B/R NFL Expert Picks for 2019 Division Winners
It's still a while until the NFL regular-season opener between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears on Sept. 5.
But we're getting there.
On Wednesday, veterans and rookies alike reported for the Denver Broncos. Over the next week or so, players across the league will do the same. All have the same goal—making it Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
Of course, that goal is more realistic for some teams than others, and before any squad can make it to the biggest game in sports, it has to make the playoffs.
The surest way to do so is to avoid the wild-card morass and win the division.
A lot can (and will) happen between now and the end of the regular season, but it's never too early for a little prognostication. With that in mind, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report gathered to make some pre-camp predictions for the league's eight division-winners.
Note: The writers who participated in this panel are NFL Analyst Gary Davenport, NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman, NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon, Lefkoe Show Host Adam Lefkoe, NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller, NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski and NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier.
One the NFL's biggest stars, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, and actor Rob Riggle, stop by The Lefkoe Show to talk about Patrick Mahomes, Shark Week, and more. Check it out here.
New England Patriots (8 votes)
We'll start off these division predictions with one so perceptible that Captain Obvious rolled his eyes.
Back in the long ago days of the 2000 season, the New England Patriots were a 5-11 mess of a team that finished in the cellar of the AFC East. It was an inauspicious start to the tenure of head coach Bill Belichick.
In 2001, the Pats were forced to roll out an unheralded second-year sixth-round quarterback from Michigan after Drew Bledsoe got hurt. By the end of that season, said quarterback was holding up New England's first Lombardi trophy.
Since that first title of the Tom Brady/Belichick era, New England has claimed the AFC East a staggering 15 times in 17 years. The team has played in eight more Super Bowls, winning five. The last time the Patriots weren't the champions of the AFC East was 2008, when Brady missed almost the entire season with an ACL tear.
To say that the Patriots own the division is a massive understatement. And that's not going to change in 2019. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are rebuilding teams with second-year quarterbacks (Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, respectively) who still have a lot to learn. The Miami Dolphins are just beginning a ground-up rebuild and may have the NFL's least-talented roster.
As NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon wrote, so long as Tom Terrific and Darth Hoodie prowl Gillette Stadium, the Pats are all but impossible to pick against.
"With the Bills and Jets both greatly improved on paper and with Rob Gronkowski no longer a factor, the gap between the Patriots and those teams is a lot smaller," he said. "Still, Buffalo and New York remain young, and the Pats are the obvious pick so long as Brady and Belichick are there."
Fellow Analyst Gary Davenport was a tad less diplomatic.
"You could build a team with the 53-best players from the Bills, Jets and Dolphins," he said, "and it would lose eight of 10 to the Patriots."
Cleveland Browns (7 votes)
The times they are a-changin' in the AFC North.
Plus, the apocalypse might be here.
Despite winning 10 games and the division a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens didn't receive a single vote to claim the AFC North. Maybe it was all the personnel changes on defense. Or the fact that Baltimore's throwback offense struggled in the team's postseason loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers underwent some big changes of their own in the offseason. But NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman was one of a few scribes who believes this iteration has at least one more division title left in it.
"This isn't an extremely confident selection," Freeman said. "You lose a great deal when you let Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell go. But the Steelers still have enough firepower to win a division that is transitioning from Steelers-dominated to perhaps Cleveland being king."
That last part would have been enough to generate scornful laughter at this point a year ago. But as NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier wrote, with a new head coach in Freddie Kitchens, a new superstar wideout in Odell Beckham Jr. and a retooled defensive line, the Browns could be a legitimate playoff contender.
"A little voice inside my head tells me we're sleeping on the Steelers, who still have a formidable offense despite departures and have the talent to pull themselves together on defense as soon as they realize 1998 tactics no longer work," he said. "But the Browns feel like a dragon that's been slumbering for decades. There's so much top-tier talent on the roster with so much to prove that the Browns could outrun, outscore and out-sack everything in their path."
Repent. The end is nigh.
Others receiving votes: Pittsburgh Steelers (1 vote)
Indianapolis Colts (7 votes)
Quite a bit has changed in Indianapolis since the middle of last October.
On the 14th of that month, the Colts lost 42-34 to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium to fall to 1-5 on the season. The first campaign of Frank Reich's tenure as head coach appeared to be barreling toward downtown disaster at breakneck speed.
But Reich, quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts turned things around and then some. With nine wins over their last 10 games, they became the third team in league history to make the postseason after a 1-5 start. Indy even won a playoff game, knocking off the AFC South champion Texans in Houston.
Since that run, the Colts have done a good job of building on that momentum. General manager Chris Ballard provided Luck with additional passing-game weapons in veteran Devin Funchess and rookie second-rounder Parris Campbell. He brought in veteran edge Justin Houston to goose the pass rush.
As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller pointed out, this team is ready to come into its own, and while it wasn't a unanimous vote, the Colts are the runaway choice to win the AFC South in 2019.
"The Indianapolis Colts were close last year to taking the AFC South and this year will overtake the Texans in a strong division," Miller said. "Year 2 of Frank Reich as head coach is important, but a second season removed from injury for Andrew Luck is the key to the Colts' success. The maturation of the 2018 draft class plus the addition of Houston makes this one of the NFL's best rosters."
Indianapolis isn't just well-positioned for a Super Bowl run this year. With more salary-cap space than any other team, it could be a force in the AFC for seasons to come.
Others receiving votes: Houston Texans (1 vote)
Los Angeles Chargers (6 votes)
The AFC West had a pair of teams post 12-win seasons in 2018. Both made the postseason. Each won a playoff game.
It's no surprise that the division's viewed as a two-team race again. It is, however, a bit surprising which squad the NFL writers here picked.
After all, the Kansas City Chiefs came awfully close to a berth in Super Bowl LIII. They have the reigning NFL MVP in quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a top-ranked offense that lit up the league like a video game in 2018 (425.6 yards per game).
"Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the NFL, doing things we've never seen at the quarterback position, and this defense is going to be much better," NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne said. "Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu may be the best players at their respective positions and will not allow another postseason collapse."
The Chiefs, however, also have a top wideout (Tyreek Hill) facing an uncertain future as the league investigates allegations he abused his son and a recording in which he threatens his fiancee, Crystal Espinal. Michael Mann of Sports Illustrated reported Monday that the Chiefs "expect a decision [on a possible suspension] by the start of training camp on July 23."
And their defense was among the worst in 2018, allowing 405.5 yards per game. That unit's inability to get a stop in overtime of the AFC Championship Game is what cost the team that trip to Atlanta.
The Los Angeles Chargers have problems of their own—the largest among them a potential contract holdout by starting tailback Melvin Gordon. But they have some depth behind Gordon, plenty of offensive skill-position talent—including wide receiver Keenan Allen, who made the Pro Bowl in back-to-back years—a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers and a much better defense than the Chiefs appear to possess.
For NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski, that's enough to move the Chargers to the front of the line.
"The Chargers finished with the same overall record as the Kansas City Chiefs last season, yet the Chiefs should regress due to multiple changes throughout the lineup (and remaining uncertainty of a potential Tyreek Hill suspension)," he said. "Whereas the Chargers feature a better lineup with tight end Hunter Henry's return from an ACL injury and a revamped defensive front seven now featuring Thomas Davis Sr. and first-round defensive tackle Jerry Tillery."
Others receiving votes: Kansas City Chiefs (2 votes)
Philadelphia Eagles (5 votes)
Like most of the divisions in the NFL, the NFC East is essentially a two-team race. Neither of those squads is the New York Giants or the Washington Redskins.
A year ago, the Dallas Cowboys rode a scorching 7-1 second half to a 10-6 record and the division title. And the team isn't short on talent, whether it's on offense with players like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper or on defense with Demarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch and Byron Jones.
All that young talent creates potential cap problems down the road, but Dunne expects Dallas to win back-to-back division titles for the first time in over two decades.
"At some point," Dunne wrote, "Jerry Jones has to figure out who he won't pay, and the Cowboys could be in trouble. Right now? This is one of the most talented rosters, top to bottom, and Prescott has something special with Cooper. With these two having a full offseason together, count on Prescott to take a big leap forward."
However, the other NFC East team that made the postseason last year—and the last team from the division to win a Super Bowl—got this vote.
The question regarding the Eagles is the health of Carson Wentz. Tanier expects the 26-year-old quarterback to bounce back—and for everything else to slip into place around him.
"The roster is stacked at nearly every position," Tanier said. "There's an intriguing mix of youth and Super Bowl experience. And the only serious challengers in the division are the Cowboys, who can be counted on to slip into a slump at the first sign of adversity. There's a lot of MVP buzz around Carson Wentz, and it's legit. If he's healthy—and he sure looked and sounded healthy in minicamp—nothing will stop this team from winning the division and probably much more."
Fly, Eagles, fly.
Others receiving votes: Dallas Cowboys (3 votes)
Green Bay Packers (4 votes)
Finally! Some drama!
The NFL's 100th season kicks off on Sept. 5 at Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears will host their rivals from Green Bay.
The game could have massive significance in the division race—especially if our panel's correct about how the NFC North will play out. The Minnesota Vikings earned a vote from Dunne, but the rest were split almost evenly between those two teams.
NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller was one of three scribes who threw his support behind the reigning division champs, who went from worst to first in 2018 in Matt Nagy's first season as head coach.
"Nagy and the Bears face stiff competition within the NFC North," Miller said, "but the offensive adaptability and innovation shown last year will only be better as Mitchell Trubisky gains experience and the offense continues to find chemistry after so many new faces were added prior to the 2018 season.
"We know the defense will be suffocating; and if the offense takes the expected next step, the Bears will look like Super Bowl contenders."
However, as good as the Bears were in a 12-win campaign, the season opener was a devastating one-point loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Pack at Lambeau Field. Freeman believes that so long as No. 12 stays upright this year, new head coach Matt LaFleur is going to enjoy the same sort of success Nagy had in his first season.
"If Aaron Rodgers stays healthy—and he likely will—the Packers are still the best in the division," he said. "Sorry, Bears."
Week 1 can't get here fast enough.
Others receiving votes: Chicago Bears (3 votes); Minnesota Vikings (1 vote)
New Orleans Saints (6 votes)
The NFC South can boast something that no other division can.
Actually, there are two things: It features a pair of NFL MVP quarterbacks in the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton and the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan, and it has three quarterbacks (Newton, Ryan and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints) who have started in a Super Bowl.
All three of those signal-callers got at least one vote to win the NFC South in 2019. Even though Newton and the Panthers had a terrible second half last season, Davenport threw in a surprise pick for them.
"Every year, there's one team that surprises by winning the division a la last year's Bears," he said. "But it wouldn't be that big of a surprise if Carolina won the NFC South. It got lost in a nightmarish second half after Newton injured his shoulder last year, but at the halfway point in 2018, the Panthers were 6-2 and looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender."
However, last year's division champs (and the NFC's No. 1 seed) were the runaway choice to repeat. As a matter of fact, Sobleski thinks the Saints may finish the job they came so close to completing a year ago before getting robbed in the NFC title game.
"The Saints enter the 2019 campaign as a legit Super Bowl contender—and probably should have been in the big game earlier this year if not for a bogus non-pass-interference call," he said. "The Saints' only real concern entering training camp is deciding who will snap the ball to quarterback Drew Brees after Max Unger's retirement. Otherwise, New Orleans boasts one of the game's most balanced lineups."
When a team's biggest problem is the center position, said team is usually in pretty good shape.
Others receiving votes: Atlanta Falcons (1 vote); Carolina Panthers (1 vote)
Los Angeles Rams (4 votes)
Four of the league's eight divisions placed multiple teams in the playoffs last year. The NFC West was one of those, with the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams both advancing.
Entering last season, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the more hyped playoff sleepers. But a slew of injuries doomed the team to another miserable season. At least one panelist, however, went the better-late-than-never route, as Adam Lefkoe picked the Niners as dark-horse division champions.
Three more votes went Seattle's way. The Seahawks suffered a few significant losses in the offseason, including longtime stalwarts like safety Earl Thomas, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and defensive end Frank Clark. But Seattle still has one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the game in Russell Wilson and one of the league's best defensive players in linebacker Bobby Wagner.
They aren't an easy out.
Then there are the Rams—the defending champions of not only the division but also the NFC. They have suffered losses of their own. Veteran guard Rodger Saffold is gone, and the health of tailback Todd Gurley II's knee has been one of the offseason's biggest storylines.
Still, Gagnon thinks the Rams have enough to hold off Seattle and San Francisco.
"I thought long and hard about the Seahawks and 49ers here," he said, "but the Rams are the deepest and most talented team in the division. I don't fully trust Jimmy Garoppolo, and I think the Seahawks are too reliant on Wilson. The Rams win a tight race."
"The Rams are loaded with skill-position talent, have arguably the best play-caller in football (Sean McVay) running the show and are led defensively by three-time DPOY Aaron Donald, who just won the award in consecutive seasons" he said. "It's not going to be easy, but L.A. will be the best in the West yet again."
Others receiving votes: Seattle Seahawks (3 votes); San Francisco 49ers (1 vote)