The NFL’s storylines seem to get more interesting and dramatic every season. From the deflategate drama–a two-year battle which has finally concluded with Tom Brady‘s four game suspension–to the abundance of player suspensions due to failed drug testing, to the never-ending RG III saga, to the annual conversation over which rookies will burst onto the scene, the plot forever thickens in the National Football League. Only time will tell which way these storylines will turn; so let’s just fast forward to the end of the regular season, where things are always at their most interesting.
Brady’s suspension will set off a major shift in the conference. The AFC’s top seed will go to the Cincinnati Bengals. Yes, you read that right. The Bengals have improved every season, and with the Pats missing Brady and the Denver Broncos‘ transition at quarterback, the door is wide open. The defending Super Bowl champs will still be the 2 seed in the conference; Peyton Manning may have hung up his cleats, creating a vacuum at QB, but their defense was arguably the driving force behind their title run–and it doesn’t hurt that they have a fairly easy schedule this season. They and the Bengals will have the same record, but the Bengals will win the tiebreaker by winning their Week 3 matchup. The third seed will go to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Don’t expect a repeat of last year, in which the Colts went 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs; I don’t see them coming on as strongly as in 2013 or 2014, but they’ll certainly rebound from last year’s struggles.
The New England Patriots will weather the storm by going 2-2 without their franchise player, but that won’t be enough to win the AFC East. The AFC East will go to the New York Jets, who will take advantage of Brady’s absence and claim the 4 seed. New York has really found something with head coach Todd Bowles, and he and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will prevent the Patriots from winning the division for an eighth year in a row. The Patriots will claim the 5 seed, as Brady will turn things around once reinstated. But the second Wild Card team may be a surprise to some: the Oakland Raiders, who will clinch their first playoff berth since 2002. The Raiders have a great group of talented young players, headlined by quarterback Derek Carr; they can give any team a run for their money when they’re clicking.
Of the two conferences, the NFC is the one whose playoff seeds seem trickier to predict this year. There’s no telling what will happen in the NFC East, while the NFC West is a toss-up between the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, though both will make the postseason.
The top seed in the NFC will be claimed by none other than Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. This shouldn’t be a surprise, in an otherwise wide open conference. The Panthers’ “grind it out” mentality, combined with Newton’s elite ability, allowed the Panthers to finish 2015 with a nearly flawless regular season record before losing to the best defense in football. This season, Cam will get benefit from the return of Kelvin Benjamin, a talented young receiver who missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL. The departure of standout cornerback Josh Norman won’t make much of a difference, as premier linebacker Luke Keuchly will still be around to quarterback the defense and roam sideline to sideline. The number 2 seed will go to Russell Wilson and the perennially elite Seattle Seahawks; if the injury bug doesn’t bite, the Seahawks are a real threat to return to the Super Bowl. They’ll miss Marshawn Lynch, who retired during the offseason, but Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls look like a potent pair in the backfield.
The third seed will be the Green Bay Packers, who will always be relevant as long as quarterback Aaron Rodgers is healthy. The return of Jordy Nelson, who also missed last season with a torn ACL, will mean Rodgers will have his most potent downfield threat back, which should open up the passing attack and set the Packers up for a high scoring year.
The NFC East is the hardest division to predict. Washington will pull it out in the end, battling their way to another 9-7 record to win a division that’s largely in flux. The Dallas Cowboys were my pick to win the division; but Tony Romo, still made of glass and still plagued by Romo-like luck, has suffered a broken vertebrae in his ever-ailing back. Promising rookie Dak Prescott, looked very good this preseason, but won’t be able to make up for Romo’s absence.
The Wild Card teams will be the Arizona Cardinals in the higher seed, and the Atlanta Falcons in the lower seed. The Cardinals will look to overcome a stunning 49-15 playoff loss at the hands of the Panthers, and Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald headline an offense that’s expected to score prolifically once again. Matt Ryan and the Falcons have largely disappointed since a 2012 season in which they were minutes from the Super Bowl.
A healthy balance of offense and defense, combined with more stellar play from Cam Newton, will lead the Panthers back to the championship game. The Broncos will rely heavily on their defense yet again, and Paxton Lynch will emerge from the fray to help the Broncos win the AFC. After one of the best playoff seasons in memory, Super Bowl LI will be a rematch–and the Panthers will have their revenge.