NFL midseason crystal ball: Predicting playoffs and Super Bowl LI champions
We’ve reached the midway point of the 2016 NFL season, and this year, while being predictable in some ways (the 0–8 Cleveland Browns) has certainly thrown us for a few loops (the 2–5 Carolina Panthers?!). SI.com’s NFL writers and editors take a moment to revisit their preseason playoff picks made eight weeks ago and take another stab at predicting—based on what we know now—who will be crowned Super Bowl LI champion in February.
We’re all on the same page that this is a pretty weird season, right? I don’t even have my two Super Bowl picks from the preseason (Cardinals and Bengals) making the playoffs anymore. The NFC is a crapshoot, as every team has a glaring deficiency. The Vikings offense has looked anemic, their never-ending fusillade of injuries finally seeming to catch up to them. The Seahawks are always dangerous, but Russell Wilson seems to add another injury every week to his ever-growing medical report. I am still concerned that the Cowboys will somehow screw up their Dak Prescott-Tony Romo dilemma (whichever option they choose), but as of right now they are the best team in that conference—led by a historically dominant offensive line and rushing attack. The one thing that is very clear at this midway point is that the Patriots are currently far and away the best team in the NFL. But would you argue that they are truly a great team? I wouldn’t. Either way, they are my Super Bowl pick… for now.
Yes, I placed my faith in Cardinals coach Bruce Arians in the preseason, and I got burned. Instead of learning a valuable lesson from Arizona’s problems in the 2015 playoffs and improving the team for the future, Arians did what average coaches do: he assumed they were aberrations and just stayed on his stubborn course, believing that his offensive scheme was infallible and his defense could not evolve and be better. Both Arians and I both got a rude awakening the first eight weeks of this season, and the Cardinals are pretty close to done. In the wake of the Cardinals’ fall, the NFC will be a wide-open battle between teams that all have issues that could be exploited. I’m going with the Seahawks if they can get home-field advantage due to their experience.
In the AFC, I’m making a minor alteration in flip-flopping the Patriots and Steelers. While I think an AFC title game between Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger would be very competitive, I no longer think the Steelers can stop the Patriots enough to grab a victory.
And a New England-Seattle rematch would go down to the wire again, and the Patriots are just a little bit better.
I’m not entirely sure what happened in my NFC bracket. I think I blacked out for a minute, and when I woke up all I saw was Aaron Rodgers doing the title-belt gesture. That conference is as wide open as any I can remember—there are 14 teams still with realistic playoff hopes. The Packers are the choice to emerge because their offense has awoken of late, and their defense should stiffen as it gets healthier.
There’s no team in the AFC in New England’s class at the moment. That’s a team on a mission with a passing attack that is almost impossible to defend. The Steelers’ or Raiders’ offenses could test the Patriots; the Broncos’ or Chiefs’ defense, the same. I don’t feel confident right now picking any of those teams to take down New England in Foxborough come January. Brady carries the Pats into the Super Bowl, then on to a title.
Am I the only one craving some balance halfway through the NFL season? Right now, the top of the leaderboard is crowded with dominant defenses (Minnesota, Denver, Seattle) and unstoppable offenses (Atlanta, Oakland, Dallas), with few in between. Entering Week 8, Green Bay was the only winning (sorry San Diego!) team within the top 10 in offensive and defensive DVOA—and that was before the Packers hung with the Falcons on the road despite missing key players on both sides of the ball. So I’ll bet on them avenging three losses in the playoffs and then beating whichever flawed team emerges from the AFC.
This is also the weird year where a midseason prediction requires defending my decision not to select a certain team as much as explain my Super Bowl pick, so here goes. I can't get behind an overwhelming favorite when it has a mediocre defense (see: 754 yards allowed over two Bills games) and a quarterback old enough to be Ezekiel Elliott’s dad (even if he is currently playing at Biblical levels). And it's especially tough when said team's only victories over winning teams have come against Landry Jones and Brock Osweiler.
The Patriots avoided digging themselves a hole during Brady’s suspension, and—as much as I hate changing my preseason pick of Seahawks over Steelers—it’s hard not to see that New England is playing like the best team in football. I still like Seattle to come out of the NFC, as they’ve started slow and peaked later in the season before. Dallas and Minnesota have banked enough wins that the Seahawks would probably have to make their run on the road, but I still trust Seattle more come playoff time—especially if Wilson can gain back some of his mobility that’s clearly been missing.
As an added, unintentional bonus, my 11 playoff games feature rematches of many of the most exciting playoff games of the last 20 years: Tuck Rule, Gary Anderson, Malcolm Butler, Romo bobbled snap, Tebow-Demaryius in OT, Blair Walsh, Seahawks’ onside kick and those Pats-Broncos and Steelers-Bengals games from last year. Bring on the playoff nostalgia and good prime time games!
How can anyone possibly pick against the Patriots at this point? They have the league’s best quarterback by a mile—not to mention a power run game, the league’s only effective use of a two-tight end set, an emerging defense and the NFL’s best coach, possibly of all time. The Steelers get the nod for an AFC Championship, mostly because Roethlisberger is the conference’s second-best quarterback, and I don’t think there’s a close third. The Steelers also have an incredibly soft second-half schedule that should earn them a bye.
The NFC is tougher to predict but I ultimately selected Seattle because I don’t see how Prescott (and yes, Prescott will be the starter) matches up with against that playoff-tested Seahawks defense come January.
So a rematch of Super Bowl 49 it is, with Marshawn Lynch racking up a lot of promotional dollars for some “I’m open” campaign in the lead up.
These Patriots are destined for the Super Bowl, and you can’t convince me any differently. I have no idea who will be the Cowboys quarterback by late January, but I believe in this offensive line, run game and Dez Bryant. There’s something special going on in Dallas, and there’s enough juice to get them to Houston. Here's how we got here. Minnesota’s defense is strong enough to get the Vikings the No. 1 seed, and Seattle will have a late-season renaissance like it usually does to get the first-round bye. Arizona's half-win with the tie will help the Cardinals get the wild card. In the AFC, Denver's defense tops Oakland for the division and the Bengals (with a tie) get the wild card. Super Bowl LI belongs to Brady, who will solidify himself as the greatest of all time (if he isn't already) with a fifth Super Bowl win.
Even after a questionable last two weeks, I’m all in on the Vikings as the NFC champions. Minnesota’s defense is so well-stocked that it can easily cover for any offensive flaws (thanks for that, Eagles), and if Adrian Peterson returns from injury for the end of the regular season—well, he’s not too bad of a player. The Steelers, currently first in the AFC North, were cruising offensively before Roethlisberger went down with a torn meniscus, but once he returns—as early as Week 9, according to some—Pittsburgh should pick right up where they left off, creating enough momentum (helped along by two games against the Browns) to surge to the No. 2 seed.
While this bracket looks wildly different than the one I selected in the preseason, one team remains the same: The New England Patriots. They survived four games without quarterback Brady, and in this league of rather unpredictable and mediocre teams, New England remains on a level of its own.
In the preseason I picked the Packers as my Super Bowl champs. While I remain steadfast in my conviction that an NFC North team will represent the conference in the title game. I just chose the wrong team. Who knew that in the days after Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending knee injury, when Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was keeping a stiff upper lip and assuring the faithful, “We’re going to figure out a way,” that he was right? The trade for Sam Bradford was a masterstroke and upgrade. That, combined with the just-in-time-for-the-holidays return of Adrian Peterson, will be more than enough to get the Vikes past Seattle in the conference championship and into Minnesota’s fifth Super Bowl (it has lost the previous four).
Bradford is old and wise enough to now that he need not be spectacular, now or in the postseason. It will be Zimmer’s marauding, exotic, sack-happy defense—the NFL’s stingiest, at midseason—that vaults the team past the Patriots to end the club’s embarrassing Super Bowl o-fer.
This season could shaping up like 2007 or ’11, when the Patriots looked unbeatable and the Giants came out of the NFC to upset them in the Super Bowl. There’s no separation at the top of the NFC and wild-card race is going to be … well, wild. Then the playoffs will come down to a couple of bounces of the football, like 2014. Give the Cowboys the edge because of their running game and don’t count out the idea that Tony Romo will play a role. Meanwhile, no one will be able to knock off the Patriots once they get homefield in the AFC.
This has been a weird season so far, as you can probably see from the fact that I have the Tennessee Titans as the No. 4 seed here (although, then again, the fact that the AFC South is terrible may be one of the only predictable things about this season). There aren’t many elite teams, which makes this whole task a lot more challenging. So I with at least one of my preseason Super Bowl picks (which was Steelers-Packers), and then give myself the opportunity to change the other one. That’s why I’m staying with the Steelers, even with Roethlisberger’s recent injury and a couple of flat losses. I still think that once they have Roethlisberger back, they’re the one team in the AFC that will be able to challenge the Patriots (I’m still not convinced by the Broncos). I acknowledge that it looks idiotic at this point to pick against New England getting to the Super Bowl, but I’m doing it anyway. When the Steelers have been on, they’ve been unstoppable, so I’m trusting my preseason gut on them.
As for the NFC champions, I’m altering my preseason pick from the Packers, who’ve been underwhelming for much of this season, to the Seahawks. Admittedly, the Seahawks haven’t been unbelievable either, but Wilson has played well, and their schedule isn’t too daunting the rest of the way. I envision a high-scoring NFC title game, but home field will give Seattle the edge, and it'll reach its third Super Bowl in four years.
I’m not giving up entirely on the Packers-Colts matchup I picked in the preseason, for the record: That Super Bowl would be a mess, but it would be a really, really fun mess. Anyway, it’s time to give the credit to the teams that seem to have it all figured out. The Patriots are making it look like reckless contrarianism to pick anyone else out of the AFC. Their road to the Super Bowl could be much harder than this, depending on the exact order in which the AFC West shakes out, but Brady will remain the safe bet.
The Vikings won’t survive the second half without some type of adversity, especially as teams key in on harassing Bradford and the Packers get their own house in order. Still, that defense is so deep and has given every other part of the team so much room for error that I like their odds in the tournament. (And I’m not above a little poetic justice—Vikings over Falcons in the NFC Championship Game would be cathartic for Minnesota fans.) I made the mistake of doubting Zimmer in the preseason after Teddy Bridgewater went down, and I won’t make it twice.