The film that NFL coaches circulate—the so-called All-22 tape—is silent. There are no on-screen graphics, no close-ups between snaps. One camera captures the field from a sideline, the other from behind the line of scrimmage. Football is presented as a geometric exercise. And it’s riveting.
That film is how I watch 90% of NFL games. Through that, I’ve come to learn that the difference between good teams and bad ones is as subtle as the difference between white and eggshell white. Any outfit I project for even six wins could very well make a Super Bowl run. Truly. I had to choose 20 teams to miss the playoffs, and 15 of those left me uneasy.
At least I feel great about the teams I did project to make the postseason. The Giants have a star-studded D and a markedly improved offense. The Bucs, too, bolstered an already rising O. The Vikings have the NFC’s best defense . . . unless the Seahawks do . . . or maybe it’s the young Falcons.
The final obstacle on Atlanta’s path to Super Bowl LI, Green Bay, appears even more dangerous than before. Aaron Rodgers’s weapons have matured, and his arsenal has expanded. And it’s hard to imagine that the Packers’ D, after some secondary tweaks, won’t be stronger. Is it an exceptional unit? No. But can it hold foes under 30 points? You bet. That’s all Rodgers needs to take Green Bay to its first Super Bowl since 2010.
In the AFC you could do worse in your fantasy draft than to choose Steelers exclusively—Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown . . . and now receiver Martavis Bryant is back. All of that, plus a top three O-line and an improving young defense? Sheesh. Meanwhile, the D in Baltimore got stingier, inching toward classic Ravens status. The Chiefs are the best-schemed team in their division, the Raiders the most talented. The Titans are an intriguing mix of both.
Of course, none of these teams compares with the Patriots, that franchise you either outright love or outright hate. I searched for the courage to pick against New England, but common sense kept getting in the way. A team that went 17–2 one year ago has gotten better on both sides of the ball, even if you consider Julian Edelman’s ACL tear. Rob Gronkowski appears to be healthy; electrifying receiver Brandin Cooks arrived from the Saints; and with the additions of Rex Burkhead (Bengals) and Mike Gillislee (Bills), there are now more capable runners on this roster than in the entire central time zone. Then there’s the D, which gave up a league-low 15.6 points per game last year, then added a stud corner, Stephon Gilmore. (Have we even mentioned Messrs. Brady and Belichick?) I’ll go with the Pats over the Pack, who, while talented, run too hot and cold.
1. New England Patriots (14–2)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11–5)
3. Oakland Raiders (10–6)
4. Tennessee Titans (10–6)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (10–6)
6. Baltimore Ravens (9–7)
Wild Card: Ravens over Raiders, Chiefs over Titans
Divisional Round: Patriots over Ravens, Steelers over Chiefs
Championship Game: Patriots over Steeleers
1. Atlanta Falcons (12–4)
2. Minnesota Vikings (11–5)
3. Seattle Seahawks (11–5)
4. New York Giants (10–6)
5. Green Bay Packers (11–5)
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10–6)
Wild Card: Seahawks over Bucs, Packers over Giants
Divisional Round: Vikings over Seahawks, Packers over Falcons
Championship Game: Packers over Vikings
SUPER BOWL LII
Feb. 4, 2018, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis