1. LOS ANGELES RAMS
Coach: Sean McVay (3rd yr., 24-8-0, .750)
GM: Les Snead (8th yr.)
2018: 13-3-0, 1st in NFC West. Playoffs: Divisional round def. Cowboys, 30-22; Conference Championship def. Saints, 26-23; Super Bowl LIII lost to Patriots, 13-3.
Outlook: It was one of the best, albeit most painful learning experiences of his life. And truth be told, what happened in Super Bowl LIII might haunt Sean McVay the rest of his days. Losing championships can do that to a coach.
“Like any game, you want to be able to learn from some of the decisions that you would make differently, and from a preparation standpoint what can you do to put your players in a better spot,” McVay said of the Rams’ 13-3 loss to the Patriots last Feb. 3 in Atlanta.
What he learned most:
“When (the Patriots get in those games, and not just exclusive to the Super Bowl, they don’t do things to beat themselves,” McVay said. “They play their best in those crunch time moments. But we’re excited about moving into the next season.”
History has not been kind to Super Bowl losers, but McVay hopes the Rams can avoid the pitfalls experienced by so many other teams. In fact, last year’s Patriots became only the first team since the 1993 Bills to come back from a Super Bowl loss one year and get back to the Big Show the next.
It won’t be easy for the Rams, because the NFC is loaded with plenty of competition at the upper reaches. The Saints, Seahawks, Bears, Falcons, Eagles, Vikings and Cowboys all present challenges. And there always seems to be an outlier that produces an unexpectedly good season. But chances are any one of those teams will have to deal with the Rams at some point to reach Super Bowl LIV in south Florida next February.
McVay’s brilliance at such a young age – he’s still only 33 – gives the Rams a bright long-term outlook, but he’s certainly not thinking past this year. And while his play-calling magic might not produce the kind of consistently dominant performances that marked last year’s run to the Super Bowl, it should be good enough to lead Jared Goff to another strong season.
“With Jared, one of those things you love about him is he’s able to learn from both the good and the bad,” McVay said. “And I think the experience thing is something that can’t be underappreciated, specifically, really for myself and for him. What’s unique about it is, when you get a chance to really go through the early stages of, whether it be a play-caller and a quarterback working together, head coach-quarterback, you see some of those things that we’re really navigating through together that’s what’s exciting. And I don’t think Jared has never been somebody that can’t respond from some adversity. That’s been demonstrated throughout the course of his career.”
McVay and Goff are about to find out how they respond to the adversity of losing a Super Bowl. They’ll have to overcome history to get another shot to win it all.
2. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Coach: Sean Payton (13th yr., 118-74, .615)
GM: Mickey Loomis (18th yr.)
2018: 13-3-0, 1st in NFC South. Playoffs: Divisional round def. Eagles, 20-14; Conf. Championship lost to Rams, 26-23.
Outlook: Drew Brees turned 40 in January, and there was a noticeable dip in his production late last season. A sign of slippage perhaps, but Brees is still good enough to think about a second Super Bowl title. Brees finished with 32 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, but over his last four games, he had just three TD passes and three INTs. The Saints’ defense, long a source of concern, finally appears ready to become a consistently reliable unit. The front seven is now solid, giving the secondary, featuring former first-round pick Marshon Lattimore, a fighting chance to make plays.
3. CHICAGO BEARS
Coach: Matt Nagy (2nd yr., 12-4-0, .750)
GM: Ryan Pace (5th yr.)
2018: 12-3-0, 1st in NFC North. Playoffs: Wild Card lost to Eagles, 16-15.
Outlook: The Bears’ “Monsters of the Midway” caliber defense can carry them again this season, but the real key is whether Mitch Trubisky takes a significant step forward. Trubisky showed improvement last year, with 24 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, but he’ll need to step it up a notch for the Bears to be considered worthy Super Bowl contenders. Tarik Cohen is a terrific play-making running back, but at just 5-foot-6, 181 pounds, he’s not an every-down back. The Khalil Mack trade last year shored up the defense, and 2018 first-round linebacker Roquan Smith can be a major force.
4. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Coach: Pete Carroll (10th yr., 89-54-1, .622)
GM: John Schneider (10th yr.)
2018: 10-6-0, 2nd in NFC West. Playoffs: Wild Card lost to Cowboys, 24-22.
Outlook: Russell Wilson got his wish of signing a blockbuster deal to remain in Seattle, and he’s one of the few players capable of carrying a team. Wilson has been to the Pro Bowl three of his last four seasons, and he was the major reason for the Seahawks’ surprising 10-6 record last year. He needs help in the running game, though, and 2018 first-round pick Rashad Penny was a major disappointment with just 419 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a far cry from the days of Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. Pete Carroll’s revamped defense will also need to dominate, and they’ll have to do it without pass rusher Frank Clark, who is now with the Chiefs. First-round defensive end L.J. Collier hopes to pick up the slack along the line.
5. DALLAS COWBOYS
Coach: Jason Garrett (10th yr., 77-59-0, .566)
Owner/GM: Jerry Jones (31st yr.)
2018: 10-6-0, 1st in NFC East. Playoffs: Wild Card def. Seahawks, 24-22; Divisional round lost to Rams, 30-22.
Outlook: The Cowboys believe Dak Prescott is an elite quarterback and that the time is now for him to make a Super Bowl run. Prescott has certainly proven to be an able quarterback, but elite? He’s got a ways to go, for sure. He hasn’t thrown more than 23 touchdown passes in a season, and while he is as tough as they come and will get the tough yards on the ground when necessary, he still isn’t in the same stratosphere as the NFL’s top-tier quarterbacks. Ezekiel Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million extension days before the team's opener, and although Elliott held out for the entire preseason, he's one of those players who still can perform well in the absence of training camp. He’ll have to be at his best, because Prescott needs the benefit of a play-action passing game to thrive. The defense is quite good, and the addition last year of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was huge. Demarcus Lawrence is an elite pass rusher who got the long-term contract he deserved in the off-season.
6. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Coach: Doug Pederson (4th yr., 29-19-0, .604)
Vice president football operations: Howie Roseman (10th yr.)
2018: 9-7-0, 2nd in NFC East. Playoffs: Wild Card def. Bears, 16-15; Divisional round lost to Saints, 20-14.
Outlook: The Eagles struggled to get back to the playoffs a year after their Super Bowl win, and Nick Foles is now gone after signing with the Jaguars. So, it’s Carson Wentz’s show now, and there’s plenty to like about a team that could be capable of another title run. Wentz was playing at an MVP level when he got hurt late in the 2017 season, and he went out late last year with a back injury. But he’s back to full strength, and that’s good news for an Eagles’ offense that will need him at his best. Wentz’s favorite targets will receivers Alshon Jeffery and Desean Jackson, who returns to Philadelphia after playing in Washington and Tampa, and tight end Zach Ertz. The defense looks very good, particularly in the front seven, where Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett lead the way.
7. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Coach: Mike Zimmer (6th yr., 47-32-1, .594)
GM: Rick Spielman (14th yr.)
2018: 8-7-1, 2nd in NFC North. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: Kirk Cousins put up decent numbers last year with 30 touchdown passes and 4,298 yards, but he didn’t play up to expectations after signing a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Coach Mike Zimmer believes Cousins will settle down this year after becoming fully acclimated since coming over from the Redskins. The return from injury of tailback Dalvin Cook is huge and should help Cousins, who will benefit from a more balanced attack that doesn’t revolve solely around the passing game. Zimmer has a reliable defense that wasn’t up to its usual standards last season, but the talent is there, especially at safety with Harrison Smith and cornerback with Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes.
8. ATLANTA FALCONS
Coach: Dan Quinn (5th yr., 36-28-0, .563)
GM: Thomas Dimitroff (12th yr.)
2018: 7-9-0, T-2nd in NFC South. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones remain one of the NFL’s best quarterback-receiver combinations, and they’ll no doubt power a productive offense in 2019. Ryan has been a machine over his last seven seasons. In that span, he has thrown for 36,659 yards, 229 touchdown passes and 99 interceptions to go with a 97.3 rating. As Ryan goes, so goes the offense. Jones remains his primary target and comes off a 2018 season with 1,677 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s still somewhat mystifying he’s not more of a target in the red zone. With the offense almost certain to produce, the biggest question is whether Dan Quinn’s defense can be counted on. This has not been a consistent strength the last two seasons, and Quinn, who was hired in large part because of his defensive brilliance with the Seahawks, needs to produce a big-time pass rush if he’s going to compete in a division with Drew Brees and Cam Newton.
9. GREEN BAY PACKERS
Coach: Matt LaFleur (first season; replaces Mike McCarthy).
GM: Matt LaFleur
2018: 6-9-1, 3rd in NFC North. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: The Packers hope Matt LaFleur can add some of the magic that his former boss, Sean McVay, provided for the Rams. LaFleur has Aaron Rodgers still in his prime, so that’s the biggest thing he has going. Rodgers is capable of throwing 50 touchdown passes in a season, but he had just 25 last year in Mike McCarthy’s final season as coach. Rodgers does have an elite receiver in Davonte Adams, but he doesn’t have the benefit of a reliable running game. So yes, Rodgers will once again need to be a one-man show. Green Bay’s defense has been a consistent source of worry over the last several seasons, and second-year coordinator Mike Pettine, who replaced Dom Capers in 2018, has his work cut out. He has a middling corps of linebackers on a defense that no longer features Clay Matthews III.
10. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Coach: Ron RIvera (9th yr., 71-56-0, .559)
GM: Marty Hurney (14th yr.)
2018: 7-9-0, 2nd in NFC South. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: Cam Newton comes off shoulder surgery and may not be the Superman he’s tried to be all these years. Newton was clearly not the same quarterback last year that he’d once been, but it turns out he was playing hurt almost the entire way. Off-season surgery has corrected the problem, but Newton may need time to get back into the kind of rhythm he’s used to – especially after suffering a foot sprain in the preseason. That may mean a bigger workload for tailback Christian McCaffrey, who has plenty of versatility. It doesn’t help that the Panthers don’t have a big-time receiving corps, although reliable tight end Greg Olsen is back. The defense needs work, and other than All Pro Luke Kuechly, there really isn’t a big-time player on that side of the ball. The Panthers hope former Bucs defensive lineman Gerald McCoy can help.
11. DETROIT LIONS
Coach: Ron RIvera (9th yr., 71-56-0, .559)
GM: Marty Hurney (14th yr.)
2018: 7-9-0, 2nd in NFC South. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: This is a big year for coach Matt Patricia, the Bill Belichick disciple who had a rough go in 2018. Players chafed under his authoritarian rule, and when coaches like that don’t win often enough, their shelf life is often limited. Patricia hopes two former stars with the Patriots – slot receiver Danny Amendola and versatile defensive lineman Trey Flowers, will bring some of the New England magic with them. The offense will continue to revolve around quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had just 21 touchdown passes last season. The running game needs to give him some support, but there’s no second coming of Barry Sanders among this group. The defense can be better, especially with the addition of Flowers, but it’s still going to be tough for this team to compete with the likes of the Bears, Packers and Vikings.
12. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Coach: Jay Gruden (6th yr., 35-44-1, .444)
President/GM: Bruce Allen (10th yr.)
2018: 7-9-0, 3rd in NFC East. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: The Redskins are in quarterback purgatory; first-rounder Dwayne Haskins isn’t ready for prime time and veteran Case Keenum isn’t good enough to compete in an NFC East that includes the Eagles and Cowboys. Welcome to Jay Gruden’s world. No wonder the coach is considered one of the first to be fired if things don’t go his way this season. Haskins, the Ohio State quarterback and a personal favorite of team owner Daniel Snyder, has taken a while to adjust to the pro game, and Keenum, the journeyman who has been with three teams in three seasons, is a holdover quarterback at best. Josh Doctson is a speedy wide receiver who needs to show improvement, and tight end Jordan Reed is a reliable target who is injury-prone. The defense is the team’s greatest strength, particularly along the line with former first rounders Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen.
13. NEW YORK GIANTS
Coach: Pat Shurmur (2nd yr., 5-11-0, .313)
GM: Dave Gettleman (2nd yr.)
2018: 5-11-0, 4th in NFC East. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: Eli Manning remains the starter, but it appears to be only a matter of time before Daniel Jones gets his chance. Team president John Mara’s greatest hope is that Manning plays the entire season, which means the team will be in the midst of a playoff run. But at age 38 and with a group of average receivers that won’t have Golden Tate (four-game suspension for PEDs) to start the season, Jones had better be ready. The defense is badly in need of a pass rush, and while first-round lineman Dexter Lawrence can be a force up front, they still don’t have a legitimate sack specialist. It’s a promising young secondary with rookie corners DeAndre Baker and Corey Ballentine, but it’s also a work in progress.
14. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Coach: Bruce Arians (1st yr., replaces Dirk Koetter)
GM: Jason Licht (6th yr.)
2018: 5-11-0, 4th in NFC South. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: Bruce Arians will need to do his thing as a quarterback whisperer for Jameis Winston, who has yet to live up to expectations as a former No. 1 overall pick. Arians has a well-earned reputation of getting the best out of his quarterbacks – just ask Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer. But Winston might prove to be his most challenging pupil; the talent is there, but the former Florida State star has yet to put it all together. He does have the benefit of throwing to Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans and former first-round tight end O.J. Howard and underrated Cameron Brate. The Bucs’ defense is getting better, with a promising secondary that includes cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and a linebacking core that features rookie Devin White, who the Bucs hope will be a close facsimile of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.
15. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Coach: Kyle Shanahan (3rd yr., 10-22-0, .313)
GM: John Lynch (3rd yr.)
2018: 4-12-0, 3rd in NFC West. Missed playoffs.
Outlook: The 49ers hope Jimmy Garoppolo can come back from a knee injury and prove his value as the team’s franchise quarterback. It’s an absolute must that Garoppolo play up to his potential, because the entire offense is counting on his playmaking ability. The former understudy to Tom Brady is under tremendous pressure to deliver, and he must do so with a team still lacking in a number of areas. Tight end George Kittle has emerged as a star, but there are no game breakers on the outside. The team acquired former Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford in the off-season, although he battled knee tendinitis during the preseason. First-round pass rusher Nick Bosa will be a huge key, although he’s already dealt with hamstring and ankle problems even before his first game.
16. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Coach: Kliff Kingsbury (1st yr., replaces Steve Wilks)
GM: Steve Keim (7th yr.)
2018: 3-13-0, 4th in NFC West.
Outlook: The Cardinals took a calculated risk by pulling the plug on coach Steve Wilks and quarterback Josh Rosen after just one season. They hope they’re rewarded by the presence of coach Kliff Kingsbury and No. 1 pick Kyler Murray. It’s a huge gamble, but general manager Steve Keim believes that Murray is a generational talent, which is why he gave up so quickly on Rosen. Kingsbury ran the famous “Air Raid” offense at Texas Tech, and he’ll feature an up-tempo, wide open attack with the Cardinals. The big questions is whether the offense will work at the next level. Arizona’s defense still features cornerback Patrick Peterson, but the All-Pro cornerback will miss the first six games of the season after testing positive for PEDs. The defense will be helped by the signing of former Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs.