Get into the swing of the new season by reading Mike Carlson's in-depth team-by-team preview and his picks for the Super Bowl winner...
"But the Pats are still the Pats, the rest of the AFC East is still far behind them, and with Josh Gordon back from suspension and Jamie Collins rejoining the D, they should contend. They always do, as Bill Belichick and company find guys who will fit and coach them into startdom."
Kansas City Chiefs
They came back in the AFC championship last year and took the Pats to overtime. They have the best young passer in the game, and Andy Reid can scheme offense with the best of them, especially with Tyreek Hill available after not being suspended by the NFL and Travis Kelce returning as the best post-Gronk tight end in the league. Damien Williams leads a host of contenders to replace Kareem Hunt, suspended and off to the Browns. Steve Spagnuolo comes in as defensive coordinator, looking to tighten up a D that lost the famed 54-51 shootout to the Rams last year, and has free agents Frank Clark and Tyrann Matthieu to help rebuild.
Key: Can Spag build a more aggressive D so they don't have to win every game in a shootout?
New England Patriots
Yes Gronk retired. Trey Flowers and Trent Brown went in free agency. Tom Brady is old enough to collect social security (one of the above three is an exaggeration). But the Pats are still the Pats, the rest of the AFC East is still far behind them, and with Josh Gordon back from suspension and Jamie Collins rejoining the D, they should contend. They always do, as Bill Belichick and company find guys who will fit and coach them into startdom. They have a deep young secondary, though drug charges against Patrick Chung and the late loss of center David Andrews (blood clots) could hurt.
Key: Can Isaiah Wynn, who missed his whole rookie season through knee injury, replace Brown at left tackle? Can anyone replace Gronk?
They dumped Antonio Brown and let Le'Veon Bell walk, calling it addition by subtraction. JuJu Smith-Shuster is their number one pass-catcher and second-year man James Washington looks ready to be number two for Big Ben Rothliesberger, who needs to stay healthy. James Connor replaced Bell last year. They missed Ryan Shazier last season after his terrible 2017 injury, but rookie LB Devin Bush looks great. Walking pass interence penalty Steve Nelson comes in from the Chiefs with the biggest freee agency deal in Steeler history to bolster a leaky secondary.
Key: Are both the receivers and secondary improved enough to win shootouts as well as grind 'em out games?
The Ravens want to play a ball-control game with QB Lamar Jackson allowed to run, like what offensive coordinator Greg Roman did with Colin Kaepernick (remember him?) in San Francisco. They need rookie receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin to provide targets for Jackson, though journeyman Michael Floyd has been his big target in preseason. Their game is D, where Kenny Young and Patrick Onwuasor need to fill the LB gap left by CJ Mosley and rookie Jaylon Ferguson needs to replace Terrell Suggs' pass rush. Their secondary is deep and strong, as is the front three.
Key: Keeping Jackson healthy, though RG3 and rookie Trace McSorley back him up.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers would have been in the elite group a few weeks ago, but now perhaps might be better considered dark horses. RB Melvin Gordon is holding out, last year's rookie sensation defensive back Derwin James and top receiver Keenan Allen are injured, and LT Russell Okung is uncertain after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Injuries at bad times have been one Charger trademark, a punishing road schedule and home games in a band box stadium without local home fans is another.
But they have Philip Rivers passing, Hunter Henry back from injury to catch passes, and veteran Thomas Davis and rookie Jerry Tillery to energize the D. If rookie safety Nasir Adderly can stand in for James, that will be a plus. Last year I demoted the Chargers to Dark Horses; this year it's a step-U demotion.
Key: Filling those injury holes, and finding another receiver alongside Mike Williams.
The Dark Horses:
Last year on this page I picked the Browns to surprise, though they didn't until they fired Hue Jackson and made Freddie Kitchens the head coach. His game planning set QB Baker Mayfield free and he realised that rookie RB Nick Chubb was on the roster and needed to play. They have more young talent than almost anyone, a premier pass rusher in Myles Garrett and a good number two in Olivier Vernon. Rookie Greedy Williams could join last year's top pick Denzel Ward as a shut-down corner, while Sheldon Richardson will shine inside if teams concentrate on stopping Garrett.
Key: Can Kitchens scheme around a patchy offensive line and can he coach the Browns past two very tough division rivals?
The Bills were a top defensive team last season, though few noticed, but they were limited by rookie QB Josh Allen's passing inconsistency. Allen's rnning ability was a surprise, and this year he seems to be reading the game better and benefitting from the addition of possession receiver Cole Beasley. They lucked into DT Ed Oliver in the first round of the draft; he's an active tackle who fits Sean McDermott's Panther-style schemes. Last year's rookie Trumaine Edmunds could become on the league's best linebackers, while free agent Mitch Morse will anchor their O line.
Key: Can Allen be consistent in the pass game?
With the retirement of Andrew Luck, the AFC South is turned upside down but the Titans, mired at 9-7 the past three years, could be the breakout team. Adding Roger Saffold at guard will help the run game, which ought to help QB Marcus Mariota, and getting TE Delanie Walker back after last year's injury will make the pass game better. They also added Adam Humphries as a slot guy and hope rookie AJ Brown complements rising star Corey David. Jurrell Casey remains the defensive star; they need their ex-Pats, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, to play better in the secondary.
Key: Can Mariota avoid injuries and rise to the occasion in his contract year? They signed ex-Dolphin Ryan Tannehill if he can't.
Last year Houston won the division but were beaten handily by the Colts in the wild card game. They often seem to be less than the sum of their parts, and the big off-season story was their firing their GM, Brian Gaine, shortly before training camps opened, and replacing him with a troika of names, one of whom was, in effect, the team's motivational guy. They couldn't get Jadeveon Clowney to agree to his franchise deal and are trying to trade him as I write this. They will also be without workhorse RB Lamar Miller; though they traded for Duke Johnson as a replacement, look for them to add another veteran runner as teams cut down. DeAndre Hopkins remains a receiver, and the JJ Watt-led D will still be tough.
Key: QB DeShaun Watson takes a big step forward and makes Bill O'Brien look like the QB whisperer he's supposed to be. Otherwise, Houston could disappoint again.
Andrew Luck's sudden retirement last week was a shock but he hadn't played, due to a mystery calf injury and of course he didn't play at all in 2017. Jacoby Brissett is the starter, and I think he can be quite capable under Frank Reich, but they will need a better plan B then either Philip Walker or perennial badboy Chad Kelly. Colin Kaepernick might be a nice fit here. Otherwise, last year's surprises were the offensive line (should have been rookie of the year guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith) and the defense (star rookie linebacker Darius Leonard) and both should be decent again. They have a good set of receivers led by TY Hilton and the TE pair of Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, and if Marlon Mack stays healthy they have a run game.
Key: Can Brissett play to Nick Foles level for Reich? If so they could make the playoffs.
The Jags' offensive failings caught up with them last year as their defense failed to produce the turnovers and points they had in 2017. Blake Bortles is gone and Nick Foles is in, along with offensive coordinator John DiFilippo, who was Foles' QB coach in Philadelphia in their Super Bowl year. DiFlip failed in Minnesota last year, and he has some similar problems with the O line here, but if he can convince Leonard Fournette to stay both involved and healthy, he has a weapon should he choose to use it more than he did Dalvin Cook in Minny. Rookie Ryquell Armstead and ex-Texan Alfred Blue are one-cut runners like Fournette.
The big addition is rookie pass-rusher Josh Allen, who fell to them with the seventh overall pick. Last year they played a lot of two linebacker sets, but the surprise retirement of Telvin Smith means either rookie Quincy Williams surprises or they use more three-LB sets, which means Allen could see some time at LB. Taven Brian, last year's draft pick has looked good in preseason; their D could be very strong again. They brought Dom Capers in to help coach the D; he brought in LB Jake Ryan who played for him in Green Bay but was injured all last season.
Key: Fournette gets used properly, plays a whole season, and Foles gives them consistent quarterbacking.
