1. Pittsburgh Steelers 13-3
The Steelers will be without Le’Veon Bell for the first three games and Martavis Bryant for the season, but their offense should still be dynamic. Antonio Brown separated himself as the best receiver in football last year so it’s likely that the offense will continue to produce even without Bell for the first three games. On defense I love the potential of Ryan Shazier and Cam Heyward will be a force, but they need their young guys to step up if they expect to win the division and go far in the playoffs.
2. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
Mock their lack of playoff success all you want, but you can’t deny that they’re always a threat to win games in the regular season. I expect them to be in a battle with the Jaguars and the Chiefs for the wild-card spots due to their losses of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as well as receivers Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Their defense should still be very productive, but it’ll be on Dalton to reach the same efficiency he did last year. The other key for the Bengals will be their running game. It’s been inconsistent on who’s stepped up in the last two years between Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, if they both click this year they could end up challenging Pittsburgh for the division, but I’m not willing to bet on it.
3. Baltimore Ravens 6-10
Last year the Ravens for some reason were many people’s predictions to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I however, picked them to miss the playoffs and am doing the same this year. Although I like Flacco as a QB, he doesn’t have any great weapons around him unless you expect Steve Smith to return to form after a torn achilles and Brashad Perriman to be productive in his first year in the league after tearing his ACL his rookie season. The defense should be okay, but their pass rush has all sorts of questions of age and health (Dumervil and Suggs respectively), and their secondary is unproven. With the strength at the top of the division it’s hard to see the Ravens overachieving this year, and it could put coach John Harbaugh on the hot seat.
4. Cleveland Browns 3-13
I’ll get started by saying that I really like what the Browns are starting here. Trying something that’s never been done before bringing in baseball guys and a “moneyball” type approach. I loved the Hue Jackson hiring and I think he’s the guy that can bring RGIII back to prominence. Josh Gordon didn’t show much rust in the preseason and Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor are intriguing wideouts. But, I’m still unsure about the running game and I don’t expect the defense to be very good this year. The Browns are still a few years of building away from getting into the playoff conversation.
1. Houston Texans 11-5
I’m a believer in Brock Osweiler. Praise that Broncos D all you want, but they might not have even made the playoffs if it wasn’t for the steady play of Osweiler. With the QB problems they’ve had the last few years, they needed to do something to address the position and if that means overpaying a little bit for Brock then so be it. They were also able to bring in Lamar Miller from the Dolphins and he should be a huge pickup to replace Arian Foster. I also like their draft day additions of Will Fuller and Braxton Miller to help take pressure off of DeAndre Hopkins. On defense JJ Watt could be back in time for the start of the regular season and Jadeveon Clowney showed flashes this preseason that he could be back to full strength.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6
I am a big fan of the Jaguars this year. Blake Bortles had top five QB production last season and they could have the best WR duo in the league with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. I liked the addition of Chris Ivory at running back to provide a little more reliability. On defense they improved immensely by bringing in Malik Jackson and Prince Amukamara and Dante Folwer Jr is getting compared to Von Miller by Jaguars coaches. For them it’ll come down to a few key potential tiebreaker games against AFC opponents to get into the playoffs.
3. Indianapolis Colts 7-9
Yes, the Colts do get Andrew Luck back healthy this year, they have a lot of issues on the rest of their team. I don’t like the fact that they’re still going to be relying on a 33 year old Frank Gore as their top running back, I don’t like that the undersized T.Y. Hilton is their #1 target and their offensive line is mediocre at best (which is the main reason why Luck got hurt in the first place). They also don’t have the elite talent or depth on the defensive side of the ball to keep their offense rested. The Colts will have been overhyped solely because of the return of Luck and the uncertainty of the rest of the team has me picking them to miss the playoffs.
4. Tennessee Titans 7-9
Marcus Mariota last year showed flashes of stardom in as an NFL QB and I think that he’ll improve on it this year. Extending Mike Mularkey as their head coach was a head scratcher but the addition of DeMarco Murray could be a big one. They’re going against the grain with a 4 headed running attack with Murray and rookie Derrick Henry leading the way. I still don’t think they have enough weapons for Mariota to pass the ball to, and the defense wasn’t very good last year. A few more drafts focusing on the defensive side of the ball will be needed for the Titans to take the next step.
1. New England Patriots 11-5
Tom Brady may be suspended for the first four games of the season, but I’m not going to make the same mistake as I did last year by picking someone else to win the division. I really like the addition of Martellus Bennett from the Bears and their offense could have the same kind of attack they had when Gronk was paired with Aaron Hernandez. Their defense is still underrated as well even with the loss of Chandler Jones. I expect them to go 2-2 in the four games with Garrapolo with one of those losses being a key one to the Texans, which would force them into the #3 spot in the playoff standings.
2. New York Jets 9-7
The Jets were a surprise last year due to the unexpected jump in production by journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. They were finally able to bring him back after months of negotiations, but was it really the right decision? He’s never taken a team to the playoffs and he’s never had consecutive seasons with that kind of production. Even with the stout defensive unit and top flight receiving core, I think Fitzpatrick’s play will regress and that will cause the Jets to miss the playoffs once again.
3. Buffalo Bills 7-9
I’m a fan of Rex Ryan, but the defense underachieved last year so they’ll need to step it up big time, especially with the pass rush. Tyrod Taylor is worthy of being their starter this year after the way he performed this past season. Their offensive line is one of the best in run blocking in the league so I would expect LeSean McCoy to put in a productive year. Even with that, the offensive success hinges on the health of Sammy Watkins. He can be dynamic when healthy, but he still has yet to stay healthy through the start of his career.
4. Miami Dolphins 5-11
I picked the Dolphins to win the division last year and boy was I wrong. Tannehill didn’t progress like I expected, Suh was a major disappointment, and they ended up firing Joe Philbin midway through the season. The offense that new HC Adam Gase is going to run should help Tannehill, but I wouldn’t expect their running game to be reliable enough even with the addition of Arian Foster. The key for this team will be the defense. They have big names, but they need to play up to their potential for the Dolphins to even think about a wild card spot.
1. Oakland Raiders 10-6
The silver and black is back. Led on offense by franchise quarterback Derek Carr and stud wide receiver Amari Cooper, and pass rushing superstar Khalil Mack on defense, the Raiders finally have what it takes to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They showed flashes last year of what it can do, and I think they put it all together this year. It does help them that the Broncos suffered key losses on defense and their QB situation is a mess, and the Chiefs are vulnerable since their star players have had trouble staying healthy.
2. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6
If there’s one thing you can expect from an Andy Reid coached team, it’s that they’ll almost always finish the season with a solid record. They’re defense is still very good and they have the depth at running back to somewhat withstand an injury to Jamaal Charles. However I don’t think they have enough weapons in the passing game and I absolutely think that Alex Smith is still holding them back at the QB position, no matter how steady he may be.
3. Denver Broncos 9-7
The reigning Super Bowl champs return with a pretty good defense and weapons at wide receiver, but they’re quarterback situation is an absolute mess. Trevor Siemian could very well be a fine option, but I won’t judge that by him beating out Mark Sanchez for the job. They haven’t done much to improve their offensive line so the running game will be inconsistent once again. I also think that the losses of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevaethan will hurt their defense more than people expect. This all comes down to John Elway and his reluctancy to bring back Osweiler. He better hope that Siemian can be steady enough, or that Paxton Lynch can overachieve if they want to defend their championship.
4. San Diego Chargers 3-13
The Chargers could be the hardest team in this division to predict. I still expect them to be competitive in most games despite my 3-13 prediction. Philip Rivers is constantly underrated and Keenan Allen looks to be back full strength after his injury last season. I also expect Melvin Gordon to bounce back big time after an awful rookie season. But, they’re offensive line was horrible last year and I think drafting Joey Bosa instead of Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley will prove to be a big mistake.
1. Green Bay Packers 14-2
The Packers last year suffered some major pains without their #1 wideout Jordy Nelson. But this year he’s back and I expect nothing but huge things from this offense. Eddie Lacy looks great now that he’s back at a desirable weight, and the Jared Cook signing looks to be paying some dividends this early. I’m all on on my bet for Aaron Rodgers winning MVP and the Packers offense putting up historic numbers. On defense they’re extremely underrated. The secondary is young but Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarius Randall, and Quinten Rollins look to be three young studs. The pass rush should be great once again with Clay Matthews moving back outside with Julius Peppers. The key on defense will be the play of MLBs Sam Barrington and rookie Blake Martinez. But either way, look for the Packers to run away with this division and make their claim to the NFC playoffs going through Lambeau Field.
2. Minnesota Vikings 9-7
The loss of QB Teddy Bridgewater to a possible season-ending injury will definitely hurt this team, but depending on who they bring in, I think it’s possible they can salvage the season. They have a top 2 running back in AP, underrated weapons on offense in Stefon Diggs, Laquon Treadwell, and Kyle Rudolph, and a top 5 defense. I don’t think they’ll be a threat to win consecutive division titles, but they should still be right in the mix for the final wild card spot.
3. Chicago Bears 5-11
Where do I start with the Bears. They’ve added some decent players on defense but it’s still a pretty weak unit overall, their best offensive weapon Alshon Jeffery is never healthy, they lost veteran Matt Forte in free agency, and last but not least they still have Jay Cutler as their quarterback. I can never consider the Bears a serious threat as long as he’s the starting quarterback.
4. Detroit Lions 4-12
Things will certainly look different for the Lions this season without Calvin Johnson. They were able to slightly help Matt Stafford by adding Marvin Jones, but of course he’s no Megatron. I still have major concerns that Ameer Abdullah can be a legit starting back in the league, and their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Should be a rough season ahead for these Lions.
1. Carolina Panthers 13-3
The Panthers took the league by storm with MVP Cam Newton and an outstanding defense led by Luke Kuechly. #1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin returns off a torn ACL and the defense should be just as strong even with the loss of Josh Norman. The offensive line still worries me, along with Jonathan Stewart continuing to stay healthy, but the rest of the team is good enough to run away with the division.
2. Atlanta Falcons 6-10
I swear the Falcons should always be better than they end up. They have a pretty good quarterback in Matt Ryan and an elite wide receiver in Julio Jones, but late game and red zone execution failed this team miserably last year. In his 3rd year with the team, coach Dan Quinn needs his defense to prove themselves for the Falcons to get into the playoffs.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11
The Buccaneers seem to have their offense all figured out. They have their franchise quarterback, two legit weapons at wideout, and a top flight running back, it’s just the defense that’s holding them back. Drafting Vernon Hargreaves should help the secondary and Lavonte David has proven to be a great young linebacker, but the pass rushing needs to improve and the can’t afford to make many mental mistakes like they did last year. A season or two of improvement is left for the Bucs in their rebuilding stage.
4. New Orleans Saints 5-11
I’m a big fan of Drew Brees, and Brandin Cooks looks to be a good young receiver, but I don’t trust anything else about this team. Mark Ingram had a good start to the year but tailed off, their run defense was atrocious, and their defense overall was still pretty bad. There’s too many questions regarding this team for me to take them seriously, no matter how much I like Brees.
1. New York Giants 9-7
The Giants probably made the biggest splashes this offseason signing Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins to big money deals, but the strength of this team should still be their passing game. Eli Manning has improved his statistics every year in Bob McAdoo’s system and ODB is as elite as it gets. The running game is a major question mark for me, but I think they can withstand it. The defense needs to live up to it’s big money hype and that could hinge on the production of JPP. With all that said 9-7 with some key division tie-breaker wins should be enough to get the Giants the division title.
2. Dallas Cowboys 9-7
I want to first make clear that this 9-7 prediction was made before Tony Romo got hurt. I never expected Romo to stay healthy for all 16 games this year, but the weapons around preseason standout Dak Prescott should help him progress faster. Ezekiel Elliott should have a fantastic rookie season behind the easy #1 offensive line in football. The big problem with this team is their defense. Their best pass rushers are out for the first four games, and they’re relying on disappointing Cowboys Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, along with the finally healthy Orlando Scandrick to hold together their secondary. They’ll be forced into a lot of shootouts because of their bad defense and I’ll be interested to see if Prescott can handle that much pressure early.
3. Washington Redskins 8-8
The Skins certainly shocked me last year when they won the NFC East. A lot of that was due to their easy second half schedule, but you still have to play the games. Kirk Cousins is once again in a prove it year, but I don’t trust the weapons around him outside of Jordan Reed. Newcomer Josh Norman had a breakout year last season, but big money free agents have a history of failing in Washington. He’s probably the biggest key to their defensive success this season.
4. Philadelphia Eagles 4-12
The Eagles are going to be bad this year. Sam Bradford and Ryan Mathews are injuries waiting to happen, their offensive line is extremely suspect, and their receivers still have to prove their potential. The defense has some fine talent led by Benny Logan and Fletcher Cox, but it won’t matter if the offense struggles to put up points.
1. Arizona Cardinals 13-3
The Cardinals are one of the most complete teams in football. Great quarterback, weapons at receiver, David Johnson broke out as a weapon at running back for them last year, and their defense is probably the best in the league (even before they traded or Chandler Jones). Even if they split their matchups with the Seahawks, the rest of the division should be pretty easy to handle. I fully expect the Cards to be a top 2 seed when the season is said and done.
2. Seattle Seahawks 12-4
Lots of good things coming out of Seahawks camp this year. Russell Wilson should further himself into the elite quarterback conversation, and the running game looks to be pretty good even with the departure of Marshawn Lynch. Coaches and players also say they feel they have the same depth as their 2014 championship team. The one thing I’m looking forward to seeing with this team is if Jimmy Graham can play like he did as a New Orleans Saint. If he can do that, then they could be better than 12-4.
3. Los Angeles Rams 6-10
The Rams are the perennial underachievers of the NFC. They have a really good defense, but their offense leaves a lot to be desired. They have a great young running back with Todd Gurley, but their QB situation will be in flux all year and they don’t have a number one receiver. Their defense is the only reason why I’ll credit them with a 6-10 record. Any step back and it’ll be a long homecoming.
4. San Francisco 49ers 2-14
Like the team he left in Philadelphia, Chip Kelly’s 49ers are going to be terrible this year. Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick have both become terrible options at QB, Carlos Hyde hasn’t played a full season yet, and they might just have the worst receiving corps in football. Their average defense won’t stand a chance this year if Kelly’s up-tempo offense combined with terrible quarterback play keeps them on the field for most of the game. I’d be shocked if San Fran even got up to 4 wins this season.