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The 2019 NFL season looks harder than ever to predict. You may recall last year in The American I got only three of the eight division winners right (though of the six others, I’d picked five for second place) but I did forecast New England beating the Rams in the Super Bowl. You could look it up!
The question marks concerning the Patriots, who’ve gone to three straight Super Bowls and won two of them, help open this season up. Bill Belichick lost five of his assistants (he only had 12 to begin with!) to other teams, with de-facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores taking over as head coach with division rivals Miami.
Now the NFL has four teams (Detroit, Tennessee, Houston, Miami) with significant ex-Pat control, plus Atlanta with a GM and Buffalo an offensive coordinator from New England. That has to make it harder to win.
Plus the Pats suffered some significant player losses, as they usually do, and of course Tom Brady is 42 years old, like a vintage car kept running and shiny for the annual Super Bowl show.
Which may be this year’s NFL theme: geriatric quarterbacks: Brady, Drew Brees (40), Philip Rivers (38), Eli Manning (38), Ben Roethlisberger (37), Aaron Rodgers (36), versus young bloods from the last couple of drafts: Patrick Mahomes (24), Deshaun Watson (24), Baker Mayfield (24), Josh Allen (23) and Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold and this year’s rookies Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins (all 22). QB is the most important position in sports (apart maybe from goaltender in hockey) but can the old men hold off the baby ballers one more year?
LAST SEASON HANGOVER: People forget the Pats were one razzle-dazzle Miami play away from top seed in the conference, while the Chargers might have been the best 12-4 team in years not to get a home seeding. The biggest story may be the NFL’s non-suspension of Tyreek Hill, which stands in some contrast to their other punishments, confirming perhaps that a parallel justice system headed by a sports league’s commission may not be the best thing for the game.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
But it won’t be easy. We expect the division title to be automatic, but as mentioned above there’s a lot of change at Foxboro and it will take time to make the pieces fit. Gronk cannot be replaced by one player, so the offense will have to be adjusted and schemed to allow for losing football’s greatest security blanket. Josh Gordon has applied for reinstatement, which would help, but only if he can make it through an entire season. As usual, the Pats replaced their high-priced losses (Trey Flowers, Trent Brown) with bargain finds, and they drafted a potential big play receiver in N’Keal Harry in R1, a very un-Bill thing to do. Their success ratio with receivers drafted high, apart from Deion Branch, hasn’t been good, but Harry and Gordon would be a tough pair to defend, especially with Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman in the middle.
2. BUFFALO BILLS
Can you win in the NFL with a scrambling run first QB who throws like a right-handed Bobby Douglas? The Bills’ D is very strong, and they really can afford to play run first, especially if veteran Frank Gore inspires a return to form from veteran Shady McCoy. Sean McDermott’s D is a mix of Carolina’s big fronts and Jimmy Johnson’s Eagle blitzing; watch for last year’s rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to make a big jump forward in year two.
3/4. NEW YORK JETS / MIAMI DOLPHINS
It’s tough to choose between these two teams. The Jets have more talent on the roster; Sam Darnold as a rookie was what we expected, great one moment, shaky the next, but should begin to reach his huge potential, especially if Le’Veon Bell can finally get himself together for a big season; he’s one of the three or four exceptional running talents in the league. But new coach Adam Gase is not the QB whisperer his reputation says; his success has been built on keeping Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill away from mistakes, which means away from big plays too. Plus Gase has spent too much energy winning a battle for front offense control; but new nominal GM Joe Douglas from the Ravens via the Eagles is a good judge of talent. How new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his big blitz schemes fit with Gase is anyone’s guess, but there is a lot of talent on the D.
Miami on the other hand has Flores as the new coach with a QB dilemma: veteran patch-job Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen, who suffered through a painful rookie year in Arizona. This is a rebuilding year for Miami, gradually switching personnel to their system (and coaches: line coach Pat Flaherty was gone when he couldn’t get on board), so it’s easy to say Jets for third and Dolphins fourth, but if things jell in Miami, that might change.AFC SOUTH
1. TENNESSEE TITANS
Their third straight 9-7 season was arguably the best yet, but the key remains whether they can get a big performance from Marcus Mariota, who in his way has been just as big a disappointment as Jameis Winston, the guy drafted just ahead of him. Adding Adam Humphries in the lot and getting TE Delanie Walker back will help offensively, though Taylor Lewan’s suspension hurts the O line. Jurrell Casey leads a strong defense.
2. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Andrew Luck. The best QB in the division means you have to take the Colts seriously, but so much went right for them last year I have the feeling the plexiglass principle calls for a bounce back this season. Quenton Nelson should have been rookie of the year, but he plays guard; Darius Leonard could have been defensive rookie of the year, but he plays in Indy. TY Hilton is an overlooked superstar receiver; but can teams attack Matt Eberflus’ defense, or will the addition of Justin Houston add some pass rush?
3. HOUSTON TEXANS
It seems crazy to pick a team with a JJ Watt defense that’s loaded at linebacker this low, especially if Deshaun Watson takes the step forward he is due. But I wonder if Bill O’Brien can get him to the next level, especially since the offense seems to be close your eyes and look for DeAndre Hopkins. Fellow ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel could well slip in Tennessee and O’Brien step up, but my hunch is not.
4. ‘YOUR’ JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
London’s team still has talent on defense but it seems like the Jags are always throwing patches at their problems, and can’t really figure what kind of team they’re going to be. Nick Foles replaces Blake Bortles at QB; they want to be a run-first play-action team and Foles can do that, but they need Leonard Fournette to deliver on his potential. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was Foles’ QB coach in Philly, but didn’t do much with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota before getting fired in midseason last year. Linebacker Telvin Smith announced his retirement; how the Jags wanted to play lots of sub-packages last year to take advantage of his speed but that didn’t work. Good as Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye are, the turnovers that sparked their 2017 success didn’t come in 2018: the pass rush needs to be as good as that Saxonville label for them to succeed.
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Can you win in the NFL with a run-first QB? This Ravens team will remind you of the Kaepernick 49ers when Greg Roman was offensive coordinator and John Harbaugh’s brother Jim was the coach; they’ve added Mark Ingram to the run game, and if they can keep QB Lamar Jackson healthy (which is why run-first QBs are not a big NFL thing; look at the career of Jackson’s back-up Robert Griffin) they can go a long way. Defensively, the Jets paid big bucks for LB CJ Mosley but good as he is, the Ravens won’t miss him; they hung on to former undrafted guys Michael Pierce and Patrick Onwuasor instead. Earl Thomas joins a secondary that has the depth and talent to match the one he played in in Seattle. Watch Onwuasor and receiver Chris Moore to have breakout seasons.
2. CLEVELAND BROWNS
I forecast the Browns for 7-8 wins last year, and that was with Hue Jackson coaching. They fired Hue in midseason and Freddie Kitchens built an offense around Baker Mayfield’s talent, and also noticed rookie RB Nick Chubb was on the roster. How far they go this year depends on how Kitchens’ approach to head coaching plays out, especially when big-ticket addition Odell Beckham doesn’t see as many balls as he thinks he ought to, like all of them. There is a ton of young talent on the roster; new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks gets new additions Olivier Vernon, Morgan Burnett, Sheldon Richardson and rookie corner Greedy Williams to play with. Kareem Hunt, cut by Kansas City after the hotel video of him kicking a woman, was signed by ex-Chiefs GM John Dorsey; the idea of his joining the team after his 8 game suspension, fresh and ready to allow Kitchens another layer of offense, is scary.
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Do you believe in addition by subtraction? If you do, the Steelers have to be the Super Bowl favorites, because they unloaded Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and haven’t really added anyone of note to replace them. Obviously JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are already in place, they hope James Washington steps up at receiver and draft pick Diontae Johnson looks a lot like Brown and also comes from the Mid American Conference. Defensively they drafted Devin Bush to fill the Ryan Shazier role at inside linebacker, and second year safety Terrell Edmunds is, like his brother Tremaine, a budding star. Big Ben could steer this team to the division title: this should be a three-way dance to watch.
4. CINCINNATI BENGALS
The division is a three-way dance and I feel as confident in picking the Bengals for fourth as I do taking the Cards in the AFC West. New coach Zac Taylor is the Sean McVay copycat move in a copycat league, but it’s still Andy Dalton or Jared Goff mini-me Ryan Finley at QB, and they need AJ Green to be healthy to catch passes, which he’s not guaranteed to be. Joe Mixon gets some running help from rookie Trayveon Williams. Most of the coaching staff is experienced; it’s hard to know what to expect from the D, except that Geno Atkins is a rock up front and Jessie Bates a potential star at safety. They should be solid but not spectacular on D, more shaky on O.
1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Hill is back, Hunt is gone, but Hill would be the harder guy to replace (they drafted Mecole Hardman to replace him, now they’re loaded with game-breaking gadget guys). Mahomes is the key; it’s not unreasonable to doubt he’ll match last year’s 50 TDs, or the Chiefs reach 500 points, but even if they fall slightly they’re going to be at the top of the pack. Defensively Bob Sutton took the fall for their playoff loss and Steve Spagnuolo is the new coordinator, switching to a 4-3 front, and adding Frank Clark to Chris Jones up front makes their rush more dangerous. Tyrann Mathieu comes in at safety, but watch for rookie Juan Thornhill to join him. Andy Reid is steady and the Chiefs will be too.
2. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers are steady too; they seem to always find ways to fall short despite a roster loaded with Pro Bowl talent. Coach Anthony Lynn likes a conservative run game, but Philip Rivers has always been a big-throw passer – the two fit when the Chargers find themselves in third and long situations. Melvin Gordon is holding out as I write this; without him they need to avoid injuries to Austin Ekeler. TE Hunter Henry returns from injury, which will help make up for the loss of Tyrell Williams; Mike Williams and Keenan Allen are a fine pair of outside receivers, with Travis Benjamin in the slot. Defensively they have Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and last year’s rookie sensation Derwin James everywhere in the secondary; rookie Jerry Tillery up front and veteran LB Thomas Davis, from Carolina, could make the D powerful. I’d like to pick them for first, but, you know, they’re the Chargers.
Joe Flacco? GM John Elway is not QB John Elway; his judgement about QBs has been questionable and whether Flacco is the guy to lead Denver to the division title is a huge question mark. There are lots of question marks, starting with the O line, behind whom undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay had a super season. Von Miller and Chris Harris lead the D, watch for the Outlaw Josey Jewell to take over an inside linebacker spot, and free-agent Bryce Callahan to feature in blitzes, but I don’t see the Broncos going far.
4. OAKLAND RAIDERS
Last year’s Raiders were embarrassing at Wembley, and not much better elsewhere. Jon Gruden’s unloading of Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper for draft picks means this year they had three in the first round, but new GM and fellow ex-announcer Mike Mayock passed on pass rushers for the steadier D line talent of Clelin Ferrell, then took the most Marshawn Lynch-like runner out there in Josh Jacobs and with his last R1 pick maybe the best of the three, safety Johnathan Abram. They addressed their O-line by spending big on Trent Brown from New England, and now we will see the difference an O line coach can make, from Dante Scarnecchia who coached Brown up from a guy the Niners traded for a R3 pick, to Tom Cable, who coached the bunch who couldn’t block anyone at Wembley. Derek Carr is the QB, Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams are the high-priced free agent receivers, and Gruden is/will be the center of attention.
WILD CARD TEAMS: CLEVELAND BROWNS, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
AFC CHAMPIONS: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
LAST SEASON HANGOVER: The Rams got to the Super Bowl in part thanks to a horrific missed call on a brutal head-first pass interference against the Saints. This inspired the NFL’s latest knee-jerk overreaction to rule interpretation, and such calls will now be controlled, as in The Truman Show, by an NFL executive in a control booth in New York.
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
There isn’t a lot of QB depth in the NFL, but the Eagles used to have Nick Foles backing up injury-prone Carson Wentz. A lot depends on Wentz staying healthy, but GM Howie Roseman does an excellent job of restocking this team, adding Jordan Howard as a power runner, DeSean Jackson as a deep threat receiver, and shoring up their back seven defenders.
2. DALLAS COWBOYS
Trading for Amari Cooper in mid-season helped the Cowboys no end. Their O line ought to be back to its 2017 standard for Zeke Elliott to run behind, and with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch they can survive Sean Lee’s annual injury on defense. Robert Quinn may help the pass rush, but can Dak Prescott step up in the passing department?
3. WASHINGTON (sic) REDSKINS (sick)
Haskins probably steps in for Case Keenum sooner or later as the starting QB as a rookie, but Keenum has a way of surprising, especially since they seem to be ready to lose their best lineman, Trent Williams, just at a time when they might finally put five healthy starters on the field; and Keenum is mobile in the face of unfettered pass rush. Ex-Giant Landon Collins may help the secondary, but troubled Reuben Foster won’t help the linebacking as much as they hope.
4. NEW YORK (sic) GIANTS
Can Manning hold off rookie Douglas Jones at QB? The Giants took Jones with the draft’s sixth pick, passing on stud pass rusher Josh Allen; they might’ve got Jones with pick 17. They traded receiver Odell Beckham and defensive stopper Big Snacks Harrison, and used seven draft picks on the defense. Kevin Zeitler will help the O line, but not enough to make Eli or Jones winners this year.
1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
You have to pick the Saints and assume they forget the horrible non-call in the NFC final. Hint: they should have won the game anyway. They are a much more talented defensive team than people realize, and they are deep on both sides of the ball.
2. ATLANTA FALCONS
They fired all 3 coordinators. Dan Quinn will be his own defensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter returns to Matt Ryan hoping he can make the red zone offense work for a change. Deion Jones’ injury was key last year, Keanu Neal’s didn’t help, and their O line fell apart. They drafted guard Chris Lindstrom with pick 14 and tackle Kaleb McGary with pick 31, but McGary now is out injured. Upcoming star may be linebacker Foyesade Oluokon.
3. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Cam Newton’s shoulder. That’s the key. They’ve also gone back to their old formula, building from the front with ex-Bucs tackle Gerald McCoy. Shaq Thompson has to replace Thomas Davis and if he can they’ll play a lot of sub-packages behind a strong front four. Upcoming star may be wide receiver DJ Moore.
4. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Bruce Arians takes over as the new quarterback whisperer for Jameis Winston, and it should be a decent deep-passing fit, especially with Mike Evans still catching the ball. Arians brought defensive coordinator Todd Bowles with him and they switch to a 3-4, which is why McCoy was let go and linebacker Devin White was their first draft pick. A serious injury to defensive tackle Vita Vea could hurt, and they need a good pass-catching back, and undrafted rookie Bruce Anderson from North Dakota State could be a surprise guy to watch.
1. CHICAGO BEARS
Two questions: can Mitch Trubisky take a step forward at QB and can the defense, loaded with talent, perform as well after losing coordinator Vic Fangio to the Broncos? Chuck Pagano steps into the job, and with Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson et al on that side of the ball, they should be as good. Tight end Adam Shaheen is due a breakout year alongside ex-Eagle Trey Burton.
2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The fortune spent on QB Kirk Cousins replacing Case Keenum took the Vikes from 13-3 to 8-7-1, though it wasn’t all down to Capt. Kirk. They’ve brought in Gary Kubiak to help coach the offense, think Denver/Houston and an opportunity for Dalvin Cook. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs remain one of the best 1-2 pairs of receivers in the league; they still need a third (watch rookie Olabisi Johnson). First round draft pick Garrett Bradbury may help a lot as the starting center, though apparently Cousins complained about his sweaty bottom.
3. DETROIT LIONS
I had the Lions ticketed for fourth until they signed Mike Daniels after the Packers released him. Expensive free-agent Trey Flowers, from New England, knows Matt Patricia’s system: with Big Snacks, Daniels, A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, the Lions may have the best front in the league. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was the guy who called the pass Malcolm Butler intercepted to win the Super Bowl for the Pats against Seattle; but his run-first approach ought to help if Kerryon Johnson is healthy and rookie tight end TJ Hockenson gives Matt Stafford a useful target.
4. GREEN BAY PACKERS
Mike McCarthy finally got fired, and Matt LaFleur, only three years older than Aaron Rodgers, takes over after coaching under fellow youngsters Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. But LaFleur wasn’t great as coordinator in Tennessee last year, and his coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, wasn’t when he was in Jacksonville. Their D will miss Daniels, and their O line is one injury away from trouble, and they need some young receivers to gain Rodgers’ trust. I see a long season.
1. LOS ANGELES RAMS
What happened to the NFL where every game was going to be a 54-51 shootout like the Rams/Chiefs game last year? A 13-3 Super Bowl loss to the Pats was a shocker, but you have to expect the Rams to bounce back, and Sean McVay to learn from his mistakes. Todd Gurley’s knee remains a worry, but Cooper Kupp is back healthy, and his loss took away one of the levels of the offense, and Jared Goff’s safety blanket. Veterans Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle strengthen the defense, which shouldn’t miss a player named Suh.
2. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
The Legion of Boom? Gone. Frank Clark? Gone. Doug Baldwin? Retired. Last year new line coach Mike Solari helped restore the run-first, Russell Wilson will save the offense, and rookie DK Metcalf, of the laboratory size/speed measurements, will try to replace Baldwin. Bobby Wagner got a big contract to stay at middle linebacker, but Jarran Reed is suspended (and Tyreek Hill not, go figure) so last year’s undrafted surprise Poona Ford needs to step up. Watch for rookie safety Marquise Blair, a good fit for Boom Lite.
3. SANTA CLARA 49ers
Jimmy G is back! We saw what Nick Mullins could do in Kyle Shanahan’s offense last year, and now they’ve added former Falcon flyer Tevin Coleman from Kyle’s glory days in Atlanta. Injuries in the backfield were a problem, but rookie WR Deebo Samuel seems a good fit for the pass game, where tight end George Kittle excelled. Defensively drafting Nick Bosa means they could start four first-round picks, though ex-Chief Dee Ford probably claims one spot. If Jason Verrett can stay healthy for the first time in four seasons, he and Richard Sherman are a top pair of corners.
4. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Kliff Kingsbury is in from Texas Tech as head coach, and he wanted Kyler Murray as his QB, so the Crads (half Card, half Crap) made Murray the first draft pick overall and stole him from his baseball career. Rookie coach, rookie QB, what could go wrong? Jordan Hicks and Terrell Suggs come in to fill out new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s 3-4, but the big money spent on Robert Alford may be wasted if second round draft pick Byron Murphy delivers. Watch for David Johnson to return to his pre-injury form and Budda Baker to make a big noise.
WILD CARD TEAMS: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS, MINNESOTA VIKINGS
NFC CHAMPION: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS