It is finally here! The NFL season kicks off tonight as the Dallas Cowboys head to Tampa Bay to take on the World Champion Buccaneers. As the final hours count down to the moment we have all been waiting for, what better way is there to pass the time than to release a team rankings and make some wild predictions. After all, everyone else is doing it, why not me, too?
For those who have followed me, you know I did a few division rankings specials in the early summer. Since then, however, we have gotten to watch training camps and the preseason. We have lost several to injury and have seen how teams coped with the loss. We saw some rookie stocks rise, while some other player rankings fell. The starting jobs have been both won and lost. I am now ready to try to piece it all together and give my final predictions before the NFL season begins. Enjoy!
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Kansas City reigns as its champion, but several other teams have moved into great positions in the AFC rankings. Most notably the Browns and the Chargers went to extremes to close the gap in the conference and division respectively. And let’s not forget the other AFC elite like the Bills and the new “Big Three” in Tennesse.
Meanwhile, the Jets, Jaguars, and Bengals have been doing well with the rebuilds, albeit, they still have a little ways to go. Sadly though, the Texans are going to have to bottom out before things get any better. But what about everyone else?
Have the Patriots returned to form? Does Big Ben have another run left? Can the Broncos D win them games? How will the Colts and Ravens deal with their injuries? Have the Dolphins and Raiders done enough to get off of the bubble? Let’s take a quick glance at how I believe these narratives will be scripted, and the division rankings they affect.
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1. Buffalo Bills: 12-5
Have no doubt, the Bills are still amongst the AFC elite, but the AFC and the AFC East have both gotten a lot better this off-season. While the Titans were forming an elite trio, the Chiefs were patching up their OL, the Browns were revamping their D, and the Patriots were overhauling their team, the Bills did little to improve their roster.
The Buffalo running backs are still lacklustre and their pass rush still has questions. With that said, Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs will still make up for their deficiencies most weeks. They needed to do more, but the Bills should still have no problem locking down a high seed in the AFC
2. New England Patriots 11-6
As much as I hate to say it, I still believe in Bill Belichick. That Patriots defense has been rebuilt. With the addition of Matthew Judon, the return of Kyle Van Noy, and the development of other strong pieces, the Pats pass rush and D should be lethal.
Jumping over to the offense, I believe in rookie QB Mac Jones, and clearly, Bill does too. That job was Cam’s to lose and somehow Jones won it. Throw in a new assortment of weapons with the flashes in development seen from Damien Harris and Jokobi Meyers and New England has one of their better offenses in recent years.
3. Miami Dolphins 9-8
It’s not that I think Miami has taken a step back, but I do think the improvements from both the Patriots and Jets will affect their win total a little. That, and I believe the diva tantrum thrown by Xavien Howard may have some effect in the locker room this season.
I’m also not 100% certain that QB Tua Tagovailoa is ready to be the clear number one. I am excited for the addition of Will Fuller and the reuniting with Jaylen Waddle but am cautious because of the injury risk. I’m also not certain that the Dolphins replaced what they lost on the defensive line. In the end, I can see this ranking coming back to bite me, but for now, it must reflect my caution.
4. New York Jets 5-12
I believe in Zach Wilson. I believe in Robert Saleh. I believe in Joe Douglas. I also believe that the return of CJ Mosley will be felt hard by those who doubt the Jets’ D. Quinnen Williams should shine in the new system.
With that said, this team is clearly rebuilding. Any team relying on a rookie QB to win them games is going to struggle at times, especially a team as bad as the Jets were last year. They still don’t have a secondary that can keep up with the higher-powered passing attacks of the AFC, and their pass rush has been hampered by the loss of Carl Lawson. The hype is real, but they still need some key pieces in order to contend.
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1, Cleveland Browns 11-6
Honestly, I held back a bit on this one, because I have been running wild with Cleveland this off-season. They do have a tough schedule and the powers that be had no mercy setting them up with the Chiefs week one. They are also in a division with two strong rivals.
With all that said, I love this team. The improvements made on defense will be enough to help them hang with even the most elite offenses. Their duel-headed rushing attack with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is second to none. Their offensive and defensive lines are both punishing on their opponents. The only questions are in the passing game, but it is not outside reason that Baker Mayfield finally puts it all together in Kevin Stefanski’s second season.
2. Baltimore Ravens 9-8
The injuries scare me. Their COVID history throughout last year and this preseason/training camp scare me. Sooner or later, the next man up is going to be Le’Veon Bell, and we all saw how that worked for the Chiefs last year. People talk about all of the great weapons they added, but I see a Rashod Batemon who has battled injury and a Sammy Watkins who often disappears. The Ravens are really asking Lamar Jackson to do way too much with way too little. I hope he stays in a system plagued with injuries.
