With the 2016 NFL season kicking off today, what better way to celebrate the start of the season than by predicting how it will end?
Seven of our analysts took a shot at tagging the future Super Bowl LI champion—see their picks here, as well as the thought processes behind the selections.
Neil Hornsby, PFF Founder
I said I liked the Steelers before Le’Veon Bell was suspended, back even before Martavis Bryant was suspended. Even taking those hits into account, however, I still believe Pittsburgh is the team to beat. The immediate rationale is obvious: the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger and the best WR in football (Antonio Brown), who again looked un-coverable this preseason. Many other factors, though, are underrated. For example, is there a better backup RB than DeAngelo Williams? The Steelers also feature a solid O-line with the return of Maurkice Pouncey (his actual play has never lived up to the hype, but he’s still very good, and a massive upgrade over Cody Wallace). I don’t like saying an injury would ever help, but Bud Dupree was phenomenally unproductive last year, while James Harrison was brilliant every time he took the field. Anything that gives the latter more playing time is a plus. Finally, everyone talks about the secondary as a disaster, but, at the starter level at least, it’s far from that. Injuries would hurt, but if this is the Achilles heal, I’m happy with my selection of the Steelers to go all the way.
Sam Monson, Senior Analyst
Anybody can tell you that the Packers or the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, and I’m guessing many of my colleagues have, but I want to go for the big-money pay off. The Oakland Raiders have become too popular, but when you go to the long-odds teams, the one with the shot to make something special happen, to me, is Buffalo. For one, the Bills get potentially a four-game head start over the Patriots before Tom Brady comes back. If they get out ahead in that division, I think Rex Ryan will have that team believing in miracles. The defense—at least for one season—should be better with the Ryan brothers both involved, and the more I watch QB Tyrod Taylor, the more I think he can do some pretty impressive things, and this time he has some help around him. You heard it here first—and probably last—the Bills will win Super Bowl LI.
Gordon McGuinness, Lead Special Teams Analyst
This is not the pick I thought I'd be making a couple of months ago, but on top of having possibly the best defensive player of all time in J.J. Watt, I'm expecting a breakout year from Jadaveon Clowney. After averaging a pressure a little over once every 10 pass-rushing attempts in 2015, Clowney averaged one every six this preseason. On offense, Brock Osweiler is a big upgrade over Brian Hoyer, and looked to really find his groove in that all-important third preseason game. They've upgraded the weapons around him, too, adding Lamar Miller in the backfield with Braxton Miller and Will Fuller joining the wide receivers. Fuller is going to be an interesting player to watch, and I don't think it's ridiculous to say that he might lead the league in both yards per catch and drop rate. In an AFC where all the top teams have question marks, I think Houston could be the best team.
Nathan Jahnke, Director of Analytics
Most of the good teams from a year ago have lost quality players, or at the very least, haven’t changed much. Arizona, on the other hand, is a team that improved in several areas. The offensive line should be better with A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis, and D.J. Humphries compared to last year’s Lyle Sendlein, Ted Larsen, and Bobby Massie. David Johnson being the lead back the entire season will be a step up from what they had last year. The pass-rush with Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche will be better, and Tyrann Mathieu, who missed the 2015 season playoffs, will be back. Arizona made it all the way to the conference championship game, and if it wasn’t for some late-season injuries, they may have been champions. To me, Arizona seems like the team with the fewest weaknesses, which makes them the best pick to win Super Bowl LI.
Ben Stockwell, Director of Analysis
Though they're missing Le'Veon Bell to start the season and are without Martavis Bryant completely, the Steelers are still strong at the skill positions, led by Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. Add to that a solid offensive line and a defense stacked with players—like Cameron Heyward and James Harrison—capable of impact plays, and you have a team with all the ingredients to make a run at the right time for the Lombardi Trophy. There may be better teams than the Steelers over a 16-game season, but when it gets down to the grind of the playoffs, Pittsburgh is as well-placed as anyone to make a run.
Mike Renner, Senior Analyst
While the Broncos proved a season ago that one dominant unit can take a team all the way to the Super Bowl, I don’t foresee any team having that same caliber of talent on either offense or defense this season. For that reason, I’m choosing the team with the fewest holes in the roster. Sure, the Pats could use a little help along the offensive line, and they don’t have a true nose tackle, but those are minor quibbles given how quickly Tom Brady gets the ball out of his hands and how stout New England’s linebackers are. The Patriots' secondary is one of the deepest in the league, and they have a two-headed monster at tight end that Bill Belichick will surely get creative with. I’m not betting against a Tom Brady with a vendetta this season.
Jeff Ratcliffe, Director of Fantasy
Bruce Arians' squad is my pick. The Cardinals are built to win with talent up and down the roster. While Arizona’s offense tends to garner a lot of attention, it’s really the defense that tips the scales for me. The Cardinals' defensive front boasts Calais Campbell, who consistently grades out as a high-quality starter, along with promising rookie Robert Nkemdiche. The offseason addition of Chandler Jones gives this unit a more potent pass-rusher. The interior linebacker duo of Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon is far from elite, but the Cardinals’ secondary features two of the league’s best in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Offensively, the Cardinals are going to pack a punch. Their trio of wide receivers—and the ascending David Johnson—give Carson Palmer an extremely potent set of weapons. That, plus the Cardinals’ top-10 offensive line, makes this team a serious candidate to win Super Bowl LI.