Football is back! It feels like forever since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick won yet another Super Bowl and while we have had the Draft, Hard Knocks and preseason to keep up going for a bit, this is where the fun really begins.
Last year, 3 friends and I decided to challenge ourselves to predict the 8 Divisional winners in the 2018 NFL season and the teams that would compete in Super Bowl LIII. This year, Ed (the Baker Mayfield-obsessed Patriots fan) and I are returning to see if we can do any better. However, this time we will be looking at just the Divisions – we were gonna pick the Super Bowl too, but neither of us could narrow down the field enough in the AFC!
Pittsburgh missed out on the playoffs last season as Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire season. With both him and star receiver Antonio Brown gone (putting more attention on JuJu Smith-Schuster), it’s going to take a lot for them to be at the top. Baltimore finished the regular season well with Lamar Jackson under centre, but did not look comfortable as they lost to the Chargers in the Wild Card Round and do not have great options behind him in RGIII and rookie Trace McSorley. As for the Bengals, it is hard to imagine them even reaching 8-8, especially with star receiver A.J. Green injured. Though they have been a joke for so long, I can actually envision the Cleveland Browns topping the division as the WR pairing of OBJ and Jarvis Landry and the RB pairing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (once he returns from suspension) will give Baker Mayfield every chance of avoiding a sophomore slump, while they also have a high level defence to keep games close.
Ed’s pick – Cleveland Browns
America’s new favourite team, the young and talented Cleveland Browns look to provide us with a lot of excitement this year. Mayfield has shown his class, and with receiving options Landry/OBJ with breakout Nick Chubb and soon to be Kareem Hunt, this side can go places with the strong Defence they already boast. That being said this is the Browns, and the wary Ohio fanbase may not be riding the hype the rest of the country (and I) am. Pittsburgh almost look a different side this year with 2 of the big 3 departing in unceremonious style, however with emerging talent in Juju and Conner that loss won’t be as big as it sounds. This side knows what it takes to win and will push the relatively inexperienced Browns right to the finish line. We shouldn’t count out the Ravens who will continue to be competitive fronting a fresher, younger side than we have seen in previous seasons. The success or failure will be defined by how Lamar Jackson can handle the starting position with no room for excuses following Flacco’s exile. Unfortunately I can’t see the Bengals keeping up with the other three in what is one of the NFLs increasingly numerous competitive divisions, one feels that until they finally part ways with Dalton they are never going to be above average.
The Jets were one of the worst teams in the league last season and while the RB corps (now featuring Le’Veon Bell) may take some pressure off Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson, it is hard to imagine them reaching .500, likewise for the Miami Dolphins who have traded half their stars away and are looking at Fitzmagic to lead the team and likely make way for Arizona reject Josh Rosen once his performances go downhill. The Bills roster screams mediocrity and I think that a winning season will be a success for them. All this goes to suggest that it will be another easy season for the Patriots, despite Gronk no longer being on the roster. Let’s be honest, while Brady and Belichick are there, it is brave – if not stupid – to bet against them!
Ed’s pick – New England Patriots
Unfortunately a year on this is still the weakest division in the NFL, it will be interesting to see how the QB class of ’18 all progress this year, facing the ageless Brady. The Jets have made some solid improvements bringing in a stud RB in Bell who will be fresh following his infamous holdout last year and Sam Darnold seems the pick of the QBs and the type who could really blossom in his 2nd year. The Bills meanwhile have spent the offseason crowding Josh Allen with experienced wideouts and backs, and have a fairly reasonable schedule to begin the season. That being said I cannot see a universe where either of these sides even challenge the Brady/Belichick Pats who although without Gronk will have no problem winning here. Small shout out goes to the Miami Dolphins who are actually still an NFL franchise and my favourite for Pick no. 1 next April.
The Jaguars have finally moved on from Blake Bortles at QB and now need to hope that Nick Foles can replicate his Eagles form rather than his Rams form. I had the Colts winning the division when I initially wrote this, but following Andrew Luck’s retirement, I see them struggling. Tennessee have a good roster but need to hope Marcus Mariota can stay fit (though Ryan Tannehill is a good backup) and need to hope Derrick Henry produces throughout the season rather than just towards the end; Taylor Lewan’s suspension is not gonna help this at all. The Texans may have lost Lamar Miller to injury but Duke Johnson is a great pickup from the Browns and I think they have enough stars on either side of the ball to take the top spot in the AFC South.
