I did most of the heavy lifting on my NFL picks Monday night on Sports Open Line but figured today, the final Friday before the full slate of games on Monday, would be a good day to put it all in print.
Keep in mind that my Super Bowl pick, which involves a certain team from a mountainous region of the U.S., was made before that opening game was played.
And away we go…first up, thoughts on the Rams:
I have Jeff Fisher’s squad with 9 wins this season. If they have some key injuries or just don’t get what they need from some of their younger players that could be 7-8 wins. If they have a few guys step up and out-perform my expectations then they could be looking at double-digit wins. 9 seems like a good middle ground.
Sam Bradford was 15th in passing yards last season, 18th in passing TD’s and 18th in Qb rating. I expect him to be in the Top 10-12 in all three categories this season.
Sam Bradford a Top 10 QB? Yup.
It’s really not that hard to fathom when you look at it. Bradford threw for 3,702 yards last season. Carson Palmer ranked 10th in passing yards last season at 4,018 yards. So that’s 316 yards – 19.8 yards per game by the way – between Bradford and a Top 10 finish. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
Bradford also had 21 TD passes last season. Four players tied for 9th in the league with 26 TD passes last season so the Rams’ signal caller was only 5 TD passes from being Top 10. That’s just one extra TD pass every 3 games. Seems manageable, no?
All of that from last season was without Jared Cook, Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey and that’s also with Bradford’s most reliable receiver, Danny Amendola last year, missing a third of the season. It was also without Jake Long anchoring the offensive line. With Austin Pettis and Chris Givens a year older as well, Bradford has all the tools he needs to be a Top 10 QB (at least statistically).
On top of what appears to be a burgeoning passing attack the Rams also figure to have a Top 10 defense. Sure, they have potential issues – especially at safety – but they have one of the best defensive lines on the planet and two elite level cornerback talents as a starting point for their defensive success. This unit was Top 15 last year and is only getting better as they gain experience, plus they’ll benefit from the offense being better as well. Less time on the field…
Special teams should be significantly better as well. The kicking game is strong and now that Tavon Austin’s home run hitting ability is a part of the return game the Rams should be able to make big plays, changing field position in the blink of an eye.
My biggest questions with the Rams are the running game and depth in certain areas (offensive line, linebacker, safety) if they are bit by the injury bug. I think the running game has talent with Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy but they are unproven and that’s always a concern.
All of that leads me to 9-7 for the Rams this season. Does that get them into the playoffs? Read on to find out what I think…
1. San Francisco
3. St. Louis
Looks a lot like last year, huh? Even with the loss of Michael Crabtree for a good long while, the Niners are solid all-around. They have an elite defense, a physical offensive line, strong running game and an elite talent at QB. Seattle is tough, too. If Russell Wilson has a sophomore slump, which I don’t expect, then maybe the Rams can challenge for 2nd place. Arizona is better with Carson Palmer at QB but still have too many potential problem areas. They’re more of a threat than they were last year, though.
1. New York
This division is a mess. I could buy an argument for any one of the four teams winning the division…and any one of them finishing last as well. I expect some decline from Washington and some improvement from New York, hence the switcheroo at the top compared to last year. Dallas has talent but lacks cohesion. I smell a coaching change there at the end of the season. Philly is a total wild card with Chip Kelly at the helm. They have some play makers and the speed to run Kelly’s high-speed attack but nothing is certain with such a dramatic makeover.
1. Green Bay
This is another division with lots of possibilities. Green Bay is the easy choice. Best QB, playmakers on defense. After that? Good luck. The Bears have talent but their offensive line is very questionable and its hard to know how the loss of Brian Urlacher to retirement will affect them. Detroit will score a ton of points. If they can stop anyone they could be a playoff team but that’s a Godzilla-sized “if.” The Vikings have Adrian Peterson and a good defense…but it’s a passing league and Christian Ponder needs to take a big step forward if they’re going to do anything.
2. New Orleans
3. Tampa Bay
I see this one almost exactly the same as the North. After the top team, Atlanta in this case, anything is possible. New Orleans will score but, like Detroit, the question is whether or not they can stop anyone. Tampa made some strides last season but to shine in this division Josh Freeman needs to be consistently good from week to week. Carolina could surprise if Cam Newton can replicate his rookie year…but they have other holes and that’s a big “if” as well.
NFC WILD CARDS
2. New Orleans
Count Washington, Chicago, St. Louis and Tampa Bay as the “honorable mentions.”
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Francisco over Green Bay
2. Kansas City
3. San Diego
Denver runs away with this division. Not even close. KC might challenge for a Wild Card under Andy Reid. They’re too talented to lose as much as they did last year. San Diego is in big trouble unless Phillip Rivers find his form from 3-4 years ago. The Raiders? Well, they’re the Raiders. I’m interested to see what Terrelle Pryor can do but I’m not exactly convinced he has the passing skill – he has the arm strength – to lead this team to more than a few wins this season.
1. New England
4. New York
Another runaway for the division winner. New England has Tom Brady and Bill Belichik. They have some holes but nobody in the division is good enough to take advantage. Miami could be a surprise Wild Card contender this season if Ryan Tannehill takes a couple of steps forward. Watch RB Lamar Miller, he’s a playmaker. Buffalo has a lot of talent, and I’m an E.J. Manuel fan, but the rookie QB is going to need time to transition into being an NFL-style QB coming from Florida State. The Jets? Ugh. Geno Smith is a talent at QB but they have no playmakers around him. Despite a solid defense, it’s going to be a long year for Rex Ryan.
You could switch around the top three teams there in any order and I could buy it. This will be a great race all season. Cincy feels like the most balanced team in the division and could ensure the top spot if QB Andy Dalton makes some key improvements. Pittsburgh needs to re-establish their ground game. With RB Le’Veon Bell out for a month or more that might take some time. The Ravens are in a transition year. They lack weapons in the passing game and the defense, while it has a chance to be good, is now missing two of the best players in the last 20 years in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Cleveland is interesting. I like the defense and Trent Richardson at RB but I don’t trust Brandon Weedon and with a new head coach as well, too many questions to pick them to do anything.
I see Houston running away with this one. I’m not sure Matt Schaub is good enough to lead a team to the Super Bowl but with their all around talent he can lead them to 12-13 wins. J.J. Watt may be the best football player on he planet. Indy was a great story last year and they’ll be good again this year but I see them taking a step back. Running game is shaky and I don’t trust the defense. Tennessee has some weapons but I’m not a believer in Jake Locker so I think they’ll struggle unless Chris Johnson returns to his 2009 form. Jacksonville is just…well, Jacksonville. Their QB situation is a major problem. Blaine Gabbert is a good guy and has some talent but I’m not sure he’s an NFL starter. Neither is Chad Henne.
AFC WILD CARDS
Count Kansas City, Miami and Indianapolis as the teams that just missed out.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Denver over Houston
San Francisco over Denver