RISE — Green Bay Packers
2017 Record: 7-9
Projected 2018 Record: 11-5
This selection is purely based off of Aaron Rodgers’ presence. The last seven times Rodgers has played at least 15 games in a season, the Packers have won 10+ games. The only season Rodgers finished with a sub-.500 record as a starter was his first full season taking over for Brett Favre (2008).
Green Bay’s roster isn’t booming with talent, but they have the best quarterback in the league who has consistently proven he can will a lesser team to a playoff spot.
FALL — Minnesota Vikings
2017 Record: 13-3
Projected 2018 Record: 11-5
It can be argued that the Vikings boast the most talented roster from top-to-bottom in the entire NFL. The seven players Minnesota sent to the Pro Bowl doesn’t even include stud youngsters like Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook, and Danielle Hunter. Needless to say, Minnesota is strong at nearly every position, and just inked a QB that is coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 25 touchdowns and 4,000 passing yards.
However, replicating their success from 2017 will be difficult no matter how talented they are. The NFC North will be tough sledding, as each team can make the claim that they got better in the offseason. One thing we can say with certainty is that Minnesota won’t hold Green Bay to 10 total points over two match-ups for the second straight year. The Vikings will be good, and they could still very well win the division, but expecting another 13-win season is wishful thinking.
RISE — Cleveland Browns
2017 Record: 0-16
Projected 2018 Record: 4-12
Projecting a team to pull off a single victory over a 16-game schedule isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but the Browns are a special case. A two-win season would double Hue Jackson’s win total as coach of the team. The energetic Jackson has a 1-31 record over the past two seasons, and by some miracle has kept his job. Cleveland is committing to any shred of continuity they can find, and it will finally pay off(?) for them.
Tyrod Taylor is a solid enough quarterback to get this team in position to win games. He doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes, and has a winning record as a starter (22-20). Adding Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde to Duke Johnson Jr., Josh Gordon (maybe), and Corey Coleman should make for an intriguing offensive attack.
Cleveland lost seven one-score games last year. You’d expect at least some of those results to be flipped in 2018, though you never truly know with the Browns.
FALL — Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Record: 13-3
Projected 2018 Record: 10-6
Other than the New England Patriots, no team in the NFL is winning 13 games in back-to-back seasons. In a league this competitive, there are too many variables that are at play over the course of a season. Staying healthy is imperative, and the Steelers are plenty familiar with their stars missing time.
The leading trio of Ben, Bell, and Brown return, but the Steelers have significant problems on the other side of the ball. It’s unlikely Ryan Shazier ever suits up in an NFL uniform again, creating a considerable hole in the middle of the field. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Artie Burns are good players, but are hardly names that come to mind when you think about the historically vaunted Pittsburgh defense.
This team beat Cleveland by just a field goal in Week 1 last year, and almost helped end the Browns’ win-less season in Week 17. The Steelers certainly aren’t untouchable. Road tilts against Jacksonville, Denver, Oakland, New Orleans, and the rival Ravens through the second-half of the season will wear on a Steelers team that may have already missed their window to capture another Super Bowl.
RISE — New York Giants
2017 Record: 3-13
Projected 2018 Record: 7-9
The Giants entered 2017 as a dark-horse Super Bowl pick, and ended the year as one of the league’s biggest dumpster fires. Ben McAdoo has since been canned after benching one of the two best QB’s in New York Giants history — ending Manning’s streak of consecutive games started under center.
There are still plenty of question marks surrounding this team. New coach Pat Shurmur doesn’t have the most sparkling of résumés as a head coach, even after coming off a strong year as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator. Their defense they shelled out the big bucks for vastly underperformed in 2017. It feels like Odell Beckham Jr. is just waiting for the most inopportune time possible to blow up, and I don’t even want to think about the dynamic in the wide receiver room if they end up adding Dez Bryant.
That being said, this roster is too talented to have another three-win season. Eli will be better after coming off his worst season since 2012. Beckham will presumably be healthy, and should get cleaner looks with defenses forced to account for Saquon Barkley. The NFC East will be a dog fight, and the Giants will fall just short of making the playoffs after slogging through a tough stretch to start the year.
FALL — Buffalo Bills
2017 Record: 9-7
Projected 2018 Record: 5-11
It’s difficult to imagine any AFC East not named the Patriots ending the season with a plus-.500 record. New England will likely beat up on the rest of the division, and Buffalo is primed to take the biggest dip of them all.
Swapping Taylor for A.J. McCarron (or rookie Josh Allen) is a down-grade in the interim. While McCarron and Allen both boast intriguing ceilings, neither player is overly polished currently. Add in the potential loss of LeSean McCoy due to legal issues, and the Bills are in contention for having the least dynamic offense in all of football.
Buffalo’s defense and the wizardry of Sean McDermott will keep them in games, but the Bills are simply not talented enough to win nine games in 2018. With five of its first seven match-ups being on the road before their first meeting with the Patriots, Buffalo might be out of playoff contention before we wrap up October.
RISE — Indianapolis Colts
2017 Record: 4-12
Projected 2018 Record: 9-7
Much like the Packers, Indy’s win total improvement rests solely on the shoulders of its talented gunslinger. Andrew Luck appears ready to go for 2018, firmly placing the Colts back into the conversation for the AFC South crown.
Luck’s impact on the Colts is evident through his winning percentage. To begin his career, Luck led the Colts to three consecutive 11-win seasons. Over the past three seasons, Luck has missed 26 games. During that span, Luck started 22 games and threw for 46 touchdowns, while non-Luck QB’s totaled just 25 touchdowns.
It won’t be pretty because the Colts just aren’t all that great, but Luck will carry this team to nine wins if he can stay on the field.
FALL — Cincinnati Bengals
2017 Record: 7-9
Projected 2018 Record: 3-13
The Bengals will be in the group of teams — along with the Browns and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — fighting for the worst record in the league. The decision to not fire Marvin Lewis was puzzling even three years ago. Now it’s downright negligence. Cincinnati has shown no signs of being an improved team heading into 2018, and could be on its way to experiencing its worst season since drafting A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
Cincy’s schedule looks grim. Match-ups against the NFC South and the AFC West could spell a 2-6 or 1-7 stretch for the Bengals. The Ravens are improved, and the Browns will be too. Cincinnati may also be playing the first four games of the season without their defensive leader, Vontaze Burfict, who faces a potential suspension. Everything will need to go right for the Bengals to make their first trip back to the playoffs since 2015, but we aren’t holding our breath.
Sources: Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports, Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports, Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports, Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports, Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports, Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports, Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports