NFL: One Big Question for Each Division Heading Into the Season (Plus a Super Bowl LIII Prediction!)
Both conferences in the NFL, AFC and NFC, have been dominant over the course of two eras. The NFC reigned supreme from 1984-1996 as they won thirteen consecutive Super Bowls. Then you had a miscellaneous back-to-back champion in the Denver Broncos in 1997 and 1998 to give John Elway two Super Bowl rings and then the underdog story in the (St. Louis) Rams with The Greatest Show on Turf the next year. However, the AFC would get their revenge in the 2000's as the Patriots dynasty was launched, making the AFC relevant once again by winning 11 out of 17 titles in the 2000's decade.
But as we head into the 2018 NFL season, most of the division winners from last year seem to be questioning their place in the division in terms of new head coaches and quarterbacks and how far they will take their team. There are a lot of burning questions that need to be answered before the season starts, but there are eight big questions that must be answered and they may change the course of each division and their path to Atlanta in Super Bowl LIII.
And without further ado, let's start in the defending AFC Champs' division.
AFC East: Can any of the other three teams beat Tom Brady, or is the dynasty over?:
The enterprises of Mr. Hoodie and his sidekick Mr. Goat are back open and in business for another season of what hopes to be another AFC East division title and a possible trip to the Super Bowl. But the downside to this is that Tom Brady is coming off of just his third Super Bowl loss and he will turn 41 next Friday. And even though Brady says he wants to play until he is 45, Father Time will sooner than later kick his ass which means a wide open door in the AFC East. What do I mean you may ask? Well in Buffalo and East Rutherford New Jersey, both the Jets and Bills have drafted rookie quarterbacks in Josh Allen and Sam Darnold who are willing to fight for their spot on the roster during training camp and the preseason. And in Miami, let's just say be careful what you wish for as former Patriots teammate of Tom Brady, Danny Amendola might have something cooking in Miami to challenge Belichick and Co. for the division crown. The Patriots have dealt with suspensions before with Rob Gronkowski and Deflategate, but when you lose another core wideout in Julian Edelman to a 4 game suspension involving PED's, it is just another bump in the road and another weapon lost for Tom brady for the first quarter of the season. Did I also mention that Brandin Cooks is going to the high octane Los Angeles Rams? I imagine Brady and Belichick winning the AFC East crown once again this season, but I also would not be surprised if Buffalo, Miami, or the Jets put up a fight with Brady this season.
AFC North: Can the Ravens Dethrone the Steelers given the QB Competition?:
In a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 2018 Draft, Baltimore saved the best for last as they drafted Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick overall. Now with that in mind Joe Flacco has two options; either have another mediocre 8-8 or 9-7 season where you get beat by archrival Pittsburgh, or let your heir to the pigskin work some of his magic in hopes of beating Big Ben Roethlisberger and the Killer Bees. Here is my take. If Baltimore let's Joe Flacco rest for most of the preseason and give Lamar Jackson a chance and he does not live up to John Harbaugh's first impression of him, then it will be Flacco's team to take ship and Jackson will have to sit back and watch and learn from his mentor. Is this a good thing for the Ravens to do? Yes and no. It does work for them because that way they would not have inexperience at quarterback, but it is also a double edged sword in the fact that the fate of the Ravens might be in jeopardy in terms of who will be the leader. This just gives the Steelers another AFC North title and the Ravens another year of mediocrity under Flacco.
AFC South: Can Jaguars Repeat?
The short answer to this question is yes. But the longer and more analytical version can be derived from the question of if Blake Bortles and Co.'s offense will improve from last year. And it certainly did not disappoint as star running back Leonard Fournette recorded a 1,000 yard season and placed top 10 in rushing yards. That, and the fact that Blake Bortles had the balls to beat Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh twice (Week 5, AFC Divisional) shows that the Jaguars are not only a legitimate team in the division and conference, but also a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.
And let's not forget that the Jags also had their hard-hitting second ranked defense in #Sacksonville who gave up the least amount of yards in the entire league (2718) and were second in turnovers with 33. Now as for the other teams in the division, the Titans are still a good group of players with dual threat QB Marcus Mariota and the receiving corps in Eric Decker, Delanie Walker, and Rishard Matthews, but I'm just not that confident that they will follow suit into next year given new head coach Mike Vrabel who has had playoff inexperience with AFC South rival Houston Texans.
On the latter, the reason for their sucky season was the injury bug that took defensive MVP JJ Watt and young and promising quarterback Deshaun Watson out for the season. For me, I was disappointed for this Texans squad given the enormous amounts of potential and promise that they would have had in 2017 had the injury bug not bitten them. This year however, they will be in the conversation to get back their place in the AFC South and challenge Jacksonville for the title. I would not be surprised if the AFC South division crown came down to the last game of the season which just happens to be the Jaguars visiting the Texans at NRG Stadium. As for the Colts, I know Andrew Luck thinks he is confident this season in that this is the best he has ever felt in a long time, but he is bound for another injury prone season. Injury prone season = Colts have another 17 week stay at the AFC South basement.
AFC West: Who's in Charge Here?:
Like the question says, there is a lot of chaos going into the 2018 season for the AFC West. For the division champion Kansas City Chiefs, they know what the new man under center can do in Patrick Mahomes thanks to his miraculous comeback in Denver against the Broncos in the season finale last season. He has a good relationship with his receiving corps in Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and more, but the lack of starting experience is his weakness despite his cannon of an arm and quick legs. Does this mean a three-peat of AFC West crowns for the Chiefs? We will see folks, we will see.
Meanwhile in Oakland, the Raiders fired head coach Jack del Rio just after 3 seasons and one playoff appearance. And who comes in to save he day? $100 million man and former head coach Jon Gruden. Now I understand that stepping away from the broadcast booth, either to coach or play is a big move, but to do it for your former team especially given what they have gone through in the past couple years can either turn into a great season of promise or backfire and poop on itself. Trust me, the Raiders have been doing that for 15 years. And if Oakland makes it to the Postseason this year, Gruden will have to prove to The Black Hole and the organization that he really is worth $100 million. Otherwise, Mark Davis just blew away his father's money for no reason. Let's be honest, you want me to predict the record for you? Good. 4-12.
In the Mile High City, you have a horrible who just took you from the AFC West (and) AFC penthouse to the AFC dump after a 5-11 season last year because you could not figure out who the feck your quarterback was going to be. But in the heart of the NFL offseason, John Elway said that he finally found his guy. His guy? The mastermind of the Minneapolis Miracle himself, Case Keenum. This finally gives hope to the fans in Denver after the misery that they went through last season as they are getting an 11-3 starter and a quarterback who had his best season yet in his career last year. This takes away the quarterback competition and hopefully the Denver defense will rest easy because they found their guy. Maybe not an AFC West title this year for the Broncos, but they definitely do have a shot at the Playoffs this year.
And finally for the Chargers, this is by far the most complete team in the AFC West in terms of the direction they are headed. After missing the Playoffs last year by a cuticle, the Chargers of 2017 were monstrous with their end of season win streak winning 6 of their last 7 games. But thanks to some quarterback named Andy Dalton and the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles missed their shot. However, the Chargers are posed to take this AFC West crown this year thanks to the star studded offense in Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, and Keenan Allen, and the defense led by third year star Joey Bosa, and Melvin Ingram. They will be able to compete with the Broncos' defense and they will have the best offense in the AFC West in a tight race for the division with Denver.
Like the Jaguars and Texans game at the end of the season this year, I also would not be surprised if Denver and Los Angeles fought for the AFC West crown on the last day of the season. It will be a fight between these two teams, but I expect the Chargers coming out on top while the Broncos punch in their ticket for a Wild Card spot.
NFC East: Fly Eagles Fly, Will They Win the East again?:
Judging by the lackluster records of all the other three teams in this division from last season, my answer is a big fat yes. Here are three justifications of the argument. One is that the Giants can spend all year in the NFC East basement thanks to the fact that Eli Manning is aging and possibly nearing towards the end of his career. The only player with promise on this team is first round pick Saquon Barkley. Other than that, there is no way the Giants are even getting to a .500 record this year.
The second reason is that the Redskins could have actually planned for a great season, and I'm not saying that just to make their fans feel good. It is just that had you not picked a quarterback with very little Playoff success, this team could have gone places with their talented offensive line, defensive leader in Ryan Kerrigan, and star corner Josh Norman. The third reason is because of the Boys in the Big D. Why?
Yes, they went 9-7 last year and missed the Postseason, but with all of the off field drama with Ezekiel Elliott and now that Jason Witten is in the broadcast booth for Monday Night Football, Dak Prescott does not have a good receiving corps despite the NFL's best offensive line. Add the Eagles' improving defense in Fletcher Cox as well as their elite receivers and running backs (basically their entire offense) and you have a second straight NFC East title. But with that said, there is a team in this next division that despite losing their quarterback last season and their lack of secondary, they can definitely challenge the Eagles for supremacy in the NFC.
NFC North: Are the Packers Back on Top?:
You bet your sweet uncle they are! Here is the skinny. The reigning NFC North champs in Minnesota do have one of the league's most punishing defenses. Sure would be easy if defense scored all the points wouldn't it? But with quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Case Keenum now onto better places in Arizona and Denver, who do the Vikings turn to under center? Answer? Mr. You Like That Kirk Cousins and former Broncos starting QB Trevor Siemian. Now with that being said, this gives the Packers a wide open door to contend with Minnesota for the division crown.
In Titletown, you have the most clutch quarterback in the NFL who thinks one minute is an eternity for a game-winning drive. And despite losing Jordy Nelson to the Raiders, the core receiving group is still there in Randall Cobb, Devante Adams and star running back Ty Montgomery to get the Packers to a division title. As for the Lions and Bears... oh my!
