This will be the year of ...
Nicky Bandini … hating on pass interference. Making PI calls (or non-calls) reviewable is one of those decisions that makes sense on paper but subjecting this area of the game to greater scrutiny will – a bit like VAR in soccer – make us realize everything we don’t like about the rules as they are currently written.
Gabriel Baumgaertner … Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. The second-year passer will finish in the top five of MVP voting and instantly become the best quarterback in franchise history once New York fans realize that Joe Namath was overrated.
Oliver Connolly … the little brothers. The Browns. The Lions. The Jets. The downtrodden and oft-scoffed at franchises will fight back against the stalwarts: The Bears, Steelers and Patriots (kind of).
Hunter Felt … more players taking themselves out of the game for health reasons. Andrew Luck’s shocking departure will act as the tone-setter for this season: NFL players are well-aware of the long-term health effects involved with playing football and know that a single injury can ruin their lives.
Melissa Jacobs … widespread inventive offense. With Sean McVay friend and disciples Zac Taylor, Mike LaFleur and Kliff Kingsbury stampeding the head-coaching ranks, not to mention Kyle Shanahan with a healthy arsenal, creative scheming should be the norm.
Best team that won’t make the playoffs
NB The LA Chargers. Melvin Gordon is still holding out, Russell Okung’s return date is uncertain as he recovers from a pulmonary embolism and Derwin James is on injured reserve. Or, to put it another way, Los Angeles are down their starting running back, best offensive tackle and an All-Pro safety.
GB The Chicago Bears may have the league’s best defense, but their league-leading 27 interceptions were a statistical outlier that is unlikely to repeat. Not even an elite defense will overcome the inconsistency of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the team’s woeful kicking situation.
OC The Indianapolis Colts. Indy have everything … except for Andrew Luck. Jacoby Brissett will do enough to carry a loaded team close to the playoffs, but they’ll just fall short.
HF The Baltimore Ravens. The AFC North is going to be brutal. The Cleveland Browns have a genuine shot at winning the division (don’t laugh) and the Pittsburgh Steelers are always in the playoff mix. This could leave the Ravens on the outside looking in, although none of that will be the fault of starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, who should improve as a passer in his sophomore campaign.
MJ The San Francisco 49ers. Regular season Jimmy Garoppolo will look much better than preseason Jimmy G. Close but not quite playoff material yet.
Non-playoff team from last year that will make the playoffs
NB The Browns. Obvious, perhaps, but I’ll back Cleveland to end their 16-year postseason drought.
GB The Jets. There are legitimate concerns about a team with a new head coach (Adam Gase) and one that fired their general manager in May. Fortunately, New York have a budding star in second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. He will be a top-five QB by season’s end with new weapons in running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. Add linebacker CJ Mosley to one of the league’s top defenses and the Jets should nab one of the two AFC wild card spots.
OC The Browns are the obvious answer. The talent on both sides of the ball, at all three levels, is ludicrous. One tidbit to monitor: Cleveland’s line is below average, even in an era of stinky offensive line play.
HF The Browns. After a standout season from Baker Mayfield, Cleveland made the decision to trade for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr to boost their offense.
MJ The Packers. Matt LaFleur should add enough spice to the playbook and the Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams combo should be enough to return to the postseason.
One bold prediction
NB Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson will lead the league in rushing touchdowns.
GB The Dolphins won’t be the league’s worst team. The Cardinals, winners of three games in 2018, will regress in 2019 and win fewer games than rebuilding Miami.
OC Ben Roethlisberger is benched. Look at the advanced analytics, and Big Ben was the league average in 2018. Any stat you want to go to, the Pittsburgh quarterback was between 15th and 18th in the league: accuracy, throwing under pressure, depth of target, on and on and on. He was fine, but not his usual self. The decline is already underway. The collapse will come sooner than most think.
HF Given the myriad issues in the league (from non-guaranteed contracts to the long-term health impacts of the sport), it wouldn’t be shocking if we hear rumbling about the first players’ strike since 1987.
MJ Tom Brady’s physical tools will finally regress to the point of being a liability. The Pats will still be in the Super Bowl but Brady will have a difficult decision to make about his future.
Johnny Manziel disaster waiting to happen department
NB Helmet sagas, frostbitten feet, fish-head-in-the-fridge lawsuits … is Antonio Brown in Oakland a disaster waiting to happen or one that’s already unfolding?
