Of all the odd things in my predictions for 2023—Atlanta winning the NFC South, Lions-Falcons the 3-4 seeds in the NFC, the Packers making the playoffs, the Dolphins and Chargers out—the oddest is the AFC top seed.
America stops reading column of idiot writer who clearly has gone around the bend.
Don’t mean to back into the lede here: I’ve got a Philadelphia-Buffalo Super Bowl. But that’s not so outlandish. The Jags atop the absolutely loaded AFC, now that’s outlandish.
Blame Pete Prisco. The CBS Sports guy got me thinking about it when I saw him in training camp in Green Bay. His point: Look at the schedule. So I looked at the Jacksonville schedule and compared it to Kansas City’s. Two things here. Strength and weakness of schedules can look much different in November than September. And Kansas City is certainly, absolutely a better team. But let’s schedule-gaze.
Three things about the Jags’ slate:
1. Ten of 17 games come against the worst two divisions in football, the AFC South (six) and NFC South (four).
2. Arguably, their five toughest games are either at home (KC, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore) or neutral-site (Buffalo in London).
3. Unless Mike Vrabel works his magic, the Jags’ home stretch is pretty comfy: at Bucs, Panthers at home, at Titans.
Three things about the KC slate:
1. The last eight weeks include Eagles, Bills, Bengals (all home) and post-Thanksgiving road shootouts with the Raiders and Chargers.
2. The Jags host KC in northeast Florida at 1 p.m. on Sept. 17, when there’s a chance it’ll be 98 degrees real-feel, and the visitors set a team record for IVs. There couldn’t be a better week and time for Jacksonville to host the Super Bowl champs. That game could end up being significant for home-field in the AFC.
3. This is one of the costs of being good. But two of 16 Kansas City games (not counting the in-flux time of game 17) are on Sundays at noon CT. The Jags have 10 of them. Again: Not that big a deal. But it just adds to the taxing nature of being the team every network wants to feature in prime-time or doubleheader windows.
Will it all matter? We’ll see. I don’t like picking chalk because chalk rarely happens in the NFL. As Patrick Mahomes noted in June, there hasn’t been a repeat champion in the NFL since the Patriots won for a second straight time 19 years ago in 2004. It’s hard to not totally buy into Andy Reid and Mahomes. But for the second straight year, the offense enters a season down a weapon or two; it was Tyreek Hill last year, and it’s free-agent losses JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman this year. Mahomes needs Skyy Moore to step up in a very big way, and that’s the intention. Moore was a fixture at every Mahomes workout, organized and informal, in the off-season.
Now for the other nuggets of my picks:
- I’m buying Philly stock. I don’t think there’s a clear weakness on the Eagles. Corner depth, maybe. Backup quarterback. But the offensive line is top-three in the league, defensive-front-seven depth is unrivaled and the quarterback is about to take his place with Mahomes and Joe Burrow at the very top of the QB pantheon. There’s no reason why Jalen Hurts doesn’t pick up where he left off in the postseason: 34.7 points per game in three starts, eight TDs produced, one turnover, going shot-for-shot with Mahomes in the Super Bowl. I have a Philly-Dallas NFC title game, which could be epic.
- Buffalo rebounds. There are things I don’t like about the Bills—but there are things that worry me about every AFC power team. Stefon Diggs is great, but will he be all-in for 17 weeks, which is essential for this team? Will Josh Allen rein in his uncharacteristic Red Zone mistakes from last year? I think the football world looked at the 27-10 divisional playoff loss to Cincinnati as the beginning of the end for a team with looming cap issues. I looked at it as a bad day to have a bad day, and give credit to a great gameplan by defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo of the Bengals. I say Allen returns to more efficient form, Von Miller provides a late-season defensive boost and they finally get off the schneid in Kansas City in the playoffs. Allen’s too good, and too determined, to let the end of 2022 leak into 2023.
- Tough call 1: Cincinnati. Speaking of things leaking into 2023, will the Joe Burrow calf injury carry over into the regular season? With Burrow healthy, the Bengals are the best team in a very tough division. So my 11-6 pick for them is a bit of a hedge—I’ve got them winning the AFC North, but opening at nemesis Cleveland and trips to San Francisco and Kansas City make the division tighter.
- Tough call 2: San Fran nipping Philly for NFC home-field. The Niners have thrived in storms. QB storms, mostly. But when the weather clears, they’ve got a quarterback, Brock Purdy, who was 8-0 in games when he played at least three quarters last year. They’ve got a strong defense assuming Nick Bosa suits up in it. They’ve got four games against the Cards and Rams. Tough call to make here, but I’m trusting Purdy more than most do.
- Tough call 3: Keeping Miami and the Chargers on the outside. It’s a fact of life in the 2023 American Football Conference: A very good team or two won’t make the playoffs. There’s so much to like about Miami, particularly after adding Vic Fangio to run the defense. But man, the landmines. At the explosive Chargers in week one. At Buffalo, at Philly, versus Kansas City in Germany, at the Jets on a short week, at Baltimore late. (And of course Buffalo and the Jets at home, too.) There’s all that, plus the drive to keep Tua Tagovailoa healthy all season. The Chargers … I think Justin Herbert will throw for 5,000 yards and they’ll be a top-five scoring team. But there’s some hump here, and they’ve got to get over it. To me, this is more about the defense staying strong, avoiding debacles that ended the 2021 (Raiders 35, Chargers 32) and 2022 (Jags 31, Chargers 30) seasons.
Moore: Herbert’s preparation is ‘impressive’
Peter King chats with Los Angeles Chargers HC Brandon Staley and OC Kellen Moore to analyze training camp film, discuss the team’s 2023 offensive outlook, expectations for QB Justin Herbert and more.
Funny to write about the outcome of 2023 for a while and not mention Aaron Rodgers yet. Well, I like the Jets—a lot. I like them to win a tough division. But it’ll be tough for playoff neophytes, even with Rodgers, to survive a postseason gantlet that could have Mahomes, Josh Allen or Burrow in the way. Or two. Or three.
How I see the playoff races:
1. Jacksonville (13-4). Jags were a respectable 12th in the league in points allowed last year. They can’t be any lower than that if they’re going to be competitive with the best of the AFC.
2. Kansas City (13-4). The Chris Jones holdout worries me a bit. Still expect it to get solved, but if he misses half the season, or some big chunk, well, there’s not a Chris Jones on the practice squad to take his place.
3. New York Jets (11-6). Impossible division to forecast. But the last six games for the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets swayed me a bit: Atlanta and Houston home, at Miami, Washington home, at Cleveland, at New England. Surviveable.
4. Cincinnati (11-6). In Burrow I trust. Toughest division to forecast 1 through 4.
5. Buffalo (11-6). Stefon Diggs’ psyche is a factor. Big key could be Von Miller being eased back in to face Burrow, Rodgers, Hurts, Mahomes, Prescott and Herbert in second half. (Lord, who invented that seven-game death march?)
6. Baltimore (10-7). The Todd Monken offense, playing faster, should fit Lamar Jackson well—as should first-round receiver Zay Flowers.
7. Pittsburgh (9-8). You know how tough it is to keep Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert out of the playoffs? Kenny Pickett’s a top-12 QB by December.
Pittsburgh wins tiebreaker with Miami (9-8) and the L.A. Chargers (9-8) to earn seventh seed.
Wild card: Kansas City over Pittsburgh, N.Y. Jets over Baltimore, Buffalo over Cincinnati.
Divisional: Kansas City over N.Y. Jets, Buffalo over Jacksonville.
AFC Championship at Kansas City: Buffalo 27, Kansas City 25.
1. San Francisco (13-4). Adversity’s Team. This just in: The Niners are still very good at football. (Proviso: They have to sign Nick Bosa in the next few days.)
2. Philadelphia (12-5). Best roster in football, 1 to 53. That matters a lot in a 17-game season.
3. Detroit (10-7). I buy the hype.
4. Atlanta (9-8). Every year, there’s a last-to-first division winner. This year, Falcons edge their good friends the Saints in the NFC South.
5. Dallas (11-6). Feels like a huge year for the future of Dak Prescott, and maybe Mike McCarthy.
6. Seattle (10-7). I worry about the run defense (allowed 4.9 yard per rush last year), but not about Geno Smith. He’ll have his second straight legit year, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be a great add.
7. Green Bay (10-7). Dart-throwing. They edge the 9-8 Giants on the basis of Jordan Love playing B-minus football and an ascending D.
Wild card: Philadelphia over Green Bay, Detroit over Seattle, Dallas over Atlanta.
Divisional: Dallas over San Francisco, Philadelphia over Detroit.
NFC Championship at Philadelphia: Philadelphia 23, Dallas 16.
Super Bowl 58, at Las Vegas, Feb. 11, 2024: Philadelphia 30, Buffalo 26.
Hurts embracing being a ‘triple threat’ for Eagles
Peter King chats with Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts from Eagles training camp about how he is using last season’s Super Bowl loss as motivation and is focused on leading his team back to the big game.
MVP: 1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia. 2. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. 3. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville.
Hurts has ascended to coach-on-the-field mode, in the Mahomes realm. He’ll back up his brain with 40 passing/rushing TDs.
Offensive player: 1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, San Francisco. 2. Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland. 3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia.
This is the year McCaffrey puts it all together in an offense designed for all the great things he does.
Defensive player: 1. Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas. 2. Myles Garrett, edge, Cleveland. 3. T.J. Watt, edge, Pittsburgh.
I didn’t even use a Bosa here. It’s a golden age for edges.
Offensive rookie: Overall pick in parentheses. 1. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Detroit (12). 2. Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore (22). 3. Bryce Young, QB, Carolina (1).
Flowers will be more spectacular. Gibbs will produce more yards.
Defensive rookie: Overall pick in parentheses. 1. Jalen Carter, DT, Philadelphia (9). 2. Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Chicago (56). 3. Will Anderson Jr., DE, Houston (3).
Voters will have to see how disruptive Carter is, because others will have better stats.
Coach: 1. Doug Pederson, Jacksonville. 2. Dan Campbell, Detroit. 3. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay.
Going all-in on the Jags. If they’re the 1 seed in the mighty AFC, how would Pederson not win coach of the year?
Comeback player: 1. Damar Hamlin, safety, Buffalo. 2. Russell Wilson, QB, Denver. 3. Jon Metchie, WR, Houston.
Once Hamlin suits up in week one and plays a snap, he wins. Contest over.