NFL season kicks off; will we get a full season of something?
Well, here we are. After six months of suspended sports seasons, late-starting and shortened sports seasons and canceled Big Ten football seasons, the National Football League is attempting to complete a full, bona fide 16-game regular season starting tonight with the Houston Texans visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the NFL will get to the finish line, but every new season starts with hope, right?
The 2020 season will be like no other. There were no pre-season games and many teams limited the amounts of information that could be divulged by the media about practices. Stadiums will not be full of screaming fans for the foreseeable future. Health is going to be the biggest factor that makes or breaks, not only every team, but the league as a whole as it tries to safely navigate the next five months and eventually crown a champion at Super Bowl 55 in Tampa. Sorry, I refuse to use Roman numerals.
The NFL had the advantage of learning from other leagues. But the sheer size of rosters makes living in an NBA- or NHL-like bubble impossible. We’ll cross our fingers and see how it goes.
Most folks would say this will be the most unpredictable season ever. That won’t stop anyone from trying.
Every prediction is based on the rosters you see today and, to some degree, how things went last year, though one should never look at the NFL that way. It’s a year-to-year league, period. Off-season roster changes can make huge differences. Rosters change in-season constantly, mainly due to injuries. Not only could COVID wreck a player’s or team’s season, but I’m sure there’s concern around the league about the effects of not playing any pre-season games. Will that have a positive effect with reduced wear and tear? Will it have a negative effect when everyone starts blocking and tackling for real without much acclimation to it? Will offenses be out of sync to start the year? That will be something to watch this weekend.
Since this is NFC North country, we’ll start there. The safe prediction is to say the title chase will be between defending champion Green Bay and Minnesota. Chicago feels like a team that could go any which way. Detroit has given Green Bay all it can handle in recent years and hopes to have its fine quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy for an entire year.
We can safely predict Green Bay won’t be 13-3 again this year. Even the cheesiest of cheeseheads has to admit a lot of breaks went into last year’s run to the NFC Championship Game. Not saying the Packers weren’t a very good team and still can’t be this year. I’m just saying the NFL has a way of evening things out the next year when you have a season of good health, timely turnovers and don’t face Patrick Mahomes or Stafford in key victories that helped you clinch a number-two seed.
There’s a lot to like about Minnesota, but there are questions as well. Does the trade of Stefon Diggs hurt offensive rhythm? Will the offensive line be no match again for pass rushers like Za’Darius and Preston Smith or Khalil Mack? Will it take time for the defense to jell after some significant names were cut loose?
Sunday’s matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium between the Packers and Vikings will be a tone setter for sure. But don’t overlook the week-two matchup at Lambeau between Detroit and Green Bay either.
The Bears just feel like an 8-8 or 9-7 team to me. Hard to explain why, but they just do. I think the Vikings and/or Packers could top out at 11-5, but both or either could also finish 8-8. Detroit is way better than its 3-12-1 of a year ago would suggest.
Elsewhere in the NFC, the West Division would get almost unanimous support around the country as the NFL’s toughest division. The 49ers nearly won the Super Bowl, a lot of “experts” are still high on Seattle, Arizona looks like an offensive juggernaut behind Kyler Murray and his stable of receivers and the Rams still have some key pieces left from their 2018 Super Bowl run. I’d still bet on San Francisco winning the division. I’m not truly sold on Seattle, though Russell Wilson is tremendous, and I’m kinda down on the Rams. I’m sorta buying the love for the Cardinals.
The NFC East to me looks like an easy victory for Mike McCarthy’s Dallas Cowboys. He’s got too much offensive talent there to lose it unless, well, he turns into the McCarthy of his late Green Bay years and screws it up. The Eagles may contend for a playoff spot. The Giants should be better than their 4-12 from last year, but not sure how much better. Washington and its new linebackers coach Steve Russ of Medford would appear to have a lot of obstacles to overcome to contend this year. However, the return of quarterback Alex Smith to the roster already is the feel-good story of the year. Look it up if you’re not familiar with it.
The NFC South has a great team in New Orleans, teams you can’t overlook in Atlanta and Carolina and a team that will be the NFL’s biggest curiosity, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now that they have Tom Brady at quarterback and all-pro partier Rob Gronkowski at tight end to go with an excellent wide receiver tandem of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and an improving defense that was terrible not long ago. If healthy, the Saints and Bucs are playoff shoo-ins.
In the AFC, only catastrophic health should prevent the Super Bowl champs from Kansas City from winning the West. The South should be a battle between the Titans and Colts. Lots of people guessing the Houston Texans will regress. I still think you’ll have to show up to beat them. In the North, can’t see how that doesn’t go to week 17 before it’s decided between Baltimore and Pittsburgh if Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back to full strength after missing most of 2019. In the East, can Buffalo finally dethrone the new-look New England Patriots. On paper, the Bills should. But why do I feel like Bill Belichick and his staff are going to come up with some real creative stuff offensively with Cam Newton at quarterback that’s going to catch opponents offguard?
So let’s go with this for my worthless predictions. Remember there are now seven playoff teams in each conference. In the AFC, let’s say Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee and New England secure the top four seeds as division winners. Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Buffalo get the wild cards. The Baltimore/ Kansas City championship game we missed out on last year happens this year and the Ravens find the toughness needed to win at Arrowhead.
In the NFC, New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco and Green Bay win divisions. Yes, the heart strings are playing me a bit there. Tampa Bay is the top wild card. Seattle and Arizona sneak in as well. It’s a four-team battle at the end between the Saints, Cowboys, 49ers and Bucs. Tampa Bay could be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, but the Saints knock out the Bucs in an epic divisional shootout between quarterbacks Brady and Drew Brees, while Dallas ekes past the 49ers. New Orleans gets to the Super Bowl because losing NFC Championship Games is what Mike McCarthy does, but Baltimore returns to the site of its 2000 Super Bowl win and takes the big one behind stud quarterback Lamar Jackson and its tough-as-nails attitude.
Matt Frey is the Sports Editor at The Star News.