One word to describe each NFL team this season

Blake Bortles Jaguars
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

For those of us who have taken the nerd title as some sort of badge of honor, word games continue to be fun. Just like when we were children, they enable us to expand our horizons a little bit. Much like learning about football, it’s a fun aspect of the education process.

Here, we’re ready to help you understand better how each NFL team will perform this season by simply using one word. It’s a term that defines said team, for better or worse.

From a team in the desert taking on the manta of the community it resides to another squad back east attempting to repeat with nearly the same cast of characters as last season, here is one word that best describes each NFL team this season.

Arizona Cardinals: Purgatory

Symbolic of the community in which they reside, these Cardinals are stuck between the idea of being youthfully exuberant and deciding to retire into their golden years. Fresh off a disappointing 2017 campaign, Arizona signed Sam Bradford to be a stop-gap option under center. It then traded up into the top 10 for rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. All of this comes with ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald returning for yet another season in the desert. Are these Cardinals rebuilding or are they attempting to reinvent the wheel midstream? A mid-life crisis, one might say. We’ll find out this season.

Atlanta Falcons: Burdened

That’s the best possible term to describe these Falcons. One season removed from blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, Atlanta is sandwiched between bottom-end playoff contention and aspirations of returning to the big game. It’s muddled a bit by the competitive nature of the NFC and second-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s struggles calling plays on offense. But the talent is here for Atlanta to be serious championship contenders. Burdened with those expectations, we’re interested to see how former MVP Matt Ryan and Co. respond following a down 2017 campaign.

Baltimore Ravens: Advancing

No, the Ravens are not markedly better than last season. Though, the additions of wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead should help on offense. Instead, it’s now about advancing beyond the Joe Flacco years and starting anew with rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson. Flacco has not been even a marginal starter since leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl title back in 2013. That was Hall of Famer’s Ray Lewis’ final game. Why live in the past when you can advance to the future? We’ll find out Baltimore’s answer to this age-old question here soon.

Buffalo Bills: Denial

Fresh off their first playoff appearance since the 1999 season, the Bills believe running out a combination of A.J. McCarron, Nathan Peterman and erratic rookie Josh Allen under center will somehow lead to a second consecutive trip to the postseason. That’s denial in its clearest form. It’s pretty amazing given that the Bills traded a Pro Bowl quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who combined for 65 touchdowns and 16 interceptions over the past three seasons. We will now find out this season whether Buffalo is actually in denial or if it’s a narrative being thrown around by media folk like myself.

Carolina Panthers: Improvident

Even before starting right tackle Daryl Williams went down with a long-term injury this summer, the Panthers were playing with fire. Sure Cam Newton is a physical marvel and can avoid the pass rush with the best of them. But relying on Matt Kalil to hold down the blindside without much behind Williams on the other side proved these Panthers lack the foresight necessary to be successful on a consistent basis. Fortunately, Cam is still Cam and he has a ton of awesome weapons on offense. Let’s just hope a disastrous offense line doesn’t doom him to injury this season.

Chicago Bears: Contemporary

Former Bears head coach John Fox was about as old school as it gets. It proved to be a downright failure in the Windy City, with Fox boasting a 14-34 record in three years as head coach. Add in a listless offensive scheme under coordinator Dowell Loggains, and this was magnified further. Fortunately for fans in Chicago, this team now has an innovative and contemporary offensive mind in head coach Matt Nagy. It also boasts a talented young signal caller, two stud running backs and a vastly improved wide receiver group. Things are certainly looking up here.

Cincinnati Bengals: Duped

There’s no other way to put it: Marvin Lewis has duped the Bengals’ brass into thinking that a veteran head coach can change his ways after 16 years at the helm. Last season saw Lewis lose his team and locker room in every possible way. It led to reports that he was going to resign. So when the embattled head coach signed an extension, it threw everyone for a loop. Can he now suddenly change his stripes? No. That’s not happening. Instead, the Bengals will continue to be a shell of what they could have been with another head coach calling the shots. They’ll now head into the 2018 season with nothing but the stench of postseason failure on their breath. Fun times.

Cleveland Browns: Buoyant

For the first time in a long while, fans of the mistake by the lake have reason for optimism. That doesn’t reside in the hope that Hue Jackson can turn things around after a 1-31 start as the team’s head coach. Rather, it’s all about a quarterback room that’s the best this organization has had since it re-entered the league. That includes reigning Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and former Pro Bowler Tyrod Taylor. In addition to this, Cleveland boasts a studly young skill-position group. Even if it isn’t Jackson who is able to turn it around, offensive coordinator Todd Haley might lead to an optimistic feeling around Cleveland should he eventually replace Jackson.

Dallas Cowboys: Dependent

Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys Philadelphia Eagles

In the six games Ezekiel Elliott missed to suspension last season, the Cowboys averaged 18.5 points per outing. For his part, Dak Prescott threw five touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. Dallas averaged 24.3 points in games Elliott suited up in. Even more telling, Dak Prescott has accounted for 52 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the games he’s played with Elliott throughout his career. There’s not one team in the NFL more dependent on a non-quarterback than the Cowboys are dependent on Zeke. It’s that simple.

Denver Broncos: Defense

Having Case Keenum under center is an upgrade over what we saw the past two seasons. Rookie Royce Freeman might jump start a flailing rushing attack. But let’s be real here. Denver’s success is going to be defined by how well its defense performs. That starts with former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller and rookie top-five pick Bradley Chubb rushing the passer. They could be complete nightmares for opposing AFC West offenses this coming season. How they dominate will tell us whether Denver is able to compete in the division.

Detroit Lions: Humdrum

The hiring of Matt Patricia to replace Jim Caldwell as head coach wasn’t necessarily sexy. Some figured Detroit might want to add an offensive mind to the mix as Matthew Stafford continues into his prime. Instead, Patricia takes over a team with a defense that’s questionable, at best. On offense, Stafford has some help with free agent acquisition LeGarrette Blount and rookie second-round pick Kerryon Johnson at running back. Even then, it’s hard to imagine this team competing with top-end Super Bowl contenders Minnesota and Green Bay in the Black and Blue division. Hence, humdrum.

Green Bay Packers: Paradigm

Under new general manager Brian Gutekunst, Green Bay changed its MO from the Ted Thompson years. Instead of ignoring free agency, we saw a paradigm shift in that the Packers went out there and signed former Pro Bowlers Jimmy Graham and Mo Wilkerson. Then, in the draft, they changed philosophy and added a smallish corner in Jaire Alexander in the first round. Thompson drafting any defensive back under 6-feet was a no go. Whether this will help the Packers compete with an elite-level Minnesota team in 2018 remains to be seen. But at the very least, Gutekunst brought this organization to the modern times.

Houston Texans: Flashy

This isn’t necessarily the term we’ve used in the past to describe a Texans team that has relied a great deal on its defense. Having Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt on that side of the ball will place a lot of emphasis on the defense. But now, things have changed big time. Flush with a talented young quarterback in Deshaun Watson and one of the game’s most hyped receivers, DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s offense is going to be flashy this season. How so? Houston averaged 34.7 points in the six games Watson started as a rookie last season. Hopkins? He caught 38 passes for 551 yards and six touchdowns during that span.

Indianapolis Colts: Captain

The captain is back, and fans in Indianapolis couldn’t be more excited. It was great seeing Andrew Luck back on the field in the Colts’ preseason opener for the first time since Week 17 of the 2016 season. It was also great seeing him perform well on the road against Seattle. From a team-wide perspective, Luck is what makes the Colts tick. The former No. 1 pick started all 16 games in each of his first three NFL seasons, boasting a 33-15 record in the process. Since then, Luck has seen action in 22 games. The end result? A combined 20-28 record. You do the math.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Brash

Cocky. Arrogant. Bumptious. There’s a lot of terms we could use to describe this up-and-coming Super Bowl contender. Starting with the boisterous Jalen Ramsey and his antics, Jacksonville’s defense is made up with players who just don’t care. That extends to fellow corner A.J. Bouye as well as a front seven that’s headed by veterans Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson. Heck, there’s been talk of the Jaguars going undefeated this season. Said talk is limited to the Jacksonville locker room, leading to an even more brash personality from the squad. It’s not a bad thing. Jaguars fans have suffered for far too long. Not only do they now have a legit Super Bowl contender on their hands, said team is full of personality.

Kansas City Chiefs: Transition 

Kansas City figured it made sense to move on from the veterans that had defined its most recent success. That included replacing Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith with a young gunslinger in that of second-year signal caller Patrick Mahomes. On defense, the Chiefs parted ways with mainstays such as Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. Those were moves that needed to be made. But they also suggest that these Chiefs might in fact be overrated. Mahomes struggled during camp. There’s a depth issue in the secondary after trading Marcus Peters and with Eric Berry injured. While talented, expectations of a Lombardi in Arrowhead need to be muted some. This season should be one of transition for the Chiefs.

Los Angeles Chargers: Underestimated

Philip Rivers, MVP candidate?

Season-ending injuries to Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett will certainly hurt the Chargers moving forward. Both were expected to play big roles for the squad moving forward. Even then, these Chargers are being underestimated on a grand scale heading into the 2018 season. Los Angeles finished last season by winning nine of its final 12 games. Of the three losses, two came by a combined 11 points. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers led the Chargers to an average of 25 points in the final two months of the season. That same span saw him throw 22 touchdowns compared to six interceptions. This team is legitimately a dark horse Super Bowl contender. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Los Angeles Rams: Aspirant

Super Bowl chatter last season might have been a bit overblown. Sure the Rams won their division with a surprising 11-5 record. But they didn’t seem quite ready for prime time in the playoffs. That should change with Jared Goff and Todd Gurley having a season with Sean McVay under their belt. Equally as important, Los Angeles upgraded at wide receiver by replacing an erratic Sammy Watkins with Brandin Cooks. Defensively, coordinator Wade Phillips now has defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters to work with. So while last year was a nice little start, expectations this season include the Lombardi. It’s in this that aspirant is the word that best describes these Rams.

Miami Dolphins: Bland

Is anyone really going head over heels showing interest in an offense that includes Ryan Tannehill, Frank Gore, Kenny Stills and Danny Amendola? Not really. Sure Gore has been an ageless wonder. It’s also nice seeing him return to his Miami roots. But that’s not going to be enough to overcome what is a bland team in a community that has proven to be anything but bland. It should also lead to a second consecutive season without the Dolphins playing playoff football. That’s the harsh reality of the situation.

Minnesota Vikings: Legitimate

Even before upgrading at quarterback with Kirk Cousins, these Vikings were legitimate Super Bowl contenders last season. They finished with a conference-best 13 wins, ranking in the top 10 in points scored and No. 1 overall in points allowed. Now that Cousins is under center and second-year back Dalvin Cook has returned from an ACL injury, this is magnified further. Add in the elite receiving duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and the Vikes’ offense will be elite. Let’s not even mention a defense, headed by Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, that will be the best in the game this coming season. It’s Super Bowl or bust in Minneapolis.

New England Patriots: Ostentatious

Only the Patriots could move on from six starters and still be considered top-end Super Bowl contenders. Losing both starting tackles, their starting running back and a staple in the secondary, New England seems to think that its decal will lead the team to a title once more. Oh, and the presence of Tom Brady doesn’t hurt here. While some would conclude it’s foolish for the Patriots to have such high regard for themselves, who are we to question this organization after 20 years of domination? Call them pretentious. Call them ego-maniacal. That’s fine. The Pats will continue to do what the Pats do. They only thing that would ruin this is seeing Jimmy Garoppolo hoist the Lombardi against New England in February.

New Orleans Saints: Promising

The Saints have had a plethora of success under quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton over the past 13 years. That includes six playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much been a one-trick pony for this squad. Reliant on Brees and the offense, New Orleans hasn’t been seen as a top contender in recent years. That’s now changed on a dime. Due to a combination of good drafting and under-the-radar free agent signings, the Saints boast one of the NFL’s most-promising defenses. That includes defensive end Cameron Jordan, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and a safety in Marcus Williams who Brees himself has compared to one of the best to ever play. It’s in this that, the Saints promise to be serious title contenders in 2018.

New York Giants: Renovate

A lot has been made of Eli Manning’s struggles in recent years. Heck, he was benched in favor of Geno Smith last season. But the Giants’ issues on offense have stemmed more from a lack of balance. New York has not had a 1,000-yard running back since Ahmad Bradshaw back in 2012. That will change big time this season after the Giants made Saquon Barkley the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. He’s already flashed big time in the preseason and is a generational type player. The renovation here is obvious. Eli is no longer the focal point on offense. One could even conclude that the offense will run more through Barkley than receiver Odell Beckham Jr. And in reality, it could lead to a surprise performance from the team in 2018.

New York Jets: Inexperienced

If, in fact, Sam Darnold earns the starting job Week 1, the Jets will field an extremely inexperienced but talented team. Darnold himself started for less than two full seasons with USC. At 21, he’s as green as they come. It’s going to lead to ups and downs for the Jets this season. Even if Darnold doesn’t earn the No. 1 job, this is still an inexperienced squad. That’s primarily due to the face of the defense, safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, entering their second seasons. Expectations might not be high in Jersey, but this is going to be an extremely fun team to watch. That’s something we haven’t been able to say for the past decade or so.

