(USA Today) In a typical offseason, I’d release my annual NFL record projections right before training camps begin. But these pandemic-driven times are anything but typical … so, with the league’s schedule now unveiled, I figured why wait given none of the 32 teams is likely to change appreciably between now and whenever camps open. Ifthey open. And if COVID-19 forces the NFL to contract the 2020 campaign into a 12-game schedule or some such, then I’ll tackle this exercise anew at the appropriate time.
(A note on methodology: Using the most current information, I simply project winners and losers for all 256 regular-season games to arrive at my projections. The outcomes generally allow me to apply tiebreakers, and plenty were needed this year – the first time the league will utilize a 14-team playoff field. I’ll explain later how two of the NFC’s 9-7 teams reached the postseason while two others did not.)
I know you’re dying to be outraged by my predictions, so without further ado (asterisks* denote wild cards) …
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Dallas Cowboys (10-6): Every team that’s changed head coaches is likely to be at some disadvantage given the difficulty of implementing programs and imbuing philosophies virtually this year. But the Cowboys should be able to flatten their learning curve given the retention of coordinator Kellen Moore and an offense that returns largely intact … assuming franchised QB Dak Prescott reports. And after adding several cost-effective veterans before culling what appears to be a stellar draft class, headlined by first-round WR CeeDee Lamb, it definitely seems Dallas owns a talent gap on the rest of the division. That was also true last year, but Jerry Jones is counting on Mike McCarthy to do what Jason Garrett couldn’t. And an October schedule devoid of 2019 playoff teams presents a good opportunity for an early hot streak.
*Philadelphia Eagles (9-7): The reigning NFC East champs are the only team in the division returning the same head coach. Clean bills of health for QB Carson Wentz and the receiving corps plus an upgraded secondary that added CBs Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman are reasons for optimism. Yet red flags remain at safety and left tackle as do questions about whether GM Howie Roseman drafted wisely. Despite the highly parsed arrival of second-round QB Jalen Hurts, untested Nate Sudfeld is currently the insurance policy if Wentz goes down again.
[Note: Philadelphia earns the NFC’s third and final wild-card spot due to a projected defeat of Seattle.]
Washington Redskins (5-11): New coach Ron Rivera took a measured approach to free agency – novel stuff in these parts – and made the right move by sticking and picking Ohio State DE Chase Young with the No. 2 selection of the draft. The quarterback position remains an open question – recently, Rivera publicly acknowledged pondering the pursuit of free agent Cam Newton – but this roster appears to be taking shape nicely in other areas, especially its enviable D-line.
New York Giants (2-14): Rookie coach Joe Judge must not only prove he’s the rare apple that settles near the Bill Belichick tree, he has to navigate a schedule that offers three road games in the first five weeks along with home dates against Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Yikes. Looks like a potentially rough transition for a club relying on inexperienced players at so many key positions.
Green Bay Packers (10-6): Rookies Jordan Love and AJ Dillon represent a philosophical shift for this franchise, but one unlikely to take root (or help much) in 2020. Not much in the way of free agent reinforcements, either, for a team that fell one game shy of the Super Bowl in 2019. Any team with Aaron Rodgers under center stands a good chance to win its division, but hard to see the Pack improving on last year’s showing.
[Note: Green Bay earns a higher playoff seed than Dallas based on the common games tiebreaker.]
Minnesota Vikings (9-7): They parted with mainstays Everson Griffen and Stefon Diggs before selecting 15 players, most ever in a seven-round draft. While QB Kirk Cousins and Co. had a playoff breakthrough last season, building on that progress could be a challenge given this schedule takes the Vikes to Indianapolis, Houston, Seattle, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
[Note: Minnesota’s projected 6-6 record against NFC teams eliminated the Vikings from wild-card contention.]
Detroit Lions (7-9): They were quietly competitive in 2019 prior to the season-ending back injury to QB Matthew Stafford, who was in the midst of a career year. Rookies Jeff Okudah and D’Andre Swift should provide a bump for a team that was also active in free agency at a time when the jobs of GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia appear to be on the line. Might be a rocky start with just one home game apiece in September and October.
Chicago Bears (3-13): The schedule is brutal, and the offensive weaponry supporting the unsettled quarterback position isn’t a whole lot better. Barring another transcendent effort like the defense produced in 2018, more likely this franchise ends up cleaning house than returning to postseason.
New Orleans Saints (12-4): After adding veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins, they aggressively targeted potential impact players (LB Zack Baun, TE Adam Trautman) in the draft in an apparent bid to give QB Drew Brees one more golden opportunity to win the Super Bowl. The schedule sets up nicely, the Saints’ toughest non-divisional opponents (Packers, Chargers, 49ers, Chiefs and Vikings) forced to play at the Superdome. Barring another fluky playoff outcome, could be another Lombardi Gras in the offing …
*Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6): QB Tom Brady’s arrival has made them the league’s unexpected darlings, ones boasting a franchise-record five games in prime time. Could take time for a new offense – it’s assimilating unretired TE Rob Gronkowski and rookie OT Tristan Wirfs and RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn – to jell. But even in a highly competitive division, the Bucs appear to have ample firepower to end a 12-year playoff drought and make a serious push beyond that.
*Atlanta Falcons (9-7): A team that could have a first-rounder at every position when the offense goes three-wide – RB Todd Gurley, TE Hayden Hurst and WR Laquon Treadwell are recent pick-ups – quietly went 6-2 in the second half of 2019. However Atlanta can’t afford another slow start given it must hit the road to face the Chargers, Chiefs and Bucs in December, which also includes home dates with New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
[Note: Atlanta earns the NFC’s second wild card in this projection due to its superior conference record compared to Philadelphia, Minnesota and Seattle.]
Carolina Panthers (3-13): New coach with limited NFL experience (Matt Rhule). New playbooks on both sides of the ball. New quarterback with six starts in the past four seasons (Teddy Bridgewater). No Luke Kuechly. Three divisional opponents who project as tough outs. Rough ride seems likely.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Despite the additions of LT Trent Williams and two first-round picks (DT Javon Kinlaw, WR Brandon Aiyuk), the overall talent level seems static – or, said otherwise, sufficient for another championship push. This outfit could be especially imposing if QB Jimmy Garoppolo and/or second-year WR Deebo Samuel take significant steps forward. Like last year, a golden opportunity exists for a hot start with five of the Niners’ first six opponents non-playoff teams in 2019. A Week 10 date at New Orleans, one I project San Francisco to lose after winning 48-46 in 2019, could have massive seeding ramifications.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7): Their 11-5 showing in 2019 was rather fluky given they outscored the opposition by a collective 7 points. Seattle must now overcome the apparent loss of DE Jadeveon Clowney, hope its top two running backs (Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny) recover from serious injuries and pray QB Russell Wilson once again masks a subpar offensive line. Four 1 p.m. kickoffs on the East Coast won’t help, nor does a travel itinerary that includes a league-high 29,000+ miles.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9): Their outlook isn’t as sunny as coach Kliff Kingsbury’s crib, but excitement is warranted following the trade for WR DeAndre Hopkinsand arrival of rookie LB Isaiah Simmons and OT Josh Jones. RB Kenyan Drake, who established offensive balance after last year’s trade, also returns. Could be tough to overcome the early lineup of games, which includes four of first six on the road.
Los Angeles Rams (6-10): They don’t look good … literally true in the wake of Wednesday’s uniform reveal. That aside, maybe they won’t miss the production of Gurley and recently dealt WR Brandin Cooks. But what about a still-shaky O-line? Or a linebacker corps devoid of playmakers? Or QB Jared Goff, who took a step back in 2019? Oh, and their first three road games are all 1 p.m. kickoffs on the East Coast.
Buffalo Bills (10-6): With Brady gone and their first four games against 2019 non-playoff teams, they appear primed to win the division for the first time since 1995. Diggs’ arrival came at a high cost, but he and rookie RB Zack Moss could elevate this offense.
New England Patriots (8-8): They last failed to win the AFC East in 2008, when Brady missed 15 games with a knee injury. They last failed to reach double-digit wins in 2002. They last failed to achieve a winning record in 2000, Belichick’s first year on the job. But what happens to a team likely to have an unproven player, Jarrett Stidham, under center and its top-ranked defense stripped of four starters … all while playing a first-place schedule that includes AFC West and NFC West foes? I’m guessing Belichick won’t let the bottom drop out, but the ceiling appears fairly low.
Miami Dolphins (6-10): After winning five of their final nine games in 2019, they invested a quarter of a billion dollars into free agents before welcoming three first-round picks, including QB Tua Tagovailoa. Still, even with the Pats weakened, probably best to temper expectations as Miami integrates so many new parts … which may not include Tagovailoa if he redshirts.
New York Jets (5-11): They had a winning record (7-6) last year under QB Sam Darnold, but this season’s opponents are heartier – including the Bills and 49ers out of the chute. A team trying to cobble together a new offensive line and wideout group faces one trip to Seattle and two to L.A.
Baltimore Ravens (13-3): The top seed in last year’s AFC playoff bracket has a golden opportunity to make amends given it will travel a league-low 6,310 miles while playing this year’s easiest schedule (.438 opponent winning percentage in 2019) – one that wraps with non-playoff teams from last year over the final six weeks. Factor in the addition of veteran DL Calais Campbell and potential impact rookies in LB Patrick Queen and RB J.K. Dobbins … and this doesn’t seem like a fair fight.
*Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): QB Ben Roethlisberger rejoins a squad that nearly reached postseason in 2019 while restoring its defense to top-five status. Pittsburgh lost its final three games last year but will face only one 2019 playoff team over its final five weeks in 2020.
Cleveland Browns (7-9): New GM Andrew Berry appeared to oversee a strong draft on the heels of a nice free agent haul. But, similar to last year, talent doesn’t seem to be the issue here. Getting it to coalesce under rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski in a pandemic-restricted environment seems like a big ask.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): Winning five games under rookie QB Joe Burrow on the heels of a 2-14 campaign doesn’t appear that tall an order given the quality of this depth chart. Cincy lost eight games by one score in 2019 under first-year boss Zac Taylor, suggesting the law of averages should favor them more this time around.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5): Newcomers Philip Rivers, DeForest Buckner, Michael Pittman and Jonathan Taylor could reap the benefits of a soft opening given Indy will face just one 2019 playoff teams in the first eight weeks. With only one prime-time game currently on the schedule, Rivers and Co. could also fly under the radar for some time.
*Tennessee Titans (9-7): They’ve finished 9-7 each of the past four seasons – a first in league history – so why expect anything different now? The first six weeks bring three dates with 2019 playoff teams – not including a visit from Pittsburgh and a Week 1 trip to the Mile High City – before the Titans hit the road for five of their final seven games to conclude the season.
[Note: Tennessee earns the AFC’s third and final wild card by virtue of a superior strength of victory tiebreaker when compared to the Chargers.]
Houston Texans (8-8): They’ve won the division four of the past five years … though, of course, Hopkins starred for all of those teams. And sure seems the 2020 Texans are ticketed for the dreaded 0-2 start with the Chiefs and Ravens atop the schedule … and 0-4 is hardly a stretch with a Week 3 trip to Pittsburgh followed by a visit from the Vikings.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13): They’re scheduled to play eight home games in northern Florida for the first time since 2012 … but is it a product the locals will want to even see? Hard to discern what the Jags’ identity is or how many of their best players even want to be here.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4): If they’re to become the first Super Bowl champions to successfully defend their title in 16 years, they’ll definitely have to earn it. Patrick Mahomes and Co. must play at Baltimore, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New Orleans as part of a fearsome gauntlet – though none of those teams will look forward to facing an ever-fearsome offense that should have an added dimension with first-round RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
*Denver Broncos (9-7): After finishing 2019 with a rush, going 4-1 under rookie QB Drew Lock, this could be one of 2020’s emergent clubs. GM John Elway made significant moves in free agency and during the draft, most designed to directly support Lock. The key could be surviving into the final quarter of the schedule given three of the final four teams Denver faces missed the playoffs last year.
[Note: Denver earns the AFC’s second wild card by virtue of a better record in common games than the Chargers combined with a head-to-head defeat of Tennessee.]
Los Angeles Chargers (9-7): All things considered, and assuming their key performers are healthy, they look fairly stout across the board – though it remains to be seen how well the offensive line protects either veteran QB Tyrod Taylor or first-rounder Justin Herbert … and whether either can successfully pilot a squad Rivers couldn’t elevate a year ago. The Bolts will play two prime-time games on the road but aren’t scheduled to be featured at SoFi Stadium, their new home building.
Las Vegas Raiders (7-9): The Silver and Black, however, are slated to play four night games – including signature matchups with the Saints, Bucs and Chiefs – in Sin City as they open Allegiant Stadium, aka the “Death Star.” The Raiders might have to make much of their hay on the road, where they face six non-playoff teams from 2019 and may have a greater sense of familiarity than they will while trying to adapt to their new Vegas environs.
Wild card: (2) 49ers def. (7) Eagles; (6) Falcons def. (3) Packers; (5) Buccaneers def. (4) Cowboys
Divisional: (5) Buccaneers def. (2) 49ers; (1) Saints def. (6) Falcons
NFC championship game: (1) Saints def. (5) Buccaneers
Wild card: (2) Chiefs def. (7) Titans; (3) Colts def. (6) Broncos; (5) Steelers def. (4) Bills
Divisional: (2) Chiefs def. (3) Colts; (1) Ravens def. (5) Steelers
AFC championship Game: (1) Ravens def. (2) Chiefs
Super Bowl LV (Tampa)
Saints def. Ravens
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis