Since May, when I projected what promises to be the most unique of NFL regular seasons during a coronavirus-curtailed 2020 offseason, training camp gears around the league have slowly started turning – only now are teams able to strap on pads.
But after predicting my first-ever 14-team playoff field and Super Bowl LV’s participants, quite a bit has changed. The Patriots signed Cam Newton, the Jets traded Jamal Adams … and then several Patriots, Jets (and many other players) opted not to play as COVID-19 rages on. Yet a fair amount also remained stagnant – namely the ability of recently signed free agents, rookies and newly hired head coaches to meld into foreign environs – and teams counting on such folks are banking on hastily built cohesion sans an offseason or preseason to assimilate physically, schematically and culturally.
But the NFL train is its own unique kind of Snowpiercer, rarely coming to a stop for anything or anyone. So with the Texans and reigning champion Chiefs just weeks away from kicking off the season in what will be a quieter (and nearly 80% empty) Arrowhead Stadium, here’s the final draft of my 2020 league record projections:
(Note on methodology: Using the most current information, I simply predict winners and losers for all 256 regular-season games to arrive at my projections, applying NFL tiebreakers as needed. Asterisks* denote wild cards.)
Dallas Cowboys (10-6): They're under new (middle) management with coach Mike McCarthy returning to the NFL after a one-season sabbatical. But the retention of coordinator Kellen Moore, who oversaw 2019’s top-ranked offense, should provide a dose of continuity for a club that appears to have a significant talent gap – veteran DE Everson Griffen joins first-round WR CeeDee Lamb as major additions – on the rest of this division. And if you’re a fan of trivial trends, the last time Dallas didn’t finish in first place in an even-numbered year … was 2012. A hot start seems reasonable given they’ll face just two 2019 playoff teams prior to their Week 10 bye.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8): They’ve led the NFC East in grit lately, reaching postseason each of the past three years, and are the only team in the division not adapting to a new coaching staff. But significant questions remain at receiver, linebacker, the O-line – perennial Pro Bowl G Brandon Brooks has already been lost to an Achilles tear – while QB Carson Wentz must still prove he’ll be upright when it really counts. The second half of the schedule looms as problematic, Philly scheduled to play five of seven on the road following its Week 9 bye.
Washington Football Team (5-11): They’ve garnered plenty of unwanted offseason headlines. But don’t blame new coach Ron Rivera, who should bring stability to an organization in the midst of upheaval and a long-needed rebrand. Washington should feature an imposing pass rush … but little chance it can compensate for an offense full of holes and with an open-ended question under center – though a successful return by Alex Smith would provide a much-needed feel-good subplot. The WFT will likely struggle mightily to win on the road this year.
New York Giants (2-14): When you’re mixing a new staff, including first-time head coach Joe Judge, with so many young players – second-year QB Daniel Jones in particular – a muted outlook seems self-evident. Throw in a key opt-out (LT Nate Solder), major legal issue (2019 first-round CB Deandre Baker) and an unrelenting schedule that features the NFC West and AFC North, and optimism only ebbs further.
Green Bay Packers (9-7): Yes, they went 13-3 in 2019. But closer examination reveals they frequently struggled to beat bad opponents and were throttled by some good ones (namely the 49ers). The offseason narrative has been focused on QB Aaron Rodgers, who received an heir apparent (first-round QB Jordan Love) from the front office but not additional weapons in the passing game the two-time MVP seemingly needs. Among the non-division QBs Rodgers must face: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Philip Rivers and Wentz.
Minnesota Vikings (8-8): Mike Zimmer has long been one of the league’s most formidable defensive coaches. But aside from Pro Bowl DE Danielle Hunter, this group is virtually unrecognizable up front and on the corners, decimated by free agency and DT Michael Pierce’s opt-out. An offense sans WR Stefon Diggs might also be overly dependent on rookie WR Justin Jefferson. Just too many questions – while throwing in a schedule that includes four 2019 playoff teams in the first five weeks – to hope the Vikes build on last season’s playoff progress.
Detroit Lions (7-9): They gave the opposition, including eventual champion Kansas City, all it could handle in the first half of 2019. Then QB Matthew Stafford went down with a back injury. So let's not take this team lightly – especially if rookies like CB Jeff Okudah and RB D’Andre Swift make smooth professional transitions while WR Kenny Golladay and DE Trey Flowers continue to quietly flourish. But … third-year coach Matt Patricia will have to navigate a schedule that includes just one home game in both September and October as he tries to make the case he should be retained into 2021.
Chicago Bears (5-11): Admitting you’re unsettled at quarterback is tantamount to admitting you’re likely facing a rough road. And with newcomer Nick Foles just now getting familiarized with his teammates, the dilemma under center could drag out well into the season. But even if Foles or Mitch Trubisky plays to the top of his potential, the offense is still largely devoid of speed, while the once-feared defense looks vulnerable in several spots.
