1. New England Patriots
The us-against-the-world mentality that carried the 12-4 Patriots to their seventh straight division title returns with ageless QB Tom Brady facing an overly harsh four-game Deflategate suspension he evaded a year ago. Tom Terrific fashioned his best season in four years (4,770 yards, 36 TDs) only to fall short against Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship game. Party animal TE Rob Gronkowski (1,176 yards, 11 TDs) was practically unstoppable. Bill Belichick, who has Jimmy Garoppolo in reserve but could probably win with Justin Bieber at quarterback, signed ex-Bear TE Martellus Bennett to pair with Gronk and expects RB Dion Lewis and WR Julian Edelman to return from injuries. Never count the four-ring Kraft family out. Close but no cigar doesn't cut it in Kraftborough.
2. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan's bluster couldn't end a 16-year playoff drought following an 8-8 finish. Tyrod Taylor went 8-6 (3,035 yards, 20 TDs, 99.4 QBR) and became the club's first Pro Bowl QB since Drew Bledsoe in 2002. His six interceptions were a league low for QBs with 10-plus starts. Taylor clicked with WR Sammy Watkins (60 catches, 1,047 yards, 9 TDs), who will be hampered early (foot). RB LeSean McCoy (895 yards) powered the NFL's leading rushing attack. Ryan believes hiring big-as-a-buffalo twin brother Rob—the chicken wings at Duff's are a prohibitive underdog—can fix an undisciplined defense that had 21 sacks, second lowest in the league. Rex introduced Donald Trump at an off-season rally, perhaps because he's been put on notice to make the Bills great again.
3. New York Jets
Rookie coach Todd Bowles made Jet fans forget Ryan until a disastrous loss in Buffalo that left Gang Green 10-6 and out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,905 yards, 31 TDs) clicked with Brandon Marshall (109 receptions, 1,502 yards), the first receiver with 1,000-yard seasons for four different teams. WR Eric Decker (80 grabs, 1,027 yards, 12 TDs) gave the club its best duo since Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. The Jets lost Chris Ivory to Jacksonville but added RB Matt Forte. The defense was stout against the run, although 31-year-old CB Darrelle Revis slipped. "I think we can get to the Super Bowl," says Decker. Joe Namath better inform him the Jets haven't been there since Tom Coughlin was 22 years old.
4. Miami Dolphins
Adam Gase, the Dolphins' 10th head coach since 1995, inherits a 6-10 team that hasn't had a winning season in seven years. He may look like Bernie Sanders by the election. QB Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 184 times since 2012. The Dolphins made DT Ndamukong Suh the highest-paid lineman in the NFL in 2015, but he wasn't a game changer. WR Jarvis Landry played like an All-Pro (110 receptions, 1,157 yards) but more is expected from WR DeVante Parker. Big Fish Mike Tannenbaum brought in ex-Bills DE Mario Williams and traded for LB Kiko Alonso to resuscitate a 31st-ranked run defense. NFL analyst Rich Gannon labeled Miami "a dysfunctional franchise," unlike Prime 112 in South Beach.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Ben Roethlisberger, the John Wayne of quarterbacks, missed nearly a month with a bad ankle yet led the NFL with a career-high 328.2 passing yards per game and beat the Bengals in the playoffs. He has the best WR in Antonio Brown (136 receptions, 1,834 yards, 10 TDs) primed to Dance With the Stars again. WR Markus Wheaton added 749 yards but the Steelers will miss WR Martavis Bryant (765 yards) who was suspended for the season. RB DeAngelo Williams (907 yards) was a godsend after RB Le'Veon Bell tore his MCL in November. Ladarius Green should be an upgrade at TE over retired Heath Miller. The Steel Curtain, inspired by 37-year-old LB James Harrison, will have those Terrible Towels waving.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals (12-4) have reached the postseason six of the last seven seasons, yet haven't won a playoff game since 1990. The natives are growing restless with coach for life Marvin Lewis. QB Andy Dalton, who missed the playoffs because of a fractured thumb, will be ready for week one. He had his best season (3,250 yards, 25 TDs, 106.2 rating) throwing to WRs A.J. Green (86 catches, 1,297 yards) and Marvin Jones (65 receptions, 816 yards) and TE Tyler Eifert (52 grabs, 615 yards, 13 TDs). But Jones left for Detroit, Mohamed Sanu went to Atlanta and QB guru Hue Jackson is now coaching the Browns, which is akin to Trump leaving Melania for Carly Fiorina. Or Hillary. RBs Jeremy Hill (794 yards) and Giovani Bernard (730 yards) fueled the ground game. Volatile linebacker Vontaze Burfict (three-game suspension) will be missed in September.
3. Baltimore Ravens
A rash of injuries to key players—QB Joe Flacco, WR Steve Smith, OLB Terrell Suggs and RB Justin Forsett—sabotaged the Ravens, whose 5-11 record was their worst since 2007. Flacco needs better playmakers. Breshad Perriman, 2015 No. 1 draft, missed the entire season. Ex-Viking WR Mike Wallace hopes to revive his career as a deep threat. No. 4 draft Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon, who scored 87 TDs (second in NCAA history) could push Forsett. Former Chargers FS Eric Weddle adds leadership to the secondary. GM Ozzie Newsome loaded up on pass rushers in the draft to help thirtysomethings Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. John Harbaugh is the only NFL head coach to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. Quoth the Ravens coach: Nevermore.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Bad News Browns have had six coaches since 2008 and eight straight losing seasons since 2007. There are almost as many Mistakes by the Lake as Bill Cosby accusers. Perhaps QB Robert Griffin (RG III) can be the anti-Manziel for new coach Hue Jackson. The overhauled front office's emphasis on analytics resulted in the drafting of five WRs, with No. 1 draft Corey Coleman expected to take the pressure off TE Gary Barnidge (79 catches, 1,043 yards) and replace WR Travis Benjamin (68 grabs for 966 yards). Free agency cost the Browns C Alex Mack and RT Mitchell Schwartz, but at least RGIII has experience running for his life. If Trump wants to build a wall, he should build it in front of FirstEnergy Stadium.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Kidney and shoulder injuries cut short $140 million man Andrew Luck's season and the Colts' (8-8) designs on a ring. Front office friction between GM Ryan Grigson and Coach Chuck Pagano hardly helped. Owner Jim Irsay deciding to keep them together through 2019 anyway was as big an upset as Jets over Colts in Super Bowl III. Luck's weapons include WRs T.Y. Hilton (1,124 yards), Donte Moncrief (733 yards) and aging RB Frank Gore (967 yards). Top needs are a stronger offensive line—No. 1 draft C Ryan Kelly will be a godsend—and upgrading the defense. The intradivision gap is closing on the league's oldest team.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans (9-7) overcame a 1-4 start to somehow win the division with a quarterback committee exposed when journeyman Brian Hoyer threw four INTs in a 30-0 playoff loss to the Chiefs. They outbid John Elway's Broncos for QB Brock Osweiler. WR DeAndre Hopkins was a monster with 111 receptions, 1,521 yards and 11 TDs. Mad Men DE J.J. Watt (17.5 sacks) and LB Brian Cushing (110 tackles) lead a roughneck defense that hopes OLB Jadeveon Clowney can stay healthy for a change. No. 1 draft WR Will Fuller complements Hopkins, and No. 3 draft WR Braxton Miller is a playmaker. RB Lamar Miller (872 yds) replaces Arian Foster. The city will be hosting the Super Bowl—all Killen's BBQ questions should be sent to NT Vince Wilfork, the large man in the overalls.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Somebody up there likes Coach Gus Bradley. Despite an NFL-worst 9-39 record the last three years, he was rewarded with a contract extension. "I expect Gus to have his best year," says owner Shah Khan. In his second season, QB Blake Bortles improved from 11 TD passes to 35 while throwing for 4,428 yards. Allen Robinson had a breakout year (80 catches, 1,400 yards, 14 TDs) and teams with Allen Hurns to form the deadliest WR tandem in the NFL. Promising rookie RB T.J. Yeldon (740 yards) and ex-Jet Chris Ivory, the AFC's top rusher, (1,070 yards) tote the mail. The defense has been upgraded by GM David Caldwell with Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, No. 1 draft Jalen Ramsey and No. 2 draft LB Myles Jack and welcomes back 2015 No. 1 pick pass rusher Dante Fowler.
4. Tennessee Titans
Marcus Mariota demonstrated he's a franchise quarterback (2,818 yards) even behind a weak offensive line. Mariota missed four games and suffered two MCL injuries as the Titans went 3-13. TE Delanie Walker was a bright spot (94 receptions, 1,088 yards) but that wasn't enough for any Music City concert. After a 1-6 start, Coach Ken Whisenhunt was fired. Mike Mularkey took over but the Titans, 1-7 at home, allowed 30 ppg over the final five games. Adding free agents RB DeMarco Murray (702 yds) and WR Rishard Matthews (662 yds) along with six draft picks in the first three rounds should have them crooning at the Grand Ole Opry.
1. Denver Broncos
The Broncos (12-4) won their third Super Bowl and first since John Elway retired to turn Ham Newton into a postgame introvert. Peyton Manning's retirement and Brock Osweiler's departure means Mark Sanchez is the bridge QB to No. 1 draft Memphis' Paxton Lynch. Savvy move by the old buttfumbler, dining at an Elway's Steakhouse soon after his Mile High arrival. Led by OLB Von Miller, there's little worry about a defense that led the NFL with 52 sacks, although Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan left in free agency. RB C.J. Anderson (720 yards) and downfield weapons WRs Demaryius Thomas (105 catches, 1,304 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (76 receptions, 1,135 yards) are Coach Gary Kubiak's best threats.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs won 10 straight games (allowing only 12.0 points per outing) to become the first team to win a playoff game after opening 1-5. Alex Smith showed he's more than a stopgap quarterback (3,486 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs) despite suffering 45 sacks. His favorite targets are WR Jeremy Maclin (87 grabs, 1,088 yards) and TE Travis Kelce (72 catches, 875 yards). RB Jamaal Charles returns from a torn MCL. Andy Reid's defense may have to compensate for the absence of OLB Justin Houston (ACL surgery), who had 56 sacks in 70 games. Marcus Peters, the 2015 No. 1 draft, led the league with 8 INTs on a defense with 29 takeaways.
3. Oakland Raiders
After 13 straight non-winning seasons, the 7-9 Raiders are primed to just win, baby. (Or just sin, baby if they move to Las Vegas.) QB Derek Carr threw for 3,987 yards and his TD total for his first two years (53) is second only to Dan Marino's 63. Carr played catch with WRs Amari Cooper (72 receptions, 1,070 yards) and Michael Crabtree (85 catches, 922 yards). Latavius Murray (1,066 yards) was the first Raiders back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2010. The offensive line, which adds G Kelechi Osemele, is among the best. Linebacker Khalil Mack (15 sacks) will become even more dangerous with help from free-agent OLB additions Bruce Irvin and
4. San Diego Chargers
A banged-up offensive line and a lack of playmakers contributed to the Chargers' worst season (4-12) since 2003. The boobirds were yearning for Marty Schottenheimer, who was fired in 2006. Diminutive RB Danny Woodhead (1,091 yards from scrimmage) stood tall, and gritty QB Philip Rivers threw for 4,792 yards and 29 TDs. WR Keenan Allen's return will help immensely, as will ex-Browns WR Travis Benjamin. RB Melvin Gordon was a disappointment. There's no welcome mat in Los Angeles, but draft prizes Ohio State DE Joey Bosa and Arkansas TE Hunter Henry will make an impact.
1. New York Giants
After three consecutive losing seasons and no playoffs since Super Bowl XLVI, owners John Mara and Steve Tisch "fired" Tom Coughlin and anointed offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who has slimmed down enough to treat himself to the chicken Francese at Elio's. The 6-10 Giants lost six games by a total of 15 points. QB Eli Manning flourished (4,432 yards, 35 TDs) with dynamic WR Odell Beckham Jr. (96 catches, 1,450 yards, 13 TDs). Victor Cruz remains a question mark, and RB Rashad Jennings (863 yards) finished strong. The defense was an embarrassment. A $200 million free-agency splurge by embattled GM Jerry Reese imported DE Olivier Vernon, DT Damon Harrison, CB Janoris Jenkins, and resigned Jason Pierre-Paul for one year. Maybe he should recruit Chris Christie for the offensive line. Oh wait—he's a Cowboys fan.
2. Dallas Cowboys
In 1994 Cowboys owner Jerry Jones proclaimed, "There are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team." Not with this team, which went 4-12 after losing QB Tony Romo to a third broken collarbone and has gone 1-13 over the past five seasons in games without him. Jones hopes No. 1 draft RB Ezekiel Elliott, behind an elite offensive line, can mimic DeMarco Murray of 2014 and help WR Dez Bryant (31 catches, 401 yards in nine games) and TE Jason Witten take the heat off his 36-year-old QB. A defense that was last in the league with 11 takeaways (fewest in NFL history) must weather four-game suspensions for DEs Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence. Deion Sanders anyone?
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Owner Jeffrey Lurie sent Coach Chip Kelly (26-21) packing before the final game of a 7-9 campaign, so former personnel boss Howie Roseman quickly remade the Eagles roster. He boldly traded up in the draft to snatch North Dakota St. QB Carson Wentz, who will redshirt behind QB Sam Bradford (3,725 yards). New coach Doug Pederson will lean on WR Jordan Matthews (85 receptions, 997 yards) and TE Zach Ertz (75 catches, 853 yards). The attacking 4-3 Jim Schwartz defense is led by DE Fletcher Cox (9.5 sacks) and MLB Jordan Hicks, but the secondary isn't nearly as good as a cheesesteak from Pat's. Or Geno's. Or any cheesesteak.
4. Washington Redskins
Kirk Cousins led Jay Gruden to a 9-7 record and the NFC East title and became the team's first QB (4,166 yards, 29 TDs) to toss a TD pass in all 16 games since the league went to the 16-game schedule. But those wins came against teams with losing records and Green Bay routed them in the playoffs. Cousins has a quality target in TE Jordan Reed (87 grabs, 952 yards) and No. 1 draft WR Josh Doctson joins 2017 free agent WRs Pierre Garçon (72 catches, 777 yards) and DeSean Jackson. Fumble-prone RB Matt Jones replaces Alfred Morris. Carolina CB Josh Norman signed an epic five-year $75 million contract. OLB Ryan Kerrigan is the alpha male pass rusher, but the run defense is suspect. The offensive line, which has allowed 85 sacks over two years, won't be offered Secret Service bodyguard jobs by the next president.
1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers (10-6 after a 6-0 start) ought to be better than 5-3 at Lambeau Field, home of the 120-yard bratwurst. Aaron Rodgers, who was banged up most of the season, still came through with 3,821 yards and 31 TDs, although his average dropped. Jordy Nelson, who missed last season, returns at WR. Eddie Lacy, a 1,000-yard runner his first two years, was overweight last season, regressed to 758 yards and found himself on the bench—he no longer resembles Bartolo Colón. Ex-Rams TE Jared Cook gives Rodgers a deep threat down the middle, the pass rush should improve with Clay Matthews moving back to OLB, and No. 1 pick Kenny Clark is being counted on to shore up the run defense. The Cheeseheads love the easy schedule.
2. Minnesota Vikings
At age 31, Adrian Peterson remains the NFL's most destructive back behind a bolstered offensive line. His third straight rushing title (1,485 on 327 carries) carried the 11-5 Vikings to the division title. QB Teddy Bridgewater (3,231 yards) needed another weapon aside from revelation WR Stefon Diggs (52 receptions, 720 yards). A talent-laden young defense, led by DE Everson Griffen (10.5 sacks), OLB Anthony Barr and S Harrison Smith, is Coach Mike Zimmer's calling card. No. l draft Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell is the big possession receiver who will allow Bridgewater to move forward from his game manager role.
3. Detroit Lions
The automobile industry has recovered in Motown, but not the Lions, who have made only two playoff appearances in 16 years and haven't won a playoff game since Bill Clinton was elected president. Owner Martha Firestone Ford kicked front office butt and the Lions rallied to finish 7-9. QB Matthew Stafford did wonders (4,262 yards, 32 TDs) with practically no ground game (an NFL-low 1,335 yards) or protection (44 sacks). He will miss retired WR Calvin Johnson. Ex-Bengal WR Marvin Jones (65 grabs, 816 yards) is the new sidekick for WR Golden Tate (90 catches, 813 yards). The return of LB DeAndre Levy won't restore the roar.
4. Chicago Bears
Coach John Fox found his hair turning 50 shades of grey in his first season in the Windy City. The docile Bears (6-10) led the league in holding penalties. QB Jay Cutler is often criticized, but he's not the problem. Injury-plagued WR Alshon Jeffery (54 receptions, 807 yards) was his only dangerous weapon, but 2015 No. 1 draft WR Kevin White is back after missing the season (shin). Losing Matt Forte leaves uninspiring Jeremy Langford as part of an RB committee. Ex-Bronco LB Danny Trevathan and ex-Colt LB Jerrell Freeman strengthen the defense. No. 1 draft pick Georgia OLB Leonard Floyd, a tall, skinny 244-pounder, will help the pass rush (33 sacks) opposite Pernell McPhee and a secondary that ranked 30th, but he needs to load up on the steaks at Ditka's.
1. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers (15-1) probably won't start 14-0 again but the return of WR Kelvin Benjamin (knee surgery) gives MVP QB Cam Newton a 6-foot-5 option. Newton (3,837 passing yards, 35 TDs, 636 yards rushing) could surpass his 2015 numbers. His No. 1 weapon is TE Greg Olsen (77 grabs, 1,104 yards) followed by WR Ted Ginn Jr. (739 yards, 10 TDs). Jonathan Stewart (989 yards) is the horse who keeps pounding. The rock-solid defense is led by Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Kawann Short (11 sacks). A secondary that had a league-high 24 INTs will have to compensate for the unexpected departure of Josh Norman. The 1993 Bills were the last team to lose a Super Bowl and return the following year. Carolina might be the next.
2. New Orleans Saints
The Drew Brees/Sean Payton flying circus rages on. In 10 years on Bourbon Street Brees has thrown more than 600 passes eight times, accumulating 4,870 yards and 32 TDs in 2015. He has speed demon WRs in Brandin Cooks (84 catches, 1,138 yards) and Willie Snead (69 grabs, 984 yards), but WR Marques Colston was let go and TE Ben Watson is now a Raven. Ex-Colt TE Coby Fleener will be a red-zone target. The addition of LB James Laurinaitis, DT Nick Fairley and No. 1 draft DT Sheldon Rankins should tighten a leaky defense, but a secondary that allowed an NFL-record 45 TDs gives the clientele at Galatoire's indigestion.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Rookie coach Dan Quinn started 5-0 before losing five games by four points or less and finishing 8-8. QB Matt Ryan (4,591 yards) was hit 90 times and sacked 30. His prime target was WR Julio Jones (a team-record 136 receptions for 1,871 yards). RB Devonta Freeman was a breakout star (1,056 yards and 11 TDs). Slot WR Mohamed Sanu comes from the Bengals with his 394 yards and 11.9 average, helping replace Roddy White, while new center Alex Mack stabilizes the offensive line. No. 1 draft Keanu Neal strengthens a porous secondary, but the pass rush (an NFL-low 19 sacks) is for the birds unless OLB Vic Beasley emerges. They fight harder on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta."
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
QB Jameis Winston (4,042 passing yards) is a budding superstar. Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter, an advocate of the deep ball, replaced Lovie Smith after another last-place finish. RB Doug Martin complemented Winston with 1,673 yards from scrimmage. Winston needs another weapon opposite WR Mike Evans (74 catches, 1,206 yards) and WR Vincent Jackson isn't getting any younger. The Bucs, who committed an NFL-high 109 penalties, hope No. 2 draft Noah Spence can help ex-Giant DE Robert Ayers attack the passer. The young Bucs (NFL-high 64 rookie starts) could learn about seasoning at Bern's Steak House.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks overcame a 2-4 start to make the playoffs (10-6) for the fourth straight time. QB Russell Wilson's passer rating of more than 120 in each of the last five games set an NFL record, and he finished with 4,024 yards and 34 TDs despite being sacked 45 times. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin was his top target (78 catches, 1,069 yards, 14 TDs) but coach Pete Carroll wants more out of TE Jimmy Graham (48 receptions, 2 TDs). With Marshawn Lynch retired, RB Thomas Rawls becomes Beast Mode Lite. No. 1 draft Germain Ifedi should bolster an iffy offensive line. Brandon Browner reunites with Legion of Boom studs Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, and Michael Bennett brings the heat. The 12th Man gets more excited than Trump at a beauty pageant.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Carson Palmer had his best year (4,671 yards, 35 TDs) and led the 13-3 Cardinals to the division crown. Bruce Arians' fearless play calling led to a desert storm—WRs Larry Fitzgerald (109 catches, 1,215 yards), John Brown (65 grabs, 1,003 yards) and Michael Floyd (52 receptions, 849 yards)—until Palmer's six turnover playoff meltdown against the Panthers. Arians is high on second-year RB David Johnson, who replaces Chris Johnson on the league's No. 1 offense (489 points, 58 TDs , 408 yards per game). Arians traded for Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks) to cure his pass rush in front of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, with No. 1 pick Robert Nkemdiche from Mississippi a potential menace.
3. Los Angeles Rams
Following 21 unforgiving years in St. Louis (64-127 the last 12 years), the Rams are singing "Hooray for Hollywood" again. It's a homecoming for Coach Jeff Fisher, who played at USC and may have solved the Rams' QB quandary with a blockbuster pre-draft deal for pro-ready Cal QB Jared Goff. DE Chris Long and CB Janoris Jenkins are gone, but DT Aaron Donald (11 sacks) is a beast. RB Todd Gurley (1,106 yards, 10 TDs), a rising second-year star, takes pressure off Goff, but the club hasn't seen a 1,000-yard WR since Torry Holt in 2007. Will Jack Nicholson buy season tickets?
4. San Francisco 49ers
Forget leaving hearts in San Francisco—they're broken. It's up to Chip Kelly, exiled by Philly, to resurrect a once-proud franchise that never should have let Jim Harbaugh go. Disgruntled Colin Kaepernick was outplayed at QB by Blaine Gabbert (2,031 yards, 10 TDs) and the 49ers averaged a league-worst 14 points per game while yielding their most rushing yards since 1980. No. 1 draft DE DeForest Buckner joins former Oregon teammate DE Arik Armstead. The toughest strength of schedule? Niners and Falcons. Can Kelly get along with GM Trent Baalke? Harbaugh couldn't. Kelly is as likely to win a Super Bowl as Greg Hardy is to replace Roger Goodell as commissioner. If you enjoy "The Walking Dead," you'll love this team. Only the Kardashians are more painful to watch. Paging Eddie DeBartolo!
Super Bowl LI Prediction
Patriots Over Packers
A rematch of Super Bowl XXXI, when Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre defeated Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe 35-21. Turnabout 20 years later is fair play. A FOX television dream matchup pitting Tom Brady versus Aaron Rodgers. Mike McCarthy has gotten overly conservative in big games before, and that proves fatal when you can't keep Rob Gronkowski from a couple of his emphatic endzone spikes. History is made inside NRG Stadium as Brady and Bill Belichick win one for their thumbs and become the greatest quarterback-coach tandem in the Super Bowl era. Will it be President Trump showing up to root his pal Brady on?