Now a week away from the season officially being kicked off with Texans @ Chiefs, I’m ready to commit to all these predictions. As I have done for several years now, I am going to forecast all the major season awards, such as league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and others, before I get into my playoff picks. To do so, I went through the schedule and predicted all 256 games, before putting all of that into playoffpredictors.com – which I can absolutely recommend you check out – to double-check my final seven seeds for either conference. On my first version, I got so complicated with the tie-breakers, that I actually had to contact the host of the page, to get some clearance on an issue, but after I went over it a second time, things became a lot easier to figure out.
With that being, this is how I believe the 2020 NFL season will look like:
1. Patrick Mahomes
2. Lamar Jackson
3. Dak Prescott
Let’s not get this wrong – this is a quarterback award. We have seen other positions get attention in this discussion, but in the end, Adrian Peterson has been the only non-QB since 2007 to take home the trophy.
Not much surprise at the top here. Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the league and if we get a full 16 games out of him again, I expect the numbers to match the amount of highlight plays we see from him on a weekly basis. Other than losing a starting guard – which might have been replaced with equal player – and swapping their starting running back with a stud first-round pick, nothing about the offense has changed. Tyreek Hill is still the most dangerous receiver in the league, Travis Kelce is a nightmare to match up with, Sammy Watkins took a pay-cut to stay with the Super Bowl champs, KC miraculously found a way to bring back Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman is bound to make a jump, after how productive he was on very limited opportunites (41 targets, 26 catches, 538 yards and 6 TDs). I think having Clyde Edwards-Helaire to give this high-flying attack a physical presence and picking up some unlikely first downs will only help Mahomes. Maybe most important, the Chiefs did not lose offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, who was thought to get more head coach interviews, and he will continue to build creative and aggressive gameplans with Andy Reid.
The second choice her isn’t overly surprising either. The reigning, unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson is coming off a phenomenal season, in which he broke the all-time mark for rushing yards by a quarterback (1206) and at the same time his touchdown pass percentage (9.0) was the highest since Y.A. Tittle in 1963. There are several other highly impressive numbers, like having more total touchdowns than Sam Koch had punts and all those stats being amassed with the season finale being sat out, but none of that captures how electric his performance was. This offseason, Baltimore added one of the top-flight backs in the draft in J.K. Dobbins to give that record-setting rushing attack another boost, made some excellent wide receiver picks in the later rounds of the draft and most importantly, Marquise Brown is coming his second season without that foot injury, that bothered him all of last season. I expect the speedster to open up the offense a little more and create a special connection with his QB. Without a full offseason to prepare for this unique Greg Roman offense, the Ravens led by Lamar will be tough to stop once again and since I have them earning the AFC’s number one seed once again, I expect Action Jackson to be right there in that race for MVP honors with Mahomes for most of the season.
The one candidate from NFC here is Dak Prescott. He already put up career-highs in completions (388), passing yards (4902) and touchdowns (30) last season, but I expect those to go even higher. When you look at the Cowboys last season, offensively they put up some big numbers, but those didn’t always result in wins. Whether that was about going away from the run game at some points, their stars not really coming through in the big games or the defense not making any game-changing plays. I expect Ezekiel Elliott to trim down and have that extra gear again in 2020, the defense will be changed up a bit with some of the veterans they brought in and they now have maybe the best trio of receivers in the league. With Amari Cooper being a master route-runner, Michael Gallup working the sideline and now rookie Ceedee Lamb giving them a beast at the catch-point but even more so after the catch, Dallas has all the ingredients to have an explosive aerial attack. Combine that with one of the best O-lines still, play-action being more effective and the coaches allowing Dak to throw on first down more hopefully could make this squad pretty scary. Being a little more effective even and leading his team to an 11-5 record (as I predicted), while trying to prove he deserves that franchise QB contract, should put Dak in this MVP race.
Just missed: Josh Allen & Kyler Murray
Offensive Player of the Year:
1. Saquon Barkley
2. Lamar Jackson
3. Kyler Murray
I’m always hesitant to list candidates for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, since this overlaps a lot and I still don’t really get how the Most Valuable Player isn’t also the Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year, but since the first is almost a pure QB award, here are a couple of other names.
To me the most talented and best running back in the NFL is Saquon Barkley. How explosive he is, the power he has to break tackles, yet at the same time being so elusive in the open field and having that break-away speed at 230 pounds is special. I thought he Saquon was the most impressive back in the league as a rookie already and last season he lost some of that shine due to being banged up for about half the year and the spectacular season Christian McCaffrey had. With Joe Judge as the new head coach, having that New England mindset of running the ball at a high rate, and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett focusing on the ground game heavily himself, I see no reason why Saquon shouldn’t touch the ball 350-400 times. Big Blue a pretty good trio of receivers to spread the field and open up room on the inside, the offensive line should be upgraded with fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas coming in and with Daniel Jones taking snaps from the shotgun, he is a threat to pull the ball, therefore binding one of the backside defenders. The only concern for me here is that I don’t expect the G-Men to win a lot of games and them having to go away from the run game too early, but Saquon is a master at making something happen after catching a check-down as well.
