I love NFL previews. The rush of picking up a thick magazine chockful of predictions and analysis has never left, whether it was the SI Kids in 2007 that got me hooked on football, the Sports Illustrated previews in the mail or the Athlon mega-previews from Barnes & Noble. And as long as I’ve been reading NFL previews, I’ve been making my own.
Once training camps start, I pore through all of the information and news tidbits and then predict the outcome of all 256 regular season games and the entire playoffs. When I was in middle school I would write it all down in notebooks, with the score of each game and the standings after each week. Thankfully, I found a website to do the hard work for me and tally the wins and losses, but it’s incredible to look back on what was truly a labor of love.
Accuracy is not a prerequisite. I have succeeded in choosing the correct Super Bowl champion only once in 11 seasons, and that was the 2012 Ravens (my first four years went Ravens-Cowboys-Ravens-Ravens for SB picks). I have managed to pick the Super Bowl matchup correctly once (Patriots-Seahawks in 2014), also the only year I correctly picked the NFC representative. On the flipside, I once picked the Texans to meet the Falcons, and the two teams combined for six wins (the Texans got the no. 1 overall pick). I’ve hit on the AFC team 6 of 11 times, but four of those were the New England Patriots, so I was hardly going out on a limb. So don’t use my previews for hedging your bets, unless you want to lose money (I’m trying to pick right, I promise!). But if you want insights and something to make the game experience a little richer, you’ve reached the right place.
This year will be my 12th time creating a football preview. It goes without saying, but this year is a lot different, and may not even be a whole season. Even the almighty NFL is at the hands of the coronavirus, and though I have been impressed with reports about protocols, I can’t help but feel uneasy for the start of the upcoming season (which, unlike the NBA and NHL, is outside a bubble).
At the same time, I have never been more excited for an NFL season. My teams, the Ravens and Cowboys, are as great as they’ve been as long as I have been watching them, and the Ravens are one of the Super Bowl favorites for the first time ever. A wild NFL offseason also created plenty of storylines, including the greatest player of all-time moving locales. Gameplay itself is as fun to watch as ever with innovative schemes and transcendent talents. I pray that this season goes off without a hitch, because after all of this (*gestures around*), I need it.
These are the 20 fascinating storylines that explain why I am so pumped for kickoff.
20) Can Aaron Rodgers Fleur-ish in Green Bay?
Aaron Rodgers can stake a claim to being the best quarterback of the 2010s, but the knock on his career is his number one storyline entering this season – a history of playoff disappointment. Rodgers has only reached one Super Bowl in his career, though he has reached the precipice thrice, including last season’s NFC Championship loss to San Francisco.
2019 was a crucial transition, the first head coaching change during the Rodgers era in Green Bay. Coach Matt LaFleur pivoted the offense from the pass-heavy attacks of the McCarthy years to a prolific ground attack with Rodgers as more of a complementary piece, and the result was a somewhat misleading 13-3 record. Rodgers was his typical efficient self with a 26 touchdown/4 interception stat line on the season, but advanced metrics told a story of decline – Rodgers ranked in the league’s bottom half of passers in completion percentage above expectation (measuring how often a quarterback makes throws he shouldn’t complete given the situation), according to Next Gen Stats, and ranked 20th among qualified passers in ESPN’s QBR metric. The presence of running back Aaron Jones (16 rush touchdowns) helps take the pressure off Rodgers, and his supporting cast of receiver Davante Adams and a stout O-Line supports the notion of a mid-career bump.
Still, time is running out. Instead of addressing the receiving corps, the Packers used their first round pick on Rodgers’ successor, Jordan Love, then doubled down on running backs. Rodgers was not happy, and the moves were not exactly votes of confidence in Rodgers’ ability to get it done in January. An NFC North title is within reach, but the Packers were beat thoroughly by the Niners last year and sat relatively still while the rest of the NFC contenders improved (including one team that added Tom Brady). Rodgers will need to buy in and gel with what and who he has to push the Pack over the edge.
2020 Vision: The Packers’ chemistry improves, though the record doesn’t reflect it. Still, Green Bay wins the NFC North by a couple games.
19) Additional playoff spots expand postseason picture
The NFL playoff structure had remained untouched since the league’s divisional realignment in 2002 until the owners, greedy for the sky-high playoff game revenues, pushed for playoff expansion. The field now expands from 12 to 14 (now 7 per conference), and the top seed in each conference will earn the lone bye. It may not be much, but the seven seeds diminish the prestige of making the playoffs (do we need another 8-8 team?), and given the recent rash of 1 and 2 seeds in the Super Bowl, their introductions may not make waves in the title race.
To my point:
NFC Additions, Last Five Seasons: 2019 Los Angeles Rams, 2018 Minnesota Vikings, 2017 Detroit Lions, 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2015 Atlanta Falcons
AFC Additions, Last Five Seasons: 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2017 Baltimore Ravens, 2016 Tennessee Titans, 2015 New York Jets
Take out 2018 Ben Roethlisberger and 2015 Matt Ryan (both of whom were not in their greatest seasons either), and the quarterbacks you’ve allowed entry into the hallowed grounds of the NFL postseason include: Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Would you take your chances with those guys to upend the league’s powers? I wouldn’t either.
Still, as the Titans showed in beating the heavily favored Patriots and Ravens in back-to-back weeks, the wild cards are called wild cards for a reason. The 2010 Packers, 2008 Cardinals, and 2007 Giants failed to win over 10 games and made it all the way to the Big Game, with two of them actually winning it all. I’m all for giving guys a shot and the “Any Given Sunday” mantra, but I can only take so many Bengals-Texans Saturday 4:30 games and 9-7 playoff teams.
2020 Vision: Steelers and Seahawks take advantage, though neither uses the opportunity to advance in the playoffs.
18) Coaching styles under the microscope
The coronavirus has dominated the NFL news cycle, and for this exercise I’m pretty much abstaining from granting it one of the top headline spots. Scheduling consequences aside, though, I’m pretty interested to see how the coaching staffs navigate such a strange offseason. Will more disciplinarian coaches stand out given the necessity of COVID protocols? How will recent coaching hires, such as Mike McCarthy of the Cowboys and Kevin Stefanski of the Browns, perform while adjusting to a new team? Does a shortened offseason and cancelled preseason diminish personnel advantages, or succeeding in such harsh circumstances the dictionary definition of great coaching? Judging from the Hard Knocks premiere, nobody seems to know exactly what’s going on, so I’m looking at the guys in charge as the most crucial figures in this outlier of a year.
2020 Vision: Legit guys get to January. McCarthy and Stefanski make it to the playoffs, but are surrounded by bright minds and playoff-tested vets.
17) Philip Rivers heads east to Indy for career twilight
2007 was my first season watching football, and there was one quarterback whom my eyes were transfixed upon. That man, that myth, that legend, was Philip Rivers of the then-San Diego Chargers. Rivers wasn’t especially mobile (back then, the QB sneak was a novelty for young sports fans), but he teamed up with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates for an absolutely lethal offensive attack that beat the Colts twice in the playoffs and took it to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in ’07. I can’t pinpoint it – the underdog status, the expressive facial reactions, the powder blue uniforms, the number 17 – but I loved Rivers. I even remember drawing a Gatorade ad with Philip Rivers in a notepad when I was seven or eight. I held onto the optimism that he would finally get the Super Bowl appearance and win he deserved, only for him to fall short year after year until the Chargers finally said it was enough after an abysmal, 20-interception 2019.
Rivers resurrected his career from 2013 to 2018, cutting back on the turnovers and leading some potent Charger offenses. Now 38, he will have to resurrect it again, and in a new part of the country. The move promises upgrades in some areas (coaching staff, offensive line, division, organizational functionality) and downgrades in others (defense, weapons, familiarity). The question is how much Rivers has in his arm as his peers ease into retirement, and the age-old question of whether he can make great decisions late in games. A Super Bowl appearance is a far reach, especially given that the Rivers we know hasn’t gotten it done against top teams and hasn’t upped his game in the playoffs. He will need to do both to seal his Hall of Fame candidacy.
2020 Vision: The Colts take the AFC South and advance to the Divisional Round before falling to the Chiefs.
16) It’s Minshew Time in Jacksonville!
Tanking was a common subject in NFL circles last year when it appeared the Miami Dolphins were stripping down their roster for the sole purpose of losing games and positioning themselves for Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The “hype” was overblown, as coach Brian Flores rallied the Fins to some late wins and a respectable 5-11 record, and Miami was still able to snag Tua.
This year, the tank watch is on another Florida team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. This one’s gonna be ugly. The Jaguars have completed a freefall of epic proportions after their 2017 AFC title game appearance, removing nearly every part of their vaunted defensive squad for spare parts, cap room, and draft picks. This much is certain – the Jaguars will be bad!
But for a team without any offensive firepower and defensive stalwarts, the Jaguars will be, and I’m not exaggerating, appointment television. The reason is Gardner Minshew, the sixth round draft pick who took the league by storm as a rookie with his outrageous outfits and unrivaled swagger (“It took one look at me and ran the other way,” Minshew said of the coronavirus). Minshew took over for the injured Nick Foles and kept his job throughout the season. While he didn’t lift the Jags out of the AFC South cellar, he posted an impressive 21 touchdown, 6 interception stat line and finished 6-6 as a starter with a trio of game-winning drives. That is for a team that has stripped its defense bare, with putrid receiving corps and offensive lines and a less-than-stellar coaching staff.
I’m not saying that Gardner Minshew will be an All-Pro. But it’s fascinating how he has somehow etched his name into the starting role considering the names available this offseason: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Jordan Love, Jalen Hurts, etc. I’m not even sure he’s in the top 32 quarterbacks in the NFL, and, given that he’s a sixth-round pick, the Jaguars have no incentive in terms of draft capital or contract to stay tied to him. Great or not, he’s the transition piece the Jags are going with as they wait to draft a franchise guy in the draft. He has little in terms of a supporting cast (running back Leonard Fournette, his last true offensive weapon, was cut), but the guy has made a lot out of the little lot he has been cast in his career and done it in style. I’ll be watching.
2020 Vision: The Jaguars defeat the Dolphins in a Florida battle in September, then drop all the rest of their games.
15) Burrow, Tua, Herbert usher in new class of franchise faces
Three of the first six players taken in April’s NFL draft play the quarterback position, and the future of their respective franchises rests upon their shoulders. Success in the immediate term will be limited, though, even given the tantalizing talent that Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert bring into the league.
Burrow enjoyed one of the greatest breakout seasons in college history under center for the national champion LSU Tigers – he threw more touchdown passes in the first half of a playoff game (7) than my university’s football team threw combined the whole year (6). He figures to start immediately for his hometown Bengals and will have some strong supporting pieces in rusher Joe Mixon and receivers A.J. Green, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. But the Bengals just hit rock bottom in 2019 and are miles behind the Ravens, Steelers and Browns in their division.
Tua’s Dolphins are in a similar state, though his status as a starter isn’t as certain. Tagovailoa is a generational talent with a concerning medical record (including one injury that wiped out a chunk of his last season with Alabama), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him learn behind veteran and fan favorite Ryan Fitzpatrick for some of or all of 2020. The Dolphins don’t have the pieces on the line or the perimeter to signal that they are ready for playoff contention, so patience with Tua could be the Dolphins’ tact.
The Chargers, on the other hand, are just a season removed from a playoff berth and are looking to get back in contention ASAP. The defense has top-five potential, while the receiving corps would make any quarterback’s mouth water. For now, dual threat vet Tyrod Taylor should take the reigns with Oregon product Justin Herbert, a player some viewed as a reach at number 6, waiting in the wings. With the abbreviated offseason, the Chargers would be best suited to stick with experience if they want to make a playoff push in a loaded division.
2020 Vision: None of the three teams make the playoffs, though Tua’s 6-10 Dolphins at least impress.
14) The rise and fall of the superstar running back
Whether you look at draft position, contract numbers, or statistical numbers, the writing is on the wall for the fate of the superstar running back. Washington’s Adrian Peterson might be the last truly great rusher, and Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record looks as safe as any mark right now. That doesn’t mean there isn’t talent at the position – guys like Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott are changing the position with their receiving chops and versatile skill sets – but teams are not relying on workhorse backs to handle high-volume action and spearhead the offensive attack. Even the league’s best rushing offense, Baltimore, saw a quarterback lead its team in yardage.
For every rule, there is an exception, and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry looks to buck the trend. Henry is a punishing runner in the Peterson mold, and while he did throw a touchdown pass in the AFC Divisional (sore subject) and has some receiving action, he is the rare modern workhorse running back. The style worked wonders in 2019, as Henry led the NFL in rushing yards (1,540) and touchdowns (16) and ran roughshod over the Patriots and Ravens in the playoffs. Most of that was against loaded defensive fronts aiming to stop him – just over 35% of his runs were against eight defenders in the box, most among running backs with over 650 yards (my hunch is that he’ll see that tactic plenty of times in 2020). He is the primary offensive threat Tennessee poses, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill keyed off Henry’s success to propel his own breakout season.
Tennessee went against modern wisdom and rewarded Henry with a rich contract, one that he certainly deserved but one that could come back to bite the Titans if Henry follows the common running back regression. In the immediate term, Henry will dictate if Tennessee can capture the division title and build off its 2019 success. He could also be a factor in their stagnation if he can’t get going. Henry’s situation is unlike any other in the league, but if any back can buck the trend, it is Derrick Henry.
2020 Vision: Henry’s Titans, Nick Chubb’s Browns, and Buffalo use run-first schemes to playoff success. In the NFC, things are much more pass heavy.
13) Home field advantage in danger with reduced capacity
Stadiums like CenturyLink Field in Seattle and Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City have built a reputation as inhospitable to visitors, whether it is the ear-splitting decibel levels or the disrupted play calls that, often successfully, knock opposing teams off their A games. But the reduced capacity at most stadiums figures to put a dent in this advantage, and there is a chance the advantage could be wiped out entirely in the case of empty stadiums.
Since the NFL has yet to adopt a bubble format like the NBA or NHL, home-field advantage will not be entirely gone – travel and will still be factors over the slog of the season. December games in Foxborough will still be brutal. Still, the 12th man will likely have to take a step back this season, a change that hurts some teams (Seahawks, Saints) more than others (Chargers, Washington Football Team).
2020 Vision: The teams with traditionally great home field advantages – Saints, Chiefs, Seahawks – make the playoffs anyway because of the guys on the field.
12) In Goodell We Trust? How players, owners consolidate trust in the commissioner
Even with the season currently slated to start on time, the coronavirus pandemic ensures that there will be unforeseen complications in the months to come. Given the NFL’s choice to go with home stadiums and the fact that 32 rosters, each with over 50 active players, will have to effectively quarantine for large parts of the season, risk is high. There will be difficult choices to be made. The question is, who will be making them?
The answer will likely be Roger Goodell. Goodell has earned a reputation for overstepping his bounds as the judge, jury, and executioner on player discipline and team scandals. A situation like this coronavirus pandemic is an instance in which the centralized authority of the NFL might come as a strength, though. The NCAA’s football season fell apart mainly because there were too many disparate players (athletic directors, university presidents, conference commissioners, the NCAA) and the institution itself didn’t take a stand – a fault that professional football should be able to learn from. Player safety, postponements, and discipline are possible concerns that could arise, and Goodell has the power to take immediate action on each. The league has expressed a stubborn desire to execute its schedule in its entirety, and to do so, Goodell will have to earn every penny of his $40 million annual salary.
2020 Vision: Expect Goodell to delegate as much power to the individual franchises and cities, and to pursue football at all costs.
11) Battle for the NFC West a top-to-bottom brawl
You could make a case for other divisions as the league’s best, but no division matches the top-to-bottom talent and coaching acumen of the NFC West. The division houses the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, who should be even better in 2020, though their record may not reflect it. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to reach his prime and will benefit from the first-round selection of Brandon Aiyuk, while the best front seven in football selected a first-rounder of its own in Javon Kinlaw to replace the departed DeForest Buckner. The Seahawks, who put a scare into the 49ers late in the year, have the conference’s best quarterback in Russell Wilson and added All-Pro safety Jamal Adams via trade. If Seattle can fully harness Wilson’s talents and make him the forefront of the offensive attack, last year’s division battle could see a 2020 encore.
Expect the Rams and Cardinals to make noise, too. If the expanded NFL playoffs had started a year earlier, the Rams would have snuck in as the seventh seed. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is gone along with receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Todd Gurley, but the primary pieces, and, most importantly, Sean McVay is in place. Quarterback Jared Goff’s Year 5 development will be crucial to whether this team can get back on track after a middling 2019. Arizona seems to be heading in the opposite direction, shooting from the cellar into sleeper status. Quarterback Kyler Murray enters his second year with MVP potential and added a top-three receiver to his arsenal in former Texan DeAndre Hopkins. The defense, which has been atrocious at points the last few seasons, has superstars at every level with sackmaster Chandler Jones, do-it-all rookie Isaiah Simmons, and cornerstone corner Patrick Peterson. At the very least, the Cardinals will be fun to watch and should improve on their five wins from last season.
2020 Vision: No team finishes with a losing record, and the new-look Cardinals are the talk of the league with double-digit wins.
10) Super sophomores aim for the sky with new weapons
Last year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks did not set the league on fire (although Gardner Minshew became a hot topic), but a Year 2 jump could be in the cards for 2020’s sophomores. The Kyler Murray hype train is almost off the rails after DeAndre Hopkins joined a receiving corps also manned by Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella and Larry Fitzgerald. Factor in the coaching of Kliff Kingsbury and the points could be streaming in this season in Arizona. 800 miles to the northeast, Broncos quarterback Drew Lock hopes to take off with an offense that has hoarded receiver talent the past couple drafts. Rookies Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler will make an immediate impact. Their presence will ease the load on the outstanding Courtland Sutton, who led the NFL in percentage share of team air yards (42.93%), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The backfield saw a boost with the signing of former Charger Melvin Gordon to complement Philip Lindsay, and the defense should live up to Denver tradition. After being sidelined in the playoff picture last December, both the Cardinals and Broncos could ride their second-year starters to sizeable improvements and playoff berths.
2020 Vision: Both offenses improve in 2020. Murray’s Cardinals take the second spot in the NFC West while Lock does the same in the AFC, but Arizona is the team that ends up with a playoff spot while Denver is left on the outside.
9) Raiders, Chargers, Rams hope to christen new stadiums in style
2020 was not the best season to open mega-stadiums, but the Raiders, Chargers and Rams will be christening their new palaces this season regardless. Stan Kroenke’s plan in moving the Rams to Los Angeles will fully come to fruition this fall with the opening of SoFi Stadium in SoCal, which the Rams will share with the Chargers. The now-Las Vegas Raiders, the team that missed out on the Los Angeles sweepstakes initially, will take to Allegiant Stadium as the first NFL team to play in Nevada. The stadium pictures look nothing short of spectacular, and whether or not fans can fill the seats of these Jerry Jones-esque structures, they are definite improvements upon the teams’ old homes.
Of course, the new tenants of Los Angeles and Las Vegas know that the best way to win over fans in their new locales is to win, and each of these three teams has a viable shot at the postseason in 2020. The Rams return many of their pieces from their 2018 Super Bowl run, but will need to survive the brutal NFC West division to make their playoff return. In the AFC West, the Chargers and Raiders will likely be duking it out for an AFC Wild Card bid. Los Angeles has a new-look offense with longtime quarterback Philip Rivers now in Indianapolis and running back Melvin Gordon in Denver, but incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor brings experience to a team already laden with talent on both sides of the ball. In Las Vegas, 2020 will be a fascinating year for the development of quarterback Derek Carr (second-lowest in aggressiveness percentage, per NFL Next Gen Stats). The offense around Carr has improved with rusher Josh Jacobs and speedy rookie Henry Ruggs, so the excuses have run out in what could be the last year of the Carr-Jon Gruden marriage.
2020 Vision: The respective housewarmings are not in style at all. The Raiders flail in Vegas with just five wins, while the Chargers and Rams, both playoff contenders, don’t finish with winning records.
8) Can Russell Wilson lead a contender?
Russell Wilson was one of the best quarterbacks of the 2010s, with two Super Bowl appearances and a championship ring on his resume. More impressively, he morphed from a game manager for a historic defense into an MVP candidate and top three quarterback the past couple years. 2019 was his best campaign yet, with touchdowns and yards nearing all time highs and turnovers at all-time lows. While he did not win MVP, his impact on the standings was undeniable – Pro Football Reference credits him with five game-winning drives in a roller coaster 2019.
Still, the doubts persist about Seattle’s potency as a Super Bowl contender with its current construction. Wilson has been phenomenal, but the defense has cratered since the Super Bowl glory days and the offense has been run-heavy to a fault. The Hawks have just one playoff win since the Legion of Boom days, and that was against Josh McCown’s Philadelphia Eagles last January. The fact is that Wilson has to do too much for this team, and his heroics can only carry them so far in the playoffs.
This is the best Wilson-led Seahawks team yet, but Seattle will have to take steps forward to become a true Super Bowl contender. The trade for safety Jamal Adams is huge in bringing an All-Pro to a depleted defense, but Seahawks must rebuild a pass rush that was light even before the departure of Jadeveon Clowney. The receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett ranks among the best in the NFL, but the backfield, offensive line, and offensive coaching staff is not Super Bowl caliber. If the Seahawks can improve in most of these crucial areas (and maybe not give their fans heart attacks week in and week out), a Super Bowl appearance could be in the cards. Until they do, I won’t be holding my breath for this team as a legit contender.
2020 Vision: The Hawks drop to third in their division but still make the playoffs. Wilson actually garners MVP votes but this team dips out quickly in January.
7) ‘Boys, Eagles face-off in stratified NFC East
The NFC East was a miserable place to play in 2019. Washington and New York were as awful as advertised, though the debuts of rookies Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones provided sparks of excitement. But those flops were expected. The race for the top of the division between the Cowboys and Eagles felt like hot potato, with each team trading head scratching losses and failing to live up to Super Bowl aspirations. The Eagles ultimately took the division after surviving heavy losses in the receiving corps and actual losses to the Dolphins and Lions. Dallas had most of its pieces healthy, but suffered one of the most agonizing seasons in recent memory and fired longtime head coach Jason Garrett in the offseason.
Expectations are high again, and they should be. Philly has Carson Wentz back at the helm with the potential for some Jalen Hurts action, plus bolstered its much-maligned secondary with the addition of proven corner Darius Slay. But Dallas really stole the headlines with the draft selections of receiver CeeDee Lamb and former Wootton HS star Trevon Diggs, the acquisition of rushers Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith, and the hiring of Super Bowl-winning coach Mike McCarthy. The losses of corner Byron Jones (Miami) and center Travis Frederick (retirement) sting, but the 8-8 finish was pretty much the worst-possible scenario for Dallas in 2019. If the Cowboys offense, which ranked first in yards last season, can take the next step by actually showing up against good teams, the Super Bowl talk may be merited.
2020 Vision: Dallas takes the division behind a high-powered offense, while the Eagles’ stagnation leaves them outside of the playoffs and puts Carson Wentz’s long-term viability in question.
6) Post-hype Browns are cleared for liftoff
On paper, the Browns are flush with talent. They are like Noah’s Ark at every position – two elite options at every spot. Rusher Nick Chubb broke out with just short of 1,500 yards on the ground and is backed up by Kareem Hunt. Former LSU teammates Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. have mind-blowing potential after an underwhelming 2019. The offensive line added talent through the draft and free agency. Even the tight end spot has two defense-wreckers in David Njoku and Austin Hooper. The defense has the pieces to break out as well. Quarterback Baker Mayfield regressed in his second year as division mate Lamar Jackson flourished, but he’ll have every opportunity to get back on track.
As a Ravens fan, I have every right to be outspoken about how the Browns are going to mess it up again. After all, the glorious implosion of the Freddie Kitchens era is fresh in my mind. But the Browns are going to be good, and, to be honest, I am scared. The hiring of Kevin Stefanski was bewildering but makes sense, as he could bring John Riker native son Gary Kubiak’s play action concepts to Cleveland and breathe new life into Mayfield’s career. The Browns were one of two teams to beat the Ravens in the regular season (the other one won the Super Bowl), and their 40-25 smacking demonstrates exactly how lethal this offense could be if clicking on all cylinders. This is Super Bowl talent. Whether that will serve as fuel for the fire or fuel for another glorious, fiery explosion remains to be seen.
2020 Vision: The Browns get good, fast. Baker and Co. finish with 11 wins and make the playoffs for the first time in ages.
5) Brees’ last ride? New Orleans fields deepest team to date
I’ll give him this – Drew Brees is resilient. The Purdue product overcame a shoulder tear in 2005 and jumpstarted his career in New Orleans, eventually winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in the 2009 season. Lately, the playoff success have further tested his resiliency. The past three seasons, the Saints have lost two playoff games in overtime and a third on the Minnesota Miracle. At age 41, Brees is nearing the end, and his arm has lost steam in the winter months the last couple of years.
Don’t tell the Saints that. Outside of San Francisco, the Saints are the team to beat in the NFC. The roster is as loaded as it has been in Brees’ tenure. An offense with the best receiver in football in Michael Thomas and the versatile Alvin Kamara in the backfield added veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, giving Brees a big-time arsenal. The defense ranked top-three in turnover differential (+15) and sacks (51). Even in the case that Brees gets injured or breaks down, the Saints paid two quarterbacks, Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, starting quarterback money. There is simply no scenario in which New Orleans fails to compete for the playoffs. The Saints will very likely reach January, so the goal will be to finish strong until the final whistle.
2020 Vision: 2020 is a disappointment but still results in 13 wins and an NFC Championship appearance.
4) Patriots’ new era begins with a new MVP, Cam Newton
Not even brief stints of Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett and Matt Cassel starting under center the past couple decades can prepare us for the shocking absence of Tom Brady from the New England Patriots. The Brady-Belichick marriage has dissolved, but a mid-summer signing ensured that the Patriots will not leave the national spotlight anytime soon.
The new man in town is 2015 MVP Cam Newton. The former Panther figures to factor into the rushing attack in a way that Brady never did and should still have something left in his arm. The offensive cupboard is relatively bare and the O-line isn’t phenomenal, but the New England defense should still be formidable. If Newton’s learning curve takes longer than expected or if his injury history catches up to him, expect Jarrett Stidham, who has familiarity with OC Josh McDaniels’ system on his side, to take the reins. Either way, a post-Brady New England will be a sight to see in 2020.
2020 Vision: The Patriots suffer a losing record for the first time in decades. Newton’s acclimation is limited and his supporting cast doesn’t offer much help.
3) $500 million man Patrick Mahomes is the toast of the AFC
Patrick Mahomes has transcended football. He threw 50 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. In three total seasons, Mahomes has an MVP and Super Bowl MVP, and he has not had a single bad game as a starter. Need more evidence? A 10-year contract that could exceed $500 million dollars. The next highest contract in NFL history is under half of that.
The Super Bowl champion Chiefs return many of their championship pieces, and as long as Mahomes is under center and coach Andy Reid is roaming the sidelines, Kansas City will be favorites. I want the Ravens to win the conference obviously, but there is an undeniable joy in watching Mahomes play. He’s the Steph Curry of the NFL, mixing in moves like left-handed passes and no look dimes with daring escapes, clutch runs, and absolute rockets down field. And with only three seasons under his belt, he could conceivably become even better in the years to come.
2020 Vision: Mahomes proves he’s worth his mega-deal (as if he hasn’t already), throwing over 50 touchdowns and leading the Chiefs to another AFC West crown.
2) Lamar Jackson, Ravens return for MVP encore
Let’s spend 500 words to talk about the awesomeness of Lamar Jackson. I’ll start with the stats: a quarterback-record 1,206 rushing yards, a league-leading 36 touchdown passes, an 81.8 ESPN QBR rating (also 1st). He was also the league leader in wins (13) and MVP votes (50 out of 50). He was video game good – his passing yardage totals ranked 22nd in the NFL, demonstrating how little he had to rely on gaudy yardage totals to get it done.
The eye test backs him up. One of the enduring images of the season was a Lamar Jackson spin that sent Cincinnati Bengal defenders flying – a perfect illustration of the team with the league’s best record flexing on the team with the worst. There were plenty of other great ones: five-touchdown performances against Los Angeles and Miami, his red zone scamper against the reigning AFC champion Patriots, his goal-line spin against the Chiefs. Even in the upset loss to the Titans, Jackson threw perhaps his best pass of the season on a beautiful arcing pass to Marquise Brown.
Expect many more highlights in 2020. The best rushing offense in NFL history added one of draft’s best running backs in J.K. Dobbins. Healthy sophomores Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin should make an impact on the field, along with breakout tight end Mark Andrews. With much of the offense on rookie contracts, GM Eric DeCosta has built a mega-defense, the second-most expensive in the NFL, that perfectly complements the high-flying offense. The selection of LSU linebacker Patrick Queen shores up the only real weakness on defense, and the Ravens should be able to count on another dominant year from the NFL’s best secondary. If you’re looking for a weakness on this roster, don’t look at special teams, either – kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch are as elite as ever. This is a team built around Lamar Jackson, and a very good one at that.
Critics have found reasons to attack Jackson year after year, size, accuracy, fit with the quarterback position. So it should not come as a surprise that Jackson’s postseason losses have emerged as yet another knock on the unanimous MVP. The claim is ridiculous. Yes, he lost those two games, and he didn’t look the same in either. He’s also 23, younger than the first overall pick in the draft, and two games is a small sample size. The Ravens organization as a whole has as much of a postseason resume of any team outside New England (John Harbaugh won at least one playoff game in each of his first five trips). Patrick Mahomes should be an obstacle. The difficulty of winning a Super Bowl should be an obstacle. A two-game playoff record should not be an obstacle in Jackson’s future outlook.
2020 Vision: Jackson’s sights are set on the playoffs, and in Year Three he gets it done. The Ravens handle the Bills and Chiefs before defeating the Buccaneers in an exciting Super Bowl.
1) Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tompa Bay. Tampa Brady. Whatever you want to call it, it’s going down in central Florida this year.
Tom Brady, the greatest player in NFL history, is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and I love it. I have been devouring clips of him throwing passes in training camp wearing a creamsicle orange jersey. I don’t think he’s done, either. With Brady at the helm of the ship, the Buccaneers could be a Super Bowl team. Not what I thought I’d be writing a year ago, about a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since I started watching football in 2007.
A lot comes with a quarterback change, especially with the camp restrictions of the coronavirus. But if the Bucs ever do get rolling this season, they will be good. Receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are the two best receivers Tom Brady has ever had that not named Randy Moss, and the best tight end he’s had, Rob Gronkowski, joined him in Tampa. Don’t count out tight end O.J. Howard either, or an underrated offensive line. I’ll add in this late edit — he has Leonard Fournette, a top-five pick just years ago, behind him in the backfield. All are upgrades over Brady’s supporting cast in New England last year.
Today, the Buccaneers are not the best team in the NFC. They’re not the best team in the NFC South. But this is a team with the stuff to go all the way, and sometimes, with bit of luck, that’s all it takes. And you can’t count out a six-time Super Bowl champion.
2020 Vision: By all measures, 2020 is a success. Brady shows no rust and transitions into his role well enough come playoff time. As a Wild Card, Brady beats Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy G, and Drew Brees en route to another Super Bowl appearance.