Who will see their reflection in the Lombardi Trophy this year?
I enjoyed a nice eight-month victory lap after my annual 10 Bold Predictions column in 2014. With the rest of my colleagues covering the NFL predicting an Armageddon-ish 2-14 or 4-12 season from the Dallas Cowboys, I said 10 wins and the playoffs. I wrote, “Trust Romo.” I said, “Trust the offensive line.” I said, with a bit of hesitation, “Trust Dez.”
It worked out.
Then, came last year. Utter disaster.
Bold. With such bravado. Drunk on a preseason that saw Sam Bradford look like Joe Montana, I predicted the Eagles would go to the Super Bowl. They went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, and Chip Kelly was fired before Week 17.
Bold predictions columns from yesteryear are often lost in the ether. A lesser man wouldn’t bring up last year’s Eagles debacle. But that’s the beauty of it all.
New year. New predictions. Check out my related podcast, and let’s get started.
Getty ImagesPatrick Smith
Kirk Cousins will lead the NFL in passing yards
Boom. Right out of the gate. Cousins is entering his second season as the full-time starting quarterback and his second year with offensive coordinator Sean McVay calling the plays. The offense is going to be pass first, pass second, pass third, and — if it calls for it — pass fourth. Look at Cousins’ weapons. DeSean Jackson — healthy and on board — with a first-round pick in Josh Doctson, a player in Pierre Garcon who led the league in receptions a few years ago, underneath man Jamison Crowder and the best tight end in the league not named Gronk in Jordan Reed. Add in McVay’s offensive philosophy and creativity — utilize running backs in the passing game, go up-tempo when Cousins is in the zone — and we could be looking at a 4,750-yard passing season from the Washington quarterback. Contract year. Put up or shut up. Do I like that? Yes, I like that.
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The Cincinnati Bengals will win the AFC
Win a playoff game? Yes. Win two playoff games? Indeed. Win the AFC? You better believe it. This is the year Cincinnati not only gets over the hump but also does so with a clenched fist in your mouth. The Bengals were an Andy Dalton injury and some ill-timed dumb penalties away from a win over Pittsburgh in the wild-card round a year ago. The big losses from that squad to this one? Receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, safety Reggie Nelson and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Ken Zampese replaces Jackson and will install more of a smashmouth offense, and 2015 first- and second-round picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher are expected to be healthy and ready to contribute on the offensive line. It’s very rare a team comes from nowhere and plays in the Super Bowl. Typically, it needs to suffer some losses, overcome obstacles. Dalton (14) and the Bengals have done just that and more in recent years, and now they’ll get over the hump in 2016.
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Paxton Lynch will be Denver’s starting QB by Week 6
I like Trevor Siemian. I really do. Love his story and love the gumption of Gary Kubiak to hand him the keys in Week 1. But the 2016 Broncos story won’t be written by the guy who starts the race on Thursday night; it’ll be inked by the dude who ends it. And Lynch won’t be sitting on that bench long. The first-round pick was the best quarterback in Denver this preseason, and if Kubiak, John Elway, and Co. didn’t think he was ready for the big time, they never would have gone into the season without a viable veteran No. 2. The Broncos’ schedule could leave them at 5-0 or 0-5 after their first five weeks. I don’t think it necessarily matters. If Lynch is progressing in practice at the pace he has this summer, he’ll be on the field by Halloween.
Denver Post via Getty ImagesSteve Nehf
Carson Wentz will be the Offensive Rookie of the Year
What can I say? I’m a sucker for Wentz and have been since I saw him torch Sam Houston State in the semifinals of the 2014 Division I-AA playoffs. He’s like one of those Pecos Bill tall tales. Here’s this kid who was 5-foot-10 in high school and had a 7-inch growth spurt in college. He apparently never has gotten a B at any level of school, and he graduated with a 4.0 GPA from NDSU. Add in the fact that he has a rocket for an arm, reportedly was well ahead of Sam Bradford in learning the playbook over the summer and was lying in a cornfield hunting geese when he found out the Eagles got rid of Bradford over the weekend and, well, that’s Sidd Finch-type stuff. But I’ve seen him. In the flesh. At the Senior Bowl. At the Combine. And at Eagles camp. He’s the real deal. And if he can learn to avoid big hits, Wentz can do big things in Philly right from go. All bets are on Ezekiel Elliott. Give me Wentz.
Carson Palmer will be the 2016 NFL Most Valuable Player
The last time we saw Palmer, in the NFC championship game, he was having arguably his worst performance in years. How does one come back from such an egg? How about with an MVP season? Palmer wasn’t the only Cardinals player who forgot to show up for the showdown with Carolina last January. Larry Fitzgerald dropped passes, Patrick Peterson wasn’t at his best, and Cam Newton had his way with the Arizona defensive line. I believe Palmer — who had arguably his best season as a pro in 2015 — will double down and have an even better one in 2016. Arizona is loaded at running back and wide receiver, and the defense improved at all three levels during the offseason. Palmer spent the summer working out with his little brother Jordan and working on his game. The Cardinals are built to win this year. I think Palmer can go for 4,500 yards, 30 touchdown passes and 12 wins this season. That’s MVP-type stuff.
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The Tennessee Titans will make the playoffs
No NFL team has been more irrelevant over the past seven years than the Titans. That will change in 2016. It’s “exotic smashmouth” football down in Nashville, baby. That’s the term being tossed around by head coach Mike Mularkey, and it focuses on a rushing attack that features two absolute hammers in DeMarco Murray (29) and rookie Derrick Henry and a quarterback who can move like no other in Marcus Mariota. The preseason saw the Titans gash opponents on the ground, while featuring some new weapons in Tajae Sharpe and Andre Johnson through the air. The defense is fundamentally sound, and the AFC South is wide open. The Titans are a sleeper’s sleeper pick. I haven’t seen anyone say a word — good or bad, really — about them this summer. I’ve got them playing meaningful football in January.
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The Bills will challenge the Patriots in the AFC East
The Dolphins and Jets are going to get a lot of love this week and have enjoyed a summer filled with hype and promise, but I think the Bills are the squad that will give the Patriots a run for their money in the AFC East. Tyrod Taylor got paid and is fully entrenched as the No. 1 QB, Sammy Watkins (14) is healthy (for now), and the defense should be much improved despite the loss of several key pieces. I like what GM Doug Whaley did this offseason and actually buy into new coordinator Rob Ryan adding bite to the defense that was lacking a season ago. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman worked wonders with the running game in 2015, and I can see bigger things on the horizon with another year in the system for Taylor and LeSean McCoy. Add in some Glenn “Baby Gronk” Gronkowski, and the offense should be a handful. Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999. This could be the year. At the very least, the Bills will be in the hunt.
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Cleveland will struggle more than people think
I love Hue Jackson, and I actually have heard great reports on what Robert Griffin III, Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor have done this summer. Coleman could be an absolute star. And that’s great. But the roster is just so, so young. And the Browns play in a division that’s just so, so experienced. Cleveland drafted 14 players in April. All 14 made the 53-man roster. That’s wild. This is a total re-build, and that’s OK. I just can’t pencil in the Browns to win many games this year. With its own and Philadelphia’s first pick in the 2017 draft, Cleveland could be just a few players from being better than ever. I just don’t see it coming close to that in 2016. Bulletin board material, I know.
Brock Osweiler will be an absolute stud Year 1 in Houston
So many doubters. So many haters. Is he worth $72 million? I don’t know, but it’s not our money. And from what I saw of Osweiler this preseason, the guy can throw the long ball and has some legitimate weapons. Coach Bill O’Brien got the Texans to the playoffs with perhaps the worst quarterback play in the league a season ago. Imagine what he can do with a guy like Osweiler. The Texans have maybe the youngest receiving corps in the league, but that’s OK. DeAndre Hopkins is a superstar, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller are set to do some big things in their rookie years, and new running back Lamar Miller is ready to break out. At the end of the day, J.J. Watt and the defense is going to be the face of this team. But, man, the Texans finally have an offense, too — a real-life one that can score some points. I think Osweiler will have a Pro Bowl season and be worth every penny.
The Seahawks will win the NFC. Again. And then win Super Bowl XLI
How come no one is talking about Seattle? Look, I appreciate Marshawn Lynch and Bruce Irvin as much as anyone, but it’s beyond crazy to me that a team that’s been to the Super Bowl in two of the past three years is being completely overlooked in terms of Super Bowl predictions. Thomas Rawls led the NFL in yards per carry a season ago, the team added C.J. Prosise to the backfield, and Tyler Lockett is a year older and better in the No. 2 wideout spot. The defense got off to a slow start last year without Kam Chancellor in the lineup and was roughed up in the first half of a forgettable divisional round game in Carolina. I’d expect none of those lapses this time around. Michael Bennett and Chancellor are looking for new contracts, Frank Clark and Jeremy Lane are ready to emerge as stars, and the rest of the defense looked fierce throughout the summer and preseason. I’m not sure exactly why, but no one is rolling with the Seahawks this year. If I’m picking a coach, GM and quarterback to bank on this season I’ll go with Pete Carroll, John Schneider and Russell Wilson.