AFC Playoff Teams
1: Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
2: Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
3: Tennessee Titans (11-5)
4: Buffalo Bills (10-6)
WC1: Denver Broncos (11-5)
WC2: Cleveland Browns (10-6)
WC3: Houston Texans (10-6)
The Ravens will once again be the best regular-season team in the league. The additions of Derek Wolfe, Jihad Ward, and Justin Ellis should give Baltimore one of the strongest defensive lines in the league. Everyone loves a Lamar Jackson making the big plays with brilliant improvisation and athletic feats, but games are won in the trenches. Kansas City is getting back nearly every starter, and I see no reason they should take a significant step back this year. Tennessee is probably the best-coached team in the league, with the best lines and the best running back. Buffalo has a quarterback of the future, a strong leader in Sean McDermott, and a very weak division, so they should have no trouble getting in.
Denver's moment should be here at last. Drew Lock proved his worth last season and should continue that success this year. Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon highlight the league's strongest backfield. Many may question Elway's decision to beef up on wide receivers and pass rushers, leaving the offensive line and secondary weak and injury-prone. Here's what I think: how do you defend Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, plus one mid-level pass catcher on top of it all? And if you do, how do you know Lindsay or Gordon isn't the target after all? On the flip side, how do you keep Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Shelby Harris, and Jurrell Casey away from your quarterback? There are at least two double-team-worthy receivers and at least two double-team-worthy rushers. Elway is trying to create dilemmas for opposing coaches. That's good. A team with a few really strong points is more likely to win games and championships than a team that's just decent all-around.
The Browns are among the more confusing teams in the league. Featuring a highly-talented quarterback and a generational offensive talent in Odell Beckham Jr., not to mention a solid defense and a collection of Pro Bowl-caliber skill position players. However, they fell short of expectations last year. The difference? Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski has long been churning out high-octane offensive units in Minnesota and should make great use of his star-studded roster. Houston is another team in a certain level of disarray. They just lost one of the league's best receivers in exchange for a running back who gets very good fantasy numbers, but hasn't been consistent in real games. However, Deshaun Watson is a champion. I mean that in a very literal sense: he led a team to two consecutive national championships (winning one), won a starting job that was Tom Savage's to lose, and led the struggling Texans to two consecutive titles in "anybody's division." 10-6 might honestly be a bit low.
NFC Playoff Teams
1: San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
2: Chicago Bears (11-5)
3: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
4: Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
WC1: Atlanta Falcons (9-6-1)
WC2: New Orleans Saints (9-7)
WC3: Washington Football Team (9-7)
The 49ers are still the best team in the NFC. Kyle Shanahan is one of the brightest football minds of his generation, the trenches are right where they need to be, and George Kittle has to provide more value in terms of winning games than any other pass-catcher (save, perhaps, for Michael Thomas). I honestly think the Bears will bounce back. Losing Fangio was an issue, but the key pieces—Khalil Mack and Danny Trevathan—are still there. People forget that Mitch Trubisky was actually pretty good at first. My gut tells me that they will be Super Bowl contenders this year. I hate putting Tampa Bay here, because they just signed two extremely overrated exPats (ha. ha. See what I did there?) and everyone and their dog is picking them. Nevertheless, they still have an elite defense, and while I consider Brady more of a game manager than a GOAT, Winston hasn't been much of either lately. The NFC East is anybody's division, so I'll play it safe and give it to a team not far removed from a Super Bowl victory with a quarterback who nearly always crops up in MVP conversations.
The Falcons are always a hard team to predict. Most years, they should be much better than they are. Then you sleep on them and they go to the Super Bowl and Matt Ryan wins league MVP (long overdue, if you ask me; he has long been an elite quarterback). I think the addition of Todd Gurley will surely be beneficial. Ryan-Gurley-Julio certainly sounds like a formidable, maybe the most formidable, skill-position trifecta there is—in theory. But how will it shake out in practice? New Orleans is a popular pick, and it's not hard to see why. Boasting a solid defense and the league's best receiver, as well as a first-ballot HOF quarterback who has to want a shot at winning the big game one more time, they're a pretty safe playoff prediction. However, it's going to be hard to get a lot of wins in this division this year. The Washington Football Team is a team I want to succeed. They've made a decision they should have made years ago, their coach is battling cancer, their backup quarterback has miraculously bounced back from a grisly knee injury, Adrian Peterson deserves more records on his already-illustrious rap sheet, and there's something oddly novel and fun about a team in between names. (Just me?) So I've squeezed them in. Considering the considerable potential of Chase Young and Dwayne Haskins, it's not as unlikely as it sounds.
Oddly enough, I have no ≤.500 making it to the playoffs here. Perhaps it will happen this season—perhaps more than one team without a winning record will squeeze in. There are two more teams, and owing to COVID-19 all of them are bound to be pretty shaky at first. So, I don't think so at this point, but don't discount the possibility.
1: Kansas City over Houston
2: Tennessee over Cleveland
3: Denver over Buffalo
1: Baltimore over Denver
2: Tennessee over Kansas City
Tennessee over Baltimore
Baltimore was very difficult not to pick for the big game, as were Denver, Houston, and Kansas City. The Broncos and Texans, however, still have some serious flaws standing between them and the Lombardi Trophy, flaws which might have been offset by Von Miller and DeAndre Hopkins, but simply might be too much this season. As for Kansas City, I ruled them out because of the sheer statistical improbability of a Super Bowl repeat, and because they're the Broncos' rivals. (As Michael Scott might put it, "I have cause. It is because I hate them.") So, we're down to Baltimore and Tennessee. The Titans just play angrier, I think. They've got a young coach, a quarterback who everyone called a bust for ages, and a running back who got a Heisman Trophy and was still picked in the second round and still spent far too long as a backup. That counts for something in the playoffs. Sure, you could make a similar case for, say, the Jets or Bengals, but the Titans are also extremely good, which counts for something in the regular season. So yes, I think they will make Super Bowl LV.
1: Washington over Chicago
2: New Orleans over Tampa Bay
3: Philadelphia over Atlanta
1: San Francisco over Washington
2: New Orleans over Philadelphia
New Orleans over San Francisco
A lot of the teams in these NFC playoffs are reminiscent of the meme "do you ever look at stuff and wonder how the hell it got there?" For once, the AFC is the stronger conference by far. San Francisco should have very little trouble advancing to the title game. Beyond that, it's anybody's conference. I'm giving it to New Orleans because of the feeling of urgency they have. As a Denver boy who fell in love with football while Peyton Manning was smacking every defense in the league straight into next week, I know how powerful the urgency can be. It helped a team with serious flaws, very little depth, and a weak offense win Super Bowl 50. The 2020 Saints shouldn't be much worse than the 2015 Broncos, not that either were really that bad, but the urgency will be the extra push they need, just as it was for us in Manning's last season. Washington over Chicago is a peculiar choice, to say the least, but there's always a wacky upset in the playoffs, and if it's in favor of a team I inexplicably want to succeed, so much the better.
Super Bowl LV
Victor: Tennessee Titans
MVP: Derrick Henry
Predicting the Super Bowl is a fool's errand. Okay, predicting anything in a league with strict salary caps, few dynasties, and a paltry sixteen-game season is a fool's errand, but the Super Bowl is even harder. It's a single game—and as they say, any given Sunday, et cetera. Drew Brees is superior to Ryan Tannehill in every respect. Adam Humphries shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Thomas. But this single game often comes down to a single game plan. And Mike Vrabel is the best game planner in the NFL. The longtime Belichick disciple has elevated professional football almost to the level of chess: his team is different nearly every week, with a strategy suited to the opponent. I trust no coach to win a given game more than Vrabel, especially given some time to plan! So, I'm giving it to Tennessee. As the centerpiece of the Titans offense and arguably the only Titan whose talent exceeds his New Orleans counterpart, Derrick Henry is a pretty safe choice for MVP. And I want him to get it, too; he has never gotten his due in the pros.
Most Valuable Player: Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston
Offensive Player Of The Year: George Kittle, TE, San Francisco
Defensive Player Of The Year: Shaquil Barrett, LB, Tampa Bay
Offensive Rookie Of The Year: Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver
Defensive Rookie Of The Year: Chase Young, DE, Washington
Comeback Player Of The Year: Alex Smith, QB, Washington
Coach Of The Year: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee
I spoke to some length on Watson, Smith, and Vrabel above, so I won't go into detail here. George Kittle is his generation's Tony Gonzalez, in my opinion: the tight end of the decade. Of course, nobody would disagree if I said that right now he is the league's premier tight end. There's no reason he shouldn't be incredible this year. Shaq Barrett has quietly become a sack machine, and if the rest of the Buccaneers take a step forward, as many say they will, I think there will be no more formidable edge rusher in the NFL. (Chandler Jones will probably deserve this award again this year, and will again be snubbed.) If the Broncos make the playoffs, Jeudy will be the biggest reason. There are two big differences between the 2020 Broncos and the Late 2019 Lock Broncos: Bradley Chubb is back, and the offense (in theory) is stacked. Even with our offensive line struggles, defensive coordinators league-wide will have headaches trying to plan for Denver, and Jeudy will be by far the hardest target to account for. Young is an obvious choice for a good reason: he was, to anyone who knows anything about college ball, the best player in the draft. Washington's strong line is not a bad group to join as a rookie defender. Smith deserves his award even if he never plays a snap. That injury would've killed any other player's career then and there.
1: Pittsburgh Steelers (3-13): Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
2: Los Angeles Chargers (3-13): Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
3: Dallas Cowboys (3-12-1): Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
The Steelers are a team in disarray. Every year, Ben Roethlisberger spends less time on the field. Trevor Lawrence should offer a long-term solution. I think he'd be a better first-overall pick than Joe Burrow, having produced several top-three seasons. Cosmi should have a fantastic year at Texas and become the best player available—perfect for a team with many significant concerns. The Cowboys might have the league's worst secondary, so I'm picking Caleb Farley for them. That looks like a reach at this juncture, but a lot can happen in a year. If there isn't a defensive back worthy of this pick by then, I'd advise the Cowboys to trade down.