NFL predictions for the 2016 season

It won’t feel like the NFL season is here until Sunday afternoon, but Thursday night’s Super Bowl 50 rematch between the champion Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers in Colorado marks the official kickoff to the gridiron year.

While every team starts the year with the same record, often it’s easy to tell ahead of time who’s primed to play well past Week 17 and who can schedule that round of 18 holes in early January.

With that in mind, amNewYork projected all 256 regular season games and made predictions for how the teams will fare, all the way through Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5 in Houston.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (11-5)

After a tough start with quarterback Tom Brady suspended, Bill Belichick’s bunch will be humming along over the final 12 games. The divisive coaching guru continues to plug pieces into the holes that arise throughout his roster. Even the offseason trade of team sack leader Chandler Jones to the Cardinals shouldn’t set them back too much.

2. Buffalo Bills (10-6)

Rex Ryan’s gang couldn’t find its stride during the coach’s first year of his post-Jets career. With another year to jell, and an offense full of weapons like running back LeSean McCoy and wideout Sammy Watkins, the Bills will be in the playoff hunt. They also have an outside shot at ending the Pats’ seven-year reign in the AFC East.

3. New York Jets (8-8)

Gang Green turned heads in 2015 when it was a Week 17 win away from a playoff berth. This remains a good team, but an aging offense and some turnover on the offensive line have to be concerns. Don’t be too surprised if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick either gets the Jets into the postseason or they fall below .500.

4. Miami Dolphins (4-12)

No quarterback has absorbed more sacks than Ryan Tannehill throughout the last three seasons, and first-round pick Laremy Tunsil won’t be enough to significantly improve the O-line. Miami will feel the free-agent losses of running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Olivier Vernon as the Fins adjust to new coach Adam Gase.

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

With the top running back (Le’Veon Bell) and wide receiver (Antonio Brown) in football, the Terrible Towels should like their chances. And that’s not even accounting for two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The formidable Pittsburgh offense will impose its will upon most teams, even if the defense isn’t all that impressive.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Cincy, 12-4 in 2015, missed its best opportunity in decades for a long playoff run when it lost to the Steelers in the Wild Card round. They’re still good, and they still might return to the postseason for a sixth consecutive season on the strength of a solid defense and the passing game connection between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-11)

Who is supposed to put up points for this team? Quarterback Joe Flacco has his moments, but his teammates on offense are a group of unproven or aging receivers and rushers. There’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed to help the defense overcome its offense’s shortcomings. The best Baltimore fans should hope for is an 8-8 campaign.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

Eesh! Simply being in the rough-and-tumble AFC South will tag the Browns four to six losses because they just aren’t good enough to hang. Robert Griffin III probably won’t be terrible, and getting receiver Josh Gordon back in Week 5 will do him wonders. The defense lacks standout players capable of making a difference.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

Even with one of the NFL’s least stable quarterback situations a year ago, Houston won this division. Brock Osweiler is not a savior, but he should be better than what they had. New addition Lamar Miller is a talented running back, and defensive lineman J.J. Watt remains one of the absolute best players in football for an excellent unit. This is a complete team.

2. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Presuming a return to health, Andrew Luck will quarterback Indy back to the postseason and put the bitter taste of last season in the past. Luck has plenty of targets, such as wideout T.Y. Hilton, in the passing game, and he might surpass 5,000 yards through the air. Questions about the defense are warranted, which limits the Colts’ ceiling.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

Ten wins? A potential playoff team? Maybe that’s too bullish, but they’re chock full of talent on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Blake Bortles bounced back well as a sophomore and connected well with receiver Allen Robinson. On defense, 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler Jr. and 2016 top pick Jalen Ramsey are poised to elevate the unit.

4. Tennessee Titans (6-10)

They’re still sitting in the cellar of the resurgent AFC South, but things are looking up. The Titans drafted four players in the top 42 during the spring to provide much-needed help on both offense and defense. Marcus Mariota performed well as a rookie signalcaller, and he’ll evolve in Year 2 despite what remains a lackluster supporting cast.

AFC West

1. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

The Raiders are for real after years of mediocrity. All the pieces are in place for the offense to take off with quarterback Derek Carr on the verge of a breakthrough. Watch for the connection between Carr and receiver Amari Cooper to flourish in their second year together. With two-position All-Pro Khalil Mack leading the defense, Oakland demands respect again.

2. Denver Broncos (9-7)

One can’t count out the defending Super Bowl champs completely, but this is a team in transition. Peyton Manning retired, and unproven Trevor Siemian now leads the not-so-special offense. Denver’s bread and butter is its defense, which is still good with elite pass rusher Von Miller. But free agent losses of key starters means this team slips a bit.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

This may be overly harsh. However, the Chiefs’ window is closing. running back Jamaal Charles is coming off another serious injury, and the passing game still isn’t much of a threat. The defense remains upper-crust material, but that can only carry this group so far. After several years of success, Kansas City is on the verge of a decline.

4. San Diego Chargers (5-11)

Someone has to be last, and San Diego looks like the odd team out. Any team quarterbacked by Philip Rivers is going to have some games in which it looks like a monster, but he’s always good for a few duds along the way. Their defense is OK, but it didn’t help having the Chargers’ top pick, defensive end Joey Bosa, miss training camp amid a contract dispute.

NFC East

1. Washington Redskins (9-7)

This might be the weakest division in the league, but that will also make for a competitive playoff race. There’s not much reason to pick against Washington repeating as champions. They’ve finally found a foundation quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and the defense picked up a shutdown cornerback in former Panther Josh Norman via free agency.

2. New York Giants (8-8)

Big Blue has a solid chance to return to the playoffs, but questions remain. Their offensive line is a work in progress, which never helps quarterback Eli Manning’s production. The G-Men tossed a ton of money at their wreck of a defense, and that should help put them on the path to improvement. However, rebuilding through free agency is risky.

3. Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

The Cowboys are a mystery. They could win 10 games or four, and it largely depends on quarterback play. Tony Romo is nursing a back injury, and he’s no spring chicken. Dallas has handed the keys to Dak Prescott, and there’s no telling what to expect. Otherwise, it’s a well-built offense. The defense is nothing special, placing more pressure on Prescott.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (3-13)

The easiest team to write off in the NFC East is Philly, which worked quickly to undo the Chip Kelly years. They’ll rely on rookie passer Carson Wentz thanks to the Sam Bradford trade to Minnesota. The No. 2 overall pick should be expected to struggle due, in part, to a lack of receivers. At least the Eagles’ defense, led by tackle Fletcher Cox, is serviceable.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Don’t fret over Aaron Rodgers’ relatively — by his standards — pedestrian 2015 season. He’s got safety blanket receiver Jordy Nelson back from injury, and running back Eddie Lacy is poised to return to form after shedding excess weight. On the other side of the ball, linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers should wreak havoc on most of the NFC.

2. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a noncontact knee injury is devastating for the Vikes. Bringing in Bradford at the last minute is a salve, but now all the pressure is on Adrian Peterson, 31, to run like he’s 27 again. They may make a playoff push — and credit surely would be shared with a sturdy defense — but no more Super Bowl hopes.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

Motor City lost its best player, receiver Calvin Johnson, to an unexpectedly early retirement. Considering quarterback Matthew Stafford’s bunch only went 7-9 to begin with, there’s little reason to believe the Lions will improve this year. It’s unclear what the Lions’ biggest strength is, and they could be worse than this projected record.

4. Chicago Bears (4-12)

By the same token, the Bears may not be quite so bad. They’re not all that good, though. Jay Cutler’s time as quarterback in the Windy City is running out after years of inconsistent health and production. A rebuild on defense is in full swing, and if anything can elevate Chicago out of the NFC North basement, it will be progress on ‘D’.

NFC South

1. Carolina Panthers (13-3)

They aren’t going to win their first 14 games again, but the Panthers clearly are a force thanks to MVP quarterback Cam Newton and the NFL’s top linebacker, Luke Kuechly. The loss of Norman stings a bit, but the defensive front seven are so good it won’t hinder them much. Carolina also gets back top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of 2015.

2. New Orleans Saints (8-8)

Slowly, the defense is improving through the draft. However, quarterback Drew Brees may be retired by the time the unit is good enough to make this a well-rounded team again. Few teams can rack up passing yards the way the Saints can, but this isn’t the feared juggernaut of a few years ago. They’re on the Wild Card shortlist, though.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Speaking of the NFC Wild Card race; don’t be surprised if Tampa Bay sneaks into the postseason. Jameis Winston impressed as a rookie, and the quarterback has a capable supporting cast to ease his development. Tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David lead the way for one of the NFC’s better defenses. This is a high upside team.

4. Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

While the Falcons won eight games a year ago, they also lost eight of their final 11 as running back Devonta Freeman cooled after an impressive early-season run. All-Pro wideout Julio Jones is a threat to break out a big game at any time, but quarterback Matt Ryan has few other options. And, don’t expect a ton from the Atlanta defense.

NFC West

1. Arizona Cardinals (13-3)

The balanced Cards have what it takes to repeat their impressive 2015 campaign, and it begins on defense. Arizona has a claim to the title of best defensive backfield in football with cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Resurgent quarterback Carson Palmer had this offense humming, a trend that can be expected to continue.

2. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Legion of Boom, led by cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, has the personnel to rival the Cards’ defense. Russell Wilson’s growth as a passer takes some of the pressure off the ‘D’ to carry the load. Imagine how good this team could be if tight end Jimmy Graham finds his former All-Pro form. Seattle remains a Super Bowl contender.

3. Los Angeles Rams (5-11)

A new home won’t do much to improve the fortunes of the former St. Louis Rams, who remain a dismal-looking offense beyond impressive young running back Todd Gurley. Despite such a dire situation on that side of the ball, L.A.’s superb defense is good enough to keep them in most games, with tackle Aaron Donald a frightening presence up front.

4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

The organization is such a mess, and that’s reflected by the product on the field. Blaine Gabbert is a replacement-level quarterback, which might not be horrible if his supporting cast wasn’t so mediocre. The lackluster defense won’t do the Niners any favors, either. This is the NFL’s worst team, but at least they could wind up with the top draft choice.

Season predictions

MVP: Aaron Rodgers (QB, Packers)

Top offensive player: Antonio Brown (WR, Steelers)

Top defensive player: Khalil Mack (DE, Raiders)

Top offensive rookie: Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Cowboys)

Top defensive rookie: Myles Jack (LB, Jaguars)

Top coach: Bill O’Brien (Texans)

Last unbeaten team: Texans

Best MNF matchup: Bills at Seahawks (Nov. 7)

Breakout star: Tyler Lockett (WR, Seahawks)

First QB sent to bench: Case Keenum (Rams)

Rookie with brightest future: Jalen Ramsey (DB, Jaguars)

Best contract year: Alshon Jeffery (WR, Bears)

Worst offseason signing: Marvin Jones (WR, Lions)

Coach on hottest seat: Mike McCoy (Chargers)


AFC Wild Card

(6) Bills over (3) Patriots

(4) Raiders over (5) Colts

NFC Wild Card

(3) Packers over (6) Saints

(5) Seahawks over (4) Redskins

AFC Divisional

(1) Texans over (6) Bills

(2) Steelers over (4) Raiders

NFC Divisional

(1) Panthers over (5) Seahawks

(3) Packers over (2) Cardinals

AFC Championship

(2) Steelers over (1) Texans

NFC Championship

(1) Panthers over (3) Packers

Super Bowl LI

(1) Panthers over (2) Steelers