Every National Football League regular season is filled with surprises, and the 2018 campaign won’t be any different. A team thought by many to be candidates to finish near the bottom of the overall standings will compete for a playoff spot. An advertised contender will enter a poor run of form and a losing streak that sees that club fall out of the race before Christmas time. Maybe this will be the year when quarterback Tom Brady is unable to guide the New England Patriots to the postseason, a letdown that leads to the end of an era for the league’s reigning dynasty; eh, probably not when you take everything into account.
Odds are the AFC East will, once again, be dominated by the usual suspects. What about the AFC North, a division filled with plenty of uncertainty heading into the opening week of the season? Is there any chance that the team routinely in the basement of that division will climb enough to contend for meaningful January football contests for the first time seemingly since the day before forever? Are those high on that roster overrating it after a handful of solid preseason showings? Last but not least are the reigning Super Bowl Champions, a team that doesn’t appear to be all that close to avoiding the figurative hangover that follows title celebrations.
20 Remain at the bottom: Miami Dolphins
Do you trust quarterback Ryan Tannehill? That is the question one must answer when forecasting where the Miami Dolphins may finish in the standings. Health is obviously the main concern regarding the 30-year-old who missed the entire 2017 season after multiple knee injuries. Nobody should pretend Tannehill has looked like a real franchise QB when available since entering the league in 2012. It’s a positive Tannehill played well in August exhibition games. Let’s see him perform in a playoff showdown before anybody crowns him and the Dolphins as contenders. The Dolphins will need more than a little luck to sneak into the playoff picture.
19 Remain at the bottom: Denver Broncos
After big-name defensive back Adam Jones put pen to paper on a contract with the Denver Broncos, he told reporters that he wanted to help the club win a playoff game. That’s a nice thought, but is he going to play under center for the Broncos? This franchise has made one right call at the position this decade, and that was acquiring future first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Case Keenum, no disrespect meant, isn’t Manning, nor is he Manning’s understudy. As of the end of the preseason, Keenum is merely a one-season wonder who found himself in the right system and right situation at the right time.
18 Will surprisingly make the playoffs: Jacksonville Jaguars
We’re adding the Jacksonville Jaguars to the list of teams that will “surprisingly” make the playoffs because so many are still so quick to bury quarterback Blake Bortles. It’s understood Bortles probably won’t compete for the MVP award, but he did well enough in the 2017 campaign to help the Jaguars earn a berth in the postseason. The Jaguars, as a whole, remain good enough to win the division, and Bortles could — gasp! — build upon his solid campaign. Is Bortles really such a negative that he’s going to be in the lineup long enough to drag the roster from the playoff scene? Probably not if he’s playing that poorly.
17 Won’t make the playoffs: Washington Redskins
Whether or not you believe that the Washington Redskins will make the playoffs this year is likely affected by if you believe that the franchise made an upgrade at the offense’s most important position. Alex Smith needs to be better than Kirk Cousins. It’s the only way those running the franchise (looking at you, Dan Snyder) can justify the treatment of Cousins and the deal made for Smith following the 2017 season. It may take some time for the Washington offense to adjust to Smith, who is a different type of QB. The loss of running back Derrius Guice, who suffered a torn ACL in August, is a massive blow.
16 Remain at the bottom: Oakland Raiders
There’s no nice way to say it. The Oakland Raiders are somewhat of a mess at the moment. Jon Gruden is a big name and an entertaining personality who can break film down for we mere mortals who follow the NFL from a distance. When was the last time Gruden actually developed a young signal-caller as a head coach? The franchise’s treatment of defensive superstar Khalil Mack is bizarre, to the point that it is sinking the team’s playoff hopes each day Mack is away from the rest of the roster. Trading Mack may be the wise financial decision, but it would also probably keep the Raiders closer to the bottom of the division standings than the playoffs.
15 Remain at the bottom: Baltimore Ravens
Much like the Oakland Raiders, the Baltimore Ravens look like a team in disarray even before the end of preseason. Specifically, it feels as if some are waiting for the Ravens to have a losing record before rooking quarterback Lamar Jackson enters the lineup in place of Joe Flacco. If that happens, as is assumed by many ahead of Week 1, Jackson will experience some setbacks. He also needs to limit the amount of hits he is going to take in regular-season games if he wants to survive through Week 17. Jackson may be the real deal sooner rather than later, but it will be a sign that the Ravens have given up on 2018 if he is named the starter this fall.
14 Will surprisingly make the playoffs: Tennessee Titans
It’s time for Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota to evolve and make strides toward becoming the leader the Titans believed he’d be when the team drafted him. The Titans attempted to make life easier for Mariota by acquiring Matt LaFleur, a coach who, theoretically, should help the QB with his mechanics. Tennessee has also done well to surround Mariota with several weapons, and the backfield of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis should take some pressure off the offensive CEO. Mariota needs to understand that this is, to date, the biggest season of his career. Tennessee may have to consider going in a different direction if he doesn’t deliver.
13 Won’t make the playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers
On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the goods to coast into the playoffs, win the division, win a conference championship game and maybe even win the Super Bowl. The problem is that there are serious concerns many on the roster don’t like each other all that much. Running back Le'Veon Bell is, as of the posting of this piece, set to begrudgingly report to the Steelers before Week 1, but he is also probably counting the days down until he can sign a massive contract with a different team. Ben Roethlisberger may be one hit away from either willingly or forcibly entering retirement. Mike Tomlin could be on the hot seat if the Steelers are .500 during the final half of the season.
12 Remain at the bottom: Arizona Cardinals
Quarterback Josh Rosen could be the best signal-caller of the 2018 NFL Draft class in time. Those final two words are important, and it seems the Cardinals agree, as Sam Bradford will be the team’s starter. At the risk of sounding harsh, we’ve seen this movie before and everyone knows how it ends. Bradford was who the Cardinals needed him to be during training camp and the preseason, but all of that won’t matter one bit if a sack or hit sidelines him for any amount of time. Heck, even a little fatigue in Bradford’s knee could lead to Rosen seeing the field before the Cardinals plan on starting him.
11 Remain at the bottom: Detroit Lions
As Evan Jankens of 97.1 The Ticket wrote, first-time first-year head coaches of the Detroit Lions haven’t had much success reaching the playoffs throughout the franchise’s history. This is not an indictment of Matt Patricia in any way. It just goes to show that new coaches need time to find their feet in the deep waters of the league before they achieve success. Hey, even Bill Belichick didn’t get everything right the first time. Also, don’t forget Aaron Rodgers is back under center with the Green Bay Packers. That could be enough to keep the Lions in third of fourth in the division standings.
10 Will surprisingly make the playoffs: Indianapolis Colts
Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy wasn’t merely being nice when he stated in late August that quarterback Andrew Luck could have the Colts back in the playoffs as quickly as this year. Luck is good enough to take a team that only won 25 percent of its games a season ago to the postseason, and the Colts should be better in September 2018 than the team was 12 months prior. Luck’s shoulder will be the major talking point throughout the campaign. If that shoulder is 100 percent today and stays that way through January, the Colts should be favorites to qualify for the playoffs.
9 Won’t make the playoffs: Cincinnati Bengals
Maybe the best way to describe the Cincinnati Bengals is that they are stuck in the mediocrity of football purgatory. Andy Dalton’s single MVP-esque season is nothing more than a one-off until further notice. Marvin Lewis continues to remain with the Bengals even though every indication seems to hint that the club needs new leadership and a fresh start. Maybe the Bengals win seven or eight games this year. Maybe they drop two to their in-state rivals and then fall out of the playoff race. Whatever happens, the Bengals probably aren’t doing much of note in 2018. Missing the playoffs could finally force the franchise to press reset.
8 Remain at the bottom: Buffalo Bills
Oh, the Buffalo Bills are really going to start rookie Josh Allen at quarterback for Week 1 of the regular season, aren’t they? AJ McCarron looked like just a guy even before he suffered an injury that could sideline him for a portion of September. Nathan Peterman is probably the best option on the roster to immediately start, but he also isn’t the future of the club. All signs point to Allen starting, which means the Bills will remain at the bottom of the standings. The first-year pro with a rocket arm isn’t ready. Even if Allen improves during the year, the Bills could be in for a long season.
7 Remain at the bottom: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without starting quarterback Jameis Winston for a month while he serves a league suspension. Will the Bucs actually welcome Winston back into the lineup once he is available? If they do, it will probably be because Tampa Bay is either 1-2 or 0-3. At that point, the Bucs will likely be doomed to finish the year near the bottom of the standings regardless of what Winston is able to do over the last 13 contests of the year. There are some whispers out of Florida that Tampa Bay wants Ryan Fitzpatrick to keep Winston sidelined through the fall.
6 Will surprisingly make the playoffs: New York Giants
Count the writer of this piece among those who overrated the New York Giants ahead of the team’s rough 2017 season. In fairness to all of us, that Giants team was cursed once both Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr. suffered injuries in August. Both of those wide receivers are healthy, as is quarterback Eli Manning. The team’s offensive line is better than it was at the start of last season. Head coach Ben McAdoo is no longer a problem. The Giants may not win the Super Bowl, but Big Blue should be able to do enough to return to the playoffs unless the injury bug once again infects the locker room.
5 Won’t make the playoffs: Philadelphia Eagles
Super Bowl hangovers are real, and they have affected teams better than the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles. Nick Foles has had a rough summer after starting it as the reigning Super Bowl MVP, and everybody involved will only know where Carson Wentz really stands in his return from the torn ACL he suffered last December once he begins taking snaps under center during meaningful games. Wentz will have to shake some rust off, as would most players in such a situation. That’ll cost the Eagles some games, and those losses could be enough to prevent the club from returning to the playoffs after its most successful season of the Super Bowl era.
4 Remain at the bottom: Chicago Bears
From what one reads and hears, he may not be sure if even the Chicago Bears fully believe Mitch Trubisky can be the team’s quarterback of the future. It’s not the end of the world, nor should it mean the end of his time with the franchise, if Trubisky once again struggles in 2018. He’s a work in progress, and he could still be molded into a winner and, at worst, a solid starter before his rookie contract expires. As it pertains to just 2018, however, it is probably more wishful thinking than deep analysis to believe Trubisky can guide the Bears from the bottom of the standings to the postseason.
3 Remain at the bottom: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys built the 2018 roster in a manner similar to that often utilized by the New England Patriots. Unlike Dallas, New England has Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have Dak Prescott coming off a sophomore slump and needing to improve his throwing mechanics, and the team’s talent and depth at wide receiver and tight end is worse than it was in 2017. Perhaps those in charge of building the squad are correct in believing the Dallas defense will be much better and good enough to help the team return to the playoffs. If not, Dallas could be at the bottom of the division standings by Week 17.
2 Will surprisingly make the playoffs: Cleveland Browns
You wanted a surprise pick to make the playoffs. Here’s quite the shocker that maybe shouldn’t be one, at all. The Cleveland Browns improved just about every aspect of the roster from a year ago. Most importantly, Tyrod Taylor is a proven leader and perfect bridge quarterback to keep rookie Baker Mayfield sidelined just long enough to let him develop. If the Browns can win even three division contests, not a crazy ask when you look at the opponents in the AFC North, Cleveland could sneak into the postseason conversation in December. It’d be nice to see FirstEnergy Stadium filled with actual Cleveland fans for a game that occurs the week of Christmas.
1 Won’t make the playoffs: Seattle Seahawks
If the Seattle Seahawks have a plan to make it to the playoffs that isn’t just “we have Russell Wilson and that’s enough,” they’re doing a great job keeping it a secret. Not even the most optimistic Seattle fan could look you in the eye and tell you the team’s rebuilt defense is equal to the unit that helped the Seahawks make it to a pair of Super Bowl games. There remain questions about the run game. Trading Earl Thomas, a transaction that may have occurred before you read this sentence, could be the right long-term move, but it won’t get the 2018 Seahawks any closer to the playoffs. This is an organization potentially on the cusp of a crisis.