John Elway's QB Roulette continues, with Joe Flacco the latest spin of the wheel. Vic Fangio, a defensive coach of quality since his days in the USFL in the 80s, is the new head coach, which makes one wonder if Elway thinks his QB choices can win games as long as his defense performs. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will be the pass-rush pieces Fangio tries to turn into the kind of dominant D that won Denver a Super Bowl with a creaky Peyton Manning at QB; Flacco may be creaky enough but he's more Eli than Peyton.
Rookie TE Noah Fant and WR Juwann Winfree could help, and last year's undrafted sensation Phillip Lindsay is a double-threat runner who could be helped by a healthy Royce Freeman. Elway may be looking at Flacco as a place-holder for rookie Drew Lock, but either way, the future isn't now.
Key: Fant and Winfree combine with Emmanuel Sanders to make Flacco's life easier.
Jon Gruden brought Mike Mayock out of the announcing box to be his GM, and they began cashing in on last year's haul of draft picks from clearing out Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. They got Antonio Brown on the cheap to replace Cooper, but he has a cryogenically frozen injured foot and an aversion to the new extra-protective helmets the NFL requires this year, making him a literal headcase.
Ex-Charger Tyrell Williams may be extra-productive if Brown actually plays. RB Josh Jacobs was taken in round 1 of the draft because he runs like Marshawn Lynch; defensive end Clelin Farrell was a surprise pick at number four, but might fit coordinator Paul Guenther's balanced 4-3 schemes. But the best of the three first round picks might be safety Johnathan Abram, who could dominate the middle of the field. Vontaze Burfict played for Guenther at the Bengals, or didn't play when he was suspended for foul play, an annual NFL ritual; Richie Incognito, no stranger to suspensions himself, came out of retirement to join the fun. They paid a small fortune for Pats' left tackle Trent Brown and will move him back to the right side.
Key: Unlike at Wembley last year, Brown and Incognito protect QB Derek Carr and spring the run game.
The Brown family finally gave up on Marvin Lewis and chose Zac Taylor as head coach because he fits the young guy who coached under other young passing game geniuses mold. But Andy Dalton remains the QB, although fourth-round pick Ryan Finley could challenge him for the job. First-round pick Jonah Williams is one key at tackle; which makes them stronger with Cordy Glenn at guard. Second-round pick Drew Sample could team with Tyler Eifert, if he's healthy, as a pair of pass catching tight ends. Geno Atkins returns to lead the defence, but they haven't improved much around him, though safety Jessie Bates had a good rookie season. The draft was solid enough to suggest the Bengals are building but they're still a ways away.
Key: Can Dalton deliver for a team in transition, or is it finally Finley who will lead them?
The J-E-S-T Jets' new head coach is ex-Dolphin boss Adam Gase, and though the team on paper has far more talent than the Dolphins, though their biggest off-season move was firing GM Mike Maccagnan, who lost a power struggle with Gase.
The new GM is Joe Douglass, who was a good judge of talent at Philadelphia, and before that learned the rops in Baltimore. They drafted Quinnen Williams in the first round of the draft; taking D linemen in round one has been a Jet tradition recently, but teamed with Leonard Williams (no relation) the defensive front could be fine immediately, but despite spending big on Ravens LB CJ Mosley this year and Titans' Avery Williamson last year, injuries mean they still need help.
Sam Darnold was everything we expected as a rookie, both outstanding and dangerous; Gase's rep as a QB Whisperer is mostly based on making such guys throw safer passes (Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill) which isn't necessarily Darnold's game. They spent huge money on Le'Veon Bell, who didn't play last year, so ought to be rested and ready: Gase needs to build a system that takes advantage of his unique running style. Chris Herndon is a budding TE star as a pass catcher and rookie Trevon Wesco could be a hidden gem.
Key: Can Gase create an offense that maximises both Darnold and Bell's skills behind a line filled with journeymen?
New head coach Brian Flores is yet another New England defensive coordinator to take over another team (Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennell, Matt Patricia) and his first year will be one of clearing the decks and rebuilding. The Dolphins signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, now on his third of the four AFC East teams, and traded for Josh Rosen, last year's number one pick in Arizona. Rosen had a rough time on a bad time, so it might make sesne to let Fitzmagic take the early lumps. Their first pick in the draft, Christian Wilkins, ought to start on the D line from day one, and with Minkah Fitzpatrick (no relation) and Xavien Howard their defensive backfield is strong. It may need to be.
Key: Who plays QB and how well? The AFC could become very competitive just about the time Tom Brady retires.
New Orleans Saints
Heartbreak losses in the playoffs two years in a row; will third time be lucky for a Saints team that is stacked on both sides of the ball. There was some worry Drew Brees was showing his age in the second half of last season, but it was more likely the result of injury. They are slow starters, and will miss Sheldon Rankins until he returns, but the D line is solid with the addition of Malcolm Brown; Mark Ingram's been relaced by Latavius Murray and Jared Cook steps in for Ben Watson with rookie Alize Mack waiting.
Rookie Eric McCoy is slated to replace Alex Mack and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson ought to help the secondary. After the great Michael Thomas, the receiving corps is a mixed bag, but in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, that hasn't mattered much.
Key: Can Brees, aged 40, continue to execute and can the Saints avoid making playoff stumbles an annual event.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams got to the Super Bowl and then were held to three points by the Pats, and you know the rest of the league has been studying tape to see how Belichick did it. Sean McVay was strangely short of adjustments in the big game, but still it was a question of big plays the Rams didn't make, especially Brandin Cooks. With Cooper Kupp back, the trio of Robert Woods/Cooks/Kupp re-opens the Rams' pass game, and look for more involvement from tight ends. They let Ndamakong Suh go, but Tanzel Smart and rookie Greg Gaines can do his job, while adding Clay Matthews to the linebackers can't hurt. Rookie Taylor Rapp will play a lot as a third safety. The biggest questions are Todd Gurley's knee, is it arthritic to the point of stopping his career? Rookie Darrell Henderson was drafted as a backup besides their Malcolm Brown.
Key: Can Gurley regain his running form; can Jared Goff move beyond being thought of as McVay's automaton? Note Blake Bortles is on board as robot-in-training.
The Bears added offensive weapons in the draft who a better fits for Matt Nagy's systems than they guys they lost: RB David Montgomery and WR Riley Ridley but the biggest loss was defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to the Denver head job; Chuck Pagano takes over and will likely be more aggressive with his edge rushers and blitz more from the secondary. But with Akiem Hicks up front, Khalil Mack on the edge and roquan Smith at inside linebacker, their front seven is stacked, while Eddie Jackson is a free safety with Earl Thomas potential.
Mike Davis will replace Jordan Howard while Tarik Cohen offers big play ability. The Bears blamed kicker Cody Parkey for their playoff exit; their off-season kicker contest was a joke, and they trded for Eddie Pinero from Oakland, but the curse of Robbie Gould continues.
Key: How consistent can QB Mitch Trubisky be, especially if Pagano can keep the D as good as it was. And can they find a kicker?
When you look at the roster they are another stacked team, but injuries on the O line and in the secondary have hurt them since their Super Bowl win. GM Howie Roseman has been outstanding in filling holes without breaking the bank. This year he got Jordan Howard from the Bears and drafted Miles Sanders to shore up the run game; signed Josh McCown away from the social security office when backup QB Nate Sudfeld got hurt, and drafted Andre Dillard for his O line, which immediately let them move backup tackle Big V to guard. Plus rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside looks like another Alshon Jeffrey. They remain solid but not spectacular on D, but Malik Jackson, Zach Brown and Andrew Sendejo were good additions; they need to get corner play from Sdney Jones or Rasul Douglas to be great.
Key: Can QB Carson Wentz stay healthy? Potentially one of the best, he's never been able to see the season out.
Last year Mike Solari took over from Tom Cable as the O line coach and Seattle's offense improved greatly. Doug Baldwin has retired, but Russell Wilson returns and with 11 draft picks they added players who fit their specs and whom they believe they can coach up. Plus size/speed freak DK Metcalf at wide receiver, though Metcalf and David Moore probably both start the season injured. Tyler Lockett is not just the deep threat people think he is.
They want to be a run-first team, and they are deep and talented enough at RB to let Mike Davis go, while rookie LJ Collier and free agents Ziggy Ansah, if healthy, and Al Woods bolster their front four. The Griffin brothers patrol the back seven, Brad McDougald has been unhearalded at free safety and rookies Marquise Blair and Ugo Amadi could be a great fit for a new secondary.
Key: If you stack against the run, Wilson can beat you through the air; can they force teams to play their way?
OK GENO we see you!? Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) August 25, 2019
Q3: SEA 23 | LAC 3 pic.twitter.com/uuY6fFLKFi
The Falcons looked to rebuild their O line through the draft, and first round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary were pencilled in to start on the right side, but McGary underwent a heart ablation and will not make his debut until the final exhibition game. Last season they lost MLB Deion Jones and SS Keanu Neal in the first game; and free safety Ricardo Allen in the third; Damonte Kazee replaced Allen effectively, but Jones could not be replaced; they were much better when he returned for the last six games.
Kazee could press Allen or play slot corner, his natural position, but playing a system like Seattle's they need fast linebackers; rookie Foyesade Oluokun, a converted safety from Yale, was a standout. Matt Ryan will continue to throw to Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohammad Sanu, and tight end Austin Hooper, and Dirk Koetter, last year's head coach in Tampa, returns to Atlanta as offensive coordinator.
Key: Can Koetter be effective in the red zone and can RB Devonta Freeman bounce back to 2016 form?
Last year the Vikes paid Kirk Cousins a pile of cash to take them the final step; instead they fell to 8-7-1 as Cousins threw for lots of yards but crumbled under pressure from a bad O line. Head coach Mike Zimmer felt offensive coordinator John DiFilippo was passing too much and mired him in mid-season; Kevin Stefanski remains the nominal coordinator but Gary Kubiak was hired as 'offensive advisor' and look for a lot more stretch-running and play-action.
Dalvin Cook is the kind of runner who could shine in such a system, and rookie center Garrett Bradbury and free agent guard Josh Kline might improve the line. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs could still use third receiver to take some of the pressure off, though rookie tight end Irv Smith might help. Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and a healthy Mike Hughes are among the best corner threesomes in the NFL, and Zimmer's defensive schemes will always be effective; they managed to keep Anthony Barr in free agency at the very last minute when it looked like he was going to the Jets.
Key: Can Cousins make their new offense work, and can the line keep him off his back?
The soap-opera Dallas was never as entertaining as the Jerry Jones Show, and this year is no exeception, as Zeke Elliott, probably the NFL's best back, is holding out. QB Dak Prescott is due a new contract next year, and Jerry has just extended MLB Jaylon Smith, so how is the money going to be spread around. Rookie Tony Pollard is the current RB1, but no one believes Jones when he says Pollard will take them through the season.
With Randall Cobb joining last year's pick up Amari Cooper, they could try being a pass-first team, and rookie TE Noah Fant will help, probably more than Jason Witten, who returns after an unimpressive foray into broadcasting. Zach Martin is back to anchor a solid O line, with rookie Connor McGovern giving them flexibility to move the pieces around. Defensively, they've paid DeMarcus Lawrence to be a rush star and Leighton Vander Esch is a second pro-bowl linebacker, but the problem has been in the secondary: Byron Jones moved back to his natural corner position last year and was a pro-bowler, but had hip surgery in the offseason.
Key: They're contenders because the Eagles are not sure things, but can the Cowboys survive the turmoil and can Jason Garrett coach them into a playoff run?
The Dark Horses
Cam Newton's shoulder. With Luck retiring, many of us noticed that Cam, who's about the same age, has had a similar injury history, including playing through injuries and making them worse. Last year it was his throwing shoulder, and he could barely get the ball downfield at times. If Cam is back to full Newton, the Panthers are contenders. Christian McCaffrey took a year to do it, but now is the kind of running/receiving every-down back they envisaged, and Torrey Smith and Curtis Samuel should provide speed around top WR DJ Moore. Greg Olsen decided to avoid following Jason Witten into the broadcast booth and returns for his 13th season at tight end.
