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More pigskin prognostication: A 2018 NFL season preview

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New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. (AP photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The 2018 National Football League season is upon us. We’re just days away from kickoff for the first game of the season – this year’s first matchup sees the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 6.

As always, there's plenty to anticipate. Lots that we know, lots that we don't know - and a whole lot that we think we might know but don't actually really know. Anybody who has read one of these previews in the past know that I live my life in that last category.

And so once again, I will be attempting to anticipate how the season will play out. Once again, I will do my best impression of a monkey with a dartboard in an effort to make some sort of sense out of the whole mess. I’m even going to try to predict the 2018 regular season records of each team – a fool’s errand inside a fool’s errand.

(For those interested, I will also be continuing our popular “Kibbles and Picks” online-only feature, wherein I attempt to pick the winners in each week's schedule of NFL games and try to achieve a greater rate of success than that reached by my dog Stella (who has defeated me handily the last three years in a row and in four of five seasons overall, by the way). Check our website at www.themaineedge.com every Thursday or find Kibbles and Picks on Facebook to see if man can even the score against beast; it's possible, but I wouldn't count on it. She’s far better at this than I am.)

And so here it is - your almost-certain-to-be-way-off 2018 Maine Edge NFL Preview.

(y = division winner; x = wild card)

AFC

AFC East

New England Patriots – 12-4 (y)

Miami Dolphins – 8-8

New York Jets – 8-8

Buffalo Bills – 4-12

Ho-hum – another season, another New England division title. Look, we all know that the end is nigh for the Patriots dynasty, with Brady and Belichick on the verge of walking off into the sunset. Hell, Brady’s 41, and when old QBs fall off, they do it FAST. But I don’t think it’s this year – look for the Pats to lean on guys like Gronk and Chris Hogan and Running Back Du Jour and make a push to score their way to one more title. The loss of coordinator Matt Patricia might sting, but they held onto Josh McDaniels, so schematically, they’ll be fine. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the division is kind of garbage. The Dolphins have Madden Create-A-Player made flesh Ryan Tannehill returning to quarterback the team, so that’s … nice? Unfortunately, they don’t have much else going for them. Their passing game is built around solid route runners – vanilla stuff. Their running backs – led by young Kenyan Drake and the ageless Frank Gore – might be OK. Their defense almost certainly won’t be. The line play on both sides of the ball is going to be lacking a bit. Honestly, .500 might be a bit high for these guys. Ditto the Jets, who might be one of the bigger reaches in this entire preview. They’ve got a lot of holes, but they seem ready to rally behind rookie QB Sam Darnold; they just have to hope that their line can keep him upright. They’ve improved defensively – in the secondary especially – but it won’t be enough to make up for a pretty steep learning curve on offense. Still, it’s a hell of an improvement from last season. The Bills are going to be bad. In fact, they might even have a shot at being the worst team in the AFC. Maybe even the entire NFL. They’ve got a project rookie (Josh Allen) and a couple of other non-entities at QB. Their star running back very well might wind up missing multiple games due to maybe arranging for the robbery of his ex-girlfriend. Their offensive line is weak and their D-line is only marginally better. Four wins is generous.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers – 11-5 (y)

Baltimore Ravens – 6-10

Cleveland Browns – 5-11

Cincinnati Bengals – 4-12

The Steelers just keep rolling on. This team looks like it’ll easily run away with the division this season. Ben Roethlisberger is still doing his thing under center, providing excellent and consistent play on every snap. The RB/WR tandem of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown is the best skill position one-two punch in the NFL. They’ve got a top-notch offensive line, an excellent pass rush and a secondary that has a chance to be special. This looks like a team poised to make some real noise – 11 wins might be underselling it. The Ravens aren’t looking great. Sure, they’ve got a defense, even if they are a few years removed from their real heyday. But you have to score in today’s NFL, and with the unsexy Joe Flacco throwing passes to the even unsexier likes of Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. Again, the defense will keep them in most games, but there are only so many 16-10 games you’re going to get. They’ll need to keep everything close and get lucky a few times to have any shot at the postseason. On to Cleveland, where I’m picking the Browns to win some games! Five of them! They’re not even going to be last in their division. Look, contention is still out of reach, but it’s closer than it has been in years. There’s real talent there – if a couple of the youngsters (especially QB Baker Mayfield and defenders like Myles Garret, Jabril Peppers and Denzel Ward) figure it out sooner rather than later, the Browns might be no fun to play. Again, not great – but not 0-16 either. Last … and least … the Bengals, who are still out there doing their Bengal thing. Andy Dalton is still the epitome of mostly-competent mediocrity at QB. The offensive line is still terrible. So is the running game, though if Joe Mixon can continue developing, that might change. Aside from Geno Atkins, the defensive front isn’t much better. A.J. Green is still very talented and very lost in the wilderness of southern Ohio.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars – 10-6 (y)

Houston Texans – 10-6 (x)

Tennessee Titans – 8-8

Indianapolis Colts – 5-11

There’s a good chance that the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to make this pick look kind of silly when it’s all over. It’s possible that this team backslides and winds up a .500 team. It’s even MORE possible that they put it together and win a dozen. It’s all going to come down to what QB Blake Bortles is able to bring to the table. The Jags have a solid rushing attack led by Leonard Fournette and the NFL’s best defense, led by guys like Calais Campbell and Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey. They are a legitimate championship contender. The Texans have an awfully good squad as well – assuming no one gets injured. Deshaun Watson has a chance to be something special at quarterback – especially throwing to an elite receiver like DeAndre Hopkins and a burner like Will Fuller. They’ve got a great front seven, though it remains to be seen how much of the old J.J. Watt we’re going to see alongside the also-recovering Whitney Mercilus and lineman Jadeveon Clowney. The O-line isn’t great. All in all, a solid wild card contender. I like the Tennessee Titans as a potential surprise team. They’ve got a couple of spots where they’re very strong. Marcus Mariota looks like he might be ready to make a big leap forward at quarterback. The Titans might have the best cornerbacks in the league with Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson and newly-acquired Malcolm Butler. Unfortunately, their running back situation is unsettled and their line play – both offensive and defensive – is on the wrong side of average. New coach Mike Vrabel has a lot to contend with, but Tennessee could still surpass this prediction. Last, we have the luckless (and now no longer Luck-less) Indianapolis Colts. Elite QB Andrew Luck looks like he might actually return to the field after missing the entirety of the 2017 season, but who knows how he’ll hold up? And honestly, there’s not much else. T.Y. Hilton is an exceptional talent at wide receiver, but will he and Luck get on the same page quickly enough? They’ll need to, because the defense is probably the top-to-bottom worst in the NFL.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers – 10-6 (y)

Kansas City Chiefs – 8-8 (x)

Denver Broncos – 7-9

Oakland Raiders – 5-11

There’s a lot to like about this Chargers team. Not the fact that they moved to L.A. and now have no fans, of course, but they still have Philip Rivers slinging it and Keenan Allen catching it. Melvin Gordon might be looking at a big year at running back, thanks to another year of experience and some improvement on the O-line. Guys like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are absolute monsters on the pass rush. They’ve got good coaching, too. But if the Chargers win the division and there’s no one there to see it, does it make a sound? The Chiefs are another team that I feel like I might be underselling a little bit. Really, it boils down to whether coach Andy Reid can continue working his QB magic on newly-minted starter Patrick Mahomes. If he can – and if skill position guys like receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt can continue their trajectory – this offense will hum. They’re not nearly as good on defense; they’ll have to win some shootouts. Still, they look built to do just that. I’m not as high on the Broncos as a lot of folks are. They just don’t have the horses, if you’ll pardon the pun. Offensively, they have a meh QB (Case Keenum) throwing to a slightly-above-meh receiving corps (led by Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) and handing off to meh RBs (Devontae Booker, Royce Freeman). Their offensive line is terrible. They still have a good defense, led by Von Miller’s pass rushing and a solid defensive backfield. But again – you have to score. And this team will struggle to do so. The Raiders inexplicably hired Jon Gruden out of the booth to coach their team, an experiment I expect to fail miserably. There are some good players – Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper – and the line play is strong. But that just isn’t enough – there are far too many holes on this roster. And having a dude in charge who hasn’t coached in over a decade doesn’t leave much room for error. Also, they released Sebastian Janikowski, so they deserve whatever mishaps might befall them.

NFC

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles – 11-5 (x)

New York Giants – 9-7

Dallas Cowboys – 7-9

Washington Redskins – 5-11

There’s no reason to think that the reigning Super Bowl champions will have any trouble making it back to the playoffs. The only reason I’ve got them as low as 11 wins is because I think their division might be better than expected. They’ve got Carson Wentz coming back at QB, which is huge. They’re not great at the skill positions, but Wentz elevates them. The Eagles are really strong at the line as well, which makes them scary. They’ve got top-notch coaching on both sides of the ball. Assuming guys stay healthy, Philly will waltz into January. The Giants, on the other hand, are going to have to fight for every inch. But they might actually manage to do it. Basically, Eli Manning has to fend off Father Time for one more year. He’s a got a happy, newly-extended Odell Beckham Jr. and a dynamic rookie playmaker in Saquon Barkley. Tight end Evan Engram is no slouch either. If the offensive line gels and the secondary can play to its potential, this team could sneak into the playoffs. The Cowboys, on the other hand, almost certainly won’t see the postseason. I’m not sold on QB Dak Prescott, and while RB Ezekiel Elliott is an undeniable talent, Dallas might well overuse him to the point of late-season ineffectiveness. However, a lot of those issues are masked by the team’s best-in-the-NFL offensive line, which shows no signs of decline. The defense is just OK. This team looks like one that will wind up being considerably less than the sum of his parts. Washington is going to be just good enough to lose a lot of fairly close games. They’ve got legendary game manager Alex Smith at QB, fresh off what will prove to be the by-far best season of his career. He’s throwing and handing off to a bunch of guys with checkered injury histories and nothing that indicates that trend will change. He does have an excellent offensive line that will keep him upright long enough for four-yard checkdowns. The defense can’t stop anyone. A tough year all around.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings – 12-4 (y)

Green Bay Packers – 11-5 (x)

Detroit Lions – 9-7

Chicago Bears – 7-9

Either one of these two teams could wind up winning the division, but I’m rooting for Minnesota, so here we are. The Kirk Cousins signing should give them some stability at QB – something the Vikings have lacked in recent years. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are as good a pair of wideouts as anywhere in the league. RB Dalvin Cook has a shot at breaking out. And the defense is scary good, packed with talent all over the field – just SO MANY strong players. They have arguably the best overall defense in the NFC. And yet … the Packers might be just as good. Granted, a lot of their potential springs from one source – the right arm of Aaron Rodgers, who remains the best QB in the NFL. Yes, he’s got some talent around him – Davante Adams is a great talent and tight end Jimmy Graham will have a field day in this offense. The offensive line is good and the run game is iffy. Defensively, Green Bay is pushing to improve the secondary – if their young DBs work out, they’ll be tough to throw against. Vikings, Packers – they’re both playoff bound. Not so much the Lions, although Detroit will be fun to watch. Matthew Stafford will do his usual thing, throwing 40 times a game. He’s throwing to Golden Tate deep and various RBs short. Thanks to offensive coordinator Joe Bob Cooter’s scheme, they’ll score early and often. They won’t be as strong defensively, but the hope is that new head coach (and former Patriots DC) Matt Patricia can get them headed in the right direction. While 7-9 feels a little optimistic for the Bears, there are reasons to be hopeful. The running back tandem of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen is potentially one of the league’s best. Chicago has a solid secondary and has gone to great lengths to shore up its linebacking corps. The O-line is well-suited for their offensive purposes. However, all that stands in contrast to the big issue – Mitchell Trubisky. The second-year QB just doesn’t look like he’s ever going to be the top-tier passer that the Bears so badly want him to be.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints – 11-5 (y)

Atlanta Falcons – 11-5 (x)

Carolina Panthers – 8-8

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 5-11

This is another division where the top-two could be interchangeable. The Saints look like they’ll be their usual offensive powerhouse selves – Drew Brees remains as effective as ever under center, one of the most prolific passers in history. He’ll have stud receiver Michael Thomas to throw to. Alvin Kamara was phenomenal in his rookie season; when Mark Ingram returns from suspension, they’ll become a potent two-headed backfield running behind an elite O-line. The defense is average, which is FAR better than the usual New Orleans D. They’re going to be tough to beat. Speaking of two-back sets, the Atlanta tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is pretty darned good. Matt Ryan is just a year removed from an MVP season and Julio Jones remains the most fearsome pass-catching weapon in the league. Offensively, this group can move the ball. On defense, the Falcons have quietly become one of the NFC’s better units. They can rush the passer and cover receivers; they have all the pieces to dominate, though they haven’t yet all clicked at once … but they might be ready to. Poor Carolina – another year doomed to mediocrity despite having one of the most exciting players in the league on their roster. Cam Newton is as thrilling to watch as they come, but he’s once more surrounded by less-than-stellar talent. Sure, guys like Christian McCaffery help, but ultimately, it all comes down to what Cam can make happen – and the guy can’t do it all by himself. The defensive secondary is a mess, although the D-line and linebackers are a strong crew, especially if Luke Kuechly can stay on the field. The Buccaneers aren’t quite back to the bad old days of the “Yuccaneers,” but they might as well be. They’re trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with QB Jameis Winston (who is missing the first three games due to his being a repulsive human). Mike Evans is an elite receiver, but the rest of the pass catchers and all of the running backs are uninspiring, unproven or both. They’re as bad against the pass as any team in the league. Five wins is the best-case scenario.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams – 10-6 (y)

San Francisco 49ers – 9-7

Seattle Seahawks – 8-8

Arizona Cardinals – 3-13

The pieces are there for the Rams to be the most fun to watch in the entire league. Jared Goff is definitely a system quarterback, but who cares when he’s throwing to Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp? Plus, he’s handing the ball to Todd Gurley, who is arguably the most talented running back in the league and is working in a scheme tailored to his strengths. And if that weren’t enough, they’ve got talent on defense! Holdout Aaron Donald is the cream of the crop, but guys like Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib bring a lot to the table. The 49ers certainly seem to think that they’re on the verge of a renaissance courtesy of newly-extended QB Jimmy Garoppolo. And yet … ARE they good? There’s nothing really exciting about their receiving corps, while their starting RB appears to be Jerick McKinnon, who is serviceable but unspectacular. Defensively, they’re actually pretty shaky – when broken-down cornerback Richard Sherman is your key offseason acquisition, maybe things aren’t as secure as you think they are. Still, they could surprise. Meanwhile, in Seattle, we’re seeing the gradual downturn following the years of success for the Seahawks. They had a nice run, but the defense has gotten both older and more expensive – a dangerous combination. Restructuring on the fly rarely works, so expect to see things get worse before they get better. Russell Wilson is still an excellent QB (albeit one who might be an android), but there’s not a ton of quality in terms of the other skill positions. And the O-line is extremely not good – Wilson’s going to be running for his life. Arizona probably doesn’t deserve this fate, but the intradivision competition is too good – they’re going to lose a lot of games. The fragile Sam Bradford is their QB. They’ve got an elite RB in David Johnson and the somehow-still-incredible Larry Fitzgerald at receiver, but not much else. They’ve got some talented guys on defense – lineman Chandler Jones and DB Patrick Peterson spring to mind – but it’s tough to tell if they’ll cohere. They’ll need a ton of luck to even approach .500.

Last modified on Friday, 31 August 2018 09:14

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