The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden weigh in on key league topics:
1. Who’ll win the Super Bowl?
Bohls: The Los Angeles Rams loaded up in the offseason, especially on defense, and added deep threat Brandin Cooks for Jared Goff to better balance an offense that’s built around Todd Gurley. They’ll have too much firepower for Pittsburgh and will win Super Bowl LIII in a rematch of Super Bowl XIV.
Golden: The Atlanta Falcons will end two years of nightmares when they take out the New England Patriots. The addition of Calvin Ridley will return the Dirty Birds to 2016, when they were the league’s most prolific offense.
2. Who’ll be this season’s MVP?
Bohls: Todd Gurley, just ahead of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, by rushing for 2,000 yards and leading the Rams to an 11-5 record.
Golden: Tom Brady. Wideout Julian Edelman will be back from his four-game suspension soon enough and that easy AFC East schedule will produce some fat numbers as Brady edges Aaron Rodgers for the award.
3. Who will be the two rookies of the year?
Bohls: Jets quarterback Sam Darnold will wow in the Big Apple for the league’s offensive award and will be proclaimed the next Joe Namath while physical, ball-hawking safety Derwin James will have a huge impact for the Chargers’ defense.
Golden: The Giants won’t be great, but Saquon Barkley will extend Eli Manning’s career by another three seasons. And give me Bears linebacker Roquan Smith; with Khalil Mack now in the fold, Smith will thrive with double-digit sacks.
4. Will the kneeling controversy go away — and how will Colin Kaepernick be viewed in 20 years?
Bohls: The furor will be minimized because now the national anthem won’t be televised, but it won’t completely die down, especially with our ubiquitous POTUS fueling the fire. Kaepernick will always be a polarizing figure who’ll remain a social activist that will be hailed by some and condemned by others. Maybe Nike will hire him as its president.
Golden: Nike reignited the debate by using Kap as the face of its latest “Just Do It” campaign. He’ll one day be viewed much more favorably because he took an unpopular stance and sacrificed millions of dollars in his prime earning years to do so. I see him being held in much higher esteem by future generations than constant critic Donald Trump.
5. Who’ll be the first coach that gets fired?
Bohls: Dirk Koetter has a 14-18 record after two years in Tampa Bay and won’t survive. It should be Dallas’ Jason Garrett if he doesn’t make the playoffs.
Golden: The Jets have their quarterback of the future, but a 5-11 season will be the end for coach Todd Bowles.
6. Pick a sleeper to make the playoffs.
Bohls: This could be the year the Chargers break through. I’ve always loved Philip Rivers, who’s Brett Favre 2.0 on a much smaller scale. Watch for former Clemson wideout Mike Williams to have a breakout year, especially in the red zone, instead of the 80-year-old Antonio Gates.
Golden: San Francisco. The Niners won five straight games after acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo; the Niners have a good chance to finish 10-6 behind the Rams in the NFC West.
7. What superstar will be playing his final season?
Bohls: Arizona senior citizen Larry Fitzgerald will hang ‘em up and run for political office. I’d vote for this model citizen.
Golden: This is it for Adrian Peterson. He‘ll have plenty of chances to show he still has some juice in those 33-year old legs and he may be good for a pair of nice outings, but it’s time to retire and get ready for Canton.
8. Are the Dallas Cowboys trending up or down?
Bohls: Definitely downward. Zeke Elliott may well win the rushing title or press Gurley for it, but Dak Prescott has precious few weapons at receiver without Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, although Mike Gallup has a big future. The Cowboys seem poised for an 8-8 record for the fourth time under Garrett, who’s had four losing records in seven full seasons.
Golden: Down, given the health of center Travis Frederick and the lack of playmakers at the receiving position. It feels like a typical 8-8 finish.
9. How about the Houston Texans?
Bohls: The Texans are clearly on the rise and might be a legitimate playoff team but for a weak offensive line and the suspect coaching of Bill O’Brien, who’s 32-35 with one playoff win in four years. DeShaun Watson is a future MVP, especially with the acrobatic DeAndre Hopkins, the second-best receiver in the NFL. Pencil in their customary 9-7 record and a wildcard berth and one playoff win.
Golden: The Texans should make the playoffs if Watson picks up where he left off and if J.J. Watt stays healthy. Yeah, I know. Big ifs. They’ll finish 9-7, second to Jacksonville in the AFC South.
10. Who’s the league’s best coach not named Bill Belichick?
Bohls: The Rams’ Sean McVay, at 32, may still risk getting carded at the hottest clubs in LA, but he can coach. He’s totally driven and consumed by football and his idea of fun is watching one fewer football video when he’s on vacation in the Bahamas.
Golden: Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson has vaulted up the list because he turned a team with zero expectations into a Super Bowl winner with a backup quarterback leading the way.
11. What’s the most over-rated team?
Bohls: I’m not sold on Carolina, although Christian McCaffrey will shine. Cam Newton is the epitome of inconsistency and the toughest division in the league could expose the Panthers’ weakness at offensive tackle, an aging Greg Olsen and the wrecking ball that is Luke Kuechly, who often gets wrecked in the process.
Golden: Jacksonville. Last I checked, Blake Bortles is still the quarterback. The defense should be great, but I wonder if that offense will be good enough for the Jaguars to go to special places.
12. Are the Patriots done?
Bohls: Not even close. That said, this is the weakest crop of targets Tom Brady has and I think the dropoff will begin as New England fails to even reach the AFC championship game.
Golden: Not until Brady’s done, and he still has a few touchdown passes left in that aging arm. He does more with less.
13. Which rookie quarterback will be a bust?
Bohls: I’m not a Josh Allen guy. I’ll give the Bills rookie three years in the league. Tops.
Golden: Sam Darnold will have a tough go of it in New York. The Jets aren’t particularly talented offensively and too much will be placed on him to deliver.
14. Will Robert Griffin III ever start in the league again?
Bohls: Yes. And this season. The Ravens were wise to keep him because Lamar Jackson is just not ready. Joe Flacco is clearly on the way out and Griffin can bridge the gap betwen the two.
Golden: Yes, this season. Of course he will. Flacco will get blown up sometime in the first half of the season or he just may struggle to the point where the Ravens will go to Griffin for a jump-start.
15. What Texas rookie will have the best season (besides Michael Dickson)?
Bohls: Connor Williams is penciled in as the Cowboys’ starter at left guard and will help solidify arguably the best offensive line in the league.
Golden: Malik Jefferson is far from a finished product, but will emerge into a dependable tackler by midseason.
16. Who’ll be the comeback player of the year?
Bohls: Easy. Deshaun Watson will come back strong and key the Texans’ resurgence. He may not be as electric as he was in his seven games and will have to cut down on his interceptions, but he’s a star in the making and will get MVP votes.
Golden: Andrew Luck has been gone for what seems like forever, but will regain his groove behind a line that received a sizable upgrade in rookie guard Quenton Nelson.
17. Pick a 2017 playoff team that’ll take a huge step backward?
Bohls: I think the Jaguars could back-slide, but the Bills won’t make the playoffs after sneaking in last year at 9-7. What’s to like (except maybe the first pick in the draft)?
Golden: I’m not convinced the Chiefs will return to the playoffs with a sophomore quarterback. Patrick Mahomes has an electric arm, but there will be plenty of growing pains at Arrowhead.
18. What’s Baker Mayfield’s impact on the Browns — and how many games will Cleveland win?
Bohls: The former Heisman Trophy winner will start half their games and win the job for the future. The Browns will win four games.
Golden: Mayfield will start nine games and go 4-5 in them. The Browns will finish at a hope-building 6-10.
19. Will Jon Gruden still be coaching the Raiders in five seasons?
Bohls: Yes, even though he may trade away every superstar he’s got. His 10-year contract for $100 million will keep him around for a long time. But it’ll take him four years to make the playoffs.
Golden: I would say no, but he signed a huge contract and he’ll be too proud to step down after a few bad seasons and smart enough to stick around for his money.
20. If you could be the owner of any NFL team, which one would it be?
Bohls: The New York Football Giants — because I’d also get Yankees season tickets and cheap tickets to “Hamilton.” Going to Giants games would be cool, too.
Golden: The Dallas Cowboys. Say what you will about Jerry Jones, but he’d been printing money for 30 years. The Cowboys remain the most recognizable franchise in the league and will always have a passionate fan base.