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Football forecast 2017

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Football forecast 2017 (Photos courtesy of the Associated Press)

The 2017 National Football League season is upon us. In fact, many of you reading this may have already seen at least some of the first weekend of games, with the initial match-up taking place on Sept. 7 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the reigning Super Bowl champions, your New England Patriots.

As always, there's plenty to anticipate. Lots that we know, lots that we don't know - and a whole lot that we think we might know but don't actually really know. Anybody who has read one of these previews in the past know that I live my life in that last category.

And so once again, I will be attempting to anticipate how 2017 will play out. Once again, I will do my best impression of a monkey with a dartboard in an effort to make some sort of sense out of the whole mess. I’m even going to try to predict records – a fool’s errand inside a fool’s errand.

(For those interested, I will also be continuing our popular “Kibbles and Picks” online-only feature, wherein I attempt to pick the winners in each week's schedule on NFL games and try to be more successful than my dog Stella (who has defeated me handily in three of the previous four seasons, by the way). Check our website at www.themaineedge.com every Thursday or find Kibbles and Picks on Facebook to see if man can even the score against beast; it's possible, but I wouldn't count on it. She’s far better at this than I am.)

And so here it is - your almost-certain-to-be-way-off 2017 Maine Edge NFL Preview.

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(y = division winner; x = wild card)

AFC

AFC East

New England Patriots -  13-3 (y)

Miami Dolphins – 8-8

Buffalo Bills - 5-11

New York Jets – 3-13

There’s something satisfying about being able to display your rampant homerism while fully shielded by the fact that you’re also correct. Such is the case with the New England Patriots, who remain the epitomical team in the National Football League. Tom Brady returns for a full season under center; it can’t last forever, but the 40-year-old passer hasn’t looked old yet. While receiver Julian Edelman has been lost for the season, new acquisition Brandin Cooks will join holdovers like tight end Rob Gronkowski in ensuring that the offense doesn’t miss a beat. Throw in an as-always solid D featuring a strong secondary and excellent returning talent and the Pats look to have a clear path into the playoffs. I’ll pick them to win until they don’t. The Dolphins have the look of a scrappy crew, with newly unretired Jay Cutler taking the snaps. They’ll be a feisty bunch for sure, and they have some quality skill position guys like running back Jay Ajayi to help Cutler along the way. Plus, it seems like head coach Adam Gase has Miami as confident as they’ve been in years. They do have a few holes, but they’re more than good enough for an easy second place divisional finish and a potential wild card. The same can’t be said for the Bills, who have seen an overhaul of their entire coaching staff – understandable, since the Ryan brothers haven’t been great on the field (though they’ll be missed off it). They’ve got some pieces – running back LeSean McCoy, dual-threat QB Tyrod Taylor – on the offensive side, but the line is weak and the defense could be pretty bad. There might be some flashes, but on the whole, it’ll be a longish year in Buffalo. Not as long as it will be in the Meadowlands, however, because the New York Jets promise to be one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2017. I’ve projected them for three wins, but I honestly think that might be high – the team has nothing going at quarterback, a dearth of skill position talent and what generally looks like the lowest-upside roster in the league. Seriously – there’s a real chance that these Jets fail to win a game all season. It is not looking good for New York.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers – 11-5 (y)

Baltimore Ravens – 8-8

Cincinnati Bengals – 6-10

Cleveland Browns – 4-12

There’s a ho-hum quality to Pittsburgh’s performance that would likely be a lot more celebrated if the current Patriots dynasty wasn’t a thing. Expect double-digit wins yet again from the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is a quality veteran QB operating behind a sneaky-good offensive line. And there’s nothing sneaky about how good guys like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are – top-10 talents both. The defense has its warts, but this team should have no trouble marching through the division. The Ravens land in this slot less because of any step forward on their part and more due to steps back taken by their competitors. Joe Flacco remains the most expensive “meh” QB in the league (*insert “Is Joe Flacco elite?” joke here*). The defensive becomes more about reputation and less about actual performance with each passing year. They’ll be OK, but not much more than that unless a few surprises pop up. Meanwhile, the Bengals seem to be in retrograde. They’ve got some real talent on the receiving end – wideout A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert are both among the very best at their respective positions … but only if they can stay unhurt and on the field. Andy Dalton remains talented but inconsistent at QB; he is what he is at this point, which would be good enough if the frankly-terrible O-line could keep him upright. Cincy’s got a good D-line and not much else on that side of the ball. They could conceivably get hot, but it doesn’t seem likely that this team even manages .500. The Browns are actually showing a few signs of life these days. There’s some exceptional young talent all over this team – rookies like defensive end Myles Garrett, hybrid defender Jabril Peppers and QB Deshone Kizer – along with solid skill players like wideout Corey Coleman, linebacker Jamie Collins and RB Isaiah Crowell. They’re not going to win a lot of games this season, but with a little more time to develop, the Browns have the potential makings of a legitimate contender. Just not yet.

AFC South

Tennessee Titans – 10-6 (y)

Houston Texans – 9-7 (x)

Indianapolis Colts – 7-9

Jacksonville Jaguars – 6-10

This is the year that I predict is going to see Titans QB Marcus Mariota make the leap and become a genuine star in this league (and not just because he’s on my fantasy team). Tennessee made a lot of hay last season with what they deemed “exotic smashmouth” football - whatever that means - and they’ve made great strides with the defense while adding some solid receiving talent through both the draft and free agency. They’ll run the ball with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry as well. There’s a lot of potential here. The Texans remain an imbalanced enigma, reliant on a strong defense to keep games close enough so that their less-than-stellar offense might be able to pull out the win. Guys like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney anchor the line and make life hard on opposing QBs, but Houston needs its own QB – Tom Savage – to step up. DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller need to bounce back from down years as well if the Texans are to make any noise. A team that will not be making noise is the Colts, saddled as they are with an injured QB in Andrew Luck and no real timetable for his return. Without Luck, Indianapolis is out of luck – they haven’t got anything like the necessary talent to overcome his absence – so they better hope he comes back sooner rather than later. It’s weird, but I think my six-win prediction for the Jags might be pessimistic. Blake Bortles has basically left himself with one last season to prove that he’s the franchise QB Jacksonville hope they were getting when they drafted him. If he can bounce back from an awful 2016, this team could be pretty good. They’ve got an explosive rookie running back in Leonard Fournette and a talent-stacked defense that could turn out to be extremely strong. Still, that Bortles if is as big an if as you can if – and as he goes, so goes the Jaguars’ season.

AFC West

Oakland Raiders – 11-5 (y)

Kansas City Chiefs – 10-6 (x)

Los Angeles Chargers – 7-9

Denver Broncos – 6-10

The NFL always seems just a little more fun when the Raiders are good. And right now, they’re good. They’re led by QB Derek Carr, a guy who genuinely looks like he might be a top-tier passer for the next decade. They’ve got a solid offensive line that will allow Carr time to hit his talented WR duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree while also opening holes for the newly unretired Marshawn Lynch to Beast Mode his way through. Oh, and they just happen to have one of the NFL’s greatest current defensive talents in Khalil Mack. Eleven wins might be low. It feels strange to predict double-digit wins for an Andy Reid-coached Chiefs team – particularly one led by QB Alex Smith, the Socratic ideal of a game manager – but here we are. Even with some injuries, there’s some skill player electricity thanks to receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie rusher Kareem Hunt. The defense is going to need to carry forward its penchant for big plays for their bend-don’t-break style to hold up, but don’t bet against them. These next two predictions could easily be swapped; their placement here was essentially a coin flip. The Chargers have some offensive spark to be sure, with QB Philip Rivers throwing to some solid receivers and handing the ball off to a budding star in running back Melvin Gordon. Second-year end Joey Bosa looks like a pass-rush monster and there’s talent in the secondary. Still, these guys have a recent history of underperforming. Plus, they’re playing in a new place, which likely hurts them. Meanwhile, the Broncos are dealing with a new coach and a less-than-thrilling quarterback situation. Vance Joseph inherited a dominant defense led by linebacker Von Miller and an awesome secondary, but he also has to deal with the fact that Trevor Siemian is apparently the best he can do at QB. Even receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders can’t work miracles. Denver can’t run the ball either, meaning that if the D can’t win it, they aren’t going to win.

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NFC

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys – 10-6 (y)

New York Giants – 10-6 (x)

Washington Redskins – 8-8

Philadelphia Eagles – 7-9

This is another one where I wouldn’t be surprised if some picks wound up flip-flopped when all is said and done. Picking the Cowboys to win the division feels like a little bit of a risk, if only because of the suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott and the potential regression of second-year signal caller Dak Prescott. However, Dallas still has the league’s best offensive line and some dynamic playmakers. If the defense can step up, the Cowboys will go from good to great, but either way, they’re a likely playoff team. Ditto the Giants, who made their passing game awfully scary by pairing free agent Brandon Marshall with superstar Odell Beckham Jr. It’s enough to make Eli Manning’s tendencies toward thoughtless turnovers a bit less concerning – but only a bit. He still needs to make better decisions. New York’s got a heck of a collection of talent in the defensive secondary as well, meaning that there’s room for some defensive creativity. Division champ or wild card, the Giants are playoff bound. Not so much in Washington, where the team continues to contractually jerk around presumptive franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins. There has been a lot of turnover in terms of receivers – Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon out, Terrelle Pryor and recent draftee Josh Doctson in – and a continued mediocrity to the run game. The defense is middle-of-the-road, though there’s a chance for improvement on the line in particular. Ultimately, breaking even is a solid goal. And much to TME publisher Mike Fern’s sorrow, the Eagles look like a last place finisher in the division. I will say that Carson Wentz looks like he might potentially be a top-tier NFL quarterback – but he’s not there yet. And he’ll have trouble getting there if he doesn’t get better help – Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith would have been great pickups if this was 2013, but it’s not. Having your best running back be Darren Sproles doesn’t help either. The defensive line is decent, but the secondary looks a bit porous. Philly will certainly compete, but .500 is probably their best-case scenario.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers – 11-5 (y)

Minnesota Vikings – 10-6 (x)

