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NFL Quarterly Report: Are the Cowboys and Raiders the best teams in the league?

All 32 NFL teams have now played 12 games, which means we’re three-quarters through the regular season. With just 25% of the season remaining, the playoff picture is becoming much clearer. It appears as if the Cowboys are continuing to coast to the top seed in the NFC as they are the first team to clinch a playoff spot, while the Patriots likely won’t be as dominant in the postseason as people thought they could be earlier on, and the Raiders could be heading toward the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The Patriots took a hit a couple weeks ago when TE Rob Gronkowski suffered a back injury that required surgery and will sideline him for the rest of the season. While the Patriots are still the best team in the AFC East and will make the playoffs, their chances of making a deep postseason run are not as good as they would have been if they had Gronkowski, who is QB Tom Brady’s favorite target and best receiver. TE Martellus Bennett has not yet stepped up in Gronk’s absence. For the rest of the division, the Dolphins are currently in second place at 7-5 but coming off a bad loss to the Ravens to end their winning streak. At 6-6, the Bills are in third place but gave up 29 unanswered points on Sunday to lose at the Raiders. The Jets, meanwhile, are playing out the string for the final four games of what has been a disappointing season. Judging by how their defense played on Monday night, it could be a long four games for the Jets. The Patriots are likely going to be the only playoff team coming out of the division.

Things are going better for the first-place team in the NFC East as the Cowboys have won 11 in a row behind QB Dak Prescott after dropping their season opener. At 11-1, they have clinched a playoff spot, the only team to do so to this point, and are the front-runners to land home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Giants lost a tough game to the Steelers this weekend, with QB Eli Manning not playing well, to end their six-game win streak and put them at 8-4, good for second place. They will continue to try to hold off the 6-5-1 Redskins for second place in the division and a potential Wild Card berth. The Giants currently hold the No. 5 seed in the conference, while the Redskins have fallen out of the NFC’s second Wild Card but are still in the hunt. The Eagles continue their downward spiral into last place in the division at 5-7, having lost their last three games and five of their last six. QB Carson Wentz has regressed significantly from his hot start and the team is now likely out of playoff contention.

The Ravens and Steelers are tied at 7-5, though the Ravens lead the AFC North due to tiebreakers. Baltimore’s convincing Week 13 win over the Dolphins was the team’s second straight win, and the Steelers have won three in a row but are on the outside of the playoff race. The Bengals picked up their first win since October on Sunday, but it won’t do them much good at this point as they sit at 4-7-1. The only thing keeping them out of last place in the division is the Browns, who are still winless at 0-12. After their bye in Week 13, they host the Bengals this week as they look to finally get in the win column. It appears as though QB Robert Griffin III could get the start after missing much of the season with an injury. Will that be what the Browns need to win a game? If not, their final three games are at the Bills, hosting the Chargers and visiting the Steelers. I think San Diego is the best shot for the Browns to pick up a win but it’s obviously not a certainty.

The Lions are in control of the NFC North, with an 8-4 record and two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers, who are each 6-6. The Lions appear to have the advantage in the division, facing the lowly Bears this week while the Vikings battle the Jaguars, which should be a winnable game, and the Packers face a stiff test against the Seahawks. If the Packers can gain a game on the Lions in the next couple of weeks, Week 17 could feature a win-and-in game for the division title with the Lions hosting the Packers. Winning the division will be important because there will likely be just one playoff team coming out of the NFC North. And it won’t be the Bears, who are 3-9, with their most recent win coming at the expense of the 1-11 49ers.

The AFC South is up for grabs after the Texans dropped their third straight this week, losing a snowy contest at Lambeau Field, putting them in a dead heat with the Titans, who had their bye this week, and the Colts at 6-6; the Texans, who are a perfect 3-0 in the division, hold the tiebreakers and are technically in first pace. The Texans’ offseason signing of QB Brock Osweiler is looking worse every week as he has not shown much improvement as the season as progressed. Houston’s defense, still without DE J.J. Watt of course, will have to continue to play well enough to keep scoring low and the Texans offense in games if they want to have a chance to repeat as division champs. An 8-8 record could win this division with the way things are looking right now. And the Jaguars are on their way to a last-place finish as the breakout season that many predicted for QB Blake Bortles and the Jags offense has not materialized. The Texans play the Titans in Nashville in Week 17, which could be a winner-take-all battle for the division title.

