Labor Day means the unofficial end of summer, but the national holiday also heralds the arrival of a new NFL season.
The other 31 teams once again are chasing the New England Patriots, who captured their sixth Super Bowl of the past 18 years — also their second championship in three years and third in five. Meanwhile, both New York teams remain in the throes of their respective rebuilding processes, with just one postseason appearance between them over the past seven seasons.
But the 2019 season figures to offer plenty of Sunday surprises. There’s no telling what will happen, but amNewYork once again has attempted to prognosticate all 256 regular-season games and the postseason, leading up to Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 in Miami. Read on for a glance at each team’s season outlook.
New England Patriots (11-5)
Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick haven’t missed the postseason since 2008. Heck, they’ve played in each of the past eight AFC title games. Other than the knowledge that all great empires collapse eventually, there’s no reason to believe the Pats will fall off. No division rival even appears close to challenging their run of 16 AFC East crowns in 18 years.
New York Jets (7-9)
Few would argue the Jets were very good last year at 4-12, but their 1-5 record in close games probably is a little fluky. They will be better this season with the addition of versatile running back Le’Veon Bell, some new additions on defense, and the expected next step in the development of second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
Buffalo Bills (5-11)
Quarterback Josh Allen’s abilities as a runner make up for his still developing passing attributes, and Buffalo’s front office made sure to bolster his offensive line to give him every advantage possible. Don’t expect these moves to be enough to propel the Bills back to playoff contention, though. That said, a stout defensive unit could turn heads.
Miami Dolphins (4-12)
Good rule of thumb: Teams with subpar quarterback situations don’t do well in today’s NFL. The Fins traded a second-round pick for 2018 first-round QB Josh Rosen, and he failed to surpass journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick on the depth chart. With no standouts on either side of the ball, Miami will be in competition for the top pick in next year’s draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Twelve wins is bullish for a team that missed the playoffs and traded its top receiver (Antonio Brown, to Oakland) and an elite running back (Bell, to the Jets). But as long as Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger slinging passes at the level of an all-time great, they’ll be just fine with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner taking over at skill positions.
Cleveland Browns (11-5)
The Browns haven’t won more than 10 games since they rejoined the NFL in 1999. They’re more than capable of surpassing that mark this fall after a strong second half and an active offseason that saw them add Odell Beckham Jr. as the new top option for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Both sides of the ball are loaded, and this team could be even better than predicted.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Baltimore is capable of returning to the postseason again, but quarterback Lamar Jackson must be more potent through the air to secure some games in January. Traditionally, the Ravens have gotten by thanks to a strong defense, and that’s an element this group can boast as well. Look for them to be in the hunt down to the final weekend of 2019.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)
Cincy’s time has come and gone. With the Browns’ anticipated arrival as contenders, they’re the clear bottom feeders. This team went 6-10 a year ago and didn’t appear to improve at all in the interim. Quarterback Andy Dalton’s days could be numbered if he doesn’t bounce back from years of steady decline. Nobody fears these tigers.
Houston Texans (10-6)
Despite major questions about their ground attack, Houston appears to remain the team to beat in this division. Deshaun Watson is a winner, plain and simple, and he also happens to be an excellent young quarterback with one of the best receivers in the game, DeAndre Hopkins, as his top option. Oh yeah, and J.J. Watt still wrecks opposing offenses.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
With a 6-3 flourish to end 2018, Tennessee put itself on the map as a potential sleeper this season. Defense rules in Nashville, especially when it comes to clamping down on passers. But, the Titans won’t become true AFC threats unless quarterback Marcus Mariota finally makes good on the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2015.
