The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins in less than a week. We are six days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Every Tuesday and Friday until kickoff, I've been previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've weighed heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on. So far:
4. New York Jets (projected record: 2-14)
A team that's as bad as the Jets are going to be this season needs to have an excuse. They need to be the 49ers, with a new coach and a new GM and all sorts of Tomsula/Kelly junk to clear out. They need to be the Browns, an organization that's experimenting (with a modicum of success so far) with a whole new way of putting together a football team. They need to be the Rams, a team with a new coach that's trying to figure out its identity in a new home.
But the Jets are none of these things. They have a coach in Todd Bowles who is trying to hang onto his job, and a management structure that is unable to put any sort of real lasting plan in place because of a mercurial owner who seems to react more to what he reads in the newspaper than to what the smart people who work for his organization are telling him. And they are now trying to tank, apparently, even though they were reportedly trying to lure Steve Smith out of retirement in the offseason for reasons not even Smith could understand.
The Jets have long been a joke around the NFL. But this might be their worst team in more than 20 years -- since Rich Kotite -- and they're going to end up with a new coach and the same organizational chaos they had going into this year. It's usually bad to be a Jets fan. But it's going to be even worse this year. And it's going to stay that way for a while. (Is it any surprise that starting QB Josh McCown almost got seriously injured in the team's preseason finale on Thursday night?)
3. Miami Dolphins (projected record: 6-10)
There is a school of thought that the Dolphins will in fact be better this year with Jay Cutler rather than Jay Tannehill. The arguments:
• Coach Adam Gase has worked with Cutler before and feels comfortable with him, and vice versa.
• Cutler can throw the deep ball in a way that Tannehill could not.
• Tannehill had atrophied and was about to start a decline anyway.
• The Dolphins needed some sort of offensive changeup, and Cutler provides it.
It's possible all this is true. Heck, I've even been a Cutler defender in the past. But boy, everybody sure turned around on Cutler fast, didn't they? Wasn't it just a few months ago that we were making jokes about him trying to throw to commercial on game telecasts and having it intercepted? The guy just shows up a month before the camp -- and this is a player who even his defenders would never exactly describe as a workout and film study freak -- and this is the guy who turns the corner for the Dolphins?
I mean, maybe? If Cutler does bring the Dolphins back to the playoffs, it'll be a great story, and who knows, perhaps it'll turn out that he is considered a decent quarterback and not a reality TV joke who smokes and flips off paparazzi. If that happens, bully for him. But it hasn't happened before now. Why are we expecting it to happen now?
2. Buffalo Bills (projected record: 7-9)
Sometimes I think I want the Bills to be successful more than they even want. Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, there's no bigger story in sports than Buffalo winning the Super Bowl, right? In a just, logical world, the Bills would be moving heaven and earth every year to win their fans a Super Bowl, particularly now that it's clear they won't be moving town anytime soon. Every year should be an all in. Either the Bills are trying to win a Super Bowl this year, or they're bottoming out to make sure they win one in the very near future. They're the Bills! They lost four Super Bowls in a row! They haven't had a truly great player in 20 years! Make it happen!
So why are the Bills always so middling? They're not terrible: They've only won four games or fewer twice in the last 30 years. But they haven't reached double digits in wins this century either. They're just … another team. Sure, they've been stuck in the same division as the Patriots for the last two decades, but so have the Jets and the Dolphins, and they've each reached the playoffs multiple times. Not the Bills. The Bills now have the longest playoff drought in the NFL. That hardly reeks of urgency.
The Bills sometimes do smart things -- as much as a mistake as drafting Watkins so high was, the Rams trade was golden for them -- but they never add up to much more than reshuffling the furniture. The Bills and their fans deserve bold, inventive, creative, risky leadership. This team should have nothing but SUPER BOWL in their eyes at all times. But it just doesn't feel that way, does it?
1. New England Patriots (projected record: 9-7)
The Patriots, even before Julian Edelman went down, were considered far and away the best team in the NFL in most preseason prognostications, which is a pretty good example of how narratives work and are sustained. Halfway through the third quarter of last year's Super Bowl, the Patriots were not only going to lose the game, but the general consensus was that this was in fact it for the Patriots. This was the end of the Patriots' run. Impressive as it was, Tom Brady was almost 40, and the team didn't have the speed required to catch up with a team like the Falcons, and they were simply a team from the past. One and a half quarters later, the Pats didn't just have another Super Bowl: They're now everybody's favorites again. One and a half quarters turned them from the past into the present and now again the future.
Not that they should be doubted: If anything, last year was the transition year. (Bill Belichick is now winning Super Bowls in his transition years.) You can see them taking a step back in the regular season, to rest Brady, to rest a lot of guys, but still being a terrifying team in the playoffs. This record seems a little low, and it surely is. But they're still the target. They're still the one everyone hates and everyone wants to take down. And even if they go 9-7 … they're still probably the Super Bowl favorites.
Tuesday: Postseason predictions
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