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The Philadelphia Eagles had 50-1 odds to win Super Bowl LII in early August of last year, per OddsShark (h/t Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report). The Eagles were coming off an uninspiring 7-9 season, and they weren’t listed among the preseason favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. However, the Eagles dominated the league in 2017 en route to a Super Bowl win.
In retrospect, some signs were there in 2016. Despite the losing record, Philadelphia outscored its opponents by 36 points. The Eagles also crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-3, and beat three other playoff teams (the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys).
While the favorites for this year’s Super Bowl are fairly clear, a few sleeping giants could be looming in the middle of the pack, much like the Eagles were a year ago.
Here’s a look at each team’s Super Bowl chances heading into Week 1, with focuses on talent level, strength of schedule, health and prospective paths to the promised land.
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The Buffalo Bills made the 2017 playoffs at 9-7 despite opponents outscoring them by 57 points. They were due for regression even if the roster stayed intact, but the team has arguably gotten worse after losing three starting offensive linemen (Richie Incognito, Eric Wood and Cordy Glenn) and its No. 1 quarterback (Tyrod Taylor).
Now the Bills are starting 2018 with Nathan Peterman calling the shots. Peterman could certainly improve in year two of his NFL career, but a five-interception half against the Los Angeles Chargers last season does not elicit confidence. Nor does an offensive line that looked like the worst unit in the league during Week 3 of the preseason as it allowed five first-half sacks en route to a 20-0 home deficit against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The mobile Taylor would have masked some of those line deficiencies, but he is now a Cleveland Brown. It should be a long year for Buffalo regardless of whether Peterman, rookie Josh Allen or veteran AJ McCarron is calling signals.
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The Oakland Raiders finished 29th in defensive efficiency last year, per Football Outsiders, and that was with edge-rusher Khalil Mack amassing 78 tackles and 10.5 sacks.
Mack is now a Chicago Bear after a prolonged holdout eventually led to Oakland dealing him north for four draft picks. That deal could reap rewards down the line if the Silver and Black make the right draft calls, but for now, the Raiders defense may be the worst in the league.
Oakland was already a bottom-five defensive unit with its best player, and it doesn’t have a plan to replace Mack’s excellent production this season.
The Silver and Black still have edge-rusher Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks last year, but he’s the only returning player with more than one sack. Getting to the quarterback may be a serious problem in 2018, leading to a leaky pass defense.
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The Miami Dolphins finished 6-10 last year, and now they will be without their best offensive player (wideout Jarvis Landry) and best defensive player (tackle Ndamukong Suh) in 2018. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is back after suffering a torn ACL and missing all of 2017, but the team has a ton of question marks on both sides of the ball.
The most pressing one may be the run defense in a post-Suh world, and early preseason returns were not promising. Not only were the Dolphins giving up vast amounts of yardage on the ground, but they were also allowing an unusual amount of huge runs.
Per Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald in an August 28 piece: “The Dolphins’ issues against the run have largely been due to poor gap discipline and poor angles—in the last two weeks alone, they have surrendered ground gains of 71, 65, 27, 26, 21 and 20 yards—their edge discipline has not been great either.”
The Dolphins’ schedule offers little help, with a three-game stretch against conference finalists (the New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars) looming in December. The season may be over beforehand.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ listing near the bottom of the Super Bowl chances ledger here is less an indictment of the roster and more of a commentary on the fact that they will likely bring up the rear in a loaded NFC South.
If the Bucs were in an easier division (e.g. the AFC East), then a second-place finish would be a distinct possibility. However, barring injuries at key positions for the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, those three teams are likely taking the top spots in some order. That would leave the Bucs out of the postseason.
The odds back that sentiment, as the Bucs are listed at 14-1 to win the division with the other three NFC South teams marked down at 14-5 or better, per OddsShark.
The defense should be better with some new linemen (Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and first-round draft pick Vita Vea), but the NFC South’s offenses may be tough assignments for anyone this year.
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Even if quarterback Andrew Luck returns to his old form and slings touchdown passes to No. 1 wideout T.Y. Hilton like it’s the mid-2010s all over again, the Indianapolis Colts have too many roster concerns right now.
In particular, the Colts defense may be in trouble. Last year’s unit did not fare well, as it allowed the third-most points (25.3) in the league. This year’s team doesn’t look much more promising.
Mike Wells of ESPN.com offered some commentary on the defense’s current state: “The Colts have struggled so far in their transition to a 4-3 defense under coordinator Matt Eberflus. Part of the problem is the youth movement on that side of the ball. There are no starting defensive players remaining from the 2014 season, when Indianapolis reached the AFC Championship Game.”
Wells also noted that “the Colts could be starting five first- or second-year players on defense.” In other words, Indianapolis could be undergoing some serious growing pains.
On offense, Luck can rely on Hilton and tight end Jack Doyle (80 receptions last year), but it’s unclear if the team will have a solid receiving option behind those two.
The Colts may win some shootouts, but they may also find themselves on the wrong end of lopsided scores.
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Washington Redskins rookie running back Derrius Guice was set to be this team’s best offensive weapon and someone the entire roster would galvanize around. Unfortunately, Guice suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, and that may have taken the wind out of the team’s sails. It was clear how much his loss affected the team after watching running back Chris Thompson and left tackle Trent Williams’ interviews following the injury.
The ‘Skins picked up Adrian Peterson in free agency following the loss. Peterson has a Hall of Fame resume, but he’s 33 years old and has averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in 193 attempts over his past two seasons.
The Washington offense generally lacks explosiveness, which Guice brought to the table. Thompson can assist in that regard thanks to his pass-catching abilities, but overall, the ‘Skins offense doesn’t look too formidable on paper. Of note, no receiver registered more than 800 receiving yards last year. In fact, Thompson was fourth on the team in receiving yards despite missing nearly half the season.
In a division with a litany of offensive talent, that may be a problem if Washington’s defense can’t get the job done.
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Per ESPN Stats and Info, Sam Darnold will become the youngest player to ever start his team’s Week 1 opener at quarterback. Darnold impressed in the preseason, with Pro Football Focus giving the former USC star a 74.9 grade, the second-best mark among the five quarterbacks taken in the first round.
Based on this year’s schedule, however, Darnold may have more than his fair share of “welcome to the NFL” moments. Within a four-week stretch, the Jets will face the three teams (Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos) who finished top three in fewest yards allowed per game last season.
The Jets also have dates with a potentially dominant Chicago Bears defense that just added edge-rusher Khalil Mack, in addition to a contest with JJ Watt and the Houston Texans.
It won’t be surprising to see Darnold and the Jets pushing for the AFC East title in a few years, but as the team acclimates to a new era, its time is not now.
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The Cleveland Browns have received an inordinate amount of attention for a last-place team this offseason, but they have made a ton of waves, including drafting Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield first overall, trading for Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry and landing veteran signal-caller Tyrod Taylor via trade.
The Browns are in a transitional stage as Taylor acts as the bridge between the 0-16 season and the official start of the Mayfield era. The offense has a lot of potential down the line, especially if rookie running back Nick Chubb and tight end David Njoku break through.
Led by defensive end Myles Garrett, the defense looks stout on paper. The 2017 first overall pick is in line for an excellent year following a solid rookie campaign (seven sacks, 31 tackles). Cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick in 2018, will also start and should provide needed assistance on the back end.
Cleveland isn’t contending for a Super Bowl this year, but it has intriguing potential in future seasons. A wild-card berth is its likely 2018 ceiling.
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The Cincinnati Bengals have some excellent talent on both sides of the ball, led by wideout A.J. Green and defensive end Carlos Dunlap. But the team isn’t well-rounded enough, nor does it have enough depth, to truly compete for a Super Bowl.
Of note, the offensive line needs to improve after finishing just 24th in adjusted line yards and 20th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders. The team did trade for left tackle Cordy Glenn, but it remains to be seen whether the rest of the line can pull through this year.
The offense has sneaky top-10 potential if Joe Mixon improves in year two and tight end Tyler Eifert stays healthy, but the defense was mediocre last year, finishing 17th in efficiency. Overall, the Bengals seem stuck in the middle, with an early-round playoff appearance as its ceiling.
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The Dallas Cowboys are two seasons removed from a 13-3 campaign and division title, but the 2018 team has too many question marks. How will the young and unproven secondary fare? Can the team adequately replace wideout Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten’s production? How much cause for concern is there for the offensive line, which has suffered numerous health issues this year?
The Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott combination will win the team some games, and the front seven should be formidable, especially with edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence causing a weekly ruckus. But there is cause for concern in the pass game on both sides, and that may prevent a playoff appearance.
In addition, the schedule doesn’t offer the Cowboys any favors. Aside from two divisional games with the defending Super Bowl champions, Dallas has tilts with the NFC South (which means three contests against 2017 playoff participants) in addition to a trip to Seattle.
Expect Dallas to stay in playoff contention into December, but a Super Bowl is hard to fathom.
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The Detroit Lions and the aforementioned Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a similar boat. In a vacuum, the Bucs don’t look like a bad team, per se, but their path to the playoffs is blocked in an NFC South where three of four teams can call themselves Super Bowl contenders.
The Lions have a rosier outlook than the Bucs, but they still have a serious roadblock in the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings look like they’ll duke it out for the NFC North crown, and the upstart Chicago Bears just retooled their roster this offseason with a superstar edge-rusher (Khalil Mack) and a brand-new No. 1 wide receiver and tight end (Allen Robinson and Trey Burton).
The pass-attack trio of quarterback Matt Stafford and wideouts Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate should keep the Lions in games, but Detroit’s roster doesn’t look much better than the 9-7 team that fell just short of the playoffs. Granted, it doesn’t look worse either, but each of its divisional opponents look to have improved more this offseason. That could leave the Lions in last place.
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Are people sleeping on the Arizona Cardinals? Sure, they just underwent a coaching staff change after Bruce Arians stepped down, and the team lost quarterback Carson Palmer to retirement. But running back David Johnson, who led the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns in 2016, is back after missing nearly all of last season with a wrist fracture. He and wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who continues to defy Father Time, should carry the offensive load.
New head coach Steve Wilks led an aggressive defense in Carolina last year that finished third in sacks. Wilks has plenty of talent to work with in Arizona, too, led by 2017 NFL sack leader Chandler Jones and shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson. Don’t expect the defense, which finished sixth in yards allowed per game, to skip a beat.
The problem is the NFC West looks tough on paper, with the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks all legitimate and realistic playoff contenders. Divisional games may be a gauntlet, but expect the Cardinals to be in contention for a playoff berth.
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Like the Buffalo Bills, the Tennessee Titans finished with a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance despite being outscored. But the Titans pulled off a postseason upset, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the wild-card round.
The postseason ended with a whimper as the New England Patriots took care of business in the divisional round. Shortly thereafter, head coach Mike Mularkey was fired in favor of Mike Vrabel, the former Patriots linebacker who was most recently the Houston Texans defensive coordinator.
This year’s team may go as far as the three-headed backfield monster of quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry take them. If those three are able to give the Titans the time-of-possession edge on a weekly basis with strong ground and short-passing games, that should give the entire team a massive boost.
The biggest questions may be in the passing game. Most notably, is Tennessee capable of hanging with teams with explosive offenses? That may largely depend on second-year pro Corey Davis, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. He battled injuries last season, but he’s back healthy and ready to go this year.
Still, the Titans finished just 19th in pass-offense efficiency last year, per Football Outsiders. Much improvement will be needed on that front for the Titans to make a Super Bowl push.
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The Seattle Seahawks received a huge boost when safety Earl Thomas ended his holdout and joined the team at practice on Wednesday. The ‘Hawks need the last remaining member of the Legion of Boom; he’s the veteran leader of a formidable defense that also features linebacker Bobby Wagner and edge-rusher Frank Clark.
