NFL Preview: 2015-16 Playoff Picks and Week 1 Predictions

As the calendar turns to September, NFL fans everywhere rejoice! Hey everyone, and welcome to another year of Santiago’s Scoreboard.

I know, I know.  It feels like forever go that the New England Patriots outlasted the Seattle Seahawks in Superbowl XLIV. What with all the drama surrounding the World Champions, another big draft and all the craziness that surrounds free agency, we’ve had plenty to keep us occupied.

My 2014-15 season predictions had the Denver Broncos over the Green Bay Packers. Obviously I was very wrong there, but I had a very good season overall picking games so time to improve.

Here’s how I see the 2015-16 season going down:

NFC East                                                          AFC East

  1. Dallas Cowboys                                       1. New England Patriots
  2. New York Giants                                      2. New York Jets
  3. Philadelphia Eagles                                  3. Miami Dolphins
  4. Washington Redskins                               4. Buffalo Bills

NFC West                                                           AFC West

  1. Seattle Seahawks                                     1. Denver Broncos
  2. Arizona Cardinals                                      2. San Diego Chargers
  3. Louis Rams                                               3. Kansas City Chiefs
  4. San Francisco 49ers                                 4. Oakland Raiders

NFC South                                                          AFC South

  1. New Orleans Saints                                    1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Carolina Panthers                                       2. Houston Texans
  3. Atlanta Falcons                                            3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers                              4. Jacksonville Jaguars

NFC North                                                           AFC North

  1. Green Bay Packers                                       1. Baltimore Ravens
  2. Detroit Lions                                                  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Chicago Bears                                               3. Cincinnati Bengals
  4. Minnesota Vikings                                         4. Cleveland Browns

NFC Playoff Teams

  • Cowboys, Giants, Packers, Seahawks, Saints, Cardinals

AFC Playoff Teams

  • Broncos, Chargers, Colts, Steelers, Jets, Patriots

NFC Championship Game

  • Packers over Saints

AFC Championship Game

  • Colts over Steelers

Superbowl

  • Packers over Colts

So with all that said, here are my week 1 picks.

Thursday Night Football

  • Steelers @ Patriots: I had Pittsburgh winning this game before Tom Brady’s suspension was lifted.  Ben Roethlisberger shows up in big games, and I think he makes a statement to open up the 2015 season with a little help from the NFL’s leading rusher in 2014, Le’veon Bell. But in the end, the raising of the banner plus the desire to put the off-season in the past will lift the Pats to an opening night victory. NEW ENGLAND WINS

Sunday 1PM Games

  • Packers @ Bears: Aaron Rodgers is without his favorite target, Jordy Nelson for the season. But he still has a lot of weapons, including being reunited with James Jones, and of course, one of the best up-and-coming backs in Eddie Lacy.  Chicago is coming off a disappointing season, and I don’t think they did enough in the off-season to fix all the problems they had last season.  It’s never easy to win on the road, but I think the reigning NFC North champs take their opener. GREEN BAY WINS
  • Chiefs @ Texans: Both teams ended last season 9-7 and second in their respective divisions. Alex Smith has Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Macklin to help open up the offense and a defense capable of shutting anyone down. Houston has a new starting QB in Brandon Hoyer, JJ Watt and a big question mark at running back with the questionable health of Arian Foster. I like Kansas City better as a team, but I think the Texans find a way at home in a close game.  HOUSTON WINS
  • Browns @ Jets: Cleveland had a pretty good 2014-15 season as compared to what they’d dealt with years prior. But they are a new team on offense, and they have to contend with a very good Jets defense to open the season.  New York had their own changes in the off-season, adding Ryan Fitzpatrick to the QB depth chart; a good move as they’re without their starter Geno Smith for a while after a locker-room scuffle that left him with a broken jaw. But it could be a blessing in disguise, as Fitzpatrick has been a solid quarterback in this league, and can spread the offense a bit more than Smith can at this point in his career. Add a solid starting running back in Chris Ivory and that defense, New York should at the very least be in the running for a wild card this season. NEW YORK WINS
  • Colts @ Bills: Buffalo’s defense was a highlight last season, and they’re going to need it to be every bit as good as last season if they want to defeat Andrew Luck and the Colts in week 1. I think this could be a close one, but even with the Bills defense and Rex Ryan at the helm, Andrew Luck has Andre Johnson and T.Y. Hilton to go deep to, and I think he will take that next step as he enters his fourth year in the league, and lead his team to the first of many wins this season.  INDIANAPOLIS WINS
  • Dolphins @ Redskins: Washington is a mess. Or should I say still a mess. Remember when RGIII was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012? Yeah, me neither.  And neither do the Redskins apparently.  The struggling franchise has given the reigns over to Kirk Cousins.  DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon always have the possibility of breaking the big play, but Miami is just a better team.  They have a QB in Ryan Tannehill who has gotten better every year in the league, a solid defense that only got better with the addition of Ndamukong Suh. MIAMI WINS
  • Panthers @ Jaguars: Two very good defenses look to get their teams off to a good start. Carolina enters the season with virtually no one for Cam Newton to throw to, while the Jags are going with rookie running back TJ Yeldon to help ease Blake Bortles and the passing game that now includes Julius Thomas who left Denver via free agency.  There’s probably more potential CAROLINA WINS
  • Seahawks @ Rams: These two teams play in arguably the toughest, most evenly competitive division in football.  Seattle has been to back-to-back Superbowls while the Rams have been getting better every year, particularly on defense. Now that the Seahawks have locked their QB up for the next four years, they look to figure out how to keep Kam Chancellor as a key part of their vaunted defense. This is going to be a real battle, but give me the defending NFC Champs in this early West matchup. SEATTLE WINS

