Washington has a new team name, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are each playing (at least) one more year and Joe Burrow is hoping to finally light a Super Bowl victory cigar. When the new NFL season begins on September 8, questions will abound. Will it be one of the old lions hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February, or will a new star emerge?
Division Winner: Buffalo Bills
This could be the year. New offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey must ask a little less of the wondrous Josh Allen, who ranked third among QBs in rushing yards per game (44.9). They’ve got a top receiver in Stefon Diggs, who topped 1,000 receiving yards for the second straight year and caught 10 touchdowns; a new slot receiver in Jamison Crowder; O.J. Howard as a complement to tight end Dawson Knox and a retooled offensive line. Rookie James Cook is a versatile weapon. Signing Von Miller in free agency and the return of Tre’Davious White bolster the NFL’s best defense, not to mention No. 1 pick Kaiir Elam, who should start at corner opposite White. They’re now the kings of the AFC East, eager to show taxpayers they deserve that new $1.4 billion stadium in 2026.
2. New England Patriots
Bill Belichick, the Tom Brady of head coaches, now also takes on the responsibilities of offensive coordinator. He’s got Mac Jones, who passed for 3,801 yards, 22 TDs and 13 INTs as a rookie and found it easy to hide behind oft-injured but massive (380 pounds, 6’ 8”) tackle Trent Brown. Versatile runner James White (hip) was missed. Lineman Cole Strange was an odd No. 1 pick, but why question Belichick and the Krafts after their six championships? DeVante Parker (from Miami) is a big target who can help a no-name group of receivers but he has played one full season in seven years. Matthew Judon (12 ½ sacks) makes the pass rush go. Fired Giants coach Joe Judge is back as a prized assistant.
3. Miami Dolphins
Tired of being beached whales, the Dolphins (who lost several future draft picks for tampering with Tom Brady) made several bold moves. New coach Mike McDaniel inherits so-so quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who gets to throw to Tyreek Hill, the NFL’s highest paid receiver; Jaylen Waddle, who set the league rookie record for receptions; and dangerous tight end Mike Gesicki. Chase Edmonds and injury-plagued Raheem Mostert juice a ground game ranked 30th last year. If this doesn’t get Tua over the top, perhaps a dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab can. Look for broken claws when former Dolphins coach Brian Flores, now Mike Tomlin’s assistant with the Steelers, visits Miami in October.
4. New York Jets
Crushing injuries hurt the Jets in coach Robert Saleh’s first season. Zach Wilson, who had accuracy issues at quarterback, is beefier with improved targets. C.J. Uzomah could become his best friend at tight end, and new wideout Garrett Wilson brings deep speed to complement Corey Davis and Elijah Moore. Breece Hall was the best running back in the draft. This year’s draft might seem to point the Jets towards the runway but takeoff will be delayed. Eleven consecutive seasons without a visit to the playoffs, the NFL’s longest drought, seems likely to be extended.
Division Winner: Baltimore Ravens
Battered by injuries, the Ravens collapsed when QB Lamar Jackson (ankle) was lost and missed the playoffs. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards return at running back, delivering a punishing ground game. Rookie center Tyler Linderbaum will help. Trading Marquise Brown opened a hole in the receiver corps and angered Jackson. The secondary will be much better with Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey back and the addition of Marcus Williams, a fine deep defender, and first-round pick Kyle Hamilton, a 6' 4", 220-pound Swiss Army knife. Six-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell returns for his 15th season. John Harbaugh’s boys showed remarkable grit last year. If they stay healthy, they will be a powerful, punishing contender.
2. Cleveland Browns
The Browns pulled a shocker by trading a heap of draft picks (three No. 1s) to Houston for DeShaun Watson, signed to a five-year, $230 million, fully guaranteed deal even though he led the league in civil suits. In August, he was handed an 11-game suspension, leaving Jacoby Brissett (14-23 career record) at starter. Amari Cooper may be recharged in a new atmosphere with an elite ground attack (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt). The Browns have failed to finish with a better record than their rival Steelers for 29 years, leading one friend to exclaim: “I would have lived five years longer if I wasn’t a Browns fan!”
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Rarely does the team losing the Super Bowl make it back the next year. Joe Burrow (who was sacked a league-high 51 times last season) is the real deal, with 4,611 passing yards and 34 TDs, and now gets the pass blocking he needs to target sensational wideout Ja’Marr Chase. Jessie Bates, who had a clutch end zone interception in the Super Bowl, is the real deal on the back end. Evan McPherson was a smash as a rookie, kicking 28 of 33 field goal attempts, including a club-record 58-yarder.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Tomlin’s 14-year string without a losing season is in jeopardy. Ben Roethlisberger retired, and his big shoes are now worn by former Bills backup Mitch Trubisky. He won’t hold the job for long if No. 1 pick Kenny Pickett shows much. The offensive line is thin, and the run defense and special teams need tightening.
Division Winner: Indianapolis Colts
Matt Ryan becomes the Colts’ short-term answer at QB. How short? Depends on what the 37-year-old, 14-year veteran has left. Matty Ice has the leadership skills the team needed last season, and his fallback is Nick Foles. No matter who is throwing the ball, the offense will still go through NFL rushing champion Jonathan Taylor (1,811 yards, 18 TDs). The best target is Michael Pittman Jr. (88 catches, 1,082 yards, 6 TDs). Yannick Ngakoue (10 sacks for the Raiders last year) provides support for Kwity Paye (four sacks as a rookie). Corner Stephon Gilmore is better than a stopgap in the secondary’s much-needed remake.
2. Tennessee Titans
What’s with Ryan Tannehill? He threw 14 picks last year, plus three more in the playoff loss to the Bengals. No wonder he has no intention to mentor rookie Malik Willis. Derrick Henry’s 4.3 yards per carry (in eight games) was the second lowest of his six seasons. Trouble looms if he falters. Stud receiver A.J. Brown was traded. No. 1 pick Treylon Burks inherits his role, although Robert Woods is the top wideout. Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons lead a decent defense fortified by Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker. This is a nuts-and-bolts team that can at times drive you nuts.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
If the Jags can assimilate their many new parts for new coach Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles, they’ll be on their way to respectability. Owner Shad Kahn fired Disturbin’ Meyer after a 2-11 stint in 13 weeks. (A good run for a Kardashian marriage.) Second-year QB Trevor Lawrence picks up much-needed assistance with WRs Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and TE Evan Engram. Travis Etienne returns from his Lisfranc injury to share running back duties with James Robinson. Brandon Scherff upgrades the offensive line. The Jags spent like Florida vacationers to improve the defense.
4. Houston Texans
New head coach Lovie Smith gets a lean roster and Davis Mills behind center with Deshaun Watson (and his baggage) gone. Smith calls himself a “big believer” in Mills who stepped in under adverse conditions last year as a rookie. Top receiver Brandin Cooks re-signed. The running backs are a mediocre group. The Texans turned to the draft for much-needed assistance, but it will only do so much, so soon. Houston, you still have a problem.
Division Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
As long as QB Patrick Mahomes (4,839 passing yards, 37 passing TDs) is a strong-armed, improvisational Houdini, the Chiefs are dangerous on every snap. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marques Valdez-Scantling and draft pick Skyy Moore join Mecole Hardman as the receivers who must replace Tyreek Hill, traded to Miami due to a salary cap pinch. It’s a tough start to the season, as Andy Reid doesn’t face a team that had a 2021 losing record until Week 10. Travis Kelce is a stud (92 catches, 9 TDs). Clyde Edwards-Helaire has trouble staying healthy, so expect a running back rotation. The future of the defense belongs to first round picks Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis. The OT playoff loss to the Bengals is a motivator.
2. L.A. Chargers
Justin Herbert (5,014 yards, 38 TDs) is an NFL MVP candidate who added muscle to his 6' 6", 245-pound frame. To win a division powered by top quarterbacks, the Chargers needed to bolster their defense, so they acquired linebacker Khalil Mack (76 ½ sacks, eight seasons) to torment passers opposite Joey Bosa (58 sacks, six seasons) and added Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson to a promising secondary. The offense is deep. If the Chiefs take a step back and the Chargers take one forward, expect a tight division race.
3. Denver Broncos
Russell Wilson changes the face of the franchise for coach Nathaniel Hackett and brings stability to a position held by one iffy passer after another since Peyton Manning retired. Jerry Jeudy can develop into a deep threat to complement Courtland Sutton and the strong running duo of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. Randy Gregory needs to help Bradley Chubb with the pass rush.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
New coach Josh McDaniels may help Derek Carr (23 TDs, 14 INTs) reach new heights, a reasonable expectation considering the QB’s $121 million extension. Two-time All Pro Davante Adams comes from Green Bay, and has surpassed 1,300 yards three times in the last four seasons. He played with Carr at Fresno State. A defense that allowed 439 points last year needs work. The Raiders survived endless turmoil and a mid-season coaching change to make last season’s playoffs, but now there are questions in the front office. Owner Mark Davis is looking for the same commitment to excellence as Spago offers with its Wagyu ribeye.
Division Winner: Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1996, but he can sleep at night knowing that the franchise he bought in 1989 for $150 million is worth $8 billion, No. 1 on Forbes’ list of most valuable sports teams. (Yes, more than the Yankees.) Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons (13 sacks) is Jerry’s best player after salary cap casualties including Amari Cooper, La’el Collins and Connor Williams. Ezekiel Elliott’s 58.9 rushing yards per game was the lowest average of his career, and more snaps may go to Tony Pollard. Dak Prescott (4,449 passing yards, 37 TD passes, 10 INTs) still has CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. The Cowboys may be greasing coach Mike McCarthy’s skids with Sean Payton in the back (and front) of Jerry’s fevered mind.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles say they’re committed to Jalen Hurts at quarterback (3,144 passing yards, 16 TDs). They helped him and second-year WR DeVonta Smith by trading for A.J. Brown. RB Miles Sanders (754 yards, 5.5 yards per carry) adds pop if he can stay healthy to the NFL’s top rushing offense. Freakish No. 1 pick Jordan Davis (6' 6", 341-pounds) will bolster the inside as a run-stuffer, and could be a clear and present danger to the succulent cheesesteak supply at Tony Luke’s.
3. New York Giants
Energetic new coach Brian Daboll, who helped develop Josh Allen in Buffalo, inherits a tough challenge with QB Daniel Jones, who will be fighting for his Giants career. Running back Saquon Barkley can be a weapon. There’s a rebuilt offensive line but the defense leaks everywhere. Daboll faces a heavy to-do list. His weight-loss program has been going well, but just wait until he discovers the food at Elio’s. Good guy owners John Mara and Steve Tisch are starving for a winner.
4. Washington Commanders
Washington has a new name and another new quarterback in journeyman Carson Wentz. He has some good weapons, but the offensive line lost both starting guards and the defensive line fell apart and fought among itself last season. Coach Ron Rivera battles, but there’s not enough talent to compete. The team has one playoff win since 2000—Rip Van Winkle could have napped and missed almost nothing. People are growing tired of the franchise’s dysfunction under owner Dan Snyder’s sordid watch.
Division Winner: Green Bay Packers
The Pack will get at least one more expensive year ($50 million) out of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 136 TD passes and only 15 INTs over the last four seasons. WR Randall Cobb took a pay cut to hang around and rookie Christian Watson will make a strong first impression. The defense shed some veterans in a well-executed rebuild and picked up Rasul Douglas to pair with Jaire Alexander in a secondary that already boasts Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. The draft yielded two key defensive adds in the first round—Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. The defense could be a real shot in the arm, but don’t tell Rodgers, who prefers to be immunized from vaccination talk.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins drives the bus for at least another year. He has impressive stats (4,221 passing yards, 33 TDs, 7 INTs) but can he come up big in big games? Maybe now, as new coach Kevin O’Connell will pay more attention to the offense than Mike Zimmer ever did. Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Packers but he missed significant time last year with a back injury. He’ll team nicely with Danielle Hunter, returning from a torn pec. Harrison Phillips should be a nice addition as the Vikings shift to more 3-4 looks.
3. Chicago Bears
Justin Fields gets more weapons in Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown, who will complement Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet. Fields was shaky as a rookie but running back David Montgomery will take some heat off him. New coach Matt Eberflus hopes his defense will feature Roquan Smith, who has asked for a trade. Can Robert Quinn (18 ½ sacks) fit as a traditional defensive end? Secondary help comes with Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, both highly-touted rookies. Maybe one day everyone will be talking about the Bears at Ditka’s, but odds are they will break Barstool’s Dave Katz’s heart again.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions went winless in the first 11 games of coach Dan Campbell’s first season, so things can only go up. Local hero Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan) was a huge get at No. 2 in the draft, but the Lions have missed the playoffs five straight years. If mediocrity is a goal, the Lions can reach it, and (maybe) emerge in 2023. They are the only team that won’t be playing in primetime.
Division Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Meet the new QB, same as the old QB—but who’s complaining? Tom Brady’s 40-day retirement is a hiccup now but this is likely the last go-round for the 45-year-old GOAT who led the NFL in passing yards last season and has a 10-year, $375 million analyst deal awaiting him at FOX Sports. The Bucs are keeping that potent offense together, resigning WR Chris Godwin for the long term. A healthy Mike Evans and Julio Jones will make a difference. Bruce Arians, the coach for three seasons and a Super Bowl winner, will have more time for Bern’s Steakhouse now that he’s moved into the front office. Is there a pot of gold (or an eighth ring) at the end of the Brady farewell tour?
2. New Orleans Saints
Dennis Allen steps in for offensive wizard Sean Payton, who will be missed, with a revamped coaching staff. Jameis Winston led the team to a 5-2 record (14 TD passes, 3 INTs) before tearing his ACL and gets another shot. He’s a threat if he makes good decisions, a danger when he doesn’t. Alvin Kamara is the all-purpose threat, but he could face a six-game suspension via the Personal Conduct Policy following felony battery charges. No. 1 pick Chris Olave is the type of receiver who will fit the scheme. The key is whether WR Michael Thomas, who has started only five games since his 145-catch 2019 season, is over his ankle and attitude woes. If he makes the impact the Bayou expects him to make, you might see Veal Mathieu on the menu at Galatoire’s.
3. Carolina Panthers
There’s heat on coach Matt Rhule (10-23). He’s the division’s longest-tenured coach, but maybe not for long. Christian McCaffrey is a force but has played in only 10 games the last two seasons. The lingering question is at quarterback, where Baker Mayfield has been summoned to supplant flagging Sam Darnold. The fan base has watched its team go 22-43 over the past four seasons.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Marcus Mariota will hold the starting quarterback job until No. 3 pick Desmond Ridder is ready for a look. The only established pass catcher is second-year tight end Kyle Pitts, as wide receiver Calvin Ridley misses the season on a suspension for gambling, and draft pick Drake London finds a lot on his shoulders immediately. This is a rebuild after a couple of seasons of crumbling.
Division Winner: Los Angeles Rams
It was Super Bowl or bust, and the Rams cashed in. The running game gives Matthew Stafford (4,886 yards, 41 TDs, 17 INTs) an opportunity he never had with the Lions and he secured a huge contract extension as a reward. Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp posted the first receiving triple crown in more than a decade, leading the NFL in receptions (145), yards (1,947) and touchdown catches (16) and was a stud on the game-winning drive in the big game against the Bengals. Allen Robinson will be a worthy complement. Aaron Donald, who was the defensive player of the year three of the last five years, received the highest (non quarterback) contract in NFL history, and Jalen Ramsey helps drive a defense that will be upgraded by former Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, who remains a tackling machine. Newlywed Coach Sean McVay has made noise about leaving for television, but he’s on the sideline again and opponents need to account for his wizardry.
2. San Francisco 49ers
What will the Trey Lance Era become? The second-year quarterback played in six games as a rookie behind Jimmy Garoppolo and showed flashes. (Jimmy GQ will be gone once his shoulder injury heals and makes him tradeable.) A strong running game relieves some pressure. Elijah Mitchell (963 rushing yards as a rookie) can blossom in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-based scheme and GM John Lynch resisted trade overtures for all-purpose weapon Deebo Samuel. George Kittle
(71 catches, 6 TDs) is an elite tight end. Fred Warner heads a strong group of linebackers and Nick Bosa (15 ½ sacks, four forced fumbles) is a premier defender. Charvarious Ward should start in a secondary denuded last season by injuries. He’s a solid cover corner with only four INTs in his four-year career. Can the 49ers overtake the Rams, who came from behind to nose them for the NFC’s Super Bowl berth?
3. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals looked to keep their own in free agency, bringing back running back James Conner and tight end Maxx Williams, who missed the last 12 games last season with a torn ACL. He and Zach Ertz give the offense potential for multiple looks. Marquise Brown, coming over in a trade with Baltimore, is a huge add with DeAndre Hopkins (suspension) out for the first six games. The mystery is Kyler Murray, who slumped at the end of the season as the Cards lost four of their last five. A lack of maturity led to bad decisions on the field. Much of the offseason involved bickering about a contract extension, given what the market has become. The Cards went 3-5 at home while winning 11 games overall but missing the playoffs.
4. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks, looking like a complete teardown/rebuild in progress, move on without Russell Wilson behind center, and no one remotely as good (Drew Lock, Geno Smith) to step in. The offensive line got some needed help with No. 1 pick Charles Cross and third-rounder Abe Lucas, both strong pass protectors. DK Metcalf disappeared at times last season but had a career-high 12 touchdown catches. Tyler Lockett is a proven legitimate deep threat. Noah Fant was a good pick up in the Wilson trade to Denver. Drafting running back Kenneth Walker III to backup Rashaad Penny was widely panned but ought to be applauded given the injuries at this position over the years, especially to Chris Carson (neck). Bobby Wagner, the heart of the defense for years, is also gone after a ham-handed release. Consider these guys the Legion of Gloom.
SUPER BOWL LVII PREDICTION
Bills Defeat Bucs 27-23
Back in June, Josh Allen (with Patrick Mahomes) lost The Match to Tom Brady (with Aaron Rodgers) and the Bills losing a fifth Super Bowl without a win and Brady winning his eighth Super Bowl championship would seem to be par for the course. Allen, who trolled Brady at the golf challenge when he wore a T-shirt with a photo of a skinny Brady at the NFL Combine, butters him up during the week: “Tom’s got almost as many rings as Herschel Walker has kids.” Brady’s attempt at motivating the Bucs by hinting that this might be his next last game (pinky swear) only serves to motivate the Bills defense, especially Von Miller, who hounded Joe Burrow in Super Bowl 56 and was MVP in Super Bowl 50. Miller pressures Brady from start to finish and Allen gashes Todd Bowles’ defense with a pair of rushing TDs and a pair of passing TDs to Stefon Diggs and Dawson Knox. It is Brady’s second Super Bowl defeat in Glendale, Arizona. “We got the monkey off the franchise’s back!” a euphoric Allen roars while hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Danny Sheridan appears frequently in newspapers and on TV.