Just five months until the NFL crowns its next champion in Minneapolis. There will be no shortage of twists on the road to Super Bowl LII. Some questions to ponder along the way ...
1. Can the Atlanta Falcons overcome their Super Bowl hangover?
What a perfect time for new digs, with the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Anything to distance themselves from their last game, when the Falcons blew a 28-3 second-half lead to lose Super Bowl LI. The 1990s Buffalo Bills were the last team to get back to the Super Bowl the year after losing it. Now Atlanta tries to rebound from the biggest Super collapse ever while playing in what is arguably the NFL’s most competitive division. Sure, they are young and MVP Matt Ryan triggers a prolific offense. But it’s a new year. Ask the Carolina Panthers, who flirted with a perfect season in 2015, en route to Super Bowl 50, then tumbled to 6-10 last season.
2. What is Aaron Rodgers worth?
If Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (zero career playoff wins) can command a $135 million deal that averages $27 million a year, then the Green Bay Packers' perennial MVP candidate should average well over $30 million when his contract expires after the 2019 season. That’s what happens on the QB market, where Washington’s Kirk Cousins (zero playoff wins) is playing for roughly $24 million on another one-year franchise tag. Just four years ago, Joe Flacco was the NFL’s highest paid player, averaging $20.1 million. Now there are 15 quarterbacks averaging more than $20 million ... and Denver Broncos backup Brock Osweiler collects $16 million in guaranteed money after being cut by the Cleveland Browns.
3. Have the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the gap on the New England Patriots?
That could be measured by whether they can ever contain Tom Brady, who's prone to picking apart Pittsburgh’s zone coverages. In his last four matchups against the Steelers, including the AFC title game in January, Brady lit them up by averaging 331 passing yards with 13 TDs and zero picks. Time for a new plan. The Steelers will have a better shot to knock the Patriots from their throne if they can deploy more man-to-man coverage, which is why signing veteran cornerback Joe Haden was huge. They also need to help 39-year-old James Harrison, who led the team with five sacks in 2016. Hello, Bud Dupree. He needs to supply the type of impact edge rush he demonstrated down the stretch last season, while first-rounder T.J. Watt must contribute ASAP. Roll with the defensive tweaks, then maybe have a prayer against Brady.
4. Is the Ezekiel Elliott drama the omen for another Dallas Cowboys slide?
Dallas hasn’t strung together back-to-back seasons with double-digit victories since 1996. Over the past two decades, each big season was followed by a big stumble. Now comes the challenge to build off last year's 13-3 campaign. Despite deficiencies on defense, the Cowboys feel they are better equipped to sustain success. We’ll see. Even with the development of sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott and the NFL’s best O-line, the season could hinge on whether the rhythm is severely disrupted by the suspension of the NFL’s reigning rushing champ.
5. Will anyone challenge J.J. Watt to be the NFL’s comeback player of the year?
With his inspiring display of leadership in launching a fund-raising campaign — it's exceeded $20 million in pledges — to support victims of Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Texans defensive end epitomizes the type of humanitarian efforts hailed with the Walter Payton NFL man of the year award. He’s an impact player in more ways than one. But after missing virtually all of last season due to back surgeries, Watt will also be the front runner for another big honor if his play on the field returns to the level he’s performed at throughout his career. Last year, the Texans fielded the league's top-ranked defense and won a second straight AFC South crown without Watt. Imagine how much better they could be with him.
6. Will Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota continue to live up to the hype?
Two years ago, the franchise quarterbacks went 1-2, respectively, in the draft. Now it might be a disappointment if Winston and Mariota, perhaps future faces of the league, don’t take their teams to the playoffs this season. That reflects their progress and how the bar of expectations for young quarterbacks always rises. With Mariota supported by one of the NFL’s best running games, the Titans are the sexy pick to win the AFC South. Meanwhile, Winston, the first quarterback in league history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, has a new deep threat in DeSean Jackson to pair with Mike Evans. Winston will be challenged to hang tough in the NFC South, which includes the last two MVPs in Ryan and Cam Newton and a Super Bowl winner in Brees.
7. Will Beast Mode put the Oakland Raiders over the hump?
Marshawn Lynch’s decision to come out of retirement after one year to play for his hometown team was quite the public relations stroke for a franchise that lost some local support due to its impending move to Las Vegas. Yet Lynch, a.k.a. “Beast Mode,” might also bring some major substance to an already prolific offense with his power running style. That dimension would come in handy for Oakland, on the rise after posting its first winning season in 14 years. Before challenging for the AFC throne, though, they need Lynch to aid in the effort to get past the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning AFC West champs and a team that has beaten the Raiders five straight and looked pretty special after ambushing the Patriots on Thursday.
8. What's so scary about the Seattle Seahawks defense?
Answer: It keeps getting better. Seattle’s acquisition of Pro Bowl-credentialed defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson bolstered an already-buff line. Who do you double team? Michael Bennett? Cliff Avril? Richardson? And that's only the beginning, with the front backed by spectacular linebackers and a secondary that still harbors Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. If they can stay healthy, the Seahawks, who failed to allow the fewest points in the league last year for the first time since 2011, can resume the defense-wins-championships formula that not long ago took them to consecutive Super Bowls.
9. Can new Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay work magic with Jared Goff?
It's critical that Goff stays on schedule within an offense that is built on precision timing. Yet the same can be said of the bigger picture, with the Rams bringing in the young, hotshot coach to develop the quarterback they invested so heavily in while making him the No. 1 pick in 2016. McVay proved himself in helping to engineer Cousins’ rise in Washington. But there’s a bigger challenge with Goff, who was so underwhelming as a rookie while trying to transition from a spread offense to the NFL demands of taking snaps from under center. The Rams have bolstered his supporting cast, adding big-play target Sammy Watkins, reliable receiver Robert Woods and wily left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Yet McVay knows the biggest key to Goff's development is better footwork.
10. Is Blake Bortles really a better option than Colin Kaepernick?
When it hinges on football, no. Yet Jacksonville Jaguars football boss Tom Coughlin recently declared that he didn’t need to explain the internal decision not to sign Kaepernick, while Bortles continues to regress. It’s not a stretch to deduce that Coughlin is put off by issues that turned Kaepernick into the most polarizing figure in the NFL. Kaepernick, with more talent than many current NFL starting quarterbacks, still can’t get a job after his national anthem protests last year brought much attention to his cause — pushing back against racial injustices and police brutality — while fueling confusion and criticism. Despite explanations to the contrary, many wrongly interpreted Kaepernick’s protest as a slight on the American flag and military, which represents and fights for the very freedom of expression Kaepernick exercised. It’s striking that Shad Khan, the first minority to own an NFL franchise, publicly stated that he wouldn’t have a problem signing Kaep ... while Coughlin remains part of a crowd in the NFL that apparently can’t get outside the box of their worldviews to fully accept the merits of Kaepernick’s actions.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell