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Fearless NFL division predictions: The 8 teams that will rule in 2016

NFC North

I can’t not pick against the Packers here. Sure, they got off the rails last season and the Vikings made a big jump up. But Aaron Rodgers seemed to be pretty beat up all year, too. If he and the offensive line can avoid major injuries, this is the team. They get Clay Matthews back in his usual spot, they get Eddie Lacy back off the pancake batter and the only 2015 playoff teams they have to face on the road all season are the Vikings (because they’re in the same division and all) and the Redskins. The Packers can’t have consecutive seasons where they slip up like that at Lambeau, I don’t think.

As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the Packers are the favorite in the NFC North

I could see the Vikings taking a step back unless they truly unlock Teddy Bridgewater and that offense. I’m not convinced Norv Turner has the pieces to do it yet. This smells like a year of transition in Detroit where they did the ol’ fire half the building now/fire the other half next January thing, and there are many execs in the NFL convinced that Pats coordinator Matt Patrica is the next de-facto coach of the Lions.

Locker rooms tend to sense that, and the retirement of Megatron will leave a gaping void. And I’m not loving what I am hearing out of the Bears facility these days. I don’t see them being poised to take what would have to be a fairly huge jump to get back to respectability. I see them bringing up the rear again.

NFC South

I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel here: I like Carolina. A lot. Yes the Pantherslost the Super Bowl, but I love the front seven there and no one was talking about Josh Norman this time a year ago. Love their draft. Love the depth they have developed. They get Kelvin Benjamin back, the offense will continue to evolve andCam Newton wins games. Period.

With reigning MVP Cam Newton, the Panthers remain the cream of the crop in the NFC South.
I believe the Bucs will give them a good run and have some wild-card potential to me. Jameis Winston is the real deal and the young Bucs will learn to win some of the kinds of games they let slip away a year ago. Getting out of the handcuffs of the former defensive scheme will help as well.

Drew Brees in a lame-duck season doesn’t bode well for the Saints and they still will need significant time to get that defense out of the abyss. That, coupled with them losing their mojo at home, won’t be easy to overcome.

The Falcons still get pushed around too easily, though Dan Quinn is trying to change that, but I don’t see there being enough ability to get to the passer. I’m not a big Matt Ryan guy (but thankfully my buddy Pete Prisco is twice the Matt Ryan guy as anyone else in North America, so that more than compensates).

NFC West

This is the best inter-divisional slugfest in the league right now. The Seahawks and the Cardinals could both make the argument as being the best team in the NFL on paper this spring. You could probably convince me on either of them.

Only one can win the division, of course, and that provides the far superior route to the Super Bowl, as both clubs are absolute beasts at home. Give me the better quarterback every time, and that’s Russell Wilson. I’m not sure how easily Carson Palmer shakes off his latest postseason implosion and I always worry about getting a full season out of him at this stage of his career. And as he goes, so goes that franchise.

As for the other two teams that play in the division, well, I don’t see this latest Chip Kelly thing lasting more than a couple of years. Call me crazy, but the 49ers lost their entire defense in the span of 18 months and I’m not a Blaine Gabbert guy, believe it or not. The Rams will be an intriguing story now that Stan Kroenke finally got his manifest destiny and has a team he can drive to see from his Malibu estate. But I’d turn to that great prognosticator Clubber Lang as a glimpse into what’s ahead for rookie quarterback Jared Goff: Pain.

I don’t love the Rams line and if this kid thought he got abused during that 1-11 season at Cal, he ain’t seen nothing yet. Perhaps the Rams have solved their quarterback conundrum in the long term, but in the short term that’s still a very weak quarterback room by NFL standards and this defense is still going to have to steal games for them to be better than middling.

Those who bought into Kenta Maeda, particularly via trade, after he allowed a combined one earned run over his first four starts, averaging 6 1/3 innings per, are probably feeling bamboozled right about now.

He hasn’t been bad exactly, but he has allowed four earned runs in three of his last four starts and understandably hasn’t pitched as deep into games. If his first four starts were like his last four, he might have wound up on the waiver wire instead of your roster.

So which is the aberration? Neither, probably. Buying into him as an ace after only four starts was reckless to begin with, especially since he hadn’t demonstrated the bat-missing ability normally required of one, but of course, his achievements in Japan speak for themselves.

Here’s how it went down, via David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Braves had already made the decision to fire him and booked his commercial flight home Tuesday, but didn’t plan to tell him he’d been fired until Tuesday morning, after president of baseball operations John Hart flew to Pittsburgh to join general manager John Coppolella.

Later Monday night after getting the email, Gonzalez eventually had confirmed by Braves top officials what he already was certain about by then: He was fired.

It’s a bit surprising that the Braves’ leadership wouldn’t think through something like this. What’s the harm in waiting to make the flight change until after he’s canned? They’re already saving millions on payroll with a bare bones roster; they can’t front the extra night of hotel fees before flying him out Wednesday morning?

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