This column serves as part three of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re once again a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Buccaneers have been covered.
Now to finish off the rest of the league: the remaining teams that have a case to win the Super Bowl. Again, these teams are listed in no particular order.
The reason they can: Whatever he may be now, Lamar Jackson was and maybe still is an MVP, and now he’s got three legitimate weapons in Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman (who will be out to begin the season just like every other Raven, it seems). The defense, despite the loss of Marcus Peters, is still stacked at every level, with the front seven being the highlight. Baltimore needs to rekindle some spark to get there, but if it can, they’re right at the top of teams to look out for.
The reason they can’t: There’s now been some foresight bought by publishing this post-Thursday, which saw Baltimore’s already ammargoden-like offseason only get worse. The Ravens have lost three running backs (including their No. 1 starter and his replacement) and their top cornerback to torn ACLs, and now have to operate with two washed-up veterans in Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Latavius Murray’s presence should help, as he’s not as ineffective as the other two have been, but is ultimately not someone who is getting 20 carries a game at this stage of his career. The losses at running back put a huge burden on Jackson, whose shine as a passer could have been a one-year fluke during his MVP season. With receivers now in haul, it’s on Jackson to return to form, or else Baltimore may be a team fighting for the playoffs while being carried by its defense.
The reason they can: They shouldn’t have the injury year they did in 2020, plain and simple. And San Francisco now has an upgrade at quarterback if they need it. The rest of the roster is stacked, just as it was when the 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019-20. If Trey Lance is truly not ready for NFL regular season snaps, the defense (which is among the best in football aside from some once again shaky cornerback play) can carry Jimmy Garoppolo and company, and Kyle Shahanan can make due just as he did two years ago with Garrapolo’s averageness throwing the ball.
The reason they can’t: It wasn’t enough two years ago to win it all, the NFC West is a hellscape and the book is out on Garoppolo, even if Shanahan can work some magic. While the upside in Lance exists, he’s still a wild unknown and could be completely overwhelmed if inserted in as San Francisco’s starter. Also, the 49ers’ safety play should help, but their cornerbacks have serious burn potential on a game-to-game basis.
The reason they can: Cleveland’s roster is another that easily ranks among the top ten in the league, and is perhaps one of the best. The Browns have incredible one-two punches at running back and wide receiver, with football’s best offensive line in the middle. All of that, in addition to a defense that could carry any average offense to the playoffs, should be more than enough for Baker Mayfield to succeed. If he can elevate his play just a tad higher, and breach the elite boundary, Cleveland should win the AFC North with ease.
The reason they can’t: Can Mayfield really do it? Is the Cleveland Browns franchise legally allowed to win a title? Are the Browns really better than the Chiefs or Bills? Cleveland is set up for perhaps its most successful season ever in 2020-21. At the same time, it’s understandable as to why the Browns front office is holding out on giving Mayfield an extension. The passing game should not be as flaccid as it is given the weapons on hand. Health from everyone is needed, but Mayfield should be able to make due. Until he elevates even a smidge, he’s going to be the loser in a duel between him and Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.
The reason they can: Justin Herbert looks on-pace to be one of the best quarterbacks in football after an explosive rookie season, and Los Angeles is doing the opposite of not giving him enough weapons with Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jared Cook all to play with. LA’s biggest controllable holes have been fixed – the offensive line is the best it has been in years (with the guard spots still a little iffy, but alas) and Anthony Lynn is no longer in charge. The Chargers’ defense should be one of the best in football, with a wealth of talent at almost every position group. The Chiefs being in the division is a problem, but if things break right, LA should be right among the top teams in the loaded AFC.
The reason they can’t: Because they’re the Chargers and can’t stay healthy, can’t make kicks and can’t execute when it matters, for whatever reason. Maybe it was Lynn’s lack of preparedness for late-game situations, or a slew of bad luck, but there’s no way to be certain that the Chargers won’t Charger this season, even with a bit of a culture change in place. Constant injury issues also won’t be rerouted by Brandon Staley’s presence, nor will a change in kicker performance. It’s in the Football Gods’ hands, and who knows what wrath they will lay down this year.
Washington Football Team
The reason they can: This is, essentially, the blueprint for the Broncos of this year and of 2015-16: a very average, mediocre or worse quarterback held up by a fierce defense and plenty of weapons on the offensive end. The defense will need to do a lot, but with perhaps the best defensive line in football and reliable defenders elsewhere, all Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to do is not have them on the field the entire time. That should be viable, as Antonio Gibson is primed for a breakout season at running back and four-to-five viable pass-catchers exist for Fitzpatrick when the team is at full strength. It’s unlikely, but similar things have happened recently – the parallels to the 49ers in 2019-20 are strong.
The reason they can’t: In no way is it conceivable that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to win the Super Bowl. The Nick Foles case exists, but at least he had shown multiple flashes at multiple points of his career. In addition, Fitzpatrick is not along the lines of “knowing of what you’re getting” average – he’s actually the complete opposite, where four touchdowns in a game is just as likely as three back-breaking interceptions. The variance is just too tough to bet on, and the loss of Curtis Samuel to short-term IR hurts deep.
The reason they can: With a fixed offensive line and good core of weapons, Joe Burrow should be ready for ascension, and that ceiling is limitless. Burrow was the revelation we expected him to be before a devastating knee injury last November ended his season. He was on pace for a season – and projected ceiling – as good as Herbert’s. If he can come back from it with no hiccups, then anything is possible for Burrow and the Bengals.
The reason they can’t: The defense is nowhere near good enough – with linebacker needing a complete overhaul – and issues still exist offensively with JaMarr Chase seemingly struggling to adjust to the NFL’s level of play and the offensive line still dealing with holes. The AFC North is pretty open, but a lot else needs to go right for Cincinnati aside from Burrow being Burrow.
The reason they can: Like Cincinnati, this is an upside play. Jacksonville has a generational quarterback at the helm of its offense, and with that, anything is possible. Trevor Lawrence walks into a better situation than given credit for with the Jaguars. Despite the loss of fellow Clemson rookie Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville has a reliable running back in James Robinson, whose presence made the original drafting of Etienne Jr. a little confusing. Jacksonville has given Lawrence weapons to work with up front in his career – D.J. Chark Jr. finally has a quarterback, Marvin Jones Jr. is a steady-eddy and Laviska Sheanault Jr. is a complete wild card in the best sense possible. The offensive line has struggled but has some talent, and the Jaguars’ defense has a lot of versatile talent in the front seven, which will help make up for a questionable secondary.
The reason they can’t: It’s just a lot to ask for from a rookie quarterback – even one as decorated and seemingly destined for as Lawrence is. Peyton Manning’s rookie season tells us all we need to know – even for the greats and the highly-anticipated ones, it takes time. The culture in Jacksonville already seems certainly shaky, which is not ideal for a rookie quarterback. It was never going to be about whether Urban Meyer can coach, it was always going to be about whether he could lead. High-end success for him and the Jaguars would be quite a turnaround in a short amount of time.
The reason they can: It’s the Patriots, who have completely reloaded, solved all their problems except one, and still have the best coach in football at the helm in Bill Belichick. Absolutely nobody should be surprised if this happens. New England gets back a lot of personnel that opted out in 2020, including stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who leads a stacked group in the middle. The secondary is great, and that’s even without Stephon Gilmore, who will miss the beginning of the season and could see himself traded afterwards. Additions were made up front too, with Matt Judon leading a stout defensive line. The Patriots finally invested in the wide receivers Tom Brady begged them too – rookie Mac Jones now has four reliable targets and plenty of depth behind them in addition to a talented backfield. The offensive line is loaded too, and as we’ve learned over the years, roster holes are almost non-existent with Belichick in charge.
