Entering the home stretch of the NFL in 2016, 10 bold predictions for the remaining four weeks of the regular season.
If Thursday Night Football between the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14 is any indication, things are set to get wild down the stretch of the 2016 NFL regular season. After a game where Derek Carr struggled more than ever, Alex Smith threw the ball downfield, a botched snap and hold may have halted winning momentum, and where Travis Kelce taunted a punter, all bets are off.
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There’s still plenty left to be decided following such a wild game. Sure, the Chiefs hold on to the AFC West lead, but just one more loss for KC than Oakland over the last four tilts and the Raiders are back on top. One loss, a winning-streak, or even a dominant individual performance can be the difference this time of year.
With that in mind, let’s look at what else the league has to offer for the remainder of the 2016 NFL season prior to the start of the playoffs. Here are 10 bold predictions for the remaining four weeks from around the league.
Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) poses for a photo against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
10. Adrian Peterson Plays Final Two Games for Minnesota Vikings
Of the 10 bold predictions I’m prepared to make, this might be the least of the bunch. However, it might seem unlikely to some for specific reasons. But I believe that Minnesota Vikings veteran running back Adrian Peterson will play again in 2016. More specifically, All-Day will play the final two games of the regular season for the Vikings.
Considering that Peterson spoke to the Minnesota locker room earlier this week and called his return “something he envisions” for this season, this might not seem bold at all. That said, the first thing that you have to consider is the optimism of players in regards to injuries. Peterson acknowledged apprehension about being able to make cuts and plays in game, though he claims to be making them in practice. So while he may envision a return, doctors or even just his knee at 31 years old could have other plans.
Making this a bit more bold is the caveat Peterson attached regarding his return. The running back stated that he would essentially rule out returning if the Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs. Considering that Minnesota is currently 1-6 in their last seven games and 6-6 overall, that seems as if it could be unlikely.
However, their next two tilts feature a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars before coming back home to face the Indianapolis Colts. Even with their struggles, that puts the Vikings at 8-6 by my estimation. Thus, the stage is set for Peterson to take the field once again for the final two contests.
Nov 20, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes the ball in the first quarter the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
9. Tennessee Titans Win AFC South
No one would consider it a stretch to say that the AFC South is the NFL’s worst division right now. Despite the lack of quality, though, there’s potential for high-drama down the stretch of the regular season. The Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans all possess a 6-6 record heading into Week 14 (the Jacksonville Jaguars are toast at 2-10). While it shakes out in that order in the division standings right now, the Titans will win the division in the end.
The Texans have the easiest remaining schedule, facing the Colts on the road, Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals at home, and then finishing at the Titans. However, they’ve also looked the worst of the trio as of late. Meanwhile, Indy has a tough road as they get the Texans before going on the road to face the Vikings and Raiders. They then finish off with the Jaguars. While 3-1 seems possible for that stretch, so too does 1-3. So it goes with the inconsistency and talent deficiency of the Colts.
Tennessee, however, has the toughest remaining road. In Week 14 they’ll be at home for the Denver Broncos before going on the road for another AFC West tilt against the Kansas City Chiefs. Their final two eases up on them, though, welcoming the Jags before the home finale against Houston.
Yet it’s hard to not have confidence in Tennessee down the stretch. Marcus Mariota has hit his stride as a passer and leader while also having the support of a tremendous offensive line and a two-headed monster at running back. And with Perrish Cox being cut, there’s at least potential for an upgrade to finish the year at cornerback, arguably their biggest concern this season. What’s for sure is that it can’t be any worse. With all of this, I see the Titans knocking off Denver in Week 14 and ultimately going 3-1 (4-0 is also a possibility) to finish the year. That would put them at 9-7 after topping the Fighting Brock Osweilers in Week 17 to give them the Titans the division.
Dec 4, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) is taken off the field after getting injured during the second quarter in a game against the Carolina Panthers at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
8. Seattle Seahawks Will Finish 1-3
A majority of NFL fans expected the race at the top of the NFC West to be one of the best this season. Despite a brutal loss in the NFC Championship game a year prior, the Arizona Cardinals were viewed as Super Bowl contenders. Then, of course, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are perennially viewed through that lens. To this point, though, the Seahawks have done their part while the Cards have been among the league’s biggest disappointments in 2016.
Seattle sits at 8-3-1 entering a Week 14 matchup against the Green Bay Packers, holding a three-game lead in the division over those Cardinals. However, things are about to start crumbling a bit for the Seahawks over their final four games following the loss of star safety Earl Thomas.
The impact of losing Thomas at free safety can’t be overstated for Seattle. Not only is the absolute anchor of the unit and arguably the best playmaker, but now everything is forced to change with him out. Kam Chancellor is forced to change his role on the back end to where he’s less effective. Thus, the cornerbacks are asked to do more without the help of the best safety in football behind them offering assistance. And with their looming four-game stretch to close the season, that presents a problem.
Though the Packers have had their own struggles in 2016, Aaron Rodgers has been light-out of late. With a depleted pass-defense, that’s a problem for Seattle, especially for a game at Lambeau Field. And while the Rams on Thursday Night Football in Seattle may not look menacing, Los Angeles has somehow had the number of Pete Carroll recently.
That leaves a matchup at home against the Cardinals and the finale on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. While the Niners don’t present a threat, Arizona played them to 6-6 tie in the first meeting and may be hitting their stride after a strong showing in Week 13. Subsequently, there’s a possibility that this Seahawks team goes 3-1 to finish the season. And I say they do, though it still might be enough to win the division.
Dec 4, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) reacts after a play in the second half against the Denver Broncos at EverBank Field. The Denver Broncos won 20-10. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
7. Blake Bortles Finishes With More Interceptions than Touchdowns
Yes, Blake Bortles has regressed tremendously this season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. After showing a ton of promise, despite a lack of team success, in his sophomore campaign in 2015, Bortles and the Jags looked primed for a breakout in Year 3 for the 2014 third-overall pick. Instead, his struggles have been mightier than ever. So saying that he’ll finish with more interceptions than touchdowns can’t be considered “bold,” right?
When you consider that Bortles has 20 touchdowns to 15 interceptions with only four games remaining, it becomes a bit more outlandish to think that he’d finish the season with more picks than scores. After all, he’s currently on pace for 27 touchdowns this season, which would necessitate him throwing 13 more interceptions in four games for that to happen.
First off, though, I don’t think it’s going to require 13 more picks for this prediction to come to fruition. Bortles and the Jags finish 2016 with matchups against the Vikings, on the road against the Texans, back home for the Titans, and then on the road versus the Colts in Week 17.
While his numbers against the three AFC South teams are respectable in their first matchups (seven touchdowns, one interception), you have to factor in that all three teams are now in the hunt for the postseason and winning the division. Given that, you have to imagine they’ll ramp up the pressure on Bortles and thus limit his scoring while forcing more turnovers. With that and the matchup with a still-quality Minnesota defense, Bortles demise will continue exponentially to finish the year.
Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) hands off to running back Latavius Murray (28) during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
6. Oakland Raiders Still Win AFC West
Coming off of the disappointing Thursday Night Football loss to the Chiefs, the Raiders dropped from the AFC West leaders and No. 1 seed in the conference to the No. 5 seed and the Wild Card. By the time the end of Week 17 rolls around, though, the Raiders will have reclaimed the lead in the division and will enter the 2016 playoffs as a division winner.
To begin with, I don’t consider the Broncos a factor in the division race. They may make it in as a Wild Card, but they’re starting at a disadvantage with one more loss than both Oakland and KC. That leaves us looking at the remaining three games for the two squads that battled on Thursday in Week 14.
Oakland still has two tough road games in the division remaining with the San Diego Chargers in Week 15 and Broncos to finish the regular season in Week 17. In-between lies a home game against the Colts. The Raiders are superior to the Chargers, who seem to be bottoming-out somewhat, and the Colts, putting them at 2-0 entering Week 17. And considering that they’ve topped Denver once this season, there’s a realistic chance that they finish 3-0 following the loss to the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ remaining slate also includes a tilt against the Broncos (at home) and a road date with the Chargers. Their third game is also against an AFC South foe, but a much tougher one in my eyes, the Tennessee Titans. Given the way KC has been susceptible to the run this season and the quality of Tennessee’s offensive line, I think they drop that game in Week 15. Even if not, we all saw how closely the Broncos played them in Week 12 and another primetime date could see the result reversed. Again, I’m not worried about the Chargers here, but if the Raiders win-out, I see Kansas City dropping one and thus giving the Raiders the win in the AFC West.
Oct 30, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) celebrates a first down with a feeding motion against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
5. Ezekiel Elliott Will Break Eric Dickerson’s Rookie Rushing Record
Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is going to win the rushing title this season. There’s nothing bold in saying that as he enters Week 14 with over a 200-yard cushion over both DeMarco Murray and David Johnson. However, Elliott’s pace has tailed off a bit in recent weeks, though he’s hardly hit a wall. With that, though, he’s on pace to finish with 1,713 yards. That would be 95 yards shy of the NFL’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards set by Eric Dickerson in 1983.
