In a weird year, expect weirdness in the NFL.
The first month of the season brings a little clarity to those preseason predictions, and for some fans, it’s already a season on the edge. Lose the opener and it’s no big deal, start 0-2 and your team can still make the playoffs, but go 0-for-September and you’ve got yourself an NFL team that is either injured or maybe just painful to watch.
But this isn’t any year. Winning on the road in the loudest stadiums isn’t so daunting with no fans in the building. And with the expanded playoffs – from 12 to 14 teams – only 56 percent of the league’s 32 teams don’t make the postseason. Does that mean even the New York Jets could make the playoffs? Don’t be silly.
As a refresher here’s the format: In each conference, playoff spots go to the four division winners and also to the next three teams with the best records, regardless of division. So some divisions will send two (or possible even three) teams to the playoffs and some may only have one.
With about 1/5 of the season in the books, it’s time for a clear-eyed look at the rest of the season. Feel free to file your rebuttals in our community forum, where you can publish your likely erroneous picks just like I have here.
Let’s take a look at every division, starting with the American Football Conference, home to the three best teams in the NFL – the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. Any of the three could make it to the Super Bowl. In fact, it could be argued that the Seattle Seahawks are the only NFC team to crack the league’s overall top five. (That’s right, not yet sold on the Green Bay Packers and downright concerned about the season’s biggest flop so far, the New Orleans Saints.)
The Chiefs dominated their Monday night’s showdown against the Ravens, but we may see a rematch in the AFC title game. Sure, it’s a team game, but it’s built entirely around quarterbacks. KC’s Patrick Mahomes was league MVP in 2018 and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson won it last season. Both are electric and, yes, still improving.
Likely the toughest division in the NFL, led by Baltimore and Pittsburgh, a respectable Cleveland Browns squad and the Cincinnati Bengals, who have a bright future provided new franchise QB Joe Burrow isn’t drilled at least once every series of downs.
As hard as it may be to believe, even though Jackson is the reigning MVP, he’s underrated. He’s still got something to prove and he’s going to prove it. The Steelers will battle the Ravens for the division crown but Baltimore looks too strong on both sides of the ball — with the highest average scoring margin in the league. The Ravens are physical, talented and multi-faceted, typical of a John Harbaugh-coached team.
Pittsburgh brings plenty of pressure with a great defense and Ben Roethlisberger, healthy and off to a strong start with seven touchdown passes and only one interception in three games. It’s a team that seems to always be in the hunt and this is one of the league’s best divisions.
Cleveland is a tough one to read. QB Baker Mayfield is improved and looks more comfortable with the pro game. Myles Garrett is a menace on defense and Nick Chubb is an elite running back. Still, the Browns lack the consistency of their division rivals. Would not be surprised to see the Browns play spoiler and flirt with a wildcard berth.
The Bengals need to make it their season goal to keep Burrow upright. He’s the real deal, already throwing for more than 300 yards and playing every bit like the No. 1 draft choice that he is. He is taking a lot of shots and they’re not winning, and they definitely won’t win without him.
Tennessee got off to a fortuitous 3-0 start, but this team showed last year it has the power game to close out close games. The Titans are the class of this division, but keep an eye on the Indianapolis Colts, who look like a playoff contender with veteran Phillip Rivers running the offense. Rivers still has a strong arm and he remains hungry after years of postseason frustration in San Diego.
Typically a team that starts 0-3 is done, but the Houston Texans have the talent to climb out of the hole if they can protect start QB DeShaun Watson. In the NFC this team would easily get right back into the thick of it, but in the loaded AFC, there’s going to be a lot of decent teams that fall one win short. The Texans may be one of them, but Indy is not ultra-talented. Could see the Texans overtaking them.
Dark horse: Houston
It’s strange to predict the AFC East and not immediately hand it to the New England Patriots, who have won the division 11 straight seasons and 17 of the past 20. Remarkable. But Brady is gone and Cam Newton is the new starter. What can we expect? Quite possibly a 12th consecutive division title.
The upstart is the Buffalo Bills, who have been trending up the past few seasons and are off to a 3-0 start. Sure, they’re winning in heart-stopping fashion, with the latest – a final touchdown drive to victory over a quality Rams team. It would be easy to pick the Bills to win the division with Newton in his first year in New England, but Newton is a former league MVP. As you look at these two teams, which one is likely to get better as the season moves along?
I think it’s the Patriots.
The other team I like, believe it or not, is the Miami Dolphins. This is a competitive team and Ryan Fitzpatrick is giving them quality starts. Despite their 1-2 stumble out of the gate, Miami is capable of a wildcard berth.
Champ: New England
Also known as the Kansas City Chiefs and three other teams, the AFC West used to be must-watch TV thanks to its great balance and classic division showdowns. But the Super Bowl champs are the lone big boys now, with the Las Vegas Raiders the only division rival that can give them a fight.
Denver was already in rebuilding mode before losing quarterback Drew Lock to injury. The Los Angeles Chargers are in year one of suffering through life without Philip Rivers, evidenced by LA’s collapse in a home loss last week to the previously winless Carolina Panthers.
The Chiefs will be favored in almost all of their games this season. Will they make a run at going undefeated? That’s a huge mountain, but KC should do no worse than 14-2 or 13-3 if they avoid key injuries – mainly to the franchise QB Mahomes. If he’s healthy, given the weapons he has and the new one added in former LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, it will take quite an effort to topple the Chiefs.
On paper, the Chiefs have as good a chance at repeating as Super Bowl champs as any team. That hasn’t happened since the Patriots did it in 2003-’04, and for the Chiefs to do it they’ll have to get through the hardest part: Win the AFC.
Champ: Kansas City
Oh to be a Saints fan, which I have been through tough times and dream seasons, for almost 30 years. So many years in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, New Orleans seems to have a team that could win the Super Bowl, but something bedevils them.
This year, the nemesis could be Tom Brady, who appears to be the fitter of the two forty-something starting quarterbacks in the division.
Talk about teams trending in opposite directions.
The Saints beat Brady and the Bucs in the opener and then regressed, losing two straight and looking predictable, uninspired and penalty prone. The Saints were a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick and one month later, they’re chasing Tampa in the standings. Fans are questioning whether Brees still has the arm to throw deep and it looks like containing Alvin Kamara is the key to beating the Saints. Then there’s a New Orleans defense that was shredded by Aaron Rogers when it wasn’t committing pass interference.
Did anyone expect the Saints would head to Detroit in week 4 desperate for a victory?
Meanwhile Brady is getting more comfortable with the Bucs. He had both his starting receivers on Sunday for the first time this season and he had his best game in a Tampa uniform. The Bucs play defense, WR Mike Evans is going to have a huge year, Bruce Arians is an excellent coach and Brady is motivated. Look out.
Atlanta had high hopes — then the Falcons started 0-3 for the first time in 13 seasons. This should make Falcons coach Dan Quinn the early leader on the list of first coach to get fired, but Falcons owner Arthur Blank has yet to fire a coach during the season. As bad as it looks, the Falcons are only two games out of first place.
We learn this in September every year: There’s a long way to go. Nothing in the NFL is as good or bad as it seems. The Saints aren’t going to panic with a Hall of Famer in the huddle. New Orleans is about to get superstar receiver Michael Thomas back and this division still comes down to Brees vs. Brady. As of now, the bet here is Brees and New Orleans still holds the edge.
Champ: New Orleans
Wildcard: Tampa Bay
If more than one team makes the playoffs out of this division, every other division ought to be ashamed. There’s one pretty good team (Dallas), one being undone by its underachieving quarterback (Philadelphia), one improved but still bad (Washington) and one team that already was expected to be bad before losing its best offensive weapon (New York Giants).
Dallas should win this division because it has the best offense and the most overall talent, but the Cowboys have not moved up to elite status. We’ll need to see next-level development from Dak Prescott to include Dallas among the Super Bowl contenders.
Philadelphia did win a Super Bowl with Carson Wentz on the team, but he was injured and not active for the game. It was Nick Foles who led the Eagles past the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, but the Eagles let him go because of a massive investment in Wentz, now in his fifth year. Wentz has not played consistently well since 2017, but backing him up is rookie Jalen Hurts.
Philly will ride with Wentz just like the Washington football team will stick with Dwayne Haskins. The thing is, Haskins may have more upside.
Then there’s the proud New York Giants franchise. With the loss of star running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones learning on the job, the Giants will do well to finish 6-10.
Wildcard: Not happening
The best division in the NFC is also the one that could send three teams to the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers all could get there. Even the Arizona Cardinals aren’t bad, but they did lose at home to Detroit, which usually does mean you’re bad.
My pick is Seattle. The Seahawks are almost always solid under Pete Carroll, came within a boneheaded play call of winning back-to-back Super Bowls a few years ago, and in my view have the most complete quarterback in the NFC in Russell Wilson. He does it all and he does it every year. When he has the pieces around him, he’s a tough player to stop and this Seahawks team looks the part.
That’s not to say the Rams and Niners can’t do it. Los Angeles still has the nucleus that played in the Super Bowl two years ago and even in a road loss to Buffalo (make that, 3-0 Buffalo), the Rams played well in their second consecutive cross-country trip to play a game.
Before the season, the Niners would have been my pick, but they’ve been hit hard by injuries. Not counting them out but one challenge for all the NFC West teams is they have to play each other twice. Teams not at full strength will have a hard time hanging in.
Wildcards: Los Angeles, San Francisco
Green Bay is not going to be stopped in the NFC North, especially with the Minnesota Vikings off to an 0-3 start a year after a spirited run to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they fell to the 49ers.
That road win the Packers picked up Week 3 in New Orleans could be big when it comes to playoff seedings, as only the No. 1 seed gets a first-round bye in the new format. Rodgers is 36 years old but is still in his prime and there’s no better big-game quarterback. The question in Green Bay is whether the defense can be serviceable. It’s probably good enough to win a fairly weak NFC North, but not to get to a Super Bowl.
Minnesota is on the verge of falling apart and it’s not like Kirk Cousins is the kind of quarterback who can carry them. His ceiling is above average. The Vikings could be the league’s biggest disappointment this season.
Chicago can make the playoffs, especially if Foles shows he is the answer at quarterback. As for Detroit, well, after getting off to their traditional 0-2 start, they broke an 11-game losing streak with an upset victory in Arizona. What that tells us is that neither the Cardinals nor the Lions will be in the playoffs.
Champ: Green Bay
My conference champs:
NFC title game: Seattle Seahawks over New Orleans Saints
AFC title game: Kansas City Chiefs over Baltimore Ravens
Super Bowl LV: Chiefs defeat Seahawks, repeat as champs
Join the conversation about your NFL picks in our community forum!
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The Genius And The Dragon by Marc Serota
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