Here’s how I see each division race playing out, as well as a few quick thoughts on each team and why I have them where they are in the standings.
New England Patriots: 12-4
New York Jets: 9-7
Buffalo Bills: 7-9
Miami Dolphins: 2-14
Patriots: The Brady/Belichick combination remains in full force, and despite losing Gronk to retirement, this might be the most complete set of weapons around Brady the team has had in a few years. One thing that does not get mentioned enough--their special teams never lose games. There will be 1-2 complete stunning clunkers they drop this year, but the reigning champs are still the class of the division, if not the entire conference.
Jets: I’m bullish on a Sam Darnold ascension, and Le’Veon Bell will help. Gregg Williams as the new defensive coordinator will bring aggression and accountability, and their package at DL and DB should be one of the better ones. Team on the rise but with some holes (WR, TE, LB) that will keep them from truly contending in 2019. The pressure on Adam Gase to prove he’s the right coach for a talented young roster.
BIlls: There is a lot to like here, but the one thing they’re not good at is terribly important. The new-look OL, the overhauled RB room with ageless Frank Gore and dynamic young Devin Singletary, the speed at WR, Josh Allen’s amazing running at QB. It’s all very good and promising. The defense looks solid but thin. Ed Oliver can make a big difference, and so can return man Andre Roberts. But if Allen remains so unrefined and inefficient as a passer, there is a definite ceiling on this team.
Dolphins: This is the weakest roster in the league and it almost seems so by design. A rookie coach in Brian Flores gets handed a QB controversy, the worst OL on paper I’ve seen this decade, and no real reliable weapons for the Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen “winner”. There are some pieces worth building around on the defense, but not enough yet. I give them one win for a Fitzmagic Sunday and another for a division foe overlooking them. It will be shocking -- and a credit to Flores -- if they’re not picking in the top 3 in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Cleveland Browns: 10-6
Baltimore Ravens: 10-6
Pittsburgh Steelers: 7-9
Cincinnati Bengals: 4-12
Browns: I believe the Browns' talent from players 1-10 on the roster is as good--maybe even better--than anyone. I have questions about the OL and a rookie coach in Freddie Kitchens managing it all, and their kicking situation doesn’t inspire confidence. This is the best team on paper in the entire AFC, however. Myles Garrett is a legit Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner, and their secondary looks outstanding. Arrow pointing firmly up like a middle finger at the team’s inglorious recent history.
Ravens: While the NFL world focuses on QB Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have quietly overhauled the defense with loads of impressive talent young and old. They should remain elite on special teams, a John Harbaugh hallmark. Baltimore has ways to win even when Jackson can’t connect with an unproven group of receivers. This will not be an easy out for anyone, any week.
Steelers: In what could be Ben Roethlisberger's swan song, I see too much premium talent drain for a viable run at a division title. First-rounder Devin Bush will definitely help the defense, and the reloaded WR group can still be great. The depth all over the offense looks terrible, and the line needs help. The Steelers strike me as caught between eras of the team here with so few players in their primes. Way too much talent to be bad, and the 7-9 forecast here is probably the worst-case if the primary players stay healthy.
Bengals: Hard to feel good about a team whose best player (A.J. Green) is out for the start of the year, as is first-round pick Jonah Williams. A great defensive line and solid secondary will keep Cincinnati respectable, and the 3-4 games where Andy Dalton looks like a Pro Bowl QB can strike some upsets. But blowing consecutive 1st rounders on OL who won’t play--2018’s Billy Price lost his starting job already--is too much to overcome for a team with so many other needs this year.
Houston Texans: 11-5
Indianapolis Colts: 8-8
Jacksonville Jaguars: 7-9
Tennessee Titans: 7-9
Texans: Their bizarre trading and valuation of talent notwithstanding, Houston plugged the biggest hole on the team by acquiring LT Laremy Tunsil. Now the offense has everything it needs to scorch opponents. DeAndre Hopkins can be an MVP candidate at WR, and Deshaun Watson continues to emerge as a top-shelf talent. A revamped secondary will help, too. From 1-20 on the roster, the Texans have as much talent as anyone. Spots 30-53 are badly inferior, however, and it makes them more health-dependent than any other contender. A repeat stellar season from PK Ka'imi Fairbairn is imperative to hitting this 11-win mark.
Colts: I downgraded the Colts from 10 to eight wins with the shocking switch from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett at QB. That’s a testament to Brissett and the concept of the whole team being better than the sum of its parts, something Frank Reich’s squad proved last year. The young defense should remain strong, though I worry about the pass rush. The margin for error has shrunk on the Colts, but this remains an up-and-coming roster that can win the division.
Jaguars: Defense wins championships, they hope. A balanced defense with great players stocking all three levels, the Jaguars can dominate opponents for stretches. The steadying hand of Nick Foles at QB will throw less games away, too. The problem I have is, can their offense do enough to win? Some weeks they will, especially against teams with poor run defense, thanks to Leonard Fournette. Some weeks they will need more than Foles and a middling cast of inconsistent, unproven receivers can provide. They’ll win the division if Foles is a top 10-caliber QB and the lines stay healthy.
Titans: I’ve been all over the map with these Titans. On one podcast in June, I predicted them to win the AFC South. In a Twitter debate during preseason, I pegged them to have a top-5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Both are eminently realistic. The forecast here sort of splits the difference. I’m not sold on their QB situation or the weapons to help Marcus Mariota make a needed jump. I do like the defense quite a bit. Losing Taylor Lewan for four games kills any chance of a quick start, and this doesn’t strike me as a unit that can make up ground either in-game or over the course of 16 games.
Los Angeles Chargers: 11-5
Kansas City Chiefs: 10-6
Denver Broncos: 5-11
Oakland Raiders: 4-12
Chargers: The Melvin Gordon situation clouds the forecast for my predicted West champs. I do like what they have in reserve, but Gordon is a different level of RB. With a healthy passing attack featuring Philip Rivers, Hunter Henry, Keenan Allen and more, the Chargers can still light it up. The starting 11 on defense needs to stay intact and healthy, but they’re a strong unit with playmakers, too. I like the way their schedule flows, enough that it lifts them to a title and what might be Rivers’ best shot at a Super Bowl run in his long career...which means I’ve probably jinxed them into a 7-9 finish.
Chiefs: There is no doubting reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes. There is doubting the supporting cast and the defense, notably the cornerbacks. Somewhere in between lies a dangerous team that will not be easy to vanquish. As long as Mahomes is playing at an MVP-caliber level, Andy Reid’s offense will click. Mecole Hardman is another game-breaking dynamo to help. An underwhelming line could get them in trouble. Despite bolstering the pass rush nicely with Frank Clark, the defense still looks unable to consistently get off the field. High-end entertainment, mid-level team.
Broncos: Probably the last team anyone would want to face in a street fight, the Broncos will not be fun to play, or recover from playing. The defense can smother opponents with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb rushing the passer. I like Kareem Jackson joining a solid secondary too. I trust the offense to be able to run the ball with Phillip Lindsay behind a physically imposing line. It’s the passing offense that really worries me. Joe Flacco throwing to Courtland Sutton and Emmanuel Sanders coming off a major injury might be worse than it sounds. Could be a pleasant surprise playoff crasher but things will have to break just right for Denver.
Raiders: The year before relocation tends to not go well for teams, and the last year in Oakland likely won’t break that trend. Adding Antonio Brown will make Derek Carr’s life easier and the team more interesting. The offensive tackles will not. Defensively there is almost nobody in his prime years, and few have (or had) a great prime year to achieve. I don’t see how it all fits together and I don’t trust Jon Gruden’s windmill-tilting as coach to pull it together.
Wild Card round
Texans over Ravens
Browns over Chiefs
Patriots over Browns
Chargers over Texans
Patriots over Chargers