With the 2015-2016 NFL season on the books, it’s naturally time to move on. But move on to the off-season? Boring. Moving on to predicting next season’s division winners? Yes. Too early? Probably. Will all my predictions be correct? Definitely (a maybe). Without further ado, your 2016-2017 Division Winners! (Alongside awards of note)
North: Pittsburgh Steelers 16-0
Kidding. While the record is a joke, the winner is not. Pittsburgh almost knocked off the eventual Super Bowl Champions while missing two of the top fifteen players in the NFL in Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown, not to mention playing on Denver’s home field. Playing the AFC and NFC Easts give the Steelers a very, very favorable schedule, with all three of their toughest non-divisional opponents playing in Heinz Field (the Jets, Pats and Chiefs). I predict a 14-2 record, dropping one to the Ravens (whom Pittsburgh always seems to split with) and to a much improved Miami (although this still just means somewhere in the vicinity of .500), both away. Pittsburgh cruises to a comfortable first seed and bye.
East: New England Patriots 12-4
It might be fun to try and play it cute and have another division winner, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Patriots are going to be winning their division until Belichick decides to finally retire (to thunderous cheering from the rest of the AFCE). The Patriots will drop several away games, to the Steelers, Cardinals and Broncos. They will also lose their obligatory divisional game late in the season, and my bet is that the Jets hand them this defeat.
South: Indianapolis Colts 13-3
With the return of Andrew Luck, the Colts will squash any remnants of preseason hope their AFC South contemporaries hold. It’s a QB’s league, and although a defensive team just won the Super Bowl, the Texans are not the Broncos (whom the Colts actually defeated last season). Luck will return to pre-injury form, and remind everyone why he is the best young QB in the league, and one of the best period. The Colts will drop to Pittsburgh, Oakland and Green Bay.
West: Oakland Raiders 12-4
The Raiders boast the best QB in their division, Derek Carr, as well as more than a handful of young up and comers. Khalil Mack, the first ever player to get voted first team all-pro for two positions, warrants a mention here. Arguably the best defensive player whose last name isn’t Watt, Mack has been one of the best defensive players in the league. With a solid upcoming draft, and a productive free agency, the Raiders will slide into the post-season one win short of a first round bye, due to the tie-breaking win over the Colts. The Raiders have Ls in their columns next to the Panthers, Broncos, Chiefs and Saints, the latter three of which are away games.
North: Green Bay Packers 13-3
Remember how this is a Quarterback’s league? Despite a very notable down year, Aaron Rodgers is still the best passer in the division by a wide margin, and plausibly the entire conference. With a healthy Jordy Nelson and a theoretically back in shape Eddie Lacy , the Packers retake their division despite a trio of losses to the Giants, Lions and Vikings, the latter two being away from Lambeau.
East: Giants 9-7
This was a particularly difficult one to pick. It first seemed that they were all splitting with each other, while dropping to just about everyone else. I figured the division winner would be the team that has the best chance to win away games in the division, and Eli Manning would be my bet for that. He continues to play well, and Odell continues his development as a player. The G-men lose to the Saints, Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Vikings, Redskins and Cowboys.
South: New Orleans Saints 12-4
While it is difficult to pick against the three-time defending NFC South Champions, not to mention the NFC representative for the Super Bowl, hear me out. Last year, the Panthers played at arguably the highest level they could; for all the flak they received about poor receiving, PFF had their core rated as one of the highest (fourth). Reasserting Kelvin Benjamin will only be a moderate improvement. In addition, it’s not as much picking the the Saints to be the better team, it’s a game of schedules. The Saints host their toughest opponents, while the Panthers travel to most of theirs. The Saints bounce back after a pair of rough years on the building blocks of promising players, including a finally improving receiving core for Drew Brees. The Saints nearly regain Superdome Supremacy, only losing to the Broncos and home while losing to the Panthers, Cardinals and Chiefs away.
West: Arizona Cardinals 14-2
The Cardinals manage to improve on their impressive 2015-2016 campaign, coaxing another win behind burgeoning running back David Johnson. Bruce Arians maintains his position as the only coach that could conceivably vie for Belichick’s spot as the best coach in the league, and Carson Palmer continues his regular season excellence. The Cards drop their obligatory divisional games to the Rams and the Seahawks, both away.
NFL MVP: Andrew Luck
Mr. Luck was robbed two years ago, when he led the league in touchdown passes and nearly in yards as well. The Associated Press makes up for this mistake by giving Luck his first NFL MVP after again leading the league in touchdowns, although the lead in yardage goes to Ben Roethlisburger (the MVP runner-up).
On a side note, it is interesting that Cam Newton has received such accolades for his performance this year. His meager passing numbers of 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns were undoubtedly bolstered by 636 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, giving him 4,473 total yards and 45 touchdowns. Anyone viewing ESPN or reading from any of the pundits undoubtedly heard that this is, roughly, the greatest season of all time (I’m sure you can hear the sarcasm). Take a look at Mr. Luck’s stats from two years ago: 4,761 yards passing and 40 passing touchdowns. Pretty solid. Oh wait, what’s this? He has rushing numbers, too? 273 rushing yards and 3 more touchdowns, for a total of 5,034 and 43 touchdowns. So Andrew Luck had more passing yards than Newton had total yards, and had nearly two full games worth of total yards than Newton, all at the expense of two touchdowns. Whether through simple recency bias or pundit favoritism, the Associated Press has been doing their utmost to convince everyone that Newton is far more impressive than he actually was. (And, for Mr. Newton’s sake, we’ll avoid comparing it to Manning’s 2013 season, or Brees’ 2011 season)
Comeback Player of the Year: Le’Veon Bell
After damaging his MCL, Bell had to miss the remainder of the 2015-2016 season. Missing the first two games from a suspension, Bell only played in a handful. The games he played in, he did quite well: leading PFF in Running Back grades and taking the lead in explosive runs (20 yards or more) before losing his season. Bell returns, in prime form and unquestionably claims the title of best running back in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyrann Mathieu
Disproving the notion that this might as well be renamed the J.J. Watt reward (as deserving as he’s been), Tyrann Mathieu becomes the first defensive back since Troy Polamalu to win the award.
Offensive Player of the Year: Who knows?
It totally depends on what kind of OPotY award vote happens. Often, the Offensive Player of the Year is akin to the “Runner Up” for MVP, such as when Brees won it in 2009 and 2011 after Manning and Rodgers won it, respectively. At other times, it’s also given to the MVP because, well, the most valuable player in the league could also be viewed as the best offensive one (assuming an offensive player wins it; a safe assumption), such as this year, or when Manning won it alongside his 2013 MVP campaign. The third type is where the award goes to the best offensive player, with positional importance removed, such as when Demarco Murray won it two years ago. So I’ll provide my guess for each type.
Runner Up: Ben Roethlisburger. Extremely deserving of the award, Big Ben led the league in yards and broke Peyton Manning’s yardage record. The quadruple Bs (Ben, Brown, Bell and Bryant) form one of the most potent offenses in the history of the league.
If Given to the MVP: Well, naturally that means Mr. Luck receives it, to store next to his MVP trophy.
Positional Importance Removed: Although this sounds akin to bordering on favoritism, Antonio Brown takes this award after being robbed the past two years.
Super Bowl Prediction? (All right, way too early but I’ll give a guess anyway, since you asked so nicely)
Steelers vs Cardinals
Super Bowl rematch with the same result, although this game is one of the highest scoring in recent memory. The potent offenses of the Steelers and the Cardinals continually one up the other, until a few Carson Palmer mistakes let the Steelers gain an incontestable lead.