The second guy here is Lamar, who I just talked about in the MVP discussion. His dynamic ability as a runner puts him a little higher than Mahomes in this discussion.
And then I expect Kyler Murray to take another big step coming into his sophomore campaign. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year immediately transformed one of the most boring offenses league-wide into an exciting attack, despite not having a lot of weapons around him for most of the season. Kyler was responsible for 24 touchdowns and finished second behind only Lamar with 544 rushing yards on the season. He did all that despite having guys charge at him constantly (48 sacks) and his best receiver still being a 35-year old Larry Fitzgerald. This offseason Arizona traded for an elite wideout in DeAndre Hopkins to go with a healthy Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella coming into year two, Fitzy still being there and a guy I really liked in last year’s draft in Hakeem Butler having his first season after being out for all of 2019. Running back Kenyan Drake will also play a full 16 games for the Cards, after how dynamic he looked like over the second half of last year, coming over from Miami. The O-line should at least be marginally improved, while I like a lot of the things they do on defense. If Kyler can lead this team to one of the final playoff spots in the NFC and him probably putting up big numbers in the process, I think he will get some attention for it.
Just missed: Patrick Mahomes & George Kittle
Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Myles Garrett
2. Darius Leonard
3. Chandler Jones
To be named DPOY, you usually have to put up some big numbers and make those impact plays that people remember. Last season was pretty unique, since Stephon Gilmore was a true shutdown corner, but also tied for lead-league in picks (6) and scored a couple of touchdowns. Usually this award favors pass-rushers and ball-hawking safeties.
After getting his big contract and being on a team that is ready to finally make some noise, I expect Myles Garrett to have a big season. What happened in week 11 against the Steelers last year wasn’t pretty and there is no need to discuss it any longer, but I believe while Garrett learned his lesson, he is also ready to come back with a vengeance. Over the ten games he played last season, the former number one overall pick recorded ten sacks and 18 more hits on the QB, to along with eleven tackles for loss and a league-best 18.5% disruption rate (pressures and sacks divided by pass-rush attempts). So even then, he would have been in the discussion for DPOY at least with a full season of production and I expect him to be even more disruptive, playing for a better team. Garrett has really come along as a pass-rush technician, after relying on his athleticism and a couple of moves early on in his career. He just had a lot of time in the lab to work on his craft and might have a couple of new tricks to show for it. I like what is going on in the secondary, the other guys on the D-line should be healthy to start this season and maybe most important, I expect the Browns to be in a lot more positive game-script situations. The offense has so much potential and I like Kevin Stefanski to sustain drives with a run-oriented approach. That allows Garrett to stay fresh and as teams have to get more pass-reliant, number 95 can just tee off and get after opposing passers at a higher rate.
The other young player I like in this discussion is Darius Leonard. Now that Luke Kuechly has retired, I think Bobby Wagner has the crown for the best inside linebacker in the game, but among the two or three other, names that could surpass him in that discussion in the near future, is this guy. “The Maniac” has made plays all over the field ever since coming into the league. In 28 career games, Leonard has put together 284 tackles (182 solo), 12 sacks, seven INTs and another 15 passes deflected. That was playing form a defense that didn’t have a lot of disruptors up front and had been suffering through injuries in the secondary. This offseason the Colts traded for 49ers team MVP DeForest Buckner, who to me has entrenched himself as a top 50 overall player in the league and is one of the very best at creating chaos for the opposition. Leonard will feast more from those opportunites to clean up or shoot through a gap that opens up as the offensive line can’t get off those double-teams quickly enough to put hands on him. Kemoko Turay could be a breakout candidate off the edge back healthy and I find myself coming back to Indy’s schedule, which is made up with half the teams finished in the bottom-third in terms of scoring offense.
The final candidate here is somebody who has not gotten the credit he deserves over his last four years in the desert. Over that stretch, Chandler Jones leads the league in total sacks (60), is tied for the most fumbles forced (17) and has been near the top in QB pressures every single season. What makes all those numbers even more impressive is the fact that he has done it for a losing franchise for the most part. That has led to limited opportunities to rush the passer overall, but also has resulted in limited obvious passing situations, where Jones was able to just get off the ball, with the other team trying to catch up. The Cardinals are bound to improve from a bottom-ten rush defense with added beef up front and a freakish rookie on the second level (Isaiah Simmons), which should already give their top pass-rusher more opportunities in general, but with the offense ready to take another step with Kyler Murray coming into year two and upgrading their receiving corp, this team should have the lead more often and make those sacks or strips or games scream louder than they have been before. I believe Jones will once again be in the race for the Deacon Jones award (most sacks in a season) and get more love with the added attention for Arizona.
Just missed: Fred Warner & T.J. Watt
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
2. Jonathan Taylor
3. Joe Burrow
Last year I thought the voters made a mistake by voting Kyler Murray OROY, even with how fun he was to watch, because of the body of work Josh Jacobs put together. So I was a little hesitant to put two more running backs up here, with Dak Prescott taking home the trophy over his teammate Ezekiel Elliott, but historically speaking, RBs tend to be favorites.
And for a long time I had Clyde Edwards-Helaire only second in this discussion, but now that Damien Williams has opted out of the 2020 season, I just can’t get away from the first-round pick out of LSU. The Chiefs could addressed a rather thin secondary or even traded up a few spots to grab one of those top-tier linebackers in the draft, but instead they sat there at 32 and invested more into that explosive offense with a guy they have compared favorably to Brian Westbrook. CEH was a bowling ball in college, who constantly ran through defenders and picked up crucial first downs, by willing himself across that line, no matter who was in his way. He is great at running duo, showing patience to allow things to get set up and having the short-area quickness to avoid charging defenders. As I mentioned before, I expect him to give Kansas City a physical presence to complement that high-flying passing attack. However, what makes the difference between my number two choice and this young man is what he can do in the pass game. Clyde was used a lot as a coverage indicator off motions and not only ran downfield routes of the backfield but also lined up out wide quite a bit and ultimately caught 55 passes for 453 yards. Even just on those little check-downs, he was a load to bring down for defenders and to have that as a fall-back plan if none of those speedster is open downfield, is scary.
With that being said, I feel pretty good about my second option here as well. When the Colts selected Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the draft, I immediately put it on my Instagram story and said “JT behind that Colts O-line. I’m calling for Offensive Rookie of the Year right now”. I also talked about him recently, when I broke down some of the favorite targets in fantasy drafts, since I think his ceiling is enormous. With almost 6200 rushing yards and 50 TDs in three years at Wisconsin, no other rookie has a resume as impressive as Taylor, and even though I think Marlon Mack is a really solid starter, he doesn’t have that brute strength or home-run ability of this kid. While I don’t see staying on the field on third downs a whole lot and the big concern here are fumbles, which could be difference between taking home this award and splitting touches with Mack, I just think with his ability behind what I think is the best offensive line in football, I can’t overlook the potential. Now that they brought in Michael Pittman Jr. with that other second-round pick as that big-bodied X receiver, Parris Campbell showing flashes in practice after being banged up for most of his rookie year and T.Y. Hilton hopefully back healthy, they could be a much more productive group overall.
And since the voters do prefer quarterbacks a lot of times, I had to put the first overall pick up there. Joe Burrow had an all-time great season his senior year at LSU, completing 76.3 percent of his passes for almost 5700 yards and 60 touchdowns. The Bengals let Andy Dalton walk this offseason, leaving no doubt that the rookie quarterback will take over the reigns right away. And while the O-line still needs some work to be done, their collection of skill position players is really impressive actually, if A.J. Green is back to 100 percent. Tyler Boyd is still there as a dependable big slot, Auden Tate showed some signs last season, John Ross should at least give them a field-stretcher hopefully and Tee Higgins is awesome at the point of the catch, which meshes really well with Burrow’s precise ball-placement. Combine that with maybe the most underrated two-way back in the game named Joe Mixon and a duo of tight-ends Cincy likes quite a bit and there are all the ingredients for a much more wide open offense. I still have to see how much Zac Taylor caters the offense to what Burrow did at LSU, but especially with a shortened offseason program, I expect that to happen largely.
Just missed: Jalen Reagor & Jerry Jeudy
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Chase Young
2. Patrick Queen
3. Antoine Winfield Jr.
No surprise at the top here. I once had a different name up there at one point, but how can you go against a guy, who was my highest-graded defensive prospect since Von Miller? Chase Young was playing out of his mind in 2019, when he broke Ohio State’s all-time sack record (16.5), recorded 21 TFLs and seven forced fumbles in 12 games. While he doesn’t quite have the technical advancement at this stage of his football career as the Bosa brothers, he has picked up a lot of their famous hand-swipes, but at the same time he has better speed and bend around the corner than those guys. Even though he isn’t in the most pass-happy division in the NFL necessarily, I just love what Washington has put together around him in years prior. Having the two Bama boys in Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne inside, to go with Montez Sweat potentially breaking out in year two and being able to learn from a highly productive veteran in Ryan Kerrigan should Young to work a lot of one-on-one matchups and be put in some great situations. With Ron Rivera coming in and bringing Jack Del Rio with him, this defense will rely heavily on the front-four getting home and playing coverage behind it, which should lead to most of the sacks being split between the D-line only.
The second candidate was another top-20 prospect for me, but for Patrick Queen it might be even more about the situation he finds himself in. The Baltimore Ravens obviously have a rich history of inside linebackers and a big reason those guys have had the success they have shown, has been a lot about the bodies up front. While did they lose Michael Pierce in free agency, this allows Brandon Williams to move back to his natural fit at the nose and with Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe being rocks against the run as well, that should allow Queen to stay clean and shoot through gaps for those TFLs or chase guys down to the edge if they are forced to bounce outside. In the pass game, the former LSU backer is still learning the intricacies of coverage play, but he has tremendous range to limit yards after the catch, already does a pretty good job reading the eyes of the quarterback and the fluid hips to turn and run with RBs & TEs. What might have put Queen over some of these other candidates is the scheme Baltimore runs, with a lot of heavy pressure looks on third downs, where their inside backers line up in the A-gaps, are brought on cross-blitzes or delayed rushes. With over 100 tackles, double-digits for loss, five plus sacks and a couple of picks maybe, he should get some recognition.
I originally had another safety up here, but with the uncertainty about Grant Delpit’s injury for the Browns, I chose one of my favorite guys I watched for the draft – Antoine Winfield Jr. He may be undersized and there are guys who have a little more of that top-end speed, but boy, this kid can play. Winfield missed almost two full seasons with Minnesota, but when he was out on the field, he was a true play-maker for the Gophers. He was down in the box, not showing any hesitation to crash into bigger bodies in run defense, he manned up against tight-ends, blitzed from the slot, covered deep half and middle. I expect him to be that same versatile piece in the secondary for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, similar to what he had in Arizona with the Honeybadger. With monsters in the middle to stop the run on early downs, guys who can crash off the edge against the pass, two super-rangy linebackers and a young secondary that is starting to come together, Winfield’s smarts and ball-hawking skills will allow him to make some big plays. I expect this to be a top-ten defense in the NFL and this rookie safety could be a guy whose name we hear called repeatedly.
Just missed: Isaiah Simmons & Zack Baun
Comeback Player of the Year:
1. Ben Roethlisberger
2. Matthew Stafford
3. Rob Gronkowski
This award is always a bit of a question mark, in terms of what qualifies as a “comeback season”. We have seen players returning from major injury take home the honors, some just returning to glory after being stuck in the mud for a few years and at times even be out of the year for a season.
After suffering a seemingly harmless elbow injury early on in week two of last season, Ben Roethlisberger had to have surgery on it and was out for the entire year because of it. While it feels like an entirety by now, in 2018 Big Ben led the league with over 5100 yards, finished fifth with 34 passing TDs and was the biggest reason their offense finished top-six in both yards and points gained. The biggest difference between that group and what they have now is the departure of Antonio Brown, who at that point was still one the truly elite receivers in football. Last season Juju Smith-Schuster was fighting through some nicks and bruises and a lot of that had to do with who threw him the ball for the final 14+ games, but he still has to prove he is that clear-cut number one option. With that being said, I like the different weapons at Ben’s disposal and how those can alleviate pressure from Juju. I already predicted Diontae Johnson to have a breakout season, James Washington showed some signs in 2019, Eric Ebron can be that move TE to create mismatches and second-round pick Chase Claypool has enormous potential, if you don’t ask him to do too much right away. I still think they have a top ten O-line and a nice mix of backs, while the defense might be the best from top to bottom, to give the ball back to the offense.
I had a line for Matt Stafford a few backs, which still makes me chuckle a little, when I said Stafford finally broke the back that he had carried the Lions franchise on for years now. For most of his career, Detroit did not have any running attack to speak of (only one 1000-yard rusher in 11 seasons – Reggie Bush in 2013), the offensive line has been a question mark on several occasions and he only had one year, where the defense actually played at a really high level (didn’t finished above 13th in points scored outside of that). I feel as good about the surrounding pieces on offense for Stafford as I have ever done, with a nice trio of receivers, investments into the O-line and a dynamic duo of backs to take some pressure off the QB, with a focus on the ground game. Last season in his second year in Darrell Bevell’s system, Stafford had the looks of an MVP candidate over the first half of the season and he might be even more comfortable in it for 2020. While I’m not a huge believer in Matt Patricia, he should finally have all the pieces to run that New England defense and not put that attack in catch-up mode as much. To my surprise, Stafford had played all 16 games for eight straight years before 2019, but he has been fighting through injuries routinely. Now back to 100 percent, finally just as a part of the team and not the savior, I like him to light up defenses.
My third choice is the only player of this group that was out of the league last season. Rob Gronkowski seems to be back to his 2018 form and maybe that year off was the perfect thing for him, after he looked pretty broken down, as that year went along (even if he still made big plays for his team obviously). When we think back to his last season with New England, he was really the only dependable target outside of Julian Edelman. This offseason he joined what last season was the number one passing offense, with the premiere duo of receivers in the game, with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which made improvements on the offensive line and added his old friend Tom Brady. If his body is back to full strength and opposing defenses need to keep two safeties high, leaving the seams open for the Gronkster or have him one-on-one against a linebacker, watch out! My only real concern for the new Bucs tight-end, is the fact they have three legitimate options at the tight-end position to take away snaps, but I think we will see heavy 12 personnel from Bruce Arians’ troops. I picked Gronk over a couple of other guys I believe could be more productive, because I think the narrative will lead to a lot of votes.
Just missed: A.J. Green & Bradley Chubb
Coach of the Year:
1. Sean Payton
2. John Harbaugh
3. Sean McDermott
For this final award, I went with the two head coaches that I believe will call the shots for the number one-seeded teams in either conference and another still rising coach, who has taken a team that had been out of the playoffs for more than 20 years to a couple of a appearances already, in position to take another step forward.
It has been 14 years since Sean Payton last was named Coach of the Year, with some great regular season teams since then, but I think this could be his best one since winning the Super Bowl a decade ago. With a master of his craft like Payton, you know he will always find a way to keep his team motivated and he will once again call one of the top offenses in the NFL. It’s Drew Brees final run at another championship, they have elite offensive line and skill position play, the defense has a great mix of productive veterans and young guys and as I have discussed before – the Saints will be in cap hell after the season. Another interesting dynamic here, is that Payton already had COVID-19 and understands the measurements necessary to prevent it from spreading. So I’m interested to see if that can give him any advantage over other coaches. As far as this award goes, I ultimately went with Payton over the head-man of the AFC’s number on seed because of what kind of gauntlet the NFC will once again be and them emerging from it will be highly impressive.
However, I could absolutely see John Harbaugh as a repeat-candidate to earn recognition, since I project the Ravens to earn the AFC’s top seed once again at 13-3. It might be a tougher task, with the Steelers getting Big Ben back, the Browns bound to improve simply because of how talented that roster is and the Bengals not looking like they will first overall again in the 2021 draft. With that being said, I think Baltimore has an even better all-around team than what they had when they had an NFL-best record of 14-2 and there should be no missing motivation after an ugly exit in the Divisional Round at home against the Titans. For Harbaugh in particular, his willingness to embrace analytics in terms of in-game decisions and how he puts equal focus on all three phases of the game, as a former special teams coordinator, with excellent teachers in place of the three coordinators positions, this should be a very well-rounded team. With revenge wins over Kansas City and Tennessee on the slate, they won’t leave anything desired on the table and you can check out my playoff predictions, to see if I think they can carry that momentum into January.
What head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have done over their three plus years together in Buffalo has been truly outstanding. They have changed around the culture and brought in players that fit their system to a tee. I still have the Bills on an upward trajectory and at 11-5, with the AFC’s number three seed earned, I hope McDermott gets the recognition he deserves. With improvement from quarterback Josh Allen now that he has that true number one guy in Stefon Diggs, who will open up the offense with his ability to stretch the field, potentially a strong one-two punch of backs and a defense that seems to be in the right position every single week, because of the game-specific coaching, this is a team that you just don’t want to face. This is their time to shine and since I project them to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995(!), I believe the voters will show their head coach some love, as they finally get to host a home playoff game in blistering January cold once again. Too bad that wild crowd will probably not be allowed to be there when they at least see their team run out onto that field to kick off the new year.
Just missed: Frank Reich & Mike McCarthy
Now let’s get to how the final standings and what the playoff picture will look like at the end of the 2020 NFL season. Once again, I predicted all 256 games, with consideration of travel, time of preparation and other advantages one team may have over their opponent. First, I will present the seven teams from each conference and then work my way through the different rounds of the playoffs, all the way up to Super Bowl LV. It still feels weird to put seven teams up there in each conference by the way.
I have added the full excel, where I go game-by-game, if you are interested about how I got to this point and maybe see where your team ended up, if they are not part of this list.
The NFC will be a gauntlet once again in 2020, with one more playoff spot up for grabs, which should he hotly contested. According to my predictions, there will be five double-digit win teams, with one division failing to send a team that has accomplished that feat. This should be a battle for the 7th seed, with three teams right there in the hunt, just one win away getting into the tournament. I seem to always have the highest-seeded teams with a relatively low win total, since I might be too much of a believer in competitive football, but this year in particular, with no big home field advantages and how loaded the NFC is, I have no team winning more than twelve games.
Just missed the cut: Seattle Seahawks (9-7), Detroit Lions (8-8), Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
While I project them to “only” win twelve games, I think that will be enough for the Saints to emerge as the number one seed in the NFC and they might be one of the best teams we have seen recently to not just steamroll the opponents in their conference. With Drew Brees having his final shot at a Lombardi trophy, Emmanuel Sanders as a dependable number two being added, more veterans on defense being added and the depth they have throughout their roster, to go with an excellent coaching staff, they are as complete as it gets. The circumstances of this season bring advantages and disadvantages for New Orleans, as their continuity and experience will be a huge plus, while not having fans roaring in the Dome hurts, even though hearing Drew yell out signals might almost be intimidating for opponents.
Right behind them I have the 49ers, who win the same amount of games, but due to losing the direct matchup in New Orleans – a rematch of last year’s high-scoring thriller – have to play on Wildcard Weekend under the new playoff format. Similar to the Saints, San Francisco has an outstanding all-around team, when it comes to the roster they have constructed and retaining pretty much the entire coaching staff. This offseason, they have done a great job re-tooling for the few losses they did have and might have actually improved in some areas, after a dominant playoff run up to the Super Bowl. The two areas of concerns for me are the receiving corp due to health questions and that second corner spot being up for grabs. However, I don’t see a Super Bowl hangover being an issue.
It will be a tough race for the NFC East crown in my opinion, with two excellent teams that easily have the talent to challenge for the conference’s top seed, but in the end I see the Cowboys getting the better end of the deal this year. The offense is absolutely loaded, with as much skill-position talent as any team in the league, at least being around top five in terms of the O-line and Dak Prescott being able to just take advantage of what he has around him. We still have to see what exactly the secondary will look like, with more press on the outside and aggressive play-calling overall under new DC Mike Nolan, but they could have a very deep rotation up front and two heat-seeking missiles on the second level. If Mike McCarthy can get this team to show up in the big matchups and play up to their potential, this team will be scary.
The one division in this conference to not have a team win double-digit games is the North. I don’t think they have a single “bad” team, with the range being between seven and nine wins, and I actually think this is the only group, where I could see any of the four win it potentially. For the Packers, dropping all the way down here from 13-3 last season has more to do with them being due for regression in terms of their success rate in one-score games (8-1 in 2019) than them as a group. While I don’t love what they have added this offseason and the old saying “If you don’t get better, you get worse” does hold true to some point, they also didn’t lose too many pieces. What gives them the edge here is having the best quarterback and pass-rush inside the division.
One of this year’s big offseason hype teams is the Buccaneers, but unlike a lot of other squads we have seen getting love for making those huge additions, I think they already had the base of a really good squad. They have the league’s best receiver duo, a three-head monster at tight-end, some talented backs, an above-average O-line and now you just replace the guy who led the league in turnovers by a wide margin with maybe the greatest QB of all time, who I believe still has some stuff left in the tank. What makes me a believer however might be even more so the defense. They already finished last season as the top-ranked run D, they have a premiere edge rush duo, two super-rangy linebackers and a young, up-and-coming secondary. While we still have to see how quickly the offense has picked things up, I have the Bucs one in-division win away from the conference’s top seed.
While they do come up just short of winning the division in my predictions, I still have the Eagles winning double-digit games and being a tough draw. They have what I believe is a quarterback just outside the top five league-wide, an emerging star second-year back, so much more speed added at the wide receiver position – which was probably their biggest issue last season – and despite their injuries still a solid offensive line at least. They did lose some veterans on defense this offseason and the second level doesn’t instill a lot of confidence, but Darius Slay as a number one corner and Javon Hargreave plugging the middle of the line do certainly help. As always, the big question is if they can stay healthy for the most part, but with how much I expect this offense to open up, why would they not win one more game than they did last season with practice squad guys catching passes?
And then the final playoff seed was in direct competition between two teams from the West – Arizona and Seattle. While I have been down on the Seahawks at times before and Russell Wilson routinely finds a way to amaze me again with how he carries them to a winning record, I actually went into this thinking the Hawks would be part of the picture after the Jamal Adams trade, but just going week-by-week, I have them at 9-7 and Arizona would have the better record against the division and conference. Seattle might be the better team, but Arizona gets to play Detroit and Carolina instead of Atlanta and Minnesota. With Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray coming into year two of their partnership, an elite wideout in DeAndre Hopkins being added and the defense being re-structured this offseason, with no major contributors being lost, they are bound to make a jump.
For the AFC, I think there are two clear front-runners, as I have stated in my pre-season power rankings two weeks ago. I actually think the other two divisions will also have double-digit winschamps and there is one more very dangerous team with that first Wildcard spot. After those top five basically, there are three teams tied at 9-7, where things can get very complicated with certain tie-breakers, plus another 8-8 squad that is one more in-conference win away from earning the 6th or 7th seed.
Just missed the cut: Tennessee Titans (9-7), Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)
On the AFC side of the things, I think there is one team that really stands out as a favorite to put up the league’s top record once again. Yes, they did lose a Hall of Fame guard in Marshal Yanda, the division should be much better as a whole and it will be tough for Lamar Jackson to recreate that historically great season, but in terms of their franchise as a whole, I just don’t have any major questions with the Ravens. The roster to me is even better and deeper than it was a year ago, they have so much continuity with their coaching staff, I think the additions they did make this offseason just fit perfectly and going through their schedule, the two teams they lost to outside their division last season will have to come to Baltimore, even if home-field advantage won’t be such a huge deal without fans.
And the biggest challenger for Baltimore is the reigning Super Bowl champs. Kansas City is bringing back 19 of 22 starters on offense and defense combined, they didn’t lose offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, all their stars are happy with their new contracts and they have the best player in the league, who I already predicted to win MVP. They do have a pretty thin secondary and they have to travel to what I believe are the four best teams on their schedule (Baltimore, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New Orleans), but outside of the Ravens, I think they are a notch above all the other AFC contenders. The decisive factor between the top two seeds in the end was their direct matchup in week three, which I already called the best of all 256 games on the schedule.
If you asked me for that one team I like best outside of the two conference favorites, I would go with Buffalo. They already went 10-6 last season, coming off a 6-10 season with question marks about the quarterback plus the weapons around him and no major stars necessarily on either side of the ball. While Josh Allen is still a controversial name due to his up-and-down nature of play to some degree, he showed me a lot of positive signs last season, Stefon Diggs as his number one receiver, who opens up the offense and pushes everybody else on the depth chart down one spot, a two-headed backfield I like a lot and an average O-line at least sounds much better. And then the defense already finished second in the NFL in points allowed, before adding depth to the line. To me they are the clear favorites to win the East.
One more team that I’m buying coming into this season is the Colts. And when it comes to their outlook for 2020, I first have to go back to 2019. Until starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett got hurt late in the first half of their week nine game against the Steelers, Indy had a 5-2 record, with the number two seed in the AFC and wins over three playoff teams in the Titans, Chiefs and Texans. They only won two more games from that point on, with their backup QB and a banged-up Brissett. Now moving forward to this offseason, when they bring in a veteran signal-caller with something to prove in Philip Rivers, trade for a top 50 player in the league in DeForest Buckner to boost the defense, add two stud second-round picks and bring back pretty much everybody notable. They could have easily been a playoff team last season and I think they are better this year.
Another group I expect to rebound in 2020 is the Steelers. We only saw what they look like at full force for a short period of time last season, with Ben Roethlisberger being knocked out for the year early on in week two. However, we got to see what they look like with the worst quarterback play in the league – they still finished 8-8. I have shared my thoughts on the two guys who filled in for Big Ben last season before, but what it comes down to is the offense should go from incapable to move the ball for whole games to potentially being a top ten unit, with Juju rebounding and all those young weapons emerging, while the defense was already elite last season, with a league-leading 54 sacks and 38 takeaways, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be as good again, with muss less pressure on them to win them games.
It’s funny how we see a couple of young teams every year, with a quarterback coming into his second season and having added more weapons around him, that we expect to make that jump the next season. For the NFC, my team is the Cardinals and for the AFC it’s the Broncos. The sample size for Drew Lock is very small, but he did go 4-1 over the final five games of 2019, and showed a lot of promise. With Courtland Sutton emerging as a superstar, Noah Fant looking to take a step forward, two tremendous rookie receivers, a great one-two punch out of the backfield and an improved interior O-line, he should have pretty everything he needs to succeed. Defensively, they get Bradley Chubb back, added Jurrell Casey for peanuts and bring back everybody else from what was a top-ten scoring unit last season. I’m just a little worried about that duo of offensive tackles going up against the pass-rushers in that division.
And finally, I’m back on the Browns hype train. At 9-7 I wouldn’t say they will take the league by storm, but there are several tangible factors that make me believe they can be a much more consistent organization. I think Kevin Stefanski’s offense is a much better fit for their personnel and quarterback in particular, as we saw over a small stretch with Baker as a rookie, when Freddie Kitchens used a lot more 12 personnel and built things around the run game, before last season they went to a lot more spread sets. With tight-end Austin Hooper and fullback Andy Janovich as the first signings this offseason, I expect much more of that. They also get back my choice for Defensive Player of the Year in Myles Garrett to lead a young, hungry group and I just think getting humbled last season will do them good, without being hyped up over the offseason. Cleveland grabs the final Wildcard spot over Tennessee due to a better conference record.
In the first matchup of the NFC’s Wildcard Round, we have a Wildcard team in the Bucs travelling to Green Bay to take on a Packers team that won two less games than them over the regular season. This is actually a rematch of their week six meeting, when the Bucs get to host the Pack and win that crucial game. The battle between two all-time greats in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will be a fascinating one, but in the end I believe Tampa has better play-makers and a more complete, versatile defense, that won’t allow Green Bay to keep up.
This is the first of two divisional matchups of this first round of the playoff – both on the NFC side of the bracket. I already discussed how the Cowboys secure the NFC East crown, with a big week 16 win at home against the Birds and just two weeks later, Philly gets a chance for revenge. This time I believe the Eagles will come out on the winning end. Of course this is assuming health for Carson Wentz and some other key players, but as much as the Wentz’s injury problems are being discussed, we haven’t seen him shrink in the playoffs, while several of their veterans from their Super Bowl run three years ago are still there and Dallas hasn’t really shown up in the postseason or many other big-time matchups for that matter.
And then the second division rivalry that gets renewed in the Wildcard Round comes from the NFC West. I have San Francisco and Arizona splitting the season series (home and home), with the latter coming up with a huge W in week 16, that lifts them above the third team in that division – Seattle – and keeps the 49ers from a chance to earn the conference’s number one seed. In this third matchup, Kyle Shanahan’s well-designed run game is too much to handle for the Cardinals and Nick Bosa & company find a way to overwhelm a below-average offensive line. We have seen this team kick it up a notch in January.
This first matchup on the AFC side of things is actually another rematch from week 16, when the Colts travel to Heinz Field and lose in the swirling Pennsylvania wind. While I really like the Colts as a team with a clear identity, this is a tough draw for them, since their biggest strength – the offensive line and the run game – is somewhat neutralized by Pittsburgh’s nasty front-seven. Maybe Diontae Johnson comes up with a deep bomb to open things up early and then Big Ben finds ways to pick apart this rather simplistic Indy defense.
While it is week 15, we get to see the first version of this matchup late in the season as well – beautiful how all of this comes together. The Bills have to travel to Denver in the high altitude and lose a hard-fought battle. This time the Broncos have to travel to Buffalo and even though it sucks they don’t get to have “Bills Mafia” in the stands for the first time in forever, this group is still tough to beat at home. With the deep D-line rotation Buffalo has against two question-mark tackles and Sean McDermott’s well-coordinated zone coverages forcing Drew Lock onto hold the ball, to go with an up-tempo offense from Brian Daboll that attacks matchups, I like the Bills here.
And then the last game for Wildcard Weekend is the reigning Super Bowl champs hosting an up-and-coming Browns team. While I like the formula Cleveland will try to use, similar to what the Titans had success with in the first half of the AFC Championship game, I can’t go against Mahomes & company here. Just too many weapons out there against what is still a young secondary and I think the Honeybadger will find a way to trick Baker Mayfield once in this game, to help the Chiefs create some separation. I can’t wait to see the footage of when these two QBs battled it out in a shootout in college though.
In the conference semi-finals we get a treat with Tom Brady facing the guy Bill Belichick wanted to replace him with in New England and now this offseason there were reports about how the 49ers thinking about doing the exact opposite with Jimmy Garoppolo. As much as I like Kyle Shanahan and this Niners defense, I think the Bucs are on a roll at this point and advance to the Final Four. If San Francisco’s D-line can get to Brady at a high rate and they can get to the edge in the run game themselves, I like their chances, but the Bucs will be tough to run on and nothing the Niners do in coverage will confuse the GOAT.
And then I think the number-one seeded Saints don’t have too much trouble with the Eagles. Carson Wentz makes some big plays to keep them in the game for the first half, but New Orleans is basically better at every other position on the field. The Eagles will actually experience what it feels like to lose the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball – which they have done to the opposition in a lot of their big games of the past – and there are some matchups the Saints can take advantage of, like Alvin Kamara against this inexperienced linebacker corp for Philly.
Back over on the other side of the bracket, the reigning champs face a tough task on their road to another Super Bowl, as the Bills come to town, who I have them losing to in a big spot on Sunday Night Football in week six. This won’t be an easy one, as Buffalo has the ability to force Mahomes & company to methodicallx work their way down the field and they can punish over-aggressiveness, while the Chiefs don’t have anybody on defense to match up with Stefon Diggs. However, in the end KC will try to make this a shootout and I bank on Josh Allen making at least one bad decision.
We do get a divisional matchup from the AFC in the second round of the playoffs and it’s a dandy. Baltimore-Pittsburgh to me is the best rivalry in all the NFL and to have them go up against each other in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 makes things even more intense. The Ravens do get to host this game as the AFC’s top seed, but I think we will have seen two close brawls over the course of the regular season, with each team winning at home. Ultimately the difference in this one for me will Baltimore’s ability to make Pittsburgh one-dimensional and the Ravens secondary being too tough to crack for this young group of pass-catchers.
In our two conference title games I have the two number one seeds finding a way to prevail.
The Saints and Buccaneers start the season against each other week one and in my projections, they also decide who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl. While I do have concerns about Drew Brees’ arm falling off towards the end of the year and this being a tough matchup for New Orleans’ ground game, I also believe the Saints are a little bit better as a whole. The Bucs will find ways to make plays on offense, but Sean Payton will also create favorable matchups for his receivers against a young secondary and I have more confidence in NOLA’s offensive line keeping Drew clean than the Bucs taking Cam Jordan and all those guys off Tom.
I have already talked about the Ravens ending up with the AFC’s top seed thanks to their week three victory at home over the Chiefs, but now three months later I still Baltimore coming through at home. Lamar is 0-2 against Mahomes, but both those matchups were in Kansas City and at those points I would have said the Chiefs were better. Baltimore’s secondary is as good as its ever been to blanket those KC speedsters and their rushing attack will once again be nightmare to slow down. We have seen that the teams who want to beat the Chiefs have to play keep-away with Mahomes and the Ravens can do that, while making a few stops by changing things up post-snap defensively.
Super Bowl LV:
We have arrived at the big game. It’s Drew Brees trying to win that second Lombardi and riding off into the sunset against Lamar Jackson trying to become the next young phenom to go from winning MVP to securing a Super Bowl. When these offensive and defensive lines go up against each other for both these teams, it might actually create a black hole. That matchup between Sean Payton and Ravens DC Wink Martindale would be so fascinating, as both are known for their aggressive and creative play-calling keeping the opposition off balance. We get Michael Thomas versus Marcus Peters part II, Mark Ingram going up against him former team, other long-term veterans striving for their first championship trophy and maybe even a trick play on special teams with John Harbaugh pulling the strings.
The difference here to me will ultimately be Lamar’s ability to improvise and create a couple of big plays to swing momentum in the Ravens’ favor, but this should be such a tightly contested, physical game that I would just love to see.
Ravens 26 – Saints 23