Predictions for the NFL’s 100th season: Getting our Bearings

by Eric Vaughn | 8/16/19 2:00am

The National Football League Preseason began two weeks ago at the start of August, and in under a month from now, the Chicago Bears will kick off the regular season against the Green Bay Packers to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the NFL. Looking ahead, here are my predictions for each Conference’s Playoff Standings as well as picks for the Super Bowl.

AFC

1. New England Patriots

2. Kansas City Chiefs

3. Cleveland Browns

4. Houston Texans

5. Los Angeles Chargers

6. Indianapolis Colts

The Patriots have arguably the greatest player of all time at quarterback, the ageless wonder Tom Brady, and despite losing Rob Gronkowski to retirement, Bill Belichick always seems to adapt the passing game, no matter who his targets are. I expect Sony Michel to have a breakout second season, and the Patriots’ defense, led by Dont’a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore, should once again be tough to break. The Patriots are the best overall team in the American Football Conference and can beat opponents with both their offense and their defense. 

Knocking on the door are the Kansas City Chiefs, who have third-year phenom Patrick Mahomes. The offense should be even better in Mahomes’ second full season as a starter given the pairing of speedster rookie receiver Mecole Hardman with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The predicament with the Chiefs, as it was last year, is the defense, and despite adding safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark in the offseason, they will likely suffer from the losses of safety Eric Berry and defensive ends Dee Ford and Justin Houston. The Chiefs were second to last in terms of yards allowed per game last year, and I don’t expect to see enough of an improvement for the unit above the disaster that it was last year.

While it may seem odd to see the Browns in playoff contention — much less as the No. 3 seed in the AFC — buy in to the hype. Led by second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns have a plethora of weapons on offense in David Njoku, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb and Odell Beckham Jr. Their offense pairs with a defense that vastly improved over the offseason with the addition of Olivier Vernon to a unit that already had 2019 Pro Bowl players Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett, and the Browns are deep and poised to make a run. 

While I don’t buy the Texans as a Super Bowl contender, I see them winning the division with the help of a big third year from Deshuan Watson, throwing to superstar DeAndre Hopkins. The Watson-Hopkins combo pairs with a sturdy defense — led by J.J. Watt — which tied for the fourth fewest points allowed per game last year.

The last AFC team who could realistically make a run to the Super Bowl is the Los Angeles Chargers, who, in my opinion, have the deepest roster in football. While the team will likely ride or die based on Philip Rivers’ arm, the Chargers boast a multitude of offensive options led by vastly underrated receiver Keenan Allen, and the team returns the eighth-best defensive team in terms of points allowed per game. The Chargers have struggled to stay healthy, but if Joey Bosa can play 16 games this season, they could be dangerous. 

While many pundits have picked the Colts as a Super Bowl contender, I see them finishing second in their division to the Texans and just barely sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Andrew Luck is a solid quarterback, but he throws too many interceptions, and besides T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron, the Colts lack additional talent in the passing game. While the Colts have a solid young core on defense, they are low on experience in the playoffs. I worry about their secondary behind Malik Hooker and their pass rush despite adding Justin Houston. 

NFC

1. Chicago Bears

2. Los Angeles Rams

3. Philadelphia Eagles

4. Atlanta Falcons

5. New Orleans Saints

6. Minnesota Vikings

While it may shock some people to see the Bears as the No. 1 overall seed in the National Football Conference, I believe that they are the best team in the NFL. The Bears had the best defense in the NFL last year in terms of points per game, rushing yards per game, interceptions and total takeaways. The defense had three first-team All-Pros last year in Eddie Jackson, Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see perennially underrated lineman Akiem Hicks and second-year linebacker Roquan Smith earn selections as well. I expect Mitchell Trubisky to take a leap forward under the guidance of Matt Nagy, similar to Jared Goff’s progression into an MVP candidate last year in his third year. Trubisky has a veteran offensive line and an embarrassment of elite players at his disposal, including a healthy Allen Robinson, second-year player Anthony Miller, rookie David Montgomery, speedster Tarik Cohen and tight end Trey Burton. 

The Rams are going to have another great season, and even if Todd Gurley isn’t completely healthy, I expect rookie running back Darrell Henderson to perform well. The Rams were still tied with the Patriots at the end of the third quarter of last year’s Super Bowl, and much of the same squad is back for another shot at the championship. Star quarterback Goff is aided by a trio of stud receivers in Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Goff’s favorite safety valve, Cooper Kupp, who is poised for a huge season. They also have reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, but I do worry about their back seven, as they have a hole at linebacker with the departure of Mark Barron, and they lost star safety Lamarcus Joyner to the Raiders in free agency.

With the return of Carson Wentz, the Eagles are going to be tough to beat, and I expect the quarterback to seriously contend for MVP. The Eagles are solid in every area and have a creative play caller in Doug Pederson. Fletcher Cox anchors a seemingly impenetrable defensive line, and after barely making the playoffs last year under Nick Foles, I expect the Eagles to handily win a weak NFC East over a Cowboys team that isn’t as talented as many people think: The Cowboys still have Dak Prescott at quarterback, and outside of Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, they lack playmakers in the passing game. 

While the Bears, Rams and Eagles are the three NFC teams I expect to compete for the title, there is a separation between them and the remaining three teams. In what may be surprising, I expect the Falcons to beat out the Saints. After the Saints’ devastating loss because of a blown pass interference no-call in the NFC Championship Game last year, I believe they are poised for a down year. Drew Brees had a dip in production late in the season last year and is now 40 years old. The team also lost Mark Ingram in the offseason and has holes at linebacker as well as cornerback opposite Marshon Lattimore, where maligned Eli Apple is poised to start. 

The Falcons, on the other hand, have one of the most stacked offenses in the league, led by Calvin Ridley, Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons have been scarred by injuries the last few seasons, and their defense will improve with the return of Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. 

The choice for the No. 6 seed came down to the Packers and the Vikings. While Aaron Rodgers is arguably still the most talented quarterback in the league, the Vikings have more talent, and I expect a bounceback season from Kirk Cousins with promoted offensive coordinator in Kevin Stefanski and a healthy Dalvin Cook. The No. 4 defense in terms of yards allowed last season should continue stopping opposing offenses.

Super Bowl Prediction: Chicago Bears 27, New England Patriots 24

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