Nick Foles will get the season started for the Eagles. (AP Photo/David Richard)

The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles squaring off against the Atlanta Falcons, giving us a chance to predict how the season will play out.

The projections start with the weekly preseason point spreads released by CG Technology in May, which are then used to determine each teams projected win-loss records and chances of making the playoffs. (Note: Week 17 is considered a 50/50 toss up because players sitting out the final week and teams jockeying for playoff positioning make projections fairly erratic.)

A team favored by one point at home can be expected to win 51 percent of the time. Using this method for each of the 16 games of the season estimates the Washington Redskins are likely to finish 2018 having earned between five and eight wins, with a 6-10 record the most likely outcome.

Now that the ground rules are set, here is how we expect the season to unfold, with a key story line to watch for each division.

* Denotes projected playoff team. 

** Win totals are averages based on 10,000 simulations of the season, so they won’t add up to the exact number of wins you would find once the regular season is completed.

AFC East

2018 AFC East Projected wins Chance of winning division
New England Patriots* 13 98%
Buffalo Bills 7 3%
Miami Dolphins 6 1%
New York Jets 6 1%

The New England Patriots have had a stranglehold on the division since 2001, finishing first 15 times in 17 years. That won’t be any different this season — Bill Belichick’s squad is expected to win 13 games, five more than any other divisional rival — but we could start to see change on the horizon, especially in New York, where the Jets have tabbed Sam Darnold, the third pick in the 2018 draft, as the team’s starter in Week 1.

In two years at Southern California, Darnold threw 846 passes with 646 of those (76 percent) classified as “on target” by Sports Info Solutions, placing him 15th among 55 college passers with at least 500 attempts in that span. His accuracy rate on throws from a clean pocket was 82 percent, showing he is ready to start his career as a pro; the average on-target rate from a clean pocket in the NFL last season was 81 percent.

AFC North

2018 AFC North Projected wins Chance of winning division
Pittsburgh Steelers* 10 79%
Cincinnati Bengals 8 11%
Baltimore Ravens 8 11%
Cleveland Browns 4 0%

If the Cleveland Browns are to avoid another winless season they must beef up their offense.

The Browns scored the second-fewest points per drive in 2017 (1.22, only the New York Giants were worse at 1.19) with just 14 percent of their drives ending in a touchdown (29th, league average was 19 percent). Cleveland was able to move the ball on the ground but struggled mightily in the passing game, compiling a league-low 61.4 passer rating during the season.

AFC West

2018 AFC West Projected wins Chance of winning division
Los Angeles Chargers* 10 61%
Kansas City Chiefs* 8 29%
Oakland Raiders 8 23%
Denver Broncos 7 11%

The Los Angeles Chargers lost the first four games of 2017 and couldn’t fully recover, finishing the season 9-7 without a playoff spot. This year’s bad luck started early when tight end Hunter Henry suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the first organized team activity of the summer. Still, the Chargers are the team to beat in the AFC West.

The offense is full of high-quality weapons, such as seven-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and last year’s comeback player of the year, wide receiver Keenan Allen. The support it gets from one of the most talented defenses in football might be second to none.

Edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa finished 2017 as the eighth- and ninth-best pass rushers in the league, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, and the Chargers enter 2018 with the second-best secondary, thanks to the talent and depth of Casey Hayward, Jahleel Addae, Derwin James and Desmond King.

The battle for the second wild-card spot in the AFC will be a tight one, with the Chiefs projected to win eight games and have a 49 percent chance at making the playoffs, a higher probability than other projected 8-8 teams such as the Oakland Raiders (38 percent), Baltimore Ravens (33 percent) and Cincinnati Bengals (32 percent).

AFC South

2018 AFC South Projected wins Chance of winning division
Jacksonville Jaguars* 9 54%
Houston Texans* 9 45%
Tennessee Titans 7 17%
Indianapolis Colts 6 4%

Injuries played a role in Houston’s dismal results of 2017. When healthy, there is no player as disruptive as J.J. Watt. The 6-foot-5, 295-pound behemoth has 76 sacks in 88 games played, but his last 16-game season was in 2015; he has played just eight games combined in the past two years. The return of linebacker Whitney Mercilus, limited to five games in 2017, will also help. So too will the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in six starts as a rookie in 2017 before an injury cut his season short. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, that performance is good enough to win almost 84 percent of the time.

The presence of all three, plus the additions of former all-pro safety Tyrann Mathieu and free agent cornerback Aaron Colvin, give the Texans everything they need to compete with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the top spot in the division.

NFC East

2018 NFC East Projected wins Chance of winning division
Philadelphia Eagles* 10 63%
Dallas Cowboys* 9 45%
New York Giants 6 5%
Washington Redskins 6 5%

The Philadelphia Eagles pulled off a shocking upset against the New England Patriots to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and they did it with backup quarterback Nick Foles, not Carson Wentz, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Rams.

Despite the abridged season, Wentz was the most-valuable passer in the league per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (78.5 QBR), and he will have to be as good or better to lead Philadelphia back to glory.

The Dallas Cowboys (64 percent chance at the playoffs) have a slim edge to qualify for the postseason over the Atlanta Falcons (63 percent) and a sizable advantage over the San Francisco 49ers (44 percent), thus they get the nod among the NFC’s projected nine-win teams.

NFC North

2018 NFC North Projected wins Chance of winning division
Green Bay Packers* 10 59%
Minnesota Vikings* 10 47%
Detroit Lions 7 8%
Chicago Bears 6 4%

The Chicago Bears will never be competitive in their division or in the NFL until they reduce the number of times they go three-and-out on drives. In 2017, they were forced into a three-and-out situation 41 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the league.

A lack of sustainable drives obviously suppresses Chicago’s offense, which managed a mere 1.3 points per drive last season, the third-lowest in the NFL and almost a half point less than an average team. It also hampers the Bears’ ability to capitalize in the red zone, where they were very good, scoring a touchdown on almost 61 percent of their trips. Only the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles (66 percent), AFC runner-up Jaguars (64 percent) and Packers (62 percent) were better than the Bears inside the 20-yard line last year.

NFC West

2018 NFC West Projected wins Chance of winning division
Los Angeles Rams* 10 76%
San Francisco 49ers 9 28%
Seattle Seahawks 7 12%
Arizona Cardinals 4 0%

You would think it’s hard for a division-winning team that won 11 games and earned its first playoff appearance in 12 years to improve much in the offseason, but the Los Angeles Rams made sure the league knew it was serious about being a Super Bowl contender in 2018.

The team traded a first-round draft pick for wideout Brandin Cooks, adding him to a corps that already featured quality pass catchers in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. The Rams also acquired all-pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, plus defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. The latter allows pass-rushing monster Aaron Donald to continue to line up on the outside shoulder of a guard. Donald had 91 total sacks, hits and hurries in 2017 and was the highest-rated interior defensive lineman in the league per Pro Football Focus.

And not to be forgotten, running back Todd Gurley, the reigning AP Offensive Player of the Year, is squarely in his prime.

NFC South

2018 NFC South Projected wins Chance of winning division
New Orleans Saints* 10 62%
Atlanta Falcons 9 42%
Carolina Panthers 7 10%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7 10%

Atlanta is going to have to figure out how to succeed without former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Shanahan left the team after its Super Bowl trip two seasons ago to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. In the Falcons’ first season with Steve Sarkisian calling plays, everything fell apart. The offense scored almost a point per drive fewer in 2017 than it did the year before (2.9 vs. 2.1), and the rate of touchdowns dropped from 33 to 21 percent. The red-zone offense had a similar decline (62 to 50 percent).

Looked at another way, in 2016 under Shanahan, Atlanta’s offense scored 133 points more than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each offensive snap. In 2017 with Sarkisian, the offense scored just 35 points more than expected.

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