NFL midseason predictions: Experts forecast Super Bowl XLIX, more
Let's try this again. In September, SI.com's football experts made their predictions for the 2014 season. There were some hits (the Broncos were our consensus pick for AFC champion, J.J. Watt was the overwhelming favorite for DPOY) and some misses (Dallas Cowboys with the worst record in the NFL? Ouch).
With half of the NFL season now in the books, SI.com's Don Banks, Greg Bishop, Chris Burke, Ben Eagle, Doug Farrar, Austin Murphy and Joan Niesen update their predictions for Super Bowl XLIX and address the burning questions hanging over the second half of the season.
Super Bowl Predictions
Explaining my pick: For a second year in a row, the top seeds hold throughout the playoffs and the two best teams in the regular season meet in the NFL’s postseason finale. The Cardinals become the first team in the Super Bowl’s 49-year history to play the game at home, but this time it’s the Patriots who find a way to win in Glendale, exorcising the ghosts of David Tyree's helmet catch in 2008.
Explaining my pick: The NFC in particular seems wide open, but the two best quarterbacks in football power two of the better offenses into the final game. Broncos win because the defense is better than a year ago (Sunday night in New England notwithstanding). Manning nets second ring, steals TBE (The Best Ever) moniker from Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Explaining my pick: This was my preseason pick and I'm reluctant to make an adjustment until absolutely necessary. Beyond pure stubbornness, though, the Broncos remain an obvious favorite, while the Saints' worst days are behind them.
Explaining my pick: Offense could carry both teams to Glendale, but defense will decide the big one. The Broncos’ fearsome pass rush will overpower the Packers line, making life hell for Aaron Rodgers and Co. Will it be a blowout? No, Rodgers is just too good for that, but Peyton Manning’s second Super Bowl victory will never be in doubt.
Explaining my pick: The Super Bowl is all about Bruce Arians this time around, as the team he currently coaches faces the team he interim coached three seasons ago. The Cards use their passing game and defense to become the first team to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Explaining my pick: In the battle of greybeard QBs, two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady is outplayed by Carson Palmer, who wins the award for the first time. NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians outduels Bill Belichick in what is essentially a home game for Arizona.
Explaining my pick: The biggest obstacle for the Broncos? The Patriots. But even after Sunday’s game, I still see Denver getting home field like last year -- and winning the Super Bowl, this time, thanks to a much stronger defense and a weaker NFC than a year ago.
Best team to miss the playoffs
Banks: San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers come close to earning a wild-card berth, but can’t overcome the effects of their sluggish 4-4 start. After three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco’s Super Bowl window closes for now, as does the team’s always interesting Jim Harbaugh coaching era.
Bishop: Dallas Cowboys. Almost can’t believe I’m writing this. Remember a month ago, when the Cowboys seemed like the toast of the NFC, fresh off their big win in Seattle? That seems like, well, a month ago, because this season in particular the NFC has seen some wild swings. Seattle looked unbeatable, until Green Bay did, until Dallas did, until Arizona did. The Eagles look like they have a run in them. So that leaves Dallas, with a great offensive line and a running back in DeMarco Murray who may hit 2,000 rushing yards ... and whole a lot of questions over the season’s final months. Recent history says the Cowboys will finish 8-8. Seems like the safest bet here.
Burke: Cincinnati Bengals. A 5-2-1 record to this point is just fine, especially since A.J. Green has been out for multiple games. The problem looking ahead is the remaining schedule. After a key Thursday nighter at home versus Cleveland, the Bengals play three straight on the road (at New Orleans, at Houston, at Tampa Bay), then close with a home-and-home against Pittsburgh, a return trip to Cleveland and a game versus Denver. Anything better than 10-5-1 would be extremely impressive ... and anything less probably doesn't get this team to the playoffs. The defense continues to struggle, particularly against the run, and there are some upcoming opponents ready to hang some points on this team.
Eagle: Seattle Seahawks. The Super Bowl Curse continues as the Seahawks become the third straight team to miss the postseason a year after winning the Super Bowl. Seattle’s defense can no longer carry the team, and a confused offense isn’t striking fear into anyone. With a backloaded schedule featuring five NFC West games, the Seahawks will struggle to find enough wins to make the cut.
Farrar: Philadelphia Eagles. This could just as easily be the Packers in this spot, and perhaps it will turn on the Packers-Eagles game on Nov. 16. But the injury to Nick Foles -- a broken clavicle that could well put him out for the rest of the regular season -- puts a lot on Mark Sanchez, and Sanchez might not be capable of handling it. It's one thing to come in as a backup in an explosive offense, as Sanchez did against the Texans on Sunday, and quite another to run that offense for half a season.
Murphy: Dallas Cowboys. Don’t look now, but the Cowboys only have two home games remaining. While it’s been fun to see DeMarco Murray tear it up in the first half, we got a glimpse in Week 9 -- a Cowboys' loss to Arizona -- of what happens when Dallas opponents aren't overly concerned with the pass. Safeties crowd the box, Murray looks human (79 yards). In relief of Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden looked lousy. With Romo’s dodgy back an unsettling X-factor, the Cowboys slide right out of the postseason.
Niesen: Seattle Seahawks, because I don’t think two wild cards will make it out of the NFC West, and the Cardinals will win the division. Despite the dysfunction, the Seahawks still aren’t necessarily a bad team; I just think that between them and the 49ers, the 49ers have a better chance to play into January. Plus, the Seahawks' second-half schedule, while not the toughest in the league, certainly isn’t easy; the Chiefs, Cardinals (twice), 49ers (twice) and Eagles will all be challenges.
Game you're most looking forward to
Banks: Arizona at Seattle, Week 12 -- The plucky Cardinals were the only team to go into CenturyLink Field and win last year, and if they do it again in less than three weeks, they might just all but wrap up the NFC West race right then and there.
Bishop: What, no Dolphins-Jets on Monday Night Football in Week 13? A lot of choices here: Eagles-Packers in Week 11, Patriots-Packers in Week 13, Broncos-Chargers in Week 15. But because the NFC’s playoff picture is so muddled, I’m going Week 17, with two games both in the 4 o’clock window. That would be Cardinals at 49ers and Rams at Seahawks. Right now, three games separate Arizona from San Francisco in the NFC West standings, and the Seahawks lead the 49ers by a game. Lot of football left. I don’t see Arizona winning seven games in the second half, and I think this race will be close. It might come down to these final games in the season’s final week, with any combination of Dallas, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Detroit all watching closely.
Burke: Can I cheat and say the entire Thanksgiving Day schedule? Seriously, it's good: Chicago at Detroit, Philadelphia at Dallas, Seattle at San Francisco. Maybe a little luster is off the bookend games because the Bears and 49ers are having so much trouble at the moment, but it's rare that all three of the holiday showcases are really intriguing matchups. We could be talking about borderline must-wins for all six teams involved on Thanksgiving Day, including the Lions and Eagles, both current first-place teams -- the Eagles are down their starting QB; the Lions play Miami, Arizona and New England in the Turkey Day run-up.
Eagle: New England at Green Bay, Week 13. Tasty divisional matchups abound in the second half, but this possible Super Bowl matchup wins out for me. Two of the best quarterbacks in the game at Lambeau in late November? Yes, please.
Farrar: New England at Indianapolis, Week 11: This might be an early contest for home field through the AFC playoffs if the Colts can stay on track, and if the Broncos don't cruise through the second half of the season. One thing's for sure -- Andrew Luck is as productive as any quarterback we've seen in years, and Indy's redefined defense will provide a stern test for Tom Brady and his targets. If there's any doubt that Luck deserves consideration as one of the best at his position, he could eradicate them in this contest.
Murphy: Seattle at Arizona, Week 16: This will be Seattle’s final chance to show the world that, regardless of win-loss record, the defending champs are still the team to beat. Arizona, now 14-3 since the halfway point last season, is arguably the hottest team in the NFL. The Cardinals haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Oct. 13, 2013 (Frank Gore, 101), and will match up well against the Seahawks' potent ground game. Seattle, playing for its postseason life, will be forced to make that statement in the desert, rather than the friendly (and deafening) confines of CenturyLink Field -- a fitting test, considering that, if they’re going to make to make a playoff run this season, the Seahawks will be doing it without the 12th Man.
