The draft is now weeks behind us and the schedule has finally been released. That can only mean one thing: Prediction time!
Yup! Time to make some totally too-soon calls on each of the division races, a good four months before the season even begins. Because, well, football! And because, well, May! Consider it my attempt to get in on sweeps months and reach for ratings.
But in all honesty, as a practice matter, most of these rosters are about what they will be. A few street free agents won't drastically change the balance of power no matter where they land, the depth charts will shuffle but not change greatly. Sure, a blockbuster trade or two could greatly alter the balance of power (Aaron Rodgers, anyone?), there will be injuries that swing things one way or the other, and rookies and other players will come out of nowhere to become big-time producers, but most of these divisions I feel fairly strong about.
To that end, I've included a confidence poll along with each selection (scale of 1-10 on level of confidence in the prediction), but otherwise this is fairly typical of how I have approached this task in springs past. With win totals being posted in Vegas and all, and futures betting picking up, seemed like the right time to share what I think, FWIW (and it might not be much).
AFC East – Buffalo Bills
Confidence level: 9.0
I just can't make a cogent case against the Bills repeating. It's a factor of the smart, robust roster they have built, the emergence of Josh Allen, a draft class that sure addressed weaknesses, money well spent, consistency of message and leadership, and unique playmakers on both sides of the ball. I'm calling a monster year for Tremaine Edmunds, another All Pro year from Stefon Diggs, more sacks from this team and a more balanced running attack. The Jets are deep in a rebuild, the Patriots spent a ton of money but lack the elite talent the Bills boast and Miami is still quite middling to me. Not sure how much the coach believes in the QB, not quite buying the defense and a little taken aback by how quickly Miami keeps jettisoning pricey talent it just brought in. Something smells fishy there to me (slap me on the wrist). The Bills are the team the Chiefs would least like to face in an AFC Championship Game, I reckon, which is good enough for me.
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AFC West – Kansas City Chiefs
Confidence level: 9.5
Anything aside from a Patrick Mahomes injury and it is difficult not to fancy them the class of the NFL. They quadrupled down on their biggest need – offensive line – through the offseason via all three layers (free agency, trades and the draft), and Mahomes will be uber motivated to surpass even his own greatness coming off that Super Bowl loss. The last time he lost in January he came back and won it all the following year. If he had another 50-TD season would anyone flinch? The Chargers finally have the right people there to coach all of the defensive talent they have harnessed, and who doesn't love Justin Herbert? They will emerge as a true challenger (unlike recent years when the AFC West race was over in October), but I just don't see them getting over the hump yet, and they face some tough road games and a lot of cross-country travel (at Washington, at Baltimore, at Eagles, all within the first nine weeks, with a trip to Arrowhead tucked in there as well). Denver will challenge for the final wild-card spot with that defense, but not the division crown, with the Raiders still having a ton of work to do on that defense.
AFC South – Indianapolis Colts
Confidence level: 7.0
This has something to do with the solid roster GM Chris Ballard has assembled … but even more to do with the state of the rest of the division. If Carson Wentz can avoid being a turnover machine (a big if, for sure), they should win this comfortably. More than enough speed and athletes on defense, a strong rushing attack (if Eric Fisher gets healthy and plays well at LT), and a recent playoff pedigree all work in their favor. I don't like the Titans offseason at all and have issues with their secondary, defensive line and offensive line, and also figure that workload catches up to Derrick Henry this year. They lost a lot of talent and have had poor drafts. The Texans are a train wreck and would be my early favorites to land the first-overall pick (Bill O'Brien didn't trade that one away, too, did he?). The Jaguars will be better with Trevor Lawrence at the helm, but it is going to be a steep learning curve for that head coach and color me a skeptic about how all of this plays in the NFL. Then again, Tim Tebow has to be good for 2-3 wins alone, right?
AFC North – Cleveland Browns
Confidence level: 6.0
The Browns have the best roster in this division. They have the best OL, the best RB room, the best WR room and a very strong TE group. Kevin Stefanski was just what Baker Mayfield needed. And they spent the entire offseason throwing assets at their defense. Myles Garrett was playing like an MVP before he got COVID-19. The secondary has to be better. Could they use another capable pass rusher in the front seven? Yeah, but I bet they do something by the trade deadline. The Ravens will be right there with them, and for all the talk about Baltimore having the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, it sets up quite well for them. This is basically a coin toss for me, with the Browns getting the nod because the Ravens have no proven pass rusher on the roster right now. The Steelers are headed to Mike Tomlin's first losing season and Big Ben is at the end, and the Bengals should focus on getting and keeping Joe Burrow healthy for a full season before anyone starts thinking about division titles there. I think the Cincy roster on paper was actually better a year ago (somehow).
NFC East – Washington Football Team
Confidence level: 6.5
The NFC Least is always quirky. But for me, WFT has far and away the best defense in this division (and maybe the NFL), Chase Young is going to blow stuff up every week and Fitzmagic has enough in the tank to navigate 9-10 wins. And that still is probably all it will take, even in an 18-week season. Love the additions of offensive weapons and the OL will be better. Dallas still doesn't have enough on defense and Dak Prescott may need time to get fully back into top form. The Eagles are my dark horse – they go two months without having to get on a plane, ridding themselves of the Wentz sideshow will be addition by subtraction and they will run the ball with gusto. The Giants have spent a lot of money in the past without getting all that much bang for their buck; sometimes history repeats.
NFC West – Los Angeles Rams
Confidence level: 5.0000001
This could go four different ways. But I guess I will say I lean slightly to the Rams. I believe Matthew Stafford will be special there and they have plenty of tools on offense. I worry some about the departure of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley and defections from the secondary, and the lack of draft picks to replenish, but am playing a hunch here. Russell Wilson keeps Seattle in the conversation every year, though I still wonder about the OL and parts of the defense. If the 49ers stay healthy, they are a playoff team, though I do wonder how quickly the QB carousel spins there should they get off to a slow start. The Cardinals have added talent, but haven't played consistent football under Kliff Kingsbury. I wonder about their defensive staff, and their ability to finish games.
NFC South – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Confidence level: 9.75
The only team not mired in a rebuild or retool or rethink of some sort in the NFC South will have Tom Brady willing them to the first back-to-back Lombardis since his golden days in New England. He won't let anyone let up, the band is back together and the rest of the division faces major questions. The Saints QB situation post-Drew Brees ain't great. Sam Darnold in Carolina will not be nearly enough, and that defense still needs a lot of work even after the last two drafts. The Falcons refuse to truly embrace a rebuild despite all empirical evidence, that defense remains a big problem, and while they could sniff wild-card territory there isn't a team in this division close to being as balanced and talented as the Bucs. As long as Brady avoids Father Time's reaper, bank on the Bucs.
NFC North – Green Bay Packers
Confidence level: 1.2
I'm being a little cheeky here, but it really does all come down to No. 12. Does he play there at all? How many games? How ugly does it get? Even with him, given the backdrop of this circus offseason and with Rodgers' end in Green Bay likely coming in 2022 no matter what, it all could get a little much for Matt LaFleur and Co. The Vikings would be my next best shot at a division winner, though the other three teams in the division all have major flaws. Kirk Cousins I figure responds to the challenge and they have great pieces on offense at least. Jobs on the line in Chicago and the Lions have just begun what I suspect will be a lengthy rebuild post-Stafford.