1. New England Patriots
The Russians couldn’t hack this administration. In 23 years under the Kraft family, the Dynastriots have appeared in the playoffs 18 times, won a dozen division titles and five Super Bowl crowns. Returning from a four-game suspension, Tom Brady had arguably his greatest season (28 TDs, 2 INTs) with a league-best record of 14-2 and zero concussions (according to everyone except Gisele) despite the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski for eight games and the playoffs. The masterpiece was an overtime 34-28 Super Bowl win, overcoming a 25-point deficit (.04 % chance to win). Can they get better? The Pats have a new deep threat with WR Brandin Cooks, and the overlooked defense has been upgraded with DE Kony Ealy, CB Stephon Gilmore and ex-Jet David Harris. Are the Krafts the Belichick of owners? Or is Belichick the Kraft of coaches?
2. Miami Dolphins
The 10-6 Fish made the playoffs for the first time in eight years thanks to rookie coach Adam Gase, but this isn’t the Joe’s Stone Crab of franchises just yet. Miami faced only two top-five QBs, went 1-5 against teams .500 or better and the defense ranked 30th against the run. QB Ryan Tannehill (2,995 yards, 19 TDs, 12 INTs in 13 games) still hasn’t had a breakout season. WR Jarvis Landry is the top playmaker, and RB Jay Ajayi surprised with 1,272 yards. More is needed from underachievers WR DeVante Parker and TE Julius Thomas. New defensive coordinator Matt Burke welcomes Lawrence Timmons and No. 1 pick edge rusher Charles Harris.
3. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley are out, but the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought—the longest in the four major sports leagues—remains. New coach Sean McDermott steps in. It’s snow job for a novice. Ryan was driven out with a week left in the season, leaving such a toxic waste that McDermott and new GM Brandon Beane cleaned house by dumping 14 coaches over Niagara Falls. LeSean McCoy remains the lone remaining star. QB Tyrod Taylor is back after surviving months of trade rumors (it would have been a $9.7 million cap hit), and needs WR Sammy Watkins to stay healthy. No. 1 draft CB Tre’Davious White replaces Stephon Gilmore.
4. New York Jets
The Jets (5-11) remain in freefall. They’ve gone six seasons with no playoffs after back-to-back AFC championship appearances. It can only get worse if they get lost on their way to Del Frisco’s or Elio’s. The offense is morbid, and the latest bridge quarterback is 38-year-old journeyman Josh McCown, a 59% career passer who has lost 20 of his last 22 starts. Veterans Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis, Eric Decker and David Harris were swept away by GM Mike Maccagnan’s rebuilding. No. 1 pick S Jamal Adams is a stud, but Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson better pressure quarterbacks to help the secondary. Sundays will be as painful for Jets fans as watching an old Sean Spicer press briefing. Coach Todd Bowles (15-17) better rent.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers overcame a 4-5 start and rolled off an nine-game winning streak that took them to the AFC Championship game. QB Ben Roethlisberger shook off injuries to lead the way (3,819 yards, 29 TDs, 14 games). The studs were Le’Veon Bell, the NFL’s top all-purpose back in only 12 games (1,268 yards rushing, 616 yards receiving) and WR Antonio Brown (106 grabs, 1,284 yards, 12 TDs and one foolish video in the locker room the week before getting routed by the Patriots). Getting back WR Martavis Bryant and drafting USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster should make the offense more explosive. Fans are hungry for someone to help James Harrison and Bud Dupree bring the Steel Curtain down on opposing quarterbacks. No. 1 draft pick T.J. Watt, J.J.’s baby brother, will make the fashionable crowd at Meat and Potatoes quite happy.
2. Baltimore Ravens
The Birds have gone 31-33 since Super Bowl XLVII, failing to make the playoffs in three of the last four years. QB Joe Flacco had somewhat of an off year with a career-low 20 TDs and 15 INTs, but Coach John Harbaugh isn’t concerned. “Our quarterback is a championship QB and he’s proven that,” he said. Dennis Pitta led all TEs with 86 catches, but was released, leaving a big void, and Flacco will also miss retired WR Steve Smith. Ex-Chief Jeremy Maclin was a shrewd signing. RB Danny Woodhead is a nice safety valve, but 2015 No. 1 draft WR Breshad Perriman needs to emerge. GM Ozzie Newsome upgraded an ailing pass rush with rookie OLBs Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, and adding Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr give the team an elite secondary.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The 6-9-1 Bengals grossly regressed from their winning 2015 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Coach Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game. The Bengals have talent on offense: QB Andy Dalton (4,206 yards); WR A.J. Green (964 yards); WR Brandon LaFell (862 yards) and added John Ross, the fastest receiver on the board (4.22 speed). They drew criticism for taking RB Joe Mixon, who has domestic violence baggage. They would take a long look at Hannibal Lecter if he could play.
4. Cleveland Browns
It was another boneless year for The Dawg Pound, as the Browns went 1-15 (complete with a 14-game losing streak) for their ninth straight losing season, continuing the endless Remake On The Lake. The hope around town is that the analytic decision makers used their draft picks judiciously: first-round picks DE Myles Garrett (Texas A&M), DB Jabrill Peppers (Michigan) and TE David Njoku (Miami) could all start. The Browns, who have auditioned 26 quarterbacks since 1999, now look to rookie DeShone Kizer to end their merciless curse. The NFL has relaxed its touchdown celebration rules. Now all the Browns have to do is find the end zone. Hey, at least they had a better off-season than Tiger Woods!
1. Houston Texans
In three years, coach Bill O’Brien turned a 2-14 team into strong playoff contenders, using eight different quarterbacks and winning the South the last two seasons. The Texans could have challenged for the Super Bowl, but QB Brock Osweiler turned out to be an $18 million bust. They reached the divisional round against New England on the strength of a No. 1 defense, despite not having J.J. Watt. The defensive end returns to join Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but O’Brien is hoping that No. 1 draft Clemson QB Deshaun Watson can supplant Tom Savage sooner rather than later and ignite RB Lamar Miller (1,073 yards) and WR DeAndre Hopkins (954 yards). Too bad they couldn’t sign Tony Romo.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Owner Jim Irsay, who likes Twitter as much as the man in the Oval Office, fired GM Ryan Grigson after five years of bad drafts and free-agent busts and hired talented Chris Ballard from Kansas City. Injured QB Andrew Luck somehow did his part with 4,240 passing yards and 31 TDs. A young, growing offensive line offers hope that Luck will last longer than Kardashian reruns. He needs more playmakers than T.Y. Hilton and Frank Gore. Upgrading the defense was critical. No. 1 pick Malik Hooker, Johnathan Hankins and Jabaal Sheard will help. These are certain: death, taxes, Adam Vinatieri and the tear-duct shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s.
3. Tennessee Titans
The Titans (9-7) enjoyed their first winning season since 2011 behind QB Marcus Mariota. The second-year QB upped his passing yardage to 3,426 with a rating of 95.6, but he needs more go-to guys like RB DeMarco Murray (1,287 yards), WR Rishard Matthews (945 yards), and TE Delanie Walker (800 yards). Joining them is No. 1 draft Western Michigan WR Corey Davis and ex-Jet Eric Decker. The Titans improved their pass defense by signing CB Logan Ryan and S Johnathan Cyprien and using their other first-round pick on USC CB-KR Adoree’ Jackson. Nissan Stadium has a chance to be more popular than the Johnny Cash Museum.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags haven’t had a winning season in a decade, which is why they brought back revered coach Tom Coughlin as executive VP of football operations. “It’s a tough game,” he announced. “You have to play through some things.” Remember, he’s a fan of Gen. Patton. QB Blake Bortles (51 INTs over three years) has grossly underachieved. The absent running game improved overnight for new coach Doug Marrone with No. 1 draft pick Leonard Fournette from LSU, the Andalusian Bull of the collegiate ranks. The defense was strengthened by signing Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church. The Jags have played in London every year since 2013. They need to start giving their American fans a better show.
1. Oakland Raiders
If $25 million QB Derek Carr didn’t break his fibula in Week 16, the Raiders might have challenged for the Super Bowl. Carr (3,937 yards, 28 TDs) took a dysfunctional team that had gone 13 seasons without winning and won a dozen games. Amari Cooper (83 catches, 1,153 yards) and Michael Crabtree (89 receptions, 1,003 yards) form a dynamic duo, and new TE Jared Cook is a threat. RB Marshawn Lynch comes out of retirement to replace Latavius Murray (788 yards, 12 TDs). Cordarrelle Patterson is a dynamic kick returner. Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack is the catalyst on a defense fortified by No. 1 pick Gareon Conley. The Raiders are built for another playoff run before Wayne Newton welcomes them in 2020 to their new Vegas home. Just Sin Baby!
2. Kansas City Chiefs
For the first time in six years, the playoff-hardened Chiefs (12-4) won the Wild Wild West. QB Alex Smith is a classic game manager (3,502 yards, 15 passing TDs, 5 rushing TDs), but he hasn’t taken the Chiefs to the next level. Dynamo RB Tyreek Hill scored 12 TDs and RB Spencer Ware, who will be pushed by rookie RB Kareem Hunt, produced most of the ground yardage. Coach Andy Reid traded up in the draft to grab Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes, a raw gunslinger who has a big arm.
3. Denver Broncos
Vance Joseph gets his first head coaching gig in a strange hire—his Miami defense finished 29th in the league. Thanks to sackmaster Von Miller and a No Fly Zone secondary, the Broncs have a tough defense, but their 29th-ranked offense is led by Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, two questionable quarterbacks who need tutoring. Denver’s last pick in the draft, Mr. Irrelevant Chad Kelly, is a talented-but-troubled QB who could turn out to be a sleeper. Most of the offense came from WRs Demaryius Thomas (90 grabs, 1,083 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (79 catches, 1,032 yards). The Broncos have to find a running attack, and No. 1 pick LT Garett Bolles and G Ronald Leary should help. They gambled on ex-Chief Jamaal Charles, who has missed 24 games in two years.
4. Los Angeles Chargers
After 55 years in San Diego, the Chargers fled to L.A. with new coach Anthony Lynn, who inherited a 5-11 mess. The Bolts had an NFL-high 21 players on IR and 35 different offensive line combinations. QB Philip Rivers (4,386 yards, 33 TDs) deserves better. Drafting Clemson WR Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick was smart, and if WR Keenan Allen can stay on the field, look out. With a league-record ticket price ($192) the Chargers won’t have to worry about a rabid fan base in a 27,000-seat-stadium.
1. New York Giants
A dominant defense rescued an underachieving offense (36 TDs, down from 47) and got the Giants into their first playoffs in five years. “We were lucky to get 11 wins,” said coach Ben McAdoo. And lucky that DT Snacks Harrison was intent on devouring running backs instead of the pastrami at Katz’s Deli. Eli Manning, enough on the back nine of his career that GM Jerry Reese drafted Cal QB Davis Webb in the third round, was just a bit above average despite his 4,027 yards and 26 TDs. He threw 16 picks and lost four fumbles behind a weak offensive line. Manning will have more firepower with the additions of WR Brandon Marshall, who joins wondrous powder keg Drake pal Odell Beckham Jr. (101 catches, 1,367 yards) and dynamic No. 1 draft Ole Miss TE Evan Engram.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Now that the Tony Romo soap opera is over, QB Dak Prescott will take full charge in Dallas. Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott exceeded expectations as rookies behind the best offensive line in the game. Prescott had a banner debut (3,667 yards, 23 TDs, 4 INTs, 104.9 rating) and Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 yards as Dallas (13-3) won the East after a 4-12 2015 nightmare. WR Cole Beasley had a breakout year as WR Dez Bryant was slowed by injuries. TE Jason Witten (69 catches) doesn’t realize he’s 35. Jerry Jones’ search for a war daddy pass rusher could be solved by LB Jaylon Smith, who missed his rookie season, or No. 1 draft DE Taco Charlton. The ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ have had seven players suspended and/or arrested over the last two seasons. Jerruh has apparently mistaken pleamakers for playmakers.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles flew to a 3-0 start as Pat’s and Geno’s were selling more cheesesteaks than anyone can remember. Rookie QB Carson Wentz created a buzz until midseason when LT Lane Johnson was slapped with a 10-game ban. Six of the nine losses were by eight points or less. Wentz was in sync with TE Zach Ertz (78 catches, 816 yards), but no one else. Power back LeGarrette Blount (1,161 yards, NFL leading 18 rushing TDs) provides balance alongside new receivers Torrey Smith, who has deep speed, and big target Alshon Jeffery. No. 1 draft pick Derek Barnett is the pass rusher Jim Schwartz craved to work alongside Fletcher Cox.
4. Washington Redskins
After going through 19 quarterbacks since 1999, Washington finally found a franchise QB in Kirk Cousins. Will he stay longer than Sharknado did in theaters? He faces 2017 without his top two receivers, Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson. Jay Gruden filled one void by signing towering Terrelle Pryor, who snagged 1,007 yards with the Browns. The Redskins upgraded their defense with three DBs from the draft plus Alabama DE Jonathan Allen. “We might not win a game,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky crowed, “but we’ll sure beat the crap out of a lot of people!”
1. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers confirmed his status as a top-three QB when he took the Pack on a blistering run to the NFC title game after a lackluster 4-6 start. Faced with a tepid running attack (Rodgers led the team in rushing TDs with four) he willed his team to a six-game winning streak in crunch time. WR Jordy Nelson returned from a season-ending 2015 knee injury with 97 catches, 1,257 yards and 14 TDs while WR Davante Adams chimed in with 75 grabs, 997 yards, and 12 TDs. With the addition of TEs Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, Rodgers has two more weapons in his arsenal. It will be Air Aaron more than ever with RB Eddie Lacy taking his prodigious appetite to Seattle, even if coach Mike McCarthy improved his 31st-ranked pass defense with draft picks Kevin King and Josh Jones, and the return of CB Davon House.
2. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were the only team in NFL history to open 5-0 and miss the playoffs. With Adrian Peterson shelved after three games, the Vikings fell to the bottom of the NFL in rushing. Replacements Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook should be a nice 1-2 punch. Sam Bradford (3,877 yards, 20 TDs) and a fearsome defensive line reminiscent of the Purple People Eaters were among the few bright spots. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen need huge seasons for the Vikes to have a shot at hosting Super Bowl LII at home.
3. Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford did all he could to get the Lions their first division crown in 23 years with a record eight fourth-quarter comebacks. Stafford, conjuring memories of the great Bobby Layne, threw for 4,327 yards and 24 TDs, and Golden Tate was his favorite target. Theo Riddick rushed for a paltry 357 yards and more is needed from Ameer Abdullah and a defense that wallowed. GM Bob Quinn upgraded the offensive line with RG T. J. Lang and RT Rick Wagner. Drafting jaw-breaking Florida LB Jarrad Davis in the first round was a necessity—getting Florida CB Teez Tabor in the second round was a steal.
4. Chicago Bears
The winters are getting colder after the worst season (3-13) in Chicago since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The offense led the NFL with 31 turnovers, the defense had a league-low 11 takeaways and Da Bears went winless on the road for the first time ever. Jay Cutler is gone, and the new QB is Mike Glennon. Chicago panicked with its No. 1 draft pick, trading up to nab QB Mitchell Trubisky, who started only 13 games for North Carolina last year. RB Jordan Howard (1,313 yards) and WR Cameron Meredith (888 yards) are what’s left of the offense unless Kevin White can fulfill his promise and replace Alshon Jeffery. “We’re in striking distance to win,” rhapsodized Coach John Fox. What? When? How?
1. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons reached the Super Bowl and came thisclose to victory with the NFL’s highest-scoring offense led by QB Matt Ryan (4,944 yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs). Ryan is back, but offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is gone. WR Julio Jones was amazing with his third straight 1,000-yard season (1,409) and RB Devonta Freeman led the rushing attack with 1,079 yards. DE Vic Beasley registered an NFL-high 15.5 sacks and welcomes partners in crime in UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley, the 2017 No. 1 draft, and mountainous DT Dontari Poe. The Falcons will move into their new billion-dollar stadium with the ability to repeat, so long as they can overcome a nagging Super Bowl hangover.
2. Carolina Panthers
The 6-10 Panthers were the first team in history to win 15 games then miss the playoffs the next year. QB Cam Newton regressed from MVP-worthy to mediocre: 3,509 yards, 52.9 completion percentage, 19 TDs and 14 INTs, with a lowly 75.8 rating. “Cam has to regain his confidence,” moaned Coach Ron Rivera. RB Jonathan Stewart had only one 100-yard rushing game, so Carolina made multitalented RB Christian McCaffrey its top pick out of Stanford. McCaffrey can also catch passes and return kicks and help take the pressure off Newton and Luke Kuechly’s defense.
3. New Orleans Saints
As long as QB Drew Brees is around, the Saints’ offense will be as heavenly as the shrimp étouffée at Galatoire’s. Brees turned in his fifth 5,000-yard season (5,208) with 37 TDs, 15 INTs and a 101.7 rating. He has WRs Michael Thomas (1,137 yards) and Willie Snead (895 yards) but lost 1,000-yard receiver Brandin Cooks in a trade to the Patriots. RB Mark Ingram had his best year (1,043 yards) but coach Sean Payton gambled on 32-year-old Adrian Peterson, who was sidelined for 13 games following knee surgery, and used a third-round pick on dangerous RB Alvin Kamara, who is as explosive as the firecracker shrimp at the Beau Rivage’s Jia. The defense (31st in points allowed) welcomes No. 1 pick CB Marshon Lattimore to help pass rusher Cameron Jordan.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston showed he’s ready to break out, throwing for 4,090 yards and 28 TDs, which got the Bucs their first winning year since 2010. At 9-7, they lost a playoff spot in a tiebreaker with Detroit. RB Doug Martin will miss the first three games, but the Bucs are banking on him to return and team with Jacquizz Rodgers. Winston’s aerial game becomes more explosive with the signing of ex-Redskin WR DeSean Jackson and the drafting of Alabama TE O.J. Howard to join elite WR Mike Evans.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle went 10-5-1 last season and won the NFC West despite a sub-par offensive line. QB Russell Wilson was constantly under pressure and the running game was practically nonexistent. Wilson’s 4,219 yards look gaudy on paper, but he threw only 21 TD passes. Christine Michael was released after galloping for a pedestrian 469 yards. Ex-Packer Eddie Lacy (360 yards) replaces him, but Lacy gets a little chubby at times and is coming off ankle surgery, so he may not be capable of resisting the oatmeal-crusted French toast at Portage Bay Café. Seattle does have two quality receivers in Doug Baldwin (94 catches, 1,128 yards) and TE Jimmy Graham (65 receptions, 923 yards). The Legion of Boom welcomes back elite safety Earl Thomas (broken tibia), who looks good enough to intercept any of Kim Jong-un’s missiles.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals were the only team other than the Patriots who fielded a top-10 offense and defense. Injuries contributed to a 7-8-1 campaign. QB Carson Palmer played well over the second half of the year (4,233 yards, 26 TDs, 14 INTs) but needs more playmakers like RB David Johnson, who rushed for 1,239 yards, caught 80 passes for 879 yards and scored 16 TDs. Veteran Larry Fitzgerald had another big year (107 catches, 1,023 yards) but his 9.6 average was a career low. No. 1 draft pick Temple LB Haason Reddick, who can contribute immediately both inside and outside and give a healthy S Honey Badger Mathieu some help, was a smart choice.
3. Los Angeles Rams
With no first-round draft choice, rookie Sean McVay, the youngest coach in the league at 31, is already swimming upstream. Jared Goff, who struggled (1,089 yards, 5 TDs, 7 INTs, 54% accuracy) and was benched, needs to start proving he’s a franchise quarterback. RB Todd Gurley, the 10th pick in 2015, needs to regain his rookie form after sagging to 3.2 yards per carry. Kenny Britt (68 receptions, 1,002 yards) bolted to Cleveland. Rookie TE Gerald Everett could be Goff’s Jordan Reed. Elite defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will love unleashing DE Aaron Donald for his hybrid 3-4 defense, but after four winning seasons in 21 years, the Rams won’t be found on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were given six years to clean up the mess in San Fran, a once-proud franchise that deteriorated to 15-33 over three years with four coaching changes. Shanahan, an offensive coach, is burdened by player defections and a 32nd-ranked defense. He has a dependable playmaker in RB Carlos Hyde (988 yards), and brought in journeyman QB Brian Hoyer and WR Pierre Garçon. Then he made ex-Raven Kyle Juszczyk, who touched the ball only 104 times in four-years, the highest-paid FB in history with a $21 million contract. Huh? Draft picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster should help the defense, but 91-year-old Tony Bennett is in better shape than the 49ers.
Super Bowl Prediction: Patriots Defeat Giants 31-28
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will hear it from unforgiving post-Deflategate Patriots fans in September when he finally shows his face in Foxborough when the defending champions unveil the Super Bowl LI banner before the Thursday Night season opener. And now only Eli Manning, the only quarterback who has ever beaten Tom Brady twice in a Super Bowl (XLII and XLVI), could save Goodell from handing the Lombardi Trophy yet again to Brady and Bill Belichick and Robert and Jonathan Kraft as the New York Giants meet the Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis on February 4, 2018.
Manning, this time armed with better weapons than David Tyree or Mario Manningham, electrifies the blue army of Giants fans with touchdown passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, and for the second straight Super Sunday, Brady will find himself in a 28-3 hole. And then, without warning, a fatigued Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon will stop hounding Brady, who will hit Rob Gronkowski for one touchdown, Dwayne Allen for another, and Brandin Cooks for a third. The Pats defense will emerge strong as Stephon Gilmore intercepts Manning late to set up a touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with 12 seconds left that gives the Patriots a dramatic 31-28 victory.
For Gisele and Tom, it will be the Joy of Six—six Super Bowl championships.