Their defense is still amazing, and might just be their saving grace for the season. Patrick Queen should explode onto the scene even further this season. My ranking for them could turn out to be wildly low if this defense proves to have another level. It could also be wrong if the injuries just stop and everyone who can come back does. My projection could also be wildly high if these same issues remain unchecked.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-8
I think Big Ben has had his final run. I’ve been quiet about it up until now, but that OL is starting to scare me. They were the reason Najee Harris was slow to start in the preseason, and they will be the reason why this offense does not play up to its standard this season.
I also believe there is some potential discord in the locker room. The little Twitter/TikTok war between Devin Bush and Juju Smith-Schuster this summer has been dismissed by many, but not be me. Mike Tomlin did a great job keeping Antonio Brown’s antics under wraps, yet couldn’t sweep this issue under the carpet.
All of this said, the Steelers still have an elite defense led by TJ Watt, and their offense will still have flashes of dominance against teams that do not have a strong pass rush. The unfortunate thing is that their two main division rivals both have strong defenses.
4. Cincinnati Bengals 4-13
If I said it once, I said it a million times this off-season: the Bengals needed to address the offensive line more. They didn’t, and it showed. It’s also pretty clear that rookie Ja’Marr Chase and the whole Bengals offense for that matter are not off to the quick start many people thought they would be off to. I wonder if that has anything to do with the line.
The defense does look improved, but not enough if the offense struggles. With that said, the Bengals’ path to relevance is clear: add a few linemen and be in contention next season.
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1. Tennessee Titans 13-4
When I weighed the amount of trouble that the Titans have had with COVID both last season and this training camp/preseason versus the fact that they have an unstoppable “Big Three” I was very hesitant. I chopped a few wins off of the Ravens for that, but this is different. Number one, the Titans do not seem to have an organizational problem with injuries (49ers, Ravens, etc). Number two, this “Big Three” truly appears unstoppable.
If an injury were to happen to Derrick Henry, AJ Brown, or Julio Jones then all bets would be off. As long as they remain, however, it will take a defensive guru and several super-star defensive players to prevent this offense from controlling the game. Also, the Titans’ D isn’t great, but it is much improved compared to last year’s.
2. Indianapolis Colts 11-6
With the news of Carson Wentz being available for week one, I had to go back a re-evaluate some of the Colts’ early schedule. After a very odd training camp/preseason I’m not sure what to think about Wentz or the OL anymore. Regardless of that, however, I still believe in Indy’s running backs either way. I am no longer calling Jonathan Taylor a top-five RB, but still believe the different looks that he, Nyheim Hines, and Marlon Mack give will help the Colts generate offense.
That, and this Colts’ D is still amazing. Darius Leonard and Deforrest Buckner are among the best in the league, and this D will keep Indy in most games, even in the AFC
3. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-13
Once I saw him in the third preseason game, I was finally sold on Trevor Lawrence. My biggest issue is that I’m still not sold on Urban Meyer yet. The Travis Etienne injury does take away some of T-Law’s comfort zone, but it does allow for James Robinson to shine even brighter.
If Meyer proves himself to be a genius, rather than clueless, I could easily see this ranking going a couple of wins higher. There is a limit to how high they can go this year, however, given that the defense is nothing special.
4. Houston Texans 1-16
This is a really bad team and it won’t get better until they find a way to repair years of damage paved by Bill O’Brien. The RBs have aged out, the QB is a journeyman and the WRs leave little on the highlight rail. And it’s debatable, but that looks like the better of their units.
I get it, one win is incredibly harsh and potentially unrealistic, but you’re not the one who went through the schedule, game by game trying to find a win. Eventually, I found a couple of spots where the upset was possible and gave them one. I really hope they find a way to win that many.
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1. Kansas City Chiefs 14-3
Patrick Mahomes was rated number one by his piers one the NFL’s Top 100 ranking. Travis Kelce is still the most dominant TE playmaker in the league. Tyreek Hill’s speed still cannot be matched for an entire game Andy Reid is still a mad genius. And their offensive line is significantly better.
I could take some time to talk about the defense and its new look with Chris Jones on the outside, but we are all aware it does enough to allow their offense to be featured. Maybe that won’t be enough in the later rounds of the playoffs, but they should still coast in the regular season.
2. Los Angeles Chargers 11-6
Justin Herbert has his first year in the books and has a healthy Austin Ekeler to begin his second. With Keenan Allen, the three of them should have an excellent season. Especially since they really beefed up that OL this off-season with Corey Linsley and Rashawn Slater.
The part of the Chargers’ off-season that has really gone under the radar may prove to be the most important part. Head coach Brandon Staley comes over from the Rams and looks to instil that defense in the Los Angeles team. And with Joey Bosa, Kenneth Murray, Derwin James, and others, he has the pieces to make it work.
3. Denver Broncos 9-8
The Broncos may have the best defense in the NFL, let alone the AFC. Von Miller is healthy again, reuniting with fellow edge-rusher Bradley Chubb. Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and Patrick Surtain are key additions to the secondary. And Alexander Johnson, Justin Simmons, and Kareem Jackson still remain. This unit may even be able to slow down the Chiefs.
Earlier on my biggest concern was the offense. Bridgewater claiming the job, Sutton returning healthy, and Jeudy beginning to emerge have all eased my concern, however. With that said, the AFC is super crowded, especially with elite offenses that will constantly be putting the defense to the test. I’m hesitant to predict more wins since they share a division with the Chiefs and Chargers
4. Las Vegas Raiders 8-9
The Las Vegas Raiders feel like an incredibly average team to me, in a division and AFC where you need to be exceptional. This season can become a long one quickly with the schedule they have to play. They would be higher in my rankings if they could catch a break.
Their pass rush is much improved, but the linebacker core behind them is still up in the air. Darren Waller is one of the best, but the rest of the receivers still remain in flux. Derek Carr and Josh Jacobs can win you games, but they don’t show up for all of them. For what it’s worth, I believe they can beat anyone on their schedule, I also believe they could lose to anyone other than the Texans.
Wild Card Round
Chiefs get the bye.
The #2 Titans win a shootout in thrilling fashion over the #7 Chargers.
The #6 Patriots stun their division rival #3 Bills
The #4 Browns blowout the #5 Colts
The #6 Patriots keep it close, but in the end, prove to be no match for the #1 Chiefs
The #4 Browns limit the #2 Titans “Big Three” and hold onto the win.
The #4 Browns team that was built with the #1 Chiefs team in mind is able to control the clock, limit Mahomes, and pull off the upset by jumping out early and barely holding onto the win.
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The Buccanneers have brought back their team to defend their title. Rodgers and the Packers are set for a final run after an off-season of drama. The hype belongs to the NFC West, the most dominant division in the NFL.
The Lions will be biting off kneecaps at the expense of scoring touchdowns. That is unless they face the Falcons, who will be giving points to everyone. But what about the rest?
Will Washington win on the strength of its defense? Can the Giants stay healthy? What will the Hurts’ Eagles look like? Can the Bears or Vikings challenge the Pack? Did the Cowboys add enough defense? Let’s take a glance at what I have for the NFC division rankings.
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1. Washington Football Team 10-7
I love this team. No, I don’t think they’ll win it all, but any given week they can beat ANY given team in the league. A heavy dose of a soon-to-be-declared legendary defense, a back-breaking defensive line, and little touch of Fitzmagic is the perfect formula for success.
With that said, the same formula can also result in flagrant penalties, getting beat with the big play, and multiple Fitzpatrick turnovers. Herding cats and toddler bedtimes are both more predictable than which Washington team we may see each half, let alone each week.
2. Dallas Cowboys 9-8
Dak is back and ready to throw for 7000 yards. Alright, that might be an exaggeration, but his fast start last year projected through a 17 game season would give him those numbers. That quickly puts into perspective how good this offense can be. Ezekiel Elliot, CeeDee Lamb, and Amari Cooper headline a weapon’s set that could very well lead the league in offense.
The crazy thing is that with Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal at linebacker, the Dallas D is starting to form something of an identity. Nothing too great yet, but far superior to last season’s dumpster fire. I probably should have the Cowboys higher in the rankings, but I need to see Dak’s health and that D in action before I adjust anything.
3. Philadelphia Eagles 7-10
When I first went through the full schedule projecting each game, I somehow got the Eagles up to 9 wins. I was incredibly surprised being how down I was on them earlier in the off-season. Hurts had grown on me, so had the comparisons between this Eagles team and the Ravens’ team of two years ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the 9 wins. Maybe I’m missing the golden opportunity to look like a genius, but I don’t believe enough to disregard saving face,
With that said, this team does have a lot of mystery and intrigue on offense. Hurts has shown flashes of brilliance. The RBs seem to compliment both him and each other well, and he seems to have a special connection with his TEs. Throw in some Devonta Smith and you might just have an offense. Throw in Alex Singleton and a strong DL, and you have the foundation for defense. Watch for this team to turn into something special at some point later in the season.
4. New York Giants 5-12
Before I was saying that the Giants will go as far as their team health allows them to go, but now I realize they still have that OL. Even if Saquon, Golladay, Toney, and everyone else stay healthy (a big “if”, and one I don’t personally believe in) that line still won’t allow them to overpower any strong defense.
Their defense is solid, anchored by Leonard Williams, Blake Martinez, and a strong secondary, but it’s not the type that will win games by itself. They need their offensive stars to be healthy, Danny Dimes to progress in development, and the line to rapidly improve. Sadly, I have little faith in any of the three.
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1. Green Bay Packers 12-5
Alright, I know I under-projected the Packers at 12-5, but this record still has them ranking number one in the NFC by my final tally so I didn’t go back to re-evaluate. Part of the record does reflect what I believe will be a slower start as a result of Aaron Rodgers missing his early off-season conditioning. In the end, though, Rodgers will be the reason they win.
He is a man on a mission to prove he was right, he is also auditioning for the team on which he will end his career. Look for a huge season from him, and likewise from the rest of the Packers’ offense. On the defensive side, look for Jaire Alexander to lay claim to the best coverage specialist in the league, as the Smiths continue to pile up sacks.
2. Chicago Bears 8-9
Matt Nagy and company are starting Andy Dalton to keep their jobs, and in the end that will be the decision that causes them to lose them. If they were to start with Justin Fields they could eliminate the growing pains early and surge into the playoffs late. Instead, they will lose with Andy early, endure Fields growing pains until elimination, then surge into just outside of the playoffs late.
With a defense featuring Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack, they are still almost as good as any other defense in the league. David Montgomery should take the next step into proving he is a strong RB. The table is set for Fields, who knows if Nagy will see it in enough time to save the season.
3. Minnesota Vikings 6-11
I know this record and ranking seem both harsh and low, but this team collapsing last year didn’t feel like a fluke to me, it felt overdue. I realize it’s an offense that features Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. That should be enough to keep the Vikings in close games. I also realize they have Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr coming back.
My biggest problem is that I believe both that defense and coach Mike Zimmer have aged out of relevance in this NFL. Many applauded when Harrison Smith got the second-highest S contract weeks ago, but I question why. Don’t get me wrong, Smith is still a strong S, but he was much more appealing to watch three-four seasons ago. I could be wrong, but I believe the guard needs to change.
4. Detroit Lions 1-16
Both the offensive and defensive lines are not as good as they were advertised. The offense is in terrible shape, relying on a banged-up RB in Swift and a TE in Hockenson who might just break the TE target record just so the team can attempt to move the chains.
So the defense must be great, right? After all, coach Dan Campbell is a tough guy who is into hitting hard and biting off knee caps. Except, it isn’t great. It’s not even all that good. Forget comparing Campbell to Rex Ryan 2.0, he won’t even be able to live up to the standard of a later-Jets Rex. This year is going to be bad. I wonder if they set a record for the lowest points per game.
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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-6
The Chiefs, Browns, Titans, Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, etc…all improved their rosters. Tampa Bay brought everyone back and made some minor tweaks. Yes, I get it, they won the Super Bowl and looked dominant in doing so. Tom Brady is ageless, careers go to Tampa to be revived. But something inside me just wants to question: when is the last time we saw someone bring their team back with no real improvements and accomplish the same results? You have to go back well over 20 years to find the answer. It doesn’t happen, you need to improve.
Now, I’m not saying this isn’t a great team. The offense featuring Mike Evans, Godwin, and AB is brilliant. Shaq Barrett, Devin White, and Lavonte David lead a juggernaut on defense. In the end, however, the league has seen this and it will adapt. Not in the regular season, not in the early round(s), but sometime before the end
2. New Orleans Saints 10-7
Jameis Winston will change his reputation the second time around, or Sean Payton will name Taysom Hill the starter in a second. The speedy, young, yet unproven weapons like Marquez Callaway will carve out their role before too long. It will be bumpy early for this offense (especially before Thomas returns) but they will form their identity.
The defense, led by Cam Jordan and Demario Davis, has returned with some youth in a few key places. And it is prepared to keep the Saints in games as the offense learns. There’s no way they’re catching the Bucs this year, but once Brady retires they can challenge for the division once again.
3. Carolina Panthers 6-11
If Sam Darnold is any good then this team will be fun to watch. It’s still obviously CMC’s team, but Darnold hopes to mesh with Moore, Anderson, and Marshall to make the offense dynamic. This is going to take some time, however, and I don’t expect it to happen until late in the season. Darnold, though talented, needs to learn how to win. Heck, the Panthers need to learn how to win again. It’s going to take time.
