The NFL regular season finally kicks off Thursday night with a playoff rematch between the Atlanta Falcons and the defending-champion Philadelphia Eagles, and in preparation for the new season, FiveThirtyEight is relaunching its NFL prediction interactive. We’ll be using our NFL Elo ratings to track how every team stacks up all year long.
For now, though, our ratings are a little underpowered: Although Elo has regressed each team to the mean since last season, it doesn’t know about all the big moves and coaching changes that happened over the offseason. It will eventually learn as teams play games, but to compensate until then, we’ve averaged Elo’s preseason predictions together with those of several other respected forecasters — ESPN’s Football Power Index, Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average projections, Sports Illustrated’s preview predictions and over/under win totals from the Las Vegas Westgate sportsbook — to get a sense of the big picture for this season’s Super Bowl race.
As usual, the Patriots are everybody’s pick to win the AFC East for what would be the 16th time in 18 seasons. Tom Brady will slow down someday, and it’s possible that this year’s depleted receiving corps will hasten the decline, but it remains foolish to bet against Bill Belichick and Co. in this division — especially since our forecasters see it as the most imbalanced in football. The Jets and Dolphins are each projected to win only about seven games; while New York improved some over the offseason and Miami ought to have better luck with injuries and turnovers, neither team has the talent to realistically make a run at the Pats. And fresh off their first playoff berth since 1999, the Bills appear likely to regress this season after trading quarterback Tyrod Taylor to clear the deck (eventually) for rookie Josh Allen.
Similar to the AFC East, the forecasters don’t see much of a race brewing in the North. Talent-wise, the Steelers are the class of the division once again — assuming running back Le’Veon Bell reports to work in what’s likely his final season with the club. However, Pittsburgh did catch some lucky breaks last year, while the Ravens have several indicators pointing upward for 2018, such as a better point differential than their 2017 record would suggest. Even so, it would still be surprising to see Baltimore take the division for the first time since 2012. Running well behind the Steelers and Ravens are the Bengals, who retained coach Marvin Lewis — thus ensuring that his mediocre marriage with QB Andy Dalton will continue far past the point at which they should have divorced. Lastly, the Browns seem like less of a trainwreck than usual after an offseason spent overhauling their roster, though they still have a lot of work to do.
At last, a competitive division — if not a particularly stacked one. After a breakthrough 10-win season, the Jaguars are AFC South favorites, and they had the point differential of an even better team last year. But for all of Jacksonville’s defensive dominance (and easy 2018 schedule), the forecasters are skeptical that the Blake Bortles-led Jags won’t backslide — perhaps because it’s hard for a great D to stay great. If the Jags do fall, the Texans could pick up the slack under second-year QB Deshaun Watson, who is back from last year’s knee injury to spare Houston from the terrible succession of passers who tried to replace him. But don’t count out the Titans, either, if new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur can help Marcus Mariota bounce back from his disappointing 2017. Finally, who knows what to expect of the Colts? Indy lacks talent at a number of positions, but with QB Andrew Luck returning from injury in a less-than-intimidating division, anything’s possible.
With only 1.8 projected wins separating first place from last, the AFC West looks like the tightest division in the league. The Chargers are the forecasters’ favorites, and they did have the best point differential (+83) of any team in the division last year. The talent is there for the team’s first playoff bid since 2013, though it remains to be seen if the execution will follow. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are breaking in young QB Patrick Mahomes — always cause for concern — but in terms of the supporting cast, Mahomes will have one of the best situations for any new starter ever. The bigger question for K.C. might be whether its defense can improve on last year’s terrible showing. As for the Broncos, Denver has a new signal-caller of its own in Case Keenum, and they’ll be counting on him to turn around three straight years of awful QB play — but will his O-line protect him? And with a veteran roster under new coach Jon Gruden, there was some optimism that the Raiders could potentially reclaim their 12-win form of 2016 … but that was before they traded star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Now, a last-place finish seems more likely than a return to the postseason.
Having finally joined the rest of their division rivals in February as a Super Bowl-winning franchise, the Eagles will carry the burden of defending their championship this season. Luckily for them, the roster is once again brimming with talent, particularly in the trenches. There is, however, the slight matter of eventually sorting out a QB situation that features Super Bowl MVP (and this year’s opening-day starter) Nick Foles and — once fully healthy — a potential MVP candidate in Carson Wentz. The Cowboys are hoping to rebound from 2017’s disappointing 9-7 campaign, and on paper they have the talent to do it. But the pressure will be on QB Dak Prescott to improve last season’s passing attack while dealing with a depleted group of targets. Bringing up the rear of the division in the forecasters’ eyes are the Giants and Redskins; the former is sticking with an old QB (Eli Manning) alongside new supporting talent (rookie RB Saquon Barkley), while the latter is breaking in a new passer (Alex Smith, acquired from the Chiefs in January) but hasn’t given him much of a supporting cast to work with. New York has more upside, but a breakthrough will be tough in this division.
This could be the best division in football. The Vikings are incumbent champs after last year’s surprising 13-3 campaign, and they have a highly paid new field general in ex-Washington QB Kirk Cousins. Minnesota’s talent and offseason maneuvers might be enough to offset a number of factors that point to a decline, including good luck on injuries and in close games, plus an unsustainably great defensive performance on third downs. But the Packers are right behind them, poised to bounce back from a lost season that saw QB Aaron Rodgers miss nine games. Rodgers no longer has his longtime favorite target, Jordy Nelson, and the offensive supporting cast has its question marks, but a revamped defense under new coordinator Mike Pettine could pay dividends. The Lions have finished either 9-7 or 7-9 in four of the past five seasons, and the forecasters are basically splitting the difference with an 8-8 prediction this year. Detroit has a new coach in former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, but despite new additions to the ground game (veteran LeGarrette Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson), the team didn’t seem to improve very much over the offseason. Finally, the Bears are slowly coming out of hibernation with moves like their recent trade for edge-rusher Khalil Mack — but although a number of factors are pointing up for Chicago, it will be tough to contend in this division for now.
The South is another strong candidate for the NFL’s toughest division. The forecasters see a dead heat at the top between the Falcons and the Saints, with the numbers perhaps giving a slight edge to New Orleans, while the scouts favor Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to prove that their offensive fireworks of 2016 were the real thing and that last year’s regression was the mirage. The statistical trends don’t exactly point upward, but Atlanta remains one of the league’s most talent-laden teams on paper. For New Orleans, it’s about building on the momentum of last season’s division crown — powered by the emergence of dual rookie of the year winners RB Alvin Kamara and CB Marshon Lattimore — while counting on Drew Brees to remain one of the game’s premier QBs at age 39. The Panthers can’t be dismissed, either, as long as QB Cam Newton and LB Luke Kuechly lead the way. But after they racked up 11 wins last season, their key indicators point down across the board, and a tumultuous offseason can’t have helped. A decline could be in order. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers might be the anti-Panthers in that regard — almost all of their important factors from last year are pointing up, and they made a number of key offseason pickups — though it might not matter with QB Jameis Winston suspended for the season’s first three games.
Although the NFC West is no longer the most fearsome division in football, it still offers plenty of intrigue. The Rams broke through to win it a year ago on the strength of a great defense and a vastly improved offense. Then L.A. tried to head off any potential regression at the pass with a plethora of offseason acquisitions, including WR Brandin Cooks, DL Ndamukong Suh, and CBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. The sizable extensions the team recently gave running back Todd Gurley and defensive end Aaron Donald mean the clock is already ticking on the Rams’ championship window, but for now, L.A. ranks among the NFC’s Super Bowl favorites. The 49ers and Seahawks are also difficult to pin down: San Francisco’s fate is tied to starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo — and we still don’t have much of a clue what that will mean for the Niners in 2018. Seattle looks better on paper, but Pete Carroll’s team also lost a number of veterans in the offseason; this isn’t the same perennial contender that it was a few years ago. As for the Cardinals, their 8-8 finish last season belied the point differential of a six-win squad. The team brought in a new coach (Steve Wilks) and a couple of new QBs (Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen) to go with now-healthy RB David Johnson, but Arizona remains in a period of transition.