By Steve Silverman
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The 2016 season could be a very strange one in the NFL. The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos are in a position where they have to retool, since they are going with an unknown and unproven quarterback in Trevor Siemian. For the record, Siemian was a respectable college quarterback – and nothing more – at Northwestern.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are two of the league’s most consistent power teams. The Pats will have to endure a four-game stretch without Tom Brady, and they traded away Chandler Jones, their most impactful defensive player. The Seahawks look fairly strong on paper, but there is a somewhat stale characteristic to Pete Carroll’s team.
The point is that it’s very difficult to pick out a team that is going to dominate this season. Even if there was one true standout team – the NFC champion Panthers are a possibility – that has rarely translated into a Super Bowl title in recent years.
It’s the team that gets hot for the postseason that will have the best chance to come away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Houston in February.
Here’s my look at how the season will unfold, along with my postseason forecast for the season that kicks off Thursday night in Denver.
New England Patriots (10-6) – The Pats will go 2-2 in their four games without Brady and then play respectable football the rest of the way. However, instead of asserting themselves with some blowout wins during the second half of the season, they will hang on for a bunch of nailbiters. They will win the AFC East, but their margin will be much smaller than it has been in previous seasons.
New York Jets (10-6) – A pair of losses to the Patriots will cost the Jets the division title, but head coach Todd Bowles continues to move the team in the right direction. The Jets become a playoff team thanks to the steady play of unappreciated quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the versatility of Matt Forte. The defense is one of the five best in the league.
Buffalo Bills (8-8) – More of the same for Rex Ryan, the Bills and their long-suffering fans. Buffalo can never avoid game-changing mistakes in crucial contests, and this season will show that Ryan is not the right man for the job. Sammy Watkins becomes a consistent star, but it won’t be enough.
Miami Dolphins (6-10) – Adam Gase was the hot assistant at the end of the 2015 season because he seemed to do a good job with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Hmm, Cutler was not the main cause of the Bears’ problems in 2015, but the team finished with a 6-10 record. It’s hard to see Ryan Tannehill turning potential into production this year.
Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) – When it comes to regular-season play, the Bengals have it down pat. They have a versatile offense led by Andy Dalton, a big-play wide receiver in A.J. Green and a defense that has shutdown capabilities. The postseason will again be their undoing.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in the past, and the Steelers have shown they are capable of playing their best football when the money is on the table. The combination of wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell needs to be healthy at the end of the season. If that happens, the Steelers may be unstoppable.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7) – The Ravens will be better and more competitive than they were a year ago when nearly every close game went against them. Joe Flacco is still a strong downfield passer, but his weapons are not outstanding. Special teams will help them stay afloat.
Cleveland Brown (4-12) – This time, it’s Hue Jackson’s turn to try to rescue this bumbling franchise. Cleveland fans may be able to look warmly at their NBA champion Cavaliers and the pitching-rich Indians, but the Browns remain a messy football team. Even if Robert Griffin III gets off to a decent start, he won’t be able to sustain his success.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6) – The Colts couldn’t get out of their own way last season, and quarterback Andrew Luck was very disappointing before injuries put him on the shelf for good in the second half of the season. Look for a strong bounceback season in a poor division.
Tennessee Titans (8-8) –The Titans have one of the up-and-coming stars in quarterback Marcus Mariota, and he will show marked improvement in his second season. Look for the Jurrell Casey-led defense to show it can stop opponents in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.
Houston Texans (8-8) – The Texans are banking on the combination of head coach Bill O’Brien and quarterback Brock Osweiler to take this team a long way. However, O’Brien will find himself out of a job, and Osweiler is not the answer.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) – If you listen to the analysts, the Jaguars are the up-and-coming team in the NFL, and they are supposedly capable of climbing the ladder. I don’t see it, as there will be too many growing pains and quarterback Blake Bortles is not a miracle man.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) – The Chiefs take the baton in the division from the Broncos, and they will get stronger as the season progresses. Look for Alex Smith to have his best season, and the Chiefs have the firepower on defense to dominate. Look for Justin Houston to return to the lineup and impose his will in the second half of the season.
Oakland Raiders (9-7) – The Raiders are on their way, but they won’t quite reach the playoffs in what could be their final season in Oakland. Derek Carr has a chance to become a top-10 quarterback in the league this year, while defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack has an excellent chance to win defensive MVP.
Denver Broncos (7-9) – This is a one-dimensional team that will ask Von Miller and the defense to win games. Unless they get a remarkable performance from C.J. Anderson and the running game, that will not be possible. The Broncos will fall by the wayside in the second half of the season.
San Diego Chargers (2-14) – The Chargers are a small-minded team, and that became evident from the way management treated first-round draft pick Joey Bosa during a protracted and nasty holdout. I feel empathy for quarterback Philip Rivers in what is almost certainly the team’s last season in San Diego. The Chargers will be the worst team in the league.
New York Giants (10-6) – It’s hard to look at Ben McAdoo and think he’s a championship-level coach. But quarterback Eli Manning thrived under him last year, and the offense should be consistent and productive again this year. If the defense can take advantage of new acquisitions Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison, this team will end their playoff schneid and win the division.
Washington Redskins (8-8) – If this team manages to win the division title for the second year in a row, Jay Gruden is going to establish himself as one of the top coaches in the game. Kirk Cousins is merely an ordinary quarterback who played over his head last year. The defense is competitive, but still could use some more speed.
Dallas Cowboys (7-9) – There was a lot of hype about the Cowboys in the offseason. But China doll quarterback Tony Romo is hurt once again, and he won’t be back before the damage will be done to the team’s season. While Ezekiel Elliott looks like a powerful running back, rookie Dak Prescott is going to struggle despite an impressive run in the offseason.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-12) – The Birds may have sacrificed an 8-8 season when they traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings late in training camp. That move may cost them during the 2016 season, but it will set them up for a much brighter future as a result of the draft picks they got for him.
Green Bay Packers (12-4) – The Packers were not the team they should have been last year. Their once-powerful offense was out of sync without underappreciated wideout Jordy Nelson and with overweight running back Eddie Lacy. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be on fire this year, and the defense will be opportunistic.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5) – The Vikings were deflated after last year’s wild-card loss to Seattle, and they took a body blow due to the season-ending knee injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bringing in Bradford will steady this team, and the defense and running game will help the Vikings recover nicely.
Chicago Bears (6-10) – John Fox usually makes his best coaching moves in his second year with a team. That was the case during his previous stops in Carolina and Denver, but the Bears have too many holes. The defense should be much improved with the addition of inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, but the offense will stutter without running back Matt Forte.
Detroit Lions (5-11) – The Lions’ biggest problem in recent years is that they make too many mistakes when the game is on the line. The talent level has regressed, and there’s no reason to think this team will be able to compete without superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson, now retired.
Carolina Panthers (12-4) – The loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 has stuck with Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton and should spur this team to another excellent regular season. Barring injuries, there should not be much slippage, although the loss of Josh Norman from the secondary will hurt.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) – Quarterback Jameis Winston had the wherewithal to learn from his early-season mistakes and have a respectable rookie season last year. He should take another step forward this year and get help from running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9) – It’s hard to figure out the Falcons under second-year head coach Dan Quinn. They got off to a brilliant start last year and could not sustain it. That is largely due to a defense that regularly gets pushed around by bigger and stronger teams.
New Orleans Saints (5-11) – The story of the Saints season goes back to Week 8 and their 52-49 win over the Giants. The Saints were absolutely awful on defense all season, and the Giants exposed them. Quarterback Drew Brees may be willing and somewhat capable, but his best days are behind him, and the defense will fall apart again.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) – The Cardinals made one of the best moves of the offseason when they pulled off a trade for Chandler Jones, one of the best pass rushers in the league. Look for Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald to lead the offense, and the defense is chock-filled with play makers like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7) — The Seahawks are a playoff team and they could overtake the Cardinals if they can avoid big mistakes at clutch moments. There are some problems in the locker room that could keep this team from playing its best football on a consistent basis.
Los Angeles Rams (7-9) – No disrespect to St. Louis, but the Rams playing in Los Angeles just sounds right for the team and the NFL. While there are quarterback issues, Todd Gurley could emerge as the league’s best running back this season.
San Francisco 49ers (4-12) – The talent level is not good enough to get out of the cellar, and new head coach Chip Kelly is not the guy to lead this team out of the abyss. The combination of Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback is disastrous.
AFC Wild Card: Pats over Jets; Steelers over Colts
AFC Divisional Playoffs: Chiefs over Pats; Steelers over Bengals
AFC Championship Game: Steelers over Chiefs
NFC Wild Card: Vikings over Giants; Seahawks over Cardinals
NFC Divisional Playoffs: Panthers over Seahawks; Vikings over Packers
NFC Championship Game: Panthers over Vikings
Super Bowl: Steelers over Panthers
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy