Antonio Browns Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC North. Photograph: Don Wright/AP
Between LeVeon Bells extended holdout, the Ryan Shazier-shaped hole in the middle of the defense and Ben Roethlisbergers 14 seasons of wear and tear, it is no foregone conclusion that
the Steelers retain their division crown. But if the running back does return to the field in time for week one, then they will once again be hard to beat. PB
This might be the toughest call in the AFC, as the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens should both be equally tough outs, no matter who they’re playing.
The Steelers, however, just seem like a scarier team. Maybe the edge is that Roethlisberger has that uncanny knack of completing plays despite being pulled apart by the opposing defense while Joe Flacco is Joe Flacco. HF
Pittsburgh. Anyone but the Steelers, where bona fide stars Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Bell (maybe) will feature, would be a surprise after winning four of the last five AFC North titles, although an improved Baltimore side will likely challenge for a wild-card spot. BAG
Im all for the excitement in Cleveland. The team has youth, talent, and exciting players on both sides of the ball. Baltimore may have the top defense in the league; at any rate its the most versatile. And keep an eye on Cincinnati. The Bengals are sliding under-the-radar. They have as fearsome a pass-rush as anyone, and just enough explosiveness on offense to make opponents worry. Still, this is
the Steelers division to lose. The only thing I can see derailing Pittsburgh is another injury to Roethlisberger. OC
AFC South champ
Ive already made my case for the Colts as a more competitive team than many have predicted. Houston ought to be stronger, too, with Deshaun Watson and JJ Watt both back from injury. Tennessee won nine games last year and made useful additions on either side of the ball in Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler.
The Jaguars are still my pick, though, thanks to that suffocating D. PB
This division feels like it’s going to go down to who manages to have a comeback player of the year caliber season. If Luck plays like a franchise quarterback again, the Colts have the edge. If Watt plays like the force he once was,
the Texans could take control of the division. I like Watt’s chances. HF
Houston. The emerging star Watson should pick up where he left off before getting injured last year. Watt is back, too. Throw in the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin and the Texans should have enough to overtake the Jaguars. BAG
With Watson back in the fold and a star-studded defense at every level,
the Texans have the makings of a division champion. There are issues around the edges: Houstons offensive line has less talent than any in the league; depth on defense is an issue. Health will likely be the deciding factor. OC
AFC West champ
a competent kicking game, the Chargers might have taken the division last year. It is no guarantee that Caleb Sturgis can provide it, but his modest 81% career success rate is still a great deal better than the 66% achieved by a hapless cast in 2017. PB
The Chiefs season may come down to how good Patrick Mahomes ends up being in his first full year at quarterback, but this feels like a team that can pick up enough wins in the regular season to capture the division and then go on to suffer an Andy Reid-assisted flameout in their first playoff game. HF
The Chargers. Philip Rivers is back at the stick of last years top-ranked passing offense and the defense is better than it gets credit for. They finished strong, winning nine of their last 12 games after going winless in September. It should be enough to end Kansas Citys two-year reign atop the division. BAG
Preseason injuries have tortured
the Chargers, again. Still, LA are poised for a deep playoff run They still have the top edge-rushing duo in the league, a great secondary and a seasoned quarterback. OC
NFC East champ
When will Carson Wentz return to the field? Can he perform at the same MVP level that he achieved before his injury last year? Does it really matter, given that
the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles anyway, and beefed up an imposing defensive line rotation with Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata since then? PB
reigning world champions should be the favorites to once again to win their division. It will be interesting to see how things go with Wentz set to take the reins back from Foles, but that probably goes into the category of Good Problems To Have. HF
Philadelphia. Its been 13 years since a team in the NFLs glamour division has won it twice in a row, but theres every reason to believe the Eagles will break the schneid. Theyre deep on both lines, theyve added a couple nice pieces on defense (including Michael Bennett and Sidney Jones) and Wentz was playing at an MVP level until he went down to injury. BAG
The Eagles should go back-to-back. They have an embarrassment of riches all over the field. Watch for second-year cornerback Sidney Jones. He missed his entire rookie year with an achilles injury. If he bounces back to his pre-injury level, he will be an instant star. Of course, all this presupposes that Wentz returns in week three. If not, Philly will be in trouble. OC
NFC North champ
The Vikings won 13 games last season and believe they will be better with Kirk Cousins behind center and a healthy Dalvin Cook in the backfield. But as long as
the Packers have an upright Aaron Rodgrs, theyre going to be hard to pick against. PB
It feels weird picking the team that will be starting Cousins over the team starting Rodgers, but the latter is a question mark and Minnesota feel like they are going to win out thanks to the talent they have on the defensive end of the ball. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the division comes down to tiebreakers, however.
Minnesota. One could argue the splashy addition of free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a team coming off a 13-3 campaign made the Vikings the NFLs most complete team. But the Packers, benefitting from the return of Rodgers and a revamped defense, will push them till the end. BAG
This is a true toss-up. The Bears trading for Khalil Mack changes the entire dynamic of the division. Vic Fangio is coming for Mike Zimmers best-defense-in-the-division crown. Chicago are young and have lethal speed at every level of its defense. Out in Green Bay, theres that Aaron Rodgers guy to deal with. And you cant rule out the Lions making a run, either. On balance, though, I like
the Vikings chances. Theyre the more proven team on either side of the ball. Kirk Cousins represents an upgrade over Case Keenum at quarterback. Dalvin Cook returning from injury will help push Minnesota over the top. OC
NFC South champ
Will Drew Brees win another Super Bowl as his career winds down? Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
Hey, remember how
the Saints were one miracle play away from going to the NFC Championship game last year? Yeah, they really havent lost a lot of pieces since. This will be another very competitive division, but a team that can turn to Drew Brees when the running game isnt working, rather than the other way around, is a team in very rude health indeed. PB
The Saints signed Brees to a two-year extension back in March with the hope that he had at least one more season of playing like Drew Effing Brees in him. While he’s eyeing records held by legends like Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, one has to think that his goal will be returning to the Super Bowl. It’s not out of the question. HF
Former MVP Matt Ryan leads an
Atlanta Falcons offense featuring an embarrassment of riches, among them Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper and Justin Hardy. No shortage of playmakers on defense, either. New Orleans and Carolina should contend but look for the Falcons to contend for the NFCs top overall seed. BAG
I have no confidence in this pick. I love the offense that has been put together in New Orleans. But I still dont entirely trust all the young pups on defense. Granted, I hardly trust Steve Sarkisian calling plays for
Atlantas offense, but I trust it a little more. Side note: I think Tampa have the potential to be a true dumpster fire. OC
NFC West champ
Ive picked Gurley and Donald to win player of the year awards already. It feels like a stretch to suggest that anyone other than
the Rams would win this division if they do. PB
Could the Rams end up being good enough this season to actually get Los Angeles to buy into them? Maybe not, but they have the opportunity to stay in the public consciousness long enough that people stop forgetting that they no longer play in St Louis.
The 49ers started 1-10 before Jimmy Garoppolo got a chance under center and closed out with five straight wins. If the Rams bold gamble to reach the Super Bowl doesnt pay off, look for the Niners to take advantage. BAG
The Rams have transformed the nature of the NFC West in a couple of years thanks to a pair of coaching hires (Sean McVay and Wade Phillips) and a raft of free-agent moves and trades. Do win-now moves always work out? No. But the Rams were smart with who they targeted this offseason. They reenforced strengths and improved upon weakness. Their secondary reads like an All-Pro list. Their defensive line is even better. The 49ers will push them close, but ultimately
the Rams have too much quality to disappoint. OC
Ravens and Colts.
Ravens and Jaguars.
Chiefs and Ravens.
Jaguars and Colts.
Vikings and Bears.
49ers and Panthers.
Saints and Packers.
Packers and 49ers.
NFC championship game
Rams over Eagles.
Saints over Eagles.
Eagles over Falcons.
Vikings over Packers.
AFC championship game
Patriots over Chargers.
Steelers over Patriots.
Patriots over Chargers.
Patriots over Texans.
Super Bowl LIII
The Patriots and Eagles have the tools to reach the Super Bowl again. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Rams over Patriots. After becoming the NFLs youngest head coach in modern history, and then the youngest coach of the year, Sean McVay completes the set by becoming the youngest to win a Super Bowl as well. Better yet, he does it against the most successful of them all. PB
Steelers over Saints. Old guy quarterback showdown! Roethlisberger will be 36. Brees will be 40! As a game, however, it might end up being anticlimactic. One can imagine Brees burying Pittsburgh in touchdowns, picking up MVP honors and announcing his retirement live on television. At least that’s the Hollywood ending, we should know by now that Super Bowl games rarely follow the script. HF
Eagles over Patriots. Its down to Carson Wentz, really. But if Philadelphias third-year quarterback makes a full recovery from his knee injury and can regain the MVP form he showed during his breakout sophomore campaign (where he threw for 33 touchdowns against only seven interceptions), the Eagles will become the first team in more than a decade to repeat as Super Bowl champions. BAG
Vikings over Patriots. Dumping Case Keenum for Kirk Cousins pays off. The Vikings skill-positions are as talented as any group in the league. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen might be the best two-man receiving tandem around. Dalvin Cook is a special talent. Add that offense to a top-tier defense and you have a potent championship formula. I have the Patriots suffering another heartbreaker in the Super Bowl. There are concerns with their receiving group and offensive tackle spots. But they still have Brady at the peak of his powers, and a potentially frisky defense that has filled in its holes. No other team in the AFC has the same proven quality. OC