After a winner, spring, and summer spent waiting for
Sunday football on any day, the NFL finally returns Thursday when the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs host the offseason darling Detroit Lions at Arrowhead Stadium.
As it always does, the NFL offseason delivered countless twists, turns, and shocking moves. Aaron Rodgers traded in the fine Wisconsin landscape for a daily drive on the New Jersey Turnpike. Tom Brady hung up his helmet for good this time, Lamar Jackson's contract saga finally ended, the Philadelphia Eagles lost seven starters but found gems in the draft again, and the San Francisco 49ers went all-in on Brock Purdy (but maybe Sam Darnold?) by trading Trey Lance.
Up at Halas Hall, general manager Ryan Poles put on his hard hat and went to work on Phase 2 of his lengthy Bears rebuild. Poles traded for a star receiver in DJ Moore, paid linebacker Tremaine Edmunds like a blossoming star, found a steal in T.J. Edwards, used a first-round pick on right tackle Darnell Wright, and took swings on high-upside defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens on Day 2.
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The Bears' roster is much better -- it would be hard for it to be worse than the Frankenstein of journeymen they cobbled together last season in a teardown campaign. The schedule is manageable, and the division is wide open. There's a world in which the Bears win nine or 10 games this fall, but there's also one where they go 6-11. Quarterback Justin Fields and his growth as a passer will determine where they fall on that scale.
But enough about what could happen. You came here for predictions, both bold and lukewarm. Here's a stab at six things I think will happen this fall, meaning the opposite is sure to come true:
Steel City Back On Top
Not to be a prisoner of preseason hype, but I bought all the Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, and Pittsburgh Steelers stock I could find after their impressive exhibition slate.
Those who watch Pickett daily in practice have signaled that a significant Year 2 leap could be in store for the Pitt product.
Five drives and five touchdowns in the preseason might be nothing, but I'm going to call it something.
Let's not forget that the Steelers went 9-8 last year despite starting Mitch Trubisky in five games. Mike Tomlin does not finish below .500.
This Steelers team should be much better. T.J. Watt is healthy, they retooled the inside linebacking corps, and Pickett is primed for a breakout campaign.
Steelers are the King in the North, with the Bengals coming in second to nab a wild-card spot.
It's Not Rocket Science
Mac Jones was excellent in his rookie season, with Josh McDaniels calling the shots for the Patriots' offense. Then, Bill Belichick came down with an unbreakable fever and hired noted rocket scientist and terrible defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to run his offense.
Why? We may never know.
The results were what you'd expect. The Patriots' offense was putrid, and Jones regressed significantly in Year 2.
The fever broke this offseason when Belichick ejected Patricia and hired Bill O'Brien as his OC.
That's reason No. 1 that I'm buying the Patriots to be a surprise team in the rough and tumble AFC East.
By all accounts, Jones had a fantastic summer. He was sharp, poised, accurate, and made quick decisions—everything he showcased at Alabama and in Year 1 in New England.
Couple an improved Jones with what is one of the NFL's best defenses and an A-plus draft class, and you have a recipe for a 10-7 season and a wild-card berth.
The Patriots narrowly missed the playoffs last season with a dysfunctional offensive attack, horrendous special teams, and a debacle in Las Vegas that won't soon be forgotten.
I expect things to be different this season. Patriots. Playoffs. Book it.
While there's no cheering in the press box, narratives and comedy are always welcome.
So, what's the funniest outcome for the 2023 season?
It involves a tortured East Coast fan base, an aging would-be philosopher quarterback, the franchise he tried to torch on the way out, and a young quarterback who must follow in his footsteps.
The Aaron Rodgers-Jets hype is completely out of control. The Jets can't block, have a big question mark at head coach, and the last time we saw Rodgers, he was stinking up the place. Yes, he was dealing with an injury. But he's also 40, and most people aren't on the Tom Brady plan of shredding defenses until the AARP card is activated.
The Jets have a brutal first eight games. There's a world where they start 2-6 or 3-5 and never get things back on track.
Meanwhile, in Green Bay, Jordan Love looked pretty good during the preseason, and the Packers' early-season slate is as manageable as it gets. 5-2 or 6-1 is absolutely in play for the Packers (I know no one in Chicago wants to hear that).
Rodgers forcing his way out of Green Bay just to get bludgeoned and flop in New Jersey while Love leads the Packers to an NFC North title is exactly what the scriptwriters would dial-up.
So, let's go with that. The Packers win the division at 10-7, while the Jets miss the playoffs at 8-9. Not sure a darkness retreat can cure that wound.
The San Francisco 49ers were one game away from the Super Bowl last season. A first-drive injury to quarterback Brock Purdy ended those hopes in Philadelphia.
