That smell in the air isn’t autumn on the way.
It’s the scent of pigskins being flung across grassy swaths in giant stadiums, football fans.
The start of the 2018 NFL season is just over a week away and fans, fantasy poolies, scribes, executives, corporate sponsors and players are all restless with anticipation.
On Thursday, Sept. 6, the new campaign gets underway with a big-time tilt featuring defending Super Champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, at home to the Atlanta Falcons.
We can’t think of a better tilt to kick things off, so to speak.
After that, it’s a Sunday slate full of intriguing match-ups, a few of them between division rivals, as well as two Monday nighters.
Looking into our crystal ball, we can see many teams and players having outstanding years and a whole lot of warfare in the trenches to determine playoff and Super Bowl bound clubs.
Here are 15 of our boldest predictions for the upcoming NFL season, starting with individual leaders.
15. Most Interceptions – CB A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
There is little more exhilarating, or in some cases exasperating, than a well-time interception. A big one for a pick six can change the entire complexion of a game, in our estimation. Last year, Detroit Lions CB Darius Slay and Tennessee Titans S Kevin Byard tied for the NFL lead in this category with eight picks apiece. However, we don’t think either will repeat their feats. It was just Byard’s second year and he didn’t record any in his rookie season and Slay never had more than two per season before breaking out for his octet. Our selection this year is Bouye because he will play on the most dynamically defensive team in football and that he trended up after four so-so years with the Houston Texan. The sixth-year pro out of the University of Central Florida played all 16 games for the first time in his career and had a career high six interceptions as well as 18 pass deflections.
14. Most Receiving Yards – WR Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
There is a new passing sheriff in Minnesota and his name is Kirk Cousins. And the man who stands the most to gain out of having the 2016 Pro Bowler direct passes his way is fifth-year man and homegrown talent Thielen. He was the recipient of 143 passes thrown his way by Case Keenum last year, hauling in 91 for a team-leading 1,276 yards (which was also fifth best in the NFL) and four touchdowns. With Cousins in the fold, we expect that the durable Minnesota State product will get at least as many targets in 2018 and bring down more of them for more yards. The big wideout from Detroit Lakes, MN hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and will again bookend a great receiving tandem that includes Stefon Diggs (who was also considered for this bold prediction).
13. Most Sacks – DE Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016 will be ready to take another giant leap — or many, at opposing quarterbacks — in 2018. Bosa built on his massive freshman year (10.5 sacks, 41 tackles), registering 12.5 of the Chargers 43 sacks, four forced fumbles and 70 tackles. The Chargers were tied for fifth in overall sacks last season, a year in which they rebounded from a horrible 5-11 mark in 2017 to 9-7. Bosa, along with veteran DE Melvin Ingram, form one of the more formidable edge rushing tandems in the NFL, with Ingram matching his own career high in sacks with 10.5. Bosa’s 12.5 sacks were seventh in the league last year, just a half sack back of the likes of Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan and New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan. The Penn State product had a foot injury in the pre-season, but will be ready when the Chargers take on the visiting Kansas City Chiefs in week 1 action Sunday afternoon.
12. Most Rushing Yards – RB Todd Gurley II, Los Angeles Rams
Kareem Hunt was a revelation as a rookie in 2017, leading the NFL in rushing yards and adding another 455 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. However, we think he’ll succumb to the sophomore jinx (especially with Alex Smith gone) leaving 2017 Offensive Player of the Year Gurley to claim his rightful place as the NFL’s top rusher. The Rams made a bold move in 2017, going from 4-12 to 11-5 and a berth in the NFC playoffs, only to lose to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. Gurley piled up 1,305 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in just 15 games, while also catching 64 passes for another 788 yards and six scores. The arrival of star wide receiver Brandin Cooks should only open up more room for Gurley to do his thing in the Rams backfield.
11. Most Passing Yards – QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
As long as he stays healthy, there is no reason to believe that Aaron Rodgers can’t get back to 2016 form and lead the NFL in passing yards for the first time in his lengthy career. Now healthy after missing nine games in 2017 and armed with a monster contract extension (four years, $134 million), Rodgers has the weapons at his disposal to turn the Packers’ fortunes around. In 2016, Rodgers had a superb season, starting all 16 games for the third year in a row and throwing for over 4,000 yards for the sixth time. The two-time MVP also launched 40 touchdown passes, while getting picked off just seven times. An added bonus this season will be the presence of five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. Having him as a sure-handed outlet to complement receivers like Randall Cobb and Davante Adams will surely allow Rodgers the freedom to toss the ball around the field with abandon.
