Early Top Contenders for Next Year's Super Bowl
Before we turn the page to the 2019 season, congratulations to the New England Patriots for a successful year that concluded with a Super Bowl LIII victory in Atlanta on Sunday. As they prepare for their parade, we'll get a jump on next season's top contenders.
It'd be easy to plug in 2018's final four teams plus a consistent playoff squad as the cream of the crop primed for runs at the Lombardi Trophy. However, this campaign featured a trio of new squads in the conference championship round. The Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, who reached the final four last term, didn't clinch playoff spots this time around.
The New Orleans Saints didn't surprise anyone as viable challengers for a title after a brutal loss in the NFC divisional round last year. Drew Brees' production tapered off late in 2018; he turned 40 in January. Running back Mark Ingram II's potential departure in free agency would deal a significant blow to the offense. Those issues cloud the club's path next season.
The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears rose from the bottom of their divisions to playoff squads this year. Will something similar happen in the next campaign?
Before draft season gets into full swing, we'll profile five teams with the best chances to headline Super Bowl LIV in Miami Gardens.
For the first time under head coach Dan Quinn, the Atlanta Falcons finished with a sub-.500 record. Injuries on the defensive side of the ball played a part in the team's struggles. Linebacker Deion Jones (foot) along with safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) missed most of the year. Assuming they return healthy and safety Damontae Kazee flashes as a ball hawk again, this club should field a unit that's much better than 25th in points allowed.
Injuries also dealt significant blows to the Falcons ground game. Starting guards Andy Levitre (triceps) and Brandon Fusco (ankle) also missed a majority of the campaign. The former will likely hit the open market at 32 years old; the latter has two more years on his deal.
An upgrade at guard and a healthy Devonta Freeman (groin) in the backfield should give returning offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter the confidence to call more runs. Atlanta ranked 30th in rushing attempts in 2018.
During Koetter's first play-calling stint in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014, the offense ranked in the top 10 in yards twice and in scoring once. Quarterback Matt Ryan logged at least 4,500 yards and a 66.1 completion rate in each of those seasons with two Pro Bowl bids. The familiarity between the coordinator and signal-caller bodes well for a passing attack that features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu on the perimeter.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter, defensive end Takkarist McKinley is "fine" after undergoing a mental evaluation in January. He led the team in sacks with seven in 2018. As the defensive play-caller, Quinn needs to rediscover Vic Beasley Jr.'s 2016 form to strengthen the front line. Atlanta could also opt to draft a pass-rusher to increase its pocket pressure. Either way, the Falcons have few glaring holes and enough talent to reach their second Super Bowl in four years.
The Colts exceeded outside expectations in 2018. Quarterback Andrew Luck returned to action. Indianapolis started 1-5 but finished 10-6 and then knocked off the AFC South champion Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round.
Luck reconnected with wideout T.Y. Hilton and established a fresh rapport with Eric Ebron, who recorded 13 touchdown receptions, tying Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams for second-most in the league among pass-catchers.
More importantly, Luck meshed with head coach Frank Reich in their first year together. Upon his return from a significant shoulder injury, he released the ball before pass-rushers could lay a hand on him. The offensive line only allowed 18 sacks during the regular season.
General manager Chris Ballard also drafted two All-Pros last offseason. Guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard became the first pair of rookie teammates since Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers to earn that honor. Both players brought physicality to the Colts' new identity.
Ballard also signed an unheralded pass-rusher in Denico Autry, who can close games with pocket pressure from multiple spots across the defensive line. He led the team with nine sacks.
According to Spotrac, the front office has $107.6 million in cap space. The funds will allow the team to add a solid No. 2 wide receiver or bolster the defense. Since the Colts reached the AFC divisional round with a healthy Luck under center, Indianapolis seems like an attractive destination for top free agents.
