The 2020 NFL season has hit its first COVID-19 hurdle and how it handles this week could go a long way in determining just how long this season goes. Unfortunately, the two Sunday games I was excited to watch and planned to write about here (and bet a SGP on FanDuel since they’re fun) are not happening now.
The Titans have at least 16 members of the organization with a positive COVID test, so that battle of 3-0 teams with Pittsburgh has been moved to Week 7, which pushes the first Ravens-Steelers game a week later to Week 8. It’s the kind of scenario that was inevitable outside of a bubble, but also one like my example in this season’s predictions where the NFL actually lucked out with bye weeks allowing for a little change to get all 256 games on the schedule.
Will they be as lucky next time when it’s a near certainty there will be a next time? It’ll get harder each week, and that’s why it was a mistake for the NFL not to build in bye weeks at the midpoint and end of the regular season to add flexibility in making up games when this happens. Given the alarming number of injuries we’re seeing in games after an unusual offseason, it just makes no sense why the league wasn’t more cautious in its approach with the schedule. These are the most unusual times in NFL history, a league that started just after the terrible 1918 flu pandemic.
They also better hope the Vikings don’t have anyone test positive tomorrow on gameday after playing Tennessee last week. So far, Minnesota hasn’t had any positive cases. The Chiefs and Patriots each have a quarterback with a positive COVID test, but it’s thankfully not Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs. Still, that puts Cam Newton out and casts doubt on this game, an important one in the AFC, even getting played this week. How did Cam get the virus and who else has he been in contact with? The NFL’s contact tracing system has to be working flawlessly to control this from spreading, especially for two teams with arguably the two best coaches in the league, both up there in age and more vulnerable to having a rough COVID battle.
The NFL clearly has a big problem in tests not being reliable enough or quick enough on game day to test everyone. A bunch of false positives on a Sunday morning could lead to a game being cancelled or holding out a lot of players who aren’t actually infected. That would be problematic. If they wanted to do a test that’s reliable, it apparently isn’t feasible to do one on Sunday morning and get the results back in time for kickoff. Again, our failures as a country in not getting the best testing in the world are coming home to roost here.
Playing this Chiefs-Patriots game on Monday or Tuesday is the current plan, but that doesn’t seem very feasible given the long incubation period the virus has in producing a positive test result. They could be putting multiple infected players on both teams on the field in this one, so I’ll be surprised if it actually gets played in Week 4.
That’s a shame because it was the real highlight game of the week. My best wishes to Cam Newton for a speedy recovery, but he will be one of the more interesting case subjects for the impact COVID can have on an athlete. While there hasn’t been any high-profile deaths in sports, not everyone has recovered well from COVID. Newton plays a more physical style than most quarterbacks in the league. Will he have breathing and fatigue issues when he returns to action in a couple of weeks? All of this remains to be seen as we’re in uncharted territory with the first NFL season during a pandemic.
Without PIT-TEN and NE-KC, we have a fairly bland Week 4 schedule remaining. In fact, I ended up picking all favorites and almost every one of them to cover the spread, which is as boring as it gets:
Would I be surprised with any upset? Sure, the Ravens not rebounding from Monday night and crushing the Football Team would be shocking. The Giants beating the Rams would also be up there, but other than that, nothing would really shock me.
I could see the Dallas defense laying another egg and Mike McCarthy doing something weird in a close game that Cleveland pulls off. I could see the Jaguars rebound from last week and beat what is still a bad Bengals team. I just happened to go for the sentimental pick of giving Joe Burrow his first win. It wouldn’t shock me if the Saints lost in Detroit with Matthew Stafford picking apart that defense, but I like to think Sean Payton can avoid a three-game losing streak in that one.
Then there’s the night games. The banged-up 49ers host the banged-up Eagles, and Nick Mullens is playing better than Carson Wentz right now if you can believe it. This game looks terrible but will still likely do way better numbers than the NBA Finals Game 3 with the Lakers up 2-0 on Miami. The 49ers may be down a lot of starters, but George Kittle and Deebo Samuel return to the offense. I picked the Eagles to cover just for the hell of it really, but usually each season there’s a couple of teams where I lose on for a month by thinking they can’t possibly be this bad only to find out they are. The 2020 Eagles look to be one of those teams. Houston and Minnesota have been that way too so far this year, and go figure, they play each other to see who will start 0-4. Assuming the virus doesn’t shut that game down, of course.
Then there’s Monday night where the Falcons take their historic losing ways to Green Bay against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers. The best hope is it looks like the 2014 MNF game (43-37) between these two where the Falcons at least put up a good fight before losing.
What’s turned into a boring NFL week on paper could turn into one of the most notable weeks in the history of the United States. Any day now we could awake to see shocking news, either about the president, the election, or if this NFL season is going to crumble before our eyes.
Things were likely to get worse before they get better, but we truly are living in uncertain times where breaking news (and doomscrolling) is keeping us on the edge of our seats. Football was a great idea to keep our minds occupied on something other than the pandemic, but as this week has shown, there is no escaping this thing yet. We can make the days go by faster debating if the Chiefs can go undefeated or if Josh Allen is actually legit, but COVID is part of everything now.
Somehow the world feels different since the Jets and Broncos mercifully left the field Thursday night, and while the game wasn’t bad enough for me to say it triggered the apocalypse, I’m pretty high on anxiety right now.
Find joy where you can tomorrow. Enjoy the last couple of basketball games if you’re a Lakers or LeBron fan. Anything else, I couldn’t possibly speculate at this point.
On paper, the 2020 NFL season should be one of the most interesting campaigns in years.
We have a team in Kansas City looking to end the longest drought of a repeat champion in NFL history with Patrick Mahomes, the new face of the league, leading the way. There has been unprecedented quarterback movement this offseason with the domino moves of Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Tyrod Taylor, and Teddy Bridgewater. The Andy Dalton Era in Cincinnati has mercifully given way to the Joe Burrow Era. The Clapper is gone in Dallas, bringing back Mike McCarthy. The “Redskins” moniker is gone in Washington, replaced by…Football Team. There are beautiful new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There are now 14 playoff teams instead of 12, ending the longest consistent schedule format in NFL history at 18 seasons (2002-2019). Pour one out for our beloved 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, because the landscape of the league is changing before our eyes as the NFL begins a new decade.
However, in reality, this season feels dangerous in a year that’s felt dystopian.
This is the first NFL season during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s no guarantee it’s the last. There’s also no guarantee we see all 256 regular season games, or that the playoffs will be completed on time, or if we even get a champion out of this 2020 season. That’s why every prediction I make here should come with the caveat of “if the season is completed.” I avoided repeating that over and over, but it must be said.
All we know is the NFL is going to try to get this season in the books with as few hiccups as possible. No one can predict with any certainty what the fall is going to look like or what the spread of the virus will be after September travel, a massive influx of students back to school, and the upcoming flu season.
How realistic is it for this season to go smoothly? We’ve already seen major college football conferences cancel their seasons. We’ve seen countless universities admit failure and quickly move back to online classes. It’s easier for a billion-dollar company like the NFL to implement a great, daily testing system than it is for any school, but what happens if a rash of false positives on a weekend threaten numerous teams like we saw happen in August? A false positive is better than a false negative, but we may see some Sunday games delayed until Monday this year if that happens again.
Worse, how will the NFL handle what is almost an inevitable team infection like we’ve seen in MLB because of travel? So far, the bubble approaches in NHL and NBA have gone very well, but baseball has had multiple teams with positive cases that led to games being postponed. Right now, the St. Louis Cardinals have played 10 fewer games than the team that’s played the most games this season. That’s lame, but it’s also easier in baseball to make games up since they can play double-headers or even shorten the games to seven innings. The NFL has had impressive testing results in training camp, but players haven’t been traveling like they will now. Football is the toughest to play during a pandemic since the rosters are the largest and it has the most contact among players. There’s just more bodies to keep healthy.
One NFL game needing to be postponed can throw the whole schedule off, and it’s certainly not fair or legitimate to have a season where a few teams played 15 games instead of 16 games. It makes no sense why the NFL didn’t implement two bye weeks like they did in 1993 to provide more flexibility should a problem arise.
I happened to pick a random team and a random game to illustrate my point of how confusing this can get, and it actually turns out to be one of the easier fixes for the NFL:
The Week 5 game between the Browns and Colts is postponed due to COVID
In Week 7, the Colts have a scheduled bye and the Browns play the Bengals.
The Browns-Colts game is instead rescheduled for Week 7.
The Bengals will now have a Week 7 bye instead of playing Cleveland.
In Week 9, the Browns and Bengals both have a scheduled bye, but will now play each other to make up their Week 7 game.
Got it? It gets harder for teams that had an early bye or when teams don’t share a lot of common opponents. So we could see some of that this year. If there’s more than one game in a week that needs changed, then that could get really hectic. Not to mention there’s the possibility of an outrageous presidential election in November and protests from the players not unlike what we saw happen in the NBA and others a few weeks ago.
ICYMI, the country is literally burning right now.
Then there’s the question of what will pandemic football look like. Are offenses going to thrive more without crowds since it’ll be quieter and they can operate? Will the league-wide third-down conversion rate be higher for that reason? Will we see a record number of hard counts? It sounds like fake noise will be pumped in during the games, but the NFL hasn’t been too forthcoming in how that’s regulated or what it will sound like.
One of the NFL’s most egregious mistakes so far is not mandating a crowd size rule that’s equal for all 32 teams just like the MLB, NBA and NHL have done for these pandemic seasons. You can’t have 25 teams with no one in the crowd and seven trying to have some percentage of capacity, yet that’s what’s being allowed right now. That’s bullshit. It should be the same for every team. Attendance has always been voluntary and it’s not like crowds need to be of equal size, but giving people even the opportunity to attend should be done with more care during a pandemic. Beyond the possibility of an NFL game being a super spreading event, imagine if games with crowds lead to moments before or after the game where players, young and healthy and not thinking, take selfies with a bunch of coronabros that were tail-gating all morning. That could cause a team outbreak right there. It’s just not smart to have crowds right now.
