It’s hard to believe, but the NFL is almost here. Thursday Night Football returns this week with the opening match of the season as the Houston Texans face the World Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

With everything going on in America, this is going to be a very different season to what we are used to, as we have already seen a preseason heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with no games played. One tradition that has remained, however, is my annual post where I make a complete fool of myself by trying to predict the winners of each Division. This year, I have also gone a little further by also throwing in my predictions for the Wildcard spots, of which there are 3 per conference as of this season with the playoffs expanding from 12 to 14 teams.

Now, obviously there is a risk this year that the pandemic could completely ruin a team’s season by having a key player or a number of players get infected. But just like a season-ending injury, this is something that you can’t plan for, so these picks are all under the assumption that the league season plays out with no significant disruption.

And with that giant caveat out of the way, let’s see the predictions:

AFC

AFC East

It’s been a long time since the AFC East prediction wasn’t a simple tick in the box next to the Patriots, but things are different this season, with Tom Brady now plying his trade elsewhere and a number of key players opting out of the season due to health fears. Of course the Pats have shown their ability to make serviceable QBs look great – Matt Cassel, Jacoby Brissett – so it will be interesting to see if Cam Newton can revitalise his career in Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Cam Newton, the receiver corps is not what it once was, with Julian Edelman the only player of note, and I can’t help feel that this maybe the first time since 2008 that the playoffs do not involve Bill Belichick’s team.

The one big thing in New England’s favour when going for a Wildcard spot is that 4 of their 16 matches will be against the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, neither of whom have shown anything to suggest that they will be a danger this year. However, my clear favourite for the AFC East title is the Buffalo Bills. Last year’s Wildcard team has added star receiver Stefon Diggs, who will be a great weapon for Josh Allen, who should only be getting better in his 3ʳᵈ season.

AFC North

The Joe Burrow era is kicking off in Cincinnati, but (A. J. Green aside) does he have the support around him to immediately turn this team around, especially given his first taste of NFL football will come in Week 1 rather than preseason?

Pittsburgh will be hoping that James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster step up and that Ben Roethlisberger can stay fit all season, which he’s only done 4 times in his 15 seasons where he was a starter on Day 1 of the regular season.

The Browns will hopefully be better now that Freddie Kitchens is gone, but Baker Mayfield needs to prove that last season was a sophomore slump and not the start of a downward trend. He certainly has the weapons around him, assuming they all decide to put in the effort.

While I’m still not sold on Lamar Jackson as a long-term elite QB, he is an incredible athlete and the Ravens’ roster seems relatively settled and together following the dismissal of Earl Thomas, so I have them coming out top.

AFC South

The Jacksonville Jaguars are all aboard the Minshew train. Next stop: the #1 Draft pick.

The Colts looked good last year and a better QB could have been huge for them, but is 38-year-old Philip Rivers really the answer? He will certainly benefit from his home games being inside a dome, but he will face tough opposition from within the division.

To me, this will be a fight between the Texans and Titans for the top spot. The Titans will be hoping that “King” Derrick Henry can have another stellar season, but can probably pick up some slack in the passing game with A. J. Brown, Adam Humphries, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith giving some great receiving options. On defense, they may have lost Logan Ryan and Jurrell Casey, but have brought in quality replacements in Jonathan Joseph and Jadeveon Clowney. In conrast, the Texans may have lost DeAndre Hopkins, but their WR corps still looks stacked, with Randall Cobb, Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, while David Johnson will be a great pick-up if he can get back to his best.

I may be picking with heart more than head here, but right now I give the Titans the slightest of advantages.

AFC West

Let’s be honest, there’s only one team to trust here and that’s the defending champions. Having signed Pat Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid to long-term contracts, the Chiefs look set to become the next NFL dynasty and would be my early pick for back-to-back Super Bowl victories. But can anyone cause an upset here?

Denver look the best of a bad bunch in the league – good enough to beat the worst teams but not strong enough to challenge against playoff hopefuls. Will a fight for the starting QB spot bring out the best in Marcus Mariota or David Carr? With the lack of offensive weapons (Josh Jacobs aside), it probably won’t make much difference. The Chargers are probably in the best position to challenge, but that may be asking too much of Tyrod Taylor, while Justin Herbert will benefit from a season holding a clipboard rather than being thrown to the wolves.

Divisional Champions: Bills, Ravens, Titans, Chiefs

Wildcards: Texans, Steelers, Patriots

NFC

NFC East

While it is incredible to see Alex Smith making the Washington Football Team’s 53-man roster, if he plays a snap then something has gone seriously wrong with Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen. This is a team in the middle of a historic change of name, and it feels like the team is also in the middle of a rebuild under Ron Rivera. I can see this team pulling off some upsets, but not being consistent enough to earn a winning record.

The New York Giants will find out this year if Daniel Jones is the man under centre, but with Nate Solder missing, will he have the protection he needs? He certainly has some decent targets to aim for and a stud running back in Saquon Barkley, who can carry a load but may be forced to carry the hopes of a city.

Expect this to come down to a fight between the Eagles and the Cowboys. Both have franchise QBs in place, but if Wentz goes down injured, that’s Philly’s season over, whereas the Cowboys have a safety net of Andy Dalton as backup to Dak Prescott, and also the ability to turn to the running game of Ezekiel Elliott. Furthermore the additions of Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith make the Cowboys defense look dangerous even with Sean Lee on IR. Advantage: Dallas.

NFC North

The Bears have named Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Nick Foles, which says everything you need to know about their season… It won’t matter if the defense shuts down every team or how good Allen Robinson and Jimmy Graham are, they aren’t winning more than a handful of games with those QBs.

The Lions need to hope that Matt Stafford is back to his best after his injury issues last season. Theoretically, they have decent weapons on offense, but enough to challenge for the title? I don’t think so.

The Packers are far from the team they used to be with many of the big name receivers long gone, but Davante Adams is still there and with Aaron Rodgers under center, you never rule them out of games.

While you may not rule them out, the smarter bet is still a more consistent team and that would be the Vikings. Kirk Cousins may be a moron when it comes to COVID-19 and he may not be the man to win them the Super Bowl, but he is good enough to utilise receivers like Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, while the defense can also contribute with players like Harrison Smith.

NFC South

It’s a fresh new start for the Panthers and it’s great to see Teddy Bridgewater starting somewhere again, but he has limited experience in recent years so can still be considered a risk. If teams can limit the touches by Christian McCaffrey, Carolina are in trouble. The Falcons have some quality receivers in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to help Matt Ryan, but they need Todd Gurley to shine in order to keep the offense balanced. A winning record for either team probably constitutes a good season.

The Saints have elite players in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, while Taysom Hill remains one of those great offensive weapons. They also have a future Hall of Fame QB in Drew Brees who will utilise these weapons to the fullest, but there is a worry after last season that he may be on the decline. Luckily if that happens, they can put in Jameis Winston and replace the receiving corps with the Saints secondary, as he’s an expert at throwing passes to them.

Tampa Bay is truly the most fascinating team to watch going into this season. The Bucs finished 7-9 last season despite Jameis Winston throwing 30 interceptions. Now they have the GOAT Tom Brady under center and have brought in some other pieces to help him, including his fellow former Patriot Rob Gronkowski. Brady struggled last season with limited weapons, but now has a legit superstar to throw to in Mike Evans, and while Gronk surely won’t be the player he used to be, he could make a great partnership in a “12” package with O. J. Howard. If the Bucs can overcome the issues gelling as a team that the pandemic-hit preseason will have caused, they have a legit chance to challenge the Saints, but I will pick the safer option in New Orleans.

NFC West

This season of Hard Knocks hasn’t left me finding the Rams very likeable , or given me any reason to think that they will have much success this year, despite having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense. The Cardinals need to ensure Kyler Murray doesn’t go through a sophomore slump, but witht he ever-reliable Larry Fitzgerald and superstar WR DeAndre Hopkins on the roster, he has some great weapons to throw to.

The Seahawks can never be ruled out with the talent they have on their roster, provided they can keep Russell Wilson healthy. What will be interesting though is the absence of fans at their early home games, as the “12ᵗʰ man” really goes a long way towards the team’s success at home.

Right now, I have to give the advantage to the San Francisco 49ers. The cliché is that defense wins championships and the Niners have a fantastic defense. This is where Jimmy Garoppolo needs to prove himself as a top tier QB, and having an elite TE like George Kittle will certainly help that, while they have an impressive stable of running backs to set the platform and keep the rushers fresh.

Divisional Champions: Cowboys, Vikings, Saints, 49ers

Wildcards: Seahawks, Buccaneers, Packers


So those are my picks. Let me know what you think of them and who you would pick!

Before I go, I want to invite you all to join my Superbru league for the NFL. For those who have never heard of Superbru, it’s an online prediction game where you attempt to predict the winners and winning margins for each round of matches and get awarded points for how close you were. There is no cost to enter, it’s just for fun and open to everyone. You can join by clicking on this link or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with the code: ludojump

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