NFC Playoff Preview 2018

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Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images North America

After examining each AFC playoff team, it’s time to turn our attention to the NFC. The senior conference is a little more top heavy, but the single-elimination format combined with the dwindling talent gap caused by the salary cap has created an environment where any team can emerge.

So, who will come out of the NFC this year? Obviously, no one knows for sure, but each team has a compelling case.

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3, NFC South Champions, Home Field Advantage)

Why they could win the SB: Well, for starters, the Saints employ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who’s still dicing opposing defenses up at an MVP level (3,992 yards, 32 TD’s, 80.8 QBR).

Of course, Brees has always put up dazzling numbers, but with talented skill position players like Alvin Kamara (1,592 yards from scrimmage, 18 total TD’s), Mark Ingram (645 rushing yards), and Michael Thomas (1,405 receiving yards, third in DYAR) and a solid defense (11th in DVOA), the Saints have lifted themselves out of the 7-to-9 win muck and become championship contenders.

The Saints are arguably the most balanced team in the NFC. That and their home field advantage makes them the favorite to punch their ticket to Atlanta.

Why they might not win: Much like the Patriots — and, to a lesser extent, the Chargers — New Orleans needs their veteran quarterback to continue to turn back father time if they want to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. As unlikely as that is, Brees did struggle down the stretch, as he posted a very average 84.7 passer rating while averaging 6.4 yards per attempt through his final four games of the season. If that Brees shows up in the playoffs, the Saints will fall short.

2. Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC West Champions, First Round Bye)

Why they could win: The days of Jeff Fisher-induced mediocrity are long gone, as Sean McVay has transformed this team into a viable championship contender, as L.A. finished the year second in overall DVOA and second in offensive DVOA.

McVay’s magic genius dust continued to work wonders for Jared Goff too, as he once again put up very good numbers (4,688 yards, 32 TD’s, 12 INT’s, 66.4 QBR). If he plays well and Todd Gurley keep playing like an MVP candidate (1,831 scrimmage yards, 21 total TD’s), then L.A. has a good chance to reach the Super Bowl.

Why they might not win: Take a look at Jared Goff’s stat line from last postseason:

24/45, 259 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 77.9 passer rating

Now, do those numbers scream “franchise QB that can win tough playoff games” to you?

Most critics concur that McVay’s playcalling and micromanagement masks many of Goff’s deficiencies. While not the outright bust that he seemed destined to become, Goff is merely an ok QB that benefits from a sound offensive scheme and talented receivers. If opposing defenses find some cracks in the facade, that puts more pressure on Gurley to perform and the defense to get stops (a defense that ranked 19th in DVOA during the regular season, even with DPOY candidate Aaron Donald).

3. Chicago Bears (12-4, NFC North Champions)

Why they could win: Thanks to the Oakland Raiders’ incompetence, the Bears nabbed All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack and he helped transform Chicago from a middle-of-the-road defense (14th in defensive DVOA in 2017) to a dominant one, as they ranked first in defensive DVOA, first in pass defensive DVOA, and second in run defensive DVOA.

The dominant D takes a lot of the pressure off of a relatively pedestrian offense (20th in DVOA). Chicago didn’t light up the scoreboard this year, but Mitchell Trubisky has shown some promising signs, as he posted a 72.8 QBR, which ranked third among qualified QB’s. If the offense alleviates even a little bit of the pressure off of the defense, then this team can make a run.

Why they might not win: As great as this Bears defense is, the offense will determine how far they go. While no other NFC playoff team boasts a defense as stout as Chicago’s they are good enough to slow down Trubisky and the gang and if that happens, the Bears could be in trouble. They better hope none of their games devolve into a glorified Arena Football game.

4. Dallas Cowboys (10-6, NFC East Champions)

Why they could win: The Cowboys have one and only one path to playoff success: run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott (2,001 scrimmage yards), control the clock (second in average time per drive), get timely plays from quarterback Dak Prescott (3,885 passing yards, 22/8 TD/INT) and Amari Cooper (80.6 receiving yards per game in nine games with the Cowboys), and lean on the defense (ninth in DVOA). If that happens, then Dallas has a chance.

Why they might not: There are plenty of numbers to show that the Cowboys aren’t as good as their record suggests. Their 8.4 expected wins are the fewest of all the playoff teams and their plus-15 point differential is the worst among the 12 teams in the tournament, as is their overall DVOA ranking (21st). If the defense can’t slow down these offenses — which is a realistic possibility — then Dallas will have another brief playoff run.

5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6, Wild Card)

Why they could win: Despite sporting a roster that barely resembled their dominant Legion of Boom days, the Seahawks returned to the playoffs this year thanks in large part to Russell Wilson. The Pro Bowl signal-caller turned in another low-key resplendent season, throwing 35 touchdowns against just seven picks and helping the team rank ninth in offensive DVOA (and sixth in passing offensive DVOA).

Thanks to Wilson and the running quartet of him, Chris Carson (4.7 YPA), Mike Davis (4.6 YPA),  and Rashaad Penny (4.9 YPA), the team has found a lethal balance on offense and with a good-enough defense (14th in DVOA), they could make a run at the title.

Why they might not: As great as Wilson is, asking him to win three road games with this otherwise average team (unless the Eagles catch fire again) may be too much to ask, especially if they have to go to New Orleans. Their defense performs well enough against both the run (17th in DVOA) and the pass (13th in DVOA). That’s probably not good enough to fend off the likes of the Rams or the Saints. If Wilson is anything other than Herculean, then this team likely won’t make it past the divisional round.

6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, Wild Card)

Why they could win: Oh, you have no idea how badly I wanted to slap a J. Jonah Jameson laughing GIF up here in lieu of trying to make a case for this team. To put this in perspective, Football Outsiders gives the Eagles a 0.7 percent chance to repeat as champions this year. FiveThirtyEight gives them a much more robust four percent chance.

But there is a chance! If Nick Foles can somehow keep his unbelievable run of good quarterback play going and the defense plays well — even with all the injuries in the secondary, they ranked a respectable 15th in defensive DVOA, so it isn’t an unreasonable proposition — Philly could shock the football world again.

Why they might not: For the Eagles to make it to the Super Bowl, they would have to go on the road and beat arguably the best defense in football and, assuming that happens, Drew Brees in the Superdome in the divisional round — where they got waxed in week 11 — and either Russell Wilson or the vaunted Rams offense in the conference title game (I suppose they could play Dallas too, but one pipe dream is enough for this article). Basically, the Eagles need a lot of things to go right for them to repeat this year. It could happen — they did beat the Rams in L.A. a few weeks ago when everyone was ready to bury them — but it probably won’t.

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AFC Playoff Preview 2018

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Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images North America

Finally, the NFL playoffs are here! After the four-month marathon that was the 2018 season, the Super Bowl contention field has widdled down to just 12 teams. The AFC side of things appears to be wide open, as almost every team has a realistic chance to make a title run and a glaring flaw that could do one of them in. So, let’s look at each AFC playoff team and determine their chances of winning a championship.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West Champions, Home Field Advantage)

Why they could win the SB: Even the most sanguine prognostications of how good Patrick Mahomes would be couldn’t have expected him to turn in one of the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history.

The first-year starter joined future Hall-of-Famer’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the only QB’s to throw for 50 TD’s in a season. He also led the league in total QBR (81.6) and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) (2,039) while shepherding one of the best offenses in NFL history — if you go by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).

Even with Kareem Hunt gone, this team has more than enough weapons — particularly receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce — to get Atlanta.

Why they might not win the SB: Of the four teams that finished with a higher single-season DVOA the Chiefs, only the 1998 Denver Broncos won a championship, so history isn’t on KC’s side.

With any high-powered offense — especially one that resembled someone playing Madden on rookie mode like the Chiefs — there tends to be a regression to the mean once the competition improves.

If the KC offense looks even somewhat normal in these playoffs, then their defense will have to step up. Considering that group ranked 26th in defensive DVOA and last in rushing defensive DVOA, that’s probably asking for too much.

If the Chiefs lose in the playoffs this year, it won’t be because of their offense, but because their defense couldn’t stop anyone.

2. New England Patriots (11-5, AFC East Champions, First Round Bye)

Why they could win: If you haven’t learned anything over the last two decades, you can’t count Tom Brady and Bill Belichick out in January.

While they slightly outperformed their 10.7 expected win total this year and had the usual losses that sparked the annual “Is this the end of the Patriots” takes, New England still ranked seventh in overall DVOA, 5th in offensive DVOA, and an improved 16th in defensive DVOA.

And as much as it would please me to throw dirt on the now-41-year-old Brady, it seems too premature to do so. Sure, he didn’t have his usual MVP-type season and he has shown signs of a decline, but there are plenty of QB’s who would take the numbers he put up this year (4,355 yards, 29 TD’s, 11 INT’s, 70.6 QBR), even if his receivers do most of the work (Brady ranked 24th of 39 qualified passers in Average Intended Air Yards per NFL Next Gen Stats).

Barring a precipitous erosion on Brady’s part, the Patriots are still the ever-present threat to come out of the AFC.

Why they might not win: This has to end at some point, right? Eventually, it will, but when? There isn’t anything glaringly bad about this New England team other than the fact that they’re banking on a 41-year-old to get them to the Super Bowl should concern any reasonable Pats fan.

With Josh Gordon gone and Rob Gronkowski showing signs of wear and tear, the team will have to lean on their all-time great QB to get them through the playoffs. If there is even a slight demarcation, New England could be in trouble.

3. Houston Texans (11-5, AFC South Champions)

Why they could win: Thanks to a mid-season nine-game win streak, the Texans became just the sixth team in league history to make the playoffs after starting the year 0-3.

While there was a bit of luck involved as one would expect with a win streak that long (five of those wins were decided by eight points or less), Houston also relied on their defense (7th in the league according to DVOA) led by their QB menaces J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney (25 combined sacks and 34 tackles for loss) and a healthy Deshaun Watson (63.8 QBR, 4,165 yards, 26 TD’s, 9 INT’s). If they can get to the QB, stop the run (1st in run defense DVOA) and get more great play from Watson, Houston could make some noise this year.

Why they might not win: Similar to the Chiefs, the Texans have to expect some sort of regression in this postseason. They benefitted from playing a lot of so-so opponents during that long win streak, so it stands to reason that they may struggle against tougher opponents.

Coming into these playoffs, Houston has the worst point differential of the AFC teams in the tournament only the Seattle Seahawks have a better turnover differential among all the teams playing in January. It may not matter in the Wild Card game.

They ranked fourth in the league with 29 takeaways, but about half of those came via fumble recoveries. Those sorts of turnovers tend to be a bit fluky, Houston will have to hope that their D is stingy enough to overcome a potential dropoff in that department. Considering their 18th ranking against the pass according to DVOA and the QB’s they will and could potentially face, it probably isn’t.

4. Baltimore Ravens (10-6, AFC North Champions)

Why they could win: Once the Ravens inserted Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup for the fledging 4-5 Ravens heading into their week 11 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, everything changed.

Jackson and the Ravens won that game and proceeded to win five of the next six after that to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The formula has been simple: Jackson, Gus Edwards (5.2 YPA) and the rest of the offense grind the clock out (third in average time per drive) and give their stellar defense (3rd in DVOA) plenty of rest on the sideline. This combo earned Baltimore the “Team That Nobody Wants To Play” tagline, as this combo makes them a tough out.

Why they might not win: As much as the “They finally got tape on him” cliche irks me, particularly when it’s used on black quarterbacks like Jackson, it’s not insane to wonder if the Ravens can continue to thrive with a quasi-military academy/Georgia Tech offense long term.

This isn’t a team that’s built to come from behind, so if the running game stall even a little, then that could keep the defense on the field longer and force Jackson to throw, which while promising (eighth in average completed air yards, 62.7 expected completion percentage) still produces mixed results (45.1 QBR).

5. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, Wild Card)

Why they could win: The Chargers certainly don’t look like a wild card team; they ranked third in total DVOA, third in offensive DVOA, and eighth in defensive DVOA. This team is loaded at every position and there isn’t any aspect of the game that they aren’t good at.

They can run the ball (sixth in rushing DVOA), especially with Melvin Gordon back in the lineup. They have Phillip Rivers, who can still sling the ball around with the best of them (third in DYAR, 70.2 QBR). Their defense can stop the pass and the run (10th in DVOA in both categories) and with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edges, they can get to the quarterback.

Before the season, I picked the Chargers to win the division and get to the AFC Championship Game. They would virtually have to win out on the road, but they are definitely capable of reaching that goal and perhaps even earning a trip to the Super Bowl.

