The NFL season finally return’s this week and USA TODAY Sports have updated their projections for how each team will so this season, plus what two teams will meet in the Super Bowl. Do you agree or disagree with their rankings?
New York Giants (8-8): What ought to be an explosive offense has been anything but this summer. Expect Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and Co. to turn things around and get just enough support from a defense that received a $200 million infusion of talent in free agency and should now protect the leads that were squandered in 2015.
Washington Redskins (7-9): No doubt they could remain atop a wide-open division. But will QB Kirk Cousins have to shoulder too much responsibility for a team that seems woefully unbalanced on offense and still has holes on defense? The second half of their schedule is brutal.
Dallas Cowboys (5-11): As exciting as RB Ezekiel Elliott and QB Dak Prescott are, it’s unfair to ask two rookies to carry a team already stripped of defensive talent by suspensions. QB Tony Romo may not return in time to give Dallas a viable shot to reach January.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-12): They’re rebooting on both sides of the ball, though Jim Schwartz’s defense could wreak havoc with what appears to be a scheme better suited to this roster. But the offense appears to lack firepower, and rookie QB Carson Wentz didn’t gain much experience in preseason.
Green Bay Packers (12-4): The offense should reignite with WR Jordy Nelson’s return. The defense should be more disruptive with OLB Clay Matthews back on the edge. QB Aaron Rodgers should rebound with an MVP-caliber season. And the path suddenly looks just a bit easier given the new challenges in Minnesota.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5): QB Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury was a devastating blow, but the acquisition of Sam Bradford could still allow Minnesota to remain a viable title threat if he can build on last year’s progress. And don’t forget, RB Adrian Peterson singlehandedly carried this club to postseason four years ago, and these Vikes feature a far scarier defense than the 2012 unit.
Detroit Lions (7-9): Matthew Stafford showed late last season that he may be ready to blossom into a cagey quarterback who effectively distributes the ball and makes good decisions — still easier said than done without Calvin Johnson and hindered by a suspect ground attack.
Chicago Bears (6-10): An underrated defense could keep them in a lot of games … and it will probably have to do just that after the offense shed so many playmakers in the offseason, lost coordinator Adam Gase and didn’t show much ability to protect QB Jay Cutler in August.
Carolina Panthers (12-4): They remain the class of an otherwise average division, which they’ve ruled since 2013. WRs Kelvin Benjamin, recovered from a knee injury, and Devin Funchess, who seems to be figuring out the league in Year 2, bring added wrinkles to the league’s highest-scoring offense. And the D should be stout again, even without CB Josh Norman.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8): They were highly effective between the 20-yard lines in 2015. But the Bucs must get better at putting the ball into the end zone and keeping opponents out of it. Keeping new coach Dirk Koetter paired with QB Jameis Winston looks like the right call.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9): Another team that knows how to pile up yards but struggles to convert them into points. QB Matt Ryan must be more efficient and capitalize on the space WR Julio Jones creates. Just as important, a defense had a league-low 19 sacks must produce more splash plays.
New Orleans Saints (7-9): A defense scorched for a record 45 TD passes last year has already been hit with injuries, including a broken leg for first-round pick Sheldon Rankins. Drew Brees may have to prevail in a lot more 35-31 shootouts to keep this club viable.
Arizona Cardinals (12-4): There may not be a more complete team in the league. OLB Chandler Jones should take an already special defense to a new level. If RB David Johnson can translate last year’s burst into 16 games for the league’s No. 1 offense, there’s no reason the Cards can’t win the NFC.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5): The defense has allowed the fewest points in the league four years in a row and may be on the verge of legendary status. It will likely need to keep stonewalling its foes while the offense transitions to life without Marshawn Lynch with a line that remains in flux.
Los Angeles Rams (5-11): If HBO is an accurate barometer, the hard knocks may continue deep into the season, especially if top draft pick Jared Goff is pressed into action prematurely. And the West Coast’s newest team must play four road games in the eastern time zone plus one “home” game in London.
San Francisco 49ers (2-14): If the whispers are true, and the league has deciphered Chip Kelly’s offense, it’s hard to be anything but skeptical of a team that doesn’t seem nearly as talented as the groups Kelly had in Philadelphia. Niners fans may soon be displaying their own protests on Sundays.
New England Patriots (11-5): They’ve reached the AFC title game every years since 2011. Despite Tom Brady’s suspension, no reason not to believe that streak won’t continue given the apparent lack of conference powerhouses. Don’t be shocked if a motivated Brady goes undefeated once he’s back.
