Now that the NFL draft is over and free agency is mostly completed, the 2018 rosters have more clarity. As a result, it becomes possible to predict what will happen once the NFL season rolls around in the fall. Which team will celebrate in Atlanta as the Super Bowl 53 champion?
Tier I – No chance
The volatility from one season to the next makes this group dangerous to predict. After all, the Eagles did not even make the playoffs in 2016 only for them to win the Super Bowl in the following season. However, there are some teams that can safely be removed from contention prior to the season kicking off.
The New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, and the Arizona Cardinals all have QB concerns so significant that they are already eliminated from Super Bowl contention. Could they make the playoffs? Sure, but the Super Bowl is out of the question.
Tier II- Have a pulse, but barely
Some of the teams have significant holes on their roster. Last year at this point, the Eagles’ secondary looked highly questionable, but their pass rush and unheralded veteran signees saved the day. Four teams fit that bill in May, so let’s look at those teams and their biggest question.
The Baltimore Ravens have a veteran QB, but little else on offense. Can they score enough points to win?
Cincinnati’s roster is so bad that they easily could have been in the first group, but Andy Dalton has proven to be at least competent during the regular season. Can their stars stay on the field masking the Bengal’s lack of depth?
Andrew Luck looked like an all-time QB destined for the Hall of Fame, but his career has totally derailed. Will Luck be able to carry the team like he did a few years ago?
Down the stretch, the Bears began to look competent, but it was a long season in the Windy City. Can they overcome their inexperience in the new regime?
Heading into the 2017 season, Tampa was a trendy pick to win double digit games and then they fell flat on their face. Is Winston good enough to carry the Bucs or is a middle-of-the pack QB?
Tier III- Realistic playoff contenders, fringe options for the Super Bowl
This group of teams is the largest because so many teams can make the playoffs if things go their way. Once a team makes it to the second season anything can happen, but these teams are still a long shot to make it all the way.
The Tennessee Titans took a big step forward in 2017 by making the playoffs. They then fired their coach and hired Mike Vrabel, who has never been a head man before. A repeat trip to the playoffs is certainly viable, but the Super Bowl is hard to see.
Jon Gruden was the splashiest coaching hire, but the draft and free agent moves has led to more questions than answers for the Oakland Raiders. Until the Raiders prove it on the field, they will have a lot of hype, but a deep playoff run would be more of a surprise than a last place finish.
The argument could be made that the Cowboys belong in the previous tier after losing Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. They do get the benefit of the doubt because of their offensive line and running game are so good when they have Zeke. However, Dallas has only been a real threat one time in the last 20 years, so they might make the playoffs, but the roster does not have firepower for a deep run in January.
Alex Smith taking the place of Kirk Cousins does not help Washington’s chance of a Super Bowl appearance. If Washington got tougher defensively and was able to win 9 games, nobody should be shocked. Should they still be alive in February, it would be a surprise.
Yet another NFC East team finds themselves as a fringe playoff team after an abysmal season. The Giants have questions to answer all over the field, but if they stay healthy a 10-6 season is not out of the question.
Matthew Stafford has demonstrated that he can put up big numbers in the regular season. The team is not significantly better than last year’s version, making it hard to envision a Super Bowl trip for the Lions.
Once Jimmy GQ took the reigns in San Francisco, the 49ers ripped off 5 straight games to end the season. Their early season schedule will reveal quite a bit about the team in 2018. Entering the season, San Fran is a wild card hopeful, but they need to prove it a bit before considering them a threat.
Russell Wilson is clearly one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and he carried the Seahawks last year. Seattle’s stars got too expensive to keep them all, which has watered down their roster. The Seahawks have too many question marks to be considered for a February trip to Atlanta.
Tier IV- If everything goes right, they have enough talent to be Super Bowl bound
To a certain extent, every team in tier III to VI can fit into this category, but these teams have more talent than the group below them and more questions than the teams yet to come.
The Houston Texans had arguably the most talented IR in the entire league. Deshaun Watson’s electric play provides hope for a franchise who has been on the brink of a Super Bowl multiple times. If they can stay healthy, Houston could win the AFC.
Jacksonville was one half away from knocking off the Patriots last year, but they remain limited by Blake Bortles. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season. If Bortles can take a step forward, their defense could carry them to Atlanta.
Some people might be surprised to see Denver this far down the list because of how bad their offense was last year. They added to their defensive line and the upgrade to Case Keenum pushes them to the verge of Super Bowl contention.
September was a total disaster for the Chargers, but they have adjusted to LA. The argument could be made that they have the most talented defense in the NFL. If they can somehow stop blowing close games and stay healthy, they have a shot, but considering Hunter Henry is already hurt, it still seems a bit unlikely.
Kansas City has bet their franchise’s success on Patrick Mahomes, who is very much like Watson. The difference is that Mahomes has to prove he can do it in the NFL, but Andy Reid has had success with young QBs before. Do they have enough in the secondary without Marcus Peters to slow down the high flying offenses?
Carolina seems to have the same situation year in and year out. Cam is solid, but lacking playmakers on the outside. The front 7 is one of the best in the league, but the secondary has questions. Carolina has made it to the Super Bowl with that formula, but it seems far fetched that they could win the conference.
Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers, but he is coming off of yet another major injury. At this point, he needs to prove that he can play 16 games. If anything happens to him, it will be impossible for the Packers to get to another Super Bowl.
Tier V- Legitimate Super Bowl contenders
At this time, these teams are the ones who are the most likely to be playing deep into the playoffs, but will ultimately come up just short. The difficult part is the depth of NFC teams who could knock each other out.
At some point the Patriots will see their dynasty come to an end, but until it happens they are an annual choice to get back to the AFC championship game. The AFC is much weaker than the NFC, making it even easier for New England to return yet again to the Super Bowl.
Speaking of returning to the Super Bowl, the Eagles have enough talent to make another deep run. Carson Wentz’ health is a major question mark even with the presence of Nick Foles. It is so hard to get to the Super Bowl two years in a row, even for a team as good as the Eagles.
The Atlanta Falcons are a prime example of the difficulty associated with returning to a Super Bowl despite having a talented roster. The Falcons’ offense should be just as explosive as it has been the last few years. If the defense can take a step forward, Atlanta can be the first host team to play in a Super Bowl.
The Rams have made the biggest collection of free agent moves this offseason. Most of the time, the big acquisitions fail to live up to expectations, but this time they are joining an already impressive roster. One more step forward by Jared Goff could push the Rams over the top.
New Orleans had just about everything go right last season prior to the Minneapolis Miracle. They will probably have more injuries and Ingram is already facing a suspension, but they do have Drew Brees and a talented defense. They belong in this group, but unless they host the NFC championship game, they will not be able to get to the Super Bowl.
Tier VI- The Super Bowl competitors
Pittsburgh has been on the precipice of a Super Bowl for the last few years only to stumble in the playoffs. The AFC is weaker than it has been in years, which will allow Big Ben and company to get to Atlanta and play for the Super Bowl 53 championship.
Minnesota got annihilated in the NFC Championship game last year, but then they added Kirk Cousins and will get Dalvin Cook back from injury. The Vikings have a dominant defense, a good coach, and a massive chip on their shoulder. Minnesota will run the gamut in 2018 and get to Atlanta.
Final prediction: Vikings 27 PIttsburgh 23