Ed’s Pick – Houston Texans
The AFC South has been turned on it’s head with Andrew Luck announcing his retirement – a sad day for the sport that has made the division very level indeed. Indy have dropped from my no.1 seed here down to a lowly 3rd place as a result. It just looked like this was their year with a roster that looked like it had no holes… but now has a gaping one in the most important position in sport. This does however open the door to the challengers. The Texans seem the most likely to take advantage. They underwhelmed last year when you look at the strength they posess on their roster with annual MVP candidates Watt, Hopkins and Watson. It never came together truly came together last season but if Watson can be protected these guys can fly. I will admit I have no idea what the Jaguars will throw up, their Defense is filled with confidence but if that overflows things can go wrong, and whilst they moved on from Bortles’ inconsistent and short arm I’m not easily convinced Foles is the guy who will bring the party… but we’ve heard that before… Unlike the previous divisions I don’t see the Titans being a bad side like with the Fins or Bungles, but here is another division that will be tough to shine in. Mariota’s health continues to concern me and entering a contract year has a lot to prove not only me but his own front office. Is this year going to be Corey Davis’ year, backed up by Humphries and rookie AJ Brown the Titans may finally have something to shout about at the position.
The Antonio Brown show is more likely to derail the Raiders’ season than save it. With Mike Mayock brought in as GM, this looks to be a franchise building towards the future, but Hard Knocks has not shown me anything to make me confident in their success this year. Emmanuel Sanders and Von Miller look wasted in a franchise that looks like it may be starting Joe Flacco at QB. I expect this season to be another fight between the Chiefs and Chargers for the top spot with the other likely to earn a Wild Card spot, however with Hunt no longer in Kansas City and defences now having a season of footage on Patrick Mahomes, I give the advantage to the Chargers, as long as Melvin Gordon ends his holdout soon and then stays fit.
Ed’s Pick – L.A. Chargers
I don’t know why I have a slight obsession with the Chargers, but I am sticking with these guys as my pick for the AFC West once more. They boast an impressive depth chart in almost every position, with and without the ball and showed that when they play, they can beat anyone. The question is can Rivers be consistently good, because I believe Mahomes will continue to be. With Hill looking like he won’t miss any time (a decision I cannot understand) there will be TDs flowing at Arrowhead once more, but with the 31st ranked Defense in 2018 Mahomes will have to be slinging at MVP pace just to keep the points difference positive and this could ultimately cost them another Superbowl chance.
Whilst he boosts any roster AB continues to be AB and if he manages to start the season it’s only a matter of time before he misses games for one reason or another. Without him the side looks starved of high level talent and Hard Knocks isn’t doing anything to prove me these guys will mount any sort of challenge. Similarly Denver have lost their reputation of being one of the toughest outfits to play and now seem welcome relief after big games. Can gritty defensive coach Vic Fangio bring back the No Fly Zone of old – with a pass rushing duo of Miller and Chubb it’s possible, but it’ll have to work hard if Flacco can’t find a good start, I wonder whether we will be seeing Drew Lock sooner rather than later…
Detroit finished bottom of their division in 2018 and such is the strength of the NFC North, I can’t see them doing much better this year. Aaron Rodgers will keep any team competitive but this is not the strongest of Packers rosters by any stretch and it will be interesting to see how Matt LaFleur does in his first head coach role. The Chicago defense is incredible, but there are still questions over Mitchell Trubisky, whereas I think that the Vikings will do better this year with a season now that Kirk Cousins has had a year to get used to playing in Minneapolis. It will be close, but I give the Vikings a slight edge over the Bears.
Ed’s pick – Green Bay Packers
The first game of the 100th season of the NFL could prove to be the decider in the NFC North, which looks to be a close scrap between the Packers and Bears. Matt Nagy’s second year defensive juggernaut has drafted wisely and rookie RB David Montgomery is making a name for himself in the preseason. They’ll likely go head to head with the new duo of LaFleur and A-Rod who whilst fit is a proven winner assuming his Defense can limit points against. I wasn’t far from adding the Vikings to a three way battle, they have strength in every position and the return of Dalvin Cook is huge – but can Kirk Cousins be the player he was paid to be… I have never really believed the hype and I think he is more of an anchor preventing progress than he is given credit for. Detroit can be safely removed from the others and look to be comfortably propping up the division. Patricia needs to put his stamp on this team, and get the ball moving but that 10,000 day playoff drought doesn’t look like its ending this season…
Alex Smith’s injury is a huge hit to the Redskins, so their hopes rely on Case Keenum… gulp! Daniel Jones was a shock selection 6th overall in the draft so the battle between him and Eli Manning seems underwhelming and not something Giants fans will be looking forward to. Philadelphia has a strong roster but needs to hope Carson Wentz can get to his pre-injury form, whereas the Cowboys can overcome the lack of an elite QB (though he is still above average) with one of the best RBs in the league, a receiving corps that was boosted by the addition of Amari Cooper and a strong defense.
Ed’s pick – Philadelphia Eagles
The NFC East starts the season with big question marks over each team, will the Zeke holdout continue in a fashion similar to Bell’s last year? Can Carson Wentz stay healthy now postseason extraordinaire Big D*** Nick has moved on? Who will start under centre for the Redskins and the Giants?
Assuming all goes to plan the Cowboys look to be one of the best sides they have had in a long time with genuine playoff credentials, if they can keep last seasons momentum rolling they would be a franchise no one should take lightly. Philly also look a very strong beast with very few holes who will be going head to head with the Boys, a lot rides on Wentz and whether he can win over the locker room and fans to take the Eagles into January where their fans believe they belong.
I can’t say the same for the other two sides, losing OBJ, Vernon and Collins won’t help the already lacklustre chances for Big Blue who continue to maintain Eli will take the reigns to start the season. It might not be long before we see shock 6th overall pick Daniel Jones on the hot seat and whether the gamble paid off… We have another rookie QB in Washington in Dwayne Haskins who will be competing with Keenum for the starters spot following an up and down pre season. But in an aging team devoid of playing and coaching talent it’s hard to see those empty seats being filled anytime soon.
I can’t imagine Buccaneers WR Mike Evans is too thrilled that he will be catching passes from Blaine Gabbert, Jameis Winston or Ryan Griffin… he deserves better! Carolina need to find some wideouts to complement RB Christian McCaffrey and the ageing Greg Olsen… and hope that Cam focuses more on the football than his outfits. The Falcons have some great players on offense but need to improve defensively if tey are to live up to their full potential. If the Saints can replicate last season’s form, they should be able to push for a #1 or #2 seed.
Ed’s pick – New Orleans Saints
This division has sent a team to the NFC Championship game for 3 of the last 4 years, and is rightly regarded as arguably the most competitive in football. The Bucs have stagnated in recent years and have moved on from Doug Marone to Bruce Arians in an attempt to stop the rot, can he bring the best out of Jameis Winston and turn the ship around? It will undoubtedly be hard within the division but there are some favourable fixtures outside of it. The other three sides all remain with huge playoff plus potential, New Orleans have a Super Bowl ready team with superstars on offence (Thomas & Kamara), an experienced elite QB in Brees and a better defence than they are credited for. It looks to me like they will just pip the Falcons, devastated by injuries last year they bring a whole new crew of co-ordinators to a talent filled roster who barring a shock should perform to a wildcard round level. I’ve only heard promising reports about Cam Newton this offseason and if he can be the “stud” he really should be with his build and his arm, with McCaffrey fulfilling his potential at his side we could see even more competition in this division. Unfortunately Superbowl Cam haunts me and his injury record and dress sense could quickly turn him into the flop potential he certainly possesses.
With a 3-13 record, the Cardinals were the worst team in the league last season and Kyler Murray will need to grow quickly into his role as an NFL starting QB, so will need plenty of help from David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. San Francisco’s 2018 season was ruined by injuries to Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo; if they can keep their roster fit then an 8-8 finish is possible. The Rams will surely be pushing for the playoffs again, but there are questions over Todd Gurley’s health and I think that they will find things harder now teams have a season of game footage – just look at how the Patriots nullified them in the Super Bowl! My Divisional Champions are the Seahawks, who always find a way to remain not just competitive but extremely strong in the division and recently added yet another defensive star in the form of Jadeveon Clowney.
My pick – Los Angeles Rams
The InstaRams and their fans will be fuming on social media after losing in the Superbowl last year, but with McVay’s brain filling the void in Goff’s head these guys aren’t going anywhere and remain odds on favourites to win the division. No one knows what is going on with Todd Gurley but with or without him we will see an exciting, high scoring side once again. The other three in this division for me are very much of an unknown entity, with each going through individual identity crises. The 49ers (Jimmy G’s) huge preseason hype was ended far too early last year for us to know just what we will get from him and he remains the key in answering this question, Shanahan and co. will be hoping Joey’s brother Nick at pick 2 will be a difference maker on the other side of the ball. The Seahawks’ unknowns lie all over the field, will we see running back by committee or a favourite emerge from the pack, can Lockett and rookie DK Metcalfe provide Wilson with enough power, and with only one member of the Legion of Boom returning in Bobby Wagner, albeit surrounded by a plethora of talented young players how will the once feared Defense fare? Similarly the Cardinals, last years laughing stock now have a fully fit David Johnson and #1 pick Kyler Murray back with old pal Kliff Kingsbury, have had an up and down preseason and who knows what we will see from this outfit. I suspect the Hawks have enough talent to push in this division, but I’m not so sure about the others…
Not gonna lie, I think Ed has put me to shame with the thought he has put into this – I’m going to blame a little something called the Rugby World Cup being on the horizon!
Who do you think will win the divisions?