The 100th season in NFL history kicks off tonight and I have written the longest preview of my life for it. Last year I had the Falcons beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. That almost blew up in Week 1 alone, but it was an enjoyable season…until the very end at least.
As for a few of the specific things I’m watching for this season:
A quarter of the league hired a new head coach, including six rookies. That could be rough, or just easy pickings for the established teams. I still can’t believe Marvin Lewis didn’t beat out the apocalypse in Cincinnati.
Pass interference is now reviewable and will surely come up in a few big spots this year. Overall I think it’s a good addition, but I am nervous about how they’ll apply things in the Hail Mary situations. If the preseason is any indicator, it’s going to be tough to overturn the call on the field, but we’ll certainly keep an eye on the PI flag stats this year.
As far as I know, I’ll continue to post my weekly picks on Saturdays like I have for years. Other content may also show up here this season, or it may be on a new site. We’ll see what happens, but unlike Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski, I’m not retiring from the NFL yet. Let’s get to the predictions.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
I’m not sure what was more annoying: Pittsburgh’s failure to make the playoffs or the offseason drama that was largely generated by agenda-pushing national media and two head cases (Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) who are no longer with the team. You can read this rant I tweeted in February about my disgust over the way Ben Roethlisberger was critiqued during the AB/Bell drama. As Brown has continued to embarrass himself in Oakland, hopefully the drama has left town and the team can get back to focusing on winning.
While losses of talent like that certainly hurt, it’s still not a bad offense to feature JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner as the leading receiver and rusher. Sure, depth is an issue now, and they also let Jesse James go and are rolling with Vance McDonald at tight end. But the top-end talent in Pittsburgh is still very good, including the offensive line. If Roethlisberger can get on the same page with James Washington that the backups showed with him in the preseason, then the offense may not even skip a beat without Brown. They already performed very well without Bell in 2018. Losing Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach is a bigger loss really, because he’s one of the best in the business.
Despite the criticism over Pittsburgh’s soap opera-level drama last year, let’s not forget Mike Tomlin’s team was 7-2-1. Losses to Kansas City and Baltimore are understandable. The tie in Week 1 to Cleveland that ultimately cost the team a division title only happened after Chris Boswell missed a makeable field goal in overtime. In fact, you could argue no player had more to do with the Steelers missing the playoffs than Boswell. He missed that kick as well as one against Oakland that would have sent that game to overtime. Two better swings of the leg and the Steelers likely were looking at a first-round bye. Instead they missed the playoffs. The Steelers also blew a 16-point lead to the Chargers in a game where the Chargers got a long touchdown despite an obvious false start, and a pass by Philip Rivers in the end zone that should have been intercepted was instead deflected for a touchdown to get that comeback going. The Steelers actually beat New England for a change last year, but still missed the playoffs.
While the hype has shifted to Cleveland in this division, anyone writing off Pittsburgh after last year just didn’t see how many close calls this team had. This is the team with a track record of success in the division. Baker Mayfield may be one of the next big things, but Roethlisberger still played better last year. Despite the criticism over his inconsistency, Roethlisberger passed for at least 235 yards and a touchdown in all 16 games last year. That’s only been done three other times in NFL history. He’s still one of the top quarterbacks in the league and should look to get Washington and Donte Moncrief involved to make up for the loss of Brown. While I don’t think JuJu will score another 97-yard touchdown, he should be in for a huge third season after such a stellar start to his career. Look for his efficiency to drop now that he’s the main target, but the production will definitely be there.
This year I’m not going to spend much time at all talking about defenses in these previews. That’s not because offense is more consistent or important, but because it will get redundant for me to say I’m not that impressed with the defense on paper. That’s how I feel about a lot of these units this year in a league that is increasingly about situational play (third down, turnovers, red zone, final drives) instead of shutting offenses down.
As for the Steelers in particular, the defense hasn’t really been great since 2011, but I think they have a shot to return as a top-five unit this season. It’s a familiar cast, but T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds are still growing. They added linebacker Devin Bush in the first round and have kept Joe Haden in town. My biggest concern would probably be teams picking on Steven Nelson or Artie Burns at corner, but that’s why you have to get a good pass rush or safety to help out.
Week 1 should be an excellent litmus test with a trip to New England on banner night. That’s a really tough spot for the Steelers in a game that could determine a first-round bye. The Steelers also go to Baltimore in Week 17 in another game that could determine a playoff season. It’s not the easiest schedule, but the Steelers have gone at least .500 in all 15 seasons of Roethlisberger’s career, one of the longest streaks in NFL history.
Sure, this team will probably lose in Arizona in Week 14 to stay on brand, but the Steelers should be a contender all season long in the AFC.
2. Cleveland Browns (10-6)
Can a team really go from 0-16 in 2017 to the Super Bowl in 2019? There has been no shortage of hype for the Browns this year, but I’m annoyed over the lack of skepticism. What if this is actually just one big flop from a group with no real track record of NFL success? Remember, strong second-half finishes have no real evidence of carrying over to the next season, and the Browns were largely just beating sub-.500 teams last season. Baker Mayfield is very promising, but he only finished 23rd in QBR and Freddie Kitchens is still a big unknown.
Sure, on paper this looks like the beginning of a run of success for a franchise that has not seen the postseason since 2002. Getting back-to-back No. 1 picks, landing a top-tier pass-rusher and franchise quarterback with them, and trading for Odell Beckham Jr. all seem like the right steps for a team to start winning.
But “The Next Big Thing” has failed many times before in NFL history. Let me bring up two team comparisons for the 2019 Browns. We’ll start with the 2011 Eagles, the self-proclaimed “Dream Team” if you listened to Vince Young, the backup quarterback. They paid Michael Vick another fortune, brought in some big names on defense, and looked to build on a playoff season from 2010. It was a pretty solid roster, but hardly the stuff of legends. The dream turned into a nightmare quickly and the Eagles started 4-8 before finishing 8-8. Whoops.
Then you have the 2005 Bengals. Carson Palmer, a No. 1 overall pick, was going into his second season as a starter. He had flamboyant receivers and the offense was expected to be the next big thing after some strong games late in the 2004 season. The offense delivered and the defense intercepted a lot of passes on the way to an 11-5 season and division title, the first playoff season for the Bengals since 1990. I personally was skeptical of the Bengals’ hype going into that season and wanted to see them prove it first before buying in.
As you can judge by the 10-6 prediction, I’m leaning more towards 2005 Bengals than 2011 Eagles for these Browns. Still, I think we need to slow down a bit on the MVP and top QB talk for Mayfield. I’m not in any mood to defend Eli Manning, but the constant remarks of “now Odell has a real quarterback” are amusing to read. This is more of a fantasy football rant, but Mayfield didn’t even produce a 1,000-yard receiver last season. The Browns were led by Jarvis Landry (976) and David Njoku (639) in receiving yards and no one caught more than five touchdowns on a team with 29 of those scores. That’s hardly impressive or proof that Mayfield is ready to help Beckham to one of his prime seasons where he had over 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. I think this duo will be excellent, and I hope to see the targets distributed logically between Beckham and Landry — meaning Odell gets way more — but don’t fall for the trap that Beckham is ready to explode for 1,800 yards or 20 TD. And let’s not forget Eli once got some pretty nice numbers out of Fake Steve Smith and UFA Victor Cruz.
The offensive line is basically Joel Bitonio and four reclamation projects from around the league. It’s more than serviceable and the Browns did a great job in Kitchens’ games (after he replaced Todd Haley as OC) of keeping Mayfield clean, but the Browns had better lines back when they had nothing worth protecting. Funny how that works. Alas, I would have kept Duke Johnson and not touched Kareem Hunt (suspended), but we’ll see how that works out. I like Nick Chubb as it is at RB. Defensively, you have to love the high draft picks on Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward in recent years. Sheldon Richardson joins his fourth team in four years so that doesn’t do much for me, but I like the Olivier Vernon addition from the Giants. He’s missed nine games the last two years, but he can be a pressure machine and should help Garrett. I mostly just like that Jabrill Peppers is gone and Gregg Williams isn’t there anymore to play the safeties deep in center field. Steve Wilks wasn’t cut out for head coach, but he should be a solid defensive coordinator for this group.
Look, the AFC is absolutely starving for a new contender. Cleveland fans have been dying for a winner again. It would be great for the league if the Browns become that again, but I just think we should temper expectations a little for 2019.
3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
Going into my process of picking games, the Ravens were a team I wanted to drop to 8-8 and miss the playoffs. But once again, I found myself flirting with 10 wins and the playoffs for John Harbaugh’s squad. I think it’s easy to argue he is the third-best coach in the conference after Belichick and Reid, so the Ravens have that going for them. Baltimore was able to adapt on the fly last year offensively after making the switch from Joe Flacco to a run-heavy, old-school scheme with rookie Lamar Jackson. As usual, Baltimore was strong in the other facets of the game and Justin Tucker might be the GOAT kicker.
The problems I have with Baltimore are Jackson’s growth and durability, the loss of leadership on defense, and the division getting tougher. All of these issues can converge too. If Baltimore has to win higher-scoring games against better competition and can’t control the ground attack, will Jackson deliver? We saw in the playoffs against the Chargers how things didn’t work well when the Ravens fell behind big early, but I’m not going to use a rookie’s first playoff game to paint his career. The fact is Jackson was too inaccurate last season and the weapons they have in 2019 need him to deliver good throws more consistently. They don’t have an elite receiving talent or YAC monster. Jackson ran the ball 128 times in eight starts (including playoffs) and never threw 30 passes in any game. Obviously he can’t sustain that rushing pace over a full season without serious injury risk, and to make matters worse his backup is Robert Griffin III. I just see QB Hell in Baltimore — a familiar sight — if he continues to run at a historic rate. Jackson also fumbled 15 times last year, so while he may not throw many picks, that’s a big concern if the ball starts bouncing to the opponent more.
