Now that breakout players and award winners are out of the way let’s move on.
Division Winners: Some divisions will be competitive, and others… not so much.
AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots)
Yes, Tom Brady will miss the first four games of the season, but that won’t matter, as the Patriots will capture their eighth consecutive AFC East title and their twelfth in the last thirteen years. Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will not be Tom Brady, but he will be fine, as this division is still New England’s to lose.
Winner: New England Patriots
AFC North (Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Steelers)
It’s been the most competitive division in the AFC for a while now, as the Bengals, Steelers, and with the exception of last year, the Ravens, have all been premier football teams. Baltimore’s season was a fluke; injuries just overtook the team. Now healthy and improved, the Ravens will be competitive again, but they won’t win the division. In fact, they won’t even finish in the top two.
In another close finish between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, it will be the Steelers who take the AFC North this year. The Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown tandem will be unstoppable for a third straight year in 2016, and Le’Veon Bell will return from his suspension as the Le’Veon Bell that we’re accustomed to seeing. In addition to a juggernaut offense, Pittsburgh’s young defense will take a step forward this season, making the team a real force to be reckoned with.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC West (Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders)
Like the AFC North, the West will be competitive as well. The Raiders are on the rise, but despite Oakland’s potential, this division will again be a race between the Chiefs and Broncos. In a tight race between the two teams, it will be the Broncos who prevail.
Their quarterback situation has been an absolute mess this preseason: Paxton Lynch is not ready yet, and Mark Sanchez was a failed experiment. This left head coach Gary Kubiak with only one feasible option, Trevor Siemian. The second-year man from Northwestern may not be the next Tom Brady (or anything remotely close), but he won’t need to be. Last year, the Broncos were plagued with mediocre quarterback plays from a 40-year-old Peyton Manning and a 25-year-old Brock Osweiler, and still won the Super Bowl. The victory can be attributed solely to the team’s terrific defense; it’s the same defense (minus Malik Jackson) that will be back this season hungry to defend their title
Winner: Denver Broncos
AFC South (Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Titans)
This division is quite intriguing. Andrew Luck was injured for most of last season, which allowed the Texans to squeak by Indianapolis and end the Colts’ three-year reign as division champions. Although it will come down to Houston and Indianapolis again, things will be different this time around.
This is the Colts’ division; actually no, it’s Andrew Luck’s division. He might not have a terrific supporting cast, but that doesn’t matter: if Luck is healthy, Indianapolis will win; it’s that simple.
Although the Colts and Texans typically make the most noise out of the South, the Jaguars are certainly a team to watch out for as well. While the Jags continue to build for the future, the team’s young talent should still turn some heads this season.
As for the Titans, the team has a long way to go, but their young quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is worth watching.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Redskins)
Washington was handed the division last year: the Giants blew late-game leads, Philadelphia simply underachieved, and Dallas was stricken by injuries as well as inconsistent running back production. This year will be very different, as the Cowboys will bounce back from last season and take the division easily.
Dez Bryant is healthy, and although Tony Romo is hurt, backup Dak Prescott was terrific in the preseason. While many might not be sold on Dak, I believe he will do a good enough job until Romo returns. Ezekiel Elliot was drafted, giving the team a workhorse they so desperately needed. When all is said and done, the AFC East belongs to Dallas this year.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings)
Minnesota caught fire and ran with it, as they snatched the division away from Green Bay last season. Recently losing Teddy Bridgewater to a torn ACL and replacing him with Sam Bradford is merely swapping one average quarterback for another. That just won’t cut it against Aaron Rodgers, who now has Jordy Nelson back. The underwhelming Detroit Lions just lost their best player in Calvin Johnson, and the Chicago Bears are average at best.
The Packers Packers will take this division… what a difference a Jordy Nelson makes.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
NFC West (Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers)
The crown went to the boys out in the desert last year, but Arizona is not destined to repeat. They’re good, but fresh off of marrying Ciara in the offseason, Russell Wilson will put together his best season yet, and the Seattle Seahawks will reclaim their position as the division’s top dogs.
The 49ers still have a ways to go, but the Los Angeles Rams are on the rise; watch out for them in the near future, as the NFC West may soon reclaim its reputation as the league’s most competitive division.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
NFC South (Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Saints)
This isn’t a tough one. New Orleans has a solid offense but not much of a defense. Other than Julio Jones, Atlanta is pretty much a middle-of-the-road football team. Tampa is led by promising young quarterback in Jameis Winston but is still not there yet. I guess that just leaves Carolina, the reigning conference champions, as the only ones left.
This is Carolina’s division. MVP Cam Newton is a stud, and they’re getting their number one receiver back in Kelvin Benjamin. Despite losing Josh Norman, the Panthers’ defense is still dirty and has the talent to shut down anyone. Carolina will win the division and again be legitimate contenders.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl LI (February 5, 2017; NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas)
In a rematch of Super Bowl XLV, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers come in having fended off the New England Patriots in an overtime thriller. On the other side, the Packers will have just beaten Cam Newton’s Panthers by ten at a brutally cold Lambeau Field.
Both offenses begin the game stagnant, as the first quarter ends with no score. Soon enough, however, Green Bay gets on the board with a Mason Crosby field goal just four minutes into the second quarter; but Pittsburgh would answer the call.
Big Ben leads the Steelers 75 yards down the field, capping off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to his favorite target, Antonio Brown.
Now down 7-3 with just over five minutes left in the first half, Rodgers gets the ball back and wastes no time at all. He leads the Packers on a long drive of their own, ending with an Eddie Lacey 2-yard touchdown run.
Pittsburgh gets the ball back with 47 seconds left in the half, but Roethlisberger proceeds to take two knees and go into halftime down 10-7.
Defense is the story of the first half, as Aaron Rodgers is sacked three times and Ben Roethlisberger twice, however, no turnovers are committed on either side.
After a marvelous halftime show highlighted by Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks, Pittsburgh starts the second half with the ball. Roethlisberger leads his team on another drive down the field, ending with a 12-yard touchdown toss to backup tight end, Matt Spaeth. After the touchdown, the Steelers go for two, as they do more than any other team, and convert, going up 15-10.
In need of a response, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers pick up two first downs on the ensuing drive before Rodgers misfires on a pass intended for Randall Cobb. His pass is intercepted by Steelers safety, Shamarko Thomas, and returned to the Packers’ side of the field.
The Packers defense comes through, however, limiting the damage to a field goal. Now down 18-10, Rodgers returns to the field. On Green Bay’s next drive, Rodgers converts on three separate third downs, and eventually finds Jordy Nelson in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. In an effort to tie the game, Green Bay goes for two but are denied by a Lawrence Timmons pass deflection.
Now only up two, Roethlisberger comes back onto the field with less than five minutes left in the third quarter. After one first down on the drive, Pittsburgh is forced to punt the ball away.
Starting at their own 12-yardline, Aaron Rodgers takes the Packers down to the Steelers’ 28-yardline; a 60-yard drive ending in a made field goal as the first play in the fourth quarter. The Packers now lead 19-18.
After a touchback, Pittsburgh puts together a wonderful drive highlighted by a 23-yard run from Le’Veon Bell. While the drive stalls, Pittsburgh is forced to settle for a field goal, but still reclaim the lead.
With over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and the ball back in Rodgers’ hands, the Packers fail to answer Pittsburgh’s field goal, as they go three and out.
The 47-yard Tim Masthay punt is fielded by Antonio Brown at the Pittsburgh 26-yardline and brought back for a stellar, 42-yard return. This gives the Steelers incredible field position, starting at Green Bay’s 32-yardline.
On the fourth play of the drive, Pittsburgh has the ball on Green Bay’s 15-yardline when Roethlisberger’s pass is INTERCEPTED by Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 2-yardline and returned for six yards.
Now with less than five minutes to go, Aaron Rodgers has a chance at redemption, as he starts the ensuing possession on his own 8-yardline. He leads Green Bay into Pittsburgh territory quickly, ending with Rodgers scrambling for a 7-yard score with 1:21 left in the game. Packers now lead 26-21.
Ben Roethlisberger comes back onto the field, understanding that this is most likely his last drive of the game. He’s got 75-yards to go with two timeouts.
Running a hurry-up offense, Roethlisberger eventually finds Antonio Brown at the Green Bay 33 for a first down, with 19 seconds left and only one timeout remaining. On first down, Roethlisberger checks down to Ladarius Green, gaining seven yards, and the Steelers use their last timeout. Now with 10 seconds left and the ball at the 26, Roethlisberger throws one towards the sideline intended for Antonio Brown, but it’s broken up.
Still on the Packers’ 26 with just 3 seconds left, it’s Pittsburgh’s last chance. As Green Bay plays a prevent defense, Roethlisberger takes the snap out of the shotgun, rolls to his left, and fires up a ball into the end zone. His pass is batted down by a swarm of Green Bay defenders, and the game is over.
For the fifth time in their history, the Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl champions, and Aaron Rodgers hoists the Pete Rozelle Trophy as the game’s MVP. Congratulations Green Bay.
Winner: Green Bay Packers 26, Pittsburgh Steelers 21