Bold predictions for 2024 NFL season: Bears, Jets end playoff droughts; Chiefs three-peat! (2024)

Analysis

Published: May 28, 2024 at 11:31 AM

Bold predictions for 2024 NFL season: Bears, Jets end playoff droughts; Chiefs three-peat! (1)

Judy Battista

Senior National Columnist

The 2024 NFL season is just 100 days away, and most of the significant roster building is complete. There are still OTAs and minicamps to go, but the NFL is inching up on summer vacation and it's time to make some bold predictions about what we think we'll see once the season kicks off.

We'll make the real forecast after we watch teams go through training camps and the preseason, but pull up a beach chair, and consider these possibilities.

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1) The Chicago Bears make the playoffs. It's happened just three times since they lost Super Bowl XLI to the Indianapolis Colts after the 2006 season, but Caleb Williams is bringing his bear claw to Soldier Field and changing the fortunes of one of the league's most historic and historically quarterback-lacking franchises. Williams is a favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year because among the rookie quarterbacks, he is joining what is easily the best team. The Bears won seven games last season -- don't forget, that first overall draft pick was theirs because of a trade -- the defense took off after they traded for Montez Sweat, the receiving corps has Keenan Allen, DJ Moore and rookie Rome Odunze, running back D’Andre Swift has a new contract coming off a Pro Bowl season and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron was brought in with preparation for Williams' arrival in mind. Only eight rookie quarterbacks have posted double-digit wins since 1950 -- C.J. Stroud did it in 2023 -- but the Bears' schedule features the AFC South plus games against the Patriots and Commanders, both of whom will probably be starting rookie quarterbacks who have much less help around them. The Lions are the class of the NFC North, but with the three wild-card spots available, the Bears will be on their way to sustained contention.

2) The New York Jets make the playoffs(!) -- and lose in the Divisional Round. On the bright side, Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and gets the Jets to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season, ending the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports leagues. The problem is the Jets play in the AFC, which is flush with high-level teams, including the defending Super Bowl champions. Even if they win the AFC East -- I'm not ruling that out -- the Jets are unlikely to have the best record in the conference to get the first-round bye because their schedule does them no favors, with four short-week games, a trip to London and a bye that doesn't come until Week 12. Plus, they play some of the league's best defenses -- including in the opener against San Francisco. Could the Jets make a run to the Super Bowl? Yes. But they would need some breaks along the way, and probably some help knocking out some of their elite AFC competition.

3) Saquon Barkley just misses getting 2,000 yards from scrimmage, but the Philadelphia Eagles return to the Super Bowl. Cover your eyes, Giants fans, because Barkley is going to have a throwback season running behind the best offensive line he's ever had and playing in an offense with enough weapons that opposing defense won't only have to worry about shutting him down. He won't reach his rookie year 2,000-plus yardage, but I can envision a 2022-like 1,600-plus-yard effort. Given how aggressively Howie Roseman upgraded the team this offseason, it should be enough to take some of the load off Jalen Hurts and get the Eagles back to the Super Bowl.

4) The Cowboys lose the NFC East, make an early playoff exit, fire Mike McCarthy and hire Bill Belichick for 2025. This doesn't even really seem like that bold a prediction. The Cowboys have had a startlingly quiet offseason, while the Eagles have upgraded their roster. The Cowboys have enough talent, including Dak Prescott, to make the playoffs as a wild card, but with another early playoff exit in the offing, Jerry Jones does what many expected him to do this offseason: let Mike McCarthy go. McCarthy is coaching in the final year of his contract, so that won't even be a surprise. Neither will Jones hiring Bill Belichick. It's still bizarre that Belichick doesn't have an NFL job, and it feels a little like owners overthought things a little bit. If you have a talented roster and need someone to address details and mindset, Belichick is your guy. He won't coach for long -- maybe a few years -- but Jones can figure out a succession plan after he finally hoists another Lombardi Trophy.

5) The Bengals go to the AFC Championship Game. Cincinnati is one of the reasons I don't see the Jets getting to the Super Bowl. The Bengals have shown that when Joe Burrow is healthy, they are a Super Bowl-caliber team. Burrow has spent the offseason getting bigger and stronger and focusing on nutrition in an effort to improve his durability, and he will undoubtedly be highly motivated to silence questions about whether he is injury-prone. If he stays on the field -- and assuming the Bengals do not trade Tee Higgins -- this is the only team that has consistently challenged the Chiefs' supremacy. They'll get another chance to knock off the champs this season.

6) The Chiefs three-peat. I am out of the business of doubting the Chiefs after we watched their offense look underwhelming for most of last season -- remember the rare bursts of frustration we saw from Patrick Mahomes after his receivers dropped pass after pass? -- and they wound up winning the Super Bowl anyway. Rashee Rice's legal situation bears close watching, because he emerged late last season as a reliable young weapon. But the Chiefs also drafted the fastest player at the NFL Scouting Combine, receiver Xavier Worthy, giving Mahomes the kind of explosive big-play threat he hasn't had since Tyreek Hill. The defense carried the Chiefs for most of last season until the offense straightened itself out late, and with Chris Jones and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo back, there's no reason for the defense to take a step back. Neither will the Chiefs, who will make history.

7) Tom Brady stays retired and in the broadcast booth. I might hope I'm wrong about this one, but despite dangling the possibility that he would listen if a contending team asked him to play again, Brady will think better of it and stay retired. Could Brady return and get a team to the playoffs without having played most of the season? Probably. He can still throw the ball, he will stay in good shape and his mind for the game is unmatched. But so many planets would have to align for this to make sense -- a contending team would have to lose its quarterback and believe that Brady can walk in off the street and be a better option than their backup quarterback who knows the offense, Brady's bid to become a minority owner of the Raiders would have to not be an impediment, and, finally, Brady would have to deem the team who asks him good enough for him to upend his life again. All of that is unlikely to happen. Dare to dream, though. Addendum prediction: Brady will be well-received in the broadcast booth.

8) Kirk Cousins keeps Michael Penix Jr. on the bench in Atlanta, but Russell Wilson gets benched for Justin Fields in Pittsburgh. The two most fascinating quarterback rooms are going to provide plenty of intrigue this season. It's fairly easy to imagine Cousins holding onto his job, even though the drafting of Penix in the first round was a shock. Cousins typically plays at an extremely high level during the regular season, and he will be extremely motivated not to give the Falcons any room for doubt. Playing in the NFC South also gives Cousins a very easy path to winning the division and, for whatever it is worth, the Falcons are tied with the Saints for the easiest strength of schedule based on last year's records. Cousins hasn't played a down yet and he's already the best quarterback in the division. Plus, the Falcons gave him $100 million guaranteed. It will be very difficult to pull the plug on Cousins with that much invested in him.

On the other hand, the Steelers are paying Wilson a little more than $1 million, while the Broncos are paying the rest of his $39 million salary. That minimal investment by Pittsburgh means there will be little to keep it from turning to Fields if Wilson struggles. Arthur Smith is an experienced and successful offensive coordinator, but any struggle by Wilson -- and playing against the defenses in the AFC North gives quarterbacks plenty of chances to struggle -- will open the door to Fields, whom the Steelers would almost certainly like to see play before having to decide on his future. I'm calling it: Wilson wins the starting job out of camp, but he won't hold on to it, and Fields will have Terrible Towels waving for him.

9) Derrick Henry goes for 1,600 rushing yards with the Ravens. This is the free-agency marriage we all wanted, and the Ravens and Henry will be just as great a fit as we imagined. The Ravens had one of the most efficient running games last season, but introducing Henry is a game-changer. Even at 30 years old, he should lead the league in carries (as he has in four of the last five seasons) and could accumulate more rushing yards than he has in any season except 2020, his 2,000-yard effort. Yes, the Ravens lost three starting offensive linemen (tackle Morgan Moses and guards John Simpson and Kevin Zeitler), but they also seem to have a knack for finding and developing replacements. The Ravens had one of the league's highest-scoring offenses last season and that will be a boon for Henry. Get a lead, give him the ball, bleed the clock. That's a recipe for a Ravens playoff run.

10) Jim Harbaugh poses an immediate challenge to the Chiefs. If there was a concern with the Chiefs' defense in 2023, it was against the run. Enter Harbaugh, who has succeeded everywhere he has coached with a ground-and-pound approach, no matter how gifted a quarterback he had. Justin Herbert is exceptional, and he will benefit from Harbaugh's emphasis on the run and the offensive line. Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins will run behind an offensive line anchored by Joe Alt and Rashawn Slater, with a game plan designed by Greg Roman. That will take some of the load off Herbert, who lost receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, but Herbert could thrive in a ball-control-style offense. Harbaugh has proven throughout his career that he can turn around a team quickly. He'll give the Chiefs the most trouble they've faced from the Chargers since 2021 (the last time the Chargers beat the Chiefs) and that's just the start.

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Bold predictions for 2024 NFL season: Bears, Jets end playoff droughts; Chiefs three-peat! (2024)
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