After a long offseason, NFL games have finally returned to the national spotlight. With the kickoff of the regular season, now is the ideal time to predict which teams will be the most successful, surprising, and disappointing. Who will win each division? Which teams will compete for a Super Bowl trip? Which players will take the league by storm? Without further adieu, let’s jump right into my NFL predictions, starting with the AFC divisions.
In the AFC East, the New England Patriots will reign supreme for the eighth consecutive season. Although franchise quarterback Tom Brady is suspended for the first few games due to his reinstated “Deflategate” punishment, backup Jimmy Garoppolo has plenty of offensive weapons including elite tight end Rob Gronkowski and speedy receiver Julian Edelman. The Patriots also possess a top ten defense, featuring athletic linebacker Jamie Collins and solid safety Devin McCourty. Garoppolo understands the Patriots system, having backed up a future Hall-of-Famer for multiple seasons. Plus, the Patriots possess powerful weapons on both sides of the football. When the 3-time Super Bowl MVP steps back on the football field, Brady will be angry, motivated, and extremely dominant. Sorry Jets! You’ll have to wait until next year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will win their 22nd AFC North title. Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the league and an unstoppable weapon. DeAngelo Williams is quite capable of filling in for sidelined running back Le’Veon Bell, who is suspended for the first three games of this season due to a drug policy violation. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still playing awfully well at age 34, and the Steelers offense is one of the league’s best when Big Ben is healthy. On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers have some serious firepower in linebackers James Harrison, Ryan Shazier, and Lawrence Timmons. My one concern with Pittsburgh is its mediocre secondary. None of the four starting members have recorded more than 4 interceptions in a season, and the Steelers were third worst in the league last year against the pass. The Steelers might get into a few shootouts this year, but I think that every other team in the AFC North is too flawed to win the division. The Steelers just need to find a way to stay healthy long enough to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Down South, I expect the Houston Texans will win their second straight division title in an extremely close battle. On offense, the Texans have many dangerous pieces. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is coming off the best season of his career, and the Texans appear to have a solid second option in rookie Will Fuller. Running back Lamar Miller will also play a large role; last year, as a member of the Miami Dolphins, he scored eight touchdowns. Quarterback Brock Osweiler, having defected from the reigning Super Bowl Champion Broncos, should be a competent quarterback this year. Despite some concern about his lack of experience, the 25-year old has enough weapons at his disposal to manage the game and minimize costly turnovers. On the other side of the football, the Texans will be extremely dominant. J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the league, linebacker Whitney Mercilus had 12.0 sacks last season, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph highlights a secondary that ranked third against the pass in 2015. If Brock Osweiler can utilize all of his offensive weapons properly, expect the Texans to win the AFC South and make some noise in January.
For the first time since 2010, the Kansas City Chiefs will finish the season atop the AFC West. Quarterback Alex Smith rarely makes ill-advised passes; since joining the Chiefs, he has not thrown more than seven interceptions in a season. However, over the course of his whole career, Smith has not thrown more than 23 passing touchdowns in one year. Smith will probably obliterate that number in 2016. Jeremy Maclin is an extremely talented wide receiver despite being injury prone, and Travis Kelce is one of the league’s best pass-catching tight ends. Assuming that both stay healthy, Smith will have two quality aerial targets. With running back Jamaal Charles set to return within the next few weeks, the Chiefs offense should be firing on all cylinders. Kansas City’s defense will be ranked in the top five yet again this season, despite the potential yearlong absence of linebacker Justin Houston (ACL issue). Last season, cancer survivor Eric Berry made the Pro Bowl as Safety, cornerback Marcus Peters intercepted 8 passes as a rookie, and linebacker Derrick Johnson did a little bit of everything, recording 116 combined tackles, 4.0 sacks, and 2 interceptions. If the Chiefs offense can stay healthy, most notably Jamaal Charles and Jeremy Maclin, expect to see Kansas City at home on Wild Card Weekend.
Now, let’s transition to the NFC divisions. The New York Giants will claim their first NFC East title in five years. Quarterback Eli Manning has improved his touchdown and interception numbers each season since 2013, and his former top receiving option is healthy for the first time since 2014. Victor Cruz returned from a broken leg in the season opener and scored a touchdown in his first game in nearly two years. Odell Beckham Jr. managed to follow up his spectacular 2014 season with an even better year in 2015; he improved in every major statistical category and proved that he is one of the best receivers in the league. The defense is also significantly better than it was last season. The front office signed defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins in the offseason. “Snacks” gives opposing offensive lines a difficult time, and Jenkins will add quality to a secondary that ranked last in the league last year. These two new additions, combined with defensive ends Oliver Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul, transform the Giants defense from one of the worst in the league to a top-15 unit.
The Green Bay Packers will receive some competition from the Minnesota Vikings but will ultimately win yet another NFC North title. Aaron Rodgers ranks in the top three among current NFL quarterbacks, and without Jordy Nelson last year, he showed us all that he can still win games without his biggest weapon. However, the team has returned to full strength and looks better than ever. Jordy Nelson scored a touchdown in his first game in a year, and Randall Cobb is one of the best WR2s in the league. The addition of tight end Jared Cook will provide Rodgers with another reliable passing target. Eddie Lacy is also in shape to start the season; the running back reportedly has dealt with weight issues in the past, but now he should be playing well on a more consistent basis. Green Bay’s defense should be good enough to contend for the Super Bowl. The linebacker duo of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers is plain scary, while the safety duo of Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix lead a secondary that ranked sixth against the pass last season. The Packers’ roster looks extremely powerful this season; a Super Bowl trophy is certainly not out of reach.
The Carolina Panthers will win a weak NFC South division comfortably. Defending MVP Cam Newton cemented his position as best dual-threat quarterback in the league last season, passing for 35 touchdowns and rushing for 10. Newton will have difficulty replicating these numbers, but the offense looks even more powerful than it was last season. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin missed all of 2015 with an ACL tear after scoring nine touchdowns in 2014 but returned in week 1 and caught a touchdown pass. Benjamin was Newton’s favorite target before the injury, and if week 1 is any indicator, these two teammates are still on the same page. Tight end Greg Olsen had the best season of his career last year, setting career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns. Running back Jonathan Stewart also played well last season, scoring seven total touchdowns and rushing for just under 1,000 yards. Cornerback Josh Norman may have left in the offseason and weakened the secondary, but the defense should still be talented enough for the Panthers to make plenty of noise in the NFC. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will be a nightmare for opposing offenses; both players can pick off passes, make crucial tackles, force fumbles, and sack the quarterback. Defensive tackle Kawann Short also led the team in sacks with 11.0. The defending NFC Champions still have a loaded roster but may be vulnerable against teams with elite wide receivers.
Out west, the Arizona Cardinals will triumph for the second consecutive year. Larry Fitzgerald still has some serious game. The wide receiver caught two touchdowns in the week 1 loss against the Patriots, and was the only aerial target that gave New England’s secondary major issues. However, the Cardinals do happen to have one of the deepest receiving units in the league, despite its quieter performance against the Pats. Michael Floyd and John Brown both had big 2015 seasons, with both of them hauling in 6 and 7 touchdowns, respectively. David Johnson, who tore up opposing defenses in the second half of last season, anchors the Arizona run game. Johnson rushed for 8 touchdowns and caught 4 last season, and he picked up right where he left off in week 1, rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Carson Palmer also had the best year of his career last season. Palmer recorded new career-highs in yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35), while only throwing 11 interceptions. However, despite all of this offensive firepower, the scariest thing about the Cardinals is their defense. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson headline a secondary that can potentially challenge Seattle and Denver for best in the league, and Calais Campbell is a strong pass rusher. The Cardinals also traded for linebacker Chandler Jones in the offseason, who recorded 12.5 sacks last year in New England. The Cardinals have an effective offense and a lockdown defense. This team can beat anybody in the league.
The four wild card teams will be the Denver Broncos (AFC), Cincinnati Bengals (AFC), Minnesota Vikings (NFC), and the Seattle Seahawks (NFC). Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian may not be experienced, but he seemed confident against the Panthers in week 1 and can rely on C.J. Anderson and Demaryius Thomas to make plays. The Denver defense was also the best in the league last year, and Denver will be able to put its confidence in the likes of Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. when the game is on the line. The Bengals have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the football, and when Vontaze Burfict returns from his three-game suspension, expect this unit to be devastating. On the offensive end, quarterback Andy Dalton can target elite receiver A.J. Green or give the ball to running back Jeremy Hill. The Vikings have a strong defense led by safety Harrison Smith, and while quarterback Sam Bradford may struggle in the Vikings offense, he can always hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson, arguably the NFL’s top running back. Finally, the Seahawks will once again be extremely stingy on defense; Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas III, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, and company will look to reclaim their title of best defense in the league. On offense, quarterback Russell Wilson will once again utilize his dual-threat ability to keep opposing defenses on their heels, and wide receiver Doug Baldwin will catch quite a few touchdown passes this year.
In the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots will face the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Antonio Brown will be a huge challenge for the Patriots secondary, and Big Ben will find “AB” for a touchdown or two. Le’Veon Bell will struggle to get a rhythm going, as Pats linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower will keep the Steelers running back at bay. Meanwhile, on the other side of the football, Tom Brady will hit wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola for medium-sized gains, and Rob Gronkowski will create all kinds of issues and mismatches for the Steelers defense. Both teams have high octane offenses, but the Steelers simply will not be able to match New England on the defensive side of the football.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Arizona Cardinals will take on the Carolina Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium. David Johnson will struggle to run on Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but Carson Palmer will instead focus on picking apart the young Carolina secondary with deep passes to Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown. On the other side of the football, Kelvin Benjamin and Ted Ginn Jr. will struggle to find space against the Arizona secondary, and Newton will be forced to call either hand the ball of to Jonathan Stewart, or try and run on the stingy Cardinals front seven. Carolina will simply run out of options, sending the Cardinals to Super Bowl LI.
The stage is set: February 5, 2017. Reliant Stadium. Super Bowl LI. The NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals will take on the AFC Champion New England Patriots in a week 1 rematch. Tom Brady will try and find Rob Gronkowski early, but will quickly realize that the Cardinals will do everything in their power to shut him down. As a result, the 4-time Super Bowl Champion will start throwing to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, for smaller gains, burning large sums of clock in the process. Meanwhile, Carson Palmer will find Larry Fitzgerald frequently, as the Patriots are focused on limiting David Johnson, along with John Brown and Michael Floyd. In a back and forth game, the Cardinals will prevail, as Palmer will throw toward Fitzgerald often, forcing the Patriots to make defensive adjustments. This will give Brown, Floyd, or Johnson many opportunities, and the Patriots will struggle to match every Arizona possession.
All Stats courtesy of ESPN