One of the best parts of the NFL season is how unpredictable it is.
Aside from the New England Patriots, who you can pretty much pencil in for the second weekend of the playoffs, the rest of the field in both conferences can go in various directions.
Similarly with the individual awards, the competition to be one of the standout players will be stiff, especially if most of the big names can stay healthy.
We won’t know how any of this plays out until months from now, but in the meantime, let’s gaze into our crystal ball and relay what we see.
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
The NFC will be a bloodbath in the playoffs and a number of teams could come out of the conference, but the Saints are arguably the most balanced and well-rounded team in the league.
SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS
New Orleans Saints
Their improved defence will be just good enough to hold off Brady while the offence has its way in a shootout.
If he stays on the field, he’s a lock to put up gaudy numbers in terms of both volume and efficiency.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
As of writing, Bell has yet to report to the Steelers, but it’s hard to imagine him missing out on game cheques. And when he does get on the field, the Steelers will feed him early and often with a massive workload in his final year with the team.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Somewhat surprisingly, the Broncos edge rusher has never picked up the award, despite having multiple stellar seasons. That will change this year as there will be fewer double teams to deal with now that Bradley Chubb is part of the defence.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
He was drafted second overall for a reason as the Giants plan to use him extensively as a runner and receiver to help take the pressure off Eli Manning.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
A playmaker in the Chargers secondary, James will be vital to the success of San Diego’s defence as someone who can wreak havoc and create turnovers.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
He looked like himself in his final preseason outing and with the talent he possesses, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Luck push the Colts into the playoff picture.
COACH OF THE YEAR
With the Chargers winning the AFC West and earning a bye one year after missing the playoffs, Lynn will be rightfully rewarded.
It’s been 13 years since anyone has repeated as Super Bowl champions, but the Philadelphia Eagles are uniquely positioned to change that this season.
After lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February to cap off an improbable run with a back-up quarterback, the Eagles begin their title defence with a significantly stronger squad than the one that brought the franchise its first banner.
In Carson Wentz alone, Philadelphia will get back their starting quarterback and face of the team, as well as someone who was an MVP candidate before going down with an ACL tear in the middle of last season.
Nick Foles was unassailable in the postseason, but Wentz – who will be inactive for Week 1 – protects the Eagles from having to find out if their Super Bowl hero will turn back into a pumpkin when he returns to the field.
Philadelphia also welcome back nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, linebacker Jordan Hicks and running back Darren Sproles – all of whom were sidelined by injuries in the playoffs.
As if getting healthy wasn’t enough, the Eagles went out in the offseason and added two stalwarts on the defensive line with the additions of veterans Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata.
Arguably the most talented roster in the league last season has only gotten deeper, affording Philadelphia with all the ammo they need to break the drought of repeat champions.
In a loaded NFC, however, the Eagles will be tasked with going through a field that is as dangerous as any in recent memory.
Up north, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are more than equipped to knock Philadelphia off their throne.
After upgrading from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins at quarterback, getting running back Dalvin Cook back from an ACL tear, and retaining, by the numbers, the best defence in the league from a season ago, the Vikings are primed to avenge their NFC Championship loss.
The ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ – which saw the Vikings pull off a legendary last-second win over New Orleans in Divisional Round – wrote a new, memorable chapter in the team’s history, but the franchise is still searching for its first Super Bowl in its 58 years of existence.
In Green Bay’s case… well, they get Aaron Rodgers back from a broken collarbone, and when the best quarterback in the game is upright, he’s a one-man wrecking crew capable of putting the Packers on his back.
The last four seasons in which Rodgers has been on the field for all 16 regular season games, Green Bay have reached at least the Divisional Round each time.
In ‘The Big Easy’, there’s nothing laissez-faire about the Saints’ intentions this season as they aim to erase the bad taste left in their mouths from the aforementioned debacle against Minnesota.
Drew Brees, much like Tom Brady in New England, continues to churn out his usual production in his relatively old age (39), but flanked by a pair of stud running backs in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and supported by a defence on the rise, the quarterback no longer has to shoulder the entire load.
Though all of the NFC’s contenders will deal with great expectations, arguably no team in NFL is under more pressure this season than the Los Angeles Rams.
A redux of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles ‘dream team’, the Rams are under the microscope after adding several big-name players to a squad that won 11 games and the NFC West in head coach Sean McVay’s first year.
Joining reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on the defensive line is Ndamukong Suh, while newcomers Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters form a ball-hawking cornerback duo in a secondary also featuring free safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Considering the money and contracts Los Angeles have on their books, their title window with this current roster may not be more than two years, which ups the urgency to win now.
The Seattle Seahawks may not be as much of a threat now that their defence looks unrecognisable, but the San Francisco 49ers could make the Rams earn another NFC West crown thanks to the pairing of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan.
Garoppolo has yet to lose as a starting quarterback as he holds a flawless 7-0 mark, which includes the five consecutive victories he led the 49ers to at the end of last season.
Elsewhere in the conference, the Atlanta Falcons will attempt to get back to the Super Bowl after taking a step back last year, while the New York Giants are banking on Eli Manning having something left in the tank and the Chicago Bears look to play dark horse under first year head coach Matt Nagy.
Arguably the best division in football this season, the NFC North is stacked with teams that are, at best, Super Bowl contenders, and at worst, capable of making the playoffs.
Learn more about the teams with our NFC North team guides.
Head coach: Matt Nagy
Star player: Khalil Mack
Last season: 5-11
Key ins: Khalil Mack (Oakland), Trey Burton (Philadelphia), Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta), Allen Robinson (Jacksonville), Roquan Smith (rookie), James Daniels (rookie), Anthony Miller (rookie)
Key outs: Josh Sitton (Miami), Pernell McPhee (Washington), Cameron Meredith (New Orleans)
Strengths: Trade for Mack makes their front seven even more formidable.
Weaknesses: Offence has the potential to thrive, but has several question marks, including Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.
Verdict: They’ve upped the urgency to win now and have the talent to vie for a playoff spot.
Head coach: Matt Patricia
Star player: Matthew Stafford
Last season: 9-7
Key ins: LeGarrette Blount (Philadelphia), Eli Harold (San Francisco), Kerryon Johnson (rookie), Frank Ragnow (rookie)
Key outs: Eric Ebron (Indianapolis), D.J. Hayden (Jacksonville), Haloti Ngata (Philadelphia), Dwight Freeney (retired)
Strengths: Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were the only receiver duo in the league last season to both top 1,000 yards.
Weaknesses: Ranked dead last in rushing last year, although they’ve addressed that by bringing in Blount and Johnson.
Verdict: Even though they’re better on paper than last year, they’ll struggle to come out of one of the toughest divisions.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Head coach: Mike McCarthy
Star player: Aaron Rodgers
Last season: 7-9
Key ins: Jimmy Graham (Seattle), Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets), Tramon Williams (Arizona), DeShone Kizer (Cleveland), Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville), Jaire Alexander (rookie), Josh Jackson (rookie)
Key outs: Jordy Nelson (Oakland), Damarious Randall (Cleveland), Morgan Burnett (Pittsburgh)
Strengths: Have the best quarterback in the league, who is fully healthy and back on the field.
Weaknesses: Surrendered the second-highest passer rating to quarterbacks last year (102.0).
Verdict: Always a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers, but need to hit on the changes they’ve made.
Head coach: Mike Zimmer
Star player: Harrison Smith
Last season: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship
Key ins: Kirk Cousins (Washington), Sheldon Richardson (Seattle), George Iloka (Cincinnati), Mike Hughes (rookie), Brian O’Neill (rookie)
Key outs: Sam Bradford (Arizona), Teddy Bridgewater (New Orleans), Tramaine Brock (Denver), Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco), Case Keenum (Denver), Joe Berger (retired)
Strengths: Defence allowed the fewest yards (275.9) and points (15.8) in the league last year.
Weaknesses: Banged up offensive line is the biggest area of concern.
Verdict: Oozing with talent as legit Super Bowl challengers.