Football is here, with the Texans and Chiefs kicking off the NFL’s 101st season tonight—hopefully it will be an entertaining one with clean on-field play and little controversy due to off-field matters. It felt like it was also the case last year and maybe the year before too, but the NFL seems as deep as ever this season. Not much would surprise me in 2020, but let’s begin the predictions with division winners.
NFC East: Cowboys
All offseason, the Eagles were going to be my NFC East pick. I liked the additions of Darius Slay and Javon Hargrave to the defense, and rookie first-round pick Jalen Reagor has home-run ability on offense. That, and the advantage of again having the same offense and defense compared to other NFC East teams making changes, has me optimistic about Philadelphia. However, the offensive line could be an issue after losing Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard during the summer. The Cowboys are now led by former Super Bowl head coach Mike McCarthy, and the offense can be excellent—also, Dallas arguably got two major steals in the draft in CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs in the first two rounds. It sounds like the Giants are buying into Joe Judge Year 1, and I am a believer in Daniel Jones, who might become the best quarterback in the division as early as this year. And the Redskins could have a formula to make some noise under Ron Rivera. Ultimately, the offensive firepower of the Cowboys could be key after an offseason and training camp like no other.
NFC North: Bears
The NFC North is probably the most difficult division for me to pick this year, as it’s the lone division where I think all four teams have a pretty good shot at winning it. The Vikings always have a good defense under Mike Zimmer, and it’s tough to bet against a coaching staff led by Zimmer and Gary Kubiak—they were going to be the pick, but Danielle Hunter’s injury, which will keep him out at least the first three games, gives me pause. The Packers were just in the NFC title game, and Aaron Rodgers says his relationship with Matt LaFleur is good; but I just think Green Bay might take a step back from 2019, and it won’t help that they drafted quarterback Jordan Love (who ideally won’t see the field as a rookie) in Round 1. With the way Matthew Stafford played last season when healthy, the Lions might have the best quarterback play in the NFC North, so they should not be counted out; Matt Patricia is in a make-or-break year and needs his defense to emerge as one of the better groups in the league this fall. I’m sticking with the Bears as the division winner. I expected Nick Foles to be the starter, but Mitchell Trubisky likely needs to show improvement early, or it could be a short leash—one way or another, the quarterback position should improve and help get Chicago back into contention.
NFC South: Buccaneers
More on the Buccaneers later, but I think they will be very good on both sides of the ball led by Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles. The Saints have a case for the best roster in football, and Drew Brees will be locked in for what could be his final season—New Orleans was the toughest team for me to leave out of the postseason, as you’ll see below. Like most teams but perhaps more so, it comes down to the offensive line for the Falcons—the talent on offense is phenomenal. Atlanta should build on their 6-2 finish from last season, and I’m expecting a playoff berth behind an explosive offense and improved, more consistent defense. Long-term, the Panthers have a very bright future under Matt Rhule; it’s difficult to see them pushing for a 2020 division title in the stingy NFC South, though.
NFC West: Seahawks
The 49ers are looking to avoid a Super Bowl hangover, and they’ve also dealt with a bunch of injuries to their receivers throughout the summer—hopefully, for their sake, that doesn’t lead to early-season rust in what should be a very competitive season. The Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan duo has had impressive success in their limited time together, though, and San Francisco should again be in the postseason. However, the Seahawks might be the favorites if the Jamal Adams trade can push them over the top—remember, they finished inches short of a division title and first-round bye last season. Also, we’ll get to my pick soon, but this could be the year Russell Wilson wins an MVP if the offense opens up more in terms of throwing the ball. Like the Falcons, I think it’ll come down to the offensive line for the Rams; if the line performs like it did down the stretch in 2019, Los Angeles can push for the NFC West crown and a high seed in the conference. The Cardinals are a trendy pick, and I actually might like what they’re doing on defense even more than on offense after adding former Clemson star Isaiah Simmons to an undervalued group; but I’m not sure Arizona is quite ready to make a huge jump in this division.
AFC East: Bills
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the Cam Newton pairing with the Patriots at first, but it’s been all positive from the outside looking in as we enter the season. We’ll see what happens when things go south, but there’s reason for optimism in New England—which should have a top defense once again even after multiple opt-outs—despite losing Tom Brady this offseason. Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and company might enjoy the challenge of crafting a revamped offense. The Bills as my division pick has more to do with Buffalo itself than any decline in Foxboro—they could be ready to take the step into elite status as Josh Allen continues to improve with a very good roster around him. You have to love what Brian Flores did with the Dolphins last season, but 2021 might be when Miami really arrives. While the Jets had a nice end to last season, Adam Gase has a bit of an uphill battle against a New York media that’s against him; they must get off to a fast start, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams bringing the energy should help.
AFC North: Ravens
There’s been some 16-0 talk for the Ravens, and there’s no doubt the roster is among the league’s most talented. Lamar Jackson is entering just his second full season as a starting quarterback, and the sky is the limit for his team. The Steelers are equipped to challenge Baltimore for the division title, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back leading the offense and giving a jolt to the entire squad. Pittsburgh is a good bet to at least grab a wild-card spot. The Browns are simply difficult for me to trust until they prove it, but handing Nick Chubb the ball a ton is a formula for success. The Bengals can be exciting on offense with No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow at quarterback, and the roster added veteran talent during the offseason; but I think their ceiling might be the AFC’s final wild-card spot this year.
