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Barnwell: How all 32 teams can win Super Bowl LIII

Reported by ESPN:

To my knowledge, exactly zero national media members predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would win Super Bowl LII. That list includes me; I suggested that they were extremely likely to improve and even said that they would go from worst to first in the NFC East on my podcast, but I didn’t think they would win the championship at any moment until Brandon Graham strip-sacked Tom Brady with 2 minutes, 16 seconds to go in the fourth quarter in the game.

Does that mean every piece of preseason information you’ve read is worthless? Of course not. At the same time, though, making preseason predictions limits realistic fans and analysts alike to one of a few teams. The Eagles had a 1.9 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl before last season, according to the Bovada sportsbook, which was tied for 16th-most likely. They had a chance, but nobody in their right mind would have said they were the most likely candidate to win a Super Bowl.

The vast majority of prediction columns are pegging the most likely candidate to win an award or advance to a certain level. This column is different. The goal here is to find the most likely path for each candidate. In other words, figuring out what would have to happen for each of the league’s 32 teams to win a Super Bowl if everything (or just about everything) goes right for them.

I’ll go through the teams from 32-1 in order of their expected Super Bowl chances, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. Each team’s scenario happens in its own universe, of course, since only one team can win the Super Bowl. Nothing is impossible in a world in which Leicester City won the Premier League title as 5,000-1 underdogs, but the teams that start this list will probably need at least one star player in their division to get injured and a lot of other help along the way. In most cases, though, we’re just looking to get these teams into the postseason. As we saw with the Eagles and Nick Foles last season, once you get in, just about anything can happen.

Projected Super Bowl odds: Less than 0.1 percent

Would FPI break and explode into a fireball if the Browns won the Super Bowl? Hopefully not, if only because the Browns are a bit of a trendy playoff pick in some circles. Our Mike Clay wrote about how the Browns are wild-card sleepers back in May, and the number of bets on the Browns have left them as the biggest liability for sportsbooks in Vegas as the season approaches.

Cleveland should get a healthy bump at quarterback with the additions of Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield, and its minus-28 turnover margin from a year ago is likely to regress toward the mean and flip a couple of victories the Browns’ way. If the AFC West and NFC South both decline, the Browns also could end up facing an easier-than-expected schedule. Getting them into the playoffs, though, probably takes lost seasons in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.1 percent

Another team with a new quarterback. The Bills traded Tyrod Taylor and already both acquired and traded AJ McCarron, leaving them with just Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen on the roster. The most plausible scenario for a return to the playoffs is that the Bills get an effective running game while Allen steps in and harnesses his elite physical traits as a deep passer on play-action. The ideal offense here is probably something like the 2008 Ravens, who had Joe Flacco throw the ball only 26.8 times per game.

Those Ravens led the league in takeaways and finished second in defensive DVOA, and while the Bills don’t have names like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on their roster, Sean McDermott’s defense is deep at multiple levels and made several high-upside additions in picking up Vontae Davis, Star Lotulelei and first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds this offseason. The Bills proved they can make the playoffs alongside the Patriots last season, of course, but their ideal path would be some sort of lost season in New England and a home playoff game in Buffalo for the first time since 1996.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.1 percent

The best way for a team to drastically outplay expectations is to get a dramatic improvement in their quarterback play. Enter rookie Sam Darnold, who will start over 39-year-old veteran Josh McCown in Week 1 against the Lions. McCown played well last season, but Darnold offers a wider range of possibilities. The Jets could be truly bad if Darnold struggles with a middling offensive line and uninspiring receivers, but it’s also entirely possible that the No. 3 overall pick transforms their offense. He’s one of the favorites to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It would be asking a lot of Darnold to play like a Pro Bowler from the jump, but it would hardly be a surprise to see Todd Bowles’ defense grow in his fourth year at the helm. Leonard Williams is already dominating for stretches of time and ready to burst as the next star interior pass-rusher in the NFL. Williams has 44 knockdowns over the past two years, a number that would typically generate 20 sacks as opposed to the nine Williams racked up. After adding Rams star Trumaine Johnson in free agency, Bowles also has the best secondary of his tenure. A Jets breakout would still require some sort of Patriots collapse, but there’s enough young talent here to inspire dreams of a high-variance breakout.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.1 percent

The Bucs find themselves as a slightly below-average team in a division with three possible juggernauts in the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. It seems likely that the Panthers will decline in 2018, but the Falcons and Saints are still projected to be among the best teams in the league. The last-placed team in the NFC South won the division the following year in each of the first five seasons of this schedule format, but few people are counting on the Buccaneers to flip the standings this season.

Again, though, it would be foolish to say that the Buccaneers have no chance. While Jameis Winston is suspended for the first three games of the season, the former No. 1 overall pick improved his numbers across the board last season. Tampa’s defense was dead last in DVOA, but the Bucs transformed their defensive line by adding five new contributors alongside star Gerald McCoy, most notably Jason Pierre-Paul and first-round pick Vita Vea. Tampa also had the league’s second-worst kicking game last season, and Chandler Catanzaro should be an upgrade on Nick Folk and Patrick Murray, though their field goals have been adventures for years running.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.1 percent

The Cardinals also hope that an upgrade at quarterback can spur them forward. Arizona is swapping out the trio of Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton for Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen and Mike Glennon, and when you remember that the Cardinals went 5-4 with Gabbert and Stanton under center, it’s not crazy to imagine them piecing together a more impressive season. Arizona, fourth in defensive DVOA last season, brings back stars in Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson.

Like the Buccaneers, though, the Cardinals’ odds are less about their talent and more about the NFC West, which includes three possible playoff contenders in the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks. Their path to the playoffs (and then to the Super Bowl) probably requires those teams to all struggle. It’s not crazy to imagine a scenario in which the 49ers have growing pains and lose a bunch of shootouts, the Rams fall apart amid a disastrous locker room and some second-year regression from Sean McVay’s offense, and the Seahawks’ roster reveals itself to be among the league’s worst outside of Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas. Getting all three of those things to occur at the same time might be tough, but there’s unquestionably a world in which it happens.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.2 percent

Adam Gase spent the offseason attempting to recalibrate the culture in Miami, but the most important addition the Dolphins might have made is getting back quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was posting career-best marks for yards per attempt and passer rating when he went down with a partially torn ACL in 2016. Tannehill’s athleticism should help spring the running game, and if the Dolphins trust Kenyan Drake enough to give him 250 touches, they might find they have a franchise running back. The quiet addition of Josh Sitton also upgraded the weakest part of the Dolphins’ roster from a year ago.

If you squint, you might also see a defense that could emulate what the Eagles did a year ago, with plenty of depth along the edge at pass-rusher and a secondary built around rangy safeties in Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald and first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. This time last year, Gase was basically getting the Sean McVay press as one of the most promising young coaches in football. He didn’t lose his ability to coach overnight. If the Patriots slip, the Dolphins might be the team best-positioned to pounce in the AFC East.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.3 percent

The Giants’ core of top-level talent — most notably Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley — ranks among the best in the league. In 2016, the four pros were each among the best players at their respective positions. Last year, Harrison was the only one who didn’t decline or miss time due to injury. The Giants can’t be great if those guys aren’t playing at a high level.

The second tier for the Giants will be what might propel them forward. Can young players such as Eli Apple, Evan Engram and rookie guard Will Hernandez play consistently effective football? Will expensive defenders Olivier Vernon and Alec Ogletree finally solve the Giants’ problems at linebacker? And if Nate Solder can fix the Giants’ pass protection woes at left tackle, is there life left in Eli Manning? The answers to these questions have to be a “Yes” for the Giants to be a Super Bowl contender.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.3 percent

People might be sleeping on Washington, which posted the league’s highest pressure rate (34.1 percent) on defense in 2017 and only saw its season fall apart once its offensive line was ravaged by injuries. Washington’s five projected starting linemen combined to miss 24 games, with Morgan Moses the only lineman to start all 16. A line with Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff could be one of the better units in the league if their stars stay healthy, and while Washington lost Kirk Cousins this offseason, it might very well have upgraded by acquiring Alex Smith.

The NFC East could be more of a competition than it seems given some questionable offenses. The Giants still don’t have much of an offensive line and still have major questions about their quarterback. Dallas’ offensive line is already struggling with injuries, and it probably has the worst receiving corps in football for Dak Prescott. Even the defending champs in Philadelphia are going to have Carson Wentz missing to start the season while subsequently playing his way back into game shape. The Eagles should still be the favorites to win the division, but we only have to look to last year to find what a team coming off a 7-9 record can do in the division.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.4 percent

Another in the line of teams desperately trying to get their offensive line working, the Broncos have seemingly been in a steep decline since winning Super Bowl 50 in 2016. John Elway’s magic touch seems to have worn off since Peyton Manning retired, but it’s not difficult to imagine the Broncos turning things around. Even in an off year, the Broncos ranked 10 in defensive DVOA last season, and that was before adding No. 5 overall draft pick Bradley Chubb. The best pass-rush duo in football arguably already resides in the AFC West, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Chubb and Von Miller gave Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram a run for their money in the years to come.

