2018 NFL record projections: Will Patriots falter on road to Super Bowl LIII?
SportsPulse: Our experts weigh in on who makes the playoffs and which team is holding the Lombardi Trophy. Some of their picks might shock you. USA TODAY
It's time to dig into those playbooks and hit the ice baths.
NFL training camps begin opening this week as veterans for the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears officially report for duty. Summer vacation ends for the league's other 30 teams next week.
It won't be long after that until injuries begin to mount, holdouts potentially simmer and flare and other manners of controversy surface. But based on what I know (or think I know) as we embark on the NFL's 99th season, here's my annual prediction of how the season will unfold with record projections for each team based on picking all 256 games, plus a playoff forecast.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): Underdogs no longer, the champs may be in for a rocky start based on a rough early schedule (particularly October, which includes a Thursday night road game and trip to London) that coincides with Carson Wentz's presumed re-entry from December's ACL tear.
Dallas Cowboys (7-9): They've got seven games against 2017 playoff teams. A full season from Zeke Elliott should certainly help, but can he offset a depleted receiving corps and questions about Dak Prescott's readiness to take the next step as a franchise quarterback?
New York Giants (7-9): The Saquon and OBJ Show should be fun, but the defense could be a problem as it transitions to a new scheme that may not fit current personnel. After opening at home against the Jags, the Giants play four of six on the road.
Washington Redskins (7-9): It appears they're set up for a promising start but a brutal finish, including a stretch of four of five on the road starting with a Thanksgiving game at Dallas. But don't be surprised if this offense is better under Alex Smith than it was with Kirk Cousins.
Minnesota Vikings (12-4): Cousins' arrival creates outsized expectations for a team that had few when it steamrolled to the NFC title game last year with Case Keenum. This roster is loaded, but a change at the most important position portends trouble.
Green Bay Packers (11-5): Aaron Rodgers is back. Jimmy Graham is aboard. The defense should be far more aggressive and unpredictable under new coordinator Mike Pettine. The real issue could be navigating the NFC gauntlet — notably in October, when the Pack have one game at Lambeau.
Chicago Bears (7-9): Let's not expect them to fully replicate the Rams' model of success in 2017. But if Mitchell Trubisky is the real deal, he and new coach Matt Nagy should finally get this proud franchise pointed in a direction that could reasonably mean playoffs ... in 2019.
Detroit Lions (6-10): Could be two steps forward and one step back under rookie head coach Matt Patricia. This year will be the step back for a team that has one home game in its final four weeks.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5): Maybe, finally this is the team that will play the Super Bowl on its own turf? Matt Ryan and Co. will need a familiar quantum leap in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian that they enjoyed in a similar scenario with Kyle Shanahan in 2016. The difference with this club is a lightning quick defense that's in full bloom — the primary reason the Falcons came closest to derailing the Eagles in last season's playoffs. With five of its first seven at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta will need to make early hay to ensure its final game is there, too.
New Orleans Saints (11-5): If not for that play in Minnesota, which no one in The Big Easy would deem a "miracle," the Saints might have been Super Bowl-bound last season. Mark Ingram's suspension doesn't help the cause now, but this team — and 39-year-old Drew Brees — has enough firepower and just enough defense to get the job done this time. Weird stretch in Weeks 12-15, when the Saints play just once on a Sunday. (NOTE: In this projection, the Falcons win the division over the Saints due to a superior record in common games. New Orleans is seeded higher than the Packers due to a superior record in NFC games.)
Carolina Panthers (9-7): New ownership. New offensive coordinator (Norv Turner), whose philosophy may not jell with Cam Newton's skill set immediately. Could be some growing pains ahead in a conference where there's little margin for error.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11): Their offseason seemed encouraging ... until their quarterback got suspended.
Los Angeles Rams (12-4): The Kool-Aid is tempting. GM Les Snead made a flurry of splashy moves for a club that should control a division where every other team is in the midst of major transition. The question is whether the Rams are ready to win in January with so many new parts, mainly on defense.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9): If they get steady play from Sam Bradford (or rookie Josh Rosen), the Cards could really surprise given the return of David Johnson and play of a defense that doesn't get sufficient credit. But with Bradford's fragility and Rosen's inexperience, hard to expect too much under center.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9): We know — they'll probably go 19-0 given Jimmy Garoppolo's perfect NFL ledger. Bold Prediction Number 1: That streak ends Week 1 in Minnesota. The Niners are definitely on the road to relevance, but a challenging schedule that winds through the AFC West and NFC North suggests they're not quite ready for a postseason return.
Seattle Seahawks (4-12): Ex-LOBer Richard Sherman nailed it when he said, "They’ve lost their way." Russell Wilson could generate 100% of the offense this year, and it won't be enough for a roster that's crumbling around him.
New England Patriots (11-5): Helps when you can count on five or six wins in divisional play. Despite the turnover on offense and Julian Edelman's suspension, hard to believe they won't still cruise to a first-round bye. At minimum.
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Miami Dolphins (7-9): Coach Adam Gase says Ryan Tannehill learned a lot by watching while injured in 2017. We'll see. This team looks significantly different on both sides of the ball, which probably means consistent inconsistency.
New York Jets (4-12): They may struggle to replicate last year's surprising total of five wins. But with young talent like Sam Darnold and Jamal Adams, it appears a strong foundation is finally forming.
Buffalo Bills (3-13): They stole several games in 2017 on the way to a feel-good wild-card ride. But the O-line is decimated, the quarterback room in upheaval and a dark cloud looms over Shady McCoy. Maybe rookie Josh Allen provides promising glimpses of the future, but don't expect many. Sorry, Bills Mafia.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6):Le'Veon Bell's future promises to be a constant source of irritation, and it remains to be seen how long he'll need to round into football shape once he reports. Ryan Shazier's absence wasn't adequately addressed for a defense that quickly degraded without him at the end of 2017. The Steelers remain a threat but hard to believe they're better equipped to get over the hump in 2018.
Baltimore Ravens (7-9): They've been stuck on average for a while. Fires have been lit under Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh, but can this team generate enough heat to successfully navigate a lineup fraught with tough opponents from the AFC West and NFC South?
Cincinnati Bengals (7-9): Their situation mirrors Baltimore's with a quarterback and coach fighting to prove themselves amid a minefield schedule. At least the offensive line was upgraded.
Cleveland Browns (5-11): They could (should) win more games in September than they did the last two seasons combined ... yes, a pretty low bar to surmount. Still, this appears to be the one club in the division actually ascending ... yes, another low bar.
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4): The copious talent, swagger and physical style is reminiscent of Seattle's recent teams ... and doubtless why DT Malik Jackson is predicting a 16-0 season. Can't quite ride with you, Malik, given the open question about whether a one-dimensional offense can get the job done when it really matters.
Houston Texans (11-5): Few teams were more fun to watch than Houston before Deshaun Watson got hurt last year. He's back, and so are J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. That kind of star power — don't forget the Texans also added Tyrann Mathieu — should be enough to compensate for a worrisome group of blockers. They'll be tested immediately by opening on the road in Foxborough and Nashville.
Tennessee Titans (10-6): Hot take alert — no first-year head coach will have a bigger impact than Mike Vrabel. And a team no one seems to talk about could again make postseason noise.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14): Even if Andrew Luck has made a complete recovery, his supporting cast hasn't — crippling in a once-downtrodden division that's transformed in Luck's absence.
Los Angeles Chargers (10-6): Losing TE Hunter Henry (ACL) was a setback, and the linebacking corps seems shaky. Otherwise, a team as hot as any at the end of the 2017 season looks loaded for bear. The additions of first-round S Derwin James and — yes! — K Caleb Sturgis (85% on field goals since 2015) fuel warranted optimism.
Denver Broncos (9-7): Despite the addition of rookie Bradley Chubb, the defense may not quite be what it once was. Yet Keenum should stabilize an offense that flatlined post-Peyton, though the running game remains a relative mystery.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9): Patrick Mahomes will bring a new layer of excitement. He'll also surely bring occasional clusters of mistakes borne of inexperience to a team accustomed to Smith's steady hand. Give Mahomes a year.
Oakland Raiders (7-9): Love Jon Gruden, but he's going to need time to adapt to this generation of players and collective bargaining rules he's admittedly not accustomed to. And, yes, the players must also acclimate to Chucky and a new staff.
Wild card: (3) Steelers def. (6) Titans; (4) Chargers def. (5) Texans
Divisional: (2) Patriots def. (3) Steelers; (4) Chargers def. (1) Jaguars
AFC Championship Game: (4) Chargers def. (2) Patriots
Wild card: (3) Falcons def. (6) Packers; (5) Saints def. (4) Eagles
Divisional: (3) Falcons def. (2) Vikings; (5) Saints def. (1) Rams
NFC Championship Game: (3) Falcons def. (5) Saints
Super Bowl LIII
Falcons def. Chargers
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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