The 2016 NFL season feels a lot like where we left off in ’15 when, by the tail end of the season, there were really only four teams you could envision winning the Super Bowl: the Broncos (12–4), Patriots (12–4), Panthers (15–1) and Cardinals (13–3). Denver nipped Carolina in Santa Clara, but if you played with variables like location (say, Foxborough instead of Denver) or injuries (Carson Palmer’s balky index finger, for one), either of the conference championship games could have gone the other way. It was that close.
I don’t see this season being much different, give or take a team. Depending on how injuries play out—that being the biggest determination of success—the Patriots and Steelers will be the class of the AFC, with Alex Smith’s risk-adversity being the only thing keeping the Chiefs out of that elite group. In the NFC, absent injuries, I see the Seahawks, Cardinals and Packers battling it out for supremacy. Dallas is close, but it’s not reliable enough on defense. (Sorry, Carolina and Denver: There’ll be no Super Bowl rematch.)
Within that top five you’re basically talking about coin-flip games. Each team gives pundits reasons to gush; each team has potentially fatal weaknesses that will keep its coach awake at night.
The Steelers have a star running back, Le’Veon Bell, who’s suspended three games for violating the NFL’s drug policy; they have a promising receiver, Martavis Bryant, who’ll miss the entire season for the same issue; and their big-ticket free agent, tight end Ladarius Green, still hasn’t practiced because of either an ankle injury or recurring headaches—depends who you ask. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh continues to trot out a “how-are-they-going-to-cover-anyone?” secondary.
The Patriots enter the season where they left off, with an unsettled offensive line and an inability to rely on the running game when opponents (like the Broncos in last year’s AFC title game) dare them to. They’ll be dangerous if they nab home field advantage, but that became perhaps too tough a challenge when Tom Brady was suspended for the first four weeks, including the season-opener in Arizona.
In the NFC the Seahawks have all the pieces except on the offensive line, which is somehow even more of a jigsaw puzzle than last season. They could start, from left to right, Garry Gilliam, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, rookie Germain Ifedi (Texas A&M) and J’Marcus Webb. The four veterans were all rated “poor” by Pro Football Focus in 2015; this is not exactly the “Run to Daylight” Packers of the 1960s.
You could say the same about the 2016 Packers, who appear dependent on the ability of receiver Jordy Nelson to rebound from right-ACL surgery (he was cleared to return to practice only last week) and of Dom Capers’s defense to stop the run when it counts.
That leaves the Cardinals, who I see as having three crucial weaknesses: the strategic shortcomings of coach Bruce Arians, who nearly choked away a divisional-round game against Green Bay last January; the poise of Palmer, who was stellar in the regular season and then embarrassed himself in the title game against Carolina; and the presence of center A.Q. Shipley, who’s no better than a replacement-level player. (Just ask the 2013 Ravens about how a poor center can torpedo a season.)
As much as it worries me to risk anything on Palmer and his 66.9 postseason passer rating (Arizona beat Green Bay in spite of him), the Cardinals have arguably the most complete team in the NFL, with a ton of experience on both sides of the ball. They can throw all over the field—and they could even before second-year running back David Johnson came on as a receiving threat in the latter half of last season. On defense safety Tyrann Mathieu is back to wreak havoc after a right-ACL tear, and Pro Bowl end Chandler Jones (late of New England) should bring some much-needed pass rush.
I’m willing to bet that Palmer (who hadn’t played a postseason game in six years before last January) and Arians (who in the playoffs saw the downside of his rigid “no risk-it, no biscuit” approach) learned a lot from last year’s bitter ending and can apply those lessons moving forward. If this team is healthy and has grown from its mistakes, the Cardinals are fully capable of winning it all, even if it means entering January as a wild-card team and visiting Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay.
In an Arizona-Pittsburgh rematch of Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals’ dangerous running game and stifling secondary will slow down the Steelers enough to grab a dramatic victory. How about a Larry Fitzgerald toe-touch TD in the back-right corner of the NRG Stadium end zone to match Santonio Holmes’s heroics eight years earlier, in Tampa? Sounds good to me.