But the 49ers have the NFL's most talented roster. There are blue-chippers at almost every position, from Trent Williams to Nick Bosa and Fred Warner. No team has the game-changers the 49ers do.
Quarterback has been the thing holding the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch back from its ultimate goal. Well, at least that's the belief until they find a mirror in Santa Clara.
Jimmy Garoppolo was good enough to get them there but not good enough to win it all. They needed more, so they traded a dump truck of draft capital for Trey Lance. Inexperience and injuries ended that experiment as Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 draft, grabbed the franchise quarterback reins and refused to let go.
The 49ers traded Lance to the Dallas Cowboys prior to their preseason finale, officially turning the 2023 team and the franchise's future over to Purdy.
Purdy is what Shanahan and the 49ers need at quarterback. He's a point guard who knows where the ball is supposed to go and can get it in the hands of a deep arsenal of playmakers who live on yards after the catch.
The 49ers believe in Purdy. Their roster is built to win now. As long as the Nick Bosa contract situation gets sorted out and they can stay healthy (big if), they should walk to an NFC West title and are an easy pick for the best record in the NFL.
13-4 sounds right.
Stroke of luck in Chicago
Two teams matter this fall in Chicago: The Bears and whoever is playing the Carolina Panthers.
The Bears own the Panthers' first-round pick via the trade that sent the No. 1 overall pick to Carolina back in March. The Panthers selected Alabama quarterback Bryce Young with the first overall selection.
Carolina's gambit is that Young, new head coach Frank Reich, and a talented young defense will be good enough this fall to challenge for the NFC South title and won't send the Bears a top-five pick.
I'll admit that I fell for that in the spring. I really like Young and think he has a bright future. The Panthers' defense with Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Jaycee Horn, Shaq Thompson, and Jeremy Chinn will be damn good.
But the Panthers' offensive line was horrid during the preseason slate. Left tackle Ickey Ekwonu looks like a complete liability. Their skill position guys might be the slowest in the NFL. Adam Thielen looks washed, and D.J. Chark is banged up again. Rookie Jonathan Mingo might be their best receiver.
That brings us to Reich. He got a lot of credit for Nick Foles torching a Matt Patricia-led Patriots defense in the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles. I've made my feelings on the mad-not-genius known. The Patriots also benched starting cornerback Malcolm Butler for the game, which helped make Foles' and Reich's job much easier.
Reich went to Indy and things were a train wreck. He cycled through quarterbacks that he selected -- Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan -- and couldn't sprinkle his fairy dust on them. Things got so bad that Jim Irsay fired Reich and replaced him with Jeff Saturday, who had been spending his mornings on ESPN's "Get Up!"
Nothing about this Panthers team tells me they will win more than five games. Let's go one step further: The bottom falls out in Carolina as the Panthers go 4-13 and send the No. 1 pick to the Bears, giving Ryan Poles another monumental decision to make.
Fields takes leap, but not enough for a playoff berth
Justin Fields survived and thrived in horrid circumstances last fall. He's the most dynamic runner with the football in the NFL. His legs are a weapon, but the Bears need him to take one or two steps forward as a passer this fall.
If Fields takes three steps forward, it just might be enough to drag the rebuilding Bears to a wild-card berth in a weak NFC. Maybe.
There's a lot of optimism at Halas Hall regarding Fields' command of the offense, his comfort in the system, and the improved arsenal the Bears have assembled. But there are also questions about the offensive line and its lack of depth. Left guard Teven Jenkins is already on short-term IR and will miss at least the first four games. The Bears are one injury away from once again having an unacceptable line protecting their franchise quarterback.
The ingredients are interesting: A talented quarterback, an improved skill group, a true No. 1 receiver, and a suspect offensive line.
That leads me to this final conclusion.
The Bears want Fields to run less than he did last season. They want him to win from the pocket. But that might not be an option, especially early in the season. But I believe he can do both. He has all the tools to win with his arm. It just might not come until the passing game finds its feet later in the season.
But it does come. When the dust settles, Fields finishes the season with 3,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards to end the season ranked ninth in combined passing and rushing yards. Last season, only eight quarterbacks finished the season with 4,500 or more combined yards. Only Josh Allen rushed for more than 500 yards. Jalen Hurts, my pick for MVP, rushed for 760 yards but finished just shy of the 4,500 mark due to a two-game absence.
Fields takes two steps forward as a passer, but that doesn't cause him to lose what makes him special. A 3,500+1,000 season has him finish third in the MVP voting. However, the Bears' defense once again struggles, and they finish at 8-9 with a 2-4 division record and miss the playoffs.
A 150 percent record improvement, a leap for Fields as a passer, and the No. 1 overall pick courtesy of the Panthers' dysfunction.
Not bad for Year 2 of a rebuild.