GB Arizona’s Kyler Murray is an extremely talented quarterback who would thrive with a few games of study under a seasoned NFL quarterback. Instead, he’ll be the Week 1 starter under rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who compiled a 35-40 record as a college head coach and whose defenses finished 105th or lower for five consecutive seasons before his dismissal. Murray is a great player entering a horrendous situation.
OC The Raiders. OK, so in one building we have: Antonio Brown, Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock, Richie Incognito, Vontaze Burfict, Mark Davis and the looming specter of a move to Vegas. Woof! Not even Derek Carr’s blandness can save this inevitable calamity.
HF The Miami Dolphins are desperately trying to tank, but what if starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has the tendency to play fantastic when nobody expects anything from him and incredibly badly when handed the keys, backfires and they win enough games to sink their draft position?
MJ Beware more bizarre antics from Antonio Brown, especially once the Raiders start racking up losses. Trash-talking teammates and coaches, running off to Botswana, worshipping the color blue. With AB expect abnormal to be the norm.
The NFL’s partnership with Jay-Z is …
NB … not going to make anyone forget how the league treated Colin Kaepernick.
GB … further proof that Jay-Z is not just a businessman, he’s a business, man! Whatever his aims are, it’s a staggering decision to align himself with NFL owners.
OC … a sham. Progress to profit, this was always going to be the way. Jay-Z sold out Colin Kaepernick and his fellow, peaceful protestors. The NFL got what it wanted: Kaepernick is out of the league, other players are now on notice, and they’re able to make cash. It’s disgusting.
HF … incredibly devious. It’s a brilliant marketing move that papers over a lot of ugliness in the league and the more I think about it, the more depressed I get.
MJ … a strange branding move for Jay-Z that may help a few people but will never detract from the league’s role in Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment.
NB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. It’s reasonable to expect some regression, but the conditions are all there for him to thrive again in Andy Reid’s offense.
GB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. He’ll become the first repeat winner of the league’s highest individual honor since Peyton Manning in 2008 and 2009.
OC Aaron Rodgers, Packers. Either a new staff revitalizes the most talented player (second now?) at the most valuable position in sports, or he’s become some kind of uncoachable individualist who cannot work within a team construct, regardless of its construct. I’m betting on the former; he’s going to wreck the league.
HF Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. His biggest obstacles? Well, there’s the looming presence of Drew Brees, particularly if the Chiefs end with a worse record than the Saints, and the general difficulty of remaining fully healthy year in and year out in the NFL. Still, I believe.
MJ Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs. As long as Mahomes is in the same stratosphere as last season’s 50-touchdown extravaganza, this is his award to lose in 2019 and beyond.
Rookie of the year
NB Josh Allen, Jaguars. There are two Josh Allens to keep an eye on in the NFL this season, but only one of them is a rookie pass rusher who I’m expecting to light things up on a Jacksonville defense that could bounce back strongly in 2019.
GB David Montgomery, Bears. The rookie running back from Iowa State will be thrust into head coach Matt Nagy’s offense. He’s a gifted pass-catching back and will be a necessary weapon for a quarterback as inconsistent as Trubisky.
OC Mecole Hardman, Chiefs. Hardman might be the springiest athlete in the league. He was drafted to replace Tyreek Hill. Now, he’ll play alongside him. If Hardman has four “Wow” highlights, he’ll clinch the award.
HF Josh Jacobs, Raiders. No 1 overall pick Kyler Murray is probably the favorite to win this one, but there are always questions when it comes to a rookie quarterback. It’s possible we’ll see Jacobs put up some monster numbers with the Raiders while Murray takes his lumps. His new boss seems to believe that will happen.
MJ Kyler Murray, Cardinals. Murray’s talent and Kliff Kingsbury’s playbook should help the rookie compile an undeniable highlight reel, thus securing an award that almost always goes to an offensive player.
AFC East champion
NB The Patriots, because of course.
GB The Patriots last finished a season with fewer than double-digit wins was in 2002.
OC The Patriots. Duh. Messrs Belichick, Brady, Scarnecchia and McDaniels are there. If those four are in or around the building, they win the AFC East. It’s that simple.
HF With Brady on the decline, and Rob Gronkowski retired, expect New England to take a step backward yet still clinch the division with ease.
MJ The Patriots. The easiest division to call for a decade now. The Jets and Bills should improve but will be second-class citizens until Bill Belichick retires.
AFC North champion
NB The Browns. Ah, go on then, let’s buy all the way into Cleveland hype. This is a fascinating division, though – I believe in John Harbaugh’s ability to make the most of Lamar Jackson’s skillset and Mark Ingram is an upgrade at running back, too. If the Steelers can stay competitive, as usual, it’s going to be a close fight.
GB The Ravens. Second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is ready for a star turn, and the Baltimore offense will wear down opposing defenses with exhausting drives while their defense will provide its trademark tenacity.
OC The Browns. If Cleveland wore different helmets, they would be co-favorites to win the Super Bowl alongside the defending champs.
HF The Browns. This is saying something, since the Browns haven’t won a division title since 1989 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. The Cavaliers won an NBA title and the Indians won the pennant back in 2016. It’s the Browns’ time.
MJ The Ravens. Cleveland are the sexy pick but Lamar Jackson’s progression and an elite secondary will help Baltimore prevail in a tight division.
AFC South champion
NB The Jaguars. So many questions for all of these teams. Can DeShaun Watson survive without an offensive line in Houston? Will Marcus Mariota ever become the star he was billed to be? Is there any hope for the Colts without Luck? I’m not convinced that Nick Foles is going to be brilliant in Jacksonville, but he will be better than Blake Bortles, and that might be enough to vault the Jags to the top of the pile.
GB The Colts. Even with Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement, Indianapolis will start one of the league’s more reliable backups in Jacoby Brissett while returning one of the game’s best defensive players in Darius Leonard, a stacked offensive line and an extremely creative offensive mind in head coach Frank Reich.
OC The Titans. I don’t feel good about it, but it feels like they’ve leapfrogged the Colts and Texans in the last fortnight.
HF The Texans. With Luck out of the picture, Houston are going all-in, particularly with the trade for tackle Laremy Tunsil, although possibly sacrificing their long-term success in the process. Watch as the Texans win the division by default, potentially with a .500 record, lose in their first game of the playoffs and suffer buyer’s remorse for the next few seasons.
MJ The Jaguars. Jacksonville retained most of their key defensive starters and should again be a top-five unit. Nick Foles is a major upgrade over Blake Bortles.
AFC West champion
NB The Chiefs. Did I mention how much I’m looking forward to watching Mahomes again?
GB The Chargers. A toothless Chiefs defense means Los Angeles will shock the NFL and win the division. The holdout of running back Melvin Gordon denies quarterback Philip Rivers of one of his better weapons, but backup Austin Ekeler is a versatile piece and complements a host of talented playmakers between receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams as well as tight end Hunter Henry. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, arguably the league’s most underrated defender, will terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
OC The Chargers. They finished eighth in defensive DVOA last year and third in offensive DVOA. And they improved on both sides of the ball.
HF The Chiefs. Here’s where my Most Valuable Player pick has essentially made my choice for me. If Mahomes ends up being the regular-season MVP for a second straight season, that would probably necessitate him leading the Chiefs to their second straight AFC West title. The Chargers are going to make things interesting though.
MJ The Chiefs. With Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, Kansas City have too much firepower. The Chargers are close but losing disruptive safety Derwin James really stings.
AFC wild card teams
NB Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos
GB New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs
OC Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens
HF Pittsburgh Steelers, LA Chargers
MJ Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns
NFC East champion
NB The Eagles. If Carson Wentz can stay healthy, Philadelphia are a Super Bowl contender. That’s a big if. Wentz made changes to his diet and workout schedule this offseason but his offensive line has been missing its entire right side in preseason. I’m still taking Philly, and have high hopes for rookie running back Miles Sanders, but so much rests on the quarterback’s ability to stay on the field.
GB The Eagles. Philadelphia’s offensive line has combined to start 378 games as members of the Eagles, an astonishing feat of consistency that should help protect oft-injured quarterback Carson Wentz. On defense, linebacker Zach Brown was one of the best under-the-radar signings of the offseason.
OC The Eagles. Pull up Philadelphia’s roster and try to find a hole. They are pretty much two-deep with league average talent at every single position.
HF The Eagles. Bonus prediction: Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz will be the Comeback Player of the Year.
MJ The Cowboys. With Zeke back and Kellen Moore calling plays, plus a fierce pair of inside linebackers, Dallas should hold off the feisty Eagles and claim the division.
NFC North champion
NB The Vikings. Are we really sure Mitch Trubisky is going to take that big step forward in Chicago? The Packers have made significant upgrades to their pass rush and still have Aaron Rodgers behind center. But I’m taking Minnesota, who have an elite defense as well as brilliant offensive weapons in Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Kirk Cousins has his limitations, but I trust him more than Trubisky.
GB The Vikings. Kirk Cousins disappointed during his first season in Minnesota, but another year with receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs plus a reliable defense will help the Vikings outlast the Bears and Packers in one of the league’s toughest divisions.
OC The Packers. I’ve picked Aaron Rodgers to win the MVP, so I’ll give the division nod to Green Bay. I still think the Lions go deeper in the playoffs, though.
HF The Packers. It will be up for Aaron Rodgers to prove that he’s not done but a change in head coach might be just what he needs. The Bears’ ravenous defense should be enough to push them into the postseason, however.
MJ The Bears. Chicago’s ridiculously stacked defense should give all NFL offenses nightmares. Also, Mitchell Trubisky is not the liability many think.
NFC South champion
NB The Falcons. I’m worried about Cam Newton’s shoulder. I also think that we may see a little regression from Drew Brees at 40 years old. Atlanta drafted to strengthen their offensive line but should be better in any case simply by virtue of having Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones – three key starters – back on defense after losing all three to injury early last year.
GB The Saints. For years, New Orleans soared on offense while fielding some of the league’s worst defenses. The presence of defensive lineman Cameron Jordan and one of the game’s best secondaries has transformed the Saints into a complete unit that is equipped to make a deep playoff run.
OC The Panthers. If Cam Newton’s shoulder holds up, Carolina are as gifted as any team in the division.
HF New Orleans were defeated in overtime by the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game after the referees missed an easy pass interference call that would have put them in position to win in regulation. This will be their revenge season.
MJ The Saints. New Orleans went 13-3 last season and probably should have been in the Super Bowl. They only got better in the offseason. No reason they shouldn’t dominate the division again.
NFC West champion
NB The Rams have their problems, and it’s possible that opponents have learned a thing or two about how to stop them from watching Super Bowl LIII. But this division is still theirs to lose.
GB The Rams. Sean McVay enamored the world with his high-flying offense that anchored an unlikely Super Bowl berth. It’s improbable that quarterback Jared Goff will be quite as good in 2019, but the Rams remain the class of the division.
OC The Rams. We’re at the start of a long Sean McVay-Jared Goff run in the West. Don’t overthink it. Eric Weddle might be the most impactful pickup anywhere this offseason.
HF The Rams. They still should be favorites to win the division but watch out for the Seattle Seahawks, who should challenge them throughout the rest of the season.
MJ The Rams. Forget the last Super Bowl. They still boast a super-team roster and a head coach who schemes in his sleep.
NFC wild card teams
NB Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers
GB Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks
OC Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints
HF Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears
MJ Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers
AFC championship game prediction
NB Patriots over Chiefs
GB Ravens over Patriots
OC Patriots over Browns
HF Chiefs over Patriots
MJ Patriots over Chiefs
NFC championship game prediction
NB Eagles over Rams
GB Saints over Seahawks
OC Eagles over Lions
HF Saints over Rams
MJ Bears over Saints
Super Bowl LIV prediction
NB Patriots over Eagles. Tom Brady continues to defy age and logic, exacting revenge on the Eagles team that defied him two years before. Brady, with nothing left to prove to anyone, confirms that he will be back to do it all again next year anyway.
GB Saints over Ravens. In a thrilling clash of high-flying offense against punishing defense, Drew Brees finally overcomes the brutal playoff defeats that have ended the last two seasons in New Orleans before announcing his retirement. Lamar Jackson’s valiant comeback ends short of the go-ahead touchdown, but Jackson’s future brightens while one of the game’s most prolific passers retires on top.
OC Eagles over Patriots. When you have a top-five offensive line and top-five pass-rush, you should be winning Super Bowls.
HF Saints over Chiefs. I want to say Kansas City here, but the fact is the Chiefs defense continues to lag well behind their offense. That’s going to be a problem against Drew Brees and the Saints. In fact, if you’re a betting person, take the over on the points allowed by Kansas City in this prediction.
MJ Bears over Patriots. With incredible defensive line depth that gives defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano many personnel options, the Bears are built to withstand the Pats’ various run schemes. Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson and company will be able to disrupt Tom Brady just like the Rams did last season, Chicago will showcase their dynamic run attack and a signal-caller in Trubisky who people forget was a stud in the second half of the doink-y loss to Philly.