Bleacher Report's NFL Pre-Regular-Season Expert Predictions
It's that time again. We've traversed training camp and persevered the preseason. Thursday night, for the first time since February, two NFL teams will take the field in a game that matters.
In fact, it's the same two teams we last saw in Super Bowl 50. But there will be at least one huge difference when the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos square off. Instead of Peyton Manning under center for the Broncos, it will be second-year pro Trevor Siemian—making his first career NFL start.
And that's the thing about the NFL. It's a constantly changing, ever-evolving league. Every season new players enter and new stars emerge.
Of course that isn't to say there's no continuity. Take, for instance, reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton, who enters the season as one of the favorites for the award in 2016.
It's those awards that are this article's focus—the individual hardware players say they don't care about even though we all know better.
We've gathered Bleacher Report's NFL Analysts and National Lead Writers for an early look at how they expect those award races to play out. It's a glimpse into the future of the 2016 campaign.
From the league MVP to the Super Bowl LI champion, here's what that esteemed group had to say.
Before we get to the awards and predictions, here's a quick introduction/rundown of the writers who voted on them.
Gary Davenport—NFL Analyst
Doug Farrar—NFL Lead Scout
Mike Freeman—NFL National Lead Writer
Brad Gagnon—NFL Analyst
Matt Miller—NFL Draft National Lead Writer
Chris Simms—NFL Lead Analyst
Brent Sobleski—NFL Analyst
Mike Tanier—NFL National Lead Writer
Sean Tomlinson—NFL Analyst
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Davenport, Freeman, Tomlinson)
I don't mean to alarm anyone, but the inhabitants of Earth may have been infiltrated by cyborgs from the future.
That's the only way to explain the absolutely robotic production of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown in recent seasons.
In each of the past three years, Brown has caught at least 110 passes, topped 1,400 receiving yards and scored eight or more touchdowns.
Over the past two seasons the numbers are even gaudier—over 125 catches for 1,600-plus yards and double-digit scores.
That's a lot—even by the standards of today's pass-wacky NFL.
Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated tabbed Brown as the league's third-best player at any position, trailing only New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt:
Brown is the most dynamic player in the NFL right now. He has led the league in receptions each of the past two seasons (129 and 136, respectively) while averaging 1,766 yards receiving. Add in his punt-return prowess, and Brown is a threat to top 2,000 all-purpose yards every season, just as he has in three of the past five years. ...
The Steelers can line him up anywhere on the field without worrying about him getting open. He’ll make defenders miss time and again once he has the ball in his hands, too.
Gronkowski nabbed one vote here, and it's a safe bet Watt will be making an appearance on this list. But it's Brown who is our panel's pick for the 2016 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Others receiving votes: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (Simms, Sobleski); Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (Farrar); Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (Gagnon); Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams (Miller); Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (Tanier)
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders (Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson)
Over the past several years, where defensive players are concerned, it's been J.J. Watt's world.
In fact, despite offseason back surgery that leaves his early-season availability and effectiveness in doubt, Watt (who has won this award three of the past four seasons) garnered three votes this year, including one from NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon.
"He played through major injuries and won the award last year," Gagnon said, "and it's looking as though he'll be back in time for the start of the season. He's the best defensive player in football by such a wide margin that there's no reason he shouldn't be favored to win this award for the fourth time in five seasons."
This writer agrees. I just can't vote against him.
But Watt wasn't the leading vote-getter. That title belongs to Oakland Raiders pass-rusher Khalil Mack, who had a decent second NFL season in 2015.
That is, if you consider 77 combined tackles and 15 sacks "decent."
As Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, after a summer of trying to block Mack in training camp, Oakland tight end Lee Smith needs a hug.
"He's a frickin' nightmare," Smith said. "He can do it all. The minute you try to stop his speed, he'll put you on your back. The minute you try to stop his power, he'll run by you. ... I don't want to make any crazy statements, but I am not sure I've played against anyone better. The kid is one of those every-decade kind of guys, and I am sure glad as hell he's a Raider."
It isn't just talk. Mack's a generational talent. And if there's an NFL defender capable of dethroning King J.J. the Terrifying, he's the guy.
Others receiving votes: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon); Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams (Farrar); Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (Simms)
Coach of the Year
Winner: Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings (Davenport, Gagnon, Sobleski)
Speaking of needing a hug, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer could probably use a snuggle right about now. After all, 10 days ago he was the head coach of a defending division champion with a rising young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
Now, Bridgewater's season is over, and Zimmer's Vikings just dealt a first-round pick (and another selection) in the 2017 draft for Sam "Expert on Knee Injuries and Disappointment" Bradford.
However, Gagnon insisted it's too early to throw dirt on Minnesota's chances of getting back into the playoffs. "You just get the sense he'll find a way to get that team to the playoffs, regardless of who they have at quarterback," Gagnon said. "He's the ideal coach for a team facing this kind of obstacle."
NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski agreed.
"The NFL collectively gasped when news of Teddy Bridgewater's injury spread," Sobleski said. "It's an unfortunate situation for a team with playoff and potential Super Bowl aspirations. However, two components are still in place to make the Vikings a playoff squad: Adrian Peterson and Zimmer's defense.
"Run the football and stop opposing offenses; it seems simple. This same formula helped the Denver Broncos capture Super Bowl 50. Due to the situation, Zimmer's handling of the team—if it makes the postseason, which it is still capable of doing—will make him worthy of Coach of the Year honors."
Both scribes have a point. No team wants to lose its starting quarterback. But the Vikings are better equipped to handle the loss than many, in that Bridgewater wasn't the team's focal point to begin with. The Vikings win by running the football and playing defense.
Zimmer told Chris Wesseling of NFL.com that he isn't about to let his team throw in the proverbial towel. "We're not going to stick our heads in the sand. We're not going to go tuck our legs," he said. "We're not looking for excuses. We're going to fight like we always do. We have some great football players on this team and we'll figure out ways to win football games if he's not here and that's what we're going to do."
If Zimmer can keep this team on the rails and in the playoff hunt, then it isn't hard at all to see those efforts rewarded with some hardware.
Others receiving votes: Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders (Freeman, Simms); Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals (Miller, Tomlinson); Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks (Farrar); Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Tanier)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys (Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Simms, Sobleski, Tomlinson)
When Tony Romo crumpled to the ground just minutes into his preseason debut a few weeks back, many believed any hope the Dallas Cowboys had at a successful season crumpled with him. With rookie signal-caller Dak Prescott now at the helm, 2016 was going to be a lost campaign for a team that enters every year with big expectations.
However, Danny Phantom (if that's his real name, he's a lucky, lucky man) of SB Nation cautions that writing off the Cowboys is premature—that hope is not lost.
Because the Cowboys still have tailback Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott is the ultimate running back. He has speed, he has power, he has vision, and his footwork gives him remarkable elusiveness. He's very smart as he handles his assignments very well and is a proven pass blocker. These are all great traits, but there's more.
He's very driven to win and has a passion to be the very best. He prepares hard and plays with a level of intensity that makes you grateful he's wearing the star. On his first ever carry, he was seen shoving the defender away after he wouldn't let go of him after the whistle. And he kept going after four-time Pro Bowler Kam Chancellor. The kid is up for the challenge and he has the skillset to deliver.
The thing is, we've sort of seen this movie before.
By the time the Ohio State Buckeyes hit the 2014 College Football Playoff, the team was on its third quarterback. The passing game essentially consisted of Cardale Jones chucking it deep and hoping for the best. Not many gave the Buckeyes much of a chance.
Someone forgot to tell Elliott, who barrelled over Alabama and through Oregon en route to an improbable national championship.
Will the same thing happen in Dallas? Probably not.
But Elliott is now the focal point for an offense that boasts the NFL's best line. Leading the league in rushing as a rookie wouldn't be any real surprise.
And that achievement would all but surely net "Zeke" the OROY award.
Others receiving votes: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys (Davenport); Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans (Tanier)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Davenport, Freeman, Miller, Tanier)
The votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year were much more varied than on the other side of the ball. Sobleski thought outside the box with an inside-the-box player, tabbing surprise starter Blake Martinez of the Green Bay Packers.
"To properly identify a Rookie of the Year candidate," Sobleski said, "one has to determine where opportunity exists. For Blake Martinez, a fourth-round pick, he's earned the opportunity to start at inside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers and play in the team's sub-packages. As a potential three-down defender on a high-profile team, Martinez has the chance to rack up tackles and play a big part in Green Bay's success."
Gagnon, on the other hand, went with a youngster he expects to lead the NFL in interceptions—Oakland safety Karl Joseph.
"On a limb with the rookie," Gagnon wrote, "but that entire secondary should benefit from Oakland's prowess in the front seven, and the ball-hawking Joseph had five interceptions in only four games during his senior season at West Virginia."
However, our leading vote-getter was a player who won't even begin the season as a starter.
That isn't going to last long, though. In fact, veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny of the Jacksonville Jaguars told Alex Marvez of Sporting News he's aware Myles Jack is coming for his job.
"We're trying to bring him along as fast as we can," Posluszny said. "He is the future of the Jaguars' defense. The faster we can get him going and understanding everything he has to do from a 'Mike' linebacker role, the better off we'll be."
Whether due to performance reasons or because of an injury, at some point this year Jack is going to get on the field with the ones.
And not only is he not giving the job back (Jack), but even in a half-season Jack is going to show why we'll look back on him as one of the biggest draft-day steals of 2016.
Others receiving votes: Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Simms, Tomlinson); Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Farrar); Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders (Gagnon); Blake Martinez, LB, Green Bay Packers (Sobleski)
Comeback Player of the Year
Winner: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (Davenport, Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Tomlinson)
There are certain realities to NFL life where individual awards are concerned.
One of them is simple—quarterbacks get all the glory. Of the last nine MVP winners, eight were quarterbacks, including the last three.
All things being equal, things aren't equal. If there's a quarterback who is a worthy candidate for an award, that player has the inside track to the trophy.
And that puts Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts on the fast track to Comeback Player of the Year in 2016.
Luck suffered through easily the worst season of his career in 2015, a seven-game, 12-interception mess that started with the Colts as a Super Bowl contender and ended with them out of the playoffs.
As Michael Marot of the Associated Press reported (via the Detroit Free Press), a healthy Luck is both eager and anxious about getting back on the field in a game that counts.
"Sure I have a little anxiety because of the unknown and what's going to happen," Luck said Monday about the season opener against Detroit. "But I've been nervous before every game I've played—high school, college and the NFL."
"I think I've improved," Luck continued. "But at the end of the day, it's about going out and being an efficient offense and scoring points."
Thanks to his shiny new contract, Luck is the NFL's highest-paid player—a quarterback who entered 2015 as one of the favorites to win the league's MVP award.
That prediction didn't come to pass, but if Luck's level of play comes close to what we've come to expect from the 26-year-old, he's a shoo-in for CPOY.
Others receiving votes: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers (Sobleski, Tanier); Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Simms)
Most Touchdown Passes
Winner: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (Davenport, Farrar, Freeman)
Much like Andrew Luck, things didn't go according to the script for Aaron Rodgers in 2015.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers still made the postseason last year, but with Jordy Nelson on the shelf all season, the 2014 NFL MVP saw his numbers take a sizable hit. For the first time in his career, Rodgers played in all 16 games but failed to hit 4,000 passing yards. His 31 touchdown passes were his lowest total in a complete season since 2009.
