At the time of this correspondence, I haven’t decided if I’ll watch the new Game of Thrones prequel series. I’m one of many the showmakers burned the first time around: We faithfully watched on Sunday nights, we waited years between televised updates, and that was the big finale? And now they just expect us to forget and jump in again? Well, fool me once —
Anyhoo, Packers fans and bettors know what I’m talking about. In case you haven’t heard it over the past hour or so, the King of the NFC North’s won lots of battles and provided a lot of fun along the way, but it’s been a lot of Long Nights since he claimed victory as the true Lord of the Pigskin Kingdom.
The conference ain’t great, Brady may or may not have a family vacation scheduled around the Holidays, and Aaron’s (former?) scapegoat Brian Gutekunst has loaded up the roster but good. Alright, fine…I’m riding with you one more time, Aaron. But this is it and I mean it.
Time now for my surefire, can’t-miss picks for the NFC North and AFC South…take it away, Dave.
1. PACKERS 13-4
AJ Dillon OVER 750.5 rush yards (-112)
NFC #1 seed (+500)
Rashan Gary OVER 9.5 sacks (-112)
For the majority of his career, Peyton Manning put up huge numbers, took home multiple MVPs and won a gaggle of division titles and playoff byes…but just one Lombardi. (Pack fans might be feeling deja vu x2 here.) When he was 39 years old, though, Manning was deferential to a dominant D and physical running game…and won the Super Bowl. If Rodgers doesn’t make like a pretentious tattoo, overcomplicating things, and instead leans on a dominant D and physical running game, there’s a great chance he can join Peyton as a two-time Lombardi winner.
Rodgers is, of course, considerably better than Manning was at the same stage…but the point is, the Packers do-it-all QB needs to disabuse himself of his stated belief he’s the only reason anyone wants to go to Green Bay, ‘cause the defense might be the most talented in the conference.
2. VIKINGS 11-6
Alt w/l total – OVER 10.5 wins (+180)
Harrison Smith OVER 2.5 INT (-112)
Adam Thielen OVER 7.5 TD rec (-112)
I’ve got good news and mediocre news for Vikes fans. I’ll start with the mediocre: Kirk Cousins is THE personification of middle-class QBin’ in the 21st century. His career record is 59-59-2. What Jeff Fisher did for coaching, Kirk does for QBin’. He is not Aaron Rodgers or any of the other small handful of quarterbacks good enough – elite enough! – to offset his team’s deficiencies, so he needs a strong roster around him to stay relevant in January…which brings me to that good news: Kirk’s got a strong roster around him, and will therefore stay relevant into January ’23.
The schedule is pretty soft, the receiving corps potent (albeit thin…so Irv Smith’s gotta step up), and the secondary upgraded. Beyond that position group, the biggest question is how much more can young, offensive-minded Kevin O’Connell and staff get out of a mostly-unchanged roster than old-school curmudgeon Mike Zimmer got last year? (I’m betting the answer is “a lot more.”)
3. LIONS 6-11
UNDER 6.5 wins (+105)
D’Andre Swift UNDER 1350.5 (-112)
Amon-Ra St. Brown OVER 850.5 rec yds (-112)
Watching this year’s ‘Hard Knocks’, it occurs to me the Lions are gonna be pigskin’s ultimate nature v nurture experiment: If they can over 6.5 wins, or at least be palatable enough so we don’t have to resent them joining us on Thanksgiving, it’ll be because of the natural talents of a great o-line, Swift, some nice pass catchers and Aiden Hutchinson (who’ll get credit in the Rookie DPOY votes for his individual work on an otherwise apocalyptically atrocious D).
It almost certainly won’t be because of the gaggle of malaproppin’ machismo that passes for coaching from Dan Campbell and his old playing buddies he’s made assistant coaches. Don’t get me wrong: They’re likable enough…but do you think Sean McVay, Bill Belichick or Andy Reid are shaking in their boots because of three-toe, one-butt cheek platitudes?
4. BEARS 2-15
Worst record in league (+750)
Justin Fields OVER 500.5 rush yards (-112)
NFC North exact finishing order – 1. GB; 2. MIN; 3. DET; 4. CHI (+410)
I like Justin Fields. I wonder if the Bears feel the same, though, given the guys they’re gonna put him out on the field with this season. I know this season is really about next season for the new regime, but I wouldn’t touch most of this roster with a ten-foot (Ryan) Poles. The lousy O-line is gonna get Fields beaten up, and same goes for David Montgomery or Khalil Herbert, who’ll be a season-long race to reach the line of scrimmage before defenders reach them.
On the bright side, the D has high-end talent at all three levels in Robert Quinn, “Next Year I’m Gone” Roquan Smith, and what could end up being among the league’s best safety pairs in Eddie Jackson & rookie Jaquan Brisker. Problem is, even if Poles doesn’t deal the few pieces he’s got, the number of talented players is low…as so, too, will be the Bears’ win total.
1. COLTS 11-6
AFC #1 seed (+1100)
Michael Pittman OVER 83.5 receptions (-112)
Alt win total OVER 10.5 wins (+115)
From Nick Foles to Carson Wentz, Frank Reich’s proven he has a knack for getting QBs to play their best. Okay, he couldn’t inflate Wentz’s balls in critical late-season games, but the Commies’ new QB still put up an impressive statistical 2021. The year before that, Phil Rivers looked born again in Reich’s offense…and before that, Jim Kelly’s former backup had backup Jacoby Brissett looking like a quality starter for long stretches after Luck retired on the eve of the 2019 season. Ergo, it shouldn’t drop your jaw when Matt Ryan resurrects his borderline Hall of Fame career under the Indy dome, especially considering there probably won’t be a lot of competition for the top spot down South. And in a related matter: You can safely anticipate Michael Pittman getting an outsized percentage of targets – if you’ve watched Ryan, you know he’s had a career-long knack of throwing it to his #1 guys.
The top spot among RBs will again be owned for a second-straight year by Jonathan Taylor (although I’d bet the under on a repeat of his 1800+ yds), and the defense – already mighty – is officially now scary with Yannick Ngakouwe (& his 10 sacks) opposite sophomore Kwity Paye and (2019 DPOY) Stephone Gilmore on the backend. The Colts are just a scooch below an AFC team or two in terms of overall talent, but thanks to mediocre-to-lousy other teams in their division, Indy’s got a great shot at the conference’s top seed.
2. TITANS 7-10
Alt W/L total UNDER 8.5 (+120)
Derrick Henry UNDER 1350.5 rush yards (-112)
Ryan Tannehill UNDER 3500.5 (-112)
At the risk of sounding like a fake tough guy, I didn’t like Ryan Tannehill’s comments about the “dark place” that caused “a lot of sleepless nights” and required therapy after January’s playoff loss. How many times have we been told success in big spots requires amnesia, the ability to shrug off a bad play or game and focus on the next one?
And speaking of the next one (as in season), the roster has been diminished, which puts even more pressure on Tannehill…and, call me a cynic, but Derrick Henry – like almost all big athletes who play collision sports – is bound to start slowing down, the result of being the constant in too many of those aforementioned collisions with big, strong and fast foes. Jeffrey Simmons (at minimum, big and strong) is one of the best interior D-linemen around, and I overall kinda like the D’s potential if Bud Dupree can avoid injury for the first time in three seasons. Either way, though, the problem for Vrabel & co: The division’s other three teams are better than they were a year ago, and the Titans are worse.
3. JAGUARS 6-11
Trevor Lawrence OVER 21.5 TD passes (-112)
Christian Kirk OVER 4.5 TD receptions (-112)
Our fealty to draft experts is generally pretty silly, not because they don’t know what they’re talking about, but because evaluating how well an 21-year-old is gonna play in the NFL is an inexact science. What those scouts are rarely wrong about, though, is ID’ing “generational talent” at QB. By my count, the G-word has been applied to Elway, Peyton, Luck and now Trevor Lawrence. The first three all lived up to the hype…and here’s betting Lawrence starts heading in that direction in ’22 with improvements at the skill positions and on the line, plus a major upgrade from Urban Meyer and his mischievous thumb to Doug Pederson.
The defense is young but talented – as you’d expect from a team that’s been drafting high the last few years. I don’t know if it counts as a bold prediction, but they’ve got a chance to finish second in the South…with a shot at the division title if 40-year-old Matty Ice falls off the edge of the Arctic shelf. In fact, maybe in the name of fun you oughta sprinkle a little something on the Jags at +750. For what it’s worth, though, I did my best to talk myself into Jacksonville finishing 2nd, but just couldn’t find enough wins on the schedule…but you do you!
4. TEXANS 2-15
UNDER 4.5 wins
Davis Mills OVER 3451 pass yards & 20.5 TD passes
The personnel’s upgraded from where it was a summer ago — well, aside from the class act who’s making $230 mil despite having not played a meaningful game in 20 months — but the Texans’ record will be worse in ’22. 3rd-overall pick Derek Stingley, Jr might end up fulfilling the huge expectations his talent brings, but a shutdown corner is a luxury item on a team this far from contention. Dameon Pierce is a great sleeper for your fantasy team, and the line’s improved, but it’s still overly optimistic in the QB League to expect Davis Mills and a limited group of pass catchers to keep up with their foes, who’ll likely be able to bum-rush over Houston’s bum rush D. Ultimately, it’s tough to be optimistic about winning games in the here & now when assets like Laremy Tunsil could go up in smoke in exchange for a brighter future. All that said, Mills will be good enough to throw for at least 3500 yds and 21 touchdowns, especially since there isn’t a viable alternative in the Texans quarterback room.
PS – I guess we should’ve known they were gonna martyr David Culley…but for Lovie Smith? In the Year of the Lord 2022? Really? Sheeeeesh.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna watch that Game of Thrones show. But just know I am not happy about it.