Why they might not win: Aside from the lack of a home-field advantage, there’s no logical reason to bet against the Chargers…unless you want to lean on the franchise’s shortage of postseason success.

The San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers history is filled with playoff heartbreak, a narrative that always seems to creep up when there’s no other reason to doubt a team’s chances to win it all. Their 6-1 record in close games this year suggests that things are different this year, but with this franchise, seeing is believing.

6. Indianapolis Colts (10-6, Wild Card)

Why they could win: The main difference between the Colts being an afterthought in 2017 and a playoff team in 2018 was the availability and the return to form of Andrew Luck.

The former number one overall pick shook off some early concerns about his health and put together a great season under center (seventh in DYAR, 71.7 QBR). Luck thrived under new head coach Frank Reich’s system, which saw him get the ball out quicker (ninth quickest time to throw this year) while still averaging a respectable 6.1 completed air yards.

The rest of the team played pretty well too; the offensive line was great (fourth in adjusted line yards and second in adjusted sack rate), running back Marlon Mack’s production jumped significantly in his second season (908 yards, 9 TD’s, 4.7 YPA), T.Y. Hilton looks like a legit number one threat again (1,270 yards receiving), and the defense was solid (10th in DVOA). It will be tough since the Colts will have to win out on the road to reach the Super Bowl, but it’s not an impossible feat.

Why they might not win: According to Pro Football Reference, Indy finished with the worst SRS (Simple Rating System, which rates teams based on their record, point differential, and strength of schedule) of all the AFC playoff teams. They also have a leaky pass defense (20th in DVOA), which will be a problem if they face either Phillip Rivers, Patrick Mahomes, or Tom Brady. If the Colts fail to advance in the playoffs, it will because of their secondary.

NBA Game Ball 11/9: Kyrie Irving brings the Celtics back from the depths

Welcome to a (hopefully) daily feature here at Sports and Stuff titled Game Ball, where I pick a particular performance from the previous night and briefly analyze it.

Coming into the season, the Boston Celtics were pegged as heavy favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. After all, this is a team stacked with talent, and with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from their respective injuries and LeBron James taking his talents out west, the Celtics seemed like a lock to win the conference.

So far, the Celtics have struggled to keep up with those projections. They’ve been fine overall, but that’s because of their stout defense more than anything — which is ranked first in points allowed per 100 possessions. The offense, on the other hand, has been tough to watch, to say the least; they came into Thursday ranked 27th in offensive rating.

Boston’s ineptitude was on full display during the first quarter of Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. Boston made a team that came into the game ranked 27th in defensive rating look like one of best defenses in the league. After an Irving three gave Boston the early lead, they went over six minutes without making a basket, ultimately getting outscored 32-13 in the opening quarter.

Boston eventually got going, using a 35-20 fourth quarter to tie the game and send it to overtime, where they outpaced Phoenix 16-5 to come away with the win.

Irving overall had a great game; he finished with 39 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and the team was +7 when he was on the floor. His biggest play came on the final possession in regulation, when he made a tremendous pass in-between Isaiah Canaan and Devin Booker, who double-teamed him on the wing, to Marcus Morris for the game-tying trey:

https://streamable.com/4g9yw

Irving would jumpstart the offense in the extra frame with three straight layups. After Booker tied the game with lay-up of his own, Irving again took advantage of an aggressive Phoenix D with a good pass to an open Al Horford at the top of the key for the go-ahead triple:

https://streamable.com/f5sjy

It’s true that no one will confuse Irving for Chris Paul. And there it’s reasonable to question whether Irving is even Boston’s best player (the Celtics are a much better team when Irving goes to the bench, based on his on/off numbers). But There’s no question that the Celtics will need Irving’s timely passing as well as much as his shot-creating ability if the Celtics want to become the contenders that everyone assumes they are.

 

 

NBA Game Ball 11/8: Anthony Davis

Welcome to a (hopefully) daily feature here at Sports and Stuff titled Game Ball, where I pick a particular performance and briefly analyze it.

To say that the New Orleans Pelicans will go as far as Anthony Davis will take them is 1.) a trite cliche and 2.) only half true. Yes, the Davis can probably will the Pelicans to the playoffs, even in a rugged Western Conference. But to hang with the true powers of the NBA (i.e, the Golden State Warriors), the Pelicans need more than just Davis.

Against the tanking Chicago Bulls, however, Davis is more than enough. In New Orleans’ 107-98 win over the Bulls on Nov. 7, Davis put forth a monster 32 point, 15 rebound, seven assist performance. There were many highlights. Like this slick pass to a cutting Nikola Mirotic:

https://streamable.com/777b7

Or this dunk that came after running the break and setting up a pick and roll with Tim Frazier:

https://streamable.com/at39y

Or this drive to the basket that set up and and-one opportunity:

https://streamable.com/51boo

Davis also made half of his four 3-point attempts, which simply isn’t fair. The Bulls defenders were hesitant to play Davis close on the perimeter for fear of giving up and easy two points, so if Davis is out here draining treys, he will be almost impossible to stop for most teams.

After a few DNP’s and some mundane (for him) games within a six-game losing streak, Davis and the Pelicans needed a game like this against a lesser opponent to get back on track. Of course, it helps that they were playing one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, but Davis and the Pelicans did what they were supposed to do against a substandard club.

New Orleans is very much a lottery team without Davis so he will need to have more games like this against teams like the Bulls for the Pelicans to get where they believe Davis can take them.

Don’t be fooled by Zach LaVine’s early-season scoring totals

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Chicago Bulls decided to match the Sacramento Kings’ four-year, $78 million offer sheet for uber-athletic guard Zach LaVine this offseason, many fans and bloggers felt it was a significant overpay for a player that would not live up to the contract. After all, LaVine had only put up modest numbers up to that point with the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, and that’s before you take the torn ACL he suffered in Feb. 2017. The apprehension was understandable. But through 11 games, LaVine has at least looked like a player that’s deserving of the large price tag attributed to him.

Following a monster performance against the New York Knicks on Monday Night, where he scored 41 points on 13-for-25 shooting, LaVine is now averaging a career-high 27.9 points per game with a healthy .474/.351/.846 shooting line. This explosion was far from an aberration too; his performance against the Knicks was the fifth game in which LaVine scored at least 30 points. Naturally, this has led some people to claim that LaVine has “arrived” and is “putting the NBA on notice”. These folks may need to slow down just a bit.

Yes, LaVine is flashing the scoring prowess that many, this author included, thought he had. And yes, his scoring output has increased, but that tends to happen when you have the third highest usage rate in the league — as of Nov. 6. Injuries to Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn have made LaVine the primary option on offense and, at least on the surface level, it has worked out. Doing stuff like this also helps his case:

https://streamable.com/boe0v/

However, all the pull-up threes, crossovers, and jams haven’t translated to any wins. Some of that is simply the result of playing on a bad — and short-handed — team. I mean, LaVine can’t make guys who have apparently had their fingers replaced with sticks of warm butter:

https://streamable.com/zcfdw

But LaVine is part of the problem too, despite what his flashy counting stats say. Let’s start with the first red flag: his propensity to turn the ball over. As of Nov. 6, only Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging more giveaways than LaVine. In the aforementioned 41-point outing against the Knicks, LaVine finished with eight turnovers. He already has four games in which he finished with at least five.

Worse yet, LaVine isn’t offsetting his miscues by creating for his teammates. Among backcourt players, only Jordan Clarkson and Allonzo Trier have a lower assist-to-turnover ratio than the Chicago guard (min. seven games and 20 minutes per game) as of Nov. 6.

Combine that with his still-suspect defense — he is one of the worst pick and roll defenders in the league thus far and has a -2.1 defensive box plus/minus — and it leaves a lot of room for skepticism. It also doesn’t help that the team plays exponentially better when LaVine is off the floor; as of Nov. 6, the Bulls net rating jumps from -9.5 to +1.6 when LaVine goes to the bench. Even more jarring, Chicago scores 8.5 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine sits. Who would have guessed that a high-volume shooting guard that turns the ball over all the time, never passes the ball, and doesn’t play good defense doesn’t make the team better?

Look, the Bulls aren’t very good. Even if they had Markkanen and/or Dunn available, this looks like a team that will once again be picking from a lottery spot and hoping that one of next offseason’s star free agents finds their collection of talent intriguing enough to sign with them. LaVine could average 50 points per game and it still wouldn’t make the Bulls a playoff team.

LaVine has had a nice start to the season. His play, along with Markkanen and Dunn’s performances last year and the Timberwolves disintegrating before our eyes, has made the Bulls look smart for trading away Jimmy Butler in 2017, which is a feat in and of itself.

But let’s not get carried away with the gaudy box score numbers. LaVine is a player that’s better suited to be a heat check sixth man or good third option on a playoff team. If the Bulls can find a superstar or two in the near future, having a tertiary scoring threat that can drop 40 on any given night and average more than 20 per game, will make that not-so-bad contract look a whole lot better.

Quick 2018 NFL Predictions: NFC

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America

With the 2018 NFL season set to begin tonight, here are some quick predictions for each conference, going by division, now focusing on the NFC.

Of all the teams and all the quarterbacks, who would have thought that the Nick Foles-led Philadelphia Eagles would have outdueled the mighty New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. If you had the Eagles making the Super Bowl last year, let alone winning it, then you should open a fortune telling shop and rake in the cash.

With a stacked roster and breakout star quarterback Carson Wentz expected back at some point this year, the Eagles are one of the favorites to reach Super Bown LIII as the NFC representative. However, this isn’t the AFC, where the Patriots basically have an E-Z Pass to the conference title. The elder conference houses several strong championship contenders that will give Philly a run for their money.

Who will come out of this rugged NFC to reach “The Big Game”? Who knows, but it will be fun to predict who could.

NFC North: He’s back! Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a clean bill of health and a shiny new contract extension, which spells trouble for the rest of the division. The Pack will need the former league MVP at his best to win the division, as their defense (20th in defensive DVOA) wasn’t nearly good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt when Rodgers went down. With a loaded roster and a new quarterback, the Minnesota Vikings have a great chance to repeat as division champs, but a shaky offensive line could be their undoing. The Detroit Lions will do what they always do: gain a ton of yards, put up some points, struggle to run the ball, and lose a couple of close games. Watch out for the Bears though. They have a sneaky good roster — that just improved with the addition of Khalil Mack — so don’t be surprised if they win more games than you think. Ultimately, I think that Green Bay will get a full season of Rodgers and will retake the north crown.

Standings: Packers (10-6, wins Super Bowl), Vikings (10-6, loses in Wild Card round), Lions (8-8), Bears (6-10)

NFC South: There’s a good chance that this division won’t produce three playoff teams again. The Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers seem like the likeliest candidates to regress since they both slightly outperformed their Pythagorean projections (Carolina had 9.0 expected wins, Atlanta had 9.1). Both of those teams will remain in the hunt, but they probably won’t have the same amount of luck in close games — Carolina was 8-1 in games decided by eight points or less, Atlanta was 6-3. The New Orleans Saints seem like a safe bet to repeat as division champs. Their offense, led by Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara, will put up a ton of points and the defense is respectable enough to take some of the onus off of that group. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were probably going to finish last even if Jameis Winston hadn’t gotten suspended for groping an Uber driver. Now it’s basically a guarantee.

Standings: Saints (11-5, loses in the Divisional round), Falcons (9-7), Panthers (8-8), Bucs (4-12)

NFC East: The Eagles are the best team in this division –and will get even better when Wentz returns. However, don’t sleep on the Dallas Cowboys. Even though many people hope that they go 0-16, including this writer, they looked like a playoff team before injuries and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension did them in. With Odell Beckham returning and the addition of Saquon Barkley, the New York Giants could also bounce back after a dismal 2017. After trading for Alex Smith, Washington has some stability at the quarterback position. They will hang around in the playoff hunt, but the quality of teams in the NFC will keep them on the outside looking in.

Standings: Eagles (12-4, loses in the Divisional round), Cowboys (9-7, loses in Wild Card round), Washington (7-9), Giants (5-11)

NFC West: There has been a changing of the guard out West. The Los Angeles Rams emerged as a surprise playoff team last year and are once again the favorites to win the division with the additions of Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, and Aquib Talib. The Seattle Seahawks barely resemble the team that went to consecutive Super Bowls in the 2013-14 seasons — especially in the secondary — but with Russell Wilson under center, they still have enough to compete for a Wild Card spot. Speaking of quarterbacks, the San Francisco 49ers hope that Jimmy Garoppolo replicates last year’s success over a full season. There will be some regression to the mean, but the Niners will surprise some people this year. The Arizona Cardinals went 8-8 last year, but they got a boost from their 6-1 record in games decided by eight or fewer points. They’re a prime candidate for regression, especially when Josh Rosen inevitably starts after Sam Bradford gets injured.

