8

Consecutive wins for Saints, who host Eagles on Sunday

NFL Preview: Into the Great Wide Open

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 5

The always unpredictable NFL seems particularly wide open this season. There appear to be nine teams that are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Then again, how many people considered the Eagles to be Super Bowl contenders before the start of last season?

The NFC seems to have more Super Bowl contenders than the AFC, where the Patriots, Steelers and Jaguars seem to be the superior teams – unless you’re on board the Chargers bandwagon. But there are questions about the Patriots’ defense and Jaguars’ offense. In the NFC, a legitimate argument can be made for the Eagles, Vikings, Packers, Falcons, Saints and Rams as Super Bowl contenders.

Can the Eagles, who barely scraped past the Falcons in their playoff opener, emerge from the ultra-competitive NFC again? With a healthy Carson Wentz, the answer is that they could. But that doesn’t mean that they will.

The Vikings boast on outstanding defense. The Saints have a terrific offense, as should the Falcons. The Rams certainly appear capable of a Super Bowl run if their young stars continue to develop. Whichever team gets through the NFC will certainly deserve it.

Before you read my predictions, I should point out that last season I correctly picked an NFC East team to defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The NFC East team was the Cowboys, but that’s a minor detail, right?

Despite this being an era centering around offense, I picked two teams with dominating defenses to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams have question marks at quarterback, but they both have defenses good enough to keep the quarterback from having to push beyond his capabilities to win games for them.

The following is a prediction, with analysis, of regular-season records and postseason outcomes for the 2018 NFL season.

NFC

NFC East

EAGLES 10-6

Giants 8-8

Cowboys 6-10

Redskins 5-11

Analysis: There hasn’t been a repeat champion in the NFC East since the Eagles ruled the division from 2001-04. The Eagles may experience a Super Bowl hangover, but they are still the class of this division. The Giants should be better under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur after drafting running back Saquon Barkley (left) and addressing their poor offensive line, but 8-8 is a five-game improvement over last season. It would be unrealistic to expect much more from the Giants. The Cowboys were hurt last season by Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. Elliott is back, but the Cowboys lost tight end Jason Witten to retirement and cut receiver Dez Bryant, leaving quarterback Dak Prescott with few desirable options in the passing game. The loss of center Travis Frederick for an unknown amount of time due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome hurts what some consider the best offensive line in the NFL. The Redskins’ defense could be bad – and their offense isn’t much to write home about, either.

NFC North

Vikings 12-4

Packers 11-5

Lions 8-8

Bears 5-11

Analysis: The Vikings’ defense could be scary good. The question marks is new quarterback Kirk Cousins, but he should love throwing to receivers Stephon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Second-year running back Dalvin Cook could be a difference-maker if he makes a successful return from an ACL injury. The Packers have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, and they’ve added tight end Jimmy Graham, who should be one of Rodgers’ prime targets. The question, as always, is the defense, which is under the guidance of Mike Pettine, who is in his first season as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. I’m sold on Lions quarterback Matt Stafford; I’m not sold on the Lions defense. Adding Khalil Mack will improve the Bears’ front seven, which already includes giant defensive end Akiem Hicks. But it won’t do much to help quarterback Mitchell Trubisky or their pedestrian group of receivers and tight ends (sorry, Trey Burton).

NFC South

Falcons 12-4

Saints 11-5

Panthers 9-7

Bucs 5-11

Analysis: The Falcons, who should have won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, saw their offense slip last year with the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to become the 49ers head coach. But an offense that features former NFL MVP Matt Ryan, receiver extraordinaire Julio Junes and running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman should be able to bounce back this season. The Saints, with the ageless Drew Brees (left) and 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara operating behind a terrific offensive line, should contend for the division title. Remember, the Vikings needed a miracle finish to defeat the Saints in the playoff last season. The Panthers’ have an excellent front seven, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, but the rest of the team is fairly average. The Bucs seemed like a team on the rise prior to last season, but maturity issues, on and off the field, for quarterback Jameis Winston, have hurt the team. Winston is suspended for the first three games. With the Saints, Eagles, Steelers and Falcons among their first five games, an 0-5 start for the Bucs isn’t out of thee question.

NFC West

Rams 12-4

49ers 8-8

Seahawks 6-10

Cardinals 5-11

Analysis: The Rams are far and away the best team in the West. Quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley should continue to develop into terrific players. The Rams may have arrived a season earlier than expected. Don’t expect them to go away any time soon. The 49ers seemed like a different team last season when Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback. The loss of running back Jerick McKinnon to an ACL injury will hurt the 49ers, who don’t have many dangerous weapons at Garoppolo’s disposal. The Seahawks are in decline, and even seem to be in a bit of disarray. When was the last time the Seahawks didn’t have a good defense. Quarterback Russell Wilson may have fewer weapons at his disposal than Garoppolo. You have to wonder how long fragile quarterback Sam Bradford can hold up behind the Cardinals’ poor offensive line. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, a solid pick at No. 10, may get thrown into the fire in a hurry.

AFC

AFC East

Patriots 11-5

Jets 8-8

Dolphins 7-9

Bills 5-11

Analysis: Their defense may be suspect, but the Patriots should still be good enough to win the AFC East for a remarkable 10th straight season. The question is whether the Patriots can return to the Super Bowl yet again. I don’t think so. The Jets have reason to be excited about rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, but let’s not go overboard with a team that, aside from its defensive backs, is average or worse at every position group. The Dolphins added some weapons in receiver Danny Amendola, running back Frank Gore and tight end (a second-round draft pick) Mike Gesicki from Penn State. If quarterback Ryan Tannehill can stay healthy – and that’s a big “if” behind the Dolphins’ offensive line – the Dolphins could rack up some points on the scoreboard. But they won’t be a threat to the Patriots until their defense gets better. The Bills are starting Nathan Peterman at quarterback and their offensive and defensive lines are among the worst in the NFL.

AFC North

Steelers 12-4

Ravens 6-10

Bengals 4-12

Browns 4-12

Analysis: The Steelers are head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in this poor division. If Ben Roethlisberger (left) can remain relatively healthy, the Steelers could reach the Super bowl. For that to happen, running back Le’Veon Bell has to stop being disruptive off the field (he’s holding out) and start disrupting opposing defenses. The Ravens’ strength is their defense. But their offense, with a poor offensive line and one of the most undistinguished receiving corps in the NFL, isn’t good enough to reach the playoffs. The Bengals also have problems along the offensive line … and at quarterback … and on defense … and … Last year I wrote this about the Browns: “When you’re 1-15, there’s nowhere to go except up.” I was wrong. The Browns went 0-16. The Browns still won’t be good this season, but they should be better. I’m predicting four wins, which matches their win total from the previous three seasons combined.

AFC South

Jaguars 11-5

Texans 10-6

Titans 6-10

Colts 6-10

Analysis: There remain questions about quarterback Blake Bortles and receiving corps, but the Jaguars’ defense is outstanding from front to back. It may be the best defense in the NFL. Could the Jaguars ride their defense and running back Leonard Fournette to the Super Bowl? The Texans are thrilled to welcome back quarterback Deshaun Watson, who tore an ACL during his rookie season, and defensive end J.J. Watt. However, a poor offensive line and running back may force Watson into making bad throws as he tries to carry too much of the burden on his shoulders. The Titans, not the Jaguars, were considered the rising team in the AFC South a year ago, but quarterback Marcus Mariota doesn’t have enough good targets at receiver. The Titans appear to be an average team in a division featuring two better teams. Andrew Luck returns for the Colts, but the defense could be dreadful. If Luck gets hurt, the Colts could end up with the No. 1 draft pick.

AFC West

Chargers 11-5

Chiefs 9-7

Broncos 9-7

Raiders 5-11

Analysis: The Chargers are a trendy pick for a team on the rise, but they earned that distinction on merit. If running back Melvin Gordon can develop consistency, he will help quarterback Philip Rivers (left), who has receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams at his disposal. As if the Chargers needed more help on offense, tight end Antonio Gates recently re-signed with the team. The Chargers don’t seem to have any weaknesses, but their defense has to get better in order for them to advance in the playoffs. The Broncos must hope that Case Keenum, coming off a tremendous season with the Vikings, stabilizes their quarterback situation. The Broncos defense is terrific, especially the front seven, led by Von Miller. The Chiefs are banking on quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He certainly will have enough weapons in running back Kareem Hunt, speedy receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. But the Chiefs’ defense is suspect.   The Raiders were a trendy pick to go to the Super Bowl last season, but finished 6-10. With Khalil Mack jettisoned to the Bears, the Raiders may be even worse under Jon Gruden, who returns to the sidelines after a long absence spent in the broadcast booth.

Playoffs

NFC

Wild card round

Saints over Eagles

Rams over Packers

Divisional round

Saints over Falcons

Vikings over Rams

Championship game

Vikings over Saints

AFC

Wild card round

Chargers over Texans

Jaguars over Broncos

Divisional round

Steelers over Chargers

Jaguars over Patriots

Championship game

Jaguars over Steelers

SUPER BOWL

Vikings over Jaguars

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