10 Thoughts: 2018 NFL Season Preview
Football is back, and boy, do we have a lot to get to this year.
Which is ironic, because I have no idea where half the teams stand at this point, one week into preseason football.
There have been so many offseason acquisitions and trades that the entire world’s been turned upside down.
Let’s take a deep breath and try to manage these stories together.
Tom Brady and the decline of the Patriot empire
If you caught my ramblings on the Patriots’ defeat last year at the hands of the Eagles in the Super Bowl (if you didn’t, you can read that here), you may have caught my mention that we are witnessing the decline of the Patriot empire. Nearly every single prediction I made about the team immediately after the Super Bowl was wrong. The offense has a completely different shape, with receivers Brandin Cooks being traded to Los Angeles and Danny Amendola defecting to Miami. Dion Lewis joins Malcolm Butler in Tennessee, and Nate Solder moved across the aisle to join the New York Giants. Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension, Martellus Bennett’s retirement, Jordan Matthews’ release and Malcolm Mitchell’s expected movement out of the franchise have me in a tizzy; I just don’t really know what to expect from this team anymore.
And then there’s Tom Brady, who is 41 years old. He will be only the 9th quarterback ever to start a game at the position aged 41 or older. So there’s that.
Although quite honestly, I don’t have any doubts about the guy’s talent. He’s a freak (both on the field and in his off-field training regiments) and I think he’ll be fine this year. What remains to be seen is Brady’s relationship with coach Bill Belichick.
I have hope that when football season finally starts and winning games becomes first priority, any prior beef gets put on hiatus.
Also, can this team function without Malcolm Butler on a cornerback position?
This team is like a new episode of Lost. Every day I have 50 new questions and no new answers.
The Rams on the verge of a breakout?
The Rams are my dark horse to win the Super Bowl. They should be fine getting out of the NFC West now that Seattle’s defense is in shambles. But it remains to be seen how consistent they can be with the offense group they’ve assembled.
With Brandin Cooks now a part of the mix along with a newly-extended Todd Gurley, it is up to Todd McShay and this group to meet the expectations that have been placed upon them. On defense, they’ve acquired all-pro corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, as well as made a splash early on by acquiring defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.
They’ll have much higher expectations on them this year, but I predict this team will be very fun to watch. We’ll have some entertaining games between the Rams and 49ers this season to look forward to.
Shaking off the hangover
Carson Wentz is fresh off a Super Bowl win.
Except he was riding the bench and a backup who shall remain nameless actually won the game, but said backup will now go back to being a backup.
We’ll see how much that ACL injury at the end of last season has hindered Philadelphia’s Lord and Savior. Other than that, the roster remains relatively unchanged from last season. It all depends on if Wentz can return to his MVP form like last season.
Jon Gruden returns to Oakland
So, the prodigal son returns to the land that scorned him. This should be fun.
Gruden is a hard-nosed veteran who is as old-school as old-school gets. He’s also intense as hell, and I’m wondering how that’s going to affect some of the younger blossoming talent on his team, such as Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, the latter having regressed significantly in 2017. There’s also the issue of Marshawn Lynch, who, to my observations, wasn’t bossed around in Seattle like he probably will be in Oakland.
The Raiders have failed to live up to expectations in each of the last two seasons, in large part thanks to injury. But with a new head coach, will they be able to finally turn things around and make a deep playoff push, returning Gruden to his glory days of the early 2000s?
Are the Browns... good now?
Personally, I think the problem with the Browns lies not with the onfield talent (although yes, that does have a significant amount to do with their problems), but with the front office staff.
They still have the dude from the Moneyball Oakland A’s team running the show. They had a really, really good draft last year and still didn’t win a single game, as they became only the second team to finish a season at 0-16.
But there’s (new?) reason for hope this year. The key offensive pieces are as follows:
Overall, this Browns team is very interesting. They’ve got a lot of upside on the offensive side of the ball. It all depends how they use it this season and if they live up to potential.
10 Predictions for the 2018 NFL Season
Here are my ten scorching hot (or freezing cold, depending on your point of view) takes for the upcoming season:
1. The Cleveland Browns will still finish last in the AFC North.
For all the talent they’ve acquired in this past offseason, the Browns are still the Browns. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll finally break their losing streak in the first month of this season, but we shouldn’t immediately jump to the idea of the Browns being Super Bowl contenders. Even though Jarvis Landry boasted that his team can put up 40 every week, his team features a rookie quarterback and a defense that could allow 50. On top of that, Cleveland has Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati twice apiece, all of whom are still pretty good football teams. The latter two are fighting to prove that they still have what it takes to hang with the big boys. The Browns will be better than last year (much better, in fact), but they’ll still finish at the bottom of the division.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo will lose his first game as a starter in week 1.
I watched Jimmy Garoppolo play in New England. The kid is very good. He’s also never lost a game that he’s started, the second player to start his career 7-0 since Ben Roethlisberger did it in 2003. But he still hasn’t shown he can lead a team for an entire season. San Francisco opens the season in Minnesota, which is not the easiest play to play as an opposing player. They’ve also got Everson Griffen, a standout defensive end who may very well lead the NFL in sacks this year. I think Garoppolo suffers his first loss in week one, and we can pump the breaks on the unanimous praise. Jimmy G is a great quarterback, but not even the great ones can win them all.
3. For the third consecutive year, a rookie will win the rushing title.
At the time of writing, Saquon Barkley left his first preseason game with a strained hamstring, and has not practice in the immediate aftermath. But there are three more weeks of games before the regular season begins, and I think Barkley will be plenty ready for the Giants’ week one matchup against the Jaguars. That said, I think the kid is the real deal. I think he finishes the season atop the league in rushing, which would put him in company with Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt, who also led the league in rushing in their rookie seasons (2016 and 2017, respectively). We know what happened to Elliott in his sophomore season (a suspension and a regression), so we shall see what happens with Kareem Hunt and if he hits the sophomore slump. But this year, I hope the NFL is ready for the Barkley show.
4. The Cowboys will be leading the NFC East... before they collapse at the end.
The Cowboys have a relatively manageable schedule in the first half of the year. They’ll be able to eke out wins against the Panthers, Texans, and Jaguars in before their bye week, and everyone will totally forget about the losses of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant due to the great performance of Ezekiel Elliott and game managing by Dak Prescott. By the time they face the Eagles for the first time on Sunday night in week 10, I have them clocked at 7-2, alone atop the NFC East. But the Eagles dominate the Cowboys in Philly, and send Big D into a tailspin, as they lose 6 of their last 7 games to finish at 8-8. The Eagles win the division and the Cowboys miss the playoffs entirely. Jason Garrett will still not be fired.
5. Michael Thomas will lead the NFL in receiving yards.
This year is an important year for Odell Beckham, Jr. He’s coming off injury and has a lot to prove with his franchise floating in mediocrity for what has been the better half of four or five years. There’s a lot of talk of him potentially winning the NFL’s “triple crown” for receivers, which involves him leading the league in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. He may very well earn two of those titles, but I predict Saints wideout Michael Thomas will lead the league in yards. Thomas has quietly become Drew Brees’ prime target in New Orleans, and the way the Saints were playing at the end of last year (again, they very well could have won the Super Bowl had it not been for the loss to Minnesota), there is no reason to believe that Thomas won’t lead the league in receiving yards. New Orleans also only plays five teams that are ranked in the top 10 in pass defense this year. Tampa Bay, who they’ll play twice, is ranked 32nd.
6. Helmet-to-helmet contact and tackles will see a significant decline by the end of the year.
Because why not be an advocate for player safety? With the new rules added penalizing players for leading with the helmet (on both defense and offense, the latter being a very interesting choice), I think the players will need to learn how to get around the rule. I’m not big enough to play football (even though I did play for one season back in fourth grade, shut up), but in all my years of watching, the object of the tackle is to stop progress by bringing the player to the ground. There are plenty of other ways to do that aside from leading with the crown of your helmet. But since the new rule can also be called on running backs, I think we’re eventually going to see players change the way they play if the penalties keep getting called, fines getting laid down and players getting ejected. Sorry the NFL wants the game to be just a little bit safer. I still think the officials need to learn how to call things better (and I think that penalties should be reviewable, but that’s another issue altogether), but I think we’ll see things get just a little bit safer out there for the players.
7. The kneeling won't stop and nobody cares what you think.
Sorry, guys. The kneeling isn’t going to stop just because the league bent over and took it from the President. It was never about the flag. You just think it’s about the flag. It was never about the military. You just think it’s about the military. If you’ve turned off the games because of the national anthem protests, I would like to remind you again that (except for rare occasions) they don’t show the national anthems on television. I anticipate more showings of patriotism (and by that I refer to kneeling) to occur throughout the season- we’ll see a spike after week one after a few players take a knee and the President calls for their heads.
Also, nobody cares what you think of these players kneeling. At least they’re using their platform to call attention to what they believe is right.
8. Nick Foles will start for the Eagles in week 1, and a different team by week 17.
I don’t think Carson Wentz is ready yet, having torn his ACL in late December. That said, I think Nick Foles remains the starter in Philly until Wentz is ready to play. Once the team begins to get its feet back under them and finds a rhythm as a team, Foles will be traded to Denver. (Side prediction: Case Keenum shows that last year was just fool’s gold and will go back to being Case Keenum). Foles provides the answer to the Broncos’ quarterback circus and starts in week 17, but is not able to get Denver to the playoffs.
P.S., from a New England fan: We now wait to see if Wentz and the Eagles flounder after they trade Foles away.
9. Joe Flacco will lose his starting job to Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens have been floundering around in mediocrity since they won the Super Bowl. I think Lamar Jackson will provide a good spark to the offense and give it a dimension that Joe Flacco just can’t offer: the ability to use a mobile quarterback. This season won’t be easy for the Ravens, as the first half of the season features the Steelers twice along with the Saints and Panthers. I think it’ll take a loss to the Browns or something to make John Harbaugh make the switch from Flacco and give Jackson a try. It will be the end of an era in Baltimore, but I think a change brings about a lot of positive energy going forward.
10. The simplified catch rule still won't make catches any easier to define.
It straight up will not. And the referees are going to make a lot of people angry when they still can’t decide what a catch is and what isn’t. The NFL defines their new catch rule by three criteria. To qualify as a catch, the player:
I think this rule is purely subjective and is going to piss a lot of people off. Every referee will have their own interpretation of the rule, much like they did the rule prior. There are grey areas with every rule in football, and the whole sport is so bang-bang that this is no different. While the new rule does eliminate the “going to the ground” aspect, what’s the situation if it happens again? This sounds a lot to me like they’re just trying to appease the players on this one by “simplifying” the catch rule. They’re still going to reverse any made calls if the ball has a slight movement on it.
Good luck with your rule change, NFL.
And now that we’re out of the shitposting, here’s how I think the league will shape up this year.
Projected standings and playoff results
y- New England Patriots: 13-3
Tom Brady is 41. The Patriots lost Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, and Malcolm Butler in the offseason, and they won’t have Julian Edelman for the first four games either. But when you can pretty much guarantee five or six wins against your divisional opponents, you’ll more than likely win the division. The real tests will be in the first two weeks against Houston and then at Jacksonville, and then in week 15 at Pittsburgh. Still, I like them at home in weeks 9 and 13 against Green Bay and Minnesota. The Pats cruise to a first round bye. What else is new?
Miami Dolphins: 6-10
My biggest thing for the Dolphins is this: what if Tannehill sucks when he comes back off that torn ACL? The way the depth chart sits (at this moment) behind Tannehill is Brock Osweiler, Bryce Petty, and David Fales. Yeesh. Aside from that, Miami looks very different on both sides of the ball, with Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh no longer in the mix. Pair those with having to face New England twice, and getting Minnesota, Jacksonville, and at Buffalo in the last three weeks? No thanks.
New York Jets: 6-10
Let the record show that the Jets will be better than their record shows. I still don’t think Sam Darnold will be ready just yet, but he’ll bring some hope to a city yearning for its football teams to be successful again so they can show the rest of the country just how insufferable their fan base is. Did I say that out loud?
Buffalo Bills: 3-13
Last season was no fluke for the Buffalo Bills as they made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But this season of upcoming disappointment will be no fluke either: there will be some major regression this season, particularly as they try to force Josh Allen into the limelight like he’s the next Jim Kelly.
x- Pittsburgh Steelers: 11-5
For all the talent the Steelers have, it’s strange how they’ve never reached the top of the mountain with their current core of players. Maybe it’s because every time they get to the top rung they have to go through New England which never ends well. Still, locking up the division shouldn’t be a problem this year. Roethlisberger may be getting older but he’s still got talent like Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster and Le’Veon Bell (the latter for the moment) to keep the team dominating the AFC North. On paper, this is another ho-hum year for Pittsburgh. They’ll probably be out for blood with their rematches against Jacksonville and New England in weeks 11 and 15.
Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7
Let’s be real, is 9-7 really a winning record in the NFL? Cincinnati is the epitome of the 9-7 record: on paper, yes, a very solid roster with a recent history of beating teams they should and usually losing to teams they shouldn’t. This Bengals team has a minefield of a schedule (bookended with three out of their first AND last four games on the road) to get through, along with Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis needing to show they can still hang with their divisional opponents. It is uncertain how rookie Joe Mixon will fare, even though the offensive line has gotten slightly better.
Baltimore Ravens: 7-9
I nearly got ahead of myself by saying I actually liked this Ravens team. I don’t. I like Lamar Jackson, even though he probably won’t start over their “elite” quarterback. The Ravens have to get through some tough opponents in the NFC South and AFC West. They also have the Steelers twice. This team is average and will stay average until Jackson becomes their quarterback.
Cleveland Browns: 4-12
The Browns will (should) win their first game in nearly two years in the first month of the season. After another good draft year and an even better offseason, the Browns actually look poised to improve upon their 0-16 record from last season. In fact, I think they’ll start the season 3-3 before dropping 9 out of their last 10 after they try using Baker Mayfield. Come on. It’s still the Browns.
z- Jacksonville Jaguars: 11-5
DT Malik Jackson predicted a 16-0 record for the Jags this year, who get a rematch with the Patriots in week 2. I can’t say I agree with the whole “16-0” thing, but I can agree with the fact that this team is very good defensively. Wrapping up the division shouldn’t be a problem, it’s just a matter of how their one-dimensional offense handles tough situations down the stretch.
w- Houston Texans: 10-6
The great Deshaun Watson returns from an ACL tear that should bring the Texans back to form. This season could be a breakout season for Will Fuller, furthering the mystique of his tandem with DeAndre Hopkins. The defense also got an upgrade in Tyrann Mathieu. Call me crazy, but I really like Houston in week 16 at home against Philadelphia, as well as a home win against Jacksonville in week 17 to lock up a Wild Card spot.
w- Tennessee Titans: 10-6
This team made the playoffs last year. Even though they have a new head coach in Mike Vrabel, I still think this team can make some noise.
Indianapolis Colts: 4-12
Even if Andrew Luck is healthy, the team (and the division, no kidding) has transformed dramatically in his absence. This is not the same squad that made significant playoff pushes earlier this decade.
x- Los Angeles Chargers: 11-5
There’s a lot to feel good about here. Even though, no, the Chargers don’t have a tight end (having lost Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry), their offense is plenty capable with Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen. On defense, the Chargers added rookie safety Derwin James; keep in mind they’ll also have pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the former last year’s defensive rookie of the year. The Chargers have the easier schedule and the better team in the AFC West. They were also the hottest team at the end of last season, winning 9 of 12 after an 0-4 start, and quietly boasted the NFL’s best passing offense.
Denver Broncos: 8-8
Case Keenum should provide stability to a quarterback situation that has been stagnant ever since Peyton Manning left. They still don’t have a running game and the defense is a bit of a shell of itself, but, hey! Case Keenum should provide some stability... so that’s good, right?
Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9
The Chiefs are in a good place. I just don’t think it’s their time yet. It remains to be seen if Patrick Mahomes can keep the ship afloat as he takes over at quarterback for Alex Smith. I think there’s some growing pains to be had, but give Kansas City a year and we’ll see what happens.
Oakland Raiders: 5-11
Welcome back, Jon Gruden! Your welcome basket includes a team that stumbled to a 6-10 record last year after having Super Bowl expectations placed upon them. Enjoy not using any technology on the sidelines, and getting your team including Marshawn Lynch to adapt to your hard-nosed, no-nonsense style of play. I expect the Raiders to settle and rebound next year though.
x- Philadelphia Eagles: 11-5
Typically, a team that catches lightning in a bottle only stays at the top of the mountain for one season. Something to remember is that Carson Wentz tore his ACL in late December. Typically that’s an 8-month recovery window, which puts him right at the very end of rehab. Although the rest of the roster remains unchanged from last year’s Super Bowl victory, the champs don’t have the easiest schedule, with an October that has a Thursday night game in New York against the Giants and a game in London against Jacksonville (game of the year candidate at 9:30am?). Somehow, the target on the Eagles’ backs seems bigger than champions before it.
Dallas Cowboys: 8-8
The Cowboys will get a full season from Zeke Elliott this year. Unfortunately, they don’t have much of a receiving corps, having lost Jason Witten to ESPN and Dez Bryant to who knows where. Pair that with Dak Prescott wrestling with the ever-mounting pressure to become the next Troy Aikman, and Big D won’t fare very well with its seven games against 2017 playoff teams this season.
New York Giants: 7-9
To be fair, the Giants have huge upside. They could very well win 10 games this season, solely by the virtue of having one Saquon Barkley. But they desperately need some pass rushing help, not to mention they’re transitioning into a new defensive scheme that might not bode well for its current unit. Oh, and they open with four of seven on the road. The home games? They’re against the Jaguars, Saints, and Eagles. Woof.
Washington Redskins: 7-9
Alex Smith found a rebirth in Kansas City, and I don’t think it was just Andy Reid who was the keeper of the keys. Kirk Cousins is great, but Smith is a major upgrade. The only reason the Redskins finish with a losing record is by virtue of the schedule makers, who put them through the gauntlet with four of their last six on the road, including Dallas on Thanksgiving, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Tennessee.
z- Minnesota Vikings: 12-4
If the defense plays like it did last year, the Vikings will have no problem winning the division. If I’m them, I wouldn’t be scared of the Packers anymore. My only concern, ironically, is at quarterback. Kirk Cousins is an upgrade over Case Keenum, but new quarterbacks do tend to lead to growing pains. Still, I see a respectable 12-4 campaign for the Vikings. No problem.
w- Green Bay Packers: 12-4
If Aaron Rodgers plays, the Packers will make the playoffs. They may not have Jordy Nelson, but Davonte Adams has made a name for himself as one of the better receivers in football. Oh, and they added Jimmy Graham, so that’s fun. Late October and November could be interesting though, as the Pack play four of five on the road against the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings.
Detroit Lions: 7-9
Matt Patricia will make a good head coach. Detroit just isn’t a good enough football team to win more than 8 games. One home game in its last four weeks? Nope.
Chicago Bears: 4-12
Mitchell Trubisky is still the future of this franchise. Be he has no supporting cast and I’m still afraid the front office will run his career potential into the ground if they don’t get him some real help, and quickly. A receiver? A good offensive line? Anything. Please.
y- New Orleans Saints: 13-3
The time is now for the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is 39 years old. The offense can still fire on all cylinders, as evidence by the breakout party of Alvin Kamara. Were it not for the last-second defeat at the hands of the Vikings last postseason, I would say the Saints probably would have been Super Bowl bound. I think this team could have what it takes before Brees finally hangs it up.
w- Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
Much like last year, we may get a team that is good enough to host the Super Bowl on its own turf. And since the NFC is the home team for Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta would actually be the host. I’m mostly interested to see how well Calvin Ridley fits it at wide receiver along with Julio Jones. By now the Falcons have had time to settle into Steve Sarkisian’s offense. They’ll get the Saints twice as well as the Eagles, Steelers and Packers. I think they should be fine dealing with those big-name teams.
Carolina Panthers: 10-6
Despite the new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, I think Cam Newton and the Panthers will be just fine adjusting to transition. Still, I don’t know if 10 wins is enough to get you a playoff spot in this year’s NFC.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-11
A promising offseason was dashed when Jameis Winston was suspended. The Bucs fall back to mediocrity this season.
x- Los Angeles Rams: 12-4
Los Angeles. City of dreams and sexy Super Bowl picks. The Rams have about as much upside as they do downside. For one, they’ve acquired some great talent in Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh. They also play in a division where every other team is undergoing a major transition. On the flip side, there are massive expectations and major adjustments that need to happen. Are the Rams ready to win now with all these new pieces?
San Francisco 49ers: 9-7
This is probably the team to watch this year. A 9-7 record might be even a bit of a stretch for these Niners, though. We know, Jimmy G is the second coming of Christ and he hasn’t lost a game as a starter. I think that goes away in week one against the Vikings. It is not far fetched to think of this team as a contender, but I don’t think they’re quite there yet.
Seattle Seahawks: 7-9
The Legion of Boom is gone. The front office has done nothing to fix a ravaged offensive line. Even if Russell Wilson does 100% of the work, the team is still crumbling to pieces around him. Seattle has its first losing season since 2011.
Arizona Cardinals: 4-12
The Arizona Cardinals are in rebuild mode. They’ve got to choose between two quarterbacks in Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen, as well as figure out their new head coach, Steve Wilks. That could take some time. Give the Cardinals a few years to redevelop. They’ll be better in no time.
AFC East: Patriots (1)
AFC North: Steelers (4)
AFC South: Jaguars (2)
AFC West: Chargers (3)
Wild Cards: Texans and Titans
NFC East: Eagles (3)
NFC North: Vikings (2)
NFC South: Saints (1)
NFC West: Rams (4)
Wild Cards: Packers and Falcons
AFC Wild Card:
(3) Los Angeles Chargers vs. (6) Tennessee Titans
LAC 31, TEN 16
(4) Pittsburgh Steelers vs. (5) Houston Texans
PIT 37, HOU 21
NFC Wild Card:
(3) Philadelphia Eagles vs. (6) Atlanta Falcons
PHI 36, ATL 20
(4) Los Angeles Rams vs. (5) Green Bay Packers
LAR 30, GB 28
AFC Divisional Round:
(1) New England Patriots vs. (4) Pittsburgh Steelers
NE 38, PIT 23
(2) Jacksonville Jaguars vs. (3) Los Angeles Chargers
LAC 32, JAX 17
NFC Divisional Round:
(1) New Orleans Saints vs. (4) Los Angeles Rams
NO 34, LAR 28 (OT)
(2) Minnesota Vikings vs. (3) Philadelphia Eagles
PHI 24, MIN 10
(1) New England Patriots vs. (3) Los Angeles Chargers
NE 34, LAC 18
(1) New Orleans Saints vs. (3) Philadelphia Eagles
NO 45, PHI 28
Super Bowl LIII
New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints
NO 24, NE 19
Come at me.
The 2018 NFL season begins Thursday, September 6th as the Atlanta Falcons take on the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles at 8:20pm on NBC.