The smell of pizza and cheap beer is in the air. The wait at Buffalo Wild Wings is 90 minutes for a table. And now, Sunday is your new favorite day of the week.
That’s right, football season is back.
Thank you Based God.
With the seemingly endless wait to watch grown men run around a field and tackle each other finally over, it’s time to sit back in your favorite chair, order your favorite game day meal, and relax. Until the best receiver on your fantasy football team gets injured during week four and all hell breaks loose.
But before that happens, you need to be primed on what’s shakin’ around the league in order to enhance your glorious viewing pleasure. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the bigger questions and issues affecting each division of the NFL.
AFC West: Can the Broncos repeat?
It makes sense to start with the division that’s home to the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos. As you should be well aware by now, Denver lost both of its starting quarterbacks from last year, and for the time being will trot out 7th-round pick Trevor Siemian. If you don’t know much about Siemian, well, join the club. He was largely underwhelming at Northwestern in college and has only kneeled the ball in the pros.
The question in the AFC West isn’t really whether or not the Broncos can repeat, or win the division for a fifth straight time, it’s whether or not they will even make the playoffs. Last year’s Broncos squad didn’t win on the strength of Peyton Manning’s arm – it was their playmaking defense that earned them their rings. But that defense has since lost defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan to free agency, both key cogs to that ferocious front seven.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs, who have been one step behind Denver for the last few years, are surely chomping at the bit to finally win the division. The up and coming Oakland Raiders are everyone’s dark horse favorite to make a playoff run, and the Chargers have the best quarterback in the division. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of season the champs have, and if they can’t, to see who takes the division crown instead. My money is on Kansas City to finally take the leap.
AFC North: Who is RGIII?
Screw everything else, THIS is the storyline to watch in the entire league. Robert Griffin III was incredible as a rookie, and hasn’t done anything worthwhile since. He finally got the fresh start he (and us, we matter too) deserved, and landing with new head coach Hue Jackson could be exactly what his career needs. He also has a pretty talented group of skill players to throw to in Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, Gary Barnidge, Duke Johnson Jr. and Terrelle Pryor. Their defense is terrible, but there’s a part of me that thinks this team is already better than people are willing to admit.
I really want RG3 to do well. Sure, he might be kind of a jerk, and he might not be a good leader, but boy was he fun to watch that rookie season. We all deserve more of that RG3 in our lives. I think the Steelers take the division over the Bengals on a tiebreaker, for the record.
AFC South: Are the Colts the team to beat?
When you look around the league, there are actually several divisions where it’s pretty difficult to predict who will end up on team. The AFC South is certainly no exception, considering that the Houston Texans won this division with a measly 9-7 record last year. All eyes will certainly be on Andrew Luck, the Colts’ fearless leader and franchise player. Indianapolis was 11-5 in Luck’s first three seasons in the league, but took a step back last year amid injuries and horrid offensive line play.
If Luck is healthy, are the Colts still the team to beat here? Houston has easily the best defense in the division (and one of the best in the league), and they added Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller in the offseason. I still don’t know if Osweiler is any good, but he can’t be much worse than Houston’s quarterback carousel from last year. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have been sneakily improving every year and shelled out a bunch of money in free agency to revamp its defense. The Titans will be running something called an “exotic smashmouth” offense. Nobody knows what that means, but it sounds like a good cocktail at the very least.
If the Colts can get better offensive line play after drafting Alabama center Ryan Kelly in the first round, then they could cobble together another division win. But Houston is the favorite to repeat here, considering they have the best defensive player in football.
AFC East: Will anyone take advantage of Tom Brady’s suspension?
Brady’s suspension is the obvious story to watch here. But underneath the surface, there’s some interesting stuff happening here. Buffalo has finally committed to Tyrod Taylor as its starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. He might already be the second-best quarterback in the division, although the Dolphins are hoping that quarterback whisperer Adam Gase can help Ryan Tannehill reach his potential. The Jets are largely the same, but changing from Chris Ivory to Matt Forte at running back will change the way their offense looks.
Can any one of the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills take advantage of four Brady-less Patriots games? They get Dolphins in week two and the Bills in week 4, and a win for either of those teams could prove huge down the stretch. Those games are both in New England, however, so they can hold on, then all of this could be for naught. Either way, I think the Pats take the division crown.
