It has started. The Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens are underway at their respective training camps and now fans and the media can stop making blind predictions and start making educated guesses on what teams could really do. The two teams will meet in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio on August 2nd, which will give us the first look at Bears’ QB Mitchell Trubisky in new head coach Matt Nagy’s system. And if we’re lucky, we may get to see Ravens’ rookie QB Lamar Jackson operate in the NFL. The other 30 NFL teams are set to start training camp in just a matter of days, and there will be more predictions than ever in the time between now and the start of the regular season, so it is never too early to make way-too-early predictions. In this article, I will be making way-too-early predictions what the NFC Playoff Picture will look like and how it will unfold.
1 Seed– Los Angeles Rams- Record: 13-3
It was a very tough decision to decide between the Rams and the Vikings because I went through each game and predicted the final records for each of them and had the exact same record for each of these two teams. The Rams and Vikings meet each other in Los Angeles in Week 4, and I had the Rams coming out on top. The Rams have a better offense and their defense should be almost as good as Minnesota’s. U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis is, in my opinion, the most difficult place to play in the NFL, but the Rams get the edge because they are at home. The Rms finish 0.5 games ahead of the Vikings.
2 Seed– Minnesota Vikings- Record: 13-3
I’ve been proclaiming to everyone around me lately that I’ve been picking one of these two teams to come out of the NFC, so I thought it made a lot of sense to pick these two teams as the top two in the conference. The Vikes went 13-3 last season and did nothing but improve. Their biggest loss of the off-season was offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was hired to be the next head coach of the New York Giants. The Vikings replaced Shurmur with Eagles’ QB Coach John DeFilippo, who was very close to landing the Chicago Bears’ head coaching job. Eagles’ QB Carson Wentz’s breakout season was mostly credited to the amazing work of DeFilippo, and I’m sure he was very responsible for the success of Eagles’ backup QB and Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles. The Vikings upgraded at QB, replacing Case Keenum/Sam Bradford with Kirk Cousins. If DeFilippo can recreate some of that success he had in Philly, Cousins could become one of the league’s top passers in 2018 and beyond. I am a little concerned about his play calling abilities, but who knows? Maybe he’ll be good at that. The Vikings are great at every position, except offensive line, which isn’t even really bad.
3 Seed– Atlanta Falcons- Record: 12-4
The Falcons had an eventful off-season. The Falcons did lose some key players like WR Taylor Gabriel (signed with Chicago), DT Adrian Clayborn (signed with New England), and DL Dontari Poe (signed with Carolina). They did improve themselves in some areas, though. They replaced Gabriel with first round draft pick Calvin Ridley from Alabama, they improved their offensive line by signing G Brandon Fusco, they re-signed K Matt Bryant and improved their secondary by drafting Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver 58th overall. The Falcons also made some other notable moves, but I want to keep this short. In 2016, the Falcons were led by their strong offense, thanks to an MVP season from QB Matt Ryan and a great system from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, son of legendary Broncos’ coach Mike Shanahan. Shanahan left Atlanta to become the 49ers’ head coach after the Falcons’ Super Bowl 51 meltdown vs. the New England Patriots. Steve Sarkisian replaced Shanahan at OC, but saw some inconsistencies in 2017. Another off-season with Sark’s scheme should give this offense a major boost, and Dan Quinn should keep the defense at about the level that it was last year.
4 Seed– Philadelphia Eagles- Record: 11-5
I know there are going to be some angry fans out there because the reigning Super Bowl champions are only the 4 seed. I do think the Eagles will take a step back this season. Many people remember the success the Eagles had last year, but do you remember the success of the rest of NFC East? No, you don’t. That’s because there WAS no success. The Giants were miserable, the Redskins were decimated by injuries, and the Cowboys were without their top playmaker, Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, the Eagles are great, but they lost their offensive coordinator AND their QB coach. That has to mean they’ll regress just a little bit. Add on the fact that all three other teams should be a lot better, and they may not even win the division (but I expect them to win).
5 Seed– New Orleans Saints- Record: 11-5
I juggled back and forth between the Saints and Falcons in terms of who would win the NFC South. I took into consideration many factors, but the two biggest ones were the Mark Ingram suspension and how much the Falcons offense could improve with another full off-season under Steve Sarkisian’s scheme. Ingram will miss the first four games of the season, those games are: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Cleveland, @ Atlanta and @ New York Giants. For the first two games, the Saints should be completely fine. It does concern me @ Atlanta and @ NYG because those two teams will be very tough at worst in 2018. Another year under under Sark’s instruction should get the Falcons offense going; add that offense to that defense, and that is one special team right there. You know that saying? “Never ignore the wildcard.” The NFC is stacked and all of the wildcards will be good. Sean Payton is one of the NFL’s top coaches and Drew Brees is the second best QB in the NFL in my opinion. The Saints aren’t weak in any position, they are a contender to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
6 Seed– Chicago Bears- Record: 11-5
Oh, I know. Go ahead, call me bias. “You don’t know anything.” “We know a lot more than you.” I live for that. I truly believe that this team is capable of making the playoffs. Andy Reid called Matt Nagy the best assistant he’s ever had, which is high praise for Nagy, who is part of a great Andy Reid coaching tree. The Bears have a great young core at every position except EDGE. Leonard Floyd is a really good young EDGE rusher, but the rest is unproven. EDGE is literally the only weakness this team has. Many people are calling Mitchell Trubisky a “potato” or a “bust,” but he is ready to make all of those people sit down and shut up. Those are the people who just look at stats and don’t actually watch the games. Trubisky makes plays that bad quarterbacks don’t just make. The Bears are almost definitely the most improved team in the NFL, but have still been overlooked by the NFL fans and media. Instead, people see the Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl contenders just because they drafted cornerbacks in rounds one and two, signed aging TEs Mercedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham and signed DL Muhammad Wilkerson, who hasn’t been productive in a few years. The Bears are going to surprise a lot of people this year. Just wait and see.
Wild Card Round
Game 1: (6) Chicago Bears @ (3) Atlanta Falcons
I do believe that the Bears are a playoff team, however, I do not believe they are ready to beat a great Falcons team in Atlanta. The Bears will have blown everyone away by making the playoffs, and no one is going to call them “bad” or anything like that just because they lose. If we look at the 2017 LA Rams, they made the haters sit down and shut up just by winning 12 games, and no one really criticized them for losing to Atlanta in the 2018 wild card round. Final Score: Bears 23 @ Falcons 34
Game 2: (5) New Orleans Saints @ (4) Philadelphia Eagles
I’ve already heard people saying that the Eagles are “going to repeat” and win the championship this year. I disagree with that because they lost their quarterbacks coach and their offensive coordinator, as I mentioned earlier. We also don’t know if Carson Wentz will be able to get healthy and stay healthy. The talent is undoubtedly there, but he’s got to stay healthy. I think the Saints are going to come away with this one. Sean Payton is a top 3 coach in the NFL in my opinion, and Drew Brees is the second best quarterback in the NFL in my opinion. The Saints also have arguably the best running back tandem in the league with Ingram and 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. The Saints also finally solved their issues on defense and have an amazing young core on that side of the ball. Final Score: Saints 24 @ Eagles 23
Game 1: (5) New Orleans Saints @ (1) Los Angeles Rams
This one is already turning my hair gray. I absolutely love both of these teams as favorites to win it all. I think Drew Brees is hungry for one more run at a championship before he retires, and he is going to pull off a miracle and lead the Saints to a win here, similar to what Peyton Manning accomplished in his final NFL season. The Saints were robbed of an NFC Championship appearance in 2017 thanks to an awful choke by Saints rookie S Marcus Williams. Williams and the entire Saints defense will be more mature this season, along with some more pass rush help from 2018 first rounder Marcus Davenport out of UTEP. Rams’ head coach Sean McVay is definitely a top 5 coach in my opinion and the Rams have also taken steps to improve their defense by adding the likes of DT Ndamukong Suh and CBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. I still think the experience of Payton and the Saints will prevail against the youth of McVay and the Rams. Don’t get me wrong, this Rams team is incredible and I definitely see at least one Lombardi Trophy in the near future for them, but this will be a very special year for the Saints.
Game 2: (3) Atlanta Falcons @ (2) Minnesota Vikings
This will be another hell of a game. Each of these teams should have powerful offenses and powerful defenses. I am picking the Vikings to win this game, simply because they are at home. In my opinion, the Vikings are the best team in the entire league when they are at home. I’ve personally been in U.S. Bank Stadium; it is very very loud in there. As good as this Falcons team is, they are just no match for the Vikings in Minneapolis. Final Score: Falcons 17 @ Vikings 23
NFC Championship Game
(5) New Orleans Saints @ (1) Minnesota Vikings
Here it is. A rematch of last season’s divisional round where the famous “Minneapolis Miracle” occurred, which robbed the Saints of their shot at a championship. I said earlier that U.S. Bank Stadium was the hardest place to play in the entire NFL, and I still believe that. I just have a feeling that the Saints are going to barely come away with this one. The Saints remember the humiliation from a year ago, and desperately want to give the Vikings a taste of their own medicine. Last year’s divisional round was extremely close and I don’t think it will be much different. Final Score: Saints 26 @ Vikings 24
That is it for this article. The Saints are coming out of the NFC and await the AFC Champion, which will be determined in my next article. I will then conclude the series with my Super Bowl LIII predictions.