New Orleans Saints (12-4): It seems any internal fissures caused by Brees’ comments about standing for the flag in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death have at least been caulked over. On paper, good luck finding weaknesses on a veteran roster coach Sean Payton has so much confidence in that he punted the virtual offseason. Newly signed WR Emmanuel Sanders, S Malcolm Jenkins, third-year DE Marcus Davenport and now-healthy RB Alvin Kamara loom as difference makers for a squad coming off a 13-3 effort and seeking a fourth straight division crown. However the Saints might really miss their fans in a year with so many tough non-divisional teams (Packers, Chargers, 49ers, Chiefs, Vikings) coming to the Superdome.
[Note: The Saints are projected to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed by virtue of a Week 10 victory in New Orleans over the 49ers.]
*Atlanta Falcons (10-6): They went 6-2 in the second half if last season, a stretch that included wins at both New Orleans and San Francisco. Can the cream once again rise for a club that could start 11 first-rounders on offense while featuring a defense that thrived once assistant Raheem Morris moved to that side of the ball in 2019? One thing is certain: ATL better not bank on another fast finish given the December schedule includes the Saints, Chargers, Chiefs and Buccaneers – twice.
*Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6): Brady – not to mention rookie OT Tristan Wirfs – better not take too long to settle in. Among the pass rushers the new-look Bucs will face in the first five weeks are Cam Jordan, Von Miller, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. Still, even accounting for early growing pains, this group has the talent – including an underappreciated defense – to coalesce into a playoff club for the first time since 2007 … especially since it only has to hit the road twice from Weeks 11 to 17.
Carolina Panthers (2-14): They’re looking to new leaders on the sideline, where coach Matt Rhule and a revamped staff will roam, and under center, where QB Teddy Bridgewater once again has a team to call his own after his circuitous comeback from that unfortunate 2016 knee injury. Even defensive mainstay Luke Kuechly is gone. Unless RB Christian McCaffrey somehow manages to gain 2,000 yards both on the ground and through the air, these Panthers will be hard pressed to compete in this otherwise stacked division.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Though it would be nice to have presumed No. 1 WR Deebo Samuel (broken foot) in September, a gander at the early part of the schedule suggests the reigning NFC champs could easily open with a five- or six-game winning streak. New LT Trent Williams and finally healthy third-down RB Jerick McKinnon should bring interesting dimensions to the offense – an attack that should also benefit from Garoppolo now being nearly two years removed from his knee reconstruction.
*Seattle Seahawks (9-7): A team that excelled amid plenty of smoke and mirrors in 2019 – Seattle somehow won 11 times despite outscoring its opponents collectively by just seven points – should have a lot more smoke after acquiring Adams from the Jets. Yet questions remain about the pass rush, O-line, a pair of running backs returning from serious injuries … not to mention an uninviting schedule. All five of the Seahawks’ non-divisional road games will take place in the Eastern time zone – forcing them to trek a league-high 29,000+ miles.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9): Have they ever had this much star power (and potential star power) up and down the roster? Though super soph QB Kyler Murray is already musing about the possibility of having three 1,000-yard receivers with DeAndre Hopkins now in the fold, this team really dialed in last year once RB Kenyan Drake brought a land element to the Air Raid – while enabling the defense to take longer breathers.
Los Angeles Rams (6-10): They’re not two years removed from that Super Bowl LIII run even if it feels long ago. Not going to be easy for QB Jared Goff to reclaim his Pro Bowl form behind these blockers and inexperienced backs. Meanwhile, the defense is breaking in rookie coordinator Brandon Staley. Oh, and the Rams will also be dealing with four 1 p.m. ET kickoffs in the first eight weeks.
Buffalo Bills (10-6): Their September schedule (Jets, Dolphins, Rams) appears inviting – and the ascendant Bills are advised to start hot given they’ll see the 49ers, Steelers, Broncos and Patriots in December. Keep an eye on RBs Devin Singletary and rookie Zack Moss, who could stealthily form one of the league’s best tandems. And if Diggs gives QB Josh Allen the expected boost, Buffalo might finally return to the top of a division it hasn't won since 1995.
New England Patriots (9-7): It’s tempting to punch another playoff ticket for Bill Belichick despite TB12’s departure. But no matter how well Newton integrates into “The Patriot Way,” it may not be enough given the supporting cast isn’t appreciably better than what Brady had in 2019. More worrisome, last season’s top-ranked defense will be nearly unrecognizable, ravaged by free agency and the opt-outs of LB Dont’a Hightower and S Patrick Chung. Throw in a first-place schedule that includes the AFC West and NFC West, and decent chance the Pats miss postseason for the first time since 2008.
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tosses the ball during an NFL football training camp practice, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (Photo: Steven Senne, AP)
Miami Dolphins (7-9): Could be tough to sustain the momentum of last season’s impressive 5-4 finish given the Fins are trying to incorporate a quarter-billion dollars’ worth of free agents along with five rookies taken in the first two rounds of the draft. Brian Flores seems to have this franchise on the upswing, but – like last year – it may not be evident before November.
New York Jets (3-13): Adams was probably the best player in the division before being packed off to Seattle. LB C.J. Mosley, arguably the Jets’ second-best defender, chose to sit this season out. Throw in an offensive line with four new starters and, welp, third-year QB Sam Darnold and Co. may as well start looking ahead to their 2021 cap space and draft.
Baltimore Ravens (14-2): Could they actually replicate last season’s league-best record? It certainly helps to have the NFL’s easiest schedule (Baltimore's opponents combined for a .438 winning percentage in 2019) while traveling a league-low 6,310 miles. Mix in rookies Patrick Queen and J.K. Dobbins and vet DL Calais Campbell – not to mention the fact that the other 31 teams didn’t get a legit offseason to try and decode this record-setting offense – and everything could be falling into place for a Lombardi run.
*Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): Last year’s hard-luck team would’ve made the playoffs under 2020’s format. But with QB Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow repaired, this year’s group should have little trouble qualifying given the strides a rejuvenated defense made. They could finish with a flurry with only two 2019 playoff teams are on the docket after a Week 8 bye.
Cleveland Browns (9-7):Newly motivated QB Baker Mayfield seems tailor-made for rookie coach Kevin Stefanski’s system … even if they won’t have much time to get on the same page of the playbook. Still, this club’s copious talent has to eventually prevail … right?
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): No team appears more reliant on a rookie than they will be on No. 1 pick Joe Burrow – tough time to be in that type of predicament. Still, a team that was more competitive in 2019 than its 2-14 record indicates appears to have the personnel to significantly improve in the win column.
Tennessee Titans (10-6): It’s tempting to pencil them in at 9-7 for a fifth consecutive campaign. But Mike Vrabel’s crew hit its stride down the stretch last year and seems primed to break through for a division crown if its young nucleus continues an upward progression. October should be interesting given the Titans won’t play on the road – but have to grapple with the Steelers, Bills and Texans in Nashville.
[Note: The Titans win the AFC South based on a better division record than the Colts. Tennessee’s projected Week 5 win over Buffalo confers a higher playoff seeding.]
*Indianapolis Colts (10-6): This is basically predicated on how well 38-year-old Rivers’ reunion with coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni – the trio was together for three seasons in San Diego – goes. I’m assuming a renaissance from Philly Riv … bolstered by juice brought by fellow newcomers DeForest Buckner and rookie Jonathan Taylor. With only one 2019 playoff team on the first half of their schedule, golden chance for Colts to break quickly from the gate.
Houston Texans (7-9): With Hopkins gone, QB Deshaun Watson might rival Russell Wilson as the most indispensable player to any one team. But winning the division for the fifth time in six years now seems increasingly out of reach – especially when considering the schedule unfolds with the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers and Vikings.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13): It’s hard not to love QB Gardner Minshew II. But it’s easy to hate the forecast of a team with significant internal issues – and one that seems outclassed by the rest of its division. Would have been a good year to camp out in London.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4): With the band essentially returning intact – possibly even playing sweeter music as first-round RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire takes over for opted-out Super Bowl hero Damien Williams – it’s tempting to find a successful title defense in my crystal ball. But that hasn’t happened since 2004. And the champs’ road schedule is full of enough landmines (Ravens, Bills, Bucs, Saints) that securing a top seed that will be more coveted than ever will be especially problematic.
*Denver Broncos (9-7): One of this season’s most intriguing outfits, they’ve given second-year QB Drew Lock just about everything he could ask for. And OLB Bradley Chubb’s return should make Vic Fangio’s defense – and Von Miller – especially fearsome in Year 2. But Lock is the key – get it? – tasked with taking a big step (alongside several new offensive play makers) after going 4-1 in his five starts as a rookie.
[Note: The Broncos earn the AFC’s final wild-card spot ahead of Cleveland and New England based on a superior record in conference games.]
Los Angeles Chargers (8-8): They typically seem better on paper than in reality, so often undermined by injuries, contractual issues – hello, Melvin Ingram – and plain bad luck. The defense, if whole, should be especially effective. The offense is more a mystery, likely to be more conservative and smashmouth – just how coach Anthony Lynn likes it – post-Rivers.
Las Vegas Raiders (7-9): The offense could go next level with young Crimson Tide products Josh Jacobs and Henry Ruggs. But it may not be enough to carry a defense that surrendered 26.2 points a game last year and may not be any better a bet in Sin City.
Wild card: (7) Seahawks def. (2) 49ers; (6) Buccaneers def. (3) Cowboys; (4) Packers def. (5) Falcons
Divisional: (1) Saints def. (7) Seahawks; (6) Buccaneers def. (4) Packers
NFC championship game: (1) Saints def. (6) Buccaneers
Wild card: (2) Chiefs def. (7) Broncos; (6) Colts def. (3) Titans; (5) Steelers def. (4) Bills
Divisional: (1) Ravens def. (6) Colts; (2) Chiefs def. (5) Steelers
AFC championship game: (1) Ravens def. (2) Chiefs
Super Bowl LV (Tampa)
Saints def. Ravens
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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