Oakland Raiders: Classical

This isn’t necessarily a good thing. When we think classical, we look at some of the greatest movies ever released or songs ever produced. But in this case, Jon Gruden is going old school in an era when the modern complexities of the game might very well lead to some major struggles. He’s shown players 70s era John Madden Raiders tape. He’s set to go with archaic offensive sets that include a fullback and two tight ends. He’s put his own spin on the Raiders’ roster in his first season, having jettisoned one of the game’s best punters from the roster and still in the midst of a stalemate with former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. The Raiders have a classical feel to them. A turn back the clock theme. Whether it works remains to be seen.

Philadelphia Eagles: Reiteration

Not only do the Eagles return pretty much their entire core from last season, they’ve gotten even better. That includes upgrading at wide receiver with Mike Wallace and defensive end with Pro Bowler Michael Bennett. In an era when Super Bowl teams see their rosters gutted, the Eagles have been able to at least maintain the status quo following their first ever championship. With Carson Wentz returning to injury and reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles slated to back him up, there’s no reason to believe these Eagles won’t be top-end contenders once again in 2018. Last year was in no way a fluke. That’s for sure.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Adept

One thing has become clear thus far this summer: Pittsburgh has a way with finding skill-position players in the draft. With Le’Veon Bell holding out of camp, second-year back James Conner has flashed big time. In fact, he’s now seen as the future at that position should Bell leave in free agency. Fellow second-year player JuJu Smith-Schuster might very well be on the verge of an All-Pro caliber performance. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh added former Oklahoma State battery mates, quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, in the 2018 NFL Draft. Both have flashed during the preseason. If nothing else, the Steelers have a plan for the future once Ben Roethlisberger hangs them up.

San Francisco 49ers: Expectations

For a team that started last season with a 1-10 record, these 49ers are certainly the talk of the town. It starts with franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who received a huge extension after leading San Francisco to a 5-0 record following an October trade from New England. The presence of head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch have also played into what are seemingly unrealistic expectations. San Francisco is among the most talented young teams in the NFL. It will assuredly compete for a playoff spot. But to mention this team as a potential dark horse Super Bowl contender is all sorts of ridiculous. It’s in this that we’re going to be intrigued to see how Garoppolo and Co. handle said expectations.

Seattle Seahawks: Deteriorate

There’s a darn good chance that Pete Carroll’s squad will be closer to the NFC West cellar than first place once the 2018 season comes to a culmination. Moving on from stalwart defenders such as Michel Bennett, Sheldon Richardson and Richard Sherman isn’t going to help here. Seeing Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor retire prematurely to injury doesn’t help. Earl Thomas being a holdout is almost a death knell. Meanwhile, rookie first-round pick Rashaad Penny suffered an injury and might miss the start of the regular season. For an offense that saw Russell Wilson lead the team in rushing last season, that’s disastrous. Oh, and let’s not even get into Seattle boasting one of the league’s worst offensive line. This season will be one of deterioration in the Pacific Northwest.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Distressed

Having selected James Winston No. 1 overall back in 2015, the Buccaneers couldn’t have envisioned how things would turn out three years later. Suspended for the first three games of the season following alarming off-field accusations, it’s an open question whether Winston is the future at quarterback in Tampa Bay. On the field, he’s failed to take the next step from inexperienced signal caller to being that franchise guy. All the while, the Buccaneers themselves continue to cellar dwell in the NFC South. Distressed would certainly be the operative word in Tampa Bay these days.

Tennessee Titans: Pressure

Geno Atkins sacks Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota. He’s the one facing the pressure in Nashville right now. Despite seeing his Titans earn a surprise playoff appearance last season, the former Heisman winner regressed in a big way. Among regular starting quarterbacks, Mariota was a bottom end performer. He recorded just 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. That’s not going to cut it. Now that the Titans have invested cash and draft capital on offense, Mariota needs to step up big time in 2018. He has no excuses. The running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis is elite. Corey Davis is looking to take that next step. Meanwhile, Delanie Walker is among the best tight ends in the game and the Titans boast a top-five offensive line. The time is now. The pressure is on. How will Super Mario respond?

Washington Redskins: Dull

Replacing Kirk Cousins with Alex Smith seems to be a wash. The excitement that came with selecting running back Derrius Guice in the second round of April’s draft has given in to the reality that he’ll miss his entire rookie season to injury. At wide receiver, the Redskins have nothing of real substance for Smith to rely on. Defensively, Josh Norman is a shell of his former self and the Skins’ two young defensive lineman continue to be riddled with injury. Add in a head coach in Jay Gruden who is on the hot seat, and this year’s version of the Redskins promises to be as dull as any in the league.