The 2020-2021 NFL season starts Thursday, Sep. 9 in Kansas City, home of last year’s Super Bowl champions, and although that’s plenty to celebrate, it’s an understatement to suggest that this season will be anything but surprising.
With the threat of COVID-19 looming in the United States, where nearly four million cases have been reported and nearly 200,000 have lost their lives, a fourth of the deaths worldwide, people have, for lack of other options, sought distraction as a way to deal with this divisive and devastating moment.
The NBA, which suspended play back in early March, started up again with 22 of the 30 teams returning to finish off the season with a predicted October finish. Likewise, the NHL, which suspended play similarly returned in similar fashion for a 24 team chance to play in the Stanley Cup; the season to end at the beginning of October, normally when the season is just starting.
The MLB, which never started play, likewise opened up play in late July, and is scheduled to end later this month.
Throughout delays, as players have tested with COVID delayed or cancelled games in the nearly-empty-stadium filled bizarro seasons by the U.S.’s major sports leagues. With the NFL only cancelling pre-season thus far, it’s safe to say that we’ve yet to see the weirdest for the long, enigmatic season ahead.
(COVID-19 has changed a lot for the entire world. Here’s a documentary on what it’s been like for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Source: YouTube/Carolina Panthers
With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the upcoming season and predictions for each conference.
With Tom Brady now off to Florida for what looks like a little Florida sun before officially diving into the state’s retiree pool, the AFC East is now not the Patriots to lose, for the first time in two decades (they’ve won the conference 17 of the last 20 years). With 2018 NFL draft picks Sam Darnold and Josh Allen dooking it out with Brady’s heir, former Panthers QB Cam Newton, odds are that Buffalo’s addition of Stefon Diggs and their third ranked defense in yards per game will afford them the top slot in the conference.
Predicted Winner: Buffalo Bills
(Leading the Buffalo Bills is the Wyoming product, Josh Allen, who gets a new target in former Viking, Stefon Diggs. Source: YouTube/Buffalo Bills)
The Baltimore Ravens only lost two games before finally falling to the Tennessee Titans in a surprise upset in the divisional round of the playoffs to Derrick Henry show in Nashville. From there the division is either in a state of rebuilding (in the case of the Bengals), scratching for the top (in the Browns after filling their offense with playmakers at every skill position), or determining where to go from here (in the case of the Steelers, as key skill position losses have depleted the seemingly now “too old” Big Ben). The Ravens are the safe bet. It would be unprecedented to watch another team usurp Louisville phenom Lamar Jackson.
Predicted Winner: Baltimore Ravens
(Lamar Jackson went from not starting in his rookie year to arguably the most exciting player in the league. Source: YouTube/NFL)
The AFC South might provide one of the tightest, most dramatic races this upcoming season, other than perhaps the NFC North. What with the Tennessee Titans, who slew the dragon in Baltimore and made an unlikely play at 9-7 for the AFC title, before losing to the Super Bowl Champions in Kansas City. Likewise, the Colts who were only two games behind the Titans filled major holes in the offseason with the acquisition of Philip Rivers at QB and DeForest Buckner at DT. Last year’s winner, the Houston Texans could play an odd man out this year, as the team released perhaps one of star QB DeShaun Watson’s biggest targets in DeAndre Hopkins. Meanwhile the Jaguars, who were four points away from playing in the Super Bowl in the 2017-2018 just released their star RB for some reason.
Predicted Winner: Indianapolis Colts
(It’s definitely going to be weird seeing former Charger, Philip Rivers, now playing in Indianapolis. Could he be the piece that pushes them to be a major playoff contender? Source: YouTube/Indianapolis Colts)
It might be too easy to suggest that last year’s Super Bowl champs are the odds on favorite to take the conference, but really, there isn’t a team likely to challenge them. The Raiders of Oakland, now in Las Vegas did better than anybody expected last year on the legs of second year player Josh Jacobs and the arm of Derek Carr but it’s doubtful they’ll challenge. Likewise, the Broncos, who have a solid defense but a young QB and just too many question marks. Who knows, maybe the Chargers will take a shot at the title? Maybe Herbert will beat out Taylor and surprise us all in his rookie season at QB. Probably not, but who knows.
Predicted Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
(Patrick Mahomes’ career is just beginning and already he’s won a Super Bowl. What will he do for an encore? Source: YouTube/NFL Films)
Man, was this division a mess last year or what? The Washington Football team will be lucky to get five wins. The Giants are still arguably too young and untested and have too many holes and will probably fare worse than Washington. This division is, at this point, a battle between the Cowboys of Dallas and the Eagles of Philadelphia. Assuming that Carson Wentz stays healthy, the winner of this division will come down to which team wins the head to heads. Last year they split, with the Cowboys winning one and the Eagles winning the other. This year, I think the Cowboys offense, number one in the league last year, overwhelms the Eagles who seem to be struggling just to stand since they won their Super Bowl two years ago.
Predicted Winner: Dallas Cowboys
(The Eagles’ biggest hurdles last season were arguably a plague of injuries. Will they be able to stay healthy and challenge the Cowboys? Source: YouTube/ESPN)
The entire talk of the first round of the draft was the insult that was the drafting of Aaron Rodgers’ heir apparent in Utah State QB Jordan Love, instead of drafting targets for the long suffering QB. Rodgers has been in the top tier since he took over for Brett Favre, but in his entire long, long career, help has rarely been given. On the flip side, the Minnesota Vikings have lost one of Kirk Cousins’ biggest targets in Stefon Diggs. That being said, their scoring-defense ranked among the top five in the league, and they have plenty of options on offense to move the ball. Speaking of moving the ball, the Chicago Bears have had plenty of trouble doing that, and with an offense with no major additions (save Nick Foles taking over and leading them to an offense like the one he led in the Eagles Super Bowl). As for Detroit, well, they’re Detroit. Sorry, Detroit (from a former Toledoan).
Predicted Winner: Minnesota Vikings
(Aaron Rodgers can already smell his heir apparent breathing down his neck, a year after delivering his team to the NFC Championship Game. What will that mean for this year? Source: YouTube/Skip and Shannon Undisputed)
Some predict that the addition of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay means a guaranteed win for the Buccaneers in the NFC South. Those people, obviously, are forgetting that the Saints and Drew Brees have had tight control over the conference for the past three seasons. Their defense and offense both ranked in the top half third of the league and Drew Brees is always reliable. The Falcons are on the upswing but won’t be able to compete for the conference and don’t sleep on Carolina, either, who replaced Cam Newton with former Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater who played nearly as good as Brees in his absence.
Predicted Winner: New Orleans Saints
(The last time Gronk and Brady were on a team together they were playing in a Super Bowl. Will there be similar results this season? Source: YouTube/Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
It would be safe to pick the 49ers, what with their three-headed running game, their nearly unstoppable pass rush, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s steady play at QB, but to discount the rest of this league is a mistake. The Arizona Cardinals, who were better than their 5-10 record suggest, now have Kyler Murray with a year under his belt and a target in one of the league’s best in DeAndre Hopkins at WR. Yes, the Los Angeles Rams are losing Todd Gurley at RB and Brandin Cooks at WR, but they still have a top tier defense and talented wideouts in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Sure, losing their bellcow running back hurts but they have enough to assume they’re capable of competing. As for the Seattle Seahawks, long gone are the days of the “Legion of Boom” that led them to back-to-back Super Bowls, but it’s hard to discount an offense who’s running game was fourth in the league and who’s passing attack is led by one of the best QBs in the league in Russell Wilson.
Predicted Winner: Seattle Seahawks
(The 49ers season ended last year in a heartbreaking loss to Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Will the 49ers come out motivated or suffer a Super Bowl slump? Source: YouTube/NFL)
Richard Foltz, Associate Editor