If you haven’t noticed, 2020 stinks.
But hey, at least we’ll have football. Or so we think.
The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. As such, we’ve been rolling out ample preview content to evaluate the league’s landscape and forecast what might happen during an unprecedented campaign.
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously has cast a great deal of uncertainty over the world, in general, and it’s nearly impossible to project what’ll transpire on the gridiron over the next several months. But that didn’t stop our resident pigskin prognosticators, Mike Cole and Ricky Doyle, from offering some bold predictions.
First, check out the season preview episode of “The Spread,” NESN’s football betting podcast, during which Mike, Ricky and Andre Khatchaturian broke down each NFL division.
Now, here are 20 things you should bank on for the unique 2020 season.
1. Each team plays a full 16-game schedule
Is this bold? I don’t know if this is bold, given how the NFL steam-rolled through its offseason despite the COVID-19 threat. I’ve got no reason to believe that won’t be the case in the regular season, outbreaks be damned.
2. The playoffs get the bubble treatment
That said, I think the NFL follows the lead of the other leagues and puts its playoffs in a bubble. The Saints playing a home playoff game in, say, LA or Vegas, will be weird as hell, though.
3. TV ratings are absolutely through the roof — even by NFL standards
The last time we had a season running opposite an election amid ongoing social justice protests, NFL ratings slumped. This year, though, we’re starved for football after months of sportless hell, and ratings should skyrocket even further once the NHL, NBA and MLB playoffs all end — not to mention even less college football than usual.
4. Mike McCarthy or Kevin Stefanski wins Coach of the Year
Honestly, this has more to do with their predecessors in Dallas and Cleveland, respectively, than anything else. McCarthy has a Super Bowl ring and now inherits arguably the NFL’s most talented roster. He could get the Cowboys to where Jason Garrett couldn’t. Meanwhile, there’s enough talent in Cleveland for at least nine wins now that Freddie Kitchens is back at the kids’ table and an adult is calling the shots.
5. Aaron Rodgers looks like, well, Aaron Rodgers again
Statistically, Rodgers had maybe the worst 16-game season of his career in 2019, and he still threw 25 touchdowns to just four picks. Green Bay won 13 games. Another year in Matt LaFleur’s system paired with better health for wideouts like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown should have Rodgers back in MVP form.
6. The Patriots split each of their AFC East season matchups
New England obviously isn’t as good after the exit of Tom Brady and a mass exodus on defense through both free agency and opt-outs. Meanwhile, you could argue the Jets, Bills and Dolphins all got better. Things are changing in the East.
7. This is Bill O’Brien’s final season in Houston
The Texans have committed to O’Brien, but he’s made some questionable roster decisions. And after another lackluster season in a tough AFC South, Houston decides it can’t waste anymore of Deshaun Watson’s prime and makes a move. Perhaps Dabo Swinney gets a call?
8. The Seahawks miss the playoffs
Russell Wilson is a legitimate miracle worker, so maybe he’ll prove me wrong again. But smoke and mirrors only works for so long, especially in a division that features the two most recent conference champions and an upstart Arizona team that split with Seattle last year. Oh, and don’t forget: the 12th Man has never been so irrelevant.
9. Rob Gronkowski regrets his decision to unretire
It feels like the Gronk storyline is kind of forgotten about, but whether it’s a lack of production or more unavoidable bad injury luck, the slimmed-down tight end wishes he could go back to hosting cruises.
10. The number of effective COVID-19 vaccines at season’s end exceeds wins by the Washington Football Team
There will be cause for celebration in D.C., but it won’t be on the gridiron.
11. The Bills win their first division title since 1995
Maybe this isn’t that bold, seeing as Buffalo is the consensus favorite to win the AFC East this season in wake of Tom Brady leaving New England. But it hasn’t happened in 25 years. So it’s at least mildly bold, no?
12. Jarrett Stidham becomes the Patriots’ starting quarterback
There’s a lot of hype surrounding Cam Newton, but the Patriots won’t be that good, in large because of their defensive departures. Bill Belichick eventually will want to see what he has in Stidham, a second-year QB, especially if Newton does little to impress or injuries again become a problem. After all, Newton only is signed for this season.
13. Case Keenum, not Baker Mayfield, leads a Browns resurgence
Sharing a division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh ultimately will prevent Cleveland from punching its ticket to the postseason. But the Browns will make a playoff push thanks to Kevin Stefanski’s coaching, an improved offensive line and a midseason spark provided by the backup QB.
14. Deshaun Watson wins MVP
The Texans had a questionable offseason, with the DeAndre Hopkins trade especially perplexing. Fortunately for Houston, it still has a special talent under center in Watson. And he’ll ball out, new contract in hand, while guiding the Texans to the playoffs.
15. Tom Brady’s top target isn’t Mike Evans or Chris Godwin
Evans and Godwin are elite receivers, no doubt. They’re also very popular in fantasy. But we’ve seen Brady elevate unheralded contributors before, so don’t be surprised if someone other than the two high-profile wideouts catches the 43-year-old’s eye. And I’m not talking about Gronk, either. Scotty Miller, maybe?
16. Nick Foles, not Mitchell Trubisky, leads the Bears to the playoffs
Trubisky might have the shortest leash among NFL quarterbacks, and it won’t be long before Matt Nagy calls upon Foles. That’ll provide the necessary lift, as Chicago’s defense is good enough to compensate for merely average QB play.
17. The Rams make the postseason
Los Angeles was a huge disappointment in 2019, going 9-7 and missing the playoffs months after losing to New England in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams also play in a deep NFC West, further dimming their pre-2020 luster. But Sean McVay isn’t a dummy. He’ll put Jared Goff and the offense in position to succeed, and the defense — anchored by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey — will hold up its end of the bargain.
18. The Cardinals trade Larry Fitzgerald
Arizona is a sexy sleeper pick, sure, but let’s not forget the Cardinals won just five games last season — three by less than a touchdown — and play in a tough division. The Cards are another year away from really contending, and it’ll open the door for them to trade the 37-year-old receiver to a contender after 16-plus seasons with the organization.
19. Colin Kaepernick finally lands an NFL job
He’s back in the “Madden” video game. Next stop, NFL?
20. The Cowboys win their first Super Bowl since the 1995 season
Again, maybe this isn’t that bold based on the odds. But like the Bills prediction, we’re calling for something that hasn’t happened in two and a half decades. The ‘Boys, led by Dak Prescott, finally take care of business after a lengthy stretch of heartbreak and false hope.