2016 NFL Preview

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 13:  A young Rams fan cheers during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum during preseason on August 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Rams won 28-24.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The NFL’s 97th season promises to be a compelling, wide open slate of games with a number of contenders and no clear cut favorite for Super Bowl dominance. So let’s consider a few of the big questions surrounding the 2016 campaign:

How long is the honeymoon for the NFL’s return to Los Angeles?

When the Rams hosted the Cowboys in their preseason opener, more than 89,000 fans came to the Coliseum to witness the NFL’s return to L.A. after a 21 year absence. Are those numbers sustainable if the Rams remain an underachieving .500 team?

Can Houston break the Super Bowl host city curse?

Now that the Madden Curse is all but broken, focus is finally falling on a more prominent and tangible curse: Super Bowl host cities have made the playoffs just three times in the last 22 seasons, and no team has even played in the conference championship game when the Super Bowl is in its home stadium. In fact, the closest we’ve ever come to a team playing a Super Bowl at home is when the L.A. Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Rose Bowl (14 miles from The Coliseum) in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl. Are the Texans the team to reverse the curse?

Can the two longest playoff droughts end?

The Music City Miracle isn’t just one of the most painful memories Bills fans have…it’s the only postseason memory they have in the new millennium. The Bills haven’t been in the playoffs in the 16 years since, and you’d have to go back to the 1993 season to see their last playoff victory.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders are in the midst of perhaps the longest Super Bowl hangover ever — a 14 year playoff drought since getting blown out in Super Bowl XXXVII, and haven’t posted a winning record in just as long. Which streak (if either) will end? The answer might surprise you.

Is this the year the NFL has its first 2,000 yard receiver?

In the offseason, Julio Jones brought up the possibility of an NFL first: a 2,000 yard receiver. The continued emphasis on passing in today’s NFL certainly makes this realistic but it would take unparalleled consistency between an elite quarterback and elite receiver. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the most likely pair to do it…but will they stay healthy and productive enough to pull it off, or will another dynamic duo make history?

How will the league’s new rules effect the 2016 season?

Now that multiple personal foul penalties will get a player ejected, it makes the potential for another Josh Norman vs. Odell Beckham bout that much more compelling. The NFL continues its bid to phase out the kickoff so it’ll be interesting to see if the new touchback rule aids that effort or backfires completely.

OK, those are enough questions. It’s time for division-by-division answers.

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 26:  Cornerback Will Blackmon #41 of the Washington Redskins and defensive back Josh Norman #24 of the Washington Redskins celebrate a third quarter fumble recovery during the game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills at FedExField on August 26, 2016 in Landover, Maryland. The Redskins defeated the Bills 21-16.  (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
NFC East

Redskins 11-5

The Redskins haven’t won back-to-back division titles in 32 years, and nobody’s won the NFC East in consecutive seasons since 2004.

Both streaks end this season…by default.

The Skins will play a first place schedule — which generally doesn’t mean anything — but this year, it translates to Washington playing defensive world beaters Arizona and Carolina. Couple that with the division-wide misfortune of facing the AFC North, and gaudy records won’t be in the cards for the NFC East.

That said, the Redskins are more talented than they were last year. Kirk Cousins is better after a productive offseason, Jordan Reed is healthy (and well paid) after his 2015 coming out party, and DeSean Jackson looks extra motivated in a contract year. Josh Norman brings swagger and star power to a defense desperate for both, Preston Smith looks poised for a breakout sophomore season, and rookie Su’a Cravens has shown signs that he can be a difference maker.

That should be enough to overcome the stagnant rushing attack and a shaky defensive line that didn’t add any notable help in the offseason. With only one or two juggernaut offenses on the schedule, don’t be surprised to see the Skins not only repeat as division champs, but actually make a deep playoff run 25 years after their last Super Bowl.

Giants 8-8

Last year, Big Blue came up mighty small late in games, losing five games they led in the 4th quarter. So the Giants spent $114 million in guaranteed money to four defensive free agents (Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Jason Pierre-Paul) and added ex-Redskin linebacker Keenan Robinson to help breathe life into one of the league’s worst defenses. Management thinks they’ve got something good but I’m not sold on the notion that simply dumping a two-time Super Bowl winner (Tom Coughlin) for a young offensive coordinator (Ben McAdoo) who was also a part of the back-to-back 6-10 seasons will fix what ails the Giants.

