We’re still months away from the first snaps of preseason football, but we need to fill the NFL-sized void in our lives with rampant speculation. So here’s my first stab at all eight division champions.
Post-Draft NFL Division Champion Predictions
North: The Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns were the favorites to win the AFC North in 2020 before the 2019 season was even over. Hampered by a 2-6-1 start, the playoffs were out of reach for Baker Mayfield’s team by the time they got hot, winning five of their last seven. With a solid defense, a bonafide franchise quarterback, and an exciting off-season, the Browns are the best team in the division on paper.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling from losing Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in the off-season among rumors of a schism in the locker room, the Baltimore Ravens have nothing but question marks on offense, and the Cincinnati Bengals are… well… the Cincinnati Bengals.
South: The Indianapolis Colts
I’m not just on the Colts bandwagon this year, I’m driving the damn thing. I still don’t understand what happened to this team in Kansas City during the playoffs last season, but Andrew Luck’s Colts added a strong off-season to a team that won nine of their last ten games last year. This is a complete ball team with an elite quarterback, with plenty of cash in the bank.
That’s not to say you should sleep on the rest of this division. The Houston Texans are just as dangerous and I have big expectations for Deshaun Watson this season. I also think the Jacksonville Jaguars are more dangerous than people realize. Horrible quarterback play crushed their dreams in 2018, but this was a squad that actually beat the eventual Super Bowl Champions.
The Tennessee Titans are consistently on the verge of breaking out, coming off their third consecutive nine-win season. They seem to be hoping Marcus Mariota will return to 2016 form, but if not, Ryan Tannehill is waiting in the wings.
East: The New England Patriots
To quote a mad titan, the Patriots are “inevitable.” Year after year, prophets predict the downfall of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s empire, and season after season, they make it to the AFC Championship game. Since the turn of the millennium, only six of the 19 AFC Championship games that have been played didn’t include the Brady bunch. Only a fool bets against destiny.
As for the rest of the division. It’s a mixed bag. The New York Jets have a lot of young talent, but I worry about a dysfunctional front office. The Buffalo Bills have a lot to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball, but there are questions about whether Josh Allen is actually capable of being a franchise quarterback. And the Dolphins… well, they might just have the worst roster in football.
West: The Los Angeles Chargers
This is my first wild prediction, but I feel pretty good about it. The Kansas City Chiefs might have that high-flying, high-scoring offensive unit, but I don’t trust their defense. Throw in the seemingly never-ending list of controversial players and a possible suspension for Tyreek Hill and this team is just as likely to have a breakdown as they are to breakout like they did last season.
Where are Los Angeles’ weaknesses? They have a Hall of Fame quarterback, a great tailback, a loaded receiving corps, a good offensive line, Hunter Henry is finally healthy, and they bolstered an impressive defense with Jerry Tillery and Nasir Adderly. If they can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, they can be as dangerous as any team in football.
Don’t sleep on Denver, either. A great defense will only improve with the addition of head coach Vic Fangio, and Joe Flacco/Drew Lock are major upgrades over what they fielded under center last season.
And the Raiders, man, who knows? There’s no question they’re better than they were last season, but they still have holes. Who will play left guard? Can they generate a pass rush? Will Antonio Brown be the Hall of Fame caliber receiver he was in Pittsburgh or will Mr. Big Chest rear his ugly head?
North: The Minnesota Vikings
This is another bold choice, but hear me out. On paper, the Vikings really do have the best roster in the division. Sure, Kirk Cousins isn’t Aaron Rodgers, but he’s a lot better than Mitch Trubisky. And sure, Everson Griffen isn’t Khalil Mack, but I’d take him over Za’Darius Smith in a heartbeat. They’re well-rounded across the board, and people forget that they came very close to making the playoffs.
I don’t trust Chicago’s offense or Green Bay’s defense, and the Detriot Lions are just stuck in what I call, the Jeff Fischer zone, destined to never be as good or as bad as would be helpful. If the Vikings can just stay healthy, I think they’ll be really dangerous in 2019.
South: The New Orleans Saints
I’m actually not 100% sure about this one. I think the Atlanta Falcons are a lot more dangerous than people realize, and if the Saints get off to one of their notoriously slow starts, the Falcons could swoop in and steal this division. Google Matt Ryan’s numbers, and then look at how many of Atlanta’s starters were on Injured Reserve last season. It’s eye-opening.
However, I did pick the Saints, because let’s face it, they’re just too good to fail. They have so much talent on both sides of the ball, and with the exception of some late-game play-calling, a very good coach. If the Saints ended up winning the NFC, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Meanwhile, Cam Newton’s health raises a lot of questions about a Panthers team that has plateaued a bit over the last few years. As great as Christian McCaffrey is, this team needs to flesh out their offense while their defense is still a solid unit.
As for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don’t expect them to do much of anything this season. Bruce Arians is going to try and resurrect Jameis Winston’s career, and make no mistake, he is a quarterback wizard, but the rest of the roster doesn’t give me much to be optimistic about.
East: The Dallas Cowboys
I tried to come up with reasons to pick someone else, but ultimately, I just didn’t trust any of the other teams. The Dallas Cowboys are barreling towards a salary cap nightmare, but it hasn’t hit yet. They still have Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and all of their young pieces on defense. If they stick to their gameplan (run the ball, hit Cooper on play action, play nasty defense), they’ll be dangerous this season.
I liked the Redskins off-season a lot, but I wonder if Jay Gruden is holding that team back, and if Dwayne Haskins can make the leap to the pro game quickly enough for the squad to be competitive.
Meanwhile, Carson Wentz is on his own now, and this team has to prove they can win without Nick Foles. I have high hopes for Wentz and company, but playtime is over and the pressure is on.
Sadly, I don’t have a lot of faith in the New York Giants, regardless of which quarterback is throwing interceptions or breathing through their mouth.
West: The Los Angeles Rams
This one seems fairly obvious to me. Even with question marks surrounding Todd Gurley’s knees, the Los Angeles Rams have the best coach and the best roster in the division. Jared Goff needs to step up and prove he’s not just a system quarterback this season, and they did get older on defense, but I don’t see anyone else in the west that can really challenge the Rams.
The Seahawks are easily the second best squad in the NFC West, but they just lack starpower. They don’t have a lot of depth at receiver, and their defense is relying on Bobby Wagner to carry the younger talent along. I don’t know, I could see another wildcard berth in their future, but I don’t buy them challenging for the division.
The San Francisco 49ers are a mystery. Their first pick in this draft, Nick Bosa, has the same injury problems his brother does, their franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, hasn’t been able to make a meaningful impact yet, and we’re all waiting for Kyle Shanahan to prove he’s more than just the guy who blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history.
Meanwhile the Arizona Cardinals are betting everything on a 5’10 (being generous) air raid quarterback. They will go as far as he can take them. If he flops, they fail. If he thrives, then who knows? Maybe they can make something of themselves in 2019.