Training camps are readying to get underway in the NFL, and that means teams can finally get to the task of attempting to overthrow the Kansas City Chiefs to become the newest Super Bowl champion, as long as all can adhere to . Last year's postseason was absolutely electric at every turn, and nearly saw a Cinderella team, i.e., the Tennessee Titans, bulldoze their way to Miami after upsetting both the New England Patriots and the No. 1-seeded Baltimore Ravens on the road. In the NFC, clutch play from Kirk Cousins and Co. helped lift the Minnesota Vikings to an upset over the favored New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and there was of course the added officiating controversy.
As the world begins to slowly smile at the thought of an NFL season that not only gets underway, but also as scheduled in September, they do so knowing the next postseason might even be more wild than any that have come before it.
That's because as a part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the playoffs have been expanded from 12 to 14 teams, with one additional club from each conference being allowed in. That's good news for teams on the fringe who might otherwise be left out in the cold, and the new format amplifies late-season competitiveness more than ever. Obviously, however, there will still be nine teams from each conference who'll see their season end in December, and there's a good chance at least four total will be a bit of a surprise to many.
For although these clubs made the playoffs in 2019, and many times prior, they have an uphill climb in 2020 that's just steep enough to potentially cost them a seat in the race to Super Bowl LV.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is a future Hall of Famer who has been known to make his team walk on water, but 2020 might be asking too much of even one of the greatest coaches ever. I don't subscribe to the belief Belichick can't win games without Tom Brady any more than I believe the opposite is true, for as long as there's a capable quarterback in New England, the wins will come. The problem is while it's quite possible a hyper-motivated Cam Newton returns to form in 2020, it's also possible he doesn't and continues battling durability demons. But, assuming the latter isn't the case, there's also the fact eight Patriots have opted out of the season thus far over COVID-19 concerns -- the most in the league by far -- and that list includes playmakers like two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
Hightower helped cornerback Stephon Gilmore lead a defense that carried the Patriots for much of the 2019 season, when the offense continuously stalled despite having Brady at center and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon helping to keep him upright. Newton, however, will not have Cannon in front of him, the veteran OL having also opted out. And while safety Patrick Chung's decision to opt out isn't as ground-splitting, it still matters. Add in durability concerns on offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel, along with the team still having not yet identified a dominant wideout outside of Julian Edelman, and Belichick is up against it like he's never been before.
Only months after Belichick lost to former pupil Brian Flores to lose home field advantage throughout the playoffs, followed by being upset on his home field by the red-hot Tennessee Titans, the deck is absolutely stacked in his opposition. In the end, it might just be too much. But if the Patriots do miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (when Brady missed 15 games due to injury), it won't be because Brady isn't in Boston, even if the timing suggests it. It'll be because the football gods simply deemed it so, considering it's routinely felt like nothing can best Belichick without the approval of Mount Olympus.
The NFC East is the NFL equivalent of the wild, wild west, and that doesn't bode well for the Eagles in 2020. The reason why is a glaring one, because there hasn't been a repeat division champ since Philadelphia dominated the scene from 2001 through 2004 -- the division crown having since been volleyballed back and forth between them and the Dallas Cowboys with the New York Giants and Washington Football Team peeking their head in once or twice. And so it goes, with the Eagles having won the East in 2019, it feels like the Cowboys are primed to take it back from them yet again in 2020 -- seeing as they have fewer question marks at key positions than their rivals in Eastern PA.
Doug Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman took a ton of flak following the NFL Draft, wherein they refused to trade up a bit to land CeeDee Lamb (which was the win-win of fixing a top need while also keeping him out of Dallas) and instead stood pat to select Jalen Reagor. This isn't to say Reagor isn't talented, because he is, but Lamb is a readymade WR1, whereas many view Reagor as a slot guy who'll now be asked to be much more, and quickly. Yes, there are rumors Alshon Jeffery is refocused, but there are also still reports the Eagles are willing to trade him after having battled through a mercurial last several months of him.
