Despite just missing their sixth Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots remain the NFL’s model franchise. Owned by the Kraft family and led by QB Tom Brady (who recently turned 41) they went 13-3, setting an NFL record of eight straight seasons with 12 or more wins. Brady led the league with 4,577 passing yards and threw 32 TDs. Rob Gronkowski, who will be an action figure in the movies one day, was his main target with 69 catches (1,084 yards), most of any TE. The Pats lost LT Nate Solder to the Giants, and receivers Danny Amendola (now in Miami) and Brandin Cooks (who was traded to the Rams). But genius grouch Bill Belichick hasn’t gone anywhere and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels changed his mind about the Colts head coaching job and stayed. Brady won’t have No. 1 draft Isaiah Wynn (Achilles) protecting him now that Solder is a Giant, and Julian Edelman will be a major plus once his four-game suspension ends. Brady wants to play for two more seasons. Will Gisele let him? And can he stand being underappreciated by the genius grouch?
The 6-10 Dolphins went further south than South Beach. QB Jay Cutler was lured out of retirement with a $10 million contract but it didn’t work. Miami was inept on defense, too, with a 17th-ranked squad. First-round pick defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick better help, because owner Stephen Ross would have preferred executive VP Mike Tannenbaum to trade down for more picks. Miami traded star receiver Jarvis Landry (112 catches, 987 yards) to the Browns with the hope that ex-Pat Danny Amendola can replace him, and good luck replacing a Boy Named Suh. Unless fragile quarterback Ryan Tannehill remains healthy, Miami’s only happy hours will be at Joe’s Stone Crab.
First-year coach Sean McDermott got the 9-7 Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 2000 as he maximized the talent of a mediocre roster. Hiring former Alabama OC Brian Daboll will pay dividends. Buffalo has a couple of playmakers to build around in RB LeSean McCoy, who delivered 1,138 yards rushing and another 448 with 59 receptions, and TE Charles Clay. No. 1 draft pick Josh Allen, a big-armed project, will be the starting QB over A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman the second the coaches deem him ready. With a decimated offensive line and pedestrian receiving corps, Allen’s rookie season will be better spent wolfing down the wings at the Anchor Bar and Duff’s.
New York Jets
Gang Green (5-11) traded their No. 6 overall pick, two second-round 2018 draft choices and one next year to move up and make Sam Darnold their franchise QB. “I want him to start NOW!” coach Todd Bowles jokingly bellowed. “I think people are going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment that the Jets shifted into a new gear and became a great team,” said owner Christopher Johnson. Someone tell him that the Jets are nearing the 50-year anniversary of their only Super Bowl victory. Until then, 39-year-old Josh McCown returns for another year (with Teddy Bridgewater signed as insurance) and maybe more if he’s healthy again. The Jets have gone seven straight seasons without a playoff berth and Bowles is 20-28. He might want to treat the owners to the branzino arrosto at Sandro’s.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers (13-3) have remained consistent by winning 45 games in the past four seasons. The main reason has been the Killer Bees: Ben Roethlisberger (4,251 yards, 28 TDs); Antonio Brown (101 catches, 1,533 yards) and Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 1,291 yards and caught 655 more. But the defense was certainly no Steel Curtain after playmaking LB Ryan Shazier suffered a horrific spine injury. Pitt drafted WR James Washington to replace troubled Martavis Bryant, and second-year WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (58 catches, 917 yards) is a star in the making. Journeyman free agent Jon Bostic will try to replace Shazier on a defense that needs to take the pressure off Roethlisberger, who told the club he wants to play three more years. Not exactly what third-round draft choice Mason Rudolph wants to hear.
Coach John Harbaugh is feeling the heat after missing the playoffs for the last three years. Joe Flacco hasn’t been an elite QB since Harbaugh beat his brother (and Colin Kaepernick, remember him?) to win the 2013 Super Bowl. Flacco’s 18 TDs and 13 INTs are a concern, which is why departing GM Ozzie Newsome jumped to the bottom of the first round to draft former Louisville Heisman Trophy QB Lamar Jackson, who may be a righthanded Michael Vick. Signing free agent WRs Michael Crabtree and speedster John Brown were good moves. First-round draft pick TE Hayden Hurst should be a godsend for Flacco. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs (11 sacks) will be 36 in October.
Three years ago, the Bengals were considered Super Bowl contenders, but regressed into a losing culture. Cincy has never won a playoff game under Coach Marvin Lewis, yet he has survived an 0-7 playoff record. It must be frustrating for the team’s best players, QB Andy Dalton (3,320 yds, 25 TDs); WR A.J. Green (75 receptions, 1,078 yards) and Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins (9 sacks). Second-year RB Joe Mixon will be the focal point of an offense that ranked last in 2017.
There’s a new sheriff in town for the sad sack Browns, who were drowning by the lake with one win in two seasons. “The guys before me didn’t get real players,” said GM John Dorsey. Taking undersized QB Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick earned him criticism. Even more surprising was drafting CB Denzel Ward with the fourth pick instead of DE Bradley Chubb to bookend Myles Garrett. Dorsey did earn praise for grabbing ex-Miami WR Jarvis Landry (112 catches) and ex-49ers RB Carlos Hyde (938 yards). Mayfield, who won the Heisman, eventually will be in a spirited battle with ex-Bills QB Tyrod Taylor for the starter job. Can he end the QB Curse of Cleveland? Since 1998, there have been 28 busts—almost as many as a slow night at the Playboy Mansion for the late Hugh Hefner. President Trump will kneel for the National Anthem before the Browns win a Super Bowl.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags exploded for their first winning season since 2007, going 10-6 under first-year Coach Doug Marrone and first-year VP of football operations Tom Coughlin. They got the Jaguars to growl, and almost knocked off the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Much-maligned QB Blake Bortles had a breakout year (3,687 yards), and was helped immensely by rookie RB Leonard Fournette’s 1,040 yards. A fast defense, led by Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) and loudmouth shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey, crowned the team’s nickname “Sacksonville” and was a big reason why they swept their division. The Jags will be predators once more in their new uniforms.
After 54 games with 18 QBs, Coach Bill O’Brien finally found his franchise quarterback in rookie sensation Deshaun Watson, who lit the NFL on fire before going down with a torn ACL after seven games. All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins (96 receptions, 1,378 yards, 13 TDs) was the go-to guy. The Texans tightened a weak secondary with ex-Cardinal Safety Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu, and expect a big comeback from humanitarian DE J.J. Watt after missing 24 games the last two years following leg surgery.
The Titans went 9-7 and won a playoff game for the first time since 2007, yet fired Coach Mike Mularkey. It’s up to new coach Mike Vrabel to resuscitate Marcus Mariota, who had his worst season in three years with only 13 TDs and 15 INTs. The offense was anemic. Only TE Delanie Walker (807 yards), WR Rishard Matthews (795 yards) and RB Derrick Henry (744 yards) were noteworthy. WR Corey Davis, the 2017 first-rounder, needs to emerge. Ex-Patriot RB Dion Lewis adds versatility to the offense, while ex-Pats CB Malcolm Butler brings stability to the secondary.
Years of bad drafts make Indy (4-12) a huge reclamation project. They’re like a hamster going around and around on a wheel. No QB was sacked more than Jacoby Brissett (52), which leaves Andrew Luck, returning from a yearlong shoulder injury, wondering about a weak offensive line. It’s a wonder 35-year-old RB Frank Gore, who left as a free agent, ran for 961 yards. WR T.Y. Hilton (966 yards), and TE Jack Doyle (690 yards) were the rest of the offense. At least Luck should be heartened by first-round pick Quenton Nelson, a nasty guard from Notre Dame. Indy lost a good coach in Chuck Pagano, who was replaced by former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. Not even the atomic cocktail sauce at St. Elmo’s can wake up this team.
Winner: Oakland Raiders
After 10 years in the TV booth, Jon (Chucky) Gruden is returning to The Black Hole where it all began for him in 1998. The Raiders were a playoff team in 2016 but fell to 6-10 last year. An offensive guru, Gruden inherits some talent. QB Derek Carr (3,496 yards, 22 TDs) is the kingpin who played hurt most of the year. Signing ex-Packers WR Jordy Nelson to replace Michael Crabtree was a smart move that gives Carr another weapon to go along with TE Jared Cook (688 yards) and WR Amari Cooper (680 yards), while RB Marshawn Lynch (891 yards) supplies the Beast Mode. Cooper is primed for a bounceback season as long as he learns how to be a Gruden Grinder. Like his father, Mark Davis is a trendsetter—he’s taking the Raiders to Las Vegas in 2019, where a prime table at the new Spago will surely be waiting for him. Al Davis was never afraid to roll the dice on anything. Somewhere up there, he’s smiling.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are nobody’s team. San Diego is mad at them and Los Angeles didn’t invite them, but the nomad Chargers were a feel-good story last year anyway. After opening 0-4, they went on a 9-3 run to finish 9-7. At age 36, QB Philip Rivers can still fling it (4,515 yards, 28 TDs) and has solid playmakers in WR Keenan Allen (1,393 yards) and dual threat RB Melvin Gordon. WR Mike Williams, the No. 1 pick in 2017, needs to emerge to help offset the season-ending loss of TE Hunter Henry. On defense, coach Anthony Lynn has a dynamic duo in DEs Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who combined for 23 sacks. No. 1 draft safety Derwin James is an enforcer.
The Broncos won the 2016 Super Bowl, but they were broken last season by an eight-game losing streak and a 5-11 finish. First-year head coach Vance Joseph was undermined by an underperforming defense. RB CJ Anderson (who is now with Carolina) and WR Demaryius Thomas did the best they could with sub-par play from a trio of quarterbacks. After failing to find a starting QB in his last two drafts, GM John Elway played it safe by signing ex-Viking QB Case Keenum (3,547 yards, 22 TDs). He strengthened the weakened No Fly Zone secondary by drafting N.C. State DE Bradley Chubb, to pair with All-Pro OLB Von Miller.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were an enigma. After looking like a Super Bowl contender with a 5-0 start, they stumbled yet managed to salvage a playoff berth by winning their last four games, finishing (10-6). They were surprisingly potent on offense as QB Alex Smith (4,042 yards, 26 TDs) had a career year, Rookie of the Year RB Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing (1,327 yards) and electric WR Tyreek Hill and athletic TE Travis Kelce were standouts. Adding WR Sammy Watkins is a positive move, but the big question is what happens to the Chiefs without Smith, who went to the Redskins? Can second-year gunslinger QB Patrick Mahomes II replace him?
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
Unsung hero GM Howie Roseman built a Super Bowl roster that sustained itself after starting QB Carson Wentz (knee) went down in December. Backup Nick Foles turned in a 127 rating in the playoffs, caught the winning “Philly Special” reception in the fourth quarter and was named Super Bowl MVP. He’ll be back for the 2018 season, and ready to step in again if Wentz isn’t ready for the season opener on September 6. The Eagles went 13-3, flying high with TE Zach Ertz (824 yards), WR Alshon Jeffery (789 yards) and WR Nelson Agholor (768 yards). Coach Doug Pederson was a fearless riverboat gambler. The defense, which recorded the most pressures (336), was bolstered in the offseason with the addition of DE Michael Bennett, who came from the Seahawks. The cheesesteak lines have gotten even longer at Pat’s and Geno’s.
New York Giants
The Giants endured their worst season in history (3-13) since 1978. That—plus six years of bad drafts—caused GM Jerry Reese’s firing. Big Blue traded Jason Pierre-Paul to the Bucs and is switching to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. New GM David Gettleman, who hired Pat Shurmur as head coach, is convinced that 37-year-old Eli Manning can bounce back from his worst season since 2013. The Giants made the draft’s biggest splash by tackling RB Saquon Barkley at No. 2. “He’s been touched by the hand of God,” Gettleman gushed. He also addressed a pathetic offensive line by making LT Nate Solder ($62 million) the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman and drafting belligerent G Will Hernandez in the second round. Shurmur will get more juice out of the offense with the return of a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. Classy owners John Mara and Steve Tisch—who might want to fuel their new coach with the lobster salad from Freds at Barneys—hope to make Beckham a Giant For Life.
