Hey there sports fans! While everyone was outside enjoying the nice summer weather, going to the beach, grabbing drinks on rooftops, etc., I was looking ahead to the fall and thinking about football.
With the season kicking off Thursday night, let’s look ahead to see who is best positioned to make a playoff run and, ultimately, win the Super Bowl.
1. New England Patriots
After playing in 3 of the last 4 Super Bowls, the Patriots are primed to not only win a lot of games but also make another deep run. Yes, they lost Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Nate Solder, Dion Lewis and other key starters. Yes, Julian Edelman is out for the first four games. Yes, Tom Brady is another year older. However, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are arguably THE TWO most impactful men in the NFL. With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels returning, and Tom Brady fresh off an MVP season (look it up, he actually did win the MVP last year!), the Pats should win their 10th straight AFC East title and lock up a bye.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Shad Khan’s upstart Jags squad almost upset the Patriots last winter in the AFC title game. Keyword there is almost, as the Jags ultimately lost. They did bring basically everyone back and they were able to add free agency’s best guard in Andrew Norwell, talented wide receiver Donte Moncrief, and physically imposing tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They additionally boast a defensive front four of Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Marcell Darius, and Calais Campbell. When you add LBs Tevin Smith and Myles Jack, CBs Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, and Safety Barry Church to that you mix get the best defense in the league. Jacksonville will be involved in some low-scoring games but they will win most of them.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Consistency is the key here in Pittsburgh. The Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin/Antonio Brown/Le’veon Bell combo has been winning division titles and earning playoffs berths for the better part of the decade. The black and gold offensive line and supporting offensive skill position players surrounding PIT’s core four are arguably the strongest in the league. Its no wonder the top offense in the league resides in the 412. The Stillers defense will be bad – again – in 2018, but assuming Big Ben stays healthy they will score enough to contend for a first round bye.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith was arguably the best QB in the NFL in 2017. He led the league in passer rating, threw the fewest picks of any QB with more than 420 attempts, finished second to Drew Brees in yards per attempt, and had the third highest completion percentage behind Brees (again) and captain checkdown himself Case Keenum. Alex Smith is now gone in favor of second year man Pat Mahomes out of Texas Tech, but the Chiefs are still going to repeat in the AFC West.
When discussing who the best head coach in the NFL is, how many names do you get through before getting to Andy Reid – one? Two? Reid and his teams are consistently good. The year after losing OC Doug Pederson to Philly, Reid’s Chiefs won the division. This offseason they lost OC Matt Nagy to da Bears, Reid will weather that storm as well. The defense is still good with Justin Houston and Dee Ford on the outside, Reggie Ragland in the middle, and Eric Berry manning the back line. The Reds will run the ball with rookie sensation Kareem Hunt and veteran Spencer Ware, throw crossing routes and outs to the 2nd best tight end in the league Travis Kelce, and bide their time for deep shots to Tyrek Hill and Sammy Watkins. Mahomes reportedly has a cannon too which will make the Chiefs a constant intruder to your regularly scheduled programming.
5. Houston Texans
Despite a 4-12 record last year, look for the Texans to be in the playoff hunt in 2018. Injuries absolutely decimated Houston with phenom Deshaun Watson throwing and NFL record 19 TDs in his first seven games. J.J. Watt, the quarterback of the defense and inspirational leader, also fell to injuries. Assuming they can stay healthy (yes, that is a big assumption with this oft-injury-riddled bunch), the Texans should return to their 2016 playoff form and make it at least to wild card weekend.
6. Baltimore Ravens
After making the playoffs in each of John Harbaugh’s first five seasons as head coach (2008-2012), the Ravens haven’t sniffed the postseason since 2014. This is the year they get to play January football though, getting a much needed boost from first round QB Lamar Jackson who will be the first challenge to Joe Flacco during his time in purple. Flacco won’t only have to play well enough to be better on the field than Jackson, he will also have to play better than the Baltimore fans’ perception of how Jackson would play – a might taller task. With a reloaded receiving corps featuring Michael Crabtree, John “Smokey” Brown, and Willie Snead, the Ravens might actually be able to put up some points. If Marshall Yanda can stay healthy this year, the o-line will be good, and if T-sizzle/Eric Weddle stay upright the defense will be fierce as ever.
Ravens at Steelers
After (likely) splitting the season series the Ravens simply don’t have the firepower to keep up with the black and yellow. The Steelers, at home, will cruise to victory en route to making a playoff run.
Texans at Chiefs
This matchup may come down to team health. If the Texans defense with Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, etc, can find a way to be healthy heading into the playoffs they will be a very tough out. Despite a very close game, the Chiefs can’t match up defensively after losing key pieces in free agency.
Texans at Patriots
Death, Taxes, rookie QBs struggling on the road against Bill Belichick – those are the only guarantees in life. Also Tom Brady has made it to 8 super bowls and won 5 of them, you do the math…
Steelers at Jaguars
After the AFC goes chalk in the divisional round, a healthy – revitalized – Steelers team avenges their 2017 loss and beats the Jags in Jacksonville. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler spent his whole offseason watching the Jags hang 45 on the Stillers (both on film as well as when he shut his eyes at night). If he can’t formulate a plan to hold Blake Bortles under 30 points then he likely won’t return for the 2019 season…
Steelers at Patriots
[Full disclosure, I am a Patriots fan]
The Jaguars should have went to the SuperBowl in 2017. There are a lot of fluky/debatable calls in the NFL, but the refs got one wrong in last year’s conference championship and blew a play dead early. The Jesse James TD catch that was overturned was legit, he gave up his positioning on the ground by lunging toward the endzone.
But I digress, the big advantage the Patriots have is on the mental side. Bill Belichick (mentally) runs circles around Mike Tomlin and I don’t think anyone expects Ben Roethlisberger will out-prepare Brady. Additionally, Brady is 6-2 in his career vs Roethlisberger which should be aided by the homefield Foxborough fans.
1. Minnesota Vikings
Not sure if folks remember the Vikings regular season performance – after seeing them get smacked by the Eagles 38-7 in the NFC Championship – but they went 13-3 and earned the 2 seed in the NFC. They were solid offensively, 10th in points per game behind a well-managed season from Case Keenum. However, the purple people eaters were the best scoring defense in the league allowing under 16 points per game.
Additionally, the Vikings only got better in the offseason by adding Sheldon Richardson to an already strong defensive line and Kirk Cousins behind center. Look for Mike Zimmer’s Vikings to stay tough on d and earn another first round bye.
2. LA Rams
The question here is “are the Rams good”? The answer is yes.
Coaching: Sean McVay is an offensive guru and will have no problem creating mismatches for Brandin Cooks and wide open lanes for Todd Gurley. Wade Phillips is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league and has strong roster talent to work with.
Offense: Jared Goff made strides in his 2nd season under center and Todd Gurley was easily the best non-QB last season. Gurley and co. are poised for another strong offensive year and will threaten 30ppg again.
Defense: No unit in football added more raw talent than the Rams defense did with Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Sam Shields, and Aqib Talib. Suh and Aaron Donald will absolutely terrorize offensive lines, and Peters/Talib/Shields anchor one of the top secondaries in the league.
Consensus: The Rams aren’t merely good, they are very good.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Injuries are the only thing holding the Eagles back from another finish atop the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It sounds like Carson Wentz will not be ready to go for week 1, and expect the Eagles to play it conservatively with their franchise signal caller. Despite Wentz’s uncertain status, the Eagles offense will be good again behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.The Eagles defense will be better than the offense this year. As one of the 5 best defensive units in the league in 2017, they went out and added former Seahawks SB MVP Michael Bennett. I can already hear Eli Manning, Dak Prescott, and Alex Smith shaking knowing they have to face this fearsome crew twice in the next four months.
4. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are 2017’s forgotten team. With all the attention on the Eagles, Saints, Vikings, and Rams, the Falcons are flying under the radar. It would do us all some good to remember that the dirty birds went 10-6 last year and actually beat the Rams in the Wild Card round before losing a close one on the road to the eventual champion Eagles. This year they brought everybody back on offense and added one of college football’s best WRs last year in Calvin Ridley. Pair that with a young, improving, defense and top 5 offensive line, and you get a playoff team. Not to mention Steve Sarkisian will now be in his second year calling plays for Matty Ice.
5. Green Bay Packers
Aaron “M-Fing” Rodgers is back. Aaron Rodgers career record is 94-48 which is good for a winning percentage of .662. This winning percentage, when projected over the course of a season, would yield 10-11 wins. It will likely take 12+ wins to win the NFC North this year, but double digit wins usually put you in the playoffs. While the Pack don’t have the same kind of deep roster strength that the Vikings do, they have a very strong receiving corps which should be enough to earn a wildcard berth when paired with the best QB in the league.
6. New Orleans Saints
The Saints monster 11-win season was marred by one missed tackle. If Marcus Williams makes the play on Stefon Diggs then not only do the Saints beat the Vikings but I think they would have beaten the Eagles for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
Last year, Drew Brees broke his nine year streak of 30 TD passes and 11 year streak of 4400+ passing yards. While some folks will look at this as a sign of regression, I think the actual reason behind the decline in numbers was the incredible number of TDs score by the Kamara/Ingram combo. The duo hit paydirt 25 times, with 20 scores coming on the ground, and are the real regression candidates on the Saints offense.
The Saints will, again, be a playoff team as they look to avenge last year’s catastrophe and bring another Lombardi Trophy back to Bourbon Street.
Saints at Eagles
It is very difficult to go to the Superbowl back-to-back years. Every week is the other team’s Superbowl as everyone wants to knock off the champs. The Eagles have a talented roster but they lack the experience and coaching staff to repeat. The Saints will be on a mission this year to pick up second year corner, Marcus Williams, and win the game they weren’t able to play last January.
Packers at Falcons
Aaron Rodgers is back, but a poor offensive line and unproven running game will be his downfall in December. The Falcons, on the other hand, are only one year removed from scoring almost 34 points per game, and the seventh most points ever in a season. With offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian entering his second season, Matt Ryan and one of best running games in the league, Atlanta is well-positioned to win either grinding out a low-scoring win or pacing a shootout.
Saints at Vikings
A year after the Miracle in Minnesota, the Vikings beat the Saints in Minnesota (again) behind an improved defensive line. The Saints will struggle to run against the Vikings front seven, and will struggle to pass against arguably the best secondary in the league. Brees, who isn’t known for clutch playoff performances, will not be able to put the Saints over the top.
Falcons at Rams
Jared Goff and the Rams are still a year away offensively. Gurley and the run game are strong, but Goff and McVay don’t have the weapons to score enough. Even Aqib Talib can’t contain Julio Jones who is known to go off at the drop of a hat. Look for the Falcons to make a run this winter.
Falcons at Vikings
We simply haven’t seen it from Kirk Cousins. Kirk’s been ok in the regular season with a 26-29 career record. In the playoffs he is 0-1 with his one start being the 2015 wild card round where the deadskins got waxed by Aaron Rodgers and the Pack. Additionally, the playoffs are where the Vikings will miss Pat Shurmur the most. Defensive-minded Falcons head coach, Dan Quinn, will be able to make the purple people eaters play left-handed and I don’t see John DeFilippo making the right adjustments to compensate.
Falcons vs Patriots
Yes, this is a rematch of the 2016 Super Bowl. Despite the rematch action, both rosters have turned over significantly the past two seasons – so the right way to think about this game will be as the 2018 Falcons vs the 2018 Pats. The SB isn’t always the two best teams in the league, but we always get two good teams. In coin-flip-type situations, we usually look to either the coaching or QB advantage. In this matchup the Patriots the upper hand at both coach and QB so I lean towards another Pats win over the Falcons.
Stats and odds by ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference