We’ll start in the AFC. I’ll put the best teams in three tiers. One: Kansas City, Baltimore. Two: Tennessee. Three (not in order): Buffalo, Miami, New England, Indianapolis, Houston, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Denver. In other words, the fight for the last four playoff spots will be fierce.
I thought one of the most interesting things about this unusual preseason was inside the Super Bowl ring awarded to every Kansas City champion player and coach last week. The score of all three playoff victories was carved there, along with the deficits in each game: 24 to Houston, 10 to Tennessee, 10 (with eight minutes left in the game) to San Francisco. It was a gallant postseason by an excellent team, a team that returns 20 of 22 starters and 20 of 21 coaches.
I don’t have a logical reason to tell you that Kansas City won’t win again. I just have history. It’s happened twice in 25 years. Even the teams that looked peerless—the 2010 champion Packers went 15-1 the next year and got creamed by the Giants in the divisional game—turned out to be flawed. So we’ll see. We also don’t know how COVID-19 will factor into the season, if at all, or whether quieter stadia will matter. And KC’s road schedule (Baltimore; Buffalo on a short-week Thursday; Tampa Bay; New Orleans) is one of the toughest in the league. But I know: It’s foolish to bet against Mahomes and the deepest trove of weapons in the AFC. I just think it’ll be harder this year.
Niblets on the contenders:
• Baltimore. I’m nettled a bit by Lamar Jackson’s two straight playoff clunkers (51-percent passing, 68.3 rating) but think two games do not a reputation make. The Ravens have the most advantageous schedule and road schedule in football. Their 2020 foes had the worst combined record in football last year. And after playing at Houston in Week 2, Baltimore’s longest road trip is a 70-minute flight (Indy). The Mark Ingram–J.K. Dobbins one-two punch should be the best in the AFC.
• As for Tennessee, if you read my column last week, you know Tennessee has something special with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith calling the shots—with lots of changeup pitches—in a versatile offense. Did you know Ryan Tannehill last year had the best passer rating from a clean pocket, and the best rating in the game since 2013? Third-round pick Darrynton Evans, if healthy, should be the changeup to Derrick Henry that Smith has wanted. The defense is a concern. But no contender needed the impact of a Jadeveon Clowney more than Tennessee’s defensive front, and so the Titans bought him Saturday night. They’ll need him to chase Drew Lock in Denver in a dangerous game next Monday night.
• Buffalo will be good enough on defense, but Josh Allen worries me. The Bills were held under 20 points in their last five games of 2019. Is the addition of Stefon Diggs enough to get them off the offensive schneid?
• The Tua Tagovailoa watch is on in Miami. But if the Dolphins win 10 games as I think they can, the more important additions will come on defense, in corner Byron Jones and versatile linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
• New England is the mystery team of the NFL, and I’m sure Bill Belichick likes it that way. While the world will rightfully focus on the acclimation of Cam Newton to Belichickland, watch and see how the Patriots adjust to the loss of four starting-caliber linebackers.
• In Indianapolis, I could see Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor being 1,000-yard rushing twins. Frank Reich would sleep better if he didn’t have to rely on Philip Rivers to throw for 340 every week to have a chance to win.
• Why are these numbers significant for Houston: 41, 38, 35, 51? Point totals for foes in four of the Texans’ last nine games, and I don’t see how their defense is much better.
• Since turning 33 in 2015, Ben Roethlisberger has missed 22 starts due to injury for Pittsburgh, 14 of them last year. If he plays 16 games at 38, the Steelers could upset Baltimore and win the division. “Could,” not necessarily “will.” But coming off major elbow surgery, that’s a gamble.
• So much of the Las Vegas allure is their strong base of young talent. Will Derek Carr be good enough and consistent enough to lift Henry Ruggs to greatness and the other offensive weapons to 10 wins? It’s on Carr.
• Denver has changed its offensive identity like no other team in football over the last 18 months. If Drew Lock is even a “B” quarterback, Denver has a chance to make a huge jump from a team that’s won 5, 6 and 7 games the last three years.
AFC Playoff Seeds
- Kansas City
- Las Vegas
AFC Championship Game
Jan. 24, 2021, at Baltimore: Baltimore 27, Tennessee 22.
Three tiers for the NFC. One: New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Tampa Bay. Two: Minnesota, Philadelphia. Three: Detroit, Green Bay, Arizona, L.A. Rams.
This conference is a nightmare to predict. I woke up early the other day, sat down, scrawled out NFC playoff seedings, and then Sunday put them in an altogether different order. I’ve gone through a period where I thought I’d have Seattle leapfrog everyone into the top seed, but then I figured being in the toughest division in football could give them three division losses. Dallas is the top seed not because I think the Cowboys are the runaway best team but because they’re good, because their front seven should be a monster and their offensive attack very hard to stop, and because they’ve got six games against Cincinnati, Cleveland, the Giants and Washington. New Orleans is a logical top seed, and this is their last best chance in a jumbled conference to give the Saints chance for a second Super Bowl in the Drew Brees era, in probably his last football game. San Francisco, up by two scores with eight minutes left in the Super Bowl and with so many key guys returning, is a logical pick, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Niners went 12-4 and steamed to the top seed. I’m picking Seattle to edge the Niners in the division. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s a referendum on the quarterbacks, but that has much to do with it. I trust Russell Wilson over Jimmy Garoppolo.
I have waffled between the Saints, Seahawks, Niners and Bucs. Now I’m landing on the Bucs to survive the gauntlet of the NFC, and to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl on their home field.
It’s crazy, picking a 43-year-old quarterback in his first year out of the New England cocoon to make the Super Bowl. It would be Tom Brady’s 10th Super Bowl, by the way, a totally insane achievement that I doubt sincerely will ever be repeated in any of our lifetimes. Three reasons for picking the Bucs:
1. Brady. Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions in 16 games last year. Brady has thrown 30 interceptions in his last 64 games. You can be pretty sure the Bucs’ turnover numbers—an astounding 41 giveaways—will be cut in half, or close to that, this year. A telling note about the 41 giveaways: The last team to have that many in a season was Cleveland, in 2017. The Browns went 0-16 that year. The Bucs won seven games while turning it over 2.6 times a game. So to put the ball in the hands of a caretaker who still is playing well should pay dividends. (Pro Football Focus metrics counter the common wisdom that Brady had a poor year in 2019, and point out his Patriot receiver group collectively had the worst season of any receiver in the 14 years PFF has been grading every snap of NFL games). His third tight end in Tampa, Cameron Brate, would have been a top-end starter in New England last year. Other than Julian Edelman, the Bucs have five weapons this year (Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and someone you will hear more about this year, smurfy and speedy Scotty Miller) better than any the Pats had in the passing game. The run game, with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, will be at least as good as the one New England had last year. Plus, Brady has heard and filed away everything in the public view about him. Too old, washed up, can’t win without Belichick. “Everybody’s got an opinion about a lot of different things,” Brady told me in camp, and you could tell what he thinks about those opinions. “My opinion is the only one that matters to me. In the end, you can prove them wrong or prove them right.”
2. It’s honestly not that big a leap from 7-9 to the conference title. Remember late last season? The Bucs had won four in a row, holding four foes to 21 points a game, entering the last two games against Houston and Atlanta. Winston’s six picks in those two games led to two one-possession losses. Tampa would have won 10 games with an efficient offense last year. Winning 10 or 11 this year is certainly not hard to envision.
3. Winning in January on the road. Brady’s done it in Pittsburgh twice. He did it two years ago, at 41, in Kansas City, outdueling Patrick Mahomes. With the formidable Saints favored (logically) to win the South, it’s possible Brady would need three January road wins to make the Super Bowl. Tough duty. The Super Bowl has been won by a team with a first-round playoff bye for seven straight years. But particularly in a year when home-field advantage might be diminished because of COVID (“might”), it’s not such a leap to think there could be a Giants of ’07 or Packers of ’10, a low seed that runs the table on the road to win the Super Bowl. Think of the road Tampa might have to travel to win the conference as a low seed: winning at Seattle, Dallas and New Orleans, let’s say, in a 15-day span. Ten years ago, Green Bay had to win at Philly, Atlanta and Chicago—the top three seeds—in 15 days. The difference here, of course, is that Brady’s used to big games in January and no one else on the Bucs is; they haven’t been to the playoffs in 13 years. So Brady will have a lot to shoulder if this happens.
Notes on the rest of the contenders:
• A three-way battle in the NFC North, I think, falls Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay, in that order. The Vikes’ running game is strong, and the trade of Stefon Diggs for Justin Jefferson, in time, will be a win for Minnesota. Detroit was averaging 391 yards per game on offense at midseason, top five in the league, when Matthew Stafford was lost for the year. Not sure of the ratio in the backfield now that Adrian Peterson is a Lion, but the run game will be good enough. The defense will have four ex-Pats starting, but the most important addition will be cornerback Jeff Okudah, who needs to be a day-one stopper with Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray and Drew Brees on the schedule in the first month. As for the Packers, they did nothing to help a needy receiver corps, and they return the same core on D (minus linebacker Blake Martinez) that allowed 37 points to the Niners twice in the last eight games
• Philadelphia has an unsettled offensive line and questions at receiver; I’m dying to see how Jalen Hurts, the second-round Swiss-Army-Knife rookie, fits in.
• Arizona fascinates me. The Cards are one of those teams, suddenly explosive with DeAndre Hopkins and the underrated Kenyan Drake in the backfield who will explode on any given Sunday and embarrass some good teams.
• The Rams went from the Super Bowl to a shaky 9-7 team, out of the playoffs, three times allowing 44 points or more. They need Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to play like the best in the league at their positions, and they need Jared Goff to play like a $33-million-a-year quarterback, not like a guy they exited the season with major questions about.
NFC Playoff Seeds
- New Orleans
- San Francisco
- Tampa Bay
NFC Championship Game
Jan. 24, 2021, at New Orleans: Tampa Bay 23, New Orleans 17.
Super Bowl LV
Feb. 7 (or thereabouts), 2021, at Tampa: Tampa Bay 30, Baltimore 26.
What a story that would be.