The ground game remains a question mark, but Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. will continue to play catch in opposing secondaries and the long-awaited return of Victor Cruz can only help matters. That will keep New York competitive, but I see them fading down the stretch after a fast start, which will allow the Redskins to clinch the division before their Week 17 tilt.

Cowboys 7-9

Despite the growing preseason legend of Dak Prescott (even in his own mind), the reality is this: Any Dallas prediction has to be predicated on the health of Tony Romo. The Cowboys are 10-23 without him since he took over the starting job in 2006 and over their last 36 games, the Cowboys are 17-5 with Romo and 1-13 without him.

However, the rest of the offense looks good with Dez Bryant back healthy, rookie Ezekiel Elliott bringing big play ability to the backfield, and ex-Redskin Alfred Morris providing at least a good change of pace option behind the best offensive line in football.

It’s not so sunny on defense though; the unit opens the year with multiple key suspensions–Randy Gregory (10), Rolando McClain (10 games), and Demarcus Lawrence (4) — and the secondary has more questions than answers. With a patchwork D and an offense led by a rookie at least half the season, count on a very slow start but a competitive finish for not-so-big D.

Eagles 6-10

Though there’s evidence to the contrary, Philadelphia thinks they’ve got a link to their glory years with new coach Doug Pederson taking the helm. The former Andy Reid assistant says he’ll keep elements of predecessor Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense in place, but the fact of the matter is they don’t have as good a QB situation as their investment in it suggests: Sam Bradford’s inexplicably arrogant holdout indirectly led to his trade, Chase Daniel comes to town to be a present-day Todd Collins, and the Eagles gave up a bounty of picks for Carson Wentz, who was pegged for a redshirt season before the Bradford trade (and is already banged up). Add in the 10-game suspension of offensive lineman Lane Johnson, and there isn’t much reason to believe this will be a top flight unit.

However, the defense seems to be in good hands with Jim Schwartz. His squad was flying around, creating turnovers in the preseason and he brought linebacker Stephen Tulloch to Philly just before preseason. If Schwartz can keep the D swarming in the regular season, the Eagles could be more competitive than expected.

(Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 26:  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers throws a pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the first half of their preseason football game at Levi's Stadium on August 26, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
NFC North

Packers 9-7

This lackluster record attached to Green Bay may surprise some. Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in football and his top target, Jordy Nelson, is back from injury to help bolster what could be a very potent offense.

However, I’m a bit nervous about the Packer defense. I was concerned about possible suspensions for Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, but both were cleared of any wrongdoing alleged in the infamous Al Jazeera PED report. That means Matthews is back to his familiar spot at outside linebacker, and a young secondary provides some upside. If Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have good sophomore seasons, Green Bay could be a Super Bowl contender — and make me look stupid for not picking them to win 12 games.

Bears 8-8

When one of the Long boys says be respectful, I get respectful.

Seriously though…John Fox enters his second season in Chicago and that bodes well for Bears fans: in his two previous stops in Carolina and Denver, Fox has never had a winning first season but made a huge step forward in Year 2.

Fox’s Bears will be respectable, but won’t make the jump to double digit wins. Chicago has an inexperienced backfield on offense and defense (ranked 28th and 31st, respectively, in Pro Football Focus), and will need big contributions from the pass rush and the passing game to be competitive. If preseason struggles are any indication, Jay Cutler already misses Adam Gase and Jeremy Langford might not be the long-term answer at running back. Change for the better will blow into the Windy City, just not in 2016.

Vikings 7-9

I was prepared to anoint Minnesota back-to-back NFC North champs and a legit Super Bowl contender — and then Teddy Bridgewater suffered a freak knee injury. While I picked all the Vikings’ games with the assumption that 36-year-old journeyman Shaun Hill would be the starting QB, I doubt the newly-acquired Sam Bradford will move that prediction more than a game or two (and maybe not in a positive direction).

So Adrian Peterson will need to carry the load like he has in years past, but he’s 31 now and has been on a winning team just four out of his nine seasons in Minnesota. The defense returns most of the unit that ranked 5th in scoring defense last season, but it’s not a great unit that dominates games like Denver’s. Mike Zimmer’s Vikings are well coached so they’ll be competitive — but missing a good young QB on the verge of a breakout season is too much to overcome.

Lions 6-10

The arrow is pointed down in Motown for reasons far beyond Calvin Johnson’s retirement. Jim Caldwell has proven his first season is typically his best; 25 of his 44 career victories came in his first season in Indy and Detroit.

With Megatron gone, Matthew Stafford’s top receivers become Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and the ancient Anquan Boldin. This is bad news for an offense that has lacked a consistent rushing attack for most of the years since Barry Sanders retired.

Detroit’s D has little to roar about beyond Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah so expect the Lions to assume their familiar position in the division basement.

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) throws against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
NFC West

Cardinals 12-4

When we last saw Carson Palmer, he had six turnovers in a 49-15 NFC Championship game loss to the Panthers. While that ended Arizona’s 2015 season, it’ll drive their 2016 campaign.

Two-time coach of the year Bruce Arians will make sure of that. The coolest coach in the league has a loaded defense: The Cards dealt for pass rusher Chandler Jones and have high expectations for the ex-Patriot. Tyrann Mathieu is healthy and paid (more than anyone at his position, I might add), giving Arizona playmakers at every level of their D.

On offense, Palmer has a lot to prove but he’s also got a ton of help: David Johnson is a star in the making, the Cardinals’ deep receiving corps could have multiple breakout performers, and Larry Fitzgerald is now old enough to warrant a “win one for Larry” movement. Even if Palmer can’t completely shake off his postseason demons, the title drought in the desert may finally be over.

Seahawks 10-6

Brandon Browner and Chris Clemons return to a defense that is the only unit in NFL history to lead the league in points allowed for four consecutive seasons. ‘Nuff said.

With the Seattle defense as strong as ever, question marks surround the offense. Jahri Evans was added to a shaky O-line (and subsequently released), and Christine Michael goes from journeyman bust to starting RB. If Russell Wilson’s celebrity status stays out of the way of his progress as a quarterback, the Seahawks could push Arizona for division — and conference — supremacy.

Rams 6-10

Hard Knocks and a relocation? That’s too much for a team with no QB to overcome.

Overall No. 1 pick Jared Goff doesn’t look ready at QB which means Case Keenum enters the season as the starter. This begs the question: If Goff can’t immediately beat out an undrafted journeyman, is he worth the haul required to trade up to the top pick of the draft?

On the plus side, Todd Gurley is healthy and looks like he’s ready to take the baton from Adrian Peterson for title of league’s best RB, giving Los Angeles fans reason to come to the Coliseum in droves.

Unfortunately, that’s the extent of the good.

Janoris Jenkins, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis are gone from the Rams defense so it’s the Aaron Donald Show, and while he’s a game changer, he can’t do it alone.

A 10-loss campaign would give Jeff Fisher the NFL record for most career coaching losses. That might be the most notable part of Year 1 of the Rams’ return to L.A.

49ers 4-12

San Fran stunned the football world by hiring Chip Kelly. For one, Kelly is only the second 49ers head coach since the 1970 merger who entered the job with NFL head coaching experience (Dennis Erickson was the other one, so not a good omen). For two, Kelly getting another shot so soon after literally ruining the Eagles is amazing.

While a certain Niners great doubts it, Kelly runs an effective offense and he’s got some good pieces. The team loaded up on offensive lineman, perhaps none better than Anthony Davis, who returns after a year long sabbatical. He’ll help protect Blaine Gabbert, who sent Colin Kaepernick to the bench (but I hear he likes to sit anyway).

The key takeaway is this: Blaine Gabbert is the starting quarterback. That’s why the 49ers are season-long underdogs and why they’ll be in the mix for the top pick in the 2017 Draft.

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, right, celebrates with Keyarris Garrett (15) after a play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of a preseason NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
NFC South

Panthers 11-5

Carolina comes off a stunning 15-win season that fell just short of a Super Bowl title. The two-loss campaign isn’t the only thing that’ll be tough to replicate: Cam Newton’s 45 TDs and the 6th-ranked defense figure to fade a bit in 2016.

Newton thinks he’ll be more efficient (and I’m paraphrasing Cam to avoid this hilarious double entendre) in 2016 and getting Kelvin Benjamin back will certainly help. Ironically, the Panthers will need the offense to carry more of the load because the defense promises to take a step back: the secondary is without three starters from last season (including the inexplicably released Josh Norman) and perilously thin at safety.

This won’t keep Carolina from winning their 4th straight division title, but it will likely keep them from making a return trip to a Super Bowl in Houston.

Falcons 7-9

Year 2 of the Dan Quinn Era in Atlanta figures to look a lot like Year 1: a good stretch will make you fall in love with them but they’ll ultimately disappoint. The offense is lucky to have a productive trio of Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones. However, that’s about all they’ve got behind a good and improving offensive line.

The defense is where to expect trouble. First round rookie Keanu Neal is out for the first month of the season with a knee injury, making an already shaky secondary look worse. If Vic Beasley comes around and helps the front seven generate more consistent pressure, perhaps the Falcons can make the NFC South a bit more interesting.

Saints 7-9

It’s hard to get a good feel for New Orleans this year. Drew Brees is still a top QB but he’s 37 and playing in the final year of his contract. Now that Marques Colston has retired, Brandin Cooks is suddenly the elder statesman of a young receiving corps and Coby Fleener is struggling to find a role in the high octane Saints offense. It’ll probably still be a productive unit, but not good enough to overcome what is still an awful Saints defense.

The D added James Laurinaitis in the middle but lost defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha for the season (torn ACL), leaving many questions along the front seven. The secondary got better by simply releasing Brandon Browner and if Delvin Breaux takes another positive step forward, the defense in the Crescent City could be decent.

Bucs 5-11

I’m still scratching my head over Tampa’s offseason. First, the Bucs opted to fire Lovie Smith rather than lose Dirk Koetter to another team, dropping a proven NFL head coach with playoff experience in favor of a good-but-not-great offensive coordinator who’s only a year younger than his predecessor. Then, the Buccaneers took a kicker in the second round who has psyched himself out even before playing a regular season game.

Yes, Koetter helped Jameis Winston put together a good rookie season. Yes, he has a freakishly big and fast group of receivers to throw to. Yes, Doug Martin had a great bounce back season and figures to lead a solid rushing attack.

But that’s all dependent upon the offensive line holding up, especially along the shaky left side. The defense has just as many questions, with everyone not named Gerald McCoy or Lavonte David proving expendable. Winston is good, but asking a sophomore QB to win a shootout every week rarely ends well.

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in East Rutherford.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AFC East

Patriots 11-5

For the first time since 2001, someone not named Tom Brady will start New England’s season opener. Brady lost his battle to buck a BS suspension (just ask Ben Affleck) and will sit out the first four games. Jimmy Garapolo need only pass over the middle though; the addition of Martellus Bennett makes the Pats’ ridiculously deep at tight end, so the Gronk/Bennett combo should be formidable.

But that’s if the offensive line holds up. Oft-injured former first round pick Jonathan Cooper is already hurt, Sebastian Vollmer is likely done for the season, and there’s been shuffling across the board.

The defense traded away Chandler Jones but acquired Barkevious Mingo in a trade with Cleveland so there shouldn’t be a significant drop off from the front seven. The secondary is underrated and should remain a key component of what figures to again be a top-10 defense.

We’ve seen the Pats play mad after getting nailed on cheating allegations. It’s not good for the rest of the league. So I put my money on this scenario: Brady comes back pissed and good as ever, New England easily wins its 13th division title in 14 years, and advances to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

Jets 8-8

The Summer of Fitz ended with the predictable outcome: Ryan Fitzpatrick had no other suitors, and the New York Jets never really had anyone in the building capable of replacing him, so after a few months of playing chicken, the two sides got a deal done to bring the 33-year-old journeyman back to Gotham. While Fitz may be good for a few laughs, I have a feeling he’ll further vex the Jets when he fails to repeat his breakout 2015 performance.

It’s not necessarily a shot at Fitz either: oft-injured Ryan Clady replaces the retired D’Brickashaw Furguson at left tackle and the offensive line doesn’t otherwise appear to be the strength it once was. Matt Forte is a nice option at RB, but at 30, the wheels could fall off at any moment. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker are one of the best WR tandems, but there’s not much depth behind them.

Defensively, the Jets wisely got a deal done with Muhammad Wilkerson to help solidify the line, which they’ll need considering Darrelle Revis might be the only real asset at corner. New York surprised some people last year, but now that people know what to expect, it’ll be harder for the Jets to break .500.

Dolphins 8-8

Miami’s management may be pleased with their offseason, but I’m not so impressed. On the plus side, new coach Adam Gase brings his new up tempo offense to South Beach and added Arian Foster to a lagging run game just before training camp. As has seemingly been the case throughout his career to date, Ryan Tannehill is in a pivotal year, again needing to prove he’s the long term answer at QB.

There are some big names on the Dolphins D — Mario Williams, Cameron Wake and Ndamakong Suh on the defensive front alone —but it’s just a “meh” unit overall. So with an average offense and average defense, expect another average season in Miami.

Bills 5-11

If Rex and Rob Ryan are in fact going for broke in Buffalo, I hope they have some savings to fall back on.

The hits came early and often for the Bills D: Prized second round pick Reggie Ragland is out for the season and Marcell Dareus will miss four games due to a substance abuse violation that has also landed him in rehab. That puts the front seven in some trouble to start the season, so the secondary — headlined by Defensive Rookie of the Year Ronald Darby — will need to play at an elite level to keep the unit from getting gashed in the season’s first month.

There’s some continuity on offense, though: QB Tyrod Taylor spent 2015 proving he can be a good NFL starter, and was paid accordingly in the offseason. Considering he’s got few targets beyond Sammy Watkins, Taylor will need to play like a franchise QB and get plenty of help from LeSean McCoy and the ground game to keep Buffalo relevant. (UPDATE: Seantrel Henderson’s 4-game suspension won’t help matters.)

The Bills have some talent but in an increasingly difficult division and road trips to Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles, the Ryan brothers will have to be the Wonder Twins to end Buffalo’s 16-year playoff drought.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 09:  A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
AFC North

Bengals 12-4

I’ve done these previews for almost a decade and the most difficult part of this task is always trying to handicap Cincinnati. This year, however, I’m feeling really confident the Bengals can keep pace with the Steelers (at least in the standings). That said, the offense could sputter early with Tyler Eifert still recovering from ankle surgery, the receiving corps seeking replacements for the departed Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and Pro-Bowler Cedric Peerman likely out for the season. That means Andy Dalton will need to stay healthy and productive behind one of the best O-lines in football.

The defense lost some youth when top 2016 draft pick William Jackson tore a pectoral muscle in training camp and 4th rounder (but expected contributor) Andrew Billings to a knee injury that will cost him most of his rookie season (at best). Geno Atkins will need to stay dominant and the Benglas need more from Dre Kirkpatrick, but this should still be a top-10 defense to keep Cincy among the AFC’s title contenders.

Steelers 12-4

Folks, here’s the NFL’s best offense.

And Pittsburgh knows it. There’s talk in that building of putting up 30 points per game and I don’t disagree. Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career, Antonio Brown is the best WR in the league, and LeVeon Bell is back from a knee injury in a contract year (though he’ll miss the season’s first three games due to suspension). So expect DeAngelo Williams to play well in his stead and the offensive line to hold up well if Ryan Harris can fortify the left side. The only real concern comes at tight end, where Heath Miller is retired and Ladarius Green has struggled to stay on the field.

The big question is whether the defense can properly compliment such a prolific offense. Pro Football Focus ranks the Steelers’ front seven as 25th in the league and Bud Dupree won’t be around to help for much of the season (he’s on IR with designation to return). The secondary isn’t much better so first round pick Artie Burns will need to contribute immediately. If the D can play above expectations, Pittsburgh might come close to putting a ring on the other hand.

Ravens 10-6

Baltimore loves playing in Olympic years. No, not because of local product Michael Phelps; the Ravens have posted a winning record in every leap year (not including their inaugural 1996 season). The injury bug bit Baltimore early and often 2015, sending 20 players to injured reserve and that’s a major reason why they fell so hard in the standings. There might be a slow start to this year as Joe Flacco works his way back from a knee injury and copes with losing Ben Watson for the season, but Steve Smith is back and really motivated. The running game returns Justin Forsett to the fold but rookie Kenneth Dixon is already banged up.

The defense added safety Eric Weddle in free agency and he’ll have impact on what was a lousy secondary last year. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil return from injury to help bring splash plays back to the Inner Harbor, and their health will determine whether the D can withstand challenges from potent offenses in Pittsburgh (twice), Jacksonville, Washington and New England. This could be another losing campaign in Baltimore but I believe John Harbaugh — with the help of three former head coaches on his staff — will get the most of his roster and get the Ravens back in the wild card hunt.

Browns 5-11

Maybe I just really liked Believeland…but I like what the Browns are doing (even if Vegas disagrees).

Hue Jackson is the 8th head coach of the Cleveland Browns since 2003 — and he’s probably the best. He once resuscitated Jason Campbell’s career in Oakland and he’s got the chance to salvage another failed former Redskins QB in Robert Griffin III. RGIII will have his old Baylor buddy Josh Gordon back from suspension in Week 5 and another former Bear (Corey Coleman) to throw to. Duke Johnson will need to have a strong sophomore season behind a shaky offensive line but the key is Griffin: If he’s even remotely close to who he was in 2012 and Gordon can recapture his 2013 form, Cleveland can make the same kind of first year leap Jackson’s Raiders did in 2011.

However, it’ll be tough to overcome the defensive deficiencies. Pass rusher Barkevious Mingo was dealt to New England and the unit will be Bryant-less for at least a month (Armonty is serving a 4-game suspension and 2015 sack leader Desmond is out for the season with a torn pectoral). Cleveland’s front seven figures to be the worst in football and the secondary isn’t nearly good enough to pick up the slack. I think the well-coached Browns will sneak up on some people and win just enough to avoid earning the first pick in the 2017 Draft.

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Derek Carr #4 of the Oakland Raiders talks to his teammates on the sidelines during their preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum on September 1, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
AFC West

Raiders 10-6

If the Raiders leave Oakland, they might go out on a high note.

Jack Del Rio is doing a fine job of changing the culture in Oakland. Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson bring playoff experience to a defense that seems poised to make a move into the league’s top-10. Khalil Mack and Dan Williams could be dominant up front and first-round safety Karl Joseph could be a steal, helping an overachieving secondary in 2015 become a top flight unit in 2016.

The schedule sets up for the Raiders to start hot, led by one of the all-time hottest young QBs in the game, Derek Carr. He and Amari Cooper are destined to become one of the league’s top passing duos, and could get some help from Latavius Murray, Clive Walford, and a nasty offensive line. If this group of youngsters comes of age sooner rather than later, it could be a special season in the Bay Area.

Broncos 8-8

Denver just had a lousy offseason by any measure: For the second time in 17 years, Denver has a gaping hole at QB fresh off a Super Bowl title. Trevor Siemian beat out a rookie and a man best known for The Butt Fumble, so it’s hard not to see him as simply as Bubby Brister 2.0.

That said, Siemian has Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to throw to so he won’t be a total fail. But without a strong rushing attack to back him up, and an offensive line that underwent a lot of turnover, this could be a decidedly mediocre offense.

Adding to the rough offseason, Denver’s top corner (Aqib Talib) blew a hole in his leg, and the Broncos managed to re-sign their best player to a long-term contract (Super Bowl MVP Von Miller) only after a long, contentious negotiation. The D returns nine of their 11 Super Bowl starters so they should remain dominant, but the division got better — so the Broncos will have a mile high climb just to return to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl.

Chiefs 8-8

Kansas City went on an 11-game tear last year, but this year is a tough team to predict; Alex Smith isn’t spectacular or terrible, he’s just OK. That’s also a great way to describe the Chiefs as a whole.

Smith and the offense welcome Jamaal Charles back from injury to a running back corps that, along with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, comprises one of the deepest in the NFL. The O-line lost Ben Grubbs and Jeff Allen, which could put a dent in the offensive production, but Smith is a proven winner and I’m done betting against him.

The pass rush could suffer early in the season with Justin Houston on the physically unable to perform list, but that should only be a temporary setback. Eric Berry’s return to the secondary should be a boost on and off the field, but not enough to send KC to the playoffs in a suddenly stacked division.

Chargers 7-9

Were it not for Denver, San Diego might have had the worst offseason in the AFC West.

The long, contentious Joey Bosa holdout headlined the Chargers’ summer and perhaps set reasonable expectations for Bosa’s rookie season pretty low. That’s bad news for a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league last season and is relying on Corey Liuget (coming off injury) and Brandon Mebane (delusional former Seahawk added in free agency) to not only shore up a questionable front seven, but make life easier for a secondary without the departed Eric Weddle.

The 34-year-old Philip Rivers and his quality receiving corps are just about the only things to feel good about on offense. The line isn’t much better than the porous squad that struggled in 2015 and Melvin Gordon has a lot to atone for after a lackluster rookie season (six fumbles, only 3.5 yards per carry). In a tough division, a team that’s bad along the offensive and defensive lines can’t compete unless their QB carries them…and that’s what I expect from Rivers and the Bolts.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 28: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars scrambles out of the pocket during the first quarter of the preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Field on August 28, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
AFC South

Jaguars 10-6

I’m about to say three words that have perhaps never been spoken: I love Jacksonville.

Even though head coach Gus Bradley has a defensive background, his offense could be great. The passing game is keyed by the historically productive trio of Blake Bortles, Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson and have the potential for a solid one-two punch in the ground attack with Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon.

The Jags spent heavily on defense, adding Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson and Malik Jackson in free agency, and Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Sheldon Day via the draft. And that’s not to mention last year’s top pick — Dante Fowler — back from injury. That’s a huge (and necessary) infusion of talent for the 31st ranked scoring defense in 2015.

If the O-line can keep Bortles upright, and the defense can rank at least in the middle of the pack, this could be every bit as special as last year was for the other 1995 expansion team.

Texans 9-7

Houston had a problem on offense and they went all in on correcting it. They overspent for Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller, but both should represent big upgrades. DeAndre Hopkins ended his contract holdout so Osweiler will have a quality target to throw to along with rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. But Osweiler’s sample size is small (only seven career starts) so I don’t expect to see big numbers from an inexperienced QB in a new offense.

The defense was good in 2015 but it’s less than a guarantee this year. JJ Watt is fresh off back surgery so may not be his dominant self to start the regular season. Jadeveon Clowney had a monster preseason but his history suggests either injury or distraction will keep him from maintaining that level of play. If second-year corner Kevin Johnson solidifies a good Texans secondary, they could hold off Jacksonville to repeat as division champs.

Colts 6-10

I’m going to say what most seem hesitant to say: Andrew Luck is overrated. I don’t care that he just got the richest contract in NFL history. He didn’t look like a franchise QB in training camp, and the “he’s playing in another new offense” excuse doesn’t jive since John Elway — the player Luck is most compared to — had the same problem in Denver. Elway led the Broncos to a second straight Super Bowl appearance in his fifth season, while Luck would be…well, lucky, if Indy even makes the playoffs this season.

Luck has a below average offensive line in front of him: an ancient running back (33-year-old Frank Gore) behind him, and don’t expect much help from a defense relying on 32-year-old Antonio Cromartie to prop up a depleted secondary that will be without Vontae Davis until October. These Colts look closer to the glue factory than the Super Bowl, and a .500 season would be a best case scenario.

Titans 3-13

Here’s something we never say about Tennessee: They might be really fun to watch. The offense is described as “exotic smashmouth” led by second year QB Marcus Mariota and a potentially solid one-two punch at running back after trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting reigning Heisman-winner Derrick Henry.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t lead to many wins.

Mariota has a lackluster group of targets in the passing game and the defense did little to improve the 27th-ranked scoring defense from 2015. That’s not to mention they ended their coaching search with retread Mike Mularkey — last year’s interim coach who’s never lasted more than two years in a gig. The Titans will play some people close and steal a couple of division games out of familiarity, but everyone in the NFC North and AFC West is better than Tennessee and it’ll show in the standings.

(Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass the ball during the first half of a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Awards:

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Karl Joseph
Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Brown
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyrann Mathieu
Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians
MVP: Ben Roethlisberger

Super Bowl LI: Cardinals over Patriots

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 13:  A young Rams fan cheers during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum during preseason on August 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Rams won 28-24.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 26:  Cornerback Will Blackmon #41 of the Washington Redskins and defensive back Josh Norman #24 of the Washington Redskins celebrate a third quarter fumble recovery during the game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills at FedExField on August 26, 2016 in Landover, Maryland. The Redskins defeated the Bills 21-16.  (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 26:  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers throws a pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the first half of their preseason football game at Levi's Stadium on August 26, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) throws against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, right, celebrates with Keyarris Garrett (15) after a play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of a preseason NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in East Rutherford.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 09:  A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Derek Carr #4 of the Oakland Raiders talks to his teammates on the sidelines during their preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum on September 1, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 28: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars scrambles out of the pocket during the first quarter of the preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Field on August 28, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass the ball during the first half of a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

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