With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror, it is a perfect time to revisit my preseason NFL predictions, some of which were included in a September DanLand column. While some of my predictions were right on the money, others could not have been further off. For the sake of accountability, I have been sure to include both my accurate and inaccurate predictions in this column, along with corresponding grades.
Several of my accurate predictions that I do not have space to reflect on in length include picking (1) the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans to play in the Wild Card Round, (2) the Los Angeles Rams to knock off the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round, (3) the Los Angeles Chargers to play the New England Patriots in the Divisional Round (however, I incorrectly picked the Chargers to win that game) and (4) New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Conversely, I did not anticipate that the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks would reach the playoffs.
1. The Chargers break through to reach the AFC Championship Game, as Anthony Lynn takes home Coach of the Year Honors: B
Los Angeles is a talented team that every year seemingly adds more and more high-quality players to its roster. It was only a matter of time before the Chargers finally broke through to put themselves in position to legitimately contend in the AFC. The team finished 12-4, went 7-1 on the road and won its first playoff game in five years. Lynn did indeed do a great job with Los Angeles, and he finished second to only the Chicago Bears’ Matt Nagy in the Coach of the Year voting. However, his team was absolutely thrashed by the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Due to the manner in which they were completely dismantled, the Chargers did not quite live up to what I believed was their full potential.
2. The Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars make it to Wild Card Weekend: F
Both of these teams have impressed with deep playoff runs in recent seasons; their 2018 campaigns were a different story. Atlanta finished a mediocre 7-9 and was no doubt hampered by a number of injuries that caused key players to miss significant playing time. However, with a roster led by a former MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan and arguably the most dynamic wide receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones, the Falcons could have and should have been better. The team’s midseason five-game losing streak was the nail in the coffin of what turned out to be an extremely disappointing season.
As for the Jaguars, just about whatever could go wrong on offense did go wrong, and there was nothing Jacksonville’s elite defense could do to save the team’s season. Quarterback Blake Bortles was so abysmal that he temporarily lost his starting job after signing a $54 million extension in the offseason, running back Leonard Fournette was frequently unavailable and none of the team’s receivers stepped up to become a reliable No. 1 target. When your team finishes with the No. 31 scoring offense in the NFL and wins only one game against a divisional opponent, a 5-11 overall record is probably the best you can hope for.
3. The Minnesota Vikings fall back to earth and miss out on the playoffs: A
When I said that Minnesota would not qualify for the playoffs this season, I didn’t say they would be terrible. I merely believed that there were a number of factors that would lead to a slight regression. All of the factors that I cited in my September column panned out. The NFC North proved tougher than it was in 2017, Kirk Cousins was not a significant upgrade over Case Keenum at quarterback, Dalvin Cook struggled to stay healthy at running back, the offensive line was dreadful and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was not even able to keep his job for the entire season. In the end, the NFC proved to be just a little too deep and the 8-7-1 Vikings fell short of the playoffs by a half a game.
4. The Cowboys capture the NFC East, while the Philadelphia Eagles nab a Wild Card spot: A
The NFC East is always a tough division to predict, but this season, it was even more difficult, as it was tempting to go ahead and pencil in the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles as a repeat division winner. However, I stuck with a trend that has held perfectly since the 2004 season, which is that no team wins the NFC East in consecutive seasons. Philadelphia still had a strong season, and its inability to win the division was not as much about suffering a Super Bowl hangover as it was about enduring a first place schedule and having to take every opponent’s best shot. All things considered, the Eagles fared relatively well as defending champions go.
The Cowboys during this particular season were just a bit too much to handle for the Eagles and showed it during their two narrow victories over Philly. On offense, running back Ezekiel Elliott was out for vengeance after missing six games in 2017 due to suspension, and Amari Cooper — who was acquired in a midseason trade — provided quarterback Dak Prescott with a much needed No. 1 option. The defense was also formidable, with DeMarcus Lawrence delivering his second consecutive Pro Bowl season at end and Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith coming into their own at the linebacker position.
5. The Kansas City Chiefs regress in quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first year as a starting quarterback: F
There is not much to be said here. Simply put, Mahomes was absolutely brilliant. Does he have to improve his play against elite opponents? Yes. But a 5,000 yard, 50 touchdown, MVP campaign, a 12-4 overall record, a No. 1 seed and an AFC Championship Game appearance, all in one’s first year as a starter? That’s nothing to scoff at. Kansas City undoubtedly has its man of the future in Mahomes.
6. Behind quarterback Drew Brees’ MVP year, the New Orleans Saints get the NFC’s No. 1 seed but don’t make the Super Bowl: A
After suffering a heartbreaking defeat in last season’s “Minneapolis Miracle,” you had to think that the Saints would be out for blood this year. And they certainly were. New Orleans clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs and had it not been for Mahomes, Brees would have been the MVP. However, while the Saints were annihilating teams early on — especially over the course of a 10-game winning streak — they started to show signs of weakness as the regular season wound down. It is hard to take credit for saying that I correctly predicted that the Saints would fall short of the Super Bowl because ultimately, they were the victims of the most untimely, egregious no-call I have ever seen. It is fair to say, though, that the New Orleans team and the Drew Brees we saw toward the end of their run were not nearly as utterly dominant as they had been earlier on.
7. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers meet in the Super Bowl: F
There is no excuse for Pittsburgh’s absence from the playoffs. I won’t even blame it on Le’Veon Bell’s holdout because that doesn’t do anything to explain the team’s Week 14 loss to the pathetic Oakland Raiders, which, for all intents and purposes, kept them out of postseason play. Also, James Conner was a Pro Bowler at the position, so you can’t really say that there was a significant lack of production out of the backfield. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger creeping toward retirement and Bell and stud wide receiver Antonio Brown both likely out the door before next season, I can’t help but think that the window may have closed on the Steelers’ hopes to win another championship during the Roethlisberger era.
On the other hand, it is very clear why Green Bay missed out on the playoffs: They’re just a bad football team. The Packers gave up 31 points and lost to the Detroit Lions. Twice! They also couldn’t muster a victory in Green Bay against the futile Arizona Cardinals. The Packers can hope all they want that the introduction of Matt LaFleur as the new head coach will breathe new life into their organization. But until they develop a sound defense, build a competent offensive line and give quarterback Aaron Rodgers a playmaker beyond wide receiver DaVante Adams, they will be a long way off from any sort of sustainable success and will continue to waste the final years of Rodgers’ prime.