On offense, the Seahawks’ run game needs a jolt of energy following last year’s performance in which quarterback Russell Wilson led the team in rushing yards. They’ll get a full year of left tackle Duane Brown, who played nine games for Seattle after coming over in a trade with the Houston Texans.
Chris Carson is also back from a season-ending injury, and the second-year pro showcased his ability last year in limited action to the tune of 4.2 yards per carry. Rookie Rashaad Penny will also be called upon.
The passing attack is a big question mark, however, as No. 1 wideout Doug Baldwin revealed that his injured knee is at 80-85 percent. The Wilson-Baldwin combination has caused chaos for opposing defenses, but will that be slowed down this year?
Ultimately, the Seahawks should still be playoff contenders, but their Super Bowl window may be closed shut in the post-LOB era.
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The Baltimore Ravens have a stout defense with the potential to be a top-five unit once again, but the offense isn’t explosive enough to seriously contend for a Super Bowl.
Quarterback Joe Flacco ranked last in yards per attempt last year, and there isn’t much reason to believe that will change much this season. Wideout Michael Crabtree should help the aerial attack, but the Ravens don’t have a game breaker on offense.
Running back Alex Collins is efficient and consistent and may be the team’s best player this season. Last year, the former Seattle Seahawk rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and six touchdowns while residing in a timeshare. Now the lead back, he could be in for a big year.
Special teams and defense should be excellent once again. Kicker Justin Tucker hits 50-yard field goals like they are penalty shots in soccer. Safety Eric Weddle and linebacker Terrell Suggs lead a defense that finished third in overall efficiency, per Football Outsiders, and second against the pass.
Still, the offense remains a concern, enough so that the Ravens are a clear step or two behind the AFC’s top contenders.
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The San Francisco 49ers started 1-10 last year but finished with five straight wins as Jimmy Garoppolo took the reins at quarterback and never looked back. Now cemented as the team’s franchise signal-caller after signing a massive offseason deal, Jimmy G could lead the upstart 49ers back to the promised land.
However, the team suffered a big blow when free-agent running back Jerrick McKinnon suffered a torn ACL during a preseason practice. With him out for the season, the team will turn to Alfred Morris and Matt Breida to carry the workload.
The passing game has great potential, as Garoppolo and wideout Marquise Goodwin (29 catches, 378 yards) formed a solid rapport in those last five games. Pierre Garcon is back as the team’s No. 2 wideout after missing the latter half of the season with an injury, and left tackle Joe Staley still patrols the blind side better than nearly anyone in the league.
On defense, if cornerback Richard Sherman is close to anything like his Legion of Boom form following a torn Achilles suffered last season, then the 49ers could be scary. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and defensive end Solomon Thomas also help front a solid line.
The 1981 Niners, who won the franchise’s first Super Bowl, were coming off a 6-10 year before taking the Lombardi Trophy. Might this year’s Niners do the same?
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Unlike last year, when last rites were given to the New York Giants in early October, Big Blue should stay in contention through the season. Superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is back after missing nearly all of last season with a broken ankle, and he’ll be joined by dynamic rookie running back Saquon Barkley, who can break off a touchdown run any time he touches the ball.
On defense, the team added some key pieces in the draft (defensive end B.J. Hill and linebacker Lorenzo Carter) who should be making impacts right away on a defense led by ex-Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who clearly has no problem dialing up the pressure.
The issues will be on the right side of the offensive line (the team’s starting center, right guard and right tackle earned below average grades, per Pro Football Focus) and in the secondary (the team is employing numerous journeymen alongside stars Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins). But if those areas improve (or if those deficiencies are masked), then the Giants can be a playoff team.
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The excitement out of Chicago is palpable as new head coach Matt Nagy leads a retooled roster into the 2018 season. On offense, wideout Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton were added to help quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in his second season in the league. The tough running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen is also back, and the Bears added a stout slot receiver in Anthony Miller in the draft.
Of course, the biggest add this offseason was edge-rusher Khalil Mack, who has amassed 36.5 sacks in three seasons. The Bears gave up four draft picks (including two first-rounders) for the proven star, but the deal may be worth it as Mack should immediately give the Bears a pass-rushing boost.
Even without Mack, the defense looked strong on paper. Top-10 draft pick Roquan Smith was added to the linebacking corps, and 2017 sack leader Akiem Hicks (15.5 sacks in two seasons) should also apply pressure. Cornerback Kyle Fuller, who finished second in the league in passes defended (22), should help keep the back line strong.
The Bears have to navigate a tough NFC North just to make the playoffs, but if Trubisky makes a big leap in year two, Chicago has a Super Bowl ceiling.
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The Kansas City Chiefs offense is dominant on paper. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes looks like he can sling the ball as far as John Elway did in those mid-1990s Vortex football commercials. Wideout Tyreek Hill looks fast enough to catch them. And running back Kareem Hunt and tight end Travis Kelce are two of the best players at their respective positions.
The issue is on defense, as the Chiefs didn’t inspire confidence with their preseason performance. Of note, the starting unit gave up 21 first-half points to the Chicago Bears backups in Week 3. That’s not a good omen heading into the season, especially when the Chiefs have to face a few high-powered offenses in Pittsburgh and New England on the schedule.
Ultimately, the offense is good enough by itself to get K.C. to the playoffs, but the defense needs to step up in order for the Chiefs to go deep.
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The Denver Broncos played quarterback roulette last year, with Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler all calling signals. Denver also struggled at times in the run game, finishing 22nd in rush-offense efficiency, per Football Outsiders.
Both of those problems may be fixed this year thanks to veteran quarterback Case Keenum and rookie running back Royce Freeman. Fresh off leading the Vikings to the NFC championship game, the 30-year-old Keenum threw 22 touchdowns and completed 67.6 percent of his passes. He’ll have some weapons to work with in Denver thanks to the one-two pass-catching duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Freeman has looked like a potential rookie star in the preseason, as he ran 15 times for 84 yards and three scores. He’s the leader in the Denver backfield and could help propel the offense to greater heights.
The defense is still strong with six-time Pro Bowler Von Miller terrorizing quarterbacks, but edge-rusher Bradley Chubb should also provide a boost.
The Broncos finished 5-11 last year, but don’t be surprised if they double their win total.
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If quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, defensive ends J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus all stay healthy, the Houston Texans can emerge as a Super Bowl dark horse.
A 4-12 season following a playoff appearance and win in 2016 was disappointing, but the team suffered a tremendous amount of injuries at key positions, which essentially torpedoed the 2017 campaign. With all of those aforementioned players back in the mix, the Texans could have an explosive offense and one of the best pass rushes in the league.
The good news for Houston is that it gets a break with the schedule this year: In between a Week 1 contest with the New England Patriots and a Week 16 showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Texans play a team that won 10 or more games just once, a Week 7 matchup at Jacksonville. The Texans can take advantage of the weaker slate and contend for the AFC South crown. If all breaks right, a Super Bowl isn’t out of reach.
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It could be the Cam-CMC show in Carolina as quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey dominate the league with their running ability.
Focusing on McCaffrey, he is the clear starter in Carolina after sharing duties with Jonathan Stewart last season. He already showcased his talent last year as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, hauling in 80 passes for 651 yards and five touchdowns. Now he’ll see more volume.
He has game-breaking ability, as evidenced by his 71-yard touchdown run against the Miami Dolphins in the preseason; it showed what the ex-Stanford star can do at his best.
Ultimately, McCaffrey is the X-factor in Charlotte: If McCaffrey enjoys a monster season, and linebacker Luke Kuechly leads a strong defense that finished third in the league in sacks, then the Panthers can win a grueling NFC South. A Super Bowl isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
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If I went back to September 2017 and told you that the Los Angeles Chargers went 9-3 in their final 12 games and finished 13th in scoring and third in points allowed, you would have assumed the Bolts made the playoffs, right?
If your past self is a cold-hearted cynic who assumed the cursed Chargers lost their first four games and were left out of the playoff cold thanks to losing tiebreakers to two teams who were outscored, then you were right.
Somehow, the Bolts failed to make the postseason despite fantastic seasons from numerous players, including wideout Keenan Allen, edge-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and cornerback Casey Hayward. But the Chargers’ kicking game did not fare well, and the team lost four times by three or fewer points.
One has to imagine that the team could be in for positive regression this year, with a few of those close losses turning into wins. The Chargers may have a tough task to knock down the New England Patriots from their conference perch, but they are one of a few teams that can hang with them.
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If you ever find yourself falling down a Pro Football Reference statistical rabbit hole, consider staring at New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees‘ yearly stats. Brees has never had as much recognition as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning over the years, but he is in their class.
Remarkably, Brees is coming off a year where he earned his highest career completion rate (72 percent, which topped the NFL) and led the league in yards per attempt (8.1).
Although age gets the best of everyone, Brees’ shelf life has been elongated by a few young superstars. Namely, running back Alvin Kamara resembled a bulldozer as he earned 6.1 yards per carry. Per Football Outsiders, Kamara was the clear leader in defense-adjusted value over average, with there being no close second.
Elsewhere, wideout Michael Thomas eclipsed the 100-catch mark, hauling in 69.8 percent of passes thrown his way. Ted Ginn proved to be a reliable deep threat, and Mark Ingram served as an excellent complement to Kamara in the backfield.
All those players (minus Ingram for four games as he serves a suspension) are back in the mix, which should keep New Orleans in Super Bowl contention.
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The Atlanta Falcons can make a case for being one of the top five teams in football and a clear Super Bowl contender. They have one of the best wide receivers of all time in Julio Jones as well as a dynamic, dual-threat backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Matt Ryan, who won the 2016 MVP, is still calling signals, and first-round rookie Calvin Ridley could shine in this offense with much of the attention on Jones and the backs.
The defense looks formidable too: Led by edge-rusher Vic Beasley and cornerback Desmond Trufant, the Falcons fared well at the end of last year, allowing no more than 21 points in each of their final eight games (including playoffs). The highlight was a total shutdown of the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round, with the Falcons holding the highest-scoring team in the league to just 13 points.
The Falcons’ problem is that the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints reside in their division, which has turned into a Group of Death of sorts. Other contending teams have easier paths to the Lombardi Trophy. But if the Falcons can emerge as the division winner in addition to nabbing a top-two seed, they could be in for a big year.
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The winning formula for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year was simple: On defense, get after the quarterback, wreck havoc and cause turnovers. On offense, rely on a stout run game led by rookie Leonard Fournette.
The Jags finished 10-6 last season, upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round and nearly took down the New England Patriots in the conference championship, blowing a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead. While that loss must sting, there’s reason to believe the Jags can make it a step further.
The defense is back intact, led by shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey and sack leader Calais Campbell. Fournette dealt with ankle injuries last season but is healthy coming into this year. The loss of wideout Marqise Lee to a knee injury in the preseason certainly hurts, but the team has some intriguing pass-catching talent led by rookie DJ Chark and second-year pros Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook.
The Jags proved that their brand of football is a tough matchup for the traditional AFC powerhouses in Pittsburgh and New England, and a Super Bowl appearance isn’t out of the question.
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The Minnesota Vikings went 13-3 last year despite (a) their Week 1 starter at quarterback missing nearly the entire season, (b) their stud rookie running back suffering a torn ACL in Week 4 and (c) their scuffling to a 2-2 start.
That’s pretty impressive, and the team returns a ton of talent from that 2017 crew. There isn’t any reason to believe the defense will take a step back barring injury, as the team returns all the big names, including cornerback Xavier Rhodes, safety Harrison Smith and end Everson Griffen.
The big question marks reside on offense. How will Dalvin Cook fare after missing most of last season? Will quarterback Kirk Cousins succeed on his new team? After the departure of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to the New York Giants, how will new OC John DeFilippo do?
If Cook looks like his old self, Cousins performs as well (or better) than Case Keenum and DeFilippo transitions well in his first year calling the offensive shots, then the Vikings should be clear Super Bowl favorites.
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The return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers after he suffered a broken collarbone and missed half of the 2017 season will make the Green Bay Packers instant playoff favorites and Super Bowl contenders, but the key to how far they go may rest in the hands of three players.
On offense, running back Jamaal Williams will get the starting nod in Week 1. He should handle the bulk of the workload as Aaron Jones is suspended for two games. Williams did well as a runner and pass-catcher last year, and he finished the season ranked 12th in defensive-adjusted yards above replacement among players who had at least 100 carries, per Football Outsiders. He could be in line for a big year with increased touches.
On defense, the rookie cornerback duo of Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander can transform a pass defense that allowed the 10th-most passing yards in the league. Jackson made Pro Football Focus’ all-preseason team, and Rob Demovsky of ESPN offered praise of Alexander in August, noting that he “has brought a confidence and an energy to the secondary that has been contagious.”
If Williams can take some pressure off Rodgers, and Jackson and Alexander shore up the back end, then the Packers may be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in eight years.
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell’s holdout will last into the regular season, but as talented as the sixth-year pro is out of the backfield, the team may not skip a beat. The Steelers return the best one-two punch at wide receiver in Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster, and a stout offensive line led by left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is set to protect veteran Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers defense returns four players who amassed six or more sacks last year, led by defensive end Cameron Heyward and his 12. No team had a higher adjusted sack rate than Pittsburgh, which led the league at 9.8 percent, per Football Outsiders.
However, the Steelers’ Achilles’ heel may be their run defense, which was most notably gashed by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette twice last year via 290 rushing yards and five touchdowns in two losses (one in the playoffs). Without improving there, a Super Bowl will be harder to reach.
Still, the Steelers are heavy favorites to win the AFC North and should be in the playoff conversation in January at minimum.
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The defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are the clear favorites to repeat in an NFC East where the second- through fourth-place teams last year all finished without winning records.
The new season has arrived with concerns, however, as quarterback Carson Wentz is still not ready to return from a torn ACL suffered late last season against the Los Angeles Rams. No. 1 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is also working his way back from a rotator cuff injury that has him at “week to week,” per head coach Doug Pederson.
Philadelphia also lost a few players to free agency, most notably tight end Trey Burton, cornerback Patrick Robinson and running back LeGarrette Blount. All three played crucial roles in the Super Bowl run.
But there’s still reason for optimism: Fletcher Cox mans the defensive line, and he’s joined by new teammates Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett. Running back Corey Clement and tight end Dallas Goedert could help replace Blount and Burton’s lost production, and the secondary is still stout.
The Eagles should waltz back into the playoffs, although it will be tough to traverse through the NFC.
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On offense, the Los Angeles Rams return their quarterback, running back and top two wide receivers from a team that finished first in the league in scoring. On defense, L.A. added defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who have 12 Pro Bowl appearances between them. Superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald also signed a monster six-year contract that will keep him in town.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein has one of the strongest legs in the game, and head coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips lead one of the best coaching staffs in football.
What’s not to like in L.A.? If we’re nitpicking, this Rams team doesn’t have much playoff experience (after going 11-5, L.A. lost its wild-card game to the Atlanta Falcons). However, L.A. may have the most well-rounded team in football, and its Super Bowl window is clearly wide open.
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The New England Patriots are Super Bowl contenders every year because they often travel on the path of least resistance to the playoffs. Playing six games against the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, who have made the playoffs just once each this decade, gives the team a standings boost season after season.
The Patriots’ road to the Super Bowl is made that much easier when it is almost guaranteed a home wild-card game at worst year after year, with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs commonplace.
This year proves to be no different, at least on paper, as the Pats’ three divisional foes all have over/under win totals of six-and-a-half of lower, per OddsShark. New England is also a massive minus-614 favorite to win the division: To put that figure in context, the next-biggest divisional-winning favorite (the Pittsburgh Steelers) sits at minus-198.
The Pats aren’t the clear-cut best team in the league entering this year, but they have the easiest road to a divisional title out of any top contender, and that makes them the favorite to win their sixth Super Bowl.