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It may have taken over a decade, but Marvin Lewis and the Bengals finally won a (sort of) playoff game. Sure they didn’t move on to the playoffs, but they eliminated the Ravens from the postseason. That has to count for something, right? The abomination that was the 2017 NFL regular season is now in the books. Hopefully the playoffs lead to better football, but that is a mighty tall order. This year was a disaster ranging from injuries, to poor play, to coaches being fired who maybe shouldn’t have, to the Browns finishing 0-16 and with just one win in their last two seasons. With just 11 NFL games left this year the following takes will look forward to the playoffs and to the 2018 season as well.

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a Top TEN Fantasy Wide Receiver Next Year

Yeah I decided to go pretty bold with this claim and initially I didn’t want to go so bold because you never truly know if Ben Roethlisberger is going to come back next year. He turns 36 in March and he’s just generally a banged up guy whose body isn’t a shrine that beats time like Tom Brady’s. But back to JuJu... He finished the regular season with eight touchdowns. If the Steelers want to keep Antonio Brown at his healthiest then they should take him off the return team and have Smith-Schuster take up the reigns on that, which will only add to his fantasy value next year. He finished the season with 58 catches on 917 yards with the previously-mentioned eight touchdowns. And he did it all in basically 13 games. He missed two games to injury and didn’t find the stat sheet at all in week one against the Browns. But boy oh boy did he pad those numbers in week 17 against Cleveland to the tune of nine catches for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He did that with Landry Jones at quarterback. A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, and Larry Fitzgerald will all be over 30 years old by the end of next season. I suspect Smith-Schuster will be surpassing a few of them in the fantasy ranks by the end of 2018.

 

Drew Brees Will Fall Outside the Top 12 Next Season

Drew Brees will finish as a top ten fantasy quarterback this year, but he can thank injuries to Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers for that gift. Brees turns 39 years old in two weeks. Sure he’ll have the entire offseason to get healthy and rest up, but it was no secret the Saints threw the ball less with him this year. He topped 5,200 passing yards in 2016 on 673 pass attempts. This year he threw for just 4,334 yards on 536 pass attempts. Now that kind of yardage is good but for what fantasy players have come to expect out to Brees that’s pretty low. At this point in his career the Saints just want to try and preserve Brees as best as they can. And maybe if the Saints somehow rally and win the Super Bowl he might ride off into the sunset of retirement. I doubt that happens though. New Orleans now has a phenomenal running game between Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. This is what Brees has needed for a few years actually and the Saints found an explosive running game at the right time because it takes the pressure off their aging quarterback. It could actually help sustain his career. But for fantasy we saw the drop off with Brees. And it didn’t have anything to do with health. He’ll be 39 (closer to 40) by the start of next year, but I believe even next season his numbers will regress even more and with a fresh crop of young quarterbacks on the rise they could push Brees out of the top 12.

 

Jimmy Garoppolo Will Have Growing Pains Next Year

Yeah you read that right! Yes I have done nothing but tout Jimmy G and all his glory. As a Patriots fan it’s somewhat painful that he won’t take the reigns from Tom Brady, but that’s the business of the NFL and Garoppolo will still have a fantastic career if he does stay in San Francisco. And I’ve been high on him ever since he was offered the starting job with the 49ers. But this is a guy that will certainly go over drafted next year. San Francisco wrapped up the 2017 season with five straight wins. The 49ers were projected for the second overall pick in the draft and now they will have the ninth or tenth pick. But their biggest need was at quarterback and they’ve found one. He’s turned Marquise Goodwin into a borderline top 12 wide receiver. George Kittle could almost be considered a top 12 tight end next year as well. But this is what happens when new quarterbacks burst on the scene and we assume they’re bulletproof. Teams have some tape on Garoppolo and the 49ers. It’s somewhat of a small sample size (five games), but this is something teams will look at in the offseason and plan accordingly for the 49ers, who played some of the best football down the stretch this year. Not to mention the 2018 opponents for the 49ers are now finalized and here’s how it breaks down next year:

HOME: Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears, Broncos, Lions, Giants, Raiders

ROAD: Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals, Packers, Chiefs, Chargers, Vikings, Buccaneers

Half of those games are against teams that have respectable defenses. The Rams, Cardinals, and Seahawks were all top 12 in DVOA heading into week 17 and the Seahawks defense was littered with injuries late in the year. Their own division will again be a defensive juggernaut, but they’ll also have to play the Broncos, Chargers, and Vikings who all boast good defenses, and I’m a firm believer that the Bears defense is on the rise. We’ve seen young quarterbacks struggle once teams get some tape on them and the case likely won’t change for Garoppolo. Regardless it was a phenomenal end to the year for the 49ers and lets not overlook the fact that Kyle Shanahan is an offensive wizard that might be able to work his magic so Garoppolo doesn’t take steps backward. But I’m thinking there’s some regression in line for Garoppolo in 2018 and we should pump the brakes on drafting him as a top ten quarterback.

 

Derrick Henry Will Be a Top Ten Running Back in 2018

With DeMarco Murray turning 30 years old in the offseason there will be a changing of the guard in Tennessee’s backfield next year. It’s not even Murray’s age that’s a big concern, but rather the mileage that he’s racked up on his knees. He was frequently hurt with nagging injuries this year and Henry picked up the slack when called upon. His fantasy performance yesterday was saved by a 66-yard reception that went for a touchdown. But he only rushed for 51 yards on 28 attempts. In fact he ended the season averaging just 2.25 yards per carry over his last four games. Those games did come against the Jaguars, Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals and he wasn’t given a full workload until the end of the season. But on the year he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and found the end zone six times while playing second fiddle to Murray. Henry turns 24 in a few days and will hopefully play a bigger role in the postseason for the Titans. What’s most surprising is that in Henry’s brief two-year career where he’s amassed over 300 touches he’s fumbled the ball just once, but it didn’t go for a loss. With Marcus Mariota failing to improve in his third season by throwing 15 interceptions the Titans have a desire to protect the ball going forward. Henry should get more work as he’s earned the opportunity by being very patient behind Murray. The offensive line didn’t play to the level we’ve seen, but it’s still a good group that can really make Henry look great in 2018.

 

The Falcons Will Win The NFC Championship

Time for some playoff predictions! You can make the argument that I’ve been unnecessarily hard on Atlanta this season and I might agree with you to an extent. I wasn’t impressed with how they looked to start the season. The Falcons have a pretty easy road back to the Super Bowl, but they’ll have to do it without a single home game. They’ll play the Rams in Los Angeles next week. I’ll take the Falcons in that game based on their previous playoff experience and knowing Jared Goff has none. Following that they’d play the Eagles in Philadelphia against Nick Foles who has looked pretty bad in his last two games. Again I’ll take the Falcons to win and move on to the NFC Championship game. If the Falcons go on and face the Vikings for the conference championship I’m of the mindset that the clock would strike midnight and Case Keenum turns back into a pumpkin. If they somehow face off against the Saints or Panthers I’d still say Atlanta has a good chance to return to the Super Bowl. The NFC has become a mess and the Falcons have a nice road back to the Super Bowl if they can avoid disastrous injuries.

 

Patrick Mahomes is the Chiefs Starting Quarterback in 2018

Patrick Mahomes finally got a start for the Chiefs because Kansas City actually wanted to give Alex Smith rest. If things start going South next weekend in Kansas City’s playoff game against the Titans, Andy Reid can’t hesitate to pull the plug and get the future franchise quarterback in the game. Mahomes left Sunday’s game against Denver with the Chiefs ahead by two touchdowns, which the defense squandered. So Mahomes valiantly re-entered the game and led the Chiefs on a 67-yard drive to set up Harrison Butker for a game-winning field goal. It’s comforting for the Chiefs to know that Mahomes is a worthy backup with little-to-no experience at all, but they can’t let Smith stick around too long if things go awry. Smith could easily play himself out of a job with the Chiefs and he’ll easily find another opportunity elsewhere if that’s the case. But Mahomes looked very impressive without Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt to a point. Hunt did run the ball once for a touchdown. Kansas City got a taste of the Mahomes Show and it shouldn’t take long to turn on Alex Smith.

 

Quick Thoughts on the Wild Card Round

Tennessee @ Kansas City (-7.5): The game has an over/under projected at 44.5 and while I do think the Chiefs could squander this and Andy Reid could pull a classic Andy Reid move to screw this up I think the Chiefs will win, but the Titans will show up and give them fits. Prediction: Chiefs 23, Titans 17

Atlanta @ Los Angeles (-5.5): I’m still taking Atlanta to win this game. The Rams have a really good defense and a fantastic offense. Todd Gurley could easily have a legendary game, but I think the experience of the Falcons will get the better of the Rams. Prediction: Falcons 34, Rams 28

Buffalo @ Jacksonville (-7): It’s a great story that the Bills have made the playoffs. The video of all the Buffalo fans watching the Bengals/Ravens game on the video monitors down in Hard Rock Stadium is so awesome. I recommend you find it. It’s their first trip to the playoffs since 1999 so congrats to Bills Mafia on the overdue playoff appearance. Unfortunately I think it’ll be a tough game and Jacksonville needs to avenge their last two performances. Prediction: Jaguars 24, Bills 10

Carolina @ New Orleans (-6): Probably the marquee game of the week. It’ll come down to which Cam Newton shows up. He’s been all over the map this year looking phenomenal at times and dreadful as well. The Saints are at home and that’s who I’ll go with, but I think it’ll be surprisingly low scoring. Prediction: Saints 21, Panthers 16

 

The Super Bowl Champion…

I’m picking the Patriots. Sure I’m a homer and you can make the argument they beat the Steelers a couple weeks back on a bad rule and how the NFL helps the Patriots get all the breaks. I’ve heard it all. But Pittsburgh still had a chance to still win that game and ruined that chance. Has the Patriots offense looked good lately? No. But they’ll likely get James White, Rex Burkhead, Chris Hogan, and possibly Malcolm Mitchell coming back to help the offensive attack. Even if teams take a page out of the Jets defensive playbook and put two defenders on Gronk that’ll open things up for the other receivers. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC runs through Foxboro. If it went through Pittsburgh I’d be a little more concerned, but knowing the Pats have to face either the Chiefs, Titans, or Bills in the divisional round makes me feel better about this pick and New England won’t have to play both Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. They only play one of those teams and I feel confident New England can beat anyone in the AFC. Yes I think Atlanta will win the NFC, but that’s mostly because their road to the Super Bowl is pretty easy and they won’t have to face a truly elite quarterback until the NFC Championship game where I think they’ll play against either Drew Brees or Cam Newton. That offense just hasn’t looked the same since Kyle Shanahan’s departure. It hasn’t been pretty for New England this year. But it hasn’t been pretty for the NFL in general. They’ve got almost two weeks to get healthy for their divisional game and the defense is once again embracing the “bend, but don’t break” mentality. So I like Brady and Belichick to get another ring this season.

 

Feel free to give me a follow on Twitter (@RealDANlanta) and throw Twitter tomatoes my way if you don’t like my Super Bowl prediction! Thanks for reading! Stay strong the rest of the way!

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