Sure, New England is still the team to beat, but look for some new—and surprising—contenders to push their way into the picture in 2017

By Peter King
May 23, 2017

In the conclusion of my two-part MMQB, I give you my rankings of the top half of the league after free agency and the draft. There’s one surprise, but let’s not spoil it until you get near the end. If you missed teams 32 through 17, here’s part one. I’ll be taking your comments/brickbats in my Wednesday mailbag, so send them to me here:

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16. Minnesota Vikings

Sam Bradford.
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Subtractions: One of the great running backs of the modern game, Adrian Peterson, left for New Orleans … LB Chad Greenway retired, and OTs Matt Kalil (Minnesota) and the declining Andre Smith (Cincinnati) left in free agency.

Key coaching/front-office moves: Pretty quiet after Pat Shurmur replaced offensive coordinator Norv Turner during the 2016 season. New running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu comes from college football and will have a significant role in smoothing Cook’s transition to the pro game.

Decisive schedule span: Four of five on the road as the season winds down in Weeks 12 through 16 (at Detroit, at Atlanta, at Carolina, Cincinnati, at Green Bay). Not only are the Vikes on the road; they’re on the road against four contenders.

Why I have the Vikings 16th: Classic team that could go in either direction. If Sam Bradford flourishes in Pat Shurmur’s system, if Cook confirms his high first-round talent with an impact year, if the Vikings can build up a strong playoff résumé entering a brutal post-Thanksgiving stretch, and if young defensive stalwarts like Danielle Hunter can continue their ascension, this will be a playoff team. Big ifs, but all certainly possible. One look in the rear-view mirror here. Kudos to GM Rick Spielman for making the tough call last Labor Day weekend and trading a 2017 first-round pick for Bradford. With the short- and long-term uncertainty surrounding Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury (to this day), Spielman gave up what became the 14th pick in 2017 for short- and long-term insurance. Bradford delivered in up-and-down fashion, typical of his career, but there was no passer in this draft putting up numbers like Bradford’s in 2016: 71.6 percent accuracy, 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, 99.3 rating. Having a quarterback is why the Vikings will contend.  

Most important factor to this team this year: Building the kind of running game Peterson gave the Vikings for years—but had been missing two of the last three season. Cook and Murray should do that.

Vikings prediction in 10 words or less: By Halloween, Cook will be a top-five NFL back.

• ADRIAN PETERSON’S LAST RUN: Andy Benoit on what the former Vikings great has left

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15. Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson.
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Subtractions: DE Calais Campbell and S Tony Jefferson were the lone significant losses, with cornerback Marcus Cooper also gone.

Key coaching/front-office moves: None. This is the fifth year of the union of head coach, assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator and special-teams coach. This is also year five that Steve Keim and Terry McDonough have been the key guys in the player-acquisition area.

Decisive schedule span: The first three weeks: at Detroit, at Indianapolis, Dallas at home. Three contenders, but none Arizona shouldn’t have a good chance to beat. And for the Cards to shrug off the ghosts of 2016, they’ve got to exit September at least 2-1. 

Why I have the Cardinals 15th: I am going to plead stupid here: I have no idea where to put the Cardinals. There are quite literally two significant changes in personnel—in the front office, on the coaching staff, in the starting lineup—from last year’s 7-8-1 team to this year’s team. Last year the Cards were yo-yos: They started 3-3. They finished 3-3. After Thanksgiving, they scored 85 on the Saints and Rams; they gave up 86 to the Falcons and Saints. And the only significant losses were a giant of the front seven—6’8”, 300-pound defensive end Calais Campbell—and versatile safety Tony Jefferson. That’s it. So even if top draftees Haason Redick and Budda Baker and a healthy Tyrann Mathieu make up for the dearly departed in impact, are the Cardinals better than the team that finished the season? That will be the question that veteran coach Bruce Arians and 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer have to answer from day one. For most of 2016, this didn’t look like a team that was four quarters from the Super Bowl in 2015.

Most important factor to this team this year: This looked like a playoff defense early, but then the roof fell in at midseason (they surrendered an average of 31 points a game in a late eight-game span) and the Cards lost too many shootouts. I’d lean on David Johnson (373 touches last year) again, dominate time of possession, and have the defense on the field one possession less in 2017.

Cardinals prediction in 10 words or less: This team has a last-gasp feel to me.

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14. New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees.
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Subtractions: The big one is WR Brandin Cooks, but I’d have dealt Cooks for either a long-term corner or long-term tackle, and the trade with New England allowed the Saints to pick Ramczyk after getting Lattimore … Jahri Evans, one of the best guards in team history, left for Green Bay.

Key coaching/front-office moves: Some coaching shakeups on a staff that had gotten pretty comfortable, most notably assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who’d been with Sean Payton for 11 years, departing for Miami to coach with son-in-law Adam Gase … Former Niners coach Mike Nolan left the SiriusXM NFL Radio airwaves to coach linebackers … Bradford Banta replaced another 11-year Saint, Greg McMahon, as special teams coordinator … New WR coach Curtis Johnson returns after a winding road that included four years as Tulane’s head coach.

Decisive schedule span: The first four weeks include four emotional games: at Minnesota (Adrian Peterson returns to the scene of his prime), New England at home (Cooks comes back), at Carolina (one of the best rivalry games in football), Miami in London (versus Vitt) … Then the early bye.

Why I have the Saints 14th: Fascinating team, for a few reasons. I think this has to be a transformative year, coming off of three straight 7-9 seasons. This has to be the year the Saints become a more balanced team—and for the first time in forever, it’s possible. Look at what GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton have done in adding two strong running backs and a road-grading (potentially) right tackle in Ramczyk. They’ve basically said to Drew Brees: You don’t have to throw it 41 times a game (his average over the last seven years). You can throw it 35, 36 times a game, we can run it more, and we can keep our defense off the field. If this happens, and the Saints, a 36.6-percent run team over the past three years, get closer to 43 percent running or so, they’re are going to be far better off. This, of course, will be up to the play-caller (Payton) and the executor (Brees). But I don’t think you go out and get Peterson and Kamara to supplement Mark Ingram unless you intend to change your style of football.

Most important factor to this team this year: Stabilizing the secondary, which has been in flames the past two years. Incredibly, New Orleans has allowed 72 touchdown passes in the past two seasons. If Lattimore is healthy for the season (that’s no lock) that should start to turn immediately.

Saints prediction in 10 words or less: Saints at Bucs, week 17, is a playoff game.

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13. Denver Broncos

Von Miller.
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Subtractions: Demarcus Ware retired, which leave Von Miller without his pass-rush security blanket … DT Sylvester Williams (Tennessee) and T Russell Okung (San Diego) left in free agency.

Key front-office/coaching moves: Head coach Vance Joseph replaces the retired Gary Kubiak.  Wade Phillips out as defensive coordinator, longtime heir Joe Woods in; Rick Dennison/Kubiak out running the offense, former Broncos OC Mike McCoy back in the gig … Brian Stark replaces Adam Peters (hired by John Lynch to head up his scouting department) as director of college scouting.

Decisive schedule span: The five weeks after the Week 5 bye: Giants at home, at Chargers, at Chiefs, at Eagles, Patriots at home. Talk about a make-or-break stretch of the season.

Why I have the Broncos 13th: The quarterback, mostly. Denver still has a defense with deep-into-the-playoffs aspirations. But there’s one other factor here: the offensive line. And it’s a huge factor. Too early to say how they’ll line up, but here’s one projection, left to right: Bolles, Max Garcia, Matt Paradis (the rock of the group), Leary and Watson. I’m aware that all eyes are on who wins the quarterback battle. But if the line doesn’t perform better—the Broncos’ four starting guards/tackles all rated outside the top 40 at their position in the respected Pro Football Focus 2016 grades—the quarterback’s not going to have enough time be competent, and the running game (3.6 yards per rush last season) will continue to be stuck in quicksand. So, yes, I worry about Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch. I worry more about the O-line. On the other side, while Ware will be missed, it’s not a killer. I think the combo platter of Von Miller/Shane Ray/Derek Wolfe will generate pressure enough to win on defense.

Most important factor to this team this year: Not even close. Siemian or Lynch playing well enough for this team to realize its potential. But as I said, the line has to be better, and there are huge question marks there.

Broncos prediction in 10 words or less: Trevor Siemian wins QB job, keeps it all year.

• BEST QUARTERBACK BATTLES: Jonathan Jones on Siemian vs. Lynch, Watson vs. Savage, more

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12. Miami Dolphins

Ndamukong Suh.
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Subtractions: Pass-rusher Mario Williams, unproductive, got dismissed, and similarly underachieving starting LT Branden Albert was dealt to Jacksonville.

Key front office/coaching moves: Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph took the Denver head-coaching job. Linebackers coach Matt Burke was promote to coordinator … Pass-rush specialist Jim Washburn retired … Joe Vitt, on his eighth NFL team, took a job as consultant. Head coach Adam Gase is Vitt’s son-in-law.

Decisive schedule span: The first six weeks present some challenges. Miami opens at home with Tampa Bay, a similarly newbie contender, then goes to the Chargers and the Jets, then has the Saints and Titans at home. Then there’s a trip to Atlanta. Exiting that stretch 3-3 would be a triumph.

Why I have the Dolphins 12th: Against a demonstratively easy slate to close the season, Miami finished with nine wins in its last 11 games, helped by emerging star back Jay Ajayi. But after finishing 10-6, there were problems to address. It was backup QB Matt Moore, after all, who put up an average of 27.3 points per game in the last three starts of the year. Starter Ryan Tannehill, somehow, still conjures question marks entering his sixth year; no one’s really sure if he’s the Dolphins’ long-term quarterback. He’s a quiet guy, mostly, and leaves to other to lead. But the offensive weaponry is good enough to win, and win big, this year, with Jay Ajayi (4.9 yards per rush) and the receiving trio of Jarvis Landry, Devante Parker and Kenny Stills. For a team with a dominating presence in the middle of the defensive line (Ndamukong Suh), this sure was a generous defense against the run last year. The new coordinator, Burke, will focus on that throughout camp.

Most important factor to this team this year: Getting the offense to be more explosive. The weapons are there. To exceed 30 points just three times—as Miami did last year—is not good enough.

Dolphins prediction in 10 words or less: Won’t get past the wild-card unless Tannehill excels.

• ADAM GASE, NO NONSENSE: Jenny Vrentas on what the Dolphins coach brought to the team in 2016

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11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

O.J. Howard.
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Subtractions: WR Vincent Jackson, on the market, waits for his phone to ring … Tackling machine Daryl Smith aged out of the linebacker group … Backup QB Mike Glennon leaves a big hole behind Winston, with glaring inexperience.

Key front office/coaching moves: None of note.

Decisive schedule span: Weeks three through six: at Minnesota, Giants and Patriots at home, at Arizona. That will tell if the Bucs are contenders.

Why I have the Bucs 11th: Tampa Bay averaged fewer than 20 points a game in its last seven, and that just won’t do this year. So GM Jason Licht added two big weapons for Winston: Howard at tight end and Jackson at wideout. The moves were designed to get some separation in the Bucs’ offense; Jackson’s still got premier speed, and Howard enters the league as one of the fastest tight ends playing. Howard and another TE stud, Cameron Brate, are going to make the middle of the field a Winston preferred zone. A little aside: When I was with the 49ers for the draft, the big emphasis in the receiver group was on separation, and Kyle Shanahan preached the gospel of how vital it was in a league where the pass is king. Bucs GM Jason Licht added two separators to an offense that needs that aspect, and Winston should be the beneficiary. Tampa Bay should be better on offense.

Most important factor to this team this year: The continued development of Winston, who threw 18 interceptions last year and completed 61 percent of his throws. Both of those numbers must improve for Tampa Bay to be a playoff team.

Bucs prediction in 10 words or less: In camp, Folk beats out Aguayo. What a strange story.

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10. New York Giants

Eli Manning.
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Subtractions: The Giants will miss the class and ethos of WR Victor Cruz, but they needed a bigger receiver … Aldrick Rosas, out of the football powerhouse of Southern Oregon, will get first crack to place K Robbie Gould.

Key front office/coaching moves: None of note.

Decisive schedule span: Giants don’t play a division home game until December. September, as they say in Queens, will be YUGE: at Dallas, Detroit at home, at Philly, at Tampa Bay. I mention that because the Giants haven’t been over .500 in road games since 2011.

Why I have the Giants 10th: I am bullish on these Giants, with an asterisk. Eli Manning has desperately needed a reliable tight end for so long he probably forgets what a good one plays like. Engram should get 80 targets as a rookie; the Giants want to use him in-line and split out. Even though he’s 33, I love the acquisition of Brandon Marshall for this offense. Simple reason: He’s averaged 155.5 targets in his 10 starting seasons, and even in the quarterback-limited Jets offense the last two years, he put up 2,290 yards and 17 touchdowns; Manning will love his production. But here’s what worries me, a lot, about this team. The Giants did nothing significant to improve the offensive line. A tackle group of Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart (or D.J. Fluker) puts immense pressure on Manning to get rid of the ball quickly. I understand that a GM can’t solve every problem in one off-season, but this offensive line carousel keeps turning with no sign of the line improving. That’s the one thing that could stand in the way of a second straight playoff berth.

Most important factor to this team this year: Some growth in two young tackles—Flowers (23) and Hart (22)—at vital positions. The Giants don’t have much of a choice now but to let them play and work into their jobs.

Giants prediction in 10 words or less: Manning’s 36, but he’ll outlast supposed heir Davis Webb.

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9. Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson.
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Subtractions: T Bradley Sowell moved to Chicago … The Seahawks lost K Steven Hauschka to Buffalo … In all, this was an off-season with precious little important movement involving the Hawks.

Key front office/coaching moves: Ace scout Ed Dodds, who preceded John Schneider in Seattle’s front office but stayed by earning Schneider’s trust, took the Colts VP/Player Personnel job … Clint Hurtt was hired as defensive line coach from Chicago.

Decisive schedule span: The final quarter. If Russell Wilson is still standing by December, a final four of at Jacksonville, Rams at home, at Dallas and Arizona at home could be playoff-favorable.

Why I have the Seahawks ninth: I’d have them higher if they’d paid more attention to the offensive line in the off-season. When Joeckel’s the big get, I worry for Wilson’s health—especially after the abuse he took last year. Not to harp, but Seattle was fourth in offensive yards and points in 2015. That fell to 12 in yards and 18th in points last year. This could be the last great chance for an aging defense, too, with (as of opening day) ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril both 31 and DBs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor both 29. McDowell will be the kind of penetrator and space-eater that Pete Carroll wants in the middle of his line. Even with the offensive negatives up front, I think Seattle could win 11 or 12 games. Most of the tough trips are early (Packers, Giants, Titans on the road in the first seven weeks), and with the NFC West down, the Seahawks could go 5-1 in the division. Plus, the good news for the offense is it should have diverse running game to take some of the pressure off Wilson.

Most important factor to this team this year: Keeping Wilson healthy. I’d still sign Colin Kaepernick if I were Schneider/Carroll, because the alternative to Wilson is just not good with the green backups.

Seahawks prediction in 10 words or less: 2017: Last legit chance at a title for a while.

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8. Kansas City Chiefs

Tyreek Hill.
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Subtractions: The odd and short Chiefs’ tenure of backup QB Nick Foles ended with one season and one start. Foles made a free-agent return to Philadelphia.

Key front office/coaching moves: Chris Ballard left as vice president of player personnel for the GM job in Indianapolis. Two Chiefs will shares that gig in 2017: Mike Borgonzi and Brett Veach.

Decisive schedule span: Final four, which after a tough first eight weeks, could be a big edge down the playoff home stretch: K.C. closes with Oakland, the Chargers and Miami at home, and at Denver to finish.

Why I have the Chiefs eighth: Typical Andy Reid team. Veteran group that may not be good enough to win the biggest games (no Reid team has won a Super Bowl in his 18 head-coaching seasons) but won’t beat itself much during the regular season. The Chiefs lost five games last year—three by two points. But the one difference this year is that Reid and GM John Dorsey, while backstopping the quarterback position for the future, also put Smith—who didn’t have one 300-yard passing game in the Chiefs’ last 16 games last year—and the offense on notice. A history lesson here: In Reid’s first season as coach, he used his first draft pick on Donovan McNabb. With the Eagles struggling in game nine, Reid made the quarterback switch to McNabb. Remember the incumbent that season? Doug Pederson.

Most important factor to this team this year: The continued development of difference-making weapons. Tyreek Hill emerged as a multiple threat last year; he’s got to touch the ball on offense and special teams more than the 138 times he did last year. Watch for Kareem Hunt, the rookie from Toledo, who has every-down potential.

Chiefs prediction in 10 words or less: Pat Mahomes starts some. How much? I don’t know.

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7. Dallas Cowboys

Dak Prescott.
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Subtractions: Tony Romo retired, of course, leaving a depth chart very light on quarterback experience … Two losses on the vaunted offensive line: T Doug Free (retirement) and G Ronald Leary … Backup TE Gavin Escobar never became the heir to Jason Witten. Now he’s a Chief.

Key front office/coaching moves: None of note.

Decisive schedule span: The last quarter of the season, three away. At Giants, at Raiders, Seattle at home, at Eagles. The Cowboys could need a cushion after 12 games entering that season-ending stretch.

Why I have the Cowboys seventh: I don’t believe in the sophomore slump. If Dak Prescott fails, it will be because some cracks are starting to show in the offensive line, or because of an injury to a big skill player like Dez Bryant or Ezekiel Elliott. But Prescott has the mental approach to not sit back and think it’ll be the same in 2017 as it just was. And the things he did last year, you can do for a game or two or three, but not for a season … unless you’re legit. He completion percentage (67.8) was two percentage points better than Aaron Rodgers. His four picks in a season: 11 fewer than Drew Brees, nine fewer than Andrew Luck. You think of Prescott as a dink-and-dunker? His 7.99 yards-per-attempt was half a yard better than Ben Roethlisberger. I think it’s not Prescott I’m worried about. It’s the rest of the team.

Most important factor to this team this year: Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has consistently made good players better, and this year he’ll have some better molding clay to make a pass rush: Carlton, former second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. Randy Gregory, the boom or bust pass-rusher draft in 2015, went bust. The Cowboys will adjust well.

Cowboys prediction in 10 words or less: Dak Prescott will be a factor in the MVP race.

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6. Green Bay Packers

Clay Matthews.
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Subtractions: Two-fifths of the starting offensive was allowed to walk—center J.C. Tretter and guard T.J. Lang … RB Eddie Lacy couldn’t stay healthy and was allowed to leave for Seattle in free agency … DT Letroy Guion starts the season on a four-game suspension.

Key front office/coaching moves: None of note.

Decisive schedule span: Weeks one and two. The Packers start with Seattle at Lambeau (the offensive line will get a quick test with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril coming to town), and then open the new Atlanta stadium the following Sunday night.

Why I have the Packers sixth: I worry about the offensive line; GM Ted Thompson angered some players by allowing trusted guard T.J. Lang to jump to division rival Detroit. I worry about the secondary holding up. I worry about Nick Perry and Clay Matthews staying healthy for the season and giving the defense enough pass-rush. But I do not worry about Aaron Rodgers’ ability to carry a team to make another deep playoff run. After seeming mortal for three months last year, Rodgers was his explosive self (last seven games: 32.9 points per game) down the stretch. As much as Jared Cook became a significant piece late in the season, I think Bennett will be great for Rodgers. He’s durable, he gets open (last three years: 198 catches, 2,056 yards), he doesn’t shrink from challenges. He could have his greatest year, and he may need to—Rodgers could face significantly more pressure with a leaky line than a year ago, and the tight end will be vital in this offense.

Most important factor to this team this year: Whether the secondary can play well enough to keep Rodgers from having to score consistently in the 30s for Green Bay to win. It’s that simple. Lots of pressure on Kevin King to be a factor immediately.

Packers prediction in 10 words or less: Rodgers wins MVP, but not a Super Bowl.

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5. Pittsburgh Steelers

Antonio Brown.
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Subtractions: Valuable RB DeAngelo Williams was allowed to walk as a free agent, while vet LB Lawrence Timmons flew south to Miami … The Steelers cut TE Ladarius Green, a needed piece in their offense; he couldn’t stay healthy.

Key front office/coaching moves: Only one, and it was momentous. The death of franchise patriarch Dan Rooney cast a pall over the organization that is still there. Son Art Rooney II, who has run the team in recent years, is a fitting heir.

Decisive schedule span: The first five weeks: At Cleveland, Minnesota, at Chicago, at Baltimore, Jacksonville. No team is more in line for a fast start. Plus, three of the Steelers’ toughest foes—Tennessee, Green Bay, New England—all are at home, and all in the second half of the season.

Why I have the Steelers fifth: We may never know the truth about the “retirement” talk of Ben Roethlisberger, but some of his discomfort with the team may have stemmed from the lack of alternatives to Antonio Brown in the passing game. Now, with Bryant back (for how long, who knows) and with the arrival of Smith-Schuster, Brown has some company in the passing game. Recall the impact of Bryant when he last suited up for the Steelers. With Brown out after suffering a concussion the previous week, Bryant caught nine passes for 154 yards (in 15 targets) at Denver in a playoff loss. This Pittsburgh offense should be as explosive as any Roethlisberger has had if 6’1½” Smith-Schuster makes the impact the pro-ready receiver could make, and if Bryant stays on the field. With Le’Veon Bell in the backfield as the most dangerous rusher in the AFC (rookie Pitt back James Conner is his insurance policy now that Williams has left for Denver), the Steelers will be a formidable challenge for the best teams in football.

Most important factor to this team this year: The development of a pass rush. Bud Dupree and newcomer Watt are vital pieces here. James Harrison and his 7.5 regular- and post-season sacks can’t be counted on, even though Harrison, 39, is back for another season.

Steelers prediction in 10 words or less: Roethlisberger has his first 5,000-yard passing season.

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4. Tennessee Titans

Marcus Mariota.
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Subtractions: TE Anthony Fasano departed for Miami … CB Jason McCourty, one of the most respected players in franchise history, signed with the Browns.

Key front office/coaching moves: Frisman Jackson replaced Bob Bratkowski as receivers coach.

Decisive schedule span: Weeks 11 through 15 will determine if the Titans can hang with the big boys, with four road games in five weeks: at Pittsburgh, at Indianapolis, at Arizona, at San Francisco.

Why I have the Titans fourth: Every year there’s one stunner in the league (at least), and this year I like Tennessee to be that team. Not saying they’ll be another Nashville Predators and make the final two, but I like the Titans to make this huge jump because of core players. Marcus Mariota returns healthy from a broken leg and is a trusted and athletic player about to become a top-10 quarterback. The two franchise tackles, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, proved their mettle last year, and are long-termers; they’ll play this year at 26 and 23, respectively. Much is expected of Corey Davis, the first-round receiver, as a deep threat, and he has to deliver. On defense, Jurrell Casey needs to be a national attention-grabber, Vince Wilfork with a better pass-rush. He’s good. The pass-rush (Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo) should generate enough pressure. The secondary’s the big concern, obviously. Adoree’ Jackson has to be the physical cover player he showed last fall at USC, and he has to be that way from day one. LeShaun Sims is a rising corner. In short, I’m trusting lots of young players to win a division that’s up for grabs and to win at least one January game. 

Most important factor to this team this year: The secondary. Can Sims, Ryan and Jackson lift a coverage unit that allowed 25 touchdowns and 4,585 yards in the air last year?

Titans prediction in 10 words or less: Marcus Mariota will be a strong MVP candidate.

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3. Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan.
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Subtractions: DEs Tyson Jackson and Dwight Freeney, TE Jacob Tamma and LB Sean Weatherspoon all walked.

Key front office/coaching moves: A coaching staff shakeup, and not just because offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to become San Francisco’s head coach. Steve Sarkisian comes from college football to run the offense. Coach Dan Quinn also changed some defensive staff, replacing Richard Smith as defensive coordinator with Marquand Manuel who, like Quinn, comes from the Pete Carroll tree in Seattle. 

Decisive schedule span: A six-game stretch out of the Week Five bye: Miami, at New England, at the Jets, at Carolina, Dallas, at Seattle. Could be a killer. Could be a combination exorcism (at New England)/season-lifter.

Why I have the Falcons third: Simple: I don’t think young players blowing a 25-point Super Bowl lead and losing the toughest game of their lives will ruin those players. On the outside we say, My gosh, how can any team ever come back from that? And I don’t know what Matt Ryan and Deion Jones and Keanu Neal and Julio Jones think on the inside, but I doubt it’s dire. The Falcons got a career-changing season from Ryan last year, and barring a mental block post-Super Bowl, with the weapons he has, there’s no reason to think this offense can’t be as explosive as it was last year. On defense, Atlanta should be better with the return of newly signed cover corner Desmond Trufant from injury.

Most important factor to this team this year: Shedding the ghosts of last February. No reason it should hound the Falcons, but we’ll find out early, when the Packers christen the Atlanta’s new stadium in week two.

Falcons prediction in 10 words or less: Falcons have short memories, win NFC South again.

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2. Oakland Raiders

Marshawn Lynch.
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Subtractions: RB Latavious Murray moved to Minnesota in free agency … The Niners signed former Super Bowl MVP LB Malcolm Smith … CB DJ Hayden signed with Detroit.

Key front office/coaching moves: Offensive coordinator Todd Downing, the former quarterbacks coach who has good rapport with Derek Carr, replaces Bill Musgrave.

Decisive schedule span: The final five weeks: Giants at home, at Kansas City, Dallas at home, at Philly, at the Chargers. That’s a no-gimme home stretch for any team.

Why I have the Raiders second: This is where I believe they could have been last year if Derek Carr didn’t break his leg on Christmas Eve against the Colts. The pieces are in place for a good playoff run for the Raiders, and a shot at knocking off the Patriots for AFC supremacy. Lynch brings his mercurial presence and a unique determination to the Bay Area for what could be his final season of pro football. I say unique because it means more to Lynch, for some reason, than it means to an average player returning to his hometown. Someone who knows him told me last month: “Oakland is in him—he’s just always wanted to be a Raider. It’s like a guy going back to high school. Glory days.” But will he be healthy enough to be classic Marshawn? That’s the test. On defense, GM Reggie McKenzie bet a lot on his first- and second-round picks. Conley and Melifonwu will have a chance to play early.

Most important factor to this team this year: The secondary’s growth. The Raiders allowed 27 touchdown passes last year, and in a season with Tom Brady on the schedule (maybe twice, if I’m right), that unit has to be better.

Raiders prediction in 10 words or less: Marshawn’s not what he was, but he’ll rush for 1,000.

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1. New England Patriots

Tom Brady.
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Subtractions: Blount’s 18 rushing touchdowns will have to be replaced by committee—New England hopes … RT Sebastian Vollmer retired … CB Logan Ryan left for Tennessee … Front-seven parts Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo signed with the Colts … DE Chris Long signed with Philadelphia … TE Martellus Bennett signed with Green Bay.

Key front office/coaching moves: None of note.

Decisive schedule span: Games seven through 11: Falcons and Chargers at home, then the bye, then at Denver, then Oakland and Miami at home.

Why I have the Patriots first: Any other candidates? Bueller? Bueller? … I probably subscribe in part to the Bill Polian thought from his SiriusXM NFL Radio show recently when he said: “Tom Brady was a quarter away from losing the Super Bowl last year pretty decisively. They are a great team. They are not as great as people think they are. They're not invincible.” Still, there’s something about the way New England won that game. Not only do the Patriots have the best quarterback of his day and perhaps the best of all time, but Brady is part of a doggedly determined group of players and coaches who approach every game like a single entity and try to figure out how best to win it—and then play the 38th minute the same as the first and the 60th, no matter the score, no matter the conditions. What does that mean for 2017? Three new offensive pieces (Cooks, Gillislee, Burkhead) reinforce a strong offense. Assuming they learn the Patriot Way (who doesn’t?) New England should be in position to win AFC home-field for the 47th straight year.

Most important factor to this team this year: The health of Brady. As much as Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels respect Jimmy Garoppolo and think he can win playoff games, Brady making it through his age-40 season is the most significant element to the Patriots winning a sixth Super Bowl under Belichick.

Patriots prediction in 10 words or less: Pats beat Raiders in Foxboro in AFC Championship Game.

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