There was no “How ‘bout them Cowboys!” last year. QB Dak Prescott had a mediocre season (86.6 rating) and the team went 9-7. The six-game suspension of RB Ezekiel Elliott had a huge effect. “I want to be the best quarterback that the Cowboys ever had,” said Prescott. And Kim Jong-Un wants a Nobel Peace Prize. Receiver Dez Bryant was let go, while TE Jason Witten left for ESPN’s Monday night gig at $4.5 million a year. No. 2 draft pick Connor Williams bolsters the elite offensive line, run by coach Paul Alexander, who claims he can rule out certain linemen by the way they dispense ketchup from a bottle. (With no Dez and no Witten, the Boys will struggle playing catchup). The Cowboys have won only one playoff game in seven years, leaving some to wonder why Coach Jason Garrett hasn’t been fired. “I just don’t understand why this guy still has a job,” said former Cowboy Terrell Owens.
Not only politicians have low ratings in the nation’s capital. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is unpopular for letting QB Kirk Cousins get away. Alex Smith, the new gunslinger in town, will find that he doesn’t have any top receivers after a 7-9 season. The best available are Jamison Crowder (789 yards) and TE Vernon Davis (648 yards). No. 2 pick Derrius Guice (knee) was lost for the season, wounding the ground attack. With a 64-95-1 record the last 10 years, Snyder is eligible for Federal Aid.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikes, who lost four Super Bowls in the 1970s, almost got back to another, but were crushed by the Eagles 38-7 in the NFC Championship. Case Keenum, a backup QB for two different teams, had a monster year, but he’s gone, replaced by Kirk Cousins. He’ll have an upgrade over what he had in D.C., with WRs Adam Thielen (1,276 yards) and Minnesota Miracle Man Stefon Diggs (849 yards). Mike Zimmer’s defense was No. 1 in the NFL, allowing the fewest points and yards. They get second-year RB Dalvin Cook back, who was averaging 4.8 yards per carry before a knee injury. Skol!
Green Bay Packers
After dominating the North for eight years, the Packers got boxed-in and missed the playoffs. QB Aaron Rodgers played only seven games after breaking his collarbone in Week 6. His favorite WR Jordy Nelson, who notched four 1,000-yard seasons, is gone, much to Rodgers’ disgust. At least he can commiserate with racy gal pal Danica Patrick. WRs Davante Adams (885 yards) and Randall Cobb (653 yards) will be helped by red-zone target TE Jimmy Graham, who came from Seattle. But with no running game and a tepid pass rush, the Packers have a ways to go to catch the Vikes.
The Lions (9-7) are hopeful Coach Matt Patricia can bring the Patriot Way to Motown. Detroit hasn’t won a division title since 1993 and no one is more frustrated than QB Matt Stafford, who had another productive outing (4,446 yards 29 TDs). He has two dependable WRs in Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate III. Defensive specialist Patricia will like CB Darius Slay, but needs to fix the pass rush to help DE Ezekiel (Ziggy) Ansah and come up with a run game, which was the worst in the league. No. 1 draft center Frank Ragnow will help.
John Fox was shown the door after three anemic years of double-digit losses, and Chicago brought in innovative Matt Nagy to get Da Bears off life support. His first goal is to resurrect 2017 No. 1 draft pick QB Mitch Trubisky, who needs better playmakers than the Fullback Filet Mignon at Ditka’s Restaurant. LeGarrette Blount (from the Eagles) will help, and so will WR Allen Robinson (from the Jags) and Taylor Gabriel (from Atlanta). First-round pick MLB Roquan Smith should be a Monster of the Midway for the defense.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
As long as Sean Payton and Drew Brees are around the Saints will be contenders. Last year, Brees threw for 4,334 yards, 23 TDs and set the NFL record for completion percentage. Imagine if he could see over the offensive line! RB Mark Ingram is suspended for the first four games, but Alvin Kamara will fill the void, and the defense gets more punch by drafting pass rusher DE Marcus Davenport. Brees can still lead a parade on Bourbon Street, and his two-year, $50 million deal means he can splurge on the Crabmeat Yvonne at Galatoire’s. Remember, he was only a Minnesota Miracle away from the 2017 NFC Championship game in Philadelphia.
Something’s wrong in Atlanta. The Falcons (10-6) need to rediscover their 2016 offense, when they averaged a league-best 33.8 points-per-game. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian couldn’t harmonize with QB Matt Ryan as the points decreased dramatically. Julio Jones (1,444 yards, only 3 TDs) did his part, as did RB Devonta Freeman (865 yards), but that’s not enough in a tough division. No. 1 draft WR Calvin Ridley is the perfect complement to Jones.
Overnight, the Panthers (11-5) went through a transitional turmoil with new ownership and new offensive and defensive coordinators. Hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper spent a record $2.5 billion for the team. After leading the NFL in 2015, averaging 33.8 points a game, they slumped to 22.1. Cam Newton regressed but led the team in rushing (754 yards). Wondrous offensive coordinator Norv Turner should help Newton boost his completion percentage and the defense, sparked by All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly, remains strong. The City
of Charlotte owes a debt of gratitude to former owner Jerry Richardson, who brought the NFL to town in 1995.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs went 5-11 but Coach Dirk Koetter didn’t walk the plank. QB Jameis (Infamous) Winston has learned the hard way that grabbing the crotch of a female Uber driver is a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy and will cost you a three-game suspension, pending appeal, to start the 2018 season. The Yucks failed to reach the postseason for the 10th consecutive season. Only WRs Mike Evans (1,001 yards) and DeSean Jackson (668 yards) showed any life. Tampa acquired quality pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul from the Giants and Vinny Curry from the Eagles to help a defense that ranked last in sacks, third-down stops and yards allowed per game.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
The rambunctious Rams (11-5) won the West for the first time since 2003, while topping the league in points (478). In his second season, QB Jared Goff gave an indication of being a franchise QB (3,804 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs, 100.5 rating), while RB Todd Gurley returned to his rookie form with 1,305 yards and 13 TDs. Rookie WR Cooper Kupp emerged with 869 yards. Adding WR Brandin Cooks (1,082 yards with the Pats) was huge. DT Aaron Donald was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and rookie coach Sean McVay was named Coach of the Year. Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters make the defense stronger. L.A. will conquer the West again.
The Legion of Boom turned into the Legion of Gloom as the once-mighty Seahawks flopped and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Russell Wilson did all he could at QB (3,983 yards, 34 TDs) and even led the team in rushing (586 yards). Coach Pete Carroll was devoid of playmakers except for WR Doug Baldwin (991 yards), and TE Jimmy Graham, who left for Green Bay, and he’s hoping 34-year-old Brandon Marshall has enough left to be a red-zone weapon. The once-elite Seattle secondary was weakened considerably with the loss of All-Pro Richard Sherman, now a 49er.
San Francisco 49ers
What a difference a QB can make. Jimmy Garoppolo came from the Pats in November and went 5-0. WR Marquise Goodwin (962 yards) was his No. 1 guy. RB Carlos Hyde, who took care of the ground game with 1,288 yards, (938 rushing, 350 receiving) is gone, as the 49ers signed ex-Viking Jerick McKinnon. Grabbing ex-Seattle CB Richard Sherman will immediately improve a weak secondary.
Desperately needing a QB, Arizona traded up for UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who suffered two concussions his final year. “There were nine mistakes made ahead of me,” snapped the cocky Rosen, drafted 10th overall. The return of Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson (who missed 15 games last season after leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2016) will help Rosen once he takes over for Sam Bradford. Chandler Jones and his NFL-leading 17 sacks leads the defense.
Super Bowl LIII Prediction
Look for role reversal inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, because this time it will be Carson Wentz catching the “Philly Special” touchdown while Nick Foles is on the sidelines. Wentz, his surgical knee as good as new, warms to the challenge of an early shootout with Ben Roethlisberger, two hulking quarterbacks who effortlessly shed would-be sackers. Big Ben’s bomb to Antonio Brown gives the Steelers a 24-17 lead before Wentz responds with a TD strike to Zach Ertz.
And then it happens. Michael Bennett forces a Le’Veon Bell fumble that Fletcher Cox recovers near midfield with less than two minutes remaining. Wentz breaks the tension in the huddle just like Joe Montana did back in Super Bowl XXIII. “Look,” he says, pointing into the stands, “isn’t that Vladimir Putin?” Wentz rifles a pass in the flat to a wide-open Nelson Agholor, who takes it deep into Steelers’ territory. Jake Elliott’s field goal as time expires gives the Eagles—who ended their 47-year championship drought a year earlier—a 27-24 victory, and back-to-back Super Bowl championships.