As the start of the NFL preseason is just around the corner, there are questions to be answered leading up to the regular season. Who are favorites? Which teams will disappoint? Who are the dark horses? Will the four-game suspension of Tom Brady hinder the Patriots chances? What will the first season of the post Peyton Manning era in Denver look like? Will Tony Romo stay healthy and give the Cowboys a chance in the mediocre NFC East? Let’s take a look, division by division.
The NFC East is wide open. The Giants have made some improvements, but have a tough stretch on the road against divisional opponents at the end of the season. The Eagles have made major changes trying too cleanup from the Chip Kelly debacle and probably will be a 7-9 or 8-8 team. The Redskins come in with a very solid offense, which could be enough in a division where 9 wins could be enough. The favorites could be the Cowboys, given a healthy Tony Romo, and that’s a big question mark. Should he stay healthy, 10 wins is not out of the question, but a last place finish is possible if he cannot stay on the field.
The NFC North continues to go through Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. The return of Jordy Nelson will improve an already impressive offense and the Packers have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. The Vikings have a tough start to their schedule, which could put them behind the eight-ball the rest of the way. On the flip side, they play at home late and could make a wild card push. Expect 10 or 11 wins and a playoff berth. The Bears and the Lions should represent nicely, but aren’t strong enough to contend. Records around .500 are most likely for these clubs.
The Panthers will be the team to beat in the NFC South and although their schedule is tougher than a year ago, shouldn’t have much trouble winning a division that is relatively weak. The one team the Panthers may have to keep their eyes on is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jameis Winston. The problem with the Bucs is a brutal schedule to open, which could easily result in a 1-4 or 2-3 start. The Saints still have Drew Bress, and although he is aging, has shown he can still get the job down in crucial situations. With him at the controls, the Saints are never out of it, but an 8-8 record is likely. The Falcons have a brutal two-game stretch weeks 5 and 6 facing the Broncos and Seahawks, which will only compound their problems. A last place finish is likely.
The is little question which teams will battle it out in the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks will be the top two contenders. The Seahawks should always be in the mix as long as Russell Wilson is behind center and an opportunistic defense. The division likely will go to the Cardinals, if they can withstand a daunting stretch of five road games over the last seven. The Rams should be improved with rookie Jared Goff taking over at quarterback, but he is a rookie and expect some growing pains. Look for 7-9 or 8-8 out of the Rams. The 49ers appear to be in all kinds of trouble and now have the Chip Kelly system to get used to. He failed in Philadelphia in his final season as the league appeared to have caught on to the scheme. Don’t expect the 49ers to finish out of the basement.
In New England, the Patriots will be without Tom Brady through the first four games due to suspension. What appeared to be a relatively easy walk through a mediocre division, now could be that much more daunting. The Patriots will need to be no worse than 2-2 when Brady returns to overcome a tough end of season schedule against the Ravens, Broncos and Jets. Still expect them to take the division with 10 wins, but it won’t be easy. The Bills should be in the mix, but a lot will depend on how good Rex Ryan’s defense holds up. The Dolphins and the Jets can both cause trouble for opponents, but an unsettled quarterback situation in Miami and a tough schedule for the Jets appears to put them out of serious contention.
The AFC North will be a three-way battle between the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. All three teams are capable of 10 or 11 wins, with the winner likely the one with the best head-to-head matchups. The Browns are the also ran in the division and likely the entire NFL. With very little to work with. They could very easily lose all six games in the division and a 2 or 3-win season is not out of the question.
The Colts and the Texans should duke it out in the AFC South. With Brock Osweiler now at the helm in Houston and a tough defense lead by JJ Watt, the Texans could win the division for the second straight season. Don’t count out the Colts, though, as long as Andrew Luck is the quarterback. It’s still hard to envision a divisional championship for the Colts, who have areas of weakness in the offensive line and pass rush. The Jaguars are probably better on paper than the Titans, although the Titans have an easy schedule. Having said that, both teams will be fortunate to reach 6 or 7 wins.
In the AFC West, the Broncos are coming off their Super Bowl win and will have a new leader at quarterback. It’s hard to envision Mark Sanchez or rookie Paxton Lynch to provide another Super Bowl appearance, but there are enough tools in place to make the Broncos the favorite in the division. The Chiefs and Raiders will be in the mix, as the Chiefs have a relatively week schedule, putting them in prime position for a playoff run. The Raiders season could hinge on their season finale against the Broncos. Although the Chargers have the best quarterback in the division, a thin offensive line won’t give Philip Rivers enough chances to win many games.