"You look at our offense and we're built in a way to have a great year," Cobb said. "It's just going out there and proving it. Going out there and executing to expectations."
Two years ago, when the Green Bay offense "executed to expectations," Rodgers tossed 38 scoring passes, just two off the NFL lead.
Three of our panelists expect Rodgers to better that total by three (relatively speaking) in 2016.
Others receiving votes: Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (Gagnon, Sobleski); Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (Simms, Tanier); Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (Miller); Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (Tomlinson)
Most Rushing Yards
Winner: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams (Farrar, Freeman, Miller, Sobleski, Tomlinson)
As Jarrett Bell of USA Today wrote, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams has just one mission in 2016—be better than he was in 2015.
"I don't do goals," Gurley said. "But if I don't do better than last year, I'm not progressing."
Even that's something of a tall order. Despite taking the first month of his rookie season off as he rehabbed a torn ACL, Gurley finished last season third in the NFL in rushing with 1,106 yards.
Now, with football back in La-La land, Gurley is dealing with two weights—expectations and comparisons. The expectation that he'll better last year's numbers and the comparisons to a tailback from the Rams' last stint on the left coast.
"Eric Dickerson is always going to be the best Rams running back ever—regardless," Gurley said. "He was a beast, man."
Now, no one is calling for Gurley to surpass Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. But even Gurley admitted the thought of a 2,000-yard season has crossed his mind.
"I know it's hard (to rush for 2,000 yards)," Gurley said. "I don't really think about it, but I know my teammates harp on it. I just go out and play my game."
Our writers aren't necessarily calling for a record-breaking season from Gurley. That would be a stretch.
But with Case Keenum at quarterback and a questionable cadre of receivers, the Rams offense doesn't just flow through Gurley.
The Rams offense is Gurley.
And given that, a rushing title shouldn't be that hard to come by.
Others receiving votes: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (Davenport, Gagnon); Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (Simms); Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Tanier)
Winner: Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Davenport, Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Simms, Sobleski, Tomlinson)
As I said earlier, over the past three years, there hasn't been a NFL wideout who has lit up the stat sheet quite like Antonio Brown.
His stat line over that span is one that most pass-catchers would kill for—125 catches, 1,677 yards and 10 touchdowns...on average!
Even by today's standards those are boffo numbers, and it makes Brown an easy call as the player most likely to lead the NFL in receptions.
Brown's secret, per Alysha Tsuji of USA Today?
Why living right, of course.
"You gotta have a good meal plan, and have positive thoughts, getting the proper rest," Brown said. "That helped me keep going, keep me driven, and knowing what's important obviously will keep you driven, and prioritizing and maximizing my time, and putting things in perspective."
There you go, kids. You, too, can be the NFL's best wide receiver if you eat your Wheaties, get plenty of shuteye and take your vitamins.
And have a ton of God-given talent catching the football.
A Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback tossing you the rock is also helpful.
The aerodynamic hair is optional.
Others receiving votes: Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins (Tanier)
Winner: Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders (Farrar, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson)
Khalil Mack was the panel's pick for Defensive Player of the Year, so it stands to reason he'd also be tabbed to lead the NFL in sacks.
It isn't just the NFL experts here at Bleacher Report who believe Mack is on the verge of joining J.J. Watt atop "Mount Makequarterbackscry."
As a matter of fact, according to the folks at Sports Illustrated, Mack is already the league's best edge-rusher.
After a very good rookie season in which he showed wisdom beyond his years as a run defender. Mack turned in the pass rush stats to round out his game as a dual-threat terror last season when he tallied 15 sacks, which was tops among edge players and trailed only J.J. Watt for the league lead. At this point, there’s no edge defender better at defending the run at the point of attack than Mack.
The trait that stands out is his tremendously low pad level, which is a big problem for the taller tackles because it allows his to get inside and under their long arms. Combine that with strength and an explosive burst, and the NFL's next great edge disruptor has arrived.
