When it comes to looking back over a whole season or a full year, it’s harder (for me at least) to learn lessons in the aggregate and much easier when condensing those lessons down to individual games.
After all, that’s what a season is – dozens of individual betting decisions; made one at a time. So, while I’ve enjoyed one of the best NFL seasons of my handicapping career, there’s no point in looking back.
Sure, we can identify the worst beat of the year, that’s always fun. I’d nominate anyone who had Lions/UNDER when they led Green Bay wire-to-wire on Thursday Night Football… until Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary touchdown pass with no time left on the clock turned it into Packers/OVER.
Apologies to anyone who had St. Louis plus the points at Green Bay in Week 5, a close second on my list. But the better way to go here is to look forward; making some predictions for 2016!
So that’s what I’m going to do. Week 17 of the NFL regular season is here, the playoffs just beyond. My goal this week is to pick the two Super Bowl teams out of the 14 still alive (Indy could get eliminated from contention with a Bengals win on Monday Night).
I’m not worried about picking the winner of my hypothetical game, just identifying the two teams that are going to get there. Let me start with some eliminations.
Kansas City isn’t going to the Super Bowl.
While I give Andy Reid credit for engineering a remarkable turnaround, KC has been pounding one weakling after the next. Their last six victims: the Chargers (twice), Raiders, Bills, Ravens and Browns. KC’s only win since Week 1 over a playoff team if the season ended today came against Denver in Peyton Manning’s last as the starter.
Houston isn’t going to the Super Bowl.
Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer might get you to an AFC South title, but they’re not winning three games in January. Pittsburgh is still very much alive to reach the postseason despite Sunday’s loss at Baltimore, but the Steelers’ defensive breakdowns and red zone woes will likely doom their fate.
I don’t see Teddy Bridgewater as being ready to lead Minnesota to the promised land. Washington is an intriguing longshot, but, like Houston, winning the weakest division in your conference is not the same as dominating one of the tougher ones.
Denver with Brock Osweiler isn’t going to get there, and Peyton Manning ranked No. 32 out of 32 NFL quarterbacks when he was healthy over the first half of the season. Gary Kubiak doesn’t coach his way to a ring this year.
That means, when we’re talking about the NFC and four heavyweights: Seattle, Carolina, Green Bay and Arizona. In the AFC, I’ve got only three to consider: Cincinnati, New York and New England.
Two of the three AFC teams are too flawed for me to pick them to win – my choice is very clear. In the NFC, however, only one of the four has no chance, in my opinion, although a second one is flawed enough for me to eliminate them.
I’m going to cut this 14 team race down to three serious title contenders. Yes, New England has the best record in the AFC. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and company have six Super Bowl appearances and four rings; a team that truly knows what it takes to win in January.
But the Patriots are an injury riddled mess, injuries that a bye week won’t solve. Their offensive line is in shambles, their receiving corps decimated, their defense depleted. Making the Super Bowl is about staying healthy as much as any other factor, and the Pats are a disaster area in that regard.
As for Cincy, I have very little interest in asking Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton to win three playoff games for me. That duo isn’t 0-fer their careers in the postseason by accident. And while Dalton enjoyed the best statistical season of his career before getting hurt, he still made enough horrific decisions and terrible throws in tight games to make me very reluctant to expect a perennial postseason loser to change his stripes this year.
Bottom line: I don’t trust that Dalton coming off a thumb injury and a long layoff is going to step right in to the postseason mix and dominate.
That leaves me with only one team standing in the AFC – the New York football Jets. The Jets are capable of winning in Foxboro – they’ve hung tough with New England in every meeting over the last three seasons. The Jets have the offensive line, the running game, the receiving corps, the journeyman veteran QB with the great story, the defense – the works. I’ll call for the Jets to make the Super Bowl from the AFC.
In the NFC, I’m going to eliminate two teams right off the bat. While Seattle has enjoyed a strong turnaround following a 2-4 start, the Seahawks are trying to do something that history tells us is nearly impossible to do.
There have been 49 previous Super Bowls. A team has made it to the Big Game three straight years a grand total of twice during that entire half century span – the Dolphins in the early 70’s and the Bills in the early 90’s.
I’m a big admirer of Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, but this year’s Seahawks team isn’t as good as last year’s version, and they’ll have to go on the road three times just to get there. Nope, can’t expect the Seahawks this year.
And Green Bay really isn’t that good; a team with more fraudulent wins than any other team this year. By my notes, they’ve been outplayed in five of their 10 victories this year, and their most impressive wins all came back in September.
The “real” Green Bay team is closer to the one that got blown out in Arizona on Sunday than the one who beat Seattle and KC at home on national TV three months ago.
So that leaves me with a tough call in the NFC between Arizona and Carolina; a game I’d line close to pick ‘em on a neutral field if I didn’t have to adjust for any public sentiment. I like Bruce Arians over Ron Rivera. I like Cam Newton over Carson Palmer, but not by that much.
I like the Cardinals’ offensive line and skill position talent, but not by that much. I like the Panthers’ back seven on defense, especially with pro bowler Tyrann Mathieu going on IR for the Cardinals. I like Arizona’s pass rush. Tough call, and the good news is I don’t have to call it right now.
Ask me when the Panthers and Cardinals play for the NFC title four weeks from now, and I should have a much stronger opinion, doing it the way I like to do it – one betting decision – one game – at a time.
Happy New Year! Best of luck in 2016!