Sunday 4/4:25PM Games

  • Saints @ Cardinals: Arizona’s great season was derailed by injuries at quarterback a season ago. But with Carson Palmer healthy again, the Cardinals look to get to their winning ways.  New Orleans on the other hand just played down to their normal standards a season ago.  The Saints lost a big offensive weapon in Jimmy Graham, but their running back core is stronger than ever with the addition of CJ Spiller.  Their defense cannot be much worse than it was last season, a season where at 7-9 they almost won their division.  So give me Drew Brees and his winning pedigree to start a bounce back season off right for New Orleans on the road. NEW ORLEANS WINS
  • Titans @ Buccaneers: It’s a battle between the first and second picks of the 2015 NFL draft in week 1, as Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston both look to prove themselves and earn their first professional wins.  TENNESSEE WINS
  • Bengals @ Raiders: Cincinnati continued its great regular season, disappointing playoff performance run a year ago, while Oakland was just bad. Neither team should be proud of what they did defensively last season.  I think the Raiders will be a bit better this season than the three-win team of a year ago, but the Bengals need to get wins wherever they can with the teams they are competing with in the AFC North. Not to mention having one of the toughest schedules in the league this season.  CINCINNATI WINS
  • Lions @ Chargers: Detroit is the NFC equivalent of San Diego in that they both shows flashes of pure greatness one minute, and flashes of pure mediocrity the next. Matt Stafford has one of the most dangerous weapons at his exposal in Calvin Johnson, but injuries and road woes last year saw a 7-1 start slowdown in the second half. And it’s those road struggles that led me to choose the home team to take this game SAN DIEGO WINS
  • Ravens @ Broncos: Both teams lost in the Wild Card round a year ago, so both have some unfinished business to attend to. Peyton Manning is back and like the Spurs every year, we wonder when the decline will come. The Broncos lost a big piece in Julius Thomas, while the Ravens lost Torrey Smith and continue to move on without Ray Rice. I still like the team that Denver has, and the regular season has never been the problem for Manning, so give me the home team. DENVER WINS

Sunday Night Football

  • Giants @ Cowboys: This is a tough one. Dallas usually starts the season as the best team on paper in the NFC East.  I’m not sure the loss of DeMarco Murray is as big as most think, but it’s no small thing either as the Cowboys did a good job adding depth at the running back position.  New York’s defense remains a question thanks to Jason Pierre-Paul’s uncertain status and a trouble spot at safety. But I can’t help but be intrigued by the Giants offense.  After a rough start to a new scheme last year, the Giants became very efficient in the second half of the season.  They get back Rashad Jennings and added a versatile Shane Vereen to the back mix.  Their biggest offensive question mark will be Victor Cruz, but if he can get on the field at even 80% of what he was before the injury, you can make the argument they have the deepest receiving core in the league with Cruz, Odell Beckham Jr. and Ruben Randle. NEW YORK WINS

Monday Night Football

  • Eagles @ Falcons: Philly had another good season last season but missed the playoffs, while Atlanta struggled in nearly every facet of the game a year ago. The Eagles have a new quarterback in Sam Bradford who hasn’t played a game in nearly two years and a new running back in DeMarco Murray after LeSean McCoy left for Buffalo.  The Falcons have their top wideouts healthy and a revamped running game. So which bird flies higher in this week 1 contest? I like home team in this one because experience in this league is important, and if nothing else, this Falcons team knows each other better at this point, not to mention they have something to prove.   ATLANTA WINS
  • Vikings @ 49ers: San Francisco had one of the worst off-seasons in recent memory, losing important guys in seemingly every key position except quarterback. Minnesota got their all-pro running back in Adrian Peterson back, and have Rookie of the Year Teddy Bridgewater back under center. Peterson has something to prove after missing most of last season, and giving Bridgewater a number 1 receiver like Mike Wallace will only make his job easier. MINNESOTA WINS

Well, that’s it.  We’re just hours from kick-off.  Enjoy the action.

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One Painful NFL Preseason

I can’t remember the last time there were so many devastating injuries in the NFL preseason. With all the talk over the past few years of extending the regular season to 18 games, this was a year that the conversation popped up even more. To see key guys go down in a game that doesn’t matter, let alone week 3 or 4 when starters don’t play much, it’s something to consider.

One of the most glaring cases of keeping in a key guy too long came in week 3. Mark Sanchez has been the New York Jets starting Quarterback for the past four seasons, for better and for worse. Entering his 5th year, their was a question of whether he’d get the call, or if this years 2nd round pick out of West Virginia, Geno Smith would get the nod to start the 2013 season. Smith started the game against the Giants, and three picks and took a safety. He was taken out after 3, and that’s when Head coach Rex Ryan put in his possible starter in the 4th. And then the injury bug struck. Sanchez went down hard on his shoulder, and now is doubtful week 1. Ryan took a lot of flack for the move, and provided no explanation as to why he would put Sanchez in at all, let alone so late in the contest. Smith also suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, but of showed no ill-effects in game 3 or 4.

The Jets also lost outside linebacker Quinton Coples to an ankle injury, but is hopeful to be back no later than week 2.

With the season set to start on Thursday with the Ravens/Broncos, there’s still no word who will get the start for the Jets when they open up Sunday against Tampa Bay.

The Jets weren’t the only team in New York to have a troubling preseason. Their MetLife roommates went just 1-3 and lost a few key pieces. The Giants are looking to rebound from a second half collapse, causing them to miss the playoffs a year after winning the Superbowl.

Their first big injury came week 1, when starting RT David Diehl broke his hand (he’ll be out at least 6 weeks). It marks the first time Diehl wont be starting for New York since 2002. The injury forced a shuffle on the offensive line, and means 1st round pick Justin Pugh will get a chance to start right away. Diehl wasn’t the only causality, WR Victor Cruz hurt his heel in game 2, and he was unable to go the rest of the preseason. He remains questionable for the opener in Dallas.

Then in week 3, Big Blue lost second year Free-Safety Stevie Brown to a torn ACL, who led them in interceptions in his rookie year. Then in their finale with the Patriots, backup running back Andre Brown, who fractured his leg (the same injury that forced him to miss the finale month of last year).

New York teams weren’t alone in needing to reshuffle and rethink starting spots. The Giants division foes, the Philadelphia Eagles, lost 3 players to ACL injuries in training camp alone. While the dolphins lost former jets TE Dustin Keller for the year. Dallas couldn’t escape without some minor injuries. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff hurt his hammy, while end Anthony Spencer underwent knee surgery. Both could suit up against New York week 1. Guard Nate Givings also underwent knee surgery and is questionable for the opener.

And up in buffalo, the bills had to go 3 deep for their starting QB after 1st round pick EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb went down. Undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel should get the ball in week 1, though Manuel did return to practice Sunday and could still get the start. Kolb suffered a concussion, something he’s dealt with since entering league. This time around, the concussion could be career ending. The pats released TE Aaron Hernandez after murder charges surfaced, and were possibly going to place their other star TE Rob Gronkowski on the PUP list, but Gronk was placed on the active roster, meaning the Pats feel he’ll be ready before week 6.

Year after year the Jacksonville Jaguars find themselves at the bottom of the league, and losing their starting QB won’t help them this year. Third-year starter Blaine Gabbart fractured his thumb in week 2 and didn’t play in weeks 3 or 4. While the injury didn’t require surgery, as a Jags fan, you have to hope the injury doesn’t linger, as the thumb plays a key role in accuracy.

Perennial powerhouse Green Bay suffered a blow on the offensive line, losing tackle Bryan Bulga for the season to a torn ACL.

The Saints lost two pieces on a defense which looks to bounce back from a dreadful 2012. Defensive End Kenyon Coleman torn his pectoral muscle and Outside Linebacker Victor Butler was another victim of a torn ACL. Both are out for the year.

San Diego got hit a Wide-Receiver losing Denario Alexander for the year and Malcolm Floyd is week-to-week with a knee strain. Linebacker Melvin Ingram out the year with an ACL.

The Seahawks, a Superbowl favorite for many, lost off-season acquisition Percy Harvin due to hip surgery for at least the first six weeks of the season.

Baltimore saw two tight-ends go down in the preseason. The reigning Superbowl champs lost Dennis Pitta to a dislocated and fractured hip, and could return sometime in the second half of the season. Ed Dickson injured his hamstring but could play week 1.

The 49ers fell to the Ravens in last years Superbowl, and will be without wide-out Michael Crabtree and cornerback Chris Culliver as they look to get back to the big game.

Final rosters were cut down to 53 on Saturday and there were many notable names.

QBs: David Carr (NYG), Vince Young (GB), Greg McElroy (NYJ), John Skelton (CIN), Dennis Dixon (PHI), Brady Quinn (SEA), Matt Leinart (BUF), Jimmy Clausen (CAR) and Tim Tebow (NE)

RBs: Jonathan Dwyer (PIT), Bob Rainey and Delon Carter(BAL), Ryan Torain (NYG), Leon Washington (NE)

WRs: Austin Collie (SF), Robert Meachem (SD), David Gettis (CAR), Jordan Shipley (JAC)

CBs: Antonie Windfield (SEA) , Marcus Troufant (JAC)

TEs: Tony Moeaki (KAN), DJ Williams (GB), Clay Harbor (PHI), Jake Ballard (NE)

Ks: Dan Carpenter (NYJ), Shayne Graham (CLE)

OTs: Michael Bamiro (PHI)