1. New England Patriots (Last season’s record: 11-5)
Tom Brady is a year older. Rob Gronkowski is retired. The wide receiver corps is thin unless Josh Gordon proves reliable in his latest return. Yes, the dynasty is a year closer to crumbling for good. But they’re still the Patriots. Brady and Bill Belichick are still around. Until proved otherwise, the Patriots remain the kings of the league.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
What will Patrick Mahomes do for his league MVP encore? Even if his numbers aren’t quite as ridiculous as they were last season, the chances are that he will remain sufficiently spectacular to keep the Chiefs at top-contender status. The NFL’s decision not to suspend Tyreek Hill means the league’s most dynamic big-play pass-catching threat remains available to Mahomes and the Chiefs all season.
3. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The past two Saints seasons have been ended by the Minnesota Vikings’ miraculous touchdown and the pass interference non-call against the Los Angeles Rams. That’s two potential Super Bowl seasons washed away by seemingly once-in-a-career postseason mishaps. The clock is ticking loudly in Drew Brees’s attempt to get back to another Super Bowl. The Saints enter this season with another legitimate chance.
4. Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
The luster of reaching the Super Bowl was dimmed by the offensive performance in the loss to the Patriots (not to mention tarnished by the fact that the Saints, not the Rams, should have been playing, if not for the officiating debacle in the NFC championship game). Sean McVay’s next coaching trick will have to be getting the Rams to bounce back. That will be considerably easier if RB Todd Gurley’s knee is sound.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
This is a Super Bowl-caliber team if QB Carson Wentz can remain healthy and in the lineup. That’s a big if given the knee injury in 2017 and the stress fracture in his back in 2018 that cut short Wentz’s past two seasons.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
The holdout by RB Melvin Gordon and the foot surgery for S Derwin James were preseason downers. But assuming they both return to the lineup at some point this season, this remains a very good team and a threat to go deep in the AFC playoffs.
The kicking misadventure that knocked the Bears from last season’s NFC playoffs obscured the excellent coaching job Matt Nagy did to develop QB Mitchell Trubisky and make this team a division winner. The task gets tougher this season with the expectation that the Vikings and Green Bay Packers will be more formidable challengers in the NFC North.
The truth is RB Ezekiel Elliott can show up just before the regular season and be plenty productive. His holdout will have little to no on-field effect on the Cowboys’ season as long as they work out a resolution with him before the opener. No one should fault any player, particularly a running back, for attempting to make as much money as he can as soon as he can in this demanding sport.
9. Cleveland Browns (7-8-1)
Believe the hype. Baker Mayfield is the real deal as a franchise quarterback. The arrival of WR Odell Beckham Jr. takes the offense to a different level. General Manager John Dorsey has assembled a playoff-caliber roster. The wisdom of promoting Freddie Kitchens to head coach can be debated. But this rebuilding project is on fast-forward, and now it’s time for the Browns to be winners.
10. Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)
Kirk Cousins needs to do more than just post empty numbers in Year 2 in Minnesota. He needs to make the big throws in clutch moments to win games. He needs to avoid the colossal mistakes. He needs to find a way to beat competent teams. In short, he needs to be the quarterback the Vikings paid him to be.
11. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
Pete Carroll did a wondrous coaching job last season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But keeping this team in playoff contention this season will require further brilliance from Carroll and QB Russell Wilson.
12. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Coach John Harbaugh perhaps has over-promised with his proclamations that the Ravens will revolutionize the way offense is played in the NFL in Lamar Jackson’s first full season as a pro starter. Jackson and the Ravens must find ways to keep him healthy and keep his workload as a ball carrier within reason. And Jackson must show improved accuracy on short to medium throws to keep defenses honest. That would be enough to keep the Ravens in contention, provided the defense maintains its excellence.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Nick Foles’s arrival gives the Jaguars the quarterback they lacked in those Blake Bortles-marred times when the defense was so dominant, the running game was productive and Jacksonville seemed so close to being a Super Bowl team. But for this to work, Foles must be the player he was for the past two seasons in Philadelphia, not the journeyman he was on his way to becoming in the years before that. And the defense must stay at the same overpowering level.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1)
James Conner can do a decent Le’Veon Bell impersonation at running back. JuJu Smith-Schuster can step in for Antonio Brown as the No. 1 wide receiver. The relative lack of contentiousness undoubtedly is a welcome change. But who’s the No. 2 wideout? Is there enough talent left around QB Ben Roethlisberger on offense? For this addition-by-subtraction idea to work, the Steelers will need a few unheralded players to establish themselves as major offensive contributors.
15. Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans, like every other AFC South rival of the Colts, benefit from Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. The Colts no longer are the team to beat in the division. But Lamar Miller’s knee injury hurts Houston’s running game, and the Texans might have to ask quite a lot of QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins to carry the offense.
16. Green Bay Packers (6-9-1)
It’s all about Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, isn’t it? If the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback makes a smooth transition into the rookie coach’s offense, the Packers should be right back in playoff contention.
17. New York Giants (5-11)
WR Odell Beckham Jr. is gone to the Browns, and QB Eli Manning must show his productive days in the NFL aren’t over. It probably will behoove the Giants just to admit at some point that this is an all-out retooling project and make the switch from Manning to rookie Daniel Jones under center. Winning some games with Jones would not be out of the question, especially because the offense could lean on RB Saquon Barkley.
18. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
If the Saints slip, the Falcons could be poised to reclaim supremacy in the NFC South.
19. Denver Broncos (6-10)
Hey, didn’t you used to be Joe Flacco? John Elway hasn’t exactly had a magic touch in recent years in his moves to fill the quarterback void for the Broncos. Those in Denver can only hope Elway hasn’t brought in Flacco from Baltimore after the former Super Bowl MVP’s productive days in the NFL are behind him.
There is a case to be made that the Jets could be the AFC East’s second-best team if QB Sam Darnold takes a step forward in Year 2 and gets plenty of help from RB Le’Veon Bell. But envisioning them actually challenging the Patriots for division supremacy and being in honest-to-goodness playoff contention requires a bit more suspension of disbelief.
21. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
It’s now or never for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, with the quarterback eligible for free agency after the season. He has been pretty good to good but not great. He has gotten the Titans to a highly competitive level and even to the playoffs once, but they have yet to advance beyond the opening round of the postseason with Mariota under center. Is that enough for the Titans to remain committed to him as their long-term answer? This season could be telling and very interesting, especially with Ryan Tannehill now around as a backup.
22. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Jacoby Brissett isn’t terrible. But he isn’t Andrew Luck. Before Luck’s shocking retirement, the Colts looked ready to build on last season’s surprising success orchestrated so masterfully by Frank Reich as a rookie NFL head coach. Now, with Brissett at quarterback, they should remain competitive. But being a playoff team again seems like a long shot.
23. Carolina Panthers (7-9)
Add a sprained foot to the list of injury concerns for Cam Newton as he returns from his latest shoulder surgery. If Newton’s foot and shoulder are sound, the Panthers can try to recapture their winning formula from the first half of last season before they unraveled in the second half.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
The arrival of Coach Bruce Arians injects some hope. But it remains to be seen whether sticking with Jameis Winston at quarterback was wise.
25. Washington Redskins (7-9)
Can anyone blame Trent Williams if he has had enough of the Redskins? If the standout left tackle doesn’t return, it might not matter who plays quarterback. Case Keenum is the season-opening starter, but rookie Dwayne Haskins probably will get his chance at some point.
Second place in the AFC East is probably up for grabs, and the Bills could take a step forward if Josh Allen becomes a better pocket passer in his second NFL season. He showed last season as a rookie he is very good as a runner.
27. San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
Jimmy Garoppolo is back at quarterback. But will it matter? The 49ers must recapture the positive momentum they seemed to possess heading into last season before Garoppolo’s knee injury.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
The task facing Zac Taylor is immense. He is a rookie head coach who has never been even an offensive coordinator in the NFL on more than an interim basis. He inherits a team coming off three straight losing seasons and could face a quarterback quandary if Andy Dalton struggles, with rookie Ryan Finley available as an alternative.
Is it already a win-or-else season for Matt Patricia? Maybe it should be. The coaching switch from Jim Caldwell to Patricia before last season certainly seems, at the moment, misguided.
The Dolphins need to put Josh Rosen at quarterback and leave him there long enough to find out whether he can actually play in this league. There is no future with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
Could Antonio Brown have been any more disruptive during training camp and the preseason if he had tried? He took the wide receiver diva act to new extremes, from his ailing feet to his dual failed grievances against the NFL over his helmet. The Steelers eventually could regret accommodating Brown’s trade request by sending him to Oakland. But so far? Not so much, it would seem.
32. Arizona Cardinals (3-13)
If Kliff Kingsbury’s offense works at this level and if Kyler Murray is the small guy who becomes the NFL’s next big thing at quarterback, the Cardinals won’t be the league’s worst team. Far from it, perhaps. But there are no givens here. Kingsbury and Murray must prove their doubters wrong, and the Cardinals must demonstrate they have done the right things to turn themselves around after a 3-13 season.