NFL contenders and pretenders

Harrington Gardiner | Sports Writer

Football fans have gathered around their TVs for early glimpses at their NFL teams. There have been quite a few surprises already. Which teams will end up in the playoffs and which will fall off? Here are some early guesses.

NFC

Contenders

Carolina Panthers: Last year, Carolina had the fifth-hardest schedule and still finished with 10-plus wins. Their front seven – led by Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short and Shaq Thompson – are some of the best in football. Critics will say that their secondary needs work, but this defense could be one of the best in football. Cam Newton has also shown that he can continue to make plays outside the pocket and be one of the best rushing QBs in the game. They also added first round pick D.J. Moore out of Maryland and running back C.J. Anderson from the Denver Broncos.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have arguably the best defense in football and have made their team more balanced by adding one of the most accurate passers in the game. The addition of quarterback Kirk Cousins is an improvement after Case Keenum and the Vikings got embarrassed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Minnesota also has arguably the strongest running game in the division with the running back duo of Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, so expect a high-powered offense and a great defense to be a force in the NFC.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers and Aaron Rodgers may need a little bit more help. Their main priority this year is to make sure that their start quarterback stays on the field while being able to compete in the NFC North. The division has become tougher, so the Packers must improve and become a better running team to avoid a one-dimensional offense.

Pretenders

Dallas Cowboys: Two years ago, the Dallas Cowboys were the hottest team in the NFL. They were 13-3 and had two rookies that became the cornerstone of their franchise. Fast forward two years later, and their team doesn’t look so great. Last season, they lost Ezekiel Elliott for six games due to suspension, Dez Bryant had the worst season of his career and Jason Witten had regressed with age. With Witten and Bryant gone, the Cowboys have added new pieces for third year quarterback Dak Prescott. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott may be the cornerstones of this team but both offense and defense must be improved in order to contend in the NFC.

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford got paid big money last season, and if you look at his play, you can understand why. He is the leader of this comeback crew, as he had so many fourth-quarter rallies in 2016 and 2017. The Lions hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach to emphasize defense. However, the defense did not look good against the New York Jets in the season opener at home. They gave up 48 points to the youngest starting quarterback to ever play in an NFL game. That kind of performance isn’t contender worthy.

San Francisco 49ers: Fans are excited for the San Francisco 49ers because they’ve got their franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. They also added Pro Bowl defensive back Richard Sherman to their defense. However, before the season began, the 49ers lost starting running back Jerick McKinnon. Without him, it’ll be tough for them to regain their rushing attack.

AFC

Contenders

Houston Texans: Despite their loss to the Patriots in Week 1, the Texans are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the AFC. The versatility and decision making of Deshaun Watson along with the weapons he has on the outside will make the Houston offense dangerous. Houston also has some players who can contribute to a dominant defense. J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Tyrann Mathieu and Jadeveon Clowney are all punishing defenders who can put fear in the hearts of offenses around the league. With a stout defense that prevents teams from scoring, and an improved offense that puts points on the board, the Texans could be a problem for the rest of the AFC.

Kansas City Chiefs: The loss of quarterback Alex Smith didn’t stop the Kansas City Chiefs from starting the season off right. Tyreek Hill had a monster game against the Los Angeles chargers and Patrick Mahomes became the first quarterback to throw 10 touchdown passes in his first two games. Plus, the offense is so dangerous that if the passing game doesn’t get going, they’ve got Kareem Hunt in the backfield. Defensively, this team needs work, but this offense makes the Kansas City Chiefs a force to be reckoned with.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have never been a flashy offensive team. However, this off-season, they’ve added some intriguing pieces to the receiving corps. The additions of Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV have made life easier for quarterback Joe Flacco. The running game was successful last season with Alex Collins in the backfield. Terrell Suggs is still playing very well, and C.J. Mosley has proven he’s a top three inside linebacker in football. This will be an improved team that has the capability to beat any team in the AFC.

Pretenders

Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville’s front seven includes Calais Campbell, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue. In their secondary, Barry Church, A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are the ball hawks that run the show. This defense is intimidating, but what about the offense? Offensively, teams just aren’t scared of quarterback Blake Bortles. With a first-place schedule and a worsening offense, Jacksonville may not be a team that will contend this year despite having an impressive season last year and an impressive Week 2 win against the Patriots.

Tennessee Titans: Last season, The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs for the first time in a while. This defense is one of the better units in the AFC and offensively, they have decent weapons with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. However, the one problem with the Tennessee Titans is that Marcus Mariota can’t seem to play consistently at the quarterback position throughout the season. Until Mariota can play consistently week after week, the Titans won’t be able to repeat the same success they had that led them to the postseason last year.

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers have always had a good roster and a veteran quarterback who knows how to win. However, the killer every year is getting those key AFC wins, whether it’s in or outside their division. To improve, they must win key AFC games, and starting off the season losing to your division rivals just won’t cut it.

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