To the surprise of no one who had been even semi-conscious for the past six or seven months, 2020 has been atypical. One week from today, the NFL will try to start its 2020 season on time and with a schedule that is intact. The Chiefs and the Texans will kick off the season and I surely hope that it can go through to a conclusion with minimal COVID-19 interruption/impact. I doubt that I am alone in that hopeful state.
One of the realities of the state of sports in the US in 2020 is that I have been paying a lot more attention to things other than the NFL’s preparation for its upcoming regular season. In a normal year, I would have a reference document about player and coaching moves in the NFL offseason and about Draft selections and training camp injuries as the fodder for my annual “exercise in self-incrimination”. I would use all of that to create here my annual predictions for every NFL team and their final record for the regular season. This Pre-Season Analysis is the document that normally provides the basis for my great day of shame in February of the next year when I reveal how wrong-headed I was back at the beginning of the season. I will, however, keep up the spirit of self-humiliation this year and identify specific predictions against which I can grade myself next February. There are 23 specific predictions here; come next year, I will try to see if I can achieve a passing grade as a modern-day Nostradamus.
This year I cannot do a full team-by-team record prediction because the reference document with all the notations made over the six-months of the off-season does not exist – – because I was focused on other things and never compiled the references. With a week to go until kickoff, there is no possibility that I could bring it all together in time – – and so, I decided to do it differently this year. I will try to make predictions regarding the teams to make the expanded playoffs in January 2021 and I will try to make some specific commentary about events that should impinge on specific teams as the NFL season unfolds – – and I shall be assuming that it will unfold in its entirety.
I mentioned the NFL’s expanded playoffs for January 2021 so let me take a moment to remind everyone what that means:
- There will be 14 teams in the playoffs this year instead of the 12 teams that had participated in recent years.
- The 4 division winners will make the playoffs as will 3 wildcard teams from each conference.
- Only the team seeded #1 in each conference will get a Bye Week now; each of the other 3 division winners will host Wild Card teams from their conference.
Let me start with the AFC West Division. The defending Super Bowl Champs – the KC Chiefs – are in this division and they seem to have found ways to dodge the scourge that hits most Super Bowl winners. They have most of their starters back again this year; their losses to free agency and COVID-19 opting out have been minimal. The toughest opponents for the Chiefs in 2020 will be the injury bug and the coronavirus. So, let me get my first prediction out of the way quickly:
Prediction #1: The Chiefs will win the AFC West handily and – despite getting a run for the money from the Baltimore Ravens – the Chiefs will get the AFC Bye Week in the playoffs as the #1 seed.
The rest of the AFC West may not pose a significant threat to the Chiefs but there is plenty of potential intrigue in which team finishes second and which finishes fourth. I can make a case for any of the permutations and combinations for those three teams. Taking them in alphabetical order:
- Broncos: They have a veteran defense and if you believe that Drew Lock showed himself to be a rising star in the NFL late last season, then Lock and the addition of some added offensive weapons could make the Broncos the next-best team in the division. Or … Lock could have been a mirage and the Broncos could stink in 2020
- Chargers: They must replace Philip Rivers at QB and Tyrod Taylor has been named the starter for now. If the Chiefs start to run away from the division, Justin Herbert might see action by mid-season. The Chargers’ defense is good enough to keep them in lots of games this year.
[Aside: The Chargers will play home games in the spanking new SoFi Stadium but there will be no fans in the stands. That should not be a shock to Chargers veterans; the Chargers have been playing in front of next to no one for several years now.]
- Raiders: So, Jon Gruden is an offensive wizard. This is his third year at the helm for the Raiders. Here is the question: When do we get to see the Raiders as an offensive juggernaut? When do we get to see the Jon Gruden imprint on QB Derek Carr? I see no compelling reason to put the Raiders ahead of the Broncos or the Chargers – – just as I see no reason to put either the Chargers or Broncos ahead of the Raiders. The early schedule for the Raiders is difficult. After a seemingly easy opener against the Panthers, the next four opponents will be the Saints, Pats, Bills and Chiefs – – all of whom I see as playoff teams. Welcome to Las Vegas…
Prediction #2: The AFC West will produce only 1 playoff team in 2020.
Next up will be the AFC South. Any team here other than the Jags has a shot to win this division but there are no dominant teams here. The Titans shocked the world last year making the playoffs with a 9-7 record and then going on to the AFC Championship Game only to lose there to the Chiefs. The tendency would be to give the Titans the nod here because they have kept most of their team together through the off-season but that may or may not be a good thing.
- Titans: They have bet the farm that Ryan Tannehill is indeed a franchise QB and will not regress to the QB he was for the first six years of his career in Miami. The Titans’ fans also have to hope that Derrick Henry continues to do his “Jim Brown imitation” once again in 2020 despite 386 carries in the 2019 season (including the playoffs).
- Colts: The key variable here is obvious. How much tread is left on Philip Rivers’ tires? The Colts’ defense is ordinary; they will need to score points to win. Can Rivers give them the leadership – and more importantly, the passing game – to score those points? He must be an upgrade over the 2019 showing of Jacoby Brissett, right? Those young receivers – other than TY Hilton – really are NFL caliber players, right?
- Texans: If I tried to tell you that I understand the reasoning behind most of the Texans’ off-season moves, I would be a big enough liar to run for the US Senate. DeShaun Watson is the offensive key to this team; JJ Watt’s health/availability is the defensive key.
- Jaguars: The Jags are going to stink this year. I think the only question here is if they will be bad enough to secure the overall #1 pick in the 2021 Draft.
Prediction #3: I will take a rejuvenated Philip Rivers to lead the Colts to the division title and the playoffs in 2020.
Prediction #4: There will be only 1 team from the AFC South in the playoffs in 2020.
Turning now to the AFC North. Last year the Ravens dominated the regular season and then laid a giant egg in the playoffs after having a BYE week. I like them to dominate their division this year, but they will not enjoy a playoff BYE this time around. Maybe that will be a plus? The addition of Calais Campbell will make a very good defense even better; the loss of Earl Thomas may – if you believe reports – improve the locker room “chemistry” but it is hard to imagine that he will be fully replaced on the field.
Prediction #5: The Ravens will win the AFC North comfortably.
- Browns: Last year, they were the “trendy pick” to make it to the Super Bowl only to see the team flop like a mackerel in a parking lot puddle. It appears that the Browns may actually have adult supervision in the management and coaching ranks this time around and that may be what the team needs to exploit an awful lot of football talent on the roster. Baker Mayfield had a huge sophomore slump in 2019 (22 TDs and 21 INTs); he needs to prove that was merely a bad season and that he is in fact the Browns’ franchise QB for the years ahead.
Prediction #6: The Browns will make the playoffs and will win double-digit games in 2020.
- Steelers: Having Ben Roethlisberger healthy for more than 2 games will make a big difference this year. Does anyone really need to see more of either Mason Rudolph or Duck Hodges to recognize that? Last year, the offense was unreliable from game to game and quarter to quarter. The defense was very good last year and should be good once again.
Prediction #7: The Steelers will make the playoffs in 2020 making it three teams from the AFC North to play on to January 2021.
- Bengals: Joe Burrow will get loads of attention and opportunity to air it out because the Bengals’ defense should be giving up points generously. The return of AJ Green at WR ought to be a big plus for the rookie QB. Last year, the Bengals has the overall #1 pick; they will be within shouting distance of that “honor” again in the Spring of 2021. The thing for Bengals’ fans to look for is competitiveness; the Bengals rolled over and played dead too often last year; it needs to be different this time around.
Now it is time to close out the AFC by examining the AFC East. For the last decade, it was a clear choice as to who was going to win this division. The only “judgment” involved projecting if the Patriots would get a playoff BYE and if one of the other teams would be able to muster up sufficient fortitude to become a wild-card team. Not so in 2020 … Much like the AFC South, there are 3 teams in this division who can take the division race down to the final weeks of the season – from Christmas Day until January 3, 2021. I think the division champion will be decided on December 28 when the Bills visit Foxboro to play the Patriots; the winner of that game will be the AFC East champion. Not to worry for fans of either side, the loser will be a wild-card team in the playoffs.
Prediction #8: The Bills will win the AFC East. The last time the Bills won the AFC East, Jim Kelly was their QB.
- I think the addition of Stefon Diggs at WR combined with the added experience of QB, Josh Allen will make a big difference for the Bills’ offense.
Prediction # 9: The Pats will continue their streak of playoff appearances as a wild card team in 2020.
- Pats: It may take some time to adjust to the new look on offense for the Pats in 2020. Cam Newton is a fundamentally different QB than Tom Brady and the Pats will have to change up their offense to maximize Newton’s skills. I think the Pats will be more of a ball-control/run-oriented team this year than we have seen in the past because I think it will take time for Cam Newton to adjust to the system and the players he has at the skill positions in New England. Free agent, Leonard Fournette, is the kind of “big back” that Bill Belichick has used effectively in the past. If Belichick passes on Fournette, that would indicate to me that he dislikes something about Fournette that goes well beyond his physical talents.
- Dolphins: They really surprised folks last year; they looked like a “2-win team” if things went their way. They won 5 games last year and they improved their roster in the Draft and with free agency signings. They will make things interesting in the division, but they are not ready to be a playoff team just yet.
- Jets: It will be a long season for NYC football fans. The Jets are not a good football team. Their defense was OK – but nothing better than that – until they traded Jamal Adams to Seattle. You can hire all the spin doctors who will be out of work after the Presidential campaigns are over and they cannot spin that trade to mean that the Jets’ defense got better. The schedule does the Jets no favors; the first 8 games look as if the team could be fortunate to be 2-6 when November rolls around. If the Jets are worse than 2-6 at that point, I suspect there will be a coaching change in mid-season with Gregg Williams taking the helm.
So just to review, the AFC playoffs will have the Chiefs resting up for a week while the Bills, Browns, Colts, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers take part in Wild Card Weekend.
Moving along, here is a synopsis for the NFC West. Top to bottom, this is the best division in the NFL overall. The Seahawks were a playoff caliber team last year and made two particularly good additions in the offseason in Greg Olsen and Jamal Adams. Those two moves make me think that Seattle is in “Win-Now Mode”. The Niners must battle the curse of being the Super Bowl loser, but that roster is young and talented; they will be a tough out every week. Both the Rams and the Cardinals would be dominant forces in any other NFC Division, but I think they trail the field in this division.
Prediction #10: The Seahawks will win the NFC West and will be the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket.
Prediction #11: The Niners will be one of the NFC wildcard teams.
- Rams: Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley are no longer part of that offensive unit and I think that will show up in the season results. On defense, Aaron Donald remains THE dominant defensive lineman – – perhaps the most dominant defensive player? – in the NFL.
- Cardinals: Even before the Cards acquired – – or stole – – DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans, there was every reason to believe the Cards’ offense would be better this year as Kyler Murray developed his game and the offensive scheme evolved a bit. I think the Cards’ first round pick, Isaiah Simmons, is going to be a star in the NFL; he will help that defense right away. The Cards are a good team, but they have 6 tough games against these division opponents on their dance card.
Next under the microscope is the NFC South. Just as the departure of Tom Brady from the Patriots causes me to believe that the Pats will not be as formidable as in recent years, the arrival of Tom Brady in Tampa makes me believe that the Bucs will be significantly better this year as compared to last year. Consider that Jameis Winston threw 30 INTs for the Bucs last year; Tom Brady has thrown 29 INTs in the last 4 seasons combined. The Bucs defense is a good unit and the fact that they will not have to deal with nearly as many “sudden changes” is a big plus. The Saints are always a threat with Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook and Alvin Kamara on the offense. The rub here is that Kamara is an uncertainty this year. He was injured for some of last year – presumably fully recovered – but he has been conducting a so-called “hold-in” where he has reported to training camp but is not practicing. The Saints do not have a replacement for Alvin Kamara.
Prediction #12: The Bucs will be the NFC South champions this year.
Prediction #13: The Saints will be one of the NFC wildcard teams in the playoffs.
- Falcons: The Falcons added Todd Gurley to the offense to give them a more respectable running game. The question here is the soundness of Gurley for a 16-game season. If he is the same player he was in 2017-2018, the Falcons got themselves a bargain. We shall see… Weep not for that offensive unit under any circumstances. With Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on the field, that offense will be just fine.
- Panthers: Matt Ruhle has been a miracle-worker in turning around sad-sack college football programs, but it has usually taken him a couple of years to make those adjustments. Here he gets a double whammy. Not only does he have a roster with holes; he has not had the off-season time with his players to start the learning processes for his new systems until mid-July. Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Mc Caffrey will provide some excitement – and hope for the future – but this is going to be a tough year in Carolina. Replacing Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis at LB all in one season is a tall order, indeed.
Moving on up to the NFC North, I see a ton of question marks.
- Vikings: Is this the year that the Vikings figure out how to avoid losing those games they simply must win? Is any thing more important to the Vikings than the health of Dalvin Cook? Is Justin Jefferson an adequate replacement for Stefon Diggs?
- Packers: Is the Green Bay defense a top-shelf unit or did they markedly over-achieve in 2019? Can the so-called “Smith Brothers” continue to dominate games? Other than Davante Adams, who in the Packers’ receiving corps is a major threat? Devin Funchess? Why did the Packers use their first-round pick on a QB?
- Bears: The Bears’ quarterback play cannot be as bad as it was in 2019, can it? Can Tarik Cohen be the main RB on the team for 16 games? Will the secondary improve noticeably in 2020?
- Lions: There are always questions with the Lions; and, when they are answered – usually in the most negative way – the reason is always the same: It’s because they are the Lions. Last year the Lions were awful on defense – and that is how Matt Patricia earned his stripes in the NFL. Last year the Lions’ defense gave up more yards than all but one other team and ranked 26thin scoring defense. In the offseason they lost Darius Slay who was the brightest light on that defensive unit. The Lions must turn that around – – quickly.
Prediction #14: The Vikings will win the NFC North.
Prediction #15: The Packers will make the playoffs – – but neither of the other two teams in the NFC North will finish at or above .500.
The last division on the list is the NFC East. Last year, I said the division was clearly bifurcated into two “Haves” and two “Have-nots”. Such remains the case in 2020. The Cowboys and the Eagles are solid, respectable teams; the Giants and the WTFs will stink.
- Cowboys: Let me put this simply. Dak Prescott will make about $31M this year on the franchise tag. He has been in the league for 4 seasons and has 67 starts – counting playoffs – under his belt. It is time for him to avoid coming up small in big games. The Cowboys have real potency at the WR position; they should score plenty of points. The biggest concern for the offense is that the OL is aging – but it is still a top-shelf unit.
Prediction #16: The Cowboys will win the NFC East.
- Eagles: Let me put this simply. They have to avoid rampant injuries; their training camp has resembled a M*A*S*H unit this year. Last year they won the division without having speed, size or experience at the WR position. Presumably, that will not be the case in 2020…
Prediction # 17: The Eagles will make the NFC Playoffs.
- WTFs: Here is what this team will look forward to in the next offseason. It will look forward to getting a new team name, that’s what. There is a new coach in DC; that is a good thing because they have needed one for a while and Ron Rivera is good football coach. He inherits a team with exactly one real strength – – the defensive line where the team has 5 first-round picks in the unit. That’s it; that’s the list. While in the process of “changing the culture” there, Rivera also gets to battle cancer this year and there will be distractions provided courtesy of the investigations into sexual harassment in the team executive suite. I doubt that Tinkerbell has enough Pixie Dust on hand to get the WTFs up to .500 for the year.
- Giants: The good news is they have a new coach, an excellent running back and a second year QB who showed significant promise in his rookie year. The defense – and particularly the secondary – will scare no one and that is the rest of the story. Like the crosstown NY Jets, the Giants will be sad sacks in 2020.
Summarizing the NFC playoff picture, the Seahawks will get the top seed and the playoff BYE week while the rest of the bracket will be the Bucs, Eagles, Niners, Packers, Saints and Vikings.
One other feature of my pre-season predictions has always been coaches who I see on the hot seat and what I think will happen to them. So, in alphabetical order – – because I have no intention of trying to rank these entries – – here are my NFL Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2020:
- Adam Gase (Jets): His “calling card” in the coaching ranks is that he is a “QB developer”. His recent record brings that into question since Ryan Tannehill blossomed as soon as he left Adam Gase and since Sam Darnold is still a “work in progress”. Moreover, Gase has gotten himself crosswise with Jamal Adams – – who demanded and got a trade out of NY – – and with LeVeon Bell. If the Jets are as bad as I think they will be, I will not be surprised if Gase is relieved of his role with the Jets before the end of the season.
Prediction 18: I think Adam Gase will not make it to January 2021 as the head coach of the Jets and that Gregg Williams will be his interim replacement.
- Doug Marrone (Jags): This will be Marrone’s fourth year as the coach of the Jags and ever since they gagged away the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots in 2017, the team has been a mess. Given the denuding of the roster over the last two years – five Pro Bowlers on defense and one on offense are gone – the Jags will probably be a doormat this year. I do not think Marrone will survive the carnage of this season unless there is a real “Minshew Miracle” on tap.
Prediction 19: I think that the clock will strike twelve on the Doug Marrone Era in Jax at the end of this season.
- Matt Nagy (Bears): He was the Coach of the Year in the NFL in 2018; then the Bears – and particularly their offense – were less than miserable in 2019. Nothing seemed to be working in Chicago. The Bears now have an overpaid Nick Foles and an under-achieving Mitchell Trubisky vying for the QB job. Things do not look good in Chicago and Nagy could well be the casualty in that catastrophe.
Prediction 20: I think Matt Nagy survives as the Bears’ coach as fans and “NFL Insiders” pin the blame for the Bears’ lack of success on the guy who built the roster.
- Bill O’Brien (Texans): The Texans have been in the playoffs four out of the five years that O’Brien has been the coach so this entry on the list is a long shot. Coach Bill O’Brien’s biggest problem is the roster makeup given to him by GM Bill O’Brien. He has made some strange personnel moves over the past couple of years and none make me scratch my head more than trading away DeAndre Hopkins for in injured running back and then “replacing” Hopkins with Brandin Cooks by sending away a second round pick. The QB magic produced by DeShaun Watson could save O’Brien’s coaching job – – but the Texans really do need a GM…
Prediction 21: I think the Texans definitely get a new GM for next year. And Coach Bill O’ Brien will be a casualty – collateral damage if you will – of that GM decision.
- Matt Patricia (Lions): This will be his third season at the helm of a downtrodden franchise that had risen to the level of a “break-even team” under its previous coach, Jim Caldwell. In his two seasons in Detroit, Patricia’s Lions have gone 9-22-1. Yes, I know that Matthew Stafford was injured and out for 8 games last year; nonetheless, the Lions remain an irrelevant team under Patricia’s leadership. I think it will take a 9-7 record and a healthy Matthew Stafford to achieve that record to save Patricia’s job after 2020.
Prediction 22: I think Matt Patricia is coaching his final year in Detroit.
- Dan Quinn (Falcons): Lots of people were surprised when Quinn survived the BYE week last year. The Falcons started the year 1-7 and looked lost in many of those games. But he – and the team – turned it all around and went 6-2 in the second half of the year. Quinn has been in Atlanta for 5 years and has been to the Super Bowl with the Falcons. His seat is warm but not hot.
Prediction 23: I think Dan Quinn makes it through 2020 without great jeopardy.
Mike Zimmer (Vikings): I had him on my “watch list for hot seats” because 2020 was to be his final year under contract in Minnesota and there had been no extension given during the off-season. However, in mid-July he did get a multi-year extension and his seat is now just a comfy one.
Before wrapping this up, let me just list here some of the things I jotted down about question marks hanging over some NFL players this year. As I was musing about the season, these things cropped up in my mind, and even when I recognized that they were important questions, I was not confident that I had the answers. So, just for fun and in alphabetical order:
- Antonio Brown – – Will a team take him on with his 8-game suspension and his soap opera atmosphere?
- Jadeveon Clowney – – So, where is he going to play in 2020 – – or will he sit out a season?
- Todd Gurley – – Can he stay healthy? Did the Falcons get a bargain signing Gurley for only $5M? Did they get 2017 Todd Gurley or 2019 Todd Gurley?
- Alshon Jeffrey – – Is he recovered from Lisfranc surgery? Do he and Carson Wentz hate each other? We shall see …
- David Johnson – – Can he stay healthy? If so, he will be an important part of the Texans’ offense.
- Xavier Rhodes – – Had a lackluster year in Minnesota last year and signed on with the Colts for only $3M because of that performance. But he used to be an All-Pro as recently as 2017. Is he a bargain or is he washed up?
- JJ Watt – – Can he stay healthy? Great player when healthy and Texans need him on that defense.
The only thing left now is for the teams and the players in the NFL to maintain vigilance against an outbreak of COVID-19 such that the season can proceed as scheduled.
So let it be written; so let it be done.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………