The 2020 season is going to be one of the most unpredictable and difficult forecasts of any NFL campaign. With no preseason games and the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak looming over teams, expect the unexpected. The predictions here are the best reading of the prevailing winds, clouds and sunshine for all 16 teams in the NFC.
I went through each and every game from Weeks 1-17 and tallied the win/loss results. I then repeated the exercise with both my best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team. The results here are the closest whole number to the average of the outcomes. As a result, the sum of the win totals might not be mathematically possible.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6): In Dak we trust, and thus far that’s proven a prudent strategy for Dallas. He gives new head coach Mike McCarthy a veteran capable of running his controlled offense. Adding CeeDee Lamb to up-and-down Amari Cooper and emerging talent Michael Gallup gives the Cowboys some great potential in the passing game. With Ezekiel Elliott still running strong behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, the Cowboys shouldn’t have trouble scoring.
Their defense got significantly better upfront with the late-summer addition of Everson Griffen. The starting defensive 11 looks very solid even without LB Sean Lee (injured once again). Other than CB, it’s also paper-thin in terms of proven depth. Youngsters like Neville Gallimore could help change that, but I need to see it before I buy it. McCarthy’s influence compared to feckless predecessor Jason Garrett is a dynamic that will determine if this team surges to 12-13 wins or stagnates around .500.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7): Few teams offer as wide a range of potential outcomes as these Eagles. If everyone stays healthy and performs at or near their peak, there is every reason to believe Philadelphia not only wins the East but could win the entire NFC. But if injuries and/or faded performances from some key players hit, the Eagles will be lucky they have a cakewalk schedule to avoid losing double-digits.
The former forecast is the most likely and it’s because of the defense. The front four is deep and talented, adding Javon Hargrave in the middle to help make Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett that much better. Darius Slay should give the Eagles the viable No. 1 CB they have desperately sought for years, and he moves everyone else back to where they belong on the depth chart. That’s a huge boon for a defense that asked too much of too many.
That also needs to be true on offense, where the concerns are a lot direr. Injuries have already hit the offensive line, forcing Jason Peters back to left tackle. They’re shamefully thin at wide receiver behind Alshon Jeffery and Desean Jackson, who combined to play just 13 games last year. Having a great 1-2 punch at TE helps, but there’s only so much Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert can do. Carson Wentz was fantastic last year and will need to be that way again. I’m not a big fan of their RB group or their OL beyond RT Lane Johnson and C Jason Kelce. Having good specialists does help engender some confidence.
New York Giants (5-11): The 2020 Giants remind me some of the Browns. Both have a rookie head coach, rookie left tackle firmly on the spot, a young QB that can go in either direction and a defense that looks good up front but has more questions than proven answers behind it. The difference with the Giants is they don’t have an Odell Beckham Jr., Myles Garrett or Denzel Ward. There just aren’t any game-changing players evident on this roster, particularly on defense. I think Dalvin Tomlinson, Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Williams and Jabrill Peppers are good pieces, but who is the difference-maker?
On offense, new coach Joe Judge and OC Jason Garrett need Saquon Barkley to be the star he was as a rookie in 2018. He quietly fell back some in his second season and the Giants offense will not work unless he’s a worthy All-Pro instead of a marginal Pro Bowler. I like the dedication to rebuilding the OL but it’s unlikely to be ready to take a big step in 2020; Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart and Shane Lemieux is a fantastic OL draft haul, but don’t raise expectations too high as rookies. At least Daniel Jones has a strong trio of WRs to work with and the perennial potential for a breakout year from TE Evan Engram, too. New York should be entertaining, but the wins probably don’t start piling up until 2021.
Washington Football Team (4-12): I love the (temporary) name change, new head coach Ron Rivera, and the uniform redesign. I love WR Terry McLaurin, who could quickly emerge as one of the league’s best big-play threats in his second year. I love the defensive front with No. 2 overall pick Chase Young joining what was already the strength of the team. The secondary and offensive line should at least be solid if everyone stays healthy and performs to expectation. I even hold optimism for improvement from QB Dwayne Haskins in his second season. They should be tough to beat and give fits to weak OLs, but it’s hard to see how they win games over most opponents. The overall lack of offensive talent and changing on the fly to a new regime are severely limiting factors in Washington this year.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7): This is such a Mike Zimmer team. Like their head coach, these Vikings are intense, hard-nosed, very strong in certain areas but oddly shaky in others. It’s built around Zimmer’s defense and a great front. Adding Yannick Ngakoue was a masterful recovery for losing Everson Griffen. Ngakoue and Danielle Hunter are a nightmare EDGE package for offenses to deal with. The LB corps is a good one, and safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are as good as any tandem in the NFL. But an overhaul at cornerback leaves them vulnerable to teams that can pass protect or get the ball out quickly and accurately. The backups all over the defense are practice squad talents on a lot of other teams, too.
Losing Stefon Diggs hurts the offensive potency but might help the chemistry around QB Kirk Cousins. With Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison a nice RB combo and a good package at TE for new coordinator Gary Kubiak’s familiar scheme, Cousins needs to merely be efficient and not turn the ball over. He can make the occasional clutch play, and in Adam Thielen he’s got someone on the other end to make it too. Kicker Dan Bailey needs another effort like 2019 and not his 75% accuracy of the prior two seasons. This is a good team but one with a very thin margin of error.
Green Bay Packers (9-7): The Packers won 13 games last year and decided that they needed no improvements. Their odd offseason figures to severely lower the ceiling for a team that still needs Aaron Rodgers to perform like an MVP to win any game. Then again, that worked very well for the Packers last year. The triplets of Rodgers at QB, Davante Adams at WR and Aaron Jones at RB are as good as any. The LT-LG-C package is also great, and that’s a nice asset for coach Matt LaFleur to lean on. But they added nothing in the draft or free agency that will help Rodgers in the passing game, unless you (correctly) count losing Jimmy Graham at TE as addition by subtraction. Rodgers has not been shy about his discontent with his weaponry and that situation bears close watching if it doesn’t improve quickly.
Green Bay scored brilliantly a year ago by adding Preston and Za’Darius Smith to the pass rush. This year’s top defensive addition is...oft-injured Browns discard LB Christian Kirksey. There is a stark lack of any middle-class talent on the defense. It’s either great (the Smiths, DT Kenny Clark, CB Jaire Alexander, S Adrian Amos) or guys who wouldn’t play on at least 25 other teams. It’s a precarious way to operate, and ignoring any semblance of an upgrade is a grave risk for the Packers. They’re too top-end talented to fall too far, but they will not win more than a game or two if Rodgers doesn’t play at a high level that week, every week.
Detroit Lions (7-9): So much rides on Matthew Stafford being healthy and playing like he did in 2019 before he broke bones in his back for the second year in a row. Stafford was on pace to match Dan Marino’s magical season statistically before going down after eight games. The Lions did not win a game without him and won’t this year after getting worse at backup QB with Chase Daniel. The hope is an improved run game will ease some pressure, and rookies D’Andre Swift at RB and Jonah Jackson at RG can only help. A breakout second season from TE T.J. Hockenson would make a wonderful bonus. With criminally underrated Marvin Jones and jump-ball wizard Kenny Golladay flanking Hockenson and a revitalized Danny Amendola, Stafford indeed has the potential to light the league on fire again.
Coach Matt Patricia’s defense was far too passive and predictable last year, with no pass rush and few takeaways. The pass rush still looks pathetic outside of Trey Flowers, who really came on late in his first season in Detroit. It stymies what should be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, led by No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah and CB and a great safety duo of Tracy Walker and Duron Harmon. Adding Jamie Collins at LB moves everyone else down a notch closer to where they should be. If new coordinator Cory Undlin can turn up the pressure, this defense could be a pleasant surprise. So could a more aggressive offense, which too frequently played for the Matt Prater 54-yard field goal instead of trying for TDs. No team needs a good start more than Patricia’s Lions. If they’re 2-0-1 like they were last year, this could be a playoff team that touches 10 wins. If they’re 1-3, it’s hard to see them topping four wins.
Chicago Bears (6-10): The Bears might want to lobby the NFL to play every game by scrummage rules, where the defense can win by getting points for getting stops, sacks and creating takeaways. Built around All-Pro Khalil Mack, there are impact talents at all three levels. Mack remains a force despite the stat sheet not necessarily reflecting it. He’s got a nice surrounding cast up front too. I love the middle-of-field defense with LB Danny Trevathan returning next to Roquan Smith, with superb safety Eddie Jackson behind them. Coordinator Chuck Pagano understands how to help his thin CB group, too. It’s a potentially great defense.
It needs to be near-perfect, because this offense looks abysmal. Unless he’s playing Detroit, Mitchell Trubisky has no business being an NFL starter. That newcomer Nick Foles couldn’t beat him out is troubling. The line is functional at best around quality center Cody Whitehair. Other than Allen Robinson, who is great, the WR/TE/RB group is the weakest in the entire conference, especially with top RB David Montgomery banged up already. The most prominent augmentation is the rotting carcass of Jimmy Graham at TE. The Bears will win some games 17-13 but lose if they need to score more than 20 often.
New Orleans Saints (12-4): Drew Brees back at the helm for Sean Payton, throwing to Michael Thomas and working with Alvin Kamara in the backfield is a very enticing base offense. One of the NFL’s best offensive lines helps rev that engine, too. This is a confident, talented group with a lot of continuity and chemistry together. That figures to be even more important in this unusual pandemic season.
The defense wouldn’t look as good without such a strong offense, but don’t sleep on the New Orleans D. Cam Jordan is an established star at DE. Demario Davis is the best LB you’ve never heard of, keying one of the NFL’s most effective run defenses. The safety duo of Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins has a nice blend to it, and there is depth across the secondary. Marshon Lattimore must be consistent as a legit No. 1 CB, and he can be just that. They need more pass rush help for Jordan, something Marcus Davenport must provide. This is a team loaded up to win now and wears that burden comfortably. For my money, this is the best team in the NFC.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5): Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski joining Tampa Bay raises the profile and the expectations for a team that has flashed ability but not gotten out of its own way very well. Brady gets a fantastic arsenal at his disposal with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and a very good TE room including Gronk. New RBs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy are interesting additions and I’m not convinced either will pan out, but the odds are that at least one of them will be good enough in a pass-heavy offense. Rookie RT Tristan Wirfs is a great fit and is likely the best lineman on the team right away.
The defense is impressive with one huge question: can the CBs hold up? Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean all have talent, but they’re very young and tasked with a lot. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. should help a lot. The defensive front featuring Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and sackmaster Shaq Barrett doesn’t get enough publicity. It will look even better if LB Devin White takes a step up in his second year. The Bucs are painfully thin all over the defense, a risky proposition for a win-now-or-never offense. I expect a lot of impressive wins interspersed with some head scratching losses.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7): A team starting 10 former first-round picks on offense has a certain cache to it. The Matt Ryan/Julio Jones connection remains elite. If new TE Hayden Hurst and third-year WR Calvin Ridley continue to trend up, and if Todd Gurley’s knees have anything left at RB, good luck stopping the Atlanta offense. The line is not as good as you’d hope for all those first-rounders, but if Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom progress on the right side, it’s plenty good enough.
Defense has some questions but also some potential. A return to health by Keanu Neal at safety would do wonders. He’s played just four games in two years, unfortunately. Ricardo Allen, Isaiah Oliver and Damontae Kazee are solid in the secondary but they need the alpha male presence of Neal. Grady Jarrett remains a force in the middle of the line. Atlanta sorely needs Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler to play like the first-rounders they once were. They’re a little deeper than in years past, and that’s important. If they can survive a brutal early schedule, this is a playoff team. Notice all the “ifs” here...yeah, that’s why these Falcons could go 11-5 or 5-11 and neither would surprise me.
Carolina Panthers (3-13): The rebuild with rookie head coach Matt Rhule begins. No more Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly or Greg Olsen. Fortunately for Rhule, Christian McCaffrey is still around. McCaffrey is the most dangerous offensive weapon in the league, an exceptional receiver but also a home run hitter as a runner. If QB Teddy Bridgewater can acclimate quickly, there are receivers around him that can make plays, too. Bridgewater hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2015, however. I’m skeptical he can suddenly reemerge as the Pro Bowler he was that year after throwing less than 225 passes ever since.
The defense is very young up front. The rookie package of Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos is a nice start, especially if veteran K.K. Short can bounce back strong from a year lost to injury. Only Donte Jackson, a hit-and-miss playmaking speedster at CB, offers much in the secondary. They sorely need Tre Boston to step up as both a playmaker and a veteran leader at safety, and he might. Losing Kuechly, Gerald McCoy, Mario Addison, Ross Cockrell, Eric Reid, Bruce Irvin and James Bradberry all in the same offseason is a devastating destruction of a defense. It will not be rebuilt overnight and it will not be helped by a questionable offense and a rookie head coach.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5): Led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll’s well-heeled Seahawks are back and might be better than ever on offense. The emergence of D.K. Metcalf as a giant target makes them lethal to try and defend. Wilson seems preternaturally predisposed to finding the best target, be it Metcalf or Tyler Lockett or new TE Greg Olsen. Adding Carlos Hyde to pair with Chris Carson at RB gives Seattle a strong 1-2 punch on the ground, especially if the (mostly) stable OL tightens up a little with more time together.
The biggest potential downfall, and it’s a significant one, is the lack of pass rush on defense. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are a great LB combo, but they’re not pass rushers. Bruce Irvin’s return to Seattle should help, but Rasheem Green led the team with four sacks last season and that’s about as much as anyone could expect from him. Thieving Quinton Dunbar from Washington adds much-needed depth and talent to the secondary, much in the way stealing Quandre Diggs from Detroit did last year. They certainly need it with the potential pass-rush issues. This is a dangerous high-end team capable of winning any and every game it plays, though I do sense the chance for a fairly loud collapse if they unexpectedly start slowly.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5): The second year for Kyler Murray sees the Cardinals improved around the young quarterback. Murray showed a lot of promise and some ability to deliver upon it during his rookie season. He and coach Kliff Kingsbury went through the rookie growing pains together. Adding DeAndre Hopkins, for my money the best all-around WR in the NFL, should help elevate Murray’s game. Hopkins catches everything and is dangerous all over the field. He and venerable Larry Fitzgerald, still amazing at 37, are a great duo. The OL is still in need of improvement and that could be a limiting factor, though Kingsbury seems to have a good grasp on how to work with what he’s got.
The Cardinals have a legit problem for opposing offenses with EDGE Chandler Jones and his 49 sacks (most in the NFL) over the last three seasons. Adding steady vet Devon Kennard to a LB corps that also features De'Vondre Campbell and athletically freakish rookie Isaiah Simmons makes the Cardinals strong in the middle. Budda Baker might be overpaid with his new contract, but he’s a superb tackler. They’re thin at CB beyond ageless Patrick Peterson and second-year Byron Murphy, and if Jones or Baker go down it will devastate the defense. If this team stays healthy and fares well on special teams, they should be in the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers (9-7): The reigning champs get saddled with the proverbial Super Bowl slump. Facing everyone’s best shot will make life more difficult for Kyle Shanahan’s team. Opponents know have a year of film on QB Jimmy Garoppolo running Shanahan’s scheme. Fortunately for handsome Jimmy G, George Kittle is back as the NFL’s best TE. Adding WR Brandon Aiyuk with Deebo Samuel is a great move, too. The backfield will run well and is deep. It will be interesting to see how Trent Williams fares at LT after a lengthy layoff and fight with cancer. The offensive depth outside of RB looks atrocious, so keeping the key pieces at full speed is more vital for the Niners than it is for most contenders.
The defense remains formidable. Plugging Javon Kinlaw into the DeForest Buckner role in the middle of the line is the best-case outcome for letting the standout leave for the Colts. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead can all make life miserable for opposing QBs and run games. Fred Warner is one of the most underappreciated LBs in the league, and young Dre Greenlaw is a good one too. Richard Sherman gives the secondary teeth even if his athletic ability is diminishing. They’re vulnerable to teams with outside speed and also offensive balance, however. This team is too talented to fall away from contention, but it’s hard to see them having everything break right like it did a year ago. The 9-7 forecast here is probably the low-water mark, but water does find its level; don’t forget this same core team was 4-12 in 2018.
Los Angeles Rams (7-9): How good is the NFC West? I’d pick these Rams to win the NFC North, but they’re the decided choice for last place here. It would require Jared Goff to be at his best, but he showed that two short years ago when this team won the NFC. His regression and spike in INT rate in 2019 held the Rams back, and it’s hard to have great confidence in a rebound season. Fortunately for the Rams, the WR corps looks very good with Robert Woods, a healthy Cooper Kupp and second-round rookie Van Jefferson, a personal draft fave. The overhauled RB room appears in fair hands with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson, though the line is terribly shaky--if Andrew Whitworth ever shows his age at left tackle, this entire offense could collapse badly.
There just isn’t much to like on defense outside of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Donald remains superhuman, the best defensive lineman--and all-around player--in the league, and Ramsey is a top-flight alpha dog of a corner. The rest of the defense will need a few guys to all produce career years to be even average. The young safety group could absolutely do that. I think they’ll miss coordinator Wade Philips a ton on defense, unfortunately. They’ll miss kicker Greg Zuerlein too, even though the “Greg the Leg” legend is overblown. Good team, better division.