Time to dust off the crystal ball and state a series of educated guesses about the 2016 NFL season with absolute conviction:
1. We’re headed for a Super Bowl XLIX rematch
Marshawn Lynch won’t be around to (not) get the ball with the game on the line. But the Seattle Seahawks look equipped for another deep run, with Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael leading the backfield committee, Russell Wilson continuing to ascend and a stable of playmakers in their primes on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady’s four-game suspension won’t stop the New England Patriots either. Scouts say their depth is improved, and the likes of linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Malcolm Butler are showing they can be difference-makers. They’ll be no worse than 2-2 behind Jimmy Garoppolo before Brady returns in Week 5.
2.The Oakland Raiders will end a 13-season playoff drought
Believe the hype. Khalil Mack was one of the five best defensive players in the NFL last season. The drafting of Karl Joseph and signings of Bruce Irvin and Sean Smith should make the D better overall. Quarterback Derek Carr has all the tools to be a star, his regression down the stretch last season notwithstanding. And a second year in the systems should help everyone. It’ll be a heck of a three-way race for the AFC West title with the Kansas City Chiefs and the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, who still have that talented defense, but don’t have a future Hall-of-Fame QB lying around to provide a spark down the stretch this time.
3. The NFC East will be as bad as last year
The Dallas Cowboys had problems before quarterback Tony Romo’s latest back injury, which will only magnify how short they are on defensive playmakers. The New York Giants upgraded their talent on defense, but an abysmal preseason isn’t a great omen for how quickly things will come together under new head coach Ben McAdoo. The Philadelphia Eagles also are in transition under coach Doug Pederson. And while the Washington Redskins added all-pro corner Josh Norman, can quarterback Kirk Cousins and Co. replicate last season, when they were probably the NFL’s biggest overachievers? A 9-7 finish may be good enough to win the division again.
4. Mike McCoy will be the first coach fired
Nothing against McCoy, who led the San Diego Chargers to consecutive 9-7 seasons before the injury-riddled mess of 2015. But he barely survived that 4-12 finish, and a franchise ensconced in drama — from top draft pick Joey Bosa’s holdout to the possibility of relocation — has an uphill battle in a loaded division. Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan enters on the hot seat, but it’s hard to imagine him getting whacked during the second season of a lucrative five-year contract. Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley will feel the heat for the first time if his team doesn’t win early, too.
5. Russell Wilson will win his first MVP
He's always found ways to create plays. But Wilson made more happen from the pocket after Lynch’s injury last season, getting the ball out of his hand quickly in rhythm, and the offense functioned at a higher level as a whole. Extrapolate Wilson’s numbers from the last seven games of the 2015 regular season (71% passing for 1,906 yards, 24 TD passes, one interception) over 16 games, and that’s MVP stuff.
6. The Indianapolis Colts will run away with the AFC South
Talk about Andrew Luck being overrated and overpaid is ridiculous. When he’s healthy, Luck is as good as any young quarterback, and the statistical progression through his first three seasons backs that up. Yes, he needs to cut down turnovers and not overexpose a defense that remains lean on talent. If Luck can do that, the Colts will be rolling before the Houston Texans’ overhauled offense has a chance to find its rhythm and J.J. Watt manages to hit full steam following back surgery.
7. Tony Romo will return as the Cowboys’ starting QB … for the last time?
Preseason results aside, rookie fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott probably isn’t ready to play well enough to render Romo a backup this season once his back heals. But Romo is 36 and has taken a beating in recent years. Moving on from him after the season would clear cap space — $5.1 million in 2017, and nearly $49 million over the next two years — to invest in a defense that badly needs it. As long as Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott and that offensive line are healthy and effective, the quarterback shouldn’t have to shoulder the load.
8. Big deal for Sam Bradford will keep Minnesota Vikings on rise
A first-round draft pick and change was a steep price to get the former No. 1 overall pick from the Eagles. But if Bradford can stay healthy — always a big "if" — then the team around him is plenty talented for the Vikings to make the playoffs again, if not challenge for another NFC North crown. Don’t forget, Bradford was10. The Cleveland Browns will get the No. 1 pick
9. Chip Kelly will start a San Francisco 49ers revival
That doesn’t mean a playoff appearance for the Niners this season. But considering the relative youth of the roster, offseason-long quarterback questions and the strength of the NFC West, wringing out eight or nine wins from this group would be impressive. Powerful Carlos Hyde, not Minnesota's Peterson, might have the best shot to lead the NFL in rushing if he can finally stay healthy.
10. The Cleveland Browns will get the No. 1 pick
OK, this isn’t all that bold. But new coach Hue Jackson has been emphatic that he expects to win now, even though the way the Browns are rebuilding — drafting players in droves and jettisoning veterans left and right — means this is going to take time. Depending how Robert Griffin III plays, getting the top crack at a franchise quarterback (or more resources to keep trading down, and down again) wouldn’t be a bad thing.