If the Colts cannot or decide not to pursue upgrades via free agency, Ballard has three draft picks within the top 60 selections to fill holes. Based on his previous draft class, there's a good chance he lands a couple of rookies capable of further strengthening the roster for the 2019 campaign.
Kansas City Chiefs
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes earned league MVP honors after logging 5,097 yards and 50 touchdown passes in a stellar second season. At 23 years old, he became the youngest to win the award since Hall of Famer Dan Marino in 1984.
While many thought Mahomes would flourish under head coach Andy Reid, he took the league by storm and helped lead his squad to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs fell short of Super Bowl LIII, but they should return to the mix next year because of their electric offense that features an accurate cannon-armed signal-caller.
Mahomes will have tight end Travis Kelce along with wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins to keep the unit within the top three in yards and scoring.
General manager Brett Veach must acquire assets to shore up the secondary, but the club tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most sacks (52) this season. If the front office re-signs edge-rusher Dee Ford, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have a front seven to build upon as he reshapes the pass defense.
The Chiefs have won three consecutive division titles under Reid. With a prolific offensive attack and impact defensive acquisitions likely on the way, Kansas City should remain an AFC powerhouse.
Los Angeles Rams
After the regular season ended, clubs that had fired their coaches hoped to hire the next Sean McVay—a young, innovative head coach capable of elevating the starting quarterback. In a copycat league, emulation speaks to the Rams' success.
In a short period, McVay turned the Rams into the gold standard in the NFC West and an offensive juggernaut. The club has won division titles in each of the last two years.
The 33-year-old skipper praised defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith), who managed multiple high-profile veteran personalities, including Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh.
The Rams didn't take the long route to contention through year-to-year draft development. General manager Les Snead looked at a roster that finished 11-5 in 2017 and added notable veterans to propel it into the Super Bowl picture. The approach worked; it's likely Los Angeles will continue to keep its feet on the gas pedal in the offseason to capitalize as Jared Goff plays on his rookie deal.
Snead may not keep the same veteran names on the books. Suh, edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and guard Rodger Saffold have expiring contracts. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, left tackle Andrew Whitworth isn't a lock to play out the final year of his contract.
Don't expect the front office to go conservative during free agency while the team can attract quality veteran talent. Though he isn't needed, wide receiver DeSean Jackson expressed interest in playing for the Rams.
Los Angeles has arguably the league's top running back, Todd Gurley, best defensive player, Aaron Donald, a young coach on the rise and a developing franchise signal-caller. With those organizational cornerstones, the front office can mix and match components and still experience success. The Rams could have another shot at a Super Bowl title this time next year.
New England Patriots
Until quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick retire, it's fair to assume the Patriots will have a shot to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. Let's stop falling for headlines that project or insinuate this club won't be a factor in the postseason.
The Patriots have reached four Super Bowls in the last five years. In his age-41 campaign, Brady's passing numbers only slightly dipped from 2017—certainly not enough to put New England in danger of missing the playoffs. He's aged biologically but still performs at a higher level than most at the position.
Brady told ESPN's Jeff Darlington there's "zero" chance he'll retire after Sunday. With him at the helm and still sharp, the Patriots should have a high-end offensive attack. Sure, New England must retool the receiving corps with wideout Josh Gordon suspended indefinitely and Chris Hogan headed for free agency. Tight end Rob Gronkowski will likely mull retirement.
Nonetheless, running back Sony Michel will ease the pressure on Brady. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels remains a play-calling mastermind. He's exploited opponents' weaknesses and accentuated his group's strengths for 10 years in New England. On his watch, the offense has always ranked eighth or better in scoring.
The Patriots last year lost longtime defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who became the Detroit Lions head coach, but still ranked seventh in scoring defense this season. Despite roster and coaching staff turnover, New England has landed in the top 10 in scoring defense in 15 of Belichick's 19 seasons.
Under Belichick, the Patriots have played top-notch situational football, which poses obstacles for opposing offenses. Brady and the consistent defensive unit should put this team back in Super Bowl contention.