2020 NFL Preview, Part 2: The South

No need for any fancy intros here. Today I’m looking at the AFC & NFC South, since the Texans play on Thursday and therefore, there’s limited time until I’m proven grievously incorrect.

Part 1 is here. (Update 9/10: Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.)

AFC South

Houston Texans

The temptation to pile on Bill O’Brien for shipping DeAndre Hopkins off to the Cardinals for the football equivalent of a half-eaten PB&J with the crusts cut off is overwhelming, even though this shit happened months ago and I’m about as late to this particular party as I could possibly be. And yet, I am honor-bound to do so anyway. Suffice to say, while inexplicable trades happen in the NFL all the time, and are particularly endemic to the sort of joyless Belichick wannabes of O’Brien’s exact description, my reaction to this baffling fuck up was most similar to my reaction to the James Harden trade, unquestionably the most memorably ruinous player transaction of my adult life. Surely, such hubris must deserve punishment.

It is now and has always been both fun and easy to go after O’Brien for a multitude of reasons – his membership in the poisonous Belichick coaching tree, his occasionally horrendous decision making, his butt chin. And yet, I must begrudgingly admit that for all his faults, he must be doing something right. He’s the most successful Belichick guy by far, although that’s damning with faint praise if ever there were such a thing. The Texans have made the playoffs most years of his tenure, and made semi-regular Divisional Round appearances. The offensive line isn’t as terrible as it used to be. And, most importantly, Deshaun Watson is the actual shit; I tend to believe that quarterback success in the NFL is highly dependent on coaching, so if I am to believe that and also hold Watson in as high of an esteem as I do, I cannot disregard what O’Brien has done to develop him.

And yet, for all of their recent success, the Texans most assuredly suck, albeit in a relative sort of way. I cannot think of any other team that has had such consistent recent success that also has never had half of a chance of winning the Super Bowl. You just know they’ll fuck it up at some point. The offensive line, while improved, is always a threat to get Watson killed. There’s no reason to think that J.J. Watt is going to play all 16 games in a season ever again, as productive as he still is when healthy. Anyone who tells you they think the Texans are contenders is either a Texans fan or lying through their teeth. I predict they’ll take a step back this year, because they’re bound to at some point.

Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)

Tennessee Titans

As much as I privately rail against the dangers of recency bias in the field of football fortune-telling, I must confess I fall victim to it time and time again. Which is why it gives me great pleasure to proclaim, from the highest mountaintop I can find, that the Titans aren’t going anywhere this year.

You would think that, being a human of conscience who likes a good underdog, and possessing the capacity to marvel at the unexpected, I would’ve appreciated the Titans’ Cinderella run from the six seed to the AFC Championship game last year. Upon reflection, I suppose I did, if only to a point – like the rest of gridiron observing public, I had a good guffaw at Logan Ryan’s pick six of Tom Brady to seal the Patriots’ unceremonious ouster. But for the most part, I found their late-season surge and deep playoff run dull and dispiriting.

First, there’s the matter of how they made the playoffs in the first place. Let’s face it, last season the rest of the AFC treated the six seed like it causes cancer. I seem to recall that, as late as Thanksgiving, both the Steelers and the Raiders had far more feasible shots at a Wild Card before deciding it was more expedient to blow it and try again next year. Good on the Titans for capitalizing on the misfortune of others, I suppose, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. This is a team that’s been stuck at 9-7 for multiple years now, and I don’t see any real reason why things should be different this year.

There’s cause for optimism, of course. Perhaps Ryan Tannehill will continue to excel. Perhpas Derrick Henry will continue to be impossible to tackle. With the recent addition of Jadeveon Clowney, perhas the defense will be somewhat less anonymous and more fun to watch, although we’ve all been waiting for Clowney to become a megastar for years now and it has yet to happen, even though he’s clearly still pretty good. But I have a much easier time envisioning Henry getting mushed into the line for minimal gains over and over, Tannehill not performing at quite the same level (to say nothing of his performance relative to his contract) even if he does well enough, and another year of the Titans toiling toward another anonymous 9-7 finish, in accordance with their eternal destiny.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Indianapolis Colts

I know I said my piece on the Chargers already, but I managed to do so while going light on the Philip Rivers chatter, keeping it in my back pocket for this moment, specifically. After a certain point last year, Rivers was terrible, so much so that the only conceivable explanation I could discern was that the dude was washed. Brutal interceptions abounded, so Rivers felt the need to keep throwing in order to keep his team in the game, which resulted in more brutal interceptions. The success that Tom Brady and Drew Brees have had after 40 has pushed many into thinking that quarterbacks, in general, have a better shot of remaining productive for longer. When I watched Rivers last year, though, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Brady and Brees are the outliers, and that most quarterbacks, even most formerly great ones, are doomed to drop off in their late 30s.

And yet, cognitively dissonant as it may seem (and perhaps is), I’m oddly bullish on the Colts this year after adding Rivers. Granted, this is a bit misleading – it would be more accurate that I think the Colts will succeed despite Rivers than because of him. I’ve ingested a lot of takes expressing faith in Rivers’ ability to rebound in a better situation, suggesting that with a functional team around him, he’ll have a rebound season. I really don’t know about that; all of the assembled wisdom on the subject indicates that when a quarterback is done, he’s Done, and Rivers sure looked Done last year.

Rather, my belief that the Colts can take the division is almost entirely a function of my belief in Frank Reich, who rules at his job. Reich was robbed in the Coach of the Year voting in 2018 and did an unspeakably admirable job after Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. 7-9 might not pop on paper but it’s pretty damn good when you unexpectedly lose your starting quarterback a week before the season starts. They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead! They have a great offensive line! Darius Leonard is my hero! Cognitively dissonant or no, I think the Colts have everything they need to win a weak division. And if I’m wrong, it’s not like this was the first time.

Predicted Finish: 1st

Jacksonville Jaguars

Once Leonard Fournette got cut, the last remnant of the surprising 2017 Jaguars, who were the surprise team to end all surprise teams, was swept out of Duval County. Better things await everyone who escaped.

The Jaguars, now entirely bereft of talent, begin their cycle of perpetual futility anew with this season’s most obvious tank job. Doug Marrone still has his job against all odds, although I feel safe in assuming that will change soon enough. Gardner Minshew, who somehow has just as much if not more lovable dirtbag energy than true legend of the sport Blake Bortles, is entering his second year and may be kind of OK? If you’ve been paying attention to these previews so far, perhaps you’ve been able to infer that I think predictions of second year quarterbacks are mostly guesswork, and largely a function of what the individual predictor chooses to believe about said quarterback. I believe Minshew may better than your average sixth rounder, but I also believe these Jaguars are destined to pick in the Top 5 of next year’s draft, meaning he’s probably screwed.

The only reason to pay any attention to the Jaguars this year is because you have D.J. Chark in fantasy (or you’re going against someone who does) and you’re hoping he’ll rack up (or fail to rack up) a whole bunch of garbage time fantasy points. That’s as good of a reason as any to watch this dumb sport, and a good fantasy strategy, but for the rest of us there are better ways to spend a Sunday. I hate to be this dismissive as a matter of principle, but what choice do I have?

Predicted Finish: 4th

NFC South

New Orleans Saints

The Saints are the most complete team in the NFC. Brees is still kicking, Emmanuel Sanders has arrived, and the defense remains actually pretty good, as it has for the previous three seasons. They should win their division with relative ease, and quite possibly snag the only first round bye the new playoff bracket accomodates, to boot. They present as ready-made contenders in a conference that has good teams out the wazoo, but few obviously great ones.

And yet, I have a lot of trouble believing this will be the Saints’ year, because they’re starting to show a real pattern of blowing it. I hate to think this way – the form of my argument here isn’t too far removed from the types of arguments you hear on the glut of Sports Shouting shows (hat tip to 30 Rock). But looking at the past couple of Saints seasons, it’s all I can see. Yes, that was most definitely pass interference, so much so that I think it might’ve counted as DPI in the 70s(!?), but let’s not forget Brees had the ball to start overtime before throwing one of the worst ducks you ever did see. Yes, Rudolph pushed off, but the Saints weren’t supposed to let that game sniff overtime in the first place, and I’d argue they should’ve held off the 49ers a few weeks before, which would have given them a bye. Can’t help but see a pattern.

But then again, anybody who’s opinion on the subject I respect has said time and time again that winning the Super Bowl requires a fair amount of luck, so perhaps this is the year the Saints’ luck finally works in their favor. Even if it’s not, the Saints will spend most of the year looking like the best team in the NFC for the third straight season.

Predicted Finish: 1st

Atlanta Falcons

There’s a very real chance that entropy is the single defining force of professional football. Rosters churn and decay and often turn to rot, or, in the case of the Atlanta Falcons, reduce from a bunch of guys you remember from the last time they were good down to a couple of guys left over from back then. My booze-addled memory has the toughest time keeping up with this kind of turnover; it would be infinitely easier on me if the team had simply decided to blow everything up and start fresh.

But that’s not what has happened here. The Falcons still have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, as well as…some other guys, presumably. Is Devonta Freeman still around? No? How about Vic Beasley? Also no? How about uh…uh…you get the idea. Dan Quinn is also still the coach despite going into last season as a dead man walking. I feel bad for the guy; the Falcons were successful enough for a bit there under his tenure that I feel like he must be doing something right. Then again, it’s his sixth season and his defense still sucks and it sucked even more when he was calling the plays at the start of 2019. I just get the sense that when he is inevitably replaced, his successor is gonna be yet another useless Belichick disciple.

I’m getting off topic again. My point is that the Falcons’ roster seems to be in a state of decay and their coach is all but a lame duck. Whether that adds up to a team that is actively noxious or simply not very good remains to be seen.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I’m trying to think about the last time I tried to write of the Brady-led Patriots. I’m pretty sure it was after that Monday Night game against the Chiefs in 2014, wherein the Patriots got their organs liquefied. That was a good time, one that was quickly erased when those motherfuckers immediately rallied and went on a tear that ended with their first Super Bowl victory in a decade, one that eventually ushered in Dynasty II: Dynasty Harder. I say all this because I’m about to write off a team led by Tom Brady, and I want to acknowledge beforehand that I know this is a terrible idea.

Let’s start with the most pertinent fact – Brady is 43, and isn’t coming off of his finest season, exactly. Yes, his receiving corps was terrible and that certainly didn’t help, but that hasn’t stopped Brady from being himself in the past. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin obviously present a vast upgrade, however, and perhaps those two will be able to bail Brady out if his arm fails him entirely (remember what I said when discussing Rivers: done quarterbacks are done). Gronk is here also, I guess, although the dude spent a year in retirement and while he may be productive, I’m skeptical he’ll be a force unto himself. What I’m getting at is that when I was afraid of Brady, I was afraid of the Brady-Belichick duo specifically; 43-year-old Tom Brady by himself, in a new-to-him, high-risk offense? Not so much.

I’m probably wrong, of course. Dude will probably have a 38:10 TD/INT ratio and walk over most everyone. The Bucs also have a good defense and a good defensive coordinator, although it’s worth mentioning that their particular expertise was stopping the run. That’s cool and all, but it’s also not much of a help when you’re trying to stop Michael Thomas and Julio Jones. Anyway, I officially predict unspectacular disaster for the Bucs because they’re still the Bucs. I also officially predict they’ll snag a Wild Card out of the deal, because if I’ve learned anything about gambling it’s the value of the hedge.

Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)

Carolina Panthers

I love Teddy Bridgewater more than I love most things. I want nothing but the best for him, and I was glad he was able to rehabilitate his image somewhat when Brees spent a few weeks on the sideline last year. It was enough to get him a starting job, but unfortunately, not enough to get him a starting job for a better team than the Panthers.

I got stuck watching more Panthers games than is medically advisable last year, and almost all of that season was a grim slog. Kyle Allen (who isn’t even on the team anymore but stay with me for a sec) got some shine in his first few starts, but trust me, he was garbage even then, fumbling the ball damn near every time he was touched by anything stronger than a stiff breeze. Once Ron Rivera was canned, the entire team quit to a degree I didn’t think possible. None of this bears on what Matt Rhule does with the team, but it left a terrible taste in my mouth, like owner David Tepper can’t read a room and thinks firing respected coaches mid-season comes without real consequences. I’m probably reading into these events too much, but I’m not optimistic about where this team is going.

There’s a real chance that Teddy and Christian McCaffrey are a match made in heaven – Teddy loves throwing underneath – but beyond that it’s unclear what this team could possibly be good at. If there’s one lesson the Jets, Browns, and Jaguars of the league can teach us, it’s that not all rebuilds are destined to succeed. I’m not saying the Panthers are doomed, I’m just saying they’re probably doomed.

Predicted Finish: 4th

Tomorrow: AFC & NFC East

5 thoughts on “2020 NFL Preview, Part 2: The South

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