One of the dirty secrets about the NFL is that it tends to thrive more when its under less scrutiny. The NFL has been a successful, powerful sports league for decades, in some years more popular than others, following the usual ebb and flow of leagues in North America. Some years your star is Michael Jordan, some years your star is Shawn Kemp -- it all evens out in the end. The NFL had John Madden and Joe Montana and Barry Sanders and for years, for decades, and that was fine. The NFL was great. The NFL was a doggedly reliable good time.

But in the past decade, the NFL has raised the stakes. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances that the NFL can only partly claim any responsibility for -- like the wild shift in television viewing habits and the cable industry, changing demographic trends and an increased regionalization and polarization of political trends -- the NFL exploded in power and popularity. The vast expansion of media options and voices turned a league like the NFL into perpetual programming, a non-stop cacophony of takes and takedowns, an endless churn of First Time Callers always chiming in. Commissioner Roger Goodell threw the gauntlet in 2010 by saying he wanted the league to reached $25 billion in revenue by 2027 . (He's halfway there in 2017.) The NFL has been demanding we talk about it, all the time.

The problem with this, though, is that the more you talk about the NFL, the harder it becomes to disguise and conceal its flaws. In fact, it becomes impossible, eventually, not to just talk about those flaws. When the NFL is a constant stream of content, and it demands that it dominate every conversation, you start picking at the league until all you see are scabs. The problems that plague the NFL now are simply supersized versions of the ones they've always had: player health, corporate greed, inconsistent misconduct penalties, increased specialization and coaching obsession legislating the unpredictability out of the game, a creeping, creepy groupthink that attempts to expel anyone who thinks differently or attempts to use the platform professional sports provides to stand for something larger than himself or the game he plays. These pellets of ugliness have always plagued the NFL, but you could talk yourself out of them before; you could close your eyes and pretend they weren't there. But when the NFL got as big as it did at the beginning of this decade, it turned itself into a target. We had to start focusing on those things. And now, in a way, it's all we can see.

There is always a risk of being a little too Thomas-Friedman-talking-to-his-cab-driver here, but as a new NFL season starts this Thursday, it's tough not to notice that it feels a little different this year, doesn't it? The countdown clocks to kickoff on the ESPN scrawl feel a little bit more for their benefit than ours, you know? You find more casual fans begging off, maybe taking a year off from fantasy football this year, maybe not rushing out and getting the DirectTV package, maybe seeing if someone else would rather go in on the season tickets. Even doing a twice-a-week division-by-division preview felt perfunctory. The NFL just seems to have so many more bigger issues to deal with than whether or not the Titans can take a step forward in the AFC South. The ratings will still be high, but there is a clear sense that the tide has crested, and is starting to recede. As we discussed last week, this is going to present a series of challenges to Goodell that history suggests he is not ready to tackle. The NFL bubble has not popped. But it is no longer expanding. The turning point NFL skeptics have been waiting for has occurred. The NFL is still king. But weary it wears the crown.

Into this preach today, thus, after a month of previewing the season, we put our season predictions down for the record, and make a Super Bowl pick. The NFL could have every one of its current crises blow up in its face, and as long as there are still games and players to play them, there will be Super Bowl picks that must be made. There will be a passionate and devoted fan base who wants to know what's going on and where things are going. You can read all of the division previews here, but to remind you, here are the projected standings:


Dallas 9-7
NY Giants 9-7
Washington 7-9
Philadelphia 7-9


Green Bay 10-6
Minnesota 7-9
Detroit 6-10
Chicago 4-12


Atlanta 13-3
Carolina 12-4
Tampa Bay 8-8
New Orleans 6-10


Seattle 13-3
Arizona 10-6
LA Rams 6-10
San Francisco 1-15


New England 9-7
Buffalo 7-9
Miami 6-10
NY Jets 2-14


Pittsburgh 11-5
Cincinnati 9-7
Baltimore 8-8
Cleveland 5-11


Tennessee 10-6
Houston 9-7
Indianapolis 8-8
Jacksonville 6-10


Oakland 11-5
Kansas City 11-5
Denver 9-7
LA Chargers 7-9

That makes your playoff seedings, with tiebreakers, look like this:


  1. Oakland
  2. Pittsburgh
  3. Tennessee
  4. New England
  5. Kansas City
  6. Cincinnati


  1. Seattle
  2. Atlanta
  3. Green Bay
  4. Dallas
  5. Carolina
  6. Arizona

So, playoffs!


Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Tennessee Titans (10-6)

I am on the record -- particularly now that we know Andrew Luck isn't making a smooth transition back to the field -- as saying the Titans are the only interesting team in the AFC South. This could be the rare AFC early-round shootout. Pick: Tennessee

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at New England Patriots (9-7)

Going 11-5 and being rewarded with a playoff game in Foxboro is the most Chiefs thing imaginable. Pick: New England

Arizona Cardinals (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

Almost certainly Larry Fitzgerald's last game. He'll end up with a statue outside University of Phoenix Stadium, though, alas, with no rings. Pick: Green Bay

Carolina Panthers (12-4) at Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

Cam Newton exorcises some demons, and the Cowboys relive theirs. Pick: Carolina


New England Patriots (10-7) at Oakland Raiders (11-5)

It's going to be an awfully strange season at the old Coliseum, and this might be the strangest scenario of all. Imagine if this game were in Vegas. Pick: New England

Tennessee Titans (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

It's nice the Titans got this far, but the Steelers should roll even if they need to rest some stars for the Patriots nightmare the next weekend. Pick: Pittsburgh

Carolina Panthers (13-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Here's guessing we get a righteous, furious revenge season from Cam this year. Even in front of the 12th Man. Pick: Carolina

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

Aaron Rodgers' likability as a human being -- not to mention his "Jeopardy!" prowess -- makes it difficult to cheer against him, which is strange: It should always be fun to cheer against handsome quarterbacks who have it all. Pick: Atlanta


New England Patriots (11-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5)

If the Steelers have everybody healthy on offense, they can outscore the Pats. I'm going to be dumb and pick them to do so. Pick: Pittsburgh

Carolina Panthers (14-4) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)

I know the fun pick is to assume the Falcons implode after their Super Bowl nightmare and the loss of Kyle Shanahan … but man, that team was fantastic last year and now has a monster chip on its shoulder. Here's guessing they get a return Super Bowl trip. Pick: Atlanta


Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) vs. Atlanta Falcons (15-3)

It's in Minnesota this year! It's a lovely stadium, but sheesh: Pack a tauntaun. It has been nine years since the Steelers won the Super Bowl. How many Steelers fans have been born in that time? Pick: Pittsburgh

Let this column be your introduction to a whole season of weekly picks, starting Thursday. I'll be predicting against the analytical minds at FiveThirtyEight, against the wisdom of crowds in Vegas and against our two small children, aged five and three, all season. I am certain I will lose to all three.

The NFL, for better or worse, is back. As always, we both embrace and reject all of it.


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