NFL Week 8 Predictions: Steelers vs. Ravens

If you need an alternative to Cowboys-Eagles at night, it’s my understanding that Young Justice will be streaming on HBO Max starting tomorrow (Nov. 1).

The actual game of the day is clearly the renewed rivalry between the Steelers (6-0) and Ravens (5-1). For a change, it’s a game where both teams have their intended starting quarterback. It’s actually the first time Ben Roethlisberger will match his offense with Lamar Jackson’s offense. The Ravens are a 4-point home favorite, though playing in Baltimore isn’t as daunting this season as it would be under normal, non-pandemic circumstances. The Chiefs already waxed the Ravens 34-20 in that building this year.

How will the Steelers fare? I have to say last week’s win in Tennessee was both encouraging and discouraging. I picked the Steelers to lose 27-24, which is the score they ended up winning by after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal that would have forced overtime. But some of the road concerns with protecting the ball popped up again. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, but there were some extenuating circumstances there with throws into the end zone late in each half and a ball deflected high into the air at the line. What gets overlooked is the Steelers fumbled on the first two drives, but were fortunate to recover both and score 10 points. Throw in some drops and penalties and it was a sloppy performance despite the 20-point lead, third-down domination and ultimately a win.

On the other hand, the defense looked solid in holding down a potent Tennessee offense. They’ll have to do that again with the Ravens’ special ground attack that again leads the NFL in yards and yards per carry. Now one reason I’m optimistic this week is that Jackson has not been dominating through the air this season. He hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in his last four games and barely reached that number in his second game. Also, in his only start against the Steelers last year, he passed for 161 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT and was clearly pressing in a rare instance of the Ravens trailing in the second half of a game. Unfortunately, the Steelers had Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB that day and JuJu Smith-Schuster lost a fumble in overtime that set up the Baltimore victory.

Now with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers have a more potent offense to match with Jackson, but this will still have to be a defensive game. In his career, Roethlisberger is 0-7 in Baltimore when the Ravens score 20+ points. Guess what? The Ravens have scored 20+ points in all 28 of Jackson’s regular-season starts. He’s only been held under that number in both playoff games, which looks really bad for him, but there’s nothing he can do about that this weekend. The playoffs and Kansas City have been the problem teams in his career, but we’ll see if the Steelers can force him into a bad game for the second time in two tries.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Steelers can dink and dunk their way to a productive offensive day against this aggressive Baltimore defense. I think Roethlisberger has to hold the ball longer, maybe take some sacks, but also fire some shots down the field to Chase Claypool and James Washington to get some big plays that lead to points. It’s what the Chiefs have mastered with Mahomes against this defense. If it’s a minimal running day combined with the dink and dunk, look for Baltimore to hold the Steelers to a season-low in scoring. But if Roethlisberger does air it out more, he of course has to avoid the turnovers he had last week.

This should be a good one, but I’m just going to lean towards the rested Baltimore team that has played very well this year outside of that Kansas City game. It would be a huge win for the Steelers as the schedule really favors a 10-0 start before the teams meet again on Thanksgiving night. However, I think the Steelers will be looking for the season split that night as they’ll need a game to adjust to this team.

Final: Ravens 26, Steelers 20

NFL Week 8 Predictions

Here are the rest of my picks this week after another L on TNF. The Falcons just always do the opposite of what I want them to do.

We have our biggest spread of the week with the Jets as a 20-point underdog against the Chiefs. My Twitter is so far in favor of the Chiefs covering, but I wavered on this one.

You have to account for the obligatory Chiefs fumble and a lot of garbage time. While I could see the Chiefs winning 34-13, I don’t think they’ll have a monster blowout in back-to-back weeks after taking care of the Broncos 43-16 last week. I think the Chiefs will look for a huge ground game with Le’Veon Bell making his second appearance with the team in a revenge game for him on Adam Gase. When the Chiefs are ball-control efficient, that just depresses the score more and gives the Jets a chance to hang around in a 26-7 type of game. Honestly, I’d sooner bet on the over for Bell’s rushing yards than anything involving the point spread in this game. Chiefs by 14+ sounds good though.

NFL teams that are 20-point underdogs are 10-3 ATS and 0-13 SU since 1980.

Vote to Dump Trump

Finally, I just wanted to say that I screwed up four years ago when I did not vote for president. I was not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but I knew she was the superior choice to Donald Trump. They were not equally bad. I didn’t vote because I didn’t actually think this country would elect someone like that, and now we’re paying the price in the Supreme Court and who knows where else going forward. Clinton won my county, but lost my state (PA) in 2016 and we can’t let that happen again.

So this time I made sure to send in my mail-in ballot early and made the only logical choice I could: Joe Biden/Kamala Harris. I would have preferred Bernie Sanders over Biden, but I know this is the only vote I can make that will accomplish the goal of getting rid of Trump and his awful administration.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir since I’ve spent much of this year cleansing my followers of MAGA/Trump supporters, but I hope you voted to remove Trump too. The next week, or weeks to come, could be a dangerous time for our country. I’m very concerned that on Tuesday night Trump is just going to declare victory since facts mean nothing anymore, and that any votes that come in after midnight are “fraudulent” and that there are many “irregularities” with the mail-in ballots, which we know will be largely Biden/Democratic voters. I’m worried they will try to steal this election, which is why the bigger the blowout, the harder it will be for them to pull this off.

So please vote this week if you haven’t already. And if you’re going to vote for Trump, put down the Kool-Aid first and think this through.

NFL Week 6 Predictions: Reshuffling the AFC

It’s kind of crazy how we’ll know so much about the AFC by Week 8. As I’m about to show you, so many of the key games will be played in the first eight weeks (pandemic willing).

KC-BAL in Week 3 was supposed to be the Game of the Year, and it still might prove to be the game between the AFC’s two best. It was just very one sided.

KC-BUF in Week 6 was the new Game of the Year, thought to take place on a Thursday night before some COVID rescheduling pushed it to Monday night. It’s also no longer a game between undefeated teams as both the Chiefs and Bills lost this past week.

Yes, any thoughts Buffalo fans had of taking over the AFC from the Chiefs lasted two days after a poor showing in Tennessee on Tuesday night vaulted the Titans to 4-0 and in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s top seed.

The only other undefeated AFC team is Pittsburgh (4-0), which was supposed to play the Titans in Week 4 before Tennessee’s virus outbreak started moving the schedule around. These teams are set to meet in Week 7 in what could be a battle of 5-0 teams (instead of 3-0 as originally scheduled) if both take care of business against division rivals this week from Cleveland and Houston. This is some old-school AFC Central shit right here.

When the Chiefs play the Bills this week, that’s quite arguably the biggest AFC game left on their schedule unless the Raiders go on an unexpected run after last week’s upset. The Steelers play their first Baltimore game in Week 8, so that could be another big swing in the standings as its arguably Baltimore’s biggest game left this year (and Pittsburgh’s toughest). The Steelers really need to nip Cleveland’s confidence in the bud this week before that tough road slate of going to Tennessee and Baltimore in Weeks 7-8.

The Titans don’t meet the Ravens until Week 11 and Steelers-Bills happens in Week 14, but otherwise we really are going to see almost every significant AFC matchup this year by November 1. Even the first Patriots-Bills game is set for November 1, because yes, I can’t mention the AFC and completely ignore the Patriots just yet.

Josh Allen: Let’s Pump the Brakes

The KC-BUF game lost a bit of shine this week after the way the teams performed in Week 5, but I wanted to highlight this one for the play of Josh Allen. He had that 4-0 start with great numbers and the Buffalo offense was humming along just fine for a change. Maybe he really did turn the corner this year after two rough seasons to start his career.

However, even before the Tennessee game crashed this coming out party, I was still a bit skeptical about Allen. I’m sold enough that he’s playing better this year, but I don’t know if I’m sold that he’s now a great quarterback who you can trust to perform at a high level on any consistent basis.

Basically, I feel like there’s still a reckless nature to his game where he’s going to have to get lucky, especially against good opponents, or the defense is going to have to play much better for the Bills to finally overtake the Patriots in the division and do some damage in the playoffs.

In Week 2 against Miami, the Bills were leading 24-20 with just over three minutes left. Allen, after double-clutching, threw a deep ball to John Brown that easily could have been intercepted. Maybe he thought the receiver was going to keep going full speed for the ball, but maybe his hesitation made the receiver hesitate too. It was a dangerous play that could have set up the Dolphins for a game-winning drive opportunity. On the very next play, Allen again went deep to Brown with a better pass and this time it was successful for a 46-yard touchdown that basically iced the game. So he went from a near disaster pick to a 46-yard touchdown in one play.

The next week against the Rams, Allen was great in building a 28-3 lead, but then he had some mistakes in the second half and the Rams got back into it, forcing him to need a game-winning drive. He was moving the ball, but that pass interference call on fourth down with the game on the line was total rubbish to me. You just don’t call such minimal contact in that spot, so it gave Allen another chance he didn’t deserve after that bad throw. He cashed it in with a touchdown and the Bills won the game. Again, that’s lucky to me.

Tuesday night was my first live Bills game of 2020 and it was a big disappointment after seeing so many great numbers from this offense in the first four weeks. The Titans are obviously a contender too, so it’s another big game the Bills have not won in the McDermott/Allen era.

They get another chance with the Chiefs this week, but I’m backing Kansas City all the way. I don’t see Patrick Mahomes missing that many throws again this week and the Bills have absolutely declined on defense this year. The Bills have already had three games this season where they allowed at least 28 points after doing it one time in 17 games in 2019. If this is going to be a shootout, then I’m trusting Mahomes over Allen. That’s not saying a whole lot, but the fact is I’m still trusting Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger over Allen as well in a big game.

That’s the kind of competition the Bills will have to beat this year, and until it starts happening, I’m not all in on Allen and this team.

NFL Week 6 Predictions

Let’s hope all these games are played on time this week.

Starting this week, I now have articles of the preview/pick variety on Sportsbook Review. My first piece was Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady fighting over control of the Spice Melange. I also covered how the Jets will attempt to avoid being the third team in the last 20 years (2011 Rams, 2011 Dolphins) to start 0-6 and 0-6 against the spread. Finally, I looked at SNF between the Rams and 49ers.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Brady or Manning (Nor Is He Patrick Mahomes)

It’s not the Game of the Year if one team doesn’t even show up.

On Monday night, the Ravens were dominated by Kansas City in a 34-20 game that wasn’t as close as the final suggests. Special teams helped give the Ravens an 11-point advantage, but the Chiefs gained almost 300 more yards, finished 10-of-13 on third down, didn’t allow a sack, and Patrick Mahomes put on a masterclass with 411 yards and five touchdowns of total offense. Meanwhile, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson only completed 15-of-28 passes for 97 yards and took four sacks. Sure, he was the game’s leading rusher (83 yards), but that production mainly led to just two Baltimore field goals.

We tend to obsess over creating rivalries in sports. With the changing of the guard in the AFC, the most logical choice for the new NFL decade was Mahomes vs. Lamar, Chiefs vs. Ravens. This was going to mirror the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry, especially from the days when it was the offensive juggernaut Colts vs. the masterfully-coached Patriots. We thought last year would be the first AFC Championship Game between Mahomes and Jackson, but it didn’t happen. We thought last night would be the Game of the Year in the regular season, but it wasn’t even the best game of Week 3.

The reason those things didn’t happen is the same: Jackson didn’t pass the ball well in games where the opponents were able to score early and force him to be better as a passer.

While we’re quick to create rivalries, the truth is Jackson compares more favorably to 1988-90 Randall Cunningham than he does Manning, Brady or Mahomes.

If you don’t believe me, consider that Cunningham won the PFWA MVP in 1990, was the most prolific rushing QB the league had seen at the time, and he was 0-3 in the playoffs with no touchdown passes and led the Eagles to 25 total points in those games.

I’ll show you why it’s not good to compare Jackson to these other quarterbacks.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Tom Brady

Originally, Jackson was supposed to be the Brady in the rivalry with Mahomes, but that’s really gone to the wayside in the last year. Jackson had the impeccable winning percentage on the balanced team with a great defensive tradition and top-notch special teams with the most trustworthy kicker in the league. But ever since the Chiefs last lost in Tennessee in 2019, the defense has really improved to the point where it’s a strength rather than a liability like it was in 2018. The Chiefs have only allowed more than 24 points once in their 12-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Jackson has been very dependent on his defense playing well to have success in this league. So far, he is 0-5 as a starter when the Ravens allow more than 24 points, including all three losses to Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chiefs are also the only team to score more than 14 points in the first half against Baltimore in Jackson’s 27 starts.

When the Ravens can play their game, they’re as dominant as any team in the NFL right now. Their game, consisting of controlling the clock with a prolific rushing attack, efficient passing, a blitzing/opportunistic defense and great special teams will work against most of the 31 opponents. But when you get an opponent that can score early and break down some of those Baltimore advantages, Jackson and the Ravens seem to go into panic mode. We saw it in the shocking Tennessee playoff loss and again last night.

That’s why there’s really no comparison here between Jackson and the early run of Tom Brady with the 2001-06 era Patriots. Those teams were known for being able to adapt to any play style and winning any type of game. They could win an ugly defensive slugfest, but they can also win a shootout or high-scoring game. They could come back from large deficits with the passing game. Brady could throw 40 or 50 passes in a victory.

Sure, Brady’s pass efficiency stats from those days looked indistinguishable from the Trent Greens and Matt Hasselbecks of the day, but he wasn’t a liability when asked to play from behind like Jackson has been so far in his career.

In his third career start, Brady led the Patriots to a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback over San Diego. So far, Jackson is 0-5 when trailing by two possessions at any time in the game. Jackson does have three game-winning drives, but they were all field goals in a tied game. The only fourth-quarter comeback of Jackson’s career was in Pittsburgh last season. He led two field goal drives in the fourth quarter, then in overtime led a 6-yard drive after a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble for another game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker. Not exactly the stuff of legends. When Jackson faces the Steelers this year, they should have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges like they did that day.

The fact is those Patriots were far from front-runners, so it’s really hard to compare Jackson to any version of Brady.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Peyton Manning

Now the conversation has shifted to “well Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games and first six games to Brady, so Lamar is in the same boat in regards to Mahomes.”

This is a gross simplification and bad comparison to make.

First, Manning actually had second-half leads in both of his first two playoff games, including a 7-point lead in Miami (2000) in the final 40 seconds before losing in overtime after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal. Jackson has lost two home playoff games wire to wire, meaning he never had a lead. Not even a “3-0 in the first quarter before the opponent touched the ball” type of lead. I’ve gone over in great detail before how Manning routinely had late leads in playoff games that his teams surrendered.

Second, Manning didn’t have a turnover in a playoff game until he was down 34-0 in the fourth quarter of his third playoff game (2002 Jets). In two playoff games, Jackson has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two of them. Manning’s first two playoff games were clearly better performances than Jackson’s first two have been.

Then there’s the head-to-head showdowns. For starters, one of the biggest myths in the NFL this century is the idea that Manning kept losing to Brady in the early 2000s (the first six games in fact) because he wasn’t the better or more “clutch” quarterback. While both teams used to be in the AFC East, this rivalry didn’t actually start until 2003, the first year Manning and Brady both made the playoffs. The Patriots swept them that year and again in 2004, and the impact those four games have had on the legacies of these quarterbacks is absurd. If you look at what actually happened in the regular season meetings, the most significant plays involved Edgerrin James not being able to score at the 1-yard line both years:

Brady wasn’t outplaying Manning in these games, and the same can be said about those playoff games played in snowy New England that otherwise would have been played in Indianapolis had the Colts been able to score those 1-yard touchdowns late.

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Seriously, don’t even get me started on those playoff games. Some other day maybe.

Manning’s Colts were right there with the Patriots, and they finally broke through and defeated them all three times in 2005-06. When it comes to Lamar-Mahomes, isn’t it alarming how Jackson continues to get more outclassed by Mahomes with each passing meeting?

Jackson at least took Mahomes to overtime in Kansas City in 2018 before losing 27-24, a game he technically didn’t finish (Robert Griffin III threw the final fourth-down pass). Mahomes had to convert an amazing 4th-and-9 to Tyreek Hill in that one to even get to overtime. In last year’s trip to Arrowhead, the Ravens lost 33-28, but that was after falling behind 23-6 at halftime and failing on three two-point conversions. It was arguably the worst game of Jackson’s MVP regular season while Mahomes was fantastic with 374 yards and three touchdown passes. Then of course last night was an embarrassment with Mahomes passing for 385 yards and four scores while Jackson didn’t even hit 100 yards through the air. Sure, TE Mark Andrews didn’t help Lamar out with any great catches, but it was a night of inaccurate throws and questionable short passes that never had a chance to do anything. Jackson just looked off the whole night while Mahomes was in God Mode again.

While Jackson has yet to throw an interception against Kansas City, he’s only completed 52.63% of his passes against them with 5.38 YPA. Those are incredibly bad numbers, and for as much as Kansas City’s defense has improved over time, they’re not that great. Rookie Justin Herbert just had a much better game than Lamar against the Chiefs a week ago and he didn’t even know he was starting until the coin toss. Jackson also lost a fumble last night, his second lost fumble against the Chiefs.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Patrick Mahomes

It’s probably not fair to pretend that the only big games of Jackson’s NFL career are the two playoff games and the three Chiefs games, all five of which he has lost and underperformed significantly. For example, the stage was definitely huge with a playoff atmosphere on Sunday night last year when the Ravens hosted the 8-0 Patriots. Jackson was fantastic and the Ravens won 37-20, putting them on the path to the No. 1 seed.

That game just can’t be ignored. However, Jackson is 21-1 as a starter in all other games that aren’t the playoffs and Chiefs, only losing to Cleveland last year. When it comes to Baltimore ultimately achieving championship success, they will be measured by playoff games and how they fare against the best of the best. The Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in 2018, they were the No. 2 seed and Super Bowl champions last year, and Monday night’s game was quite possibly the tie-breaker game for this year’s top seed.

These games should matter more, but Jackson and the Ravens looked ill-prepared for what the Chiefs were able to do. That’s very concerning after finally getting them out of Arrowhead, albeit in an empty stadium.

Jackson is 23 years old. I don’t want to make it sound like he’ll never win a playoff game or won’t erase a double-digit deficit in this league. There’s still plenty of time to grow and achieve everything he wants to achieve in the NFL. But the unescapable fact is Mahomes is only 25, and with half a billion dollars coming to him, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So if Jackson is going to get over the hump, he’s likely going to have to beat Mahomes. After what happened last night, that doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon.

Until Jackson develops into a more consistent passer, Mahomes and the Chiefs have no rival in this NFL.

2020 NFL Game of the Year: Chiefs at Ravens

Sure, it’s a bit early to be talking about a “Game of the Year” in the NFL’s regular season, but for the second year in a row the Ravens and Chiefs are facing off in Week 3. These teams look like the best in the league, which doesn’t come as a surprise when this was the AFC Championship Game we deserved last year. The surprise was when the Ravens had a shocking upset at home against the Titans in the divisional round. The Chiefs are the defending champions, Patrick Mahomes is 2-0 in these matchups against Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens are at home this time and are a 3.5-point favorite.

This game could ultimately decide the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which in a normal year could be more important than ever since the No. 2 seed no longer gets a bye week. In a pandemic year, it’s questionable if it’ll be as advantageous because the lack of packed stadiums has made going on the road less daunting a task.

I think the Ravens need this game more than the Chiefs. Having to come back to Baltimore in January isn’t ideal for KC, who has yet to play a road playoff game under Mahomes, but I think they’re capable of pulling that off if the repeat is going to happen. Baltimore is the team that needs some postseason confidence after dropping two straight home games the last two seasons with Jackson turning into Andy Dalton than the MVP season he had last year and the similar caliber of play he’s started 2020 with.

Plus we just need to see this Ravens team beat this Kansas City team after losing 27-24 in overtime in 2018 and 33-28 last year in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests. That first game in 2018 was a really close effort to keeping Mahomes under 20 points in regulation, but his fourth-down miracle throw to Tyreek Hill led to the game going to overtime where the Chiefs won on a field goal. We can only be so lucky to get that good of a finish this week.

But it makes sense for the Ravens to be favored by 3.5 here as frankly they’ve just played better football so far this season than the Chiefs. However, Mahomes has been very good as an underdog in his career:

That means in six games he’s never lost against the spread as an underdog. It’s part of the reason why the Chiefs just set the NFL record with 47 straight games without losing by more than 7 points. The last time I pointed this record out when Seattle broke it (against Green Bay in 2014), the streak ended the very next game.

Mahomes has never lost a September start, but it’s interesting to point out that he’s really flirted with having “the first truly bad game of his NFL career” in two of his last three performances. The first was the Super Bowl until he made the play of the game on 3rd-and-15 against the 49ers. The second was Sunday in Los Angeles when a poor passing start saw the Chiefs down 17-6 before a strong rally and incredible clutch kicking from Harrison Butker led the Chiefs to a 23-20 comeback win.

You can make Mahomes look bad for a half and sometimes even three quarters, but no one has really done it for a full game yet, and the total for this game is set at 55 points so fireworks are expected on Monday night.

But if there was a team that would hand Mahomes his first “big loss” of his NFL career, it probably has to be this Baltimore team. That Tennessee playoff upset (28-12 final) gets stranger looking by the week as the Ravens have opened 2020 with a 38-6 win over Cleveland and a 33-16 win in Houston.

Baltimore has scored at least 20 points in 25 consecutive regular-season games, tied for the fourth longest streak in NFL history. But again, that’s a streak that looks over two playoff losses at home where the Ravens scored 17 and 12 points. That’s a bad look.

The Ravens have won 14 regular season games in a row while the Chiefs have won 11 games overall in a row. Baltimore has not trailed in the second half of a regular season game since Week 5 in Pittsburgh last year. I mean, holy shit. That’s insane for both Baltimore and, once again, the Titans in that commanding playoff win. Something has to give this week.

It’s too early in the season for me to get really detailed with a game preview. We don’t know yet where all these teams’ tendencies, strengths and shortcomings will be in regards to turnovers, sacks, special teams, penalties, crucial down performance, injuries etc. That’s why I enjoy writing playoff game previews when we have way more data, but these teams have been performing at a high level for over a season now so given the players and stakes involved, this should be a special one. I just think Baltimore is playing a bit better, has more balance between the offense and defense, and the more reliable running game to balance out the offense too.

Baltimore can’t win a playoff game Monday night, but it can deliver the biggest win yet of the Lamar Jackson era.

Final: Ravens 34, Chiefs 27

2020 NFL Predictions

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…

AFC WEST

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.

NFC WEST

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.

AFC EAST

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.

NFC EAST

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.

AFC SOUTH

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.

NFC SOUTH

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…

AFC NORTH

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.

NFC NORTH

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.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 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.

NFC

  • 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.

The Decade the Scoring Juggernauts Died in the NFL

The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.

Read that sentence a second time and it comes off just as shocking. That’s a dozen teams, including eight from this decade, who scored more points — at least 527 — than anyone in the NFL’s first 100 years, and not a single one of them won the Super Bowl that year. Oh a few were pretty close, especially the 2016 Falcons and their 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, but even that was a disappointing outcome for the offense.

I said eight of these teams happened in the last decade. The 2019 Ravens were the latest to join the group, going one-and-done at home after a season-worst performance on offense in that 28-12 loss to Tennessee to sour Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Baltimore scored at least 20 points in every week of the regular season on its way to 531 points, the 11th-highest mark in NFL history.

The upset that night had me looking into just how crazy this was for the decade. I found that the 2019 49ers (ranked 17th in scoring since 2010) were the decade’s last hope for a top 20 team in scoring to win a Super Bowl:

T30-2010s

Well, as you know now, the 49ers lost Super Bowl LIV to the Chiefs, who ranked 31st in scoring this decade. The 2014 Patriots (22nd) and 2017 Eagles (30th) were the only top 30 teams in scoring to win a Super Bowl this decade.

That doesn’t greatly differ from the results of the previous decade where only two of the top 30 scoring teams won Super Bowls, but at least the 2009 Saints finished fourth:

T30-2000s

When you go back to the 1990s, eight of the top 25 teams won Super Bowls, including every team ranked 2-5:

T30-1990s

That was back when the league was just getting used to the salary cap and the NFC tended to dominate the Super Bowls until the 1997 Broncos upset Green Bay. As for the offensively-fun 1980s, four of the top 12 scoring teams won a Super Bowl:

T30-1980s

When we get back to the defensive decade that was the 1970s after the merger, we still saw five of the top 30 teams win a Super Bowl with the 1979 Steelers ranking third to end the decade:

T30-1970s

We know winning a Super Bowl takes a lot of things going your way, but scoring a ton of points in the regular season has never really been a big requirement for pulling it off. You can combine the top 30 scoring teams from the 1980s, 2000s and 2010s and have the same number of Super Bowl winners (eight) as the top 30 scoring teams from the 1990s alone. The 90s were really the decade for juggernauts to go all the way and deliver in the playoffs too with not that many upsets around the league. Had Buffalo’s Scott Norwood made his field goal in Super Bowl XXV and if the 1992 49ers were able to prevail instead of the Cowboys (and dust off Buffalo) for that Super Bowl, then we would have had nine of the top 17 scoring teams with rings that decade. Eight of the top 25 is still pretty great when you look at the history here.

With the 2000s, Bill Belichick’s Patriots obviously have a lot to do with those results. The 2001 Rams (20-17), 2004 Colts (20-3) and 2006 Chargers (24-21) were three of the top six scoring teams that decade, but they all lost to the Patriots in the playoffs with disappointing performances on that side of the ball. Of course, the 2007 Patriots also blew it in the Super Bowl with the 17-14 loss to the Giants to deny themselves a perfect 19-0 season. The Patriots’ 589 points that year still ranks second all time. I’d also be remiss to not give the 2000 Ravens some love here. We know they got to face Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl and played a lot of shoddy offenses in the regular season, but they also shut down two of the 10 highest-scoring teams of the decade in Denver (21-3) and Oakland (16-3).

Putting a bow on the 2010s, we experienced so many famous crash-and-burn efforts from some of the best offenses in NFL history. None were bigger than the 2013 Broncos, who lost 43-8 in the Super Bowl to Seattle’s historic defense after setting the record with 606 points in the regular season. From the first snap that led to a safety the Broncos were out of sorts that night. We also saw the Patriots crumble three years in a row (2010-12) in playoff losses, Aaron Rodgers’ best season in 2011 ended with a playoff dud against the Giants, and Belichick once again denied several teams (2018 Chiefs, 2018 Rams, 2016 Falcons) on his way to more rings for the Patriots. But at the very least, Patrick Mahomes put up 31 points in the second half of that AFC Championship Game loss for the Chiefs, the second-highest scoring team of the decade. Very few of these historic offenses can say they delivered in their playoff defeat, but the 2018 Chiefs, 1998 Vikings (damn kickers), and 2011 Saints (36-32 in San Francisco) are three who can say that.

However, one thing we’ve seen several times is that it’s not always your best team that wins the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, 2015 Broncos and now 2019 Chiefs are all certainly proof of that.

Finally, for those curious here are the results for the top 30 team scoring defenses for each decade:

  • 2010s: Three of the top nine won a Super Bowl (peak: 2013 Seahawks were 4th)
  • 2000s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl, including 1st (2000 BAL) and 3rd (2002 TB)
  • 1990s: Six of the top 28 won a Super Bowl (peak: 1996 Packers were 4th)
  • 1980s: Six of the top 20 using points allowed per game (due to strikes) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1985 Bears were 2nd)
  • 1970s: Five of the top 23 using points allowed per game (due to season length change) won a Super Bowl (peak: 1973 Dolphins were 9th)

That’s 21 offensive champions and 26 defensive champions over the five decades. While you don’t want to rely too heavily on one side of the ball, it’s always fascinating to see how scoring juggernauts have had such a rough time throughout NFL history. If you look at the top 12 (13 total teams due to a tie) scoring teams from 1940-1969, only three of them won a championship. That includes the 1961 Oilers (first 500-point team) winning the AFL Championship Game by a 10-3 score, and the 1964 Browns (tied for 12th) shutting out the ninth-ranked Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

The 1950 Rams still hold the NFL record with 38.8 points per game, but they lost 30-28 to the Browns in a classic championship game. Hey, at least they scored 28 and not just a field goal like the 2018 Rams did in Super Bowl LIII.

Coming full circle, I said the 12 highest-scoring teams have zero championships. The 1999 Rams are the reason it’s not the 15 highest teams that are ring-less. They still rank 13th with 526 points scored in that shocking Super Bowl-winning season. But even that example of The Greatest Show on Turf struggled mightily against Tampa Bay, scoring a late touchdown to win 11-6 in the NFC Championship Game. They also caught a break on defense when Bert Emanuel’s catch was ruled incomplete, and then ended up winning the Super Bowl 23-16 over Tennessee after stopping a late completion short of the goal line.

Kurt Warner in 1999 is still the last regular season MVP to win the Super Bowl in the same season, though maybe that’s a streak for Patrick Mahomes to end next year. Yes, it’s all coming back to Mahomes one way or another this offseason. Just accept it now.

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The NFL’s best weekend is a little sweeter this year. Thanks in large part to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans these last two weeks, we don’t have to talk about the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. This hasn’t happened in a decade, and I said when they were 8-0 that this was not a legitimately great Patriots team. So let’s enjoy it by not giving them any more time than they deserve. The AFC is moving forward with two better teams in Baltimore and Kansas City, but both must avoid an upset as two-score favorites this week if we’re going to get that desired title game next Sunday. I don’t think the Titans and Texans will go away easily.

The Wild Card weekend was excellent with four close, low-scoring games. Every game was decided by 3-8 points and no team scored 21 points in regulation. None of the offenses performed at a high level, which had a lot to do with the games being close, but it was good for dramatic reasons.

You should be counting on more points and at least one multi-score win this week. Seahawks-Packers is the easy choice for the close game lock, and it is the only game with a spread under 7.0 this week. However, we know the greatness of this round is from the road team upsets. They are not easy to come by either. Since 1970, the home team is 141-55 (.719) in the divisional round and that hasn’t tailed off in recent years. In fact, since the new CBA in 2011 the home team is 25-7 (.781) in the divisional round. Since 2002, home teams favored by at least 9 points in the divisional round are 9-5 straight up and 6-8 against the spread. There hasn’t been an upset loss of this magnitude since the 2012 Ravens (at Denver) and 2010 Jets (at Patriots).

Even though every home team won this round last year that is still a pretty rare feat. The only other times it happened in the current playoff format were 2015, 2004 and 2002.

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

You probably could have simulated the season 10 million times in August and not once would you have ended up with this as your #6 at #1 matchup in the NFC. But here we are and I actually believe the Vikings are a very formidable foe. The team is loaded with talent, but the offense just happened to play its worst against Green Bay in two important games this year. Kirk Cousins showed last week he can lead a clutch drive to beat a good team on the road, finishing off the Saints in overtime.

The 49ers don’t have much of a track record to point to, but they are 13-3 this year with three losses on the final play of the game. They were a missed field goal in OT against Seattle and a single defensive stop (inches on one snap) from beating the Falcons to win 15 games, only losing in Baltimore on a last-second field goal. The only times they didn’t score 20 points this year were in very wet conditions in Washington and Baltimore. It’s been a great Year 3 so far for Kyle Shanahan.

For me this game comes down to the Minnesota offensive line. Can they hold up on the road against a front seven that has slipped in the second half of the season? If Dalvin Cook has holes to run through, he and Alexander Mattison could have a nice day together. The 49ers run defense is nothing special (11th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per carry). Cook looked ready to Derrick Henry his way through the Saints defense until they got to him more in the second half. With the passing offense, Cousins clearly has the weapons as Adam Thielen stepped up with big catches and Kyle Rudolph caught the game winner in OT. Stefon Diggs was hardly involved, but that’s just another great option for this offense to go to this week. The 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year, including 10 games where the opponent had fewer than 200 net passing yards (five games of no more than 100 yards). That’s very impressive, but the Vikings aren’t looking to go pass-happy in any game this year. Cousins was 11-2 (only losses to Green Bay) when he didn’t go above 35 pass attempts this season. They just want to run Cook and take advantage of play-action as much as they can.

The Saints had greater pass pressure metrics than the 49ers defense finished the year with. Cousins took a couple sacks and five QB hits in New Orleans, but overall the protection held up enough. The 49ers were destroying quarterbacks earlier this season, but that has really eased up. Rookie Nick Bosa had 7 sacks and 13 hits thru Week 8, but in the last nine games he’s only had 2 sacks and 12 hits. Through 11 games, the 49ers sacked 10 of their opposing quarterbacks at least three times. They haven’t done so since Week 12 and they have four sacks total in the last five games. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed at least 20 points in every game except for the big Packers win (37-8). Even though the Packers own the Vikings this year, the transitive property does not apply in the NFL, so don’t expect the 49ers to just own the Vikings too. San Francisco’s defense clearly peaked early as some injuries have set in too.

On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offense is pretty legit. They were fifth in points per drive and 10th in yards per drive. It helps to be second in starting field position, but they still moved the ball well throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo started a bit shaky in the first half of the season when he was only averaging 212.7 passing yards per game with nearly an equal TD:INT ratio. Ever since the Arizona game in Week 9 he’s up to 276.6 yards per game with 18 TD, 6 INT, 107.6 PR, and a strong 8.67 YPA. He’s been asked to do more and he’s delivered so far. You know to expect a good running game from a Shanahan offense and they certainly have had that. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders was smart and the draft pick of Deebo Samuel was good. It may not be the flashiest receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s more than enough to win a Super Bowl when you factor in the run and George Kittle at tight end.

If there’s an area of concern I would say the red zone could be rough, especially on Garoppolo as a passer. Kittle is awesome, the best TE in this post-Gronk NFL, but he’s not much of a receiving threat in the red zone. He only has 12 TD catches in his career (on 216 catches) and only three this season came within 30 yards of the end zone. That’s just not something they do, which is why the 49ers led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. But make no mistake about it — the 49ers are a middling red zone offense while the Vikings are No. 2 in most red zone defense metrics. The Vikings were also one of the best defenses at creating takeaways and were the only defense to get multiple turnovers from the Saints in 2019. I mentioned Danielle Hunter last week as a top pass-rusher this year. He and Everson Griffen delivered in New Orleans and will have to do so again here. Garoppolo has fumbled 10 times (equal to Cousins’ total) with five lost this year.

Something to keep in mind is that the Vikings are quite poor at coming from behind in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo is 7-3 (.700) at 4QC opportunities in his career compared to 8-25-2 (.257) for Cousins. Minnesota’s only 4QC win in the last two seasons was against Denver this season. Garoppolo (50%) and Cousins (48%) were the top two quarterbacks in 2019 at converting third-down passes into first downs.

I almost want to pick the Vikings to pull off another upset here, but I just picked the 49ers last week to reach the Super Bowl. Plus it’s January and we’re talking about the Minnesota Vikings having everything go their way in two straight playoff games. That just doesn’t compute for me, but this should be a pretty good game.

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

This was a short-lived AFC rivalry after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens while the Oilers moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans. The Ravens knocked the No. 1 seeded Titans out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2008. Those were potential Super Bowl years for Tennessee, and there really hasn’t been that type of excitement about this team ever since that day a rookie coach named John Harbaugh took his Baltimore team into that building and won.

Now the Titans can return the favor to the top-seeded Ravens, who are coming off a bye week and a Week 17 win where they rested key starters, including likely MVP QB Lamar Jackson. That means 20 days will have passed since Jackson played a game, and it’s a time in which he reportedly fought off the flu too. When your QB is such a unique player, a 1,200-yard rusher and not a high-volume passer, maybe rest is more important than any concern for rust. We saw in the past how precision-passing offenses like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers were hurt by giving their offense too much rest in addition to the bye week, but Baltimore is the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history (3,296 yards). No one has held the Ravens under 118 rushing yards this year and they’re the only offense in NFL history to rush for at least 170 yards in all eight home games. Baltimore hasn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since Week 5, a comeback win in Pittsburgh. The 2019 Ravens are the 11th team in NFL history to score at least 20 points in all 16 games of a season.

Still, I think Tennessee’s best shot at another upset is a fast start and some rust (or regression) from the Ravens. This is pretty hard when Baltimore leads the NFL in first-quarter scoring (128 points) and has allowed the fewest first-quarter points (31). I’m not trying to anger Tennessee fans, but the fact is your defense is not that great, and the Ravens have the most efficient offense in the league this year. It’s historic really as they averaged over 200 yards per game in passing and rushing. You need some help from the offense (unforced errors & mistakes) to slow them down. Jackson has improved his accuracy this year, but there are still times where the ball comes out a little high and one of his big tight ends needs to make a great catch. You hope he has a few of those bad throws on high-leverage third downs, or maybe a fourth down that the Ravens are very willing to go for this year. The Ravens also had the second-lowest rate of dropped passes in the league this year. Maybe this receiving corps, which is basically a rookie (Marquise Brown), a retread (Willie Snead) and three tight ends (Mark Andrews has been exceptional) have some yips on Saturday night and drop important passes. Jackson is hard to sack and the Baltimore line does a great job of protection and the defense always has to be cautious of the running attack.

The Ravens just offer a different challenge that NFL teams really aren’t used to competing against. That’s why I think it’s crucial for Ryan Tannehill to have a fast start and get the Titans ahead early to hopefully get the Ravens out of their element and play from behind like the Chargers did to a rookie Jackson in the playoffs last year. Then Derrick Henry can take the game over in the second half and kill the clock, but hopefully it will lead to more points this time. Just 14 points won’t win like it would have in New England last week. There’s no way Tannehill can get by without throwing for over 100 yards again. I wasn’t too encouraged by how he played in the biggest game of his career last week, but at least he made a couple key throws on third down. He’ll have to continue that here and get rookie A.J. Brown involved, which he didn’t last week. You don’t want to get into a big shootout with the Ravens, but I think the Titans have an explosive offense to put up the points necessary to grind out a win.

This tweet from ESPN’s Seth Walder caught my eye:

I thought the Patriots last week would use Cover Zero blitzes to force Tannehill into mistakes since he has taken a very high rate of sacks this year. However, he threw 15 passes in the whole game so it wasn’t that kind of night. He did take one sack and fumbled twice, but the Patriots were unable to recover either. Baltimore will look to force him into more mistakes in what should be a much higher volume passing game this time. I’m not sure it means anything this week, but the Titans have faced Baltimore in each of the last two seasons and Henry finished those games with a pathetic 15 carries for 47 yards (combined two games). That also can’t happen again. That was the day Mariota took 11 sacks for Tennessee. Tannehill’s not that bad thankfully.

We don’t think of the 2019 Ravens as a classic Baltimore defense, perhaps because there’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs on the unit this year. They also struggled early in the season after allowing huge numbers in Kansas City (33 points and 503 yards) and to the Browns (40 points and 530 yards). That gave us an early impression that things weren’t good this year. However, in the other 14 games this year the Ravens never allowed more than 23 points or 349 yards. Only the 2010 Steelers (15 games) and 2011 Steelers (14 games) can say they’ve done that at least 14 times in a season this decade. Matt Judon emerged as their new star pass-rusher and the trade for corner Marcus Peters in Week 7 proved to be a steal as he made the All-Pro team thanks to his ball-hawking abilities. So the Ravens are in this familiar spot of having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, but now they have the best offense to boot as well.

Not to trigger fans of the 2000 Titans, but it could be a bad thing if this game comes down to field goals. Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker to ever do it, while the Titans were just 8-of-18 on field goals this year. Their current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn’t even attempted a field goal in 2019. He missed three field goals and four extra points for the 2018 Browns.

That’s why the red zone matchup could be so huge in this one. Baltimore’s passing game was the best in the league in the red zone. Jackson’s 24 red zone touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson (25), but he had 29 fewer pass attempts in the red zone than Wilson. That’s a lot different than the matchup with Tom Brady last week. Brady had 13 TD on a league-high 91 red zone passes in 2019. The only player coming close to Jackson’s absurd red zone TD% of 40% is Tannehill (37.8%).The Titans have been absolutely bonkers in the red zone with Tannehill since Week 7. Including the playoff game, they are 28-of-32 (87.5%) at scoring touchdowns in the red zone after starting 8-of-15 (53.3%) with Marcus Mariota. They are going to need to continue that hot streak and realize that field goals aren’t going to beat the best offense in the league on the road (unless it’s the final play of the game of course).

We’ve seen bigger upsets in NFL history before, but I just don’t like the Titans enough to pick them here. Baltimore is the better team in all three units, the home team, and the rested team. It would be cool to see another sixth seed make a run at things here, but the Ravens are legitimately great this season.

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

We usually have some rematches from the regular season to talk about in the playoffs, but this is only the second one through two rounds this year. The other one was last week when the Seahawks beat the Eagles by the same score (17-9) again. That would be very disappointing for the Chiefs, a two-score favorite, since Houston won 31-24 in Arrowhead in Week 6.

So what happened that day and why will things be different this time?

In Week 6, the Chiefs were coming off a rough 19-13 loss to the Colts, the first game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t lead the team to at least 26 points. Mahomes was injured a couple of times in that game and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins for this Houston matchup. It started off really well when Mahomes notably threw for 116 yards on the opening drive thanks to some penalties. The Chiefs led 17-3 and seemed like they were going to roll over Houston, but the Texans came back. Mahomes got fooled on a second quarter interception when he thought the official was going to throw a flag on a free play, and he later lost a fumble that Deshaun Watson turned into a touchdown before halftime for a 23-17 lead. Watson engineered a 12-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter — a drive that never featured a third down — to put the Texans ahead 31-24. The Chiefs had a very quick three-and-out with an odd call of a run on 2nd-and-14, and the Texans were able to run out the final 5:03 without giving Mahomes the ball back. Carlos Hyde was effective with 116 rushing yards, and Watson’s day could have been even bigger without some dropped passes. Houston racked up 35 first downs in that game, the most by any NFL road team since the Patriots had 36 first downs in their overtime win in Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were unable to gain 20 yards on any play after the opening drive.

That was arguably the low point of the season for the Chiefs on defense, but the good news is the offense is healthier now, especially in regards to Mahomes. They also have their leading sack defender back in Chris Jones, who missed that Week 6 game. The Texans got J.J. Watt back last week and he played well against Buffalo. The Texans didn’t have Kenny Stills in Week 6, but they’re looking to have their full wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Stills and Will Fuller available for this one.

You expect the Chiefs to play better this time, but the spread rising from Chiefs -3.5 in Week 6 to Chiefs -9.5 given that last matchup is still a bit puzzling. Kansas City has cut down on penalties and turnovers since Week 6, but those mistakes and bad health have led the offense to take a step back from 2018’s historic level.

The injuries, most notably the dislocated kneecap that cost him nearly three full games, did take away from what was still an exceptional season for Mahomes. He actually had more touchdown passes of 40-plus yards (9) this year than he had in 2018 (7) despite throwing 24 fewer touchdowns overall. The big plays are still there in an offense built for speed, but in recent weeks we have seen a more pedestrian Mahomes. Since Week 11, Mahomes is at 7.28 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and a 92.0 passer rating. That’s fine for what the Chiefs needed to go 6-0 in those games, but Mahomes’ 16-game pace over this span is just 3,747 yards and 21 touchdown passes. That’s far from the record-setting dominance he showed us through his first 25 starts.

Mahomes has been overshadowed the last six games by his defense, which prompts the “watch out now that Mahomes has a defense!” angle. Yes, it would be scary to give this quarterback a legitimately great defense, but are we sure that’s the case? It was just in Week 10 when this defense was embarrassed by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, prompting us to take the Titans more seriously. I’m always leery of these “QB has [help]!” claims when we know the larger sample size usually points to that not being the case.

As always, the first thing to do is look at the schedule. Who have the Chiefs played in the last six weeks? That would be the Chargers twice. Philip Rivers had a turnover-heavy, washed-up type of season. Then there was Oakland and Derek Carr, who has a very poor history against the Chiefs. The only games he had this year with multiple interceptions were against the Chiefs, and he also had two picks in a 35-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17 last year. Throw in a 23-3 win over rookie Drew Lock and the Broncos in a snow game and that’s already four games out of six against division rivals they’re familiar with. The other two games were at New England and Chicago, where the quarterback play was close to equal for the first time in many years with Tom Brady having his worst season at 42 and Mitchell Trubisky being Mitchell Trubisky.

So color me unimpressed with this run. I think the Chiefs this postseason are more likely to look like the defense that had a few good moments mixed with tough times against the Packers, Vikings, Texans, Titans, Ravens and Lions (with Matthew Stafford). You know, better offensive competition.

If you look at the seven games where the Chiefs have positive EPA on defense on Pro Football Reference, five of the games are from Weeks 11-17. But you’ll also notice that the other two games were the early meetings against Denver (Week 7) and Oakland (Week 2). So those were just offenses the defense owned this season. By the same measure of EPA, the Chiefs had three games where they were worse than -17 EPA and those were against the Texans, Ravens and Packers so that could be interesting if that ends up being their next three opponents on a Super Bowl path.

Reid getting less out of the offense and more out of the defense is probably a net positive for this playoff run, but Mahomes is going to have to be stellar at some point here. If it’s not this week, then it will have to come in Baltimore most likely. Remember, Mahomes is getting the worst defense in the playoffs this week in Houston. He should play very well on Sunday, but the standards for his “very well” game are currently in flux.

The last thing I want to talk about is arguably the most important part in this game: Deshaun Watson. His A-level plays are just as good as Mahomes and Jackson, whether it’s the incredible runs or deep throws down the field. However, he does take too many sacks at times and we just haven’t seen him put together that consistent, MVP-worthy season yet like Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) have. Of course, those quarterbacks have better support systems than Watson, who is stuck with Bill O’Brien and a franchise that doesn’t really have a GM. Mahomes has Andy Reid’s brain, and we know from Reid’s coaching tree that he puts together great staffs. Jackson has Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and the Ravens are on the forefront of analytics right now. Watson is basically pulling the weight in Houston himself, which is how the Texans end up falling behind 16-0 at home to lowly Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but also how they pull out a 22-19 win in overtime behind him.

Watson stands to be The Third Man in the AFC as Mahomes and Jackson battle for conference superiority in this new decade where the Patriots should finally be old news. Winning this game and breaking up the first of several expected AFC title games between Mahomes and Jackson would be huge for him, but the odds clearly aren’t in his favor Sunday.

But make no mistake about it — Watson is a gamer and the main reason Chiefs fans have to feel at least a little nervous about this one. If there’s someone who can match Mahomes, who isn’t coming in hot, score for score on that cursed playoff ground called Arrowhead, it is Watson.

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

I have about 800 words left to keep this preview under 5,000, but how many does one really need for this game? Seattle’s offense is a little better than Green Bay’s, though the Packers have an edge in versatility with their top back (Aaron Jones) still healthy while the Seahawks won with 19 rushing yards from backs in Philadelphia last week. Green Bay’s play-action passing game remains broken this year and Rodgers still throws too many passes away and takes too many sacks he shouldn’t. Both teams are mediocre at best on defense and special teams. Both teams are in the running for the worst team to ever have the nice records (13-3 and 11-5) they have.

It would be shocking if we don’t see Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a lower scoring game trying to lead a game-winning drive. Does he get sacked in the arms of Za’Darius Smith, or does he make Green Bay blow its first fourth-quarter lead of 2019? From my 2019 close game summary, the Packers (NFL-high eight holds) and Seahawks (six holds including last week in Philly) have not blown any fourth-quarter leads this year, though Seattle did twice get lucky on missed field goals. The Packers are 10-1 in close games and haven’t lost one since Week 4 (Eagles). They have three more close wins than the next closest team. They also struggled like hell to sweep the 3-12-1 Lions this year, though I would be remiss to not mention Seattle’s 1-point win at home over a Cincinnati team that is picking first in the draft. Like I said, these teams are not that great; shells of the dominant teams they fielded in that classic 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Seattle just needs to survive the first quarter. That’s when Rodgers has by far been at his best in 2019 and Seattle has allowed more first-quarter points than all but five teams. The Packers rank third in first-quarter scoring, but are 27th in the second quarter, ninth in the third quarter and 26th in the fourth quarter. Much of Green Bay’s season has been about jumping out to an early lead, scoring 21-31 points in the game, and hanging on for the victory. That’s fine against most of the NFL, but Wilson is adept at leading comebacks.

However, Wilson has a very checkered past against the Packers: 4-3 record, 10 TD, 10 INT, 74.0 passer rating and 6.63 YPA. He’s had games with 4 and 5 INT against them, and the first meeting was the Fail Mary in 2012. His most complete game against Green Bay was probably last year’s win at home against Mike Pettine’s defense, but the Packers are better on that side of the ball in 2019.

After going through 2019 with next to zero pass rush, the Seahawks picked up 7 sacks and 9 QB hits in Philadelphia last week. That’s unlikely to repeat itself, but as the season has shown, Rodgers will take some sacks and leave teams hanging around late. The pressure will be on Wilson to deliver and for at least one more week I’m counting on him to deliver. Should Minnesota pull off the upset in San Francisco on Saturday, this game takes on even greater importance for the Packers because of how they have dominated that division matchup this year. The chances of going to the Super Bowl could go up before Green Bay even takes the field last this weekend.

If things go the other way, then we’ll just bet like crazy against the Packers in San Francisco next week.

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Making History Edition

I would say this regular season has gone quickly, but it feels like eons ago when Antonio Brown caught a touchdown for the Patriots down in Miami. Things have changed a lot since and we only have four of the 12 playoff seeds locked up going into this final Sunday. A whopping four teams can still win the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

With some teams probably mailing in this last game, I’d save my money and look to bet big on the playoffs. Here are some musings on the history we could see happen on Sunday.

Top-Heavy Season

It’s been a season of the haves and the have nots. The AFC could have just five teams with a winning record if the Steelers (8-7) and Titans (8-7) don’t beat Baltimore and Houston teams that should be resting key players. The same thing can happen in the NFC if the Eagles (8-7) and Rams (8-7) don’t win. At best we’ll have 14 teams with a winning record, the fewest since 2015 (13). You’d have to go back to top-heavy 2011 to find a season with 12 winning teams.

Jameis Winston: 30 for 30

Jameis Winston can make history by having the first season in NFL history with 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions. He has 31 TD and 28 INT going into tomorrow and should surpass 5,000 passing yards to lead the league. If anyone could do it, it’s Jameis. He should be up to 29 after the first drive. Then it’s just a matter of chasing infamy.

Three Stooges Alert

The Buffalo Bills (10-5) are locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC and have little reason to go full throttle against the Jets. However, if they win this game and finish 11-5, it will trigger a little history for the Three Stooges of the AFC East. It’ll be the first time since realignment in 2002 that the Patriots had a division rival win 11 games without their help. The 2008 Dolphins finished 11-5, but one of those wins was against the Patriots (Wildcat game). The 2010 Jets finished 11-5, but one of those wins was against the Patriots. The Bills could get to 11-5 even after getting swept by the Patriots.

We’ll see if the Bills can come anywhere close to the 2010 Jets’ playoff run. The Jets haven’t returned to the playoffs since.

CLE/JAX: Don’t Promote from Within

It’s possible Freddie Kitchens (Browns) and Doug Marrone (Jaguars) could coach their last game for their team on Sunday. It reminds me of this tweet about promoting an interim coach or someone already on the staff to head coach. It’s usually a bad idea.

Patriots Defense

As expected, New England’s historic defense slowed down once the schedule put some good QBs/offenses on the field. But few teams have had much success against them this year. The Patriots go into the final game allowing 198 points on the season. Their most dominant game of the year was the 43-0 win in Miami in Week 2. If they can pitch a shutout again, they’ll become just the second team since 2001 to allow fewer than 200 points in a season. The 2002 Buccaneers allowed 196 points. If they just allow a field goal they’ll be tied with the 2006 Ravens (201) for the second fewest allowed.

As long as the Patriots don’t allow 25 points at home to Ryan Fitzpatrick, they’ll have the best scoring defense of any team since 2007.

Saints Eyeing 75/150

Michael Thomas already broke Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 catches in a season with 145. He just needs five to become the first player with 150 catches in a season. Drew Brees can break the single-season completion record for the third year in a row, becoming the first player to exceed 75% (he’s at 75.3%).

Golladay: The Last Hope?

It’s been a weird fantasy season with a lot of big names disappointing. Passing touchdowns are down a little, so it’s not that surprising to see receiving touchdowns down as well for the leading receivers.

Detroit’s Kenny Golladay leads the NFL with 11 touchdown catches. If that number holds through Sunday, it’ll be the first non-strike season in the NFL since 1975 that no one caught more than 11.

Steelers at Ravens: Not Meaningless

A bit more than pride is on the line for the Steelers and Ravens despite Baltimore resting key starters, including likely MVP winner Lamar Jackson. The Steelers need a win and help to make the playoffs. They also need to not lose by more than a field goal to extend their streak of .500 seasons with a positive scoring differential to 16 years. That would tie for the third-longest streak in NFL history. Only the 1965-1983 Cowboys (19 years) and 2001-2019 Patriots (19 years) have longer streaks.

The Ravens also need just 93 rushing yards to break the single-season record held by the 1978 Patriots (3,165). That should be easy with a running QB (Robert Griffin) and a gameplan that should try to run the clock faster than anything. It’s not like the Ravens need this win. The 1948 49ers actually rushed for 3,653 yards in 14 games, but that’s not the official record because the AAFC doesn’t count.

49ers at Seahawks: Playoffs Start Early

Sunday Night Football has the pleasure of giving us 49ers-Seahawks to end the regular season. It was a wild overtime finish last time, won by Seattle. Both teams are in the playoffs regardless, but this is still a huge game since a win would give the 49ers the No. 1 seed and next week off. Lose and they’re the No. 5 seed with Seattle likely sliding into No. 3. If you think the 49ers are the team of destiny this year, then they really need to come through and win this one in a building they haven’t won in since Russell Wilson was drafted (0-8).

Wilson, starting with that SF game, has not been as sharp over the last six games. Seattle has dropped two of the last three games and actually have three losses by 14+ points this year. The 49ers are 3.5-point favorites on the road here.

Due to the 49ers shockingly losing to the Falcons a few weeks ago, this game is still important to the team even if they did make a better decision in the first matchup. Remember when the 49ers had a chance to run out the clock and take a tie with Seattle, but threw three incomplete passes and watched Wilson drive for the win? At the time I thought it could be a huge blow to their chances of getting the No. 1 seed:

Had the 49ers taken the tie, they likely would have the division already clinched. They still would have needed to win this one to get homefield advantage, but the division wouldn’t be up for grabs like it is now.

The Seahawks are looking for their 12th win despite outscoring their schedule by 12 points this year. It’s been a great year for Wilson and the 49ers have been declining on defense as injuries pile up, but I still think I’m going to go with San Francisco to pull it off and earn the No. 1 seed.

NFL Week 17 Predictions

This is not the slate I want to try finish over .500 for, but I have some decent faith in the Browns, Colts, Falcons and Rams ending their season on a high note. I can also see Drew Lock edging the Raiders by a FG at home in Denver. I think the Chiefs keep rolling with this defense through the Chargers.

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For next season I’m probably going to move to a model approach to make my picks instead of going from the gut.

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NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Best Week of the Year Edition

December 8 was always the date to circle since the NFL schedule came out in April. That was the big Chiefs-Patriots game in New England, but now that we’re here, it’s actually a much bigger weekend with four marquee games. Those two teams aren’t even the current No. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s Baltimore, which has its final big road test in Buffalo, a surprise 9-3 team that almost controls its own destiny for home-field advantage. We also could see the Saints inch closer to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and we should get some clarity on an MVP race that is down to Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

It took a little pure dumb luck with the 49ers and Bills stepping up, but the NFL has one hell of a schedule planned tomorrow. It shouldn’t get as big as this again until the playoffs, but first those seeds could really shake up because of what happens on Sunday.

49ers at Saints (-2)

The 49ers come in as a 2-point underdog in a tough place to play, though the Saints haven’t been able to blow out anyone at home aside from Arizona. Don’t forget that stunning 26-9 loss to the Falcons as well. I think the 49ers showed a lot of quality play on the road in rainy Baltimore last week and will welcome the dome conditions in this one. It is a bit of a disadvantage to be on the road in the early slot on the East for the second week in a row, but teams are better at handling that these days with travel.

The main reason I like the 49ers to win is their physical defense. I think they can key in on Michael Thomas — a matchup with Richard Sherman would be fun — as the Saints don’t have another player with 500 receiving yards. They have the front seven talent to harass Drew Brees, who took 6 sacks in the Atlanta loss but only three the rest of the season. Also, the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have just 7 giveaways thru 12 games of a season. They’ve lost just one fumble all year. That screams regression and the 49ers are the type of defense to make them pay there (24 takeaways rank 4th this year).

The 49ers are also No. 2 in points scored and points allowed this season. This is a very good team and I think Jimmy Garoppolo will shine just enough with the running game always being a threat to pull off this road win. If you’re continuing to compare the 2019 49ers to the 2017 Eagles, then think of this as their road win over the 2017 Rams which helped the Eagles get the top seed.

Ravens at Bills (+6.5)

The Bills have seven wins against teams picking in the top 11 of the 2020 draft as of right now. This would be a huge step up in class to beat a Baltimore team that has entered historic territory. The Ravens average 45 yards per drive on offense, which would set a record for the modern era. They can still become the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. Lamar Jackson is the MVP front-runner and the consistent threat that Bills fans wish Josh Allen was right now. Allen has been playing better in recent weeks, but the Bills are definitely at a disadvantage with an offense that ranks just 16th in yards per drive and 21st in points per drive. The Baltimore defense is also picking things up and actually do better at forcing turnovers than the Bills.

The spread feels about right for this one, but if there is a game where Jackson is going to look mortal, it would be a road game against a solid defense. Yet even when he’s contained as a passer, he’s still a major threat as a rusher so it’s been really hard on defenses this year to figure this unique offense out. I think Baltimore delivers on the road and continues holding onto the No. 1 seed over New England.

But don’t lose sight that this is one of the biggest games in Buffalo in the last 20 years. They could really use a win like this.

Chiefs at Patriots (-3)

So much for the 43-40 and 37-31 offensive shootouts of last year. These teams aren’t playing great offensively and that shouldn’t surprise you with New England. The old QB is having one of his worst slumps ever, but it’s rarely mattered thanks to the defense being so strong. The surprise is that Patrick Mahomes has just turned in the worst 8 quarters of his career. Over the last two games, Mahomes has completed 55.7 percent of his passes at 5.85 YPA with just 2 TD and 1 INT. He didn’t even crack 200 yards in either game. Fortunately, his defense picked off Philip Rivers and Derek Carr enough for it to not matter as the Chiefs won both games (sound familiar?).

This is a bad time for Mahomes to be slumping with a road test against a veteran secondary and all-around difficult defense to pass against this year. If the big plays aren’t there like they were for Mahomes last year against NE, then this one could be another ugly offensive game. Keep in mind that despite those high scores last year, the Patriots twice did something no other team has.

In 29 career games with Mahomes, the Chiefs have been held under 10 points in the first half twice: 9 points at Patriots (lost 43-40), 0 points vs. Patriots (lost 37-31 OT).

Mahomes needs to stop fading away from the line on so many of his passes and find a rhythm early so that he can play a complete game against the Patriots and force Brady to actually be good. My thought is that after the ugly loss in Houston, Brady will be sharper at home — I’d be all in on Chiefs if this was in Arrowhead — and the running game that’s gotten going in recent weeks will be used effectively against a subpar Chiefs defense.

So it’s not quite the super important game for the AFC as we thought it would be, but you’d still rather win it than not. It’s just unfortunate that between the Mahomes injury and some of the sloppy play the team has showed this year, even a win in NE doesn’t mean Kansas City won’t have to come back and do it all over again in January in a 3/2 matchup.

Seahawks at Rams (+1)

Their first meeting on TNF was one of the best games this season, one that the Rams would have won had it not been for a missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein. I said this almost two months ago:

Missed field goals have been great to Seattle this year. The 49ers also missed one in overtime that would have won that game after Russell Wilson’s inexplicable interception. So had those two NFC West kickers connected, this would be the 8-4 Seahawks at the 8-4 Rams. But because of two swings of the leg, it’s the 10-2 Seahawks at the 7-5 Rams. Wilson is still in the MVP race despite cooling off, and there’s a lot of disappointment surrounding Sean McVay and Jared Goff right now. What a league.

But it has been a wildly inconsistent year for the Rams and Goff. He’s had a few brilliant games, including last week when he was over 320 passing yards at halftime. He’s also had some major stinkers as has the defense, led by DC Wade Phillips and Aaron Donald, that always seems to escape any criticism.

I said earlier this week that the 2019 Saints and 2019 Seahawks are two of the worst 10-2 teams ever because of their tiny point differentials. Seattle is just +36, the smallest scoring differential ever for a 10-2 team. I think if Lamar Jackson shines in Buffalo and Wilson struggles in this game (another prime time one), the MVP is all but locked up for Jackson. So that’s another layer to keep in mind.

The outcome of SF-NO will give us a better idea of how big this game is on Sunday night, but it’s a last gasp effort for the Rams either way. They have to win this game and they easily could if their star players play up to their potential. I’m not surprised the spread is damn near a pick ’em with how unpredictable the Rams have been and how close to the vest Seattle has been. In the end, you trust Wilson over Goff in crunch time, but as this season has shown, all it takes is one play sometimes to decide a game. I wouldn’t bet on this one like I would the other three big games on Sunday.

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF, so there’s another trainwreck to talk about some other time.

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A quick note on PIT-ARI: this would definitely fit the classic Mike Tomlin letdown game on the road. The Cardinals are an interesting young team without a lot of tape that the Steelers are familiar with. I think it’s a game where either the Cardinals win outright, or Duck Hodges has a breakout game against a terrible pass defense. Obviously I went with the former because I think the Steelers lack the weapons to get the job done without JuJu available again. James Washington had his career game last week so I can’t see him repeating it, but I am glad to see the Steelers get back to throwing downfield to wide receivers. This one could be fun, though I’d much rather be watching KC-NE.

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NFL Week 13 Predictions: “Watt the Faulk?” Edition

Earlier this week I wrote about Frank Gore’s HOF case. For the first time in seven years I may actually start to take this blog seriously and post more content besides Saturday game picks. We’ll see what happens, but I am looking into it.

There are some good games to talk about this week, but before that I wanted to share some thoughts about the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

Watt the Faulk, Boomers?

I thought the NFL’s 100 All-Time Team could lead to a disappointing show once I saw some of the position breakdowns. More RB (12) than QB (10) for one. The other concern was a media panel largely consisting of people who grew up watching players in the 60s and 70s, because people are proven to favor nostalgia and tradition when it comes to things like this. Would they give the players of today a fair shake?

Through 38 player choices at running back and the front seven, it doesn’t appear so. The only players who started their careers after the 1994 salary cap are Ray Lewis (1996) and Derrick Brooks (1995). It’s not that there have been many snubs, but there have been some glaring ones so far.

I compiled my own list of the top 100 players of all time in August. I have yet to rank them together or post it anywhere, but I plan to soon. My list included 15 quarterbacks and seven running backs as opposed to the NFL’s breakdown of 10 QB and 12 RB. Of course, my sixth and seventh running backs just happened to be LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk. Neither managed to make the cut for the NFL 100 (while the likes of Dutch Clark, Marion Motley and Gale Sayers did), so that was already a bad first impression for me.

Then the front seven came out last night with 26 players. My list had 30 players (9 DE, 9 DT, 12 LB). I probably could have showed more love for the older eras, but I didn’t see a reason to include the likes of Doug Atkins, Bill Hewitt, or Lee Roy Selmon.

The biggest snubs here had to be J.J. Watt and Derrick Thomas. Unlike the RBs, it’s not so much they picked the wrong players or too many this time, but they just didn’t pick enough. They shouldn’t have had 12 RBs, period. That would have freed up spots for Watt and Thomas. I also saw mention of Von Miller on Twitter. He didn’t make my list, but he’s close to it.

This really goes back to the problem of people not able to evaluate a player’s career while he is still active. I can understand struggling with Aaron Donald, who I had on my list already, but that should not be the case with J.J. Watt. While injuries have clearly stripped him of all-time greatest discussion, just look at what he has accomplished when healthy. In six full seasons, he’s been named first-team All-Pro five times and Defensive Player of the Year three times. Most guys can play 10-15 years and never sniff those achievements. He’s had multiple 20-sack seasons and was ridiculously dominant at his peak. That’s the kind of player you need to put on such a list, but they didn’t, and the live reaction show afterwards just saw guys (from the 80s/90s) stand up for their old teammates and personal favorites. Watt wasn’t even mentioned in the snubs segment.

By the time the series is over, I’m sure there will be some support that they did enough justice for the last 25 years of football. They’ll likely include Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and quarterback will have Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (I bet you they snub Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers though). Ed Reed should show up at safety. I’m not sure they’ll do Joe Thomas at OT or Darrelle Revis at CB, but Adam Vinatieri could end up being the kicker. At WR, I’m not sure if they really have to do anything more modern than Randy Moss, but Larry Fitzgerald absolutely has an argument and I even have two other younger players than him on my list.

But so far there does seem to be a serious misjudgment of the worth of modern players, and an overvaluing of players from older eras where the job just wasn’t nearly as year-round or professional as it is today. Watching Bill Belichick analyze some 1930s-40s film with “You can see him block here” and thinking he’d take that player over Watt or Faulk, guys he had to develop gameplans to stop, is just comical, a farce.

Onto the games…

Browns at Steelers (+2.5)

Hopefully there won’t be a fight this time, but I can see why the NFL wants to bury this one on the schedule. I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of Mason Rudolph’s quick benching last week was to keep him out of this game in case the Browns look to retaliate. Sure, Rudolph was playing terrible football again, but that was a quick hook at halftime in a 7-3 game where he had one turnover on a tipped ball in the red zone. Anyways, I think the Steelers trust Devlin Hodges more and he doesn’t appear afraid to throw deep like Rudolph does. Of course Hodges could be terrible too in this game without JuJu Smith-Schuster available, but I felt like the Steelers defense contained Cleveland pretty well last meeting outside of giving up two big plays. This is an important game for both teams and I like the Steelers at home underdogs in this one.

Or maybe I just can’t wrap my mind around the thought of Cleveland sweeping Pittsburgh.

Titans at Colts (-1)

The Colts have Tennessee’s number for sure. Curious to see if Ryan Tannehill’s hot hand can keep up on the road in what is suddenly a big game for both teams. The Colts don’t have T.Y. Hilton available and Jacoby Brissett has been struggling. I think Tennessee is playing better right now, but like PIT-CLE, it’s hard for me to go against the history of one team owning the other for so long.

Raiders at Chiefs (-10.5)

Kansas City can gain some real breathing room in the division with a win here. The spread is big, but Oakland could have a chance here if the Chiefs continue their 2019 ways of making mistakes. I still feel like the offense can be the best in the league, but there are just too many mistakes this year. Penalties that kill drives, bad throws to open receivers, fumbles in scoring territory, not being aggressive enough on fourth down, weird run calls on 2nd-and-long. Last time out was also probably the worst game of Mahomes’ NFL career. In Week 2, he may have had the best quarter of his career in Oakland when he threw for almost 300 yards and 4 TD in the second quarter. But keep in mind the Chiefs didn’t score a point in any other quarter that day. That’s why I think Oakland has a chance in this one if Derek Carr brings his A game.

Patriots at Texans (+3.5)

I’m just going to leave this one here:

Vikings at Seahawks (-3)

This is one where I’ll hedge: Vikings ATS, Seahawks ML. Seattle has been winning a ton of close games this year. The Vikings have a better overall team, but I want to see Cousins in attack mode on the road. He was poor in a loss on MNF in Seattle last year. Hopefully this game will be better than that one.

GOTW: 49ers at Ravens (-6)

Super Bowl preview? It’s pretty amazing to see a 10-1 team as a 6-point underdog, but the Ravens have gone from having a solid season to being historically great since the bye week. The Ravens have scored at least 23 points in every game this season, joining elite company:

We’ve already seen Lamar Jackson and the offense rip through the Patriots this year. Now they get the NFC’s best defense. The 49ers are the first defense since the 2000 Titans to hold five teams to 100 net passing yards. Even if Jackson struggles to pass for yards, he’s still a very effective runner and the Ravens are at home with a defense that has been getting better every week. I like them to keep rolling in this one with their unique attack and making Jimmy Garoppolo turn the ball over, but getting a great game here would be ideal.

Now you’ll have to excuse me as I try to figure out how the Steelers, with no offense, held 4Q leads against both the 49ers and Ravens this year.

NFL Week 13 Predictions

I figured some regression was coming after an 11-3 ATS week. Thanksgiving picks didn’t go too well, but we’ll see.

2019Wk13

It sounds like Drew Lock will be at QB for the Broncos this week. That was inevitable, but I’ll give the Chargers, who get Derwin James back, the benefit of the doubt here. I know, sweet regression here we come.

2019Wk1-12