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
These Jags aren’t as good as the team which reached the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago, but they’re better than last year’s 5-11 disappointment. Don’t count them out of the wild card hunt with all of their talent on defense, including cornerback Jalen Ramsey and sack machine Calais Campbell. Plus, Nick Foles is a clear upgrade at QB over Blake Bortles.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
The sudden, stunning retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck hurts this team, which would have been clear challengers to Houston. As it stands, new QB1 Jacoby Brissett is a decent replacement. Indy’s success this season will be predicated on its emerging defense, which was as valuable to the Colts’ surge (7-1 in the second half of 2018) into the playoffs as Luck.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Few saw Patrick Mahomes coming, but there’s no sleeping on the next big thing at the quarterback position. K.C. is loaded on offense between the QB, tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill. Offseason moves such as the addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu addressed glaring needs on defense. The Chiefs are real threats to New England’s championship throne.
Los Angeles Chargers (8-8)
Unfortunately for this team, they’re stuck playing in the same division as the formidable Chiefs. The Chargers have all the tools to return to the postseason, even if standout running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout extends deep into the season. Philip Rivers shows no signs of slowing down under center, and Joey Bosa anchors a sturdy defense. Look for them to battle for a wild-card berth.
Oakland Raiders (7-9)
Seven wins might be too optimistic for the Raiders, who appear to be playing their final season in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas. They’re not awful, and quarterback Derek Carr is better than his reputation would suggest. Having Antonio Brown to throw to will help, even at 31 years old. But, unless the retooled defense comes together, this team will tread water.
Denver Broncos (6-10)
Joe Flacco remains an adequate quarterback, so that’s a small step up from last year. Defense is what will keep Denver in games this fall, with both Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. still in the fold from their championship run of four years ago. This group has a higher ceiling than Oakland, but Flacco must be more than just OK to spearhead a postseason return.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
Philly sneaked into the playoffs a year ago despite Carson Wentz missing five games with various injuries. Now, heralded backup Nick Foles is gone, putting pressure on the star quarterback to play every down. Assuming good health, Wentz has MVP upside and talent around him on both offense and defense. The Eagles should be the clear favorite in this division.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
An 8-2 record in games decided by seven points or less is a fluke. Expecting a repeat of that feat by Dallas would be foolish. Ezekiel Elliott’s return this week after a summer-long holdout ensures stability, but nobody knows if he’s really in the same football shape as the rest of the league right now. If they struggle, however, this might be the year coach Jason Garrett is removed from his post.
New York Giants (6-10)
Big Blue won’t be very good, but this team won’t be the train wreck of two years ago. Saquon Barkley’s electric talent and versatile skill set will help keep them in games, even against the better opponents on the Giants’ schedule. Don’t bank on seeing first-round pick Daniel Jones supplant QB Eli Manning for awhile, but it’s going to happen well before Christmas.
Washington Redskins (3-13)
Like the Giants, Washington selected a passer in Round 1 of the draft: Dwayne Haskins. He’ll sit early too, but it’s hard to argue that interim starter Case Keenum is a distinct starting-caliber quarterback. A lack of potent weapons at the skill positions won’t do him any favors. That will put extra pressure on the not-too-shabby defense to carry the load.
Chicago Bears (12-4)
No team was hotter down the stretch of 2018 than the Bears, who won eight of their final nine games and might have advanced in the playoffs if not for a shanked field goal. The dominant defensive force Khalil Mack leads a unit rife with standouts. If quarterback Mitchell Trubisky continues to grow, the Lombardi Trophy could return to the Windy City.
Green Bay Packers (10-6)
The Packers must bank on Aaron Rodgers being healthy to have any chance of reaching 10 victories and securing a postseason berth. When healthy, he’s been good enough before. This time, Green Bay sports a rejuvenated defense that should be enough to lift the storied franchise out of its recent mini-slump of consecutive nine-loss campaigns.
Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
The pressure is on Kirk Cousins, the well-paid passer, to do more than post impressive statistics. There’s too much talent on both sides of the football for Minnesota to languish as an also-ran, even in the competitive NFC North. Of all these sub-.500 predictions, the Vikings are the most likely to surge to a division crown. But again, Cousins must finally become a winner first.
Detroit Lions (4-12)
Motor City will struggle to gain traction against some tough division foes. The most troubling development from a 6-10 season in 2018 was the diminished contributions of quarterback Matthew Stafford. The gaudy passing stats and trademark comeback victories didn’t materialize. He must bounce back, or the Lions may need to plan for the future soon.
Carolina Panthers (10-6)
Carolina has a good chance of reclaiming the division title from New Orleans. Improvements to the pass rush could return this team to the Top 10 in the NFL, and quarterback Cam Newton has the most diverse set of weapons at his disposal of his career. Yet, all of this is moot if his shoulder isn’t recovered from offseason surgery.
New Orleans Saints (9-7)
Nobody needs to worry about the Saints offense, still led by likely Hall of Fame passer Drew Brees. Their defense, too, has what it takes to stand alongside the league’s best. However, they’re not going to go 13-3 again like last year. If they return to the postseason — and they could — it’ll be amid a tooth-and-nail battle all the way through December.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Could this be the year Tampa snaps its 12-year postseason drought? Quite possibly. New head coach Bruce Arians is just the type to succeed where his predecessors have failed, maximizing the talents of mercurial quarterback Jameis Winston and allowing the defense to shine once again. Come January, the Bucs could be the most pleasant surprise of 2019.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
Very little separates the four teams of the NFC South, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see any of them earn the division’s automatic postseason berth. Matt Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks of his time and continues to improve, plus he still gets to throw to all-time great Julio Jones. But Atlanta can’t rise to the top without superior defensive contributions.
Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
One can’t help but wonder if this team would be the reigning champions right now if superstar running back Todd Gurley’s production hadn’t starkly diminished in the playoffs. His status will be among the top storylines for a Rams team that should still be the class of its division thanks to a potent pass attack and dominant defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
The Niners were a trendy pick a year ago to make waves, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in September and nothing else went as planned. Now, San Francisco is back with a healthy QB, improvements on defense and one of the top tight ends on the planet in Greg Kittle. They’ll face stiff competition, but look for the 49ers to reach the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Seattle’s brand of football is a throwback to the days of defense-minded, smash-mouth play on the gridiron. Quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t asked to throw a ton, instead allowing his backs to gain ground when he’s not running it himself. That could be enough to repeat the 2018 playoff campaign, but it’s more likely this team takes a step back.
Arizona Cardinals (3-13)
Quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury, each in his first pro season, will have a lot of catching up to do. The NFC West won’t be very welcoming of them and their brand of the Air Raid offense. That said, of the teams most likely to be bottom feeders, the Cards have the best chance of drastically outplaying this prediction. There’s a reason Murray went No. 1 in April’s draft.
MVP: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)
Top offensive player: Alvin Kamara (Saints)
Top defensive player: Khalil Mack (Bears)
Top offensive rookie: Kyler Murray (Cardinals)
Top defensive rookie: Brian Burns (Panthers)
Top coach: Bruce Arians (Buccaneers)
Last unbeaten team: Chiefs
Best prime-time matchup: Chiefs at Bears (Sun., Dec. 22)
Worst prime-time matchup: Dolphins at Steelers (Mon., Oct. 28)
Breakout star: Lamar Jackson (Ravens)
First QB sent to bench: Case Keenum (Washington)
Best contract year: Amari Cooper (Cowboys)
Worst offseason signing: Trey Flowers (Lions)
Coach on hottest seat: Jay Gruden (Washington)
AFC Wild Card: (3) Patriots over (6) Titans, (4) Texans over (5) Browns
NFC Wild Card: (3) Rams over (6) Packers, (4) Panthers over (5) 49ers
AFC Divisional: (1) Chiefs over (4) Texans, (3) Patriots over (2) Steelers
NFC Divisional: (1) Bears over (4) Panthers, (2) Eagles over (3) Rams
AFC Championship: (1) Chiefs over (3) Patriots
NFC Championship: (1) Bears over (2) Eagles
Super Bowl LIV: (1) Bears over (1) Chiefs