I was at an outdoor concert a couple of weeks ago, and as darkness fell around 9pm I felt a slight chill in the air. Autumn was in the breeze. That’s a feeling I usually don’t experience until Labor Day Weekend while attending our local Italian Heritage Festival. In the moment I was not pleased because I tend to prefer the warmth & sunshine of summer. I have nothing particular against fall except for the fact that it ushers in winter, which I despise. At any rate, in an effort to find a silver lining and think positive I must say that there are a few good things about autumn…my birthday, Halloween, & football. Glorious football is back!! It’s time once again to look into the pigskin crystal ball and make some predictions about how this season might play out. I don’t put a whole lot of stock in pre-season, but there are injuries, holdouts, & emergent rookies we can’t ignore. As always the team’s record from the previous year is in parentheses, with the predicted record for this season following it. And remember…no wagering. I am not a professional and most of the time I’m not very good at this. Let’s just relax & have some fun.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1) 10-6
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) 9-7
Cleveland Browns (7-8-1) 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals (6-10) 3-13
Despite an eventful off-season that saw talented but troubled WR Antonio Brown shipped to The Left Coast I don’t think my Steelers will implode. However, I do expect divisional games to be even more competitive than usual. Don’t sleep on the Ravens…they’ll battle for every yard on both sides of the ball, and new QB Lamar Jackson is feast or famine: he’ll have moments of pure brilliance, but he needs to become a better passer and has to stay healthy. Everyone needs to slow their roll on the “new & improved” Browns. Going back to his college days I’ve always opined that QB Baker Mayfield gave me a Bret Favre-ish vibe, and I see it now more than ever. Adding receivers Odell Beckham Jr. & Jarvis Landry into the mix along with a backfield of Nick Chubb & Kareem Hunt bodes well for the offense. I like their defense too…DEs Myles Garrett & Olivier Vernon and tackle Sheldon Richardson should be stout against the run as well as put some pressure on opposing QBs, and the secondary might be sneaky good. Having said that, I’m not buying Cleveland as a playoff team just yet. The Bengals finally pushed longtime head coach Marvin Lewis out the door, but I’m not sure 35 year old Zac Taylor is the answer. He’s never been a head coach at any level and the learning curve will be quite foreboding. Regardless of whether or not Taylor lasts more than a season or two Cincy probably needs to blow things up and construct a whole new roster from the ground up.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6) 10-6
Houston Texans (11-5) 9-7
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) 9-7
Tennessee Titans (9-7) 5-11
There are just so many questions…this might be the most difficult division in the league to calculate. Can Colts’ QB Andrew Luck stay healthy?? Will QB Nick Foles be the answer Jacksonville has been seeking?? Marlon Mack, Derrick Henry, Lamar Miller, or Leonard Fournette…which running back will lead the pack?? Will any of these four defenses emerge as elite (the Jags were #5 a year ago, the Titans #8, Indy & Houston were #11 & #12)?? I’m downgrading Indianapolis a bit due to concerns about Luck’s ankle, but still think they will win the division if he doesn’t miss more than a couple of games. I like Foles and the Jags’ defense is stout, but have serious doubts about the durability of Fournette and the rest of their skill players inspire little confidence. I love Texans’ QB Deshaun Watson, but somebody other than WR DeAndre Hopkins has to step up and be reliably productive. Houston has the same issue on the defense…JJ Watt is fantastic, but others have to contribute. My vibe is that they take a step back this season, make some adjustments, and become serious contenders in 2020. This feels like a make or break year for Titans’ QB Marcus Mariota. When he came out of Oregon in 2015 the big debate about who would go #1 overall in the draft was between him and Florida St.’s Jameis Winston. Winston went to Tampa while Mariota was chosen next, but neither quarterback has set the world on fire. There just seems to be something amiss in Tennessee. I think they decline slightly and head coach Mike Vrabel finds himself on the hot seat.
New England Patriots (11-5) 10-6
New York Jets (4-12) 8-8
Miami Dolphins (7-9) 8-8
Buffalo Bills (6-10) 3-13
Here we go again. Tom Brady appears to be ageless and Bill Belichick’s stature as a head coach grows with each passing year, despite his shady tactics. The Patriots have become Tiger Woods from two decades ago when he was winning a lot but we all knew he really only cared about the majors. In much the same way it seems like everyone understands that New England will win a rather weak division, and their only true goal is another Super Bowl. With that in mind I think they’ll win the division but not run away with it. Jets’ QB Sam Darnold continues his maturation process, and now he has RB Le’Veon Bell as a safety net. I like what the Jets are doing and believe they’ll noticeably improve. I feel bad for Dolphins & Bills fans. They’ve known for a decade & a half that their teams aren’t winning the division, but they don’t even get to enjoy watching obvious progress. Both squads just seem to be treading water and perpetuating their mediocrity with poor coaching hires, bad free agent moves, and subpar drafts.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) 11-5
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) 10-6
Oakland Raiders (4-12) 6-10
Denver Broncos (6-10) 3-13
At the time of publication Chargers’ RB Melvin Gordon is threatening to continue his holdout into the start of the season, which could certainly have a negative impact. Even if he’s back in uniform Week 1 there have to be questions about fitness & durability after sitting out the entire pre-season. It’s a messy situation that opens the door just enough for the Chiefs to slip by & take the division. There’s a lot to like about KC, led by NFL MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Speaking of messy situations, the Antonio Brown Circus has moved from Pittsburgh to Oakland, which theoretically should make the Raiders better on the field…but I’m not convinced. I’ve lost track of whether this is the team’s final season in Oakland or if they’ll have to wait until 2021 to relocate to Las Vegas, but until that move occurs I think the Raiders are stuck in neutral. The Broncos have ostensibly improved their quarterback quandary with the addition of Joe Flacco & by drafting Drew Lock out of Missouri in the second round of the draft. They also have new head coach Vic Fangio, which should help the defense. Give this group time to gel & they have potential, but I have low expectations for the current season.
Playoff Teams: Chiefs, Steelers, Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Texans
AFC Championship: New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Chargers
Chicago Bears (12-4) 11-5
Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1) 8-8
Green Bay Packers (6-9-1) 8-8
Detroit Lions (6-10) 5-12
The more things change the more they stay the same, and I don’t expect much difference in what ESPN’s Chris Berman used to call the Norris Division. The Packers have a new head coach and QB Aaron Rodgers has become increasingly enigmatic. The Vikings have some talent but not enough to move the needle. The Lions are…well, they’re the Lions. That leaves the Bears to claim another division crown and vie for home field thru the playoffs. QB Mitch Trubisky should take another step in his development and I have high expectations. Combined with a tough defense that makes for a potentially elite team. Anything short of an appearance in the conference title game will be a disappointment for Chicago.
New Orleans Saints (13-3) 14-2
Atlanta Falcons (7-9) 9-7
Carolina Panthers (7-9) 9-7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) 2-14
My heart still hurts for the Saints and their fans. They absolutely should have been in the Super Bowl last season but got royally screwed by an inept officiating crew. My vibe is that situation will provide motivation to an already very solid team. QB Drew Brees is almost as nature-defying as Brady, but I suspect this may be his last great opportunity to get another Lombardi Trophy. The Falcons & Panthers will both be good but not great, and I have serious concerns about the health & durability of Carolina QB Cam Newton. Tampa is just a warmer version of Buffalo with a more heralded QB. They can change coaches and do all the tinkering they want, but none of their decisions seem to work out the way they hope. Jameis Winston is undeniably talented, but I just don’t think he is a top shelf NFL quarterback.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) 10-6
Dallas Cowboys (10-6) 9-7
Washington Redskins (7-9) 7-9
New York Giants (5-11) 6-10
The Eagles’ safety blanket is gone, so QB Carson Wentz better stay healthy. Not only that, but he needs to live up to the hype. The division will be a dog fight, and Wentz needs to fulfill his potential for Philly to come out on top. I’m not buying the Cowboys’ hype. I don’t think they’ll be horrible, but the holdout of RB Zeke Elliott could have a negative impact. Media types will yap endlessly about a “quarterback controversy” in New York, but does it really matter?? I’ve never thought Eli Manning was that good, and if he loses the starting gig to rookie Daniel Jones it says a lot more about Manning than it does Jones. Either way the Giants’ QB…whomever it may be…won’t have Odell Becham Jr. to throw to, and that’s a problem. RB Saquon Barkley can only do so much, right?? The Redskins will have some solid games and at times look like a potential playoff team, but at the end of the day their fans will be disappointed and be left to wonder what happened. Head coach Jay Gruden is an offensive coordinator masquerading as a head coach, successfully trading on his more famous brother’s name, and he’s not going to achieve much success with Case Keenum as his starting quarterback. Rookie signal caller Dwayne Haskins will likely snag the job by mid-season, so there is some hope for the future.
Los Angeles Rams (13-3) 10-6
San Francisco 49ers (4-12) 9-7
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) 8-8
Arizona Cardinals (3-13) 4-12
I hated what happened in the NFC Championship game last season not only because of how the Saints got shafted, but also because I knew the Rams were sitting ducks in the Super Bowl. As talented as they are I just knew that the Patriots were foaming at the mouth to take on a young & inexperienced coach/QB combo, and it turned out exactly as I knew it would. And now the Rams aren’t a secret to the rest of the league so their opponents will be more prepared than a year ago. I still think they’ll win the division, but it won’t be quite as effortless. Jimmy G. is back under center for the Niners, and that means a huge turnaround. They’ll be in a battle with several other teams for a wildcard berth, but that’s a nice change from last season. Seattle still has Russell Wilson and they made some solid draft picks, but I believe they’ll take a step back this year. The Cards are trying to copy the Rams’ formula, but I’m not convinced it’ll work. Kliff Kingsbury probably needed a few more years as a college coach before taking the helm of an NFL team, and Kyler Murray is a perfect example of a great college quarterback whose skills just don’t translate to the NFL. Kudos to the powers-that-be in Arizona for rolling the dice and trying something new, but two years from now Kingsbury will probably be coaching on Saturdays and Murray will be playing baseball…if NFL defenses don’t maim the little guy.
Playoff Teams: Saints, Bears, Rams, Eagles, Falcons, 49ers
NFC Championship: New Orleans Saints vs. Chicago Bears
Top 5 Picks in 2020 NFL Draft
1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2 Denver Broncos
3 Cincinnati Bengals
4 Buffalo Bills
5 Arizona Cardinals