I first began following football the during the 2009 season, which culminated with the New Orleans Saints upsetting the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, on an improbable pick-six by second-year slot cornerback Tracy Porter. A few weeks after than game, out of sheer curiosity, I looked up early predictions for the following Super Bowl, eager to see what sort of buzz was going around.
Clicking on a link entirely at random, I was taken to a sketchy-looking HTML page, complete with bold background colors and peppered with copious hyperlinks. To my surprise, that bizarre webpage–no doubt an early blog post–predicted the Green Bay Packers to be the next world champions of football, something that seemed improbable to me after their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round. A year later, though, that odd website’s prediction came to fruition, which got me thinking: was that simply luck, or is it really possible to predict the next champions a year prior?
Here is my attempt to gaze into the future and determine who will contend for, and ultimately win, Super Bowl LIII:
When talking about future Super Bowl contenders, it would be downright blasphemous to ignore the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. Although they hit somewhat of a rough patch towards the end of the season, scoring just 19 points over the final two weeks after All-Pro-caliber quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL, the Eagles regrouped tremendously behind backup Nick Foles. Although Foles doesn’t have the escapability or flashy deep ball that Wentz showed off early in the season, he did enough to lead Philly’s offense to 38- and 41-point performances in the NFL Championship Game and Super Bowl, respectively, against two top-tier defenses.
This serves as a testament to the both the inane depth of the Eagles’ roster and the masterhood of their coaching staff. On offense, there seemed to be one or more players for every possible role: wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to stretch the field vertically, tight ends Trey Burton and Zach Ertz to feast on short, in-breaking routes, RB Corey Clement to serve as a quickness mismatch out of the backfield, and fellow running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount to bring a violent, downhill running element.
A major reason, however, for why these players found themselves in roles conducive to success was the Eagles’ offensive coaching. Relying on rhythm throwing, hard play fakes, and option plays, the Eagles’ offense under second-year coaches Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, and John DeFilippo finished third in the NFL in points per play (0.434), the team’s highest finish since 2010. Most impressive, however, may have been the job the Eagles did with WR Nelson Agholor. Regarded as a first-round bust prior to this season due to his shoddy route running and maddening drops, Agholor was placed into more of a gadget-type role and ended up thriving, totaling 768 receiving yards and eight touchdowns–more than double his totals from his first two seasons in the NFL.
With all the talk of the greatness of the Eagles’ offense, Philadelphia’s defense may have been even stronger. Having racked up 19 interceptions (T-4th in the NFL) and five defensive touchdowns (T-1st in the NFL), the Eagles’ defense was not just stifling, but downright fearsome. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, younger players like cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas took major leaps, while older, more experienced players were thrust into new, creative roles to bolster the unit as a whole. MLB Dannell Ellerbe, for instance, was only signed midseason, but soon became the team’s most dominant linebacker in coverage. Veteran safety/slot corner Malcolm Jenkins, meanwhile, saw significant snaps as a dime linebacker for the first time in his career, bolstering an already-stacked run defense.
This offseason, the Eagles may be in a tricky position, as they have already lost quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Minnesota Vikings, and are also in danger of losing offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who may become the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach. For a young, developing team, losing offensive brainiacs could prove to be a death sentence.
In 2016, for instance, the Atlanta Falcons recorded 0.550 points per play, the highest figure in almost two decades. However, after losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ offense dropped to 0.349 points per play–just 14th highest in the NFL, with just about the same personnel.
However, in the case of the Eagles, such a tumble is highly unlikely to happen. Over the course of this past year, the Eagles lost starting QB Carson Wentz, starting left tackle Jason Peters, and veteran receiving back Darren Sproles to season-ending injuries and hardly missed a beat. With each of these vital players returning from injury, the Philadelphia Eagles should prove to be just as dominant in 2018, even with potential coaching turnover.
Although the Philadelphia Eagles are a tremendous team, there are numerous squads that have a legitimate chance to go toe-to-toe with them. The first of these is the team they just defeated, the New England Patriots.
Behind arguably the greatest quarterback-head coach duo in NFL history in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots have combined for five Super Bowl titles and eight conference championships, and don’t look to be slowing down. To paraphrase SB Nation analyst Brett Kollmann, the Patriots thrive off of mismatches in multiple facets of the offensive game, such as speed (via wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan), quickness (via wide receiver Danny Amendola and running backs Dion Lewis and James White), and size (via tight end Rob Gronkowski). By maintaining quality players in each of these roles, the Patriots have been able to hold one of the most impressive dynasties in the history of sports, and will only get stronger with top receiver Julian Edelman returning next season.
However, there are still legitimate concerns. For instance, while the Patriots were able to retain offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, they could not retain defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who took the head coaching job for the Detroit Lions. While his team’s performance in the Super Bowl may tell a different story, Patricia has been a defensive wizard for the past six years, consistently keeping his unit near or at the top of the league in points allowed per play, despite seeing numerous top contributors like LB Jamie Collins, edge rushers Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard, and cornerbacks Logan Ryan, Brandon Browner, and Darrelle Revis forced out by the cutthroat regime.
Additionally, the Patriots could lose numerous major pieces in free agency, including Dion Lewis, CB Malcolm Butler, and LT Nate Solder–the keystone to a relatively shaky offensive line. With that said, even as Brady ages, the Patriots’ tried-and-true offensive scheme should keep them safely among the best in the league.
The up-and-coming Jacksonville Jaguars, on the other hand, may be premier contenders for polar opposite reasons to the Patriots. After finishing bottom-five in the NFL for half a decade, and with starting quarterback Blake Bortles coming off a 2016 season that he, himself, called, “the biggest nightmare possible,” the Jaguars finally broke through in dramatic fashion in 2017 behind a gargantuan defensive effort.
With breakout performances from physical second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey and veteran free agent acquisition Calais Campbell, who shattered his previous career-high sack total of 9.0 with a whopping 14.5, “Sacksonville,” or “Picksixonville,” or whatever one decides to call them, finished second in the NFL in sacks (55.0), second in interceptions (21), and tied for first in defensive touchdowns (5).
Now, with studs like Ramsey, Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye, and DT Marcell Dareus locked up for the near future, the Jags’ main area of concern is their offense. Under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, the Jaguars made the most of Bortles’ athleticism and prowess on back-shoulder throws, getting him over 60% completion for the first time in his career. Ultimately, though, Bortles still remains a below-average quarterback on account of his poor accuracy, so unless the Jaguars are able to upgrade, that position, and offensive unit as a whole, should continue to hold them back.
Two other teams that have a legitimate chance to knock off the defending champs are the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints.
Under head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have consistently been among the most dominant offenses in the NFL with irritating, glaring holes on the defensive side of the ball. Now, however, the Steelers might have their best chance in over a decade to put it all together. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemingly committed to playing at least one more season in the league, the Steelers get back the NFL’s best deep passer to pair with the NFL’s top wide receiver (Antonio Brown) and running back (Le’Veon Bell), assuming he re-signs. On defense, even if LB Ryan Shazier is forced to retire, the Steelers would still quietly have one of the best front sevens in football, assuming star edge rusher T.J. Watt, who recorded 7.0 sacks as a rookie and even showed flashes in coverage, takes his next step.
The Saints, meanwhile, have had a tremendous influx of young talent over the past few offseasons, and could be a developing superpower. Although Drew Brees is still one of the top quarterbacks in football, having just set the single-season completion percentage record with 72.0%, his arm looks visibly weaker on downfield throws, and especially looked that way against the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round of the recent playoffs, indicating that Brees could just be a year or two from falling off the proverbial cliff.
However, even if Brees declines, the Saints are replete with budding stars to compensate. For instance, behind the Pro Bowl-caliber running back duo of Mark Ingram and rookie Kamara, the Saints developed into the NFL’s top rushing attack in 2017, finishing with 23 total touchdowns on the ground–five more than any other team. With continuity and a concrete game plan, this running game should be even stronger next season.
On the other side of the ball, rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams were immediate game changers. With transcendent length, physicality, and ball skills, Lattimore accounted for six turnovers and a defensive touchdown, establishing himself as a top-five corner in the NFL in just his first season, while Williams served as a ballhawk, pulling down another four interceptions. Riding studs like Lattimore and Kamara, as well as WR Michael Thomas, who has top tier hands, instincts, and balance despite his relative inexperience (two seasons), the Saints are a dynasty in the making, and could be within striking distance of a Lombardi if Drew Brees can continue to perform at a high level next season.
With the next Super Bowl almost a full year away, any prediction that is made now should be taken with several grains of salt. Over the course of a free agency period, draft, offseason, preseason, and 20 full weeks of football, there will certainly be countless injuries, cuts, trades, and hires to skew every narrative imaginable. So, for now, it is smartest to go with the teams that have the most complete rosters and coaching staffs.
While the Saints will undoubtedly be one of the league’s most complete teams a year or two down the road, they still have numerous glaring holes throughout their roster. For instance, they are particularly weak at linebacker, even after gambling on high picks like Manti Te’o and Stephone Anthony (who was traded to the Miami Dolphins early last year).
Meanwhile, the Jaguars have far too many question marks on offense. Even if Blake Bortles manages to correct his tempestuous mechanics–which is highly unlikely–other issues emerge. For one, the offensive line lacks true, long term pieces aside from LT Cam Robinson, while the tight end position is a revolving door of uninspiring guys like James O’Shaughnessy, Ben Koyack, and an aging Marcedes Lewis. For the Patriots, the issue is a potentially disastrous offseason to come.
While the Pats do get stars like Julian Edelman and LB Dont’a Hightower back from injury, they will in all likelihood lose Malcolm Butler and one of either Dion Lewis or Nate Solder. More concerning, there are rumblings that Rob Gronkowski could retire, with him having stated, “I’m definitely going to look at my future, for sure.” This would not bode well for Tom Brady, who will be 41 next season, and would sorely miss one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
Of course, there are always other possibilities. With QB Aaron Rodgers healthy again, and a new, high-caliber defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine, the Green Bay Packers are within striking distance, but will ultimately be held down by an offensive supporting case that lacks a feature running back or tight end and could be depleted at wide receiver as well if either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb becomes a cap casualty.
Another NFC North team, the Minnesota Vikings, is also rather close. They boast arguably the strongest defense in football, but have three quarterbacks due to become free agents, none of whom are likely to be retained. The Atlanta Falcons are also close, but have regressed mightily under new defensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Even dark horses like the Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Texans could squeak in with a well-timed run in December and January, but are ultimately unlikely to do so. In the end, it should come down to the two teams from Pennsylvania. While the Steelers are not perfect, their offense is top-notch, and their defense is on the rise.
Having led the league in sacks this past season with 56.0, if the Steelers’ defense sees further improvement from young projects like CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis, they could be unstoppable come January. The Eagles, meanwhile, will be getting their star quarterback back, and could see arguably their weakest position (cornerback) flip to a strength with high-upside youngsters Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones IV returning back to full health.
Furthermore, with players Nelson Agholor, Carson Wentz, and defensive ends Brandon Graham and Tim Jernigan already growing at tremendous rates, Eagles will maintain continuity while naturally improving as a collective. For these reasons, coupled with the terrifying schematic dominance of head coach Doug Pederson, my money would be on the Eagles to win the NFC, crumble the Steelers, and become the first repeat champions since the Patriots of 2003 and 2004.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Steelers 21
Super Bowl MVP: Carson Wentz