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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

NFL preview: Can anyone stop the Patriots?

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 4

In the wildly unpredictable NFL, one outcome is a near-certainty: the Patriots will win the AFC East.

The Patriots, who kick off the NFL season Thursday when they host the Chiefs, have won the AFC East eight straight times. There seems to be no reason that the defending Super Bowl champions won’t win a ninth straight AFC East crown.

A better question is whether any team can prevent the Patriots, who almost certainly earn a first-round bye after padding their win total by beating up on the rest of the AFC East, from winning a second straight Super Bowl. The Patriots seemed more vulnerable last season. They were in trouble against the Texans in a playoff game last season and probably should have lost the Super Bowl. They made offseason improvements and look even better entering this season.

The top challengers in the AFC include the Steelers, Texans and Raiders. The Texans have a championship defense, anchored by a tremendous defensive line, but they don’t have the quarterback to match up with the Patriots. The Raiders are an intriguing possibility, but might not have the big-game experience to knock off the Patriots. The Steelers might have the most dangerous offense in the NFL, but will Ben Roethlisberger stay healthy and will their defense rise to the occasion?

Although I almost picked the Steelers to win the AFC Championship Game, I think the Patriots will return to the Super Bowl. But they won’t win it.

I found an NFC team that is suited to beating the Patriots. It possesses an offensive line that will control the ball and keep Tom Brady off the field. That will prevent Brady from picking apart its average defense.

As much as it pains me to admit it, that team is … the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys may have overachieved during the regular season last year, but they underachieved during the playoffs. They will likely have a tougher fight to qualify for the playoffs – it might come down to a New Year’s Eve battle with the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field – but I think the Cowboys will become the first team to repeat as NFC East champion since the Eagles from 2001-04. Once they’re in the playoffs, the Cowboys will fend off challenges from the Vikings, Falcons and Packers.

On the other hand, Josh Landsburg predicts that the Cowboys won’t even make the playoffs. I hope he’s right.

The following is a prediction, with analysis, of regular-season records and postseason outcomes for the 2017 NFL season.

NFC

NFC East

Cowboys 11-5

Giants 10-6

Eagles 9-7

Redskins 6-10

Analysis: The NFC East might be the most competitive division in the NFL. The Cowboys ran away with the division title, but that is unlikely to happen again this season, particularly if Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension is upheld. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Cowboys won’t be the first team to repeat as NFC East champion since the Eagles accomplished that feat from 2001-04. The Cowboys still have the best offensive line in the NFL, which makes things much easier for second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. The Giants won a lot of close games last season. Their fortunes in close games are likely to change a little, so a repeat of last season’s 11-5 record may be out of reach, but the addition of receiver Brandon Marshall might help them, despite a suspect offensive line, reach double digits in wins. The Eagles should be better after adding veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. But the Eagles were a 5-win team last season before winning two meaningless games at the end of the season. After an early win at Chicago, the Eagles lost their last seven road games. They should be better, but may fall just short of a postseason berth. The Redskins aren’t awful, but they appear to be a step or two behind the rest of the division. Don’t be surprised if the division race goes down to New Year’s Eve, with the Eagles hosting the Cowboys and the Giants hosting the Redskins.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Giants win the division. Eagles earn the wild card.

NFC North

Packers 11-5

Vikings 10-6

Lions 6-10

Bears 4-12

Analysis: The Packers put together a run to a playoff spot after a mediocre first half of the season. They overcame a ton of injuries, including injuries to key players such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers tried to solidify their secondary through the draft this year. If their defense improves significantly, the Packers could be Super Bowl contenders. The Vikings, with a terrific defense, should be the top challengers to the Packers for the division crown. The excellent defense allows former Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford to play to his strengths, efficiently managing the game instead of forcing throws to try to win games. The Lions can put points on the board, but their defense is suspect. The Bears, with questions at quarterback, could be winless through their first six games and might only have one win when they reach their bye in Week 9.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Packers

NFC South

Falcons 12-4

Bucs 10-6

Panthers 8-8

Saints 7-9

Ryan-FalconsAnalysis: The Falcons should have won the Super Bowl last season. Even with the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to become the 49ers head coach, the offense still features NFL MVP Matt Ryan (left), receiver extraordinaire Julio Junes and running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. The Bucs should continue to improve, and the addition of receiver DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard should help young quarterback Jameis Winston, but the Bucs aren’t ready to catch the Falcons yet. The Panthers could return to the top of the division if the pieces of their offense come together quickly. If you like high-scoring game, the Saints will be a fun team to watch. That’s a positive statement for their offense, but not for their defense.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Bucs win the division. Falcons earn the wild card.

NFC West

Seahawks 11-5

Cardinals 9-7

Rams 6-10

49ers 2-14

Analysis: The Seahawks seem to be on the decline, but they are still the class of the NFC West. A poor offensive line – they were desperate enough to trade with the Eagles to acquire Matt Tobin – will be their Achilles Heel against teams with terrific defenses. Fortunately for the Seahawks, none of those top defensive teams reside in the NFC West. The Cardinals lost five defensive starters. And with the Cardinals’ sub-par offensive line, you have to wonder how quarterback Carson Palmer will make it through the season. The Rams are rebuilding, but the middle portion of their schedule, which includes games against the Cowboys, Seahawks, Cardinals, Giants, Texans and Vikings, is brutal. Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback for the 49ers. Former Eagle Matt Barkley is his backup. That’s all you need to know about the 49ers’ prospects this season.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Seahawks.

AFC

AFC East

Patriots 13-3

Dolphins 7-9

Bills 6-10

Jets 2-14

Analysis: This statement may come back to bite me, but the Patriots winning the AFC East has to be one of the safest bets in sports. The defending Super Bowl champs have won the AFC East eight straight years and in 13 of the last 14 seasons. The Patriots may be even better than last year due to the addition of receivers Brandin Cooks and tight end Rob Gronkowski’s apparent return to health. The Dolphins, who were a surprising 10-6 last season, are the most likely challengers, but they are counting upon quarterback Jay Cutler, who came out of retirement to sign with the Dolphins when Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending injury, to regain the magic he displayed with the Bears in 2015 when Dolphins head coach Adam Gase was the Bears’ offensive coordinator. The Bills have former Eagles LeSean McCoy and Jason Matthews, but the offense won’t improve much until the Bills replace Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott might have a long first year at the Bills’ helm. The Jets appear to be awful.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Patriots

AFC North

Steelers 12-4

Ravens 8-8

Bengals 5-11

Browns 3-13

Analysis: The Steelers have an incredibly explosive offense. If Ben Roethlisberger can remain relatively healthy, the Steelers could prevent the Patriots from returning to the Super bowl. Le’Veon Bell is a terrific running back. Defenses can’t focus on Bell Ravens-Flaccobecause receiver Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant will make them pay. The big question for the Steelers is whether their defense can improve enough to make the Steelers a championship threat. The Ravens appear to have an improving defense. The bigger question surrounds the health of quarterback Joe Flacco (left), especially with the Ravens’ sub-par offensive line. Flacco missed the entire preseason with back issues. The Bengals aren’t very good on either line, particularly the offensive line. This could be the end for head coach Marvin Lewis. The Browns should be a little better, but when you’re 1-15, there’s nowhere to go except up.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Steelers win the division. Ravens earn the wild card.

AFC South

Texans 11-5

Titans 10-6

Colts 6-10

Jaguars 6-10

Analysis: It’s odd to see the strength of a Bill O’Brien-coached team be its defense. The Texans have a dominant defensive line, which features J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Tom Savage, who replaced the disappointing Brock Osweiler last season, is still the starting quarterback, although first-round pick Deshaun Watson may replace him before the season is over. The Titans are the rising team in the AFC South. First-round draft pick Corey Davis and veteran Eric Decker have been added as targets for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Former Eagle DeMarco Murray is the featured Titans’ running back. If the offensive line is good enough and the defense improves, the Titans could challenge the Texans for the division title. The Colts’ fortunes rely on the health of quarterback Andrew Luck, but even Luck isn’t good enough to compensate for the Colts’ poor defense. If first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette can help the Jaguars establish a running game, the Jaguars could improve upon their 3-13 record last year, but they still have a lot of holes to fill.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Texans

AFC West

Raiders 10-6

Chiefs 9-7

Chargers 7-9

Broncos 6-10

Analysis: The Raiders are a hip pick to advance far into the postseason. They were 12-4 last season, but entered the playoffs with Matt McGloin at quarterback after Derek Carr was injured. The Raiders have a tremendous offensive line, which should make Marshawn Lynch’s emergence from retirement go much smoother. The Chiefs, who were 12-4 last season, should be good again this season, but  they have a difficult first nine games that include meetings with the Patriots, Eagles, Texans, Steelers, Raiders and Cowboys. The Chargers should be better than their 5-11 record last season, when they sustained some heartbreaking losses at the end of games, and the Broncos might be worse than their 9-7 mark last season because the rely too heavily on their defense while facing a schedule that includes home games with the Cowboys, Raiders, Giants and Patriots during the first 10 weeks of the season.

Josh Landsburg’s pick: Raiders win the division. Chiefs earn the wild card.

Playoffs

NFC

Wild card round

Cowboys over Vikings

Giants over Seahawks

Divisional round

Cowboys over Falcons

Packers over Giants

Championship game

Cowboys over Packers

AFC

Wild card round

Raiders over Chiefs

Texans over Titans

Divisional round

Steelers over Raiders

Patriots over Texans

Championship game

Patriots over Steelers

SUPER BOWL

Cowboys over Patriots

JOSH LANDSBURG’S PLAYOFF PICKS

NFC Championship Game

Packers over Seahawks

AFC Championship Game

Patriots over Steelers

SUPER BOWL

Patriots 34, Packers 27

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