(Update 9/9: Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Each post in this series will be updated with each other post daily.)
Welcome to the Official Rob Writes About Whatever 2020 NFL Season Preview!
As an ignorant pud with a mouthpiece, I look forward to this golden opportunity to be deeply, deeply wrong about something. Football prognostication is an inexact science under the best of circumstances; the pull of picking mostly the same teams who made the playoffs the prior season to make the playoffs again is irresistible, even though everyone with any interest in the sport recognizes that it simply doesn’t work like that. At least one good team from last year will skid to a losing record and at least one not very good to bad team from last year will make the playoffs (and quite possibly win their division). And, I needn’t remind anyone of how current prevailing conditions fail to meet the criteria of ‘best of circumstances’.
That said, I am somewhat fascinated by the sheer scope of possibilities of how this season could turn into a deeply bizarre clusterfuck. Excising the possibility for players to contract COVID (which is depressing to think about, and since even baseball managed to figure out basic player safety I’m cautiously optimistic football will, as well), there are still numerous ways in which this season could end up deeply, deeply weird. I’m inclined to predict an offensive explosion, but with the short offseason it’s going to take a while for quarterbacks and receivers to get on the same page. It’s fully possible that play quality will take a dip for the entire season.
What’s more, the league, in its infinite wisdom (chortle), decided to add a seventh playoff spot beginning this season. I try to avoid being a They Changed It, Now It Sucks guy as much as possible, but I just don’t see this ending well for anyone who isn’t getting a cut of the broadcast rights. There has not been any season in the entire history of the six team format wherein a seventh-ranked team deserved to be in the playoffs, or would have enriched the playoff experience by its presence. That seventh position is the domain of .500-ish teams that can’t seem to play well in more than one phase of the game at a time. It’s a realm of bad pass protection and blown coverage and slow, large power backs getting mushed into the line for two yard gains on third and four. If you were enraged those couple of times when losing teams won their division, I promise you this can only make losing playoff teams a not-infrequent occurrence. My point is this change is both new and stupid, and I am bound to forget it at least once in my predictions.
Anyway, enough negativity! It’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of being wrong about sports on the internet. The format is as follows – Every day from today until Friday, I’ll be going team-by-team through two divisions a day. Each team will be listed in their division according to their placement from last year. I’ll spout some nonsense about how I think their season will go, then list my predictions for where that team will place this year, and, for teams I don’t have finishing first, I’ll note if I think they’ll get a Wild Card.
Today I’m looking at the AFC and NFC West. Enough with the preamble!
Kansas City Chiefs
A funny thing happened in the weeks after the Chiefs Super Bowl victory. First, I was heartened to know that we’ll never be subjected to Z-grade Hot Takes about whether or not Patrick Mahomes can win the big one. I do my level best to avoid the Hot Take Industrial Complex, but sometimes, especially in those times where star quarterbacks are being scrutinized to death, it can be difficult to escape. I’m still getting the douche chills remembering the discourse around Peyton Manning 15-18 years ago. But in Mahomes’ case, we have been rescued from this purgatory. He has now won said big one, and thus has demonstrated his fitness for the task.
However, once I had sat in this blissful ignorance for a time, the true horror of what is to come struck me. We won’t get awful takes of that exact same form, but every single season the Mahomes-led Chiefs fail to win the Super Bowl, the Skip Bayless types of this doomed planet will bury us in an avalanche of “What’s Wrong with Patrick Mahomes” garbage, because you’re not allowed to express sports opinions in public until you’ve sufficiently demonstrated that you think a Super Bowl win is a door prize for having an elite quarterback. I swear, if all the teams that “should” have won the Super Bowl every year did so, it would be because they had six of the motherfuckers. Anyway, I’m deliberately veering off topic because there’s nothing to talk about with the Chiefs. Any catastrophe sufficient to keep them from winning the division is simply too horrific to contemplate, terrible defense and all.
Predicted Finish: 1st
I was largely spared the indignity of watching the Broncos attempt to play football last season, but since this is America, where analysis comes prior to facts, I feel empowered to project my impression of how their season went as though it were the absolute truth. I’ve seen my share of teams go through their first year with a defensive-minded head coach, shuffle through a vaguely depressing quarterback lineup, and finish up just shy of .500 to have a pretty good idea of what the Broncos must have looked like.
But alas, this can scarce help predict what the Broncos will do this season. Drew Lock did win the starting job by the end of the season, providing just small enough of a sample of his performance to be effectively meaningless. Contrary to good sense, this makes it even more tempting to reduce the question of how good the Broncos are to how good I think Drew Lock is. Since I have no idea what to expect from that guy, however, I must resist that urge.
Instead, I will have to trust that Vic Fangio, who is one of the top three or so defensive coaches in the league, will get a more consistent performance out of the defense in Year 2, even though I don’t think I can name a single player in their secondary off the top of my head. The good news is that if the defense does do well enough, perhaps the team can squeak out a Wild Card with merely adequate play from Lock. I went into this believing that the Broncos will make some sort of vague, amorphous leap and snag a Wild Card this year, but now that I’m forced to contemplate the possibility I’m pretty sure I talked myself out of it. Then again, I have to start picking losing teams from last year to make the playoffs this year at some point.
Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)
Las Vegas Raiders
I feel bad for Derek Carr. He’s one of those dudes who I’ve always kind of liked, even though it’s certain that if we met in person we would not become friends. He showed a lot of promise until his leg broke back in 2016, and he hasn’t been the same since. Carr now has a reputation for being a checkdown artist when, in his pre-crisis form, I seem to recall a quarterback who wasn’t afraid to chuck a bomb or two every now and again, and who did a pretty good job at chucking said bombs when moved to do so. Those days are long gone, however, and now the poor guy is chained to the leathery remains of Jon Gruden, who hasn’t had the services of a quarterback he didn’t despise in almost 20 years. Back when Gruden was hired in 2018, it sure felt like everyone and their cat believed that Carr’s days with the Raiders were numbers, and yet, he’s still there and still the starter, which is what happens when the next guy up is the perpetually injured Marcus Mariota.
Now that the Gruden Experiment is in Year 3, the promise of a team that would be terrible yet entertaining has dissipated into the ether. This is a boring team with a boring but competent offense and a boring but incompetent defense. Every so often Gruden says something sufficiently baffling and delivered with enough charisma to give us all a polite little chuckle, but that’s hardly enough to make watching this team on the field less of a chore. I have sympathy for the Raiders and their decades-long suffering, and so I was quite disheartened to see them completely blow their chance at the sixth seed last year. Alas, even with a seventh playoff spot, I cannot in good conscience give it to a team that won’t be good at anything in particular.
Predicted Finish: 4th
Los Angeles Chargers
Every year for the past decade or so, people have predicted good things for the Chargers. While the team hasn’t been a complete embarrassment during this period, I still find this baffling; the Chargers are a cursed, haunted shipwreck of a franchise, a team that cannot keep all of its key players healthy at the same time, in no small part because they guaranteed to lose a key player for the season before said season even starts. This year, star safety Derwin James was the loser of this dread Injury Roulette, and the defense has been kneecapped before playing a single snap, even with both Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram good to go.
It’s worth noting, however, that people have had the good sense to avoid having the standard level of optimism for the Chargers this time around. People predicted a good season for the Chargers year in and year out because they had Philip Rivers and a seemingly-decent-on-paper supporting cast (at least, seemingly decent until the aforementioned devastating preseason injury). But this year, Rivers is gone, leaving only the supporting cast. Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry are still around, but this time they’ll be catching passes from Tyrod Taylor (who I’ve always liked, and who I hope wasn’t completely ruined under the coaching of Hue Jackson) and, potentially at some point down the line, rookie Justin Herbert, who probably sucks. There’s isn’t that much to like about this team, but since it’s possible to envision them sporting an efficient, functional offense and a respectable pass rush that puts them in better shape than the Raiders.
Predicted Finish: 3rd
San Francisco 49ers
It’s hard to overstate how chaotic the 2010s were for the 49ers, having gone through two entire cycles of irrelevance followed by Super Bowl contention. I must admit I was shocked by their meteoric rise last year. Lots of people were on their hype train in 2018 before Handsome Jimmy G. was lost for the year, so in my perpetual epistemic arrogance I figured that, even with a full season from Handsome Jimmy G. (and yes, I intend to refer to him by that designation in full for the duration of this write-up), and even with the obvious brilliance of George Kittle, they would be Wild Card contenders at best.
And then they went on a rampage, driven largely by an outrageous defense and a running game that excelled at salting away games in the second half, bolstered by a passing game that sucked from time to time but also had a tendency to come up huge. Kittle’s late catch-and-run against the Saints is forever burned into my brain. When people talk about Kyle Shanahan, the adjective ‘innovative’ is commonly bandied about, and while I see where people are coming from with that, this team, with it’s liberal use of heavy packages and reliance on the run game, felt like a throwback.
As impressive at the 49ers were last season, though, there are plenty of reasons to doubt they will repeat that success. 13-3 seasons don’t grow on trees, for one thing. For another, their division has the potential to be unspeakably brutal, as it’s possible to envision any of the four teams taking it (with the possible exception of one, but I’ll get there eventually). Handsome Jimmy G. is clearly above average, but he’s also interception-prone. DeForest Buckner is gone. You get the idea. They could still be very, very good, mind you, and I think they may even get double digit wins, but since it’s likely they’ll slip at least a little bit and since they’ll face stiff opposition I can’t rightly pencil them in at the top.
Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)
Far too often, I find myself stuck in the past. When I think of the Seahawks, I am immediately flooded with memories of the Legion of Boom days, and associate the team as they exist today with those memories. But those days are long gone. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett and plenty of others have all moved on and, in many cases, did so years ago. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are still around, I guess. I guess Bruce Irvin is back now, too? My point is I still regard the Seattle defense as a thing to be feared, even though I know most of the players who made it so once upon a time are long gone.
Regardless of the entropic damage inflicted on the defense, the Seahawks are still going to win lots and lots of games as long as Russell Wilson remains healthy. I know the guy is a weird robot and all, but Wilson has been one of my favorite players to watch since his rookie season. His ability to pull huge (and hugely impressive) plays out of his ass in unmatched. Dude is extremely good, and has been extremely good in far from ideal circumstances. I don’t think he’s had the benefit of even average pass protection in his entire career, and he’s spent the past few seasons stuck with Brian Schottenheimer calling plays.
The Seahawks may not have snagged headlines in the same way that the 49ers did last year, but it’s worth remembering that they almost just barely won the division themselves. They have the best quarterback in the division by far, and that means they have the best chance at taking said division.
Predicted Finish: 1st
Los Angeles Rams
What is a Super Bowl Hangover? What are the specific criteria? Surely, a team must have made the Super Bowl the previous year to qualify. The team must also miss the playoffs – if they make the playoffs at all, even if they look like crap for extended stretches and just barely squeak out a Wild Card berth, no one in their right mind would refer to the season as a Super Bowl Hangover, but beyond that, the parameters remain pleasantly unclear. Is it sufficient to simply miss the playoffs, or do you need to have a losing season, as well?
I ask because I am unsure whether or not to classify the Rams season last year as a hangover or not. They went 9-7, missed the playoffs, and were thoroughly underwhelming, but if there were a seven team playoff last year they would have been in. If that’s not all the evidence you need to conclude that a seventh playoff team is a terrible idea, I don’t know what to tell you. It sure felt like the Rams sucked more often than not last year.
Anyway, you may notice that I’m avoiding the subject of what the Rams will look like this year. That’s because the Rams are gonna fucking suck. Jared Goff is entering his fifth year and still doesn’t look like he has a clue what to do when things go even the tiniest bit wrong. Todd Gurley is gone, and while I feel terrible for the guy, having been mushed into the line over and over for a couple years under Jeff Fisher, his departure is probably addition by subtraction. For all that Sean McVay has accomplished in a short amount of time, I’m approaching the point where I must concede it’s possible he doesn’t know how to make mid-game adjustments of any sort. The only player of note on the defense is Aaron Donald, who is outstanding but is also only one guy. Wade Phillips was fired for no discernable reason, except possibly because Stan Kroenke is a cheap piece of shit. I predict this will be the first season in the wilderness of many to come.
Predicted Finish: 4th
This is already taking forever and I didn’t watch a single second of any Cardinals game last year, so I’ll make this brief. Apparently Kyler Murray did a pretty good job as a rookie, so it’s hard to see how adding DeAndre Hopkins will make him worse. That being the case, it’s quite easy to envision the Cardinals making a huge leap this year, and even taking the division if things break the right way. It seems silly to pencil them in ahead of Seattle or San Francisco, so I’m not gonna do that, but a good quarterback with good weapons in his second year in a season with seven playoff teams seems like ideal conditions for grabbing a Wild Card to me.
Predicted Finish: 3rd (Wild Card)
Tomorrow: AFC & NFC South
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