Keith Allison/CC BY-SA 2.0
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are looking to win a Super Bowl.
Welcome back to school, welcome back to DanLand, welcome back to football! After a seven-month hiatus filled with talk of rookie quarterbacks, player holdouts and massive contracts, Week 1 of the NFL season has finally arrived. As always, the season will be filled with contenders, pretenders, streaks, slumps and plenty of surprises. To that end, let’s tackle four of the most deliberated questions that lack clear-cut answers but will be extensively discussed as the season unfolds.
1. Will the Minnesota Vikings live up to the hype?
Super Bowl LII may have come down to a matchup between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, but no team is entering the 2018 season with higher expectations than Minnesota. A 13-3 record in 2017, the addition of Kirk Cousins at quarterback and a healthy Dalvin Cook at running back are several of the many reasons why experts have placed the Vikings atop their power rankings heading into the season.
There is no denying Minnesota’s recent winning track record or its exceptional talent across the board. However, I foresee a regression for the Vikings in 2018, for several reasons. First, this team’s success last season has been exaggerated. Minnesota was fortunate to play six games against the severely underwhelming NFC North. The Chicago Bears were rebuilding, the Detroit Lions were mediocre at best and the Green Bay Packers were sans quarterback Aaron Rodgers when the teams faced off after he broke his collarbone in the opening quarter of their first matchup.
The Vikings also disappointed in the playoffs. In their divisional round matchup with the New Orleans Saints, they were significantly outplayed in the second half before escaping with a victory that has literally been touted as a “miracle.” They were then utterly embarrassed by the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
With Rodgers back in the fold and the Bears and Lions expected to improve, the NFC North division will quickly go from cakewalk to slippery slope. And the NFC playoff race as a whole figures to be as deep as it has ever been.
A major contributing factor to the fanfare surrounding Minnesota is its revamped offense. In reality though, Cousins is nothing more than a slight upgrade over Case Keenum at quarterback, and his value added will be marginal at best. And at running back, it would be foolish to expect Cook to return from his torn ACL and pick up right where he left off prior to his injury, especially considering the fact that the Vikings’ offensive line is one of the weakest in the league. Also keep in mind that the team will be expected to demonstrate this improvement while simultaneously adjusting to a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo.
It may be contrary to popular opinion, but I am steering clear of the Vikings this season.
2. Will the Jacksonville Jaguars build upon their breakthrough season?
Heading into last season, Jacksonville was looking for its first winning record since 2007. Therefore, it came as a shock when the Jaguars won the AFC South, knocked the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the playoffs and nearly overcame the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The “Sacksonville” defense was arguably the best in the league and the offense demonstrated considerable improvement. The Jaguars will certainly enter this season with extreme confidence, but they may be in for a rude awakening.
First and foremost, Jacksonville’s schedule will be grueling. As a reigning division champion, the Jaguars will play each of the other AFC division champions from last season. They will also face quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson two times apiece, a challenge that they were not faced with a year ago. And lastly, their non-Conference opponents will be the four teams in the NFC East, none of whom are ever a pushover.
Then there’s the Blake Bortles conundrum. Jacksonville’s quarterback was serviceable last year but not much more. Whether or not he can shine during such a demanding schedule is a legitimate question.
The team will need continued improvement from second-year running back Leonard Fournette and another elite season from its defense to remain in contention.
The Jaguars are a fringe playoff team, somewhere in between the team that won ten games in 2017 and the team that won three in 2016. They do figure to be closer to the upper end of that spectrum, though, and the AFC is not exactly teeming with playoff caliber teams.
A division title will be difficult to replicate with Watson’s team, the Houston Texans, now at full strength and emerging as the frontrunner, but Jacksonville should be capable of snatching a wild card spot. However, do not expect the team to once again make a run at an AFC Championship.
3. Which underrated team is most likely to make a deep postseason run this season?
Last season, eight of the twelve playoff teams had not qualified for postseason play during the previous season, illustrating the unique parity that makes the NFL so exciting. There are a handful of teams whose presence in this upcoming season’s playoffs should not turn any heads: the Dallas Cowboys with a full season of Ezekiel Elliott and the Packers and Texans with Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson, respectively, at full health. Dallas, Green Bay and Houston all qualified for the playoffs two seasons ago and with their star players expected to be available for the entirety of the upcoming season, they should not surprise anyone with a playoff berth.
The Los Angeles Chargers, on the other hand, are flying under the radar and are primed to reach the playoffs for the first time in five years. For starters, the Chargers were on the verge of making the playoffs last year, finishing 9-7 and falling short of postseason competition solely due to tiebreaker rules.
This 9-7 record, which doesn’t sound too bad to begin with, was in fact deceivingly poor. Los Angeles had only two double-digit losses, both of which came at the hands of a worthy opponent, the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs. They also started the season with an unlucky 0-4 slump, during which three of their four losses were by a combined seven points.
A reversal of the Chargers’ misfortunes in close games is inevitable and they should be expected to build off the momentum that carried them to a 9-3 finish to the season.
Los Angeles is also saturated with playmakers on both sides of the football. Philip Rivers is dependable at quarterback, Melvin Gordon is one of the best young running backs in the league, and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, now both healthy at wide receiver, should make for a deadly duo on the outside.
Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram lead a menacing front four, while cornerback Casey Hayward and rookie safety Derwin James will anchor a formidable secondary.
Only one team not quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger has represented the AFC in the Super Bowl over the last 16 seasons, and I am not quite prepared to pick against this trend. However, the Chargers should be good enough to at least win the AFC West to and make a run at the AFC Championship Game.
4. Which team will emerge victorious in Super Bowl LIII?
The current parity in the NFL has set the stage for the potential to see one of a number of intriguing matchups come February 3. In determining my prediction for the Super Bowl, I took into account several key differentiating factors: experience, motivation and balance. Ultimately, I anticipate a rematch of Super Bowl XLV between the Packers and the Steelers.
In Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively, these two teams have Super Bowl champion quarterbacks at the helm who have demonstrated an ability to elevate their game on the biggest stage.
During this season, specifically, it will be important for these quarterbacks to be at their best. Rodgers recently signed the richest deal in league history and will benefit greatly from the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham to his offensive arsenal.
His favorite touchdown target, Davante Adams, also signed an extension at the end of last season. Rodgers will certainly be motivated to live up to his contract and to take full advantage of the assets in which the organization has invested to aid him.
As for Roethlisberger, the quarterback has already publically contemplated retirement, signifying that he is undoubtedly entering the twilight of his career. “Big Ben” knows that if he is going to make one final run at his third Lombardi Trophy, this season may very well be his best chance.
And with the likes of running back Le’Veon Bell and receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster at his disposal, he is well positioned to do so. Bell should also have plenty of motivation to perform at the top of his game, as he continues to look for a contract extension.
Outside of the aforementioned players, both teams have solid offensive lines and more than capable defenses, critical components of championship-caliber teams. I see the Steelers winning a high-scoring, competitive game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.