NFL 2018 predictions: our writers call the winners, losers and also-rans

Will the Eagles repeat? Will Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck return to restore their teams’ fortunes? And who will go down in flames?

Best team that won't make the playoffs

The part I feel confident in saying is that it will come from the NFC. Teams from that conference won 41 out of 64 games against AFC opponents in 2017 and trades like the one that sent Khalil Mack from Oakland to Chicago are hardly redressing the balance. There’s a lot of hype around the Giants after they upgraded the line and added Saquon Barkley, but I’m not convinced they can bridge the gap in a year when the schedule looks grim. PB

Green Bay Packers. The thing about the Packers is that we don't know how healthy Aaron Rodgers will be. If he's playing like the Rodgers of old, they're absolutely making the playoffs. If he struggles, the Packers probably end up having a losing record. Let's split the difference here and say that Rodgers will be good, but not dominant, and Green Bay just miss the postseason. HF

Jacksonville. Jason Mendoza’s favorite team had the league’s easiest schedule during last year’s charmed run, their division is much-improved and their quarterback is Blake Bortles. No sale. BAG

The Lions will be balanced and explosive. They finally have a talented offensive line, featuring, at worst, an above-average player at every spot. That’s a decided advantage given the state of groups across the league. Matthew Stafford is surrounded by a stack of weapons, too. Defense will be their fatal flaw: the Lions lack speed up front. In the modern NFL, such things matter. OC

Non-playoff team from last year that will make the postseason

With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are a safe bet to be contenders once more. PB

After trading for Jimmy Garoppolo last season, the 49ers ended their season on a 5-0 run. They thought the bounce was real enough to sign him to a historic five-year, $137.5m contract. Time will tell whether he ends up being more "next big hype" than "next big hope," but it's hard to see them missing out on the playoffs if he plays like he did at the end of last season. HF

Green Bay. The Packers were among the NFC’s best teams last year when Aaron Rodgers went down for the season with a broken collarbone. They finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They’ll be back. BAG

The Texans would have made the postseason last year were it not for Deshaun Watson’s injury. Health will be the issue again this season. If they can keep their stars on the field – Watson, JJ Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney – they will enter the playoffs as one of the top seeds in the AFC. OC


The Packers should be a force again if Aaron Rodgers stays fit
The Packers should be a force again if Aaron Rodgers stays fit. Photograph: Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Aaron Rodgers made no secret at his sadness over the Packers’ decision to part ways with Jordy Nelson, but in Jimmy Graham he has a new red-zone target to enjoy. I’m expecting a big year from the quarterback as he bounces back from the injury that kept him out for most of the 2017 season. PB

Jimmy Garoppolo. At this point in NFL history, we assume that the MVP will be a quarterback. If my earlier prediction that Garoppolo will drag the 49ers to the playoffs practically by himself pans out, then he gets serious MVP consideration. It's also possible that the league has added incentive to hand the award to the current 49ers quarterback just to spite the former 49ers quarterback currently making the NFL's life difficult. HF

Rodgers. How lucky for Green Bay the best player in the sport plays the most important position. Every year he’s healthy, the Packers are among the last teams standing in January. BAG

Andrew Luck! He will bounce back to pre-injury levels, leading to all sorts of hyperbole and hardware. Luck is playing on the worst roster in a tough division. If he can drag the Colts to the postseason, he will have earned the award. OC

Rookie of the year

Saquon Barkley is the obvious choice, for both talent and opportunity in a Giants offense that has been so long without a viable running game. So just to be contrary, I’ll take Broncos pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who looked sharp in preseason and should not face too many double teams with Von Miller lined up on the other side. PB

The Giants picked Barkley second overall in this year’s draft, something which is nearly unheard of considering how running backs are typically valued in the modern NFL. Given where the Giants drafted him, they expect that Barkley will start producing immediately and, if he does, it’s possible that he will run away with rookie of the year honors. HF

Barkley. The Giants will be terrible again but they have a top-five offense on paper and the Penn State career all-purpose yards leader will be responsible for a lion’s share of it. BAG

Given his position and the market he plays in, I think this is Sam Darnold’s award to lose. However, I think the two most impactful rookies will be Denzel Ward (CB, Browns) and Josh Jackson (CB, Packers). Jackson has an outside shot of clinching the award because he’ll be playing in big-time games on the national stage, a requirement for non-quarterbacks or running backs. And he’s more likely to top young corners in the big metrics: interceptions, passes defended etc. OC

Johnny Manziel Disaster Waiting To Happen Dept

A team playing in a city that wants to sue it? Yes, this can only end well. PB

We're going to see the end of the Roger Goodell Era. At a certain point, there will be enough public pressure on Goodell from all sides that he realizes it's just not worth it to remain as NFL commissioner. Maybe it will happen because of how he's handling the anthem controversy. Maybe it will happen when yet another star player gets caught committing a horrific act of abuse and the league's response ends up being appallingly inadequate. Whatever it is, it feels like at some point this season, an overwhelmed Goodell is going to accept a "golden parachute" offer and make a hasty but profitable exit. May God have mercy on whoever ends up having to clean up his mess. HF

There’s no fun in being right about these things. But trouble never seems to be far behind Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who’s already starting the season on a three-game suspension for allegedly groping an Uber driver. BAG

How about … Johnny Manziel. Look at the state of back-up quarterbacks around the league. Somebody is going to talk themselves into Manziel at some point during the season, particularly if we get a spate of injuries. Manziel will suit up for at least one drive this season. It won’t go well. OC

One bold prediction

Will Tyrod Taylor remain the Browns’ starting quarterback?
Will Tyrod Taylor remain the Browns’ starting quarterback? Photograph: Ron Schwane/AP

The Colts will make the postseason. OK, this prediction relies entirely on Andrew Luck staying healthy, but in seasons when he starts 15 or more games, Indianapolis have gone 11-5, 11-5, 11-5, 8-8. People forget quite what a game-changer he is. Yes, there are lots of questions elsewhere on this roster, and his health is far from a certainty. But Frank Reich is a fine offensive coach, and the Colts did at least try to upgrade the pass protection this offseason. I can see a path to nine or 10 wins for this team in a shallow AFC. PB

This is going to sound like heresy here in New England, but there's a very real chance we see Tom Brady, who just turned 41, decline this season. No we haven't seen significant signs of trouble yet but, as we saw with Peyton Manning, when the end comes in the NFL, it comes quick. HF

The tricked-out Los Angeles Rams are coming off an 11-5 season and have emerged as a trendy Super Bowl pick, but they’ll be doomed by a lack of chemistry and miss the playoffs as the San Francisco 49ers win NFC West. BAG

Jacksonville trade for Tyrod Taylor. Cleveland will start the season with Taylor at quarterback, but Baker Mayfield is primed to takeover. The Browns will use the first few weeks of the season to pump-up Taylor’s trade value. Taylor represents an upgrade over Bortles. If the Jacksonville quarterback struggles early, the Jags should seek a deal. OC

This year, the anthem protests will...

Be misrepresented by opponents as a protest against the national anthem and/or American values. PB

Continue to be the biggest storyline in football. It's clear that the NFL's attempts to determine the proper punishment for protesting players just reignited the controversy. It's going to be another long season for the "stick to sports" crowd. HF

Make national headlines beyond the sports page as Trump hits the campaign trail to stump for his endorsees ahead of the midterm elections, which take place right after the season’s halfway mark. BAG

Lead to the decertification of the NFLPA. At this point, it feels like it’s the players’ only option if they want to make significant, long lasting changes. The NFL’s middle class is declining. Elite players smartly used holdouts this preseason to get major paydays. Rookie contracts are as valuable and cost-effective as ever. Players in the middle, still the majority of the league, continue to lose their leverage. That, plus the bad will towards the owners and commissioner, could lead the players towards a drastic step. OC

AFC East champ

The Patriots. Again. PB

Even if Brady does lose a step or two in the upcoming season, it shouldn't be enough to prevent the Patriots from winning their division. Bill Belichick is still the head coach and the competition in the AFC East once again doesn't look likely to provide much competition. HF

New England. We’ve seen cracks in the Brady-Belichick-Kraft triumvirate over the past two years and the three-time MVP quarterback, who turned 41 last month, will inevitably slow down at some point. But the baked-in advantage of a trash division all but ensures a 15th AFC East title in 17 seasons for the Patriots. BAG

Nobody in AFC East has caught up with the Patriots … yet. New England’s biggest flaw in the past couple of years has been speed in the front-seven. They added Adrian Clayborn in free agency and see Derek Rivers return, an edge-rusher who missed his rookie season with a knee injury. Those names might not mean a great deal to you right now, but they are improvements to the weakest part of an already loaded team. OC

AFC North champ

Antonio Brown’s Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC North
Antonio Brown’s Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC North. Photograph: Don Wright/AP

Between Le’Veon Bell’s extended holdout, the Ryan Shazier-shaped hole in the middle of the defense and Ben Roethlisberger’s 14 seasons of wear and tear, it is no foregone conclusion that the Steelers retain their division crown. But if the running back does return to the field in time for week one, then they will once again be hard to beat. PB

This might be the toughest call in the AFC, as the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens should both be equally tough outs, no matter who they're playing. The Steelers, however, just seem like a scarier team. Maybe the edge is that Roethlisberger has that uncanny knack of completing plays despite being pulled apart by the opposing defense while Joe Flacco is … Joe Flacco. HF

Pittsburgh. Anyone but the Steelers, where bona fide stars Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Bell (maybe) will feature, would be a surprise after winning four of the last five AFC North titles, although an improved Baltimore side will likely challenge for a wild-card spot. BAG

I’m all for the excitement in Cleveland. The team has youth, talent, and exciting players on both sides of the ball. Baltimore may have the top defense in the league; at any rate it’s the most versatile. And keep an eye on Cincinnati. The Bengals are sliding under-the-radar. They have as fearsome a pass-rush as anyone, and just enough explosiveness on offense to make opponents worry. Still, this is the Steelers’ division to lose. The only thing I can see derailing Pittsburgh is another injury to Roethlisberger. OC

AFC South champ

I’ve already made my case for the Colts as a more competitive team than many have predicted. Houston ought to be stronger, too, with Deshaun Watson and JJ Watt both back from injury. Tennessee won nine games last year and made useful additions on either side of the ball in Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler. The Jaguars are still my pick, though, thanks to that suffocating D. PB

This division feels like it's going to go down to who manages to have a comeback player of the year caliber season. If Luck plays like a franchise quarterback again, the Colts have the edge. If Watt plays like the force he once was, the Texans could take control of the division. I like Watt's chances. HF

Houston. The emerging star Watson should pick up where he left off before getting injured last year. Watt is back, too. Throw in the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin and the Texans should have enough to overtake the Jaguars. BAG

With Watson back in the fold and a star-studded defense at every level, the Texans have the makings of a division champion. There are issues around the edges: Houston’s offensive line has less talent than any in the league; depth on defense is an issue. Health will likely be the deciding factor. OC

AFC West champ

With a competent kicking game, the Chargers might have taken the division last year. It is no guarantee that Caleb Sturgis can provide it, but his modest 81% career success rate is still a great deal better than the 66% achieved by a hapless cast in 2017. PB

The Chiefs’ season may come down to how good Patrick Mahomes ends up being in his first full year at quarterback, but this feels like a team that can pick up enough wins in the regular season to capture the division and then go on to suffer an Andy Reid-assisted flameout in their first playoff game. HF

The Chargers. Philip Rivers is back at the stick of last year’s top-ranked passing offense and the defense is better than it gets credit for. They finished strong, winning nine of their last 12 games after going winless in September. It should be enough to end Kansas City’s two-year reign atop the division. BAG

Preseason injuries have tortured the Chargers, again. Still, LA are poised for a deep playoff run They still have the top edge-rushing duo in the league, a great secondary and a seasoned quarterback. OC

NFC East champ

When will Carson Wentz return to the field? Can he perform at the same MVP level that he achieved before his injury last year? Does it really matter, given that the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles anyway, and beefed up an imposing defensive line rotation with Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata since then? PB

The reigning world champions should be the favorites to once again to win their division. It will be interesting to see how things go with Wentz set to take the reins back from Foles, but that probably goes into the category of Good Problems To Have. HF

Philadelphia. It’s been 13 years since a team in the NFL’s glamour division has won it twice in a row, but there’s every reason to believe the Eagles will break the schneid. They’re deep on both lines, they’ve added a couple nice pieces on defense (including Michael Bennett and Sidney Jones) and Wentz was playing at an MVP level until he went down to injury. BAG

The Eagles should go back-to-back. They have an embarrassment of riches all over the field. Watch for second-year cornerback Sidney Jones. He missed his entire rookie year with an achilles injury. If he bounces back to his pre-injury level, he will be an instant star. Of course, all this presupposes that Wentz returns in week three. If not, Philly will be in trouble. OC

NFC North champ

The Vikings won 13 games last season and believe they will be better with Kirk Cousins behind center and a healthy Dalvin Cook in the backfield. But as long as the Packers have an upright Aaron Rodgrs, they’re going to be hard to pick against. PB

It feels weird picking the team that will be starting Cousins over the team starting Rodgers, but the latter is a question mark and Minnesota feel like they are going to win out thanks to the talent they have on the defensive end of the ball. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if the division comes down to tiebreakers, however. HF

Minnesota. One could argue the splashy addition of free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a team coming off a 13-3 campaign made the Vikings the NFL’s most complete team. But the Packers, benefitting from the return of Rodgers and a revamped defense, will push them till the end. BAG

This is a true toss-up. The Bears trading for Khalil Mack changes the entire dynamic of the division. Vic Fangio is coming for Mike Zimmer’s best-defense-in-the-division crown. Chicago are young and have lethal speed at every level of its defense. Out in Green Bay, there’s that Aaron Rodgers guy to deal with. And you can’t rule out the Lions making a run, either. On balance, though, I like the Vikings’ chances. They’re the more proven team on either side of the ball. Kirk Cousins represents an upgrade over Case Keenum at quarterback. Dalvin Cook returning from injury will help push Minnesota over the top. OC

NFC South champ

Will Drew Brees win another Super Bowl as his career winds down?
Will Drew Brees win another Super Bowl as his career winds down? Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Hey, remember how the Saints were one miracle play away from going to the NFC Championship game last year? Yeah, they really haven’t lost a lot of pieces since. This will be another very competitive division, but a team that can turn to Drew Brees when the running game isn’t working, rather than the other way around, is a team in very rude health indeed. PB

The Saints signed Brees to a two-year extension back in March with the hope that he had at least one more season of playing like Drew Effing Brees in him. While he's eyeing records held by legends like Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, one has to think that his goal will be returning to the Super Bowl. It's not out of the question. HF

Former MVP Matt Ryan leads an Atlanta Falcons offense featuring an embarrassment of riches, among them Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper and Justin Hardy. No shortage of playmakers on defense, either. New Orleans and Carolina should contend but look for the Falcons to contend for the NFC’s top overall seed. BAG

I have no confidence in this pick. I love the offense that has been put together in New Orleans. But I still don’t entirely trust all the young pups on defense. Granted, I hardly trust Steve Sarkisian calling plays for Atlanta’s offense, but I trust it a little more. Side note: I think Tampa have the potential to be a true dumpster fire. OC

NFC West champ

I’ve picked Gurley and Donald to win player of the year awards already. It feels like a stretch to suggest that anyone other than the Rams would win this division if they do. PB

Could the Rams end up being good enough this season to actually get Los Angeles to buy into them? Maybe not, but they have the opportunity to stay in the public consciousness long enough that people stop forgetting that they no longer play in St Louis. HF

The 49ers started 1-10 before Jimmy Garoppolo got a chance under center and closed out with five straight wins. If the Rams’ bold gamble to reach the Super Bowl doesn’t pay off, look for the Niners to take advantage. BAG

The Rams have transformed the nature of the NFC West in a couple of years thanks to a pair of coaching hires (Sean McVay and Wade Phillips) and a raft of free-agent moves and trades. Do win-now moves always work out? No. But the Rams were smart with who they targeted this offseason. They reenforced strengths and improved upon weakness. Their secondary reads like an All-Pro list. Their defensive line is even better. The 49ers will push them close, but ultimately the Rams have too much quality to disappoint. OC

AFC wildcards

Ravens and Colts. PB

Ravens and Jaguars. HF

Chiefs and Ravens. BAG

Jaguars and Colts. OC

NFC wildcards

Vikings and Bears. PB

49ers and Panthers. HF

Saints and Packers. BAG

Packers and 49ers. OC

NFC championship game

Rams over Eagles. PB

Saints over Eagles. HF

Eagles over Falcons. BAG

Vikings over Packers. OC

AFC championship game

Patriots over Chargers. PB

Steelers over Patriots. HF

Patriots over Chargers. BAG

Patriots over Texans. OC

Super Bowl LIII

The Patriots and Eagles have the tools to reach the Super Bowl again
The Patriots and Eagles have the tools to reach the Super Bowl again. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Rams over Patriots. After becoming the NFL’s youngest head coach in modern history, and then the youngest coach of the year, Sean McVay completes the set by becoming the youngest to win a Super Bowl as well. Better yet, he does it against the most successful of them all. PB

Steelers over Saints. Old guy quarterback showdown! Roethlisberger will be 36. Brees will be 40! As a game, however, it might end up being anticlimactic. One can imagine Brees burying Pittsburgh in touchdowns, picking up MVP honors and announcing his retirement live on television. At least that's the Hollywood ending, we should know by now that Super Bowl games rarely follow the script. HF

Eagles over Patriots. It’s down to Carson Wentz, really. But if Philadelphia’s third-year quarterback makes a full recovery from his knee injury and can regain the MVP form he showed during his breakout sophomore campaign (where he threw for 33 touchdowns against only seven interceptions), the Eagles will become the first team in more than a decade to repeat as Super Bowl champions. BAG

Vikings over Patriots. Dumping Case Keenum for Kirk Cousins pays off. The Vikings’ skill-positions are as talented as any group in the league. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen might be the best two-man receiving tandem around. Dalvin Cook is a special talent. Add that offense to a top-tier defense and you have a potent championship formula. I have the Patriots suffering another heartbreaker in the Super Bowl. There are concerns with their receiving group and offensive tackle spots. But they still have Brady at the peak of his powers, and a potentially frisky defense that has filled in its holes. No other team in the AFC has the same proven quality. OC


Nicky Bandini, Hunter Felt, Bryan Armen Graham and Oliver Connolly

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