In just under a half an hour, the 2017/18 NFL season will kick off in a match-up between two of the top teams in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs and the defending champion New England Patriots. After the thrilling conclusion to last year’s season, the start of this year’s campaign has been eagerly anticipated for weeks, if not months, on end. With all of the speculation about free agency, new coaching hires, and training camp battles now over, we can finally ask: who’s going to win that big prize this season? Will the big, bad Pats be able to defend their crown? Or will one of their many challengers be able to keep the Lombardi Trophy from returning to Foxboro? Here is my view on how the upcoming year will look:
Regular Season Standings:
Seattle Seahawks (#2)
Arizona Cardinals (#2 WC)
San Francisco 49ers
Los Angeles Rams
The Seahawks won their division with ease last year, and that should be the case this year, as well. For all of the maddening inconsistencies that the team has with its offensive line, Russell Wilson and company but up some decent numbers with the football last year. Now that they’ve got a four-headed running back group to take some pressure off of Wilson, their offense is close to having the firepower their defense does, even after the addition of Sheldon Richardson. The Cardinals, meanwhile, lost their defensive lineman in Calais Campbell, and the offensive concerns surrounding quarterback Carson Palmer really haven’t gone away. Their talent level, though, should be enough to boost them into the play-offs in a weak NFC. The two teams at the bottom, the 49ers and the Rams, are both in a state of rebuilding. I think that San Fran is a little bit better in the present day, with Kyle Shanahan reuniting with Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garcon, and especially with Aaron Donald still not suiting up for Los Angeles. The Rams, though, will have a solid foundation to build on if they can lock up Donald and Sammy Watkins—this could be a sleeper team to watch out for as early as next season.
Green Bay Packers (#1)
The Pack had some serious issues on both sides of the ball last year—they ended up having to convert Ty Montgomery into a running back, and their secondary was an absolute mess. Fortunately, they’ve got a guy named Aaron Rodgers on their team, and he carried Green Bay to a thrilling play-off victory last season. This year, playing in the weakest division in the NFC and having seen upgrades in their weakest areas, I expect Rodgers to lead his team to the #1 seed. The Bears might look like they’re in a rebuilding phase, especially after trading up to take a quarterback with the second pick in the draft, but injuries decimated their defense and their offense was good but inefficient last year. With strong, healthy defenders and Mike Glennon under center, I expect my hometown team to surprise some people and push for a play-off spot this year. The Vikings, meanwhile, seem to be… average in almost every facet of the game. If Dalvin Cook can develop quickly, maybe they have a shot at the post-season, but otherwise I think they’ll be very mediocre. Detroit, meanwhile, very much resembles the New Orleans team that’s struggled the last few seasons—they have an excellent offense but a defense that is maddeningly inconsistent. They’ll struggle to beat teams unless they put up 35 every game, especially in a division where every team has made large strides towards fixing their biggest offensive deficiencies.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#4)
Atlanta Falcons (#1 WC)
New Orleans Saints
Picking the Bucs to finish above the defending NFC champions is a bit of a surprising pick, but consider this—Tampa finished only two games behind the Falcons last season, added a much-needed deep threat to compliment Mike Evans (DeSean Jackson), an up-and-coming star at tight end (OJ Howard), and a veteran safety to bolster their secondary (TJ Ward). I understand that the Falcons also improved, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but with a fluke win or loss here or there, last year’s division title could have very easily gone to south Florida. Combine those realities with the strides that third-year quarterback Jameis Winston is sure to make this year, and I think that Dan Quinn’s team will have to make it to the post-season in a wild card spot. In the bottom half of the division, the Saints have done a fantastic job of recovering from their salary cap mistakes to bolster both sides of the ball, with their most notable addition being star veteran running back Adrian Peterson, but their defense is too inexperienced to really make enough of a difference for them to push for a division title this year. The Panthers, meanwhile, will enter the season with a completely healthy Cam Newton, which is both a blessing and a curse. The former Auburn star is a fantastic athlete, but with his style of play expected to be curbed due to recent injury issues, his flaws as a pocket passer will shine through, and I don’t think they’ll be good enough with the football to generate enough offense to offset their inconsistent defense.
Philadelphia Eagles (#3)
New York Giants
The Eagles were incredibly active during this offseason—they added multiple weapons to surround young quarterback Carson Wentz, headlined by receiver Alshon Jeffery, used their first two draft picks to bolster their defense, and traded their inconsistent receiver, Jordan Matthews, for a number one corner in Ronald Darby. With the regression to the mean that Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense will be sure to undergo, especially with Ezekiel Elliott on the verge of a six game suspension, I feel that Philly will be able to supplant Dallas at the top of the division. That reality, combined with the strength of this division in comparison to the other three in the NFC, will, I believe, cause last year’s number one overall seed to miss out on this year’s play-offs. The Giants and the Redskins, meanwhile, both have weak secondaries, which should prevent them from making much noise in this tough divisional race. However, with quarterbacks as talented as Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins, don’t be surprised if they play spoiler to some team’s late-season play-off hopes.
Oakland Raiders (#4)
Kansas City Chiefs (#2 WC)
Los Angeles Chargers
The Raiders were one of last season’s most popular teams, as fans rallied behind young QB Derek Carr and the excellent offense built around him. Not many remember, though, that it was the Chiefs that actually won the division, thanks to a balanced offensive attack and a ferocious pass rush. The same two clubs will duke it out for the crown this year, and I ultimately think that the addition of Marshawn Lynch will give the Oakland offense an extra dimension that will propel them over Kansas City this year. The Chiefs will still make the post-season, though, with the underrated cast of athletes that Andy Reid’s offense features allowing them to snag the second wild card spot. The Chargers are basically everybody’s dark horse pick for the upcoming season, and with good reason—their bevvy of offensive weapons are all healthy, and Phillip Rivers has yet to show major regression at age 35—but I worry a bit about the Charger defense, as well as back end of their defense, so I think they’ll fall just short. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos D is still elite, but starting to show some cracks—TJ Ward was released, DeMarcus Ware’s replacement (Shane Ray) is on IR, and Aqib Talib is on the wrong side of 30. These things, combined with the uncertainty surrounding their quarterback situation, will see the team fall back into the bottom of the division for the first time since 2010.
Pittsburgh Steelers (#3)
The Steelers were the only team in this division with a winning record last year—having an offense headlined by players that are arguably the best at their position in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will do that for you. Pittsburgh’s defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s made some strides in recent years, and that, along with the explosive offense, is enough to let the team top the division. Their closest competitors, Baltimore, are virtually the opposite of the Steelers—they have an excellent defense with multiple explosive players, but their offense is maddeningly inconsistent. It is this that will keep John Harbaugh’s team out of the post-season. The Bengals, who have been pretty close to a perennial play-off team in recent years, will drift off towards the bottom of the division after a poor off-season which saw them make many poor decisions when it came to retaining some of their team’s own free agents, especially along the offensive line. Then, of course, there’s Cleveland. The Browns will not be the doormat that they were this past year, and they had a pretty solid off-season (reminiscent of the one that the Raiders had in one of their most crucial rebuilding years, in fact), but they’re still ways away from being truly competitive in the conference.
Tennessee Titans (#2)
Houston Texans (#1 WC)
Tennessee narrowly missed out on making the post-season last year, finishing with an identical record to the division-winning Texans, and that happened even while missing Marcus Mariota for most of the season’s final 2 games due to injury. With Mariota back and ready to heave the ball to Delanie Walker and his two newest targets, Eric Decker and rookie Corey Davis, I expect the Titans to claim the division this year. That doesn’t mean that the Texans will miss the play-offs, though—regardless of whom of the Deshaun Watson-Tom Savage duo ends up starting more games for Houston, their quarterback situation will be far more stable than it was last year. All they’ll have to do is utilize the bevvy of freak athletes they are surrounded by, headlined by DeAndre Hopkins, and they’ll end up as the top wild card. The teams at the bottom of the division have some major quarterback issues—Blake Bortles is maddeningly inconsistent, and Andrew Luck is seemingly always hurt or in danger of being hurt. I think the Jags had a good off-season and built up some good talent on both offense and defense, so they’ll top the Colts, but neither team should be any good.
New England Patriots (#1)
New York Jets
Even after losing their de facto number one receiver, Julian Edelman, to injury, the Patriots still have the most dangerous offense in the entire league, with four starter-quality running backs, three excellent receivers, and the best tight end in the league. And that isn’t even taking into account Tom Brady, last season’s Super Bowl hero, and what he has to offer. The Pats should cruise to a division title with ease, especially since two teams in their division are in the midst of full rebuilds. The team that isn’t, Miami, was unfortunate to lose their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, before the season started, bringing in Jay Cutler to replace him. Cutler won’t be bad—he’s got two receivers, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, that are very well-suited to his skill set—but I don’t think that he, or the Dolphin secondary, will be enough to get them to the post-season. They could make things interesting, though, as they play the Buccaneers, Panthers, and Chiefs in the second half of the season, all teams with high play-off inspirations. The two teams that are rebuilding, the Bills and Jets, are in separate spots. The Bills actually have a few talented skill players on offense, including LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor, but their defense is not great, and despite their offensive talent, they aren’t super consistent, so they’ll continue to try and build through young players. The Jets, meanwhile, will just be… bad. They’re definitely shooting for a top-2 pick in next year’s draft—the less said about them this year, the better.
NFL MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
The greatest quarterback in NFL history is surrounded by the deepest level of talent that he’s ever had in his career. Next category, please.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills
Jones isn’t the sexiest receiver in the world—he doesn’t have the high draft choice label like Corey Davis, or the speed of John Ross, or the big-school pedigree like Curtis Samuel. But he also happens to be the top threat receiving threat on the outside for a Buffalo team that lost a lot of targets due to departures of some veteran wideouts. On top of that, even when Jordan Matthews returns from injury, he doesn’t figure to take away any of Jones’s playing time since the former Eagle likes operating in the slot. Add that to the fact that underrated QB Tyrod Taylor seems to prefer larger targets than smaller, quicker ones, and I think that Jones could have a fantastic season.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: TJ Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Watt, like his brother JJ, was an electric player at the University of Wisconsin, but because of his stature and role in the Badger defense, not as much was expected of him this season. His pre-season performances, though, have caused Steeler coaches to drastically increase the role that Watt will have this year. That’s saying a lot, too, considering that he’ll be taking playing time from former first round pick Bud Dupree and the ageless James Harrison. Watt’s work ethic is as high as his brother’s, and I expect a big year from him this year.
Best Acquisition: DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Part of the reason that Vincent Jackson was supplanted as Tampa’s number one receiver by Mike Evans so early in Evans’s career was Jackson’s declining ability to be good at what the team acquired him for, catching the deep ball. Evans is more of a possession, go-get-it kind of receiver, and it was clear to see how desperately the Bucs needed a player to help stretch the field. Enter Jackson. The former Redskin may be 30, but he hasn’t lost a step of his blazing speed, and with his talent and reasonable contract, he provides an excellent option opposite Evans.
Worst Acquisition: Matt Kalil, OT, Carolina Panthers
Maybe pairing the former Minnesota Viking with his brother, Ryan, might improve his productivity. But the truth of the matter is that Kalil is one of a long list of offensive tackles taken in the first round recently that haven’t reached their potential. Kalil’s ceiling was higher than most, but it’s clear that his injuries and inconsistencies don’t warrant him getting a huge contract. The free agent tackle market this year was thin, and I get that, but even so, Kalil got a lot of guaranteed money to essentially be a league-average player. This contract will bite the Panthers long-term.
Coach of the Year: Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Part of me still feels that it was a mistake for the team to fire its old coach, Lovie Smith. But the success that Koetter has had developing third-year quarterback Jameis Winston has been undeniable, and the cadre of offensive weapons the team has acquired for the young gunslinger is the best that he’s had in the league. Add that to strong secondary, recently bolstered by the signing of former All-Pro safety TJ Ward, and Koetter has enough talent, and enough smarts (especially on offense), to lead his team to their first division title since 2007.
Biggest Surprise: Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons
Jarrett was excellent in his team’s defeat in the Super Bowl this February, flashing the potential that caused him to be considered as a high pick back in 2015 before his smaller stature made him slide down teams’ draft boards. A pass-rushing tackle, the Clemson tackle was played at nose tackle for most of last year, preventing him from maximizing his potential. Now, though, he has Dontari Poe next to him to clog the middle, and with the highly-touted duo of Vic Beasley Jr. and Takkarist McKinley attacking quarterbacks from the edges, Jarrett should see a lot of 1 on 1 match-ups, which bodes well for his development in stopping the run and rushing the passer. I expect double-digit sacks from him this year.
Philadelphia Eagles defeat Arizona Cardinals
Atlanta Falcons defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This game almost feels like a battle between the new guard—the Eagles, with their second year quarterback Carson Wentz and second year head coach Doug Pederson—taking on coaching and quarterbacking veterans Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer. I really like the Cardinals—I picked them to reach the Super Bowl last season—but I simply think that the Eagles have more talent on both sides of the ball after their moves this off-season. They’ll move on.
Yes, I recognize that I have Tampa topping the Falcons in their race for the NFC South title, which would, in theory, mean that the Buccaneers would win this match-up, especially with their home-field advantage. The Falcons, though, will be out to prove that their run to last year’s Super Bowl was not a fluke, so they will come into this one extraordinarily motivated to win, especially against a division rival. For that reason, I think that Atlanta moves on to the next round.
Green Bay Packers defeat Atlanta Falcons
Philadelphia Eagles defeat Seattle Seahawks
The first divisional round match-up will see a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship in which Atlanta romped all over Green Bay in their 44-21 victory. I see this season’s result going a little different for two main reasons—that this year’s game would be held in Wisconsin instead of Georgia, and that the Pack have retooled the secondary that kept getting beaten by Matt Ryan last year. Expect Aaron Rodgers and company to move on to the conference championship.
I’m a really big fan of the Eagles’ offense, but they may meet their match here in the ferocious Seattle D. I still have Philly moving on, though, and that’s because I think that the strengths of the Seattle offense match up well to the strength of the Eagle defense. In this defensive affair, I feel that the team with the greatest big-play ability will advance, and I view that as being the Eagles. They move on.
Philadelphia Eagles defeat Green Bay Packers
This one, I think, ultimately comes down to defense. Aaron Rodgers is clearly a better quarterback than Carson Wentz is, at this stage in their careers. However, the Eagles will be going up against a defense that, while improved from last year, is still unproven, and even then won’t strike fear into a team as offensively talented as Philly. The Packers, meanwhile, will go up against a good Eagles defense that only bolstered its secondary by adding the true number one corner it had been lacking in Ronald Darby. None of this is to say that it will be a low scoring game—it definitely won’t be—but I feel that Philly will have enough to slow down the immaculate Rodgers and move on to the Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs defeat Pittsburgh Steelers
Oakland Raiders defeat Houston Texans
Having two of the most historically gritty teams in the AFC square off in the wild card round will be a real treat. Pittsburgh has the more explosive offense, which should cause problems for a slightly overrated Chiefs D. That doesn’t mean, however, that I feel that Andy Reid’s team won’t at least have some success slowing the explosive options Pittsburgh has. There is also the state of Pittsburgh’s defense to consider—while they are better in their front 7, their secondary still isn’t that great, and while there’s a reason the Chiefs moved up to draft Patrick Mahomes II, Alex Smith has extensive play-off experience, and some shifty players around him. For that reason, I think that KC will move on.
The Raiders are probably more talented than the Texans, but Houston’s strengths, on both sides of the ball, actually match up pretty well with the weaknesses on Oakland’s roster, so it’ll be a closer game than some would anticipate. In the end, though, I just think that the Raider offense just has too much firepower for the Texan defense to hold off, and for the Texan offense to keep up with them. Oakland will move on.
New England Patriots defeat Kansas City Chiefs
Oakland Raiders defeat Tennessee Titans
The Patriots are virtually unbeatable at home, which puts the Chiefs at an immediate disadvantage in this game. New England’s defense is not elite, but they do have a better unit than the Steelers do, which further lessens their chances of beating the defending champs. And then there’s the Patriot offense—they don’t pose the explosive threat that the Steelers do, but they have more weapons that are more dynamic. All of that will just be too much for KC to handle—New England moves on.
This game will go virtually the exact same as Oakland’s previous game. Tennessee has a pretty strong defense, and Marcus Mariota is certainly talented enough to tear the inconsistent Raider secondary into shreds. Ultimately, though, I still believe that the Raider offense will be too strong for any defense outside of Seattle or Denver to stop, and unfortunately for the Titans, they are neither of those teams, and their offense is good, but not good enough to beat Oakland. The Raiders will win this one.
Oakland Raiders defeat New England Patriots
This might be one of the best conference championships in history—the Patriots will be eager to prove that they won last year’s Super Bowl, as opposed to the Falcons blowing it, while Oakland will surely be spurred on by the fans who remember the heartbreak of the Tuck Rule game that led to New England’s first championship. In the end, I think that neither team’s star quarterback will be the ultimate difference maker in this one—it’ll be Marshawn Lynch. The recently un-retired back will be anxious to go all-in against the team that gave him his most heart-wrenching defeat, and while New England’s secondary may be strong, their run defense has some pretty big holes. Expect Lynch to romp all over the Pats and lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Oakland Raiders defeat Philadelphia Eagles
A showdown between two of the most passionate fan bases, between two of the most dynamic offenses in football, quarterbacked by two of the faces of the sport. It doesn’t get much better than this. Philadelphia has a better defense, which should help some in slowing down the Oakland attack. However, the Oakland team is filled with players that have been in the thick of play-off competition before and will know how to step up during the big moments that will inevitably come, and Raider head coach Jack del Rio has extensive post-season experience. Doug Pederson and his squad, meanwhile, had a losing record last season, and many of their younger players, particularly Carson Wentz, have never truly experienced such a high-stakes situation. So: while the Eagles are, in my mind, slightly better on paper, I think that the Raiders’ intangibles will be what allow them to bring a well-deserved title to their fans in the Bay.