You can feel it coming, the dawning of a new era in the NFL. Young stars like Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley are issuing in the next generation. And with these new stars come new teams making bold statements about their place at the postseason table. But, as we know in the NFL, the more things change, the more the Patriots remain favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Let’s take an early look at the teams we should expect to see playing in January, and the two most likely to still be standing in February.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The sophomore jinx for quarterbacks is real and it’s not spectacular, but even if Patrick Mahomes took a step back this season, what exactly are we talking about? Just All-Pro, instead of All-Worldly? Only 4,200 yards passing and 40 touchdowns? What a slump! And that’s assuming there is a regression. With Tyreek Hill now back in the fold, the offense looks as potent as ever.
The key here is probably running back Damien Williams, who assumed Kareem Hunt’s workload late last season and didn’t miss a beat. But the true key is going to be the defense. If new additions Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu provide a much-needed spark, this should be the most complete team in the NFL. Their close call in last season’s AFC Championship Game should only serve as a motivator to finish the job in 2019. It says here that they will.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots have been dead since Week 4 of the 2014 season. Remember the waxing on Monday night in Kansas City? Remember they were on to Cincinnati, but really on to mediocrity? Four Super Bowl appearances and three Lombardis later, people are still anxiously awaiting to pour that shovel of dirt on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
And now with Rob Gronkowski retired (we think), and Brady literally jumping off cliffs, maybe this is finally the year the witch will be dead. But don’t count on it. The Patriots still play in the creampuff AFC East and have graded out as having the league’s easiest schedule for the third year in a row.
It’s all going to be about health. Brady, at age 63, is the obvious candidate for season-long bubble wrap. But as camp began, Julian Edelman was expected to miss three weeks with a thumb injury. Edelman is a guy the Pats can’t afford to lose, although with Sony Michel and James White, there’s a backfield to contend with unlike anything the Patriots have had since the days of Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk.
3. Cleveland Browns
It’s happening. It’s really happening. Hue Jackson will not coach a single game for the Browns this season, and that is reason enough to celebrate in Cleveland. Has any coach been exposed more as a fraud than Jackson after he was let go by the Browns last season? Baker Mayfield seemed to make humiliating Jackson his life mission and the rookie nearly snuck the Browns into the playoffs last season.
They are now the darling pick in the league, especially with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. to an offense that already had breakout stars Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb.
But now, perhaps for the first time since the Browns re-entered the league in 1999, they are the team with the target on their back, and with a rookie head coach in Freddie Kitchens, there’s still a bit of an unknown entering the season. But Mayfield looked so good, and Myles Garrett leads a Browns defense that was just as impressive as the offense down the stretch in 2018. Knocking off Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be a challenge, but this team seems poised for big things in 2019 and we believe in them.
4. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts sent the football world reeling in August when Andrew Luck made his stunning retirement announcement. Immediately, the demise of the Colts was trumpeted across the Twitterverse, as the Jaguars, Titans and Texans licked their chops. But not so fast, fellas. Even with Jacoby Brissett under center, the Colts are still better than their three division rivals. The Titans look dead with Marcus Mariota struggling under center. The Texans lost Lamar Miller to injury and Jadeveon Clowney to a trade and the Jaguars are the Jaguars, although the arrival of Nick Foles gives the team real leadership at the quarterback position. But at the end of the day, the Colts still have a plethora of talent on offense, and it should be enough to carry the day in the NFC South.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
Everything we’re about to say about the Chargers assumes that Melvin Gordon does not go on the Le’Veon Bell career path and holds out the entire 2019 season.
If Gordon is back and fully healthy, the Chargers still have the pieces to contend with the Chiefs in the AFC West.
Even in winning 12 games last season, the Bolts were without defensive end extraordinaire Joey Bosa for much of the season, as well as breakout tight end Hunter Henry. Both are ready for full seasons in 2019, as is wide receiver Mike Williams, who finally began to emerge as the star he was expected to be coming out of college three years ago. With Philip Rivers still amassing video-game numbers at quarterback, the Chargers should give the Chiefs a run for the division title.
6. New York Jets
If we’re putting our faith in Baker Mayfield to lead the Browns to the promised land, the least we can do is give Sam Darnold a chance to do the same in New York. The addition of Le’Veon Bell gives the entire offense credibility and diversity needed to compete at a high level, and the defense was already a solid unit before C.J. Mosley and Quinnen Williams hopped on board.
The Jets are not going to contend for a division title, unless something goes totally awry in New England (see: 2008). But a 9-7 record and a No. 6 seed is a goal well within reach.
1. New Orleans Saints
Maybe the third year will be the charm for the Saints. Two years ago it was Stefon Diggs’ miracle TD in Minnesota. Last year, the incredulous no-call against the Rams. That’s enough playoff heartbreak to last a lifetime.
Drew Brees doesn’t have that much time. Tom Brady gets all the avocado jokes, but Brees isn’t too far behind the GOAT at age 40. What Brees does have is a loaded offense that might get even better with Alvin Kamara set to take on a larger role in the offense. No offense to Latavius Murray, who replaces Mark Ingram in the backfield, but with Ingram gone, Kamara becomes the focal point of the backfield. With Michael Thomas on the outside, the Saints have their own version of the famous Triplets in Dallas a quarter-century ago.
Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport give the Saints solid defensive ends to anchor a unit that makes New Orleans as complete a team in the NFC and odds-on favorites to take the NFC South and a first-round bye.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Uh-oh, Eagles fans. Nick Foles isn’t around to save the day anymore. For once, Carson Wentz is going to have to figure out how to stay upright in January. But if he does, the Eagles could well be upright in February for the second time in three years.
The Eagles are loaded heading into 2019. The offensive line might be the best in football. Zach Ertz is a monster at tight end. The defense can only be better after being decimated by injuries. DeSean Jackson and Darren Sproles are back!
But the key to the whole operation is Wentz, who looks like an MVP candidate every time he steps on the field, but hasn’t made it to Christmas in either of the past two seasons. Having such a stout offensive line should go a long way toward keeping Wentz healthy when the Eagles need him most.
3. Chicago Bears
The season ended with a double-doink heartbreaker, but it should not take away from what was the biggest breakout season by an NFL team in 2018. The acquisition of Khalil Mack from the Raiders was right there in 2018 with Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors and J.D. Martinez to the Red Sox, in terms of impact on their teams. The Bears did not win a championship, but they dominated a division loaded with talent despite assimilating a rookie quarterback and head coach.
Matt Nagy proved up to the task of game-calling for Mitchell Trubisky, and both should be even better in their second season together. They’ll need to step up, as the defense will be without its guru, Vic Fangio, and the running game has question marks beyond Tarik Cohen. The pieces should still be enough to hold off Green Bay and Minnesota for the NFC North title, but it promises to be the most competitive division in the conference.
4. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are simply going to have to prove that there’s no such thing as a Super Bowl loser’s hangover. Sure, the Patriots had no trouble rebounding from their loss to Philadelphia two seasons ago. But that was the exception to the rule. Generally, teams that lose the Super Bowl don’t advance past the Divisional round the next season, if they make the playoffs at all.
This will be Sean McVay’s biggest test in a young career in which he has passed all previous tests with flying colors. The biggest question facing the Rams is the health and productivity of star running back Todd Gurley. With Gurley injured and ineffective at the end of last season, the Rams were exposed in the Super Bowl after needing a blatant non-call in the NFC Championship Game just to get there.
Gurley’s health remains an issue at the start of camp, although the other key pieces of the Rams’ attack remain in place. Jared Goff will throw it, and has a plethora of pass-catchers to choose from. The defense, led by Aaron Donald, will still be formidable. Pencil the Rams in as NFC West winners, but don’t expect a long stay in January.
5. Dallas Cowboys
If Khalil Mack was the biggest former-Raider acquisition in the NFL last season, then Amari Cooper was a very close second. The Cowboys’ offense struggled throughout 2017 without a reliable pass catcher to take the pressure off Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, and it seemed it might be the case again early in 2018 when the Cowboys traded for Cooper and everything changed.
With those pieces on offense now together for an entire season, and with the defense anchored by linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys should be able to keep the good times rolling. They won 7 of 8 to end the season last year after a 3-5 start. Getting to 10 wins a bit more consistently shouldn’t be a problem in 2019.
6. Green Bay Packers
Things should be rather interesting in Green Bay this season, now that Aaron Rodgers has been rid of that meddlesome head coach, Mike McCarthy. The nameplate in Green Bay says Matt LaFleur, but this is now Rodgers’ team, win or lose, and expectations for the star QB have never been higher. Most of those expectations are self-placed. Call it the Rodgers Revenge Tour. But if the stories about the dissention between QB and coach were true, Rodgers will be out to prove it was McCarthy holding him back (plus the injuries) that led to the recent down years at Lambeau.
The Packers addressed their other big problem of recent vintage by shoring up a porous defense, especially at defensive end. Keeping games close enough for Rodgers to win them with his natural abilities is a pretty good recipe for success.