1. Hype overload! A Jalen Ramsey Super Bowl week
Seven months after U.S. Bank Stadium was lit up for a Super Bowl-record 1,151 yards and 74 points, it’s easy to wonder whether “defense wins championships” is a crumbling cliché. The answer will be no when Jacksonville’s “D” carries Blake Bortles past the Falcons in Atlanta in Super Bowl LIII. The first team to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium will be overshadowed by the oversized mouth and MVP-winning play of Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The question is whether defenses can rebound under the new player safety rules. Here’s a peek at last year’s top five defenses: No. 1 Vikings (allowed 31 of 38 points in NFC title loss); No. 2 Jaguars (42 points allowed in divisional win); No. 3 Denver (went 5-11); No. 4 Eagles (613 yards, 33 points allowed in Super Bowl win); and No. 5 Pittsburgh (45 points allowed in divisional loss).
2. Vrabel dealt winning hand, but keep an eye on Shurmur
Seven teams changed coaches after last season. Two of them — Detroit and Tennessee — won nine games. The Titans won their first playoff game in 13 years, but still fired Mike Mularkey and hired 42-year-old first-time head coach Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls playing for Bill Belichick. If quarterback Marcus Mariota can put his career back on path, Vrabel should have the most immediate success among new coaches. But don’t overlook former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as a prime coach-of-the-year candidate. He takes over a 3-13 team that was 11-5 the year before that. Odell Beckham Jr. is back healthy and happy. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley looks like a rookie-of-the-year front-runner. Five of the new coaches are first-year head coaches, including two in the NFC North in Matt Patricia in Detroit and Matt Nagy in Chicago.
3. Kirk & Tyrod: A tale of two kinds of QB pressure
Of seven teams expected to start a quarterback who wasn’t with them last year, the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins is the only one who left a losing team for which he started — Washington (7-9) — to join a winning team (13-3). Cleveland’s Tyrod Taylor is the only one who went from leading a team to its first playoff appearance this millennium — Buffalo (9-7) — to an 0-16 team (Cleveland). Cousins will be measured against the guy who replaced him (Alex Smith), the guy he replaced (Denver’s Case Keenum) and the guy Keenum replaced last year (Arizona’s Sam Bradford), not to mention Teddy Bridgewater if Drew Brees gets hurt. Taylor? The guy who threw only four interceptions last year will be measured against his predecessor, DeShone “22 picks” Kizer, which is no big deal; and the potential of his successor, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, which will be a massive weekly ordeal if the Browns keep losing.
4. Good Luck: A who’s who of who will be Comeback POY
Since drafting Andrew Luck No. 1 in 2012, the Colts are 43-27 with Luck and 10-16 without him. He’s back after missing all last season and 26 of the past 48 games. If Luck returns to 2012-14 form and the Colts go from 4-12 to the playoffs, Luck wins comeback player of the year. That’s a big if considering Luck’s shoulder issues, and the fact he’s 10-12 since starting 33-15 with three straight playoff berths. The list of comeback-player-of-the-year contenders this year reads like an All-Pro roster. There’s Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr. and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who has played only eight games the past two years. Throw in Carson Wentz, DeShaun Watson and David Johnson, among others. And never count out 2015 comeback winner Eric Berry, who beat cancer three years ago and is now bouncing back from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
5. Patriots will fall eventually, right?
Eventually, one of these years, the pundits who predict the end of the Patriots dynasty will nail that annual story line. Until then, let’s review the momentum coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have going, whether they enjoy each other’s company or not: Nine straight division titles; seven straight AFC Championship Game appearances; Super Bowl trips three of the past four years; and, of course, two of the last four Super Bowl victories. But, you say, what about Belichick and Brady’s feud over Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero? What about that puzzling Super Bowl benching of Malcolm Butler? What about losing Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Butler? Or trading Brandin Cooks? Or losing defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions? Well. Since 2001, when these two men joined forces, the Patriots have participated in eight of 17 Super Bowls, winning five of them. Let’s assume they’ll contend. Again.