Also, spare me the “it’s just the flu” bullshit as we get close to 200,000 U.S. deaths on the first NFL Sunday of the year. I see enough of that on Twitter daily. While someone like Mahomes may not get really sick from it, he could give it to Andy Reid, who is older and overweight, and that could turn tragic. A lot of the coaching staffs have elderly members who are more at risk from this virus. They matter too and we still don’t know how bad the long-term effects can be even for the young athletes who get it and get over it quickly.
The preseason sucks, but you have to admit if there was ever a year to have some preseason games, this would have been the one. It would have been nice to get a glimpse of what Brady looks like in Tampa Bay, if Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton are actually healthy, or if Joe Burrow (or any rookie) has a clue what they’re doing so far. We lost all of that this year and you can see it had an impact on undrafted free agents making teams like they tend to since they didn’t get those precious snaps and opportunities to showcase their skills. You also have to wonder if the 2020 NFL draft will go down as a dud with teams reaching more for players they didn’t scout as well due to the pandemic and lack of pro days and the usual visits. New coaching staffs may also be at a disadvantage, giving an edge to teams returning the same minds.
Will we see a bad rash of injuries due to the unique offseason and lack of physicality and a preseason? We’re already starting this season without Von Miller and Danielle Hunter just to name two prominent pass rushers. Derwin James went down for the Chargers already. That’s something else to look at early this year as we’re somehow going right from the Super Bowl seven months ago to a real game tonight despite the fact it doesn’t feel like anyone’s ready for football.
People who have continued to bet against this virus for months have been on quite the losing streak. I had people on Twitter telling me the NFL won’t cancel anything important this year, and yet we’ve already see the whole preseason wiped out. That’s something. There’s even been this attack that sportswriters want sports cancelled. No we don’t. There’s already been enough job loss in this disappearing industry.
Speaking for myself, the last thing I want is a season that starts and doesn’t have an ending. That would be a waste of time and a risk for no real reward. I only wanted to see a season if it can be done safely and to completion. They’re going to try, but we’ll just have to see what happens.
[deadpan] Maybe like a miracle it will just go away…
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-3)
Let me start with a negative, because the rest of this is going to be so positive and optimistic in a way that I can’t really express about any other team in the NFL right now. Had it not been for that 3rd-and-15 conversion in the Super Bowl, I’m likely writing about how the Chiefs could get over the hump this year, and how Patrick Mahomes responds after having his worst game in the biggest game of his career. But “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” happened and the rest is history. The Chiefs trailed by double digits in every playoff game, but still won them all by double digits, an insane feat.
Okay I lied, here’s one more negative: there probably will never be an easier playoff path for the Chiefs to the Super Bowl than hosting the Texans and Titans. It’s only going to get harder as Kansas City attempts to become the league’s new overlords.
Ask yourself this: who is going to stop them? Since 2017, the Chiefs have been on one of the greatest competitiveness streaks in NFL history. They have not lost by more than 7 points in their last 45 games, one game away from tying the all-time record of 46 set by the 2011-14 Seahawks. Had it not been for Dee Ford lining up a smidge offsides in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, we could already be talking about a repeat champion, or at least two straight conference titles in Mahomes’ first two seasons as a starter.
Kansas City is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC West. The Chiefs won at New England last year, and that seems to be a team moving backwards instead of remaining on top. Tom Brady went to the NFC where flashes in the pan tend to pop up each season. Mahomes’ Chiefs have gotten the best of Lamar Jackson’s Ravens the last two years, though that Week 3 game is going to be crucial this year for home-field advantage. They split with the Texans last year, but got the playoff win and still have a better team than Houston, which should be on display in the season opener tonight. Maybe Pittsburgh becomes a contender again, but Mahomes threw six touchdown passes in his only meeting with the Steelers.
The time is now for Kansas City to rack up championships while the rest of the conference figures itself out. Maybe Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati, or Tua brings Miami back to relevance in the near future. That’s not happening this year though. It’s largely an arms race between the Chiefs and Ravens in the AFC, but no matter where the game is played, you have to like the Chiefs chances with anyone as long as Mahomes is healthy.
There aren’t many new faces of relevance on this team, but so much of what they had last year works so well for them. The most fun offense to watch in the NFL in years returns almost fully intact. The wideouts and Travis Kelce are back. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough. They even had the luxury of drafting a running back in the first round in the same offseason they made Mahomes the richest player in NFL history and also locked up Kelce and Chris Jones. Tyrann Mathieu leads the secondary and was one of the few standout players on the team to play in all 16 games last year as they had to overcome some big injuries on the way to a championship. Andy Reid retains his coordinators for one of the best staffs in the league.
As I explained in my Super Bowl LIV Preview, Mahomes doesn’t have a weakness. He hasn’t had a truly bad game yet in 36 NFL starts. The 49ers were half a quarter away from doing it to him as a night with 10 points and multiple turnovers certainly would have qualified, but we know what happened after that. Mahomes basically walks into the building with 23 points on the board, which is the minimum the Chiefs have scored in 35 of his 36 starts. That’s a rate at which no other quarterback can compare in their starts since 2001 (minimum 36 starts).
Now this team isn’t so far ahead of the league that you should be thinking a perfect season or anything like that. They do have to travel to the Ravens, Bucs and Saints, so those are where losses are most likely to come. But with the way Mahomes can put up points, the Chiefs are never out of a game.
This is going to be fun.
2. Denver Broncos (8-8)
UPDATE: Everything below this paragraph was written on Monday before the Von Miller injury news. It’s since made me drop the Broncos from 9-7 to 8-8 and definitely changes the tone of the season. It’s unfortunate to say the least as the Broncos have been cursed at keeping their duo of edge rushers healthy in recent years.
There’s some pressure on me to nail my Denver prediction like the last seven years, never being off by more than one game. This team is trending in the right direction, and the addition of a seventh playoff team could ultimately help them make the tournament this year since there’s still an obvious gap with the Chiefs in the division. However, there are crucial games early and late that could decide Denver’s fate this year. It starts on Monday night with hosting the Titans and then that Week 15 game at home against Buffalo could be for the final playoff spot. Now some people probably have the Titans and Bills winning their divisions this year, but I feel all these teams are going to be in that 9-win range, battling for the Wild Card positions. You should also throw Pittsburgh in that mix and that’s Denver’s first road game in Week 2.
So we should get good glimpses early of where this team and its young offense are. Courtland Sutton’s second season went very well and the first-round pick of Jerry Jeudy made a lot of sense in providing Drew Lock a talented group of starting wideouts. If there’s good growth from TE Noah Fant, a 2019 first-round pick, then this could be the best skill players the Broncos have fielded since the Peyton Manning era.
As for Lock, the jury has to still be out after five starts as a rookie. When his 4-1 record is the first (and almost only) thing mentioned, that should set off an alarm on anyone’s BS Detector. While Lock was fantastic in the win at Houston, he followed that up with a total dud in the snow against the Chiefs and averaged just 5.71 YPA in those games. He didn’t throw for 200 yards in the three non-Houston wins. It’s far from clear how much he can carry a team, but he should be able to do more in his first full season as the starter.
Lock should also have a better defense supporting him than several of the young quarterbacks in the league. 2019 was the first time in Von Miller’s career where he played in double-digit games, but didn’t record double-digit sacks or have any forced fumbles. I wish him the best as one of the earliest NFL players to battle COVID-19 this year and he now is going through another major injury that is sure to set the defense back a bit.
Denver will be happy to get Bradley Chubb back on the field when he can to help after Chubb missed 12 games in 2019. In case you forgot, the former No. 5 pick had 12 sacks as a rookie and his return along with the addition of Jurrell Casey from Tennessee should improve the front seven. It’s the secondary where Denver looks vulnerable. After losing Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in the previous two seasons, standout corner Chris Harris Jr. is gone after nine seasons with the team. It appears he’ll be replaced by slot corner Bryce Callahan, a Vic Fangio project from Chicago, but he hasn’t played since 2018. A.J. Bouye, once a flash in the pan success, also comes over from a rough season in Jacksonville. Let’s just say it’s a secondary that the Chiefs (and other contenders) won’t have any issues with unless that pass rush is dominating.
Lock really finding a groove with his young receivers could be the difference in finishing 5th and finishing 8th in the AFC this season, but for now, let’s stick to near .500 with a team on the right track.
3. Las Vegas Raiders (5-11)
Hard to believe this is already Year 3 for Jon Gruden’s second dance with the Raiders, and the first year in Las Vegas. The Raiders overachieved last year when they won seven games despite ranking 24th in scoring on both sides of the ball. Derek Carr’s 2019 season still perplexes me. On the one hand, it was his best season yet in several areas. On the other hand, his true colors showed when the Raiders were 6-4 and scored 12 points total on the road against the Jets and Chiefs. Carr finished 10th in QBR (64.1), a metric that has never placed him higher than mediocre.
It was an unexpected performance after the Raiders were bamboozled by Antonio Brown, but tight end Darren Waller took advantage of that to have a breakout season with 1,145 yards. The only wide receivers that really produced for Oakland were Tyrell Williams and rookie Hunter Renfrow. The latter is back, but Williams is on IR. Help has arrived though for Carr in the form of first-round wideout Henry Ruggs, third-round pick Bryan Edwards, and veteran TE Jason Witten. Josh Jacobs is the clear RB1 in the backfield and the offensive line should be above average as it returns all five experienced starters — a true rarity in this league right now.
By this point of the write-up I went back to see if I could find another win or two for the Raiders, then I remembered why I only found five. The Raiders were a convenient loser on the road for me to find home wins for teams that should be in short supply of any wins this year (Panthers, Browns, Jets). I don’t like to pick teams to lose 13 or 14 games, so those wins have to come somewhere, and the Raiders still feel like one of the teams susceptible to losing any given week in this league.
When you get to the defense, where are the proven veterans? It’s mostly players with 1-3 years of experience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if they develop, but there’s not a lot to rely on here.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (4-12)
It’s hard to say Hard Knocks has me amped up to watch the Chargers play this year. The new L.A. stadium looks beautiful, but what kind of team is this going to be after ending things with Philip Rivers? By going to Tyrod Taylor, you can expect fewer interceptions, but more sacks and punting. This team was already better on defense than offense last year, and that should continue even after losing safety Derwin James (again) for the whole season. They still have Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and brought in slot corner Chris Harris Jr. from rival Denver so there is real talent there.
The Chargers might be able to keep the score down, but will the offense be good? We should expect a much more run-heavy approach than the Rivers era, but Austin Ekeler isn’t a 20-carry per game type of back. They let Melvin Gordon go to Denver and Ekeler has never carried the ball more than 132 times in a season. He’s a great receiver, but that strength too would seem to diminish by going from Rivers to Taylor, who is really just a stop-gap before rookie Justin Herbert takes over.
The early schedule actually allows for a 6-3 start going into the bye, but that’s assuming we’re getting Taylor’s best and the defense doesn’t have more big injuries. Remember, we’re talking about the Chargers here so that is pretty unlikely.
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
Most of this will be about Russell Wilson, but let’s get a few things out of the way first. Yes, the division is the toughest in the NFL in my view, but Seattle gets to host the Patriots, Cowboys and Vikings early in the season, which is better than going on the road for any of those opponents. Looking forward to seeing D.K. Metcalf in his second season after a good rookie campaign. The offensive line remains a weakness, but that’s been true for years and yet Seattle still finishes with a winning record. Last season was the first time since 2010 that Seattle ranked in the bottom half in scoring defense. Bringing back Bruce Irvin and trading for safety Jamal Adams should help. Those days of having the top defense are over, but it’s not like this team needs that with Wilson at this stage of his career.
However, the way this Brian Schottenheimer-coordinated offense operates is still the main story/conundrum. We know Pete Carroll wants to run a lot all game long. We know Wilson is one of the best in the league. What’s the right balance of run and pass for this offense? No one seems to know for sure, but the “Let Russ Cook” idea isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Most pass-happy offenses get to those increased numbers by implementing a lot of short, quick passes, especially on early downs. That’s not Wilson’s strength. He is best at throwing downfield and improvising plays. In his career, Wilson is 3-10 when he throws at least 40 passes in a game. There are 111 other quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 3 wins in that situation, and for comparison Patrick Mahomes is already 7-3 when he throws it 40+ times. I bring up Mahomes specifically because Seahawks fans seem most convinced that Wilson can do everything Mahomes can, but isn’t allowed the same type of freedom in his offense. There’s some truth to that. In 2019 on 1st-and-10 plays, the Seahawks threw the ball 46.2% of the time in the first quarter and 55.5% in the second quarter compared to 61.5% in the first and 72.8% in the second quarter for the Chiefs.
But one thing Mahomes undeniably does better than Wilson is he gets rid of the ball without taking a sack. The same is true for a lot of quarterbacks, but let’s focus on Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan. Here’s where their career sack percentages (regular season only) stand with Wilson’s for each down. Ignore fourth down (holy shit, Matt) as it’s just there for completeness.
On the first three downs, the quarterbacks rank in the exact same order except for third down where Brees bests Mahomes for the lowest rate. But the important part is Wilson always takes the highest rate of sacks each down. Wilson gets sacked on first down almost as often as Mahomes gets sacked on third down, the down quarterbacks are most likely to go down on as it’s the obvious passing situation.
If the Seahawks start throwing 35-40 passes a game instead of 25-30, it’s likely to come at the expense of the long game. Now a 5-yard completion to Tyler Lockett or veteran TE Greg Olsen still beats a 1-yard carry, which may be the most persuasive argument for Let Russ Cook. But the risk of an early-down sack that could kill a drive quickly must also be accounted for. The Seahawks should let Wilson take over more often early in games, but there has to be an understanding that taking sacks is part of his game that doesn’t seem like it will go away unless he makes some major changes to his playing style like how Ben Roethlisberger did starting in his ninth season (2012). This happens to be Wilson’s ninth season.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
The 49ers surprised a lot of us by proving to be the best team in the NFC last year, and it probably would have been the whole NFL had the Chiefs not converted that 3rd-and-15 in the Super Bowl. However, there’s plenty of past precedent for such a team to take a step back the following year. Look no further than last year in the same division when the Rams turned a great 2018 Super Bowl season into a disappointing 9-7 finish. Beyond that, there are some striking similarities between the teams. There’s the “genius” coach who schemes in a lot of play-action and runs to help his talented-but-sometimes-maddening QB produce big numbers. Sound familiar?
The close games that almost always went against Kyle Shanahan in his first two seasons mostly went his way in 2019 as Jimmy Garoppolo led the team on four game-winning drives. Going on 29 years old, it’s not clear how much of Garoppolo’s ceiling has already been hit, but it feels like he’s pretty close to the top of what he can be. He’s good enough to win a Super Bowl under the right circumstances, but after doing very little to win two playoff games, he didn’t deliver when he had to against the Chiefs. If the 49ers get back to the Super Bowl, they’ll likely be facing the Chiefs or Ravens, or two teams that beat the 49ers last year. Also, while George Kittle is awesome, Deebo Samuel is coming off an injury and the 49ers lack a traditional No. 1 wide receiver. Emmanuel Sanders (now gone) was a good pickup last year, but there’s going to be a lot of trust in very young wideouts this season.
Defensive consistency is a rare achievement in the NFL. It was amusing to see so many mentions for coordinator Robert Saleh to get a head coaching gig on the strength of one good season following two lousy ones in San Francisco. There’s no reason to think the 49ers won’t field a good defense this year, but it’s also hard to see why they should be better on that side of the ball.
I’m putting the 49ers in the playoffs, but we need to see some repeat success before we start penciling them in as a favorite every year. If you look at the last nine teams to win 13 games in the NFC, six of them missed the playoffs the next year and only one of them (2018-19 Saints) equaled those 13 wins again. Only two of the nine won double-digit games.
Unlike the AFC, the NFC loves parity, much like how the 49ers came out of nowhere to such a great 2019 season.
3. Los Angeles Rams (9-7)
While the Rams disappointed to 9-7 in their conference defense, some are burying Sean McVay and company too quickly. The Rams were a makeable field goal against Seattle away from being in Seattle’s playoff spot last season. Sure, the performances were erratic last year, especially at QB and defense. Jared Goff passed for 517 yards against Tampa Bay and 395 against Seattle before throwing for 78 yards against the 49ers. The defense had just as many games (three) where they allowed fewer than 10 points as games where they allowed more than 40 points. The complementary football was bad, but don’t count out a team that has a very good coach, a quarterback who sometimes looks the part, and some major defensive studs (Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey).
The first three games (DAL, @PHI, @BUF) should tell us a lot about how the season will go for the Rams. A loaded division, Goff and the defense’s inconsistencies, and an offensive line that is going to need to go through some serious retooling soon (without much draft capital in the coming years) are all fair reasons to count out the Rams as serious title contenders, but I think there is still enough here to win nine games and be in the Wild Card mix. Remember, the Rams would have been the No. 7 seed in 2019.
4. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
This may be one to regret, but you can see just how highly I think of the NFC West when the last-place team finishes 8-8. Since 2002, that’s only happened six times and it hasn’t happened since 2008. In a normal offseason where Kyler Murray could get in there and grind film with his coaches and workout a lot with newly acquired DeAndre Hopkins, this would probably be the path the team would take. But during a pandemic, it’s not clear how much progress a young team like this will make.
The Hopkins trade was a huge get with Larry Fitzgerald turning 37 this year. That should help Murray out, who definitely impressed last year even if he wasn’t nearly as sharp as Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott were as rookies. The running game was explosive at times, especially when David Johnson wasn’t involved in things. Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson are still strong cornerstones to build around for the pass rush and secondary respectively.
The Cardinals pulled off a stunning win in Seattle last year and hung tough twice with the 49ers and also fared decently in Baltimore in Week 2. This team feels close to competing and a soft early schedule could get them off to a confidence-building start before things get tougher down the stretch.
1. New England Patriots (10-6)
Nothing like replacing an overrated quarterback with another overrated quarterback, amirite?
Now that the brand was taken care of, let’s talk about something I’ve been waiting a long time for: a Patriots season without Tom Brady. My wish was for Jameis Winston to go there and for Bill Belichick to coach the mistakes out of him and make the playoffs with a quarterback who has yet to win in this league, but 2020 is about pain instead of fun. Instead, they waited until another cheating scandal was in the news before stealing some headlines by finally signing Cam Newton, which seemed like the logical move all offseason. Belichick winning with Cam with a defensive-led approach is a bit boring, but here we are.
First question: what kind of Cam did they get? Without a preseason it’s really impossible to answer this. Newton is 31 and hasn’t been healthy for a couple of years. He started 2018 well, but he’s lost his last eight starts and hasn’t played since Week 2 of last year. If he’s reasonably healthy, then I think the Patriots are getting a quarterback who is less reliable and consistently accurate than Brady, but he can make big throws and create on his own, which would be a change in New England. 2015 was always a bit of a mirage for Cam, so they’re not getting that guy, but he is absolutely serviceable to win for Belichick. The cupboard looks pretty bare at WR/TE, but that’s not entirely out of nature for Newton’s career. He should at least enjoy James White as a pass catcher after falling in love with the short throws to Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. However, this could be the final nail in Julian Edelman’s HOF case that never really was a thing. It’s hard to imagine Cam, or most quarterbacks, would prefer to target Edelman over everyone else, but that probably will be the case here unless K’Neal Harry takes a huge step forward.