Niesen: Seahawks-49ers on Thanksgiving, because watching football is even better after I’ve eaten a meal fit for a defensive tackle. And despite me not having a ton of faith in either of these teams, these games are always good, and I think this one will be close. Plus, whoever wins this game could easily be the team of the two to make the playoffs.
Bold prediction for the second half
Banks: Move over 2008 Detroit Lions and 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs, you're going to have company in the record books. The Oakland Raiders will keep right on reeling in the season's second half, and won’t win a single game in 2014, recording the NFL's third "imperfect season'' of the league's modern era. With two games remaining against both Denver (6-2) and Kansas City (5-3), and other tough matchups with San Diego (5-4) and San Francisco (4-4), the Raiders' two best chances to win are in Week 13 at St. Louis (3-5) and at home against the AFC wild-card contending Buffalo Bills (5-3) in Week 16. When all is said and done, Oakland will finish 0-16 and own both the most embarrassing chapter in franchise history and the NFL's top draft pick for the first time since 2007 (think JaMarcus Russell).
Bishop: Mark Sanchez leads the Philadelphia Eagles into the playoffs. Yes, that Mark Sanchez, formerly of the New York Jets, a guy known for, among other things: consuming a hot dog on the sideline, collecting interceptions and, of course, The Buttfumble. It’s not so much about Sanchez here as it is about the Eagles’ system. Nobody considered Nick Foles a world-beater until he came into this offense and threw a bunch of touchdowns. Sanchez is surrounded by the same talent and could be at his best in that kind of system, with its fast pace and quick reads and short throws. He took the Jets to two AFC Championship Games by not losing games for them. With LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin and an improved defense, he can keep Philly in it until Foles returns.
Burke: The Raiders win two games. Oakland has been inching closer to a breakthrough, losing by three to San Diego and playing both Cleveland and Seattle close. So this can go one of two ways. Either the Raiders keep playing hard enough to pull off a couple upsets down the stretch, or they follow the path of the winless 2008 Lions and collapse under the disappointment -- it's easy to forget, but that Detroit team lost its games from Weeks 6-9 by an average of just 5.25 points. I'll bank on the former, mainly because the Raiders have more talent than those Lions did.
Eagle: DeMarco Murray won’t lead the league in rushing. Murray’s quest for 2,000 yards has been one of the stories of the season. It says here that second-half injuries derail the fragile running back’s pursuit of greatness, opening the door for LeVeon Bell or LeSean McCoy to steal the rushing crown.
Farrar: Andrew Luck will break the single-season record for passing attempts and passing yards. Detroit's Matthew Stafford has the current record for attempts with 727, and given Indy's pass-heavy gameplan (he's got 393 through nine games), Luck has a good shot at that mark. Peyton Manning set the passing yardage mark with 5,477 last season, and Luck's 3,085 yards through nine games is behind only the 3,249 Manning had through that same time period in 2013.
Murphy: Something’s gotta give in the once-vaunted NFC West. It will be the 49ers, who will long be haunted by the decision not to give Frank Gore the ball on the goal line against the Rams last Sunday. No player in NFL history has more rushing yards against St. Louis. No 49er has scored more career rushing TDs. Yet, to the surprise of even the Rams, the Niners tried a play-action pass, then a QB sneak that Colin Kaepernick fumbled.
Unable to find an offensive identity, the 4-4 49ers find themselves three games behind the Cardinals in the NFC West, a game behind the Seahawks for the final wildcard slot, with a trip to the Superdome awaiting. San Fran will finish the season 9-7, missing the playoffs. Jim Harbaugh will be the head coach in 2015 … for his alma mater, the Michigan Wolverines.
Niesen: Colt McCoy will win another NFL game. This is quite an about-face from the preseason, when I remember seeing McCoy's name on a roster and being shocked he was still in the NFL, but call me crazy: I didn't think he looked terrible for Washington against the Cowboys. Combine that with all of the drama surrounding Robert Griffin III and the fact that he still doesn't seem to know how to properly slide, and I think some combination of instability and injury will put him on the bench and McCoy under center.