By Wide Right
No this is not a misprint!
With the NBA deep into their playoff schedule in the Florida bubble and Major League Baseball playing to empty stadia, it is now time to see how the world of American Football will adapt itself to this unique time in our modern history. Seriously, 2020 has been the alcoholic, racist, flatulent grandpa that can share your room because “he’s only here for a week or two over Christmas, Sweetie” and just won’t go away!!
But this is exactly why we need NFL Football in our lives. Of all the American based sports, I believe the NFL will struggle most with the lack of fans. It will be very interesting to see if players still dance or perform some alpha-male spectacle when they make a play…. you know, the thing they are paid millions of dollars to do. There will be players who can set aside the lack of exuberance from the stands and just get on with the job. There will be those who will struggle to find the motivation deep into games without the boisterous cheering or abuse from the fans who have been “hydrating” since they arrived at the tailgating lot just after dawn. Then there will be a select few, I predict, who will completely fail to recognise that this is actually a regular season game and will have a nice, quiet meltdown in the locker room at half time. We are only days away now from finding out whom is whom and which is which.
The pecking order in football is difficult enough to predict without a complete shutout of pre-season games. Having said that, there are still teams that are expecting January football and those that will most likely be back in isolation with their feet in front of a warm fire at that time. So, without anything more to go on that hunches and deeply ingrained prejudices (I’m looking at you here, Patriots), here is a division by division breakdown of how I see this season shaping up.
NFC West: This should be the most competitive division once again. It will certainly be a lot of fun to watch. Seeing any of these teams in the playoffs wouldn’t come as a huge shock. On paper the Niners should be aiming for another trip to the Big Dance. I am a student of history, however, and I have seen too many teams, particularly from the NFC side of things, that lay an egg after losing a Superbowl. I like San Francisco and they should be a huge factor even in this tough division but the weight of history is against them. Arizona have made some huge strides over the offseason to once again figure in the “dark horse” candidates list as they seem to do year on year. For the hell of it, I will fall into that trap and project them to finish second in the division, behind Seattle who may just have their mojo back. The Rams are a boom or bust proposition. I’m not sure I can get a feel for where they are at the moment but after a few divisional games we will see because there ain’t no test like the NFC West.
NFC South: If the Saints can avoid the Vikings in the playoffs, there is no reason they can’t win it all. They have the deepest roster in football and one of the most stable QB/Coaching setups getting around, which will be telling in this annus horibilus. The Buccs will be looking to be the first team to win the Superbowl in their own stadium and they have added some great pieces. I just don’t know if they have added all the right pieces to make a real deep playoff push. The Falcons are trying to find that spark that took them to the Superbowl and will be trying to capitalise on Matty Ice’s last year or two of quality QB play. The Panthers have entered a rebuild mode.
NFC North: Minnesota are reasonably deep at most positions, talent wise but they are very, very young on D. Experience may count this year and the lack of it may count against the Vikes. I still expect them to win this division. Green Bay will be their closest challenger but despite the fact that Aaron Rodgers is as good as anybody alive in throwing a football, the question marks are around who will actually catch the thing??!! Detroit are something of a smokie and if one of the two above teams cops a cruel injury or two, they might just surprise a few people. This team is as unreliable as the cars that their stadium is named after but they may be one to watch if they can find the right recipe for success. Chicago will need to improve in several areas to threaten the division’s top teams.
NFC East: Dallas are in an interesting position. Rarely does a coaching change occur with such a strong roster. Without the usual off-season activity and pre-season games, the timing couldn’t be worse to be adapting to a new system. Still, I think they make it through to the playoffs as division champs. Philly have already lost two starters on their O-Line but they still have the moxy to nudge Dallas. If the ‘Boys start the season slowly then look for Philly to take full advantage and put the pressure right on. Giants and Washington are a No from me at this point.
AFC West: Will there be a dynasty in KC? There seems to be talk of a Patriots-like domination of the AFC for years to come from the Chiefs. I don’t think they make the Superbowl. No doubt I will be eating my words alongside a huge helping of humble pie come February but I just don’t see it. The Raiders have been busy and will be looking to consolidate in John Gruden’s third year. They are a sneaky playoff chance in my book. Denver are another team that haven’t been idle and could easily be at the pointy end of this division after the full slate of games. If anything, the Chargers will be the team that adapts easiest to playing in front of no fans. I like what Tyrod can do at QB but we just didn’t see it often enough in Buffalo for me to get too excited about their chances this year.
AFC South: I see The Titans again pushing the leaders in the Conference this year. I also see them sitting just behind the leaders in terms of overall quality and depth. Will the improvement from last year be translated into another step forward this year or was their playoff push in 2019 their high-water mark? Indy will benefit greatly by having Phillip Rivers under Centre. I see Indy as a strong spoiler candidate this year. While they may struggle to make the post-season themselves, I see them influencing the race by beating some strong teams along the journey. The Texans are now without Hopkins yet still retain a shaky D which adds up to a hard pass from me. Similarly, I’m not sure the Jags have put their name up for consideration as divisional winners just yet.
AFC North: This division will be very interesting. I think the manner in which the team parted ways with seven-time pro-bowler Earl Thomas tells you all you need to know about how business is conducted in Baltimore town. Their standards are extremely high and they are unwilling to allow those principles to be questioned. The integrity within the building is superior to any other franchise in my opinion. The Steelers get Big Ben back but I am keen to see how he goes after a year out. There will be no questioning his desire to win but the battle-hardened veteran will need his best if he is to lead Pittsburgh above the Ravens. Cleveland were arguably the biggest disappointment last year and yes, injuries played their part. There is a core of serious talent there that might be able to cause the odd upset. The Bengals should now be focussed on blooding Joe Burrow before surrounding him with quality talent over the next year or two.
AFC East: One would think that the sky had fallen in over Foxboro when Tom Brady left for Florida. The thing is, Brady had some pretty ordinary games last year. And New England won many of those. An elite defensive unit doesn’t require the greatest QB of all time to win. I think the Patriots will be right in the thick of it come seasons end and while it might not be the lofty heights of previous years, they certainly won’t be picking in the top 5 come draft night as some naysayers believe. Buffalo are ideally poised to take a significant leap forward. General Manager Brandon Beane has done an excellent job fleshing out this roster. There is no denying that a lot will fall on young QB Josh Allen’s shoulders this year. If he improves this year as much as he did last year, the Bills are playoff bound again. If he stagnates or even regresses, despite the addition of Stefon Diggs, then the Sean McDermott coached defense will only be able to get them so far. I am reasonably bullish on the Bills and I think they sneak through on top of this division. The Jets are already suffering from injury/Covid related losses and will find it difficult to make that ground back up. They are capable of impressive performances but how that translates over a full season will be the big question. Miami will be rebuilding around Tua the way the Bengals are with Burrow.
So, after it’s all said and done, who will we see in the Superbowl at the end of all this? I think Drew Brees will join Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis and John Elway, among others, by finishing his career with a Superbowl victory. Watching that Ravens team with Lewis at the head of their defense, there just seemed to be too much that just opened up for them down the stretch. It made me realise that there are indeed football gods and they are hopeless romantics. If the Saints are flying towards the end of December, look for the media to bombard us with a flurry of presumptive Drew Brees eulogies before the season has even finished. However, many solid football fans would not begrudge the “too short to play QB” Brees, the man who brought so much joy to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a definitive full stop on a Hall of Fame career. I see the Saints winning the big one 27-21 over a very entertaining Baltimore Ravens team.