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2018 NFL predictions: Our totally accurate picks for this year’s major awards and Super Bowl 53

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Here’s who we think will be this season’s biggest winners — and why. Now tell us if we’re wrong.

Houston Texans v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Sundays are no longer for family time and going outside. Starting Sept. 9, Sundays are for football again.

There will be no shortage of intrigue when the 2018 NFL season kicks off Thursday with a showdown between the NFC champions that could withstand a Patriots comeback — the Philadelphia Eagles — and the NFC champs that decidedly could not — the Atlanta Falcons. From there, the league drops right into gear, matching up potential playoff teams (49ers-Vikings, Chiefs-Chargers, Cowboys-Panthers) and quarterback battles that pit the league’s old guard against what could be its next generation of stars (Patriots-Texans, Bears-Packers, Steelers-Browns).

Week 1 won’t decide how the rest of the season pans out, but it will set the tone for 2018. Last fall saw a predictable Super Bowl run from New England and a much less obvious Super Bowl title for the Philadelphia Eagles — but both teams had to overcome early defeats to the Chiefs to get there. Players like Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson needed some little lead time before settling in for breakout seasons that were eventually curtailed by ACL tears. Others, like Jared Goff and Case Keenum, put forgettable 2016 campaigns in the rear view to lead their teams to the postseason.

There will be a lot to unpack over the next 17 weeks. New stars will rise and fade as the league reacts and adjusts to a new and unpredictable season. A chunk of 2017’s playoff teams will fall back to the pack, replaced in the postseason by fresh faces. Some late-round rookie will send you scrambling to your fantasy league’s waiver wire with an out-of-nowhere breakout performance, only to earn four touches the following week.

Predicting anything outside of another Patriots’ AFC East title is a fool’s errand. And, as such, we feel qualified to peel back the layers of the upcoming year and take our best educated guesses at this fall’s biggest winners. Here’s how we see 2018 shaking out:

MVP

Todd Gurley, Rams — Christian D’Andrea
Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Charles McDonald
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers — Adam Stites
Drew Brees, Saints — Sarah Hardy
Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Harry Lyles Jr.
Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Ryan Van Bibber
Aaron Rodgers, Packers — James Brady

Why I picked Gurley: Gurley would need a historic season to claim MVP honors — but with the Rams now loaded with offensive options who can prevent opponents from loading the line of scrimmage, he’ll have the space to get there. He came back strong from an underwhelming sophomore campaign to prove himself in 2017 as one of the league’s most exciting playmakers; in 2018, a season with 2,300 total yards isn’t out of the question. If he gets there, he’ll put himself among the company of other tailback MVPs like Adrian Peterson (2,314 in 2012), LaDainian Tomlinson (2,323 in 2006), and Marshall Faulk (2,189 in 2000). After gaining 2,093 yards in 15 games last fall, that’s a reasonable jump. — Christian D’Andrea

Why I picked Bell: It’s clear at this point that Bell isn’t going to be in Pittsburgh in 2019. This is his last rodeo with the Steelers and that means there’s no reason for the team not to squeeze every last drop of value out of Bell before he goes. He had a league-leading 406 touches in 2017, and now the Steelers have every reason to crank that up even higher. It takes serious stats for a running back to top a quarterback for NFL MVP, but give Bell the ball more than 420 times — something only DeMarco Murray has done in the decade — and it may be doable. — Adam Stites

Offensive Player of the Year

Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Christian D’Andrea
Deshaun Watson, Texans — Charles McDonald
Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Adam Stites
Antonio Brown, Steelers — Sarah Hardy
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers — Harry Lyles Jr.
Alvin Kamara, Saints — Ryan Van Bibber
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers — James Brady

Why I picked Watson: Deshaun Watson was on his way to a historic rookie season before he unfortunately tore his ACL after Week 8 showdown against the Seattle Seahawks. Some aspects of Watson’s rookie performance are going to be unsustainable. He threw a touchdown on a ridiculous 9.3 percent of his passing attempts, which would’ve finished 12th all time (tied with Hall of Famers Otto Graham and Ken Stabler) if he had been able to finish the season. Regression will hit Watson, but he should still remain one of the top offensive players in the league. Being able to throw to Deandre Hopkins and Will Fuller once again will help, and Watson has the athleticism to overcome a poor offensive line — something that he dealt with a year ago. Watson should still be a machine on the field if he can stay healthy for 16 games. — Charles McDonald

Defensive Player of the Year

Joey Bosa, Chargers — Christian D’Andrea
Aaron Donald, Rams — Charles McDonald
Malik Jackson, Jaguars — Adam Stites
Aaron Donald, Rams — Sarah Hardy
Aaron Donald, Rams — Harry Lyles Jr.
Khalil Mack, Bears — Ryan Van Bibber
Khalil Mack, Bears — James Brady

Why I picked Donald: Aaron Donald can detonate the interiors of offensive lines. He can carry an entire defense by himself — as a defensive tackle. Now, Donald gets the best teammate of his career with Ndamukong Suh joining the fray on a one-year deal. That’ll give Donald more opportunities for single blocks, which he routinely destroys. In the secondary, the Rams will feature Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Nickell Robey-Coleman, John Johnson, and Lamarcus Joyner. Improved coverage will give Donald more time to get to the quarterback, and he already doesn’t need much time to do that. The influx of talent the Rams have on defense will give Donald more chance to disrupt offenses, and it should lead to a monster year on the stat sheet that will allow to collect another Defensive Player of the Year award. — Charles McDonald

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Dante Pettis, 49ers — Christian D’Andrea
Saquon Barkley, Giants — Charles McDonald
Saquon Barkley, Giants — Adam Stites
Sam Darnold, Jets — Sarah Hardy
Saquon Barkley, Giants — Harry Lyles Jr.
Anthony Miller, Bears — Ryan Van Bibber
Dante Pettis, 49ers — James Brady

Why I picked Pettis: Pettis is an outside-the-box choice, but he’ll have the chance to thrive as a home-run hitter for the Niners the way Tyreek Hill did for the Chiefs in 2016. While he may be Jimmy Garoppolo’s third option at wideout behind Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon, he can make his impact felt in a major way on special teams. The former Washington star set an NCAA record with nine career punt return touchdowns in college, but he also added 22 rushing and receiving TDs while leading the Huskies back to prominence the last two seasons. And now he’s got a proven offensive mind in Kyle Shanahan to unlock that potential at the next level. — Christian D’Andrea

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Bradley Chubb, Broncos — Christian D’Andrea
Derwin James, Chargers — Charles McDonald
Roquan Smith, Bears — Adam Stites
Derwin James, Chargers — Sarah Hardy
Derwin James, Chargers — Harry Lyles Jr.
Roquan Smith, Bears — Ryan Van Bibber
Roquan Smith, Bears — James Brady

Why I picked Smith: If you need any evidence that Smith is ready to be a star for the Bears, just watch the most recent Rose Bowl game between Georgia and Oklahoma. Against a prolific offense led by No. 1 pick and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, Smith was a one-man wrecking crew who made plays sideline to sideline and paved the way for a trip to the national championship. We didn’t get to see him in preseason due to a holdout and a nagging hamstring injury, but he should be ready to go for the regular season where he’ll play behind a line that now features Khalil Mack paired with Leonard Floyd. Smith’s going to give the Bears tackles, sacks, interceptions, fumbles forced, and enough big plays to earn an award in January. — Adam Stites

Comeback Player of the Year

Deshaun Watson, Texans — Christian D’Andrea
J.J. Watt, Texans — Charles McDonald
Odell Beckham, Jr., Giants — Adam Stites
David Johnson, Cardinals — Sarah Hardy
J.J. Watt, Texans — Harry Lyles Jr.
Andrew Luck, ColtsRyan Van Bibber
Andrew Luck, Colts — James Brady

Why I picked Watson: Watson will face a steep learning curve in his second year now that opponents have some NFL tape on him, but he faced a steep curve in 2017 as a rookie, too. The former Clemson star has made doubters look stupid at every opportunity. He’s got the benefit of the doubt now — even if his offensive line this fall could land him back on the injured list before he can properly compose his follow-up. — Christian D’Andrea

Coach of the Year

Anthony Lynn, Chargers — Christian D’Andrea
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers — Charles McDonald
Pat Shurmur, Giants — Adam Stites
Anthony Lynn, Chargers — Sarah Hardy
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers — Harry Lyles Jr.
Bill O’Brien, Texans — Ryan Van Bibber
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers — James Brady

Why I picked Shurmur: The model for becoming the NFL Coach of the Year relies on your team being trash one year earlier. Sean McVay got it last year for taking the Rams from 4-12 to 11-5, Jason Garrett won the year before that by taking the Cowboys from 4-12 to 13-3, and so on and so forth. So Shurmur’s already on the short list just for taking the head coaching gig with the Giants, who finished 2017 with a 3-13 record. His previous head coaching job with the Browns didn’t go so well, but hey, it’s the Browns. In New York, he gets a veteran quarterback, one of the best receivers in the NFL, a defense that still has most of the skeleton from when it was No. 2 in the NFL in 2016, and, maybe most importantly, Saquon Barkley. Drafting a running back in the top five is usually a one-way ticket to huge improvement and if the Giants are a playoff team in 2018, Shurmur’s probably the winner. — Adam Stites

AFC champion

Pittsburgh Steelers — Christian D’Andrea
New England Patriots — Charles McDonald
Jacksonville Jaguars — Adam Stites
Pittsburgh Steelers — Sarah Hardy
Pittsburgh Steelers — Harry Lyles Jr.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Ryan Van Bibber
New England Patriots — James Brady

Why I picked the Patriots: Well, they have the path of least resistance. They get six games against the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins — games that they should be favored in. The duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is simply too good for the Patriots to not advance deep into the playoffs yet again. Until the Steelers show to us that they can actually compete with and defeat the Patriots in meaningful games, there’s no need to stray away from New England. The wild card is Blake Bortles improving to a point where the Jaguars trust him to win a game for them, but that isn’t the case — even with his extension earlier this year. — Charles McDonald

Why I picked the Steelers: The last time the Patriots had receivers this bad, they fell short in the AFC title game with a 29-year-old Tom Brady. The Jaguars are still reliant on Bortles and watched their receiving corps get worse this offseason. The Chiefs’ defense is bad. The Chargers are the victim of some sort of Aztec curse.

But Pittsburgh, despite major issues at linebacker, will have a young and touted defense, an experienced quarterback, and the combination of Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and a pissed-off, playing-for-his-next-contract Le’Veon Bell. That makes the Steelers the safest bet in the AFC — Christian D’Andrea

Why I picked the Jaguars: Well, they’re pretty good. But after having suffered through sooo many boring Super Bowl appearances by the Patriots, dammit, America needs two weeks with the Jaguars. — Ryan Van Bibber

NFC champion

Minnesota Vikings — Christian D’Andrea
Minnesota Vikings — Charles McDonald
New Orleans Saints — Adam Stites
Minnesota Vikings — Sarah Hardy
Atlanta Falcons — Harry Lyles Jr.
Los Angeles Rams — Ryan Van Bibber
Atlanta Falcons — James Brady

Why I picked the Rams: They’re very good, as talented as any of the teams in the top-heavy NFC. I think another year of experience for Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay will go a long way toward putting the Rams over the edge.

Bonus reason — how great would it be to see the Rams in a Super Bowl barely two years after firing Jeff Fisher? —Ryan Van Bibber

Super Bowl champion

Pittsburgh Steelers — Christian D’Andrea
New England Patriots — Charles McDonald
New Orleans Saints — Adam Stites
Minnesota Vikings — Sarah Hardy
Atlanta Falcons — Harry Lyles Jr.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Ryan Van Bibber
Atlanta Falcons — James Brady

Why I picked the Vikings: Well for one, they’re not the Patriots, who will probably end up here anyway, but I don’t want to put such negative energy out into the universe. Plus, the Eagles winning their first Super Bowl last season has me feeling bullish that another team will finally get its due.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Vikings made their last of four (winless) Super Bowl appearances. They’ve come up short so many times and in such devastating ways that they’re SB Nation’s official record holder for most crushing playoff losses. But there’s more to it than just my empathetic (and Midwestern) side wanting the pain to stop. The Vikings also have all the right tools to make a Super Bowl run, even more than they had last year when they went 13-3.

Case Keenum played out of his mind last season, but there’s little doubt they upgraded at quarterback. Kirk Cousins has legit receivers (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and an emerging Laquon Treadwell). Dalvin Cook is back after an ACL tear robbed him of most of his rookie season. And that defense — already terrifying last season — only got better this offseason with the additions of Sheldon Richardson and first-round corner Mike Hughes.

The offensive line needs to stay healthy, and I might be a wee bit worried about the Vikings using a rookie kicker, especially with their cursed history. It’s time to exorcise those demons, though — or at least that’s what I want to believe. — Sarah Hardy