Alas, let’s not forget that the Patriots could have won 11 of their 12 wins last year with a replacement-level QB because of how dominant the defense was and how weak the schedule was. The only time Brady was really the Brady of old was in the second win over Buffalo. You had games where the Patriots D/ST literally outscored the opponent by itself. Now the defense is unlikely to be that good again, and I called them a fraud halfway through the season before they proved they were. But it should still be a competent unit led by Stephon Gilmore.
Something that’s sure to annoy me this year: Brady fans treating the 2020 Patriots like the only change was Brady’s departure. That’s simply not the case. For one, no team has been affected more by COVID-19 so far than the Patriots. Three starters (RT Marcus Cannon, S Patrick Chung, and LB Dont’a Hightower) opted out of the season due to medical concerns. That’s a big deal. The Patriots also said goodbye to starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, traded Duron Harmon (some huge interceptions on his resume from 2013-19) to Detroit, and TE Ben Watson and FB James Develin retired. That’s a lot of starts and years of experience in New England gone this year. None of the changes are on the level of Brady leaving, but
When the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 53, it sure felt like a last hurrah, a final miracle run to close out the dynasty. Rob Gronkowski retired, but Brady didn’t, and the team even started 8-0 before finishing 4-5 with a playoff flop. More players have moved on, making the Patriots feel more like a team going through a transition than one fighting to stay on top. In fact, when Jarrett Stidham was still listed as the starter into July it almost seemed like Belichick was attempting to tank for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.
If this is really Buffalo’s time, then so be it. We’ve sure waited long enough to see better competition in the AFC East, but as long as Belichick is calling the shots, then it’s hard to pick someone else even if there’s been some obvious decline with the roster.
Still, wouldn’t winning 10 games with a cheap Cam contract feel right for this franchise?
2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)
I don’t care if the Bills Mafia wants to slam me through a foldout table, I’m still not picking this team to win the AFC East after the Brady era finally ended. I’ll take Bill Belichick and a healthy Cam Newton over Sean McDermott and Josh Allen, though it is hardly a guarantee that Newton is still reliable. Both teams will try to win via defense first, but respect to the Bills for the aggressive move of adding Stefon Diggs after he had a career year. It completes a nice WR trio where John Brown can be a deep threat and Cole Beasley works the slot while Diggs does a bit of everything. We should be skeptical that Diggs will be as efficient as usual given he caught 68.4 percent of his targets in Minnesota and now comes to windy Buffalo with a QB who doesn’t know how to get to 60 percent completions yet.
To their credit, the Bills were a drive away (twice really) from overtaking the Patriots in the division last year. However, both teams took advantage of the schedule with the Jets and Dolphins in the division and the poorest division in the league (NFC East). The Bills also squeaked by the awful Bengals and the Steelers with Duck Hodges. Buffalo was 1-4 against teams with a winning record (1-5 counting the one-and-done playoff loss), only beating the Titans 14-7 after Tennessee missed four field goals with Marcus Mariota at QB.
Simply put: the Bills win a lot of close games against bad teams, don’t beat the good teams, and they have to keep the score down for Allen to win at all (0-8 as a starter when the Bills allow more than 21 points).
That’s not the kind of team (and QB) that gets my respect. At the very least, the schedule doesn’t look that daunting this year, Allen could still improve with a better offensive cast around him, and then there’s the defensive side of things.
The Bills have one of the best defenses in the league, but keep in mind this comes at a lower standard than what we’re used to for great NFL defense. This unit can’t touch that of the Ray Lewis-era Ravens, the Lovie Smith-era Bears, the run the Steelers had in 2004-2011, or even what the 2015 Broncos and Legion of Boom-era Seahawks had last decade. There are some very nice pieces on this unit (Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver, Jerry Hughes) and few weaknesses, but it’s not an overwhelming collection of talent. The most productive pass rushers from 2019 (Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips) are both gone. For as great as White is at corner, Josh Norma has seen better days and the others (Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson) are nothing special. Again, the schedule and division of primarily weak offenses helped make the numbers look better last year.
It’s not like I want to see the Patriots continue their run in this division, so it would be great if the Bills stepped up and Allen played like a franchise QB. The AFC East needs that so badly. But until we see something better I’m going with Wild Card for the Bills.
3. Miami Dolphins (5-11)
In last year’s predictions, I said “Tank for Tua” had a nice ring to it and Miami’s highlight of the year would be beating the Patriots. I just didn’t think they’d win as a 17-point underdog in Foxboro to knock the Patriots out of a bye, but that’s the kind of competitiveness the Dolphins had down the stretch after a start to the season where they and coach Brian Flores didn’t look like they belonged in the NFL.
It’s still a hard roster to like at this point, but you look for the young defense to improve as well as WR Preston Williams and TE Mike Gesicki. DeVante Parker finally had his breakout season in 2019 with 1,202 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the season, but expect Tua to take over at some point — maybe Week 12 after the bye — to get his feet wet before the team goes through another offseason revamp to compete for something real in 2021.
4. New York Jets (4-12)
It’s almost a miracle the Jets won seven games last year since Adam Gase’s offense really couldn’t do anything — dead last in yards and points per drive — but that’s what you get when you play the East divisions and draw Pittsburgh with Duck Hodges. Not to mention the Jets followed Gase’s usual “win by one score or lose by 16+ points” split.
The continued offensive woes aren’t all QB Sam Darnold’s fault since he had mono last year and the horrendous Luke Falk played in three games, but it’s also not all Gase’s fault. The Jets are the only team in the last three years to go three-and-out more than 30 percent of the time and they’ve done it in both of Darnold’s seasons, including 2018 when Todd Bowles was the coach.
This is a crucial third year for Darnold since we should really know by now if he’s a franchise quarterback or not. It’s not an enviable offensive situation to be in either. The Jets were as bad as anyone at running the ball in 2019, and it’s hard to feel optimistic about a thrown together line doing its job for a patient Le’Veon Bell and ancient Frank Gore. TE Chris Herndon had a respectable rookie year in 2018, but hasn’t been healthy since. WR Denzel Mims was drafted in the second round, but will probably lag behind the trio of Jamison Crowder, Chris Hogan and Breshad Perriman. It feels like the Jets have fielded worse, but individually, none of those players are among the top 40 wide receivers in the NFL and even that may be too generous a number. Robby Anderson left and would have been a better deep ball asset than Perriman.
So if the offense is unlikely to thrive, then what can we really expect from a defense that traded away its best player in Jamal Adams to the Seahawks? This comes after Leonard Williams was traded to the Giants last year. The Jets aren’t getting the greatest returns on their first-round picks, and last year rookie DT Quinnen Williams only had 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to be aggressive, but it’s not good when your best edge rusher is Jordan Jenkins.
If there’s a silver lining, the Jets may only face two top-tier QBs all season (Mahomes and Wilson). However, unless Darnold makes big strides, they’re going to enter all 16 games (barring injuries) with the disadvantage at QB.
1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
My ridiculously early Super Bowl LV prediction in February was Baltimore over Dallas. In a normal offseason I may have stuck with that, but it feels like teams with new head coaches, including one who took 2019 off, are at a little bit of a disadvantage in this pandemic. Also, the Cowboys were as disappointing as any team in the NFL last season. Despite a 3-0 start and the weakest division, the Cowboys performed one last Jason Garrett Special and finished 8-8. They were 8-0 when they scored at least 31 points with Dak Prescott nearly throwing for 5,000 yards on the year, but they were 0-8 with no more than 24 points in their losses. They tied a season-low with just 9 points in the decisive division game loss in Philadelphia in Week 16. The defense was a huge letdown at times when they allowed Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Allen to have really the best games of their seasons in wins.
But overall, the disappointments were more on the offense in the losses. After leading 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons, Prescott couldn’t buy a single one in 2019. Beyond that, Dallas never even had a game-tying or go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter of any game. Now some have chalked this up to the team having “bad luck” but as I showed in this thread after Week 16 last year, that was simply not the case.
Average deficit in the 15 game-winning drives in Dak era: 1.4 points
Average deficit in the 5 failed 4QC/GWD attempts in 2019: 4.7 points
Dallas always needed a touchdown against the Jets, Vikings, Patriots and Eagles. The game is simply harder when you need a touchdown instead of a field goal, and when you’re playing a playoff team instead of the Giants. That’s what did the Cowboys in last year.
But The Clapper is gone, replaced by Mike McCarthy, who won 61.8 percent of his games in Green Bay before things soured. As last year in Green Bay showed, not all of the problems were on McCarthy’s offense growing stale. A year away from the game and some self-evaluation should serve him well. He’s retained Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, a move that’s been widely praised in Dallas.
Prescott still doesn’t have his long-term contract, but he can sort of pull a Joe Flacco in his fifth year and prove that he’s more than deserving of one by taking Dallas to a place it hasn’t been since the 1995 season: the NFC Championship Game (if not one round further). He has the talent and the talent around him to do it. Not only did Michael Gallup have a breakout year, but the Cowboys then added CeeDee Lamb in the first round and no longer have Jason Witten running in cement shoes at tight end.
Defensively, we’re not talking about a list of suspended linemen, so that’s good. The front seven is also clearly the strength of the unit as the secondary lacks any proven stars. Maybe they’ll give Earl Thomas a call (and tell him to lose his brother’s phone number).
As I’ve written about more than anyone, winning close games was never McCarthy’s strength in Green Bay. Being perpetually stuck in them was Garrett’s M.O. But I’m going to trust in Dak to deliver this year and the Cowboys to be in the running for the top seed in the NFC.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
We shouldn’t have to hear “they’re winning with practice squad players!” this year. It was already mythical last year, but fact is if the Eagles get that injured again this season, a 9-7 finish against the worst division in football isn’t getting a home playoff game this time. The December schedule isn’t nearly as forgiving, at least on paper.
Miles Sanders impressed as a dual-threat rookie back and should fully take over with Jordan Howard out of his way. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert make for arguably the best tight end duo in the league. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league, though it’s hard to believe Jason Peters is still doing it at 38. DeSean Jackson is back (barely) as he would have lost most jobs in this country for his social media posts this offseason, but apparently catching 40-yard touchdowns is good protection. Alshon Jeffery isn’t healthy again and his days are numbered in Philly. They’ll hope first-round rookie wideout Jalen Reagor is more productive than J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was last year. He should be.
The defense still has that trio up front of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, the heart of this unit. Cox saw his QB hits drop from 34 to 10 last year though. He can be more productive than that. The back of the defense is more anonymous, though bringing in Darius Slay from Detroit and Nickell Robey-Coleman into the slot should help out the cornerbacks, a weak position for the Eagles in recent times.
Oh, and about that quarterback…
Four years into his career, Carson Wentz has started one playoff game and he left it with an injury before he even had one successful play. I’ll just quote from my playoff preview in January about my feelings on Wentz’s 2019:
There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?
Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.
Most NFL fans have moved on from trying to put Wentz in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. That’s Russell Wilson and Drew Brees on recent play, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on reputation, and of course the youngsters taking over the league now in Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. And yes, some analysts even finally started giving Dak Prescott his due praise over Wentz last season.
I’d like to get over Wentz too, but as long as people want to continue to exaggerate, if not fabricate stats about him, I’ll continue to call them out for it. He’s better than the Carr’s and Darnold’s of the league for sure, but there is still a lot of room for growth there. He also needs to make it through an entire season (playoffs included). The addition of a third Wild Card spot this year should help Wentz and the Eagles at least get that opportunity in 2020.
3. New York Giants (4-12)
The Giants feel like a 6-10 team, but the schedule is mostly why more wins weren’t found for them in 2020. Most of the opponents are simply better. The Giants are 0-12 against the Cowboys and Eagles since 2017, so beating Washington is about the only thing you can rely on them for.
The defensive talent is not good enough to win, the offensive line looks random, so the onus falls on raw, but talented skill players to make plays in spite of what rookie head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett lead them into running. The Judge hire was the worst coaching move this offseason. Here we have another Bill Belichick bootlicker who thinks authoritarian rule is his right before he’s even won a game in this league. I haven’t been right about every head coach hire before, but my track record is pretty good and this is not a hire I endorse.
Daniel Jones had some people eating crow last year, or maybe not if you focus on the absurd 18 fumbles (11 lost and a few returned for scores) he had. He has to clean that up immediately, but he did at least show some ability to take advantage of bad defenses and put up big numbers. Jones had three games with at least 300 yards passing, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. That puts him on a list of just seven QBs in NFL history to do it at least three times in the same season:
Now he offsets some of that with the fumbles, but Jones is an interesting player to keep an eye on after throwing 24 touchdowns in 12 starts as a rookie. He’s the only hope the Giants have of being relevant in 2020.
4. Washington Football Team (3-13)
To say nothing of the pandemic, new coach Ron Rivera has to battle cancer, a disgraced owner, uncertainty at the skill positions, and his team doesn’t even have a god damn name. Wish him the best, but this is likely going to be a rough year.
FIRST DOWN… FOOTBALL TEAM!
LOOSE BALL, WHO’S GOT IT? FOOTBALL TEAM!
THE FOOTBALL TEAM HAS WON THE TOSS.
COWBOYS 30, FOOTBALL TEAM 10.
You think they’d at least fix the name before the season, but illustrative of 2020, there’s no real planning in D.C. Rookie QB Dwayne Haskins really didn’t show enough last year either way to be fearful or excited about his 2020 prospects. Terry McLaurin already looks like one of the next great wideouts, but the rest of the depth chart isn’t inspiring at all. We also no longer have to worry about injury concerns for LT Trent Williams, TE Jordan Reed or RB Darrius Guice since they’re all gone. Guice is a great example of why character concerns in the draft will always be a thing. Even Adrian Peterson was released, so outside of McLaurin you’re really looking at an anonymous group of skill players and one standout lineman (Brandon Scherff) at best.
The defensive line should be anchored by four straight first-round draft picks, but all eyes will be on rookie Chase Young. Ryan Kerrigan is 32 and coming off his least productive year in the NFL, so the — yep, I went to type Redskins here — FOOTBALL TEAM had to do something big to get some more pass rush. Young was the logical choice and the additions of Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio should improve that unit, but it was still one of the worst in the NFL last year. Bringing back Kendall Fuller isn’t a real solution.
In the end, I have Washington with the worst record in the NFL (3-13) this year. If you’re a fan, you’re looking for major growth from Haskins in an unenviable situation and some splash plays to get excited about Young. You’re also looking for an actual team name and a return to some respectability in 2021 as this has been a laughingstock franchise for far too long now.
My proudest feat ever in NFL predictions: nailing the 2019 AFC South down to the correct record for all four teams. It was such a hard division to predict too with Andrew Luck shockingly retiring in August. So if regression to the mean hits, I’m probably about to royally fuck this up.
1. Houston Texans (9-7)
To borrow a line from last year, I don’t believe in Bill O’Brien, but I do believe in Deshaun Watson. Maybe too much, as I have the Texans narrowly winning the division again with a mere 9-7 record. The $40 million per year contract that Watson just inked makes total sense to me in the post-Mahomes world of QB contracts. It certainly makes more sense than the shitacular trade that O’Brien was fleeced on in giving DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. Some may see that as a huge loss for this team, and it can be for reasons beyond production, but once again I believe in Watson.
There’s also the fact that Houston added Brandin Cooks, who had four straight 1,000-yard seasons before a down year in 2019. This team still has talented wideouts, but it’s concerning that Cooks, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills have similar vertical usage and strengths. The saving grace is that given their lack of durability, it’s good to have a trio of such players available. But we’ll need to see Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee work the slot and shorter routes for variety since tight end (Darren Fells) is still an afterthought in Houston.
The defense is still led by J.J. Watt, but we’ll get a nice glimpse immediately on Thursday night if this unit can be trusted against the main conference competition in Kansas City after that 51-point onslaught in the January playoff loss. Without adding any studs to the defense, chances are Watson will have to win a high-scoring game against Mahomes in the playoffs and do so again in the Super Bowl against what will likely be a formidable NFC offense.
After leading five game-winning drives in each of the last two seasons, there’s a chance things don’t break Houston’s way for Watson in close games again. Maybe that loss of familiarity and comfort with Hopkins comes into play there. A more balanced team in Tennessee or a Philip Rivers resurgence in Indy could be enough to take the division away from Houston this year, but for now I’ll trust Watson. If things go too south, maybe it will be time for O’Brien to do the right thing and fire himself.
2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
If the Titans can finish 9-7 four years in a row, why ruin a good thing and not go for five? That perpetual mediocrity makes this a harder prediction than it seems to be, because your instinct is to either move them up to the next tier or predict a collapse. This one boils down to two questions: can Ryan Tannehill repeat the success he had in the regular season, and does the weird playoff run the Titans had already prove he will not?
The Ryan Tannehill Breakout Year jokes used to write themselves, but a funny thing: it actually happened (and in a big way) in 2019 once he took over for Marcus Mariota. In 10 starts, the passing efficiency was some of the best we’ve ever seen from a season in NFL history, including 9.6 YPA and a 117.5 passer rating. These are things Tannehill certainly never achieved with the Dolphins. The Titans had him running a fun, balanced offense with a lot of deep shots, a lot of big plays to rookie A.J. Brown, a lot of sacks, and a lot of Derrick Henry. It was successful enough to get the Titans in the playoffs, and then they abandoned it for a 1970s playbook that Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell would have loved. Tannehill was 15-of-29 for 160 yards in the two playoff wins while the team rushed for 418 yards with Henry taking over as the star. That kind of split just doesn’t happen in the modern NFL, especially not in road playoff games. But when the Titans needed more passing and points from Tannehill in Kansas City, it didn’t work and the Chiefs won 35-24, ending one of the more improbable playoff runs in recent time.
Tannehill would be far from the first or the worst veteran quarterback to break out at a later age after going to a different team. We saw Jake Plummer do it from Arizona to Denver, and that led to three straight playoffs for the Broncos in 2003-05. Tannehill has physical talent, but everything about his career outside of that 10-game run tells us he can’t sustain this type of play for a long period of time. It’s not like this is even a factor of playing with elite offensive talent. Brown looks good, but he’s not Randy Moss, and he’s unlikely to average over 20 yards per catch again as defenses realize he’s a threat and Corey Davis still is on the “meh” side of things. Jonnu Smith isn’t even on the radar yet for great tight ends in this league. Henry’s not a great receiving back and Dion Lewis is gone. The offensive line could also see a decline with Jack Conklin gone at right tackle after a season in which Tannehill already took sacks nearly 10 percent of the time. Oh and remember how the Titans were scoring a TD in the red zone almost 100 percent of the time under Tannehill? More regression expected.
Head coach Mike Vrabel seems emboldened to take more risks, and that’s a very good thing to have in your coach, but how about the defense? It wasn’t a great unit last year, and you have to acknowledge that they were twice shredded by the Chiefs. They got the good fortune in the playoffs of playing the Patriots (weakest offense there in years) and yes, the Ravens were outstanding in the regular season, but dropped balls and falling behind early led to Lamar Jackson being in a big comeback situation he’s not used to yet in his career.
A great passer can still carve this unit up, and we shouldn’t overstate the late addition of Jadeveon Clowney. If Clowney was ever as great as advertised, he wouldn’t have been available this late in the game for his third team since 2018. He’s never had a double-digit sack season, only played all 16 games once, and the claim that he makes teammates much better is a bit suspect. When Clowney went to Seattle last year, the Seahawks had a below-average defense for the first time since 2010. The Seahawks had 28 sacks and no one had more than 4.0 sacks individually. Clowney is a bigger deal than adding Vic Beasley, but let’s not forget the Titans no longer have Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle. I’m sure with my luck Clowney will get a division-sealing strip-sack off Deshaun Watson this year, but for me that move is not a difference maker as far as playoff seeding.
The Titans have some advantages with their offense being so unique, but the season hinges on whether or not Tannehill can recapture some of that magic he had last year or if he’s going to be more of the guy we’ve known for a long time.
3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
The Colts were the definition of mediocre last year and should undoubtedly field a more talented team this season. So, why the same 7-9 prediction? Last year the Colts had some issues with injuries, a terrible kicking season by Adam Vinatieri, and a lousy 2-8 record in the clutch that Andrew Luck certainly would have outdone.
Enter Philip Rivers for his age-39 season and — holy shit — he might think he’s still in San Diego if he’s on a team plagued by injuries, kickers and closing out games. Now Vinatieri is gone, but the Colts are replacing a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) who was terrible at close finishes with Rivers, who has the most losses (78) in NFL history in such games. When you break it down by percentage among active players, Rivers and Brissett are both in the bottom five.
Rivers is coming off a down year on a 5-11 team that was arguably more talented than this Colts team. He’s a short-term gamble, but beyond his past working experience with Frank Reich that should absolutely make the transition to a new team easier, there are still admirable qualities about his play that the Colts could benefit from. T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle should be fantasy relevant with Rivers at the helm, and Nyheim Hines may need to see the field more since Rivers always enjoys passes to the back. That’s not necessarily a strength for Marlon Mack or rookie Jonathan Taylor. This is also the best offensive line Rivers has seen in years, something a 39-year-old should appreciate more than ever.
Chronologically, the Colts are the 10th team I’m writing about and the first where the offensive line actually looks like a strength instead of a question mark or weakness. As long as this offense plays to its strengths and doesn’t view Rivers as the savior, it has a chance to be a quality unit this year.
On defense, there’s a lot of hoping. You hope that a 31-year-old Justin Houston can stay healthy, something he hasn’t done well in his career, after 11 sacks in 2019. You hope the first-round pick sent to San Francisco for DeForest Buckner pays off. Buckner was solid there, but the trade was too good for the 49ers to pass up. Houston, Buckner and LB Darius Leonard could lead the way to a strong front seven. The problem is the secondary where Malik Hooker hasn’t lived up to the No. 15 pick and the Colts will hope to revitalize Xavier Rhodes’ career after a horrible season in Minnesota. Other than Kenny Moore in the slot, this group is an eyesore and not well equipped to deal with the speedy and vertical threats in the division and the rest of the conference contenders.
Seeing Rivers in a Colts uniform should be one of the most surreal experiences of 2020, and it’s a sight I’m looking forward to, as well as the renewal of one of sport’s greatest rivalries: Rivers vs. the play clock.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Is this the “Tank for Trevor” campaign? Jacksonville surprisingly kept coach Doug Marrone while exiling much of the roster this offseason. The Jaguars don’t even have an active player that’s been in the league for more than eight seasons, and you could see the defense start multiple rookie draft picks in Week 1.
This season really just looks like an extended practice to get the young defense and wide receivers ready for 2021. Whether that is with Trevor Lawrence or not really comes down to how well Gardner Minshew plays. For a sixth-round rookie thrust into action in Week 1, he did a respectable job. He showed some ability to move around and make plays, but ultimately he didn’t lead the offense to enough points. His TD:INT ratio (21:6) can also be a bit misleading as Jacksonville had a league-low 3 rushing TD and he lost 7 of his 13 fumbles. The Jaguars could have gone for Cam Newton, but seem content enough to give Minshew another season to prove his worth.
Best bet is we’ll see the complete regime change in 2021.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Last year I was a bit sour on the Saints, predicting them to fall back and miss the playoffs. I was wrong and New Orleans finished 13-3 again, but a most unfortunate tie-breaker led to just a No. 3 seed even though this team was clearly better than the Packers. I also called my shot in December of a jinx on Drew Brees having his worst postseason yet, and it came true with the overtime loss at home to the Vikings after the offense never got to touch the ball. It was the third-straight postseason the Saints were eliminated on the final play.
Even though my gut is telling me to go with the decline again, I find myself going all in for one last ride with Sean Payton and his 41-year-old QB who sees retirement in the near future. After all, his main competition seems to be the team with the 43-year-old quarterback who he has been outplaying for the last few years. These “all-in” predictions tend to be disasters for me, so my apologies in advance, Saints fans.
I’ve been saying for a couple of years that this offense shouldn’t be as good as it is when the main receivers are Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. That shouldn’t be so hard to gameplan against when Thomas, while a very good player, doesn’t threaten the defense deep or does a ton of damage after the catch like other great receivers in the past. He’s got a great chemistry with Brees and runs routes very well, but they’re usually not deep ones. That’s why I think the addition of Emmanuel Sanders could really help this year. Sanders is 33, but he was open on what could have been the game-winning touchdown bomb in the Super Bowl against Kansas City. Jimmy Garoppolo missed it. It’s no given that Brees would hit it at 41, but Sanders is a more reliable second option than Ted Ginn Jr.
As for Kamara, he’s caught 81 balls in each of his three seasons, but he’s seen his yards per catch drop from 10.2 to 8.8 to just 6.6 last year. Defenses have gotten better against him, though he could cite injury as the reason he wasn’t as effective in 2019. Still, he’ll be the next contract to watch for in the crusade of Running Backs Don’t Matter. Latavius Murray is capable of getting the job done. The line is also still good and Jared Cook is a solid tight end. The offense should still be one of the best as long as Brees doesn’t fall off a cliff. He was red hot going into that disappointing playoff performance last year. It wasn’t like the end of 2018 where he seemed to be declining, which is why I was worried about 2019. Still, when that cliff comes it tends to come fast so we’ll be watching for that this year.
Not in love with the defense, but Cameron Jordan is still a beast and Marcus Davenport is developing nicely. Linebacker Demario Davis had a big season and safety Marcus Williams has really done a good job of shaking off the Stefon Diggs play in the playoffs to turn in some quality seasons.
There are a lot of marquee games on this team’s schedule, but there may be no bigger statement to make than on Sunday against Tampa Bay. The Saints have had some really bad Week 1 performances in recent years, including 2018 when Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 418 yards in a 48-40 win for Tampa Bay in the Superdome. New Orleans can smash some of this Tampa Bay hype on Sunday with a commanding win. It’s also going to be in a game with no fans while the Week 9 rematch in Florida could have tens of thousands in attendance given that state’s whacky ways (and the general luck of these two quarterbacks).
I’m very nervous about picking this team to go 13-3 for the third year in a row, but I like that the Saints won’t have to travel to face the Packers, 49ers, Chiefs, or Vikings. Hopefully we’ll get that Mahomes-Brees matchup in Week 15. So much can happen between now and December 20. If this is Brees’ swansong, it would be great to see the Saints in position for a deep run.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Well, this should be quite the experiment with only one thing I’m certain of: the Buccaneers will throw fewer interceptions than the 30 they had last year.
Tom Brady is finally going to play an NFL game without Bill Belichick as his head coach, but he’s also 43 years old and coming off arguably his worst season. Bruce Arians is looking for his first winning season since 2015, but how much will he bend his offense to fit Brady’s style of play? Whether it was Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, or Jameis Winston, Arians loves to see his quarterbacks hold the ball, attack downfield, and take some hits in the process. That’s never been Brady’s style, so we’ll have to see who yields here. We unfortunately didn’t get a preseason to get any idea of what to expect either.
When these veteran quarterbacks switch teams this late in their careers, it’s usually going to work right away if it works at all. Think Joe Montana on the 1993 Chiefs, Brett Favre on the 2009 Vikings, and Peyton Manning on the 2012 Broncos (really their best team until Rahim Moore had other ideas). Time to grow and get better in 2021 really isn’t an option when your QB is 43. This is also Brady in the unfamiliar spot of being in a division with other quality quarterbacks, including his opponent this Sunday (Drew Brees), who has outplayed him the last few years.
Tampa Bay has been a historically prolific passing team the last two seasons, but the gluttony of interceptions from Jameis (and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2018) was hard to overcome. Tampa Bay has passed for over 5,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, something Brady has done once in his career (2011). He really shouldn’t have to do that this year, but the team will have to be strong offensively to win games against the likes of the Saints, Falcons, Chiefs, and Vikings. Mostly all the tough non-division games are at home.
The Bucs allowed 28.1 PPG last year, but that’s misleading because of the seven interceptions Winston threw for touchdown returns. They actually ranked 20th in points per drive allowed and 8th in yards per drive. Beyond the pick-sixes, the 41 turnovers Tampa Bay had led to the defense having the worst starting field position in the league. This is easily the area Brady should improve the most. Even in such a down year, the 2019 Patriots had only 15 giveaways and never more than two in a game. This defense should appreciate that as it has veteran talent in Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaquil Barrett. If you want to feel old, Tampa drafted Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round at safety.
Naturally, players wanted to come to Tampa Bay to play with Brady, but none may be more notable than Rob Gronkowski, who ended his retirement to reunite with his favorite QB in Florida. This is another mystery as to what we’re getting. When healthy, he’s the greatest TE in NFL history. But after a year off from football and the COVID offseason, we’ll just have to see how dominant he still can be. He’s really not even that necessary with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard still there.
The strength of the offense is the starting wide receivers. Brady will love Chris Godwin in the slot, though he’s hardly a Welker/Edelman clone. He runs deeper routes, but Scott Miller could emerge as a highly-targeted third receiver. Mike Evans is very good, but he’s not a strong fit with Brady’s style of play. With Evans, you can just throw it up and let him use his size to get it. That’s why Godwin should continue to get the best numbers in Tampa Bay. At running back, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette are tagging along, but the best bet is still with Ronald Jones. He hasn’t quite proven himself to be a receiving back the caliber of James White, but he’ll need to bring more of that this year and pass protect above all. They’ve invested into the offensive line with a first-round pick at right tackle (Tristan Wirfs), but it’s not like they have Dante Scarnecchia coaching the line anymore like Brady had in New England.
Also, it’s kind of humorous to see Brady go to Tampa Bay, a team notorious for horrible field goal kicking, especially in clutch situations. New England was always the best in that area. Ryan Succop is the latest kicker in Tampa Bay. At least Arians has a great record in close games (2-6 at 4QC/GWD last year though).
It’s not like Arians can’t coach. He won double-digit games his first three years in Arizona after a miracle run as the interim coach in Indianapolis in 2012. He’s a two-time Coach of the Year and even had an 11-win team that started Ryan Lindley and Drew Stanton in games. It’s just that the Patriots were always so well prepared and ahead of the opponent in so many facets, and that’s not something an old Brady brings with him to Tampa Bay. The offense should limit mistakes, but it’s hard to see why it should be more dynamic or explosive or as productive at moving the ball. I think a four-win improvement is more than fair, but this doesn’t feel like a team that was just a quarterback, let alone a 43-year-old one, away from the Super Bowl.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
With the Saints running away with the division and the additions in Tampa Bay, the Falcons are the forgotten team in the NFC South. There’s honestly not much to say about this team’s offseason. They waited until they were 1-7 last year before playing complementary football for a 6-2 finish. While the offense should be good, it’s not like bringing in Todd Gurley past his prime will get it back to the great 2016 level. Trust Ryan to get enough out of Hayden Hurst to offset the loss of Austin Hooper, though it is fair to say they’ve downgraded at tight end. Russell Gage came on as WR3 after the Mohamed Sanu trade last year. This corps has been deeper and more talented in the past, but Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley still give Atlanta one of the better top-two combos in the league at that position.
Defensively, the results should be better than what we’ve been seeing for years. The defensive line has solid players (Takk and Jarrett), and they’ve swapped out an underperforming Vic Beasley for Dante Fowler, who is coming off a career year. Deone Bucannon was a nice player in Arizona, but has been wandering the last couple of years. Keanu Neal has played four games in the last two seasons so he must stay healthy at safety. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is gone after a quick decline, replaced by first-round pick A.J. Terrell. It’s really the toughest division in the league to be a cornerback right now with all the wide receiver talent around.
This is Dan Quinn’s sixth season with Atlanta. The Saints and Buccaneers are in win-now mode with short windows. The future should be brighter for Atlanta, but if there isn’t any noticeable improvement this year, then Arthur Blank will have to think about finding the next coach to take advantage of that period where Brees and Brady are retired.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-12)
Can Christian McCaffrey touch the ball 500 times in a season? That seems to be the question I’m afraid rookie head coach Matt Rhule wants to answer after the team made CMC the highest-paid back in NFL history. McCaffrey is as good as any back in the NFL right now, but even with his 403 touches (including a RB-record 116 receptions) last year, this was a below-average offense and a 5-win team. The defense was even worse and has lost future HOF linebacker Luke Kuechly to early retirement.
This is not an easy opening act for Rhule, who had a losing record at Baylor, and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The latter has a winning record (22-13) as a starter in this league, but he has limitations too. Bridgewater isn’t going to carry a bad defense when his best option is a pass 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to CMC. Make no mistake — he’ll take that throw often too as he is not a big fan of throwing deep, which is why the addition of Robby Anderson didn’t make a ton of sense for the Panthers. D.J. Moore is a solid option as the No. 1 wideout, but there’s not much to speak of at tight end. Bridgewater will find out quickly he’s not in New Orleans with Sean Payton and company anymore.
As amusing as it would be to see Bridgewater shock the world and outplay Brees, Brady and Ryan in this division, it’s a safe bet to see Carolina as the worst team with the worst quarterback in the NFC South. If only they could clone CMC and mold him into a quarterback too…
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
Kansas City’s Super Bowl run and Baltimore’s monumental choke job against the Titans obscured this: the 2019 Ravens own the largest scoring differential (+249) in NFL history for a team that failed to make it to a Conference Championship Game.
Beyond Lamar Jackson’s deserved MVP award, this team had a fantastic 14-2 season that was so consistent. The 2019 Ravens were the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. The 2019 Ravens were the 11th team to score at least 20 points in all 16 regular season games before a season-low 12 points at home in the playoffs. That upset was something I detailed on here: dropped passes (a rarity in the regular season for Baltimore) on high-leverage third downs, a tipped interception, Tannehill’s bombs (just one set the tone), and a passing offense that wasn’t used to playing from behind as the Titans jumped out early.
When I went through the roster and schedule, I still found a lot to like about this team. What happens this year? Expect the offense to regress: fewer points, a running game that’s still great but not setting records for rushing yards, and the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda hurts the line. With that said, the offense should still be one of the best in the league and come away better equipped to win the games they lost last year. That starts with Jackson continuing to progress as a passer and rely less on the run. I’ll say it every year: his historic usage rate of running makes him a high injury risk. Russell Wilson is an outlier, but running quarterbacks historically have been prone to significant injuries. A QB rushing for 1,206 yards in an NFL season is insane, but for Jackson’s best long-term prospects, he’ll never do that again. Tight end Mark Andrews was the only Raven to surpass 600 receiving yards, so it would be good to see Marquise Brown run more routes and emerge as a true No. 1 in his second season.
It’s too bad Earl Thomas didn’t work out for more than one year with the team, but there’s still plenty of talent throughout the defense. The pass rush last year actually could have used more help around Matt Judon, so the additions of Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell to the line should do the trick. This feels like a good mixture of veterans and young players for a unit that is more than capable of winning a championship. Plus the Ravens still have one of the best coaches (John Harbaugh) and the best kicker (Justin Tucker) in the NFL.
If you didn’t read the Kansas City preview, then you must know my pick for the Game of the Year is Week 3 MNF: Chiefs at Ravens. That’s the one to circle for this team. The Chiefs have gotten the best of Baltimore two years in a row, and this could easily be the game that determines the all-important top seed this year. It would be a big boost for the Ravens to get that win with Jackson outplaying Mahomes. Then we’ll just have to see about a rematch, because these two teams certainly feel ahead of the pack in the AFC, if not the whole NFL.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
I’ve never been shy to criticize Mike Tomlin, but I have to give him some props last year for going 8-8 with half a team. Now the Steelers missed the playoffs after an 8-5 start because they couldn’t score more than 10 points in the last three weeks, but could you blame them with the offense they fielded? It was Pittsburgh’s worst in at least 30 years, and it was mostly injury related — aside from opening night when Donte Moncrief played horribly — with Ben Roethlisberger suffering the most significant injury of his career.
Roethlisberger is back with what should be the best defense (one overflowing with first-round picks) he’s had in a long time, but he’s also 38, coming off that serious injury, and the skill players may still rank near the bottom of the list of groups he’s had in his 17 years. If Roethlisberger returns to his usual level of play, then the Steelers have to be in the mix for that top wild card. It feels like people are sleeping on this team after twice missing the playoffs, but keep in mind something about 2018 when Roethlisberger last played a full year: the Steelers were a couple field goals and a dropped interception against the Chargers away from being the No. 2 seed. Last year, despite not having Roethlisberger, they lost to the Seahawks, 49ers and Ravens by a combined nine points. Those were three of the best teams in the league and the Steelers were right there with them with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB. This team just needed an average quarterback last season and it could have done some damage in the postseason.
That’s why it’s good that Roethlisberger shouldn’t have to return to his best form to get this team back in the playoffs. His return makes JuJu Smith-Schuster relevant again. Diontae Johnson impressed at times as a rookie. James Washington actually led the team in receiving yards last year, and the additions of second-round rookie Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron should help. The offensive line is experienced and should still be an above-average unit. With none of these receivers approaching Antonio Brown’s talent, the days of this offense piling up yards like 2014-18 are likely over, but the offense can still be good while the defense can be great.
The first six games and the last five games also look like very favorable stretches. That’s good enough to win 10 games in my book.
3. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Yep, they had me last year. Should have known better that the Browns would lose 10 games before they’d win 10 games, so I’m not falling for them again until they prove things have changed.
The coach has changed again. Kevin Stefanski is far from my favorite hire, but he should do a better job than Freddie Kitchens. It’s just that the Ravens are clearly superior and the Steelers have a better defense, winning coach, and a future HOF QB returning. That should be enough to slide the Browns into third place, and things could get even worse if Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati while Baker Mayfield (allegedly) ponders his next tinted-window trip to the Cheesecake Factory.
Alright, that was a low blow, or maybe there was never a blow at all, but fact is Mayfield must play much better in his third season. Not all of the 21 interceptions were his fault, but he wasn’t accurate enough when throwing to his top wideouts, and something is wrong with your offense if Jarvis Landry is producing better numbers than Odell Beckham. They were the only two to break 300 receiving yards last year, but help has arrived for Mayfield. He now has Austin Hooper at tight end, a first-round left tackle, and Jack Conklin comes over from the Titans to play right tackle. Kareem Hunt won’t be suspended for a large chunk of the season like last year, and Nick Chubb could win the rushing title if this team actually plays well enough to hold leads.
Several of these recaps describe poor situations for quarterbacks, but this is not one of them. Mayfield must live up to his draft status and a rookie season that was at least promising.
Defensively, Myles Garrett is a stud and disruptive force, but we’ll have to see if anyone else (Olivier Vernon?) steps up to give them a strong, second pass-rushing option. Once you get past the defensive line the back of the defense is very young and still developing. With Garrett’s huge extension not kicking in yet, this is the third-cheapest defense in the league ($33M) according to Over the Cap. The secondary has significant draft capital, but Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams haven’t hit a high level of play yet while safety Karl Joseph wasn’t worthy enough of a second contract with the Raiders.
It’s high time someone steps up and leads in Cleveland, whether it’s the new coach, the quarterback with everything he needs around him, or if Garrett — I don’t think he’ll be swinging helmets at anyone again — reaches J.J. Watt’s level with a dominant season. But until we see it actually happen, count me out on the Browns.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)
This one is obvious, right? Joe Burrow is going from a stacked LSU team to a Cincinnati team that needs some serious retooling. The offensive line looks suspect and the best players on the defense have been there a decade already (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap).
Burrow is easy to root for though. He just had arguably the most impressive single-season by a QB in NCAA history. It’s worrisome that he didn’t do much at all in college before that one year, but the season was so spectacular and consistent that he earned the top pick in the draft and will hopefully provide the Bengals with a higher level of QB play than Andy Dalton ever did. It’s just not likely to happen this year, though it should be fun to see him throw to A.J. Green after a year wiped out by injury. Tyler Boyd is a 1,000-yard receiver too and they drafted Tee Higgins in the second round so the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. It just would suck to have a teammate like RT Bobby Hart for multiple reasons.
Look for the Bengals to win a few games, Burrow to turn some heads, and then they’ll draft in the trenches early and often in 2021.
1. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
On the surface I’m not that in love with this Minnesota roster, but wins just kept adding up when I went through the schedules. An accurate quarterback, good weapons and a strong defense should make for a good season, and the shocking playoff win at New Orleans should also be a boost to their confidence. You’ll also see below that I have the Packers declining, which is where the Vikings should be able to make up ground after getting swept in 2019 by their rival.
Some might think the loss of Stefon Diggs will make the offense take a step back. The most ideal situation is to have Adam Thielen and Diggs together, but it’s not like the offense should collapse with only one of them. In fact, we saw this last year when Thielen, who was the superior player in 2017-18, missed six games and was largely ineffective in several more after his injury. He played very well in the playoff win at New Orleans. As long as he’s healthy the Vikings have a legit No. 1 option and also drafted Justin Jefferson in the first round to go with Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook at the skill positions. They have enough weapons.
Losing Everson Griffen could have been a big blow to the defensive line, but the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue late in the offseason. Problem solved. He’ll keep the bookend duo of edge rushers going with Danielle Hunter coming off a big year. The secondary cut bait with Xavier Rhodes after a horrible year, so the first-round addition of Jeff Gladney should be a plus. They still have Harrison Smith at safety and a good group of linebackers. It was generally the offense that let the team down in losses in 2019.
Predicting a Kirk Cousins team to stray four games north of .500 may be bold, but he looked really good last year, especially when he wasn’t playing Green Bay. He had a better season than Aaron Rodgers did, so it’s in my nature to trust the team in the division with the best quarterback and defense.
2. Green Bay Packers (9-7)
If I had to list 13-win teams that felt most fraudulent to me, the 2019 Packers would rank fairly high on such a list. Under new coach Matt LaFleur, this was not a return to PAR (Peak Aaron Rodgers) by any means. The offense remained mediocre, proving not every problem was on former coach Mike McCarthy. The typical Green Bay game in 2019 saw the Packers jump out to a decent lead, finish with 20-28 points, and hang on for dear life with the defense closing things out.
The Packers were 10-1 in close games with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead and zero blown leads. Do you smell the regression? They twice barely squeaked by the 3-win Lions, who should have Matthew Stafford healthy this year. They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead without Patrick Mahomes. They were waxed twice by the 49ers in San Francisco. Green Bay’s biggest accomplishment last year was sweeping division rival Minnesota in low-scoring games, essentially all the difference in the NFC North.
While Davante Adams and Aaron Jones are nice players, it’s hard to see how Rodgers gets back to his old ways (last seen consistently in 2014) when the team didn’t draft any wide receivers, have Marcedes Lewis replacing Jimmy Graham at TE1, and their “big” free agent signing was Devin Funchess (already on IR). Oh, and the first-round pick was used on QB Jordan Love, the likely replacement for Rodgers in 2022 or thereabout. Green Bay also used second and third-round picks on a backup runner and tight end. So it’s hard to see how the offense gets better this season.
Defensively, they may be just solid enough. The Smiths (Za’Darius and Preston) played about as well as possible in their team debuts with 25.5 sacks between them. Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage will have to start looking like first-round picks in the secondary this year, or it’s hard not to see this team get outscored when it travels to Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Houston, San Francisco and maybe even Indy if Philip Rivers plays well this year. That’s a tough road schedule, not to mention hosting the Eagles and Titans this year.
Add it all together and the Packers are probably my most confident pick for a team to regress from 2019.
3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
Head coach Matt Patricia has to be on the hot seat as he enters his third season with a 9-22-1 (.297) record. He gets a bit of a pass for last year after going 0-8 in the games that Matthew Stafford didn’t start, but the defense was still terrible and the Lions blew a league-high six leads in the fourth quarter. Even with CB Darius Slay (now gone), teams threw the ball at will on the Lions in 2019, and it’s hard to see veteran Desmond Trufant and first-round rookie Jeff Okudah compensating for a front seven filled with New England castaways. The Detroit defense has not snagged multiple interceptions in any of Patricia’s 32 games, the second-longest streak in the NFL since 1950 (2003-06 Raiders, 40 games).
The onus again falls back on Stafford, who arguably was playing his best ball with a more vertical approach in 2019. The wide receivers are still a good trio, but the right side of the offensive line is a question mark, RB Kerryon Johnson is the latest Lion back to struggle with health, and tight end T.J. Hockenson, the No. 8 pick in 2019, really did nothing last year after an excellent Week 1 performance in Arizona. So you can see some room for growth if everyone stays healthy and Hockenson progresses, but this is still not a top-tier offense.
A healthy Stafford makes the Lions competitive once again, but competitiveness wasn’t an issue last year for a team that played 15 close games. They just happened to lose 11 of them and tie one more. The usual deficiencies in Detroit still seem to be there and that’s what will ultimately make this another non-playoff season that should mark the end of the Patricia experiment.
4. Chicago Bears (6-10)
It appears Mitchell Trubisky has retained his starting QB job in Chicago, but that leash could be short this season given the history (and cost involved) of Nick Foles coming off the bench. Trubisky would likely be done already if he was a turnover machine, but he avoids that by scrambling instead of forcing more throws. However, his scrambling was half as effective in 2019 as it was in the 2018 playoff year. The problem last year was that Trubisky simply isn’t good enough to move an offense that has a failed running game. Of course, you wouldn’t think that if you only tuned into the Week 14 Thursday Night Football win over Dallas when Joe Buck hyped up one of the easiest TD passes of the year:
That highlighted a three-game winning streak for the Bears, but if that’s what kept Trubisky as the starter, then the miserable losses to the Packers and Chiefs the following weeks should be just as important. The Bears finished 8-8 after a late game-winning drive in Week 17 against Minnesota’s backups.
Trubisky is 3-11 when the Bears allow more than 20 points. He needs that unit to keep the score down to succeed, and fortunately it is still a talented group, led by Khalil Mack. This defense is absolutely good enough to win a Super Bowl, but it’s hard to even predict the playoffs barring a real improvement in QB play. I wanted to find a few more wins on Chicago’s 2020 schedule, but it just wasn’t happening. The offensive line and backfield still don’t inspire much confidence, and while Allen Robinson is very good, the additions of washed up Jimmy Graham (why?) and inconsistent veteran Ted Ginn don’t exactly fire me up to predict the best is yet to come for Mitch.
Now if Foles has to save the season after the Week 11 bye, then this team could be intriguing again.
1. Kansas City (13-3)
2. Baltimore (13-3)
3. New England (10-6)
4. Houston (9-7)
5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
6. Tennessee (9-7)
7. Buffalo (9-7)
Nothing could christen the No. 7 seed on Wild Card Saturday like Josh Allen looking for someone to lateral to in Baltimore. Lamar will get his first playoff win there. The Titans upset the Patriots for the second year in a row at home while Houston knocks out Pittsburgh to set up an interesting second round. The Chiefs beat the Titans again while Baltimore gets past Houston, setting up the AFC Championship Game we thought we deserved last year between the Chiefs and Ravens. I’m sticking with the Chiefs in that matchup.
1. New Orleans (13-3)
2. Minnesota (12-4)
3. Dallas (12-4)
4. Seattle (11-5)
5. Tampa Bay (11-5)
6. San Francisco (9-7)
7. Philadelphia (9-7)
Once I had to go past three tie-breakers to figure out which two of my four 9-7 teams got in, I have to admit I just made some assumptions and created this list. San Francisco was definitely in, but Philadelphia is less than clear, which still sounds accurate about their prospects this season. Anyways, the Vikings make short order the Eagles, Dallas takes out the 49ers, and Russell Wilson gets some payback on Brady with a big playoff win. The Saints take care of Seattle a week later while Dallas gets the best of Minnesota on the road to reach that elusive NFC Championship Game. I hate to do it, but the Saints find another way to crumble in the playoffs and the Cowboys advance to the Super Bowl to the chagrin of many.
SUPER BOWL LV
Kansas City 30, Dallas 24
Wipe that smile off Jerry Jones’ face as the Chiefs come through to give us a repeat champion for the first time since the 2003-04 Patriots.
TL;DR version: Get used to your new football overlords from Kansas City, but don’t discount Dak Prescott spoiling things.