Red Zone

2017 NFL predictions: Chiefs reach AFC title game, but Packers, Steelers make Super Bowl

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton remains a dual-threat dynamo for Carolina, which should bounce back from a horrid 2016 season (6-10).
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton remains a dual-threat dynamo for Carolina, which should bounce back from a horrid 2016 season (6-10). deulitt@kcstar.com

(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear as a special section in the Sunday, Aug. 27 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)

Who is poised to stand out among players and coaches this year? Which teams will make the playoffs?

Read on and find out ...

AWARDS

MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. The obvious choice here is New England’s Tom Brady, but the Super Bowl hangover is real, folks. So let’s go with the 33-year-old Rodgers, who had a nice statistical season last year (40 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and has been given more weapons to work with in free-agent tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks.

Coach of the year: Mike Mularkey, Tennessee. When the Titans upset the Chiefs last December – at Arrowhead, by the way – you should know that wasn’t a fluke. The Titans are going to be good. It’s a physical, smashmouth team that added some more offensive weapons this offseason and should only get stronger with a year of experience. The Titans are one of the league’s up-and-coming teams.

Offensive player of the year: QB Cam Newton, Carolina. The obvious choice here is the ageless Brady, but it’s so obvious it’s no fun. So let’s go with Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP who is coming off a year from hell in which he was beat to a pulp and had to undergo offseason shoulder surgery. Newton, however, is still only 28 years old, and alpha dogs tend to bounce back after nightmare seasons like that. The Panthers gave him some more offensive weapons this offseason and the team, in general, was better than its 6-10 record a year ago.

Defensive player of the year: DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams. Yes, he’s holding out for a new deal. But Donald somehow led the league in quarterback hurries last season with 31 ... as an interior lineman! By the way, he’s still only 26 years old. Insane. He’ll get his money, then he’ll terrorize quarterback again this year.

Offensive rookie of the year: RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota. The Vikings are going to use the heck out of Cook, a gamer who didn’t test well during the predraft process but is an outstanding football player, nonetheless. The guess here is he’ll make Vikings fans forget about Adrian Peterson sooner rather than later. Also keep an eye on Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey.

Defensive rookie of the year: S Jamal Adams, New York Jets. Tempted to go with Cleveland edge rusher Myles Garrett here, but Adams is truly a marvelous player, and the Jets are so bad offensively that he figures to log a ton of snaps, which will give him no shortage of opportunities to pad his stats. Chiefs safety Eric Berry, the player to which Adams is most often compared, won rookie of the year, too, by the way.

PLAYOFFS

AFC West: Kansas City

That’s right, I’ve got the Chiefs winning the AFC West again, crazy offseason and all. The bottom line is this team went 12-4 last year with its run defense as a glaring weakness, and I don’t think it will be as bad this year. Throw in the fact Justin Houston looks healthy and the entire defense basically returns (sans Dontari Poe), I think the Chiefs could be primed to reach the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1994. The offense will need to turn it up a notch to get there, and they’ve been slinging it around in practice all camp in a real effort to become more explosive. The same happened last summer, but Alex Smith has a legitimate threat behind him now in Patrick Mahomes and like a true competitor, he’s risen to the challenge by putting together a good camp. If Smith is truly more aggressive this season, the Chiefs can absolutely have another great year.

AFC North: Pittsburgh

The Steelers have won a combined 32 games the last three years, and they have an elite coach-quarterback combination in Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. What’s more, these guys have already won two Super Bowls together, so they have the pedigree neccessary to make another run.

AFC East: New England

The Pats have won the AFC West eight years in a row, so it would be foolish to be against them. A Super Bowl hangover is in play for New England, but their floor for a season is much, much higher than most because of their elite coach-quarterback (Bill Belichick and Brady) combination.

AFC South: Tennessee

The Titans and Texans will likely battle for the fourth seed in the AFC, but both teams are intriguing. The Texans could jump a level with competent quarterback play, while the Titans are a young, physical team on the rise. I’ll go with the up-and-comer here but I still think the Texans will make the playoffs.

AFC wild cards: Oakland, Houston

Here’s a prediction for you – the Raiders will again have a strong record, only to be turned away by the Chiefs for the division title due to a tiebreaker. They should still make the playoffs, though, and if they ever get their linebacking corps straightened out, watch out. The Texans are a threat to win the AFC South, but I’ve got them coming in behind the Texans.

AFC champion: Pittsburgh over Kansas City

I know, I know. Say it ain’t so. I’m predicting the Chiefs to beat the Steelers at home in October and lose to them on the road in the AFC Championship Game. Here’s the good news: if the Chiefs make it this far, it means Alex Smith had a great season, which means he can quarterback you again in 2018 or you can deal him for a tasty pick or two.

NFC West: Seattle

The Seahawks still have one of the league’s best defenses, not to mention a star quarterback with some weapons to throw to. Arizona could pose a challenge, but the Seahawks are a threat to reach the Super Bowl.

NFC North: Green Bay

One of the league’s most consistent franchises is set to have another strong year. The Packers have made the playoffs for eight years running, and they have the tools to do it once again.

NFC East: New York

The Giants reached the playoffs for the first time since 2011 last season, and I’m calling for them to win the division for the second year in a row. New York boasts a strong defense that finished second in scoring, and there are enough offensive weapons to give teams trouble.

NFC South: Carolina

That’s right, I think the Panthers bounce back. No way their 6-10 record reflected who they really were. The year before, they made it all the way to the Super Bowl. I think Atlanta will experience a similar Super Bowl hangover as the Panthers did in 2016, especially given the gut-wrenching way in which the Falcons blew a 28-3 second-half lead.

NFC wild cards: Dallas, Tampa Bay

I’m calling for the Cowboys and Bucs to fend off the likes of Minnesota, Philadelphia and Arizona for the wild-card spot. Dallas could potentially win the NFC East, even with Ezekiel Elliott out for six games, while Tampa Bay is an up-and-coming squad to keep an eye on. Jameis Winston looked good when he led the Bucs to an upset victory at Arrowhead last season and bigger things are likely on the horizon for him.

NFC champion: Green Bay over Carolina

The Panthers’ bid for a return trip to the Super Bowl gets quelled by Rodgers, but there’s no shame in that. The Packers boast a wealth of talent on offense, and if their young defensive players grow into their roles by the time the playoffs roll around, Green Bay could round into form at the perfect time.

Super Bowl LII champion: Green Bay over Pittsburgh

A rematch of Super Bowl XLV would be fun for purists, as two of the league’s oldest, most respected franchises square off again on the grandest stage.

Once again, it’s football time, folks.

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