Granted, the Ravens were 6-2 in Jackson’s starts, but I don’t think this will hold up against the better competition, and Baltimore’s schedule features two offenses in the division (PIT/CLE) that should be really good, and the Ravens also have to travel to the Chiefs, Rams, and Seahawks and host the Patriots. So I think the schedule is going to be tough on Jackson and his progression to keep up as a passer.
It’s also going to be weird to watch the Ravens play defense without a Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs on the field, cornerstones of the front seven and franchise. Suggs went to Arizona and the Ravens also didn’t bring back Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley. That’s not to say the defense isn’t good anymore, because the secondary looks great on paper and added veteran (and probable HOFer) Earl Thomas. It just may not be as strong of a unit as we’re used to from the Ravens, and I think that’s a crucial part to their success given some of the limitations in the offense.
Baltimore stopped Baker Mayfield with the playoffs on the line in Week 17 last year. But if he and the Browns take the next steps many are predicting, will the Ravens counter with their own improvement? I can’t wait for the Week 16 matchup in Cleveland that should really go a long way in deciding this one.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)
Marvin Lewis was hired as head coach when I was still in high school, so it’s going to be weird to think about the Bengals without him. It was a move that should have happened ages ago, but I don’t think rookie coach Zac Taylor is stepping into a situation for Year 1 success. Andy Dalton hit his ceiling in 2015 and the floor isn’t even that reliable anymore. The rest of the team isn’t as good now as it was then either. Throw in another injury to A.J. Green that will impact the first two months of the season and it’s not a great setup for Dalton to thrive in a new offense. The defense is largely composed of players the franchise drafted and put on the field last year when teams moved the ball at will (31st in yards and points per drive allowed). In fact it’s kind of shocking how little was added here, and corner Darqueze Dennard being on PUP doesn’t help matters.
Even if the Bengals approach mediocrity on both sides of the ball, Taylor will have to deal with the fact that most teams on the schedule are simply better than this one. Even the games against teams of a similar nature (Bills, Jaguars) will be hard to win when Cincinnati’s star players (Green and Geno Atkins) are now on the wrong side of 30. Throw in six games against possibly the toughest division in the NFL and you can all but count the Bengals in for taking a quarterback high in April’s draft.
1. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
The NFC North prevented me from having some of the most accurate preseason predictions on the net last year. I was all in on the Packers and Vikings finishing 12-4 while the Bears stunk at 6-10. That was way off, even after the Packers came back from a huge deficit to beat the Bears in Week 1. However, that game also may have had an impact on the season after it looked like Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending injury in the first half. He of course didn’t, and he didn’t miss a start the whole season. Yet the Packers still finished 6-9-1 and fired head coach Mike McCarthy, paving the way for rookie coach Matt LaFleur to fix this offense and reinvigorate a slumping Rodgers.
Here I am again in 2019 putting the Packers and Vikings ahead of the Bears, but we are getting to a very odd place with Rodgers and his legacy. I’ve made plenty of comparisons about Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-2014 specifically) to the player he’s been since 2015, which frankly just hasn’t been that great outside of a run during the 2016 season. We know the play-action game has been broken, and that was not the case even when the running game stunk during his peak years. So it’s not about the running offense, which actually wasn’t bad in 2018. We know the Packers have gone from the best receiving corps in the NFL to something more along the lines of Davante Adams and Some Young Guys. That plays a factor too.
While the health concerns are valid for Rodgers, it’s not really that helpful to explain his performance when he was still playing every week last season. He still practiced. He still ran around and tried to make the throws he used to make, but hasn’t been able to make as frequently the last four seasons. While Rodgers finished with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions, he set an unofficial record for most passes intentionally thrown away in a season. He also had more dropped picks than real picks, so that ratio was more of a result of extremely passive play and luck. It’s also worth noting that the offense just wasn’t good this way, ranking 16th in points per drive.
I have said there are only three ways we’re going to see a return of Peak Aaron Rodgers. One way is for him to go to a new team a la Brett Favre in Minnesota. That shouldn’t happen any time soon with his contract. Another way is for the Packers to acquire a generational talent at WR/TE, but guys like Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski just don’t grow on trees.
So the most realistic option that the Packers have started the process of is bringing in a new offensive-minded head coach in LaFleur. Now it’s hard to say if LaFleur will have a Shanahan (Mike or Kyle) impact on Rodgers, but LaFleur is from that coaching tree, he was Matt Ryan’s QB coach in his 2016 MVP season, he knows Sean McVay (2017 Rams), and the Titans were a bit dysfunctional (also lacking in talent) under his watch in Tennessee last year as OC. LaFleur doesn’t bring a ton of success, but Rodgers is learning a new offense for the first time in a decade after things had gotten so stale with McCarthy. This also puts a lot of pressure on Rodgers to perform better, because that McCarthy excuse is out the window this year.
The more I type here the more I want to drop this team to 8-9 wins, but let’s stick with 10-6 and a tie-breaker win over the Vikings for the NFC North. I think if Rodgers stays upright in this offense, he can lead this team to at least a split with the Bears and Vikings, and they can get back to beating the Lions like they used to. Then I absolutely trust Rodgers at homes against the likes of DEN/OAK/CAR/WAS, and I think they can win on the road against the 49ers/Giants, and Rodgers has had plenty of success in Dallas (Week 5) too. The schedule certainly looks more favorable than last year when the Packers started 4-6-1 with road losses to the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings included. The team all but quit on McCarthy after that, starting with the shocking home loss to the Cardinals. I don’t think losing Mike Daniels was good for the defense, but the Packers have again brought in some fifth-year free agents (Adrian Amos, Preston Brown and Za’Darius Smith) to go against old practices, and the secondary has been really rebuilt in recent drafts.
Is it a championship-caliber defense? Probably not, but with an improved Rodgers, I think it’s all enough for a 10-win season and a return to the playoffs. If not, then expect more articles about how things are falling apart for a quarterback some once thought was on the path to being the best ever. It’s well known I was never on that train, but I also didn’t think I’d be writing about the potential for a third-straight missed postseason for Rodgers and the Packers.
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
I don’t know if every team with Kirk Cousins at quarterback is destined to hover around .500 while the kicker chokes and games against winning teams go south, but he made the Vikings look like his Washington teams last year. When you were coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance and added The $84 Million Man, that’s just not good enough.
Like in Washington, the disappointment wasn’t usually all of Cousins’ fault. This team would have snuck in as the sixth seed (instead of Philadelphia) had the special teams not been so horrendous in that tie in Week 2 in Green Bay. Cousins was stellar on the road against the Rams, but Jared Goff destroyed that defense in a 38-31 final. Those were the games Cousins played well in early enough in the season to win, but didn’t. Yet like clockwork, people are more likely to remember his flops against the likes of the Bears (twice), Patriots and Seahawks. Those were four ugly losses after the bye where Cousins didn’t look interested in pushing the ball down the field at all.
So now what? The Vikings still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, providing Cousins with that excellent receiving duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Tight end Irv Smith was added in the draft and maybe Dalvin Cook will see his biggest workload yet in his third season if he can stay healthy. The offensive line was a major issue again last year as Cousins had problems with strip-sacks, which highlighted that horrific upset loss to Buffalo early in the season. It’s hard for the line to be worse this season after drafting Garrett Bradbury in the first round and Brian O’Neill is no longer a rookie.
The defense is still more than talented at each level to be a championship unit, though Xavier Rhodes needs to get back to playing at a high level. But really the team’s biggest problems were on offense last year. I’m going to bank on Cousins feeling more comfortable in his second year with the team, though coming up short of the playoffs in another 8-9 win season would be a really safe bet too.
3. Chicago Bears (9-7)
You’ve probably heard that the Bears are a prime candidate for regression this season, but it’s not as simple as that. I wrestled with this prediction because I do want to highlight the good the Bears achieved last year under rookie coach Matt Nagy. The Bears didn’t have a bad performance in any of their 17 games, including the playoff loss to the Eagles. That’s a rare feat as most teams will throw up some stinkers. The Bears blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Packers, blew a late 7-point lead in Miami (missed GW FG in OT too), they had a 10-point lead on the Patriots, lost in overtime to the Giants, and blew another late lead to the Eagles and botched another game-winning field goal at the end. This team could have easily been better than the 12-5 record it had.
It’s no small feat the Bears accomplished this in typical Chicago fashion: great defense, an emphasis on the run, and shaky quarterback play. It wasn’t so much a fluky Chicago season a la 2001 or 2005 or 2010, but it was certainly accomplished in a way that makes it hard to expect a repeat of this success in 2019. Health definitely helped as the Bears were among the least-injured teams in 2018 after being heavily, if not historically injured in the previous three years during John Fox’s tenure.
Nagy was far from a Sean McVay. He did not do a lot to elevate the offense with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who had some favorable season numbers thanks in large part to a couple of monster games against bad defenses and his best ability: scrambling. He’s an inaccurate, mistake-prone passer who needs to use his legs to compensate. Trubisky had eight games with his YPA below 6.8 compared to seven games where it was above 7.0. He’s basically the deluxe version of Buffalo’s Josh Allen. I don’t think he was poor in the playoff loss, but I would seriously worry about him being able to lead a team to three or four straight wins over quality opponents.
Trubisky needs a strong defense to succeed. He’s 1-7 as a starter when the Bears allow at least 23 points. Fortunately, the defense is still filled with talent, including Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, etc.. The Bears haven’t lost much on defense, but they did lose defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. I’ll get to him more in the Denver preview, but Fangio is in a great position to masquerade as the reason the Bears regress and the Broncos take a step forward in 2019. I say masquerade because I’m saying it could have little to actually do with his scheme that produces the results.
The Bears had a league-high 36 takeaways last season, including a preposterous 27 interceptions. That’s really impressive in this era, the hardest to get interceptions in. In fact, it’s been so hard that the Bears had 24 interceptions total from 2015-2017. Who was the defensive coordinator those three years? Vic Fangio. So let’s be very careful in associating his scheme with getting takeaways, because for three years with Fangio the Bears were the absolute pits in that area. It sure helped to have a lot more talent on the field last year, so hopefully the defense can at least continue to create splash plays. When Fangio was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh in 2011, his defense ranked first in takeaways. They fell to 14th the next year, but it was okay since the offense improved and the team reached the Super Bowl.
For the Bears to keep winning this year, the offense simply has to get better, especially if you’re banking on fewer takeaways and more injuries to happen. The schedule also presents a problem. The rest of the division took a lot of steps backwards in 2018, but you have to think the Packers and Vikings can at least be better teams in 2019. The Bears have to go to Denver in September, which is an absurd home-field advantage for the Broncos. Chicago gets the Rams on the road instead of at home this year, and they still have to deal with expectedly great offenses in the Chiefs, Chargers and Saints. Out of Chicago’s 12 wins last year, only two came against teams that won at least nine games.
I haven’t even mentioned the embarrassing kicking situation this team still has, so that’s not a problem they have really fixed yet this year. The Bears slumped to 7-9 coming off a Super Bowl appearance in 2007. That wouldn’t shock me again here, but I have them coming in at 9-7 just because I think the defense is still going to be one of the league’s best and I expect the offense to be stronger. I still don’t think Trubisky is good, but I think this young group of players hasn’t peaked together yet so that’s how I wound up at 9-7.
4. Detroit Lions (6-10)
If you told me the Lions swept the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers and beat the Patriots, I would have assumed it was one of the most successful seasons since the merger for the team. I would have been dead wrong. Of course, the Packers proved to be a 6-9-1 mess and Rodgers left the Week 17 blowout injured. The Patriots also weren’t as strong as usual despite the playoff finish.
Matt Patricia’s rookie campaign proved to be a 6-10 year where the offense was largely injured or (in Golden Tate’s case) traded away midseason. Even Matthew Stafford played through a broken back and didn’t eclipse 4,000 yards despite making all 16 starts. His YPA (6.8) was his lowest since his first two seasons. At least Kenny Golladay continued to develop nicely. He has to be even better this year and the team will hope Kerryon Johnson stays healthy after showing a lot of promise as a rookie. Still, it’s Detroit so you don’t really expect the running game to be dominant, but they have been putting in the resources lately to get more there. Also, rookie tight ends historically tend to struggle or at least not post huge numbers. I can’t believe Detroit used another high pick (No. 8) on one (T.J. Hockenson), but lower your expectations there.
Defensively, I just don’t see much to get excited over. Patricia should know Trey Flowers well from New England, but the team has continued to misfire in the secondary (see Teez Tabor cut) and are still relying on Darius Slay to save the day. The Lions allowed 29 touchdown passes against seven interceptions in 2018. I think offenses will continue to throw well against them this year.
Look, Detroit hasn’t turned overnight into a team that will play great defense and allow Stafford to hand off 20 times a week to Kerryon Johnson. That’s what Mike Vrabel is trying to do in Tennessee. Given how consistent the Lions are at losing to good teams, this season could get off to a real ugly start with the first five games being at ARI, LAC, at PHI, KC, at GB.
This team is more likely to establish doubt than the run in 2019.
New England Patriots (11-5)
I was pretty specific and ultimately accurate with my predictions on the 2018 Patriots:
It was the most vulnerable the team looked in years. The Patriots won fewer than 12 games for the first time since 2009 (10-6). The special teams had their worst DVOA in the Bill Belichick era. All five of New England’s losses were to non-playoff teams, including three losing teams (DET/JAX/MIA).
Yet in the playoffs, Belichick showed off his coaching superiority, outclassing the Chargers, Chiefs and Rams on the way to another ring. The pass protection and pass rush in particular in the two AFC playoff games were unbelievable for the Patriots.
Per usual, there was a season-ending scare again, but Dee Ford lined up offsides for the Chiefs on Tom Brady’s last-minute interception. And once again in overtime the Patriots won the coin toss, received the ball, and never had to see an MVP quarterback get a chance. I basically called them the Coin Flip Dynasty in this preview a year ago and I see no reason to take that back. Almost every season comes down to a singular moment that could have gone either way, and more often than not it’s gone New England’s way.
This run of success has lasted 18 seasons, matching the type of 18-year run the San Francisco 49ers are recognized for from 1981-1998. What stopped the 49ers in 1999? An aging Steve Young was injured in September and the season soon after went off the rails as the 49ers lost 11 of their last 12 games. But it wasn’t just an old HOF quarterback getting injured that changed things. The 49ers finally had serious competition from the Rams, who quickly put things together with Kurt Warner (replacement starter), Marshall Faulk (trade), Torry Holt (rookie), and Isaac Bruce (veteran). A team in the division had to put the final nail in the coffin of the San Francisco dynasty.
So which AFC East team is going to end this run for New England? The thought alone makes me feel like this:
But that’s likely going to be the way it happens where someone pushes New England out of being guaranteed a top four seed and home game in the playoffs. That doesn’t look likely in 2019, so we’ll focus on the actual contenders in the AFC. The Patriots will get to host three of their toughest competition: Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. They will travel to Houston and Baltimore as well. It’s long been projected to be one of the easiest schedules this year, but the key part is those home games with the good teams. It’s just so hard to beat the Patriots at home when they pounce on mistakes better than anyone.
As for the roster this year, Brady is obviously 42 years old. He only needs 60 pass attempts to rank fourth all time in pass attempts by a 42+ year old, trailing only Warren Moon (295), Vinny Testaverde (281), and George Blanda (148). Rookie Jarrett Stidham is Brady’s backup after the team cut Brian Hoyer, so there’s some risk there for sure as he looks to go into uncharted territory at this age.
Brady is also not going to have an all-time talent like Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski at his disposal for the first season since 2006 after Gronk retired. Maybe he comes back later in the season, but we’ll assume he’s done for now. The Patriots brought back Ben Watson, who is about to turn 39 and will serve a four-game suspension. So we’re talking about an all-time old man connection there. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots getting much out of the tight ends this year, but as always they’ll adjust and take advantage of a deep backfield. The wide receivers also get a big boost with Josh Gordon allowed to play again. He is arguably an all-time talent in his own right, but can he be trusted to last all season? He hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2012 and did not finish last year with the Patriots after 11 appearances.
You know Belichick and his staff will have the offensive line and defense sorted out, but Brady’s age, the hole at tight end, and Gordon’s unreliability all make for a cautious approach to trusting this offense to be there in the end again.
No matter what happens this season, the Patriots have solidified themselves as the team of the decade again, an unprecedented feat in the NFL. Belichick and Brady going into Year 20 together is the main reason for that, but not far behind is the lack of a real contender in the NFL (especially AFC) this decade:
- The 1960s Packers weren’t also the team of the 70s because Vince Lombardi died before the 1970 season even started, and he wasn’t with Green Bay anymore anyway.
- The 1970s Steelers weren’t also the team of the 80s because they didn’t draft Dan Marino in 1983 and the league was taken by storm by Bill Walsh and the 49ers.
- The 1980s 49ers weren’t also the team of the 90s because they struggled with new elite challengers in the conference in Dallas and Green Bay.
- The 1990s Cowboys weren’t also the team of the 00s because Jerry Jones is a tool.
Maybe dynasties will never be the same again in the NFL. No one has repeated as Super Bowl champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, the longest streak in NFL history without a repeat champ. As the NFL eyes a transitional period in the league’s 100th season, the Patriots remain a heavy favorite to win it all again.
A new power will just have to emerge.
2. New York Jets (9-7)
I Believe That the End of the Reign of Terror Is Soon Near by The Anniversary
I’m not holding my breath, but if any team should end the Patriots’ run in the AFC East, it should be the Jets. They owe us that at least. Out of the other 31 NFL teams, none are more responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty than the Jets. They hired Bill Belichick to be their head coach in 2000 only to see him resign after one day on the job. Belichick then quickly took the job in New England. Three months later, the Patriots drafted quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round. In the first game after 9/11 in 2001, the Jets were playing the Patriots with Drew Bledsoe as the starting QB. Bledsoe was seriously injured on a hit by linebacker Mo Lewis, putting Brady into the QB1 spot.
The rest is history.
For two decades the Jets have done little to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. Their biggest contribution came in 2010 when Rex Ryan’s squad took two out of three meetings with one of the strongest New England teams, including that shocking upset in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Jets haven’t made the playoffs since while the Patriots haven’t missed an AFC Championship Game in the last eight years.
Now the Jets are relying on Adam Gase, their sixth head coach since Belichick ditched them two decades ago. Gase’s enduring career is largely the good fortunate to have known Peyton Manning in Denver. He’s a retread who failed in Miami — the Dolphins ranked 29th in scoring differential from 2016-18 — and he didn’t exactly make a good first impression with the Jets in January:
We’ll get back to Gase shortly, but the Jets’ hopes rest heavily this year on Sam Darnold taking big steps forward in his second season. As you’ll see me refer to this season, great quarterbacks usually show their greatness early in their careers. A second season isn’t too soon for Darnold (or Josh Allen/Josh Rosen/Lamar Jackson) to really impress, and you may start to feel concerned if they ever will if things don’t look good this year.
Darnold is the latest rookie to get compared to Peyton Manning’s 1998 rookie season where he threw 28 interceptions. Everyone makes this comparison while ignoring how different the passing climate was in 1998, a season where Manning usually ranked 12th or 13 in many efficiency stats while leading an offense with similar rankings. Manning also smashed many NFL rookie records at the time. In comparison, the Jets finished 2018 ranked 29th in points per drive, no offense went three-and-out more often, and Darnold was 30th in DVOA and QBR. So it’s not quite apples-to-apples. Manning also showed real improvement in his final 10 games after a lousy first six. Darnold had a few of his best games in December too after returning from injury, but it wasn’t anywhere near the clean split like Manning’s season.
Mostly people just use the comparison for interceptions, but this is where Darnold scares you a bit. He threw 15 interceptions at a rate of 3.6 percent. That is higher than average in this era, but maybe the more concerning part is that Darnold led the league with seven dropped interceptions according to ESPN.
So you just hope Darnold shows a lot of progression in reading the field and making smarter passes. He looked solid in the preseason action this year, but we know that’s not worth anything really. I like that Darnold has enough mobility to make plays happen, but turnovers will probably be the thing to watch most with him this year. They of course brought in Le’Veon Bell to help the offense, but it’s more or less a way to get a workhorse involved who can catch the ball well (assuming he’s not going to be rusty after taking a year off). I think Bell’s patient style of running behind a lesser offensive line will be one of the most interesting things to watch this season. It shouldn’t be a terrible line, but it’s not Pittsburgh quality. I don’t like the tight ends, but I like the defined role mixture at wide receiver. You have a deep threat (Robby Anderson), a playmaker (Quincy Enunwa), and a slot guy (Jamison Crowder).
The defense made a good addition in linebacker C.J. Mosley, they still have Leonard Williams up front, and the safeties are going into their third season. The Jets drafted DT Quinnen Williams No. 3 overall, but despite the “instant starter” billing it looks like he’ll start 2019 as a backup. This doesn’t look like a championship-caliber defense, but expect Gregg Williams to continue using his aggressive approach as the new defensive coordinator. It should also help that the Dolphins look lifeless on offense, Buffalo is heavily flawed there, and the Patriots no longer have Rob Gronkowski.
That gets us back to Gase, who mastered the art of winning by 3 points or losing by three scores in Miami. Among active head coaches, Gase has the best record at 4QC opportunities at 11-9 and is second only to Bruce Arians with a 14-10 (.583) record at all 4QC/GWD opportunities.
Last year, the Jets were 1-6 at 4QC/GWD opportunities and tied for the league lead by blowing four late leads. So if they adhere to Gase’s win close/lose big style and see regression in close games while getting better play from a second-year quarterback, you can see how a 9-7 season is possible, if not better should Darnold live up to the draft hype.
I’ll hedge my bets that the Jets didn’t turn into the 99 Rams overnight, but there’s enough newness here (including the MAC-looking uniforms) to feel excited for a change.
3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
I thought Buffalo was one of the teams most likely to land Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown to try to help QB Josh Allen. They almost had Brown for a second, but instead they’ll go with a faster Brown (John) who doesn’t care about which helmet he’s given. It’s not a bad move, but Allen can still overthrow him. I’m also not sure he’ll make great use out of Cole Beasley on the short, timing routes from the slot. At least the running backs should be better this year with the additions of the immortal Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary. However, when an offense’s best play is when the quarterback scrambles, I’m not sure any of these changes are going to make a huge difference.
Brian Daboll returns as the offensive coordinator. If you’re not familiar with him, let me remind you that he was the OC for four terrible offenses in the NFL (2009-10 Browns, 2011 Dolphins, 2012 Chiefs). He downgraded to tight ends coach in New England where he got to work with the best tight end in NFL history and essentially had his position ignored in games when Gronk was out. He then spent the 2017 year as Nick Saban’s OC in Alabama before coming back to the NFL last season to help Buffalo finish 30th in yards and points per drive. Incredible resume for sure. Now I’m starting to see why Buffalo’s best play is an Allen scramble, but of course the lack of accuracy is going to be a problem everyone who plays with Allen is going to have to overcome in the passing game.
Buffalo’s lousy offense wasted an impressive performance by the defense last season. The Bills were 2nd in yards per drive allowed, but 10th in points allowed because of starting with the worst field position for a defense. The special teams were also the worst in the league and didn’t help in that regard. We’ll see if the defense can get more production from the line after the Bills went defense again in the first round with Ed Oliver. That follows LB Tremaine Edmunds and CB Tre’Davious White. Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei didn’t have strong debuts with the team last year. The addition of Oliver is critical after Kyle Williams retired after a 13-year career. White will look to continue building on a stellar first two seasons, but the Bills really aren’t proven at corner after No. 1 on the depth chart.
Allen making a sophomore surge is certainly the best way for Buffalo to get back to winning in 2019, but I still don’t trust him to be anything more than the third-best QB in the AFC East this year. If the defense slips too then I think it’ll be time to move on from Sean McDermott here after three seasons.
4. Miami Dolphins (4-12)
Tank for Tua has a nice ring to it, but does anyone really know what the Dolphins are doing this year? Why trade a second-round pick for Josh Rosen if you’re just going to start Ryan Fitzpatrick over him? By the time they go to invest in a quarterback they’re going to have nothing to go around him outside of more rookies. Maybe that’s not the worst strategy ever, but having a left tackle like Laremy Tunsil or receiver like Kenny Stills wouldn’t have been bad. Of course, Miami traded those players to Houston for a great collection of draft picks. The Dolphins definitely won that trade in my book, but it leaves little to watch this season. Sure, Fitzpatrick could probably gunsling the team into a few more wins than Rosen would, but we know it’s only a matter of time before he implodes.
So maybe the plan is a two-year flop job to land Trevor Lawrence in 2021?
- Miami finishes with the 6-10 season they have down to a science this century
- Flores vows to give Rosen the reigns in 2020
- GM Chris Grier drafts a stud at another important position in April
- Everyone realizes Rosen still sucks when he’s been set up to fail
- Miami lands the No. 1 pick and drafts Lawrence in 2021
- Finding the next Dan Marino is finally solved
Do I actually think Flores and Grier are the visionaries who can pull that off? No, not really. I’m already down on Flores after the “let’s play eight Jay-Z songs in practice to see if Kenny Stills can handle the pressure” experiment. Apparently the Dolphins couldn’t handle that pressure since they traded the outspoken wideout soon after. These Bill Belichick assistants-turned-coaches kill me. Be an asshole like him if you want, but you better have the brains to go with it. They never do. I don’t expect Flores will be any different in that regard.
The highlight of this Miami season will be in Week 2 when Fitzpatrick leads the Dolphins to a home win over the Patriots, strengthening the conspiracy theory that Belichick purposely loses early-season games to former assistants.
Remember, it’s all about the long con with these guys. See you in 2021 for something interesting to happen in Miami.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
There has been a lot of love for the Eagles this offseason, and frankly, I get it. They won the Super Bowl in 2017. They had a lot of injuries last year and still snuck into the playoffs and almost had two road wins before a tipped pick. Now the roster looks pretty stacked, especially in the trenches and at receiver. Imagine putting Alshon Jeffery and second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside on the outside while Nelson Agholor and DeSean Jackson lined up in the slot with Zach Ertz at tight end. That probably won’t even be ideal if second-year tight end Dallas Goedert is expectedly ahead of the curve better than JJAW. Who cares about running backs when you can throw out arguably the best five-receiver sets in the NFL? Even the backfield looks strong for Philly after adding Jordan Howard and second-round pick Miles Sanders. Unless the Eagles set a new standard for injuries this year, Carson Wentz has absolutely no excuse not to have a great season in this offense. Remember, we often see the QB improve in that second year after an ACL injury.
Ah, you knew I would get to Wentz eventually. It’s certainly one of the more perplexing situations in the NFL as those big wins late in the season the last two years came under the guidance of Nick Foles, who the Eagles let go to Jacksonville. Wentz has had injury problems and still hasn’t started a playoff game for Doug Pederson. I’m not going to say the team paid the wrong quarterback, but Wentz gets way too much credit as a finished product instead of a young QB still in development. Let’s not forget the relatively low completion percentage and YPA in 2017 with the touchdown rate boosted by incredible field position. Let’s not pretend he didn’t fumble way too much last year, struggled to score points, and remains one of the worst quarterbacks in clutch situations (now 4-12 at GWD opportunities).
Combine that GWD stat with this one: the Eagles are 0-9 and never scored more than 23 points in any of the games where Wentz threw for his most yards. This is very unusual in NFL history as I showed on Twitter this summer:
When the Eagles rely on Wentz to pull out games late or use his arm for most of the production, they are well below average at winning games than other teams in the NFL. That’s just a fact three years into his career. Maybe he’ll get better and change that, but anymore you can’t write something without people taking it as your future career proclamation. Yet I’m just stating the facts to this day and I can’t help that Eagles fans don’t like it.
So it’s good that Wentz has arguably the strongest roster around him yet. It’s good that the Eagles will get the Patriots and Seahawks at home instead of going on the road to those difficult places. It’s probably not a bad thing that Ezekiel Elliott wants to hold out in Dallas, though scroll down for my full thoughts on that. The Eagles should reclaim this division and have one of the best shots at reaching the Super Bowl, but Wentz will have to show more than he ever has if they’re going to win another ring.
2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
My hope of keeping this section intact before posting was nixed by the Ezekiel Elliott extension (six years, $90M) on Wednesday. As you might expect, I am not in favor of paying him so much and would rather see him traded so Dallas has resources to keep other players in town like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Demarcus Lawrence is going to make a ton and they already have three offensive lineman making eight figures. At some point the roster isn’t going to have any wiggle room to sign someone who isn’t a rookie or making the vet minimum.
Jason Garrett is still the coach, so penciling in Dallas a game around 8-8 seems perfectly reasonable to me. Going back to the Tony Romo days the Cowboys are constantly involved in close games, and they win way more of them than they are given credit for. It happened with Romo’s tenure and it has continued through the first three years of Dak Prescott’s career. In fact, Prescott’s 15 game-winning drives are tied with Russell Wilson for the most in NFL history through a quarterback’s first three seasons.
But Scott, how will Dallas continue to win these close games if Prescott doesn’t have Ezekiel Elliott running the ball?
First, this sounded better when I wrote it during Zeke’s holdout, but let’s keep it anyway. Second, read this thread where I crushed the total myth that Zeke’s rushing drives Prescott’s game-winning drive success. Finally, I think Zeke’s impact on this offense has always been overstated. People act like this offense resembles the 1970s Bills with O.J. Simpson carrying a nonexistent passing game, but that’s just not the case.
This team didn’t have center Travis Frederick for all of 2018. Frederick is back and so is tight end Jason Witten, though the only positive about the latter is that he’s nowhere near the Monday Night Football booth. I think Tony Pollard and Alfred Morris could have gotten the job done adequately enough if Elliott didn’t return, but that looks to be moot now. Randall Cobb isn’t a bad replacement at all for Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup showed some rookie promise for sure. More than anything, I believe in Prescott. I also think the defense is solid even if a couple of players (Randy Gregory and Robert Quinn) in the front seven are suspended again, but that’s become a Dallas tradition.
I only have the Cowboys at 9-7 because I think the Eagles are going to get the best of them this year and that road slate (NO, NE, CHI) has a few potential potholes. I also think the Rams and Packers are more than capable of winning in Dallas. Hell, Aaron Rodgers feels more welcomed in Big D than in his own family home. OK, that was a low blow, but I’ve had a rough year. Let me have this one. GB-DAL games have produced some great memories this decade.
Honestly, my biggest fear with the 2019 Cowboys is that this great run of winning close games the last three years runs into some serious regression this year. Prescott will be the media’s fall guy for that, and the “Zeke carries him” takes will never end. It doesn’t even matter if the losses are because Old Man Witten has a crucial fumble and the kicker shanks a game-winner from 35 yards out, or that the defense ultimately blows a lead (something that didn’t happen once in 2018). They’ll blame the quarterback, because that’s what happens in Dallas if your name isn’t Staubach or Aikman.
3. New York Giants (5-11)
I’m happy to say I didn’t spend the spring piling on rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. I did acknowledge that NFC East fans should get a kick out of arguing over whether Jones (6th to Giants) or Dwayne Haskins (15th to Washington) was the better pick in the draft, and I would have picked Haskins. It’s staggering to think Jones went so high when he averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt at Duke.
Based on the early results, Jones might be serving a ton of crow in the years to come. Then again, Blake Bortles had a fine preseason his rookie year and we know how that turned out. But Jones actually looked quite good in his preseason action when he hit 29-of-34 passes for 416 yards and a couple of scores. That’s 12.2 YPA, which is preposterous even for preseason standards in this league.
But I’m not here to talk myself into Jones as a factor in 2019. Eli Manning needed a replacement and that time will come, maybe sooner than later, but let’s think about this as Eli’s swansong. He doesn’t have Odell Beckham anymore, but Sterling Shepard is serviceable and they still have Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley at the other skill positions. You can do worse than that, but the fear is Eli will just keep checking down a historic number of failed completions to Barkley. I’d love to see some actual creativity this year in getting Barkley involved in more vertical routes since he was billed as being such a great receiver. God knows this offense could use it when they are going to trot Bennie Fowler and Cody Latimer out there at wide receiver. Why is it those guys only get to play with a Manning brother corpse? Both were in Denver in 2015 with Peyton.
It’s true that the Giants really picked up the scoring after the bye week in the second half of 2018. Does this suggest Eli was getting more comfortable in Pat Shurmur’s offense, or was it more schedule related? The offense still laid a 17-0 egg to the Titans in Week 15, but I’ll be curious to see if spreading the ball around more might help Eli any before an inevitable pull for Jones to take over.
Then again, 2019 is another one of those years where the Giants play the Patriots, so if Eli had one last hurrah in him, that would really settle what is going to be an excruciating HOF debate.
4. Washington Redskins (5-11)
I called Washington a darkhorse playoff team last year, and that was looking pretty good after a 6-3 start. Then Alex Smith and Colt McCoy broke their legs and it was another pointless 7-9 season. Enter journeyman Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins, and I’m not sure the team is any closer to relevancy. I certainly don’t see it in 2019 with the Eagles and Cowboys clearly ahead of this team. I’d probably have looked to start Haskins right away, but the mishandling of left tackle Trent Williams’ situation isn’t ideal. Now the Redskins had to bring in Donald Penn for Week 1 and are starting Ereck Flowers at left guard against the Eagles. The wide receiving corps is probably the league’s most anonymous. Yeah, maybe we can hold off on throwing Haskins to the wolves after all. At least we can see what RB Derrius Guice has this season.
Health has been a disaster in Jay Gruden’s tenure to the point where you wonder how much accountability he should take for that. Do they just overwork guys in practice or what? Do they not bring them back after enough rest? Is this why Williams is so hesitant to return? Last year wasn’t as bad, but the most important position suffered freak injuries for Gruden and that tanked the season. Still, that was an ugly brand of football the Redskins were playing and I don’t feel like they’ve ever really developed an identity under Gruden.
The defense has top 10 potential after adding safety Landon Collins to the secondary, which still features Josh Norman. But most of the defense has been drafted by the team instead of acquiring those high-priced free agents. No, it’s the offense that is costing Washington $109M in 2019, the third-highest figure according to Over The Cap. Now some of that is bad luck with the Smith injury, but the Redskins also have the most expensive tight ends even though Jordan Reed is often injured. It’s just stunning that such an expensive offense can be so hard to identify by name recognition or anything really.
Maybe Haskins will eventually give the offense an identity in 2020, but that’s likely to happen with a new coaching staff as well.
1. Houston Texans (10-6)
I absolutely had the Colts winning this division, and then Andrew Luck shocked the world and retired. Then the Texans lost Lamar Miller and traded away Jadeveon Clowney before bringing in Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. The draft stock they gave away is going to hurt too, but let’s keep it on the short-term focus on 2019.
I don’t believe in Bill O’Brien, but I believe in Deshaun Watson. That’s one of the nicest things I can say about this team as I am not confident at all in this pick. But I believe in Watson, who was going to have an all-time great rookie season before he was injured. Last year he wasn’t nearly as prolific, but you still saw some jaw-dropping plays that give you hope. He just needs to get rid of the ball a bit quicker and not take as many sacks. That’s why while I understand the Tunsil addition, I think barring a massive shift in playing style for Watson, he’s still going to take his share of hits. He just can’t take nearly as many as last season or he’ll end up on IR again and this team is royally screwed.
I’m not sure the Texans are better off than they were last weekend. Tunsil should improve the offensive line, and I think they can survive the Miller loss just fine with Duke Johnson (excellent receiver) and Carlos Hyde. Clowney is a considerable loss this close to the season, but he never was the dominant force he was expected to be as the No. 1 pick. At least they still have J.J. Watt, who returned to form last year with 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles. So the pass rush has taken a hit here, but it’s not like trading away Khalil Mack with nothing left a la 2018 Oakland.
As for the Stills addition, I think he’s too similar to Will Fuller (deep threat) to make a huge impact, but since Fuller struggles to stay healthy that might just be good insurance. But obviously DeAndre Hopkins is amazing, they have two deep threats now, and I think Keke Coutee is an interesting slot receiver. Tight end is still a dead spot, but Watson has enough around him to score this year.
The Texans play the Titans twice in the final three weeks. I have the AFC South being decided by those games, and I give Houston the edge in the final game of the season at home. But don’t think I’m at all confident in predictions for this division this year. The Luck retirement blew everything up.
2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Watching the Titans play football isn’t much different than begrudgingly going to church. They both take place early on Sundays. The dryness of a communion wafer is on par with the blandness of the Tennessee passing offense year after year. Both can make 60 minutes feel like forever before you leave unfulfilled, pondering a new hobby for your weekends.
The Titans have really mastered the art of finishing 9-7 without exciting anyone (see 2011 and the last three years). So where do I have them at? 9-7 again. At least coach Mike Vrabel’s rookie season wasn’t a disaster and he had some good wins (PHI/NE/DAL) to start 5-4. He even had a chance to make the playoffs in Game 256, but Andrew Luck once again put the Colts over the Titans.
That’s why the Titans are arguably the biggest beneficiaries of this tumultuous offseason in the AFC South. Luck retired, so move the Colts down and make them a potential sweep for Tennessee. The Jaguars still have plenty of issues. The Texans have lost Lamar Miller and traded away Jadeveon Clowney. Even though I’ve been yawning the whole time I’m writing this team preview, you have to respect the Titans for having some stability and a plan. They’re going to run Derrick Henry, hope Marcus Mariota can deliver on play-action and third downs, and play good enough defense to keep the game close.
Mariota hasn’t lived up to the hype so far, but maybe this could be the year when a monster payday would be right around the corner if he delivers. At least tight end Delanie Walker will be back after missing 15 games in 2018. Taylor Lewan’s suspension is also only four games, and the Titans have a chance to really load up on wins after the bye week. With two of the last three games against Houston, we might just see Tennessee in Game 256 playing for the postseason once again.
3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
Crying over you, crying over you
Yes, now you’re gone and from this moment on
I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying
Yeah, I’m crying, crying, over you
— Roy Orbison, “Crying”
It’s still shocking to think that Andrew Luck retired. I wrote about it here recently, but the whole situation really throws in a wrinkle to the 2019 season. Had Luck been healthy coming into 2019 — that means no cramp issue or anything — I was going to make him my pick for MVP and for the Colts to have a serious shot at a first-round bye. Did I think the Colts would win the Super Bowl this year? Absolutely not. I think the team would still have big issues against the Patriots/Chiefs/Steelers in the playoffs. But I thought a great regular season would have been within reach with a healthy Luck.
Alas, here we are with Jacoby Brissett taking over. I don’t think he’s good, but I think the Colts are in a way better situation coaching and talent wise than they were in 2011 and 2017 when they also had to play without their franchise QB. In 2017, the Colts could have been much better record wise, but the defense was terrible at holding leads and Brissett played poorly in the second half of those games. I don’t think he can replicate the success Luck had last year in moving to a rhythm passing game, but I also think Frank Reich is a coach who will tailor the offense more to Brissett’s skills. Brissett is mobile and he can throw deep. The defense also has the potential to improve with Justin Houston coming from Kansas City to join a cast filled with draft picks from the last three years.
The Colts won’t have to win many shootouts, and the road games that should prove to be very tough (at LAC, KC, PIT, NO) were already games they would have been at a disadvantage in even with Luck. My biggest fear is that the Colts put together a complete team season now that Luck has retired instead of ever doing it while he was active. So while I think this retirement moves the Colts out of the playoffs, I still think there’s enough here to win seven games.
I know, it’s disappointing, but that’s life.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
I wanted to find more wins for the Jaguars, but it proved to be too difficult. I still really like the defense and expect Nick Foles to take advantage of that unit better than Blake Bortles did. The Jaguars lost the most fumbles per drive on offense last year. The problem is Foles might be the best part of this offense now and he’s simply never been that type of quarterback. He needs the system and talent around him to really succeed, or else you see more of the failed completion master he was with the Rams. I’m not big on the receivers, line, tight ends or Fournette as the featured back here.
The other connection people likely have written about is John DeFilippo coming in as the offensive coordinator. He was the quarterback coach in Philadelphia when Foles had that magical run on the way to Super Bowl MVP. However, let’s not think the position coach was the lynchpin in that happening. DeFilippo was supposed to be a hot head coach candidate in 2018. He settled for the Minnesota OC job and was fired during the season, underachieving with Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and company. He has even less to work with here with Foles, so other than familiarity with each other I’m out on this being a huge plus for the offense. But then again, I’m trying to sell myself on this offense putting together long drives with Fournette runs and short completions by Foles to NFL-caliber (but not star) receivers. They’re not going to morph into the 2003 Patriots or anything, but the defense should still be good at each level to give Foles and the offense a fighting chance most weeks.
And hey, two games against the Colts just got a lot easier. I’m still scratching my head in disbelief over the 6-0 win the Jaguars pulled off against Indy last year. The Jaguars finished 5-5 last year when allowing fewer than 21 points. The rest of the NFL won 79 percent of its games when that happened. Look for the Jaguars to improve and possibly even surprise this year, further cementing Foles as having one of the strangest legacies in NFL history.
1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Atlanta topping Pittsburgh was my Super Bowl pick last year, and it only took a couple of weeks for that to blow up in my face.
The Falcons were one of four teams (NYJ, NYG, SF) to blow four fourth-quarter leads last year, a problem for all of Dan Quinn’s tenure. They wasted a year by Matt Ryan that was arguably the best a quarterback has ever had for a team with a losing record (7-9). I can’t deny the offense disappointed during the five-game losing streak, but offense is not the main problem in Atlanta. The team’s general injury luck before 2018 was excellent, so it wasn’t shocking to see injuries pile up right away last year, including defensive starters going down in Week 1 in Philly. It was a rough year for the defense all around, but they will be happy to get Keanu Neal and Deion Jones back. It’s still not going to be a great unit, but look how often just one more stop would have turned losses into wins for the Falcons in recent seasons.
This is one of my shortest write-ups because the Falcons are pretty set in their ways and haven’t made wholesale changes from last year. You just have to hope for fewer blown leads for a change. I’m not going to pick Atlanta for the Super Bowl again, but I trust Ryan and a talented offense to deliver enough wins from a schedule that should ease up down the stretch.
2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
Let’s get this part out of the way: Yes, the Saints should have been in the Super Bowl last year. That was DPI and it was horseshit that they didn’t flag it. That would have taken the clock down near the end and the short field goal likely would have been made to send the Saints to face the Patriots. Do they win that game too? I don’t know, but it sure would have been more entertaining I bet.
Unfortunately, I can see that heartbreaking ending being the final nail in the coffin for the Payton-Brees era, at least as far as the championship window is concerned. Yes, Brees returns at 40, but he without a doubt slowed down last season and you should always be worried about that with a quarterback of his age. It was almost a 2014 Peyton Manning type of change. Brees was having one of the best seasons of his career, then he had a four-week period where throwing for 200 yards proved to be a real struggle. He used to walk into the building with 200 yards in the bank. The Saints only failed to crack 24 points six times last year, but five of those games came after the shocking loss to Dallas on a Thursday night. Without a tipped pick against the Eagles, this could have possibly been a one-and-done season for New Orleans even before the controversial finish a week later against the Rams.
So when I go with 9-7 for the Saints this year, I do it because I see a tougher division around them, and I built in a lot of caution over Brees’ age. I also think smarter defenses can look at this offense and realize how much of it goes through Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara and they should do more to contain those guys. Thomas was particularly ineffective against the Rams in the playoff game. There’s a reason this team tried to get Dez Bryant on the field last year before he was immediately injured. There’s just not a lot of depth after Thomas. Mark Ingram is also gone from the backfield, though I don’t think Latavius Murray is a bad backup plan. Jared Cook should be an upgrade at tight end if he plays like he did for Oakland last year. But it’s still mostly a Thomas and Kamara offense with Brees throwing a ton of passes short of the sticks and them making it work with precision and YAC.
I wouldn’t fault anyone for still picking the Saints as the class of the NFC, but “Best Team in the NFC” is basically a one-year role. Things change often here unlike in the AFC. The schedule also doesn’t do many favors for the Saints. They’ll go on the road where they’re rarely as potent against the Rams, Seahawks and Bears. They’ll also end the season on the road with the Titans and Panthers. I also want to point out that the Saints were a league-best 7-1 in close games last season, holding seven fourth-quarter leads and not blowing any until the infamous playoff loss. These things tend to regress the next year, and it’s not like we haven’t seen the Saints defense collapse time and time again, or the team finish 7-9 over and over despite superb efforts from the quarterback and offense.
I think the NFL is better when Brees and the Saints are good, but I’m just worried that they won’t be good enough for the playoffs this season.
3. Carolina Panthers (8-8)
If you watched All or Nothing on Amazon, you were reminded that Carolina had a very interesting 2018 season. There was the 63-yard field goal against the Giants and the 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in Philly to build a somewhat misleading 6-2 start. Then they had their doors blown off in Pittsburgh, allowing 52 points, or five fewer f-words than Ron Rivera dropped in the locker room at halftime. That kicked off a seven-game losing streak that saw the team botch a two-point conversion attempt against Detroit, lose a shootout with the Seahawks, throw a pick parade against the horrific Tampa Bay defense, and blow a superb defensive effort against the Saints on a Monday night. Cam Newton shut things down for health reasons the final two games and the Panthers missed the playoffs again.
I’ve seen plenty of people putting Carolina back in the playoffs this year, but I still think Atlanta and New Orleans are stronger in the division, and I don’t see the South getting three playoff teams again. I’m big on Christian McCaffrey and the linebackers. I think the young wideouts should take good steps forward this year. Newton’s play has been up and down since the MVP season, but he’s still more reliable than most quarterbacks in the NFL.
Maybe 8-8 sounds disappointing, but keep in mind it would still be the fourth-best record in the nine years for the Newton-Rivera tenure.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
If you want a real darkhorse for the playoffs in 2019, look no further than Tampa Bay. The Bucs haven’t been to the postseason since 2007. Bruce Arians comes in with a track record of success and should love Jameis Winston’s vertical approach with the weapons they have. Last year, the Bucs quietly had one of the most interesting passing offenses in NFL history. You just didn’t get the full feel of it because Winston split time with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Tampa Bay QBs combined for 5,358 yards, 36 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. That’s a staggering amount of production, but also far too many turnovers.
This is really Winston’s best shot yet to shine, or else the Bucs will want to look at moving on in 2020. He has the receiving talent around him to succeed, though the offensive line and backfield are nothing special. Winston’s best ability is to throw beyond the sticks and make first downs, but he has to cut down on the mistakes that limit his team’s scoring.
They’re going to need the points with this defense that has been awful for years. I actually like the front seven this year, but the secondary still leaves a lot to be desired. Playing in such a strong quarterback division has been a problem for the Bucs, and I see that continuing again this year.
Last year, the Bucs were 0-7 at 4QC and 1-7 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. Arians has the best record of any active coach (27-17-1, .611) in such games. If everything comes together offensively and the defense is stronger, and if the Bucs start winning some close games for a change, then you can see how an unexpected 9-7 season can emerge from all of this. I wouldn’t hold my breath on it, but it shouldn’t take you by surprise if it happens.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Part of me just wants to fill this section with tweets I made about Patrick Mahomes’ incredible first year as a starter. I feel like I can confidently say no quarterback has had a better 19-game start to his career than Mahomes. Even in the five games the Chiefs lost last year, he was stellar. I’ll start with some highlights:
The Chiefs have scored at least 26 points in all 19 of Mahomes’ starts (including playoffs). For an idea of how impressive that is, the longest streaks in NFL history of scoring 26+ points (playoffs included) belong to the 2012-13 Broncos (19 games), 2018 Chiefs (18 games), and the 1983 Redskins (15 games). No other team has a streak longer than 12 games. Keep in mind that the Chiefs’ official streak is at 18 games since Mahomes did not start the playoff loss to the 2017 Titans (Alex Smith did).
So we are witnessing truly historic stuff that really only 1984 Dan Marino compares to. Mahomes looked the part in every way too last year, delivering accurate bullets and playing great under pressure with his mobility and arm making him the ultimate dual threat.
Naturally, you expect regression from the offense this season after one of those all-time great years. There’s a chance Mahomes will never reach those numbers again, but let’s not bother speculating on that with the direction the game is headed and how good he can be. I think Mahomes deserves to be the MVP favorite again this year even though the expectations of matching or exceeding his numbers last year could hurt him when the time comes for that. But he should have another great year in an offense still loaded with talent (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins). We’ll see how the backfield shakes out after just adding LeSean McCoy, but I’m sure Andy Reid will figure something out. The offensive line is still shaky to me, and that was an issue in the postseason when Mahomes was under pressure too often. Still, he pulled off the rare feat of positive DVOA under pressure so he can handle it.
Regardless of how much the offense declines, the defense has to start picking up the slack. They couldn’t stop the Patriots from scoring 43 in the first matchup. They couldn’t hang onto an interception Jared Goff gifted them in the 54-51 classic. They couldn’t stop Philip Rivers on the final drive at home on Thursday night. They were lit up by Russell Wilson’s deep throws in Seattle. Dee Ford lined up offsides at the worst time ever against New England, and the Chiefs failed to ever give Mahomes a chance with the ball in overtime. We need to see more stops from this defense in crunch time.
There’s not a game on the 2019 schedule where I wouldn’t trust Mahomes to be able to outscore the opposition, but the reason I still predicted four losses was the defense. They said goodbye to Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Ford, but at least brought in Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, Bashaud Breeland, and Tyrann Mathieu. Still, I’m not convinced the defense is better on paper, but at least coordinator Bob Sutton is gone. Reid brought in another old friend in Steve Spagnuolo to fill that post, but Spag’s resume is very shaky. He’s best known for the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run, but he’s also coached horrible defenses in three different NFL cities. At the very least, it’s a fresh set of eyes.
The Chiefs couldn’t finish off the Patriots in two attempts last year. They still have played them about as well as any team in recent years, but it’s all about finishing. We’ll see what happens in Week 14 and possibly another playoff matchup this time around. A more balanced team that is still great offensively might just be the key in 2019.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)
First order of business: a holdout by RB Melvin Gordon doesn’t really change my prospects for this team. We saw how other backs were successful last year, and Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are capable of filling in for Gordon. Hunter Henry is also finally healthy at TE, though it wouldn’t be a Chargers season without a big injury before Week 1. Safety Derwin James will miss major time after a stellar rookie season last year.
I am really skeptical of giving this team so many wins again this season. Let’s not forget that 2018 was the first time the Chargers won double-digit games since 2009. Philip Rivers has really only had two great seasons since that time, and both led to the playoffs (2013 and 2018). I still expect him to be fine at age 38, though I thought his numbers were a little inflated last year with a couple long touchdowns on absurd plays where a lineman clearly false started, and they got away with a push-off (OPI) to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. The offensive line also scares me a bit this year. Rivers has avoided injury with the best to ever do it, but all it takes is one snap.
However, for a change the Chargers weren’t massively crippled by injuries and didn’t implode in close games over and over last year. They saved their dumb moment for the playoffs in New England where they seemed completely unprepared for what Bill Belichick would do. The seven defensive back wrinkle was cute and effective against run-heavy Baltimore, but that wasn’t going to work against the diverse Patriots. That game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggests either. Rivers has still never beaten the Patriots with Brady at quarterback.
The Patriots aren’t on the regular season schedule again either, and the Chargers catch a few other breaks like getting the Colts first without Andrew Luck, and they’ll get to host the likes of Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Houston, and Minnesota. I know, it’s basically the worst home-field advantage in the NFL, but it’s better than a true road game. So the schedule is favorable enough that I still have the Chargers winning 10 games, but I’ll still trust the Chiefs and Mahomes more to take the division once again.
3. Denver Broncos (7-9)
The first thing I look for in trying to find a turnaround team: new coach and new quarterback. The only teams that qualify this season are Denver, Arizona and Miami. The Broncos bring the experience here with Vic Fangio (his first head coaching job) and Joe Flacco, but I’d be skeptical of both.
Let’s start with Fangio, the 61-year-old who is so old school he wouldn’t even pass a kidney stone before his preseason debut in August. He comes over from the Bears where he was the defensive coordinator for the last four years. From 2015-17, the Bears were the worst defense in the NFL at getting interceptions (24 total). Last year they had 27 picks in a stellar defensive season led by some big-name talent that wasn’t always there in past years, including the trade for Khalil Mack from Oakland. Fangio is a long-time coordinator and he’s coached about as many top-tier defenses as he has bottom-tier. It often comes down to the talent rather than any revolutionary scheming.
This is why I think Fangio could get some overstated love this season should Denver improve and Chicago regress. Both of those things can be expected to happen on turnover regression alone. Fortunately, the Broncos have plenty of defensive talent, led by Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Derek Wolfe, and Chris Harris. It’s not the defense has fallen off since the Super Bowl 50 win, but it just hasn’t been as great, and it’s been hampered by a bad offense.
I’m not a fan of hiring defensive-minded coaches, especially ones who have never had the top job before. This could start to look like Grumpy Old Men on the sideline. Joining Fangio is an old friend, Ed Donatell, who will be an NFL defensive coordinator for the first time since 2006 (Falcons). He’s 62, which is just the inverse of 26, which is how many yards Donatell’s Green Bay defense had to defend on fourth down in the 2003 playoffs in Philadelphia. He was fired after that failure. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello is the pup of the group at 47 years old. He coached Kyle Shanahan’s quarterbacks the last two years in San Francisco, but has never been an OC in the NFL until now. He’s definitely from the Shanahan coaching tree, so that suits Elway and the Broncos well, or at least in the past it would have. We may not see a great modern approach to this offense this season.
As for Flacco, things have rarely been the same since that month he stopped in Denver and Rahim Moore acted the fool, ruining quarterback contracts for eternity. Flacco’s cap hit is $18.5M this season before going back into the 20’s next year. He has a good chance to hold off second-round rookie Drew Lock, but Flacco has not been a valuable QB in some years. In fact, I’ve done multiple studies for ESPN Insider before to show that he was one of the least valuable in the game relative to how well his running game, defense, and special teams performed. Despite Flacco’s flaws, he was on Baltimore teams that were .500 or better in five of the last six seasons since he peaked with his Super Bowl run in the 2012 season.
So if you think the defense will be elite and Phillip Lindsay will be a productive runner behind an offensive line John Elway has tried to improve, then perhaps Flacco will again be insulated better than most quarterbacks this season. I would have some doubts about Emmanuel Sanders being highly productive at 32 after tearing his Achilles, but he’s still the most reliable target on the team. Courtland Sutton is an interesting No. 2 in his second season though.
For a change, Denver doesn’t open the season with two straight home games. The Broncos beating the Bears at home in Week 2 might be my lock of the year pick, but overall, I don’t see Denver having enough firepower or elite enough defense to get ahead of the Chargers and Chiefs in this division.
4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)
My pick for the worst record in the NFL goes to Oakland. The Raiders already played near that level for Jon Gruden last year where their only convincing win was on Christmas Eve against a Denver team hoping to get Vance Joseph fired as their present. A shaky head-to-head win over Arizona was the only reason Oakland didn’t pick No. 1 overall in 2019.
Obviously I don’t think much of the Antonio Brown trade here. Will he still put up some numbers? Sure, but it can’t be understated how good of a connection he had with Ben Roethlisberger, who wasn’t afraid to get the ball to Brown. That connection suffered for the first time last year, but Brown still led the league with 15 TD catches in 15 games. I don’t think Brown is right in the head these days, and I don’t mean the fit of his helmet. Derek Carr is unreliably aggressive, meaning he will try a back-shoulder pass 20 yards down the field or a go route, but he’ll also dump the ball down in fear of getting hit with the best (read: worst) of them. If Brown couldn’t get along with Ben anymore, just imagine where this relationship with Carr will go. Also, I don’t get why they wouldn’t bring back TE Jared Cook and why bother with a first-round RB when you have so many holes?
I actually think Carr will have the second-best season of his career this year, but it won’t be enough to mean anything. Defensively, this unit was predictably pathetic without Khalil Mack at getting pressure last year. It’s hard to go anywhere but up in 2019, but there’s little to get excited about here.
On the way to 3-13, I gave Oakland an 0-8 road record and a 1-5 division record. The Chargers are better period, and with the Kansas City offense and Denver defense, I see rough times for Oakland in the AFC West. Even if they double their wins from my prediction to finish 6-10, it’s still yet another failed season for a team that’s almost exclusively dealt in them since Gruden saw his Buccaneers beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)
Losing the Super Bowl isn’t a curse. It’s a disappointing end to an exciting season, which is exactly what the Rams had last year. They won a lot of high-scoring games, including the 54-51 classic against the Chiefs. Say what you want about Jared Goff, but with him at quarterback the Rams were able to outscore the Chargers, Vikings (arguably the best passing performance any QB had in 2018), Packers, Seahawks (twice), Chiefs and Saints last year. That’s why the 13-3 dud of a Super Bowl was such a massive letdown. Even Sean McVay knew immediately how badly he botched that one, his first big test against Belichick’s Patriots.
As far as the NFC goes, the Rams still look as talented as any team out there. They have McVay and Wade Phillips on the coaching staff. They have the best defender in the league in Aaron Donald. They added Eric Weddle to a secondary that still has Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. We’ll get to Goff soon, and we know Todd Gurley can be big in this offense, but it still doesn’t skip a beat without him either. The Rams might have the best wide receiver trio in the league with Cooper Kupp back healthy. That was one of the most significant injuries last year as he can help open this offense up.
The Rams mostly lost out on the No. 1 seed last year because they lost in New Orleans midway through the season. This year they get the Saints at home in Week 2. We know the Saints just aren’t as potent on the road, so there’s an advantage. The Rams’ toughest road game may prove to be at Pittsburgh, but that’s after a bye week. The Rams have beaten Seattle three straight times, so the division power has definitely swung there.
As for Goff, I’m writing this section hours after his big extension news came through. It’s hard to believe one of the worst rookie quarterbacks ever is inking a deal worth $110M guaranteed just a couple years later. His rookie year is now irrelevant of course, and I’m probably a bigger Goff fan than most out there. Still, it’s a bit crazy to think how quickly things have changed here, but he was the No. 1 overall pick for good reasons. Even if he lacks the flash of some of the other young quarterbacks in the league, Goff is effective at running the play-action heavy offense McVay wants him to run. When Goff throws for 300 yards, the Rams are 11-2 and average 36.2 points per game. That’s up there with anyone you can name. If he could have just delivered a better throw to Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl, he might have a ring already.
Speaking of that dreadful Super Bowl, I never wrote any of my thoughts about it. I thought about saying something in March before free agency as I thought maybe it would have been ideal if the Rams traded for Rob Gronkowski (before he retired of course). When I look at that game, I see ineffective offense by both teams, but the Patriots still moved the ball well as long as Gronk and Julian Edelman were involved in the passing game. Brady was terrible when targeting anyone else, but those two receivers, who primarily work the slot and middle of the field, were able to eat up every coverage and defender the Rams threw at them. Edelman of course won MVP, but Gronk made the big catch down the seam that set up the game-winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, McVay did nothing easy on early downs for Goff, like the RB passes or screens they usually do. Goff was stuck in a lot of third-and-long situations and failed to deliver. On several of the biggest plays of the game, he tried to hit Cooks deep, but Stephon Gilmore had a great game, including that monster interception late. To me, that proved to be the difference in the game. The Patriots had their studs make plays look easy, while Goff was stuck trying to hit vertical passes to outside receivers matched up with strong corners. It’s not like Brady was going to attack Aqib Talib deep down the field when Edelman was getting open quickly everywhere. That’s why I think the lack of a great tight end — the position accounted for one target and zero catches in the SB — is the only thing the Rams are missing offensively, and why the return of Kupp in the slot should be a huge help to Goff and McVay. Josh Reynolds just wasn’t as good.
Not that I expect a SB rematch, but if you remove Gronk and add Kupp, that definitely tilts things in favor of the Rams. Of course, the Patriots do a much better job of getting back to Super Bowls while we just don’t see it as much in the NFC. The last team to repeat was Seattle in 2013-14. In fact, the 2013-14 Seahawks are the last team to repeat in NFC Championship Game appearances.
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
It’s going to be weird to see the Seahawks without Doug Baldwin or Earl Thomas. Then again, it was weird to see them without Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor last year and they still made the playoffs at 10-6. But this continued loss of talent — the old core is essentially down to Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright — is one of the reasons why it’s hard to keep Seattle among the NFL’s eltie. The other problem is the rise of Sean McVay’s Rams, the team with three straight wins over the Seahawks and the last two NFC West crowns.
So you’re almost starting with the idea that Seattle will have to go on the road as a Wild Card to get to another Super Bowl, which is bad news for a team with one of the league’s best home-field advantages. The Seahawks forgot Wilson was their quarterback in last year’s playoff loss in Dallas. It would have been nice if they forgot that at the end of Super Bowl XLIX — I will never let this go — but the team has not returned to the NFC Championship Game since that 2014 season.
Much like with Baltimore in the AFC, I sat down for this process with the idea that Seattle would regress to 8-9 wins and miss the playoffs. But I believe in Wilson so much that I had them finishing 10-6, and that was even before the weekend when they acquired Jadeveon Clowney in a trade from Houston. I think Clowney and Ziggy Ansah haven’t fully lived up to their top 5 draft status in this league, but it’s not a bad duo to have as your edge rushers. The linebackers remain great, but the secondary still looks like a development project after the Legion of Boom went to ashes.
For as much as the coaching staff frightens you with their insistence on running the ball, you still have to think of Pete Carroll as one of the best in this coach-deficient era of NFL history.
I’m curious to see what Wilson gets out of rookie receiver DK Metcalf, and how Tyler Lockett adapts to being a No. 1 WR after an extremely efficient 2018 season. I still expect the Rams to maintain their superiority in the division, but look for a so-so Seattle team to finish strong and win their last three games to set up another postseason.
3. San Francisco 49ers (5-11)
The 49ers were one of my five biggest misses last year. I bought into the Jimmy Garoppolo hype and had them finishing 9-7 (actual: 4-12). Was I a year too early? Are we not on the brink of this Kyle Shanahan experiment closing up shop if they can’t get their rich QB playing well and win more than six games? This is Shanahan’s third year and the team moved backwards in 2018. I’ve mentioned several times in game recaps how officiating has gone against Shanahan in close games, and injuries weren’t kind either last year. So maybe there’s some reason for hope there if Garoppolo can look more like the QB he was late in 2017, but I’m not really in love with anything on the offense besides George Kittle. And even he may take a step back last year if those big YAC plays don’t come to fruition again, but he’s one of the best tight ends to watch now.
The defense has continued to pour resources into the line without much to show for. Nick Bosa is already hurt to start his career. Dee Ford, worst-timed offsides ever aside, is a good, proven addition from Kansas City, but he really has to pick up a lot of slack in the rest of this front seven. Richard Sherman isn’t what he used to be and injuries have always prevented Jason Verrett from becoming what he could be.
If this team can survive September (at TB, at CIN, PIT) then I think it’ll be an interesting season, but the schedule just gets tougher after that and it’s always a hard spot to be in when you’re no more than the third-best team in your own division.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)
More great quarterbacks are always good for the NFL, but I also want to see No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray succeed just to further diminish height as a prerequisite for the position. Murray had one of the most ridiculous seasons in NCCA history last year: 11.6 yards per pass attempt, 42 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and he rushed for 1,001 yards (sacks included) and a dozen more scores. But this is the NFL and his preseason was lousy: 5.4 YPA, no touchdowns or picks. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his regular season, but if you’re going to predict he has a Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott type of impact on this team as a rookie, note that they had strong, productive preseasons as rookies. Some have suggested rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury purposely held things back from his offense in the preseason, but that’s a bit of a tough sell to me. There’s a pretty good chance this thing could be a disaster for 2019.
In fact, I’d say it’s about 85 percent disaster, 15 percent success in Year 1 for Murray/Kingsbury. They’ll want to account for his height and mobility and move the pocket, though I’m not crazy about the offensive line they’ve mashed together. Larry Fitzgerald is 36 now, and it’s hard to get excited in 2019 about Michael Crabtree, Maxxxxxx Williams or Charles Clay. I think the strength of the defense should be the veterans up front (Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones), but star corner Patrick Peterson is suspended for six games.
I say bring on the Air Raid to the NFL, but let’s not forget that Arizona peaked in 2015 and has only seen the roster decline since. This is a work in progress.
- Kansas City (12-4)
- New England (11-5)
- Pittsburgh (11-5)
- Houston (10-6)
- Cleveland (10-6)
- Los Angeles (10-6)
I like sweeps this year. This Sunday night’s game in New England ultimately gives the Patriots another first-round bye over the Steelers, which sets up another rematch there after the Steelers take care of the Chargers. The Steelers fall in New England again. Meanwhile, the Browns finally get a playoff win in Houston before losing in a shootout with the Chiefs at Arrowhead. In a direct rematch from last year’s title game, the Chiefs don’t get shutout in the first half this time and finally get over the hump by smashing the Patriots at home to reach the team’s first Super Bowl since the 1970 merger.
- Los Angeles (12-4)
- Philadelphia (11-5)
- Green Bay (10-6)
- Atlanta (10-6)
- Seattle (10-6)
- Minnesota (10-6)
I know it’s far too neat to have all 12 playoff teams with 10+ wins, and I’m probably setting myself up for failure with 19 teams winning at least eight games. Alas, I have the Rams and Eagles taking the first-round byes to also set up a 1 vs. 2 matchup again. I think the Packers will beat the Vikings at home while the Falcons nip Seattle in Atlanta again. McVay starts his playoff revenge tour by beating the Falcons, the team that took them out in his rookie year. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz finally starts his first playoff game and he outplays Aaron Rodgers for a win. But as Wentz returns to the site of his torn ACL from 2017, Aaron Donald and the Rams shut the Eagles down in a crucial game for the McVay vs. Pederson debate. McVay gets to Super Bowl No. 2 first.
SUPER BOWL LIV
LA Rams 38, Kansas City 34
It’s not quite 54-51, but this rematch from last year is another classic shootout. The Rams put the ball in Goff’s hands after a couple of so-so games in the NFC playoffs and he delivers on the big stage in an MVP-winning performance. Mahomes sets some kind of record for excellence in a Super Bowl loss.
TL;DR version: Second time’s a charm for McVay as we get the Super Bowl we deserved a year later.