For all the talk that the Bengals have run their race they just seem to get better as the pressure gets cranked up and three players who seem to love it more than any are Burrow, Chase and McPherson the players who are responsible for scoring most of their points, that’s some great roster construction right there. Those three combined for 28 points the last time they played the Chiefs which would usually beat most teams in the NFL but it is really more like a decent start against Mahomes. However, if the Bengals let Burrow get sacked 9 times like they did last week then it’ll be impossible for them to win but last week the Chiefs only sacked Josh Allen twice and allowed one player to accrue 200 receiving yards for the second time in January after Chase went for 266 yards in week 17 and that suggests the Chiefs have a real problem stopping pass attacks. With Mahomes at quarterback you don’t really need a whole lot of defence, it took him less than 13 seconds to get Harrison Butker in range to kick a game winning field goal last weekend and he has thrown 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions (a new record for him) this season, he’s also rushed for 2 touchdowns which is the same number he’s rushed for each season since he became a starter, he hasn’t had any passes thrown his way so far this season though after they targeted him twice last season so that maybe something to look for tomorrow (although he dropped both of those passes so maybe they’ve given up on that idea?). Mahomes has been sacked a career high 28 times this season and he’s been forced to scramble a career high 46 times but when he has scrambled he’s run for an average of 8.7 yards each time so the Bengals need to find the balance between pressuring him and containing him or he will make them pay with his arms and legs. It looks like Clyde Edwards-Helaire is out injured and he was Kansas City’s leading running back last week although Mahomes lead the team in rushing yards, but Darrell Williams lead their rushing attack last time round against the Bengals and scored 2 touchdowns on the way to 88 yards on the ground and 19 receiving yards. In the wildcard round Jerick McKinnon lead the team with 61 rushing yards and 81 receiving yards against a pretty exhausted Steelers defence, so their not short of options at running back but they’re certainly not as settled as the Bengals Offence seems to be.
52 weeks since they last met in the playoffs the Bills and the Chiefs go at it again in Arrowhead, this will be the second time they’ve played each other in the last year and the aggregate score is currently 62-58 in favour of the Bills, so this should be a pretty even matchup. In the two games Bills quarterback Josh Allen has thrown 5 touchdown passes and a single interception compared to Patrick Mahomes’ 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, Allen has been sacked 4 times in these games (all coming in last year’s AFC Championship game) and Mahomes has hit the deck 3 times, oddly the Chiefs have fumbled 3 times in these games and the Bills are yet to lose the ball so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Buffalo haven’t lost since week 14 when they faced the Buccaneers in Florida and Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime. Kansas City lost to the Bengals in week 17 as Evan McPherson kicked a last second field goal at Paul Brown Stadium, but that was their only loss since the 2nd of November. Another reason this matchup is so unpredictable is that the teams who take the field tomorrow will have key personnel changes from October, when the Bills won that game, the Chiefs were without Defensive Tackle Chris Jones which largely contributed to Josh Allen rushing for 59 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown, Allen’s ability to scramble on 3rd down is key for the Bills to extend drives and fatigue opposing defences. Jones omission was indicative of a season which saw the NFL change it’s rules regarding injuries and illness to allow players to return midseason, a number of Bills players missed that game in October too, however Dawson Knox who lead the team in receiving yards last week against the Patriots was once again at the fore of the Bills Offensive effort. In October s he notched up 117 yards and a touchdown on just 4 targets which was even more than the 89 yards and 2 touchdowns he hauled in last week as Allen looked for him 5 times.
The most impressive part of the Bills 2021 season has been their pass defence, they only allowed 12 touchdown passes during the regular season which is 15 fewer than Kansas City and the Bills made 19 interceptions during the regular season which is 4 more than the Chiefs. So, this may not be a great matchup for either quarterback as the Bills excel in pass defence and the returning players on the Chiefs defence should make them more stout against Allen’s scrambles, the Chiefs however won’t be phased by a strong pass defence after their performance last week when they rushed for 106 yards as a team and Jerick McKinnon and Patrick Mahomes notched up 90 of those yards at an average of 6 yards per carry. The 19 rushing touchdowns the Bills allowed during the regular season was the 4th highest amount in the league and whilst the Chiefs only scored one of their 6 touchdowns on the ground last week, they score 16 rushing touchdowns all season while the Bills allowed 14 touchdowns to running backs over the course of the season.
This should be the most intriguing game of the weekend and it’s very unlikely to be decided until late on, on one hand the last road team to win in Arrowhead were the Bills and if they can force the Chiefs to turn over the ball as they have done in their last two meetings, I think they have the balanced offence needed to neutralise the returning Chris Jones but if the Chiefs can eradicate their fumbling issue they could be headed for yet another AFC Championship game. If I had to make a prediction I’d go with the Chiefs and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeats itself and they win 38-24 again.
Traditionally rookie quarterbacks struggle in the playoffs, technically the last quarterback to win their first playoff start was John Wolford last season for the Rams in Seattle and while he was ably assisted by Cam Akers 131 yards of rushing Wolford also got injured and didn’t finish that game so there’s really only one part of that story the Patriots want to reproduce here. When the Patriots played in Buffalo back at the start of December they ran for 226 yards and that may or not be significant this time round since the Patriots are just as likely to complete ignore the run game this time round as they are to heavily lean on it and let history repeat. History is highly unlikely to put on a repeat performance this time round though as the weather back in week 13 was pretty unique, gusts of winds approaching 50 miles an hour prevented either quarterback from throwing the ball and lead to Mac Jones ending the game with 2 completions for 19 yards, Josh Allen on the other hand had a 50% success rate through the air as he threw 15 completed passes for 145 yards, whilst the weather isn’t due to be as windy this time round the conditions should be inclement enough to make this one a complete lottery. There should be light gusts of wind but an ambient temperature of around -13 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit) is going make kicking the ball very difficult and catching it pretty tricky too, so running forward and running hard should be the order of the day and if recent history is any indication of who can do that better it has to be the Patriots.
One surprising feature of the last game in Buffalo was that Josh Allen only ran 6 times for 39 yards and 21 of those yards came on 1 attempt so Buffalo may have not wanted hi to do too much against a divisional opponent, when they played in Foxborough in week 16 he ran 12 times for 64 yards (might be 18 times for 90 odd yards this time then) and the Bills rushed for 115 yards in total which would suggest they can be more direct when they need to be, but for that to happen they’ll need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and if there’s one thing teams coached by Bill Bellichick don’t do easily it’s lose battles up front.
The Bills are short odd favourites to win this game but the more you look at it the more this looks like it’s going to be a low scoring battle of wills and that makes it very even and appointment viewing. It might not be pretty, but it is going to be good, tense and not particularly clean fun. Either Josh Allen will put the team on his back and drag them into the next round or another ingenious Bellichick plan will come to fruition and Mac Jones will get the rare rookie playoff win.
Cincinnati have already beaten the Raiders once this season but that was in Vegas back in week 11 before Joe Burrow’s tough December when he suffered both a “high knee injury” and a “gruesome looking finger injury” too so leading into the Quarterback’s first NFL playoff game he might not be feeling 100%. Everyone expects to be slightly banged up by the end of the season and after an extended season it would be pretty surprising if any player was 100% fit right now, Burrow did appear on the Bengals Injury Report this week along with 12 other players but Burrow was listed as having taken a full part in practice every day as did Kicker Evan McPherson but a kicker with a slight groin problem is a bit of a red flag, especially when today’s game is going to played in temperatures below freezing. The Raiders have 13 players on their Injury Report this week and Jonathan Haskins looks set to miss the game with an injured back and a knee injury but Tight End Darren Waller could be back from his knee injury although he has been limited in practice this week so it would be slightly surprising if he can play the majority of the Offensive snaps and with backup Tight End Foster Moreau recovering from an abdomen injury and an ankle problem Derek Carr could be short of receiving options. Haskins’ injury could be the biggest problem for the Raiders though as cold weather at the Paul Brown Stadium on the banks of the Ohio river would seem like ideal weather for Joe Mixon to handle most of the Bengals Offensive work and Hankins has been a premier run stuffer in the league since he left Ohio State in 2013 and when the two teams met in November Mixon ran for 123 yards and scored twice and that was with Hankins playing.
Back in week 11 the Bengals ran out 32-13 victors and in addition to Mixon’s efforts Burrow went 20 of 29 and in what was quite a muted display by his standards threw for 148 yards and one touchdown, he was sacked 3 times however and if he’s got a bad knee the Bengals won’t want that happening this time out. The Raiders didn’t have the same success running the ball with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake only getting 14 carries between them and managing 60 yards on those carries, Carr threw 27 passes and managed 215 yards through the air with Darren Waller accounting for 116 of those yards while Foster Moreau caught Carr’s only touchdown pass in that game.
Theoretically this game should be a comfortable home win but the first game came just weeks after the Henry Ruggs incident and Damon Arnette’s release by the Raiders and was just the 5th game of Rich Bisaccia Head Coaching career (albeit in a temporary capacity) so it’s highly unlikely this game follows the same path as their previous meeting. There are two things that are virtually guaranteed in the NFL when January rolls around and those things are wild weather and equally wild officiating decisions. The weather is set to be seasonably chilly in Ohio today and if the officiating matches the conditions this may well be the upset of the weekend, particularly if the Bengals are short of a fully fit kicker come the end of the game. Bookmakers are offering 2/1 on a Raiders win and who knows how Burrow will play in the biggest game of his professional career to date? Carr might be 5 years older than Burrow but he is also yet to start a playoff game and his record in cold weather games is a cause for concern especially if the Raiders run game can’t get going or if the Bengals take an early lead, Carr is 0-5 in games where the temperature drops to 37 degrees or below (today the temperature shouldn’t rise above 33 degrees F) so I’m expecting the Bengals to progress but it might not be as straight forward as their last 19-point victory.
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.
As a big fan of lazy tropes I can’t shake the feeling an aging Phillip Rivers will struggle in freezing temperatures at Bills Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it’s not just the Quarterback who has a tough task ahead of him in western New York, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has only made 1 field goal of 50 yards or longer this season having attempted just 3. Now part of that is because the Colts have converted 61.5% of their 4th downs this season so Frank Reich hasn’t felt the need to attempt long range shots very often. Tyler Bass for the Bills on the other hand has made 4 field goals over 50 yards from 6 attempts and his longest successful attempt this season is a 58 yarder, although that was kicked indoors against Arizona.
As much as focusing on both kickers seems incongruous in a win or go home playoff game there’s a very real possibility the result will be determined by the effectiveness of the special teams. Both teams have had very efficient Offences this season who have leant on their passing games to score the majority of their touchdowns.
The Bills have scored 40 TD’s through the air as opposed to 16 on the ground and the Colts have 24 pass TD’s and 20 with the running game. On the other side of the ball the Colts Defence appears to be tougher to break down than their hosts this week have, the Colts have allowed 500 fewer yards than the Bills and five fewer rushing TD’s, however the Colts have allowed 160 more yards through the air and 1 more touchdown reception than the Bills. So it should be a very even matchup, however according to the strength of schedule of their opponents the Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season and their last loss was a road game in a cold, clear Pittsburgh on boxing day.
Bookmakers have set the points spread at 6.5 which seems quite high to me, the Colts Defence has really only been overrun once and that was back in week 12 when the Titans scored 45 points against them when a lot of players were missing including the talismanic defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. I’m expecting a Bills win but it would be a surprise if it will be as comprehensive a win as their last 10 games have been (by at least 10 points).
2019 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs scored 46 touchdowns on their way to amassing 451 points during the regular season, the second highest total in the AFC and fifth most in the league. It’s hardly surprising that the team who won the whole thing last time out would be one of the highest scoring teams but what is slightly shocking is that Patrick Mahomes was only responsible for 28 of them, 26 with passes and 2 rushing TD’s. He did miss 2 games through injury but he threw 24 fewer touchdown passes in 2019 than in 2018 and that has to be unnerving for the rest of the division if not the rest of the league. If 2019 featured Mahomes’ sophomore slump then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the 2020 Mahomes lead Chiefs could improve on the 12-4 record of last season. Their trickiest games come away to the Saints on the 20th of December, in Tampa Bay on the 29th of November and at Baltimore on a Monday night in week 3 but even if they stumble in those games they’ll still end the regular season at 13-3 which would surely be enough to secure home field advantage in the postseason.
The Broncos 2019 almost had two separate starts, they had the new beginning of a new Head Coach with an experienced QB in week one when Vic Fangio and his team started out in Oakland against the Raiders with Joe Flacco and a reset and restart in week 13 when they started Drew Lock at Mile High against the Chargers, won 23-20 and proceeded to win 4 of their last 5 games of the season losing only to the Chiefs in Kansas City. During those 5 games they averaged almost 22 points per game compared to under 16 points per game in the first 11 games which may not seem like an enormous difference but when you have a Defence that allows just 18.5 points per game those 2 Field Goals are the difference between winning a game and very narrowly losing. The Broncos have the 12th toughest schedule in the league next season but with their home field advantage (they call it Mile High for a reason) and the addition of stand out WR Jerry Jeudy along with 2 other WR’s and a TE in the Draft the Broncos Offence should continue on their upward curve, I expect they’ll end the season with a 9-7 record which will put them in with a shot at a Wildcard place.
The Raiders will have a shiny (very shiny) new stadium in the Las Vegas desert to call home this season and while there may be a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden as a Head Coach he made one of the canniest moves in NFL history when he signed Mike Mayock up as his GM, last year they drafted Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick and despite injuring his shoulder in week 7 the Running Back still carried the Offence and ended the season with 1,150 rushing yards from 242 carries but only scored 7 touchdowns. Their real success came later in the Draft with Tight End Foster Moreau who was drafted in the fourth round and caught 5 touchdowns and Hunter Renfrow who caught 4 touchdown passes despite being drafted with the 149th pick. If the Raiders lower draft picks can have a similar impact this year then Bryan Edwards should be able to help out with their scoring problems, a tall, rangy receiver can always assist a Quarterback who can have accuracy issues and Tanner Muse along with Amik Robertson should at least add some depth to a Defence that gave up 11 more passing touchdowns than the Raiders scored last year, only 9 teams had a worse pass defence. Finding hidden gems may be an area where the Raiders excel but polishing those gems may be their downfall, for all Gruden’s enthusiasm and ability to motivate players the Raiders often suffer from over-enthusiasm, they conceded 1,138 penalty yards on 128 penalties. Only the Jaguars conceded more penalties on average per game with 72.8 compared to Oakland’s 71.1 and this is why I think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year. Vegas will actually have quite a favourable schedule in terms of the strength of their opponents, it’s the second easiest in the division behind the Chargers, but they will have to face 8 high powered Offences plus the Browns, Jets and Dolphins (in week 16 when Tua will probably be starting) who may well score freely whilst still suffering through their growing pains. If they can avoid as many injury problems as they incurred last season and without an Antonio Brown sized distraction I can see them ending the season 8-8 which would be an improvement on last season, but the strong possibility of a Carr-Mariota QB controversy when neither really look like a Super Bowl calibre QB prevents them from taking a huge leap forward.
Similarly to the Raiders the Chargers also have a brand new stadium to look forward to this season with the added bonus that Sofi looks like a space ship and not a robot vacuum cleaner (like Allegiant Stadium does). What will be happening inside that stadium is anyone’s guess though, they do face the easiest schedule in the division but they’ve lost some pretty important players from recent seasons. Before they even began signing draft picks in April the Chargers had to deal with 34 player’s contracts with 13 re-signing, Russell Okung traded to the Panthers for Trai Turner and 21 either cut or declaring for Free Agency (including Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon) which seems excessive during a normal year let alone a season which could involve a truncated preseason schedule. Last season the Chargers were ranked 21st in terms of scoring as they averaged 21.1 points per game, just ahead of the Browns who many believe had an awful season but the Chargers were 10th in terms of the number of yards gained on Offence so it would appear that where they got the ball on the field was a bigger issue. Only 6 teams averaged fewer yards on kick off returns and 4 fewer on punt returns so there is definitely room for improvement there. Last season’s Defence stats are more of a worry, especially when Anthony Lynn is considered a Head Coach who bases his success on a firm defensive foundation. In 2019 they conceded 21.6 points per game which is fine for a team with a high octane Offence but if you’re only scoring 21.1 per game you’re not even producing an average amount of octane. I expect it will be difficult for last year’s stuttering Chargers Offence to hit the ground running as a new Quarterback (whether it be Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert or Cam Newton they weren’t starting in L.A last season), new Running Back and Trai Turner who will be fitting in to the Offensive line (he’s traditionally a Guard but may be at Tackle if he replaces Okung) all immersing themselves into new surroundings. On the Defensive side of the ball Chris Harris Jr. should make the pass defence even better and the arrival of Linval Joseph will definitely solidify the Defensive line but even with Derwin James returning from injury I’m not sure they’ll be able to subdue teams like the Chiefs, Broncos, Saints and Buccaneers. I can see them making a winning start to the season against the Bengals but the last month of the season involves travelling to Vegas and Kansas City whilst welcoming the Falcons and Broncos to their new surroundings which should be incredibly tough, finishing 7-9 would be a successful season given the upheaval in terms of moving location and the roster turnover would.
If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.
Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.
The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.
The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.
The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.
Based on each team’s 2019 win percentages the AFC East have the toughest 2020 season of all 8 NFL Divisions and of all the teams in the division the Patriots have the toughest schedule. Combine that with the fact they’ve lost their starting Quarterback and really struggled to generate any Offence last season with someone as experienced as Tom Brady trying to run the show behind a porous Offensive line and with little help from his receiving corps and this has to be the time to count out the Patriots, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. They’ve got a real chance to go into their bye week with a winning record but their bye comes in week 6 and I’m expecting them to be 3 and 2 as they have to travel to Seattle and Kansas City in the first 4 weeks (although if both of those stadiums are empty then they could have a better chance of surprising away wins). It’s the tail end of the season where their tricky games come thick and fast with a road game in L.A against the Chargers coming on the 6th of December followed by a game in the same new stadium on Thursday the 10th of December against the Rams after which they have 10 days off and a trip to Miami with a Monday Night Football outing 8 days later against the Bills. Their final game is in Foxborough against the Jets which is virtually a guaranteed home win but by then they could already be staring down the barrel of a losing season. I’ve got them finishing with a 7-9 record but in this toughest of divisions they should still finish second.
So how are the other 3 teams going to shake out? Well while the Patriots seem intent on testing out the maxim that “Defence wins Championships” by having a suspect Offensive line and inconsistent skill players the Bills are taking an opposing stance on Offence, they’ve got a solid Offensive line and some very good receivers with Steffon Diggs joining Cole Beasley and John Brown in their receiving corps and Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary giving Josh Allen plenty of assistance they have no excuses not to produce on the Offensive side of the ball. Allen is the big question mark for the Bills he’ll be in his third season and if he continues to improve his stats from second year to third as he did from first to second he’ll throw 40 TD’s and 6 INT’s but as Defences have more tape to watch and everyone is now aware he’s historically struggled with accuracy on deep passes so keeping the Interceptions down may be a problem. Personally I feel that with the tools he’s got at his disposal the Bills should top the division with a 9-7 record and I’ve got them winning their last 3 games so they could be one of the hot teams come playoff time.
“Tagovailoa” is the word on everyone’s shirt in Miami (seriously, the Dolphins QB has the two highest selling NFL jerseys this year) but how many games he starts this season seems to be an unknown quantity at the moment, it would however be a surprise if he starts all 18 and what would be an even bigger surprise is if Ryan Fitzpatrick goes undefeated as the Dolphins bed in a new Offensive Coordinator and 4 other Rookies not named Tua and a new Running Back (or two as both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both arrived in the off season). Personally I have a few misgivings about bringing in so many new faces on and off the pitch (they could potentially have 10 rookies on the Defensive side of the ball too) but the middle of the Dolphins season looks pretty ugly, I’m expecting them to only win 3 games from the 8 surrounding their bye week. Mid-season struggles with new coaches and a rookie QB waiting in the wings could spell disaster for a relatively new Head Coach employed by a volatile ownership but I don’t think Flores will find himself on a hot seat unless something goes horribly wrong, I’ve got the Dolphins finishing the season third with a 6-10 record.
Bringing up the rear of the division has to be the Jets, not because they lack playing talent but because the coaching staff, front office and ownership is such a convoluted, tumultuous muddle that it will be incredibly difficult for a Quarterback who is yet to complete a full regular season to overcome. This year though the Jets have added some experienced veterans to the mix who are more than likely to back up their QB and hang Adam Gase out to dry if the Offence stutters. Newbies Frank Gore, Brashad Perriman and Joe Flacco alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Le’Veon Bell know what an NFL Offence should look and feel like so they won’t hesitate to ask questions if the Jets are below par. They have bought in Mekhi Becton to help bolster the Offensive line and keep Darnold upright but if the Offensive Coordinator isn’t calling the right plays then the personnel running those plays is largely irrelevant. I can’t see them winning more than 3 games this season and that would surely see them ending up with a very high Draft pick and a new coach next season.
Continuing the Premier League analogies, if Houston and Buffalo are the North London derby then New England and Tennessee are Manchester United and West Ham, the away team have a coach with a tenuous link to their more storied rivals both teams should be better than they currently are and home advantage should be huge in deciding the result of the game.
In terms of recent form both teams have won 3 of their last 5 games which signifies a huge improvement for the Titans who only won 2 games in the first 6 weeks of the season, this change is largely down to Ryan Tannehill taking over from Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry’s traditional late season heroics. Henry has wracked up 896 yards and 10 touchdowns since week 10 and he didn’t even play in week 16! Unfortunately for the Titans best hope of progressing in the playoffs the Patriots Defence has only allowed 7 rushing TD’s all season and 3 of those were scored by the Lamar Jackson lead Ravens in week 9. Since their chastening at the hands of the most explosive Offence in the NFL they’ve conceded on average fewer than 91 yards on the ground per game and just 2 rushing TD’s!
For their part the Titans Defence has managed generate some pass rush lately which will be a concern for the Patriots who have really struggled, 15 of the Titans 39 sacks have come since week 11 so don’t expect a shoot-out. Luckily for the Patriots their Defence has notched up a league leading 21 turnovers 15 more than the Titans have made. If you were looking for a shred of hope for the Titans to cling to it would have to be that the Patriots are missing Stephen Gostkowski and Nick Folk had missed 3 field goals between the 40 and 50 yards out so far this season (but bizarrely he’s 1/1 from 50+ yards). The Titans could also look to the fact that they’ve won their last 3 road games and 5 games away this season but none of the Colts, Raiders or the Texans reserves provided the sort of challenge that the Patriots in a soggy Foxborough will.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a close game and I would be surprised if there are a lot of points and excitement involved. When there’s a very decent chance that there will be a few fumbles and a lot of turnovers it’s impossible not lean toward the team with 21 takeaways this season by a field goal.