Tuesday, September 8, 2020

2020 NFL Preview

By Anthony Brancato

Predicted records in parentheses.

AFC East

Buffalo (11-5) — Went 3-32 against Tom Brady, but now of course they don't have to worry about him anymore, and that makes them the favorites to win the division.

New England (10-6) — Shouldn't go into free fall with Cam Newton at quarterback, so long as the offensive line keeps him upright — which it should, with all five 2019 starters returning.

N.Y. Jets (8-8) — "Traded" Robby Anderson for Breshad Perriman in free agency, then drafted Denzel Mims. Solid shot to evade fifth consecutive losing season if Sam Darnold continues to move forward.

Miami (6-10) — If you can't tie good knots, tie plenty of them, which is what they're doing. Brian Flores playing it coy on when we will see Tua Tagovailoa in there.

AFC North

Baltimore (12-4) — No question about whether they can get it done in the regular season. But in the playoffs? Lamar Jackson is 0-2 therein, both losses at home, completing 51.1% of his passes with a 68.3 passer rating.

Pittsburgh (9-7) — Could be the team that benefits from the expanded playoff field with Big Ben chiming once again.

Cleveland (7-9) — If they're lucky, they won't have what will be their 13th straight losing season. But they won't be.

Cincinnati (4-12) — Zac Taylor is every bit as over his head as David Shula was. Poor Joe Burrow.

AFC South

Indianapolis (10-6) — Not sure how many productive years Philip Rivers has left. But he figures to have at least one or two, and his supporting cast, if they stay healthy, is solid.

Tennessee (9-7) — Going for five 9-7 seasons in a row. Don't bet against them getting it.

Houston (8-8) — Remember the old joke about the man who gave his secretary a mink coat to keep her warm, then gave his wife one to keep her cool? After trading DeAndre Hopkins away for what everyone agrees was a lot less than he was worth, they made it rain big time for Deshaun Watson. Bill O'Brien is one of two head coaches in this division who are on the hot seat.

Jacksonville (2-14) — The hot seat that Doug Marrone is on is much hotter than O'Brien's, especially after releasing Leonard Fournette. Marrone won't be around to make the number one pick in the 2021 draft that this team is quite likely to get.

AFC West

Kansas City (13-3) — The heaviest favorite to win any division. But can Andy Reid actually win back-to-back Super Bowls after gagging on it so many times, or did the light bulb go on last year and will now stay on?

Las Vegas (8-8) — Brought their speed fetish to the desert with them, drafting Henry Ruggs III, a 4.27 guy, with the 12th overall pick. And what's this we hear about Marcus Mariota having such an awesome camp that he might leap-frog the disappointing Derek Carr for the starting job?

L.A. Chargers (7-9) — The sooner Justin Herbert starts, the higher they'll finish. But he will not answer the bell for them, so look for defenses to shove eight in the box to stop Austin Ekeler and make Tyrod Taylor beat them until Herbert is inserted.

Denver (6-10) — Drew Lock lit it up in garbage time last December, but let's see what he does opening the season as the starter. Defense posted respectable numbers a year ago but lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to division rival Chargers in free agency, and they signed Melvin Gordon to form a Mutt-and-Jeff running back combo with Phillip Lindsay. Still, more questions than answers.

NFC East

Dallas (13-3) — Dak Prescott finished second to Jameis Winston in the passing yards race last season but threw 11 interceptions to Winston's 30. Prescott is one of the "New Triplets" along with Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper — a trio no other team can match. And the defense is more than good enough (ninth in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed in 2019) to punch their ticket to Raymond James Stadium on February 7, the latest possible date for the Super Bowl (at least for now).

Washington (8-8) — The massive improvement Ron Rivera represents over Jay Gruden more than cancels out the controversy over the team name and the sex abuse scandal that swirls around the front office. Rivera is confident enough to start Dwayne Haskins, Jr. at quarterback, and has enough confidence that Antonio Gibson can become a bigger, stronger version of Christian McCaffrey that Adrian Peterson was released. Look for both of Rivera's gambles to be winning ones — as has been the case for him most of the time.

Philadelphia (7-9) — Have already lost two starting offensive linemen with season-ending injuries, and top draftee, wide receiver Jalen Reagor, could be out for as much as the first half of the season. And they will enter the season with four running backs whose average size is 5'9" and 207 pounds — the smallest such unit in the NFL.

N.Y. Giants (2-14) — If it is possible, Joe Judge is in over his head even more than Zac Taylor is. And Judge has been making statements during training camp that cannot help but damage team morale. Will battle Jacksonville for top draft pick in 2021.

NFC North

Minnesota (11-5) — Directing that game-winning drive in overtime against the Saints in the playoffs had to work wonders for Kirk Cousins' heretofore fragile psyche, even if Drew Brees never had a chance to get the ball in the OT. If the Packers don't sweep them head-to-head as happened last year, they should win the division.

Green Bay (10-6) — Were they really good last year, or really lucky? Their entire defense missed only four man-games due to injuries. That's not likely to happen again.

Detroit (5-11) — Must want to break The Curse of Barry Sanders (they have ranked in the bottom half of the league in rushing offense every single year since Sanders retired, on how shall we say, less than amicable terms, following the 1998 season) real bad, explaining why they signed Adrian Peterson. But how long will Matthew Statford — oops, I mean Stafford — hold up before he gets injured?

Chicago (4-12) — Matt Nagy has just put himself on the hottest of hot seats by senselessly going with Mitchell Trubisky over Nick Foles at quarterback. No Philly Specials in Chicago this year.

NFC South

Tampa Bay (12-4) — Still wasn't going to pick them until Leonard Fournette fell into their laps. They will come oh, so close to getting to play in the Super Bowl in their building, where this year's Super Bowl will be played.

New Orleans (11-5) — Had their chances the last three years, and couldn't cash in. But now there is a better team in their own division.

Carolina (7-9) — Like the way Matt Rhule is handling things: using all seven of his 2020 draft picks on defense took guts. And don't worry about Teddy Bridgewater: he's 22-13 as a starter.

Atlanta (5-11) — Had they not won those four meaningless games at the end of last season, they would be playing the Giants and the Rams instead of the Cowboys and the Seahawks (come to think of it, they did the same thing in 2018, winning their last three, which gave them a tougher schedule last year). Dan Quinn will be joining O'Brien, Marrone, and Nagy on the unemployment line.

NFC West

Seattle (10-6) — Lost three of their last four to blow the division title in 2019, but second-half schedule is pretty soft this time around except for ending the year at San Francisco. Deep and talented in nearly all areas — and two of their three division rivals are "jinxed" (see below).

San Francisco (9-7) — They will be haunted by the Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx (only three of the last 26 Super Bowl losers have made it past the Elite Eight the following year), and maybe more than most considering how they gave up 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose.

Arizona (7-9) — Literally stole DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans, and Kyler Murray was the first Cardinal to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors since Anquan Boldin in 2003. Maybe Kliff Kingsbury isn't such a duffer after all.

L.A. Rams (5-11) — Since they had the best record among the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs last season, the "20th Overall Pick Jinx" (even though they actually traded it to Jacksonville as part of the Jalen Ramsey deal) applies to them: Of the nine teams that have had this pick since the NFL changed to its current draft format, which has always given the 12 playoff teams the last 12 picks (from now on it will be 14), eight of these teams missed the playoffs again, including four that finished last in their division, with their average record dropping by three games. Worse yet, the Rams have not had a first-round draft pick for the last four years in a row — and won't have one next year, either.

PLAYOFFS (Home teams in CAPS)

AFC Wild Card — Pittsburgh over BALTIMORE; BUFFALO over Tennessee; New England over INDIANAPOLIS

NFC Wild Card — TAMPA BAY over San Francisco; Green Bay over MINNESOTA; SEATTLE over New Orleans

AFC Divisional — KANSAS CITY over Pittsburgh; New England over BUFFALO

NFC Divisional — DALLAS over Green Bay; TAMPA BAY over Seattle

AFC Championship — KANSAS CITY over New England

NFC Championship — DALLAS over Tampa Bay

Super Bowl LV: Dallas over Kansas City

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