Standings: Rams (11-5, loses in the Conference Title game), Seahawks (9-7), 49ers (7-9), Cardinals (3-13)

Quick 2018 NFL Predictions: AFC

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Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

With the 2018 NFL season set to begin on Thursday, here are some quick predictions for each conference, going by division, starting with the AFC.

Last year, many fans expected the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots to meet once again in the AFC Championship Game. Well, those people got it half-right; the Pats indeed reached yet another title game, but they had to contend with the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars to clinch their third conference crown in four years. Of course, we all know what happened to them in Super Bowl LII: their defense got exposed by NICK FOLES of all people:

New England is once again the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII, but could another team step up and snatch that honor away from Tom Brady and company? We won’t have the definitive answer until January, but that’s too far away. Let’s make some quick predictions NOW!

AFC North: Even with Le’Veon Bell holding out, the Steelers are still the favorites to win the division. They ranked in the top 10 in passing, rushing, pass defensive, overall defensive and overall offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Replacement (DVOA) and most of their stellar roster remains intact. Of course, there were points where Ben Roethlisberger showed his age last year. He’s 36 and has taken a lot of punishment over the years, so perhaps this is the season where Big Ben begins to decline.

As for the other teams in the north, the Ravens have enough talent to earn a wild-card bid this year, as long as the defense and the running game are steady. I’m long past the point of expecting Joe Flacco to do anything other than toss short passes to the tight ends. Cincinnati will probably win between 6-8 games in the most uninteresting fashion possible. The Browns will be an interesting team to watch. Yes, they went 0-16 last year, but they have a competent quarterback in Tyrod Taylor as well as an interesting young roster. They’ll still finish in the cellar, but they won’t be a complete laughingstock.

Standings: Steelers (10-6, loses in Divisional Round), Ravens (9-7, loses in Divisional Round), Bengals (7-9), Browns (4-12)

AFC South: This division isn’t the joke that it was a couple of seasons ago. The Jaguars are good now, even if their quarterback still isn’t. They are still the best team in the division, although they won’t take anybody by surprise this year. They also won’t have the luxury of their divisional foes trotting out lifeless mannequins to play quarterback. In Indianapolis, the Colts hope that Andrew Luck is healthy enough to carry their lackluster roster back to the playoffs. The Texans hope that DeShaun Watson and J.J. Watt has the same effect. Tennessee hopes that new head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (who was the L.A. Rams OC last year, though he wasn’t the playcaller) will help quarterback Marcus Mariota in his progression. If they can, the Titans could legitimately challenge Jacksonville for the division.

Standings: Jaguars (10-6, loses in wild card), Colts (9-7, loses in wild card), Titans (8-8), Texans (7-9)

AFC East: The Patriots are winning this division (sigh). Unless Tom Brady disintegrates before our eyes, all of the other teams in this putrid division are playing for second place (or more realistically, a top draft pick). The Bills will start Nathan Peterman at QB (yuck), which is a clear sign that they intend to tank this season. That philosophy won’t change if they pull him for Josh Allen (who will fit right in with Buffalo). Sam Darnold looks like the real deal for the Jets, but they aren’t anywhere close to being ready to compete for a playoff spot. The Dolphins elicit a “meh” response from me. They could earn a wild-card spot, they could go 4-12. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter since we all know the Pats are winning the east, again.

Standings: Patriots (12-4, loses Super Bowl), Dolphins (6-10), Jets (3-13), Bills (3-13)

AFC West: In a division that’s a bit more wide open than it was last year, the L.A. Chargers seem like a good bet to take the division this year. They are loaded with talent, have the best quarterback in the division in Phillip Rivers, and they stand to progress to the mean after suffering some bad luck in close games last year (10.4 expected wins last year). Behind the Chargers sit three talented teams that have glaring weaknesses. For the Chiefs and the Broncos, it’s the quarterback position. For Oakland, it’s their defense, which got considerably weaker after trading Khalil Mack to Chicago. With those teams projected to take a step back this year, that gives the Chargers a great chance to return to the postseason.

Standings: Chargers (10-6, loses in conference title game), Chiefs (8-8), Broncos (6-10), Raiders (6-10)