The season is finally upon us. Hands up who thought it wouldn’t start. Certainly on time at least. I’m sure that you’ve read all the prognostications that you can find over the last week or two but little has been said of those teams that aren’t up to speed.
The average playoff turnover that we see is five teams each year. That number is likely to change from now on with 14 playoffs spots rather than 12. This year in particular, the turnover is likely to be lower with an extra two playoffs spots compared to the previous campaign. That gives a little extra leeway to teams not living up to their traditional standards. I’m looking at you New England, to sneak in to a wildcard spot.
Before we get started, of course there are scenarios where all twelve of last year’s playoff teams miss the 14 team cut. Even, Kansas City, though it would likely involve losing Patrick Mahomes for a significant period of time. An honorary mention must go to the New Orleans Saints. While their team is loaded, we’ve seen over the past few years that Drew Brees’ arm can wear out later in the season. It wouldn’t be the first time that a team overloads with talent and the overall product isn’t the sum of its parts. Perhaps missing out on Jadeveon Clowney can help maintain team chemistry as they chase a fourth division title in a row.
5. New England Patriots
Losing Tom Brady hurts but it’s not the catastrophe it would have been five years ago. While Cam Newton is exciting, he’s no guarantee to perform. There are some solid options for the Pats, including a 34 year old Julian Edelman and James White. The Patriots were also hit hard by the opt-outs, losing Brandon Bolden, Marcus Cannon, Dan Vitale, Patrick Chung, Najee Toran, Marqise Lee, Matt LaCosse and Dont’a Hightower, arguably the biggest name opt-out in the league.
And while all of that sees New England as unlikely playoff contenders, as long as Bill Belichick is in charge, I expect them to have one of the seven best records in the AFC at the very least.
4. Tennessee Titans
The Titans won seven of their last ten games to earn a playoff spot. There’s more than a little concern that the formula that worked last year is sustainable. Derrick Henry ran the ball 303 times, nearly as many as the two previous seasons combined (391). It’s easy to see him falling off like DeMarco Murray did after the Cowboys ran him into the ground. Ryan Tannehill also had a QB Rating of 117.5, a career best. At best we can expect a regression to the mean, at worst falling back to his Miami form.
The Titans have also lost first round pick Isaiah Wilson to the COVID-19/reserve list as well as legal troubles, following on from his struggles to stay fit. With Jadeveon Clowney now signed, expectations will be high, but it has to be remembered that they snuck into the playoffs last season.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles snuck into the playoffs with a 9-7 record last term. The team doesn’t look that much better in 2020. Timmy Jernigan, Ronald Darby, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jordan Howard have all left and once again the team has been beset by injuries.
Marquise Goodwin has opted out but Andre Dillard, Brandon Brooks and Joshua Perkins are all injured. It all means that the Eagles brought back Jason Peters after allowing him to move on earlier in the offseason. Not only that, the team are relying him to play Tackle rather than Guard, as was planned when Peters was re-signed.
Carson Wentz is always an injury risk. What’s more, he wasn’t best pleased to see the Eagles draft a QB in the second round, Jalen Hurts, rather than targeting ammunition for Wentz.
The NFC East isn’t the strongest division but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Eagles edged out by the Cowboys in a reversal of last year.
2. Minnesota Vikings
It might surprise a few to see the Vikings so high. That’s before you see what they have lost. Minnesota pushed Green Bay all the way last year but since then they have lost 518 starts from last year’s team. The secondary has been decimated. Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have all gone. Add to that Everson Griffen, Andrew Sendejo, Kentrell Brothers, Laquon Treadwell and of course Stefon Diggs. It’s rare to see a talent drain that big. Plus Michael Pierce opted out and Danielle Hunter is on IR.
The Vikings went 10-6 a year ago and took the division race to the penultimate game. However their major draft picks, Justin Jefferson and Jeff Gladney were just replacements of lost pieces.
It’s easy to see the Vikings struggling, for this year at least, in a loaded NFC playoff race.
1. Houston Texans
Two words: DeAndre Hopkins. Losing a future Hall of Famer was bad enough. Losing him below market rate left the Texans as a laughing stock. Then there’s the losses of D. J. Reader, Johnathan Joseph, Tashaun Gipson and Carlos Hyde. The Texans are in a tough division with three contenders and Houston face toughest schedule of them all, as Thursday night showed.
Bill O’Brien has proved himself as a good coach, though he has been let down by his own skills as a GM. Houston now have four solid number two receivers but no one to lead the line. David Johnson showed flashes on Thursday but can he maintain it, after struggling since 2016? Can a 31 year old JJ Watt still produce? And as good as Deshaun Watson is, can he make up for all of the deficiencies?
There are so many questions around the Texans. Despite promising signs on Thursday, Houston scored just seven points outside of garbage time. The Chiefs will do that to many teams other than the Texans but it leaves the AFC South champions with a lot to prove over the coming weeks.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel