Football fans have had seven months to come down from a wild Super Bowl LI that saw the Patriots earn their fifth championship in 16 seasons by rallying to stun the Falcons in overtime.
That’s all just history now, as the NFL returns Thursday night when New England hosts the Chiefs in an AFC Divisional Round rematch. The slate has been wiped clean. The Pats haven’t won a thing, and the Jets remain unbeaten — even if neither state will last very long.
In preparation for the fall, amNewYork has gone over all 256 regular-season games to predict how all 32 teams will fare this season all the way through to Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
New England Patriots (13-3)
All the talk of a perfect season is silly, but the defending Super Bowl champions remain the favorite to repeat for good reason. Tom Brady is still elite, but look for wily coach Bill Belichick to lighten the load on his 40-year-old quarterback until the playoffs. The Pats aren’t a lock to win the AFC, but they’re pretty close.
Miami Dolphins (8-8)
Jay Cutler is a solid substitute for injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who won’t play this season. Miami made the playoffs last year behind running back Jay Ajayi and an impressive defensive line featuring Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh. Ten wins again will be tough, but the Fins are a borderline playoff team.
Buffalo Bills (4-12)
The Bills don’t look like a team that’s putting its best foot forward this year. Although they drafted well, too many of their rookies will be counted on out of the gate for Buffalo to keep pace with the bulk of the AFC. Even with elite running back LeSean McCoy, this will be a long season for the Bills.
New York Jets (3-13)
Brace for a brutal 2017 campaign for Gang Green, which has shed talented veterans all offseason as part of a full-on rebuild. The word “tanking” has been bandied about, and while the players and coaches will give their all, the front office has set this team up to fail. Hey, only 230 days until the 2018 NFL Draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Thanks to its talent-rich offensive, the Steelers are one of the few AFC teams perceived as a legitimate threat to New England. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a likely Hall of Famer someday, returns top weapons at running back (Le’Veon Bell) and wideout (Antonio Brown). The defense looks better, too, as long as the unit remains reasonably healthy.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
This season is huge for the Bengals, who won just six games last year after four consecutive campaigns of at least 10. Was it a blip, or did Cincy’s window of contention with the current group close? It will be on quarterback Andy Dalton and longtime head coach to get them back to the playoffs — or else...
Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Quarterback Joe Flacco should reap the benefits of new running back Danny Woodhead’s receiving skills, but this attack still isn’t scaring anybody. That means the defense will, as usual, be tasked with carrying the Ravens as far as they can go. C.J. Mosely and Zachary Orr are top-shelf linebackers, but reaching postseason will come down to the wire.
Cleveland Browns (3-13)
Year 2 under coach Hue Jackson will be better, but not by much. Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer will need time to develop, and his receiver group leaves much to be desired. At least the Dawg Pound fans can take solace in watching a team trending upward for the first time in several years.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Music City was in the thick of the division race until the end of 2016, missing the postseason after losing a tiebreaker with Houston. This year, quarterback Marcus Mariota and crew won’t sneak up on anyone and have the potential to run away with the weakest division in the NFL. The Titans will need to stop the pass first, however.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
Forecasting Indy’s season is tricky without knowing when quarterback Andrew Luck will play his first game after January shoulder surgery; it won’t be Week 1. Even with a healthy Luck, the Colts are a team with issues throughout their defense. The offense could be good enough to sneak into the playoffs, but they’re no Super Bowl threat.
Houston Texans (7-9)
Quarterback issues haven’t kept Houston out of the playoffs in the recent past, but neither unproven starter Tom Savage nor rookie Deshaun Watson is likely to get this team to the postseason just yet. If they do leapfrog to the top again, it will be thanks to J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of their upper-crust defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
So much of what the Jaguars have done to improve on both sides of the ball has them looking like a playoff threat again ... except for the most important position of all: quarterback. Blake Bortles barely beat Chad Henne for the gig, and his grip on the starting job won’t last long if he continues to throw pick-sixes.
Oakland Raiders (11-5)
At last, the Raiders are relevant again. Twelve wins in 2016 saw to that. Derek Carr arrived as a star quarterback and, along with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, helps make Oakland one of the most dangerous two-way teams in football. That Carr will be handing off to Marshawn Lynch only makes this team more fun.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
As long as K.C.’s defense remains a game-changing force, they’ll be a playoff-caliber team despite what has been a vanilla offense since Alex Smith came aboard as quarterback in 2013. The continued development of receiver Tyreek Hill and rookie running back Kareem Hunt does offer upside, though. Don’t count out the Chiefs to win the West.
Denver Broncos (8-8)
Like the Chiefs, Denver possesses a terrific defense. However, quarterback Trevor Siemian was merely a passable starter a year ago. That’s not to say the Broncos can’t battle for a wild card berth — they sure can — but there’s a crowded group of teams in the AFC who can say the same.
Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
The former San Diego-based franchise is in a tough spot, playing in the same division as three other playoff-caliber clubs. The Bolts haven’t placed higher than third in the West since 2012 despite two nine-win seasons and a postseason berth. Philip Rivers will be 36 by the end of the year, so time isn’t on the quarterback’s side, either.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension is a setback for Dallas, but don’t expect it to derail their season. Even average running backs look great behind the Cowboys’ offensive line. With second-year quarterback Dak Prescott and a serviceable defense, there should be enough in place to remains a playoff team.
New York Giants (9-7)
The bar has been raised for Big Blue in coach Ben McAdoo’s second season. There’s reason to believe they can leapfrog Dallas and win the division, including a sturdy defense and improved receiver group. But concerns about the O-line that protects 36-year-old quarterback Eli Manning are warranted and could cap the Giants’ ceiling this season.
Washington Redskins (7-9)
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is the chief reason Washington has finished above .500 the past two seasons, yet he hasn’t been rewarded with a long-term deal. D.C. better hope he doesn’t bolt after the season, because all that’s left is a shutdown cornerback in Josh Norman and little else of note. Unless new playmakers rise, this team looks ordinary.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-10)
After a strong start to his rookie year, Carson Wentz looked every bit like a first-year passer as Philly flailed down the stretch. While he has a new target in receiver Alshon Jeffery, don’t expect 2017 to be the year Wentz ascends to the next level. Then again, the NFC East boasts as much parity as any division in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Aaron Rodgers is too talented a quarterback to settle for just one Super Bowl championship, and Green Bay is good enough to get back to that level. The transcendent passer has weapons aplenty, so it’s on the defense to limit the disasters is allowed in the middle of last season. Regardless, be prepared to watch the Packers well beyond December.
Detroit Lions (8-8)
These Lions appear to be the median for what an NFL team should look like. They have a good quarterback in Matthew Stafford with some solid receivers, but the defense is neither porous nor dangerous. A repeat trip to the playoffs isn’t out of the question, but other teams in the conference have done more to improve since 2016 ended.
Minnesota Vikings (6-10)
The Vikings overachieved in starting 2016 at 5-0 but crashed back to earth after their bye to finish 8-8. Their offense was unimaginative and was figured out because quarterback Sam Bradford is nothing special. The Vikes defense will keep them in games against better teams, but they’ll still lose more than they’ll win.
Chicago Bears (5-11)
Expectations couldn’t be much lower after winning just three games a year ago, but it’s hard to pinpoint an area where the Bears are markedly better right now. Offseason acquisition Mike Glennon will start the year at QB, but he might have a short leash with No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky behind him. It’s only a matter of time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
The Bucs are out of lengthy down period, and they’ll look to build on nine wins in 2016 with their first postseason berth in 10 years. Jameis Winston’s growth as a passer makes this an easier reality to swallow, but the whole team has been rebuilt deftly through the draft and shrewd signings. Tampa looks dangerous.
Carolina Panthers (10-6)
Everyone knew 2015’s 15-win campaign was an outlier, but few foresaw them crashing to 6-10 a year later. The Panthers need Cam Newton to raise his accuracy level considerably to return to the playoffs, but a sturdy defense and improved secondary will lighten the load. But in this beat-’em-up division, very little separates first place from last.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
Could the Falcons become the second consecutive NFC South champion to go from the Super Bowl to missing the playoffs? Possibly. Their offense, led by MVP Matt Ryan, played at an unsustainable level last year when they lit up scoreboards weekly. Their defense remains a work in progress, but any improvement likely keeps them among the best in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints (8-8)
Until proved otherwise, Drew Brees’ command the Saints offense and the team’s knack for defending its home field demand respect. For those reasons, they could avoid a both losing season and finish last in the division. The fact that they’re quite possibly the weakest of this quartet has more to do with their continuing rebuild of the defense.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
The Legion of Boom, Seattle’s vaunted defense, remains a unit capable of wreaking havoc on any offense, especially the pedestrian collectives in the NFC West. From Bobby Wagner to Kam Chancellor to Richard Sherman, playmakers abound in the Pacific Northwest. Still, quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ backfield must step up and put more points on the board.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
The Cards window is about to close with the potential looming retirements of quarterback Carson Palmer, receiver Larry Fitzgerald and coach Bruce Arians. They’re good enough on both sides of the ball for one more competitive run, but they look like the odd team out in the grand scheme of the conference.
Los Angeles Rams (7-9)
Jared Goff has better receivers this year, his first as a full-time starting quarterback, and returns multifaceted running back Todd Gurley. The Rams have some stellar pieces on defense, too. But Goff and, particularly, the offensive line have yet to instill confidence. Until then, consider them nothing more than an also-ran.
San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
Even if they win just four games, the Niners would be twice as good as last season. It was that kind of year for the once-proud franchise that’s still without a quarterback of the future. The best piece on the board is running back Carlos Hyde, but there’s not much surrounding him to think San Francisco will be any good.