Breaking Dickerson’s record would require Elliott to average 130.75 yards per game over the final four games of the season. He topped that total in four-straight games from Weeks 3 to 7, but has a high of just 114 yards rushing since then. Yet I contend that Zeke will get there and break the former Rams’ running back’s record.
Elliott and the Cowboys finish the season on the road against the New York Giants in Week 14 before home tilts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions. They then finish the year by traveling to Philadelphia to face the Eagles. Though the Eagles and Giants bottled him up in previous meetings, the rematch with the latter should be much different. Not only was Elliott not himself and pressing in the Week 1 loss for Dallas, but New York is also without Jason Pierre-Paul to lead the defensive front. So for that matchup, you have Zeke looking for redemption against a team without one of their integral defensive cogs. That sounds like a recipe for a monster day.
That leaves the Bucs, Lions and Eagles on the slate for Dallas. Even if Elliott only produces 96 yards again against Philly, the notion that he could get 428 yards in the other three games isn’t far-fetched. Following the revenge game against the G-Men, he faces a Buccaneers team that ranks 23rd in the NFL in DVOA against the run (per Football Outsiders). The Lions are even a step behind that, ranking 25th by the same measure. Dallas’ offensive line should be able to lead the way and assist Elliott to at least three monster games and another solid one to get him the record.
Sep 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate (84) straight arms Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (59) during the first half at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Win NFC South, Atlanta Falcons Miss Playoffs
Much like last season, the Atlanta Falcons started 2016 hot. In 2015, the Falcons started out unbeaten through their first six games. While 4-1 isn’t quite as good, it was still an optimistic jump out of the gate for this Atlanta team. Moreover, struggles throughout the NFC South put them in a strong spot at the top of the division. Also like their 2015 campaign, though, this team has struggled down the stretch. They’ve gone 3-4 since that nice start.
Contrarily, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have come on strong through midseason and down the stretch. They started 2016 a dismal 3-5, but have rebounded to win their last four games. Now they hold the same 7-5 record as the Falcons, though Atlanta owns the tie-breaker. Consequently, this will be a race that comes down to the wire. With that, I think the Bucs come out on top despite it possibly seeming otherwise.
Perhaps the biggest reason as to why the Falcons are favored by most to come out on top in the South is their easy finish to their schedule. With games against the Rams, 49ers, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints, their remaining opponents have a combined 14-34 record. That said, the Rams defense could potentially present a problem for Atlanta with pressure up the middle, much like in their Week 11 loss to the Eagles. Then, both the Panthers and Saints have the talent, in theory, to keep pace with Atlanta. New Orleans is particularly intriguing given their explosive offense and a banged-up Falcons defense. Moreover, both opponents would love to play spoilers in the division.
The closing stretch for Tampa looks much more daunting, though. Though it could be competitive, their Week 15 matchup at Dallas is one we’ll go ahead and mark as a loss. Subsequently, they’re left with their two games against New Orleans and then a game at home against Carolina to finish the season.
Yet, Jameis Winston and company are rolling right now and showing unprecedented consistency for this young team. Moreover, their defense has stepped up tremendously as of late, thus giving them the chance to thwart the Saints in those two matchups and keep the Panthers’ offensive woes continuing. Though the schedule may be tougher than Atlanta’s, the Falcons have done nothing to inspire confidence as of late while the Bucs indeed have. In the end, that gives Tampa the division in my mind.
Jul 28, 2016; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg (5) passes during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
3. Christian Hackenburg Will Start for New York Jets
For most of the 2016 NFL season, the only place you’ve been able to find rookie quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one the sidelines in street clothes or on the list of inactives. This while the New York Jets are 3-9 on the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick looking worse than ever before, Bryce Petty not showing much, and Geno Smith tearing his ACL in his lone start. But Hackenberg won’t be on inactives for the remainder of the season. In one of the Jets’ remaining four games, Hackenberg will get a start.
The biggest hindrance to this prediction coming true has to be head coach Todd Bowles. Though firing Bowles may not be the answer for the franchise, it’s not a stretch to say that his indecisiveness and lack of clear direction hasn’t helped the cause. After benching Fitzpatrick in Week 13, Bowles has now named Petty the starter from Week 14 on.
However, Petty hasn’t been good this season when called into action. Moreover, he’s also a player who has proven to be at least somewhat prone to injuries, both in college at Baylor and in his brief time with the Jets. If another injury were to occur or if Petty’s struggles were to worsen, a move to Hackenberg would be logical and warranted. Fitzpatrick is gone after this season, so why not give the 21-year-old rookie a taste of NFL action?
Please don’t confuse this with me thinking that Hackenberg is a good quarterback. A career at Penn State of unmet hype and tape on his mechanics and decision-making proves otherwise. However, the Jets are in a position where they must see their entire hand and not bet blind moving forward. In the right situation, that means foregoing Fitzpatrick to play the rookie and my thought is that scenario comes about.
Dec 4, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws a pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
2. New York Giants Miss the Playoffs
Staying in the Big Apple (or East Rutherford, NJ rather), the New York Giants have themselves in seemingly a nice position moving forward. At 8-4, Big Blue sits at second in the NFC East behind the Cowboys. More importantly as they likely aren’t catching Dallas in the division, the Giants sit as the No. 5 seed in the NFC as the first Wild Card team, one game ahead of the No. 6-seed Buccaneers and 1.5 games ahead of the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately for them, they won’t hold.
Among New York’s eight wins this season, only two have come against teams currently boast a record of .500 or better. What’s more, their Week 1 victory against Dallas was both narrow and seemingly against a team that had not hit their stride and taken off. Their other four games against teams with records of .500 or above have all resulted in losses, making them just 2-4 in such games.
That brings us to their closing stretch for the 2016 season where they’ll face Dallas in Week 14 followed by another home game against the Detroit Lions. New York then goes on the road on a short week to face the Eagles before staying on the road in Week 17 to take on the Redskins. For those keeping track, three of their four remaining games are against teams with records of .500 or better. Given the aforementioned track record in those games, that’s not promising. Then factoring in the short week for a division game on the road in a tough place to play, things look even bleaker.
What’s more, the Giants will have to finish the regular season without Jason Pierre-Paul, a key component in their much-improved defense. Not only does that lessen their pass-rushing abilities, but JPP was also a factor in stopping the run. Thus, it’s likely that the defense takes a step back. When you then consider that Ben McAdoo still hasn’t found a running game and Eli Manning looking mediocre or worse lately, going 1-3 or 0-4 to finish the season truly seems the most likely outcome. And if that were to happen, I don’t think 9-7 or 8-8 is enough to push them into the postseason with the way some teams are poised to finish.
Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs for a fourth quarter touchdown against the Washington Redskins at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
1. Arizona Cardinals Streak Into Playoffs
As previously stated, the Arizona Cardinals’ 2016 season through 13 weeks has been a tremendous letdown. From preseason Super Bowl contenders (maybe even favorites) to 5-6-1 is quite the fall from grace. But amidst these struggles, it’s not been a lack of talent behind their problems. It’s simply been a combination of poor execution and offensive line play, the latter greatly affecting quarterback Carson Palmer and thus the offense.
Despite all of this, the Cardinals exit Week 13 coming off of arguably their best showing of the season. In a 31-23 win over another playoff-contender in Washington, the defense played up to their potential and stifled a red-hot Kirk Cousins. More pressingly, the offensive line stepped up to the tune of David Johnson continuing his tear for 175 all-purpose yards (84 rushing plus one score on 18 carries) while also only allowing two sacks on Palmer. That allowed the veteran quarterback to have his best outing of the year, going 30-of-46 for 300 yards, three scores, and no interceptions. Against a quality pass-rush, that’s huge for the O-line.
Even still, the Cardinals would have to go on a tear to finish in position to win the division or earn a Wild Card spot in the NFC while also getting help. But as I’ve already outlined, I believe they get some of that help with both the Seahawks and Giants struggling to finish the season.
As for their own schedule, three of their final four games on the road with the lone home tilt being against the Saints in Week 15. They should be able to defensively thwart the Saints efforts while also attacking them relentlessly with Johnson in the middle of the field. What’s more, this team should be able to do the same in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins. That leaves two division games against the Seahawks and Rams that they’d need to get the job done.
If you’ve watched the Rams, I don’t think anyone is worried about them beating the Cardinals again this season as they are imploding down the stretch. More pressingly, though, Arizona stuck with Seattle step-for-step in the first meeting en route to a tie in overtime. Considering they were just missed field goals in overtime away from winning that bout, they have to like their chances as they get healthier and the Seahawks are potentially more depleted.
With how that stretch-run shakes out, the Cardinals have a chance to go 4-0, or at least 3-1, over their remaining games. If Seattle, Atlanta and New York all potentially dropping off, finishing 2016 with that kind of run puts the Cardinals at either 9-6-1 or 8-7-1, which should be good enough to slide them into the playoffs.