The really scary part? According to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Mack said he's only getting started.
"I'm still learning, just trying to get better," Mack said. "That's the key to all of this. I am very critical of myself. Watching the tape of myself last year, it looked like two different players the first half of the season and the second half. This year, I want to start fast and finish strong."
That faint, muffled sobbing you hear is coming from AFC West quarterbacks thinking about Mack "finishing strong" in 2016.
Others receiving votes: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (Davenport, Farrar, Freeman); Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (Simms)
Winner: NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Tanier, Tomlinson)
There's more to leading the NFL in tackles than just ability. Talent's a big part of it, but there are a couple of other ingredients.
First, you need a defense with only one or two primary playmakers. That way there's little competition for tackles.
Then you need an offense that is, how shall I put this ... "ungood." It's counterintuitive to NFL success, but the more time a defender spends on the field, the better his chances are of making plays.
In other words, there's a reason why NaVorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers paced the league with 154 total tackles in 2015.
There's a still-undecided carousel of players vying to start next to Bowman in 2016. He insisted to David Fucillo of SB Nation that isn't a problem:
I think I communicate with all three guys about the same. So it's just about me feeling comfortable, able to talk to them, them being able to listen. But there's no rush to really find that out. Coach is going to put the best guy out there, and if the competition runs through the first game, then guys just have to deal with it. But it's just about a line of communication, both guys just being on the same page.
Then there's the Blaine Gabbert-led 49ers offense. Reckon that "Blaine Gabbert-led" pretty much sums that up.
But wait! Bonus round!
That Blaine Gabbert offense will be running Chip Kelly's frenetic scheme in 2016—a scheme that left the Philadelphia Eagles defense on the field for more plays than any other NFL team last year.
It's a perfect storm of talent, situation and opportunity.
Time to reap the whirlwind.
Others receiving votes: Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Farrar, Sobleski); Myles Jack, ILB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Simms); Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks (Miller)
Winner: Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals (Davenport, Freeman, Sobleski, Tomlinson)
If there's one person you can always count on for glowing superlatives and complimentary reviews, it's New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
He's just a big ol' teddy Bill.
Kidding aside, Belichick's New England Patriots face the Arizona Cardinals in the season's first Sunday night game, and while speaking to Zack Cox of NESN, Belichick had nothing but good things to say about defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
"Very productive player," Belichick said. "Very athletic. Loves football. Competes hard. He's a tough kid. He'll strike you, for his size. He's not a big, imposing player, but he plays with good physicality and toughness. Likes football. He's impressive."
Then Belichick almost smiled. Almost.
For most of the 2015 season, Mathieu was playing at a level that had him squarely in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year honors. In addition to almost 90 tackles and a sack, Mathieu picked off five passes before a torn ACL ended his season in December.
Predicting interceptions can be either tricky or futile, depending on how you look at it. The number of people who thought Kansas City's Marcus Peters (a rookie cornerback) and Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson (a veteran free safety) would tie for the NFL lead with eight apiece in 2015 numbered between zero and zero.
Tabbing a player coming off a major injury to lead the league in that category in 2016 might seem even more improbable. But news regarding Mathieu's rehab has been universally positive. There's been nothing to indicate he won't be out there against the Patriots.
And dating all the way back to his time at LSU, Mathieu has shown a nose for taking away the football.
Others receiving votes: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (Farrar, Simms); Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders (Gagnon); Damarious Randall, CB, Green Bay Packers (Miller); Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks (Tanier)
Winner: Seattle Seahawks (Farrar, Tanier, Tomlinson)
The Carolina Panthers may have represented the NFC in Super Bowl 50 last year, but in most of our panel's eyes, they aren't the NFL big dogs. Or of the NFC.
In 2016, that would be the Seattle Seahawks, who have been on quite the run of success since their improbable "Beast Quake" playoff win over the Saints in 2010.
