Football is back!
And it isn’t going anywhere for quite some time. Now that training camps are halfway over and the preseason is underway, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty of what the 2016 NFL season is going to look like. How does each division stack up? Which teams are playoff favorites or dark horses? Who is going to win the MVP award? Rookie of the Year? All of that and more will be looked at from here on out. But where to start?
How about the end?
The Super Bowl favorites this year are, of course, the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks and then a handful of other good teams that some people say have a great shot. Sure, the Pats will probably be fine without Tom Brady for the first four games, and, yes, the Seahawks and Panthers sure are going to be forces in 2016. But which teams elevated themselves this offseason? After all, isn’t that what the offseason and start of a new year are for?
It may be cliché, but everyone does start 0-0. Every single season, there are a few teams that surprise and play better than expected, and a few who falter. Whether to injuries or rookie sensations, what was true one season doesn’t necessarily make it true the next.
To take a closer look at that phenomena, let’s take a look at divisional breakdowns:
The North is going to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL this year – no question. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals are two double-digit-win shoo-ins, but don’t sleep on the Baltimore Ravens and, shockingly, Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens have solidified the roster on both sides of the ball, boasting a solid offensive line and some balance in the passing game with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta returning from injuries and Mike Wallace and Benjamin Watson signing in free agency. They have a real shot at jumping back into the playoff picture, potentially hurting the Bengals and Steelers’ chances.
The Browns, on the other hand, while not quite being playoff contenders yet, have put together an interesting look on offense that should be taken seriously. Robert Griffin III has to be itching to get back on the football field and has a coach who adores his talent. Couple that with Josh Gordon being reinstated for this season, the drafting of Corey Coleman (and four other rookies) and presence of Gary Barnidge at tight end, and this receiving corps is suddenly looking absolutely dangerous. While I don’t think they’re going to win the division or anything crazy like that, the Browns will ruin a few Sundays for their rivals.
This division is a tough one to gauge. Some people have the Indianapolis Colts running away with it so long as Andrew Luck is healthy, but I don’t think so. The best team overall seems to be the Houston Texans, now that they (potentially) have a reliable quarterback, great receivers, a solid O-line and talented defense to boot. The Jacksonville Jaguars are actually a team on the rise with promising young players all over the place and on both sides of the ball. I will say, though, that the Tennessee Titans are still a ways away from being anywhere near the division-crown discussion.
Indy has a big problem on defense. Their best player is 35 years old, the linebacking corps got weaker in the offseason and the secondary – other than Vontae Davis depending upon the day – isn’t anything to write home about. Offensively, the receiving corps isn’t as good as some people think, and the running game hasn’t been a commitment in the past, so how can we think it will be now?
Houston and Jacksonville, though, are both young teams with some dynamic players. The Texans have the best shot overall, as where the Jags will be depending mightily upon young defensive players stepping up in their first or second years to improve that unit.
Will the Patriots hold their title as division winners once again in 2016? In all likelihood, yes. But – the New York Jets are a force to be reckoned with. After splitting the division series with the Pats last year and winning 10 games, you can’t deny how good they are, especially in the trenches. And the added versatility of Matt Forte out of the backfield will be huge. The main question with these four teams is, how will the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins build off of last year?
Both teams have continually played below their expectations, especially the Dolphins last year, where Ndamukong Suh didn’t help their defense very much at all. The Bills are really depending upon Tyrod Taylor developing from Year 1 to Year 2, otherwise the offense will be rather nondescript once more. What may be most interesting to watch from this division in 2016 is Adam Gase’s role in taking Ryan Tannehill to the next level; if anyone can do it, he can.
Of all the AFC divisions, the West may be the most interesting overall. The Denver Broncos – Super Bowl 50 champions – are not the favorites to win the division again, and it all boils down to one position: quarterback. As everyone knows, Peyton Manning road off into the sunset holding hands with Papa John, but also Brock Osweiler left too. It was a shocking development this offseason as Osweiler felt disrespected losing his job to a First-Ballot Hall of Famer (how dare he?) at the end of the season after playing some average ball. All in all, though, the Broncos are in for a difficult season in which much of their identity will have to change – at least offensively.
So who may take their place, assuming the defense doesn’t play at quite as high a level as it did last year?
The ever-consistent Kansas City Chiefs are probably favored by most, but watch out for the Oakland Raiders. This is another team on the rise with a ton of young stars on both sides of the ball; Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack and all the new pickups this offseason are ready for the challenge. Consider that halfway through the season last year before depth caught up with them, the Raiders looked like a Wild-Card team. Give them a few more pieces like they acquired this offseason, and this team is dangerous.
Now on to the NFC. In the North lies the perennial playoff machine that is the Green Bay Packers, as well as another playoff favorite in the Minnesota Vikings. Down below, at least from a national audience, are the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, who many analysts and fans believe will fight for the third spot in the division. But, just a few days ago, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network had the Bears as the NFL’s most underrated team.
That praise was warranted for a few reasons. First off, head coach John Fox has a fantastic track record of vast improvement with his teams from Year 1 to Year 2. Secondly, though, the Bears weren’t as bad as everyone thought a year ago. Though faltering down the line due to injury woes, the Bears were Wild-Card favorites – much like the Raiders – halfway through the season. They ended up losing five total games by four or less points each. This offseason, they took their weaknesses and turned them into strengths solidifying the linebacking corps, getting healthy at receiver and adding some pieces on the offensive and defensive line. They could play a factor in the NFC playoff race.
Herein lies 2015’s best regular-season team, the Carolina Panthers. The big question surrounding them – and really this division’s winner – is how they cope with the loss of Josh Norman on defense. Honestly, I don’t see that being a problem. Yes, Norman was the best corner in the league last year, but also consider that he had one of the NFL’s top front sevens in front of him creating pressure and shutting down the run game. That much won’t change for Carolina this season, and they even bolstered that area, as well as drafting several corners.
Ultimately, it’ll be a battle for second place in the division and potentially a Wild-Card spot (probably not, though) between the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. All three of these teams could have pretty decent seasons or relatively disappointing ones.
Once again, the East is a crapshoot among the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and 2015 division-winning Washington Redskins. Just take your pick, because any of these four teams could end up winning the crown; while none of them are really horrible (at least on paper), none of them really stand out all that much either.
Let’s just put it this way, the Eagles have the most question marks surrounding their team. They’re the most likely to disappoint and end up with a top-10 draft pick. The Redskins and Giants appear to have improved this offseason, but one or two key injuries could thwart any postseason plans. I suppose the same could be said about the Cowboys, and Tony Romo’s health basically determines their success every single season.
Finally, we have the division that will without question come down to two teams with Super Bowl aspirations and talent: the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals (sorry, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams fans). The Seahawks and Cardinals are just at another level, much like the Panthers, in the NFC. Those three teams are going to be vying for that No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the NFC Playoffs.
There’s no doubt that the Rams and Niners will be interesting teams to pay attention to this year with Jared Goff in L.A. and Chip Kelly in San Fran, but current NFL odds are, they’ll be fighting for the No. 1 pick again in 2016.
Super Bowl Prediction:
Panthers 27, Patriots 24