Coming off a year in which the AFC was 35-28-1 in interconference games, that could mean some suppressed records in the NFC, where it may be tough for the best teams to reach 12 or 13 wins. Don’t be surprised if there is more than one nine-win playoff team coming out of the NFC.
How will the entire postseason picture shake out? Here are my picks for every division winner, wild-card team, conference finalist and, of course, the Super Bowl LVI winner.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs have the best chance of any AFC team to get to the Super Bowl. They have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, Tyreek Hill at wide receiver and Travis Kelce at tight end, and they are close to impossible to stop on offense. The only concern is the line, which the Chiefs rebuilt after it fell apart because of injuries ahead of last season’s Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay. The defense is good enough, although it could use more sacks from Frank Clark.
2. Buffalo Bills: Quarterback Josh Allen’s ascension makes the Bills a Super Bowl contender. Thanks to General Manager Brandon Beane, the offense is loaded, with the trade for star wideout Stefon Diggs last year putting them over the top. The schedule also helps them out. They face the AFC South and the NFC South — divisions that won’t be as good as they were last year.
3. Cleveland Browns: The Browns have a loaded roster and are now the favorites in the AFC North. Thanks to Coach Kevin Stefanski’s balanced offensive approach (and the two-running-back system of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt), quarterback Baker Mayfield doesn’t have to do everything to get the offense moving. The offensive line is one of the best in football, wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is back from his ACL injury, and the defense added Jadeveon Clowney as an edge-rush threat opposite Myles Garrett.
4. Tennessee Titans: Before training camp, I was favoring the Indianapolis Colts to win the AFC South. Not anymore. Quarterback Carson Wentz and guard Quenton Nelson are uncertain for Week 1 because of recent surgeries, and they’re starting the season without their top two left tackles because Sam Tevi blew out his ACL and Eric Fisher is still recovering from an Achilles’ injury.
The Titans may have issues with a defense that has undergone a lot of change, but their offense is one of the scariest in football. Derrick Henry gained more than 2,000 rushing yards last year, and they added Julio Jones at receiver to play opposite budding star A.J. Brown.
5. Denver Broncos: Not too many people are predicting the Broncos will make the playoffs, but they have a lot going for them. They have a good, young receiving corps; a great one-two running punch with Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams; and perhaps the best secondary in football. It helps that the Broncos have the fifth-easiest schedule in the NFL and face only seven teams that were .500 or better last year. It’s now up to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to lead an efficient attack.
6. Baltimore Ravens: They’re no longer the favorites to win the AFC North but still have what it takes to be a wild-card team. It didn’t help their run-heavy offense to lose running backs J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill to potentially season-ending injuries, but between quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards, the offense will be fine. There might be a slight drop-off on defense after losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, but this is still one of the better teams in the AFC.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: I’m going with the Chargers over the Pittsburgh Steelers for the final playoff spot because of their improvement on the offensive line. They added Pro Bowl pick Corey Linsley at center, Matt Feiler at guard and first-rounder Rashawn Slater at left tackle to turn a weakness into a strength. Quarterback Justin Herbert was the offensive rookie of the year last season and should be even better this year.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs return all 22 starters from last year’s Super Bowl winner, and they got lucky that coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles weren’t hired away by other teams. But the biggest reason they’re the favorites for the NFC’s top seed is quarterback Tom Brady, who continues to defy age as the greatest quarterback in history.
2. Green Bay Packers: This is probably the last go-round for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but the Packers still should be good enough to win at least 11 games. The line is a bit of a question mark until left tackle David Bakhtiari returns from the torn ACL he suffered last year, but wide receiver Davante Adams is back, even if only for one more year. Rodgers will be motivated to get this team to the Super Bowl and end his four-game losing streak in NFC championship games.
3. Seattle Seahawks: They probably aren’t getting the respect leaguewide that they should. Some of that could be because of Russell Wilson’s complaints about the team’s blocking earlier in the offseason, but the offensive line is improved with the addition of guard Gabe Jackson, and Wilson is still the best quarterback in the NFC West. The new offense installed by coordinator Shane Waldron should help the running game and allow Wilson to get rid of the ball quicker.
4. Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott is back, and that’s enough to make the Cowboys the favorite in the NFC East. They are loaded at wide receiver with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and running back Ezekiel Elliott is said to be in the best shape of his career. Plus, the Cowboys have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL, with only six games against teams that were .500 or better last year.
5. Los Angeles Rams: The Matthew Stafford trade should improve the passing game, but it hurts that running back Cam Akers is out for the season with a torn Achilles’. We also shouldn’t expect the Rams to repeat as the league’s No. 1 defense, given that they lost four starters as well as coordinator Brandon Staley, who is the new head coach of the Chargers. The Rams have the talent to win 11 games, but finishing first in the competitive NFC West will be tough.
6. San Francisco 49ers: As long as the 49ers can stay healthy, they should make a playoff run. Last year they were the most injured team in the NFL, but they have a top-10 defense on paper and will be able to choose between veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance at quarterback. It’s likely that Garoppolo starts but Coach Kyle Shanahan finds ways to get the athletic Lance on the field.
7. New York Giants: I’m picking the Giants as one of my sleeper teams, but they’ll need a good season from quarterback Daniel Jones for that to happen. They’ve built up their talent on both sides of the ball and benefit from the eighth-easiest schedule in the NFL. I considered the Washington Football Team here; Washington has one of the NFL’s best defenses, but it faces a tough first-place schedule, having to play the Seahawks, Bills and Packers in addition to the Chiefs and Bucs.
Conference title games
I think we could see some upsets in the opening round, with Baltimore or perhaps Denver earning a win on the road. But I’m predicting we’ll wind up with a repeat of last year’s AFC and NFC title games, with the Chiefs again defeating the Bills and the Bucs outlasting the Packers.
The Bucs have the talent to repeat, but I believe the Chiefs’ fixes to their offensive line — including high-priced acquisitions at left tackle (Orlando Brown) and left guard (Joe Thuney), along with a pair of rookie starters — will be the difference in a Super Bowl rematch, with Kansas City avenging last season’s defeat to Tampa Bay.