2018 NFL Season Predictions

Writer: Caleb Akpan

AP Photos

AP Photos

We’re almost halfway through August, meaning the NFL preseason is officially underway. As the league’s 32 teams battle through training camp, they all hope to be one of the best in the league in 2018, but only one can win each of the 256 games that will be played once the regular season begins Thursday, September 6. Who will come out on top to claim their divisions and guarantee themselves a playoff spot? Who will be in the running for each conference’s two wild card spots? Who will disappoint their fans and hope for better luck in 2019? We can only take what we know and make our best guess for now, and that’s exactly what we’ll do here:

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

As long as the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le'Veon Bell lining up on offense, it seems safe to say that they’ll always be a threat, but the days of that dynamic trio are numbered if Bell’s contract disputes with the team indicate anything. By all accounts, this will definitely be Bell’s final season as a Steeler after both sides continuously failed to come to terms on a new contract for the star running back. Bell still hasn’t even reported to training camp, and while the drama likely won’t be enough to implode the team whenever he does arrive, it seems like enough to stop the Steelers from being legitimate contenders this season.

2. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

Since their Super Bowl win, the Harbaugh-Flacco Ravens have stood firmly on the NFL’s treadmill, and they don’t seem interested in getting off in 2018. Flacco will be OK, the defense will follow suit and Lamar Jackson will probably see some interesting snaps thrown his way here and there, but not see much time on the field barring an injury. In the end, it should be enough to keep the Ravens even in the standings, but not much else.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)

Marvin Lewis still has a job in Cincinnati somehow, so this is either his actual last chance to make something happen or they’re just gonna let him stick around as long as he wants. Either way, there just doesn't seem to be any room for Cincinnati to improve from their 7-9 record in 2017, even if everything went just right. Much like Baltimore, the Bengals seem to be going nowhere fast, except they are without even a Lamar Jackson-type to give hope to their future.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)    

5 wins would warrant a championship parade for Cleveland following an 0-16 2017, though the Browns seem to have even higher expectations as a team. The Browns have nowhere to go but up, and they’ve done everything in the off-season to try and bolster their roster for the future, a future they should definitely look forward to…...in 2019. If everything comes together quickly, they could leapfrog the treadmill teams in Baltimore and Cincinnati, but it seems more likely that they’ll stay at the bottom of the division, see if Baker Mayfield is ready to be the franchise quarterback, and look to make the jump next season.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

Deshaun Watson looked like an absolute superstar before his injury last season. J.J. Watt when healthy is still one of the league’s best players. Staying healthy will be the key for Houston, but it’s the team’s only concern going into 2018. Everything is there on paper for them to compete at the highest level, it’s simply a matter of how long that talent can stay on the field that will make this prediction right or wrong.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5)

Jacksonville stormed to the top of the league last year, nearly beating the Patriots in the AFC championship game and they look to be one of the NFL’s teams of the future, not that they won’t be able to contend for a championship right now. Their defense projects to be outstanding, it’s the offense that still leaves people a bit hesitant, but if that aforementioned defensive unit is as good as advertised, they shouldn’t need Blake Bortles to do anything spectacular too often.

3. Tennessee Titans (8-8)

New head coach Mike Vrabel inherits a playoff team from 2017 in the Titans, but it will be tough to repeat that success in a situation where they’ll likely be fighting for a wild card spot. It’s not that the Titans are bad, but they seem to have two teams clearly better than them in the division and enough solid teams outside of it to make missing the playoffs a legitimate concern. What Vrabel can bring to the table to improve the team will likely decide whether the Titans suprise or supplant themselves in the middle of the pack.

4. Indianapolis Colts (5-11)

Colts fans should be ecstatic that Andrew Luck is back, because there’s nothing to get excited about after that, at least on paper (draft-pick Quenton Nelson should be solid, but a rookie offensive lineman is never must-see TV). Luck will probably help the team pick up a few more games than they should, but there’s just not much around him to give a more optimistic outlook for 2018. If they do shock, it’ll be because Luck comes back better than before, and that just doesn't seem like a logical outcome after a shoulder injury kept him out all of last year.

AFC East

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Surprise, surprise, the Patriots are going to win the AFC East. This would mark ten straight seasons of divisional dominance and at this point, no one expects them to be leaving their top spot any time soon, unless Tom Brady makes a sudden retirement announcement at season’s end. As long as New England has him and Belichick there’s no reason they shouldn’t win the division handily, and through that, be right at the top of the conference with the teams that have some actual things to worry about division-wise.

2. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

This prediction might be a bit too harsh. The AFC East is bad after the Patriots, but you’d hope the next best team is better than 5-11, and the Dolphins could be. Ryan Tannehill should easily be better than Jay Cutler even after an injury and without Jarvis Landry, and with his actual starting quarterback returning, Adam Gase will look to get the Dolphins back to the 10-6 record they saw in his first year as coach. With the AFC improving since then, 10-6 is probably not in sight, but 5-11 could be a couple of wins too low.

