- Which game on each team's 2017 schedule could determine the franchise's fate this season?
Your favorite beat writer has likely already predicted your team’s win-loss record for the coming season in the weeks since the 2017 schedule came out. And more than likely, that record has a few more wins than what your team will finish with on New Year’s Eve. During my years as a beat guy, I was wrong more times than I was right when it came to predicting the games five months into the future.
Such is the nature of early predictions. Optimism is so high that at times it can warp reality.
Take, for example, ESPN’s NFL beat reporters, several of whom are friends of mine. Out of 32 writers, only six predicted the teams they cover will finish below .500 in 2017. This would be a mathematical impossibility, but picking just 16 games as opposed to all 256 can easily lead to more 10–6s and 11–5s than 4–12s.
In my first year of picking all 256 games for SI.com, I learned just how difficult it is to predict the future, and I reserve the right to be wrong. I made these picks with a few universal truths in mind before dissecting the schedule:
I believe the Patriots, Steelers and Packers are among the best teams in the NFL, and that they will profit from weaker divisions from top to bottom. They are the only teams I could give at least 12 wins.
One of the biggest reasons I couldn’t give the Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs, Cowboys or Giants more wins is because the NFC East plays the AFC West this year. I believe all five of those teams can be as good—if not better—than they were in 2016, but they’re going to beat up on each other throughout the season (which should better prepare the winners of each division for postseason play).
And finally, there’s great parity in the AFC South and NFC South. Both divisions have dealt with their share of jokes in recent years, but the AFC South appears to be a three-team race, and the NFC South has the past two NFC champs, in addition to future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and a Buccaneers team that’s ready to turn the corner.
All that said, here’s a look at how I see the 2017 NFL regular season playing out for all 32 teams, including a look at the one game on the schedule that could determine each club’s fate.
Projected record: 13–3
The Patriots have averaged about three losses per season in the past seven years, which have included three trips to the Super Bowl trips and two championships. The forever-caveat when it comes to Bill Belichick’s team is that they’ll be fine in the regular season so long as nothing happens to Tom Brady. New England should easily win their 14th AFC East title in the last 15 years in 2017.
Pivotal game: Week 10 at Broncos. New England’s second-half schedule is loaded, and the Patriots head to Denver coming off their Week 9 bye. They’ll face consecutive high-altitude games when they face the Raiders in Mexico City the following week, so getting a win in Denver (where Brady is 3–7 all-time) would be a good way to set the tone for the start of their second half.
Projected record: 8–8
A .500 record for the Dolphins—a team that made the playoffs last year—may seem surprising, because Adam Gase is one of the best young coaches in the game, and Ryan Tannehill is much better than people give him credit for. But keep in mind that the Dolphins have to face the AFC West and NFC South this year. Miami’s 8–8 record is more out of respect to its opponents than it is disrespecting what the Dolphins are building.
Pivotal game: Week 10 at Panthers. A win in Carolina would prove me wrong (I think the Panthers will win here) and help Miami head into its late by in Week 11 with positive momentum ahead of its monstrous slate of games out of the bye—the Dolphins get the Patriots, Broncos and Patriots in consecutive weeks after their week of rest.
Projected record: 4-11-1
Prognosticators should run away from Buffalo’s dysfunction, not to it. With the Pegulas firing Doug Whaley, it’s apparently first-year coach Sean McDermott’s club for the time being. His move to take the pool tables out of the locker room sounds good until you realize the Falcons went to the Super Bowl with three ping-pong tables in their locker room last year. And the Bills don’t seem to like or appreciate their above-average quarterback. Prepare for a step back in 2017.
Pivotal game: Week 7 vs. Buccaneers. Buffalo has a Week 6 bye and finishes the season with six games against teams who could make the playoffs. If the Bills want to be taken seriously, they need some early wins. Tampa Bay will be coming off consecutive games hosting the Patriots and traveling to Arizona.
Projected record: 3–13
There may not be a worse roster, from top to bottom, in the league than the Jets. New York has missed out on the playoffs the past six years (though they did have 10 wins two years ago), and there’s no indication that streak will be snapped this year. The one bright side for the Jets this season? This may be rock bottom—the team can only go up from here.
Pivotal game: Week 4 vs. Jaguars. New York has back-to-back games against teams that figure to be at the bottom of the league in 2017. The Jets host the Jags and then travel to Cleveland early in the season. This is the best opportunity to win games for a roster that isn’t very good.
Projected record: 12–4
The Steelers boast the best offensive trio in football in Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown; had Bell been healthy, his team likely would have put up more of a fight in the 2017 AFC title game in January. This season, Pittsburgh should start 5–0 before facing Kansas City with games against the Browns, Vikings, Bears, Ravens and Jaguars on the slate.
Pivotal game: Week 15 vs. Patriots. By this point both teams should be in the playoffs with their division titles (almost) wrapped up. The Patriots have participated in the past six AFC title games, so the odds are good that the Steelers will have to get past New England in the postseason. The best way to prepare for the Patriots in January is to play them in December.
Projected record: 9–7
The Ravens are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight year for the first time since 1997–99, which means that John Harbaugh’s seat is very much getting warm. Baltimore was active in free agency but mostly on the defensive side of the ball; Joe Flacco needs more than Danny Woodhead signing to improve from the 21st-ranked scoring offense in the league.
Pivotal game: Week 8 vs. Dolphins. Baltimore closes the first half of its schedule with a Thursday night contest against Miami, coming off a trip back from Minnesota on just four days rest. At this point, the Ravens will already be playing catch-up to the Steelers—can they stay in the mix, or will they fall even further behind?
Projected record: 9–7
Here’s another AFC North team with a coach who could be on the hot seat. Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL today, but he won’t be able to afford missing the playoffs in consecutive years on top of five years of wild-card futility. The Bengals caught some tough breaks last season by losing seven of nine by a possession. Starting the season against Baltimore, Houston, Green Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo could give the Bengals a 4–1 start going into their bye.
Pivotal game: Week 17 at Ravens. This game could decide who gets a wild card and who stays home. Both the Bengals and Ravens will have to deal with a competitive AFC West, so nine wins may not cut it for a wild-card berth.
Projected record: 2–14
There’s cause for some optimism in Cleveland, but you have to know this season won’t bear much fruit in terms of wins. The Browns strengthened their offensive line and continued to add to their receiving corps even after years of mistakes at that position. They didn’t screw up the top pick and got versatile Jabrill Peppers. I appreciate Cleveland not forcing the issue at QB, but I have a bad feeling Brock Osweiler will be the starter come Week 1.
Pivotal game: Week 11 vs. Jaguars. I considered being sarcastic and saying there is no pivotal game on the schedule for the Browns this year... But remember the emotion in Hue Jackson’s face when they beat the Chargers on Christmas Eve 2016? Cleveland has to build on the one-win season in order for tanking to work. There aren’t many Ws on the schedule, but Jacksonville is the first winnable game for the Browns.
Projected record: 11–5
Five primetime games in 2017? The Raiders are back, baby! ...Well, as long as Derek Carr comes back healthy from his broken leg. Oakland opens with three of its first four on the road, and I have them dropping games in Tennessee and Denver as the Raiders try to find the same magic from the first 15 games last season. After that, the machine that Reggie McKenzie has built should get double-digit wins again.
Pivotal game: Week 7 vs. Chiefs. Kansas City went undefeated in the AFC West last year and beat the Raiders by a combined 24 points in their two meetings. In fact, it was Carr’s lackluster performances against the Chiefs (52 percent completion rate, one touchdown, one interception) that doomed his MVP chances. Oakland needs this Thursday night home win.
Projected record: 11–5
If Trevor Siemian is their guy, the Broncos better hope he’s the first-half-of-2016 Siemian and not the one from the second half. To start the season last year, Siemian threw eight touchdowns and just three interceptions en route to a 5–1 record. But he skidded to the finish, throwing ten touchdowns and seven picks with a 3–5 record. The Broncos still have their defense, but 27th in total offensive yards will have them sitting at home in January again.
Pivotal game: Week 9 at Eagles. It drives me crazy when people misuse “trap game.” This is what a trap game truly is: when there are big games on either side of what appears to be a less-meaningful game, said game is trapped. The Broncos travel to Kansas City on Monday night in Week 8 and host New England on Sunday night in Week 10. In between is a trip to Philly. Don’t get trapped.
Projected record: 11–5
The Chiefs’ opponents will spend all off-season trying to figure out a way to stop Tyreek Hill, and two things will happen: either the team won’t stop him, or it will but it won’t matter. Andy Reid has a team that can score on offense, defense and special teams—even after losing Dontari Poe (and with a healthy Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Marcus Peters), Kansas City can be a top-five scoring defense.
Pivotal game: Week 11 at Giants. You’re going to get tired of seeing the Chiefs this year with their six scheduled primetime games (the sixth is a Week 15 Saturday match against the Chargers). But a game that has the potential to be just as good—if not better—than those is the mid-November tilt in New York. The Giants defense can slow the Chiefs, and Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Peters will be great theater.
Projected record: 7-8-1
If the team stays healthy, the Chargers should be much better than their projected record. But they play in football’s toughest division, and it’s unclear how the move and playing in front of just 30,000 home fans will affect them. If Jason Verrett and Keenan Allen can get back on their pre-injury trajectories and Mike Williams can catch the jumpballs he did at Clemson, I’d be more than glad to eat this prediction and see Philip Rivers get another postseason try.
Pivotal game: Week 11 vs. Bills. Here’s where I have the tie, and it’s a convenient cop-out since I can’t figure who will win this game. The Chargers go into their Week 9 bye having faced the Giants, Raiders, Broncos and Patriots, and they come out with a trip to Jacksonville before hosting Anthony Lynn’s former team.
Projected record: 10–6
It’s been nine years since Kerry Collins and Cortland Finnegan led the 13–3 Titans to the playoffs, and this season will be the closest the team has come to returning to the postseason. Just like Carr, this prediction hinges on Marcus Mariota returning to full health from his broken leg. The Titans have a top-three offensive line protecting their franchise quarterback.
Pivotal game: Week 12 at Colts. The Titans haven’t won in Indianapolis in the past 11 tries, but that should come to an end this year. Tennessee will be coming off a tough Thursday night game in Pittsburgh, but the extra days of rest will help in Week 12 in Indy. A road win against the Colts will prove this team is finally ready to take the next step.
Projected record: 8–8
My concern is that Ryan Grigson’s roster inaction and poor draft moves have done so much damage to the Colts that they won’t be able to play out from under his shadow in 2017 even with Chris Ballard calling the shots. Adding Johnathan Hankins bolsters the defensive front, but that defense isn’t strong enough to last down the stretch. It will, however, be refreshing to see a healthy Andrew Luck under center.
Pivotal game: Week 8 at Bengals. The truly pivotal game is the one mentioned above against the Titans, but in the spirit of variety I picked another. The Colts will be coming off a win against Jacksonville, while the Bengals will have traveled to Pittsburgh the week before. Luck is 2–1 against the Bengals in his career with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Projected record: 7–9
Forgive me for not having the same sort of confidence in Tom Savage as Houston apparently does. In five career games and 92 career passes, Savage has never thrown a touchdown—but he’s only thrown one pick, and that’s a much better rate than Brock Osweiler. (Who knows, perhaps Deshaun Watson wins that training camp battle.) Houston’s defense could be historically great with a healthy J.J. Watt, but Savage is too much of an unknown at the sport’s most important position to predict a fourth-straight AFC South title.
Pivotal game: Week 16 vs. Steelers. It’s possible the Steelers will be holding back at this point in the season, and the Texans would much rather see Landry Jones under center and no Bell or Brown on the field. Houston getting the 49ers, Jaguars and the Steelers’ second-string between Weeks 14–16 could change the team’s fortunes.
Projected record: 4–12
There’s a great deal of excitement around the Jaguars because of their active free agency and with Tom Coughlin back in the building as executive VP, overseeing all football matters. But the Jaguars’ problem is at quarterback—Blake Bortles didn’t get better in Year 3 and no one in Jacksonville, including Bortles, is sugarcoating it. I’m not going to fall for the trap that this is Jacksonville’s year.
Pivotal game: Week 6 vs. Rams. The NFL spared us from seeing the Jaguars in primetime this season, but the team still has to go overseas to face the Ravens in Week 3. That kicks off three games outside of Jacksonville (even if it’s technically a “home” game) before the Jags return home to face the Rams. Nine of the Jaguars’ past 11 wins over three seasons have come at home.
Projected record: 9–7
O.K., Dak. Let’s see if you can do it again. Count me among the early-season doubters of Prescott who believed that he would fall back to earth after a solid September. Clearly I was wrong, but Cowboys fans of the past 21 years should know that one season of success does not necessarily roll into two. With a better pass rush this season, Dallas can get back to the playoffs, and Jerry Jones took the right first step in getting Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton at the end of the first round of the draft.
Pivotal game: Week 14 at Giants. The Cowboys have three home games before their return trip to New York, including extra days’ rest since they face Washington on Thursday night the week before. Meanwhile, the Giants will have just returned from a grueling trip to Oakland. This game will go a long way in determining the NFC East with a tough Raiders-Seahawks-Eagles finish for Dallas.
Projected record: 9–7
As a reminder, these low win totals in the NFC East are a product of beating up on each other and facing the AFC West. These Giants will be much better than your typical 9–7 team. Eli Manning can close his eyes and hit Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham Jr. or Sterling Shepard (so long as whichever pass rusher is beating tackle Ereck Flowers off the left side doesn’t get to Manning first). This team feels like a postseason contender if it can stay away from the boats.
Pivotal game: Week 12 at Washington. The Giants head to FedEx Field for the Thanksgiving night game after hosting a great Chiefs team the Sunday before. These teams have split the series the past two seasons, and a holiday win against a rival in primetime is as big a confidence boost as you can get in the regular season.