Sullivan: Annual Predictions Include Cowboys Making The Playoffs

I have no idea when it started, the idea of those covering sports to make predictions. It's not like the crime reporter for a big city paper has a yearly column on how many robberies and car thefts are going to take place. Admittedly, though, I enjoy it. Always fun to try to play the role of prognosticator.

Recently, I have made some pretty brutal Super Bowl picks, just last year my call was Colts-Cowboys, and neither finished with a winning record. On the flip side, that prediction was made with Andrew Luck and Tony Romo starting a solid 30-31 games between them and instead, they started a combined 11 contests.

That's the NFL, though. The starting quarterback just means so much in terms of how successful his team is going to be. And for whatever reason, there just aren't many legitimate starting quarterbacks.

Someone once said there's a difference between an Opening Day starting pitcher and a pitcher who starts on Opening Day. And the same is true with NFL starting quarterbacks. Just look at the 32 taking their team's opening snaps this weekend: Trevor Siemian, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott haven't even started a regular-season game, and then there's Blaine Gabbert, he of the 8-27 career record, Case Keenum and Shaun Hill.

And just take a gander at the Week 1 backup signal-callers. There's literally not one where you stop and say, "Wow, how is that guy not starting for someone?"

Heck, how desperate are teams for a decent quarterback? The Vikings just dealt a first-round pick and another pick, possibly a second-rounder in 2018, for Sam Bradford, who entering his seventh NFL campaign has won 25 games as a starter. That's about four per season for those non-math majors out there. And with the Eagles last year, Bradford ranked 26th in passer rating and 31st in total QB rating.

[embeddedad0]Before delving into my predictions for the season ahead, I'd like to mention two calls that were dead on from this time last year, that Darren McFadden would rush for more yards than Joseph Randle and that Sean Lee would play 14 games (check), register his first career sack (finished with 2.5) and be named to his first Pro Bowl (check).

So here we go, the crystal ball for the 97th season of the National Football League:

The Cowboys are going to finish 9-7 and earn a wild-card berth, one game behind the NFC East champion Giants. Rounding out the division, I have Washington and Philly finishing 6-10. What's interesting about Dallas, at least from those who usually know what they are talking about, the ones who set the over/under on wins in Vegas, and even most of the analytical gurus, nothing really changed with the Cowboys forecasts after the Tony Romo injury. The over/under on wins moved from 9 to 8.5. That's it.

I know that's not a terribly sexy call, the 9-7, it's just that rookie quarterbacks aren't exactly known for leading their teams to double-digit wins, although there are some exceptions to the rule recently, namely Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco. Even Andy Dalton went 9-7 and earned a playoff berth with Cincinnati in 2011. And yeah, the Cowboys are going to run the football a whole bunch, but Prescott is going to throw some passes, let's not think otherwise.

A decent comparison is Russell Wilson as a rookie with Seattle in 2012, and he averaged 24.5 passes and 5.9 rushing attempts. That sounds really close to what the plan is for the Cowboys, at least until, well if, Romo returns.

As for the quarterback starts split, give me 14 for Prescott and two for Romo. We would all love to see the latter return healthy and play at an All-Pro level for eight or nine games, but there just isn't much to justify thinking he can do so outside of blind faith. Hope I'm wrong.

If DeMarco Murray averaged 4.7 yards per carry two seasons ago, there's no way rookie Ezekiel Elliott doesn't crack 5.0 and probably then some. In NFL history, four first-year backs have rushed 200-plus times for 1,200 yards and averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry. That list is Barry Sanders in 1989, Mike Anderson in 2000, Clinton Portis in 2002 and Adrian Peterson in 2007. I can't fathom Zeke not becoming the fifth. He's also the heaviest favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year in recent memory.

Other award winners: MVP Aaron Rodgers, Coach of the Year Jack Del Rio of the Raiders, Offensive Player of the Year Eli Manning, Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Comeback Player of the Year Jordy Nelson. Oh, give me Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack as the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

My AFC playoff teams are New England, Pittsburgh, Indy, Oakland, Jacksonville and Baltimore. NFC picks are the Giants, Green Bay, Carolina, Arizona, Seattle and Dallas. The Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl LI.

Am thinking eight Pro Bowl selections for the Cowboys: Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, Zeke, Dez Bryant, Byron Jones, Sean Lee and Dan Bailey.

Wide receiver Brice Butler finishes with more receiving yards than Terrance Williams. Defensive end David Irving tallies 7.5 sacks, second on the team to DeMarcus Lawrence's 9.0 in 12 games. Morris Claiborne leads the Cowboys with four interceptions.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown will break Marvin Harrison's 14-year old record for most receptions in a single-season and finish with 150. Hard to believe that before 1990, only Washington's Art Monk had ever caught 100 passes in an NFL campaign. Since then, there have been 93 instances of 100 receptions in a season.

As for Sunday's opener, I'm taking the Cowboys, 34-30. These are two of the league's premier offenses. I wouldn't be surprised if the Giants lead the NFL in points scored after finishing sixth in 2015. Obviously Dallas needs and wants to slow the game down, move the chains, not only in Week 1 but the entire season, much like two years ago. The plan isn't quick scores. This is incredibly boring to say, but both offenses are going to move up and down the field with ease, so this one should be determined by turnovers. Eli may throw for 400 yards and three or four touchdowns, but interceptions by Lee and Jones are the difference.

Check out Jeff Sullivan's column each week in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. Find out more at DallasCowboys.com/star. You can also follow Jeff on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.

A look at the 53 man roster for the 2016 season.

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