Fake football is almost over. We have, basically, survived the preseason and with new roster-cutdown regulations in place the final preseason games won't expose any starters or key backups to injury (at least, with 90 men still under contract on each team, there is no need to expose them).
Whatever there is to be gleaned from August football – and how it might correlate to actual regular season games and outcomes – we have already seen it. Which means it's time to start pontificating and predicting the 2018 season. I've seen enough practices and exhibition games and it's close enough to go time to start formulating opinions on how this season will play out.
Of course, future injuries and the very nature of this unpredictable sport will invariably intervene – rendering this an exercise in futility – but I will go ahead and sketch out how I believe this season will play out, anyway. Because, why not?
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Here's a look at each division, with teams listed in order of predicted finish and playoff teams highlighted.
Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Bills
Nothing to see here. Same as it always was. The Patriots' roster is worthy of about 4-5 wins, in my estimation, but getting to feast on these opponents and having Tom Brady cover up so many holes works just fine, thanks. Pencil them in for 10-11 wins and at least one home playoff game. I don't see much pass rush, a sketchy offensive line, and a dearth of playmakers overall, but as long as No. 12 is healthy it won't matter much. They lost a ton of talent this offseason, but Brady and Belichick are back and they kept Josh McDaniels to run the offense, and that's what matters. The Jets will be a .500 team even with a rookie QB, and will be ready to make a power move in 2019 if the Pats finally slip. The Dolphins defense scares the hell out of me, Ryan Tannehill's injury scare the hell out of me, and the Bills will be strong contenders for the first-overall pick.
Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos
If the Chargers can avoid further catastrophic injuries and if the coaching staff manages the game in an adroit manner, I think they flirt with the top seed in the conference. Oh yeah, and if their specialists don't undermine the entire season. Overall, I love the roster, though I'd love it more with Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett off IR. Every other team in the division is in major transition at the QB or coach spot. If KC had a semblance of a defense I'd buy in, but they don't and Andy Reid will trail early in a lot of games which means a pass-happy approach with a first-year starting QB. Oakland's best player is holding out, Jon Gruden is shaking off the rust and Denver's ability to pass protect and run the football remain under serious scrutiny, while the secondary ain't what it used to be.
Jaguars, Texans, Titans, Colts
This very well could be right back to being one of the worst divisions in football. Jacksonville might not be able to complete consecutive forward passes as presently constructed, but can excel at everything else. I don't buy them as a juggernaut, by any stretch, and believe they regress, but still win the division. I have reservations about J.J. Watt getting through a full season and Deshaun Watson picking up right where he left off ... but I also absolutely love the way the schedule sets up for the Texans and they may actually finish with the same record as the Jags. It'll come down to tiebreakers as to who wins the division. The Titans seem decidedly middling all around to me, and the Colts defense may give up 35 points a game. Andrew Luck will help, but they have a looong way to go.
Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns
This is where it gets interesting. Pittsburgh wins the division, despite its defensive shortcomings, because of Big Ben and Le'Veon Bell in a contract year playing for massive bucks and with this being their last chance to win it all with their triplets as presently constructed. And I have the Bengals and Ravens both at 9-7, with it coming down to a tiebreaker as to who gets through. Baltimore travels to Cincy on a Thursday in Week 2 – that could tell the tale. Whichever team stays healthiest along the offensive line will probably prevail. I'm giving the Ravens the nod because of a superior head coach. John Harbaugh is coaching for his job and Joe Flacco is playing to prove he is still a starting QB. But it's a coin flip between them and the Bengals for me. And the Browns will jump and bite a few teams and win 5-6 games.
Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Redskins
I don't believe the Eagles repeat, but they will be just fine. They have a better roster in some regards than the one that won the Super Bowl and should take off in the second half, when Carson Wentz is back in form. The Giants have their limitations on defense and I believe Eli is trending in the wrong direction, but having OBJ and Barkley there now will be huge. They are a 9-7 team. Dallas, however, is a pretender and not a contender. The offensive line – the strength of the team – is suddenly vulnerable through illness and injury and Dak isn't going to morph into a big deep-ball thrower and the pass catchers are limited. Everyone involved in the pass rush – Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving and Randy Gregory – has serious off-field concerns. Good luck. Washington's offense was crippled by the Derrius Guice injury, the defense is pedestrian and the first-half schedule is horrific, complete with the useless Week 4 bye (at Arizona, vs. Green Bay, at Saints, vs. Panthers, vs. Cowboys, at Giants, vs. Falcons).
Rams, Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals
The Rams have the best roster in the division and the best coach and they will have their best player, Aaron Donald, back very soon. I don't see them as a top seed in the conference, but they will be very formidable. Seattle is being cast aside, and the roster is a concern, but Russell Wilson is one of the five best QBs on the planet and the OL and run game have to be better. San Francisco is on the right path, for sure, and I believe in Jimmy G, but I think the defense is a year away. Arizona has a rookie head coach and a ton of roster issues still to sort out and I suspect they go through three quarterbacks – or more – this season.
Saints, Panthers, Falcons, Buccaneers
Drew Brees has another ring in him. He just might get it this year. Marcus Davenport will make an impact and the Saints' ridiculous 2017 draft class hasn't even scratched the surface yet. They have restored their home-field advantage and have a defense they can pack on the road now, too. I love the marriage of Norv Turner and Cam Newton, especially with a Christian McCaffrey as the ultimate wheel-route, check-down guy to take heat off what could be a suspect OL. I like a lot about the Falcons but can't help but wonder if they have to go through another offensive coordinator or two to get where they really want to go, and the Bucs look ready to blow up their QB, front office and head coach after the season.
Vikings, Packers, Lions, Bears
This is a two-team race. Minnesota probably has the best overall talent in the NFL and us loaded with playmakers at every critical position. Kirk Cousins will thrive in the Midwest, outside the DC bubble. Aaron Rodgers' return makes the Pack immediate title contenders and I believe they also have the best 3-4 defensive front in the NFL. They have added teeth on that side of the ball. Detroit doesn't have the horses yet on defense, I don't believe, and there will be a learning curve – possibly steep – for their rookie head coach. Same with Chicago's. Mitch Trubisky sitting out preseason games? After barely playing any college ball? Hmm. Pretty much everything GM Ryan Pace has touched to this point has imploded. We'll see if that reverses.
Give me the Steelers/Chargers and the Saints/Vikings in the championship games. And I'll go with a Pittsburgh/New Orleans Super Bowl. With the Saints to win.