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LOTL Sports Take: NFL Season Preview

It’s what some would say is the best time of the year, unless you’re a youngster dealing with the start of school. September is all about the ushering in of changel; it’s the end of vacations, and the start of getting back into a routine.  The days might still be hot, but the evenings are unmistakably cooler, and the constant summer humidity has become much more manageable. And the best part of all — for sports fans — is that September is an awesome month. It marks baseball’s race to the postseason and football’s triumphant return.  We’ll discuss baseball’s thrilling conclusion and the return of college football in articles later this month. For now, we’ll turn our attention to the NFL, whose 100th season is upon us.

They say no matter what the Indians or the Cavaliers are up to, Cleveland is a football town first and foremost.  Despite the Browns’ bad performances over the last two decades, the sport is just so deeply wired into the DNA of so many in the CLE that Browns’ opening day is always a massive date on the calendar.  It is the conclusion of the long waiting game of training camp and the preseason. In years past I referred to this period in August as “kool-aid” season, when Browns fans would drink the proverbial kool-aid and get themselves geeked up for the season only to be soundly disappointed even before the first leaves fell from the trees. This year though, there is a different vibe, and good reason for fans to believe that 2019 will finally be the Browns’ year.  The big question is, how do the Browns stack up against the rest of the AFC North and the rest of the NFL? Opinions are cheap since everybody has them, so here’s mine.

We’ll start with the AFC North.  It’s been quite the offseason for several teams, most notably the Browns and the Steelers.  The Browns have acquired quite a bit of talent, from receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.  Between this and maturing young players like quarterback Baker Mayfield, tight end David Njoku, and defensive end Myles Garrett, the Browns are poised for success.  They also feature a first-year head coach in Freddie Kitchens. That could be construed as a positive or a negative depending on who you ask. The Steelers are almost completely opposite.  They have one of the league’s most stable coaching staff that is led by Mike Tomlin. However,, they will have their work cut out for them following a difficult offseason that saw many key players like running back LeVeon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown depart.  Some would say that culturally the Steelers have a system based on a good running game, a solid QB who doesn’t make many mistakes, and a strong defense and should be fine. But even a diehard Steelers fan would be hard pressed to say that the Steelers talent stacks up favorably with the talent the Browns now possess.  

What about the rest of the division?  The general consensus is that the Bengals won’t be very good.  They do have some offensive talent with running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver AJ Green, but their offensive line has some decided holes and their defense is average at best.  They are also known for having some surly characters and being undisciplined in general. What about Baltimore? The Ravens had a resurgence late in 2018 after making a change at quarterback.  So much of their success in 2019 will rest on the development of quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is a great running threat but only marginally skilled at passing downfield. One thing that can’t be denied is that the Ravens feature a solid defensive unit and their special teams unit is strong as well, which could make a difference in close games.  

In my opinion, the division is a two-team race in 2019.  The Steelers might hang in there for a while as Mike Tomlin and his staff try to work their magic, but I ultimately see them finishing 9-7 and in third place.  Meanwhile, the Ravens and the Browns will both go to the playoffs. I see the Browns finishing 11-5 to win their first AFC North Championship. The Ravens will go 10-6 and grabbing a wild card.  The Bengals will bring up the rear, finishing 4-12.

I don’t need to waste much time on the AFC East.  The Patriots will finish 13-3 to win the division.  The other three teams are all bad. I think Buffalo has the best defense of the remaining three, so I’ll tab the Bills to finish 7-9, the Jets will finish 5-11, and the Dolphins bring up the rear at 3-13.  

The AFC South is also very weak, and unlike the East, it doesn’t have a dominant team.  I’m going to go with an upset choice here and tab Jacksonville to win the division at 10-6.  With Nick Foles now at QB and a solid defense, I think the Jaguars have a good chance at a quick revival.  Houston will finish second at 9-7, Tennessee third at 6-10, and Indy will implode after Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement to finish 5-11.

The other primary contenders in the AFC are in the West.  Kansas City and San Dieg…err, the LA Chargers, are both very strong teams with powerful offenses.  Kansas City has the league’s top offense led by league MVP Patrick Mahomes. They have skill position players flying all over the field.  The Chargers by comparison are more balanced with a solid running game and a decent defense to go with the seemingly ageless Philip Rivers.  Call me nuts, but I actually like the Chargers more than the Chiefs, as KC’s defense isn’t very good. I say the Chargers go 12-4 to win the division, with Kansas City finishing 11-5 and landing with a wild card spot.  The Broncos strong defense will get them to .500 at 8-8, while Oakland will struggle once again to finish 5-11.

The NFC East is decidedly hit or miss.  The Eagles are one year removed from a Super Bowl title and are seemingly loaded all over the field.  The Cowboys feature one of the league’s best offensive lines and a solid running game. That could be one of the better division races this season.  Ultimately I see the Eagles going 12-4 to win the division with Dallas going 10-6. The Giants and the Redskins will both be awful and finish 5-11.  

The NFC North traditionally features some of the league’s better offensive teams.  This could be one of the league’s better division races, pitting the high powered Green Bay and Minnesota offenses in a race with Chicago’s very strong defense.  Ultimately I see the Bears (and local CLE kid Mitch Trubisky) not being able to keep up on offense often enough, and they’ll finish in 3rd place at 8-8.  I like Minnesota to win the division at 11-5, Green Bay finishing 10-6 in 2nd place and grabbing a wild card.  Detroit will finish in last at 6-10.  

The NFC South might be the most difficult of the divisions to call.  Aside from Tampa, which might be one of the league’s worst teams, you could make a case for any of the other three teams.  New Orleans and Atlanta have high-powered offenses and opportunistic defenses, while Carolina has a very solid running game and a strong defense.  This race will probably come down to which quarterback — Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, or Cam Newton — has the best season. This might be my other controversial choice, but I’m going with the Panthers to win the division at 11-5.  Atlanta will make a wild card at 10-6, while New Orleans’ defense will regress in 2019 and result in a disappointing 9-7 season. Tampa will bring up the rear with an awful 3-13 record.  

The NFC West is one of the easier calls to make.  The LA Rams are a loaded bunch with MVP candidates on both sides of the ball.  They will easily win the division at 13-3. The Seahawks’ glory days are behind them, but still have enough talent to finish in 2nd at 8-8.  The 49ers will continue to make strides but are still a little ways away from contending, they’ll finish 7-9.  The Cardinals are in total rebuild mode and will bring up the rear at 3-13.  

NFL Playoff Seedings:

AFC:

1 – Patriots

2 – Chargers

3 – Browns

4 – Jaguars

5 – Chiefs

6 – Ravens

NFC:

1 – Rams

2 – Eagles

3 – Minnesota

4 – Carolina

5 – Green Bay

6 – Atlanta

Wild Card Playoffs:

Browns def Ravens

Chiefs def Jaguars

Vikings def Falcons

Panthers def Packers

Divisional Playoffs

Chiefs def Patriots

Chargers def Browns

Rams def Panthers

Eagles def Vikings

Conference Championship

Chargers def Chiefs

Eagles def Rams

Super Bowl LIV

Eagles def Chargers

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