NFC West: Will Colin Kaepernick ever stand for the National Anthem?
Oh my god I’m kidding! Can we please talk about actual things that matter in this division? Like Chip Kelly! He’s still an NFL head coach after lighting fire to the Eagles’ roster and then running to San Francisco, which might have the worst roster in the league. This division is pretty straightforward, with the only real question being whether the Seahawks or Cardinals will win the division (I’m going with the Seahawks).
But the best thing to watch will be the Niners. I think they’re going to be one of those car wrecks that everyone drives really slowly past because it’s horrible to watch but you can’t look away. I mean, Blaine Gabbert is their starting quarterback, which is something I never thought I’d write again. Or ever. This is going to be fun!
NFC North: Can the Vikings win without Teddy?
This was supposed to be about the Vikings and Packers duking it out for the division title, but unfortunately things changed when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tore his ACL last week. The Packers are now favored in every game they play this season, and Minnesota is now focused on just making it to the postseason.
This marks the second year in a row that a major NFC North player went down in the preseason. The Packers lost Jordy Nelson last year, and Green Bay’s offense never looked the same after that. The question here is whether the Vikings can still make the playoffs and compete for the division title with Sam Bradford at the helm. They still have an elite defense and maybe the best running back in football, so anything can happen. I think the Packers take the division (and Rodgers wins MVP if Jordy’s healthy), but that the Vikings still sneak into the playoffs and make some noise.
NFC South: How many dabs can a Cam Newton dab if a Cam Newton could dab dabs?
I couldn’t resist typing that. But for real, when you break it down, that sentence totally makes sense. Will Cam repeat his masterful 45 touchdown/dab season from last season? The safe money is on no, but Carolina is still far and away the best team in this division, even after losing cornerback Josh Norman. Luke Keuchly is the best linebacker in the NFC and getting Kelvin Benjamin back will be a nice red zone boost. But it’ll be really interesting to see how Cam follows up his MVP campaign.
It feels like everyone quickly forgot just how bad Cam was in the Super Bowl against Denver’s vaunted defense. Cam was 18/41 (44%!) passing for 265 yards, 0 touchdowns and one interception. He ran the ball well, which he always does, but that’s never been the issue. Cam is obviously great, but I think he comes back down to earth a bit this season. Also noteworthy: Jameis Winston’s sophomore campaign. He was only one of three rookie quarterbacks to throw for over 4000 yards. The other two? Cam Newton and Andrew Luck.
NFC East: Dak who?
With Romo out, I think the Giants are the best team in this division, and for some reason it just kind of feels like an Eli year (Packers and Patriots fans know what I’m talking about). Eli has a nice collection of skill players on offense, and we still haven’t seen Odell Beckham Jr.’s peak, which is really scary. He’s on a Randy Moss-esque trajectory already, and I don’t say that lightly. The Eagles will probably be a very poor man’s version of the Chiefs with former Kansas City offensive coordinator Doug Pederson now the head coach. Obviously Carson Wentz’s season will be interesting to watch, especially considering they planned to “redshirt” him just 2 weeks ago.
The Washington football team will be a lot of fun for fantasy football purposes and not much else. But the big question here is the Cowboys and their new shiny toy: Dak Prescott. Somehow this is already a bigger story than presumed offensive ROY winner Ezekiel Elliot. Prescott lit up the preseason, was productive in college at Mississippi State and is a mobile threat. He’s not the antithesis of Romo, but their styles of play are pretty different. It’s safe to say the Dallas will try to control games with Zeke and its elite offensive line, but it’s also likely that its defense isn’t good enough to ensure this works every week.
That’s where Dak comes in. He still gets to throw to Dez Bryant, probably the best red zone threat in the league outside of Gronk, and Jason Witten and Zeke will serve as wonderful safety valves. The Cowboys have a reasonably tough slate for the first six games of the year (with a week 7 bye), but if Dak can keep them above water, this will be a tough Cowboys team to beat in December. If not, however, it will be another long offseason of what-ifs for Jerry Jones.
Photo courtesy of Joe Amon, The Denver Post.