Rams-Jaguars Super Bowl Will Be the Zenith of the 2018 NFL Season

The Philadelphia Eagles unveiled their first Super Bowl banner at Lincoln Financial Field. It was one last moment to look back on their triumph over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. With the opening week of the 2018 NFL season in the books, here is my breakdown of each division, the playoffs and who will be crowned the Super Bowl LIII champion.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings (12-4, division winner, #2 seed NFC)

The Vikings blitzed the competition after a 2-2 start in 2017, going 11-1 after that. All three quarterbacks on their 2017 roster have new homes, Case Keenum in Denver, Sam Bradford in Arizona and Teddy Bridgewater in New Orleans. In free agency, the Vikings addressed their quarterback problem by signing Kirk Cousins and trading with Denver for Trevor Siemien. Minnesota lost running back Jerick McKinnon to the Niners and guard Joe Berger to retirement. Free agent Tom Compton will replace Berger, and with running back Dalvin Cook back from injury, the running game should be back on track. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is a fantastic addition to a defensive line that has Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, and Everson Griffin. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks should hold down the middle. The Vikings finish off their defense with one of the best secondaries in the league with first-team All-Pros cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith with cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Andrew Sendejo. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes and safety George Iloka add depth to a sharp back end. The Vikings will go 12-4, secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs and get a bye in the first round. Minnesota will get their chance at revenge in the Divisional Round when they host the Eagles. Minnesota will prevail. The Vikings reached the NFC Championship game last year, and I see them getting there in 2018 as well. Unfortunately for fans of the “Purple People Eaters,” the Los Angeles Rams will be too much. The road to the Lombardi Trophy stops at the NFC Championship Game two seasons in a row for the Vikes.

Green Bay Packers (11-5, Wildcard team, #5 seed NFC)

The Packers play the Vikings twice, the Rams, Patriots, and Falcons. Outside of that, the schedule falls in Green Bay’s favor. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back for a full campaign in 2018. The Packers’ 7-9 record a year ago is an anomaly. In the offseason, Packers brass helped out Rodgers by acquiring tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis as well as adding depth at offensive line with Byron Bell and Alex Light. Between wide receivers Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison with Graham and Lewis, Rodgers should have quite a few targets this season. The Packers used their first two draft choices in 2018 on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander from Louisville and Josh Jackson from Iowa. This was a position of need in the offseason. With last season’s second-round pick corner Kevin King and the addition of Tramon Williams, the Packers should be better against the pass this year. One way to allow fewer passing yards is with a great push up front. The addition of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson will undoubtedly devastate offensive lines. Wilkerson will be added to a group that features defensive end Mike Daniels and outside linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers will take their fantastic passing offense on the road in New Orleans in the Wildcard Round. Rodgers and Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be flinging it around in an air assault, but the Saints will take the victory.

Detroit Lions (7-9)

Newly-hired head coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni will try to bring back the ferocity of the 1950’s Lions defenses. However, the NFL didn’t do them any favors, with the 49ers, Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, and Rams on their out-of-division schedule. Not to mention four games against NFC North foes, Minnesota and Green Bay. The Lions bring back the sixth-best passing offense from last year when they were 9-7 overall. Quarterback Matthew Stafford can rack up the yards in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme. He has two passing threats in wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate. The Lions are waiting for wide receiver Kenny Golladay to emerge as a third option. The problem in Detroit has been the ineffectiveness of the running game since running back Barry Sanders retired after the 1998 season. It should be another committee in the “Motor City,” but second-round pick Kerryon Johnson, out of Auburn will try to take the lead back role. The Lions acquired veteran running back LeGarrette Blount in the offseason, giving more credibility to their rushing attack then the Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner group employed in 2017. Left guard Frank Ragnow is an excellent piece added as the 20th overall pick in April’s draft and the newest building block on the Lions’ offensive line overhaul. The Lions will finish the season at 7-9 and miss the playoffs.

Chicago Bears (6-10)

The Chicago Bears have been a lousy team for a long time. It’s been a long 12 years in the “Windy City” since quarterback Rex Grossman, running back Thomas Jones, linebackers Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman guided the Bears to the Super Bowl. However, if the offseason is any indication, things could be turning around for a team that went 5-11 in 2017. Former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy was named as Chicago Bears head coach. Former Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich came on as the Bears offensive coordinator. Chicago retained Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator, and that side of the ball is synonymous with Chicago Bears football. Since the team was founded in 1919, names like Lyman, Butkus, Singletary, Dent, and Urlacher have been as blue collar and hardworking in their play as the people of Chicago. In the first round of the 2018 draft, the Bears selected Roquan Smith out of Georgia, the consensus number one inside linebacker of the class.

Along with Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkowski and Danny Trevathan, the linebacker core is coming together. Then, in a splash move, the Bears traded for Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack, solidifying one of the best linebacking groups in the NFL. Akiem Hicks is a standout player at the right defensive end. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will look for guidance from Nagy, and running back Jordan Howard is one of the better players at his position in the league. Chicago acquired wide receiver Allen Robinson, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, tight end Trey Burton and drafted wide receiver Anthony Miller to help Trubisky in year number two. The Bears have improved and will continue to make strides over the next few seasons, but they’re not there yet. They will finish 6-10, out of the playoff hunt.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (11-5, division winner, #4 seed NFC)

The Saints have had a high-flying attack since quarterback Drew Brees, and head coach Sean Payton got together in 2006. Both men were able to raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2009 after they defeated the Indianapolis Colts. Since then, New Orleans has not been able to acquire the right mix of defensive players to put them back on the NFL’s summit. In 2017, general manager Mickey Loomis drafted cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk in the first round and safety Marcus Williams in the second round. All three players were on the All-Rookie team. Then, in the third round, the Saints took running back Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee. Kamara dominated the competition earning All-Pro second team and All-Rookie honors. That’s called crushing the draft process. With Brees, Kamara and standout wide receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints have a big three. Add in running back Mark Ingram, who alongside Kamara, made for the league’s best tandem in 2017. Ingram will serve a four game suspension for violating the performance enhancing drug policy. When he returns in week 5, defenses will struggle to stop Ingram and Kamara. For good measure, New Orleans added running back Shane Vereen in free agency. Wide receivers Cameron Meredith, Ted Ginn Jr., and third-round draft choice Tre’Quan Smith round out Brees’ receiving core. Tight end Benjamin Watson should ramp up the attack even more. Demario Davis should be an upgrade at weakside linebacker, and strong safety Kurt Coleman should add experience on the back end. First-team All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan should feast on opposing quarterbacks again. The Saints are full of talent and should coast to an NFC South title. They will find themselves as the number four seed in the NFC and a home game against the Packers. It will be an exciting contest, but the Saints will take the W. In the Divisional Round, the Saints will travel to Los Angeles to face the one-seeded Rams. The Rams will have enough to shut down Brees and Kamara and send the Saints home unhappy.

Carolina Panthers (10-6, #6 seed NFC)

The Panthers shut down Kamara in the NFC Wild Card round in 2017. Unfortunately for Carolina, Brees lit them up for 376 yards and two touchdowns. That’s the story with this Panthers team. The passing defense was 18th in the league one year ago. Interim general manager Marty Hurney attempted to correct this issue in the offseason. Cornerback Donte Jackson was drafted in the second round out of LSU. They picked up cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Lorenzo Doss in free agency. Safety Rashaan Gaulden was drafted out of Tennessee in the third round, and safety Da’Norris Searcy was taken in free agency. The effort is there to solidify the secondary, but the talent doesn’t match up with the elite secondaries in the NFL. The Panthers should be stout against the run. They ranked third in the NFL in run defense last year and added defensive tackle Dontari Poe in the offseason. The Panthers have been giving quarterback Cam Newton some more help recently. They added running back C.J. Anderson in free agency to backup starting running back Christian McCaffrey. In April’s draft, Carolina drafted Maryland standout wide receiver D.J. Moore in the first round. Moore will work with wide receivers Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. I don’t think the Panthers have enough to contend with the Saints, but they should stave off the Falcons and Bucs. If Newton gets back to his MVP form, this team can win the division and make noise in a stacked NFC. Carolina will get to 10 wins and with a Week 1 victory over the Cowboys, will take the tiebreaker and squeeze in as the sixth seed. The Panthers will travel to Philadelphia in the Wildcard Round. The Eagles will move on to the Divisional Round, sending the Panthers packing.

Atlanta Falcons (9-7)

Despite the loss to the Eagles last night, the Falcons bring back one of the league’s best offenses and a young defense. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley was added in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Alongside wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohammad Sanu, Atlanta’s trio is dangerous. They spent the rest of the draft adding depth at cornerback, middle linebacker, defensive tackle, and wide receiver. In free agency, the Falcons added guard Brandon Fusco, who will take over as their starting right guard this year. Atlanta’s best offensive lineman is center Alex Mack, a first-team All-Pro. He’s a player that will call the signals and lead a unit that makes way for running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Atlanta brings back a defensive unit that ranked ninth, ninth and eighth in total yards, rushing yards and points allowed respectively in 2017. The defensive line lost defensive tackle Dontari Poe to the Panthers and replaced him with defensive tackle Terrell McClain. This is a downgrade. However, the Falcons are hoping defensive tackle Grady Jarrett can clog up the middle and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley, and Vic Beasley wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Their linebacking core is led by middle linebacker Deion Jones. Jones can cover, lay the wood and knows his assignments. He’s one of the better middle linebackers in the league. The secondary is young, fast and athletic. The Falcons ranked 12th against the pass last season and held the Eagles to 18 points. Kicker Matt Bryant is reliable as well. Atlanta is a good team. Unfortunately for them, they play in one of the best divisions in football, and they miss the playoffs with a 9-7 mark.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)

The Buccaneers were the worst team in the NFC South last season and will find themselves in the cellar in 2018. I was not high on quarterback Jameis Winston coming out of Florida State, and he hasn’t done anything to change my opinion of him. This is year four for Winston, and he still struggles with his read progression. Winston will miss the first three games due to a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He has weapons at wide receiver and tight end in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. This should be a passing offense that other teams are scared of. Instead, it’s several talented receivers without a QB that can get them the ball. The Bucs drafted running back Ronald Jones II out of USC in the second round to replace Doug Martin. Martin went to Oakland to backup Marshawn Lynch. According to CBS Sports, Jones II will start the season as the team’s third running back behind Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers. The Bucs are a much better defensive team than they are an offensive one. They drafted defensive tackle Vita Vea out of Washington in the first round of April’s draft. Vea and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy should serve as a brick wall to opposing running games. Tampa added former New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and former Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry to improve their defensive front four. Defensive end Carl Nassib was a waiver wire acquisition from the Cleveland Browns. Tampa added former Eagles defensive end, Beau Allen, as well, providing defensive coordinator Mike Smith with depth up front. The Bucs rank near the top of the league at linebacker with middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and weakside linebacker Lavonte David leading the charge. Last year, Tampa was 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. With their new front seven, the Bucs should boost this ranking. Cornerback Brent Grimes leads the secondary. However, the team is expecting more from cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and the rest of the back end. The Buccaneers spent some equity at the cornerback position in April. They used a second-round pick on M.J. Stewart out of North Carolina. Ten picks later, they drafted Carlton Davis out of Auburn. In 2017, the Bucs ranked last in passing yards allowed, and the additions should help. I like the first two levels of this defense and their wide receivers and tight end groups. I don’t think that will be enough to even out a struggling quarterback, nonexistent running game and a weak secondary. A 16-game slate that includes the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons twice, the Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys is tough. Not to mention, an improved Cleveland Browns team in week 7. It’s an arduous road for Tampa Bay, and they will finish at 4-12, out of the playoffs.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, division winner, #3 seed, NFC)

The Eagles opened up the 2018 campaign with a 2017 Super Bowl banner and culminated the night by defeating the Falcons 18-12. Philadelphia was the last team to win the NFC East two years in a row in 2003-2004. The Eagles won the division from 2001-2004, losing three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl. This Eagles squad will not have a 14-2 record like they did last year, but they will win 11 games, and capture the NFC East crown. This team is coming off a year where they lost their MVP-caliber starting quarterback Carson Wentz and still raised the Lombardi Trophy. Defenses have been unable to stop head coach Doug Perderson’s run-pass options. Half of the offensive line run blocks while the other half pass blocks and Wentz or backup quarterback Nick Foles has the option run or pass. These reads are easy for the quarterback and confusing for the defense. Pederson sprinkles in unique formations and run plays by the backfield of Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood. Wentz is still recovering from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee and may not play until October, according to Bleacher Report. Foles can hold down the fort while Wentz is away, and the Eagles will keep rolling. In the offseason, the Eagles filled the wide receiver void left by Torrey Smith with wideout Mike Wallace. Wallace will team up with Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agholor at wide receiver. The best pass catcher on the team is tight end Zach Ertz, who is an absolute beast. Second-string tight end Brent Celek retired and third-string tight end Trey Burton is now on the Bears. In the second round of the 2018 draft, Philly filled that hole with tight end Dallas Goedert out of San Diego State. Philly has one of the best offensive lines in the business. Center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson were All-Pro first team players last season. Left tackle Jason Peters, one of the best players at his position is coming back from a left ACL and MCL tear. A swarming, blitzing defense under coordinator Jim Schwartz returns with even more firepower. The Birds added defensive end Michael Bennett in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in free agency. Chris Long and Derek Barnett are stellar at defensive end and All-Pro second team defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is both cerebral and ferocious. The Eagles will get middle linebacker Jordan Hicks back from an Achilles injury.

Along withoutside linebacker Nigel Bradham, the duo is devastating. The secondary is the most intriguing to me, as executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman has drafted well and added pieces in the free agent market. Starting strong safety and team leader Malcolm Jenkins is a 2014 free agent pickup from the Saints. Free safety Rodney McLeod is a 2016 free agent pickup from the Los Angeles Rams. Cornerback Jalen Mills is a 2016 seventh rounder out of LSU. In 2017, the Eagles traded with the Buffalo Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby. In the second round of the 2017 draft, Philly grabbed cornerback Sidney Jones out of Washington, and in the third round, they took Rasul Douglas out of West Virginia. The Eagles are scary again, but they will have to survive without Wentz for several games. The secondary, especially Mills can be had on double moves and situations where Schwartz’s exotic blitzes get picked up. That being said, this team should win 11 games and a divisional crown. The NFC is much stronger than the AFC and it’s harder to defend a title than it’s to win one. I see the Eagles winning a home game versus the Cowboys in the Wildcard Round. Next, they travel to Minnesota in the Divisional Round. Unlike last year, the Vikings will come out on top, eliminating the Eagles.

Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

The Dallas Cowboys finished 2017 with a 6-0 victory over the Eagles. The win pushed Dallas to a 9-7 record. However, the Cowboys could not muster an offense against an Eagles team that was 14-1 coming into the contest and rested its starters. In the offseason, tight end Jason Witten retired and join ESPN’s Monday Night Football coverage. The team released wide receiver Dez Bryant. All-Pro center Travis Frederick is out indefinitely with Guillain-Barre syndrome and right guard Zach Martin is recovering from a hyperextended left knee and bone bruise. Center Joe Looney will replace Frederick. Running back Alfred Morris and guard Jonathan Cooper went to the 49ers, fullback Keith Smith to the Raiders, and wide receiver Brice Butler is heading to the Cardinals. Tackle Byron Bell is in Green Bay, Anthony Hitchens signed with the Chiefs, cornerback Orlando Scandrick went to the Redskins before being released, and found a home with Hitchens in Kansas City. In one of the most surprising moves of the offseason, the Cowboys released kicker Dan Bailey. Bailey is the second most accurate kicker in NFL history, hitting at an 88.2 percent clip. However, Bailey’s cap number combined with recent seasons of 84.4 percent and 75 percent made him expendable. Kicker Brett Maher will replace Bailey. Dallas brought in linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 draft. Along with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson, the Cowboys should have a talented core at linebacker. In the second round, Dallas took Connor Williams to come in as their starting left guard. Dallas addressed the wide receivers in the third round of the draft, picking up Michael Gallup out of Colorado State. Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson were added in free agency from Jacksonville and Buffalo, respectively. The Cowboys traded with the Rams for wideout Tavon Austin, and addressed the tight end spot in the fourth round of April’s draft. Dalton Schultz was selected out of Stanford. Starting tight end Geoff Swaim and backup Blake Jarwin will try to replace Witten. Witten is a first ballot Hall-of-Fame player that Swaim, Jarwin, Schultz and Rico Gathers can not supersede. The offense will be better in 2018, as running back Ezekiel Elliott will play all 16 games. The Cowboys are attempting to build this team like the 90’s Cowboys. The team will go as Elliott goes, and with a dominant offensive line, and the ability to control time of possession, the game plan for success in “Big D” has been formulated. This defense is a middle of the pack group, but they are more talented than most people give them credit for. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is an animal up front. When DT David Irving comes back from a four-game suspension, the duo will pressure opposing signal callers all game long. Defensive end Randy Gregory has been reinstated into the NFL. Gregory, Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong and Tyrone Crawford will assist Lawrence and Irving. The Cowboys have made a concerted effort to get younger and more athletic in the back end. This is still an area that can be improved, but it’s getting there. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods are the starters and they are a capable group. Cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis and safety Kavon Frazier provide depth for the secondary. The Cowboys have a fantastic offensive line and running game. They will need to feed Zeke as much as possible for success. Ideally, quarterback Dak Prescott will manage the game, keep the turnovers to a minimum and make plays when the box is stacked to stop Elliott. The defense is improving each year and has some play makers. The NFC is loaded this year, and it will take double digit wins to make the playoffs. Dallas will get to 10 wins and due to a week 1 loss to the Panthers, will not make the playoffs.

New York Giants (8-8)

The “New York Football Giants” made a splash with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft by selecting running back Saquon Barkley out of Penn State. New “G-Men” general manager Dave Gettleman is infusing the team with his guys. He was formerly with the Giants for 15 years before heading to Carolina and then back to the “Big Apple.” In Barkley, quarterback Eli Manning finally has a running back who can do it all. Barkley is a physical runner who can catch both out of the backfield and lined up outside, and he can turn on the jets when he sees daylight. Teaming up Barkley with Jonathan Stewart should make it harder for defenses to know what the Giants are doing this year. Pat Shurmur, former offensive coordinator in Minnesota, has come over as the new New York head coach. Shurmur will find creative ways to utilize Barkley, Manning and star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s assets this year. In 2016 and 2017, the Giants passing game suffered due to predictability and a poor offensive line. Gettleman picked Will Hernandez, out of Texas-El Paso to take over as the starting left guard. Grabbing former New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder in free agency enables the team to move Ereck Flowers to right tackle. This should be a better spot for Flowers, who struggled as Eli’s blindside protector. The Giants lost tackle Justin Pugh, guard D.J. Fluker and center Weston Richburg in free agency to Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco respectively. Right guard Patrick Omameh, a free agent acquisition from Jacksonville will be a new starter up front. Overall, the line should give Manning more time to find his wideouts. Sterling Shepard and Beckham Jr. return from a season ago. Cody Latimer and Russell Shepard were added in free agency at wide receiver. Tight end Evan Engram is one of the best in the NFL. He should definitely be a security blanket for Manning in year two. The New York defense has gone through some changes, but is a good unit. Right defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson made the All-Rookie team in 2017 and Damon “Snacks” Harrison is a monster at nose tackle. The Giants are set up to stop the run, a good strategy with Elliott of the Cowboys, Ajayi of the Eagles and Adrian Peterson of the Redskins in their division. Third round pick B.J. Hill, out of North Carolina State, is a new starter at left defensive end. Jason Pierre-Paul was traded to the Buccaneers in March. Mario Edwards Jr. should give them depth at defensive end for new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. New York loaded up on linebackers in the offseason, as this was the weakest part of their defense. New York traded with the Rams to get inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Kareem Martin, a free agent pickup from Arizona will start at strongside linebacker. Lorenzo Carter is an outside linebacker, out of Georgia, drafted in the third round. Connor Barwin was added as a free agent from the Rams. The Giants lost both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ross Cockrell in free agency, to Oakland and Carolina respectively. New York returns will start corners Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins with safeties Landon Collins and free agent acquisition Curtis Riley from the Titans. “Jackrabbit” Jenkins locks down receivers and Collins is one of the best safeties in the league. The Giants will recover from last year’s 3-13 performance. “Big Blue” will go +5 this season to an 8-8 record and miss the playoffs. New York faces the eighth toughest schedule in the NFL. The first eight weeks prior to their bye look like this: Jacksonville, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Carolina, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington. Things slow down in the second half of the year with Philly, Tennessee and Dallas sprinkled in, but the first half of the season is an absolute gauntlet.

Washington Redskins (7-9)

In January, the Washington Redskins acquired quarterback Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs. That move finished the Kirk Cousins era in Washington, and Cousins is now the starting quarterback in Minnesota. In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Redskins continued to beef up their defensive line, taking Alabama nose tackle Da’Ron Payne in the first round. Payne will work with defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis. This provides Washington with a formidable front. The Redskins targeted running back Derrius Guice with their second-round selection. Guice was lost for the season with a left ACL injury in the preseason opener. The Redskins turned to running back Adrian Peterson to fill the void. He will team up with Chris Thompson in the backfield. Wide receiver Paul Richardson comes over from Seattle as a speed threat that can stretch defenses. Pernell McPhee, an inside linebacker who has played in Baltimore and Chicago adds depth behind Zach Brown and Mason Foster. With Ryan Kerrigan, Brown and Preston Smith, Washington has a good core at the linebacker position. The Redskins will use strong safety Montae Nicholson in a starting role this season, and 2017 third-round pick Fabian Moreau will see increased playing time at cornerback. Moreau is the third corner behind Josh Norman and Quinton Dunbar. Center Chase Roullier replaces Spencer Long who went to the New York Jets. Roullier is an upgrade and the Redskins offensive line is one of the best in the league, anchored by left tackle Trent Williams. Washington has improved at the running back position and across their defense. They went 7-9 in 2017 and I have them at the same mark in 2018. Their schedule is fairly tough and is the 14th-toughest in the league. They have games against the Packers, Saints, Panthers, Falcons, Texans, Jaguars and Titans. When you add in two games against the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants, there aren’t a lot of easy games on the slate.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams (13-3, division winner, #1 seed NFC)

With new head coach Sean McVay at the helm and a jump in play from quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams surprised a lot of folks, going 11-5 and taking the NFC West. Los Angeles is going all in 2018, acquiring cornerbacks Marcus Peters (Chiefs) and Aqib Talib (Broncos) in trades and singing defensive end Ndamukong Suh in free agency. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is already the best in the business, and now he has more weapons at his disposal. The Rams are loaded from top to bottom and running back Todd Gurley is arguably the best all-around player at his position. The WR group that already featured Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp have added Brandin Cooks in a trade with the New England Patriots. All-Pro First Team left tackle Andrew Whitworth and All-Pro Second Team left guard Roger Saffold lead the Los Angeles offensive line. The Rams used third, fourth and sixth-round picks in the draft to add depth to their offensive line. Suh is added to a defensive front that spotlights All-Pro First Team defensive end Aaron Donald and nose tackle Michael Brockers. Mark Barron is a good player at inside linebacker. A secondary composed of Peters, Talib, and safeties LaMarcus Joyner and John Johnson instantly puts the Rams back end at the top of the league. With Nickell Robey-Coleman and free agent acquisition Sam Shields, the Rams have depth at the cornerback position. The whipped cream on top could be Greg Zuerlein, Johnny Hekker and Pharaoh Cooper who took 2017 All-Pro First team honors as the kicker, punter and kick returner respectively. Cooper is also the All-Pro second team recipient as a punt returner. McVay’s offense is the best the Rams have had since the “greatest show on turf,” scoring 29.9 points per game in 2017. This group will go 13-3, take the number one seed in the NFC and win the Super Bowl over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

San Francisco 49ers (8-8)

General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan signed on in 2017 for the 49ers. The goal is to get this team back to the prestige it once stood for in the 1980s and early 1990s. Acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a 2017 trade with the New England Patriots was a shrewd move by Lynch. The move gives the Niners their quarterback of the future. Losing starting running back Jerick McKinnon for the season was a huge blow for this team. McKinnon came in to fill the void left by running back Carlos Hyde, who is in Cleveland now. Running backs Alfred Morris and Matt Breida will replace him. Marquise Goodwin leads a wide receiver group that includes Pierre Garcon and 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis out of Washington. The 49ers addressed the position in the 2017 draft with fifth-rounder Trent Taylor out of Louisiana Tech. George Kittle is an up and coming tight end. The offensive line had a major overall this offseason. It is led by left tackle Joe Staley. San Francisco drafted right tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth overall in 2018. Center Weston Richburg and right guard Mike Person were free agent pickups from the Giants and Indianapolis Colts respectively. The 49ers are expecting a lot out of a defensive line that’s composed of three first-round picks in defensive ends Arik Armstead and Soloman Thomas and right defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. 2017 free agent Earl Mitchell will play left defensive tackle. Weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith and middle linebacker Reuben Foster are the best players at the second level of San Francisco’s defense. Third-round pick Fred Warner will play the first two games, due to Foster’s two-game suspension. The linebackers will work to replace Elvis Dumervil who retired in the offseason. Lynch reworked the secondary of this group. Right cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is a 2017 third-round pick out of Colorado. Starting free safety Adrian Colbert is a 2017 seventh-round selection out of Miami. In an ironic twist, longtime Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was signed as a free agent this year. Sherman would now see his old team twice per season in the NFC West. The 49ers will improve upon a 6-10 campaign in 2017 that put them last in the division. The Niners will take two more wins than last year, setting an 8-8 mark, good enough for second in the division.

Seattle Seahawks (8-8)

The 2018 Seattle Seahawks are a team in transition. For several years, this team was led by their “Legion of Boom” defense. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, safety Kam Chancellor, running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receiver Golden Tate, center Max Unger, linebackers Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith, defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, kicker Steven Haushka and punter Jon Ryan are all gone. In 2013, that group helped the Seahawks defeat quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. In 2017, the Seahawks went 9-7 and failed to make the postseason. That season was defined by quarterback Russell Wilson doing everything for this unit. Wilson passed for 3,983 yards, led the NFL in passing touchdowns with 34, and accounted for 37 of the 38 total touchdowns by Seattle’s offense last year. That’s an astonishing 97 percent! This is a team that’s declining from the one that dominated the NFL from 2013-2015. The Hawks drafted Chris Carson in the seventh round of the 2017 draft and Rashaad Penny with the 27th overall pick in 2018. They are trying to get Wilson some much-needed help. They added Jaron Brown and Brandon Marshall in free agency at wide receiver. Seattle added tight end Ed Dickson in free agency. Dickson will miss the first six weeks of the season as the team put him on the reserve/non-football injury list. The team drafted tight end Will Dissly in the fourth round out of Washington. The Seahawks added kicker Sebabstian Janikowski in the offseason, and wide receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the best kick returners in the game. Outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin was drafted in the fifth round in April and will join his brother Shaquill Griffin on the team. Shaquill will start at right corner and left corner Neiko Thorpe as well as safeties Bradley Mcdougald, and Thomas will join him. This team has talent, especially at quarterback, linebacker and free safety. Seattle is tied for the fifth-toughest schedule in league with the Broncos, Cowboys, Chargers, Packers, Panthers, Vikings and Chiefs slated outside of the division. It doesn’t help that the Rams and 49ers are divisional foes. The Seahawks will finish at 8-8.

Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

Arizona finished last season at 8-8. The team went though several changes in the offseason. Head coach Bruce Arians and starting quarterback Carson Palmer retired. Former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks replaced Arians, and the Cardinals snagged quarterback Sam Bradford in free agency. The team drafted quarterback Josh Allen out of Wyoming in the first round, but the rookie couldn’t beat out Bradford for the quarterback job. The Cardinals lost their defensive coordinator James Bettcher. Bettcher went to the New York Giants to implement his 3-4 scheme in the “Big Apple.” Al Holcomb was hired as the defensive coordinator, and the team has transitioned to a 4-3 approach. One great sign for Arizona is that running back David Johnson returns from his season-ending injury in 2017. The Cardinals star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald returns for his 15th year to lead Bradford’s passing targets. Wideout Christian Kirk was drafted in the second round of April’s draft out of Texas A&M. Jermaine Gresham and Ricky Seals-Jones are competent tight ends. The offensive line has improved with the free agent acquisition of right guard Justin Pugh and right tackle Andre Smith from the Giants and Cincinnati Bengals respectively. However, the offensive line took a blow when starting center A.Q. Shipley went down for the season with a knee injury. Arizona has an All-Pro first team player in defensive end Chandler Jones. Weakside linebacker Deone Bucannon holds down the fort at the second level for coach Wilks. The Cardinals are hoping to get more out of strongside linebacker Haason Reddick in year two. Cornerback Patrick Peterson leads the back end of the defense. He’s one of the best players at his position in the NFL. Last season, the Cards added Antoine Bethea at free safety and drafted Budda Baker, out of Washington, in the second round to play strong safety. Baker made the All-Rookie team as a special teamer and the All-Pro first team for special teams. Arizona is tied for the eighth-hardest schedule in the NFL, and their team is not as talented as their three divisional foes. The Cards face the Vikings, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Packers, and Falcons, outside of the division. With six games against the Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks, 2018 will be a tall task for Arizona. The Cardinals will finish with a 4-12 record.

NFC Playoffs

  1. Rams (13-3)
  2. Vikings (12-4)
  3. Eagles (11-5) (Win Tiebreaker Week 11 at NO)
  4. Saints (11-5)
  5. Packers (11-5)
  6. Panthers (10-6) (Win Tiebreaker Week 1 vs. DAL)

Wildcard Round

6. Panthers at 3. Eagles: Winner: Eagles
5. Packers at 4. Saints: Winner: Saints

Divisional Round

4. Saints at 1. Rams: Winner: Rams
3. Eagles at 2. Vikings: Winner: Vikings

NFC Championship Game

2. Vikings at 1. Rams: Winner: Rams

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4-1, division winner, #3 seed AFC)

The Pittsburgh Steelers went 13-3 in 2017 and made a push for their seventh Lombardi Trophy. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, The Jacksonville Jaguars stood in their way, eliminating them in the AFC Divisional Round. The offseason storyline in “Steelers Country” was all about starting running back Le’Veon Bell holding out. Bell, an All-Pro first team back from 2017, feels he should have a new contract and the franchise tagged him. He has yet to report to the Steelers and sign his tag. The Steelers will rely on backup running back James Connor in Bell’s absence.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads this Pittsburgh team. The organization has done a great job providing “Big Ben” with weapons and simultaneously grooming their quarterback of the future. In 2017, Pittsburgh took Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round out of Tennessee, and in April, they drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round out of Oklahoma State. Ben received some help at the wideout position as well. 2017 All-Rookie team member Juju Smith-Schuster, 2018 second-round selection James Washington and Ryan Switzer will be implemented into the Steelers attack. Switzer, a speedster, was acquired in a trade with the Oakland Raiders and was on the 2017 All-Rookie team as a kick returner. Wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter fill out a depth chart that starts with 2017 All-Pro first team stud Antonio Brown. Brown has five consecutive 100 reception seasons, is the best receiver in football, and a lethal weapon for the Steelers. Pittsburgh has one of the best offensive lines in football. Right guard David DeCastro was on the 2017 All-Pro first team. They should provide plenty of holes for Bell and Connor and plenty of protection for Roethlisberger. Left defensive end Cameron Heyward is a beast up front. Right inside linebacker Vince Williams and right outside linebacker T.J. Watt are great players on that side of the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers have retooled their secondary. All four starters were drafted or picked up since 2016. In 2016, the Steelers used first round and second-round selections on right cornerback Artie Burns and free safety Sean Davis. Last offseason, they acquired left cornerback Joe Haden, a former seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Cleveland Browns. In April’s draft, Pittsburgh chose strong safety Terrell Edmunds, out of Virginia Tech. Only four teams have an easier schedule than the Steelers. Pittsburgh will win the AFC North with an 11-4-1 record. They will host the Chiefs in the Wildcard Round and claim victory. Next, they will travel to New England in the Divisional Round and lose.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6, #5 seed AFC)

The Ravens finished 2017 with a 9-7 mark missing the playoffs, as the Buffalo Bills edged them out for the final playoff spot in the AFC. Baltimore is ready to turn things around in 2018. While the Cincinnati Bengals and the Steelers have an easier schedule than the Ravens, Baltimore faces the 21st most robust slate this year. Baltimore drafted quarterback Lamar Jackson, out of Louisville in the first round and signed Robert Griffin III in the offseason as their second and third-string quarterbacks. Joe Flacco still commands this offense, and his wide receiver and tight ends groups are revamped. Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead are free agent pickups from Oakland, Arizona, and New Orleans, respectively. The trio will replace Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin; players Baltimore lost to Philadelphia and free agency. Tight end Benjamin Watson is now with Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Ravens used their first-round pick to draft Hayden Hurst, a tight end out of South Carolina. Hurst will take over as the number one tight end with Nick Boyle and third-round pick Mark Andrews behind him. And in my humble opinion, running back Alex Collins is an underrated player that will tote the rock for the Ravens. Marshal Yanda is the best player on the offensive line and one of the best guards in football. The Ravens have great special teamers in kicker Justin Tucker, an All-Pro second team player, and punter Sam Koch. Undrafted free agent Janarion Grant, a Rutgers standout, will return kicks and punts for Baltimore. The second and third levels of the Ravens defense are better than the first. All-Pro second-team middle linebacker C.J. Mosley is an absolute animal out there, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is a leader on and off the field for Baltimore. “T-Sizzle” is a quarterback’s nightmare and Matt Judon is a good player on the strongside. Kenny Young and Tyus Bowser provide depth at the linebacker position. The secondary is full of talent, experience, and athleticism, and is one of the best units in the NFL. Free safety Tony Jefferson and strong safety Eric Weddle are cerebral players that can make the calls and intercept the ball. Brandon Carr provides consistent play and has seen every concept in the league since he was drafted in 2008. Marlon Humphrey is an aggressive and intense cornerback from Alabama that is physical at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens will go 10-6, finishing in second place in the AFC North. Baltimore will win the tiebreaker with Kansas City, taking the fifth seed in the AFC Playoffs. In the Wildcard Round, they will travel to Los Angeles and defeat the Chargers. Then, they will go to Jacksonville. The Jags will dispose of the Ravens, ending their 2018 campaign.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)

Cincinnati went 7-9, out of the playoff hunt in 2017. With running back Joe Mixon taking over starting responsibilities, running back, Jeremy Hill was released. Giovani Bernard is Cincy’s second back behind Mixon. The Bengals are expecting big production from Mixon, a player who dropped to the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft due to off-the-field concerns. The Bengals revamped the wide receiving corps in 2017, drafting John Ross ninth overall and then taking Josh Malone in the fourth round. Cincinnati looked toward repairing their offensive line this past offseason. Cordy Glenn came over in a trade with the Buffalo Bills and is the team’s starting left tackle. Center Billy Price was selected with the 21st overall pick in April. Bobby Hart, a free agent from the Giants, will take over at right tackle. The lifeblood of this team is the dynamic duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Opposing teams have to know where Green is on every down, and defensive coordinators choose to double him throughout the game, forcing Cincy to beat them with other weapons. One of those weapons is TE, Tyler Eifert. As long as Eifert can stay healthy, he is a big body that can help in the passing game and the red zone. Left defensive end Carlos Dunlap and right defensive tackle Geno Atkins led the Bengals defense. Right defensive end Carl Lawson made the 2017 All-Rookie team. Defensive end Michael Johnson is another good player in the Cincy defensive line rotation. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was hired in January and will put in his scheme for the first time this season. Preston Brown, a free agent acquisition from the Buffalo Bills had a great campaign in 2017 and is the Bengals starting middle linebacker. The team has another standout player in outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict. However, Cincinnati will have to play the first four games without Burfict. He will serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. The Bengals have a young secondary. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, at nearly 29, is the oldest one in the group. Cincinnati drafted starting free safety Jessie Bates in the second round of the 2018 draft. The Bengals selected Darius Phillips and Devontae Harris in the fifth round, as depth at cornerback. Only the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans have a harder schedule than the Bengals in 2018. I still see them taking a small step back, finishing the year at 6-10, third in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns (5-10-1)

The Browns have won one of their last 32 games under head coach Hue Jackson. To symbolize a fresh start, Jackson jumped in Lake Erie after the 0-16 2017 campaign. Newly minted general manager John Dorsey infused more talent into this roster in the offseason, and the Browns should be better in 2018. Last year’s quarterbacks DeShone Kizer, Cody Kessler, and Kevin Hogan were traded to the Packers, Jaguars, and Redskins respectively. The Browns drafted Baker Mayfield, out of Oklahoma, as the number one overall selection, while Tyrod Taylor was acquired via a trade with the Bills. Quarterback Drew Stanton was picked up in free agency and will be the team’s third-string signal caller. Running back Isaiah Crowell went to the New York Jets in free agency. Carlos Hyde signed on as a free agent acquisition, formerly of the 49ers. Nick Chubb was drafted in the second round, and with Duke Johnson Jr. and Hyde, composes the Cleveland backfield. In a splash move, the Browns traded with the Miami Dolphins to get wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who will head the receiving corps. Wideout Josh Gordon spent the offseason staying clean and knows this offense like the back of his hand. If he can reclaim the form of his 2013 season, 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, the Browns will have a formidable tandem. Cleveland drafted Antonio Callaway in the fourth round, out of Florida, to work with Landry and Gordon. The team added Darren Fells in the offseason, a free agent from Arizona, to add a veteran presence at tight end. Last year’s 29th overall pick, David Njoku, the Browns starting tight end is strong and athletic and will be a handful for defenses. The Browns defense has a few beautiful pieces in a defensive end, Myles Garrett, linebackers Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins and Joe Schobert and firm safety Jabrill Peppers. The team added free safety Demarious Randall in a trade with the Packers and left cornerback Terrence Mitchell as a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland drafted Denzel Ward number four overall, a cornerback out of Ohio State. This team had bolstered the roster from their winless year last season. They have the hardest schedule in the division and are tied for the fifth-toughest in all of football. The Browns will finish the season with a 5-10-1 mark.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars (13-3, division winner, #1 seed AFC)

The Jaguars rode a tremendous defense and a run-oriented attack to the AFC Championship Game in 2017. Jacksonville is pushing to make that next step and end up in Super Bowl XLIII in Atlanta. That should be an attainable goal with the fourth easiest schedule in the league this year. A strong running game from 2017 becomes even stronger with the Jags grabbing left guard Andrew Norwell in free agency. He was an All-Pro first team player last season and with Cam Robinson should have quarterback Blake Bortles’ blind side taken care of. Jacksonville wanted to make their offense less predictable in the offseason. By signing wide receiver Donte Moncrief and drafting wideout D.J. Chark in the second round, out of LSU, the Jags have managed to give Bortles better targets than a year ago. This wide receiver group of Keelan Cole, Moncrief, Chark, Dede Westbrook, Jaydon Mickens and Rashad Green looks much different that one year ago. Projected number one wide receiver Marqise Lee is on injured reserve with a knee injury, Allen Robinson is in Chicago and Allen Hurns is in Dallas. The tight ends have changed too. Longtime Jaguar Marcedes Lewis is in Green Bay as Jimmy Graham’s backup. Mychal Rivera is a free agent. Jacksonville grabbed Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul in free agency from the New York Jets and Redskins respectively. The reason the Jaguars have their nickname, “Sacksonville,” is their defense. The Jags come in wave and wave, overpowering offensive lines and punishing opposing quarterbacks. The defensive line and secondary are arguably the best units in the NFL. Yannick Ngakoue, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell are unstoppable. With Dante Fowler Jr. and first-round pick Taven Bryan in reserve, this rotation just keeps coming. The third level of this defense is led by outspoken cornerback Jalen Ramsay. He may talk a lot but he can definitely back up his smack. Ramsay, an All-Pro first team player, is coupled with A.J. Bouye, an All-Pro second-team player. Tashaun Gipson is one of the best free safeties in the league and Barry Church is a huge hitter and playmaker at the strong safety position. The linebackers are great on this team as well. While not as deep as last season, losing Paul Posluszny to retirement, they can still stop the run and cover in the passing game. AT weakside linebacker, Telvin Smith was an All-Pro second team performer in 2017 and Myles Jack can do everything at middle linebacker. Leon Jacobs will take over at strongside linebacker for Posluszny in defensive coordinator Todd Walsh’s 4-3 scheme. Jacksonville is a well put together unit by general manager David Caldwell and executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin. The Jags were 10-6 last year, but should have no problem going 13-3 and taking the number one seed in the AFC. Jacksonville will take on the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. The Rams will defeat them, ending Jacksonville’s playoff run.

Houston Texans (9-7)

The Houston Texans’ 2017 season started off well. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was lighting it up and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was catching everything thrown his way. Then, in October, the Texans lost defensive end and leader J.J. Watt for the season when he fractured the tibial plateau in his left leg. In November, Watson tore the ACL in his right knee and the season spiraled out of control from there. The Texans finished the year with a 4-12 mark. A new season brings new hope in Houston. Watson and Watt are healthy and ready to go. Houston has a menacing defense, a great quarterback and a good passing attack. One year after watching Watt’s work after Hurricane Harvey and the Astros winning the World Series, the Texans hope to bring that sense of hope and inspiration to the “Space City.” Houston has the easiest schedule in the NFL. That should help, considering the Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are on their docket twice in 2018. Hopkins, who took All-Pro first-team honors in 2017 will get some help in the form of Will Fuller V, Bruce Ellington and fourth-round pick Keke Coutee. However, it’s the defense that will make or break the season for the Texans. Watt, strongside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, right inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney and weakside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney can bring the pain on the opposition. In March, Houston added free safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency from Arizona. The “Honey Badger” and left cornerback Jonathan Joseph are ready to lead the back end of the Texans defense. The Texans will show America that last year was a lost season in Houston. The Texans will improve to 9-7 in 2018.

Tennessee Titans (8-8)

The Tennessee Titans used a strong running game and some timely plays by quarterback Marcus Mariota to a 9-7 record in 2017. Then, in the AFC Wildcard Round, the Titans walked into the halftime locker room down by 18 points to the Kansas City Chiefs. They walked out of the locker room, stormed back and stunned the Kansas City Chiefs by a final score of 22-21. The victory included a pass that bounced off of a defender that Mariota caught and ran in for six points. The Titans would head to Foxborough and lose to the Patriots 35-14, ending their 2017 campaign. Ironically, a former New England Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel is the new Tennessee head coach. Mariota has been in the NFL for three seasons, and the Titans are waiting for him to take the next step in his development. Former running back DeMarco Murray announced his retirement in the offseason. The Titans replaced him with former Patriots back Dion Lewis in free agency. Lewis is a great scat again and is lethal in the passing game. He will play behind starting running back Derrick Henry. Henry and Lewis are a real “Thunder and Lightning” duo in Nashville. Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis, and Taywan Taylor lead the receiving corps for Mariota. The Titans lost star tight end Delanie Walker for the season in week one. This is a huge loss, but Jonnu Smith and Luke Stocker will step in for Walker. Tennessee has one of the best special teams units with kicker Ryan Succop, All-Pro second team punter Brett Kern and return man Adoree’ Jackson. Jurrell Casey is an excellent player for the defense at the right defensive end. Vrabel and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees will use Casey along with inside linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Rashaan Evans and outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo in blitzing and coverage situations. All-Pro first-team free safety Kevin Byard leads a secondary that features Logan Ryan, Kenny Vaccaro, and Malcolm Butler. Vaccaro and Butler came over as free agents from New Orleans and New England, respectively. Tennessee has the second easiest schedule in the league behind divisional foe Houston. They should be able to use that to their advantage, hit an 8-8 mark, and set themselves up for years to come.

Indianapolis Colts (4-12)

The Indianapolis Colts are excited to start the season with their quarterback, Andrew Luck, under center. Luck missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. The Colts retooled their offensive skill positions in the offseason to assist Luck. Wide receiver Ryan Grant was signed to take over for wideout Donte Moncrief, who went to Jacksonville. Running back Frank Gore went to Miami, and Indy drafted Nyheim Hines in the fourth round and Jordan Wilkins in the fifth round to sure up their running game. 2017 fourth-round pick Marlon Mack is the team’s starting running back. Jack Doyle is an improving tight end, and he had his best season last year. The Colts brought over Eric Ebron from the Lions to solidify the tight end position. The number one priority in Indianapolis is to keep Luck upright. The Colts addressed the offensive line by selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth overall pick in April. Next, they signed Matt Slauson from the Los Angeles Chargers, and Nelson and Slauson will be the team’s left guard and right guard, respectively. In the second round, Indy drafted Auburn guard Braden Smith to add to their offensive line depth. Left defensive tackle Denico Autry was signed from the Oakland Raiders. Autry, right defensive end Jabaal Sheard, free safety Malik Hooker and left cornerback Quincy Wilson are the best players on defense. Indy has the hardest schedule in the division and the least amount of talent in the AFC South. Philly, New England, Dallas, the New York Jets, and the New York Giants are all on the schedule. Add in six games against Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, and you get another sub-par year for the Colts. Indy will go 4-12.

AFC East

New England Patriots (12-4, #2 seed AFC)

The Patriots barely eeked out a victory in the AFC Championship Game over the Jaguars in 2017. New England attempted to lift their sixth Lombardi Trophy but the Eagles had other plans, and the Pats were the last team eliminated last season. New England reloaded in the offseason, using their first-round pick on running back Sony Michel, out of Georgia. The Pats signed Jeremy Hill in free agency, formerly of the Bengals. Hill is out for the season after suffering an ACL injury in week one versus the Texans. They signed Kenjon Barner to go along with Rex Burkhead, James White, and Michel. As is the case in most seasons, New England will operate a running back committee behind star quarterback Tom Brady. Running back Dion Lewis went to the Titans. The Pats can bring back Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, two weapons that made the All-Pro first team in 2017. Brady won the 2017 AP MVP award as well. The Pats traded with the 49ers to get left tackle, Trent Brown. One major blow to this offense is the loss of starting left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants. Other vital injuries include linebacker James Harrison to retirement and cornerback Malcolm Butler to the Titans. Jason McCourty, an acquisition from a trade with Cleveland gives the team both McCourty brothers on one roster; both players are safeties. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is an excellent addition to this team. The former Falcon will play alongside defensive end, Trey Flowers. The Pats are hoping this fixes a glaring need on defense, their pass-rushing deficiencies. Wide receiver Julian Edelman will serve a four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. Edelman, Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson played out wide for Brady. The roster isn’t as good as it has been. That being said, it’s still head coach Bill Belichick, and Brady that leads this team and the Pats play to the 11th-easiest schedule in the league. New England will go 12-4 in 2018. The Pats will get a bye in the first round of the AFC Playoffs as the two seed. In the Divisional Round, the Patriots will host the Steelers and win that game. New England will play the AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars for the second straight year. However, the result will be different this year, and New England will go home.

New York Jets (7-9)

The Jets had a forgetful 2017 at 5-11 with a 1-7 record away from MetLife Stadium. New York traded with the Colts to get the third overall pick in the 2018 draft, selecting quarterback Sam Darnold, out of USC. Sam and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is the best of the 2018 quarterback class. Darnold won the job out of camp, and the Jets surprised a lot of NFL fans with a 48-17 week one beat down on the road in Detroit. Running back Isaiah Crowell comes over from the Cleveland Browns to team up with Bilal Powell in the backfield while running back Matt Forte retired. The Jets bring back wide receivers Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and “Mr. Third Down” Quincy Enunwa. Terrelle Pryor comes over from the Redskins and Andre Roberts, a free agent pickup from Atlanta, is one of the better return men in the league. The Jets lost tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to the Jags. Neal Sterling, a pickup from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad in 2017 will start. Chris Herndon, a 2018 fourth-round selection and Jordan Leggett, a fifth-round pick in 2017 round out the tight ends. New York added center Spencer Long from the Redskins. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is a significant loss for the front three; he’s now in Green Bay. Defensive end Leonard Williams leads the line, and linebackers Darron Lee and Avery Williamson are the best at the second level. Williamson is a free agent from the Titans. A big plus for the Jets is the free agent addition of left cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Johnson, a former Ram, joins Morris Claiborne, an old Cowboy to make up the starting corners for New York. Safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye are 2017 first and second-round picks, respectively. Adams made the NFL’s All-Rookie team last season. With Buster Skrine as the third cornerback and head coach Todd Bowles at the helm, this is a tough defense to deal with. The Jets are tied with the Steelers, Jaguars and Denver Broncos as teams with the 25th-toughest schedule in 2018. New York is better than the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins and will raise their record to 7-9.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The Dolphins went 6-10 in 2017. The team has provided starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill with more useful options at wide receiver and tight end. DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are back at wideout. Miami grabbed Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson in free agency from New England and Kansas City, respectively. At tight end, the Dolphins drafted Mike Gesicki, out of Penn State, in the second round and Durham Smythe, out of Notre Dame, in the fourth round. Gesicki and Smythe will make up for the losses of Julius Thomas (retirement) and Anthony Fasano (UFA). Miami took a hit at offensive line. Center Mike Pouncey is on the Chargers and guard Jermon Bushrod is on the Saints. Left guard Josh Sitton was a free agent acquisition from the Bears and center Daniel Kilgore was acquired in a trade with the 49ers. Veteran running back Frank Gore joins the team and will back up Kenyan Drake. Miami brings back stellar defensive end Cameron Wake. The team picked up defensive tackle Akeem Spence and defensive end Robert Quinn in trades with the Lions and Rams, respectively. This should bolster the defensive line. Miami is reworking their linebackers. Weakside linebacker Kiko Alonso was acquired in a 2016 trade with the Eagles. In 2017, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan was drafted in the second round, out of Ohio State. In 2018, strongside linebacker Jerome Baker was drafted in the third round, out of Ohio State. Strong safety Reshad Jones is one of the best players at his position. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was the 11th overall selection in April’s draft and is a sign the Dolphins are improving their back end. Miami is right in the middle of the pack, with a .500 schedule. This team has exceptionally talented wide receivers and defensive line players. Miami has enough to rank third in the AFC East behind New England and New York but ahead of Buffalo. The “Fish” finish the season at 6-10.

Buffalo Bills (5-11)

The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs last season, ending their 18-year drought. They dramatically reached the postseason when a fourth down play from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton sealed the deal against the Ravens. However, they were no match for the Jaguars, who ousted them from the playoffs in 2017. They were swallowed up by a Baltimore team in week one to the tune of 47-3. In March, they traded away their best quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, to the Browns. Tackle Cordy Glenn was traded to the Bengals. Tackle Seantrel Henderson left for Houston. Guard Richie Incognito is no longer on this football team. Running back Chris Ivory was signed in the offseason to team up with starter LeSean McCoy. Buffalo deploys wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Andre Holmes, Zay Jones, and Jeremy Kerley. Tight end Charles Clay is an active player at his position. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s unit is the strength of this football team. Buffalo added Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei from Washington and Carolina, respectively, to their defensive line. Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes are excellent players, forming a right front four for head coach Sean McDermott and Frazier. The Bills enhanced every level of their defense in 2018. Strongside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has a tremendous motor and can sniff out run or pass. In 2017, weakside linebacker Matt Milano was taken in the fifth round. Middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is one of the best players in his class. The Hokie was drafted 16th overall in April. Last season’s first-round draft choice, cornerback Tre’Davious White made the All-Rookie team. Buffalo signed Phillip Gaines to play across from White, a free agent snag from Kansas City. Last year, the Bills acquired both of their starting safeties, Jordan Poyer (Cleveland) and Micah Hyde (Green Bay). Hyde was an All-Pro second team player last year at strong safety. Buffalo has most of their talent on defense. Unfortunately for Buffalo, I believe that the defense will be on the field too much and get worn out. The offense will have a hard time scoring points, and they take a big step back this year. Quarterback Nathan Peterman didn’t work out last year or in week one of this season. The Bills are relying on a rookie signal caller in Josh Allen, who had a 56.2 completion percentage at Wyoming. With players that are stronger, faster and smarter in the NFL, completion percentages usually don’t trend up at the next level. The Ravens, Chargers, Vikings, Packers, Titans, Texans and Jags are on the schedule, and the Bills face New England and the Jets twice. They’re in for a long season. Last year, this was a 9-7 team. I’m predicting the Bills will drop to 5-11, last in the AFC East.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers (11-5, division winner, #4 seed)

The Los Angeles Chargers have had a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers since 2004. Unfortunately for Chargers fans, the front office has been unable to put the necessary talent around him to get to the Super Bowl. While tight end Hunter Henry is on the PUP list with an ACL injury, Rivers has immense expertise in running back Melvin Gordon, receivers Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, and Travis Benjamin, and tight end Antonio Gates and Virgil Green. Starting center, Mike Pouncey is an offseason addition from the Dolphins. Left guard Dan Feeney made the All-Rookie team last year. Benjamin provides the Chargers with speed and is a great punt returner. On defense, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram provide Los Angeles with a superb pass rush. Defensive end Justin Jones was added in the third round of the 2018 draft. He will provide depth at the position behind Bosa and Ingram. Linebacker is the position that this team needs to solve. They are working towards that by drafting strongside linebacker Jatavis Brown in 2016 and weakside linebacker Kyzir White in 2018. Safety Tre Boston is in Arizona, and cornerback Jason Verrett is out for the season due to an Achilles injury. However, the team used their first-round selection on strong safety Derwin James, out of Florida State. Free safety Jahleel Addae has a good year in 2017, and cornerback Casey Heyward made the All-Pro second team in 2017. Only eight teams have a tougher schedule in 2018 than Los Angeles. While they did drop their first game of the season to the Kansas City Chiefs, I see the Chargers winning 11 games and edging out the Chiefs for the division. The Chargers will slot into the fourth seed in the AFC Playoffs and host the Ravens in the Wildcard Round. This is the end of the road for Los Angeles, as the Ravens will defeat them and move on to the divisional round.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, #6 seed)

Kansas City is so confident in starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes that they traded Alex Smith to the Redskins. Mahomes proved them right in their week one victory over the Chargers. The Chiefs received cornerback Kendall Fuller in the deal; a necessity after losing cornerback Marcus Peters in a trade with the Rams. This defensive group is not as good as it has been in years past. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan went to the Titans and linebackers Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson are gone as well. Kansas City no longer has the services of Terrence Mitchell (Cleveland), Ron Parker (Atlanta), Phillip Gaines (Buffalo) and Darrelle Revis (retirement) at corner. On a positive note, KC has put together a young core at linebacker. Justin Houston leads the group at left outside linebacker. Dee Ford is his partner on the other side. The Chiefs signed inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (Dallas). In 2017, they traded with the Bills for inside linebacker Reggie Ragland. Breeland Speaks, and Dorian O’Daniel is second and third-round selections in 2018 to bolster the depth at outside linebacker. Fuller will get to start at cornerback in Kansas City, and strong safety Eric Berry is an upper echelon player at his position. Berry is a game changer for this defense. The Chiefs are solid on offense with Mahomes, running back Kareem Hunt, wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce. Their offensive line is good, especially at the tackle positions with Eric Fisher and All-Pro second team player Mitchell Schwartz. I believe that they Chiefs, led by head coach and offensive guru Andy Reid, are a playoff team. They have a harder schedule than the Chargers, and I think that Los Angeles will beat them in their second match-up week 15. KC plays New England and Jacksonville, where as Los Angeles plays Buffalo and Tennessee. The Chiefs will be the sixth seed, travel to Pittsburgh in the Wildcard Round and lose.

Denver Broncos (8-8)

The Broncos finished 5-11 in 2017. Denver finally has a competent quarterback in Case Keenum. The team drafted running back Royce Freeman with their third-round pick in 2018, and he will start. With Devontae Booker and undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay, the Broncos have a nice backfield. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and second-round draft pick Courtland Sutton gives Denver one of the best wideout groups in the NFL. Denver also selected DaeSean Hamilton in the fourth round, and he will be the fourth wide receiver for them. With the acquisition of left guard Ronald Leary (Dallas) and left tackle Garrett Bolles (first-round pick) in 2017, the Broncos started to improve their offensive line. Bolles made the All-Rookie team last season. Denver traded with Arizona to get right tackle Jared Veldheer. The Broncos have a fierce defense. Derek Wolfe and Domata Peko lead the defensive line. First-round pick Bradley Chubb will team up with star outside linebacker Von Miller as premier pass rushers in the NFL. Brandon Marshall is a good player at inside linebacker. 2015 first-round pick Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett provide depth at outside linebacker. Denver lost cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade to the Rams. Bradley Roby moves from the third cornerback to the outside with excellent corner Chris Harris Jr. Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons are reliable and are the starting safeties. Tramaine Brock (Minnesota), Adam Jones (Cincinnati) and Isaac Yiadom (third-round pick) were acquisitions for when Denver plays Nickel, Dime or Quarters defense. The Broncos have an excellent defense with an up-and-coming offense. Denver has Los Angeles and Kansas City in their division and a schedule that includes the Ravens, Rams, Texans, Steelers, and Jets. Denver will finish 8-8, a three-game improvement from last year. They will end up in third place in the AFC West.

Oakland Raiders (5-11)

What is old is new again in Oakland as former head coach Jon Gruden takes over the reigns as the “new” lead man. Gruden has talent at quarterback in Derek Carr. The team did an excellent job bringing in Doug Martin (Tampa Bay) to run with starter Marshawn Lynch and Jalen Richard. Richard is a good pass catching back. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson (Green Bay) was added in free agency. He will be the second wideout in an offense that features Amari Cooper, Seth Roberts and Martavis Bryant (Pittsburgh). Bryant was acquired in a trade with the Steelers and free agents Dwayne Harris (New York Giants), and Brandon LaFell (Cincinnati) round out the receiving corps. Tight end Jared Cook is a headache for opposing defenses. Oakland drafted left tackle Kolton Miller 15th overall in April’s draft. He will join left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Donald Penn as arguably one of the top two lines in the NFL. Right defensive end Bruce Irvin, weakside linebacker Tahir Whitehead, and strong safety Reggie Nelson are the best players on this defense. The Raiders made significant changes at all three levels of their defense in 2018. Frostee Rucker (Arizona), P.J. Hall (second-round pick) and Maurice Hurst (fifth-round pick) are all new along the starting defensive line. Arden Key was drafted in the third round to retool the line as well. Whitehead, a free agent pickup from Detroit joins Derrick Johnson (Kansas City) and Marquel Lee as the Raiders starting linebackers. Left cornerback Gareon Conley was drafted in the first round in 2017. Oakland hit the cornerback waiver wire hard. Rashaan Melvin (Indianapolis), Leon Hall (San Francisco), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (New York Giants) and Daryl Worley (Philadelphia) were all added to the roster. Worley will miss the first four games of the season due to an arrest in Philadelphia on April 15. The Raiders drafted Nick Nelson in the fourth round. Starting free safety Marcus Gilchrist is a free agent acquisition from Houston. Oakland lost punter Marquette King (Denver) in the offseason and had replaced him with fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend. Oakland went 6-10 in 2017, but with a division as good as the AFC West, and a schedule that sees Seattle, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, the Raiders will take a step back this year. They will finish 5-11, last in the AFC West.

AFC Playoffs

  1. Jaguars (13-3)
  2. Patriots (12-4)
  3. Steelers (11-4-1)
  4. Chargers (11-5)
  5. Ravens (10-6) (Win Tiebreaker: Week 14 at KC)
  6. Chiefs (10-6)

Wildcard Round

6. Chiefs at 3. Steelers: Winner: Steelers
5. Ravens at 4. Chargers: Winner: Ravens

Divisional Round

5. Ravens at 1. Jaguars: Winner: Jaguars
3. Steelers at 2. Patriots: Winner: Patriots

AFC Championship Game

2. Patriots at 1. Jaguars: Winner: Jaguars

Super Bowl LIII: February 3, 2019: Mercedes-Benz Stadium: Atlanta, GA

1. Rams vs. 1. Jaguars: Winner: Rams

What did you think of my rundown of the entire NFL season? Be sure to tell me all about it in the comment section below.

Published on 9/14/18 at 1:02 PM EDT. Sources: NFL, RosterResource, Pro-Football-Reference, Pro Football HOF, CBSSports, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, ESPN, Pro Football Talk on NBC Sports.
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