Like every other living, breathing sports fan in America, I absolutely cherish the NCAA tournament. I'm obsessed. To the point where the tourney bleeds into every single aspect of my existence -- including this here role as an NFL columnist!
So, with a nod to the Sweet 16, I'm here to provide my annual rundown of the 16 NFL teams to watch in the coming season.
But before we dive into the meat of this file, I wanted to quickly address a few questions that could arise from the concept of this piece ...
Wait, what? Is this a Power Ranking of some sort? No, this is most certainly NOT a Power Ranking. This is a way-too-early prediction of the six playoff teams -- plus a couple bubble teams -- in each conference for the 2019 campaign.
So what is the rationale behind the pecking order? I'm handling this like playoff seeding, organized by W-L record, with division winners earning the top four spots in each conference.
OK, so we can totally hold you to these predictions forever, right? NO. Please don't. We haven't even gotten to the 2019 NFL Draft, which will definitely impact the way I view the league hierarchy. This is meant to be a fun exercise assessing where the league stands right now, after a few head-spinning weeks of free agency.
Alright, without further ado, let's get into it:
1) Kansas City Chiefs: Whenever my guy Patrick Mahomes is on the field, the Chiefs are expected to win. And think Super Bowl. After all, they fell just short of Super Bowl Sunday last season, Mahomes' first as the team's starter. The reigning MVP is the best and most mesmerizing player in the NFL today. And I have no issue with the defense -- which is transitioning to new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's system -- moving forward without Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Eric Berry. Don't forget: This unit has ranked 24th, 28th and, most recently, 31st over the past three years in total defense. Meanwhile, plucking the "Honey Badger" off the open market was an excellent move.
2) New England Patriots:Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end to ever play in the NFL, and the Patriots will miss his clutch play. But don't get it twisted: With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in tow, this team is always capable of winning the Super Bowl. The Pats knew they would lose Trey Flowers in free agency, so they traded for Michael Bennett. Trent Brown walked -- and broke the bank -- in free agency. Fortunately, the Pats selected Isaiah Wynn with the 23rd overall pick of last year's draft. After missing his entire rookie campaign with an Achilles injury, Wynn will be ready to fill the void at tackle in the fall. Long story short: The roster might look a little different, but New England will be the same old powerhouse.
4) Cleveland Browns: Cleveland is the most talented team in the AFC North -- bar none -- after John Dorsey's splashy offseason, highlighted by the Odell Beckham Jr. heist. Baker Mayfield is going to be in the mix for MVP this season, with all the weapons around him and a season of NFL quarterbacking already under his belt. And the defense features a number of emerging playmakers, most prominently second-team All-Pro Myles Garrett.
5) Los Angeles Chargers: With Philip Rivers fresh off one of the best seasons of his career, the window is not closed. Remember how close the Chargers were this past regular season to getting the No. 1 seed? And that was with Joey Bosa missing the first nine games of the season. Yes, L.A. got smoked by New England in the Divisional Round. But the Chargers can easily be considered the most talented team, 1 through 53, in the AFC.
6) Jacksonville Jaguars:Nick Foles replacing Blake Bortles is akin to flying first class over taking a horse and buggy. Foles' ability to lead and, unlike Bortles, complete the forward pass are exactly what the doctor ordered in Jacksonville. I still very much believe in the core and talent of this team. After a disastrous, 5-11 letdown of a season, Foles will get this train back on the tracks.
7) Buffalo Bills: I'm loving the makeup of this squad. The offensive line is revamped, with C Mitch Morse and OT Ty Nsekhe joining the fray. The receiver position actually has some juice, with the additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley. How much will all of this help second-year QB Josh Allen, a player whose star power I firmly believe in? Lastly, Sean McDermott's stamp is all over this defense, which quietly finished last season at No. 2 in total D.
8) Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore's defections got the headlines, and I get that. This happens when notable players like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Za'Darius Smith leave the building. But I'm loving GM Eric DeCosta's first big acquisitions in the big chair. Earl Thomas is a winner and can still play at his Hall of Fame level. In many ways -- with his talent, attitude and demanding accountability of teammates -- Thomas is the quintessential and classic Raven. Meanwhile, I love Baltimore's Mark Ingram upgrade at running back. The Saints' offense was at its best last year when Ingram was involved. John Harbaugh is a fabulous coach. And Lamar Jackson will take a major step forward in Year 2.
1) Los Angeles Rams:Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle are smart veteran pieces for coordinator Wade Phillips' defense. This team's obviously in win-now mode, and those are two win-now additions. And for the sake of this conversation, I'm going to assume that Todd Gurley is healthy and Sean McVay's offense will hum. After opening the season at 11-1, the Rams appeared to run out of steam a little bit down the back stretch. But hey, they still reached the Super Bowl. I expect McVay's bunch to hit the fall as a team hellbent on taking care of unfinished business.
2) Dallas Cowboys: Dallas' defense is fantastic. Ezekiel Elliott is a star. With Amari Cooper out wide on Day 1 of the season after racking up 53 catches, 725 yards and six scores in nine games as a trade acquisition last year, Dak Prescott is poised to turn in his best NFL campaign yet. And I love the professionalism Jason Witten and Randall Cobb bring.
4) Chicago Bears: Chicago's defense is elite, even after the departure of the best coordinator in the business today, with Vic Fangio taking the Broncos' head-coaching gig. Mitchell Trubisky showed great improvement in his first season under Matt Nagy, and 2019 is the year he becomes a star. Also, I love the stable of backs at Nagy's disposal, with free-agent pickup Mike Davis joining Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard.
7) San Francisco 49ers: San Fran made some really smart signings, starting with RB Tevin Coleman and DE Dee Ford. These are big-time talent upgrades. Coleman played for Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta and will fit in perfectly alongside a healthy Jerick McKinnon. I also liked the inking of CB Jason Verrett on a one-year, $3.6 million deal -- that's a low-risk, high-reward move, with a really talented player who's dominant when his body isn't failing him. Now, LB Kwon Alexander's four-year, $54 million deal is certainly pricey, but assuming his ACL recovery continues as planned, he's another major talent upgrade at a position of need. And of course, Jimmy G will be back under center after having his 2018 season ruined by an ACL injury of his own. Consider San Francisco the Oregon basketball of the NFL -- Kyle Shanahan is a super coach who will get this team to overachieve.
8) Seattle Seahawks: I slept on Pete Carroll's team prior to last season, and the 'Hawks went 10-6 and returned to the playoffs. Will they make the playoffs in 2019? I don't know. But I certainly won't overlook their potential.