Predicting NFL’s 12 playoff teams for this season

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always fun to give off-season predictions when rosters are nowhere near set around the NFL. With training camps getting going later this month, that’s no longer the case.

Teams already know what their core groups are going to look like. In New England, that includes the legendary Tom Brady and some new toys on offense. Speaking of new toys, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has shiny weapons to work with.

Over in the NFC, both the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints look like powerhouses.

These are among the 12 teams we are predicting to make the playoffs around the NFL in 2019.

New England Patriots

Let’s start with the most obvious of the group. Until Tom Brady decides to retire and Bill Belichick rides off into the sunset, these Patriots are making the playoffs. They could have holes on both sides of the ball. Rob Gronkowski’s retirement might hurt. That’s all fine and dandy, but there’s more than enough talent here for New England to win yet another division title.

It starts on offense with second-year running back Sony Michel looking to take that next step. The likes of N’Keal Harry and Demaryius Thomas should help make up for Gronkowski’s retirement. On defense, New England yielded the seventh-fewest points in the NFL last season. That side of the ball is stable.

Cleveland Browns

After what we saw towards the latter part of last season and during the spring, predicting Cleveland to make the playoffs is not necessarily bold. Baker Mayfield is coming off an historic rookie season. He’s joined by fellow youngster Nick Chubb and the recently signed Kareem Hunt in the backfield. Though, it was the addition of all-everything wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. who could set this offense apart. He joins Jarvis Landry and David Njoku as elite receiving targets for Mayfield.

Whether the Browns make it as a mere wild card team or earn the AFC North title will depend on their defense. This side of the ball has been fortified some by the additions of defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon as well as draft steal, cornerback Greedy Williams.

Baltimore Ravens

It was surprising to see these Ravens earn a wild card spot after then-rookie Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco under center last season. It’s only going to get better from here. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has noted that he’s building the offensive from the ground up for Mr. Jackson. That’s only going to help the quarterback progress under center with the likes of Mark Ingram and potential stud rookie Marquise Brown acting as his running partners.

However, Baltimore’s ability to contend will depend more on its defense. That’s been the one constant under head coach John Harbaugh. It’s not going to change in 2019. Baltimore has simply been able to retool this side of the ball multiple times over the years. This offseason included adding future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas.

Houston Texans

The duo of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins will continue to make Houston a legit force in the AFC. They’re the primary reasons these Texans won 11 games en route to taking the AFC South last season. Watson was tremendous, putting up north of 4,700 total yards to go with 31 touchdowns and just nine interceptions as a sophomore.

There’s better news for Houston. The pairing of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt on defense will continue to wreak havoc. They’ll also help out newly acquired defensive backs Bradley Roby and Tashaun Gipson as well as stud young safety Justin Reid. These Texans are certainly going places.

Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes’ presence as the single best young quarterback in the NFL changed the entire dynamic in Kansas City last season. He put up awe-inspiring numbers en route to leading the Chiefs north of 35 points per game. This came despite Kareem Hunt’s off-field issues and eventual release from the team. With Tyreek Hill now cleared off his own off-field drama, the two will team up to form a dominant tandem next season.

The only question here is whether a revamped defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can improve. Kansas City released Justin Houston and traded Pro Bowler Dee Ford. The new scheme will rely heavily on stud defensive tackle Chris Jones after a breakout 2018 campaign. The Chiefs are also limited in the secondary. Despite this, their offense should be more than good enough to make up for it.

Los Angeles Chargers

General manager Tom Telesco continues to do some tremendous work for this team. That included reinforcements on defense with the signing of Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis and two stealth-like draft picks, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and safety Nasir Adderley. These were areas of major concern for Los Angeles.

Though, it pretty much starts and ends with future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers. He’s coming off a career-best 2018 performance and has a tremendous amount of talent to work with. This includes Keenan Allen and Mike Williams at receiver and an underrated running back in that of Melvin Gordon. Expect Los Angeles to compete with Kansas City for the AFC West title.

Philadelphia Eagles

Carson Wentz being back at 100 percent is only going to help these Eagles. Whether he can stay healthy for all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season back in 2016 remains to be seen. If that were to happen, Philadelphia could be a dark horse Super Bowl contender. All of the pieces are in place for this team to make a run.

After struggling with consistency on the ground last season, the Eagles got an absolute steal in a trade for former Pro Bowler Jordan Howard. They then doubled down at running back with an impressive Miles Sanders in April’s draft. Add in Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, and this offense is absolutely stacked. It will be good enough to dominate inferior NFC East competition.

Green Bay Packers

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has gone away from the previous MO of this organization, adding a ton of free-agent talent. That included stud young pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in March. Both represent a major upgrade on a defense that has struggled getting to the quarterback in recent seasons. Picking up former Michigan star Rashan Gary in the first round of April’s draft is also huge.

Offensively, it remains all about Aaron Rodgers. Though, the potential emergence of young running back Aaron Jones and young receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is only going to help the Super Bowl-winning quarterback. We’re expecting a major bounce-back season for Green Bay under first-year head coach and innovative offensive mind Matt LaFleur.

Minnesota Vikings

There has to be cautious optimism that Minnesota will rebound from an ugly 2018 campaign. This team is too talented to be mired in mediocrity. That’s why we’re boldly predicting that they make the playoffs over the defending NFC North champion Chicago Bears. Here’s why.

Kirk Cousins will be in his second season in Minnesota’s system. He’s joined by stud young running back Dalvin Cook and the game’s best wide receiver pairing, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. On defense, Minnesota boasts elite-level play makers at every tier. Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr can be dominant in the front seven. The hope is that cornerback Xavier Rhodes rebounds in the secondary next to Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith. There’s just too much talent to predict that Minnesota will miss the playoffs again.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans’ offense is going to be an absolute dynamo this coming season. Of course, it starts with Drew Brees at quarterback. But in no way does it end there. Running back Alvin Kamara will take on a larger role now that Mark Ingram is gone. He’s a dynamic two-way threat. Meanwhile, fourth-year receiver Michael Thomas is coming off the best three-year run to start a career for a pass-catcher in NFL history.

Though, what makes the Saints so dangerous is their underrated defense. Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are two tremendous book ends on the defensive line. Marshon Lattimore is among the best young corners in the NFL. Meanwhile, the combination of Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson can do work at safety. Forget the playoffs, this is a Super Bowl contender.

Carolina Panthers

First off, the return of Cam Newton to 100 percent looms large in Carolina. He’s a former NFL MVP for a reason. His presence is only going to make stud young running back Christian McCaffrey and others better on offense. General manager Marty Hurney also set out to address weaknesses on offense this past offseason, including re-signing starting right tackle Daryl Williams and signing stud center Matt Paradis.

Carolina’s ability to contend will depend heavily on a revamped defense. That includes the addition of All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to team up with Kawann Short and the hope that the Panthers’ young group of corners back take the next step. But things are looking up for this organization.

Los Angeles Rams

Based on improvements we’ve seen in Seattle and San Francisco this offseason, the Rams don’t necessarily head into the 2019 season as odds-on favorites in the NFC West. Despite this, we still expect them to win what might be a rather competitive division.

Can Jared Goff revert to earlier form after struggling through the final half of last season? Is Todd Gurley anywhere near healthy? These are major question marks. The good news? Los Angeles has the game’s most-innovative offensive mind in Sean McVay at head coach and elite-level skill-position players. Oh, and the presence of two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on that side of the ball doesn’t hurt.