It’s not difficult to imagine the AFC West opening up for the Broncos, especially with the Raiders seemingly self-destructing before the season even starts. The Chargers and Chiefs both have incredibly high ceilings, but neither is a guaranteed quantity heading into 2018. If Case Keenum plays like the guy who posted a 98.3 passer rating in Minnesota in 2017, the Broncos will be in the thick of things in the AFC.



Field Yates and Matthew Berry like the addition of Khalil Mack to the Bears but find the defense will be facing a tough schedule.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.5 percent

FPI suggests that the Bears nearly tripled their Super Bowl chances by adding star pass-rusher Khalil Mack to their roster, but that only gets them up to one-half of 1 percent. They’re still stuck in a brutal division with two likely juggernauts in the Packers and Vikings and a Lions team that went 9-7 a year ago. Their best bet for a postseason run might actually be if the NFC North gets tough enough to see a four-team race where every team is between 10-6 and 7-9.

The Bears unquestionably have plenty of talent after spending heavily this offseason, and after years of rebuilding, as many as 16 of their regular starters could be 26 and younger. This is the sort of young team that could take a leap forward all at once if it develops under new coach Matt Nagy. Of course, so much of that depends on Mitchell Trubisky, who still has attempted only 902 passes at the college and professional level. The variance for a quarterback room with Trubisky and Chase Daniel (78 pro passes) is enormous; the most likely outcome is that they’ll struggle with growing pains, but Nagy might also be able to mold one of them into a star quicker than anyone expects.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.5 percent

For whatever jokes you want to make about the Bengals in the playoffs, this team has unquestioned talent. Plenty of teams would be delighted to line up Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and breakout candidate Carl Lawson along the defensive line. You already know what A.J. Green can do, and if 2017 first-rounder John Ross can stay healthy, he could give the Bengals a devastating deep threat. The offensive line was Cincinnati’s undoing last season, but it traded for Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn and used a first-round pick on center Billy Price, although Price had snapping issues during camp.

The non-division schedule will make it tough for the Bengals (as it will for the rest of the AFC North), so Cincinnati will probably have to hope the Ravens are in transition to Lamar Jackson and beat the Steelers, whom they won’t have to face in Pittsburgh until Week 17. Cincinnati had the league’s most inconsistent offense last season and faced the third-toughest slate of opposing defenses. With a better line and a little luck, Marvin Lewis’ team could challenge for the division title for the first time since 2015.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.5 percent

You won’t believe this: FPI didn’t think trading away Khalil Mack helped the Raiders’ chances of winning a Super Bowl in Jon Gruden’s first year at the helm. Gruden might be thinking about the big picture in dealing his best player, but the Raiders certainly don’t have anyone who profiles as a Mack replacement, no matter how much you believe in rookie Arden Key.

An offseason of head-scratching roster moves leaves the Raiders arguably worse off than they were at the end of 2017, but outside of Mack, this team still has a great offensive line and young talent on both sides of the ball. Gruden might be able to unlock the Derek Carr, who blossomed in 2016, and get Amari Cooper to return to form, and the Raiders have a deep secondary that might be able to compete in a murky AFC West.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.6 percent

Like the Bears, the Lions find themselves victims of a terrifying NFC North. Half of the Lions’ schedule consists of four games against the Packers and Vikings along with matchups against the Patriots, Panthers, Rams and a road trip to San Francisco to play the 49ers. They even get the Bills and Packers on the road during the final three weeks of the season, which seems like a less-than-ideal recipe for a team built around the pass, although Matthew Stafford did post a 106.6 passer rating on 99 throws in sub-40 degree weather in 2017.

The key for the Lions is to finally find some balance, which they’ve been building toward for several years. Detroit has two first-round picks on the left side of its line and two highly paid free agents on the right side. It added LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson to take over the bulk of the rushing workload from the ineffective Ameer Abdullah. The defense will have to continue to force takeaways at a high rate, but if Matt Patricia can help Darius Slay & Co. improve without needing to force turnovers, the Lions might finally have the balance they need to win a playoff game with Stafford at the helm.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.7 percent

While there were no FPI projections at the beginning of the Russell Wilson era, this is likely the first time since 2012 that the Seahawks will enter the regular season with their Super Bowl odds lurking below 1 percent. Years of questionable trades and poor drafting eroded a once-great roster, and while the Seahawks hit the reset button on most of their coaching staff and moved on from a number of veterans this offseason, there aren’t the horses left on the roster to replace players like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.

The best-case scenario for Seattle is that they win 11 games, claim the NFC West, and end up hosting playoff games in a stadium in which they haven’t lost in the postseason since 2004. A disappointing season from the Rams would obviously help. More than anything, though, the Seahawks need to get serious contributions from their 2017 and 2018 draft classes, a group that makes up more than a quarter of their roster. This is a team desperate for players like Rasheem Green, Michael Dickson and the Griffin brothers to emerge as instant contributors.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 0.7 percent

There are certainly more talented teams than the Colts below them on this list, but Frank Reich’s team benefits from playing a friendly schedule in a relatively open AFC South. The Football Outsiders Almanac projects that the Colts will play the league’s fifth-easiest schedule in 2018, and if the rest of the AFC South doesn’t develop, Indy might end up with the league’s most comfortable slate.

The Colts have a quarterback upgrade in their own right with Andrew Luck taking back his old job after missing the entire 2017 season. There are concerns about Luck’s velocity after labrum surgery, but remember that we saw concerns about Cam Newton‘s velocity in September after shoulder surgery last offseason and Newton’s arm strength rebounded just fine. The Colts can now throw a line with three first-round picks and a second-round selection out in front of Luck, and while Indy needs players such as Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith to actually emerge as useful linemen, Luck has never had a line with more upside. It would basically take an MVP-caliber return from Luck to overcome an uneven defense and push the Colts deep into January.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 1.3 percent

We finally make it over the 1 percent barrier with the 49ers, who are destined to go 16-0 as long as Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy. FPI must not know about Garoppolo’s past or perhaps has reasonable concerns about his ability to stay on the field until we actually see him make it through a 16-game campaign. The injury to Jerick McKinnon also creates some uncertainty in the 49ers’ running game during an early slate that includes matchups with the Vikings, Lions, Chiefs and Chargers.

The question mark for the 49ers is on defense and particularly in the secondary, where oft-injured former first-round pick Jimmie Ward is already a question mark for Week 1, and Richard Sherman is still recovering from his torn Achilles. Sherman will have to play well and serve as a tutor to a group of players still on rookie contracts outside of waiver claim K’Waun Williams. A breakout year from DeForest Buckner might make the secondary’s job easier and move San Francisco’s time frame up beyond anyone’s expectations.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 1.7 percent

The Eagles won Super Bowl LII after beginning the season tied for 16th in FPI Super Bowl odds. Can another NFC East team repeat the feat? The Cowboys would be a more promising proposition if it weren’t for the absence of star center Travis Frederick, who is suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome and has no timetable for a return. They have been built on a stars-and-other-guys philosophy for two decades now, and for Dallas to make a run to the top of the NFC East, it is utterly dependent upon those stars staying healthy.

As is the case for the 49ers, Dallas’ success might be more about the less-famous names on the defense than the guys who everyone knows on the offense. DeMarcus Lawrence needs to repeat his breakout season, and it would be delightful if 2017 first-rounder Taco Charlton could emerge as a secondary rusher on the other side of the line. And in a league in which teams are spending gobs of money on pass-rushers and the secondary, the Cowboys are pivoting in the other direction and investing in linebackers with Sean Lee, still-healing 2016 second-rounder Jaylon Smith, and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch. If Rod Marinelli can push his defense to league average after finishing 25th in defensive DVOA a year ago, the Cowboys would look like a viable playoff contender.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 1.7 percent

If surprise Super Bowl picks are a combination of talent and unexpected variance, the Titans are an ideal candidate. Tennessee had enough on its roster to make it to the divisional round of the playoffs last season, and in replacing a known quantity in Mike Mularkey with the unknown of first-time head coach Mike Vrabel and debuting playcaller Matt LaFleur, Tennessee might be able to unlock a career year from Marcus Mariota, who took a step backward last season.

Health might be the most important thing for the Titans, who will hope to get star right tackle Jack Conklin back from the torn ACL he suffered in the playoff loss to the Patriots in January. Mariota hasn’t yet played a full 16-game campaign. Wildly efficient halfback Dion Lewis played the full slate for the first time in 2017. Rishard Matthews missed all of the preseason after undergoing knee surgery. Derrick Morgan hasn’t played a full season since 2014 and might be out for Week 1, while would-be rookie replacement Harold Landry has a high ankle sprain. A healthy Titans team is a dangerous contender.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 1.8 percent

You could say the same thing about the Texans, who have two of the highest-upside talents in all of football returning from injuries in Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt. Getting the 2017 Watson and 2015 Watt would add possible Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year winners to the Texans roster. If the trio of Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are all healthy and effective, teams aren’t going to know whom to block. The answer might well be nobody.

The rightful concern here is about the offensive line, which could be the worst line on paper in the league alongside Buffalo’s. The hope has to be that the interior of the line — third-year center Nick Martin and a pair of free-agent additions at guard in former utility linemen Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton — can do enough to create a running game, while Watson simply outruns the edge rushers who glide by his tackles. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Watson.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 2.1 percent

The Panthers are also concerned about their offensive line, but unlike the Texans, they weren’t expecting to have issues. All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell left for Jacksonville in free agency. Right tackle Daryl Williams suffered a serious knee injury in camp, and while he has made a shocking return to practice this week, the track record of offensive linemen with a torn MCL and dislocated kneecap suggest he’s extremely likely to be compromised. Guard Amini Silatolu, who was a candidate to replace Norwell, tore his meniscus in August, while left tackle Matt Kalil is on injured reserve after undergoing knee surgery.

If the Panthers can eventually get their line on the field and Christian McCaffrey has the breakout year everyone is seemingly expecting, Carolina could be able to make a second-half surge into the postseason. After playing the Steelers in Week 10, the Panthers get a four-game run against the Lions, Seahawks, Buccaneers and Browns before finishing with a Saints-Falcons-Saints sandwich. If you had to pick a favorite for the divisional game most likely to be flexed as a would-be play-in matchup in Week 17 this season, you could do worse than Carolina-New Orleans.



Field Yates and Matthew Berry think Dede Westbrook is an interesting name to keep in mind for deeper leagues.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 3.1 percent

The Jaguars sneaked up on the NFL last season and came within a couple of questionable penalties of beating the Patriots and advancing to Super Bowl LII. They won’t have the element of surprise in 2018. The good news is that their roster might actually be better than it was last season by virtue of adding guard Andrew Norwell, who serves as a massive upgrade for a team hoping to run the ball down the opposition’s throat with leads in the second half. If the Jags can run the ball more efficiently with Leonard Fournette, they might not need very much out of Blake Bortles.

There’s little reason to think that Jacksonville’s dominant defense will decline outside of health, given that the Jags’ top 14 defenders combined to miss just three games last season. Even if they slip a bit, the Jacksonville formula under Tom Coughlin should be sustainable with some slight improvements from the running game. And as we saw eight months ago, the Jaguars are entirely capable of heading on the road against higher-profile teams and winning in the postseason.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 3.2 percent

It’s difficult to think of two teams that will try to win games in more disparate ways in 2018 than the Jaguars and Chiefs. We don’t know how good this offense can be with new quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but it seems safe to say that Andy Reid is going to be trading some turnovers for what could be a bevy of devastating big plays. We also don’t know how bad this defense might be, especially if star safety Eric Berry, who has a heel injury, isn’t ready for Week 1.

To make yet another run into the postseason, the Chiefs will need their wildly expensive defensive core of Berry, Justin Houston and new linebacker Anthony Hitchens to stay healthy and impact games. Their second tier — players on rookie contracts such as Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Washington import Kendall Fuller — need to deliver outsized production. Fuller is now the Chiefs’ top cornerback after they moved on from Marcus Peters; if Fuller can step outside on early downs and replace Peters, they might come up with the stops they need to win 11 games.

Projected Super Bowl odds: 3.5 percent

The Ravens are a swirling vortex of quantitative indicators. Baltimore went 9-7 last season with the point differential of a 10.4-win team, suggesting that it is likely to improve in 2018. An offensive line that lost multiple would-be starters before September ended should also be healthier. On the other hand, the Ravens faced the league’s easiest schedule by opponent point differential, recovered the league’s highest percentage of fumbles, and had the NFL’s best turnover margin, all of which is difficult to count on in 2018.

Naturally, the most important number of all is eight, which is the jersey rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will be wearing on the Baltimore sideline to start the season. Will Jackson take over for Joe Flacco after years of uninspiring play? And if he does, will the former Heisman Trophy winner inspire the Ravens to a higher level of play of offense, or will he struggle through growing pains in what amounts to a transition season? It certainly seems like the Ravens have a higher ceiling with Jackson under center.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 3.7 percent

It’s no surprise that an algorithm would love the Chargers, who are perennially statistical darlings despite a seemingly endless appetite for disappointment. Of course, in reality, the Chargers have also improved their record over the past several seasons, jumping from 4-12 to 5-11 to 9-7 a year ago. Anthony Lynn’s team had the point differential of a 10.4-win roster, suggesting that there might be further improvement to come in 2018.

Health has kept the Chargers back in years past and might stick them again this season, as Los Angeles is already without Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett for the season. Special teams is arguably an even bigger concern, but the Chargers might have finally found their kicker after adding Caleb Sturgis from the Eagles in free agency. The AFC West is likely to be worse in 2018 than it has been in recent years, which might clear a path for a 10-win Chargers team to win the division for the first time since 2009.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 6.2 percent

Can the Falcons get their playoff defense to show up during the regular season? Dan Quinn’s team managed to coax great performances out of Deion Jones & Co. during each of the past two postseasons, but the Falcons have ranked 26nd and 22nd in DVOA, respectively, over the past two regular-season campaigns. The talent level and the relative youth of this defense — 10 of Atlanta’s 11 likely starters in Week 1 are players who have been drafted by the Falcons over the past five seasons — suggest that they can make a leap past league average in 2018.

Clear up the defensive problems, and the offense also should be able to improve, given that much of the decline under Steve Sarkisian amounted to a lack of opportunity. The Falcons ran a league-low 157 meaningful offensive possessions last season, far below the average of 179 and in another universe from the 195 possessions Arizona’s offense saw in 2017. Fans are down on Sarkisian as he heads into his second season, but it’s fair to remember that they once felt the same way about Kyle Shanahan, too.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 6.5 percent

The Saints were nearly the example of how things can go unexpectedly right last season — they won 11 games and came within a miraculous fourth-down conversion of beating the Vikings and facing the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. It was reasonable to believe that Marshon Lattimore might improve a long-struggling secondary, but Lattimore was a Pro Bowl candidate from the moment he stepped on the field as a rookie, while the secondary eventually found useful roles for players such as Marcus Williams and Ken Crawley.

It’s not difficult to envision a scenario in which the Saints get the sort of production on both sides of the ball that would make them a Super Bowl contender. The best thing that could happen to New Orleans is probably a decline in the teams around them, with the Panthers regressing toward league average in close games and the Falcons struggling with dysfunction (perceived or otherwise) on offense.



Matthew Berry checks off the many reasons why Aaron Jones is the Packers running back to roster despite being suspended for the first two games of the season.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 6.6 percent

You’ve heard about Aaron Rodgers, of course. A healthy Rodgers basically guarantees the Packers 10 wins, which should be enough to make it to the playoffs. The difference between a wild-card berth and home-field advantage, though, probably resides with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and the Packers’ secondary. Pettine has spent seven years as a defensive coordinator or head coach, and in those seasons, his primary starting quarterbacks were Mark Sanchez, EJ Manuel, Thaddeus Lewis, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel and Josh McCown. You get the feeling he could use a little help.

New general manager Brian Gutekunst signed Muhammad Wilkerson and drafted Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, so Pettine has more pieces to work with than oft-frustrating predecessor Dom Capers. The hidden factor here might be the health of the Green Bay offensive line, specifically tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, who combined to miss 15 starts a year ago. Since 2013, Rodgers has posted a 73.4 Total QBR with both tackles on the field and a 62.0 Total QBR with one or both of them sidelined.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 6.9 percent

Imagine going back 12 months and telling your favorite Vikings fan that they would have to wonder whether Kirk Cousins could live up to the expectations set by Case Keenum from a year ago. Here we are, though, and while Cousins should offer a much higher floor than the former Vikings third-stringer, Keenum finished 2017 with a better passer rating and Total QBR than his $84 million replacement. Cousins will have to overcome injuries along the offensive line for the second season in a row — the Vikings already have lost guard Nick Easton and will likely be without center Pat Elflein for the opener against San Francisco.

Health is really the only thing keeping the Vikings from contention, given that they had the league’s least-injured defense by adjusted games lost a year ago. The other possible weak point might be at kicker, where Kai Forbath is being replaced by rookie fifth-round pick Daniel Carlson. Otherwise, this might be the most talented roster in the league.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 7.7 percent

OK, now, imagine going back 12 months and telling your favorite Rams fan that they would be all-in for the Super Bowl over the next year or two. There are cap concerns about what comes next for Los Angeles, but if the Rams are celebrating on the field in Atlanta in February, nobody is going to care. The upside here is enormous, with additions like Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib providing upgrades at critical positions.

The biggest threat to the Rams might be themselves; Sean McVay and Wade Phillips are betting on themselves to keep the locker room in line and get the most out of several players who wore out their welcome elsewhere. If they’re right, the Rams are as scary as any team in football. If they’re wrong, the floor could be a lot further than anyone expects given the talent on paper.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 11.1 percent

The defending champs are the favorites to make their way out of a crowded race in the NFC, even with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles starting the season at quarterback. Carson Wentz will continue his recovery from a torn ACL during the season and will struggle to repeat his MVP form in some ways this season, but Philadelphia’s run through the playoffs with Foles shows just how deep this roster is beyond the quarterback position.

The Eagles have lost some of that depth, of course, but they’re still well-positioned to reclaim the NFC East and figure to be in the thick of the race for home-field advantage come December. The difference last season was that they were able to continually rotate seven defensive linemen throughout the majority of the season before having those guys healthy for the playoffs. With Tim Jernigan already out for the first six weeks of the season, the Eagles will have to count on newcomers such as Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata staying healthy and productive during the season.



Field Yates, Matthew Berry and Stephania Bell discuss Vance McDonald’s appeal heading into the Steelers’ game against the Browns.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 11.6 percent

There are some small changes to the formula in Pittsburgh — Todd Haley has notably moved on while being replaced as offensive coordinator by quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner — but the story remains the same. The Steelers will go as far as their stars will carry them, and if their stars stay healthy, that could quite easily be a Super Bowl. This run of success hasn’t seen a healthy core even once in the postseason. Le’Veon Bell was injured in 2014 and 2015, the latter of which saw the Steelers lose to the Broncos without Bell or Antonio Brown and with a limited Ben Roethlisberger. Bell went down injured early in the 2016 conference title game loss to the Patriots, and in 2017, the Steelers gave up 38 points to the Jaguars’ offense without Ryan Shazier available.

Shazier’s career might be over after he suffered a spinal injury against the Bengals last season, but the Steelers will have to hope they can get by in 2018 with improved play in their secondary. Pittsburgh will need players such as Morgan Burnett and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds to fill in at multiple spots on defense, regardless of the position they’re listed under on the depth chart. Cameron Heyward finished 2017 by becoming the first Steelers player to rack up double-digit sacks in a season since James Harrison in 2010. If first-round picks Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt can join him in 2018, the Steelers might be able to make up for Shazier’s absence.

FPI projected Super Bowl odds: 16.4 percent

The Patriots are unsurprisingly in a class of their own, as they’ve now made three Super Bowls in the past four seasons. The AFC East projects to be one of the weakest divisions in football, and while there’s not the 16-0 talk surrounding this team after the same chatter last year resulted in an opening night loss to the Chiefs, the Patriots are likely to be favorites in each of their 16 games this season. That has happened only 18 times since 1979, but the Patriots have already pulled it off twice in the past three seasons.

While there are fair questions to be raised about the offensive depth with first-round pick Isaiah Wynn out for the year, Julian Edelman suspended for the first month of the year, and Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis and Nate Solder gone, the Pats underwent a much-needed infusion of talent up front this offseason. New England posted the league’s second-worst defensive DVOA last season and felt it in the Super Bowl. The Pats get back star Dont’a Hightower from injury and can use him as an edge rusher alongside breakout candidate Trey Flowers, but they’ll benefit from signing Adrian Clayborn and trading for Browns run-stuffer Danny Shelton. Those aren’t huge moves, but when you remember that the Pats didn’t sack Nick Foles once on 43 dropbacks in the Super Bowl, adding an extra pass-rusher might be enough to get the Pats over the hump for one more Belichick-Brady championship.