The 2020 NFL season might bring more predictability to the unpredictably of predicting the final records for every team in the league. In an unusual year of change with a virtual offseason and a vacant preseason, in some ways, it’s more difficult to project what teams will make the playoffs and what teams won’t.
But then again, in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the NFL to adapt to new procedures, it might favor the teams who are most established with the best ability to adjust. For the predictors, there is less second-guessing. What that adds up to is a fine blend of familiar and fresh teams making the tournament for Super Bowl 55.
There’s one more curve ball — the league expanding the playoff field from 12 teams to 14, with 7 teams each from the AFC and NFC instead of 6. With only the No. 1 seed carrying the home-field edge also getting the advantage of a bye, the division and wild-card races will get a little wilder.
Here’s how Sporting News predicts the order of finish in all eight NFL divisions and the playoff results leading up to a final, official Super Bowl pick.
Week 1 NFL picks against the spread
NFL predictions 2020
- Buffalo Bills (10-6)
- New England Patriots (9-7)
- Miami Dolphins (4-12)
- New York Jets (4-12)
The Bills rewarded Sean McDermott for strong work with a defensive-minded team and there are now bigger offensive expectations with quarterback Josh Allen going into his third season with a new No. 1 wide receiver, Stefon Diggs. When examining both sides of the ball, the Bills have the few questions of any roster in the division. Everything is right in front of them to elevate from wild-card status and dethrone the Tom Brady-less Patriots.
The Patriots, beyond Brady, also lost a lot defensively and still don’t know whether Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton will replace Brady. But this is Bill Belichick, who still has a deep secondary to lift the defense and the blockers and running backs to pound out enough complementary offense. Belichick’s new coaching mission will be helping his team to grind out enough wins to simply make the playoffs.
The Dolphins spent a lot of money trying to accelerate their rebuild and have tabbed Tua Tagovailoa as their near-future franchise quarterback. Brian Flores’ team might have to take a one-game step back, however, before turning the corner to realize a brighter future. Getting out of last place is just as important.
So why are the Jets dropping to last? Do you really believe Adam Gase running the offense his way with his guys will yield much better results with Sam Darnold? Do you really trust anything they have defensively under Gregg Williams without Jamal Adams? Darnold might save some face for them, but they’re really not that good overall in relation to the other three.
- Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
- Cleveland Browns (8-8)
- Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
The Ravens lost only vital player in the offseason, right guard Marshal Yanda to retirement. They reinforced their running game with J.K. Dobbins and got more explosive options for their passing game, which is good extra support for reigning MVP dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson. They also continued reshuffling the defense to an improved front seven. They won’t as easily win the division, but the Ravens should enjoy a comfortable repeat.
The Steelers somehow managed to get to 8-8 without Ben Roethlisberger because of their elite defense led by T.J. Watt and the No. 1 pass rush. Even with some running back, wide receiver and tight end personnel issues to iron out, they should feel confident they can be at least two games better with Big Ben to make the playoffs another time with Mike Tomlin.
Watch for the Browns becoming a third playoff representative from this division, even with a .500 record. Kevin Stefanski’s offensive scheming and influence will be huge on Baker Mayfield, and so will having a more diverse, balanced and explosive attack. Defensively, with Myles Garrett up front and an improved secondary, Cleveland can find enough complementary success.
The Bengals will compete harder with Joe Burrow to make this division arguably the best in the NFL. He’s that good of a No. 1 overall pick, to build on his historic passing season at LSU in an offense tailored to his strengths. Cincinnati also invested to improve the defense, but that will remain its key liability.
- Houston Texans (9-7)
- Indianapolis Colts (7-9)
- Tennessee Titans (7-9)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
This division is tricky, given the Texans have won two consecutive titles but have seen the two runners-up, the Colts and the Texans, go farther in the playoffs in both years. This year, there’s room for only one playoff team from this weak division. Deshaun Watson is the biggest reason Houston is the pick for a three-peat, despite big offensive change minus DeAndre Hopkins and a defense breaking down behind J.J. Watt.
Watson remains the biggest game-changing Qb in the division. Meanwhile, the Colts are hoping they can revive Philip Rivers’ career with Frank Reich to better complement their run-heavy approach, backed by a solid playmaking defense that now has DeForest Buckner fronting it. But it’s hard to buy too much into Rivers with some key skill change around him.
The Titans went to the AFC title game with Ryan Tannehill and have their own good run-heavy formula for success with Derrick Henry. But even with A.J. Brown, they seem rather limited in the passing game and their defensive overachieved under Mike Vrabel in their surprise run last season. There’s bound to be a mild regression out of the playoffs.
The Jaguars are seeing more of what Gardner Minshew can do and have loaded up with more gifted skill players and a better West Coast offensive tactician in Jay Gruden. The big questions are what kind of support they will get from Leonard Fournette in the running game and just how much will their sudden rebuilding (again) defense sputter.
- Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
- Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
- Denver Broncos (7-9)
- Las Vegas Raiders (7-9)
The Chiefs won Super Bowl 54 and were able to avoid major personnel losses, paying Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones and Travis Kelce in the process. They are pretty much the team that finished last season on top of the world, only with rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire replacing Damien Williams with no Laurent Duvernay-Tardif up front. They remain a strong favorite to repeat in the AFC, despite the Ravens remaining on their heels.
The Chargers are bound to rebound with how much talent they have on defense and Tyrod Taylor restoring some stability to the offense after Rivers’ shaky final season with the team. Taylor can help their big playmakers shine on one side, while Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Heyward and Derwin James now get help from Linval Joseph, Kenneth Murray and Chris Harris Jr on defense. One or two frustrating games for Anthony Lynn’s team just keep them out of the playoffs.
There is plenty of buzz around Drew Lock and the Broncos after they changed up their offense to Pat Shurmur’s and brought in a slew of extra playmakers, led by Melvin Gordon in the backfield and rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. But Lock and the rest will take some lumps in the adjustment, while Vic Fangio’s defense has a few more concerns around Von MIller.
The Raiders want to live it up in Las Vegas, but the relocation doesn’t make them much better from 2020, evenly matched with the two other second- and last-place teams. They have more offensive pop around Derek Carr and their defense will be much better covering ground with Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski anchoring linebacker. But again, with the Chargers and Broncos having the same uptick and same challenges on the schedule behind the Chiefs, it points to the Raiders finishing in a dead heat resembling last season.
- Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
- Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
- New York Giants (6-10)
- Washington Football Team (3-13)
The Eagles and Cowboys limped in the division race last season. The Eagles overcame injuries to win, while the Cowboys couldn’t put enough together to scratch out a wild card in a top-heavy NFC. The Eagles can trust Carson Wentz to stay healthy and have more depth and youthful explosiveness around him. The Cowboys can remain prolific offensively with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and be more aggressive to make plays in a new defense. This year, there are room for both teams in the playoffs in a more successful battle that’s just as tight.
The Giants have some promise with Daniel Jones, but they are faced with a brutal schedule beyond facing the Eagles and the Cowboys twice each. They are another team who spent to upgrade defense, but it still has some transition concerns. With Jason Garrett taking over as offensive coordinator, the tempo and game plans under new coach Joe Judge will be vastly different from Shurmur.
Washington doesn’t have a team name or a chance to be all that competitive in the division with Ron Rivera revamping the defense and Dwayne Haskins adjusting to a new offense. Rivera’s first job is cleaning up an organizational mess before he turns more attention to real improvement on the field in 2021. On the bright side, they can dominate the conversation to land Trevor Lawrence.
- Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
- Green Bay Packers (9-7)
- Chicago Bears (7-9)
- Detroit Lions (5-11)
The Vikings lost to the Packers twice last season to deny themselves a division crown, something they will enjoy for the first time in three seasons under Mike Zimmer. They have found the ideal run-heavy offensive formula with Dalvin Cook to get the best passing from Kirk Cousins. They lost a lot of familiarity in the secondary and up front, but their constant investment in defensive depth will pay off in another strong complementary unit.
The Packers‘ four-game regression is tied to their overachieving from last season and facing a tougher schedule this season. Matt LaFleur’s offensive identity with Aaron Rodgers won’t catch up on anyone, and the Packers didn’t improve as much as they needed to help Rodgers. The defense will still be a backbone, but the edges of their front three and the middle of tsecond four are concerns.
The Bears are messy right from the top with their uninspiring QB competition between Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. The jury’s still out on Matt Nagy maximizing the playmaking from the rest of the offense. Defensively, losing Eddie Goldman hurts and there remains liability in the secondary. There will be room for only the Vikings in the playoffs.
The Lions are under pressure to come through for coach Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, given all their aggressive scheming and spending. They should have some better results in the running game with rookie D’Andre Swift and in pass defense with rookie Jeffrey Okudah to buoy Matthew Stafford, but in this top-heavy division it won’t add up to enough wins to save Patricia’s job.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)
- New Orleans Saints (11-5)
- Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
- Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Tom Brady gets his sweet revenge in leading the Buccaneers to a five-game improvement and the division title. It’s not simply Brady magic; the Bucs are loaded with more in the passing game with Rob Gronkowski, return the No. 1 run defense with Ndmakung Suh and a booming pass rush led by Shaquill Barrett. Bruce Arians has guided multiple teams to the playoffs before and will make the right adjustments to lift Brady into another postseason.
The Saints‘ run at division titles may end at three, but they’re too talented and too movitated in what could be Drew Brees’ final season to be denied one more crack at a second Super Bowl with him and Sean Payton. The offense will be more dynamic with Emmanuel Sanders and a healthy Alvin Kamara. The defense remains sturdy with Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis and a strong secondary. The Saints “regress” to their record from three yaars ago but are still right there in the tournament with the Bucs.
The Falcons have faith in Dan Quinn and he’s a well-organized coach who can help them get more out of their defense. The offense needs more real balance vs. Dirk Koetter’s pass-happy ways for Matt Ryan, something they need to get with better run blocking and the running of Todd Gurley. Atlanta has a feel of a classic up-and-down team, now dealing with two better all-around powers in its own division.
