1. Kansas City Chiefs (Last season’s record: 12-4)
The defending Super Bowl champs are No. 1 until proven otherwise. The offense must compensate for the opt-outs of RB Damien Williams and G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. But rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire has star potential. The rest of the team’s nucleus remains, and QB Patrick Mahomes is the league MVP favorite for every season in which he is healthy and in the lineup.
2. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
The 49ers must regroup from their Super Bowl defeat to the Chiefs and attempt to hold off a handful of capable challengers in the NFC. They remain perhaps the conference’s most complete team, but the reliability of QB Jimmy Garoppolo will remain under scrutiny after his shaky fourth quarter in the Super Bowl.
3. Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
The stunning playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans put a damper on a mostly magnificent 2019 season for the Ravens. What can third-year QB Lamar Jackson do for an encore after his MVP season? Opposing defenses have had a year to adjust, but Jackson and the Ravens also could be a year more advanced.
4. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
The trade for S Jamal Adams signaled a win-now approach for the Seahawks. If second-year WR DK Metcalf becomes a star with staying power to help QB Russell Wilson rev up the passing game, Seattle could overtake the 49ers and hold off the Saints for NFC supremacy.
5. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
It’s all about stability and experience at coach and quarterback as teams deal with the unique circumstances of 2020. And the Saints have plenty of that with Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
6. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
The Titans managed to retain both QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry after they were eligible for free agency. Tannehill must show he can repeat last season’s success. Tennessee’s postseason run to the AFC championship game compensated for what had been a fairly ordinary regular season.
7. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
If Aaron Rodgers was offended by the Packers’ decision to draft Jordan Love, maybe he’ll take it out on Green Bay’s opponents. But the Packers weren’t quite good enough to be a Super Bowl team last season, and it’s difficult to envision them taking that step this season after using their first-round pick to address their future rather than their present.
8. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
Kirk Cousins was very productive last season. But the question remains: Is he reliable enough when it matters to be the centerpiece of a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
9. Houston Texans (10-6)
Bill O’Brien the general manager continues to undermine Bill O’Brien the coach. The puzzling trade of WR DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona might keep the Texans from being a true contender in the AFC.
10. New England Patriots (12-4)
Brady is gone. The Patriots lost other key players in the offseason and during the NFL’s opt-out process. But Belichick remains. Don’t be too quick to count him out. In the NFL, coaching matters — and perhaps never more so than this season. Cam Newton takes over at QB for Brady and could thrive while playing for Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
It would be easy to label the Buccaneers a legitimate NFC contender with Brady’s arrival and all the playmaking talent around the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But the lack of on-field work during the offseason complicated Brady’s transition and cannot be totally dismissed. Still, Brady’s presence will make the Bucs fascinating to watch.
12. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
The failure to sign QB Dak Prescott to a long-term contract puts the clock ticking toward a potential Cousins scenario as the franchise tag becomes ever more expensive. Coach Mike McCarthy can’t waste any time settling in.
13. Buffalo Bills (10-6)
The Bills are entirely capable of unseating the Patriots in the AFC East. But for now, the Patriots get the benefit of the doubt.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
The Eagles got unlikely contributions from unheralded young players in their run to the playoffs last season. That could bode well for Coach Doug Pederson’s supporting cast around QB Carson Wentz.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Ben Roethlisberger returns from his elbow injury to try to show he remains an elite quarterback. The Steelers’ attempt to return to contender status is complicated by the wide gap they must narrow on the Ravens for supremacy within the division.
16. Chicago Bears (8-8)
If Nick Foles, Mitch Trubisky or some combination of the two can get the job done at quarterback, the Bears can return to their 2018 level. But that’s a pretty major “if.” Trubisky opens the season as the starter. But Foles’s greatest successes in recent years have come in a save-the-season relief role.
17. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
Philip Rivers threw far too many interceptions last season for the Los Angeles Chargers, but he will work behind a superb offensive line in Indianapolis. The trade for DT DeForest Buckner bolsters the defense considerably. If Rivers can reduce the mistakes, Coach Frank Reich will have the Colts back in the mix in the AFC South.
18. Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
It’s time to find out just how good Sean McVay is as a head coach. This has the feel of being a team in decline playing in a division with two superpowers (San Francisco and Seattle) and a team on the rise (Arizona).
19. Arizona Cardinals (5-10-1)
The trade for Hopkins makes the Cardinals an interesting team in Year 2 for Coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray. But little comes easily in the tough NFC West.
20. Denver Broncos (7-9)
Drew Lock looked like the real deal at quarterback last season. But that was a small sample, and there remains plenty for him to prove.
21. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
Coach Anthony Lynn has expressed his trust in QB Tyrod Taylor. But can Taylor play well enough to keep prized rookie Justin Herbert on the bench all season?
22. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
Things have gotten tougher in the NFC South, with Brady’s move to Tampa Bay making the Buccaneers appear formidable. The Falcons will have to be considerably better than they were last season to be in the running for anything better than a third-place finish.
23. Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)
The first season in Vegas has a less consequential feel to it with no fans in the stands at home games. The Raiders returned to respectability last season in Year 2 of Jon Gruden’s coaching comeback. It will be interesting to see whether Gruden can get them to take the next step this season and be in the playoff mix.
24. Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Brian Flores did a tremendous coaching job last season to get the Dolphins five wins during a season in which they were accused of tanking. They still ended up with QB Tua Tagovailoa on draft night. But it gets no easier for Flores. The expectations are raised now, and he must figure out when to make the switch from placeholder Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa.
25. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Was it really only a year ago that the Browns were the trendy pick in the AFC North after being the darlings of the offseason? The reality was far less glorious: They resembled the same old Browns last season. But the talent remains in place if Kevin Stefanski, the team’s first-year coach, can do a better job than predecessor Freddie Kitchens did of utilizing it.
26. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
There are an awful lot of moving parts here. Matt Rhule makes the jump to NFL head coach. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady tries to recapture last season’s magic with Joe Burrow and LSU. Teddy Bridgewater arrives to take over at quarterback for Newton. Maybe it can all come together quickly. But the odds seem to be against that.
27. New York Jets (7-9)
Adams wanted out, and the safety got his way with the trade to the Seahawks. The Jets got plenty in return, but that doesn’t do much for them this season.
28. Detroit Lions (3-12-1)
The Lions have gone 9-22-1 in two seasons under Matt Patricia after firing Jim Caldwell following back-to-back 9-7 seasons. If it’s not a now-or-never season for Patricia, perhaps it should be. Matthew Stafford’s return to action should help.
29. New York Giants (4-12)
New coach Joe Judge projected a no-nonsense persona during training camp. But as with all Belichick proteges, he faces the potential problem of that quickly becoming wearisome to his players if he doesn’t show he can win.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
Burrow arrives as a would-be franchise savior in the most trying of seasons to be a rookie quarterback. He might ultimately thrive, but it’s going to be very difficult for him to have much early success.
31. Washington Football Team (3-13)
Ron Rivera is a good coach who should eventually make Washington competitive again. But the question, as it always is with this franchise, is this: Is he in a situation in which it’s possible for him to succeed? Rivera has inherited an amount of controversy that’s unusual even by this team’s standards. And he must coach through his own health issues after his cancer diagnosis. If he makes the team anything approaching respectable in Year 1, he will have done a fantastic job.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
The ongoing roster purge of key players, most recently RB Leonard Fournette and S Ronnie Harrison, has led to accusations that the Jaguars are tanking. The Dolphins faced similar allegations last season and were better than expected. Much depends on the development of Gardner Minshew II. Foles is gone, and Minshew is the unquestioned starter at quarterback. Now the Jaguars will find out whether that’s a good thing.