The NFC South has turned into a good two-team race between the Falcons and Buccaneers as the former suffered a tough loss to the Chiefs in Week 13 and the latter continued their winning ways, winning their fourth straight game to tie the Falcons at 7-5. The Falcons currently hold the tiebreaker over Tampa and technically lead the division, but the Bucs have a hold on the NFC’s second Wild Card. The Saints, at 5-7, hold third place in the division, but the biggest surprise in the South is the 4-8 Panthers, who were blown out by the Seahawks on Sunday night. After making it to Super Bowl 50 last season, the Panthers have really dropped off this year with QB Cam Newton not able to live up to expectations that were set for him after his MVP campaign in 2015. Back at the top of the division, winning the division is obviously important to get a home playoff game, but it may not be the only way to get into the postseason as one of the Wild Cards could come out of the NFC South.

The Raiders’ successful season continues after coming back to beat the BIlls in Week 13 to improve their record to 10-2, putting them at the top of the AFC. With Gronkowski out for the Patriots, the Raiders may be able to make a deep playoff run, possibly even making it to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Oakland isn’t the only good team in the AFC West, though, with the Chiefs at 9-3 and the Broncos right behind them at 8-4. I believe both of the AFC’s Wild Card teams will come out of the West, meaning all three of those teams will make the playoffs. The division winner will likely get one of the top two seeds in the conference and the important first-round bye that comes along with that. The Raiders visit the Chiefs on Thursday night, which could be a key game in determining the division champion. The Chargers, who aren’t having a bad season but have given up leads late to lose some games, round out the division with a 5-7 record heading into the last quarter of the regular season.

The NFC West race is all but over, with the 8-3-1 Seahawks holding a three-game lead over the 5-6-1 Cardinals, who picked up a surprising win against the Redskins in Week 13. The Rams, who recently gave head coach Jeff Fisher a contract extension, sit at 4-8 and the 49ers are just 1-11 after losing to the Bears on Sunday. The Cardinals’ lack of success is sort of surprising but people weren’t expecting much out of the Rams or 49ers this season. The Seahawks are currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC so they could be on their way to a first-round bye in the playoffs as QB Russell Wilson appears to be as healthy as he has been all season at the best time for that to happen.

With four weeks left in the regular season, just one team has punched its ticket into the postseason, but others are well on their way to doing that and will clinch playoff berths in the next week or two. At the bottom of the league, the most interesting storyline is whether the Browns will win a game. They have only four more chances to avoid becoming the second team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16.

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NFL Quarterly Report: Romo-less Cowboys lead the NFC, Patriots continue to roll

With Week 9 in the books, we’re halfway through the 2016 NFL season and have a good idea of how good — or bad — teams are. We also have a better idea of which of the teams that got off to surprisingly good starts were for real and have kept it up — such as the Raiders — and which have come back to reality, perhaps most notably the Rams.

The Patriots made it through the first quarter of the season and QB Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension with a 3-1 record. Since Brady returned to the team in Week 5, not only are the Patriots undefeated but Brady is playing on a pace that would make him a lead MVP candidate if he can keep it up through the second half. In four games, Brady has more than 1,300 yards, 12 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. At 7-1, the Patriots are running away with the AFC East; the Dolphins are behind them at 4-4, while the Bills — who handed the Patriots their only loss so far — and Jets are both under .500 and quickly falling out of the playoff race.

Over in the NFC East, when Cowboys QB Tony Romo injured his back in the preseason and expected to miss the first half of the season, things weren’t looking good for the team as rookie QB Dak Prescott would have to lead the team in Romo’s absence. In the team’s first eight games, all Prescott has done is lead the Cowboys to a 7-1 record and two-game lead in the division. Romo has returned to practice, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be returning to the starting lineup anytime soon. As long as the Cowboys keep winning and Prescott performs to the level he has been — he has 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in eight games — the team will likely stick with the rookie under center. Fellow rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott is also exceeding expectations, having run for 891 yards and 7 touchdowns through the first half of his first professional season. After starting the season 3-0, the Eagles have lost four of their last five to put their record at 4-4, last place in the division. Rookie QB Carson Wentz, who had 7 touchdowns in his first four games, has not thrown multiple touchdowns in a game since Week 5. The Giants are on the upswing, having won three in a row to go to 5-3, good for second place in the division. The Redskins are in third place at 4-3-1.

A Week 9 win over the Steelers put the Ravens in a tie with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North, each at 4-4. The loss to Baltimore gave the Steelers a three-game losing streak as QB Ben Roethlisberger returned after missing a few weeks with a leg injury. The Steelers — who have RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown, who are among the best in the league at their positions — are underperforming. As Roethlisberger recovers from his injury, the offense should return to form. With the Ravens defense playing well, the Steelers don’t have much room for error or a lot of time to wait, however. The Bengals’ streak of five straight playoff appearances is in jeopardy. At 3-4-1, they can’t fall too far behind the Ravens and Steelers if they want to have a chance at winning the division, which could be their best chance of a sixth straight postseason berth. And then there’s the Browns. At 0-9, they’re still looking for their first win. With the Ravens and Steelers on their schedule the next two weeks, it doesn’t look good for them to get the zero out of their win column anytime soon. They may not get their first win until Week 14 or 15, when they play the Bengals and Bills, respectively. A 0-16 finish isn’t out of the question for Cleveland, though they’ll likely win a game before the season ends.

When the Vikings lost QB Teddy Bridgewater for the season and traded for QB Sam Bradford just before the season started, people weren’t expecting much from the team this season. Which is why their 5-0 start surprised people. They have since lost three in a row to drop to 5-3 on the year, which is still good for first place in the NFC North. The Lions are right behind them, though, at 5-4 having beating Minnesota in overtime in Week 9. Lions QB Matthew Stafford is having one of the best seasons of his career, on pace for 32 touchdowns, which would tie the second-best touchdown total of his career. The Packers find themselves in unfamiliar territory, in third place in the division at 4-4. Green Bay’s offense has been inconsistent this season. QB Aaron Rodgers does have 20 touchdowns through eight games, but he has as many one-touchdown games as he does four-touchdown games, two each. The Bears are in last place at 2-6, but their two wins have come against the top two teams in the division, the Vikings and Lions.

At 5-3, the Texans lead the mediocre AFC South — no other team in the division is above .500 — but their offense has been inconsistent this season as QB Brock Osweiler hasn’t played well in his first full season as a starter. With DE J.J. Watt out for the season, the team has been all right but not what people were expecting coming into the season. The Jaguars were a trendy pick to possibly win the division this season, but at 2-6 it doesn’t look like they’ll factor into the playoff race. The 4-4 Titans look like they could present the biggest threat to the Texans repeating as division champs, but the Colts could still sneak in there at 4-5. If the Texans can just go .500 in the second half to finish 9-7, that should be a good-enough record to win the division for the second straight year.

After going 15-1 and making it to Super Bowl 50 last year, the Panthers were the favorites to win the NFC South, but they have not had a good first half of the season. They started the year 1-5 but have won two in a row to get to 3-5, which ties them with the Buccaneers for third place in the division. Panthers QB Cam Newton has been able to continue the success he had in his MVP run of a year ago; in six starts, he has 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Falcons QB Matt Ryan, meanwhile, has led his team to a 6-3 record and the division lead. He is in the MVP discussion at the midway point, having thrown for 2,980 yards, 23 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions in nine games, putting him on pace for a career year if he can keep it up. The Saints got off to a 0-3 start but have had a bit of a resurgence to get to 4-4 and secure second place in the division.

The Raiders are living up to their preseason hype, now in first place in the AFC West by themselves after Sunday night’s win against the Broncos. QB Derek Carr is having a breakout season, with 17 touchdowns and 3 interceptions through nine games, putting him in the MVP discussion. The Chiefs are in second place at 6-2 despite not getting any production out of RB Jamaal Charles, who is on IR and out for the season, and not having a top-tier quarterback in Alex Smith. The Broncos, coming off their Super Bowl title are in third place with a 6-3 record. They have one of the top defenses in the league, but their offense is lacking, with QB Trevor Siemian throwing just 10 touchdowns with 5 interceptions in his eight starts this season. The Chargers, who had trouble holding fourth-quarter leads early in the season, are at the bottom of the division with a 4-5 record. With the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos playing as well as they are, don’t be surprised to see three playoff teams come out of this division, including both of the AFC’s wild cards.

The Seahawks offense hasn’t been as prolific as we’ve come to expect in recent years, largely due to injuries that have been hampering QB Russell Wilson’s play, but they still sit atop the NFC West as the only team in the division with a winning record. The defense has played a significant role in the success the Seahawks have had so far this season. The Cardinals are in second place with a 3-4-1 record, followed by the Rams, who have dropped four straight after starting the season 3-1. The 49ers, who have gone back to QB Colin Kaepernick as their starter after QB Blaine Gabbert couldn’t get the job done, are 1-7. If the Seahawks offense doesn’t pick things up, they could be in danger of the Cardinals passing them for the division lead in the coming weeks.

Halfway through the season, some teams — including the Patriots and Cowboys — look like they’re virtually locks to make the playoffs. Others that many people picked to be playoff teams before the season started, like the Panthers, have some work to do if they want to live up to those expectations and play beyond Week 17.

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My NFL Picks Week 7: Osweiler returns to Denver and the Steelers battle the Patriots without Roethlisberger

An injury in Week 6 put a damper on one of Week 7’s biggest games, with QB Ben Roethlisberger out when the Steelers host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon. The week begins with a NFC North rivalry game as the Bears visit QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday night. In the week’s final game, QB Brock Osweiler returns to Denver on Monday night, leading the Texans into action against the Broncos, with whom he won the Super Bowl last season. The reeling Panthers, who are just 1-5 this season, have a bye this week, as do the 5-1 Cowboys. I went just 3-12 last week (but 7-8 straight up, without the spread) to bring my record to 40-52 for the season. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Byes: Panthers, Cowboys

Thursday Night Football
Bears at Packers (-9.5) – The Packers offense has been disappointing so far this season, while the Bears offense has picked up since QB Jay Cutler went down and QB Brian Hoyer has stepped into take his spot in the starting lineup. Due to that, I expect this game to be closer than some people might expect it to be. Packers win the game, but I think the Bears keep it to a single-digit differential.

Sunday morning London game
Giants at Rams (+2.5) – In the second of three London games this season, QB Eli Manning leads the Giants into action against the Rams. Both teams are 3-3 on the season, but the Giants are in last place in the NFC East and the Rams are in second in the NFC West. The Rams have a long flight to make from Los Angeles to get to this game, which won’t make it easy for a team that is that good to begin with. I think the Giants cover the 2.5 points.

Sunday 1PM games
Bills at Dolphins (+2.5) – The Bills have looked good during their current four-game winning streak, with RB LeSean McCoy running all over the competition, although McCoy’s availability is in question after leaving Wednesday’s practice early with a hamstring injury. Despite pulling off the upset of the Steelers on Sunday, the Dolphins aren’t a good team. RB Jay Ajayi seems like he may have found his groove, but QB Ryan Tannehill isn’t putting up good numbers. The Bills should easily win this divisional game on the road.
Browns at Bengals (-9.5) – Giving up 9.5 points is a lot, and the Bengals aren’t a team that I would normally pick when favored by that much, but I think they can cover it. The Browns best player, WR Terrelle Pryor, is nursing a hamstring injury and may not be able to play. If he can’t go, I think the Bengals cover. If Pryor is able to play, then I have a little more doubt about it. Regardless, I expect the Bengals to win the game outright, forcing the Browns to wait another week for their first win.
Redskins at Lions (-1.5) – Expect a blowout in this one, with Redskins QB Kirk Cousins and Lions QB Matthew Stafford heaving the ball throughout the game. The Lions’ running game is diminished due to ongoing injuries, and the Redskins’ run game picked things up last week, which bodes well for a Washington win on the road.
Colts at Titans (-2.5) – The Colts blew a big lead against the Texans on Sunday night, ultimately losing in overtime, while the Titans beat the Browns. At the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have expected to be saying this, but I think the Titans are better than the Colts right now, especially with the way Marcus Mariota has been playing in the last couple games. If he can keep it up, I think the Titans win this game and put the last-place Colts even further behind in the AFC South race.
Saints at Chiefs (-6.5) – QB Drew Brees doesn’t play as well on the road as he does at home at the Superdome, but I don’t trust the Chiefs to get out to a big lead in this one. Home or road, I think Brees is a better quarterback than the Chiefs’ Alex Smith so I think the Saints keep this game closer than 6.5 points. The Chiefs may win the game, but I don’t think they cover the spread.
Raiders at Jaguars (-0.5) – I’m surprised the Jaguars are favored, even if it’s just by half a point. I realize the Raiders are traveling to the East Coast to play a 1:00 game, which often results in a loss for a West Coast team, But the Jags aren’t a good team and, barring last week’s loss to the Chiefs, the Raiders have the best team they’ve had in several years. QB Derek Carr should lead the Raiders to the win.
Vikings at Eagles (+2.5) – Coming off their bye, the undefeated Vikings head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles as Vikings QB Sam Bradford takes on the team that traded him during training camp. Rookie QB Carson Wentz, who has cooled off a bit since his hot start, leads the Eagles at home. The Vikings have the best defense in the NFL, and it’ll likely be hard for the Eagles to put up a lot of points. Vikings should easily cover the 2.5-point spread.
Ravens at Jets (-0.5) – The Jets are 1-5 and just got blown out by the Cardinals, 28-3, on Monday night. The Ravens aren’t as good as the Cardinals, but I don’t see how they lose to the Jets, who are somehow favored by half a point. The Jets defense isn’t good so QB Joe Flacco and RB Terrance West should be able to move the ball down the field for Baltimore. On the other side of the ball, QB Geno Smith came into Monday’s game in relief of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has played poorly the last several weeks. The Jets are expected to give Smith his first start of the season, which likely won’t work out well for the home team. Ravens win.

Sunday 4PM games

Chargers at Falcons (-6.5)The Falcons high-powered offense gets to go against a subpar Chargers defense in this game. The combo of QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones has helped lead the Falcons to their 4-2 record. QB Philip Rivers and the Chargers can also put points on the scoreboard, but I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with Ryan and his teammates.
Buccaneers at 49ers (+1.5) – Installing QB Colin Kaepernick as the starter didn’t do much to help the 49ers offense in last week’s loss to the Bills. The Bucs don’t have nearly as good of a defense as the Bills, but I still don’t see the 49ers putting up a lot of points, especially with RB Carlos Hyde potentially having to sit out the game. I expect the Bucs to get the road win, and it shouldn’t be hard to cover that small spread.
Steelers at Patriots (-6.5) – With QB Landry Jones getting the start in place of Roethlisberger, I don’t see the Steelers being competitive in this game. Patriots QB Tom Brady should continue his streak of fine performances he has put up in his first two starts of the season, especially with TE Rob Gronkowski appearing to be at full health, or close to it, after sitting out the Patriots’ first couple games of 2016.

Sunday Night Football
Seahawks at Cardinals (-1.5) The Seahawks look to expand their lead in the NFC West in this divisional battle. QB Russell Wilson still may not be 100 percent as he continues to deal with some minor injuries, but RB Christine Michael has looked good starting in place of injured RB Thomas Rawls. For the Cardinals, RB David Johnson has been one of the best at the position this season, but QB Carson Palmer hasn’t been living up to the numbers that people have come to expect from him. The Cardinals are slight favorites in this prime-time game, but I think the Seahawks win it outright.

Monday Night Football
Texans at Broncos (-7.5) – Osweiler returns to Denver, leading the Texans against his former team, the Broncos. The Broncos, coming off a two-game losing streak, have one of the better defenses in the league but their offense hasn’t been clicking recently. Texans RB Lamar Miller, meanwhile, had his best game of the season on Sunday night as Osweiler led the team on impressive drives late in the game to eventually pull off the overtime win against the Colts. I think the spread is a little too big and the Texans should stay within a touchdown, even though I think the Broncos may win the game.

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3rd Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: New York Jets

The New York Jets, who finished second in their division last season, are up next in our previews of all 32 NFL teams as we conclude out look at the AFC East teams

The Jets just missed a playoff appearance last season with a 10-6 record. This offseason, they completed a long, drawn-out negotiation with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to return to the team this season following his career year in 2015. They also signed veteran RB Matt Forte to lead the rushing game, replacing departing RB Chris Ivory.

In his first year with the Jets, Fitzpatrick went 335-for-562 for 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions. WRs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker each surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last season. Marshall totaled 1,502 yards on 109 receptions and scored 14 touchdowns. Decker had 80 receptions for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns. With the Bears last season, Forte carried the ball 218 times for 898 yards and 4 touchdowns in 13 games, adding 44 receptions for another 389 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. The Jets’ defense ranked ninth in the league with 314 points allowed and their 18 interceptions were the fifth-most in the NFL.

Looking ahead to this season, Fitzpatrick is going to be the key to the team’s success or lack of it in 2016. If he can’t repeat the season he had last year, it will be a blow to the offense. With his track record of — for lack of a better word — mediocrity, I don’t know if you can expect another season like 2015. The best thing Fitzpatrick has working for him is having two top-tier receivers like Marshall and Decker. On the other hand, the lack of a proven tight end is an offensive deficiency that the team didn’t address in the offseason. Forte has had good stats for much of his career, but he’s getting into the twilight of his career and could be on the decline.

The Jets’ schedule gets off to a tough start in the first several weeks, with a home game against the Bengals in Week 1, followed by road games at the Bills and Chiefs in Weeks 2 and3, respectively. It doesn’t let up from there, as the Seahawks come to MetLife Stadium in Week 4, then the Jets travel to the Steelers in Week 5 and the Cardinals in Week 6’s Monday night contest — that is five playoff opponents in the Jets’ first six games. Their next game against a reigning playoff team comes in Week 12, following a Week 11 bye,  when the Patriots come to town on Sunday night for the first of the teams’ two matchups. The Jets then host the Colts on Monday night in Week 13. The Jets’ annual visit to Gillette Stadium and the Patriots comes in Week 16 before they conclude their season with the Bills in Week 17. Overall, it’s not an easy schedule for the Jets, who I am projected to have a significant regression from last season. I don’t expect them to come close to matching 2015’s 10-win season.

Source: http://www.newyorkjets.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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3rd Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: New England Patriots

The New England Patriots are up next on our previews of all 32 NFL teams, continuing to make our way through the AFC East which the Pats won last season.

Deflategate was at the center of the Patriots’ offseason for a second straight year, finally reaching its conclusion with QB Tom Brady being suspended for the first four games of the season, allowing he team to get a chance to see if QB Jimmy Garoppolo could be the quarterback of the future after the 39-year-old Brady retires. Other bad news for the Patriots comes in the form of injuries, including RB Dion Lewis, who had a breakout season in 2015 before a torn ACL ending his season early. He was on track to return this season, but recent news of him needing a second knee surgery results in him being out indefinitely. In other injury news, C Shaq Mason does not have a timetable to return for a broken hand, and OT Sebastian Vollmer is expected to land on injured reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Despite being 38 last season, Brady continued to put up impressive numbers. He completed 64% of his passes for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns to go along with just 7 interceptions. It’s not surprising that TE Rob Gronkowski was Brady’s leading receiver, hauling in 72 receptions for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing a game. WRs Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman put up comparable numbers to each other. In 14 games — seven starts — Amendola had 65 receptions for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns while Edelman went 61/692/7 in nine games. After Lewis went down after 7 games, RB LeGarrette Blount took over as the main running back, carrying the ball 165 times for 703 yards and 6 touchdowns in six starts. RB James White only had 22 carries last season but played a decent part in the passing game, with 40 receptions for 410 yards and 4 touchdowns.

With reports pegging Lewis as missing 8-10 weeks, Blount and White are going to have to carry the bulk of the rushing workload for at least the first half of the season, unless the Patriots sign a free agent running back to provide some depth. The other injuries to the offensive line will make it harder for Garoppolo to find success as he fills in for Brady for the team’s first four games. Garoppolo, who was the Patriots’ second-round pick in the 2014 draft, has thrown just 31 passes in regular-season games in relief of Brady over the last two seasons. He has completed 20 of them for 188 yards and 1 touchdown and no interceptions. Obviously that small sample size doesn’t give the team much of an idea what to expect from Garoppolo as he prepares to be the starting quarterback for the first quarter of the season. The team traded for TE Martellus Bennett from the Bears to provide a bonafide 1-2 punch at the position with Gronkowski, harkening back to the days of Gronkowski and TE Aaron Hernandez both providing good offensive numbers from the position.

The first four games on the schedule are going to set the stage for how much of a cushion the team can have in its record when getting Brady back in Week 5. During Brady’s suspension, the Patriots visit the Cardinals in the Week 1 Sunday night game, then head home for Weeks 2 and 3, taking on the Dolphins and Texans, respectively. A visit to Buffalo to take on the Bills in Week 4 leads into Brady’s return, a road game against the Browns. The Patriots host the Seahawks for the Sunday night game in Week 10, following a Week 9 bye. The Patriots get another Sunday night matchup, at the Jets, in Week 12. The season ends with a road game at the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in Week 15 and home games against the Jets and Dolphins, respectively, in Weeks 16 and 17.  Even with the Patriots missing the first four games — I have them going 2-2 in that span — I projected them to go 13-3, a game better than last season, but that may be a bit optimistic now with the news of the most recent injuries and surgeries to Lewis, Vollmer and Mason.

Source: http://www.patriots.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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3rd Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Houston Texans

We move on to the AFC South in our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), with the Houston Texans, who won the division last season.

The Texans had an eventful offseason, spending a lot of money to essentially redo their offense, signing arguably the best quarterback and running back in free agency. QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller were the big signings, replacing QB Brian Hoyer (and other mediocre quarterbacks) and RB Arian Foster. Osweiler and Miller join WR DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top receivers in the league, on a team that has lacked offense in recent years. With the signings, it is apparent that the Texans are going all-in on this season, but an injury to DE J.J. Watt could provide an obstacle for the team to overcome if he is unable to play at the start of the regular season.

In eight games — seven starts — with the Broncos last season, Osweiler completed 170 of 275 passes for 1,967 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing 6 interceptions. For the Dolphins, Miller had a relatively small workload for someone who started all 16 games; he ran the ball 194 times for 872 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 47 balls and scored 2 touchdowns through the air. Hopkins was the star of the offense last season, with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns — not bad numbers with the likes of Hoyer and QB Ryan Mallett throwing him the ball. Defensively, the Texans allowed opponents to score 313 points, the seventh-fewest in the league.

It’s a new look Texans offense, which should perform better than it did in 2015. Although Osweiler only has seven career starts under his belt, he definitely has the potential to be better than the quarterbacks the team used last season, and Miller will likely put up better numbers than he did in Miami because the Texans should give him a bigger workload than he had with the Dolphins. Hopkins is a star, and some of the defensive attention may be taken off of him this season with second-year WR Jaelen Strong looking like he’s get more reps this season and WR Will Fuller, who the Texans selected in the first round of this year’s draft, also expected to provide a viable receiving threat for the team. As mentioned, there could be questions on the defense early in the season if Watt is not ready to play when the regular season begins after undergoing back surgery a few weeks ago. Watt is obviously the key to the team’s defense, but many people think DE Jadeveon Clowney could be ready to take the next step in his career in his third year in the league.

The Texans’ schedule begins with a Week 1 home game against the Bears before hitting the road in Week 2 to take on the Chiefs in a rematch of last year’s playoff game in which the Chiefs shut out the Texans, 30-0. Then in Week 3, the Texans head to Foxboro to take on the Patriots in a Thursday night battle. The Texans do seem to get a break in that falls within QB Tom Brady‘s four-game suspension, so they won’t have to deal with him in the game. The Texans host the Colts in the Sunday night game in Week 6, then Osweiler returns to Denver in Week 7 to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos on Monday night. The Texans get another Monday night game in Week 11, this one being a “road” game against the Raiders in Mexico City. Weeks 13 and 14 have the Texans on the road against the Packers and Colts, respectively. The Texans play in primetime again on Christmas Eve during Week 16, hosting the Bengals, and they end the season at the Titans in Week 17. The Texans won nine games last season, and I’m projecting 11 wins this season with the team expected to have a significantly improved offense. Watt’s health could be a question mark, though, early in the season.

Sources: http://www.houstontexans.com/, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Oakland Raiders

3rd Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Minnesota Vikings UPDATED: Bridgewater out for the year

Our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days leading up to the start of the season, continuess as the NFC North comes to an end with the Minnesota Vikings, who won the division last season.

Last season was a successful one for the Vikings, who bested the Packers to win their first division title since 2009. The offense worked well for the Vikings as QB Teddy Bridgewater took a step forward in his sophomore season and RB Adrian Peterson came back after being suspended for most of the 2014 season to put up good numbers in the running game to help lead the team to an 11-win season.

In his second season in the league, Bridgewater threw for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 9 interceptions, and added 3 rushing touchdowns on the ground. A well-rested Peterson carried the ball 327 times for 1,485 and 11 touchdowns, pretty much picking up where he left off in the 2013 season. RB Jerick McKinnon served as the No. 2 back, rushing 52 times for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rookie WR Stefon Diggs outperformed expectations, leading the team with 52 receptions for 720 yards and 4 touchdowns, while TE Kyle Rudolph‘s 5 receiving touchdowns were the most on the team. He had 49 catches on the season for 495 yards. The defense was among the best in the league, giving up the fifth-fewest points with 302, but was slightly below the league average with 13 interceptions.

Other than Diggs, the wide receivers were a disappointment last season, limiting Bridgewater’s upside. The Vikings looked to fix that by using their first-round draft pick to select WR Laquon Treadwell, hoping that he’ll be a viable option to start opposite Diggs. There could be some concern with the running game after Peterson, now 31, is coming off a season in which he was the only running back to total more than 300 rushes. That workload, combined with his age, makes it possible that he could start to break down during the season. If he does, McKinnon can be a viable replacement, but he likely wouldn’t be able to match the production the team expects to get out of Peterson.

The Vikings open their schedule on the road at the Titans in Week 1, then open their new home, U.S. Bank Stadium, with a Sunday night contest against the division-rival Packers in Week 2. It doesn’t get easier after that, with a Week 3 road game at the defending NFC champion Panthers. In Weeks 10 and 11, the Vikings face back-to-back games against playoff teams, when they visit the Redskins and host the Cardinals. They host the Colts in Week 15, then play their road game at the Packers on Christmas Eve before ending the season at home against the Bears on New Year’s Day. Outside of some of the games mentioned above, the Vikings’ schedule isn’t that tough. I’m picking them to go 13-3 this season, which would still only be good for second place if my projections pan out.

Update (8/31): The Vikings’ season took a major hit on Tuesday when Bridgewater suffered a dislocated knee and torn ACL that will keep him out for the season. If the Vikings don’t trade for or sign a veteran quarterback, that’ll likely leave QB Shaun Hill as the starter, with QB Joel Stave the backup. HIll is a veteran journeyman who has started in the league before when filling in for injured quarterbacks, but he’s never put up outstanding numbers. Stave is an unproven rookie. Both are significant downgrades from Bridgewater, and with them under the center for the season the Vikings’ outlook has to be downgraded. I originally projected a 13-3 record, but now I think they’ll be lucky to win 10 games.

Sources: http://www.vikings.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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