The 8 NFL Super Bowl contenders
The finale of our 4-part NFL season preview, with 8 Super Bowl contenders vying to win it all
We finally made it. The 2018 NFL season is here, and not a moment too soon. The defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles kick off against the Atlanta Falcons, and both start the season with Super Bowl aspirations. They join six other teams jousting for position atop the league.
We spent NFL Season Preview week breaking down the 32 teams into four blocks of eight. We started with the eight bottom feeders, pondered eight teams headed in the wrong direction, and considered eight sleepers. But these are the eight teams with one hand already on the Lombardi, and you won’t find a lot of surprises here. Let’s dig into the 2018 Super Bowl contenders.
Part I of the 4-part NFL season preview, starting with the 8 at the bottom…
Los Angeles Chargers
Just about everyone agrees the same eight teams are the best in the league: the Patriots, Steelers, Rams, Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Vikings, and Packers. That sounds good until you realize it’s two AFC teams and six from the NFC. At least one or two of those NFC teams won’t even make the playoffs, while the AFC is ready for another contender to step forward. And while I gave consideration to the Chiefs and Titans, the Chargers make the most sense.
It was a rough start for Los Angeles (yep, still weird), who began 0–4, including three losses in the final two minutes aided by special teams errors. The Chargers finished 9–3, all three losses on the road against playoff teams. L.A. was a tiebreaker away from sneaking into the playoffs, settling for the team-no-one-wants-to-play moniker. They fell 1.5 wins short of Pythagorean expectations. The Chargers turned things around with a feisty pass rush, an efficient offense, and a rock solid coaching staff led by Anthony Lynn, OC Ken Whisenhunt, and DC Gus Bradley.
The old bugaboos are still around — poor blocking, atrocious special teams, and an incomprehensible number of injuries — but so are the strengths. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the best pass-rushing duo in the league, Philip Rivers continues his Hall of Fame career, and a talented secondary adds first-round wrecking ball Derwin James to the mix. The Chargers D will be nasty, and the coaches will get the most out of this roster.
The schedule is cozy, too. The Chargers leave California once between now and October 11th, and they leave the Pacific time zone just three times before December. Less travel means more practice and more rest.
The Chargers could be as tough as any AFC team if they stop giving games away on special teams and in the final minutes. Games against the Chiefs loom large in Weeks 1 and 15. The opener will set the tone.
Over 9.5 — play
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were a tale of two seasons. One eight-game stretch was the team we remember. New Orleans went 8–0 with a +132 point differential and steamrolled teams with an aggressive defense and a relentless run game. They also did it against a slew of bad teams with worse quarterbacks. The Saints were 4–6 outside that stretch with losses to the Patriots, Falcons, Rams, Bucs, and Vikings (x2). Was this really the dominant team we remember or just a decent one that beat bad teams and had the Panthers’ number?
New Orleans had their usual struggles on the road with five losses, their only impressive win coming against Carolina. They’ll be tested early with roadies against the Falcons, Giants, Ravens, and Vikings in the first half, and they’ll miss Mark Ingram two of those games, too. Still, we know the Saints offense will produce with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, so it’s up to the D.
The Saints may not have many names you know (though Vikings fans sure know Marcus Williams), but they’re stout against the pass with a tough rush and excellent press corners. They spent most of their draft capital on pass rusher Marcus Davenport, overconfident after a fantastic 2017 draft that brought them Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, and Ryan Ramczyk. The defense took a huge step from 30th in DVOA to 8th. A step back toward average could put the Saints on the edge of the playoff picture.
The Saints swept three matchups with Carolina. They’ll play them twice in the final three weeks with Pittsburgh sandwiched in between, so the schedule does them no favors. The defense will need to prove 2017 was no fluke.
Over 9.5 — pass
The Falcons are the only NFC team to win 10 games the past two seasons, but it feels like people have moved on from this team. Atlanta’s offense struggled after a record season, dropping from first to ninth. Defending MVP Matt Ryan crashed back to earth, and the offense turned stagnant and inefficient in the redzone, ultimately costing the Falcons their season when they couldn’t convert a first-and-goal against the Eagles in the playoffs.
It’s easy to focus on Kyle Shanahan’s absence and miss the impressive roster continuity. The members of that record-setting offense are still there, including a dominant line and weapons at every position plus a ton of speed on defense. This year, Atlanta gets a third-place schedule. They start with the Eagles, Panthers, and Saints before a very easy seven-game stretch into Thanksgiving. They could get there in pole position for the 1-seed.
Atlanta still has a top-5 offense, and that may be the low end. They already regressed and appear ready to bounce back. The defense will need to recapture its 2016 form, particularly on the line. The defense spent more time on the field than any team and struggled to turn the opponent over, and the offense uncharacteristically gave the ball away. A little more possession, both by time and care, could go a long ways.
Atlanta looks as talented and as well-rounded as any team. They have the strongest weak spot of any contender, and they’re primed for another run. The Falcons are +200 to win the division, +1000 to return to the Super Bowl, and +1800 to finish the job. You can double those odds (+3500) if you think they’ll get another crack at the Patriots there. Get your checkbook ready.
Over 9.5 — play
Green Bay Packers
The Packers roster is underwhelming. The offensive line is fine. The skill players aren’t lighting the world on fire. The DTs are good but the rest of the defense is lacking. The secondary was so bad the Packers used their first two draft picks to fix it, and the linebackers might be the worst of any contender. Somehow Mike McCarthy is still the coach, a relief to every other team in the league. So how is this team a Super Bowl contender?
R-E-L-A-X: Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers has won 10, 10, 12, 11, 14, 10, and 11 games in healthy seasons as a starter since his first year on the job. He’s never gone back-to-back seasons without a playoff win, and last year was the first time since 2008 Rodgers didn’t win 60% of his starts. The math is easy; 60% means 10+ wins, 10 wins means playoffs, and playoffs with Rodgers means Super Bowl contender.
Can Rodgers overcome a mediocre roster and poor coaching to carry his team? History says yes, as long as he’s on the field. Rodgers is 34 and faces a brutal midseason stretch against the 49ers, Rams, Pats, Fins, Seahawks, and Vikings, with four of those on the road. If the Packers survive that stretch, they’ll be fine, with the Jets and Lions waiting in the final two weeks to assure a playoff spot if Green Bay is even close.
And then we get to watch Rodgers try to LeBron his way back to the Super Bowl for only the second time of his career. The clock is ticking.
Over 10 — pass
The Vikings are the opposite of the Packers in just about every way. They have a deep, fantastic roster. The defense is dominant at all three levels. The line boasts Pro Bowl talent at four positions, and Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes lead the league’s deepest secondary. The skill positions loaded at every spot, and the coaching staff and front office are among the best in the NFL. But the Vikings don’t have Aaron Rodgers. Instead they feature the worst quarterback among these eight Super Bowl contenders.
Kirk Cousins is the big addition to an otherwise contiguous team, and it remains to be seen whether he’s more trick or treat. Washington seems happy to have seen him walk, but Cousins remains one of the most valuable free agents in history and is certainly a big step forward from Case Keenum and Sam Bradford. Minnesota’s offense leapt from 26th in offensive DVOA to 5th. Could they take another step forward with Cousins and the return of Dalvin Cook? They’ll be the best in the NFL if they do.
Like the other NFC contenders, Minnesota has a difficult schedule. They’ll face the 49ers, Packers, Rams, and Eagles the first five weeks with the Saints, Pats, Packers, and Seahawks later on, plus four more against division rivals Detroit and Chicago. That’s 12 tough games. But this team is built to win tough. Minnesota beat six teams with winning records in 2017. They allowed 20 points four times, and they had more than one turnover four times, too. All three losses came with 2+ turnovers, plus a fourth in the NFC championship with their most turnovers all season, because, of course.
This Vikings team is stacked from top to bottom, with the offensive line the only ostensible weak spot. They won’t get to host the Super Bowl this year, but with any luck, they might be playing there instead.
Over 10 — play
The Eagles almost didn’t make my list of contenders. It was down to them or the Rams getting cut to make a spot for a third AFC team, and in the end, the difference was the depth of this roster and the lack of competition from the league’s weakest division.
Still, there are reasons to be concerned. The Eagles are already banged up entering the season, typical after a Super Bowl run. The defense remains loaded, but the offense looks questionable. Nick Foles is a Super Bowl winner now, but everyone counted out the Eagles when they turned to him last December, and he doesn’t have much help from the skill positions. Can a team win with a dominant line, a talented defense, and the right offensive scheme despite mediocre players executing it? Philadelphia’s going to find out.
And they might find out without Carson Wentz for longer than you think. Maybe Wentz comes back soon, but if he’s injured enough to be ruled out a week before the opener, he’s probably not on the cusp of a return. A Week 6 return against the Panthers comes after 10 Eagles days off but means Wentz would return against tough Carolina and Jacksonville defenses. Could Philly wait all the way until the Week 9 bye to put their MVP candidate back under center? If the Eagles can float coaching and defense to a .500 record that long, they may keep waiting.
Philadelphia knows how to win big games now, so they don’t need to prove anything. They just need to get back to the playoffs, and they may only need 9 or 10 wins to get there in the East. The schedule isn’t easy but sets up for a strong close. Philadelphia could be this year’s Falcons, struggling early but eking into the playoffs, as dangerous as anyone once they get there.
Under 10.5 — play
The Steelers are the de facto AFC #2, but the red flags are piling up. Pittsburgh outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 2.4 wins, and the team only really got older. They lost offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and the defense is not your grandfather’s Steel Curtain, lacking pass rush with linebackers that do not measure up to standards. It’s a bottom 10 defense that relies on the offense outscoring the opponent.
But the offense has question marks of its own. Ben Roethlisberger is 36 and looks it, almost never healthy by December. Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell are on the wrong side of their primes, beginning to pick up niggling injuries. And of course there’s the LeVeon Bell holdout. That could cost the team their star runner for weeks, and it could cost the team more if it splits the locker room. You read the quotes out of Pittsburgh yesterday — it sounds ugly.
Add to that a loaded Steelers schedule. Pittsburgh will have a marquee game every couple weeks. They get the Chiefs, Falcons, Jaguars, Chargers, Patriots, and Saints, so they’ll play almost every contender, and it’s not like this team puts away the bad ones.
So why are they Super Bowl contenders? Because their case is so easy, I don’t even need to make it. They’ve won 13, 11, 10, and 11 games the last four seasons, and the good version of these Steelers can beat any team on any day. They just need to hope this doesn’t turn into season 7 of Breaking Bad instead.
Under 10.5 — pass
New England Patriots
Unless Tom Brady turns into a pumpkin, you can pretty much write the Patriots into a bye week right now. New England has played in seven consecutive AFC Championships, and Brady and Belichick are the only reasons you need for an eighth. The Pats are -600 to make the playoffs, which is kind of like investing your money for four months at a guaranteed 17% interest rate as long as Brady doesn’t get hurt.
This team should be better than last year, because the defense can’t possibly be as bad. The line is deeper and stronger, and the secondary should be improved even without Malcolm Butler. Remember how the Pats were one defensive stop away from a Super Bowl win? Bill Belichick does, and he had six months to think about it. Rest assured the greatest coach in sports history came up with a few solutions.
The Patriots have the easiest schedule in the league, which happens when you play in the AFC East and the other three teams are vying for the #1 pick. New England could lose to the Texans or Jaguars the first two weeks and send everyone into a tizzy as they round into shape in September like usual. Win both and 16–0 is on the table. A Week 15 visit to Pittsburgh looms large, but otherwise their toughest tests are hosting the Packers and Chiefs or road trips to Chicago and Tennessee. The Pats could be favored every game. Let’s see if they can finish the job this time.
Over 11 — LOCK
It’s probably not surprising to find six overs among the Super Bowl contenders, with only the Pennsylvania teams going under. The Vikings, Eagles, Chargers, and Falcons look like solid plays, while the Patriots are today’s lock. That brings us to seven total locks, plus eight other solid plays and 17 passes. With the 32-team preview a wrap, let’s take a look at my power rankings heading into the season and review our picks.
32. Buffalo — under 6, LOCK
31. Oakland — under 8, LOCK
30. Tampa Bay — under 6.5, LOCK
29. N.Y. Jets — under 6, pass
28. Arizona — over 5.5, pass
27. Miami — under 6.5, play
26. Dallas — under 8.5, LOCK
25. Indianapolis — under 7.5, pass
24. Cincinnati — under 6.5, pass
23. Cleveland — over 5.5, play
22. Detroit — under 7.5, pass
21. Washington — over 7, pass
20. Denver — over 7, pass
19. Seattle — over 7.5, pass
18. Carolina — under 8.5, pass
17. Houston — under 8.5, pass
16. Jacksonville — under 9, play
15. N.Y. Giants — over 7, pass
14. Baltimore — under 8.5, pass
13. Chicago — over 6.5, LOCK
12. Tennessee — over 8, play
11. L.A. Rams — under 10, play
10. San Francisco — over 8.5, pass
9. Philadelphia — under 10.5, pass
8. Green Bay —over 10, pass
7. New Orleans — over 9.5, pass
6. Kansas City — over 8.5, LOCK
5. L.A. Chargers — over 9.5, play
4. Pittsburgh — under 10.5, pass
3. Atlanta — over 9.5, play
2. Minnesota — over 10, play
1. New England — over 11, LOCK
Thursday night opener — Atlanta +1 at Philadelphia
The defending Super Bowl champ is 13–3 in these openers, but the three losses have come the last six years. The Eagles offense is all sorts of banged up, and Nick Foles is not the tiny step down from Carson Wentz many seem to think. Atlanta is my Super Bowl pick, mostly because I’m a Vikings fan that knows better than to put hope in good things, and I like the Falcons to set the tone with a big road win as the Eagles struggle to get out of the gates.
That’s a wrap for the 32-team preview. We wrap up Preview week tomorrow with a ranking of the opening day QBs plus picks for the other 15 games. Enjoy the opener!