Like I do every year, I’m about to put myself out there by predicting the top three candidates for all the major NFL awards and how I think the playoff picture will look like. Once again, I have gone week by week for every single matchup, considering days of rest, previous matchups, etc. and put together the seedings for each conference as a result. Then I predicted the following postseason matchups going all the way to Super Bowl LIII. You will find my filled-out schedule in Excel format at the bottom of this article and feel free to burn me once February rolls around. For now, this is how I think the 2018/19 season will pan out and I couldn’t be more excited to actually watch things come together.
1. Aaron Rodgers
2. Philip Rivers
3. Matt Ryan
At points last season I thought Antonio Brown and Todd Gurley had a shot at winning the MVP trophy, but let’s be honest – this is a quarterback award and that’s why I have three QBs as my top candidates. There’s the two signal-callers of the number one seeds of each conference and at the top I have the guy, who is capable of playing at a higher level than anybody else in the league.
Matty Ice won the highly touted award two years ago, when he threw for 38 touchdowns and almost 5000 yards en route to leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Last season his numbers took a major dip and the turnovers went up, but I have never seen a quarterback have that many unfortunate bounces leading to interceptions. There is no way that will repeat itself and Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling and game-planning has to improve heavily as well if he wants to retain his job.
It has been a little longer since Philip Rivers was a serious MVP candidate, but this might be the best squad he has ever had around him since entering the league. Keenan Allen is a stud, Tyrell Williams is an excellent number two, Melvin Gordon is a top-ten back, last year’s seventh overall pick Mike Williams has been making noise in camp and should be a redzone beast, plus the defense has elite edge-rushers and cover-guys to get him the ball back. You can pretty much book a completion percentage of 65+, 4500+ yards and 30+ TDs.
However, at the top is that man again. I have predicted that Rodgers would win the MVP award every single year since he first took home the trophy back in 2011. Ever since that season, I thought he was the most dominant player in football. Rodgers is the most talented passer I have witnessed from inside the pocket as well as on the move and his ability to manipulate defenses is second only to Tom Brady’s. With Davante Adams emerging as a true number one receiver, Randall Cobb hoping for a bounce-back year out of the slot, the free agency addition of Jimmy Graham as their go-to weapon near the goal-line and a couple of talented pass-catchers out of the backfield, Rodgers is destined for another monster year.
Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Patrick Peterson
2. Everson Griffen
3. Von Miller
This award was definitely the toughest for me to pick. I believe Aaron Donald is the best overall player in the entire league, but he has yet to put on a Rams jersey and with the pieces they have added defensively, I don’t think he will quite get the credit he deserves. When I look at this award, I’m looking for players, who are in a situation where they could put up some big numbers and be key pieces of dominant defenses.
With that being said, I think it is time for Patrick Peterson to take home this trophy for the first time in his career. Ever since he jumped onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 P2 has been one of the premiere cover-guys in the game. In Todd Bowles’ and James Bettcher’s schemes he has been a true shutdown corner, who followed the opposing’s number one receiver throughout games and basically has taken away one side of the field for the Cardinals. With Steve Wilks bringing in his 4-3 base scheme with a lot of zone-coverage behind it, Peterson will be allowed to mostly play with his eyes on the quarterback for the first time as a pro and that spells trouble for the signal-callers, who decide to test him.
The next guy in line is the steadily producing Everson Griffen. The Vikings’ D-end has recorded 43.5 sacks over the course of the last four seasons and had his best one yet in 2017. Yet, with Danielle Hunter extended for the next few years and the addition of Sheldon Richardson along the front, Griffen will be presented with more one-on-one opportunities than he’s ever had. He is not the type of guy, who will jump around and try anything fancy, but rather he trusts in his arm technique on the rip and power to go through tackles, plus he can mix in the occasional spin-move.
In the third spot I have a guy, who has been up for the award ever since he was named Super Bowl MVP three years ago. Von Miller to me is the still at the top of the class in terms of edge rushers and he has been incredibly consistent. He has recorded double-digit sacks in each of his first seven seasons, outside of the one he had in 2013 which he saw it cut short by injury. However, he hasn’t gone over 15 sacks since his sophomore campaign and I think he will this year with Bradley Chubb and the other guys they line up on the opposite end of him.
Darkhorse candidate: Deion Jones
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Saquon Barkley
2. Kerryon Johnson
3. D.J. Moore
Man, was I bummed to see Derrius Guice go down in week one of the preseason, I already had him locked in as my Rookie of the Year because of the powerful O-line in front of him and his talent being so much superior to anybody on this roster, with Chris Thompson probably limited to third down duties. However this made my choice rather obvious regardless.
Since the Giants drafted a running back second overall, the highest selection of anybody at the position since Reggie Bush in 2006, the G-Men will make Saquon Barkley a focal point of their offense, as he can run from the dot as well as from shotgun and will probably catch between 60 and 80 passes, when you look at the targets Jerrick McKinnon received last year in Pat Shurmur’s offense. Barkley is definitely the front-runner because he is the best rookie overall.
Behind the Penn State phenom, I have another back who took college football by storm last year. People have been forgetting about Kerryon Johnson a little because of the way his season ended, limping off the field versus Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. However, to me the Auburn RB will definitely become the Lions’ go-to weapon in the backfield. Yeah, LeGarette Blount will get his touches in short-yardage situations and Theo Riddick will catch a bunch of passes on third downs, but I expect Kerryon to be the first guy Detroit can rely on in the run game in some time and he will break that ridiculous streak of games without a 100-yard rusher.
The third guy on my list was tough to pick, since there’s four rookie QBs who could start at different points of the season and impress, while there’s several rookie pass-catchers who could make some noise. I think Michael Gallup could become the Cowboys’ number one guy, Calvin Ridley has looked outstanding in preseason and I could even see Mike Gesicki have a similar impact to Evan Engram a year ago. With that being said, I picked D.J. Moore because he has the clearest path to becoming the most targeted player of his offense. Devin Funchess doesn’t offer a lot after the catch, Curtis Samuel still has to work himself into the offense as well and Greg Olsen has been banged up recently. Expect Moore to make some noise.
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick
2. Roquan Smith
3. Harold Landry
This was a tough one to call for me. While I had Saquon Barkley and Quenton Nelson as my top two overall prospects and we had four quarterbacks selected within the first ten picks, this draft was loaded with defensive talent. Therefore it wasn’t easy to simply go with the top three guys, but instead I looked at who will have the best chance to succeed and I even considered two second-round picks.
Let’s start with kind of a darkhorse candidate right away. I had Harold Landry as my number three edge rusher in this draft class and I thought only Bradley Chubb was more ready to hunt quarterbacks than him. The BC product has ridiculous bend, which enables him to flatten and turn the corner as well as any rookie out there. He has already shown that his game translates to the pros in limited preseason action and I believe he could put up double-digit sacks from the get-go. With Brian Orakpo getting up there in age and Derrick Morgan banged up right now, Landry could make an impact early and often if he ankle if fine.
The next guy is a more common pick. Roquan Smith was the first linebacker selected in the 2018 draft and I think he fits perfectly what the Bears want to do. The former Bulldog has a chance to be the same kind of sideline-to-sideline menace guys like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have been under Vic Fangio. It will be crucial for the Chicago D-line to keep Smith clean because his only issue is the fact he can not take on bigger bodies in the run game, but he has speed to show up anywhere on the field, he lights people up coming into his area, he shoots gaps in the run game and he has the ability to close as well as anybody I’ve seen in college football for a while now not named Reuben Foster.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is my pick to take home the trophy however. I absolutely loved this kid ever since I first saw him trot out at corner for the Crimson Tide as a freshman. When he stepped in at free safety for Alabama I realized what kind of range he has and when the coaches started deploying him all over the field, I understood the type of versatility he brings to the table. I thought Minkah was a steal at 11th overall and I believe he will be the Dolphins’ best overall player. He is a playmaker, culture changer and just great overall player, who will have the numbers to back up my case for him as DROY.
Others considered: Derwin James (Chargers), Josh Jackson (Packers)
Comeback Player of the Year:
1. J.J. Watt
2. Odell Beckham Jr.
3. Aaron Rodgers
I can’t remember the last time we had so many superstars coming back from injury in one season. We are not just talking about great players, these are top 10 guys when they are the top of their games. Keenan Allen won this award in February, after a monster season in which he caught over 100 passes for almost 1400 yards. Yet, if my top three candidates all return to their previous form, that season for Allen would not even be considered. That’s just crazy.
I expect Aaron Rodgers to have the best season of all these guys since I have him winning the MVP award, but since he played in at least six games and came back at the end of the year, it doesn’t feel like he’s back to his usual self after an elongated period. Since I project him to take home MVP honors anyway, he should be fine.
Odell Beckham Jr. on the other hand went down with a nasty ankle injury and hasn’t been on an NFL field since then. When OBJ is healthy he is easily one of the top five receivers in the game and with the weapons around him, like Sterling Shephard, Evan Engram and now Saquon Barkley in the backfield, defenses won’t be able to zero in on the flashy receiver, which should lead to another huge season for him.
However, at the top of my list I have the man, who arguably was the face of the franchise before he initially went down with an injury back in 2016. J.J. Watt was coming off three Defensive Player of the Year trophies in four years that year, but was lost for the season after just three games. In 2017 he was limited to five games and zero sacks. This guy was a superman before injuries started derailing his career and he has been kind of forgotten since then in the conversation for the best defensive players in the game. Now he is coming back with more playmakers around him than he’s ever had before. Jadeveon Clowney is fulfilling his freakish potential, Whitney Mercilus is coming back, Houston has other young talent along the D-line and the defense doesn’t have to carry nearly as much weight as they used to do without a capable QB under center.
Others considered: David Johnson, Allen Robinson
Coach of the Year:
1. Anthony Lynn
2. Dan Quinn
3. Matt Nagy
This award is obviously tied to a team’s success and while you have coaches receive the award for simply improving their squad’s win-loss percentage, a lot of times it is the guys at the helm of the teams with the best records that take home the honors. Therefore I went with the two coaches of the two top-seeded teams in each conference and as the third guy I have the head-man of a team that I project to improve by four wins and get back to the playoffs.
I think this is the Chargers’ year to finally make that jump to elite status as a team. This roster is loaded. They have a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Philip Rivers, a top ten running back in Melvin Gordon, one of the top receiving corps led by Keenan Allen, the premiere edge-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, playmaking cover-guys and an under-the-radar coaching staff. I have them winning twelve games and earning the number one seed in the AFC.
As my number two candidate I have the coach of the NFC’s top-seeded squad in the Falcons. Dan Quinn already led his team to a first-round bye two years ago and they have most pieces back from that squad. I have Matt Ryan as an MVP candidate once again, Atlanta still has those two dynamic RBs, Alex Mack and the O-line is still intact and the receiving corp should be even better with first round pick Calvin Ridley. While I don’t think you can replace the brilliant offensive play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, I think this version of the “Dirty Birds” could be even better because of what they have on defense. This unit is so fast, I think they look better on the back-end and I expect their pass rush to improve.
And finally, I think Matt Nagy will get some props. I’ve been high on the Bears throughout the offseason, because of the additions they’ve made on the field and more importantly at the head coaching spot. The Chicago offense will be more exciting than they have been in years. They have the stability with the zone-running game of Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen is that gadget player they use all over the field, Trey Burton is a matchup piece and coverage indicator for their RPOs and they just have weapons in the passing game now, headlined by Allen Robinson. The Bears defense was ready to compete last season for the most part already I thought, but now with Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith they could go back to putting fear into the hearts of opponents.
1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
2. Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
3. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
5. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
6. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
In the hunt: Bears (9-7), Panthers (9-7)
The NFC is stacked. There is just no other way to say it. When I had my wins and losses handed out and I wrote down the records next to each team, I was shocked that teams like the Bears and Panthers didn’t make the playoffs, but there are just too many really good teams in this conference.
I have the Falcons as my number one seed in the NFC. Like I already said, I think Matty Ice will be an MVP candidate throughout the year with all the weapons surrounding him. I love the defense and you saw what they are capable of last year’s postseason versus the Rams and pretty much the eventual Super Bowl champions as well.
Right behind them, I have those Rams I just mentioned. This team has been the Super Bowl favorite for a lot of people because of the additions they have made with Brandin Cooks, Ndamokung Suh, Aquib Talib and Marcus Peters. While I would be cautious to crown them already before seeing them actually do it out there on the field, they should definitely be contenders.
I have the Packers regaining supremacy in the NFC North. The Vikings were outstanding last year and I love what the Bears have put together, but if you have that man wearing the number 12 jersey you can cover up a lot of deficiencies. Green Bay has questions at linebacker and edge rusher, but I think they will be much-improved on the back-end and this offense will be something to watch.
As far as division-winners go, the Eagles are the only one among them making the cut with single-digit wins. I know Philly looks better on paper than they did when winning a championship, but I think the NFC East will beat up on each other and to be frank, I have to see Carson Wentz be healthy to put them any higher. Nick Foles has looked horrible in preseason and the coaching staff doesn’t have the same amount of time to game-plan like they did in the playoffs.
I know there have been a lot of excellent wild-card contenders and teams like the Giants have been smoking hot once they joined the party, but this Saints squad might be the best we’ve seen in a while to not win their division. They are absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball and they are all in on these next few years to win another Lombardi with Drew Brees at the helm.
As much as I would love to see the Bears make it this year and live up to my high expectations for them, the tie-breakers just didn’t match up. Having won the NFC North last season, the Vikings have matchups against the Saints and Eagles, which gives them the nod as the team with the tougher strength of schedule. Minnesota will once again feature a suffocating defense, Kirk Cousins is taking over to go with an outstanding receiving corp and I think Dalvin Cook will have a monster year.
1. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
3. New England Patriots (11-5)
4. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
5. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
6. Houston Texans (9-7)
In the hunt: Jaguars (9-7), Broncos (8-8)
While I think the NFC is clearly the better all-around conference with no pushovers, the AFC now has so much more to offer in terms of teams that can win against anybody. I know that the Jaguars really surprised some people, but was there really anybody that thought a team not named the Patriots or Steelers had a shot to come out of the conference? This season I could pretty much see half the teams make a run.
It already starts at the top, where I have a team that won nine of their final twelve games, but ended up just missing the playoffs. I think this time around the Chargers will come out of the gates hot. I have them winning their first five games and twelve overall. They have all the weapons necessary on offense, a monster pass rush and an opportunistic secondary.
Behind them I went with the Steelers, because you can pretty much book them for double-digit wins every single year. Nobody in the league has a trio quite like Roethlisberger, Bell and AB. Plus, they have a top-tier offensive line and other playmakers. Defensively I’m not sure about them without Ryan Shazier, but I like the interior D-line and the rebuilt back-end.
There it is, the Patriots won’t earn a first-round bye this year. This team hasn’t played a wildcard game since 2009, but I just don’t see how they will be a top two seed this season. Chris Hogan and Philip Dorsett will be their two starting receivers and the guy on their roster with the most QB takedowns in 2017 got five of his eight sacks in one game against a backup. I have the Patriots losing at Heinz Field to set them up with a tough road.
My fourth division champions may be a surprise to a lot of people. After getting hammered by the Patriots in the Divisional Round last season, nobody is really counting on the Titans in the AFC South, but I think they are the most complete team in the conference. They are built in the trenches, now look much better on the outside and added exactly what they needed in the draft as well as in terms of coaching, with the tough-minded Mike Vrabel, Matt LaFleur and Dean Pees calling the shots.
I had more problems figuring out the wildcard teams. There are three teams in the AFC I expect to finish at 9-7 and they all have pretty good cases to be in the mix, plus another one in the Broncos who I could easily see win the direct matchup against the Ravens to own the tiebreaker at the end of the year or any other game for that matter, to take that final spot ahead of the Texans. However, they and the Jaguars slightly miss out on the postseason according to my projections.
With that being said, I believe the Ravens defense will be scary this season. They have seemingly an unlimited amount of bodies in the front seven with several breakout candidates and they have put together one of the elite secondaries in the league (if healthy) under the radar. Joe Flacco has looked as sharp as ever from early impressions and I think Ozzie Newsome has put the guys around him that the QB is comfortable with.
The Texans on the other hand had one of the elite defensive units a couple of years ago without all the pieces fully developed and out on the field together. If J.J. Watt does play like the Comeback Player of the Year to go with Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of this ferocious front, they have the potential to be as dominant as ever. Yet, it is Deshaun Watson coming back from a torn ACL after setting the league on fire last year that will determine how far this team can go.
3. Packers OVER 6. Vikings
5. Saints OVER 4. Eagles
3. Patriots OVER 6. Texans
5. Ravens OVER 4. Titans
1. Falcons OVER 5. Saints
2. Rams OVER 3. Packers
1. Chargers OVER 5. Ravens
3. Patriots OVER 2. Steelers
1. Falcons OVER 2. Rams
1. Chargers OVER 3. Patriots
Falcons vs. Chargers
I have the two number one seeds of their respective conference taking advantage of home-field throughout the playoffs to square up against each other in the big game. Not only do we have two former Seahawks defensive coordinators in Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley coaching against each other and two MVP candidates going tit-for-tat, but this will also mark the first time ever that a team appears in a Super Bowl in their own arena, as the Falcons will be home at Mercedes-Benz stadium. It should be an incredible battle between two great quarterbacks of this era, explosive offenses and playmaking defensive units to determine which of these two teams will win their first ever Lombardi trophy.