The addition of Darius Slay will do wonders for helping a porous secondary and the already impressive defensive front is that much more so with an addition like Javon Hargrave, but when Carson Wentz -- who still needs to prove he can stay healthy -- takes the field, will he have the weaponry (outside of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert) to stave off a potent Cowboys team that also now includes Lamb? And if he can't stay healthy, could Jalen Hurts instantly locate some Foles Magic in Year 1 and with limited or no first-team work prior? Both logic and the recent history within the division suggests the answer is no, especially considering the Slay-led defense still has question marks at safety as well.
All the Packers had to do was the right thing but, by most accounts, they did the exact opposite. It's a team that surprised many in the first year under head coach Matt LaFleur, who led the team to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. It was clear why they fell short against the San Francisco 49ers in that affair, being much the same reason they couldn't defeat Kyle Shanahan's and Robert Saleh's defense earlier in the season -- they couldn't put up points. The Packers scored only eight points in the first contest and 19 in the second, far more important one, and that was a bad sign for on everyone in the receiving corps not named Davante Adams.
This made for an easy enough fix, yes? Either grab another dynamic wideout in free agency or, at minimum, save your pennies and use your first-round pick on one, considering the 2020 draft was roundly considered the deepest WR talent pool in history. So when the Packers went on the clock with the 26th-overall pick, and chose quarterback Jordan Love instead of another much-needed weapon for Aaron Rodgers, it's understandable why two-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers was ... miffed. Barring an injury to Rodgers, Love does nothing for the Packers in 2020, and the glaring hole opposite Adams still exists. Only now, it exists with a rift between Rodgers and the Packers that could create a distraction, and make stacking wins that much more difficult this season.
The good news for the Packers is their pass rush is stellar, led by the Smith Bros., and you have to like the progression of players in the secondary like Kevin King and Adrian Amos, but it still feels like they'll end up relying too heavily on getting takeaways or exhausting said pass rush over the course of four quarters.
And when they do take the ball away, will it be the same WR-needy Packers of 2019 who averaged only 23.5 points per game? Nothing yet indicates it won't be, and with an already peeved Rodgers rolling his eyes with every offensive failure -- knowing he needed another threat at wideout but instead getting another body in the QB room -- en route to watching the Minnesota Vikings remain the frontrunner in the division and likely bumping them out of playoff contention in the process.
Deshaun Watson is a man amongst boys, and that's a scientific fact. What he does on a regular basis to will the Texans into wins that should've easily been losses makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the sport, and he'll soon be compensated as such. What works against Watson, however, are variables outside of his control, as in general manager Bill O'Brien and the roster moves he's made that puts the team seemingly behind the eight ball in its attempt to three-peat as the AFC South champs. Of course you know I'm referring to the decision to ship out three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, in a move that was .
Kudos to the Texans for attempting to patch the dam with the addition of Brandin Cooks, but Cooks delivered only 583 yards and two touchdowns in 14 starts for the Los Angeles Rams last year, and his prime seasons -- while impressive and deserving of a hearty salute -- don't hold a candle to what Hopkins did and became for the Texans in his time with the club. It's big shoes for Cooks to fill, and he's to figure out how to do so without the benefit of a traditional training camp (or preseason) to build needed chemistry with Watson, and the same goes for Randall Cobb, who signed a big money deal in free agency to leave the Cowboys and head to South Texas. And then there are continued questions about the availability of Will Fuller, a dynamic talent who has had more than his share of battles with the injury bug as of late.
Defensively, you have to like what you see from a defensive front that still boasts J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, but the supporting cast will need to take the next step and add to what could be an onslaught upfront. Elite safety play from Tashaun Gipson and Justin Reid masked some glaring holes/issues at corner, with injury creating much of the latter, making health and/or depth at corner something to be rightfully concerned about if you're Houston.
Ultimately, while Watson is absolute teflon, Batman no longer has his Robin and Alfred -- namely O'Brien -- might've handicapped him to a great degree in a season wherein the surging Tennessee Titans want all the smoke in the AFC South, and has also proven to have questionable outings as a coach that can and have cost the Texans key games. Considering the Titans also haven't won the division since 2008, well, they have as much motivation as they have the talent to shove the unsettled Texans out of their way to make it happen.