Baltimore (9-7)
...In the end, all of the good work the Ravens did in the second half of the season was erased when blowing the finale vs. the Bengals. For a brief while, Baltimore might have even been the hottest team in the AFC until letting a late lead slip away at Pittsburgh on Dec. 10. However, in the end it marked the third straight playoff miss (and fourth in the past five years) for HC John Harbaugh. There are indicators that QB Joe Flacco, entering his 11th year in 2018, is on the downside, and key injuries (including CB Jimmy Smith) hampered the defense in December. The stop unit, which pitched three shutouts in 2017, will be looking to shore some leaks in the secondary, though at least still appears to be playoff caliber as long as vets such as OLB Terrell Suggs and S Eric Weddle continue to produce. The offense figures to get much of the attention in free agency and the draft, and GM Ozzie Newsome might consider looking for a successor to Flacco. Harbaugh remains safe for now, but any backslide in 2018 could trigger a change on the sideline.

Cincinnati (7-9)...Apparently HC Marvin Lewis has not used up all of his nine lives in Cincy yet, as he will return in 2018 with a new two-year deal after it looked like his 15-season run was going to come to an end. Lewis still hasn’t won a playoff game, but the way the Bengals responded with wins over the playoff-seeking Lions and Ravens in the final two weeks made owner Mike Brown realize that Lewis, who works for less than almost every other NFL HC, was still probably his best alternative. And Cincy has almost always had a chance during the Lewis era, so we endorse the move. The offense, however, wasn’t good enough in 2017, and the Bengals might be forced to make a decision soon on QB Andy Dalton, who could be released to make way for AJ McCarron, the subject of trade speculation the past year. Or perhaps Cincy goes for a QB with its pick at the 12th spot in the first round of the draft. But with an OL that needs an overhaul, a run game that was one of the NFL’s worst, and first-round WR John Ross a non-factor, there are other issues that need attention on the attack end. Meanwhile, the “D” has pressing needs in the secondary that should be addressed either in free agency or through the draft.

Cleveland (0-16)...We’d be tempted to make comparisons between Browns HC Hue Jackson (1-31 SU the past two seasons) and Red Klotz, except the Washington Generals were supposed to lose. After making almost annual changes on the sideline, owner Jimmy Haslam has decided to give Jackson a third year, though he’s changed GMs again (Sashi Brown out, John Dorsey in). For the time being, Dorsey will apparently live with Jackson, though some believe a move could still be forthcoming. It might take the reincarnation of Vince Lombardi, however, to prop up a franchise with needs everywhere. Notre Dame rookie QB DeShone Kizer wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed, but it would be no surprise if the Brownies go QB with the first pick in the draft; Cleveland also has the fourth choice in the first round courtesy the Texans (who also sent a second round pick just to take Brock Osweiler off of their payroll), so Dorsey will be tempted to maneuver in the draft. No NFL GM will also have more salary cap space than Dorsey to use in the offseason. Almost every position group could be targeted in the draft and free agency. After 0-16, we can at least say for sure that there’s nowhere for the Browns to go but up.

Denver (5-11)...It’s been a steep descent in Denver, with John Elway’s saint-like status in the Mile High City now under review after a series of puzzling moves that sunk the Broncos to the bottom of the West and their longest losing streak (eight games) since Lou Saban’s first season in charge fifty years ago. The decline is on Elway, first for his decision to hire untested HC Vance Joseph, allowing much of the Gary Kubiak staff (including sage d.c. Wade Phillips) to walk, then resisting calls to admit the Joseph error and instead keeping Joseph with a gutted staff, except for coordinators Bill Musgrave (offense; replaced Mike McCoy at midseason) and Joe Woods, who will stay. Got all that? The QB position became a merry-go-round, with 2016 top pick Paxton Lynch appearing a bust, and common sense dictates that Elway must upgrade via free agency or the draft. But would a potential QB target such as Kirk Cousins consider Denver, with its leaky OL and broken offense? The “D” might still be playoff caliber, but cap hits could take their toll (perhaps CB Aqib Talib and others). Elway has promised to fix the mess, but can he be trusted anymore?

