Winner: New England Patriots
After nearly two decades of domination, and 10 consecutive division titles, the Super Bowl champions faced a challenging off-season with the retirement of superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski and the loss of defensive coordinator Brian Flores. While Tom Brady didn’t have one of his better seasons last year (4,355 yards, 29 TDs), the 42-year-old returns along with a corps of playmakers: Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, first-round draftee N’Keal Harry and Josh (Flash) Gordon, who signed a one-year contract and returned after being reinstated by the NFL. Bill Belichick won’t be happy with the schedule—his Pats play a team coming off its bye week three times, and have five primetime games—but he isn’t happy until he’s hoisting the Lombardi Trophy anyway. He and Brady are in less jeopardy than James Holzhauer.
New York Jets
Co-owner Christopher Johnson took what he termed a deep dive into the operation, but Michael Phelps, he ain’t. New general manager Joe Douglas was a terrific hire, and new coach Adam Gase is an offensive guru who should work wonders with second-year QB Sam Darnold, who will be helped immensely by All-Pro security blanket Le’Veon Bell. Jamison Crowder and four-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley also bring new blood, along with DT Quinnen Williams, arguably the best player in the draft, who will create havoc with swaggerlicious safety Jamal Adams. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made for a fiery, feisty training camp that had Jets fans at Elio’s, Sandro’s and Sadelle’s buzzing.
The Bills have missed 18 of the last 19 playoffs but second-year QB Josh Allen showed promise with a big arm and a pair of legs that led the club in rushing. Head coach Sean McDermott fielded the second-best defense in the NFL, and first-round draft pick Ed Oliver was a steal who will replace retired Kyle Williams. Adding Cole Beasley and John Brown will help the receiving game, and ageless Frank Gore will contribute from the backfield.
The Dolphins are a Category 3 hurricane—a windblown disaster. They finished 7-9 in 2018, and you should expect more mediocrity this season. Former Pats DC Brian Flores is their tenth head coach since 2004 and he has little talent to work with. GM Chris Grier deserves a free meal at Joe’s Stone Crab for working out a deal to get Josh Rosen to duel journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, and first-rounder Christian Wilkins will provide instant leadership on defense, but opening the season against four consecutive playoff teams should beach these fish. Time to Tank for Tua?
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
The season-long drama between Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger was divisive and the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Big Ben (5,129 yards, 34 TDs) found another 1,000-yard weapon in JuJu Smith-Schuster, while James Conner picked up the slack left by Le’Veon Bell, who sat out the season in a contract dispute. First-round linebacker Devin Bush will make an immediate impact. Coach Mike Tomlin called the Brown and Bell departures “a cleansing.”
Baker Mayfield is the real deal as he established a rookie record of 27 TD passes (in 13 starts) to give hope to a franchise that had gone 1-31 in 2016 and ’17. The Browns made the biggest offseason noise by trading for the mercurial Odell Beckham Jr., signing Kareem Hunt and Sheldon Richardson and trading for Olivier Vernon. New Coach Freddie Kitchens needs to reward GM John Dorsey’s faith in him. But can he handle all these big personalities? What happens if Beckham doesn’t let him drive his new orange Rolls? With Hunt serving an eight-game suspension, Nick Chubb will carry the rock. Myles Garrett (13.5 sacks) leads the defense while draft pick CB Andraez “Greedy” Williams—who didn’t allow a TD at LSU—gives Denzel Ward a long, tall bookend. “The Browns are the most talented team in the division,” says Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh. And maybe the most combustible. Has President Trump ended the tariffs on winning?
Coach John Harbaugh has been a model of consistency with only one losing season since 2008. He did perhaps his best job after QB Joe Flacco’s midseason hip injury. Flacco helped tutor rookie QB Lamar Jackson to a 10-6 finish and the division title thanks in large part to the league’s No. 1 defense.
The Ravens let their top four defensive stars walk in free agency and changed offensive coordinators. Drafting speed merchant WR Marquise Brown and WR Miles Boykin gives Jackson better weapons, and RB Mark Ingram Jr. gives him a 1,000-yard runner. It’s up to Jackson to make it happen…with his legs and arm.
The Bungles made no significant off-season moves except to dismiss Coach Marvin Lewis after 16 years and zero playoff wins. It’s up to new head coach Zac Taylor to try to resurrect Andy Dalton. The Bengals can use more help from tight end Tyler Eifert, who has missed 34 games the past three years. Cincy secured its LT of the future in Alabama’s Jonah Williams, who will likely miss the season (torn labrum). Incoming DC Lou Anarumo inherits a unit that surrendered a league-worst 413.6 yards per game.
Winner: Houston Texans
The Texans opened 0-3 last season but went on a nine-game winning streak to finish 11-5 and win the division. They have one of the league’s best combinations in quarterback Deshaun Watson and wideout DeAndre Hopkins, and All-World defensive end J.J. Watt made his presence felt with 16 sacks, second best in the league. Lamar Miller’s torn ACL means Duke Johnson is the starter at running back.
Two years ago, the Jaguars were Super Bowl favorites, but the team went into a stupor last year, losing 10 of 12. A big part of the regression was QB Blake Bortles, and that was why the Jags released him and broke the bank for former Eagles Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. The defense added another weapon with first-round pick DE Josh Allen of Kentucky.
This is a critical season for Marcus Mariota. In his first four years he has not made the Pro Bowl and has struggled to stay healthy. Ole Miss rookie A.J. Brown will help Corey Davis at wideout, as will possession receiver Adam Humphries. Derrick Henry (1,059 yards) is a bull at running back, but it’s all on Mariota.
Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement two weeks before the start of the season sent Indy’s Super Bowl prospects out the window as Jacoby Brissett is Next Man Up. Eric Ebron was a revelation at tight end, and the offensive line had Luck so well protected he could have read the Mueller Report in the pocket. Parris Campbell takes some heat off explosive wideout T.Y. Hilton.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
First year sensation Patrick Mahomes had a jaw-dropping MVP season and resembled a modern-day Brett Favre, launching 580 passes that resulted in 5,097 yards and 50 TDs! Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were his accomplices in the damage they inflicted on opposing teams, and the electric Hill avoided a suspension for off-the-field conduct issues. Rookie Mecole Hardman is a deep threat. Following the departures of CB Steven Nelson (4 INTs) to the Steelers and Dee Ford to the 49ers, the addition of pass rusher Frank Clark from the Seahawks and S Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu will help new DC Steve Spagnuolo try to fix a defense that even Mahomes could not overcome in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Chargers
Old Man Philip Rivers keeps rolling along. No QB in history has passed for more yards (54,656) or more TDs (374) yet never played on Super Sunday. Last year, his Chargers (12-4) made the playoffs, but couldn’t get past the Patriots. At 37, Rivers is still productive thanks to wide receiver Keenan Allen, RB Melvin Gordon (a summer holdout) and red-zone weapons Mike Williams (10 TDs) and Hunter Henry, who returns from a torn ACL. Draft pick Jerry Tillery should fortify the run defense. Safety Derwin James going down with a foot injury is a huge loss.
The (4-12) Raiders made the biggest offseason move with the acquisition of Antonio Brown, who had six straight 1,200 yard seasons with Pittsburgh. He’s the dynamic deep threat that Derek Carr desperately needs. With three first-round draft picks, coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock addressed other needs, drafting Clelin Ferrell to help boost a league-low 13 sacks. Josh Jacobs, the first RB drafted, replaces Marshawn Lynch. Johnathan Abram could be a modern-day Jack Tatum, but signing guard Richie Incognito (no extremely stable genius) means owner Mark Davis better hide the women and children. This isn’t a Super Bowl team, but Wayne Newton might like it enough to buy season tickets at Las Vegas Stadium in 2020.
The Rocky Mountain Low Broncos suffered back-to-back losing seasons (11-21) for the first time since 1972. John Elway, who curiously has problems drafting QBs, traded for Joe Flacco. Will he be an upgrade over Case Keenum? Vic Fangio takes over as coach, and he will enjoy unleashing Von Miller (14.5 sacks) and Bradley Chubb (12 sacks). Phillip Lindsay (1,037 yards rushing) became the first undrafted rookie free agent to make the Pro Bowl, and rookie tight end Noah Fant should be an inviting weapon, but is wideout Emmanuel Sanders fully back from his Achilles injury? Elway may have finally drafted his future QB in Missouri’s Drew Lock, who has a rocket right arm that can be scattershot.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Foles did an admirable job of getting back to the playoffs, winning four of the last five games after Carson Wentz went down and now is starting in Jacksonville. Zach Ertz was unstoppable at tight end, and wayfaring wideout DeSean Jackson returns to help Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor. Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside gives Wentz yet another target. In the backfield, Penn State’s Miles Sanders could start ahead of Jordan Howard. To keep those Philly cheesecakes selling, the Eagles need to bolster a third-worst pass defense. GM Howie Roseman, voted No. 1 by USA Today, is on the case.
The Cowboys continue to be an enigma, much to Jerry Jones’ chagrin. They won the East (10-6) but have no long-term momentum, and it’s been 23 years without a trip to the NFC title game. Dak Prescott (3,885 yds, 22 TDs) is in line for a monster deal, and RB Ezekiel Elliott (a summer contract holdout) is a gamebreaker. But the Cowboys need more out of receiver Amari Cooper. DE Demarcus Lawrence earned his five-year, $105 million extension, but coach Jason Garrett, who is in the last year of his contract, needs to be more creative with his predictable offense, which has put him on the hot seat.
New York Giants
Rookie RB Saquon Barkley quickly established himself as the face of the franchise with 1,307 yards on the ground, 11 TDs and four more receiving TDs. (No truth to the rumor that President Trump predicts he’ll lead the league in Russian.) Eli Manning, 38, had one of his better statistical years but another slow start behind a flawed offensive line doomed him. GM Dave Gettleman has tried to build a wall in front of Manning, but no word yet on whether he got Mexico to pay for it. Gettleman has been under fire for exiling star Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland and not getting enough of a return after letting safety Landon Collins walk out the free agent door. Drafting controversial Duke QB Daniel Jones with the sixth pick finally sets the stage for a Manning succession plan, but it’s a shame Jones can’t play against the Giants’ overhauled defense, which has more holes than the Democrats have presidential candidates.
The Redskins continue on their path of mediocrity. Fan enthusiasm collapsed after Alex Smith (broken leg) went down, as did season ticket sales. Don’t expect another 1,042-yard season from 34-year-old RB Adrian Peterson, especially with Derrius Guice back from knee surgery that cost him his rookie season. The front seven is a strength, even after linebacker Reuben Foster wrecked his knee and will miss the season. The ’Skins have failed to win 10 games in a season for six straight years, and they won’t get an invite to the White House before Hillary does.
Winner: Chicago Bears
First-year coach Matt Nagy was a welcome change as the Bears clinched their first winning season (12-4) since 2012, and were surprising division champs. Mitch Trubisky broke out at quarterback and the defense allowed the fewest points in the league. Who the Bears lost shouldn’t make an impact. Chuck Pagano is the new defensive coach and RB Jordan Howard was traded to the Eagles, but Iowa rookie David Montgomery is a better fit.
Green Bay Packers
The Pack (6-9-1) missed the playoffs for the second straight year in a tension-filled season, then fired head coach Mike McCarthy and hired Matt LaFleur. Aaron Rodgers managed 4,442 yards and 25 TDs despite an ailing leg and the loss of Jordy Nelson. WR Davante Adams is the go-to receiver and Aaron Jones could be a breakout star at RB. The defense will be stronger this year. Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins, the $84 Million Man, had a disappointing first year at QB (8-7-1) and wasn’t much of an improvement over Case Keenum. He has two productive wideouts in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Draft pick Irv Smith Jr. will help at tight end. The defense is elite, but the Vikings need a better ground game and are hoping that Dalvin Cook can stay healthy.
Matt Patricia struggled in his first year at coach, and Matthew Stafford failed to throw for 4,000 yards for the first time in seven years. The only significant off-season signings were WR Danny Amendola and DE Trey Flowers.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
The Saints are going to enter this season as hungry as diners ordering the Chicken Clemenceau at Galatoire’s. They were shafted in the NFC Championship by a glaring pass interference missed call, and Coach Sean Payton took it hard. “For two or three days,” he said, “I didn’t come out of my room, ate Jeni’s ice cream and watched Netflix.” QB Drew Brees is the most accurate passer in NFL history (67.3 percent), with a record 74.4 completion percentage in 2018 at age 40. He’s the Tom Brady of the NFC. His top weapons, Michael Thomas (the $100 Million Man) and Alvin Kamara, return, and rookie center Erik McCoy is the perfect replacement for retired Max Unger. The weak pass defense is expecting more help from Marcus Davenport and Eli Apple.
Coach Ron Rivera survived one of his most baffling seasons. After a 6-2 start, the Panthers swooned with a seven-game losing streak that destroyed any playoff hopes and had them finish at 7-9. Cam Newton was hampered by shoulder problems, and Christian McCaffrey made the biggest impact with 1,098 total yards and 7 TDs. D.J. Moore can be a Go-To-Guy and tight end Greg Olsen decided to delay a television career. Luke Kuechly, with 130 tackles, remains the rock on defense. Rookie edge rusher Brian Burns will help a floundering pass rush, and Gerald McCoy is the perfect complement. West Virginia QB Will Grier, who has a nice, smooth touch, was drafted as insurance for Newton.
As long as Atlanta has Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the Falcons offense will fly high. Ryan threw for 4,925 yards and 35 TDs while Jones added 1,677 yards. Atlanta’s triple wideout set got 838 yards from Mohamed Sanu and 821 from Calvin Ridley. Proficient running back Tevin Coleman left for San Francisco, but Devonta Freeman is healthy again. The Falcons went 7-9, their first losing season under Dan Quinn. Before the draft, owner Arthur Blank said he wanted more youth on a blankety-blank offensive line. By using a pair of first-round draft picks on Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, it seems the message was received loud and clear.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach Bruce Arians is back, and despite taking over a 5-11 club that hasn’t made the playoffs in 11 years, he isn’t the least bit concerned regarding the future. “I’m not rebuilding, I’m reloading,” he said. Six of his eight draft picks were designed to fix holes in the defense. His biggest challenge is retooling QB Jameis Winston (2,992 yards and 19 TDs), who started only 9 games (playing in 11) and struggled with his weight. Arians has two solid receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and a talented TE in O.J. Howard. On defense, Ndamukong Suh comes on board, and Devin White will replace Kwon Alexander, but Jason Pierre-Paul (12.5 sacks) fractured his neck in a car wreck and could miss more than half the season.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
The well-stocked Rams (13-3) made it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 39 years, but were taken to the woodshed by Bill Belichick and his Patriots. Jared Goff had a banner year at QB with star performers Todd Gurley, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks before imploding on Super Sunday. Goff will have yet another weapon with the return of Cooper Kupp (ACL). DT Aaron Donald was a one-man wrecking crew with a league-high 20.5 sacks. Ex-Packer LB Clay Matthews and ex-Raven S Eric Weddle will love playing behind him. Darrell Henderson, a third-round bargain, is insurance for Gurley’s barking knee.
Coach Pete Carroll turned a rebuilding year into a playoff run, with a surprising top-ranked running game. Russell Wilson was the catalyst with 3,448 yards, 35 TDs and a 110.9 passer rating. Chris Carson led the ground assault while Tyler Lockett was clutch at wide receiver. Fearful of losing Wilson, Seattle made him the highest-paid player in NFL history with a $140 million, four-year contract and gave him a bonus by drafting body beautiful WR D.K. Metcalf. First-round pick DE L.J. Collier replaces Frank Clark.
San Francisco 49ers
QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s season lasted only three games as the 49ers ended up in San Francisco Bay (4-12). There were some bright spots on offense, like TE George Kittle, but unfortunately, the 49ers defense has ranked 24th or lower the last three years and that’s why they made Ohio State DE Nick Bosa the second pick of the draft and signed linebacker Kwon Alexander. The Niners helped Jimmy GQ by drafting two wideouts, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd. Tony Bennett can start singing that song again.
The Cardinals made a bold move hiring Kliff Kingsbury as their coach—he went 35-40 at Texas Tech—but it paid off. Kingsbury has known Kyler Murray since his high school years and helped convince him to say ‘yes’ to playing quarterback for the Cardinals. With his strong arm and accuracy throwing downfield, the rookie could be another Patrick Mahomes in Arizona’s Air Raid offense. Dual threat RB David Johnson should have a big year, and the draft gave Murray two more weapons in UMass WR Andy Isabella (4.31 speed) and 6’ 5” target Hakeem Butler. The coach isn’t worried that Murray is only 5’ 10”. Don’t sell him short, but don’t expect a winning season in his first year.