The defense is also young, talented, and growing. Brian Burns, Jaycee Horn, and Jeremy Chinn are diamonds in the rough who can blossom into complete superstars if giving the opportunity. Now it’s just a matter of watching how soon that will be.
4. Atlanta Falcons 5-12
I wonder how many times Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts will score four touchdowns between them, just to try to catch up to the opponent. Yeah, AJ Terrell can turn into a strong corner, and the LB tandem of Jones and Oluokun will perform well. At the end of the day, however, most of that secondary isn’t good and the pass rush is bad.
The one thing that can be said about the Falcons will be that if you love offense their games will be fun to watch. If a defense were to emerge over the course of the season, then the Falcons could become quite dangerous.
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1. Los Angeles Rams 12-5
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I finally got around to ranking the Rams first in the NFC West just like everyone else. I would like to point out, however, that my opinion of them hasn’t changed. My opinion of the Niners got worse. I still believe Stafford is an improvement on Goff. I still believe their offense is better with him than it was with Goff. I also still stand by tempering your expectations before naming him a top-five QB, he didn’t become Russell Wilson just because he switched teams.
I also wish to point out that though I agree the Rams’ offense will take a step forward, I also believe their defense will take a step back. Some would say I’m disrespecting Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey by sharing this opinion, but I assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. Ramsey is the number one CB in the NFL. Donald is the best player in the NFL in my opinion. I just believe that the losses of Brandon Staley, John Johnson, Troy Hill will catch up with them.
2. San Francisco 49ers 11-6
The frequency with which a Niner gets an injury scares me, especially since so many of them are season-ending. It wasn’t anyone of any significance this off-season, but the injury-prone culture of the team continued this off-season. Another thing I don’t like? This philosophy is that they can platoon Treu Lance and Jimmy G. If you have two QBs you have none. This may work for a few weeks, but Shanahan needs to commit to one of them as THE QB.
All that said, this team is still super-talented. The rushing attack is nearly unstoppable and always fresh. Kittle, Aiyuk, and Deebo are as good of targets as anyone has. The DL led by Nick Bosa will swarm, while Fred Warner leads a suffocating D. If they can stay healthy (big “if” and one I question) and figure out the QB situation they can claim both the division and the NFC.
3. Arizona Cardinals 10-7
Both the offense and defense have a nice blend of seasoned veterans and rising stars. If Kyler Murray can take his game to the next level, this team can be something special. The only reason their ranking is so low is that there are some age and contentment issues. Chandler Jones and Jordan Hicks both wanted out this off-season but neither got their wish. Hicks is going to be getting more playing time, so that might appease him. Jones, however, did not get his contract. Who knows if it will be a distraction.
With that said, D-Hop, Greem Edmonds, Conner, Kirk, and Moore are great weapons set to make Murray shine. JJ Watt brings leadership to a defense that features Budda Baker and the young LB duo of Simmons and Collins. The Butler retirement does leave them thin at CB, making a trade essential for a deep run.
4. Seattle Seahawks 8-9
I know, it’s weird to see someone rank Seattle on the outside looking in, but do really believe they did enough to keep up with the other teams in their division. So many improvements to everyone else, yet the Hawks took a step back with their roster. Yes, they still have Wilson, Carson, Metcalf, and Lockett, but last year that proved to not be enough down the stretch.
With the defense losing a few pieces (Wright, Griffen, Dunlap), and an aging leader in Bobby Wagner, they might need the offense to do more than it did a year ago. With an OL that still doesn’t offer much protection, I’m not sure this offense can make up for the defense over the course of a full season. It’s not a great reason, but better than any one I could come up with for a division rival.
Wild Card Round
The #1 Packers have a bye.
The #2 Rams beat the #7 Cowboys comfortably.
The #3 Buccaneers hold off a late charge from the #6 Cardinals
The #5 49ers turnover Fitzmagic and #4 Washington out of the playoffs.
Rodgers and the #1 Packers avenge the 2020 NFC title game versus #5 49ers
The #3 Buccaneers prove to the #2 Rams that Stafford is better but not enough.
This time Rodgers complete the comeback as the #1 Packers avenge themselves versus #3 Tampa
Green Bay Packers over Cleveland Browns, Rodgers gets his second ring before leaving Green Bay
After an off-season of tracking the draft, free agency, and injury. Following training camps and watching way too much pre-season football, I was finally ready to take a stab. It was fun, now it’s time to see how many I get right when the season kicks off tonight.
For more from J-MiL4Real:
The newest episode of the J-MiL4Real Podcast: Offensive Position MVPs
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