With the standings so far in the future, the thought of contemplating the winners of certain divisions within the NFL may be a bit too bold in certain divisions. However, other divisions are more clear cut with the powerhouse teams separating themselves from the rest of the pack. Below are some way too early predictions for this coming season’s playoff picture.
Likely the most distinct division winner will be the first repeat of the group, as the Kansas City Chiefs are primed to control the AFC West for years to come. This one is a slam dunk. The defending Super Bowl champions have kept essentially their entire roster intact, and there is little competition for them in the division outside of the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers’ shakeup at quarterback will likely cost them a few games throughout the season as Tyrod Taylor, or some unnamed rookie yet to be drafted, will unintentionally sink the Chargers’ chances.
For the remainder of the division, the Raiders have made it clear they’re not happy with franchise quarterback Derek Carr, and look to be two years into a rebuild. The potential dark horse in the division is the Drew Lock-led Denver Broncos, as general manager John Elway has finally found the signal-caller to lead his franchise, giving him a bona fide top option at wide receiver. Though Lock has potential, it’s doubtful he’ll be able to make a smooth transition in his first full season as a starter, so it is still hard to imagine the Broncos outplaying the Chiefs for a whole season.
Second in the AFC come the kings of the North, the Baltimore Ravens. A division that has seen consistent quarterback play for the past decade now appears to be hitting its end. Ben Roethlisberger is on either his final or second to last season, and his age shows. Though Pittsburgh has a strong offensive line and defensive front, Roethlisberger dropping off of a cliff similar to Philip Rivers last year or Peyton Manning in his last season is a very high possibility, and the lack of talent behind him all but sinks Pittsburgh’s hopes against Baltimore.
Over to the Ohio part of the division, the Cincinnati Bengals are in a complete rebuild and present no threat in this coming year, as they’ll likely have a rookie quarterback leading their roster, which is among the most barren in the league. In Cleveland, the Browns have one of the most talented rosters in the league, with blue-chip talent at every level on offense and defense. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will be the true deciding factor of the Browns team, and his capability to mature as a leader and as a passer in this one season will likely dictate his future in the league. That being said, neither of these teams has the consistency Baltimore has had in their drafting, locker room and play on the field, so look for the Ravens to be soaring high heading into the playoffs next year.
Getting to the tail end of the easier choices on the AFC side, we turn to the South, where the Tennessee Titans have the most well-rounded roster in the division and are returning many key pieces from their incredible playoff run this past season prior to falling to the Chiefs in the conference title game. Though there is speculation that the Titans may have just gotten hot down the stretch of last season, on paper the Titans are the best team in the division, especially with DeAndre Hopkins’ departure from Houston. If Derrick Henry is healthy for the whole season, and head coach Mike Vrabel learns how to give him the ball at least 20 times a game before November, the Titans will be a difficult matchup for any team.
For the first time in over a decade, the AFC East crown will not sit atop Bill Belichick’s head, rather it will likely be claimed by the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t won the division since 1995.
While the “Patriot Way” has been the driving force of the division for two decades, all good franchises must eventually be burnt to the ground for the insurance money. Not to doubt Belichick, arguably one of the greatest coaches to ever grace the gridiron, but the squad Sean McDermott has assembled over the past few years has finally acquired its crown jewel;: bona fide top target wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who will stretch the field perfectly with Josh Allen’s rocket right arm.
The Miami Dolphins are clearly in the midst of rebuilding, while the Jets need to continue to import offensive talent to surround Sam Darnold before they have any hopes of getting anywhere near the postseason. Buffalo has consistently had a top-five defense the last three seasons, and the trend doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon as they returned all of their key starters on the defensive side of the ball.
Finally, we come to the wild card teams, those who were able to fight their way through the middle of the pack to sneak into the playoffs last season, or sometimes even powerhouses stuck a game behind another powerhouse in their division. These are likely to be the former rather than the latter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, with head coach Mike Tomlin still being able to take late-round picks and turn them into household names, would have been the seventh team to make it into the playoffs had the new setup been enacted last season, even with their atrocious quarterback play. They possess a top 10 defense, including one of the best front sevens in football, while the offense will see Roethlisberger returning to the helm, leading to bounce-back seasons from wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner. It will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh will stack up against Baltimore in the division, and even more so if they face off in the first round of the postseason.
Though the Los Angeles Chargers have one of the more complete rosters in the league, their leadership has shown they’re still prone to mistakes, so betting on their appearance in the playoffs isn’t the wisest choice here. Instead, the old reliable New England Patriots will sneak their way into the playoffs under the guidance of Belichick and second-year pocket passer Jarrett Stidham. Though the Patriots will take their biggest step back in 20 years after the departure of Tom Brady, their roster is still built to win. Additionally, Belichick has a plethora of draft capital this year, and could look to make additions either via trade or the draft to improve New England’s chances. The answer at quarterback is not entirely clear, but it looks like they will be rolling the dice with Stidham. This season will be a great chance for Belichick to make another statement in the league, or for the league to show him that he truly needed Brady; only time will tell.
Taking the last playoff spot will be the Houston Texans, as Deshaun Watson’s talent alone has propelled them far in years prior, including winning the division four of the last five years. Watson’s contract ends after this season, so he’s playing to get paid, either in Houston or in greener pastures, especially following the trade of his favorite target for minimal draft capital. The Texans will still get a high level of production from Watson, but entering his fourth year, they have failed to give him much help. Their offensive line and run game are shaky and on average the team only gets about eight games a year out of phenom wide receiver Will Fuller. Tennessee is trending up while Houston is trending down and that will be spelled out by the standings at the end of the year.
Pivoting over to the NFC, the clarity is only present in one division, where the Green Bay Packers will remain the kings of the North for two years in a row. The Packers pulled off a 13-3 season without a top tier receiving target other than Davante Adams, showing how powerful this roster is. If the Packers pull in one of the top talents from a deep receiver draft, they’ll be styling next season. It additionally helps their case that the Vikings have watched all three of their starting cornerbacks walk, while also trading away their top receiver and seeing other key pieces of Mike Zimmer’s roster begin to leave the division, signaling that Minnesota isn’t long for competition. The Detroit Lions are the same old Lions, just like your dad used to say in the 1990s, and may move off of quarterback Matt Stafford and head coach Matt Patricia next offseason. The Chicago Bears have finally brought in a competent quarterback in Nick Foles, so they remain the lone enemy to stand in the Packers way, but the roster matchup favors the Packers significantly.
Heading down south, the New Orleans Saints look to maintain their division crown with Drew Brees returning to the helm for another Super Bowl run. It’ll be an interesting race now that Brees has another quarterback of his caliber in the division, as his duels with Tom Brady twice a year will be a highly anticipated matchup for the whole league. Both offenses will be lethal and could probably drop 40 points any given week, but ultimately it will come down to which of the two have a better defense. The Saints have quietly built themselves one of the best run-stopping defenses in the league, while being better than average against the passing game, netting them a better chance of winning the division over Tampa.
Now this one will surprise people, but the Seattle Seahawks winning the NFC West is probable and here’s why: Russell Wilson elevates talent around him more than anybody else in the league. A Super Bowl hangover isn’t expected out of the plucky young San Francisco 49ers team, but history has dictated the loser of the Super Bowl can drop in their level of play the following season, so we’re giving Seattle the benefit of that in this situation. The Seahawks were one of the only teams to go toe-to-toe with the 49ers last season, including a game in which they were down to their fourth-string running back, and Wilson still found a way to keep them in the contest. Jimmy Garapollo’s play down the playoff stretch could be indicative of a lack of trust in his capabilities, and his inability to pull through for the 49ers when they lose the lead could cost him his job if the trend continues. Arizona, now with true offensive weapons in Deandre Hopkins and Larry “Legend” Fitzgerald for young quarterback Kyler Murray, is still a season away from being a true contender in the division, while the Rams are but an afterthought as they struggle with cap space and an aging roster. If Seattle’s importing of offensive talent this offseason, including the draft, can net them some better pass protection, this division really is the Seahawks’ to lose.
For the final division crown, the NFC East, a return to the playoffs for the Dallas Cowboys seems guaranteed. The 2019 Cowboys had a 13-3 roster with a 3-13 coach, which evened out to their 8-8 record. The team has finally moved on from Jason Garrett and morale should be restored under the guidance of new head coach Mike McCarthy, who worked wonders on offense with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for a decade. Their roster has mostly been retained, with Dak Prescott being franchise tagged and wide receiver Amari Cooper being re-signed long term. They did lose top cornerback Byron Jones, which is a massive blow to the secondary and is something that Dallas should look to address early in the draft, otherwise, they’ll have the top blown off their defense by Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles, among other opponents.
As for the wild cards for the NFC, there’s an uptick in competition between the teams vying to get into the playoff picture.
Securing the first wild card spot are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers based on one principle that has remained true over the past decade; Tom Brady will be in the playoffs. Brady is going from a broken down group of receivers, where his top option was a 33-year old Julian Edelman, to one with studs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Add in the fact that Brady has a fire underneath himself to prove he can win without Belichick, and you’ve got yourself a playoff team. The offense will be right at the top of the league, but Tampa’s defense remains a bit suspect, leading Brady to have to put up points with Evans and Godwin as he did with Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
San Francisco’s roster is too talented from top to bottom for them to not be in the playoffs. Even if they followed their playoff format of just running the ball, they’ve proven their system will bulldoze the majority of the league through chewing the clock on offense and harassing the quarterback on defense. Though Seattle will take the division, the 49ers will not be dissuaded from their playoff hopes and potential. A boost in veteran leadership, especially following the departure of Emmanuel Sanders, will be necessary for this locker room to keep its head straight.
Taking the last playoff position will be the Philadelphia Eagles. For starters, if Wilson is the best player at elevating talent around him, Wentz is easily second in the league. With an injury-riddled roster, including missing all of his top receiving targets, Wentz managed to will the Eagles to a playoff appearance last season, where they were quickly ousted by Wilson’s Seahawks. With the return of several weapons on offense and the addition of shutdown cornerback Darrius Slay to a weak secondary, this Eagles team could make a deep playoff push this year, should they stay healthy.