Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the world of sports, the cancellation of the preseason, and key players opting to stay at home for health and safety reasons, the NFL is set to begin its 2020-21 season on schedule on Thursday, September 10. Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs will attempt to defend their Super Bowl victory, kicking off the season on Thursday night against the Houston Texans.

Familiar faces in new places will shake up the face of the league and provide plenty of intrigue in 2020. Headlining the offseason was six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots, the only team he’s ever played for, to play his 21st NFL season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This left the Patriots, a perennial Super Bowl contender, at a crossroads at the quarterback position for the first time in two decades. But it wouldn’t be long until the Patriots added a former NFL MVP to fill Brady’s shoes: former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. 

As the quarterback carousel continued to spin, Teddy Bridgewater would become the starter for the Panthers, and in another move of a Pro Bowl quarterback leaving the only team he’s ever played for, Philip Rivers will run the show for the Indianapolis Colts.

Four key races to watch for in the 2020-21 NFL season include:

  1. Chiefs and Ravens Battle for AFC’s Top Seed
    • Last year, the Ravens won the AFC at 14-2, while the Chiefs finished 12-4 after a mid-season rough patch. With just one first round bye this season under the league’s new playoff format, earning the conference’s best record could be a season-long battle that extends in to Week 17. The Ravens and Chiefs meet on September 28 in Baltimore. 
  2. AFC East Up for Grabs: Or Is It?
    • New England has won the AFC East for 11 consecutive seasons, and 15 of the last 16 (finishing second in 2008 in a year Brady played only one game.) But now with Brady out, as well as some key defensive players opting out, there’s some uncertainty surrounding Cam Newton’s Patriots. Their ceiling is high with Newton, but the Buffalo Bills are looking to improve on last season’s 10-6 record. The New York Jets could also be a darkhorse candidate should the Patriots fall from their throne. 
  3. NFC Two-Team Races
    • On paper, each NFC division has two teams that seem pretty likely to remain in playoff contention. Of course, games aren’t played on paper, but right now I’d consider the Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East, Vikings and Packers in the NFC North, Saints and Buccaneers in the NFC South, and Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West to be the prohibitive favorites to make the playoffs. Eight teams and only seven playoff positions would leave one odd man out. 
  4. AFC South Could be Competitive
    • The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans will both look to qualify for the playoffs again in 2020. The Colts finished 7-9 with Jacoby Brissett as their starter, but hope to receive a bump in wins with veteran Philip Rivers at quarterback. The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t looking too good on paper, would could mean two easy wins for each of the other three teams in the AFC South.

Methodology

In the past (check out my 2019-20 NFL predictions here,) I roughly guessed each team’s wins total and then adjusted some records to make sure there were 256 wins spread across the league.

This year I took a more meticioulus approach, using playoffpredictors.com to choose the outcome of each and every matchup over the course of the NFL’s 17-week season. 

The following standings and playoff bracket are the results of the game outcomes I chose.

SEE ALSO: Week 1 NFL Picks

AFC North

Browns Steve Wilks: Lamar Jackson can only be simulated in video games

(Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

  • 2nd seed: Baltimore Ravens (15-1)
  • Cleveland Browns (7-9)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers (5-11)
  • Cincinnati Bengals (3-13)

After dominating the regular season last year with a 14-2 record, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens do it again in 2020 with a 15-1 record. I only have them losing in Week 3, to the defending Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. Unfortunately with this head-to-head loss, Baltimore ends up as the second seed in the AFC. I have no doubt the Ravens will be a regular season powerhouse: but the big question will be if Jackson can improve on his 0-2 career playoff record.

The Cleveland Browns finish in second place at 7-9, improving their record by one win from lat year. The Pittsburgh Steelers will get Ben Roethlisberger back this year, but I see Pittsburgh regressing from 8-8 to 5-11.

The transition to the NFL will be anything but easy for first overall pick Joe Burrow. He’ll struggle mightily in the first half of the season, before stringing together a couple wins to avoid the league’s worst record. Cincinnati finished 3-13, a one-game improvement from 2019.

AFC South

Houston Texans must lock down Deshaun Watson with an extension

(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

  • 3rd seed: Houston Texans (11-5)
  • 5th seed: Tennessee Titans (11-5)
  • 7th seed: Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
  • Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

The AFC South will be a tough division to play in, and ultimately with the expanded playoff field, I see three teams from the division pushing through to the playoffs. At the top of the AFC South, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans will jockey for the position of first place. Tennessee is still riding high off an AFC Championship appearance, and the team should continue to make noise in 2020. Though they finish with identical 11-5 records, Deshaun Watson and the Texans earn the conference’s third seed by virtue of tiebreakers.

I think Philip Rivers and the Indianapolis Colts will be good, but not great. So why will they qualify for the playoffs? A soft start to their schedule will see them begin the season at 4-2. Indianapolis will only need to go 5-5 the rest of the way to finish with a winning record, as well as the conference’s seventh and final playoff seed.

The Jacksonville Jaguars will be in heavy rebuilding mode. It’s a shame, as the team made a deep playoff run with Blake Bortles and an elite defense just a couple seasons ago. Now, they will be in line for the league’s worst record, and potentially, the rights to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL Draft.

AFC East

For Bills fans outside Buffalo, here's how to watch Patriots game without  cable or satellite | Buffalo Bills News | NFL | buffalonews.com

(Photo: Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

  • 4th seed: New England Patriots (11-5)
  • 6th seed: Buffalo Bills (11-5)
  • New York Jets (7-9)
  • Miami Dolphins (4-12)

The AFC East, long-dominated by the Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots, could be an interesting division in 2020. The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets finished strong in 2019, and will try to carry that momentum into the new year. The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs with a 10-6 record for their first postseason appearence since 1999, and will attempt to qualify again in consecutive years. Heading into the season, I’d call Buffalo the favorite to win the AFC East.

But as I picked the results of all 256 regular season NFL games for this season, something alarming happened. Cam Newton had the Patriots hovering around .500 for most of the season, and the Bills led the AFC East up until Week 16. I gave the Patriots a home win over the Bills, and by Week 17… New England had locked up yet another AFC East title, with one less win than last year. Belichick might earn Coach of the Year honors for winning his division with a new quarterback and some key defensive players sitting out.

The Jets finish 7-9 for the second year in a row. They can beat bad to average teams, but I struggle to see the Jets beating many, if any, playoff-caliber teams. Trading away Jamal Adams will be both a tangible loss on the field for the Jets defense, as well as a team morale loss as the Jets move on from their defensive captain and superstar. The Dolphins won’t be as bad as they were in the first half of 2019, but I only found them winning four games in 2020. Whether it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins have a bit more improvement to make before contending.

AFC West

Patrick Mahomes on his record-setting contract, new expectations, and more  as 2020 NFL training camps near - CBSSports.com

(Photo: Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)

  • 1st seed: Kansas City Chiefs (15-1)
  • Las Vegas Raiders (6-10)
  • Denver Broncos (6-10)
  • Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs steamroll to a 15-1 record and the AFC’s top seed in 2020. But with the Ravens right on their tail, they’ll have to play their starters through Week 17 in order to earn a first-round bye.

On paper, no team is better than the Chiefs. But predicting a 16-0 finish is a bit of a leap, so I gave them one loss: Week 15 in New Orleans. I have them beating the Ravens, Texans, Patriots, and Buccaneers en route to their dominant regular season finish.

The rest of the division represents the definition of the “average” team in 2020. The Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos, and Los Angeles Chargers aren’t bad teams, they’re just not great. Surely one of these three teams could make a surprise playoff run with a couple more victories. But the AFC West is squarely the Chiefs for the taking: even if Mahomes went down with an injury, I’d trust the Chiefs’ roster to continue winning football games.

NFC North

Late Kirk Cousins interception dooms Vikings in 21-16 loss at Green Bay –  Twin Cities

(Photo: Mike Roemer/Associated Press)

  • 4th seed: Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
  • Green Bay Packers (8-8)
  • Chicago Bears (7-9)
  • Detroit Lions (4-12)

After finishing 10-6 and earning a wildcard spot in 2019, the Minnesota Vikings improve to 11-5 with a first place NFC North finish in 2020. It’s less about the quarterback play of Kirk Cousins, and rather some solid defense and stellar wide receiver play that earns the Vikings the division title. A 5-1 record within the NFC North propels the Vikings to a comfortable lead.

I’m not huge on the Green Bay Packers. Yes, they finished 13-3 last year with a solid defense. But Aaron Rodgers is getting older, and the team did little this offseason to improve their immediate contention odds. Could Green Bay make the playoffs in 2020, or even repeat as NFC North champions? Certainly. But personally I see them taking a step back and missing the final wildcard seed by just one game.

The Chicago Bears are right behind them at 7-9. Many NFL analysts are predicting the Bears to have even fewer wins this season. I see a solid team, a strong defense, and whether its Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles, middle-of-the-road quarterback play. Chicago could play with and beat almost any team in the league. So they win just under half their games, in striking distance of the postseason if they can squeeze in a couple more victories.

I have the Detroit Lions finishing last in the NFC North at 4-12, with an 0-6 divisional record. Matthew Stafford will still probably pass for 5,000 yards if he plays out the full season. 

NFC South

Tom Brady Bucs Camp, an inside look at QB - Peter King, NBC Sports

(Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

  • 2nd seed: New Orleans Saints (13-3)
  • 6th seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)
  • Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
  • Carolina Panthers (4-12)

Many eyes will be on the NFC South in 2020, as Tom Brady takes over as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This will pit him against fellow future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints twice a season, as the two legendary quarterbacks compete for the NFC South title.

The Saints finished 13-3 last year, tied for the best record in the NFC with the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. They’re the deserving favorite to win the NFC South again, as Brees and Sean Payton attempt to finally make a deep playoff run.

I don’t think the addition of Brady, and subsequently, LeSean McCoy, Rob Gronkowski, and Leonard Fournette, makes Tampa Bay a “superteam” by any means, but the Buccaneers will definitely improve on their 7-9 record from 2019.  

A relatively soft schedule sees the Buccaneers finish at 12-4, right behind the Saints who repeat as the division’s winner at 13-3. Tampa Bay does manage to split the season series with the Saints, and they would love to see a third meeting in the playoffs. The Buccaneers earn the NFC’s sixth seed.

Just a few seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the Atlanta Falcons continue to struggle and finish 4-12. The Carolina Panthers finish with the same record, despite decent-to-good play from Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback,

NFC East

Carson Wentz, Eagles D Hold off Dak Prescott, Cowboys for Crucial NFC East  Win | Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights

(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

  • 3rd seed: Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)
  • 7th seed: Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  • New York Giants (7-9)
  • Washington Football Team (2-14)

With a healthier squad and some offseason reinforcements, the Philadelphia Eagles make their second-straight run atop of the NFC East. A 6-0 record against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Washington Football Team earns Philadelphia six of their twelve wins, with a so-so 6-4 record outside of the NFC East.

The Cowboys are a well-rounded football team that can beat any team in the league, even elite playoff teams. I just don’t trust them to do it consistently enough to win the division. If they defeated the Eagles twice instead of losing twice, however, they would hypothetically be the division winner at 11-5. In my scenario, I have Dallas as the seventh and final seed in the NFC playoffs.

While I began this offseason as a bit of a pessimist for the Giants, my team, I found myself predicting a big step forward when I chose game-by-game. Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley and the Giants improve to 7-9 after a 4-12 finish in 2019. And what’s more is their opportunity to re-write the script: I projected New York to go 0-4 against the Eagles and Cowboys in 2020. Winning two of these games but the Giants in wildcard contention at 9-7.

The Washington Football Team will have a long season that they wish they could fast forward through. On the field, the team is lacking offensive weapons, Dwayne Haskins still has a lot of work to do to be a serviceable NFL starter, and the defense that gave up 435 points last season (compared to only 266 points scored) will face some tough tasks. Washington finishes 2-14, tied for the worst record in the league.

NFC West

Russell Wilson vs. 49ers' No. 1 defense: Monday night's prime-time matchup  - SFChronicle.com

(Photo: AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

  • 1st seed: Seattle Seahawks (14-2)
  • 5th seed: San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
  • Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
  • Los Angeles Rams (2-14)

Two of the NFC’s best teams will fight for playoff positioning again in 2020, as the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers both look to qualify for the playoffs again. Last year, San Francisco won the NFC West at 13-3, and nearly won the Super Bowl over the Chiefs.

This season, with defensive stud Jamal Adams on the roster, I have the Seahawks finishing 14-2 and earning the best record in the conference. I have Seattle starting 7-0 before a road loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Seahawks’ other loss comes as a part of their 1-1 split with the San Francisco 49ers.  

The 49ers regress just one win from 2019, with a 12-4 record. They started 6-0 in my predictions, before back-to-back losses to the New England Patriots and then the Seahawks.

I really like Kyler Murray and the Cardinals to make some noise this season. But the best record I could give them was 7-9, an improvement from their 5-10-1 in Murray’s rookie year.

I didn’t think the Los Angeles Rams would be particularity bad, but in almost every matchup, the other team seemed better on paper. When all was said and done, the Rams had a putrid 2-14 record, tied for worst in the NFL. Out of all my projections, this one feels the most off. But at the same time, I do think Jared Goff and the Rams will have a losing record, and quite possibly a fourth-place NFC West finish, in 2020. 

 

 

AFC Wildcard Round

  • #5 Titans at #4 Patriots

For the second straight year, Ryan Tannehill and the Titans boot Belichick and the Patriots from the postseason. While Brady isn’t there this year, there’s still a sense that the Titans have the Patriots number after their second road playoff victory in New England in as many years. 

Titans win 24-17

  • #6 Bills at #3 Texans

In another rematch of last season’s wildcard matchups, the Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills meet for the second straight year. Buffalo will be a better team in 2020 than they were in 2019: which is why it hurts to predict them ending their season in literally the exact same spot.

Texans win 16-13

  • #7 Colts and #2 Ravens

Lamar Jackson has caught a lot of flak, much of it unwarranted, for his 0-2 career playoff record. In this year’s playoffs, only the top-seeded team in each conference gets a bye week. So while the Ravens finish 15-1, they still play on wildcard weekend against the lowest seed on their side of the bracket, the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens roll to an easy win for Jackson’s first playoff victory.

Ravens win 42-16

NFC Wildcard Round

  • #5 49ers at #4 Vikings

In yet another rematch of first-round matchups from the previous postseason, the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings meet again. Unlike last year, this time Cousins and the Vikings serve as the home team. But the 49ers still dominate the Vikings to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.

49ers win 33-13

  • #6 Buccaneers at #3 Eagles

Both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles come into this matchup with a 12-4 record. If the Eagles are still a mostly healthy team at this point in the season, they’ll be dangerous and likely favored in this game. But Tom Brady is a postseason legend. The six-time Super Bowl champion knows a thing or two about winning in the playoffs, and that experience will help him lead a first-round upset of the Eagles.

Buccaneers win 24-17

  • #2 Saints over #7 Cowboys

Despite being a matchup of the second and seventh seeds, this could be a tough game to predict. The New Orleans Saints edged out a grueling 12-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the 2019 regular season, but it proved the Cowboys defense could keep Brees and the Saints offense under control. I would go with the Saints again in this scenario, but given their recent playoff woes, wouldn’t be shocked by a Cowboys upset.

Saints win 23-20

AFC Divisional Round

  • #3 Texans at #2 Ravens

Jackson and the Ravens take on Watson and the Texans for rights to play in the AFC Championship game. If there is indeed a curse placed on Jackson in the playoffs, this would probably be the time for it to rear its head. But if things play out as they should, the Ravens are simply the better team. Jackson quickly turns his 0-2 playoff record in to a 2-2 record heading into the AFC Championship game.

  • #5 Titans at #1 Chiefs

In a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship, the Tennessee Titans take on the Kansas City Chiefs. While Tennessee jumped out to an early lead last year, this time the Chiefs will handle them right out of the gate, blowing them out to reach their third straight AFC Championship game.

Chiefs win 45-24

NFC Divisional Round

  • #5 49ers at #2 Saints

When the 49ers and Saints met in Week 14 of the 2019 regular season, it produced one of the wildest results in recent memory: a last-minute 48-46 win by the 49ers. 

I doubt this playoff meeting would breed similar results, but I would expect the final result to be just as close. These are two of the NFC’s best teams, and seeing them go head-to-head will be a pleasure. San Francisco’s defense is such a different beast when compared to any other team, and while they won’t shut down the Saints offense, they’ll keep them under control and set the 49ers up for a chance at victory.

49ers win 27-24

  • #6 Buccaneers at #1 Seahawks

Tom Brady and Russell Wilson meet in the postseason for the second time, after Brady’s Patriots took the Super Bowl over Wilson’s Seahawks. 

Brady and the Buccaneers will be tasked with playing in the tough environment of CenturyLink Field. Even if fans are still barred from games in January, traveling across the country and playing in Seattle can be a tall task. 

I would expect nothing less than spectacular plays and an unbelievable finish in this matchup, but I’ll take the NFC’s top seed to advance to the Championship Round. Brady fails to reach the Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa Bay, but a 12-4 record with a playoff win can hardly be considered a failure.

Seahawks win 31-28

Conference Championships

  • AFC: #2 Ravens over #1 Chiefs

The AFC Championship we’ve all been waiting for. Two of the most dominant teams the NFL has seen this decade, with two quarterbacks who represent the future of the position. Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. The 15-1 Baltimore Ravens, whose only loss came at the hands of the 15-1 Kansas City Chiefs.

Expectations would be so high for this game, I’m not sure they could realistically be lived up to. The Chiefs would be the home team and favorite in this scenario, and most would agree that Kansas City has the edge over Baltimore from a talent standpoint.

But by this time, Jackson will already have the playoff-win monkey off his back. The Ravens will be riding in on 15 straight wins, The Chiefs could definitely take this game to reach their second straight Super Bowl and start early talks of a dynasty. But with back-to-back Super Bowl winners so rare, its possible they’ll be stopped before they get the chance to play in the big game again.

Give me Jackson and the Ravens in an outcome of historic proportions. 

Ravens win 38-35

  • NFC: #1 Seahawks over #2 Saints

Both Wilson’s Seahawks and Brees’ Saints have been perennial playoff contenders for most of the past decade. Yet, Brees has just one Super Bowl appearance, way back in 2009, and Wilson has two, but none since 2015. Both quarterbacks and teams are due for another championship run. This NFC Championship game guarantees either the Saints or Seahawks a shot at the Super Bowl.

Through my predictions, I have the Seahawks as one of the best teams in the NFL. The Saints are right up there with them, but home-field advantage will play a key role in determining the winner. While Seattle isn’t as cold as you would think in January, any weather conditions could potentially hinder the Saints, who play their home games in a dome.

I love this matchup and think it could give way to a classic game. I’m taking the Seahawks with their defense keeping the Saints in check (a common theme by this point: because keeping them in check is more realistic than shutting them down.)

Seahawks win 24-20

Super Bowl 55

Seahawks-Ravens Final Score: Seattle loses 30-16 at home to Baltimore -  Field Gulls

(Photo: Steven Bisig/USA Today Sports)

Lamar Jackson has bounced back from the 0-2 start to his playoff career, winning three straight games to reach the Super Bowl. By this point, the Ravens are 18-1, showing start-to-finish dominance over the course of the NFL season.

For Russell Wilson, this would be his third time leading the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Seattle blew out Denver in 2013’s unique New York-New Jersey Super Bowl, but lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2014.

This matchup would be strength vs. strength, with Baltimore’s electric offense going up against Pete Carroll’s savy Seattle defense. Wilson and Carroll’s experience in the big game also shouldn’t go understated.

But after beating the Kansas City Chiefs, the best team in the NFL for two straight seasons, the Ravens come in to the Super Bowl as narrow favorites. And they deliver in that position, earning the Super Bowl 55 trophy.

Ravens win 27-20

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