10. NFL Defensive Player of the Year – DE Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
Mack ended T.J. Watt’s two-year stranglehold on DPOY in 2016 and it was much deserved. And now that he has been dealt to the Bears and made the highest paid defensive player in NFL history ( six-year, $141 million deal with $90 million guaranteed), Mack will unseat 2017 DPOY Aaron Donald to win his second award. For four seasons in Oakland, Mack was the catalyst of much mayhem, playing all 64 games and finishing his tenure in the Bay Area with 40.5 sacks, 303 tackles, nine forced fumbles and interception and 11 pass deflections. The Bears had a top 10 defence last year and with Mack around, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has an elite defensive talent to build his unit around. Akiem Hicks, who led the the team with 8.5 sacks last year, will most certainly benefit from having Mack line up opposite him and take some of the double teams.
9. NFL Rookie of the Year – RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Last year, the NFL had dual Rookie of the Year winners, they being Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara. This year, it won’t be a two-headed monsters as former Penn State superstar Barkley literally runs away with it. He joins a team that has a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. at wideout and an improving Sterling Shepard on the other side, which will have a positive effect on Barkley, who will have freedom of movement in the backfield because of the threat on the wings. Drafted second overall, Barkley won’t have the stigma of being a no. 1 (like Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield) hanging over his head either. Barkley was a standout dual threat with the Nittany Lions, piling up 1,903 all-purpose yards (1,271 rushing yards) and 21 touchdowns. He also returned 15 kickoffs for another 426 yards and two more touchdowns.
8. NFL Offensive Player of the Year – QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
In the past 10 years, the NFL OPOY has been near dominated by quarterbacks, including two each to Tom Brady and Drew Brees and a total of seven overall. Running back Todd Gurley II became the first running back since DeMarco Murray to the win the award in 2017, but we firmly believe that a rejuvenated and motivated Aaron Rodgers is going to join the ranks of the elite (Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning) and win his first Offensive Player of the Year award to go with his two MVPs, Super Bowl title (and MVP) and his three All-Pro nominations. While he has never topped the league in passing yards, Rodgers twice had the NFL’s highest passer rating and was the touchdowns leader in 2016. Having had to watch from the sidelines for nine games in 2017, Rodgers will be itching to get rolling and we think he’ll put it all together to take a stranglehold on OPOY.
7. Team On The Way Down – Buffalo Bills
If Nathan Peterman is the team’s starting pivot for most of the 2018 season, not even the big man upstairs can help the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, with the departed Tyrod Taylor calling most of the plays, were 9-7 in 2017 and made the playoffs, only to bow meekly to Jacksonville 10-3 in the wild card game. Peterman, a Pittsburgh University product, wasn’t great in 2017 in relief of Taylor, throwing for 252 yards in four games, with two TDs and five interceptions. A lack of offence, then, will only put more pressure on a defence that finished 26th in yards allowed in 2017 and 18th in points surrendered at 22.0. Add to that the fact their crossover games this season are brutal, to say the least. Outside of a division where they have to play New England twice home and away, they also will do battle with the L.A. Chargers (home), Minnesota Vikings (away), Baltimore Ravens (away week 1), Green Bay Packers (away), Tennessee Titans (home), Chicago Bears (home), Jacksonville Jaguars (home) and Detroit Lions (home). Buffalo will be lucky to win a quarter of their games this season.
6. Team On The Way Up – San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo, this is your curtain call. The 49ers are counting on their big late season acquisition to show the world he was worthy of a massive new contract as well as no. 1 status after years of backing up Tom Brady in New England. He will guide an offence that has a whole lot of talent at wide receiver, with receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon and tight end George Kittle all playing star roles. Defensively, the lowly ranked Niners (24th in yards against, 25th in points agains) get a boost from the arrival of CB Richard Sherman, who becomes an instant leader on a defence in need of some guidance after the retirement of LB Elvis Dumervil. We see a turnaround based on the fact that the squad, under Garoppolo, reeled off five straight wins to end the season after starting 1-10. They beat good teams in Jacksonville, Tennessee and the L.A. Rams, too. This season, after a road heavy start, the 49ers conclude their season with five of their last eight games at home. They could even make bad prognosticators out of us and be a playoff team.
5. AFC Playoff Teams – New England, Miami, Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville And Tennessee
There won’t be much change to the way the AFC post-season shapes up, other than the fact the Miami Dolphins will take Buffalo’s spot in the AFC East and the Los Angeles Chargers unseat the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. Again, the class of the AFC will be New England, followed very closely by Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, who will continue their dominance of the AFC South and relegate Tennessee to another wild card berth. The Steelers won’t be pushed in the AFC Central by any one of Baltimore, Cincinnati or Cleveland and for that matter neither will the Patriots be seriously challenged by Miami and least of all the Jets and Bills. The Chargers are a team on the upswing and will move past a Chiefs team that lost Alex Smith and is putting its offence in the hands of raw talent Patrick Mahomes. The closest race, again, will likely be that of the Jaguars/Chiefs, which we see again coming down to a one-game difference in the Jags favor.
4. NFC Playoff Teams – Dallas, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay, Minnestoa, New Orleans And Atlanta
There will be more of a shift in the NFC this year, and yes, you read that right, defending champion Philadelphia won’t be part of the Big Dance come early 2019. We say that because QB Nick Foles is likely suffering a title hangover and is starting in place of injury rehabbing young pivot Carson Wentz. The Dallas Cowboys will be the direct beneficiary of an Eagles downturn, capturing a NFC East title for the third time in five seasons. The Rams will make a repeat appearance, based on a high powered offence and underrated defence. Green Bay, with the return of Aaron Rodgers, will probably top the NFC North, with Kirk Cousins and the Vikings finishing second banana. The ageless Drew Brees will lead the Saints and its revamped defence to a NFC South title, while Matt Ryan and the Falcons will again finish second, at the expense of the Carolina Panthers, who will miss the playoffs (by a narrow margin).
3. AFC Champions – Pittsburgh Steelers
Of all our predictions here, this is by far the least bold. When stacking up the Steelers against the rest of the AFC, including New England, this argument is fairly solid. And speaking of the Patriots, who will more than challenge for top dog in the AFC, we think they are due for another early exit from the playoffs. That is, they won it all in 2014, then lost in the AFC championship game in 2015, followed by another Super Bowl victory in 2016 and yet another appearance in a loss to Philadelphia last season. The Steelers, on paper at least, seem poised to make big noise. They have an elite QB in Ben Roethlisberger, dynamic receivers in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and loads of running talent in RB Le’Veon Bell — providing he signs his franchise tag contract, that is. Defensively, the Steelers allowed the fifth fewest yards in 2017 and seventh fewest points and we see that trend continuing right through the playoffs. The Steelers D picked up safeties Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds to bolster the defensive backfield, too.
2. NFC Champions – Green Bay Packers
Success in Green Bay means nothing less than making the playoffs and after just one year in the post-season wilderness, the Cheeseheads must be hankering for a rebound. And rebound the Packers will, count on it. All world QB Aaron Rodgers is back and he has a brand new target in elite TE Jimmy Graham. The Green Bay offence, with a healthy Rodgers at the helm, will hum on all cylinders for the 2018 season, starting Sunday at home against the hated Chicago Bears and new defensive stud Khalil Mack. Veteran linebacker Clay Matthews leads a mostly homegrown and improving defence into the 2018 season. The Pack took a chance on former New York Jet Muhammad Wilkerson to man one end of the defensive line, while they brought back former Packer Tramon Williams to anchor a very young defensive backfield. Green Bay will likely be back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season.
1. Super Bowl Champions – Pittsburgh Steelers
It will be a re-match of Super Bowl XLV, should both the Steelers and Packers make it through the AFC and NFC playoffs, respectively. And, if our prognostications are correct, the Steelers will avenge that 31-25 loss to the Packers and become champs for the first time since the 2008 campaign. Speaking of the loss in Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers were led by Ben Roethlisberger and the Packers by game MVP Aaron Rodgers. Mike Tomlin was coaching the Steelers and still does, ditto Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.Other than those two, the only name holdovers are Clay Matthews and Tramon Williams with Green Bay and Antonio Brown for Pittsburgh. The Steelers, however, will prove too tough a nut to crack for the Packers, who will have to contend with Roethlisberger’s arm, the elite speed of Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the flanks and Le’Veon Bell’s slashing game in the offensive backfield. Steelers win it all at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta next February.