Ladies and gentlemen – it’s finally here. While some may lament the end of summer, many others rejoice in the change of seasons, the beginning of sweatshirt weather and of course, the start of football. The NFL season kicks off on Thursday with a possible Super Bowl Preview featuring Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills taking on Aaron Donald and the defending Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams. I’m disappointed the Rams haven’t recreated this iconic video yet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUQLEUa0_aY&t=162s) which would only heighten my excitement going into this season, but alas, we have our preview to get to.
We’ll tackle our predictions division by division before getting to our way too soon playoff predictions and individual award picks. From a high level what to look for? A lot of parity this year. There are 4-5 divisions this year that are a complete crapshoot and have a minimum of 3 teams who can potentially win the division. Sometimes that speaks to how strong the division is and sometimes that speaks to how poor it is.
The rosters and depth charts are set, and so are we. Let’s get to the preview!
1. Buffalo Bills
2. Miami Dolphins
3. New England Patriots
4. New York Jets
What to watch for: The Buffalo Bills lost in last year’s divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs in an all-time classic (my personal take – one of the 5 best football games I’ve ever seen), however announced to the rest of the league that they are a force to be reckoned with both now and in the years to come. Josh Allen is an MVP candidate and this is one of the few teams in the league that really don’t have a weak spot. Adding Von Miller to an already stacked defense almost seems unfair and I think their running game will improve. After the Bills are a lot of question marks in the division. The Miami Dolphins have a lot of solid pieces in place and made a splash in the offseason with the addition of Tyreek Hill. Tua Tagovailoa is in a make it or break it year and has no excuses with Hill and Jaylen Waddle to throw to. The wild card for Miami? New head coach Mike McDaniel who is one of the brightest minds in the game. If anyone can maximize Tua’s skillset it will be McDaniel. The Patriots seem to be in disarray coming into the season and reports out of camp have been that the offense has been a complete mess. Bill Belichick the head coach is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the National Football League. Bill Belichick the general manager has been terrible the past couple of seasons and has consistently come up short when it comes to the draft and signing impact talent. Josh McDaniels has left his role as offensive coordinator to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders and in his place will be Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Enough said. I would have probably picked the Jets to finish 3rd this year if it wasn’t for the recent rash of injuries to key players like offensive tackle Mekhi Becton and quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets are young and have drafted very well the past couple of seasons. It will be a long year but with players like Sauce Gardner, Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson on board, the Jets are finally headed in the right direction.
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Cincinnati Bengals
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
What to watch for: This is one of those divisions where you could potentially make a case that any team has a shot to win the divisional title. The Ravens very uncharacteristically finished last place and I fully expect for one of the NFL’s best run franchises to turn it around this year and win the division. Lamar Jackson is hungry to win, the running game should be a strong point, and defensively they should be much improved. They are thin at receiver which is something to look for, but I would keep my eyes on Rashod Bateman who may be in line for a breakout season. The Bengals had one of those magical runs in the postseason that are very tough to duplicate. They return most of their core intact and while they may take a slight step backwards this year, they’ll still be extremely competitive as long as Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are healthy. The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best defenses in the league led by TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and their skill position players on offense are as good as many teams in the league. What concerns me about the Steelers is that their 2 biggest question marks are quarterback and offensive line. Mitch Trubisky is fine as a stopgap option at quarterback but it’s a safe bet that rookie Kenny Pickett will get some reps as the season goes on. But either option behind their offensive line is going to be a major challenge regardless of the talent they have around them and Pittsburgh’s offensive line is amongst the worst in the NFL. The Browns have made headlines all offseason with the acquisition of maligned QB Deshaun Watson who is suspended for the first 11 games of the season. They’ll go into battle this year with Jacoby Brissett who is a fine backup, but I’d have concerns about him taking the reins for 11 games especially with his receiving corps which is very light after Amari Cooper. Nick Chubb is one of the best backs in football, but I’d look at opposing defenses to stack the box against him which will lead to their talented defense wearing down as the season goes on.
1. Indianapolis Colts
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Houston Texans
What to watch for: I would say that the AFC South is probably tied with the NFC East as the worst division in football. I think the Colts win the division by attrition but I’m not as high on the Matt Ryan bandwagon as others. Ryan had Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Kyle Pitts to throw to the past couple of seasons and now is throwing to Michael Pittman and a lot of role players. Jonathan Taylor may be the best back in football, but I think this team has a lot of question marks as the season wears on. The Tennessee Titans have a fantastic coach with Mike Vrabel who has maximized the absolute most out of this roster the past couple of seasons. I think there may not be much left to squeeze out this year as Ryan Tannehill has been shaky in clutch situations and Derrick Henry has a lot of miles on him for a 28-year-old running back. I think there are some serious injury concerns here and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Titans finish 3rd in the division and rookie Malik Willis is starting some games by the end of the year. Jacksonville’s biggest acquisition of the year was new head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson is a good head coach who got a raw deal from Philadelphia in my opinion and will be the stabilizing force second year quarterback Trevor Lawrence needs. The Jaguars have had the luxury of drafting at or near the top of the draft the past 5 seasons and it’s time to turn that capital into wins. The Houston Texans are in full rebuild mode but rookie Derek Stingley is looking like a shutdown corner and the offense still has Brandin Cooks and Dameon Pierce. That said I am not a believer in new head coach Lovie Smith, and I think the Texans will be looking at another long season ahead.
1. Denver Broncos
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Las Vegas Raiders
4. Los Angeles Chargers
What to watch for: Best division in the NFL hands down. You can put these teams in any order and have an argument for why it would make sense. I myself have gone back and forth and still don’t feel 100% confident but that just speaks to the incredible talent in this division. I’m a believer in Russell Wilson and feel he’s been held back the past couple of years by poor coaching and a suspect offensive line. The Broncos schedule is really friendly to start the season and Denver is one of the most difficult places to play in the NFL which bodes well for the second half of the schedule. The Chiefs will go into the season without deep threat Tyreek Hill. I think the loss will hurt a little, but I don’t think it’s something that head coach Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes can’t compensate for to a degree. The pass rush needs to get better, and hopes are that rookie George Karlaftis can contribute in that regard. The Raiders hired head coach Josh McDaniels from the New England Patriots in the offseason and signed WR Davante Adams from the Green Bay Packers. Derek Carr is underrated but there are still questions about his offensive line which I think may give them trouble on occasion. If the running game is there, I think the Raiders can make noise in the playoffs once again. The Chargers are as talented on paper as any team in the AFC but unfortunately somebody is going to have to finish last. I think head coach Brandon Staley is great at devising schemes and game plans, but I question his ability to adjust in the middle of games. Justin Herbert is an unbelievable talent at QB, but I question whether some of their skill players can maintain the level they’ve been playing at. I’m also not as high on the Khalil Mack signing for the defense as others. All of this said, I can’t wait to see how this division plays out over the course of the season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. Washington Commanders
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. New York Giants
What to watch for: This is another division that will be up for grabs (minus one team clearly) this season. I think Philadelphia had a fantastic offseason and draft highlighted by the acquisition of Tennessee wideout AJ Brown. Brown paired with DeVonta Smith, and tight end Dallas Goedert are going to cause matchup problems for opposing defenses and I think the Eagles are finally starting to address some of the depth issues behind their aging vets. A lot of their success depends on the continued development of Jalen Hurts, but I think the potential is there. Am I reaching on the Commanders here? Possibly. But I think new quarterback Carson Wentz became so overrated along the way that he’s actually become underrated. He threw for 3,500 yards last season with 27 touchdowns and 7 interceptions – he’s a clear upgrade over what the Commanders have had at quarterback, and they have talented skill players around him like Terry McLaurin that he did not have in Indianapolis last season. If defensive end Chase Young was healthy, I’d feel more confident about this pick, but I think the Commanders may surprise. The Cowboys may also surprise this year but not in a good way. The offensive line is aging and hurting, they’re extremely penalty prone, and I’m not a believer in Ezekiel Elliot performing at a high level all season long. There is a lot of talent on Dallas don’t get me wrong – but there is a very thin margin of error for the Cowboys this year and I just don’t know if a healthy Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb on offense and Micah Parsons despite his incredible talent on defense is enough to overcome it all. The Giants cleaned house in the front office this offseason hiring new GM Joe Schoen and a new head coach in Brian Daboll. This season though is going to be a year dedicated to player development and determining who the core pieces of the roster will be moving forward. Quarterback Daniel Jones is back under center this season in what will be a yearlong interview to keep his job going into next season. The offensive line should be a little bit better on the edges but skill player wise this is one of the worst units in the NFL outside of running back Saquon Barkley. Giants' fans should take a deep breath, enjoy seeing how some of the young guys develop and hope for a high draft pick.
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Detroit Lions
4. Chicago Bears
What to watch for: In the past it’s been a foregone conclusion that the Packers would just walk away with the division and everyone else was playing for second place. I think that the Vikings are going to push the Packers this season and it may be a dogfight throughout the season. Have the Packers lost some skill players including Davante Adams? Yes. But I think that Aaron Rodgers is more than up to the challenge of shouldering the load and the improved offensive line may turn the Packers offense into a more run-based attack this year. I also love what the Packers have on defense and that I think will be the difference maker in the division. The Vikings and Kirk Cousins are going to turn some heads this year and I would not want to play them come playoff time. Justin Jefferson is one of the top 5 receivers in the game and I would keep an eye on third year receiver K.J. Osborn. They’re strong upfront defensively and added some linebacker and secondary depth in the draft that can contribute immediately this year. I feel if the Lions had a better quarterback (say Matthew Stafford?) they could be a .500 team this season. I’m not a big Jared Goff believer but I do like a lot of the pieces around him especially wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown. The defense should be better with rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. I’m a big believer in Bears quarterback Justin Fields. Unfortunately, the Bears front office seems to be setting him up for failure. Their skill position players are amongst the worst in the league and the offensive line has a lot of question marks as evident by the desperation signing of Raiders cast off Alex Leatherwood. If the Bears have any success at all this year it will be because of Justin Fields and in spite of the front office.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Atlanta Falcons
What to watch for: For the first time in a couple seasons, it feels as if the Buccaneers are going into the season with some question marks. Tom Brady retired then unretired, the offensive line is banged up, Rob Gronkowski has retired, and head coach Bruce Arians retired with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles taking over the reins. Is this the year Brady and the Bucs fall apart? I’m not there yet. Tom Brady is the best ever for a reason and the defense will be very solid this year, especially if they can get some improved play out of their secondary. Are they vulnerable? For the first time in a while, yes. The team most likely to push them? The New Orleans Saints. The Saints have had the Bucs number the past couple of seasons and their defense is going to be one of the best in the NFL. Jameis Winston turns the ball over at times, yes, but he also has a great arm and with Michael Thomas back in the fold this is a team that is capable of double-digit wins. The Panthers have a talented enough team to make some waves this season. Running back Christian McCaffrey is healthy and new quarterback Baker Mayfield has a chip on his shoulder after being outed from Cleveland. This will be head coach Matt Rhule’s last chance to succeed so I’d look for him to pull out all the stops in trying to make the playoffs. The Falcons are in rebuild mode and while they have talented receivers like Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts to develop, they’re still a couple years away from being relevant. I’d look for the Falcons to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, but I think deep down they are okay with that.
1. Los Angeles Rams
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. Arizona Cardinals
4. Seattle Seahawks
What to watch for: The Rams traded a lot of draft equity away to pick up players like quarterback Matthew Stafford and Von Miller last season and were rewarded by winning the Super Bowl last season in a thriller against the Cincinnati Bengals. While Miller is gone, Aaron Donald is back and the defense around him is still very talented. There are some concerns on the offensive end, primarily Stafford’s health and depth at wide receiver but Sean McVay is one of the best coaches in the NFL and the Rams have less question marks than the other teams in the division. The 49ers are the darlings of many prognosticators across the sports world, but I just can’t put them as a division winner with Trey Lance as quarterback. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the most brilliant offensive game planners in the league and having Deebo Samuel back certainly helps, but the fact the Niners brought back Jimmy Garappolo once again leads me to believe that this team still has some questions marks about the readiness of Trey Lance. Otherwise, they have a very talented roster. I think the Arizona Cardinals take a major step backwards this year. Kyler Murray faded down the stretch last year, Deandre Hopkins is suspended the first 6 games of the year and the rest of the team has big name value but they’re getting older, i.e. J.J.Watt, A.J. Green, and Zach Ertz. The Seattle Seahawks will be one of the worst teams in the league this year and will be in full rebuild mode by the end of the season. Geno Smith is a stopgap option and not a great one, and the defense has lost it’s heart and soul with Bobby Wagner. I suspect this may be head coach Pete Carroll’s last stand.
AFC Playoff Teams:
Wild Card: Chiefs, Raiders, Bengals
NFC Playoff Teams:
Wild Card: Vikings, Saints, 49ers
Super Bowl: Broncos over Packers
Defensive Player of the Year: Micah Parsons
Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Jefferson
Comeback Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey
MVP: Lamar Jackson Runner Up: Josh Allen
Thanks for reading! Let me know what your thoughts are and enjoy Week 1!
Photo: Mark Rebilas - USA Today