Last year's NFL season was filled with shocking moments, surprise teams, and a Super Bowl victory for Peyton Manning and the Broncos, as No. 18 rode off into the sunset as a world champion. With a new season coming along, all 32 teams are looking to fight to be the last one standing in Houston at Super Bowl LI. Here are 16 bold predictions for things that will happen between now and that final game in February.
1. Brady suspension doesn't hurt Patriots, New England wins eighth straight AFC East title. After 18 months of debating whether or not Tom Brady had softer balls than normal, he ultimately accepted his four-game suspension handed out by the league. This means he will miss contests at Arizona, and home against Miami, Houston, and Buffalo. I don't see the Pats beating Arizona, but beating at least two of their home opponents seems reasonable. They have several winnable games on their schedule and in a division like the AFC East, nine or 10 wins could get the job done. They'll probably win more than that, and we should see a return to the playoffs from the Patriots, a team that will continue to flirt with a Lombardi Trophy.
2. Cincinnati misses playoffs for first time since 2011. Last year, the Bengals made their fifth straight playoff appearance, but they also took their fifth straight Wild Card loss. The team started out 8-0, but went 4-4 the second half to finish 12-4. An injury to Andy Dalton and a collapse by their defense in the playoffs hurt their chances. In the offseason, they lost WRs Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in free agency, OC Hue Jackson went to the other side of Ohio to coach the Browns and the defense did not improve. Cincinnati is still very talented, but the rest of the AFC is getting better. The Bengals need to upgrade to a great team if they want to finally win the playoffs.
3. Chiefs win AFC West. The AFC West has been the Broncos' division for the past five seasons, but this season, they will relinquish control. The Chiefs are the team that will overtake them. The Broncos will continue to boast one of the best defenses in the league, but how will Mark Sanchez at QB work out for them? The Chiefs are now entering their fourth season in the Alex Smith era and they are coming off a successful season, winning their last 10 regular season games and making the divisional round of the playoffs. They return most of their team from last season, and they add a healthy Jamaal Charles back to spark the offense. The AFC West could arguably be the most competitive division this season, and when it is all said and done, the Chiefs should be standing at the top.
4. Raiders continue upswing, make playoffs. Oakland made one of the largest strides last season, improving its win total by four games. That was in large part to the development of QB Derek Carr and LB Khalil Mack. The Raiders have more young talent across the field in WR Amari Cooper and first-round pick, safety Karl Joseph. Their young talent made them an attractive free agency destination, as they were able to bring former Seahawks LB Bruce Irvin and former Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele, arguably the best free agent offensive lineman. The Raiders have a chance to be a contender in 2016, as long as the talent continues to develop and their free agents prove them right. Oakland is no longer a team that can be overlooked.
5. Steelers storm AFC, clinch top seed. A three-week suspension to Le'Veon Bell and no sign of Martavis Bryant seeing the field at all in 2016 should be red flags for Pittsburgh. However, there is reason to believe that those red flags are false alarms. Bell played six games last year, which gave DeAngelo Williams the opportunity to prove that he is one of the best backup running backs in the league. Bryant's absence will be replaced by a plethora of receivers led by promising second-year player Sammie Coates, slot receiver Markus Wheaton, and former San Diego stalwart TE Ladarius Green. The team is explosive on offense (Antonio Brown is a consensus top fantasy pick), young on defense, and has enough veteran leaders to make them the AFC's top team.
6. Zero rookie quarterbacks are starters Week 1, but several will play significant minutes this year. Despite two teams making blockbuster deals to move up into the top two spots in the draft, the Rams and Eagles will stick with their veterans to start at the beginning of the year. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz will hold clipboards in Week 1, but they will see the field at some point this season. Adding onto that list is Paxton Lynch, the QB from Memphis now playing for the Broncos, and Dak Prescott, who has made a name for himself in the first two preseason games as a Cowboy. These quarterbacks show too much promise to be redshirted their first year. Either they will prove themselves worthy of the starting role midseason, or their team will be so far out of contention that it will give the team no reason not to give the young quarterback some reps.
7. Todd Gurley wins rushing title, but can't bring Rams out of mediocrity. Last year in St. Louis, Gurley was one of three running backs to run for at least 1,100 yards despite barely playing in September. With a full season in Los Angeles, there is no reason Gurley can't contend for a rushing title. However, the Rams are going to need a lot more than a spectacular season from Gurley if they want to make the playoffs. They are coming into the season with a rookie quarterback and will have one of the toughest schedules in the league. The Rams are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but the talent won't come into fruition just yet. A few years down the line could bring the Rams into contention, but 2016 should end with another mediocre season for the Rams, and head coach Jeff Fisher's seat will continue to heat up.
8. Lamar Miller and Keenan Allen both make their first Pro Bowls. Lamar Miller and Keenan Allen are two players who have shown promise in the past, but have yet to officially establish and maintain their status as top players. This is the season where they let the league know how talented they actually are. Two years ago, Lamar Miller ran for nearly 1,100 yards. However, the Dolphins kept a cap on him and didn't give him the amount of carries he deserved. Now, he takes his career 4.6 YPC to Houston, one of the biggest run-heavy offenses in the league. In 2013, Keenan Allen made the playoffs as a 1,000 yard receiver while Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator. Whisenhunt's solid job landed him a head coaching gig with the Titans that didn't pan out. Now, he's returned to his post in San Diego, where Keenan Allen flourished. Now, three years later, he's overcome injuries and become a smarter player. Allen has the chance to break out this year as long as he stays healthy.
9. Ravens, Cowboys can't get out of 2015 slumps. The Ravens and Cowboys had very similar storylines in 2015. Both teams were coming off 2014 playoff appearances, but couldn't get the job done in 2015 because of injuries. Both teams had massive injuries to key players, and with those players back in 2016, it could lead to a bounce back year for both clubs. However, neither team will return to the playoffs. Baltimore plays in arguably the toughest division in the NFL and ends the season with three of their last four games on the road against 2015 AFC Playoff teams. Dallas also has a very tough schedule facing the NFC North and AFC North. The NFC East is one of the weaker divisions, but this year, the division will be improved and Dallas will improve as well, but at the end of the year, they'll be on the outside looking in.
10. Giants surprise everyone, win NFC East. Yes, you read that right. The New York Giants will win the NFC East and make the playoffs. The team finished 6-10 last season, but half of their losses were by three points or less. Last year's Giants were also historically one of the worst defenses in the NFL. So this offseason, they addressed that and spent more than $200 million by adding some top-notch players all over the defense in DE Olivier Vernon, DT Damon Harrison, and CB Janoris Jenkins. They also added CB Eli Apple in the first round of the draft. This defense will be very different in 2016, and they will be paired with a rock-solid offense that scored at least 20 points in all but three games last season. As long as the team can be healthy, the Giants are a dark horse team that can make a nice playoff run.
11. AFC South has three playoff contenders, Texans prevail. Last year's AFC South was horrendous. The division was won by the 9-7 Texans who looked like a total trainwreck before November. After disappointing seasons from every team in the division, each improved drastically in the offseason. This will see a more competitive division and a more exciting finish, as every team except Tennessee has a decent chance of making the playoffs. However, I see the Texans repeating. The Jaguars added a lot of talent but they are still a year or two away from contending and the Colts can't stay healthy. This Texans won nine games with Brian Hoyer as their best starting QB. If the Texans slot in a guy like Brock Osweiler, they can succeed. The defense will remain one of the league's best, and they are the only team in the division that plays the Patriots minus Tom Brady. By the end of the year, it could come down to one game. Every game counts in the AFC South this season and it is the most exciting division to watch this year.
12. Arizona, Carolina continue to dominate NFC, but playoffs go through the desert. I expect the NFC's top teams to remain the same. Green Bay, Minnesota, and Seattle will all be solid like they were last year, but they will remain a tier below the top two teams, Arizona and Carolina. Both teams made few changes to their team over the offseason. However, Carolina lost their best cornerback in Josh Norman, and Arizona gained one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Chandler Jones. Arizona won 13 games last season and would have had home field advantage if they were in the AFC, but this year, in Bruce Arians' third year, the playoffs will go through Arizona. The team is one of the deepest in the league and they know how to squeeze every bit of talent out of their players.
13. Browns can't keep Cleveland magic going, end up with two Top 5 picks. With the Cavaliers crowned the NBA Champions in June, and the Indians contending for the MLB crown this coming October, it's a great time to be a Cleveland sports fan. But the Browns will make people forget that for a little bit. Sorry, Cleveland. It is hard for me to see how a team that is planning to start a guy who was demoted to the third string last season to come up and be your starter and contend for a championship. Plus, the pieces around Robert Griffin III are unproven. The Browns are a young bunch and are not contending to be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in February, but they are positioning themselves to be able to pick early in 2017's draft. In fact, they might even have a second very high pick because they own Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2017 after the Carson Wentz trade. Like Cleveland, Philadelphia is a team lacking proper direction, and if they underperform this season, Cleveland can head into the draft with two very high picks and the chance to build a stable foundation for their future.
14. Detroit struggles without Megatron, Jim Caldwell loses his job before season's end. The Lions were surprised when Calvin Johnson called it quits early in the offseason, leaving the offense in dire need of reinvention. Luckily for them, their head coach Jim Caldwell is an offensive-minded head coach with a Super Bowl ring. However, the Lions won't be able to recover from the loss of their best receiver in franchise history. The Lions are in the NFC North, which leaves them in a tough position playing six games against Minnesota, Green Bay, and a rising Chicago team. Caldwell was on the hot seat after last season, but another poor performance will send him out the door before this season even ends. This will force the Lions into a new direction and it will give everybody the fresh start it deserves.
15. Vikings repeat as North champs, but Pack return to playoffs as well. The Packers were huge favorites last year when they started out 6-0, but they ultimately finished second in the division behind the Vikings. This season will see the same fate as the Vikings will repeat as division champs. The Vikings are a team on the rise that only got better this offseason. They bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Alex Boone and Andre Smith, and they drafted WR Laquon Treadwell in the first round. Meanwhile, the Packers seemed to retain a lot of their guys and did not venture elsewhere in free agency. Minnesota has a young, thriving defense that it can pair up with a vibrant offense. It should be a great year for both Minnesota and Green Bay, but Minnesota reigns supreme in the North once again.
16. Steelers win Super Bowl LI, Big Ben gets his third ring. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will take home this season's Lombardi trophy in Houston after they defeat the Arizona Cardinals in a Super Bowl 43 rematch. Though last year proved that defense wins championships, the Super Bowl will be a battle of two of the league's premier offenses. It will be a very exciting matchup, but Pittsburgh's quarterback play will prevail as Roethlisberger wins his first Super Bowl MVP. This is Pittsburgh's year.