The Panthers found a good Newton replacement in Teddy Bridgewater, and there’s optimism about the leadership and scheming of Matt Rhule, Joe Brady and Phil Show. But with familiars such as Newton, Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers and James Bradberry long gone, they are asking for the superstar power of Christian McCaffrey to carry a lot in a new offense. That’s before getting to a new-look rebuilding defense that will take more lumps than make big plays.
- Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
- San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
- Los Angeles Rams (8-8)
- Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
The Seahawks were on the brink of beating out the 49ers for the division title and better playoff position in 2019. They finish the job in 2020 with Russell Wilson further raising his game with Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and now Olsen. He can lean on the mighty power running he once had with Marshawn Lynch, an element that’s back again without Lynch. They can pound it and throw it deep at a high level offensively, and with their linebackers and secondary, are starting to have that old ‘Legion of Boom’ look defensively for Pete Carroll.
The 49ers will have a mild Super Bowl hangover in sliding four games down but staying in NFC playoff position. They will recover nicely from trading Buckner defensively and also replacing Sanders offensively with a reliable formula for Robert Saleh and Kyle Shanahan. They don’t have many personnel challenges or any schematic ones, but there’s enough to allow the Seahawks to overtake them.
The Rams always are dangerous because of Sean McVay’s coaching and their Super Bowl experience. But now he must operate his offense without Gurley and Brandin Cooks, trying to find sources of explosiveness to boost a leveled-off Jared Goff. Defensively, in between Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, there enough issues to limit L.A. to .500.
The Cardinals might be a stronger playoff contender in any other division, but the NFC West can claim the title of the best over the AFC North. Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are the headliners of their Year 2 offensive-related buzz with help from Hopkins, but the upgrades defensively, led by Isaiah Simmons, are also promising. It would be surprise no one if all four teams were tighter around 10 or 9 wins and the order of finish being shuffled in one of the many other possible ways.
AFC playoff predictions
- Wild-card round: No. 2 Ravens over No. 7 Browns … No. 5 Steelers over No. 4 Texans … No. 6 Patriots over No. 3 Bills
- Divisional round: No. 1 Chiefs over No. 6 Patriots … No. 2 Ravens over No. 5 Steelers
- AFC championship game: No. 1 Chiefs over No. 2 Ravens
The Patriots get in because of Belichick’s great coaching and adjusting, while Stefanski’s strong Mayfield whispering ends up with a shot in the tournament. But while John Harbaugh and Jackson foil their division rivals, the Bills get shocked when the Patriots take their rubber match in the playoffs with Stidham or Newton outplaying Allen. The Steelers simply will deliver on the road, too, as the much better defensive team than the Texans.
Belichick’s fun will end when his team can’t score enough against Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead. The Steelers will give the Ravens another typical division dogfight, but Harbaugh gets the better of Tomlin with Jackson’s legs faring better than Roethlisberger’s arm.
Then comes the AFC championship game matchup one was denied last season, Mahomes vs. Jackson. Even with the potential of no loud home crowd, Mahomes rewards the Chiefs for rewarding him with a return trip to the Super Bowl.
NFC playoff predictions
- Wild-card round: No. 2 Buccaneers over No. 7 49ers … No. 6 Cowboys over No. 3 Eagles … No. 5 Saints over No. 4 Vikings
- Divisional round: No. 2 Buccaneers over No. 5 Saints … No. 1 Seahawks over No. 6 Cowboys
- NFC championship game: No. 1 Seahawks over No. 2 Buccaneers
It doesn’t get much more dramatic than Brady outdueling Jimmy Garoppolo to take down the reigning NFC champs, far away in the other Bay. The Cowboys get the last laugh on the Eagles when it counts more with Prescott edging Wentz in a classic. The Saints round it out by exacting overdue revenge on the Vikings for both the Minneapolis Miracle and last year’s big wild-card upset.
Brady and the Bucs may fall in New Orleans in Week 1, but they will take the next two in Tampa, with Brady denying his teary contemporary Brees a last chance for a second ring. The quarterback theme of the playoffs continues with Wilson outdeling Prescott in a high-scoring, high-passing affair familiar to past Mike McCarthy disappointments.
Brady and Wilson meet again with an NFC title on the line after their classic Super Bowl, and the Hall of Fame QBs give us one more special passing treat before Carroll gets the better of his old West coaching foe Arians.
Super Bowl 55 prediction
In a quarterback league, Mahomes vs. Wilson at the end is as good as it gets. Wilson will be the new leader of the “old guard” soon with Brady, Brees and Roethlisberger near the end. At 32 to be, more durable and efficient than ever, Wilson will try to answer every Mahomes’ strike to keep Mahomes from the repeat Wilson didn’t get to enjoy as a young QB. But the Chiefs kept themselves great for this rare opportunity with a generational talent. Mahomes has a special winning quality that screams he will win several rings, even if the Chiefs fall short of Tyreek Hill’s estimation. The Chiefs might as well get started with No. 2 right after getting No. 1 with him.