Houston (4-12)...If ever a coach deserved a mulligan, it’s Bill O’Brien, whose roster was ravaged by key injuries. Though that reportedly only earned O’Brien a very narrow stay of execution from owner Bob McNair, as even in a depleted state the Texans were expected to compete better than they did down the stretch, when they lost their last six, the last five of those by double digits. When whole, Houston looked dangerous, as Clemson rookie QB Deshaun Watson was wowing the league until a fluke practice injury to his knee KO’d him at midseason. Which further crowded an IR that would also include DE JJ Watt, LB Whitney Mercilus, and others that would number nearly two dozen by the end of the season. O’Brien, who won the AFC South before quick playoff exits the previous two years, apparently gets one more chance to get it right in 2018. However, problems extend beyond getting everyone healthy, as Houston has several starters entering free agency, and doesn’t have a pick until the third round of the draft (when it will get two). The franchise is also in flux with GM Rick Smith taking a leave of absence to deal with his ill wife, and McNair looking for a replacement to handle personnel decisions in the coming months.

Indianapolis (4-12)...Chuck Pagano looked like a lame-duck HC all season, especially after shoulder woes sidelined franchise anchor QB Andrew Luck from the outset. More so for Pagano after unpredictable owner Jim Irsay had parted with GM Ryan Grigson after 2016, and new GM Chris Ballard always likely to find his preferred coach. To no one’s surprise, Pagano was relieved after the sans Luck Colts slumped to 4-12. The OL was atrocious, allowing 56 sacks, though emergency acquisition QB Jacoby Brissett performed near heroically merely to keep Indy competitive most weeks. A healthy Luck (which might be asking too much) will be an immediate benefit to the new coach, though Ballard is going to have to address the OL issues either in free agency or the draft. With the third pick, and the highest selection among teams that don’t need a QB, Ballard might be tempted to trade down as he looks for upgrades to his pass rush, at MLB, and at WR opposite TY Hilton beyond the urgent need to repair the OL. But if Luck isn’t ready to go next fall, we’re not sure how much difference any of it will make in 2018.

LA Chargers (9-7)...After an 0-4 break from the gate that had many wondering if the league should send the Bolts back to San Diego (which still might be a good idea, but we digress), and visiting fans often outnumbering home fans in the makeshift MLS StubHub Center that is serving as a temporary home base until 2020, Philip Rivers & Co. caught an updraft and made a legit playoff run that was alive until the final week. Though a Dec. 16 loss at Kansas City would prove a lethal blow to the postseason hopes. Rivers is still good enough that the Chargers can look threatening with the considerable talent (RB Melvin Gordon, WRs Keenan Allen & Mike Williams) around him, but, entering his 15th season in 2018, it might be time for the franchise to begin looking for a successor at QB. There are stop-unit anchors at the DE spots with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram each recording double-digit sacks, though some reinforcements might be needed inside, and the rush “D” suffered when MLB Denzel Perryman was injured. The top offseason priority, however, might be addressing the season-long PK issues that cost the Bolts some early games and resulted in a subpar 20 for 31 FG conversions.

Miami (6-10)...A season full of misfortune (some of it self-inflicted) began in training camp when QB Ryan Tannehill went down with a knee injury. Second-year HC Adam Gase coaxed Jay Cutler (who posted some of his best stats with the Bears in 2015 when Gase was Chicago’s o.c.) out of retirement and the Fox broadcast booth, but the ex-Vandy man had an up-and-down year and will likely not return in 2018 after Miami scored 20 or fewer points nine times and was blanked twice. Tannehill’s recovery will be closely monitored, but it marks the second straight year he has gone down with a knee injury, and he’s not signed beyond 2018. It’s not unreasonable to think Miami looks elsewhere for a new QB, but the Dolphins must take a hard look at their entire roster and decide how much of a rebuild might be required. Beyond the questions at QB, Miami has issues along the OL and at RB after Jay Ajayi’s midseason trade to the Eagles, and must decide whether to open the wallet to re-sign pending FA WR Jarvis Landry, by far the most-reliable receiving target on the team.

New York Jets (5-11)...Not all 5-11 records are the same, especially when a winless season was the expectation of many. Thus, no surprise that both HC Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan received contract extensions after the Jets’ better-than-expected results in 2017. Still, there is a long way to go, and Maccagnan must decide whether 38-year-old journeyman Josh McCown, who was beyond serviceable this season, is worth keeping for another year as a bridge to a new QB as the progress of Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenburg has been slow at best. The Jets could also look to go the FA route and would be one of Kirk Cousins’ suitors should the Redskins QB test the open market. The overall focus should be on the offense, where a playmaker at RB and new C, beyond the QB, should be targeted. Meanwhile, the “D” will be looking for at least one CB and a pass-rushing OLB. Underperforming DE Muhammad Wilkerson is likely to be released to save $11 million of his potential $20 mill salary cap hit.

Oakland (6-10)...The Raiders were probably the biggest flop in the AFC after their surprise run to the playoffs in 2016. The drop-off cost HC Jack Del Rio his job after a campaign in which he had to relieve Ken Norton, Jr. of his d.c. duties at midseason and the offense collapsed. Riding to the rescue is Jon Gruden, lured out of the ESPN broadcast booth for a return date in Oakland with a reported 10-year, $100 million deal that apparently will include a piece of the franchise that figures to go up in value once the move to Las Vegas is complete in 2020. Now, will Gruden prove to be a Dick Vermeil, or a Mike Ditka, returning to the sidelines after years away from coaching and working in TV? Gruden’s first job will be to fix an offense that disappeared in 2017 and to help QB Derek Carr regain his mojo. There are other concerns, with WR Amari Cooper a major disappointment, and whether RB Marshawn Lynch returns for the second year of his contract. Lynch wasn’t great in 2017, but showed enough of his old tackle-breaking ability to occasionally spark the infantry. Star DE/LB Khalil Mack enters the final year of his contract in 2018, and the situation could turn into a distraction if owner Mark Davis isn’t willing to open his checkbook (as he has for Gruden).


Arizona (8-8)
...In truth, the title window closed after 2015 for the Big Red, though now it appears officially shut and a new era to begin after the retirements of both HC Bruce Arians and QB Carson Palmer. Neither was unexpected, especially Palmer, who went down in mid-October with the postseason already out of reach. Now, we’ll see what the third featured wheel of the desert operation, HOF-bound WR Larry Fitzgerald, does in the offseason after another banner year of 100 receptions and 1000 receiving yards. Reports are that he might be considering hanging ‘em up, too. GM Steve Keim could opt for a complete roster overhaul, especially with several potential FAs on the roster, or hope that better luck with injuries the offense was particularly hard hit, including a Week One injury to Pro Bowl RB David Johnson) might keep the Cards competitive in 2018 and stave off a major rebuild. There are no QBs currently under contract for 2018, though either Drew Stanton or Blaine Gabbert could be brought back. Keim could also look to free agency (Kirk Cousins?), trade (Alex Smith?), or the draft for QB answers. The CB spot opposite Patrick Peterson and a receiving corps that did not make enough big plays beyond Fitzgerald will also warrant hard looks. First, however, Keim has to find a coach.

Chicago (5-11)
...It was no surprise that HC John Fox, 14-34 over the past three years, was let loose following the season, but the esteem in which the organization continues to hold GM Ryan Pace puzzles just a bit. Make no mistake, however, the new coach is going to have a lot of holes to fill. Among many issues in 2016 were Chicago’s supposed strengths on the OL and at OLB that didn't materialize (partly due to injuries), and a run game that was wildly inconsistent. The Bears think they have their QB of the future, ex-Tar Heel Mitchell Trubisky, who took over for the massively disappointing FA signee Mike Glennon (with eight turnovers in his four starts) much earlier than anticipated in his rookie year with mixed results. It is no sure thing, however, that Trubisky is going to be a star, and it is assumed by most in Chicagoland that the new coach will have an offensive background in hopes of better tapping into Trubisky’s potential. We’ll see. Meanwhile, Pace will likely be releasing several higher-priced vets to clear even more of the Bears’ already considerable cap space, though Chicago does not have quite as much draft capital. Immediate upgrades are thus likely to be addressed in free agency, and will be required for the outside pass rush, OL, and wide receivers after the new coach is hired. Note: Chiefs o.c. Matt Nagy was hired as HC on Jan. 8.

Dallas (9-7)...After a return to relevance in a breathtaking 2016, there was a sense all year that the other shoe was about to drop in Big D once RB Ezekiel Elliott’s on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, then finally on-again suspension would kick in. The Zeke drama served as a distracting backdrop for the entire season at Arlington, and when Elliott finally had to take a seat for six games at midseason, the Cowboys looked feeble as they immediately lost three in a row. To its credit, Dallas scrambled back for three wins, pushing to the periphery of the playoff race before laying a huge egg in Zeke’s return game Dec. 24 vs. Seattle. That unsightly 21-12 loss and the resultant playoff miss weren’t enough for Jerry Jones to make HC Jason Garrett walk the plank, but they were enough to demand staff changes that are ongoing. Elliott’s resolved status (as long as he doesn’t find more trouble) would figure a plus in 2018, and Dallas seemed to find some answers on defense, but there are some questions moving forward. The biggest of those is the status of WR Dez Bryant, who could be released, while Jones must also decide what to do with potential FAs DE Demarcus Lawrence (who had a breakout year) and MLB Anthony Hitchens. And, of course, how long is Jones willing to stick with Garrett if the Cowboys continue to undershoot?

Detroit (9-7)
...Franchise matriarch Martha Ford has not been afraid to wield the axe since taking control of the operation from her son a few years ago, and did so again after the season when HC Jim Caldwell was deemed expendable after another late fade, this one costing a playoff berth and then his job. GM Bob Quinn will look at both of his coordinators (o.c. Jim Bob Cooter and d.c. Teryl Austin) as potential replacements, but what will Mrs. Ford say? Whatever, the Lions must address their annually non-existent running game that hasn’t produced a 100-yard rusher since Week 13 of the 2013 season; it might be time to identify a featured back in the draft for the first time since the Barry Sanders era. The run defense is also a concern because DT Haloti Ngata likely walks in free agency and DT A’Shawn Robinson remains a work in progress. A key FA decision on what to do with DE Ziggy Ansah, the best pass rush threat, is also on Quinn’s plate. The new coach will at least not have any QB worries with Matthew Stafford locked into a long-term deal, though Stafford appears the NFC’s version of Philip Rivers, a star QB forever destined to work for a borderline team. And when will Stafford ever start to win a few games vs. the better teams on Detroit’s schedule?

Green Bay (7-9)...One could almost make an MVP-case-in-absentia for QB Aaron Rodgers, whose absence from mid-October after breaking his collarbone at Minnesota on Oct. 15 wrecked the Packer season. Rodgers, who led the NFL with 13 TDP thru five weeks before his injury, returned for a Dec. 17 game at Carolina with the Pack still on the periphery of the NFC Wild Card race but was immediately shut down again after that loss ended Green Bay’s slim postseason hopes. In games Rodgers was unable to finish, Green Bay was 3-7 behind Brett Hundley, who needed OT to pull out two of those in early December vs. the lowly Bucs and Browns. A healthy Rodgers should remedy that problem in 2018, but his absence exposed some other areas of concern that are starting to be addressed by HC Mike McCarthy, who has already begun staff changes by axing most of his defensive coaches, including longtime d.c. Dom Capers. Moreover, long-serving GM Ted Thompson has shifted to another role in the organization; will his successor be a bit more willing to fish in FA waters? Thompson’s successor will negotiate an extension for Rodgers (who’s in the catbird seat, we’d say), though the deal must be structured for the Pack to address other roster issues, including edge pass rushers, additional WR help, and OL depth.

NY Giants (3-13)...When comparisons are being made to Allie Sherman’s 1-12-1 entry from 1966 as the franchise’s worst-ever team, you know things didn’t go too well for the G-Men. Even Kathie Lee and Hoda were relieved that ill-suited HC Ben McAdoo was relieved of duties in early December, but that was just part of the behind-the-scenes doings at MetLife Stadium as GM Jerry Reese also got the boot. Former Carolina GM Dave Gettleman, who had worked for the Giants earlier in his career, now calls the shots, and his first order of business is finding a new coach, with d.c. and interim HC Steve Spagnuolo a candidate. Then Gettleman must decide what to do with QB Eli Manning, who just turned 37 and enters his 15th season in 2018 clearly on the downside after one of the worst years of his career. Picking at the number two spot, Gettleman will be awfully tempted to tab one of the available hot-shot QBs (Josh Rosen? Sam Darnold? Josh Allen? Baker Mayfield?). It would help to be spared some of the bad injury luck from this past season, when the “O” disintegrated after WR Odell Beckham, Jr. went down, but the there were myriad problems around Manning, the "D" quit, and then there’s controversial CB Eli Apple, benched then finally suspended. Does the new HC get hired, or sentenced, to this job?

San Francisco (6-10)...This is the best-looking 6-10 record in memory, as the 49ers turned the corner in December when finally handing the offensive keys to QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who proceeded to win his last five starts and energize an entire team that ended the campaign beating three-playoff bound foes (Titans, Jags, and Rams) for first-year HC Kyle Shanahan, who not surprisingly began to look very comfortable as the season concluded. “Jimmy GQ” had been acquired at a fair price (a second-round pick) from the Patriots at the trade deadline, and it is hard to see GM John Lynch not working out a long-term deal, though short of that the Niners still can control Garoppolo via the franchise tag for the next couple of years. In any event, what figured to be a main question (QB) in the offseason at Santa Clara is no longer a major issue, as instead focus shifts to a couple of key cogs (RB Carlos Hyde & S Eric Reid) who could hit the FA market. Lynch had already gone young with his defense, but will be looking at badly-needed pass rush upgrades in free agency or the draft, where the Niners still have a bundle of extra picks from some of Lynch’s clever wheeling and dealing last April.

Seattle (9-7)...We’re tempted to say that the late-season fade that cost Seattle a playoff berth for the first time since the pre-Russell Wilson days of 2011 was the end of the Seahawks as we know them. However, that would be a bit harsh considering the rash of injuries that depleted the squad, especially the defense. No matter, it might have been the last ride of the “Legion of Boom” secondary that lost CB Richard Sherman and S Kam Chancellor for much of the season, and Chancellor’s future up in the air due to his neck injury. Thinking that the hour glass might be getting near empty, GM John Schneider and HC Pete Carroll went all-in this season, trading away high picks for DT Sheldon Richardson and LT Duane Brown. To no avail; while the “D” mostly held up, the OL was a disaster and the running game never got going, putting enormous pressure on QB Wilson to carry the offensive load. Which he mostly did, keeping the Hawks in playoff contention until the final week, as he set an NFL record for TDP in the 4th Q (19!). Still, big contracts have finally caught up with Seattle, which might have to part with some defensive cornerstones (Sherman or, perhaps, DE Michael Bennett). Indeed, the Hawks have more areas of need (RB, OL, WR, TE if Jimmy Graham leaves as an FA, plus maybe CB and OLB) than they’ve had in years. As for Carroll, he’s also now getting to the age (66) where he finds it necessary to announce whether he’ll return for the next year. Meanwhile, Schneider is apparently on Green Bay’s GM radar...if the Seahawks grant him permission to talk (which they haven’t yet). If the title window hasn’t closed yet in Seattle, it sure looks like it might shut very soon.

Tampa Bay (5-11)...In the end it was a bit of a surprise that 2nd-year HC Dirk Koetter survived and has been retained for 2018, especially after a reported rift with 3rd-year QB Jameis Winston, whose issues seem more complicated than a mere feud with his coach. It is now fair to ask if Winston’s 2017 regression (18 turnovers/33 sacks this season) is the beginning of a downward trend in his career (remember how Josh Freeman, who preceded Winston by a few years with the Bucs, also burned brightly for a short while before fizzling), though Tampa Bay did continue to play hard in December, which in the end probably spared Koetter. Still, the season was a big disappointment after near-breakthrough in 2016. Along the bumpy 2017 road, WR DeSean Jackson failed to justify his big-bucks deal, RB Doug Martin went MIA after returning from a season-opening 3-game suspension, and the “D” finished far up the track in most stat categories. If Koetter wants to see a fourth year as coach in 2019, Tampa Bay needs to find a pass rush, a steady RB, and retool the OL beyond getting Winston back on course.

Washington (7-9)...HC Jay Gruden has already beaten the odds by lasting (apparently) into a fifth season for notoriously tempestuous owner Dan Snyder, who has never kept a coach beyond four years. But Gruden will likely be on the hot seat next fall if the Skins can’t make a run at the playoffs, which Gruden has made only once (2015) in his four years on the job. First and foremost will be a front-office decision on what to do with QB Kirk Cousins, who has become rich on one-year franchise deals the past two seasons, an unlikely option for 2018 as it would cost the Skins a prohibitive $34 mill. A long-term deal is possible, but given how Snyder has low-balled him in the past, it would be no surprise if Cousins tests FA waters. If Cousins leaves, the Skins are going to have to scramble for a QB, and maybe go for one in the first round of the draft, unless they want to hand backup Colt McCoy the reins on a short-term basis. Injuries chipped away at the lineup this season, and as a result the Skins could neither run the ball nor stop opponents from running. But the major offseason question remains Cousins, as whatever the Skins do in free agency and/or the draft will be influenced by the direction they go with the former Michigan State QB.