NFL 2018: Team-by-team guide to all 32 Super Bowl hopefuls

Nick Foles Super Bowl
Nick Foles won the Super Bowl LII with the Eagles

American Football is back! Who are the contenders for Super Bowl LIII? Mike Carlson gives his view on every single team's chances...

"But unless Brady gets hurt, they win the East."

- Mike Carlson on the New England Patriots

National Football Conference (NFC)

The Elite

Philadelphia Eagles: The defending Super Bowl champions could be even better this season with Carson Wentz eventually returning to reclaim his quarterbacking job from super stand-in Nick Foles. Their biggest losses were offensive coaches Frank Reich and John DiFilippo, watch rookie tight end Dallas Goedert step in and replace Trey Burton and Zach Ertz, while they get runners Darren Sproles and Donnell Pumphrey back from injury and added two deep-threat receivers in Mike Wallace and Markus Wheaton.

Tackle Jason Peters is also back, but he's 36 and staying healthy has been a problem lately. New defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata are veterans who will benefit from playing in the Eagles' rotation. Coach Doug Peterson will keep things lively, and they should repeat as winners of the NFC East, which no one has done since the Eagles in 2008.

Minnesota Vikings: They were routed by the Eagles in the NFC title game, and replaced quarterback Case Keenum with Washington's Kirk Cousins, who ought to be more consistent. They need a third wideout to complement Stephon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and they need better O line play, though getting back Dalvin Cook, who looked great in four games as a rookie, will also help.

Head coach Mike Zimmer believes in attacking, and has one of the league's best pass rushers in Danielle Hunter, along with a deep secondary led by All-Pro safety Harrison Smith and corner Xavier Rhodes, and made better by the recent acquisition of George Iloka. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson (great name, that) should solidify what has been a real weakness in recent years. The NFC North will have challenges, but the Vikes should win it.

Los Angeles Rams: Rookie coach Sean McVay, at 31, and veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, at 70, were a formidable pair who transformed the Rams into contenders. McVay's offensive scheming saw second-year quarterback Jared Goff step up, while Todd Gurley led the team in running and receiving.

They've added Brandin Cooks to be a deep threat receiver. On the other side of the ball the Rams went all in, with corner Marcus Peters (Chiefs) and tackle Ndamakong Suh (Dolphins) coming from teams who felt they were expendable for attitude reasons; each is an All-Pro talent, and the feeling is Phillips can make the most of their talent.

But the Rams now have a problem of paying their best player, Aaron Donald, who wants parity. Phillips still doesn't have prototype inside linebackers for his 3-4 defense, but the rest of the group is so strong that may not matter. A repeat in the NFC West is on the cards.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints were just one freak play away from the NFC Championship, and they should be better this year, although Mark Ingram, half of their one-two punch at RB, misses the first four games of the season due to suspension. Drew Brees is 39, but throwing as accurately as ever; the receiving corps is led by Michael Thomas, quietly one of the league's best.

Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport might be able to take some of the pressure off the under-appreciated Cameron Jordan, and getting linebackers Alex Anzalone and AJ Klein back from injury will help, as will the return to New Orleans of former top pick, cornerback Patrick Paterson to team up with last year's defensive rookie of the year, Marshon Lattimore. The NFC South title is not out of the question.

Green Bay Packers: You should know the story here: Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last year, and - poof! there went the Pack's season. Rodgers is the league's best at getting something out of nothing, and Green Bay seems to expect him to make the playoffs without running backs, or offensive line, or defensive line, or secondary, depending on where they've suffered injury or free agent losses.

Joe Philbin's return as offensive coordinaor and Mike Pettine's arrival as defensive coordinator ought to help, and signing Muhammad Wilkerson could make their front three one of the league's best. Watch rookie corner Josh Jackson in the secondary, but they need a linebacker to replace injured Jake Ryan. And wide receivers: I'd move Ty Montgomery back from running back but Mike McCarthy probably won't, hoping at least one of three rookie wideouts will come through. Challenging the Vikes in the snow at Lambeau field is not out of the question.

The contenders

Atlanta Falcons: After blowing a 28-3 lead and losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots, last year Atlanta seemed stunned: new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian couldn't generate the offense Kyle Shanahan had, but any team with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones ought to be dangerous.

They had real problems in the red zone, which rookie receiver Calvin Ridley was drafted to help change. Defense is still the question, and here too rookies are key: Deadrin Senat may be the run-stuffer they've lacked, and rookie Isaiah Oliver could step in as the nickle corner. They won 11 games and a wild card in a down season last year, so challenging for the South title is not far-fetched.

New York Giants: Yes, the Giants who went 3-13 last year. But they have a new coach in Pat Shurmur, the ex Eagle and Viking offensive coordinator, a new RB in rookie Saquon Barkley, and Odell Beckham back healthy and happy after signing a huge contract.

They signed Nate Solder and drafted Willie Hernandez to upgrade the O line, and Eli Manning ought to enjoy life getting protected for a change. New Defensive coordinator James Bettcher will be more aggressive, with much of the personnel that was outstanding in 2016 and new middle backer Alec Ogletree. Wild card is certainly possible.

And the pretenders

Dallas Cowboys: The best O line in the league. Zeke Elliott running, Zak Prescott throwing. But who's going to catch the ball? Is Jason Garrett going to make the offense more dynamic or just stand on the sidelines clapping? The defense ought to be better, with DeMarcus Lawrence playing under the franchise tag after a breakthrough season, and Randy Gregory back from a year's suspension.

Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch reminds me of Brian Urlacher, and will eventually replace Sean Lee, and if Byron Jones makes the conversion back to corner the secondary could be better than it has been in years. But that's a lot of ifs, if not a lot of clapping. Better on paper than on the field.

Carolina Panthers: In one sense, as Cam Newton goes, so go the Panthers. They brought Norv Turner back into the NFL as offensive coordinator, which is interesting, because his strong point is long-developing downfield passing. If Newton responds to Norv, if their new receivers, DJ Moore, Jarius Wright, and Torrey Smith can deliver a more diversified attack and especially if they can get Christian McCaffrey better integrated into the offense, the Panthers become contenders.

Defensively they remain tough, with Dontari Poe stepping into Star Lotuleilei's place, Shaq Thompson into Thomas Davis' (he's suspended four games) and rookie Donte Jackson starting at corner opposite James Bradberry, with Captain Munnerlyn moving inside. I wonder about Norv, but if he clicks, the Panthers could be the third team from the South in the playoffs.

Seattle Seahawks: Everybody rates the Seahawks, but there is no more Legion of Boom and Pete Carroll has had trouble developing replacements anywhere near as good. Their biggest offseason move might have been hiring a new offensive coordinator, in Brian Schottenheimer and line coach in Mike Solari. Solari will put something together better than Tom Cable ever did, but Schottenheimer's track record is not great, and the drafting of Rashard Perry to be the next Marshawn Lynch indicates their offense may get more conservative.

Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin are back and Jaron Brown was swiped from division rivals Arizona, but unless new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr can coach some of their young secondary up quickly, the Seahawks may have problems.

Dark horses

Chicago Bears: New coach Matt Nagy comes over from the Chiefs and is all in on second-year QB Mitch Trubisky. The Bears have the elements of a Chief-style offense with Tarik Cohen, ex-Eagle Trey Burton and ex-Jag Allen Robinson, but Jordan Howard is the key to beating teams when the going gets slow at Soldier Field in winter.

Akiem Hicks is one of the NFL's most underrated defensive stars and rookie middle linebacker Roquan Smith ought to be the lynch-pin of Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense. Watch second-year safety Eddie Jackson have a big year; they need third-year pass rusher Leonard Floyd to live up to his potential. It's a tough division, but they could surprise.

San Francisco 49ers: Are you all in on Jimmy G? Garoppolo have never lost an NFL start, and getting him from the Pats for a second-round pick may be one of the NFL's all-time trade steals. His intelligence and quick release make him perfect for Kyle Shanahan's offense, and the addition of Jerrick McKinnon from the Vikings is the kind of receiving threat at running back Shanahan wants. They need rookie Mike McGlinchey to help solidify the I line at tackle.

Defensively they accumulated lots of talent under the previous regime, now coordinator Robert Saleh, who learned in the Seahawks' system, has added Richard Sherman to ex-Seahawk Malcolm Smith. They need linebacker Rueben Foster and safety Jimmy Ward back from pre-season injuries to contend.

Question Marks

Arizona Cardinals: Bruce Arians coached this team to an 8-8 mark last year with little from his quarterbacks after Carson Palmer was hurt. Now Palmer's retired and brittle veteran Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen will start. New head coach Steve Wilks brought in Mike McCoy to run the offense, but McCoy's success has generally been with veterans.

All-Pro runner David Johnson is back, which will help, and receiver Larry Fitzgerald begins his 15th season. Wilks is a defensive specialist, and despite many defections, there is still a lot of talent on that side of the ball, including Patrick Peterson, Deonne Buchanan and Budda Baker. The D will keep them in games, but can the O win them?

Detroit Lions: New coach Matt Patricia rejoins another ex-Pat, GM Bob Quinn, in an effort to toughen up a team that always seems to find ways to lose. Matt Stafford remains a premier arm, and they signed LaGarrette Blount, another ex Pat who won Super Bowl rings with the Pats and Eagles the last two years. Can he make it a third?

Defensively, the Lions creak at the edges, despite big plays from corner Darius Slay and veteran safety Quinn Glover. They need Ziggu Ansah to stay healthy and if Patricia can get them to slow down Aaron Rodgers or Kirk Cousins the Lions could be in games in the NFC North. But won't win it.

Washington Redskins: The Skins are like a shadow of the Cowboys. On paper their stars look great, on the field the lack of depth always seems to hurt them. They finally let Cousins go and traded for Alex Smith from the Chiefs, on paper Smith might be a better fit for coach Jay Gruden's quick-passing game.

They drafted Derrius Guice to strengthen the run game, but the rookie's already gone for the year. Defensively the whole of Josh Norman, Ryan Kerrigan and Zach Brown was less the sum of the parts, but watch second-year end Jonathan Allen and rookie tackle Da'Ron Payne, college teammates at Alabama. You have to watch something.

Just forget it

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Dirk Koetter is early leader in the early exit sweepstakes as a head coach. QB Jameis Winston is suspended for the first four games and Harvard-educated Ryan Fitzpatrick will start and throw to Mike Evans, while the acquisition of center Ryan Jensen lets Hobart-educated Ali Marpet move back to guard.

Rookie Ronald Jones needs to take over at running back. Defensively, rookie Vita Vea ought to combine with Gerald McCoy to create a fearsome inside presence, linebacker Lavonte David is another overlooked star, and ex-NFL Europe star Brent Grimes remains at corner after 11 NFL seasons; the secondary remains a question as big as how long will Koetter last?

American Football Conference (AFC)

The Elite

New England Patriots: It's the usual story, the Pats don't look as strong as last year, but the odds are they still cruise to a 12-4 record in a weak division. They've gone all-in on 41 year old Tom Brady, trading both his backups, Jacoby Brisset and Jimmy Garoppolo, and they've lost running back Dion Lewis and receiver Danny Amendola, as well as Julian Edleman for the season's first four games.

The biggest loss is left tackle Nate Solder; they drafted Isaiah Wynn as a possible replacement, but he's injured and out for the year. Defensively they looked slow in both the past two Super Bowls. They added Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn up front but the biggest addition may be pass rusher Derek Rivers, last year's top draft pick who missed the entire season injured.

Donta Hightower is back from injury, but the secondary is still a work in progress, minus Malcolm Butler, and there is no depth at safety, where they play three and number four is Jordan Richards, who can't cover. But unless Brady gets hurt, they win the East.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are all-in for what annually seemes the finale for Big Ben Rothliesberger at quarterback. With runner Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown, the Killer Bs can score on anyone from anywhere. Last year's rookie JuJu Schuster-Smith and this year's rookie James Washington give Ben his targets, and Mike Munchak's O line is always effective.

Defensively they need to replace MLB Ryan Shazier, whose horrendous injury last year keeps him out, but the front three is strong when healthy, TJ Watt is a promising pass rusher and rookie safety Terrell Edmunds could spend a lot of time in linebacker-like positions. The secondary might be its most solid in years, which makes the Steelers many people's favourite for the AFC title. As long as their D doesn't get picked apart by Tom Brady again.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags won 12 games last year and had the Pats on the ropes in the AFC title game before coach Doug Marrone got too conservative. But predicting bigger things this year is difficult. It's still a killer defense, but the schedule is tougher; now they're division winners and two teams in their division get their best QBs back, while Tennessee has a new coach. Success as always revolves round QB Blake Bortles. He threw two interceptions in the final two minutes of a game against the Chargers, and the Jags still won, but even the Jags' D can't cover for everything.

Leonard Fournette's running will drive their offense, while speedy rookie DJ Chark joins last year's surprises Marquis Lee, Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Defensively they play a Seattle-style system, with deep talent up front, to which they've added rookie Taven Bryan. Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are tackle-seeking missiles at LB, while Jaylen Ramsey leads a secondary that will succeed as long as they aren't penalized. Better than last year, but with a lesser record?

The Contenders

Baltimore Ravens: It's a new Joe Flacco this season, as competition from rookie QB Lamar Jackson and new receivers in Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown. The road grinding O line, if healthy, has Alex Collins and Buck Allen running behind it while they boast the league's only dual threat fullback and defensive tackle in Patrick Ricard.

Like the Steelers, they're a tough 3-4 defense, with Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Willie Henry up front, CJ Mosley underrated at middle backer, and Terrell Suggs in his 16th season rushing passers. Jimmy Smith is suspended, and their secondary needs him, but the safety pair of Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson is one of the league's best. Ravens-Steelers games will be two to watch.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson is back and healthy. JJ Watt is back and healthy. Whitney Mercilus is back and healthy. Bill O'Brien for some reason didn't start Watson in the season opener, but he took over at halftime, and the Texans won three of his six starts, scoring over 30 points in five of them. DeAndre Hopkins is the league's least appreciated great receiver and D'Onta Foreman, who also was hurt last year, looks ready to carry the run load. Blocking up front is a question.

The D gets back Watt (but for how long) and Mercilus, along with Jadeveon Clowney that poses severe problems for offenses. Zach Cunningham is up and coming, and the secondary added Aaron Colvin from division rivals Jacksonville and Tyrann Mathieu from Arizona. They need a lot of things to go right, but could challenge.

Denver Broncos: John Elway signed Case Keenum to be the Broncos' new quarterback: he's a playmaker who's occasionally erratic, but he can run play action and throw on the run. Rookie Royce Freeman may be the runner in that play action, while Emmanuel Sanders is joined by rookie Courtland Sutton, another SMU product, alongside Demariyus Thomas at wide receiver.

They signed Jared Veldheer to both improve the tackle position and allow shifts along the O line. But their real strength is on D, where Von Miller's pass rush will be helped by rookie Bradley Chubb, who joins Shaq Barrett opposite him. Ex-Bengal Domata Peko anchors the line, Chris Harris anchors the secondary that lost Aqib Talib but expects Bradley Roby to step up. Like the Texans, some ifs, but with that pass rush they are always a threat.

Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith was traded, and Pat Mahomes is the QB; he's got one thing Smith didn't, a big arm, but will likely be more turnover-prone. Running back Kareem Hunt, gadget star Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce can tear you apart with mismatches; they'd like Sammy Watkins to be an effective over-the-top threat which he's never really been anywhere else in his career.

Mitch Morse is quietly one of the best linemen in the league, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif got his medical degree from McGill in Canada, but the NFL won't let him put DR or MD on his jersey. The defense needs safety Eric Berry to stay healthy, needs to get better up front, needs Dee Ford to become a pass-rush threat opposite Justin Houston (though Tanoh Kpassagnon may relegate Ford sooner rather than later). MLB Reggie Ragland is a budding star, and they got Kendall Fuller in the Smith trade to help replace Jason Peters at corner. They need Mahomes to play like a veteran, and the D to play like a D.

Dark Horses

Tennessee Titans: New coach Mike Vrabel joins another ex-Pat, GM John Robinson. They have talent but under performed with Mike Mularkey. Matt LaFleur is the new offensive coordinator; he was QB coach under Kyle Shanahan in Houston, Washington and Atlanta, so expect something more creative than last year, if Marcus Mariota, can adjust to quicker reads and presets.

They'd like Corey Davis to be their Julio Jones, tight end Delanie Walker is a major target, but the key may be another ex-Pat, Dion Lewis, doing what Freeman and Coleman did in Atlanta. Derrick Henry is a good power back. Defensively Dean Pees coached Vrabel in New England, then moved to the Ravens, so expect Jurrell Casey to be put in a position to make plays. They jumped ahead of New England to claim LB Rashaan Evans, and signed another ex-Pat, Super Bowl 51 hero Malcom Butler, who literally disappeared from Super Bowl 52. Adoree Jackson and Kevin Byard are rising talents in the secondary, and this team could finally live up to its promise.

Cleveland Browns: I'm going to say it now. The Browns may not be terrible this year. There, I've said it. I worry about Hue Jackson being able to get the best out of a QB situation with ex-Bill Tyrod Taylor place-holding for top draft pick Baker Mayfield, not because Taylor is bad, but because although Mayfield's looked good, how far can he go under Hue's coaching: Jackson took a bad situation last year and made it worse. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley might help; they signed runner Carlos Hyde, drafted Nick Chubb, retained the very talented third-down back Duke Johnson and never noticed Haley hates playing more than one back in any given game.

Chris Hubbard arrives from Pittsburgh to play RT, rookie Austin Corbett will play LG and Joel Bitonio moves to LT. If that works the offense could be good, especially with Josh Gordon back and Jarvis Landry arrived from Miami. Defensively there is a lot of talent: especially if coordinator Gregg Williams lets safety Jabrill Peppers play within 30 yards of the line of scrimmage. Ex-Packer Damarious Randall moves to his natural free safety position and Myles Garrett is going to have a monster year pass rushing. Playoffs may be too much with Hue still coaching, but near 8-8 isn't impossible.


Los Angeles Chargers: I had the Chargers as contenders before their usual pre-season injuries struck, but you still have to give a team with Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen on offense and Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on defense some credit. They released long-time Charger Antonio Gates, and promptly saw his replacement, Hunter Henry, lost for the season at the first practice. Star corner Jason Verrett was less of a surprise; he's injured every year, but it will strain their secondary depth.

They started last year with a series of freak losses due to not having a decent kicker, and they still don't, yet had they been able to win that crazy game with the Jags in November, they might have made the playoffs. They need receivers. They need Melvin Gordon to remain effective. Last year they drafted two guards; both got hurt, they need Dan Feeney and Forrest 'Gump' Lamp to start. It's a lot of needs.

Indianapolis Colts: The good news. Andrew Luck is back. When he was healthy he was used to carrying the Colts to the playoffs without much help, and new coach Frank Reich (the Eagles' offensive coordinator, hired after Pats' OC Josh McDaniels backed out of the job) seems to have been handed the same formula.

Rookie Quentin Nelson will step right in to an O line that needs help; if Ryan Kelly is healthy after concussion it will help. Marlon Mack is the main runner, TY Hilton the main receiver, but look for tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle to see more balls. Defensively it seems years since they could stop the run, if Malik Hooker is healthy it will help, but they look a lot like the Peyton Manning Colts, small and quick, but they lack a top-notch edge rusher.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are the Washington of the AFC, bringing in big names and wondering why they don't play like big names. Ryan Tannehill missed last year at QB so they signed Jay Cutler off the street, or off reality TV which is where he is now. Tannehill was supposed to get better under coach Adam Gase, but Jarvis Landry, Julius Thomas and Tony Fasano are gone; Amendola, Albert Wilson and Gavin Escobar are in.

Frank Gore returns to his college town to run, while the O line added ex-Pack guard Josh Sitton. Ndamukong Suh is gone; Robert Quinn is the new big name veteran. Raekwon McMillan missed his rookie season to injury, but needs to start at linebacker, while Minkah Fitzpatrick was a draft steal at safety. Watch for him to shine alongside Reshad Jones.

Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are back for the umpteenth season of frustration. The Bengals are good enough to soar into the playoffs at 9-7 then lose in the wild card round, or sink to 7-9, depending on whether the Browns are that much improved. They just gave Geno Atkins a big extension, they cut George Iloka to help pay for it, but the D should be good: Preston Brown arrives from Buffalo and Nick Vigil is promising.

Vontaze Burfict begins the year, as always, on suspension. He doesn't need a coach as much as a therapist. Rookie Jessie Bates replaces Iloka in a stacked secondary. Offensively AJ Green remains a threat, Joe Mixon looked great running as a rookie until stopped by concussion, and Tyler 'Extra' Eifert would be a fine tight end if he could only stay on the field. But can Dalton carry this team to the promised land? Experience says no.

Forget it

New York Jets: The J-E-S-T Jest! decided to solve their QB problem by drafting Syndrome-lookalike Sam Darnold, signing ex-Viking Teddy Bridgewater, and re-upping 39-year-old Josh McCown, who may have had his best NFL season with last year's hapless team. Who will start is anyone's guess; Bridgewater has looked good but is obvious trade bait, Darnold is obviously the future of the team, so that would imply McCown gets the call, because, well, these are the Jets.

Isaiah Crowell comes from the Browns to energise the offense, and Spencer Long from the Skins to help the line; see a pattern here? Defensively Leonard Williams is a great player; Avery Williamson from the Titans is very good, and last year's two rookie safeties, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye were a step in the right direction. But the team needs plenty more of those steps.

Buffalo Bills: Sean McDermott seems to be creating Carolina Lite in Buffalo; Star Lotuleilei arrives to anchor the D line, and rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds joins Matt Milano to recreate those Kuechly/Davis days. Micah Hyde leads another fine secondary, which means the Bills will be stingy.

But can they score? Who's their QB? Rookie Josh Allen is what many of us said he would be, a project. AJ McCarron is a back-up and is hurt. Which for opening day may make Nathan Peterman, he of the five pick half in his debut, as a possible starter. Peterman isn't as bad as that, but they will need LeSean McCoy to carry the load and hope it snows a lot. Kelvin Benjamin is another ex-Panther who's an underachiever; Zay Jones was last year too, but could be better. Get your snowshoes out.

Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden got paid enough money to buy a casino in the Raiders future Vegas home, but so far it's like a Star Trek episode, Chucky goes back in time to coach in Madden 2000. Derek Carr has looked better in pre-season, but I'm not sold on new OC Greg Olson, Carr and Amari Cooper in 2016 were one of the league's best combos.

Rookie tackle Kolton Miller will be brought along by ex-Seahawk coach Tom Cable, which isn't good news. And ex-Seattle beast mode Marshawn Lynch needs to rediscover his form. Veteran Paul Geunther is the new DC and he's got Khalil Mack and rookie PJ Hall up front. But I'm not sure about ex-Chief Derrick Johnson in the middle, or of just about anyone in the secondary. Marcus Gilchrist may have a lot of cleaning-up to do there. It may be a long season for the long suffering Black Hole.

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