The Lamar Jackson era is upon us and, despite the Baltimore Ravens falling short in the 2019 playoffs, it is tough to ignore their dominant regular season (14-2). While defenses will get smarter in slowing down the Ravens’ multi-faceted running game and forcing Jackson to beat them as a passer, Baltimore are still going to put up points.The Pittsburgh Steelers are a prime bounce-back candidate after a wretched 2019. Ben Roethlisberger is back, the defensive line is among the NFL’s best units and they have a knack for unearthing talented pass catchers. Expect to see the Steelers back in the postseason this year.
If the Cleveland Browns can put all the pieces together, this division might be the most competitive in the league. Questionable coaching and regression from Baker Mayfield submarined the Browns last season, but there is reason for hope with Stefanski at the helm and a running game that should be elite with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. While the hype around Burrow is real, this could be a long season for the Cincinnati Bengals as they continue their rebuild. They might go 0-6 within this division.
Division winner: Ravens
With Brady gone from the division, the door is wide open for the Buffalo Bills to take control. Josh Allen’s rapid development and the addition of Stefon Diggs as a true number one receiver should see an uptick in Buffalo’s offense, while the defense is a good bet to be among the league’s stingiest once again. An 11-win season is certainly in play. But count out the New England Patriots at your own risk. Belichick and Cam Newton are united in having points to prove this season and the Patriots’ secondary will keep games close. Do not be surprised if New England squeeze into the playoffs.
The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are going to be battling for third place, but the Dolphins are at least trending in the right direction under Brian Flores and could spring a few surprises. The only thing the Jets will be competing for is the number one pick in the 2021 Draft.
Division winner: Bills
Good luck picking a winner in this notoriously erratic division. The Houston Texans stole the headlines with the head-scratching DeAndre Hopkins trade that leaves Deshaun Watson working with an injury-prone supporting cast. Expect the Texans to take a step back in 2020. The Tennessee Titans have momentum after a fine playoff run behind Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill. Both return this season, along with newcomer Jadeveon Clowney, who should add some bite to the Tennessee pass rush. The Titans may not finish better than 9-7, but that could be enough in this division.
The Indianapolis Colts are a hard team to peg. A strong running game, led by Marlon Mack and bolstered by rookie Jonathan Taylor, gives the Colts a clear identity but it is unclear whether new quarterback Philip Rivers is a fit in this offense. Nonetheless, Indianapolis’ well-rounded defense should keep them in the division race right to the wire. There is no doubt over the Jacksonville Jaguars’ strategy for 2020 after shedding their most talented players and adding to their stash of draft picks. A 2-14 season would be no surprise.
Division winner: Titans
Do not look to this division for major surprises at the top. The Kansas City Chiefs, defending Super Bowl champions and masterminds of the most dynamic offense in the league, should canter to the best record in the AFC this season. Patrick Mahomes’ ability to complete even the most unlikely third downs will continue to wear out defenses, and rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire is ready to contribute immediately. Unless there is slippage defensively, the Chiefs look rock solid. Whether the Los Angeles Chargers turn to rookie Herbert or veteran Tyrod Taylor, they are the likeliest team to push Kansas City. A ferocious defensive line should provide the spark, while Austin Ekeler is ready for a bigger role.
The Las Vegas Raiders will be hoping that a new location brings a change in fortunes. There are pieces to build around – including Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller – but it is hard to pencil the Raiders in for anything better than 8-8 until Derek Carr consistently delivers high quality performances. The Denver Broncos went all-in on Melvin Gordon and hopes are high for young quarterback Drew Lock, but there are too many holes defensively to believe in the Broncos as a playoff threat.
Division winner: Chiefs
Continuity will be the key for the Green Bay Packers, who bring back a similar supporting cast for Aaron Rodgers, a man likely to have a chip on his shoulder after Green Bay drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round. Look for the Packers to replicate last year’s formula in head coach Matt LaFleur’s second season – Rodgers’ wizardry, a steady diet of Aaron Jones in the ground game and a fast, versatile defense. The Minnesota Vikings look best equipped to challenge Green Bay, but much depends on Dalvin Cook staying healthy for a full 16-game season. Backed by an experienced defense, the Vikings have the tools to win 10 games.
The Chicago Bears will face an uphill battle as long as Mitchell Trubisky is their starting quarterback – and even swapping in Nick Foles is unlikely to dramatically alter their 2020 prospects. A gritty defense and Khalil Mack’s ability to tear up game plans is Chicago’s saving grace, but this feels like a 7-9 team. Look for the Detroit Lions to prop up the division, heaping pressure on head coach Matt Patricia. Matthew Stafford’s injury history and an inexperienced defense could force the Lions to look ahead to the 2021 draft sooner rather than later.
Division winner: Packers
This division finished a combined 24-40 last season – and it might get even worse this year. The Dallas Cowboys are heading into a new era under Mike McCarthy but the offense should have a familiar feel, with Ezekiel Elliott at the forefront and Dak Prescott eager to press his case for a bumper new contract. Defensively, though, there are flaws to cover up. Still, the NFC East race should come down to the Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. In contrast to Dallas, Philadelphia will need to lean on their defensive front to dictate terms, with their elite run stoppers forcing third-and-long situations. Miles Sanders showed enough flashes as a rookie to suggest he can handle lead back duties, but this is a big prove-it year for Carson Wentz, whose struggles last season can be pinned on a string of injuries to key receivers.
Incremental progress is the name of the game for the New York Giants and Washington Football Team. Neither team is likely to sniff a .500 record, but the development of young quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins will be key to their respective rebuilding plans.
Division winner: Eagles
Expectations are sky high for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after luring Brady in free agency, but he will find life tougher in this division than he did while owning the AFC East. Tampa Bay’s offense looks electric on paper, with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin among the best receiving duos in the NFL, but much will depend on how much Brady has left in the tank. The New Orleans Saints appear a safer bet to top the NFC South, even if questions persist over Drew Brees’ arm strength as he approaches age 42. Brees’ familiarity with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara ensures a top quality offense, and the Saints have unheralded impact players on defense too.
The clock is ticking for Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons after back-to-back disappointing seasons. While the offense will remain in good shape as long as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are on the field, a shaky defense has continually derailed the Falcons, and it is hard to see them finishing better than 8-8. The Carolina Panthers are a wildcard after hiring a new head coach and rolling the dice on Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. A Christian McCaffrey-centric offense brings an element of predictability but there is potential for a solid passing game. In another division, a postseason spot might be in play, but here a .500 record is the likely ceiling.
Division winner: Saints
This division is going to be a bloodbath. The San Francisco 49ers were a quarter away from lifting the Super Bowl trophy back in February, but do not count on a hangover from that agonizing loss. The 49ers will hit back with the same dominant running game and stifling defense – though, their ceiling will be defined by Jimmy Garoppolo’s progression. Look for the Seattle Seahawks to be right in the mix too, especially if we see Russell Wilson given more control of the offense (see below). This is the most talented group of pass-catchers that Wilson has ever worked with, and the Seahawks have proven time and again that they thrive in close games, even with a defense that is short on stars.
After a 2019 season to forget, the Los Angeles Rams should be able to right the ship this year. Their defense will again be menacing with Aaron Donald shredding double teams up front, and the departures of Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley should open up more touches for Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. The Rams could be one of three NFC West teams with a record of 9-7 or better. After the Arizona Cardinals’ swoop for Hopkins, Kyler Murray now has an elite receiving weapon and is set up for a breakout Year Two. Still, in a brutally tough division, the Cardinals may have to settle for a slight improvement on their five wins from 2019.
Division winner: Seahawks