The NFL season kicks off on Thursday, September 10th, amid a cloud of uncertainty from the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest round of test results was very encouraging for the NFL, though, and the kickoff of the season will be a welcome development for the American people who have endured a rough 2020. To get you ready for the season, The Common Room answers the five biggest questions of the 2020 season, makes four bold predictions, and predicts the divisional races, playoff matchups, Super Bowl champion, NFL award winners, and the projected 2021 draft top ten teams.
Five Biggest Questions for the 2020 Season:
- Can anyone stop the Chiefs from repeating as Super Bowl champs?
- The Chiefs are absolutely loaded heading into 2020 and should cruise through the AFC West with a projected 15-1 record. Patrick Mahomes will contend for MVP honors again, and like this past two years, he is surrounded by a deep collection of skill position talent, led by wide received Tyreek Hill and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs will go as far as their defense can take them, and though they have some pieces to build around in defensive tackle Chris Jones and safety Tyrann Mathieu, they still project as just an average defense. The Chiefs will be able to coast through the regular season by outscoring teams, but in the playoffs they will struggle to match up against a physical football team who can control the ball through a powerful rushing attack and limit Mahomes’ possessions, much like the Titans did as they jumped out to a big lead on the Chiefs in the AFC Championship last year. In other words, the Chiefs’ road to repeat ends with the Baltimore Ravens.
- Can Brady, Brees, Rivers, Roethlisberger, and Rodgers continue to hold off Father Time?
- One of the biggest storylines of the past five years has been the continued excellence of the oldest quarterbacks in the NFL, as Tom Brady and Drew Brees keep playing at a dominant level in their early 40s, while Phillip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers show few signs of slowing down in their late 30s. Ben Roethislberger will need to prove that he is recovered from a season-ending injury suffered last year, but in his age-36 season in 2018, he led the NFL in passing yards (with arguably the best season in his career). In 2020, four of these five quarterbacks are projected to lead their teams into the playoffs, with only Aaron Rodgers’ Packers missing out. The common denominator among the four playoff quarterbacks is that they are surrounded by strong supporting casts, which should only increase Rodgers’ frustration with the inability of the Packers front office to add high-end skill position talent in either the 2020 NFL Draft or free agency.
- Which teams who missed the playoffs last year can return? And which 2019 playoff participants will fall short in 2020?
- While there’s guaranteed to be at least one new team in the playoffs in each division, as the NFL expanded the playoff field to seven teams from each league this year, both the AFC and NFC project to have multiple new teams in the playoffs – and multiple 2019 participants miss the cut. Under Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers will return to the playoffs with a 12-4 record, and will be joined by the surprising Colts and Raiders, who each go 10-6. Both the Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills take a step back, with the Texans not having enough offensive weapons to help DeShaun Watson and the Bills being undone by up-and-down quarterback play from Josh Allen. In the NFC, the Packers are the only 2019 participant to miss the playoffs in 2020, as their inability to land impact offensive talent in free agency or the draft will continue to wear on Aaron Rodgers and may imperil his Green Bay tenure. The Packers are replaced by the Dallas Cowboys, who despite missing the playoffs in 2019, will return in 2020 with an NFC East title in hand and the overall #1 seed. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will also validate GM Jason Licht’s offseason spending spree, as Tom Brady and company finish second to the Saints in the NFC South.
- Will this be the year the Patriots cede control of the AFC East?
- With the departure of Tom Brady and many core pieces from the defense, the popular opinion is that the Patriots will finally relinquish control of the AFC East, which they have won 11 years in a row. The Buffalo Bills, a playoff team last year, or the Miami Dolphins, with a strong core of young talent, are the most obvious choices to dethrone New England. However, write off Bill Belichick at your peril, as Belichick went out and signed former-MVP Cam Newton, who was just named the starting quarterback. Newton and Belichick will be an interesting match of styles and personality this year, but Newton has already earned high praise for his leadership and work ethic, and both men are motivated to prove doubters wrong. Newton will also give Belichick’s offense something he never had under Brady – a mobile quarterback. Coaching and quarterback play will be the difference in the division, as Belichick and Newton will lead the Patriots to another division title, as both the Bills and Dolphins miss the playoffs due to inconsistent quarterback play. Don’t bet against the best coach in NFL history.
- Will we be able to play a full season?
- This is the million dollar question for the NFL this year, but at this point with the season scheduled to kick off on Thursday, Roger Goodell has to be cautiously optimistic. In the last round of Covid testing before the start of the season, out of the 2,641 players and 5,708 other personnel who were tested between August 30th and September 5th, only one player and one staff member tested positive. However, the ease at which the Covid-19 virus spreads means that optimism could quickly fade, but so far so good. The NBA and NHL have shown that a rigid bubble site can work, while the MLB experience has shown how tenuous a “traveling bubble” can be. The NFL is not instituting a strict bubble, and is instead relying on players to be professional and organizations to adhere to strict standards. The NFL will start, but sadly, it is impossible to say for sure whether the NFL finishes the season. On a lighter note, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused at least one team to think outside the box and hop onto the “remote work” bandwagon, as the Philadelphia Eagles signed Josh McCown to their practice squad – from this home in Texas. McCown will join team meetings and activities remotely in order to be ready for action should Covid-19 result in the quarantine of the Eagles QB room.
Four Bold Predictions for the NFL Season:
- The Las Vegas Raiders are the surprise team of 2020, and in their inaugural season in Las Vegas will finish 10-6 and second in the AFC West, giving the franchise its first playoff berth under Jon Gruden (and since the 2016 season). For this to happen, Derek Carr needs to take another step forward, but the Raiders have young skill position talent and play in a favorable division alongside two rebuilding teams in the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos (who are suddenly without Von Miller for much of the season).
- The Cleveland Browns miss the playoffs, again. I’m not sure that picking something to happen that has happened 17 years in a row counts as bold…but all offseason, we’ve heard that this season, it’s different, and the Browns are focused and are eliminating drama from the locker room. The talent in unquestionable as well, and the Browns could have the best rushing attack in the league between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. However, will the locker room stay together under a first time head coach in Kevin Stefanski when things get tough? Can Baker Mayfield play with more consistency? Ultimately, until the Browns prove us wrong, they are what their history tells us they will be.
- The New Orleans Saints suffer another early playoff defeat, in what could be Drew Brees’ last chance for another Super Bowl. The Saints are projected to overtake the Buccaneers for the NFC South division title in Week 17, but draw the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round rather than getting another chance to take revenge on the Vikings. The 49ers are not a good matchup for the Saints, as their defensive line will harass Brees all day while an aggressive secondary led by corner Richard Sherman takes away the quick, easy throws that are the bread and butter of the Saints offense.
- Phillip Rivers receives MVP votes as the Colts sneak into the playoffs. The AFC South has sent two teams to the playoffs each of the last three years, and this year the Colts will take advantage of the addition of the new seventh playoff spot. Frank Reich is a master of making quarterbacks comfortable in an offense, and the Colts will lean on the AFC’s best offensive line and a dynamic running back tandem of Marlon Mack and rookie Jonathan Taylor to protect Rivers. He will be able to exploit single coverage to find speedster receivers T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell, as the Colts become one of the best stories of the 2020 season.
Division, Playoff, and Super Bowl Predictions
Note – * denotes a playoff team
- *Baltimore Ravens – 14-2
- *Pittsburgh Steelers – 12-4
- Cleveland Browns – 6-10
- Cincinnati Bengals – 2-14
The Ravens and Steelers dominate the AFC North, while the Browns are the NFL’s most disappointing team, leaving the team with a big decision on whether to pick up Baker Mayfield’s 5th year option. The Bengals show glimpses of hope, but are still 2-3 years away from competing.
- *Tennessee Titans – 11-5
- *Indianapolis Colts – 10-6
- Houston Texans – 9-7
- Jacksonville Jaguars – 1-15
The AFC South is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL in 2020, and sends two teams to the playoffs for the fourth straight season, with the Titans and Colts getting over the hump.
- *New England Patriots – 11-5
- Buffalo Bills – 8-8
- Miami Dolphins – 6-10
- New York Jets – 4-12
The AFC East is still the Patriots’ to lose, as the match between Bill Belichick and Cam Newton proves to be a winner. Offseason questions abound in Buffalo, Miami, and New York as three young teams fail to progress as much as expected.
- *Kansas City Chiefs – 15-1
- *Las Vegas Raiders – 10-6
- Denver Broncos – 5-11
- Los Angeles Chargers – 4-12
The Chiefs roll through the AFC West, and are joined in the playoffs by the surprising Las Vegas Raiders. The Chargers commit to a rebuild and the positive momentum behind the Broncos in the preseason was blunted with the major injury to start defensive end Von Miller.
- *Minnesota Vikings – 10-6
- Green Bay Packers – 7-9
- Detroit Lions – 6-10
- Chicago Bears – 3-13
The NFC North is the most mediocre division in the NFL in 2020, with only the Vikings posting a winning record. Tensions between the Packers front office and Aaron Rodgers increase after a disappointing season, and Matt Patricia and Matt Nagy are likely out of jobs in Detroit and Chicago.
- *New Orleans Saints – 12-4
- *Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 12-4
- Atlanta Falcons – 9-7
- Carolina Panthers – 3-13
Drew Brees and Tom Brady continue to defy the process of human aging, as the Saints take the NFC South in a wild division race that isn’t decided until Week 17. The Falcons are improved, but another season without a playoff berth likely dooms Dan Quinn in Atlanta. The Panthers have the NFL’s most exciting player in Christian McCaffery, but not much else.
- *Dallas Cowboys – 12-4
- *Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6
- New York Giants – 4-12
- Washington Football Team – 1-15
The Cowboys ride a potent offense and athletic defense to the division title and the top seed in the NFC playoffs, where they are joined by the Eagles. The Giants show improvement but are still too weak on the offensive line and defense to contend. The Washington Football Team continues their 2020 season to forget, as the team flounders in the midst of an ugly front office scandal.
- *Seattle Seahawks – 12-4
- *San Francisco 49ers – 11-5
- Los Angeles Rams – 9-7
- Arizona Cardinals – 7-9
The Seahawks capture the NFL’s toughest division by outlasting the 49ers in what is quickly becoming one of the most entertaining rivalries in the league. The Rams underachieve again, but rookie running back Cam Akers looks like the real deal. The Cardinals continue to get better, and should be ready to contend in 2021.
Note – bolded teams are the winners
AFC Wild Card Round
- #5 Pittsburgh Steelers @ #4 Tennessee Titans
- #6 Las Vegas Raiders @ #3 New England Patriots
- #7 Indianapolis Colts @ #2 Baltimore Ravens
NFC Wild Card Round
- #5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ #4 Minnesota Vikings
- #6 San Francisco 49ers @ #3 New Orleans Saints
- #7 Philadelphia Eagles @ #2 Seattle Seahawks
AFC Divisional Round
- #3 New England Patriots @ #2 Baltimore Ravens
- #5 Pittsburgh Steelers @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Divisional Round
- #5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ #2 Seattle Seahawks
- #6 San Francisco 49ers @ #1 Dallas Cowboys
- #2 Baltimore Ravens @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs
- #2 Seattle Seahawks @ #1 Dallas Cowboys
- Baltimore Ravens 31 Dallas Cowboys 27
- NFL MVP – Lamar Jackson, QB – Baltimore
- Coach of the Year – Mike McCarthy – Dallas
- Offensive Player of the Year – Patrick Mahomes, QB – Kansas City
- Defensive Player of the Year – Bobby Wagner, LB Seattle
- Rookie of the Year – Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB – Kansas City
- Offensive Rookie of the Year – Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB – Kansas City
- Defensive Rookie of the Year – Isaiah Simmons, LB – Arizona
2021 Draft Order (Top 10)
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Washington Football Team
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Chicago Bears
- Carolina Panthers
- Los Angeles Chargers
- New York Giants
- New York Jets
- Denver Broncos
- Detroit Lions