Chicago Bears – 5-11

Detroit Lions – 5-11

It’s difficult to pick any team other than Green Bay to finish atop the NFC North. The reason is simple: Aaron Rodgers. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL right now, capable of doing things that only a handful of passers have ever done. He’s got a good contingent of receivers – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams – and a quietly excellent offensive line. And the Packers have an unexpectedly stout defense as well, with an injection of youth into the secondary that could potentially pay big dividends. The Vikings are going to surprise some folks this year. Sam Bradford has had a chance to get comfortable with the offense; he’ll perform well if he’s able to stay healthy. There aren’t a lot of sexy offensive weapons – receiver Stefon Diggs is probably the closest – but there’s a wealth of talent in the defensive backfield and a front seven that is stronger than you think. Minnesota will make a real leap forward this season, one that will take them all the way to the postseason. The Bears are another team with a mess at QB following an offseason where they signed a guy to start, then traded up in the draft to get a guy. The Mike Glennon/Mitchell Trubisky drama aside, the Bears do have a couple of bright spots – but only a couple. Jordan Howard is one of the better running backs in the league and the O-line is OK. Other than that, the cupboard’s pretty bare in Chicago. And then we get to the poor sad Detroit Lions. This team lucked into nine wins last season; a smart over/under for this year would be half that. Their biggest offseason highlight was giving Matthew Stafford a record-breaking contract. He’s pretty good, but is he massive contract good? We’ll see. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick make a solid running back tandem. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is a phenomenal talent. And … that’s pretty much it. The Lions don’t have a lot upon which to hang their helmets this season. Honestly, five wins seems pretty generous.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – 12-4 (y)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 9-7

Carolina Panthers – 8-8

New Orleans Saints – 6-10

While it will doubtless be difficult for the Falcons to shake off their historic loss in this past Super Bowl, they’re a talented enough group to make it happen. Matt Ryan had an MVP-caliber season at QB last year; expect some regression, but he’ll still be excellent. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are the most talented RB tandem in the league. Julio Jones remains one of the league’s best receivers. And the defense – particularly the secondary – appears strong. Getting back to the big one is hard, but Atlanta looks ready to go to work. I might be underestimating the Buccaneers here, but I think they might be another year away – particularly in a sneaky-tough division. Jameis Winston seems like the real deal at QB, while receiver Mike Evans is a stud. Newcomers Desean Jackson and rookie O.J. Howard can catch the ball as well. The defense is more of a work in progress, meaning that Winston will be forced into trying to win games on his own – a task for which he’s not quite ready. This Panthers pick might be the one I’m most conflicted about; Carolina looks like they could just as easily win 10 games or five. It all comes down to execution from QB Cam Newton; if he’s on, this team could explode. They’ve got some interesting skill position players and an extremely talented front seven. Unfortunately, their defensive backs aren’t very good. Honestly, this team could finish anywhere in the division and it wouldn’t shock me. And then we have the Saints. This is almost exactly the same New Orleans team that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the past few years. They’re going to score a ton, thanks to QB Drew Brees and his nigh-automatic 5,000 yearly passing yards. And they’re going to give up a ton, thanks to a defense that continues to flounder despite the organization’s ongoing efforts to fix it. In the end, the Saints are going to lose a lot of 42-35, 34-31 contests.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks – 11-5 (y)

Arizona Cardinals – 8-8

Los Angeles Rams – 8-8

San Francisco 49ers – 3-13

The Seahawks remain the class of the NFC West. They’re a flawed team in many ways – they’ve got one of the worst offensive line units in football, for instance – but under coach Pete Carroll, they’ve managed to find ways to minimize those weaknesses while maximizing strengths. Russell Wilson has become one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and wideout Doug Baldwin looks to be on the verge of next-level stardom. The defense is an embarrassment of riches, led by guys like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett. They won’t have to score much to win. The Cardinals are a team that could potentially put it all together and outshine this prediction. They’ve got a ton of skill position talent – David Johnson might be the best all-around running back in the league, while Larry Fitzgerald leads a contingent of talented targets for QB Carson Palmer. And the defense has some stars – Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu chief among them. But the pieces simply don’t all fit together, likely leaving this team stuck in neutral. As for the L.A. Rams, well – eight wins might be too many. They desperately want Jared Goff to be their franchise QB, but he hasn’t shown what it takes as of yet. Todd Gurley had a pretty significant sophomore slump running the ball, while receiver Tavon Austin is teetering on the edge of outright bust-dom. The D-line features a transcendent talent in tackle Aaron Donald, along with some other excellent players. Alas, you can’t win if you don’t score – and the Rams will struggle. Meanwhile, the only race the 49ers have a chance of winning is the one straight to the bottom. As far as I can tell, San Francisco’s only real competition for the title of worst team in football is the Jets. Their starting QB is professional placeholder Brian Hoyer. They’ve got a wide array of nondescript wide receivers and a good-not-great leading rusher in Carlos Hyde. Their defense doesn’t look capable of stopping, well, anybody. They’re largely devoid of real talent – their best player is an offensive lineman, which doesn’t bode well in today’s NFL.

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