New York Jets (9-7): In the first six weeks of the season, they’ll face five playoff teams and travel to Buffalo for a Thursday night game. It could be enough of an obstacle to render the Jets just good enough to fall a tiebreaker short of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Buffalo Bills (8-8): They have two homes games between Week 4 and Week 11. Survive that, and they could be sitting pretty while hosting three games in December. Ending a 16-season playoff drought is likely the only way for coach Rex Ryan and GM Doug Whaley to remain employed in 2017.
Miami Dolphins (7-9): A team that struggled in preseason under a new coaching staff must play three playoffs teams on the road in September. Weather that storm and adapt to life under Adam Gase, and the Fins could get on a roll since they’ll spend the next five weeks at home.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell played 58 snaps together in 2015 — and the Steelers still finished with the No. 3 offense and nearly knocked off Denver in the playoffs. Even with Bell suspended three games, they could be unstoppable this year.
Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): The biggest unknown could be Ken Zampese, a first-time NFL offensive coordinator with the unenviable task of replacing Hue Jackson. But aside from questions about the depth behind WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert’s ankle, Cincy looks primed for another playoff run.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7): John Harbaugh always fields a competitive squad, and no reason to think that will change in 2016. But it’s worth wondering how well this team jells with so many key players — QB Joe Flacco, WR Steve Smith and OLB Terrell Suggs among them — returning from major injuries.
Cleveland Browns (3-13): They continue to hoard salary cap space and draft picks for the future. That certainly means collateral damage for the present, even if QB Robert Griffin III and WR Josh Gordon experience career revivals and new coach Hue Jackson pushes all the right buttons.
Houston Texans (9-7): Coach Bill O’Brien has gone 9-7 twice without anything approaching consistent quarterback play. Certainly he can’t do worse after bringing Brock Osweiler aboard (to say nothing of fleet-footed RB Lamar Miller). Of course, much will also depend on the health of DE J.J. Watt.
Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7): Uber-patient owner Shad Khan told USA TODAY Sports over the summer, “I think we’ve suffered long enough.” The gauntlet has been thrown for GM Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, but they’ve now imported and developed enough talent to successfully navigate it.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10): QB Andrew Luck is back and may post passing numbers commensurate with his new record contract. Unfortunately for Luck, the Colts’ ability to protect him or assist him with an effective defense or run game remains in serious doubt.
Tennessee Titans (4-12): Their “exotic smashmouth” offense is intriguing with rejuvenated RB DeMarco Murray joining the Heisman Trophy tandem of Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry behind what seems a much improved O-line. Yet a defense that’s been consistently wrecked in recent years could hold the real key.
Oakland Raiders (10-6): Though third-year stars Khalil Mack and Derek Carr deservedly garner much of the attention, the real bedrock of this team may lie with one of the league’s best offensive lines. Mix in an ascending defense, and it is little wonder expectations are soaring in the East Bay.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): With such a deep and talented backfield, maybe they should run the wishbone. It might help shield a defense that just got S Eric Berry back and continues to await the return of OLB Justin Houston. But if everything coalesces, the Chiefs could be tougher than last year’s wild-card entry.
Denver Broncos (9-7): New QB Trevor Siemian may not necessarily inspire confidence, but the passing game probably can’t get worse after Peyton Manning’s epic struggles in 2015. Denver may have more trouble replacing LB Danny Trevathan, DE Malik Jackson and operating with an overhauled O-line.
San Diego Chargers (5-11): Rookie Joey Bosa’s holdout created an offseason-long distraction, and it remains to be seen what he can contribute. But this franchise’s still uncertain future in San Diego will once again shadow a flawed team, and the questions about 2017 will only mount as the weeks drag on.
Wild card: (6) Chiefs def. (3) Raiders; (4) Texans def. (5) Bengals
Divisional: (2) Patriots def. (4) Texans; (1) Steelers def. (6) Chiefs
AFC Championship Game: (1) Steelers def. (2) Patriots
Wild card: (3) Cardinals def. (6) Vikings; (5) Seahawks def. (4) Giants
Divisional: (1) Packers def. (5) Seahawks; (3) Cardinals def. (2) Panthers
NFC Championship Game: (3) Cardinals def. (1) Packers
Super Bowl LI: Steelers def. Cardinals