3. New York Jets (3-13)

Sam Darnold and Jamal Adams seem like the perfect building blocks for each side of the ball, but the Jets still have a lot of building to do. Poor records and high draft picks should only help the Jets for the next season or two, it just means that the team’s fans will have to wait before they reap the rewards of young talent. For 2018, they should hope for an impressive first year from their rookie QB, one that’s enough to get them wins in more than a quarter of their games, a total that’s about all you can give them right now considering the circumstances.

4. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

Going into the season with three possible starting quarterbacks (rookie Josh Allen, somehow four year veteran A.J. McCarron, 2017 fifth-rounder Nathan Peterman) is never a good thing. 3-13  after 9-7 and a surprise wild card appearance would be a tough pill to swallow for the Bills Mafia, ecstatic after their first playoff appearance since 1999, but it seems like the likely outcome. The team’s most important position is just in too much disorder to give them hope right now, but maybe once the team finally makes the decision on who will be under center, that choice will lead them to some surprise victories.

AFC West

1. Denver Broncos (10-6)

Denver’s biggest issue in 2017 was addressed this offseason in the form of Case Keenum taking on the franchise QB role. Some feel that Keenum won’t be able to replicate his performance in 2018, but Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas don’t seem to be declining as much as they just need a competent quarterback. With a defense that’s still feared, the Broncos should be back in the playoffs as long as the Keenum signing lives up even somewhat to expectations.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

The Chargers off-season has been terrible, with starting TE Hunter Henry lost to a torn ACL in May and starting corner Jason Verrett out with a torn achilles for the year, just to name a few injuries to significant players. Despite all these woes, Phillip Rivers is healthy, and like their much more successful conference mates in New England, all the Chargers seem to need is their aging franchise quarterback to have at least a decent season. Rivers will drag this team as far as he can no matter how beat up they are, there’s a great chance for them to be in the playoffs even with injuries.

3. Oakland Raiders (7-9)

This record would definitely be a disappointment for the reboot of Gruden’s Raiders, but the change seems so drastic that a disappointing first year isn’t out of the question. It’s not that the team doesn't have the talent to succeed, it just might take a season for Jon Gruden to figure out how he wants to utilize it all. If Derek Carr can bounce back after a poor 2017, the Raiders should consider this season a success, whether they actually have a winning season or not.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

8-8 doesn't seem terrible for the start of a new era, as Kansas City hands the reigns to former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but Chiefs fans seem to expect more. It’s rare that a first-year quarterback has such great success, and the just about .500 record should reflect the ups and downs Mahomes will likely face in year one. This isn’t your typical .500 season though, it’s just a matter of time until Kansas City goes into the playoff standings with their quarterback of the future.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Aaron Rodgers is back and that’s about all that matters for the Packers. Yes, the NFC is strong, maybe as strong as ever, but Rodgers somehow always finds a way to the top. 12-4 might be a few wins too generous, but it’s also the kind of record that you need to guarantee a playoff spot in the conference, you have to trust that Rodgers will be able to put the Packers in this kind of position with his history.

2. Minnesota Vikings (11-5)

The expectations for the Vikings couldn’t be any higher with Kirk Cousins now under center, expectations so high the Vikings likely won’t live up to them exactly. Don’t be shocked if Rodgers steals a key game from them and Cousins takes an unfair amount of blame at that point and a few others, it’s what happens when you sign a deal that gives you a record-breaking salary. What matters most is if Cousins can live up to the dollar amounts next to his name and keep the Vikings on the field into 2019.

3. Detroit Lions (8-8)

Another new head coach, another season that will probably just be OK. If the Lions couldn’t get into the playoffs with Aaron Rodgers down and out (and winning both games against Green Bay), there’s no reason to believe they’ll do it here, even with new head coach Matt Patricia. It’s tough to be the third best team in your division, especially in the NFC, the Lions aren’t so bad as much as everything around them is just better.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

Chicago is another team where it just doesn't seem to be time yet. Everything is in place for a future of success, but quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is still so young, as are most of the team’s offensive weapons, and with Matt Nagy as another new head coach, this seems like a situation that absolutely needs time to grow and gel, maybe more than any other in the league. The Bears time will come eventually, and when it does, they could be one of the best teams in the league.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

It took an all-time classic play and an all-time classic blunder to knock the Saints out of the playoffs last season. Not much has changed in New Orleans, so expect them to contend for a championship once more. The highlight of the regular season will be whenever Drew Brees, at 39 years old, not losing a step, breaks the record for all-time passing yards. The future hall-of-famer is just about 1500 yards away from topping Manning and Favre, another Super Bowl win would have to put him into the conversation for greatest of all-time, if he isn’t in the discussion already.