Or more appropriately, since the arrival of a certain young quarterback in the Emerald City.
Since taking over as the starting quarterback for the Seahawks in 2012, Russell Wilson has guided the team to a 46-18 record in the regular season. In each of those four seasons, the Seahawks have both made the playoffs and won at least one postseason game.
The team also played in a pair of Super Bowls, including a blowout win in Super Bowl XLVIII.
This isn't to say the Seahawks are a team without weaknesses. As Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com reported, just as in 2015, the offensive line remains a question.
This season will come down to the Seahawks' biggest unknown: the offensive line. Seattle will go with at least three new starters, and Justin Britt, who played left guard last year, is moving to center. No team in the league has less money committed to the offensive line in 2016 than the Seahawks. If this group can be competent, the Seahawks are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If not, this season will end in disappointment.
The Seahawks also have one of the NFL's best defenses and arguably the league's best quarterback in Wilson. Where three writers here at Bleacher Report are concerned, the positives outweigh the negatives enough that the Seahawks are once again the team to beat on the "N" side of the bracket.
Others receiving votes: Green Bay Packers (Freeman, Gagnon); Arizona Cardinals (Miller, Sobleski); New England Patriots (Simms); Carolina Panthers (Davenport)
"Winner": San Francisco 49ers (Farrar, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson)
We have a chance to see history in the NFL in 2016.
Historic futility, that is.
I don't mean an 0-16 team. That's been done.
I mean a team entering the following season with the top two picks in the NFL draft.
The Cleveland Browns are not a good team. Or an average team. Two of our Bleacher Report writers Bleacher Report (Chris Simms and myself) think the Browns will finish the season with more losses (or at least as many) as any team in football—a feat that all but certainly would land the Browns the No. 1 pick.
The Browns also possess the Eagles' first-rounder in 2017—a pick procured in the deal that landed Philly Carson Wentz. With Wentz set to start when healthy and the Eagles effectively punting on 2016, it's entirely possible the Eagles will struggle mightily this year—mightily enough to land the Browns the No. 2 pick as well.
A fella can dream, right?
Of course, in Cleveland, dreams never come true (at least the football ones), and sure enough the vast majority of our experts see things playing out differently.
It's hard to really argue with them. The San Francisco 49ers have a retread quarterback, a tailback who can't stay healthy, no receiving talent to speak of, issues on both lines and no proven defensive playmakers of note outside Bowman and veteran safety Antoine Bethea.
Add in the machinations of King Chip the Frenetic, and the 2016 season in San Francisco has all the makings of a raging dumpster fire.
The Browns would just louse up the picks anyway.
Others receiving votes: Cleveland Browns (Davenport, Simms)
Super Bowl LI Matchup
Winner: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson)
In news that should surprise no one, our writers are all over the place in predictions for this year's Super Bowl participants.
If there's a surprising part about it, it's that last year's teams got next to no love—and even that's not a huge shock.
The world champion Broncos, who will roll out second-year pro Trevor Siemian at quarterback in 2016, weren't picked by a single panelist to make it to Houston.
It's going to be new blood all around if the B/R writers are correct. Well, all but one—Lead NFL Analyst Chris Simms was the only person to choose the Carolina Panthers as the NFC's representative.
It may be new teams in Super Bowl LI, but those new teams look an awful lot like old teams. As in the teams that met just two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.
Not that it would be such a bad thing to see the Patriots and Seahawks lock horns again. As Adam Schein of NFL.com wrote just after the Patriots prevailed 28-24 in February 2015, "That was truly an instant classic—one that provided arguably the single-wildest Super Bowl finish ever."
It was indeed a wild one. Down 24-14 to open the final quarter, Tom Brady engineered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including a three-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with just over two minutes left to give the Pats the lead.