AFC South: Titans
The Texans have dominated the division, and I am excited to see their spread-the-wealth offense with a few handpicked additions by Bill O’Brien, who sent All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. My AFC South pick is the Titans, with a balanced roster that features gamebreaking talent like Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown. I believe the Colts have the upside to win 12+ games if Philip Rivers has a resurgence behind a top offensive line. It was very difficult to leave the Texans and Colts out of the playoffs, but I think both can be Super Bowl contenders; the Clowney signing gives the slight edge to Tennessee. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the Jaguars are doing, but they could be pretty exciting on offense with Gardner Minshew and Jay Gruden.
AFC West: Chiefs
The defending Super Bowl champions are hungry for another title, with a lot of talk about “running it back” in 2020. Kansas City is the obvious AFC West pick, but Las Vegas intrigues me. I’d be higher on the Raiders if Marcus Mariota (starting the season on injured reserve and will miss at least three games) had a healthy summer and was able to push Derek Carr for the starting job, but Carr is surrounded with the talent to have a great season in his third year with Jon Gruden. Unfortunately, the season-ending knee injury to star safety Derwin James hurts the Chargers’ chances of riding an elite defense and top rushing attack to January; and the same goes for Von Miller’s recent season-ending injury for Denver. But if Drew Lock can keep up the play and show progress from his promising rookie campaign, the Broncos could still make some noise; and Tyrod Taylor has shown he can help get a similar team to the playoffs.
Super Bowl LV Prediction
Buccaneers 34, Ravens 31
The Chiefs, Bills, and Steelers are a few of the teams I feel most strongly about being in the mix as potential Super Bowl champions this season, but my Super Bowl LV prediction—while it could undoubtedly be way off—was one of the easiest Big Game predictions I’ve made in several years. I feel that the Buccaneers and the Ravens will be on a crash course to Raymond James Stadium in February, as I believe they will be the two best all-around teams in the league led by top-tier quarterback play. Most expect the Baltimore defense to be excellent after adding to an already-impressive group, but the Tampa Bay defense might be the most underrated unit in the league ahead of the season. I’ll go with Brady and the Bucs barely edging out the Ravens in an instant classic. It’d be fitting to finally get a team play the Super Bowl in their home stadium in a season that’ll be as odd as ever due to COVID-19 (though hopefully fans are close to or at full capacity by then).
NFL MVP: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
We don’t really know how many teams were or were not interested in signing Tom Brady this offseason, but two things are for certain: 1) There were multiple teams that passed on the opportunity to sign the six-time Super Bowl champion; and 2) Brady chose to go to a team with perhaps the best set of weapons in the league while guided by an “offensive-minded” head coach for the first time in his career. Always with a chip on his shoulder but perhaps as big as ever after leaving the Patriots, TB12 is set to put up monster numbers. If the Buccaneers offensive line holds up, I believe Brady will throw for 5,000 yards and 40-50+ touchdowns.
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Judging by this pick, you can tell that I also think reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson will be squarely in the mix for a two-peat this year. However, I’ll say he instead takes home Offensive Player of the Year while Brady grabs MVP. After setting the quarterback record last season with 1,206 rushing yards (in 15 games), Jackson is a rare threat to run for 1,000 yards from the quarterback position—and he’s looking to continue his improvement as an underrated passer coming off a 36-touchdown, six-interception campaign. Patrick Mahomes has insane passing upside and of course should also be in the mix for both MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, along with Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Derrick Henry among the other favorites.
Defensive Player of the Year: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers
As mentioned earlier, the Bucs defense is very underrated, so I could see young stud linebacker Devin White having a strong candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year. But my pick is Minkah Fitzpatrick, who made a huge difference and a bunch of plays after he was acquired by the Steelers last season. The versatile safety can do it all for Pittsburgh, with the potential to put up exceptional numbers across the board for a defense that should be among the NFL’s best in 2020.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
I would say Jonathan Taylor, CeeDee Lamb, or Henry Ruggs III will win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but we saw last year that the voters might have some bias in favor of the quarterback position when A.J. Brown and Josh Jacobs were clearly robbed in favor of Kyler Murray in my opinion. Joe Burrow is a well-liked player, and the bar is pretty low for the Bengals after a two-win season. Also, there’s strong talent in place around Burrow for the former Heisman Trophy winner to have an excellent first NFL season. Chargers running back Joshua Kelley is a sleeper to win the award.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, Washington
The Washington Football Team is going to rely on its defense to help them compete and win games this season, and it starts with No. 2 overall pick Chase Young. Like his former college teammate Joey Bosa last year with the Niners, Young has plenty of help alongside him on a Washington defensive line that’s spent resources up front over the past several years. Games within the division could be key for Young as he looks to have noteworthy outings against Philadelphia, New York, and Dallas—which would sure to be gain a lot of attention.
Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Smith, Washington
There are more preseason Comeback Player of the Year candidates as I can remember in any year, but the group is headlined by Alex Smith, who made a remarkable return from a devastating leg injury suffered in 2018. Washington put Smith on the active roster, and I don’t think Ron Rivera will hesitate to go to him if Dwayne Haskins isn’t cutting it and he feels he’s ready. Smith himself really wants to complete his comeback and get back on the field, and I think the voters would have a hard time voting for someone else if Smith gets extensive action and plays relatively well.
Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Buccaneers
Coach of the Year can go in any number of directions each year, and it’s probably the most difficult to vote on. I have the Buccaneers grabbing the top seed in the NFC, and if they are able to do that while playing in the stacked NFC South division, Bruce Arians would be the clear favorite to take home his third Coach of the Year award.