Thursday, September 8, 2016

2016 Divisional Predictions - Patriots, Panthers Concensus Picks

As told to Gern Blanston

The Patriots' Prognosticators are a bunch of homers...

Well, kind of, considering that only two of the four actually line in New England - but the fact remains that all four - Randy, Sara, Scott and Mike - chose their beloved Patriots to win the AFC East for the eighth consecutive season, despite incessant claims from the fans of the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins that 2016 is going to THEIR year to supplant the hated Patriots as kings of the east.

But in an effort to drag these folks out of their closely cropped comfort zone that most die hard Patriots' fans envelop themselves in, we tasked them to think outside the box.

The Patriots' Prognosticators is a social media group on Facebook, the aforementioned administrators of the group putting together their predictions for all divisions in the National Football League at the start of each season, and again before each week's games commence - which is key because all of them would agree that they are football fans, not just Patriots' fans.

Sara lives in Chicago Bears' country while Scott reports from Ravens' territory, adding to the already eclectic mix of Maine transplant Mike, who hails from Utah and was forced to endure Denver Broncos broadcasts growing up, and Randy, who is from the Foxborough area and now resides in the weird little state of New Hampshire.

The group itself promotes fandom on several different levels and from many different cultures and promotes to it's members that to know the sport of football is to eschew what the paid hacks have to say, and to investigate this great sport for themselves.  Football is going increasingly international and The Patriots' Prognosticators are one of only a handful of Facebook groups that cater to the language and knowledge barriers.

Not that there isn't a button to translate entire pages of text, but that's not what this is about.

Football is a language all it's own.  It knows no boundaries, it's not even territorial except on the field of play - the terminology it conveys is based on it's action, and the often-times funky rules all come with hand signals and yellow flags - in fact, compared to most sports, football has an excessive number of rules and it's commissioner is a narcissistic blowhard that would suspend his own mother if she served him cold vichyssoise...

...but vichyssoise is meant to be served cold, and football was meant to be played in cold weather, lest it would be a summer sport, no?  Domed stadiums are a uniquely American ideal, so thank goodness that the Prognosticators - heretofore referred to as "Progs" - are fans of a team that plays in the elements and enjoy a homefield advantage in the dead of winter, as Foxborough can be a terribly cold place to have a game of anything.

In fact, Patriots' fans everywhere can rejoice on this front, as their opening night contest against the Arizona Cardinals is the only game on their docket scheduled to be played in a domed stadium, and even then, the roof is retractable, and a day in the nineties could give way to an evening in the seventies, a perfect occasion to open the roof in Glendale.

And, yes.  This incessant rambling.  But it can't be helped because football season is finally here - a time when every team is tied for their division lead and all teams have hope, misguided and desperate as that hope may be...

AFC East: New England Patriots (Consensus)

Confidence abounds with all members, with Sara predicting a 13-3 season and Scott brashly stating that, "Brady could be suspended for all 16 games and the Patriots would still win the division." - and Scott certainly has the 2008 season to fall back on as far as a Patriots' team producing a winning record, but the fact remains that Brady will be back in week five.

The saving grace in this scenario is that the NFL schedule makers did the Patriots a huge solid by scheduling three of their first four games at home, and all of those games against teams that they should be able to beat, Brady or no.  In these games, both Sara and Scott share the same mindset in spotting Brady a 3-1 record, while Randy and Mike are being a bit more cautious...

...knowing that the Texans are a wildcard in that their offense is largely an unknown at this point, though they dominated in the preseason, and that division games are never a given, so games against Buffalo and Miami are no gimme's, as their 2-2 outlook suggests.

Analysis: There's not an easy game in the batch.  The Cardinals are the preemptive favorites to win the NFC title that they practically handed to Carolina last January, as Arizona is prone to a stinker every now and then, and tend to collapse in big games, while the Texans are a relatively unknown quantity on offense, but all indications are that they are high-octane and capable of scoring in bunches.

Nothing need be said about facing a division rival, as the Bills and Dolphins will bring everything they have, as a win against New England in this circumstance is solid gold in tie-breaking circles, and since both games are at Foxborough, a win also makes the odds of a season sweep go up incrementally when the Patriots have to travel to their digs later in the season.

These four games to start the season could have far-reaching impact in the division race.

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers (Majority)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the majority vote from the Progs, but the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have procured votes as well.

The Steelers are perennial favorites in this division, and it would surprise no one if they actually did clinch the division, while Cincinnati has laid claim to a title or two in the past half dozen seasons, as has Baltimore.  It seems that the only thing the Progs can agree upon is the already universal decree that anything the Cleveland Browns touch turns to mud.

The reasoning behind the picks are varied.  For instance, Scott chose the Bengals to win the division because of what he claims is their consistency, but also goes on to admit that this could be the most competitive division in all of football, while Randy chose a close race between The Steelers and the Ravens, with Pittsburgh nosing out the birds - Sara went with Pittsburgh as well, while Mike selected the Ravens, though it made him whimper like a lost puppy to do so...

Analysis: The NFC North is always a Persian bazaar - lots of loud and obnoxious barkers that draw the crowds in with promises of a quality product, but it's always a crap shoot as to whether they deliver or not.

The lone entity from last season who could absolutely upset the apple carts in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the Baltimore Ravens. I selected the Ravens to win the division based on their performance last season, which saw them lose eleven games, but only three of those by more than five points...

...this despite the fact that their offense was in shambles from the very start with debilitating injuries. including losing quarterback Joe Flacco to an ACL for almost half of the season.  Things got so bad that they actually brought in and started former Patriot Ryan Mallett.

AFC South: Indianapolis (Majority)

Surprisingly, the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars got no love from anyone, while the hot and cold Indianapolis Colts and their weird participation trophy mentality took the majority decision.

The only dissenting vote coming from Mike, who likes the Houston Texans to take this, the flakiest of all divisions - based on the fact that he hates the Colts with all of his being, and also that they managed a winning record and a playoff berth despite starting four different quarterbacks, including the aforementioned Mallett and his New England sidekick Brian Hoyer. Throw the insufferable Brandon Weeden into that mix and you have a recipe for mediocrity...

...yet they ended up winning the division, albeit with a mediocre record. The reason? A stout defense that ranked third in the league and limited six of their opponents to single-digits in scoring.  The one unknown for them is how new quarterback Brock Osweiller performs once the games start to count - so based on the unknown alone, the Colts win by default.

Analysis: Don't be surprised to see the Tennessee Titans make some noise.  They have a devastating running game that could be all about chewing clock and keeping scores low.  With the right adjustments on defense, they could nose their way into the picture.  That said, this division could go sideways at any moment.

Jacksonville is right on the cusp of something proper and could very well sneak into wildcard consideration.  The point being that every team in this division did things to improve themselves immensely in the offseason, all except for Indianapolis who returns, essentially, the same team that embarrassed themselves in 2015.

AFC West: Oakland Raiders (Majority)

With a killer defense and a vastly improving offense, the Oakland Raiders are the trendy pick to win the AFC West in 2016 - but two of our Progs aren't buying it.

Sara is sticking with the world champion Denver Broncos (Ouch, that freaking hurts to write) regardless of their dicey quarterback situation - any quarterback competition that involves Mark Sanchez has one strike against it already - but he's been sliced out of the picture, losing out to rookie and a second-year unknown.

Randy and Scott are all about the Silver and Black.

Mike is being a fence sitter and calling on the Kansas City Chiefs to grasp the golden ring due to them being the most consistent of the four teams in the division

Analysis: there are seasons when division titles are won by teams who just stay the course and are the most consistent, and in the AFC West, it looks like this kind of season.  Denver lost both of their starting quarterbacks from 2015, as Peyton Manning retired on active duty and his heir apparent gave Gary Kubiak the finger for benching him late in the season when he was clearly the top option at the position...

...but they weren't very good on offense with either guy down the stretch - none of their playmakers made enough plays to overcome the mediocrity and so Denver simply rode their defense to a world title.  Oakland is improved and may be the one team that could match them physically, while San Diego is busy making their offseason plans already.

That leaves Kansas City, who didn't do much of anything in the offseason, choosing to stay the company line with a team that nearly edged out the Broncos for the division. 

NFC East: New York Giants (Majority)

The only one of the division races that we had to bring in a private arbitrator to settle the issue.

According to Article 46 of the Patriots' Prognosticators Collective Bitching Agreement, an independent arbitrator is to be called upon in the event of a deadlock, so the Progs called in former member Jack Lavoie, who is also a native New Englander - and it just so happens that he despises the Giants just as much as the rest of them...

...which is neither here nor there, as Jack is proper and fair and wouldn't think of diluting the reputation of the page by letting his heart get in the way of his good sense.

That said, the freaking Giants, Jack?

"I don't like any of the teams." Jack said upon being contacted to break a tie between the Giants and Dallas Cowboys. "but if I had break the tie I would go with the New York Football Giants. Defense should be better (but not great) and having a new coach often gives a team a bump in year one."

He continued rambling until we muted the messaging, but not before he mentioned that he thought it would come down to a tie breaker for the division title, with both New York and Dallas at 9-7.

Analysis: Watching the teams in this division play has to be frustrating for their fans, as it seems each week the individual squads do everything that they can to throw away their chances of winning a division title, and when one finally does win it, their exit from the postseason is exacerbated by foolishness.

Except for the Giants, for reasons we can't get into here, as it seems that they sandbag their way through the regular season, then pour it on in the postseason.  For this very reason, Jack may be right when he selected the Giants to win the division - combined with the fact that the Eagles haven't been relevant since Dick Vermiel and the Redskins won the division last season purely by default, his choice is perhaps the wisest...

...though if rookie sensation - in the preseason, anyway - Dak Prescott turns out to be the real deal and does a "Brady" to Tony Romo's "Bledsoe", the Cowboys have more than enough on the offensive side of the ball to take the shirts and caps.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers (Majority)

Mike flat refuses to vote for the Packers, while the rest of the crew are all on board with the Cheeseheads.

"All you have to do is look at the Patriots from last season to form a baseline on the Packers" he said "The Patriots lost five core offensive skill position players in the space of six weeks, and still came within two points of going to the Super Bowl, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson and folded like a cheap tent."

Indeed, but now Nelson is back and Mike's pick of the Minnesota Vikings seems tenuous at best with the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season, but he feels that their running game and defense can carry the team to a title, particularly if they find a veteran quarterback that can manage  games for them - and there were reports that Vikings management would be willing to spend whatever it takes to get a competent starter in house, be it by trade or luck...

...and sure enough, they shelled out first round draft capital to Philadelphia for the fragile and moody Sam Bradford.  Hey, it could have been Mark Sanchez...

Analysis: The Packers have been the steadiest of all the teams in the division over the past several seasons, pretty much because the other three teams can't seem to get out of their own way - but make no mistake, the Vikings are for real.

They may have lost their starting quarterback, but there may not be another team in the league set up to absorb the loss of their signal caller than Minnesota, what with their top five running attack coupled with their top five defense, the recipe is there for Minnesota to engage in low-scoring, grind-it-out football, typical of the North.

The Packers have the same setup, except that their defense was atrocious last season and they really did nothing to remedy that.  That said, it's a two-team race in this division, and it could come down to whether Bradford ever becomes the quarterback everyone thought he was coming out of college.

NFC South: Carolina Panthers (Consensus)

The Panthers are the choice, purely by default in the league's most boring division.

Yes, boring.  Filled with perennial losers, there always seems to be a team that rises up and runs away with the south, and for the past three seasons, that team has been the Panthers - and to understand just how bad the rest of the teams have been in that time span, only the 2013 New Orleans Saints have finished above .500... boring in fact, that I'm done talking about this division.  We're onto the NFC West.

 Analysis: The NFC South has had just Two world champions in the history of all the division's franchises.  Time was, the Falcons and Saints served in the NFC West, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was member of the AFC West as an expansion team and joined the old NFC Central the following season.

So what? Yeah, so what.  All except the Panthers have been perennial losers, with the Falcons never being quite good enough, the Bucs setting records for mediocrity since their inception and the fans of the Saints wearing paper bags on their heads with the word "Aints" emblazoned across the front - curiously, however, each has been to a Super Bowl, but none in the past seven seasons.

The Panthers had their shot against a wounded Broncos team last February, but the Panther offense limped off into the hills to die a nationally televised death, getting stomped by the feisty Denver defense.  It remains to be seen what effect that game will have on quarterback Cam Newton and, truth be told, he looked horrible in the preseason.

Good thing for the Panthers that they play in the worst division in professional football...

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals (Majority)

Sara continues to be the odd-man out out west.  Even though she's a chick.

Previously, we've seen her stick with the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos in the AFC, and now she sticks to her antics by selecting the Seattle Seahawks as her projected NFC West division champions.

Lord knows she has history to fall back on and the fellas don't, so she brings a measure of common sense to testosterone alley, claiming that those flying rats will take a division that promises to be entertaining, if nothing else, as the Rams have returned to their (secondary) roots in Los Angeles and the 49ers have Chip Kelly and a quarterback who is a better loose cannon than an actual quarterback...

...and then, there are the two teams that each have a legitimate chance to take the division.  The Cardinals or Seahawks have taken the division title ten out of the last dozen seasons, with the Seahawks holding an edge in that department 7-3.

In fairness, all of the Progs had a difficult time with this one, and all of them had both of the teams making the playoffs, either as division champions or as a wildcard.  It really should be that close.

Analysis: The Cardinals are now the odds-on favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but that's going to take some doing, as first they have to get past the violent Seahawks just to win the division, then hope and pray that Carson Palmer shows up for the playoffs, as he has a tendency to disappear in the biggest of moments.

The Seahwaks, on the other hand, are battle-hardened and are finally healthy after a dismal season on the injury front last season that saw them lose their top two offensive weapons for the majority of the season.  It's no wonder that the Progs all had a tough time with this division.

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