Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

The NFL will kick off its 100th year Thursday night when the Green Bay Packers face the Chicago Bears to open the 2019 season.

Why those two teams? Because they happen to be two of the league’s oldest franchises.

The Decatur Staleys – now the Bears – began playing in 1920. The Green Bay Packers began playing the next season.

One hundred years later, here they are, still two of the league’s most storied franchises. And that’s one of the great things about the league. The NFL is a league that can have a storied franchise in Chicago, which makes sense, and Green Bay, Wis., which doesn’t. If you’ve ever been to Green Bay, you’d understand.

It’s kind of like having an NFL team in Erie. Or Harrisburg. Or some other mid-sized city.

And yet that team is capable of competing in the NFL because the league’s owners share the financial pie.

It’s not like Major League Baseball, which is a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself league.

Green Bay is the smallest market in the four major sports leagues. Yet the Packers have been one of the league’s best franchises.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Pirates could say the same?

But we digress. With the NFL season upon us, here’s a look at how things will shake out this season, at least in the eyes of this writer.

AFC East

1. New England, 2. Buffalo, 3. N.Y. Jets, 4. Miami: Nothing new here, but for the third consecutive season, FootballOutsiders.com has the Patriots’ schedule rated as the easiest in the NFL. That is, at least in part, because the AFC East has been terrible not just recently, but for decades.

AFC North

1. Steelers, 2. Cleveland, 3. Baltimore, 4. Cincinnati: The Browns have gotten a ton of publicity, but it says here they’re a year away from having a real shot at competing for something beyond a division title. You have to learn to walk before you run. The Steelers are still the class of the division.

AFC South

1. Houston, 2. Indianapolis, 3. Tennessee, 4. Jacksonville: The Colts would have been the choice a week ago. Then, Andrew Luck retired. They still have a good squad, one that might have been the favorite to win the Super Bowl when it looked like Luck would be on their side. Now, it’s the Texans who will win the division.

AFC West

1. Kansas City, 2. L.A. Chargers, 3. Oakland, 4. Denver: The Chargers would have been the pick in the West had they not lost safety Derwin James for most of the season. Now, it’s the Chiefs’ division to lose, again.

Playoff seeds: 1. Kansas City, 2. New England, 3. Steelers, 4. Houston, 5. Cleveland, 6. L.A. Chargers

AFC Championship: Kansas City over Steelers

NFC East

1. Philadelphia, 2. Dallas, 3. N.Y. Giants, 4. Washington: The Eagles have a deep and talented roster, which should be enough to hold off the Cowboys, who will likely open the season without Ezekiel Elliott. The Giants and Redskins will be among the league’s worst teams.

NFC North

1. Minnesota, 2. Green Bay, 3. Chicago, 4. Detroit: It might be hard for Steelers fans to believe, but the Vikings had the league’s worst kicking game in 2018, leading to an 8-7-1 record. The Bears will have similar issues this season after going through about a dozen different guys in the offseason.

NFC South

1. New Orleans, 2. Atlanta, 3. Carolina, 4. Tampa Bay: The Saints are loaded and will get a rare repeat in the NFC South, which seemingly has a new winner every year. Atlanta should bounce back after being decimated by injuries on defense in 2018.

NFC West

1. L.A. Rams, 2. San Francisco, 3. Seattle, 4. Arizona: The Rams won’t be quite as good as last season, but they’ll still be good enough to hold off the 49ers. Seattle will take a step back after surprisingly making the playoffs last season. The Cardinals will be better than a year ago, when they had the league’s worst record, but not by much.

Playoff seeds: 1. Philadelphia, 2. New Orleans, 3. Minnesota, 4. L.A. Rams, 5. Green Bay, 6. Atlanta

NFC Championship: New Orleans over Philadelphia

Super Bowl: New Orleans over Kansas City

  • As you can see, the belief here is that the Steelers will be a better team in 2019 than they were in 2018.

They won’t be as talented on offense without Antonio Brown, but the additions of cornerback Steven Nelson, linebackers Mark Barron and Devin Bush and improved play by second-year safety Terrell Edmunds, who will be one of the league’s emerging stars, will make the defense very dangerous.

  • Another reason the Steelers will be better is because Chris Boswell has his mojo back. Boswell made all six of his kicks in the preseason and should bounce back from a very forgettable 2018.

As it looks now, Bush will only play in pass defenses. And he’ll still have a good shot at winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. A big reason for that is because the Steelers will have their nickel and dime defenses on the field about 75 percent of the time.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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