We’ve spent more four months prognosticating the 2018 NFL season since the draft finished, enough time to ferret out the rising sleepers (looking at you, Bears and Texans) and teams due to decline (Bills, Seahawks). But it’s never clear cut.
Many expected progress from the 2017 Rams, but who foresaw a seven-game leap to the NFC West title? Nobody predicted the previously 11-5 Giants were a cigarette butt away from a dumpster fire that would burn all year.
As the season nears, here are five teams that will surprise this time around.
1. The Browns will be better than you think
Laugh at the Browns all you want — they’ve certainly earned it. Sinking from 1-15 to 0-16 was unthinkable even by this moribund franchise’s standards, and they don’t deserve anyone’s trust.
But a team that was awfully unlucky in 2017 has since imported a truckload of talent, most notably at quarterback. Cleveland QBs committed 34 turnovers last season, an ungodly number that only one team as a whole (Denver) matched, with no other teams reaching 30. Tyrod Taylor committed 21 turnovers in three full years with the Bills; Baker Mayfield had 35 in 48 college games. One way or another, the Browns will take a massive leap from sub-replacement level to respectable (or even good) at the game’s most important position.
Other upgrades included Jarvis Landry, Denzel Ward, Carlos Hyde and Antonio Callaway, while homegrown stud Josh Gordon is back for what could be his first full season since 2013. Don’t look now, but Myles Garrett (7.0 sacks, 18 QB hits in 11 games as a rookie) could be a darkhorse Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Even with a tough schedule, it should add up to at least six wins, with an outside shot at reaching .500 for the first time since 2007 and a prayer of a chance to end a 15-year playoff drought. It can’t hurt that the division could be weaker ...
2. ... because the Steelers will disappoint.
Pittsburgh has 45 wins over the last four seasons, so don’t expect a flop. The Steelers probably will win the AFC North, but they won’t be the 13-3 juggernaut that missed the AFC’s top seed only because of the old catch rule.
Jesse James’ overturned TD aside, the Steelers were quite fortunate last season, winning 13 games despite the point differential of a 10- or 11-win team. They squeaked by the Browns (twice, by seven total points), the Colts (three) and the Brett Hundley-led Packers (three) while losing to the Bears and getting pummeled by the Jaguars at home, twice. Four of their five starting offensive linemen played at least 14 games, and Ben Roethlisberger played 15, health that seems unlikely to repeat.
More important, there’s no indication this defense is even passable without Ryan Shazier. The Steelers allowed 4.92 yards per play (which would rank fourth over the full season) between Weeks 1-12. Shazier got hurt early in the Week 13 game, and from that contest through the playoffs, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed 5.90 yards per play, worst in the NFL over that span.
The Steelers aren’t exactly falling apart, but the division will be tighter, and the Patriots appear further out of their reach.
3. The Chargers, however, will be the Patriots’ greatest threat in the AFC
Much like betting on the Browns, trusting the Chargers’ health and special teams of late has been a fool’s errand. The former issue already resurfaced with Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett (poor guy) lost for the season.
But don’t let those warts obscure what is the AFC’s most balanced team, which went 9-3 to close last season. After making do with patchwork protection and a no-name receiving corps for years, Philip Rivers might have his best supporting cast of this decade. Mike Pouncey was a sneaky upgrade at center, and 2017 draft picks Forrest Lamp and Mike Williams provide upside and depth without having to produce immediately.
Built on pass rush and coverage, the defense is tailor-made to protect leads, and its weakness (run defense) is one of the least punishing in today’s NFL. With Derwin James falling in their laps with the 17th pick in the draft, the Chargers might even have found the perfect piece to tie together Gus Bradley’s unit.
Torn ligaments and heartbreaking missed field goals could undo the Bolts yet again, but this team should threaten for a Super Bowl appearance.
4. It’s far too early to write off the Cardinals
Everyone forgets the team in the desert, leaving them in the NFC West basement. That’s understandable after Carson Palmer, Bruce Arians and Tyrann Mathieu left town.
But the Cardinals went 8-8 last year despite Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert combining for nine starts and David Johnson missing virtually the entire season. A horrid offense belied a defense that finished fourth in yards per play allowed (4.94). That unit lost Mathieu and switched coordinators, but the talent should translate into another top-10 unit.
On offense, the line must be steadier — not a given, despite the addition of Justin Pugh — but centering the attack around Johnson sure helps. And though his health is purely theoretical at this point, Sam Bradford can be surgical when on the field, and Josh Rosen is easily the most prepared rookie signal-caller in this class if (when) Bradford misses time.
There are all sorts of unknowns here, but the Cardinals could make noise in an NFC West that might be surprisingly jumbled.
5. Are you really counting out Andrew Luck’s team?
We won’t believe it until we see it, but all signs point to Luck actually playing this season. Maybe he won’t look like his old self, but what if he does?
It feels like ages ago, but Luck opened his career with three 11-win seasons, and the Colts won at least eight in each of his first five years, albeit in a weaker AFC South. You might argue the rest of the roster is garbage — and you might be right — but is it worse than the 2012 team, which went 2-14 to bring Luck to town?
Luck’s protection could be the best it’s ever been — not saying much, but every bit counts — and Frank Reich brings schemes from the Andy Reid/Doug Pederson tree that manufacture offense as well as any in the NFL. If Luck suddenly plays like one of the league’s best quarterbacks again, 8-8 or better is very much in play.
You can make a legitimate case for all four teams to win the AFC South, and the Jaguars and Texans are probably better bets. But watch out for Luck and the Colts if his trusty sidearm fires true once again.