Sal's Crystal Ball: 2020 NFL Predictions

Division winners, Wild Cards, Super Bowl prediction, and award winners for the upcoming year

It’s hard to believe the 2020 National Football League season is actually about to start.

A pandemic that forced the shutdown of the entire offseason, essentially. No preseason games. New rules in place to account for unforeseen roster situations. And, of course, no fans in many places, including in Buffalo, at least to start the season.

The 2020 season will be like no other. No matter how it unfolds, we will always remember it for what happened off the field and how we got here. With that said, it’s time to look ahead to what teams and players will make it memorable on the field.

Here are my 2020 predictions for division winners, Wild Card teams, the Super Bowl, and individual award winners:

AFC East - Buffalo Bills

I’ve been building towards this the last few years with my picks. I had the Bills earning a Wild Card berth last season, and they did. Now I have them taking the next step to a division title, their first since 1995.

The Bills have been building towards this themselves. Their roster is as good as its been since at least 1999, and maybe even back to the early-to-mid-90s and those Super Bowl teams. They’ve been building for this with solid drafts, excellent player development, and now the experience needed they had lacked before.

All of this coincides with the New England Patriots looking like they’ll be taking a step back. New England still has Bill Belichick, but they don’t have Tom Brady, several key players who opted out, and will be hoping Cam Newton can recapture what he was a few years ago in Carolina to be able to make up for their lack of playmakers on offense.

The New York Jets are caught between trying to compete in 2020 and rebuilding at the same time. That’s hard to do. General manager Joe Douglas looks like he has a plan, but probably doesn’t have the right leader to see it through in head coach Adam Gase, who goes into 2020 squarely on the hot seat.

I like a lot of what the Miami Dolphins did this offseason, but with so many new players and an almost entirely new assistant coaching staff, it’s going to be tough to get everyone on the same page as quickly as they had hoped. Plus, as much as I like Ryan Fitzpatrick and he has his moments of excellence, if he’s the starting quarterback for 16 games it’s hard to see this team being good enough to compete with the Bills. If he’s not it will be a rookie and the same is true.

AFC North - Pittsburgh Steelers

I’m going a bit against the grain here, not in liking the Steelers to be a good team, but in not liking the Baltimore Ravens to repeat as division champs.

I’ll start there.

Baltimore is still really, really good. Still good enough to win the Super Bowl. But defensive coordinators have now had a fun offseason to study and come up with a game plan on how to slow down Lamar Jackson. They won’t be able to shut him down, he’s too good. But I expect a bit of a regression for the video-game type numbers he put up last year, opening the door for a couple extra losses and the division to be closer.

That’s where the Steelers come in.

A healthy Ben Roethlisberger is gong to help that offense tremendously, but it’s the defense that is loaded with talent. First round picks everywhere. Just enough to edge the Ravens out.

The Browns may finally have a direction to go along with all that talent, but new head Kevin Stefanski walks into a tough division and with no offseason on-field work. That’s a ton of reps Baker Mayfield and his offense could have used together.

As far as two-win teams go, the Cincinnati Bengals were much better than most of them historically, but things got off the rails early, they had a lot of injuries, and it was too late, too early. Joe Burrow is going to be a good NFL quarterback, but not good enough as a rookie to get this team back to the playoffs, especially in a very tough division.

AFC South - Tennessee Titans

I picked the Titans to win the division last year and a lot of people thought that was crazy. They didn’t, but it wasn’t crazy. They lost out by one game, made the playoffs, and then advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

I’m picking them again for the exact same reasons I did a year ago: because head coach Mike Vrabel‘s team will play good defense and run the ball well, but also because this year they know and understand how to use quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s strengths to accentuate the offense. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith did a fabulous job with him last year. I don’t expect Tannehill to duplicate the season he had last year, but he and this team should be good enough to get the job done.

I really like the Indianapolis Colts organization, from general manager Chris Ballard to head coach Frank Reich on down. I like their personnel on both sides of the ball. But I wonder if quarterback Philip Rivers can win games for them, if needed. He threw 20 interceptions last year, including nine of them in the fourth quarter of games, where he had a completion percentage of less than a 61% and only a 73.9 passer rating.

The Houston Texans still have quarterback Deshaun Watson, but they traded away wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and have questions about their running game and defense. Enough questions to not have me believe they can three-peat as division champs.

The Jacksonville Jaguars seem to have no talent left on their roster after trading or releasing their top players this offseason. Incredible considering how good they were in 2017 and less than two-minutes away from going to the Super Bowl. They’re going to contend for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

AFC West - Kansas City Chiefs

Quite simply, it’s the Chiefs' division to lose. Only injuries (especially to Patrick Mahomes) or something else really unforeseen should keep them from winning it.

They have a top-tier roster, one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and a future Hall of Fame head coach. As much as other teams in the division may have improved, they still aren’t on the level of the Chiefs.

The Denver Broncos could be this year’s surprise team in the conference. I have them making the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They had a tremendous offseason, adding wide receiver Jerry Jeudy to pair with budding star Courtland Sutton and go with one of the best young tight ends in the league in Noah Fant. They signed running back Melvin Gordon to help the running game, and quarterback Drew Lock looked good and comfortable starting the last five games last season, throwing seven touchdowns and three interceptions. They also added five-time pro bowler Jurrell Casey to an already very good defensive line (note - I originally wrote this column and made these picks prior to the Von Miller injury).

I’m not sure what to think of the Las Vegas Raiders, except that they seem to be a feast or famine team under Jon Gruden. Either world beaters or bottom-feeders, and you never know which team you’ll get on a weekly basis. That’s too much inconsistency.

The Los Angeles Chargers have gone from having one of the best rosters in the league to about middle-of-the pack talent. They also lost star safety Derwin James for the season. Tyrod Taylor is the opening week starter, but how long will that last with first round pick Justin Herbert waiting behind him?

AFC Wild Card Teams:
1.) Baltimore Ravens
2.) Indianapolis Colts
3.) Denver Broncos

NFC East - Dallas Cowboys

I’m not basing this pick on how good I think he Cowboys are, necessarily. I’m basing it on how mediocre I think this division is overall, and the Cowboys have a good quarterback with very good weapons, an excellent running back, a solid offensive line, and capable enough defense in a division that you won’t have teams threatening to score 30 points a game on a weekly basis.

The Philadelphia Eagles were the only other team I considered winning the division, but an aging roster, a quarterback whose had several key injuries, and a lot of questions with their wide receiving corps were too much to get me there. But they still have good top-end talent and know how to navigate through a 17-week season, which they proved last year.

The New York Giants are a bit opposite of the Eagles. They have some good young talent, including quarterback Daniel Jones, who made a lot of critics look foolish, throwing for over 3,000 yards and finishing with 26 total touchdowns (24 passing) in only 12 games as a starter. But they don’t have nearly the top-to-bottom depth needed to compete on a weekly basis.

I applaud what Ron Rivera is doing with the Washington Football Team, at least trying to clean a lot of things up both on and off the field and give the organization a sense of direction and vision. But with that always comes growing pains, especially when you take over a three-win team and need to start over again. This will be a year of growing pains in D.C.

NFC North - Minnesota Vikings

It seems clear-cut for me that the Vikings have the best roster in the division, and it did even before they traded for elite pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Yet, I didn’t see many others picking them to win the North. Is that because of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ past failures? A lack of faith in coaching? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t a huge debate in my own mind.

The Green Bay Packers won 13 games last year, but there always seemed to be some sort of strife or questions about direction. Then they went out and drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, underscoring that even more. They still have Aaron Rodgers (for now), and that’s good enough to contend for at least a playoff spot. But they won 13 games last year, in large part, due to a down division (Green Bay was 6-0 against other NFC North teams) and the easiest schedule in the NFL (opponent win percentage of .453).

The Detroit Lions seem to be a trendy pick the year. Many believe this is finally the year Matthew Stafford carries them to a playoff win. He’s 0-3 as the starting quarterback in the postseason through his 11-year career. The season really went off the rails after he got hurt last year, but that’s part of the problem with Detroit. They don’t have enough around the roster to sustain success on a weekly basis. Matt Patricia is 9-22-1 as a head coach. The Lions are 2-10 within the division under Patricia. I don’t see why things are supposed to change so drastically.

The Chicago Bears are a little like the NFC version of the Jaguars. Not that they will be really bad this year, but considering where they were just a couple years ago. In 2018, Chicago was loaded on defense and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky made a terrific jump from Year 1 to Year 2. They won 12 games and the division, but fell short in the playoffs. Then Trubisky regressed, they were hit by some injuries, and they fell back to 8-8 last year. They don’t appear to be any better this season.

NFC South - New Orleans Saints

The Saints might have the best overall roster in the NFL, and they also have Drew Brees, who is most likely entering his final season. They know this, they’ve kept what they have intact and even added parts. They’re ready to send him off at the highest peak possible.

Even with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers adding Tom Brady and a whole lot more talent, I don’t see it as being enough to pass New Orleans, especially in a year where there was no offseason and so many new players and personalities have to mesh together so quickly. It will be fun watching these two teams battle, but in the end I’ll go with the deeper roster and team with more continuity.

The Atlanta Falcons will probably be better than many people realize. After a horrible start last season and their coach on the hot seat, they turned it around after their bye week and won six of their final eight games. Matt Ryan is still a really good quarterback, but unless he can play at an MVP level week-in and week-out, they’re in a division that’s too tough to overcome.

The Carolina Panthers are no doubt rebuilding. That was clear when they hired Matt Rhule from college and gave him a seven-year, $62 million contract. That's unheard of for a first-year NFL coach. But that buys him time to reset the roster, and although they do have some talented offensive weapons, the defense will be young, inexperienced, and up against it every week in this loaded offensive division.

NFC West - Seattle Seahawks

This is certainly a tough call, and it may come down to one final game just as it did last year between the Seahawks and 49ers. They finish the regular season against each other again. Both have top-end talent around the roster.

Seattle wasn’t that good, statistically, on defense last season, but adding Jamal Adams will help down the middle. They do have quarterback Russell Wilson, who I have a lot more faith in than I do Jimmy Garoppolo to carry a team when needed.

Whoever doesn’t win the division will be in the playoffs as a Wild Card team. But I’ll go with Seattle here, mostly because of Wilson.

The Los Angeles Rams were supposed to be the next big dynasty in the NFC, or at least conference championship contenders for several years. But while everyone was praising Sean McVay for being such an offensive genius, defensive coordinators were figuring out how to slow down their attack. The result was a nine-win season last year and now a team in a bit of transition competing against two of the heavyweights in the conference in their own division, not to mention an upstart Cardinals team.

As far as the Arizona Cardinals go, they seem to be a darling pick for many, at least you get to the playoffs. I’m not going that far with them yet. Like we’ve seen happen before, young quarterbacks sometime start out well, but teams get time to figure things out. Kyler Murray is a tremendous athlete and should have a bright future. And, of course, having DeAndre Hopkins to throw to is going to be fun for everyone to watch. But this roster, overall, isn’t ready to make that sort of leap just yet, especially against such experienced, talented teams within their own division.

NFC Wild Card Teams:
1.) San Francisco 49ers
2.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3.) Philadelphia sEagles

AFC Championship Game:
- Chiefs over Bills

NFC Championship Game:
- Saints over Seahawks

Super Bowl LV:
- Saints over Chiefs

Brees finishes his Hall of Fame career on top by winning his second Super Bowl, denying Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid their second in a row.

NFL MVP - Russell Wilson - QB - Seattle Seahawks
Offensive Player of the Year - Saquon Barkley - RB - New York Giants
Defensive Player of the Year - Nick Bosa - DE - San Francisco 49ers
Offensive Rookie of the Year - Clyde Edwards-Helaire - RB - Kansas City Chiefs
Defensive Rookie of the Year - Patrick Queen - LB - Baltimore Ravens
Coach of the Year - Sean McDermott - Buffalo Bills
Comeback Player of Year - Alex Smith - QB - Washington Football Team

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