. The call is for both teams to make the Playoffs with double digit wins; Minnesota winning the Division title and Green Bay earning a Wild Card. There should be a significant gap between that duo and the duo of Chicago and Detroit.
Chicago has some nice young talent on both sides of the football but appears a season or two away from realistic contention. Detroit, with three winning seasons in the past four, is more experienced and should finish ahead of the Bears again. The Lions may be hard pressed to post a winning record in 2018 with their ceiling likely 8-8.
Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans went to the Playoffs last season and all three are projected to contend again with each having a Season Wins Total of nine or more games. Atlanta has been a popular preseason pick to win the Super Bowl and it is worth noting the Falcons did not suffer the fate of most Super Bowl losing teams.
Carolina had been in the Super Bowl the season prior and, as has often occurred, after losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50 dropped from 15-1 in 2015 to 6-10 in 2016 before rebounding to 11-5. New Orleans’ has shown steady improvement on defense the past two seasons and appears the best balanced team in this Division.
The forecast is for the Saints to win the NFC South with Carolina edging Atlanta for second but with both posting records that have them in Wild Card contention. Tampa Bay is the call to finish a distant fourth, possibly with the worst record in the NFC.
The LA Rams won the Division last season and made the Playoffs for the first time since 2004, going 11-5 before losing at home to Atlanta in their Wild Card game. The Rams are solid favorites to win the Division this season and the San Francisco 49ers are projected to finish second as they seek their first return to the Playoffs since 2013. The Niners started last season 0-9 before gaining their first win. After another loss Jimmy Garoppolo started and won the final five games of the season. Garoppolo had been acquired in a mid-season trade with New England and the strong finish fueled the enthusiasm being spouted during the off season and throughout the summer. The enthusiasm may indeed be well founded but it may be legitimized as much by the defense as by the offense.
San Francisco improved by 55 yards per game defensively last season and by a full 1.0 yard per rush allowed (down from 4.8 ypr to 3.8 ypr). The management duo of coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch enter their second season and both are bright minds. The Rams will be the hunted team and the Niners the hungry team. The forecast is for San Francisco to win the NFC West but for the Rams to join Green Bay as an NFC Wild Card with Arizona edging out Seattle for third spot in this Division.
This needs little commentary beyond the following three words – New England Patriots. The Pats have dominated this Division for closing in on two decades under the guidance of HC Bill Belichick and the leadership of QB Tom Brady. The supporting cast has continually changed over the seasons but the B and B Boys have remained the constants.
New England should again win the Division, likely with 12 or 13 wins, with an excellent chance at earning the top AFC Playoff seed. The second place team in the AFC East may be hard pressed to win eight games. Buffalo may show the greatest regression after going 9-7 last season, making the Playoffs for the first time since 1999.
The Bills are projected to finish last this season. The New York Jets are the pick to finish ahead of Miami for second place with rookie QB Sam Darnold looking very good in the preseason with the support of an underrated yet improved defense. Miami is the pick to finish third but none of that trio is forecast to contend for a Wild Card spot.
But for Cleveland the Division has coaching stability. The head coaches of Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have a combined 36 years of coaching their current teams. John Harbaugh has coached the Ravens for 10 seasons, Marvin Lewis Cincinnati for 15 and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin for 11. Cleveland’s Hue Jackson is in his third season, going 1-31 in his first two including 0-16 in 2017.
Pittsburgh is the solid favorite and may be the only team in the Division to make the Playoffs. Cincinnati is the pick to edge Baltimore for second place but neither team is forecast to finish above .500. For the Browns there is only one place to go after being winless last season but despite all their talent, which appears even better this season, they will have to prove to me they can make significant enough strides to exceed their Season Wins Total that has now risen to 6.
Jacksonville won the last season and gave New England a true test before falling in the AFC Title game. Although a regression might ordinarily be expected this season the Jags are still good enough to earn a Wild Card and perhaps repeat their 10 wins of last season.
The forecast is for Houston to win this Division with 10 or 11 wins, assuming they can avoid the injuries that cost them rookie QB DeShaun Watson and pro Bowl defenders J J Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Indy QB Andrew Luck has been encouraging in the preseason but the lack of surrounding talent on both sides of the football, especially on defense, suggests the Colts will struggle to get by Tennessee for third place.
That spot should go to the Titans who, despite making the Playoffs for the first time since 2008 last season changed head coaches and will be relying on QB Marcus Mariota who has yet to develop as projected.
It’s much like the NFC East with no team clearly better than the rest. The LA Chargers are the favorites following their 9-3 record after an 0-4 start last season. The offense is led by QB Philip Rivers and their pass defense was a strength last season. Unfortunately the rush defense allowed 4.9 yards per carry. Denver upgraded their glaring weakness at QB with the signing of Case Keenum.
The defense has been a strength for several seasons and allowed just 290 yards per game, including less than 90 rushing yards per game for the third time in four seasons. The Broncos are my surprise pick to win the AFC West with the Chargers edging Kansas City for both second place in the Division and the second AFC Wild Card.
The Chiefs are poised for their fewest wins since going 9-7 in 2014 after trading reliable QB Alex Smith to Washington in favor of giving the starting job to second season QB Patrick Mahomes. Smith was the quintessential game manager, avoiding turnovers while rarely making the big play. Mahomes has plenty of raw talent and coach Andy Reid should eventually mold that talent in at least an above average NFL QB. But 2018 should involve growing pains.
That leaves Oakland as the team forecast to finish last. In 2016 Oakland had its first winning season since 2002, going 12-4 despite being outgained by their opponents and barely outscoring them. Their profile was more like that of a 7-9 team. Last season they were outgained by 26 yards per game and 4 points per game, finishing 6-10.
New coach Jon Gruden inherits a team with both talent and flaws. Their Season Wins Total is 8 and my assessment is they are more likely to finish 7-9 rather than 9-7; and my forecast has the Raiders finishing last in the AFC West but improving in enough areas to suggest the Playoffs, if not the Division title, may be a reality in 2019.
Thus my Division winners are the New York Giants, Minnesota, New Orleans and San Francisco in the AFC and New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and Denver in the AFC.
My projected NFC Wild Cards are Green Bay and the LA Rams with Jacksonville and the LA Chargers.