Defensively the Panthers will be tough; Dontario Poe needs to play harder alongside Kawaan Short, but adding Gerald McCoy from Tampa means they can play him and Short together and destroy people inside; rookie Brian Burns adds pass rush. Shaq Thompson moves into Thomas Davis' role alongside Luke Kuechley at linebacker. Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick's kneeling partner, became their key in the secondary, so why will no one sign Kaep?
KEY: Cam's shoulder
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers carried the Pack under Mike McCarthy, and he will have to do so under new coach Matt LaFleur, who's barely older than AR, but whose schemes may make his life easier. They drafted three wideouts last year, and Marquez Valdez-Scantling looks the most likely to move in alongside Davante Adams, while rookie tight end Jace Sternberger is a receiving threat. The O line is always one injury away from disaster, but adding Billy Turner and rookie Elgton Jenkins may help.
Defensively, Mike Daniels is gone, along with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, but they drafted Rashan Gary to be a rush end, signed Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith (not related) to replace those backers, and after using four first or second round picks on the secondary in the past two seasons, drafted safety Darnell Savage with their second round-one pick this year. Sixth round corner Ka'dar Hollman may help too.
Key: Rodgers in LaFleur's offense, will he be a team player? Can the D improve?
San Francisco 49ers
The very definition of a dark horse. If Jimmy Garoppolo comes back strong. If they can keep a running back healthy all year (they added Tevin Coleman, who played for coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta). If rookie receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd create options for Jimmy G, so TE George Kittle doesn't have to catch every pass. If rookie Nick Bosa and free agent Dee Ford provide pass rush. If Arik Armstead or Solomon Thomas play as well as fellow first rounder DeForest Buckner. If free agent Kwon Alexander can stay healthy at MLB. If free agent Jason Verrett can stay healthy for the first time ever. If drafting punter Mitch Wishnowsky in round four isn't a reach because their offense means they don't require him to be the team's MVP.
Key: All those ifs and more. I said dark horse.
The Lions have spent big money and built a defense Matt Patricia can love. Trey Flowers comes in from New England; the versatile, high-effort smart lineman got the kind of dough usually reserved for one-trick ponies who accumulate sacks. With Big Snacks Harrison in the middle and rookie Austin Bryant when he's recovered from a torn pec, they will be tough and versatile up front.
Rookie middle backer Jahlani Tavai could allow them to move Jarrad Davis outside; they see a Donte Hightower in him. They made ex-Pat and Seahawk Justin Coleman the highest paid slot corner in the league, and Darius Slay is one of the best corners around. This could be a fine unit. Offeensively though, new coordinator Darren Bevell, who called the Malcolm Butler interception for Seattle in the Super Bowl, has rookie TJ Hockenson, the best mis-match tight end in the draft and Jesse James, the ex-Steeler, to try to work Gronkology: wideouts Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are good targets for Matt Stafford. Kerryon (Carry On) Johnson got only seven starts before getting hurt last year, but if they can run him all season, they could be dangerous.
Key: The O line hasn't lived up to the money it was paid, but if they do, Stafford and Johnson could shine.
New York Giants
QB controversy. They drafted Daniel Jones with the sixth pick in the draft, passing on pass rusher Josh Allen, when lots of people thought Jones would be available when they picked at 17. Jones has outplayed Eli Manning in pre-season, but Manning will start, partly because the owners say so and partly because it makes sense to sit Jones on a team that is not as good as billed, and wait to see whether Eli can deliver.
If he can't, your controversy disappears. They are rebuilding the O line, but Nate Solder away from New England wasn't the left tackle of the future. They traded OBJ and Golden Tate is not a replacement for him; neither is rookie Darius Slayton. They could use a long receiver who can reach for Eli's overthrows. Saquon Barkley remains their best offensive weapon, and a challenge to Zeke Elliott as the league's best RB.
Defensively they should be strong: pick 17 went on Dexter Lawrence, who will replace Snacks Harrison, and their third first-round pick, corner DeAndre Baker, could start right away as well. Jabril Peppers came in from Cleveland, if used properly, closer to the box, he can be effective replacing Landon Collins. Watch rookie LB Oshane Ximines as a pass rusher.
Key: The eternal question, is Eli Elite? Or even average?
Here's the thing with the Skins. They're in a contract dispute (as in trade me or else) with their best offensive player, tackle Trent Williams. Sure's he's in his tenth season, and wasn't as good last year, playing with nagging injuries, but he is their best offensive player (OK, maybe Adrian Peterson). Peterson shone when rookie Darrius Guice was lost for the season; Guice has looked good in preseason so the run game should be set.
Passing wise, Case Keenum will start at QB, place holding for top draft pick Dwayne Haskins, who's a pocket passer with a deep arm, maybe more than Jay Gruden's system demands. What gives the Beltway Bandits a slim chance is their D: their front three is as good as any in the league, and rookie Montez Sweat and a healthy Casanova McKinzy will aid Ryan Kerrigan in pass rush. The secondary is a question mark; Josh Norman hasn't been worth the fortune they paid him, and Landon Collins needs to be used carefully, but with time rookie corner Jimmy Moreland could be good.
Key: Will Keenum be running for his life; will opposing QBs run for theirs before they can pick apart the secondary.
Tampa Bay Bucs
Bruce Arians is the new QB Whisperer to try to get most out of Jameis Winston, and on paper he's perfect: he loves big arms who sit in the pocket and take deep shots. With Mike Evans he has a perfect target; and two good tight ends, and their O line is OK on the right side.
They could use an upgrade at running back; Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones lack the versatility Arians likes. Defensively, they let Gerald McCoy go as they transition to the hybrid 3-4 new coordinator Todd Bowles, who was highly successful with Arians in Arizona, prefers. Look for breakout years from Vita Vea up front and rookie linebacker Devin White. With Shaq Barrett joining from Denver outside alongside underrated star Lavonte David and ex-Card Kevin Minter inside, the linebacking group is solid, and look for David to and ex-Card Deonne Buchanan to play inside in passing downs. Rookie corner Sean Bunting needs to play right away and rookie safety Mike Edwards may be able to as well. Things are looking better for the Bucs but they are probably a year away from contention.
Key: They need a year from Winston, but if he has a great one, they risk losing him next season.
This is a bad team for rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury and his air-raid offense from Texas Tech. Mostly because of the talent drain in the last couple of years under GM Steve Keim. Kingsbury fell in love with QB Kyler Murray, whom the Cards lured away from baseball, and then they traded last year's first-runder, Josh Rosen, whom Keim had fallen in love with, to Miami for a pittance (a draft pick that turned into UMass receiver Andy Isabella).
They traded for Marcus Gilbert and signed JR Sweezy and Max Garcia to help the O line, but there are still questions. New TE Charles Clay is probably a better fit here than he was in Buffalo, and RB David Johnson ought to see a lot of passes, but they will need some of a huge group of receivers to step up and learn the system. Meanwhile they added 36 year old Terrell Suggs and injury-prone MLB Jordan Hicks? to bolster the defense, which ex Denver coach Vance Joseph will coordinate. Darius Philon might be a better signing; Chandler Jones remains a top talent up front. Robert Alford was released by Atlanta, then singed to a three-year deal for $23m; they have Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker back there, but Alford is hardly an upgrade.
Key: It's a learning curve for both rookie QB and rookie coach, and the talent is already spread thin.
AFC Championship: Kansas City Chiefs at 10/3. I was leaning their way, and the current Charger problems will make it easier to clear their division- beating the Pats in the AFC Championship.
NFC Championship: New Orleans Saints at 4/1. They were the NFC's best team the past two years and it might be third time lucky for them. They beat the Rams for revenge in the NFC title game.
Super Bowl Winner: Chiefs at 15/2. Young blood Mahomes beats Grandpa Drew Brees and Andy Reid finally gets a title.