Detroit will keep the division race close, but my problem is how will they fare with new head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia at the helm? And in the Windy City, let's just sum it up in one word. Rebuild. Minnesota will get the Postseason this year but as a wild card team either a five or six seed, which means they would have to go to Lambeau Field for the divisional round if they win. I am predicting the Packers to not only win the division, but to also have the best record and #1 seed in the NFC. So yes, the Packers are back on top of the NFC North food chain where they belong. Go Pack Go!
NFC South: A Trio of Teams in the Playoffs Once Again?:
Let me give you some scenarios for this one. Super Bowl LIII host team (Atlanta) versus reigning division champ (New Orleans) versus the struggling Postseason squad (Carolina) versus the team whose quarterback's past actions has landed himself a 4 game suspension. Who wins? I'm just going to be blunt with this one. With another 4,000 yard season on the way for heir QB and with one of the best young defenses in the NFL and running back tandems, the New Orleans Saints do have what it takes to take the NFC South title once again. But as for the remaining three teams, who else might move on to the playoffs?
Well my first guess would be that the Super Bowl home team in the Atlanta Falcons will be the third straight SB home team to be in the playoffs. This should come as no surprise to anyone as star wideout Julio Jones just signed an extension with Atlanta as he hopes to be a Falcon for life. As for the Panthers and Buccaneers, Carolina will make a run for the Playoffs but come up just short and Tampa will just have another mediocre season thanks to the NFL's four game suspension of Jameis Winston. If anything, the Falcons will lose in the NFC Wild Card Game to either (and don't quote me on this) the 49ers or the Rams. Saints get the division title and a berth in the NFC Divisional Round. Speaking of the latter...
NFC West: Do the Almighty Rams Have What it Takes to Make a Run?:
You have probably one of the most potent dream superteam lineups offensively and defensively in star QB Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, pass rusher Aaron Donald, and a boost in the secondary in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. This is what the era of the salary cap and trades look like in today's NFL even though this method of acquisitions might not be used by other teams as often. With that being said, how will the rest of the NFC West hold up after these monster acquisitions of star players and does this roster have what it takes to write the city of Los Angeles a Hollywood ending by bringing home their second Super Bowl title in franchise history?
Well in the Emerald City of Seattle, the Seahawks still have their top tier starting quarterback in Russell Wilson, but it seems that after all these years of punishing opposing offenses to pieces, the Legion of Boom might be over as Seattle might have to start a new era with the losses of both Richard Sherman to San Francisco and Kam Chancellor due to a chronic neck injury. At best, my guess for the Seahawks is that they will go 9-7 but miss the Playoffs for the second straight year. In San Francisco, I would not be surprised if this is the team that will contend with the Rams for the NFC West division title. You've got the up and coming starting quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and the new acquisition of former Legion of Boom member Richard Sherman plus Pierre Garcon from the Redskins. This should be a high powered offense enough to get the 49ers at least 10 wins this season plus a Wild Card spot.
As for the Cardinals, this might be the end of the road for Cardinals veteran Larry Fitzgerald as his former quarterback in Carson Palmer has retired. I call this season for Arizona a rebuild with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen as he is now the heir to the pigskin. The only person on defense to help the Cardinals this season would have to be defensive end Chandler Jones. And to his credit, he is one of the most underrated defensive playmakers in this league. It just doesn't help the fact that the Cardinals are what they once were back in 2015 and for that reason, they will have a maximum of six wins this season.
So do the Rams have what it takes to make a Super Bowl run? Yes. It is an easy division in the NFC West to get through but an even tougher NFC conference with teams like the Eagles and Packers the Rams will have to play en route to another NFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Yes we may be six months away from The Big Game, but it is never to early to predict who will go to Atlanta in February to play in Super Bowl LIII.
And now without further ado, drumroll please...
Super Bowl LIII: Packers 28, Jaguars 21
A little bit of revenge for both teams after coming off of some brutal losses last season. The Jaguars finally get past Brady in the AFC Championship Game as Blake Bortles joins Joe Flacco as only the second quarterback to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium. This is also a year of resilience for the Packers after getting back Aaron Rodgers as he is recovered from his season ending injury that took him out last season. It is a premier NFL matchup for all football fans to see with Rodgers' offense and the unbelievable defense in #Sacksonville.
Unfortunately though, it won't be enough for the Jaguars' defense to capture their first Lombardi in franchise history as they will be the next victim of a comeback by the great Houdini in Rodgers himself so miraculous in fact, that it will take a last second Hail Mary for the Packers to win their first title in seven years. And of course Aaron Rodgers deserves to win Super Bowl LIII MVP honors for his clutch heroics, who doesn't.
The 2018 NFL season is bound for a lot of surprises given all of these new situations of players with new teams. But one thing is for sure. This season will have some teams going from dead last in their division last season, to division champions this season.
32 teams, only two will go to the ATL in February for Super Bowl LIII.