By Ryan Decker
The National Football League returned to action Thursday with a Super Bowl rematch between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, the first time since the merger that the two teams that played in the Super Bowl matched up Week 1 to kick off the season.
First-year starter Trevor Siemian led the Broncos to a comeback victory over the Panthers, as Graham Gano missed what would’ve been the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Carolina and Denver are perfect examples of how teams change in big ways over the offseason.
Not only does each season bring you a slew of new faces in new places, but it also brings you predictions of how the season will turn out.
Without further ado, here are the Now On Deck predictions for the 2016 NFL Season.
The NFC East has had a different division winner every year since 2005, as the division hasn’t had a repeat winner since the Philadelphia Eagles won four straight years from 2001-2004. So history is not on the side of last year’s division champs, the Washington Redskins.
Washington is improved defensively with the addition of Josh Norman, and offensively, all eyes will be on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who after being franchise tagged in the offseason is in a contract year for the second season in a row.
Dallas looked to be the favorites to win the division heading into the preseason with a healthy Tony Romo and the potential of a three-headed monster in the backfield of Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and rookie Ezekiel Elliot, as well as having the always reliable Dez Bryant on the outside. However, Romo will miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season due to injury, and McFadden is currently not on the team roster due to his elbow injury.
Rookie Dak Prescot will start Week 1 against the Giants.
New York has high hopes for itself entering the season due to new head coach Ben McAdoo, who was the team’s offensive coordinator a season ago.
Washington and Dallas, even with the injuries, are the two best teams in this division. The difference likely will be how well Prescot can play in Romo’s absence, and whether or not Washington’s defense can be the least bad out of the four teams in the East.
The Cowboys and Redskins will both finish above .500, splitting their season series and feasting on the rest of the division. As long as Prescot can win two games for Dallas before the team’s Week 7 bye, that put’s Romo in good position for the rest of the way.
Division Winner: Dallas, 10-6
Rest of the division: Washington, New York, Eagles
To put it simply, the NFC North looks a little bleak these days.
Calvin Johnson is no longer with the Detroit Lions (or any team); Teddy Bridgewater is out for the season due to a torn ACL, meaning Shaun Hill is the Week 1 starter for Minnesota; and the Bears still have Jay Cutler as their starting QB.
Good news is Aaron Rodgers is still under center for the Packers and one of his favorite wide outs, Jordy Nelson, returns for Green Bay. And Minnesota still has a good defense that should keep them in games.
Adrian Peterson and Stefon Diggs will have to have to carry the load offensively, for Minnesota, though even as good as the Vikings defense can be, it may not be enough.
Matthew Stafford will be relying on Golden Tate and Erik Ebron to get things done in Detroit, and in Chicago, the Bears first round pick from a season ago, Kevin White, returns from injury for his first full season in the league.
Division Winner: Green Bay, 13-3
Rest of the division: Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit
Despite Carolina’s heart-breaking loss to begin the regular season, the Panthers are still the cream of the crop in the division.
Cam Newton is one of the hardest players in the league to contain for opposing defenses not named the Broncos, and Kelvin Benjamin showed he’s ready to pick up right where he left off from his rookie campaign.
In New Orleans, quarterback Drew Brees is happy with a fat, new contract extension, but he may have the fewest number of weapons in the division, offensively. On the opposite side of the football, the Saints usher in another new defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen.
Fellow veteran Matt Ryan leads a Falcons squad that started the season 5-0 last year before going just 3-8 the rest of the way. He’s hoping running back Devonta Freeman can build upon his 1,000-yard season, and that both Julio Jones and Roddy White can stay healthy all season long.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston enters his second year in the NFL, and will look to improve upon a successful rookie season during which he threw for 4,000 yards and accounted for nearly 30 touchdowns.
Carolina’s loss Thursday matches the number of losses they had all of last year in the regular season, and it’s unlikely they go the rest of this season without at least one more loss.
The division could be more competitive than in years past, but it’s still the Panthers to lose.
Division Winner: Carolina, 12-4
Rest of the division: Falcons, Buccaneers, Saints
Seattle is looking to unify as a team in an effort that they hope can get them to the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four years.
Meanwhile, Arizona is trying to get over the playoff hump. The Cardinals have won just two playoff games since losing to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLVII, both however, came against the Packers in overtime.
The other two teams in the division – the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers – don’t look to be contenders to win the division, although the Rams could potentially be in contention for one of the two Wild Card spots.
Los Angeles’ playoff hopes looked like they would fall on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Jared Goff, but Goff is inactive for Week 1 making Case Keenum the starter.
San Francisco is also starting someone other than the presumed No. 1 at quarterback, as Blaine Gabbert will start in place of the kneeling Collin Kaepernick.
Both Arizona and Seattle have Super Bowl aspirations, and both should get some help inside the division against the 49ers at least.
The two teams will be undefeated heading into their Week 7 matchup in Arizona. The Cards will win that one, but lose the Week 16 rematch in CenturyLink.
Division Winner: Arizona, 13-3
Rest of the division: Seahawks, Rams, 49ers
NFC Playoff Seedings:
Green Bay, Arizona, Carolina, Dallas, Seattle, Washington
For the first four weeks of the regular season, the AFC East will be up for grabs.
No Tom Brady means that a team other than the Patriots could be leading the division when he returns Week 5 against the Browns.
Brady’s replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo makes the start and becomes the first QB to start a game for New England since Matt Cassel in 2008.
For the Dolphins and Bills, they have a more direct chance to do that. Miami heads to Foxborough in Week 2, and Buffalo travels to New England two weeks later.
Speaking of Buffalo, the Ryan Brother are back together, and Tyrod Taylor looks to build off his impressive 2015 campaign that, for Bills fans, hopefully puts and end to the quarterback carousel. Maybe the biggest question surrounding the Bills is whether or not Sammy Watkins can stay healthy for a full season, which would go a long way in helping their playoff chances.
Will 2016 be the year that Ryan Tannehill takes the next step and begins to look worth the big contract extension he got a few years ago? Or will 2016 be the year that the Jets, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011?
Those two questions remain to be seen, but even with Brady missing games early on, no one should question if the Pats will make their way into the postseason.
Division Winner: New England, 13-3
Rest of the division: Jets, Bills, Dolphins
Cincinnati, the team that has won the AFC North division two of the last three years including last year and a team that hasn’t changed much over the last few years, isn’t the team that is favored to win the division this year.
That would be the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Although Pittsburgh isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain, defensively, it is the home to one of the best offenses in football.
Antonio Brown is most lethal wide out in the NFL, and it doesn’t hurt that he has a future hall of famer throwing him the football, in Ben Roethlisberger. Outside of some defensive shortcomings, the biggest problem for the Steelers heading into the season will be the absence of Le’Veon Bell due to suspension for the first three weeks.
Two states to the left, Andy Dalton will try to win the first playoff game in his career and keep Marvin Lewis’ job, and Robert Griffin III begins a new chapter of his career with the Cleveland Browns.
In between the high expectations of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and the (realistically) non-existent expectations for Cleveland, is the Baltimore Ravens, who are some people’s pick to be the surprise team of the AFC.
Baltimore is fully outside of the shadow left by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco is a you-know-what-you’re-getting-with-him type of quarterback, and has a very favorable schedule out of the gates.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have two of the more favorable schedules in the league, both should easily win 10+ games.
Division Winner: Pittsburgh, 13-3
Rest of the division: Bengals, Ravens, Browns
Andrew Luck returns from a 2015 season in which he got beaten and battered, and limited to just seven games. Luck is still dealing with a shoulder injury heading into Week 1, but that’s not even the biggest worry for the Colts.
That should be the fact that every other team in the division got better, while the Colts stayed very much the same.
Houston picked up a new quarterback in Brock Osweiler, and signed fellow free agent Lamar Miller, and picked up a couple big names in the draft in wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller.
Oh yeah, the Texans also have J.J. Watt. He’s pretty good.
Jacksonville had one of the best drafts in the league according to NFL.com, getting key pieces for the future in Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack to go with an already young and spry team that’s looking to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
Tennessee will likely be the bottom team in the division once again, but with Marcus Mariota and Derek Henry, the Titians could be on the way back to near the top, though that could still be a few years in the future.
It’s easy to make cases for the three other teams, though, to make the playoffs.
Indianapolis is best equipped at the quarterback position, Jacksonville has the best running game in the division, and the Texas have the best group of wide outs, as well as the best defense in the AFC South.
Division Winner: Texans, 9-7 (5-1)
Rest of the division: Colts, Jaguars, Titans
Everyone’s eyes should be on the AFC West.
This division hosts the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos, a Kansas City Chiefs team that won 10 straight games to end the regular season and is primed for another 10+ win season, and an Oakland Raiders team that could spark the return of the glory days of the silver and black.
Although Denver doesn’t have either of the two quarterbacks that started a game for the team last season, the defense showed it’s still just as strong as it was a year ago.
Kansas City also has a strong defense and, maybe you’re sensing a theme, Oakland’s defense looks better than it has in a long time.
Derek Carr leads a Raiders offense that could put up big numbers with weapons like Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on the outside.
Alex Smith will look to make it two-straight seasons that a Kansas City wide receiver catches a touchdown pass after the franchise went parts of three seasons, 659 days, without accomplishing that, starting in 2013.
All three teams have nearly the same strength of schedule.
Feeling compelled to talk about all four teams in the division, Philip Rivers will attempt to throw for 4,000 yards for the fourth season in a row, and the eighth time in the last nine year.
Denver may have won the championship last year, and the Raiders are certainly an exciting pick to be a team that goes from third to first, but and Andy Reid led team will win the division for the first time since 2010.
Division Winner: Kansas City, 11-5
Rest of the division: T-2 Raiders and Broncos, Chargers
AFC Playoff Seedings:
Pittsburgh, New England, Kansas City, Houston, Cincinnati, Oakland
Laquon Treadwell, Minnesota Vikings
Karl Joseph, Oakland Raiders
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Super Bowl Prediction
Green Bay v Pittsburgh. Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers