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Carson Wentz Flying Again: Eagles QB Carson Wentz is Back. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

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NFL Takes Steps
Mike Carlson, BBC and Talksport commentator gives the rundown on the new season and highlights this year’s three regular season games in London.

Mike’s tip for Super Bowl LIII Champion?
Hold your breath... the New England Patriots

Published on October 5, 2018.
First published in the September/October 2018 edition of The American magazine

The 2017 NFL season ended with another in a series of classic Super Bowls; since I started doing the games live for BBC in 2007 (with two years on Channel 4), only the Seattle blowout of Denver in New York has not been a competitive, exciting game. People used to expect championship games to fail to live up to hype ...nowadays we’ve been spoiled.

The NFL has the shortest season (and longest offseason) of the major American leagues, but it seems to stay in the headlines all year round, often for the wrong reasons. When you have the President tweeting constantly about players protesting inequality and police brutality, and turning the sport into a political, for want of a better word, football, it’s up to the league to take steps. When the spectre of concussions now hangs over every game, it’s up to league to take steps. When everyone knows what a catch is, or isn’t, but no one can put that into words, it’s up to the league to take steps. All too often the steps taken are cautious ones, leaving the root problems to fester.

Once the season starts, the players make the game a gripping spectacle, as we will see in three more games in London this October (see below). At that point, our focus will be on the field - as it should be - so here’s a look ahead to how the 2018 season might wind up.

LONDON’S NFL GAMES
Shahid Kahn and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Jaguars owner Shahid Khan links arms with players before their game against Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium, 2017. Photo www.jaguars.com

Every year the NFL’s London office releases the schedule of London games and every year UK fans moan about the lack of top teams, but last year’s surprises included the Jags, Vikings and Rams all making it to conference finals. All three games match opponents who should be good, with the highlight being the Super Bowl champion Eagles taking on the Jags.

October 14: Seattle ‘at’ Oakland at Wembley

(Previously scheduled at Tottenham Hotspurs, but Spurs’ new stadium will not be ready.) There is no Legion of Boom, but there’s always a Black Hole, even in London. The Seahawks are more beatable on the road, and the coaching matchup of Jon Gruden and Pete Carroll ought to be good for some entertaining video hot takes!

October 21: Tennessee ‘at’ LA Chargers at Wembley

Last time the Chargers came to Wembley they staged a memorable shootout in losing to the Saints. By this point we will know if the Chargers have overcome their injury curse and kicking woes, while we will see if the new coaching regime of Mike Vrabel’s in Nashville can get the best out of Marcus Mariota and Jurrell Casey.

October 28: Philadelphia ‘at’ Jacksonville at Wembley

This would be a marquee matchup wherever it was held, and the meeting of the Eagles’ exciting offense and the Jags’ fast-moving defense is one to delight football purists. As is often the case, the other units may be key: can the Jags get Leonard Fournette unleashed? Can Blake Bortles shred the Eagles’ secondary? Or will that key strip sack, the one that clinched them the Super Bowl, be the Eagles’ salvation in London?


National Football Conference

Mike's Predictions:
Wildcard Teams: Atlanta, Green Bay
NFC Champion: Los Angeles Rams

NFC East

No team has won back to back titles in this division since the Eagles in 2001-'04. Philly GM Howie Roseman could be starting another dynasty.

1. PHILADELPHIA

The Eagles have lost assistant coaches Frank Reich and John DeFilippo, but get back quarterback Carson Wentz and veteran tackle Jason Peters. They may not be able to recreate the magic that got them the championship last year, but they have enough quality to take their division. The big question will be when Wentz is ready and what do they do with ‘Philly Special’ hero Nick Foles.

2. DALLAS COWBOYS

The closest thing to the Trump White House you’ll find outside DC, owner Jerry Jones seems be possessed by the Ghost of Cowboys Past. Head Coach Jason Garrett aka The Clapper is the virtual opposite of the animated Pederson, and his team will attract a lot of media attention but probably fall at the last hurdle, much like Dez Bryant’s famous TD ruled not a catch. The Cowboys don’t make the most of their strengths, but apart from the O line, Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott, they don’t have as many as you think.

3. NEW YORK (sic) GIANTS

Sometimes you see teams with veteran quarterbacks who are going all in for one last shot at a title, like the Saints this year or the Broncos in Brother Peyton’s era. Eli Manning has risen to the playoff occasion twice, but the Giants need to get to the playoffs first. New coach Pat Shurmur has had some success as a coordinator; new offensive coordinator Mike Shula hasn’t. Saquon Barkley is the rookie runner supposed to lead them to the promised land: think Dallas in Zeke Elliott’s first season.

4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (sic)

Captain Kirk Cousins is out, Alex Smith is in. Smith can run the kind of offense you suspect Jay Gruden wants to run, but more worrying may be the Beltway Bandits’ inability to stop the opposition in the air. They lost rookie runner Derrius Guice in preseason, so second-year man Samaje Perine needs to step up.

NFC South

A two-team horse race beckons here; with a pick ‘em situation for third and fourth. The pairing of QB Brees and Coach Payton could swing it for the Saints

1. NEW ORLEANS

It may be all in with Drew Brees, arguably the most efficient QB the game has seen: he and coach Sean Payton were made for each other. They have two fine and versatile runners in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, though Ingram is suspended for the first four games. Cameron Jordan is one of the league’s best D linemen, and they’ve brought back Patrick Robinson from the Eagles to join a secondary loaded with young stars, Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams. Alex Anzalone played only four games his rookie season, but the D was better with him than without.

2. ATLANTA FALCONS

Last year the question was could Steve Sarkisian replace Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. The jury is still out, but an offense with Julio Jones should not stall in the red zone as often as Atlanta’s did. Adding Calvin Ridley in the draft might help.

3. CAROLINA PANTHERS

Norv Turner is the new offensive coordinator, which sends shivers of worry down my spine and the spine of the big receivers who are going to be hung out to dry. Norv and Cam Newton do not seem like a match made in heaven, nor do I hold out much hope for his ability to figure out the best way to use Christian McCaffrey. With Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel back from injuries and rookie wideout DJ Moore added they have their weapons, but can Norv make them work?

4. TAMPA BAY

Jameis Winston is suspended for the first four games, which means Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter. The Boy Wonderlic went 2-1 starting last year, but in his career he’s usually been better as a replacement than as the designated starter. He’ll be throwing to a good group of receivers including another Harvard product, TE Cameron Brate. Ex-Giant Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Vita Vea join Gerald McCoy on what could be a great front four.

NFC North

The Vikings will feel the Packers breathing down their necks all year, while the Bears are probably my dark horse team in the NFL.

Laquon Treadwell Big changes at Minnesota: Laquon Treadwell will need to step up Photos Courtesy Minnesota Vikings

1. MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Case Keenum is gone, Kirk Cousins is in. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is gone to the Eagles, ex-Eagle QB coach John DeFilippo is in. He’ll need either Laquon Treadwell or Kendall Wright to step up as a third wideout alongside Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Defensively the Vikes will be aggressive, as is coach Mike Zimmer’s style. Xavier Rhodes is a budding superstar corner and rookie kicker Daniel Carlson is expected to shore up a problem area.

2. GREEN BAY PACKERS

Former Packer assistant Joe Philbin is back as offensive coordinator, and ex Browns head coach Mike Pettine is the new defensive coordinator, but can the Pack keep an O line healthy and can one of three rookie wideouts step in to replace Jordy Nelson? Defensively they lost linebacker Jake Ryan in preseason, but a harder job will be replacing the departed safety Morgan Burnett. As usual, however, Green Bay will expect Aaron Rodgers to bail them out with some of his passing magic.

3. CHICAGO BEARS

New coach Matt Nagy comes from Andy Reid’s offense and he’ll be expected to bring along QB Mitch Trubisky. He’s got pounding runner Jordan Howard but watch what he does with waterbug Tarik Cohen. Defensively the Bears have Akiem Hicks, one of the league’s most underrated stars, and rookie linebacker Roquan Smith ought to star in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense. Watch ex-Eagle tight end Trey Burton and second-year TE Adam Shaheen, from little Ashland College, blossom in Nagy’s offense.

4. DETROIT LIONS

The Lions have gone all in on Belichick Ball, with GM Bob Quinn and new coach Matt Patricia both from the Foxborough Football Academy. It will be an uphill struggle, even though they retained offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who gets the best from QB Matt Stafford. Patricia needs to shore up the defensive front, though Darius Slay leads an improving secondary.

NFC West

It should be the Rams and everybody else, depending on how much you believe in Jimmy G, who’s still unbeaten as an NFL starter.

1. LOS ANGELES RAMS

‘Jeff Fisher can’t hurt us anymore’ was the caption of a photo of QBs Jared Goff and Case Keenum last year, and Cook blossomed under new coach Sean McVay. Veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips worked his usual magic, though he started with Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, and now the Rams have spent big for Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to make that D even better. They still need an inside backer, maybe rookie Micah Kiser will turn out to be a steal. They also added Brandin Cooks at wide receiver in a trade with the Patriots; he has caught 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons, and his presence ought to make Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp more effective.

2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers

Yes. I’ve said it. The match of Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo was made in heaven, and there hasn’t been a QB steal (a second round pick to the Pats) like this since the Bills got Jack Kemp for a $100 waiver fee or the Colts got John Unitas for a phone call.

3. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Pete Carroll did some house cleaning in Seattle, both in the coaching staff and on the defense, where the Legion Of Boom secondary is no more. Mike Solari should do better with the O line, but I am not sure that new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s power-running offense will set Russell Wilson free. Defensively, their losses are severe, and Carroll has really been unable to develop replacements: each year they draft guys with the size/speed make-up he craves, but none have yet stepped up as starters.

4. ARIZONA

One thing the Cards 8-8 season proved was that Bruce Arians could coach the hell out of a team come injury or high-water (not common place in Phoenix). New coach Steve Wilks will have his work cut out for him, though he gets star runner David Johnson back. Sam Bradford will probably start at QB unless rookie Josh Rosen ‘proves’ he’s ready in preseason (note: hardly anybody proves anything until they’re playing for real).

American Football Conference

Mike's Predictions:
Wildcard Teams: Baltimore, Kansas City
AFC Champion: New England

AFC East

The Pats will win the division because the sun rises in the east, water runs downhill and Bill Belichick is moving on to 2018. Plus after Tom Brady, the div’s next best starting QB is ...no-one.

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Julian Edleman is this year’s Patriot sacrificed to the league office for four games, but Tom Brady’s branding, personal fitness coach and supermodel wife are all back and no one is betting against him taking the Pats to at least the division title. In the usual roster churn tackle Nate Solder, RB Dion Lewis and cornerback Butler will be missed the most, but the Pats wheeled and dealt in the offseason for draft picks and low-profile low-budget pieces to plug into the league’s most successful system.

2. MIAMI DOLPHINS

Ryan Tannehill is back, and whatever you think of him as a QB, he’s got to be better than Jay Cutler, who’s new career is straight man and punching bag to his wife, a ‘reality’ TV star. The Dolphins are all in on Tanny being better than we’ve ever seen, as the fallback position is ‘The Heist’, Brock Osweiler. With Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey and Nate Allen all gone, Miami’s in rebuild mode, with Akeem Spence, Danny Amendola, Josh Sitton and Albert Wilson underwhelming as replacements. Frank Gore returns to his college days, in one bright spot, and rookie DB Minkah Fitzpatrick was a draft steal.

3. NEW YORK (sic) JETS

After one preseason game the New York media was already anointing Sam Darnold the savior. That’s the way the Jest (sic) work. Could 39 year old Josh McCown or ex-Viking Teddy Bridgewater actually get the opening day start after the Jump to Conclusions preseason? Coach Todd Bowles may have a good defense, with Leonard Williams the star, but can Jeremy Bates coordinate enough offense to make that work? Darnold or not.

4. BUFFALO BILLS

I don’t doubt Sean McDermott’s ability to coach D, nor his dynamism as a head coach, but an effort to reconstruct the Panthers’ offense of old seemed misguided last year, especially when it seemed they didn’t want Tyrod Taylor to be either Cam Newton or what Taylor actually is. Rookie Josh Allen is Taylor’s polar opposite, and may make fans recall Nathan Peterman’s interception-filled debut last season. Unless AJ McCarron can hold the fort as a less-effective Taylor, the Bills will be spinning their snowplow treads.

AFC South

The hardest division to pick this season: the 3 teams that weren’t very good last season will all be improved, and the one that was, the surprise Jags, may not be any better than they were.

1. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

The Jags were so close to beating New England (Tom Coughlin’s speciality) but Doug Marrone went all conservative on them. Their D was based on shut-down corners and speedy linebackers who created extra time for the pass rush; their offense needs Leonard Fournette to be able to generate big plays. They won’t miss the two Allens, receivers Hurns and Robinson, as much as people think.

2. HOUSTON TEXANS

Remember the before and after on RG3? Deshaun Watson lit up the league in the first seven games of the season but can he come back from injury to do the same? If he can, the Texans also get back JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus to their loaded defense, which ought to make them contenders. DeAndre Hopkins may be the AFC’s most overlooked super-star. Ex-Jag corner Aaron Colvin could help.

3. TENNESSEE TITANS

Like Detroit, the Titans have former Patriots at GM (Jon Robinson) and head coach (Mike Vrabel). The Titans labor in anonymity, but rookie coach Vrabel steps into a situation where there is a loaded roster, and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur can institute a Denver-style play-action game which ought to suit ex-Pat Dion Lewis and QB Marcus Mariota. Jurrell Casey leads a defense which will also feature another ex-Pat, Malcolm Butler, whose benching during the Super Bowl is one of the great mysteries of the NFL. Ex-Jag safety Johnathan Cyprien is out for the season already.

4. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Andrew Luck is back. The Colts were a different team without Luck, who had been expected to paper over cracks in their offense, especially in the O line.

AFC North

Another division that looks like a two-team battle for the top, and a two-team battle for the bottom. But here I predict: the Browns not only win a game, but beat out the Bengals.

Ben Roethlisberger A last hurrah for Big Ben Roethlisberger? Photo Courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers / Karl Roser

1. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

One last year for Big Ben Roethlisberger? One last effort from Le’Veon Bell, who still can’t get paid as if he were two players in one? Martavis Bryant is gone, but Antonio Brown may be the most electric player in the game; Juju Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington ought to make up the difference. Defensively, the Steelers haven’t been able to dominate people and generate enough rush to cover for a secondary committed to playing zone. TJ Watt had an encouraging rookie year, but they need Bud Dupree to join him. Their front three is excellent, with nose tackle Javon Hargrave underrated, and end Cameron Heyward a surprising pass rusher for a two-gap player.

2. BALTIMORE RAVENS

Lamar Jackson may not be the answer for this year, but Joe Flacco seems to look rejuvenated as a result of the competition. Health is the key to both their offensive front five and defensive front seven, but the real strength could be the secondary and linebacker CJ Mosley. If some of the grab-bag of new receivers pan out, the Ravens could surprise.

3. CLEVELAND BROWNS

This prediction depends on the Bengals continuing to decline while the Browns improve, and Hue (1-31) Jackson argues against that. But GM John Dorsey is a good judge of team-building, as opposed to just talent-scouting, and if Tyrod Taylor starts the Browns ought not to turn the ball over, and if rookie Baker Mayfield is what they think he is, which is probably Alex Smith, with an eye toward Drew Brees, they could do better. The defense impresses me more, despite blitz-crazy coordinator Gregg Williams. With Myles Garrett up front they won’t need to sell-out to pass rush, and first draft pick Denzel Ward gives them a shut-down corner. Six wins for them, five for the Bengals.

4. CINCINNATI BENGALS

How much longer can the Bengals ride Andy Dalton, after six and seven win seasons? You might say the same for coach Marvin Lewis. They’ve let a lot of talent escape over the years, but still have AJ Green and hopefully Joe Mixon is the running star they think he is. Geno Atkins leads the defense, while Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the third straight season opener.

AFC East

It’s easier to figure why each team won’t win - except for the Raiders, that’s easy. The Chargers’ but their annual injuries have already struck. Now I worry I should pick the Chiefs.

1. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

The Chargers began last season with a loss in Denver when rookie kicker Younghoe Koo had a game winning field goal blocked then missed two in a two-point loss to the Dolphins. The Chargers lost in OT at Jacksonville despite intercepting Blake Bortles TWICE in the last two minutes of regulation. Even so they went 9-7. This year’s misfortunes have already started. They released tight end Antonio Gates then lost his replacement, Hunter Henry, to a knee injury. Corner Jason Verrett blew out his knee in camp. They still have Keenan Allen and Philip Rivers on offense; Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on D, but picking them to win a division is like picking Rodney Dangerfield as father of the year.

2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Pat Mahomes. Can he outperform the steady if not spectacular performances of Alex Smith, which had them in the playoffs four of the past five years, or will Mahomes be more spectacular and less steady? Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill can make big plays, Travis Kelce is the second-best tight end in the game, and if Mitch Morse is back healthy the line should be decent. Defensively they have Eric Berry back, but he’s a walking emergency ward.

3.DENVER BRONCOS

I’m not convinced John Elway can put this team over the top. Maybe if he, not Case Keenum, were the QB. On paper Keenum is a good fit for the old Gary Kubiak style Bronco offense. In reality, that’s not what they’re doing. They released CJ Anderson and drafted three rookie runners. If Denver make the playoffs it will be on the backs of their defense, especially if rookie Bradley Chubb can draw blockers away from Von Miller.

4. OAKLAND RAIDERS

The Raiders hired Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth to take the team back to the glory days of 18 years ago. They could be good: only two years ago Derek Carr and Amari Cooper tore up the league. But Gruden’s offensive coordinator is Greg Olson, who flopped in that role in Jacksonville, and O line coach is Tom Cable, who destroyed running backs’ careers in Seattle. Defensively, they ought to be better, but their roster is loaded with projects and suspects, long shots and too many shots. Welcome back to the 20th century, Raider fans.

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