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Road to Atlanta: Predictions for the 2018 NFL season

With the start of the regular season just days away, now is as good a time as any to show how my mind works.

Seattle Sounders v Atlanta United Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL season is finally here. The New Orleans Saints are among a handful of contenders in what is considered to be a loaded NFC, including the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. The AFC doesn't look nearly as good from top to bottom, but the Patriots can never be discounted for a Super Bowl run. Here's how I think the 2018 NFL season will unfold, on the condition that this piece never be used as evidence to my emotional stability.

(Here is last season's predictions, for proof that concussions also affect sports writers )

(*) = playoffs

AFC East

New England Patriots(*), Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Like it or not, the Patriots are going to be a championship contender as long as Belichick and Brady are roaming the field, and the fact that they have an important friend in the commissioner's office. Their roster looks weaker on paper, but I for one will not be fooled into thinking that their end is here. The rest of the division can be summed up in two words: Not Good. The Jets and Bills both added exciting young quarterbacks in the first round, but neither has a balanced enough roster to compete yet, even though Buffalo did sneak into the postseason last year. Miami? Well, it's a nice place to hang out in the winter. The Patriots cruise to the division title, as usual, as well as a first round playoff bye. The Bills could push for a wild card in a weak conference, based off a strong defense and running game as their quarterback situation develops.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers(*), Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers, like New England, are fortunate recipients of a bad division. Pittsburgh is still looked at as an AFC contender, but they could struggle mightily on defense. They still have a powerful offense led by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, a solid offensive line, and a number of other weapons. Bell's contract dispute with team management may prove to be a distraction however, and the Steelers always have an emotional meltdown when they face the Patriots. The Ravens always play hard, and are extremely physical, and could push for a wild card. Cleveland added some nice pieces this offseason, including a quarterback in Baker Mayfield, but could be a year or two away. Plus, they still are the Browns, after all. The Bengals should have let poor Marvin Lewis get on with his life this offseason, it looks like a rough year in store for Cincinnati (which is NOT a nice place to hang out in the winter). Pittsburgh shouldn't have trouble winning their division, but will take a step back record-wise thanks to a poor defense. Baltimore could battle Buffalo, Kansas City, Houston for the AFC's two wild card berths.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars(*), Houston Texans(*), Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts

Houston Texans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

The Jaguars came out of seemingly nowhere last year to win their division, and gave the Patriots all they could handle in the conference title game. Jacksonville won't sneak up on anyone this season, but they look to have the pieces in place for a sustained run. The Jags have perhaps the best defense in football, both fast and physical. Running back Leonard Fournette appears to be an up and coming star, and quarterback Blake Bortles finally showed some consistency in his fourth season. Big questions remain about the team's receiving corps, and whether Bortles can continue to improve, but the brash Jaguars are most definitely among the AFC favorites. Houston has as talented a roster as any in the conference, but the Texans seem ravaged by injury on a yearly basis. DeShaun Watson was among the early favorites for rookie of the year last season before going down to injury, and looks like one of the most exciting young signal callers in the game. Big questions surround the Texans' offensive line and running game, but receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller are a dangerous pair. Houston added playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency to go along with Aaron Colvin, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson in the secondary. Along the front seven, J.J. Watt is a potential Hall of Fame defender, and he is joined by Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus to make opposing quarterbacks miserable. The health of Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, and now Mathieu could be one of the only things to hold this team back. Indianapolis continues to try and get Andrew Luck killed, and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota continues to struggle with consistency. The division should be a battle between the Texans and Jaguars all year, with the loser likely to get the top wild card spot. Health permitting in Houston's case, and with a little offensive firepower in the case of the Jaguars, both teams could be poised to take over the conference's top spots away from New England and Pittsburgh.

AFC West

Denver Broncos(*), Kansas City Chiefs(*), Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders

Denver Broncos v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

This might end up being the worst division in football. The Raiders are a potential dumpster fire, but perhaps one worthy of watching for morbid entertainment value. The Chargers have an outstanding pair of pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, but are unimpressive at linebacker and have been hit hard by injuries in the secondary. Offensively, Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon are very good players, but Philip Rivers might be the most overrated quarterback to ever play the position, and their offensive line looks leaky. The Chiefs have some explosive offensive pieces, and a proven regular season winner in coach Andy Reid. But Reid becomes a very different coach in the postseason, the team looks vulnerable on defense, and they have a first year starter at quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. Denver may have the most underrated talent in the conference. Still a potential top defense, with elite talent such as Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr., and difference makers such as Brandon Marshall, Bradley Roby, and Derek Wolfe. They added Bradley Chubb near the top of the draft, who could team with Miller to make a devastating pass rushing duo. Offensively, the Broncos were a putrid joke in 2017, but added quarterback Case Keenum in hopes that he can duplicate the success he had with Minnesota. Although the Broncos running game is still a question, Keenum will have two extremely talented wideouts to throw to in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, along with promising rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Denver is my pick for this division, but may only win it with a 9-7 record, while Kansas City grabs the final wild card over Buffalo and Baltimore due to a weaker schedule.

AFC Championship

Texans over Jaguars - Houston shows a little more offensive firepower than Jacksonville, and prevails in a rugged defensive battle to advance to their first Super Bowl.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles(*), Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins

Philadelphia Eagles v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Eagles are simply the class of a usually overrated NFC East. They continued to defy their detractors in 2017, eventually winning their first Super Bowl title. Their roster is as talented as any in the league, although they do face some questions about the health of both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles to begin the year. It'll be a fight between Dallas and the Giants for second place in the division, but neither has much better than .500 talent, while Washington has already been ravaged by injury through their skill positions on offense, to go along with their middle of the pack defense. Philadelphia has enough talent for another championship run, but expect a small dropoff from them in an NFC race full of powerhouses.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings(*), Green Bay Packers(*), Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Minnesota has 1 major question: Will Kirk Cousins be the team's answer at quarterback? In possession of perhaps the league's best defense, and with weapons like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at wideout, Kyle Rudolph at tight end, and 2nd year running back Davin Cook returning from injury, the Vikings have a championship caliber roster. They hope that Cousins will be the final piece to their Super Bowl chase, after signing him to a record-breaking free agent deal. The Packers have the opposite problem, a very good quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, but questions almost everywhere else throughout the roster. He certainly has some weapons to throw to in Devante Adams, Randall Cobb, and former Saint Jimmy Graham, but Green Bay hasn't had a consistent running game to support Rodgers in quite some time. The Packers can rush the passer well with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, and have a potential star in HaHa Clinton-Dix at safety, but are underwhelming defensively. The Bears recent trade for Khalil Mack gives them a potentially devastating front seven as they appear to be building a dangerous defense. They may be a couple years away however, because outside of running back Jordan Howard, they don't have alot of weapons around young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The Lions have historically been a franchise that takes one step forward with a playoff berth then two steps back with baffling personnel moves and falling short of expectations. Minnesota shouldn't have alot of trouble winning the division, and will definitely be among the NFC's Super Bowl contenders.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams(*), Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It seemed like the Rams signed or traded for every available player this offseason. While they added some huge names to go with their already talented roster, many of those players also come with huge baggage and poor reputations. (Question: Does anybody remember the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles "Dream Team"?). Los Angeles also has big questions to answer at linebacker, but Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley are among the league's best at their positions, and they have young talents at quarterback with Jared Goff and head coach with Sean McVay. Don't count me among the believers that San Francisco is a contender quite yet. Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo did some impressive things to end last season, but teams have had an entire offseason to study regular season film on him, and the 49ers just don't look to have a highly talented roster. The Arizona Cardinals do have some impressive talent littered throughout their squad, and are just hoping for some impressive quarterback play from free agent Sam Bradford. Or, probably more accurately, from rookie 1st round pick Josh Rosen after Bradford suffers his regularly scheduled season-ending injury. Quarterback play is the least of the Seahawks' worries. Russell Wilson is as good as they come, but an intimidating roster that made strong Super Bowl runs from 2012-16 has been gutted, and not yet adequately replaced. As questionable as the Rams locker room chemistry might be, they could still run away from the division early, and are a legitimate Super Bowl threat to start the year. Arizona is my NFC darkhorse to make a playoff push, and could compete strongly with Green Bay and Carolina for the second wild card spot.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (*12-4), Atlanta Falcons (*10-6), Carolina Panthers (9-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Viewed by many as the NFL's most talented division, the Saints, Falcons, and Panthers are all viewed as viable contenders. Atlanta has Super Bowl talent at the skill positions on offense with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman for pro bowl quarterback Matt Ryan. Defensively, they have a few big-time stars in Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Desmond Trufant, but need players like Takkarist McKinley, Duke Riley, and Keanu Neal to take their game to the next level. Carolina added running back C.J. Anderson and deep threat Torrey Smith in free agency, and drafted impressive wideout D.J. Moore to go along with Christian McCaffrey, Greg Olsen, and Devin Funchess in an effort to give Cam Newton a better supporting cast. Will Newton be able to adapt his game to fit new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system? The Panthers defensive front seven is talented and physical, giving any style of offense fits, but they must show improvement on the back end to stand up against top passing attacks. Tampa Bay definitely has the talent in some areas to match up with their division rivals, but the problem is that they don't play up to their potential. Quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended for the first part of the year, they have questions about the running game and offensive line, as well as in their defensive secondary. All those factors most likely lead to another last place finish for the Buccaneers. New Orleans has arguably the conference's best quarterback, one of the league's best offensive lines, and dynamic playmakers in Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram, although Ingram will be suspended for the season's first four games. Sean Payton's crew always has one of the NFL's most prolific offenses, and added another weapon in the draft in wideout Tre'quan Smith, who looks like a potential 3rd round steal. The Saints young and rapidly improving defense may wind up being one of the league's best this season. Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore are superstars, and Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Marcus Williams seem on verge of doing the same. Demario Davis, Trey Hendrickson, Alex Okafor, Alex Anzalone, and Ken Crawley are joined by first round pick Marcus Davenport help round out a unit that is deep, aggressive, and focused after last season's heartbreaking playoff loss at Minnesota.

NFC Championship

Saints over Vikings

New Orleans avenges one of the most painful defeats in it's franchise history by handing Minnesota at home.

Super Bowl LIII

Super Bowl XLIV Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Longtime New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson passed away in March of this past year, leaving a great legacy behind. One of his life's greatest loves, his Saints, will send him off with a proper goodbye: A dominant 2018 season culminating with a championship triumph in the home stadium of the franchise's biggest rival.

Super Bowl LIII (Atlanta, GA)

New Orleans Saints 34

Houston Texans 16