Once again, the beginning of football season has found me sitting contemplatively in the middle of one of my syllabus week courses writing the first installment of the year of “Fraud or Legit!” This series discusses the top NFL teams and, using my rigorous formula, denotes them as “fraud,” “legit,” or even the occasional “fun.”
Starting in the AFC East, the betting markets have the Bills once again as favorites to win the division behind breakout star Josh Allen. The Bills boast a strong defense and plenty of offensive firepower in Stefon Diggs, Zack Moss, and Devin Singletary. However, the Bills (fraud) are due for a step back. The AFC East looks stronger this year, and the Bills are still a couple of pieces on defense short of championship-worthy. The Patriots (fraud) have the most overrated skill positions in the league with Hunter Henry and Nelson Agholor leading a crew of underachieving injury-prone players. While Mac Jones looks legit and Belichick will be out for revenge, the Pats will be hard-pressed to get by the iron of the AFC, especially with a defense that is a bit overrated. The Jets (fun) won’t make much noise but Zach Wilson seems like a chiller, and some of their skill position players like Cory Davis should be good stories. The Dolphins (legit) are in need of a big step forward from Tua Tagovailoa, which they should get. He was not fully healthy this past year and he should make a splash alongside Will Fuller, DeVante Parker, and rookie stud Jaylen Waddle.
The AFC North is full of bad teams, but someone has to win. The Browns (legit) should be poised for another good season with a continuously improving Baker Mayfield. The Steelers (fraud) with an ancient Big Ben, who are now more than 10 years removed from being relevant, should be in rebuild mode. Similarly, the Ravens (fraud) have been a playoff team but lack the skill position depth (and possibly quarterback) to make a deep playoff run. The Bengals (fun) and Joe Burrow are mostly just trying to keep their young quarterback healthy for a full season. Picking a drop-prone wide receiver rather than a steady offensive tackle could be a decision that Cincinnati regrets for years.
The AFC South is another division where the winner will likely be assigned by default. The Colts (fraud) picked up Carson made-of-glass Wentz en route to another early playoff exit. Hopefully, at some point, the Titans (fraud) will realize that Ryan Tannehill is bad. Not just not elite, but flat out bad. Congratulations on wasting Derrick Henry’s prime. The Texans and Jaguars are not worth wasting another word on.
The AFC West contains more firepower than the rest of the divisions put together. The Chiefs (legit) are once again real Super Bowl candidates, and a reinvigorated Patrick Mahomes looks to set the league on fire with his usual arsenal of weapons. He could easily break the yards record if the Chiefs weren’t usually up 35 points and had to pull him in the third quarter. The Chargers (legit) are likely still a couple of seasons away, but Justin Herbert’s rookie season gained a lot of believers–even certain Argus writers who claimed he was a fraud since college. The Raiders (fraud) are still stuck in Derek Carr purgatory and the Broncos (fraud) are suffering from a similar affliction in the form of Drew Lock.
It would be a surprise if the Super Bowl champion came out of the NFC, so prepare for a large dosage of fraud.
Starting with the NFC East, we have a brutal race between teams that haven’t been good since the early 2010s. The Eagles (fraud) are still in the process of learning whether or not Jalen Hurts can play (newsflash: he can’t). They are also breaking in a new coach and system, so it’s largely a rebuilding year in Philly. The Cowboys (legit) are my dark horse pick to return to the top. With a hopefully healthy Dak Prescott, the Cowboys should contain the full array of weapons needed to make a splash in the playoffs. Dallas has one of the most talented rosters in the league, and this is a prove-it season for the combination of Prescott and head coach Mike McCarthy. The Football Team (fraud) probably shouldn’t expect to get much from Ryan Fitzpatrick and are destined for mediocrity. The Giants (fraud) are trying to discover whether Daniel Jones is the real deal, though in their hearts they must know he is a journeyman backup.
The NFC North has some interesting storylines starting with the Green Bay Packers (fraud). No one is sure whether Aaron Rodgers will be trying this year or staging a protest that serves only to hurt his free agency value. The rest of the team will certainly be demoralized with the way the last year ended. The Bears (fun) and rookie quarterback Justin Fields have a chance to be one of the most fun teams this year. With a strong defense and dynamic young passer, the Bears probably aren’t Super Bowl-caliber, but they should be a fun watch week-in and week-out. The Lions (fraud) and their hateable coach and hack quarterback will be an enjoyable team to watch go 5-11 en route to a management-changing season. The Vikings (fraud) and their anti-vax quarterback Kirk Cousins are at most a fringe playoff team and certainly don’t have the top-end talent to make a deep run.
The NFC South is probably the intriguing division in the league. Starting with the defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (legit) have returned most of their Super Bowl-winning roster. Brady and Gronk are only adding to their storied legacy, and the defense reached a new level in the playoffs last year. The only question is, will the Bucs go undefeated? The Saints (legit) are expected to take a step back, but Jameis Winston, under the mentorship of Sean Payton, should explode this season. As long as Michael Thomas comes back healthy, expect this Saints team to be a big threat each week. The Falcons (fraud) are just one of those teams that you can’t bank on being successful in the playoffs, yet they should win somewhere between 8 and 11 games this year and be a competitive team throughout the season. The Panthers (fraud) are trying to see if Sam Darnold wasn’t completely ruined in his brief tenure with the Jets; like for many teams, the games are just perfunctory.
The NFC West is probably the most competitive division in football. The Rams (legit) with stud quarterback Matt Stafford look to be real Super Bowl contenders bolstered by wunderkind coach Sean McVay. The Seahawks (legit) better be good, seeing as Russell Wilson is my fantasy QB. With Wilson and D.K. Metcalf, it is hard to imagine that the Seahawks won’t be back in the playoffs; if their defense gives them anything, they should be a tough out. The Cardinals (fraud) tricked everyone into believing in Kyler Murray last year. The luster seems to have fallen off this team, and Murray is a hit away from being out at all times. The 49ers (fun/ legit) have two quarterback options that could probably start on most teams in the league. If they start Garoppolo they should have a chance for a deep playoff run, and if they start young star Trey Lance, they will be one of the most fun, dynamic offenses in the league.
Way too early Super Bowl prediction: Chiefs: 35 over Buccaneers: 31.
John Vernaglia can be reached at email@example.com.