by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

AFC BEST BET...As long as we aren’t talking about the playoffs, we can say plenty of good things about the Cincinnati Bengals (9½ wins), who have made it to the postseason each of the past five seasons. Yes, they haven’t won a playoff game in that span, or since the 1990 term when Sam Wyche (remember him?) was still coaching the team. More important to this context, however, is that Cincy has won 10 or more games the past four years, and in 2015 was on course to its best season since Wyche’s ‘88 team made the Super Bowl, when QB Andy Dalton broke his thumb in Game 13 vs. the Steelers. A loss in that game and two weeks later at Denver with backup AJ McCarron at QB knocked the Bengals into the Wildcard Round instead of getting a much-needed “bye” week, and we all know what happened in the playoffs vs. those same Steelers. Before he was hurt last December, Dalton was having a career year, as his passer rating ranked behind only Russell Wilson’s in the entire NFL. Most of the offense returns around “Big Red” with hopes that Pitt rookie WR Tyler Boyd can prevent opposing secondaries from ganging up on star wideout A.J. Green, though the preseason injury key TE Tyler Eifert is a concern. The “D” was probably the best of the Lewis era last season and was one of the top ballhawking platoons in the league with 21 picks, and most of the components are in place from a year ago. We’re not going to forecast what the Bengals do if they make the playoffs, but they get there again and clear that reasonable win total in the process. So we’re looking “over” at Paul Brown Stadium.

NEXT BEST BETS...Last December, lots of NFL insiders were giving Chuck Pagano about as much chance to remain as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts (8½) as they were giving Usain Bolt’s competitors in the recent 200 meters race at the Rio Olympics. But when the dust finally settled on a topsy-turvy campaign, and the Colts had fought back to .500, even as they finished the season with Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at QB, Pagano was rewarded with a new contract from unpredictable owner Jim Irsay. Which appeared unlikely late last season when rumors surfaced of deep rifts between Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, and Irsay’s reported failed courtship of Saints HC Sean Payton. Which makes Pagano (who had rejected a series of one-year contracts prior to 2015) seem like an NFL version of LSU’s Les Miles heading into 2016. Now, QB Andrew Luck is healthy once more. But we wonder about his supporting cast, with an OL that has already taken some attrition in preseason, a spotty infantry diversion that ranked 29th last season and is crossing its fingers that vet RB Frank Gore has some gas left in his tank, and a collection of oldsters on defense who are getting near their sell-by dates. Mostly, however, expected improvement from every other AFC South entry will make it harder for the Colts to get back to .500, even with Luck in the fold. We’re looking “under” at Lucas Oil Stadium.

With four different starting QBs for HC Bill O’Brien last season, the Houston Texans (8½) still managed to steal the AFC South. Now, with help from super-agent Jimmy Sexton, the Texans believe they have solved their QB issues with ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler, delivered by Sexton in free agency. The offense also figures to improve from another FA addition, RB Lamar Miller, who arrived from the Dolphins and should be a more reliable alternative than injury-prone Arian Foster in recent years. Thus, one of the NFL’s best defenses (ranked third overall a year ago) probably won’t have to do all of the heavy lifting this season, as d.c. Romero Crennel’s stop unit appears to be the top platoon in the division, if not perhaps the entire AFC. It’s an “over” for us at NRG Stadium.

OTHERS...The Denver Broncos (9½) are being downgraded after their SB 50 success, partly due to Peyton Manning’s retirement and the fact successor Trevor Siemian has yet to throw an NFL pass. Insiders, however, believe Siemian and his power arm could be a pleasant surprise in the Gary Kubiak offense, and a couple of FA departures from the league’s best defense don’t figure to cause too much of a problem, with emerging replacements (such as LB Shane Ray and CB Bradley Roby) ready to assume more-featured roles. Look "over" at what until recently was called Sports Authority Field...Some sources believe HC Rex Ryan was close to losing his job last year as the Buffalo Bills (8) undershot expectations, especially since Ryan’s defensive schemes did not resonate with the personnel on hand. Now, Rex has enlisted brother Rob to help out with the stop unit. But the Bills have endured a distracting summer, there still look to be some holes on the roster, and some are wondering if Rexy is about to coach his way out of another job. We’re looking “under” at Orchard Park...While Tennessee has hinted in preseason that it might be an improved team, we are a bit more interested in another South entry, the Jacksonville Jaguars (6), whose 4th-year HC Gus Bradley is feeling some urgency to win from owner Shad Khan. Bradley does have a playoff-quality “O” led by third-year QB Blake Bortles, whose 35 TDP ranked second to only Tom Brady in 2015, while the 31st-ranked “D” should get boosts from FAs DT Malik Jackson and CB Prince Amukamara, plus rookies DB Jalen Ramsey & LB Myles Jack, as well as DE Dante Fowler, Jr., last year’s top pick sidelined all season by knee woes. It’s an “over” for us at EverBank Field.

NFC BEST BET...We’ve seen enough over six decades not to overreact to preseason results, but it was hard to overlook some of the problems being endured by the Chicago Bears (7½) during the exhibition slate. The first-string offense in particular appeared a mess, unable to budge in the important third preseason test (vs. the Chiefs), which more than a few NFC sources suggest has a lot to do with the departure of o.c. Adam Gase, now the Miami HC who seemed to coax the best out of QB Jay Cutler a year ago. More specifically, there are some questions regarding the credentials of new o.c. Dowell Loggains and his ability to squeeze as much out of Cutler as did Gase, while the OL is already dealing with injuries (key C Hroniss Grasu). Tthe Bears also still appear in something of a transition phase in the second year of the John Fox regime, and the personnel turnover from what remains of the Lovie Smith and Mark Trestman years figures to continue for another year. We look “under” in Chicago, though Windy City fans might be numb to anything that happens at Solider Field this fall if the Cubs win the World Series!

NEXT BEST BETS...Looking for a potential sleeper? Try the Tampa Bay Bucs (7), who were sitting at 6-6 entering last December and on the fringe of the playoff race before fading down the stretch. That convinced the Lerners that Lovie Smith was not the coach to lead the team back to the promised land. But the Bucs didn’t cut all ties with the previous regime when promoting o.c. Dirk Koetter to the HC job. Koetter’s rapport with emerging QB Jameis Winston was a main reason he got the job, and Winston has hinted at an upgrade in the preseason after throwing for over 4000 yards as a rookie. With Winston as the catalyst and NFC 2nd-leading rusher Doug Martin kept in the fold after almost leaving in free agency, the offense looks like it might have some real bite, while defensive upgrades are likely to come from FA signees DE Robert Ayers & CB Brent Grimes, plus first-round draft pick CB Vernon Hargreaves III from Florida. With the Falcons and Saints on shaky ground, and the Panthers concerned about the Super Bowl “losers hangover” this fall, the time might be right for the Bucs to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. “Over” off of Dale Mabry Highway.

With the Bears in transition, the Lions spinning their wheels as usual, and the Vikings dealing with the aftermath of QB Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury, the path seems to have been cleared for the Green Bay Packers (11) to roll thru the NFC North, whose crown they relinquished to Minnesota last season. The Pack is likely to get it back, however, especially with QB Aaron Rodgers at the peak of his career, and with favorite target Jordy Nelson (out all of last season) now back in the fold. Punishing RB Eddie Lacy, who reported to camp lighter and in-shape in his contract year, also figures to provide more help than a year ago. Meanwhile, shrewd d.c. Dom Capers always seems to coax just enough out of his defense. It’s an “over”“ for us at Lambeau Field.

OTHERS...The New York Giants (8) could not have conspired ways to blow more games last season, surrendering five leads late in the 4th Q and losing eight games by six points or fewer. Sheesh! Which made it easier for long-time HC Tom Coughlin to be gently pushed into retirement. As o.c. the past two seasons, new HC Ben McAdoo has proven a late-career boost to QB Eli Manning, who has posted his two best statistical years running the version of the West Coast offense that McAdoo imported from Green Bay. If the G-Men can plug some of the leaks in their defense, and with the East still appearing shallow enough to make a move, we look “over” at MetLife...While the Detroit Lions (7) rallied gamely down the stretch last year to save the job of HC Jim Caldwell after franchise matriarch Martha Ford wielded her axe indiscriminately at midseason when canning GM Martin Mayhew and team prexy Tim Lewand, we are not sure Caldwell pulls another rabbit out of his hat, especially after WR Calvin Johnson’s retirement. Note that QB Matthew Stafford’s win percentage vs. above-.500 teams in his career is lower than the batting average of the MLB Tigers’ long-ago, light-hitting SS Ray Oyler. “Under” at Ford Field...The Atlanta Falcons (7) fell apart after a fast start last season, as QB Matt Ryan struggled in the system of new o.c. Kyle Shanahan, who was reluctant let Ryan run his preferred no-huddle, instead jamming a slower-paced offense down his QB’s throat. Ryan, now in his ninth season, is still looking for an effective complement to star WR Julio Jones, with more than a few wondering if the Falcs overpaid for FA and ex-Bengal Mohamed Sanu. If Ryan struggles again, Atlanta likely stays below .500, and we look “under” in the last season at the Georgia Dome...The Washington Redskins (7½) emerged in the East as the division collapsed around them last fall. But QB Kirk Cousins is turning out to be the franchise QB they once hoped RG III to be, and the “D” got an unexpected bonus in the offseason when star CB Josh Norman was made available by the Panthers and inked in D.C. instead. It’s an “over” for us at FedEx Field.  

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