Now that the Atlanta Falcons have fired head coach Dan Quinn, we’ll see if we continue to get improbable losses out of that team, but there were plenty of other stat oddities to go around from Sunday’s action.
When you’re in your seventh season like Derek Carr and you still haven’t started a playoff game, you have to treat a win like this as something extra special. The Raiders (3-2) are now fully alive in the AFC West race after ending Kansas City’s 13-game winning streak, a signature win for Carr.
Carr is now 3-10 against the Chiefs, but all three of the wins are really among his most notable. There’s the first win of his career in 2014, a comeback against the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. There’s the untimed down game in 2017 on another Thursday night, the time he threw a game-winning touchdown to Michael Crabtree on the final snap.
Now we’re talking about out-gunning Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead, albeit with 2020 attendance. This is a bit different, and it was certainly a different experience for the Chiefs after an outrageous shootout in the first half where both teams scored 24 points and had over 300 yards of offense. The Chiefs twice led by 11, but Carr kept the Raiders on pace with uncharacteristic deep shots that led to touchdown passes of 59 and 72 yards.
The Chiefs hurt themselves in the first half with offensive penalties that negated two touchdowns, but in the second half the offense was ice cold on four straight drives. That’s when the Raiders took control and scored the game’s next 16 points, building a 40-24 lead with 5:26 left.
This is the first time Mahomes has ever trailed by 16 points past the midway point of the second quarter in his NFL career.Oakland Las Vegas almost hung the first multi-score loss on the Chiefs since 2017, but Mahomes had another answer. He frankly had to after throwing a terrible pick that was returned to the 2-yard line to set up another Josh Jacobs touchdown run. Mahomes cut the lead in half to 40-32 after a touchdown and two-point conversion pass, but only 3:57 remained. At the two-minute warning, the Raiders had a no-brainer decision on fourth-and-1 to put the game away. While Carr has been a shockingly ineffective rusher, it’s not asking much to convert a quarterback sneak. He had one to end the third quarter and he had another here to end the Chiefs’ winning streak at 13 games.
It also ends Kansas City’s NFL record streak of 49 games without losing by more than seven points, though it does extend their record to 50 games without losing by more than eight points. That’s still a one-possession game in the NFL, but fortunately the Raiders didn’t have to give the Chiefs the ball back for one more possession.
Carr’s game-winning drive gives him 21, which is the new franchise record. Here is the franchise leader in fourth-quarter comeback wins and game-winning drives for all 32 teams:
Someday Mahomes should be able to hold these records for the Chiefs, but on Sunday, it just wasn’t his best stuff. So throw away the undefeated season talk or taking down New England’s 21-game winning streak. The Chiefs still have work to do.
Washington, Are You a Football Team?
Clearly, it’s not just a Dwayne Haskins issue in Washington. The Redskins Football Team started Kyle Allen at quarterback against the Rams, but suffered a 30-10 defeat with one of the most inept offensive performances of the last decade.
Washington gained just 108 yards, the fewest in a game by an offense since Luke Falk led the Jets to 105 yards against the Patriots last season. Worse, Washington gained 108 yards on 52 plays, or 2.08 yards per play. That’s the fifth-lowest average in a game since 2010, and somehow not even the worst Washington game in recent years. In 2018, Washington averaged 2.02 yards per play in a Week 17 loss (24-0) to the Eagles.
How sad was this showing? Washington’s longest gain of the day was an 18-yard completion from Allen. The second-longest “play” was actually a 2-yard loss on a run that netted 13 yards because of a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on the Rams.
Alex Smith replaced an injured Allen in the second quarter for his first action in nearly two years since a gruesome leg injury in 2018. He led the team on a field goal drive before halftime, but frankly would have been better off rehabbing on the sideline after that. In the second half, Smith’s success rate was 0-for-17 with a net loss of 24 yards. That’s hard to believe, but he took 5 sacks, had 4 failed completions, one failed scramble, and threw 7 incompletions. The rain intensified, but that didn’t stop the Rams from gaining positive yardage in the second half.
The Rams are now 4-0 against the NFC East and 0-1 against the refs this season.
Pennsylvania’s Historic Third Down Day
The Steelers have never blown a 17-point lead at home in franchise history, but this came awfully close.
What paced both offenses was an incredible display on third down. The Eagles finished 10 of 14 (71%) and the Steelers finished 11 of 15 (73%). According to Stathead, this is the only NFL game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs with a conversion rate over 70%.
It’s only the third game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs period (2015 Giants-Falcons and 2014 Ravens-Panthers the other two). Given what we know about pre-1991 offenses, this is a favorite for the best offensive display on third down in any game in NFL history. The Eagles’ four longest plays from scrimmage came on third down, including the game’s longest play, a 74-yard run by Miles Sanders on third-and-9.
But in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were just a little better. After Travis Fulgham, apparently the new No. 1 in Philadelphia, killed the secondary all day with 10 catches for 152 yards, the defense finally tightened. Joe Haden had the coverage on a third down that led to the Eagles making a questionable decision to try a 57-yard field goal with 3:23 left on a fourth-and-5. The longest field goal in Heinz Field history is 53 yards and everyone knows the stadium is historically difficult to connect from long distance. Jake Elliott gave it a shot, but was wide right.
The Steelers needed one more conversion to ice this one, and Ben Roethlisberger delivered it on a third-and-8 with a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie Chase Claypool, who somehow caught the defense napping again for his fourth touchdown of the game.
This battle of Pennsylvania ended 38-29, which surprisingly is not the first such score in NFL history. The Raiders beat the Jets 38-29 in 1967 in the AFL thanks to a two-point conversion that didn’t make much sense for New York. Similarly, we got on the path to this score after the Eagles went against conventional wisdom and converted a two-pointer in the third quarter to cut Pittsburgh’s lead, once 31-14, to 31-22.
FOX may have had the biggest statistical oddity of the day with a graphic that showed that Pittsburgh had the longest active drought (40 years) of seasons without a 4-0 start until getting there this year. That’s hard to believe given the general success the Steelers have had since the merger, but it’s true. The Steelers have not started 4-0 since 1979 until now. That means even teams like Detroit (1980, 2011) and Cleveland (1979) have done it more recently, though that Cleveland one is a bit misleading. The 1979 Browns improved to 4-0 one day after the Steelers did due to a Monday night game.
So Cleveland has the longest drought now, and next week is one of the biggest Pittsburgh-Cleveland games in many years.
Andy Dalton: The Ginger Cowboy Rides Again
Dallas makes everything look hard this year, and now things will get really difficult after Dak Prescott suffered a compound ankle fracture during the game on Sunday. Andy Dalton, the butt of many jokes the last decade, is still one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league all things considered, but he’ll have his work cut out for him without a defense to speak of. Even the lowest-scoring team in football, the Giants, scored 34 in this game.
The 2020 Cowboys are the first team in NFL history to score and allow at least 31 points in four straight games. At least this one led to a much-needed comeback win in the division after Dalton was able to lead a one-minute drill to set up Greg Zuerlein for a 40-yard field goal that he was just able to squeeze inside the uprights in a 37-34 victory.
It’s a shame for Prescott, who has never missed a game due to injury, on so many levels given he didn’t have his long-term deal he deserved locked up with the team, and he was having a historic start to this season in leading this talented, but mistake-prone offense. I don’t see how Dalton will magically have a defense around him in the coming weeks, so the Cowboys may have to win some more shootouts. The good news is this is still the worst division by far in the NFL, and Dalton is capable of putting up some points with these receivers.
Russell Wilson’s Best Game-Winning Drive Yet?
The Vikings (1-4) lost a tough one, 27-26, on Sunday night in Seattle. They outgained Seattle by 135 yards, held the ball for 39:28, and forced the Seahawks to finish 0-for-7 on third down. But in the end, it was fourth down that doomed Minnesota. The Vikings, leading 26-21 at the two-minute warning, bypassed a 24-yard field goal to keep the offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 at the Seattle 6. They didn’t run a quarterback sneak like the Raiders did to put away the Chiefs earlier in the day. Instead, they called backup running back Alexander Mattison to carry off right guard for no gain.
Twitter is killing Mattison, the new Trent Richardson, for this play. It looks bad from still images, but you have to respect an unblocked Bobby Wagner’s speed to come across the line and tackle Mattison if he did try to bounce this outside the edge instead of hammering into the pile of bodies.
Having said that, I think the Vikings should have kicked the field goal. I think NFL Twitter tends to overrate the greatness of an 8-point lead, though many sure did seem to forget all about that on this night as they cheered for Mike Zimmer to go for it. But I know I hate nothing more than watching my helpless defense cling to a 5-point lead while a team is in hurry-up mode with four-down, pass-happy football coming.
It’s also a big deal when the quarterback has some experience at this. Wilson now has the most game-winning drives (34) through a player’s first nine seasons in NFL history. He also tied Matthew Stafford with his 26th fourth-quarter comeback win, the most through nine seasons in history.
The thought process for Minnesota was clear. Get a first down and the game is over. But if you fail, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to getting beat by a 94-yard touchdown drive, and Wilson still had 1:57 and one timeout left. That’s why I kick the field goal, but Minnesota still had two fourth-down opportunities on defense to put this one away. D.K. Metcalf, quickly on his way to becoming the best wideout in the game, was not to be stopped. He tracked down a 39-yard desperation heave on fourth-and-10. He actually dropped a game-winner on second down in the end zone with 24 seconds left. But two plays later on fourth and goal, Metcalf caught a bullet from Wilson and held on for the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left.
This is the third time in his career Wilson took over in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and led a game-winning touchdown drive. The first was the Fail Mary game against Green Bay in 2012, and the last time was 2017 against Houston when he went 80 yards with 1:39 left. This was 94 yards with 1:57 left and in prime time.
That’s going to be a memorable one to get to 5-0, but any NFC fans groaning about how lucky the Seahawks got in 2019 have to be frustrated with this one. Had the Vikings just kicked a short field goal, something that isn’t always a given for them against Seattle of course, then Wilson’s drive may have only forced overtime at best. It could have still ended in defeat given the Seahawks failed on the two-point conversion after the Metcalf score.
I know there’s pressure on coaches to do more with fourth downs and two-point conversions, but it sure doesn’t feel like they’re properly weighing the pros and cons of these situations on the fly. If Zimmer didn’t chase a two-point conversion in the third quarter, this situation may have been avoided all together. Worse than that, why would he kick an extra point with 7:08 left to take a 26-21 lead when he should have gone for two there? Leading by 4 or 5 doesn’t make a difference. That way if it was 27-21, then the field goal to make it 30-21 would have been a no-brainer later.
Still, it felt like a no-brainer to me, but losing coaches are letting it all hang out this pandemic season.
You know the week’s schedule is a downer if I’m leading with the 1-3 Cowboys taking on the 0-4 Giants. But that’s what happens when the Eagles/Vikings/Texans/Falcons disappoint, the Titans are a COVID mess, the red-hot Packers have a bye week, and the Patriots and Broncos don’t know which quarterbacks to start.
The Chiefs can become the 11th team since 1950 to win 14 straight games, so that’s something to watch for in the early slate.
Cowboys-Giants is about the only win we can safely assume the NFC East will be adding in Week 5, and of course it’s a division game, something the Giants have been horrible in when not playing the Washington Football Team in recent years:
It’s an interesting game if only because of the streaks at stake here. The Cowboys have been moving the ball and scoring (when not fumbling) at will in recent weeks, but so have their opponents. Dallas will hope to avoid joining a small group of teams that have allowed 38 points in four consecutive games after doing so the last three weeks.
Lost in the chaos of the 49-38 loss to Cleveland, the Cowboys became the first offense in NFL history to gain at least 520 yards in three straight games. The only other offenses to gain at least 500 yards in three straight games were the 1982 Chargers and 1998 49ers, both of which went 3-0 on those streaks. Dan Marino’s 1984 Dolphins are the only offense to gain 490 yards in four straight games, a streak that saw them go 4-0 of course. The Cowboys are 1-2, but if they can’t beat the lowest-scoring team in football at home, then what is Jerry Jones going to do with this coaching staff?
It’s like Jason Garrett never left, and tomorrow, he’ll be there in Dallas as the offensive coordinator of the Giants, who have a league-low 47 points through four games. Now I don’t know if The Clapper was saving all the touchdowns for this revenge game, but his offense has been putrid to this point.
If the Cowboys have to get into another shootout with the Giants, then maybe Dak Prescott will throw for 6,000 yards in 2020. Dallas has turned the ball over nine times with just one takeaway in the last three weeks. Daniel Jones can be more than charitable with fumbles, so the Cowboys need to finally start playing up to their talent and get a comfortable win this season.
Something to actually clap about.
NFL Week 5 Predictions
I had high hopes for the Buccaneers on Thursday night, but that was a slugfest won by the Bears, who now have three wins after trailing by 13 points this season.
Year to date: 29-31-3 (.484) ATS, 44-18-1 SU (.706)
After observing an odd day of NFL action and listening to David Bowie, on the spur of the moment I came up with an idea that might become a weekly column for me to share unique research and thoughts from that day’s games.
Welcome to NFL Stat Oddity, where just like Star Wars we begin with Episode IV of a story already long in progress.
2020: Defense Does Not Exist
Heading into the Monday night double-header, NFL games in Week 4 have averaged 54.2 combined points. If this average holds, it would be the NFL’s highest single week in the regular season since at least 2001.
In Week 14 of the 2013 season, teams averaged 53.7 combined points, including a trio of memorable snow games (Vikings-Ravens, Steelers-Dolphins, and Lions-Eagles). The Patriots also pulled off a late 12-point comeback (after an onside kick) to beat the Browns 27-26, and the Broncos waxed the Titans 51-28. The week ended with the peak of the Marc Trestman era in Chicago as the Bears defeated Dallas 45-28 with Josh McCown having himself a day on Monday Night Football.
With the Chiefs and Packers still set to host the Patriots and Falcons, this looks like a pretty safe bet to hold up the average in what is trending to be the highest-scoring season in NFL history with passing numbers once again exploding. After a most unusual offseason and no preseason games, pass defenses have been very slow out the gates to keep up with the offenses.
Dak Prescott/Mike McCarthy and Tony Romo/Jason Garrett: The Spider-Man Meme
The biggest spectacle on Sunday was in Dallas where the Browns ripped off 34 straight points to take a commanding 41-14 lead before Dak Prescott nearly got a crack at leading the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history.
It was only the fifth game in NFL history where both teams scored at least 38 points while gaining at least 500 yards. The Cowboys and Browns have both been there before.
Cleveland defeated the Bengals 51-45 in 2007 in what has been the best offensive game for the 2.0 Browns since returning in 1999, though Sunday gives it some competition at least. Cleveland’s 307 rushing yards were the most ever allowed by Dallas. The Cowboys lost 51-48 to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in 2013 in a game I consider the ultimate Tony Romo experience. He passed for 506 yards, but threw a late interception that set up Denver’s game-winning field goal.
In those five shootouts of 38 points/500 yards, the home team was 3-2 with Dallas suffering both losses. Much like Romo against Denver, Dak Prescott passed for just over 500 yards before ending his day with an interception. Amari Cooper admitted to not seeing the route through well enough, but the game already felt decided by that point. How many improbable onside kick recoveries can one team get in a month anyway? Still, it’s a loss that puts Dallas at 1-3 and looks pretty similar to a lot of the high-scoring losses the Cowboys had in the Romo/Garrett era.
Prescott passed for 502 yards, the 24th 500-yard game in NFL history (including playoffs). After passing for 450 yards against Atlanta and 472 yards against Seattle in the previous two weeks, Prescott has stamped his name in several places in the record books. First, his 1,424 passing yards are the most in any three-game span in NFL history. He’s the first quarterback to pass for 450 yards in three straight games. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the only other quarterback to ever hit 400 yards in three straight games, and he didn’t even surpass 420 in any of those games in 2018 with Tampa Bay. Prescott’s 1,657 passing yards in 2020 are also the most ever through the first four games of a season in NFL history.
Yet the Cowboys are 1-3 and frankly should be 0-4 if Atlanta would just recover that onside kick. It’s been a frustrating season for Prescott, my preseason MVP pick, but there’s always a chance when you play in the NFC East, a division currently led by the Eagles with a 1-2-1 record. Now if only the defense would show up for a game. Had Prescott been able to get the ball back one more time after cutting the score to 41-38 with 3:42 left, we may have seen the largest fourth-quarter comeback (27 points) in NFL history. But Odell Beckham Jr. avoided a loss in the backfield and rushed 50 yards for a touchdown to ice this one. The Dallas offense is potent, but lost fumbles continue to be a major problem with two more on Sunday.
Prescott betting on himself has looked brilliant so far, but he may need to turn down Jerry Jones’ money and find a better team if he’s to avoid the fate of Romo: remembered best for big numbers and the games he lost instead of anything he won.
Rookie QBs Make History, But with an Asterisk?
Remember when the pandemic and lack of a preseason was going to really hurt the rookie quarterbacks in 2020? Well, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow just completed his third-straight 300-yard passing game, a record streak for any rookie in NFL history. It led to his first win too, 33-25 over the Jaguars.
Burrow almost had company immediately with Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, who came up 10 yards shy of his third-straight 300-yard passing game. Herbert’s 931 passing yards trail only Cam Newton (1,012 yards) for the second most in NFL history through a player’s first three games. He even surpassed the former No. 2, Patrick Mahomes (866 yards). After taking Mahomes to overtime in his first game and holding a 17-point lead against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady before losing, Herbert could be a special one for years to come.
Then again, consider that record start by Newton in 2011, the year of the lockout. Newton passed for at least 374 yards in three of his first four games. He was going to crush the record books too, right? Not quite. Over his next 122 regular season games and seven playoff games, Newton never passed for more than 357 yards. It wasn’t until Week 2 in Seattle this year, now the COVID-19 season, where he passed for 397 yards with the Patriots. That means his four most prolific passing games have all come in years where there was a lockout or pandemic that messed with the offseason.
When you consider the record numbers, especially in regards to passing yards, from Dak Prescott, Burrow, and Herbert this season, it certainly feels like 2011 all over again when defenses started off so poorly. That season was the peak one for Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. It was also easily one of Tom Brady’s best years and his only 5,000-yard passing season.
We’ll see if 2020 continues to play out this way, but if it does and numbers return to normal once the world hopefully does, then we’ll have to say that there was stat inflation this year much like we should still point out every time 2011 comes up.
Of Course the Chargers Blew It Against Tom Brady
We’ll eventually find out how good the 2020 Buccaneers are, but the fact that Tom Brady gets to play the Chargers and two games against the NFC version of the Chargers (Atlanta) this year doesn’t seem fair.
Brady should retire with a nine-game winning streak against the Chargers, a team that has found every way imaginable to lose to him since the 2006 playoff game where they fumbled his third interception back to him in the fourth quarter. Sure, this time the Chargers returned his interception for a touchdown and led 24-7 in the first half, but even if you take Philip Rivers and New England out of the equation, the Chargers still found a way to go Chargering against a Brady-led team.
Everything was going fine until the final minute of the first half. The Chargers were up 24-7 with 47 seconds left at their own 9. Tampa Bay was down to one timeout and with the Chargers getting the ball to start the second half, there was no need to get aggressive. In fact, in that situation the best play is to take two knees, especially with your rookie quarterback (Herbert) and rookie backup running back (Joshua Kelley) in after starter Austin Ekeler left with an injury.
But the Chargers just had to hand off the ball to Kelley, who promptly fumbled on first down. Now Brady was only 6 yards away from the end zone and cashed in the golden opportunity with a touchdown to Mike Evans on third down. Suddenly the game was much different at 24-14 and the Buccaneers went on to roll the Chargers in the second half of a 38-31 win.
This is just the latest example of why I refer to Brady as the luckiest QB in NFL history.
The shocking fumble completely changed the game for Brady and Tampa. From the pick-six to the Evans touchdown, Brady had a play success rate of 3-of-19 (15.8%). That’s horrible. But from the Evans touchdown thru the end of the game, Brady was unstoppable with a success rate of 88.9% (16-of-18), a top candidate for his strongest stretch of play in any game since 2019. He finished with 369 yards and five touchdown passes in the record 60th win decided in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career (fourth comeback against the Chargers).
It was classic Brady in the sense that he was playing poorly, the opponent did something stupid, one of his teammates made a play, and he got an extra chance to get back in the game. While he deserves credit for making the most of his opportunity, it’s the fact that he always seems to get these opportunities — through none of his own doing — that most quarterbacks don’t is the reason I call it luck.
How often do you see a team try to run the clock out deep in their own end and they fumble before the half? Well, since 1994 this is only the second time it’s happened in the last 27 seasons. To be specific, we’re talking about a leading team starting a conservative drive (i.e. no quarterback dropbacks) in the final 60 seconds of the second quarter and fumbling on a running play inside their own 20.
In 2010, the Cowboys had a 7-3 lead against Detroit and had the ball with 48 seconds left at their own 4. Felix Jones fumbled on first down and the Lions turned that into a touchdown. The only other comparable situation in the last 27 years was a 2016 game between the Cardinals and Seahawks. Arizona led 14-0 and had a drive that started with 1:11 left (so outside of 1:00) at its own 8. David Johnson carried for 3 yards before fumbling on a second-down play that started with 37 seconds left. Seattle turned that into a field goal after Russell Wilson threw three incompletions from the 9. Arizona still won the game 34-31 on a last-second field goal.
These end-of-half fumbles just don’t happen in the NFL, but when you combine the conflicting karmic forces of Brady and the Chargers, odd shit tends to be the result. At least Sunday should be the last time we have to see it.
Matt Patricia Is Who I Thought He Was
Teams that lead by double digits tend to win in the NFL, but as the kids like to say these days, Matt Patricia is just DIFFERENT. According to ESPN and my no-stat-crediting nemesis the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lions are riding the longest losing streak in NFL history (six games) in games where they held a double-digit lead.
After taking a 14-0 lead on banged-up New Orleans, the Lions fell behind 35-14 and only put up a mild rally late to fall 35-29. This season alone, the Lions have blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to Chicago, an early 11-point lead to Green Bay, and now this early 14-point lead to the Saints. It’s the fifth time Patricia has blown a lead of at least 11 points, something former coach Jim Caldwell did six times in his four seasons with the team (2014-17).
I roasted Patricia in 2018 when the Lions hired him:
That tweet didn’t go over well with Detroit fans, but after a 10-25-1 start and a 2-15-1 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I think they’ve all come around to realize this is the next coach to fire in the NFL.
Kyler Murray: Deja Ew
Rest in peace to the Kyler Murray 2020 MVP Campaign:
Died 10/4/2020 (9/27/2020 Also Appropriate)
Arizona’s second straight loss, 31-21 in Carolina, led to another shocking stat line for Murray. He completed 24 passes for only 133 yards, the fewest yards in NFL history for anyone with 24 completions. Worse, Murray already had a game last year against the 49ers where he had the fourth-fewest yards on 24 completions:
That’s not a good look to show up twice there, but it gets worse. Here’s the updated look at the fewest passing yards for each completion mark from 24 through 40 in games since 1950. Murray shows up twice for his games against the Panthers:
Out of the 17 games on the list, Murray has the two with the lowest yards per completion (YPC) figures, not even breaking 5.8 YPC against what have not been good Carolina defenses. Now maybe Carolina has this offense’s number, but like I said, Murray has been flirting with these low averages before. It’s something to watch and will require a deeper dive at some point, but the screen-heavy Cardinals passing game that Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury have put together isn’t the most effective at moving the ball. Murray would really be lost if he wasn’t such a good runner as he did have 78 yards on the ground on Sunday. However, the Cardinals were out of the game early and are looking like they’re still the bottom team in the NFC West this year.
While Murray’s counterpart on Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater, has the reputation of being a dink-and-dunker, it’s safe to say that title better suits Murray through 20 games of his NFL career.
One game down, 255 to (hopefully) go for the NFL’s 2020 regular season. It was just nice to see the Chiefs start their title defense with a win and no significant injuries given they are my pick for the Super Bowl this year.
What about any Chiefs when it comes to winning other awards this season? As usual I wrote so much in my season preview that I had to wait for Saturday to post my award winners for 2020:
Most Valuable Player: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
Assistant Coach of the Year: Don Martindale, Ravens
Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, FOOTBALL TEAM (SMH)
Comeback Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
MVP/Coach: It’s a big year for Dallas, my other Super Bowl team. No ring in the end, but I think Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy click right away and this offense produces more consistently than it did a year ago when Prescott threw for nearly 5,000 yards. The only reason I didn’t double up at OPOY is because it seems like voters don’t want to do that anymore. Lamar Jackson should have been a lock last year with his prolific passing and rushing season, but voters were still deterred by Michael Thomas and his 149 catches (but glossed over the 11.6 YPC, apparently). So let’s just go with Cook going all out on his new contract for a Minnesota team I predicted to finish No. 2 in the NFC. Also, for assistant coach I almost wanted to pick Dallas OC Kellen Moore, but that would feel like overkill. So let’s go with a DC that’s gaining respect quickly in Baltimore.
DPOY: Even though CB Stephon Gilmore won last year, expect it to return to an edge rusher this season. Nick Bosa, whether you like him or not, had a nice rookie season and should be even more prepared to explode this year for what’s still a good defense.
Rookies: It could be a difficult year for rookies given the lack of a real preseason, but that’s why I’m sticking to the first two names off the board in the draft. I could cheat here and say Clyde Edwards-Helaire after his big debut for the Chiefs on Thursday night. He looks like he’s going to be a productive one at a position that’s easy to produce right away, but I wouldn’t have picked him a couple days ago so I won’t do it here either. He could definitely win though. I also like Jerry Jeudy in Denver, but it’s so hard for a WR to win.
Comeback: Again, my preference is to pick a player returning from serious injury instead of someone who sucked last year and now doesn’t. The latter might end up describing Philip Rivers or Tom Brady, but I’d rather pick Ben Roethlisberger on what I expect to be a 10-win team again. His numbers may end up looking more like 2010-13 Ben than 2014-18 Ben, but that’s good enough.
NFL 2020 Week 1 Predictions
Started TNF with a win, so can’t beat that. A fair share of road favorites this week, but no game has a double-digit spread. I’m likely to watch RedZone at 1 PM before focusing more on Bucs-Saints in the late afternoon. Packers-Vikings is quietly a big one in the NFC though. The Vikings need a strong performance to wipe out the taste of last year when they were swept by Green Bay and Kirk Cousins played especially bad in the last matchup.
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.
It’s a full weekend of NFL action, but the game I want to focus on is the battle for the NFC East between the (underachieving) Cowboys and Eagles. This is the 55th game of Carson Wentz’s career and it is the biggest one yet seeing as how he missed the playoff runs for the Eagles the last two years. This basically is the first playoff game of his career. The Eagles are home, Dak Prescott is banged up, but Dallas is still a 2-point favorite and has gotten the best of this matchup in recent years.
The Cowboys win the division with a win here. If they lose, the Eagles are likely to win the division instead, which could very well cost head coach Jason Garrett his job. So it’s a pretty big one, not only for this season, but for the future outlook of the division.
Neither team has done a whole lot of impressive winning this year. Both lost to the Vikings and Patriots, but I will point out that the Eagles were able to beat four teams the Cowboys lost to: Packers, Jets, Bills and Bears. Is that more relevant than the Eagles losing to the Dolphins and getting waxed 37-10 in Dallas? Maybe not, but the Cowboys have been a massive tease this season. Dallas is +90 in scoring differential and is only 7-7. The next closest team with a positive scoring differential and no winning record is Tampa Bay (+18 and 7-7). The Cowboys are looking at a top 5 finish all time in scoring differential for a .500 or worse team if these final games don’t go well.
The Eagles have played better defense for coordinator Jim Schwartz in the second half of the season, though that Week 13 clunker in Miami does stick out like a sore thumb. The Cowboys are coming off one of their best games of the season against the Rams and have played mostly well on offense aside from a few stinkers (NO/NE/BUF). Prescott’s health is something to monitor, though he expects to start Sunday. He has not led any game-winning drives this season while Wentz has had three in 2019, including two in the last two games against the Giants and Redskins. In fact three of his six 4QC have been against the Giants in his career and four of his seven GWD are against the Giants (3) and Redskins (1). If this comes down to another close finish I’m still going to trust the quarterback who is 15-14 (.517) in such games over the one who is 7-16 (.304). Prescott already has four GWD against the Eagles.
Special teams have been abysmal in numerous ways for Dallas this year. While the Eagles are just mediocre in that department, it could be an edge this week.
The Cowboys are a middling defense and the Eagles are a middling offense, but Philly has found some success in recent weeks with RB Miles Sanders and WR Greg Ward stepping up. The Cowboys are one of the better defenses at getting pressure on the QB this season. That could be a problem for Wentz who has seen his fumble issues return. Wentz didn’t have a single fumble thru Week 6, but after losing a pair in Dallas he’s up to 14 fumbles (7 lost) this year. No offense that uses play-action as frequently as the Eagles this year has been as poor when doing so (29th in yards per play according to SIS). It might be wise to ease up on that this week and not make Wentz turn his back to the defense.
As I wrote about earlier today, fans love to argue about the talent these players have around them on offense. The main argument tends to be the wide receiver help that Prescott has. That ignores that the Eagles have fielded a very competent OL over the years. They’ve had a great receiving back in Darren Sproles and some of their best pass plays this year have been RB screens. The Eagles also have arguably the best TE duo in the NFL with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, which is better than the ancient Jason Witten that Prescott has known best at the position. #FreeBlakeJarwin
So once again it comes down to the wide receivers. While I don’t think Dez Bryant past his peak was great with Prescott, overall Dak has had better WRs than Wentz. The Amari Cooper trade was obviously big and they’ve also drafted Michael Gallup and brought in Randall Cobb this year.
The problem I have here, beyond the fact that I think WRs are the position most dependent on the QB to have success, is that Wentz fans brush over his accuracy issues. Even in 2017, his best year, he was a 60% passer with 7.5 YPA. There’s very little proof that he makes any WR better.
Alshon Jeffery was better in Chicago than he has been in Philly. Jordan Matthews was better with the Eagles under Chip Kelly’s offense than he has been with Doug Pederson and Wentz. Nelson Agholor was thought to have a breakout season in 2017, but he has been a bust otherwise with a poor connection with Wentz this year. JJ Arcega-Whiteside can barely get a target this year as a 2nd-round pick. Golden Tate has been very good in this league, but he couldn’t catch on with the Eagles in 2018. Torrey Smith washed out in 2017. Even noted bust Dorial Green-Beckham had a better rookie year with Mariota in Tennessee than he did with Wentz in 2016.
So when Eagles fans show their envy for Dak having Cooper, I tend to just laugh. This is the same Cooper who has 14 games in his career where he failed to surpass 10 receiving yards, including four bagels. Compare that 10-yard game total (14) to that of Calvin Johnson (four), Larry Fitzgerald (six) and Julio Jones (twice as a rookie). Cooper is a talented player, but he does have a tendency to disappear in games, and he’s not a transformative talent that will make one retool an entire offense. If Wentz had Cooper, I’m not sure that would be a great thing for Cooper, and that move alone wouldn’t suddenly make Wentz consistently accurate.
I hope this game delivers. The playoffs are on the line. Jobs and legacies are on the line. It sounds a hell of a lot more serious than it should be for two 7-7 teams, but this is the state of the NFC East. Pissing matches are never ending in that division, but if Cowboys fans don’t want to hear about this one for years to come like the 44-6 drubbing in 2008, then they better hope Dallas delivers on the road.
NFL Week 16 Predictions
Well here’s a disaster in the making. I picked eight teams to cover, but not win this week. I’ve only been doing that 4.4 times a week on average this season.
How deep is your flush? What a toilet bowl between the Bengals and Dolphins this week. I’m also curious to see if the Browns could go down as one of those ultimate thorn-in-the-side teams in a division by tripping up the Ravens again. That 40-25 win in Baltimore is looking like the shocker of the season (aside from maybe Atlanta’s big win in New Orleans).
So last week kind of sucked in the NFL, which was my concern going into last Sunday. The early afternoon slate was especially low on drama. A total of six teams won by at least 17 points in Week 11, the most since Week 17 last year. Some teams clearly mailed in their performance to end that season, so this was especially one-sided.
When I look at the 1 P.M. slate for Week 12, I see very little to get excited for. My preference would be to just watch Seahawks-Eagles with some RedZone sprinkled in, because it’s one of the closest games of the season by many projection models. Could be a true pick ’em with a Seattle team that’s been scraping by all the close ones against an Eagles team that can stop the run and should be desperately playing to hang onto division title hopes.
But instead I’ll probably be focusing on the Steelers looking to continue their mastery in Cincinnati, or perhaps add another soul-crushing loss to a terrible team to Mike Tomlin’s resume.
Steelers at Bengals (+6.5): Don’t Bet on 0-16
It’s a safe bet to pick a team to NOT go 0-16 in the NFL. Only the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns have done it. Meanwhile, 10 teams have finished 1-15 and 32 teams have finished 2-14 since 1978. The 0-10 Bengals have a favorable schedule coming up for a win, but none may be sweeter than this opportunity against Pittsburgh (5-5).
I’ve probably been writing about this for a decade now, but Mike Tomlin’s Steelers love to come up small in the small games, especially on the road against teams they’re expected to beat. Losing to the 0-10 Bengals as a 6.5 point underdog would certainly fit that bill. Since 2007, the Steelers are 16-9 (.640) straight up and 8-17 (.320) against the spread on the road as a 6+ point favorite.
It’s a bit surprising the Steelers remain a 6.5 point favorite. They beat the Bengals 27-3 at Heinz Field earlier this season, but they won’t have QB1 (Ben Roethlisberger), RB1 (James Conner), or WR1 (JuJu Smith-Schuster) for this game. You’d have to go back to 1999, if not further, to find a Pittsburgh offense this devoid of talent, and I’m saying that even with the consideration of the RB and WR returning soon. Oh, not to mention the center is suspended.
Yes, Mason Rudolph has already won a game against the Bengals, but he is coming off one of the worst QB performances of the season. There’s also obviously some controversy surrounding him from his role in the Myles Garrett incident. There’s no Maurkice Pouncey at center because of his suspension from the fight. The Steelers are going to rely heavily on defense to win this game, which it can do with the way it has gotten turnovers this year. Andy Dalton was also sacked a career-high 8 times in the last meeting. Ryan Finley has taken over and done nothing to really impress anyone. He’s not afraid to scramble though. The Bengals have been competitive at times with 3 blown fourth quarter leads, and the running game has gone for over 150 yards in consecutive weeks. It’s likely to be a game decided by turnovers.
One of the most stunning stats I’ve ever seen in the NFL is this one: ex-Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis was 2-16 at home against the Steelers. Rookie head coach Zac Taylor has done practically nothing to establish a name for himself this season, but reversing that home trend and pulling off an upset win over the Steelers would easily be the team’s highlight this year.
With the Steelers lacking so much talent on offense, I feel like this is a great upset to pick. Keep the RC Cola bottles ready, Detroit and Cleveland. Your 0-16 club may be closing up membership for at least another year very soon.
GOTW: Cowboys at Patriots (-3)
It sure would be nice if this turns out to be a great game seeing as how Jags-Titans is the only other game scheduled for the late afternoon. I’m not sure how that happened, but clearly the NFL wants to milk what should be Brady/Belichick vs. Dallas for the last time.
Standing in the Cowboys’ way is The Clapper (Jason Garrett). The thought of him outsmarting Belichick is why I have no issue picking the Patriots in this one, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Dallas’ chances. Concern is do they run Zeke too much and put Dak Prescott in tough third-and-long situations. It could be tempting to run if you look at the success Cleveland and Baltimore had doing so against New England this year. If it’s working you really can’t knock it, but Dallas will have to be careful to not fall into the trap of continuing to slam Elliott into the line on so many early downs.
This is the best pass defense Prescott has seen in his NFL career. He’s playing better than ever this season, but he’ll definitely have to bring his A game to succeed in this one. If the Patriots want to take Amari Cooper away with Stephon Gilmore, then I think Dallas is still fine in this matchup. Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb are healthy and playing well. The tight ends can contribute as well. Cooper only had 38 yards in Detroit last week, but Dak still threw for 444. Dallas (52.1%) is the only offense in the league converting more than 50% on third down in 2019. That’s helped this offense lead the league in yards per game, yards per play and first downs per game thru Week 11. This offense has evolved thanks to the progression of a young QB and new OC Kellen Moore.
I just worry about this coaching staff preparing for a team they only see once every four years. The Cowboys have another game like that on Thanksgiving against Buffalo, so a lot of eyes will be on them this week. It’s the type of week that could launch Dak on an MVP path, or sink this team’s season if the Eagles can go on a run too.
The Patriots have really only played four teams of note this season: PIT, BUF, BAL, PHI. Everyone else has a losing record. If you look at the expected points added breakdown on Pro Football Reference, their three worst games on offense were against PHI/BAL/BUF. Their four worst games on defense were against BUF/PIT/PHI/BUF. Dallas has played a similarly weak schedule (plays the AFC East and NFC East), but this is one of the best challenges the Patriots will see all year. Dallas doesn’t have a great defense, but it has been respectable most weeks.
I don’t want to belabor the point about NE’s mediocre offense, because it should be obvious at this point. They basically peaked in the first two weeks of the season when they played a Pittsburgh defense they always murder at home and a Miami team that was completely lost. Since then the offense has rarely been good. Brady’s TD% is a career low 3.5% right now. Replacing Rob Gronkowski with an ancient Ben Watson isn’t doing a whole lot. They’ve already gone through Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon. It’s basically Julian Edelman moving the chains and their big plays are coming down to James White turning a screen pass into 30+ yards.
Only the Patriots can trade a 2nd-round pick for a 30-year-old WR who was averaging a career-low in yards per catch and have people think it’s a great move. That’s Mohamed Sanu and now he’s injured and may not even be active. Oh and the Patriots stink at running the ball this year to boot. I’d love to see Dallas just double up on Edelman and shrink the field, forcing Brady to beat them deep.
New England basically loses one home game a year and blow one 4Q lead a year, so if there’s a game on the schedule where that’s most likely to happen this season, it’s probably this one. However, keep in mind that Dallas is 0-3 at 4QC opportunities this season as we knew regression was going to come in that area for them. Still, you can trust Dak on a game-winning drive opportunity. The Patriots offense has yet to have one this season since the defense always has them ahead, and they couldn’t do any better than trail by 10 in their lone loss in Baltimore.
I think this one goes down to the final drive, but I’m still going to take Belichick over Garrett every time.
NFL Week 12 Predictions
I had Houston by 6 points on TNF, but of course they wouldn’t kick a late FG and only won by 3. I should probably feel lucky that the Texans even won that game.
Since 2016, NFL teams that outgain the opponent by 75+ rushing yards, win the turnover battle, and have 30+ minutes of possession are 139-4.
The Bengals are not my only upset pick this week. I think the Jets take care of Oakland in the early game after showing some life offensively last week. I also have the Buccaneers beating Atlanta for no good reason other than the NFC South doesn’t make sense right now, but I still don’t believe the Falcons have magically fixed their defense the last two weeks.
Even though the home team wins 71.4% of the games in this round since 1970, it’s often the most dramatic and best weekend of the year. In the 32-team era, 2002, 2004 and 2015 are the only seasons where the home teams finished 4-0 in the divisional round. Someone is likely getting upset and leaving their fans upset in the process. Even the Patriots have an actual challenge this week with the smallest spread (-4) of the weekend.
Colts at Chiefs (-5)
This was my big preview at FO, so go there and read that one. Basically, I’m going to assume the snow isn’t a big deal today. The game comes down to Andrew Luck playing efficiently and effectively to limit Patrick Mahomes’ drives and make him score more than 30 to win. The Colts defense isn’t that good, but the Chiefs are certainly worse in that area despite better numbers at home. I see Mahomes putting up his usual points, but Luck will have a chance for a late game-winning TD drive and this defense is going to have to make a play to stop him. So do something this time, Orlando Scandrick.
Final: Chiefs 30, Colts 26
(IND +5, Under 56.5)
Cowboys at Rams (-7)
Both offenses are a little shaky to me. Dak Prescott takes way too many sacks and isn’t aggressive enough on third downs this season. That’s bad news against Wade Phillips’ defense, and especially with Aaron Donald against this interior OL. Dallas is 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season and they’ll definitely need to hit that total here. It should be noted that Dallas only surpassed 17 points on the road three times, though LA isn’t a huge home-field advantage yet and the Cowboys may actually feel at home with more fans in the seats. Still, the Rams have scored 23+ in every game this season except for the disaster in Chicago (15-6). Jared Goff has been shaky since the bye, but at least the last two games were good. Dallas has a good defense but I’m not blown away by it or anything.
With this week’s coaching hires revolving around finding the next Sean McVay, it would look really bad if McVay lost this game to fall to 0-2 at home in the playoffs. He was a favorite of 6.5+ points in each game too. I’m going to back the Rams in this one, but I think it’s still an underrated story of how the offense misses Cooper Kupp in the slot.
Final: Rams 26, Cowboys 20
(DAL +7, Under 49)
Chargers at Patriots (-4)
The Chargers have played better than the Patriots this season, but there’s just something about this opponent where San Diego Los Angeles goes into extra Chargering mode. I’ll spare the lowlights of Nate Kaeding or Marlon McCree from many years ago, but just look at this Travis Benjamin punt return from a 2017 game coached by Anthony Lynn in New England:
There’s a good reason why Philip Rivers is 0-7 against the Patriots with Tom Brady at quarterback. They are their own worst enemy in these games. Now Rivers can stand to play better against Bill Belichick’s defense, but at least his ACL won’t be torn this time around. He however has not been sharp in the last month and will need to play better. And it figures it could be a snow game when Melvin Gordon has been banged up for the Chargers. On defense, the Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home and 31st on the road. Nice to get this game at home against a team with a better record. Don’t let the fact that NE is 4-0 against playoff teams hide the fact they lost five times to non-playoff teams.
Let's not get crazy about NE going 4-0 vs. playoff teams
Beat HOU at home in Week 1 during its 0-3 start Beat IND at home in Week 5 during its 1-5 start; short week Beat KC at home in Week 6; 43-40 game Beat CHI on road in Week 7; CHI started 3-3
Again, I think the Chargers are a better team this year, but I can’t bring myself to picking them in this venue. Especially not with the Patriots coming off a bye, which I think is huge for their old offensive players (not just Brady, but Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman). Also, despite the loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Belichick is still money against new playoff opponents and the Chargers have only seen this team once in the last four seasons. It was a comedy of errors in that 21-13 loss last year, and I can just imagine what they’ll cook up this time. Maybe Hunter Henry fumbles in the red zone in his season debut (I cribbed this from Marvin Harrison vs. 2007 Chargers in AFC-DIV). Maybe their kicker (Michael Badgley) gets hurt so the new guy they signed for kickoffs blows a game-winning field goal.
This is the game where the Chargers can show it truly is a different year, but do you trust them?
Final: Patriots 27, Chargers 20
(NE -4, Under 48)
Eagles at Saints (-8)
This would definitely be a huge upset if the Eagles can continue their late run here behind Nick Foles. In Week 11, the Saints waxed Philly 48-7 with Sean Payton and Drew Brees pouring it on with a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles come in with virtually zero pressure to win while the Saints are the favorites to go all the way.
I’m ultimately picking the Saints to win, but let me just state some facts and thoughts why an upset is possible here:
Carson Wentz had the worst game of his career in Week 11. He’ll be replaced by a QB in Foles who has incredible playoff stats in five starts and is simply better at getting this team to win games of this magnitude, not to mention better in crunch time and in shootouts. The Eagles aren’t just a front-running team with Foles under center.
Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive coaches on fourth downs and two-point conversions, so knowing he has nothing to lose here, look for him to take advantage of +EV chances.
The Saints are a below-average passing defense and struggle with wide receivers, especially on deep throws (32nd in DVOA). Foles gets the WRs involved in this offense and is willing to take deep chances.
Brees struggled down the stretch this season, though most of those games were on the road. He took off Week 17 as the Saints really didn’t put much effort into that game period. Now with a bye week too, could we see some rust and a slow start? It’s happened before to teams that rest early in addition to the bye.
Perhaps we can keep talking about this if Saints advance, but it’s incredible to me that this passing offense is so successful despite how much it relies on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas is great, but he’s not the all-around athlete Julio Jones is, he’s not as good after the catch as Odell Beckham, not as good at the catch point as DeAndre Hopkins, and not the kind of deep threat Tyreek Hill is. He has a great connection with the accurate Brees, but I would often double team him and make other players step up to beat you. Kamara is dangerous after the catch and on screens, but he’s still limited as a RB in just how much damage he’ll do to you. His only catch vs. Eagles was that 37-yard run-up-the-score TD. Now the Eagles are too banged up in the secondary to really afford to double team, but it’s something to think about should Thomas have a bad game. Where else will the production come from?
Finally, in Week 11 there was this stat (see below) where Brees had a completion rate that was +20.5% above expectation based on next gen charting data. He was on fire that day, but obviously with that being his best performance this season, it’s hard to expect him to repeat that. So what if the Eagles are able to get him to throw into tight windows with good coverage again, but some of those passes just don’t connect this time? I think this is a good sign for the Eagles going into this one.
In Week 11 against the Eagles, Drew Brees completed 73.3% of attempts, +20.5% Above Expectation, his best performance relative to expectation this season.@drewbrees has finished below expectation in just 3 games this season, all of which came on the road.#PHIvsNO#GoSaintspic.twitter.com/RTZfx9hmBD
I mean, if the 2010 Jets can go from 45-3 to beating the Patriots with Mark Sanchez at quarterback a month later, is it really asking that much for the defending champion Eagles to turn 48-7 around with Foles going into the Superdome? This wouldn’t be the upset of the decade, but it would create one hell of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, if we aren’t already there. For that reason alone I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win, but I’m not betting on it.
The 2018 NFL season has been so competitive that I can’t help but think we’ll get some stunning playoff results this year. The point spreads being quite small (1-to-2.5 points) in three of the games this week looks like a good start for that. The last five chalky postseasons have produced nine No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The wild card teams aren’t necessarily strong this season, but the Chargers had a good year, the Colts are hot with Andrew Luck, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles last year, and the Seahawks are always a tough out. Throw in Baltimore’s old-school approach and the Chicago defense, and there’s a better chance we see a non-bye team go on a good run again.
Before I pick the whole tournament, I’m going to preview each of the four wild card games. I’m really just throwing out some thoughts at 5 A.M. (sleep schedule is FUBAR) rather than building a structured narrative or detailed analysis of the matchups. You can read the previews on FO for more of that.
Colts at Texans (-1)
It’s amazing these teams are here with double-digit wins after starting 0-3 and 1-5. Both defenses have benefited from a soft schedule (the softest of any two defenses in the NFL), though that’s a bit immaterial when they’re playing each other this week with a good quarterback matchup. I like the over. Houston has won a lot of close games and relied on some opposing coaching mistakes, including that memorable Frank Reich move in overtime in the 37-34 win by Houston. Had he taken the tie, this game would likely be in Indy this week, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal for the Colts in the end. They have won in Houston this year, they’ve won there before, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, you have to go beat a team like Kansas City anyway. Hell, it might even set up better if the Ravens or Chargers can knock off the Patriots, Indy’s personal nightmare venue.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s Round 3 with Houston and a roster with some really talented players. None of those players are on the offensive line however, and I think Deshaun Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and take sacks can really help out an Indy defense that doesn’t have a dominant pass-rusher. Watson took 5 sacks in the last meeting and had to lead his team in rushing against a Colts defense that stops the run well. DeAndre Hopkins is always a problem, but T.Y. Hilton has been incredible in his career against Houston. He had 199 yards in the last matchup and has been playing at a high level despite his health. The Colts protect Luck much better this year, he’s changed his playing style to be more dart thrower than gunslinger, and I think the Colts can win this one on the road as long as he avoids the dumb interceptions like we saw on the pick-six in Tennessee on Sunday night.
Houston was 1-4 this year when allowing 24+ points with the only win being 37-34 over the Colts in overtime. Indy has scored 24+ in 11 games this year, including both against Houston. I like the Colts to score enough in this one and close it out late.
Final: Colts 27, Texans 24
Seahawks at Cowboys (-2)
Like the first game on Saturday, these teams are hot, and in Dallas’ case, playing a schedule with the AFC South and NFC East has helped out too. The Cowboys are 7-1 in their last eight, and 7-2 since the trade for Amari Cooper. He’s turned in some huge games that helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, but he also has 13 catches for 83 yards and a lost fumble in his last three games combined. That’s the problem with Cooper in that he’ll put up 180 and a score one week, then struggle to break 20 yards the next. The Seahawks don’t have Richard Sherman anymore, and while a respectable defense overall, they were 25th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers. Cooper needs to come up big in this one.
I like that Dallas has put more responsibility on Dak Prescott in recent weeks. He threw for 455 yards against the Eagles and added 387 against the Giants in Week 17, a game where Ezekiel Elliott and a couple star lineman didn’t even play. Prescott has been playing better the last eight games, but his problems this year are that he takes way too many sacks and he doesn’t pull the trigger as much as he should. If he’s not taking a sack, he’s settling for a checkdown, which is why he has the worst third down ALEX in the league. Those third-down struggles are also why his advanced stats aren’t too hot.
I’ll still take Russell Wilson any day over Prescott, but I think in many ways the Seahawks are the team Dallas wants to be when it comes to running and defense. The Seahawks are running the ball as much as anyone not named Baltimore, and it’s worked for the most part this year. Wilson didn’t even throw for 3500 yards, but he was efficient, had a dominant efficiency season with Tyler Lockett, and he still threw 35 touchdowns. Wilson hasn’t even broke 200 yards against Dallas in the last two meetings, and this Cowboys defense is playing better, but it didn’t matter. The Seahawks still won 21-12 and 24-13 after Prescott and the offense struggled in both matchups. I can see that happening again here, though with Cooper in the mix, Elliott back in action, and Prescott having experience to pull games out late, I think Dallas has a good shot in this matchup.
I’m still going with Seattle just because I trust Wilson and Pete Carroll more than I do Prescott and Jason Garrett. But it really is a game that could come down to Prescott hitting Gallup on a deep shot and Wilson not connecting with Lockett on a similar play like they have done so well this year.
Final: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20
Chargers at Ravens (-2.5)
This was my big preview at FO, so go there for 3500+ words on the matchup. Basically, it boils down to both teams need to have a good start, but it’s even more important for the Ravens so they can keep up their style of running the ball and pressuring on defense. Philip Rivers can lead a comeback, but probably not from 14+ late against this defense. Can Lamar Jackson deliver enough with his arm if called upon? It’s best if the Ravens don’t find out yet, but with the way they play defense, special teams, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, I think they take care of the Chargers in this one.
Final: Ravens 26, Chargers 20
Eagles at Bears (-6.5)
Outside of Colts-Texans, this might be the game with the widest range of possible outcomes this week. The Bears have a great defense that gets the most turnovers, but the Eagles have played better offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback. He’s also been prolific in the postseason, albeit that’s four starts. He seems to be good to go this week with the rib injury. With Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting. I see him as a deluxe Rex Grossman with scrambling skills maxed out, but as a passer, he’s either Good Mitch or Bad Mitch each week. If the Eagles can pressure him and force him into mistakes, then they have a great shot of advancing as a true underdog this year.
Something I really like about the Bears under Matt Nagy is that they haven’t had a bad game yet this season. They finished 12-4, but they lost two games in overtime. They blew a huge lead in Week 1 against Green Bay and would have won that game if Kyle Fuller held onto Aaron Rodgers’ interception late. They would have beat the Dolphins with a field goal in overtime. They had a Hail Mary completed to the 1-yard line vs. New England, so maybe go for two there to win in regulation if they could have got that yard. They should have gone for two at the end of regulation against the Giants on a day Chase Daniel was QB1. Nagy, like Doug Pederson, hasn’t been afraid to try unorthodox fourth downs or two-point conversions this year. So the Bears haven’t laid any eggs this season, which is impressive for a rookie head coach with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.
The Eagles definitely win out at big-game experience, but I’ll trust the Bears to deliver on defense at home. The Bears are 12-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this year (0-4 when allowing 24+). The Eagles have gotten to 24 points in Foles’ last three starts, but none of those defenses are on the level of Chicago.
Final: Bears 26, Eagles 19
In the end, I’m going with road dogs on Saturday with the better quarterbacks and the top two scoring defenses at home on Sunday.
2018 Full NFL Playoff Predictions
Here is my crack at predicting the whole tournament.
Colts over Texans
Seahawks over Cowboys
Ravens over Chargers
Bears over Eagles
Chiefs over Colts
Saints over Seahawks
Patriots over Ravens
Rams over Bears
Chiefs over Patriots
Saints over Rams
Super Bowl LIII
Saints over Chiefs (Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees)
As always, every postseason has its own narrative and I tried to craft one here but still couldn’t force too many upsets. I honestly think the Colts can win in KC and same with Baltimore in New England, but I’ll go with home-field advantage in the AFC again. After the two No. 1 seeds squaring off (with the better defense winning and the Drew Brees fanboys celebrating his Super Bowl MVP over Patrick Mahomes’ regular season MVP), my 2nd pick for the Super Bowl would actually be McVay and the Rams beating Belichick and the Patriots. That’d be the second year in a row an NFC team with a second-year head coach outdid the Patriots on the big stage. Then again, I can just as easily see the Bears knocking off the Rams in the divisional round to create a much different McVay narrative (0-2 at home!), but I can’t wait to see how things play out here.
One final look at my 2018 results, which were pretty good on straight up picks at least.
After basically every favorite won in Week 15, I just can’t help but feel that something really weird is going to happen this week. Weird as Buffalo winning an important game in New England? Probably not, but something has to give here. There are so many matchups where one team is clearly superior to the other, and there is something on the line for that team as well. Yet we know upsets happen all the time even if recent weeks have been pretty upset free outside of NE-MIA.
Something weird would definitely involve Cleveland winning to avoid 0-16, because I don’t see how they win in Pittsburgh in Week 17 when the Steelers almost certainly will have to win that one to keep a first-round bye. The Bears are a lousy team too, so I think this one is possible, and I’d almost expect it if the game was at home. But in Chicago, the weather could be bad, leading to another evenly matched game a la Colts-Bills. The Bears love to run the ball too, and it’s literally the only thing the Browns do well at stopping. So I think the matchup is favorable here, but then I just know DeShone Kizer will have some stupid turnover late and the Browns won’t even cover the spread again.
Speaking of the spread, I still see the Steelers at 10-point favorites in Houston. The Steelers are 1-8 ATS under Mike Tomlin when favored by 10+ on the road. That includes 3-point wins in Cleveland and Indy this year. After last week’s emotional and lingering gut punch, the loss of Antonio Brown, the danger of DeAndre Hopkins against this defense, and the fact that it’s a road game people expect the Steelers to roll through all has me thinking the Texans are going to make this extremely difficult.
Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s much to look forward to this week. I wan to see how Jimmy Garoppolo does against the best pass defense in the league, and how Blake Bortles fares on the road. The Jaguars have already lost to the Jets and Cardinals on the road this year.
Saints-Falcons is usually good, but I think the Saints get this one at home. Alvin Kamara shouldn’t get concussed on the first drive again, and I think Drew Brees will make up for the terrible pick last time. The Atlanta passing game still isn’t clicking on all cylinders.
The marquee game is Seattle at Dallas, an elimination game for teams we expected to make the playoffs. Now maybe just one gets in, and neither has played competent football for any extended stretch this year. But a potential shootout between Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson with Ezekiel Elliott returning from suspension? Yes, I’ll watch that.