Jake Elliot surveys the field before the game. Photo by Geonho Lee

Ah, June. The Super Bowl was 123 days ago, and there is another 90 days till the season kicks off. #Draftszn has come and gone, and free agency has quieted out. Teams are in the midst of OTAs, and training camp doesn’t kick off for about six more weeks. That leaves football fans trapped straight in purgatory. No more perfect a time to skip the whole season and try and guess what the final four of the NFL will be. This is all, of course, fun speculation.

First, the AFC:

AFC Team 1 – New England Patriots

We’ll start somewhere easy and obvious. The defending Super Bowl champion and three time consecutive AFC champions, the New England Patriots. A brave and bold choice. This will be a majorly different iteration of this team though, for one giant reason: the retirement of Rob Gronkowski. Gronk was a major reason for the resurgence and consistency of this team post Super Bowl 42. While there were extended periods of absence of Gronk from the team over the years, this is quite different. The Patriots receiver room consists of Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Demaryius Thomas coming off an Achilles tear, rookie N’Keal Harry, and a whole lot of unprovens. The tight end situation may be worse, with the ancient Ben Watson leading the way, and he will have to serve a suspension. And that’s about where the concerns end.

On the offensive side of the ball, Josh McDaniels is still there, as well as a certain number 12. Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will take what he is given and churn out a top 10 line. 2018 first round pick Isaiah Wynn did not play last year. He will step into the Trent Brown size void at left tackle and hold down the fort, just as Brown did for the departed Nate Solder. The backfield is still stacked, with Swiss army knives James White and Rex Burkhead. Sony Michel may have degenerative knee problems, so just bring in Alabama star Damien Harris.

With Brian Flores leaving to the rival Dolphins, Bill Belichick will be taking full reins of the defense. In player personnel, it’s out with Trey Flowers and in with Michael Bennett. The Patriots drafted Michigan pass rusher Chase Winovich in the third round, which will go down as one of the best picks of the draft. Add in the fact the Patriots will have something like five free wins in the division and play against the likes of the Bengals, Giants, and Redskins this year, this team is in position for a first round bye. As is tradition. This was an easy place to start, and perhaps basic, but that is because we are so accustomed to it. No NFL team, especially in this modern era, has done anything close to this. As long as the Patriots have Belichick and Brady, they will be there at the end. We should truly enjoy it and appreciate it while we can.

AFC Team 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers

This is a trickier proposition to guess at. The Chargers are a fraud team; they will not be here. The Houston Texans’ offensive line will absolutely let them down. The Cleveland Browns are far too young. They have loads of hype about them, and they’ll probably make the playoffs but not much more. But, hey, they went 0-16 (!!!!) just two years ago. Making the playoffs would be absolutely incredible for them. To me, that leaves only two teams in the AFC that could steal this slot, and that would be the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of those two, the team with the better defense will probably prevail.

This is a way more “out there” pick. After all, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are gone! Well they already showed they can keep a powerful ground games sans Bell, and Brown has proven to be one of the most toxic players in the entire league. That being said, they’re two talented players who are gone. So why Pittsburgh then?

Firstly, while the Steelers RARELY ever change coaches (going from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to the current coach over FIFTY YEARS), Mike Tomlin may be on the hot seat, or as hot as it gets in the River City. He could shrink from this moment, or he could rally his troops and focus on the fact the drama has left the building. I personally believe he’ll rise to the occasion.

Beyond that, the Steelers have a cause to rally around – Ryan Shazier. Shazier suffered a traumatic injury in the 2017 season, and has not played since and will probably never play again. He left a massive void in the middle of the defense. The Steelers made an excellent move to address that by jumping up to the 10 slot in the draft to grab linebacker Devin Bush. Bush tested extremely similar to Shazier at the combine. Bush flies around the field, sideline to sideline, and the hope is he will cover the middle part of the field where the Steelers have been mauled through the air the last couple years.

In addition, the Steelers have one of the most talented fronts in the league with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, TJ Watt, and Bud Dupree. Pittsburgh has an excellent offensive line, with the only real question being at right tackle and how to replace Marcus Gilbert. The Steelers have two solid in house options, in Matt Filer who had to fill in for Gilbert at points, as well as second year man Chukwuma Okorafor.

The secondary is probably the most questionable spot, but the addition of Steve Nelson, drafting of Justin Layne, and growth from players like Terrell Edmunds and Mike Hilton could stabilize this. We will see on offense, how Juju Smith-Schuster plays without Brown drawing coverage, but the Steelers drafted Diontae Johnson this year and James Washington last year. These are highly talented players set to play big roles for this team. Schedule again plays a part here, as the Steelers get to the play the weak AFC East and top-heavy NFC West. Ben Roethlisberger is not the bonafide stud he once was, but he is still a very, very good player at the game’s most important position. This team will surprise the league this season.

Next, the NFC:

This is way, waaaay harder to gauge. The NFC as a conference is ridiculously stacked. There are at least two teams in every division that have a real chance to get to the Super Bowl, based on various factors. Selecting two to be the finalists is an absolute crapshoot, because there are a million ways it could go. That said, I’ve chosen the two that represent the most complete teams at the moment.

Let me start by knocking some teams out. The Cowboys going 10-6 was one of the worst things they could do, because now they still have Jason Garrett on the sideline. The Panthers are totally dependent on Cam Newton being healthy, and it seems as if they are rushing that. Although they probably should have represented the NFC in last season’s Super Bowl, I do not think the Saints will be as good as they have the last few years because Drew Brees is older, and they started looking incredibly shaky at the end of the season. They may have peaked. The Vikings are a top-heavy team relying on a quarterback that has shown a tendency to shrink from the moment. The Packers overpaid for role players from good defenses, and their new head coach was the offensive coordinator for a team that was 27th in points and 25th in yards last year. This leaves us with Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and LA. At a guess, team one will be…

NFC Team 1 – Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are another team that is blessed with a decent schedule. The only other truly competent team in their division is the Rams. They get to play the AFC North, as well as the NFC South. They have an incredibly strong interior defensive front featuring Jarran Reed and Poona Ford. Ezekiel Ansah was brought on to be a complementary edge piece, which is where he is best set. They also added TCU rusher LJ Collier with their first draft pick. Additions in the secondary such as Jamar Taylor, and Marquise Blair will strengthen that area. They have the best middle linebacker in football in Bobby Wagner. But the piece that matters above all else, is Russell Wilson. Wilson had the best season of his career last year, throwing for 35 touchdowns against just 7 picks. With Wilson, the Seahawks have never gone under .500 in a season. They have missed the playoffs under him only once, 2 years ago in a 9-7 campaign.

Wilson just received a massive contract extension, and he is absolutely deserving of it. He is not only one of the most valuable players in the league, he is one of the absolute best. Tom Brady is the “best” quarterback in football in terms of accomplishments and all, but Wilson is the best by talent and ability as of this moment. He is an absolute magician and makes plays that no one else can. The Seahawks go as Wilson goes, and over the course of his career, that has been to the playoffs and beyond.

While the Seahawks lost perhaps their best receiver ever in Doug Baldwin, they added the enigmatic freak DK Metcalf, and still have stud Tyler Lockett and risers such as David Moore. That almost does not matter, though, because Wilson will create offense on his own, and he makes his receivers better. They have an incredibly talented backfield with Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and CJ Prosise. Burner JD McKissic is listed at wideout but has also played back. The shakiest area for the Seahawks, as always, is the offensive line, but Wilson has been able to survive that. If they can improve, even marginally, this team will be a force to be reckoned with this season.

NFC Team 2 – Chicago Bears

The fourth team for this set is the Chicago Bears. Oh, but regression! Oh, but Trubisky isn’t that good! Last season does not matter now, but if not for a certain someone doinking a certain something, this team would have made the Super Bowl (they already beat the very clearly poorly adjusting Rams, and as said, the Saints were fading hard).

Their defense was (and will be) a monstrous entity that all quarterbacks fear. The loss of Adrian Amos sucks. HaHa Clinton-Dix was brought in to offset that. Amos was the 9th or 10th best player on the defensive 11, so hopefully Dix fills in at about that level. The loss of Bryce Callahan hurts more; he was one of the best slot corners in the league until he got hurt last season. The Golden Tate touchdown was thrown at his position. The Bears added Buster Skrine and Duke Shelley to address that area. People do not know Bilal Nichols’ name right now, but after this season they will. And you cannot forget about Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller, who combined for 13 interceptions last season.

Offensively, Cordarelle Patterson and Riley Ridley add even more depth to an incredibly talented pass catcher group. James Daniels is going to center, and Cody Whitehair will slide to left guard, their natural positions. The Bears shipped out Jordan Howard and drafted David Montgomery, someone with a more natural fit in Matt Nagy’s offense, who draws comparisons to Kareem Hunt.

This leads to the lynchpin of all the Bears’ hopes and dreams: Mitchell Trubisky. Over the course of the franchise’s history, only three quarterbacks stand out – Sid Luckman, Jim McMahon, and Jay Cutler. That is it. That’s the list. This team has consistently found itself in a QB wasteland. The hope is that Trubisky adds himself to that list. And there is reason to hope he will. Yes, he showed flashes of inconsistency and poor decision making. He was really inaccurate at times. Whenever he missed, he missed high, and it was usually a bad result. However, last season Trubisky was in essence a rookie. He has not been a starting QB for very long, going back to UNC. He went from John Fox to Nagy, and had to learn the system in one offseason. Look what Patrick Mahomes did with all the time he had to sit and learn in the Reid system. In the biggest moment of the season, Trubisky put his team in position to win the playoff game against the Eagles. That result (the double doink loss) does not reflect what he did in the most high pressure moment. For all the talent across the team, the Bears will go as Trubisky goes, and I would bet Trubisky only continues to get better.

Depth is the main concern for this team. If any starter goes down, things could get hairy, but that is true of any team. This said, what team features the absolute wrecking crew of a defensive front 7 the Bears possess? Of the Bears’ 12 wins, they were fully in control of nine of them going into the fading moments of the fourth quarter. One score games are a decent predictor of regression or progression, and the Bears only went 3-4 in those games. So to conclude, the progression of Trubisky combined with a little more “luck” in those close games leads me to believe the Bears will join the Patriots, Steelers, and Seahawks as one of the final four teams remaining in the upcoming 2019 NFL season.