This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
One thing is predictable in the NFL: The season will be unpredictable—just ask the reigning Super Bowl champs. (SI saw Philly going 8–8 this time last year.) We asked Andy Benoit to forecast the 2018 season anyway, and below he has a few notes about his predictions.
• The NFC will be stronger at the top and deeper than the AFC. Take the Lions, my NFC No. 7 seed. In the AFC I’d have them as a No. 3 or a 4.
• All five first-round rookie QBs—Baker Mayfield (Browns), Sam Darnold (Jets), Josh Allen (Bills), Josh Rosen (Cardinals) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens)—will take over before the season ends. Especially with the CBA limiting practice time, there just aren’t enough reps for young passers to develop from the bench. Through 2017, 24 of the last 27 first-round QBs became their team’s starter as a rookie. The trend will continue.
• One glaring weakness can keep an otherwise playoff-caliber team home in January. For the Cowboys, that will be receiver and tight end. For the Giants, depth on offense. For the Panthers, run blocking. The Niners? Their secondary.
• The L.A. teams are trendy Super Bowl picks, but they aren’t without flaws. The Rams’ lack of edge rushers and linebackers will hurt. The Chargers’ run defense is overly reliant on rookies.
• The hype around Deshaun Watson is justified, but expect some sophomore growing pains. Watson spent the offseason rehabbing his torn ACL and he doesn’t yet have a sense for what risks are worth taking. Texans fans should be much more excited about the future than the present.
• Run-pass options (RPOs) were the most-studied tactic by coaches this offseason, and they’ll surge in 2018. But the revolution is bigger than just RPOs. More and more, offenses are designing plays to manipulate unblocked defenders: jet sweeps, fake reverse action, misdirection screens and multi-option zone reads all accomplish this. The five teams that do that best: Eagles, Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams. All except the Chiefs are Super Bowl contenders.
• ...And yet I’m picking the Falcons to be the first team to play (and win) a Super Bowl at home. Atlanta has a diverse, electrifying offense quarterbacked by 2016 MVP Matt Ryan. They also have a fast, unified defense built around guys in their prime. In the AFC, the Patriots feel a touch weaker this year, so I’m giving that conference to the Steelers, who can win with a smashmouth ground game or a high-flying spread passing game. They, too, have a defense in its prime. But the Falcons are a more complete team. Atlanta finally gets its Lombardi Trophy.
COMPLETE PROJECTED 2018 STANDINGS AND POSTSEASON
3. Chargers over 6. Jets
4. Jaguars over 5. Texans
1. Patriots over 4. Jaguars
2. Steelers over 3. Chargers
2. Steelers over 1. Patriots
6. Saints over 3. Eagles
5. Vikings over 4. Rams
1. Falcons over 6. Saints
5. Vikings over 2. Packers
1. Falcons over 5. Vikings
SUPER BOWL LIII
Feb. 3, 2019, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
1. Falcons over 2. Steelers, 27–24