Injuries (and schedule adjustments due to the pandemic) were important in determining which teams qualified for the playoffs and had success in January last time out and while it would be churlish to expect them not to have an impact this season too there are reasons to expect they won’t be as decisive this year. With the experience of last season’s truncated preseason to provide every coaching staff with data from which to adapt training schedules, a new adapted Injured List protocol plus a new, longer regular season teams should be able to reduce the intensity of the training and increase the duration instead to lessen the stress on player’s bodies. This is the NFL though so there will be impact injuries and freak accidents on the training field as well as the pitch.
When it comes to trying to make sense of who will be contending at the end of a new, extended regular season two things stand out for me; experience of competing at the latter stages of recent seasons and strength in depth of team rosters. Experience in the Postseason is very much a double-edged sword, obviously having players and coaches who have proven they are good enough to compete at the highest level is vital but recent extended playoff runs are not always helpful.
Seven of the 2020 playoff teams made the playoffs in 2019 and it’s difficult to see how the current Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs again this year but in order to successfully defend their title they will have to play 40 or 41 games in something like 74 weeks, which may seem a relatively simple task but given the impact of fatigue in increasing the likelihood of players getting injured it’s a tough ask and no team has defended the Lombardi trophy since the Patriots managed it in 2005!
Schedule alterations effected the AFC playoffs more than the NFC last season as the Ravens and Titans caused a fair amount of chaos within the Conference and the Steelers seemed to be the unfortunate ones who paid the price as they ended up playing 5 games in 25 days in December! They still qualified for the Playoffs but unsurprisingly the fatigue caught up with them as they succumbed at home in the Wildcard game 37-48 to the Browns who they beat 38-7 at Heinz Field during the regular season. I’m not sure the Steelers will have the chance for redemption this season as the Bengals, who were hampered by a season ending injury to rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow last season and they should take their Divisional rivals place in the postseason this time out. I think the AFC North should be the strongest division in the Conference again this year with 3 playoff teams in the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South may well provide two playoff teams in the form of the Titans and the Colts who appear to have two of the stronger Defence’s in the Conference (although the Colts deal for Carson Wentz seems to be a big gamble). The other two divisions in the AFC look like the most unpredictable divisions in the league, the Chiefs will need to be befallen by some pretty catastrophic circumstances to not win the AFC West but how the other 3 teams in West perform is tricky to calculate, the Raiders are prime example, last season they won 6 of their first 9 games but then crumbled to a final record of 8-8, similarly the Chargers lost 4 of their first 5 game in 2020 and then won their last 4 so I find it very difficult to predict anyone else making the postseason form the western conference. Josh Allen has looked remarkably calm in preseason for the Bills and while it’s only practice the Bills have played the Packers and the Bears who have strong rosters even without all of their starters in their lineups. The Bills should win their division comfortably and while all the other teams have made changes that should improve their fortunes from last season, I think the settled nature of the Bills will provide them with enough dominance to dampen their rival’s playoff chances.
In the NFC two teams seemed to really suffer the injury curse the 49ers ended the season with 18 players on Injured Reserve and another 9 on their Injury Report and the Giants lost the mainstay of their Offence Saquon Barkley in after 19 carries in 2020 so it’s hard not to believe they will both be determined to make up for lost time this season and I can see both of them making the postseason. I expect the Packers and Saints to be the two best teams in the Conference again and the Buccaneers have managed to retain most of their Super Bowl winning roster so it’s difficult to imagine they won’t still be in the mix by January too. The NFC East is an interesting Division in as much as the Washington Football team have the only dominant Defence so they should be favourites to finish at the head of the pack but with the other 3 teams all having the potential to score points in bunches there may well be a Wildcard team in the East and if Saquon can stay healthy the Giants Offence should be the most consistent in that Division. I think the final Wildcard team will be from the North and as they made the playoffs last season and as they appear to have two viable Quarterbacks, I think the Bears should still be playing come January.