Here’s a look at the season’s Top-5 Must-Watch story lines for the NFL Season:
#5 Despite all the changes to the game, the ‘ole adage, "Defense Wins Championships" has never been more true. Sure, fantasy football has changed the way fans watch the game, as it focuses heavily on offensive stats such as passing yards or rushing touchdowns by individual players. But as we’ve seen in the past few years, in particular, defense is the key to a Super Bowl Championship. Not total yards.
Case in point: 7 of the Top 10 Total Defenses in the NFL made the playoffs with #1 (Denver) and #6 (Carolina) playing in the Super Bowl. Only 4 of the Top-10 Total Offenses made the playoffs.
We’ll see more of this, this year. Through free agency, teams revamped their defenses with high-priced talent. Most notably, the New York Giants. The 6th ranked scoring offense, the G-Men routinely gave up 4th quarter leads went 6-10 after a porous defense failed to deliver. That changed this off season as they offered 4 defensive players some $204 million in contracts. And then there’s former Bronco Malik Jackson heading to the Jags, Josh Norman leaving the Panthers for the Redskins and more. NFL GMs are keying in on key defensive players to revamp a franchise’s fate. And it’s a storyline we’ll continue to watch have significant impact across the NFL .
#4 Also the number of games the NFL suspended the most consistent quarterback ever: Tom Brady.
His absence finally puts Deflate gate to rest, but under the Brady era, the Patriots have never had a losing season or won fewer than 9 games. Is this the year that changes? Short answer, no. But a 9-win season isn’t likely to get into the playoffs this year. The Jets missed out with a 10-win season last year.
#3 One team that will get into the playoffs: The Oakland Raiders.
Each year at least 4 teams makes the playoffs that missed out the year before. This is the year, behind Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack the Raiders playoff drought ends.
#2 One thing it seems there no end to: Injuries.
Already this pre-season, teams that had playoff hopes, legitimate playoff hopes, took a massive hit with players going down due to injury. The Dallas cowboys lost Tony Romo with broken vertebrae, the Minnesota Vikings lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with a dislocated knee. Furthermore, key players returning from injury are still lingering question marks. We aren’t sure how healthy Packers WR Jordy Nelson is, what’s going to come of Texan’s defensive stud JJ Watt and his back, is Joe Flacco and his repaired ACL the same unflappable Flacco or not? It’s a part of the NFL that makes or breaks the fate of entire franchises. And it would be the number one story except.
#1 When the NFL comes back to LA for the first time in more than 20 years, that has to be the top story we’ll be watching all year.
Excitement for the LA Rams is at an all-time high, even despite the lows in rookie quarterback Jared Goff’s preseason play. This team has pieces to make some noise, not likely the playoffs, but they’ll be competitive and keep games close with their bruising defense, so the LA Rams will be worth keeping an eye on. The other side of that deal: Who’s joining them? The Raiders? The Chargers? A different team? As it stands now, it looks like the Chargers are staying put in San Diego and the Raiders are likely to exercise the option to move into LA once the Chargers pass.
The goal for every team at the start of the season? Make the playoffs. And because only 12 teams can, 20 squads end up going home to book tee times.
But every year since 1990, at least 4 teams make the playoffs that were booking those tee times the previous year.
And this year is no different:
NFC West: While the San Francisco 49ers and LA Rams had busy and headline-grabbing off seasons, none of the moves pushed them closer to the Seattle Seahawks or defending division winners the Arizona Cardinals.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks offense, behind brilliant quarterback Russell Wilson is humming. This preseason the talk was which back in the Seahawks stall will replace Marshawn Lynch. Truth is, none of them. They won’t need to. The Seattle passing attack is going to be better than ever and the team can rely on complimentary running. Meanwhile, the Cardinals show no signs of slowing down offensively or defensively. These two teams are playoff bound and could make it difficult for any other NFC team to get to Super Bowl.
NFC South: Speaking of the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers made a surprise, but inspired run to the big game last year. But this year, they might have tough time winning their division. They’ll make the playoffs. But if you want to watch for a surprise team that will be wildly entertaining, watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure they finished in last place last year, but 12 of the last 13 seasons, a team that finished last in its division one year, rebounded to win it the next. The Bucs could be that team in 2016. I don’t think the Saints defense or Falcons offensive or defensive lines are good enough to put them in the same class.
NFC North: The Green Bay Packers will win the North. This was a much tougher call BEFORE Teddy Bridgewater went down with a destroyed knee. He’s a young man that through college improved statistically every year in every major category and was doing the same in the NFL. The Vikings defense is one of the best in the NFC, but they’re likely headed to a 9-win season and now-a-days that’s not good enough to make the playoffs. The Bears put forth an excited effort to rejuvenate their terribly sad defense, and that should be commended. Meanwhile few remember that the Lions finished the back end of the season going 6-2 and their offense will thrive with Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, it just won’t be good enough to dethrone the Packers with a healthy Nelson.
NFC East: A lot of prognosticators can’t decide who’s going to win this division. To me, this is an easy call: look for the New York Giants to impress on offense, but more importantly, on defense as well. The Redskins added Josh Norman, that’s fine, but not going to help their 26th ranked run defense. And then there’s the Cowboys. Adolescent girls are easy to understand. So, this is the Giants’ division to lose. They won’t.
In the AFC, let’s start in the West again.
It’s been a long playoff drought for the Oakland-so-to-be-LA Raiders, since 2002, their last Super Bowl appearance actually. And that ends in 2016. As long as quarterback Derek Carr stays healthy, this team has explosive elements on both sides of the ball. GM Reggie McKenzie’s long-term plan is finally taking shape. They had cap space to spend and they did so on key defensive pieces: they poached one of the better defenders, Sean Smith, from division rival, Kansas City Chiefs. They picked up versatile linebacker Bruce Irvin from the moxy-filled Seahawks and pulled Reggie Nelson from the Cincinnati Bengals. Add to that the remarkable play of Khalil Mack and the one-two punch of Amari Cooper and Derek Carr and this is a playoff team that will excite the fan base. Meanwhile, the Chiefs defense, which has been the safety blanket for that team, has taken injury hits while the Broncos might have a Top-3 defense and bottom-3rd offense.
But Charger fans, getting Offensive Coordinator Ken Wisenhunt back will help Philip Rivers, as will the addition of Travis Benjamin, a true deep threat and the addition of pass rusher Joey Bosa on defense. The Chargers will be back in the playoffs.
AFC North is generally one of the toughest divisions in football will once again send the Steelers and their nearly unstoppable offense to the playoffs and it’s another go for the Cincinnati Bengals. Who wins the division? With these two teams it almost doesn’t matter.
AFC South: With a healthy Andrew Luck, Indianapolis will be back in the postseason. The players were elated that head coach Chuck Pagano was extended, they’ll play hard for him and in this division, and Luck under center, that’s all that’s required. I can’t trust the Texans offense, with improved speed but limited experience, to click in it’s first year. And while the defense has potential, with Jadaveon Clowney and JJ Watt, to rip record books to shred, I also don’t trust those big men’s bodies to stay healthy. The Jags are a popular pick to improve. I have to see SOME level of improvement before I buy into that hype. 3 wins in 2014 to 5 wins in 2015 doesn’t count. And while I like the Titans and think their running game will be fun to watch, they still need pieces on defense before that team is playoff ready.
AFC East: Here’s the big shocker: the New England Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Instead, watch out for the New York Jets to win that division. With a beefy defense, improved running game and deep passing attack, Gang Green will be in the playoffs.
And going to Houston for Super Bowl 51: the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s a rematch of Super Bowl XL, but this time, the Seahawks get the job done in their 3 Super Bowl in 4 years and Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll win their second Lombardi Trophy.
As a 49ers fan it’s a little painful to admit the Seahawks have a great chance at another championship. But it is what it is.
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