Then Russell Wilson began a drive of his own, with Jermaine Kearse making a circus catch that gave the Seahawks 1st-and-goal at the 5-yard line and then 2nd-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
Then came perhaps the most curious play-call in Super Bowl history, Malcolm Butler's game-sealing interception and the craziest ending to a Super Bowl in the game's half-century history.
A trip to Texas would mean many things. The possibility of another instant classic. A chance for Wilson to avenge his last-second end-zone pick in that game. And an opportunity for Brady to do something no quarterback in NFL history ever has.
Win five Super Bowls.
Others receiving votes: Patriots vs. Packers (Davenport, Gagnon); Seahawks vs. Chiefs (Farrar); Packers vs. Texans (Freeman); Cardinals vs. Patriots (Miller); Panthers vs. Steelers (Simms)
Super Bowl LI Champion
Winner: TIE — New England Patriots (Davenport, Miller, Sobleski) and Seattle Seahawks (Farrar, Tanier, Tomlinson)
Tiebreaker: Two of the three writers who predicted a Patriots vs. Seahawks Super Bowl also forecast a Seattle victory.
The votes here left me with a conundrum. An equal number of experts predicted the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks would win Super Bowl LI.
What to do, what to do.
Since ties are un-American but making up the rules as you go is not, I instituted a tiebreaker. Two of the three writers who picked Seattle and New England to do the rematch tango called for the Seahawks to win, so there you go.
But what would it mean?
Oh, it would mean plenty. For starters, the Seahawks would have appeared in three Super Bowls in four years—a feat that hasn't been accomplished since the Patriots won three times in four years over a decade ago.
The Seahawks wouldn't quite match that achievement after coming up just short in Glendale, Arizona, a couple of years ago. But it would be hard to argue the balance of power hasn't shifted and that the Seahawks weren't more than just the NFC's big bad wolf.
In short, the Seahawks would usurp the Patriots as the NFL's dominant franchise. Their dynasty at that point would be undeniable.
Head coach Pete Carroll would accomplish something that no head coach ever has, winning multiple championships at both the collegiate level at USC and in Seattle. Take that, Jimmy Johnson.
And Russell Wilson would have started his NFL career with more success than almost any quarterback in history. Playoff wins in each of his first five seasons. Three Super Bowl trips. And two wins.
Even Tom Terrific sat as a rookie.
Others receiving votes: Green Bay Packers (Freeman, Gagnon); Pittsburgh Steelers (Simms)
Winner: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (Farrar, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson)
Gee, who could have possibly seen this coming?
Given that our panel posited the Seattle Seahawks would have the most NFL wins this year and not only represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI but also hoist the Lombardi Trophy, it's hardly an upset that four panelists picked Wilson as the 2016 NFL MVP.
Last year, with Marshawn Lynch banged up, Wilson was asked to do more to carry the Seattle offense than in the three previous seasons. As ESPN NFL Insider and senior writer Mike Sando wrote, per ESPN (via ABC News), that worked out pretty well.
"He tossed 25 touchdown passes with two interceptions over the second half of last season as Seattle shifted toward a quick passing game. This is the year any remaining skeptics realize Wilson is much more than adequate as a pocket passer."
Wilson, for his part, told Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com he's more interested in improving his defensive reads than in winning his first MVP award.
"I've always been prepared," Wilson said. "But how much more can I be prepared, but also anticipate, and also put us in a certain situation and really put them at a disadvantage, ultimately? Putting the defense at a disadvantage. Just knowing the weaknesses, knowing our strengths and trying to do that."
It's entirely possible he'll do both in 2016. Just as we saw last year with Cam Newton, the quarterback who leads his team to the most NFL wins is an excellent bet to win the MVP award.
Like I said, awards races favor the position.
If the Seahawks have the success as a team that our Bleacher Report writers have predicted, it's going to be a banner year in the Pacific Northwest.
And that fat contract extension the Seahawks recently signed Wilson to is going to look like a bargain.
Others receiving votes: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon); Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (Miller); Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (Simms)