The reason they can’t: They’re going to be starting a rookie quarterback who projects to be just average, not only this season but in the future as well. That’s putting a lot of pressure on the other parts of the defense – a la what’s happening in Denver, Minnesota, Miami and Washington this season (among other teams). Jones simply has to not suck for the Patriots to be successful this year – assuming Belichick’s heavy spending offensively pays off. For all the talk about New England’s mediocre pass-catchers, they sure didn’t upgrade as significantly as one would hope. A lot of money went to injury-prone, drop-heavy players. Jones should love Jonnu Smith though – the ceiling of that duo, in addition to Damien Harris’ running ability, might be what New England’s success hinges on this season.
The reason they can: For all the issues, turnover and drama, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster. The defense, outside of linebacker, is a formidable group that needs the secondary to play up to its potential. The offensive line still has four solid starters, and two competent depth options in Andre Dillard and Landon Dickerson. In terms of scoring, Philadelphia has revamped its attack, with Carson Wentz out the door for Jalen Hurts. Hurts had his struggles late last season, but there was a sense of rejoice and freshness breathed into the Eagles offense. Now, with rookie DeVonta Smith in the fold and Jalen Reagor having a full offseason to get up to speed, Hurts has legitimate weapons around him, not to mention the tight end duo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz. Miles Sanders can help balance things out, especially if concerns about Hurts’ arm come to fruition. It would be wild to see Hurts’ rise in such dramatic fashion, but don’t underestimate the power of a new face.
The reason they can’t: Like Atlanta and the Chargers, the Eagles just seem to have bad things happen to them every season when it comes to injuries, and it usually happens to a degree that it decimates the roster. If injuries occur, it could devastate certain weak areas of the roster – linebacker is banking on being supported by the rest of the squad, and cornerback is already a little suspect. The same can be said for Hurts’ receivers, as demonstrated the past two seasons. Additionally, counting on Hurts’ to deliver in a big way is a tough bet. While he semi-ignited the show last year, Hurts wasn’t a first-rounder for a reason, and needs a serious boost from his supporting cast to produce this year.
The reason they can: The roster – outside of the offensive line and quarterback (which are admittingly important) – is loaded. Pittsburgh’s defense is the type that can carry an average offense (which might describe the Steelers’ this year), with impressive linebackers, a ferocious pass rush and a talented secondary. If Ben Roethlisberger can just hang in, his weapons and defense might be able to take care of him.
The reason they can’t: Roethlisberger was simply bad last year, and there is a shell of an offensive line to protect him this season. Even with Najee Harris in the fold, the combination of Roethlisberger’s deficiencies and the lack of help up front could very well make the offense even worse than it was last year.
The reason they can: The Titans added the firepower they desperately needed to their supposed Derrick Henry-led offense, although that could change now that former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is the head coach in Atlanta. Julio Jones’ addition becomes even more impactful if the Titans rely less on Henry and let Tannehill air it out more – it’s a shift that could probably be used given that the Titans have still felt short of destiny the past two years. The defense is surprisingly talented, and aside from Jonnu Smith, there were no big losses anywhere aside from the coaching staff.
The reason they can’t: A potentially new offense that relies on Tannehill more and Henry less may not be something that Tannehill is equipped for, as we’ve seen dating back to his Miami days. Additionally, there is not much depth at receiver if either Jones or AJ Brown go down, and cornerback is a little suspicious. It still seems like it’d be asking a lot of Tannehill to take the Titans this far.
The reason they can: Jameis Winston got a change of scenery and eye surgery. It’s as simple as that. If he can just be average, and not mess things up to the degree that he was used to doing in his career, the Saints have a chance – the defense is good enough to pull of a carry-job. Wide receiver is obviously very suspect, which is not something that bodes for helping out a quarterback who needs every ounce of support he can get, but New Orleans always is able to seemingly pump guys out of their system and turn them into reliable players.
The reason they can’t: It’s Jameis Winston, and everything that comes with that. The perfect situation doesn’t exactly exist with this roster, thanks to just a steaming pile of uncertainty at pass-catcher. Winston could even have the best situation possible and still not produce to an acceptable level – Tampa Bay is almost proof of that. It is more likely that not that the Saints will be looking for their next franchise quarterback after this season – Winston is more likely to tell them that than the Saints deciding it for themselves.