Before tackling the question of who’ll compete in Super Bowl LIII, let’s take a moment to rule out a few teams that definitely won’t be in Atlanta in February.
The subject of this year’s Hard Knocks reality show, Cleveland Browns, finally made some sensible moves in the offseason, adding solid players like quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry but is that really enough to turn a 0-16 season into a playoff berth? No. But at least with Baker Mayfield on the roster, they won’t have to spend next year’s No1 pick on a quarterback.
While their Super Bowl-winning head coach Jon Gruden may be back in the league, Tampa Bay won’t get a sniff of postseason action and will likely see the end of the GM Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter era.
Speaking of Gruden, the oldest roster in the league that was just shorn of its best player – Khalil Mack, who was traded to Chicago – isn’t going to get confused with the fearsome Raiders of the ’70s and ’80s.
Long-suffering Buffalo fans will see their Bills, with Nathan Peterman starting at quarterback this weekend, fall back to earth after the excitement of returning to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years in 2017.
Expect the Bills to finish a distance from the winners of the AFC East division – New England, who, all the while Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can co-exist semi-peacefully, will remain the team to beat in the AFC. The UK’s favourite team, Jacksonville Jaguars sit on the knife edge of Blake Bortles’ performance. If the quarterback can take care of the ball and let Leonard Fournette and the ferocious Sacksonville defense do their thing, they could go a step further than the AFC Championship Game in 2018.
With Le’Veon Bell’s absence still unresolved and descending into bitterness and rancour among his linemen (never a good idea for a running back), the Steelers will struggle to add a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy to their cabinet but will have more than enough to top the AFC North.
Andy Reid and the Chiefs have handed the keys of last year’s explosive offense to Patrick Mahomes and, if the second-year passer clicks, Kansas City could surprise the LA Chargers, who look like nailed-on AFC West champs.
Those that love a happy ending will be rooting for Case Keenum to pick up where he left off at Minnesota and provide enough quarterbacking for Denver and its defense to sneak into a Wild Card spot. In the race for those spots, they’re likely to see competition from Houston, who welcome back JJ Watt and Deshaun Watson from injury, and Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee.
Over in the NFC, competition is tougher than ever. The top four teams all look stronger than in 2017. Champions Philadelphia will, eventually, welcome back QB Carson Wentz, who was playing at an MVP level before his injury last year. The Eagles have added to their defensive depth so are well-equipped to defend their Super Bowl title.
Minnesota added a bona-fide starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins to returning rusher Dalvin Cook and Mike Zimmer’s intimidating D. Sean Payton’s young Saints should be even better for their year of seasoning, plus they’ve got Drew Brees under center. The Rams, meanwhile, spent the offseason adding some of the best players in the NFL to their defense in the shape of Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.
Atlanta are two years removed from their Super Bowl meltdown but remain playoff contenders as do Carolina, who represented the NFC in 2015 and still have the inspirational Cam Newton manning the quarterback spot. Aaron Rodgers returns from injury and should lift the Packers into a Wild Card spot although arch-rivals Chicago could surprise. In Texas, without the distractions of suspension to their star rusher, Dallas’ Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will be pressing the Eagles all the way and trying to secure the return to postseason action that outspoken owner Jerry Jones craves.
This writer’s prediction is a Jacksonville v New Orleans Super Bowl that will see Bortles join the likes of Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco and Mark Rypien as unfancied quarterbacks to win a championship.