I won’t attempt to predict whether any teams will experience outbreaks or how the league might respond, but I will continue my preseason tradition of predicting what will happen on the field.
Here are eight bold predictions for the 2020 season:
The New England Patriots will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
In Bill Belichick, Patriots fans trust. And they should. But after New England lost its top four linebackers, two of its three best safeties, right tackle Marcus Cannon and many others — oh, and don’t forget, that includes future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — this looks more like a 5-11 team than a playoff contender.
Belichick’s coaching could get the Patriots to eight wins, especially if a rejuvenated Cam Newton performs well as New England’s starting quarterback. But that’s not going to be good enough to catch the 10-win Buffalo Bills, especially given the Patriots’ schedule, which is the toughest in football based on last year’s records.
Three AFC North teams will make the postseason.
With Ben Roethlisberger back from elbow surgery, the Pittsburgh Steelers will challenge the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title. One will win the division, and the other will make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But I also predict the Cleveland Browns will earn a wild-card berth. They were talented enough to be a playoff team a year ago, but poor coaching and a poor attitude led to a disappointing 6-10 finish. New coach Kevin Stefanski seems to have good control of the team, and quarterback Baker Mayfield has said he has trained harder and will play better than a season ago. The Browns have 10 players who have been to the Pro Bowl, including six on offense.
The Yannick Ngakoue trade will help the Minnesota Vikings beat out the Green Packers in the NFC North.
The Packers won 13 games last year, but they were 8-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points. They actually averaged fewer points per game than the Vikings and gave up more points per game. Aaron Rodgers played well despite not having receiving options other than Davante Adams, but the roster around him didn’t get any notable upgrades this offseason; the team used its first-round draft pick on quarterback Jordan Love and is replacing right tackle Bryan Bulaga and linebacker Blake Martinez with bargain versions (Rick Wagner and Christian Kirksey).
Getting Ngakoue to line up opposite Danielle Hunter gives the Vikings two Pro Bowl defensive ends, and they could exceed the success Green Bay had a year ago with free agent pickups Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who combined for 25.5 sacks. I think Minnesota’s talent on defense (it also has two Pro Bowl linebackers and an excellent safety duo) and its stability on offense make it a 10- or 11-win team, while Green Bay drops to nine or 10 wins.
Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs will lead the NFL in rushing this season.
The Raiders should go to more of a two-tight-end offense this season with Darren Waller and Jason Witten. They have one of the better offensive lines in football. Coach Jon Gruden knows how to call an effective running game.
All of it sets up well for Jacobs, who could have been the offensive rookie of the year last season with his 1,150 rushing yards in 13 games. A good running offense should help a Vegas defense that is better than last year’s unit but still not great.
There will be no worst-to-first teams this year.
In 15 of the past 17 seasons, at least one fourth-place team has risen to the top of its division the following season. I don’t see it happening this year. Jacksonville, Washington, Carolina, Cincinnati, Miami and Detroit were fourth-place teams last year and are candidates to draft in the top 10 next year. Arizona and the Los Angeles Chargers are fourth-place teams that will improve, but not enough to catch the defending conference champions in their divisions (San Francisco and Kansas City).
The Seahawks and 49ers will finish with matching 11-5 records, but Seattle will win the NFC West.
Even though the 49ers were a more talented team than the Seahawks last year by a game or two, Seattle came close to winning the division. In fact, if the Seahawks didn’t lose three running backs to injuries and defensive tackle Al Woods and wide receiver Josh Gordon to suspensions, they might have won their last two home games and been the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
This year’s Seahawks team is faster on defense and potentially more explosive on offense. The 49ers are dealing with a bit of a Super Bowl hangover and a long list of injuries, particularly at wide receiver. The 49ers are still a Super Bowl contender, but the Seahawks have a favorable schedule in terms of the quality of quarterbacks they will face, which should help the defense produce more sacks and turnovers.
Philip Rivers will be an MVP candidate and lead the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC South title.
Indianapolis is the perfect situation for Rivers. He is working with Frank Reich, his former coordinator and quarterback coach. He is playing behind the best offensive line he has had since coming into the league in 2004. He has good running backs in Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor and enough talent at wide receiver with T.Y. Hilton and rookie Michael Pittman Jr., especially because the Colts will use two-tight-end sets a lot. The defense is young and talented.
The AFC South figures to be a dogfight. The Tennessee Titans are a nine- or 10-win team. The Houston Texans aren’t far behind, particularly with Deshaun Watson being one of the top six quarterbacks in the league. But the team with the most upside in the division is Indianapolis, and I think the Colts will win 11 games and earn the AFC South crown.
Washington defensive end Chase Young will get 12 sacks and win defensive rookie of the year honors.
The scouting reports suggest Young might be more talented than his former Ohio State teammate Nick Bosa, last year’s defensive rookie of the year. Don’t expect Young to help lead Washington to the Super Bowl the way Bosa did for San Francisco, but the former Buckeyes will have something in common: Washington’s defensive line features three recent first-round draft picks in addition to Young, a formula that worked well for Bosa and the 49ers last year.
It may not be a surprise if Young wins the award, but I predict he’ll get 12 sacks for Coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, which would have ranked in the top 10 in the league a year ago.
Two bonus predictions: The Jaguars will edge Washington for the top pick in the draft and the right to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. But it will be Adam Gase of the New York Jets — not the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Doug Marrone — who is the first head coach on the hot seat. The Jets open against Buffalo, San Francisco and Indianapolis — three playoff-caliber teams. If the Jets go 0-3, Gase will be in big trouble. The Jets’ subsequent six games: Denver, Arizona, the Chargers, Buffalo, Kansas City and New England.