It's the time of year when anyone with an iota of interest in the NFL is trying to figure the 2019 season out. Which teams will rise and fall? Who is being slept on? Where will the smart money be?
I'm no different. Most meaningful transactions are complete, everyone is entering training camp and hope springs eternal in the league of parity. I still feel pretty strongly about the teams I have tabbed to win each of the eight divisions, and haven't changed my opinion since the spring, when I last sized each of them up.
But I have wavered just a bit in a few instances and there are certainly some divisions that I feel much more strongly about than others. So, on the eve of my trips around NFL training camps, I figured I would rate my level of confidence in each of the eight division winners from most to least. Honestly, the top three could be put in one tier, and the other five in another. Here's why:
You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit in the wind. You don't mess around with the Hoodie's team or bet against the Pats in the AFC East. Some things just have to be seen to be believed; the Patriots not winning a division title, for instance. Still have Tom Brady. Still have Josh McDaniels and still have the greatest mind in all of football in Bill Belichick. Basically never lose at home. Reinvent themselves from drive to drive. Maximize their talent. Exploit every inefficiency. Sure, the other teams in this division should all be better than a year ago … but not good enough to dethrone these guys, yet.
Maybe, perhaps, the Cowboys push them a little bit (should they avoid the wrath of off-field issues, suspensions, potential suspensions and self-created crisis that have been constants), but that's it when it comes to the division. They will pummel the Skins and Giants and may be the best team in the NFC. Carson Wentz has MVP potential and the security of a new deal, the roster is overflowing with depth to the point they may be able to make multiple trades before final cuts to accrue more draft capital to keep the thing going there. The front office is adroit at making constant tweaks and utilizing the trade market unlike most others. Best team on paper, with the highest upside, within the division.
Quite possibly the only truly ascending team in the AFC South, with ample potential to bully around the rest of the division. The defense has changed its culture and talent and speed seemingly overnight and Andrew Luck looks primed for the best season of his career. Smart, forward-thinking coaching staff that knows how to poke holes in the failings of the rest of the division. The Colts could be atop this heap for a while to come given all of the improvements made at the line of scrimmage from the inside out.
This might be it for Drew Brees, and everyone knows it. If ever a team was all-in on a season, this is it. And they have the talent – and specifically young talent bolstered by several recent draft classes – to back him up and get the job done. And there's no shortage of motivation after getting jobbed by the officials in the NFC title game. They've got a head coach who is as savvy as they come and a master motivator, as well, and little restraints from ownership should they ability to add more veteran talent come up ahead of the trade deadline. This may be the best division in football, which makes it difficult to predict, but still I feel more strongly about this group coming out on top than in most of the other divisions. The Saints restored their home-field dominance, and could end up the most balanced team in football.
The more I study this division the more I like the Vikings' chances. The offense has to be more proactive and pass-balanced than a year ago, right? And Kirk Cousins should be more comfortable there. The defense has no excuse not to get back to more elite levels of the past. The Bears will regress, the Packers already seem to have some internal issues and the Lions are the Lions. I have a feeling the Vikings find a way to win a few more close games and get back closer to their 2017 version. My gut instinct is they win this division by two games or more.
The team America seems to love to sleep on. All they do is get to the playoffs pretty much every year since Russell Wilson arrived. And with his future secured and more toys for him to play with on offense and Brian Schottenheimer surely learning from the play-calling debacle in the postseason (right?) and that defense another year removed from the exodus of veteran talent on that side of the ball, I believe this unit picks up where it left off in 2018. Much more speed on offense than in the past and with the ability to road-grade on offense if need be, they will be in pretty much every game and have one of the greatest clutch QBs of his generation who excels in close-and-late situations. The Rams will be tough and the 49ers may be playoff-bound, too, but I give the nod to the Seahawks.
I love what the Browns have built on paper. It's hard not to. And I believe that they are equipped to handle the hype and higher expectations and the fact that no one takes them for granted anymore. But they still have two teams in the division with playoff-proven coaches and teams will be gunning for them in prime time. This is definitely a playoff team in a watered-down AFC, to me, and I like them to win the division. I'm just not quite as absolutely sold on that prospect as I am for a few other clubs in the NFL. If they have fixed the run defense issues – and they very well may have – then I lean harder in their direction. But the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals will test them there, no doubt about it.
I believe the Chargers are the best team in football. Perhaps by some distance. But it has to manifest itself from week to week and the presence of arguably the greatest player in the game right now, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, gives me pause. The Chargers don't really have a home crowd, not that it held them back much in 2018, and you would think their terrible injury luck would revert more to the norm. They may even have their kicking game figured out for the first time in a while. Regardless, Chiefs or no Chiefs – and the AFC West will be much improved – this may be the best defense in football and a top-five offense and a smart staff and excellent GM at the helm. But if Mahomes throws 50 touchdowns again …