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

Atlanta is this year’s Super Bowl host city, so it feels like a forgone conclusion their team won’t be in the big game, but that doesn't mean the Falcons won’t be good enough to have the chance. Offensive efficiency will likely determine how far the team goes, with a defense that oozes potential. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and DeVonta Freeman will all need to up their production from 2017, but that doesn't seem to crazy to ask for in just year two of Steve Sarkisian’s offense. If the team’s offensive core is actually on the decline, they could be in trouble for the future, but there should be enough left in the tank to have a solid 2018.

3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

A tough team to predict, Carolina could certainly be better than this 7-9 prediction suggests. A new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner will hopefully play to the strengths of weapons like Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and the eternally reliable Greg Olsen, back from injury. The defense, at least on paper, looks to be troublesome against other teams, especially against the run. Once again, it’s just a situation where they seem to be the definite third-place team in a division that features two Super Bowl Contenders, finishing the season with a playoff-worthy record just doesn't seem to be in the cards, but if you were going to pick a team to surprise or take advantage of another team’s shortcomings, you might want to go with the Panthers.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

The Buccaneers probably wouldn’t have done much even if quarterback Jameis Winston wasn’t starting the season suspended, but with that happening, their season seems over before it even starts. When Winston does get on the field, the Bucs will hope for some consistency from their young quarterback, still just 24 in his fourth season, but with an uneven start, it’s unlikely Winston’s production returns to that of 2016. Maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick will surprise in the first three weeks, maybe Vita Vea will be a stud defensively, but even if both of those things happen, there’s not a lot to expect of Tampa Bay this year.

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

The Super Bowl champion almost never does as well in the following season, and with Carson Wentz returning from a major injury, it seems likely that the Eagles will follow that trend. They seem to have as great of a chance as any recent winner to repeat, it’s the quarterback question marks that will decide whether it actually happens or not. Wentz could be seeing Nick Foles out of the corner of his eye if he struggles upon returning and a quarterback controversy is the last thing the Eagles need, even after Foles’ late-season starts still got Philly a title last season.

2. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Dak Prescott was atrocious in 2017 when compared to his rookie year and fellow sophomore player Ezekiel Elliott missed six games, but the Cowboys were still able to finish above .500. It’s a completely predictable offensive scheme and question marks with the receivers and secondary that will likely keep Dallas in that same range in 2018. If those two groups respond to the challenges they’re facing well, the Cowboys should be able to be better than the 8-8 record that’s been so well known under Jason Garrett.

3. New York Giants (7-9)

Saquon Barkley should be outstanding in his rookie season. Odell Beckham Jr. might take a second, but he’ll =return to Pro Bowl level play sooner than later. It’s Eli Manning that’s the Giants biggest question mark, at least on offense, under new coach Pat Shurmur. If the Eli that shows up plays to  the talent surrounding him, New York could make the NFC East crazier than it already is. If not, the team could fall even further than this prediction and the Manning era would almost certainly be over in New York.

4. Washington Redskins (7-9)

Alex Smith was somehow pushed out of Kansas City despite putting up MVP-level numbers in 2017. He could potentially be even better than Kirk Cousins, at least in terms of efficiency. However, his offense is already riddled with injuries and Smith’s new NFC surroundings will likely be tougher than his AFC years in Kansas City. Like all teams in the division, it’s tough to predict Washington’s season with much confidence, it will all come down to their health and new play-caller.

NFC West

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

The Rams are a popular pick to win it all in 2018, and for good reason. An 11-5 2017 proved the team to be legitimate contenders under Sean McVay and their offseason additions on the defensive end are the kind of big names that easily generate Super Bowl hype. Some will say expectations are too high, but it would really be a disappointment if the Rams aren’t playing for the NFC championship in January.

2. San Francisco 49ers (8-8)

Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to lose an NFL game as a starter, but the 49ers aren’t about to have the perfect season. If the 49ers can make the playoffs in Jimmy G’s true year one, consider it an absolute success. The team has their work cut out for them in a full year that seems to have high expectations, expectations the 49ers should be able to eventually fulfill, just not this year.

3. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

The Legion of Boom is a thing of the past, Marshawn Lynch is long gone, and the Seahawks 12th man isn’t nearly as fear-inducing as it once was. The Seahawks have essentially imploded after so much success under Pete Carroll, and while Russell Wilson will likely be great once again, there’s nothing else to suggest success for Seattle as a whole in 2018.

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)    

Josh Rosen has been criticized to no end before he even takes a snap in-game and Sam Bradford feels like a walking coin-flip when it comes to his health. Despite this, Bradford seems to be the starter for week one, but the Cardinals are another team that just seems to be waiting on their next era to begin before you give them any serious expectations. David Johnson’s return could lead to some surprise wins, but 2018 seems like it will be a transitional year for the Cardinals and new coach Steve Wilks.