Have you ever looked at a blank NFL schedule in its entirety?
Similar question: Have you ever thought about what it would be like to stand on the edge of the universe and stare out into a surging black hole?
In front of me sits 256 rows of an excel spreadsheet containing every matchup from Sept. 5, 2019 (Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers, 8:20 p.m., NBC) to Dec. 29, 2019, when the Seattle Seahawks host the Arizona Cardinals on FOX. The task? Predict every team’s record. We’re still a full 50 days before the first game even takes place, and the sheer magnitude of this task feels insane—like doing a seven-round mock draft in mid-October with incremental salvia breaks. The number of rolling variables create a near mathematical impossibility. For example, will Aaron Rodgers stay healthy in 2019? Can the Air Raid fully translate to the professional game? When will Eli Manning cede the starting job? Will Jon Gruden coach the Raiders for 16 games or be tapped as the next secretary of defense sometime in mid-November? Anything is possible, sadly.
A legitimate-seeming contributor article on Forbes.com lists the following steps on how to accurately predict the future:
1. Know all the facts
2. Live and breathe your space
3. Add in your “special” element
For step one, I texted our resident insider, Albert Breer, and asked him what his advice might be. Despite him being on a well-deserved vacation with his young family at the time, enjoying a whiff of free time before the 11-month grind of an NFL season takes hold, this felt important enough to break the radio silence. His response: “Haha. Get a dartboard.”
Step two, live and breathe your space. The temperature in my home office is set at 71 degrees, and I cleared enough space on my desk to make room for two laptops, wedging them between a Nintendo 64, some old Christmas-themed picture frames, a candle from a bridal shower I did not attend, an unopened oil diffuser, a police radio and a warped copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. One laptop will hold the schedule with two pivot tables that update the win and loss totals for each team as I go along. The other will be for Word documents and desultory Googling.
Step three: In the Forbes article, the “special” element is intuition and foresight (surprise, you had it in you all along!), but when you’re the kind of person who gets tasked with predicting 256 football games on an idyllic summer Friday, maybe your intuition and foresight hasn’t exactly put you in the kind of life you planned for. I opt instead for the special element to be a combination of several sprawling Apple music playlists streaming at a deafening volume in my knockoff Beats headphones—a blend of late-70s Grateful Dead, Ween, The Wu-Tang Clan, Cake, the Dead Kennedys and something called MORNING SPA MUSIC | MORNING YOGA MUSIC | MUSIC FOR DEEP REPLAXING AND MEDITATION. I debate opening the oil diffuser to add some rosemary (good for concentration).
As it turns out, parsing through each game as a line on a spreadsheet causes some erratic blips. An example: The Bengals are 11–5, the Broncos are 2–14, the Packers are 6–10, the Ravens are 2–14 and the Titans are 2–14. Some serious massaging was required, which meant going back through the schedule a second and third time with an eye on the corresponding pivot tables. It’s a difficult tug of war, given that we wanted this peppered with a little weirdness—a hallmark of every NFL season—without the results looking like an early 2000s election in Brussels.
How did it turn out? I’m sure you’ll let us know. Behold, the way to make all 32 fan bases hate you at once...
At first glance, their schedule is a little brutal. Trips to Minnesota, Green Bay and Atlanta in the first six weeks is foreboding, but I’ll stick with my same thought from earlier in the offseason: This is one of the best quarterback complementary depth charts in the NFL, especially at running back.
Dallas has a chance to start white-hot with extremely an winnable game at home against the Giants before a road game (potentially against a rookie starting quarterback) in Washington followed by another home game against the rebuilding Dolphins. So long as they’re not stunned by FitzMagic, there’s a real chance we’re talking about an unbeatable Dallas team headed into a Week 4 matchup against the Saints in New Orleans. That’s when the meat of their schedule kicks in, with little respite until the bitter end. Given their dramatic shift at offensive coordinator, this was one of the hardest teams to grade when looking at a blank slate.
Another team that is almost impossible to evaluate right now. When does Daniel Jones take over as the starting quarterback? When tracking their schedule, I tried to envision a bye-week changeover, though if Pat Shurmur decides to start a rookie quarterback for the first time on the road in late November against the Bears, he may be crazier than I thought.
I think there’s a fair chance this might be my biggest mistake. In this scenario, I’m imagining Dwayne Haskins being forced to start before he’s ready; but on the other hand, I think Jay Gruden is one of the more underrated coaches in the NFL. This run game could be an absolute handful, and Washington got better on defense. Imagine this division, as it tends to do, falling closer together than our breakdown here.
This was a draft befitting of a team that believes itself to be on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. The selections of Irv Smith and Garrett Bradbury were all about immediate functionality and upgrading the offense. Without the internal chaos at the offensive coordinator slot, this season should be a major rebound in Minnesota.
I think we’ll soon be forced to board a Mitch Trubisky hype train, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen from a third-year quarterback. This is a talented roster with a mastermind playcaller as a head coach, though they are losing Vic Fangio at defensive coordinator. While they are on the road a good amount early (Denver in Week 2, Washington in Week 3 and Oakland in Week 5), those are winnable games that could build them a cushion ahead for torturous stretches like New Orleans, LAC, @Eagles, and Packers, Chiefs, Vikings to finish the regular season.
Aaron Rodgers can have a good season, and the Packers can be a team in transition. Both of these things can be true. With an almost identical weapon set to a year ago, the same matchup challenge still exist, with a lot of pressure on Matt LaFleur to create something we haven’t seen before (with Rodgers’ blessing). The Eagles, Vikings and Bears are all on the slate within the first three weeks, with a few similarly muddy stretches throughout.
Another major wildcard with a change at offensive coordinator. Still, this season will be a referendum on second-year head coach Matt Patricia and whether he can wrangle a team that looked stunningly flat-footed at times a year ago. Detroit will be strong through the middle, with one of the better tight end sets in the league and a solid offensive line, they may not have enough firepower to navigate what promises to be a brutal division.
I’m going to get hammered for this, and so be it. I don’t think there is a lot of pressure in Atlanta to regroup after a 7–9 season, but there’s also a lot to like: A fortified offensive line, a developing Calvin Ridley and a schedule that breaks pretty nicely after the bye (at New Orleans, at Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, at San Francisco, Jacksonville, at Tampa Bay).
There’s a tremendous emotional burden on this team after the way last year ended. Drew Brees is now entering his age 40/41 season and five of their first seven teams are against physical, ball-control teams that have the ability to keep New Orleans’ best players off the field. Still, they are insanely talented.
I backloaded some of Carolina’s wins here, given that we have absolutely no clue what Cam Newton will be post-shoulder surgery, the thought being that perhaps by the end of the year he’s more comfortable throwing the football. All we know is what we saw in his final bits of action in 2018 – troubling to say the least. If Newton is fresh and rehabilitated, Carolina has the talent to make a run at the division. Sans Newton, this is an offense of disjointed parts with a potential rookie starter.
This is where the weight of the schedule gets kind of ugly. I don’t necessarily think the Buccaneers will lose 14 games, mostly because Bruce Arians is a top-10 head coach and may have the deepest coaching staff in football. NFL.com’s analytics guru Cynthia Frelund had them at six wins, which feels a little closer to what will end up happening. However, if you’re in my position, grading a team that finished the offseason with a net loss in terms of talent gained vs. talent lost, what are you going to do?
I feel like whatever the Rams can get out of Todd Gurley at this point is a bonus. The selection of Darrell Henderson was a steal, and the defense added some stellar veteran talent. Sure, there could be a Super Bowl lull, but I’m betting on Sean McVay being the kind of obsessive mind who won’t allow that to happen.
This team is deep in spots, even if they might be a little dependent on some high risk veteran additions at others. I have them winning some big games early, like the Saints matchup at the end of September and splitting with the Rams. Though, if they don’t show up in some of their early premiere matchups (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Cleveland) the 49ers could have a chance to edge ahead.
A lot of people are pegging this as the year that everything finally materializes in San Francisco. The problem? Their division is tough, and they have a super early bye week. There’s a chance the 49ers glide into Week 4 at 2-1 or even 3-0 (Bengals, Steelers, Buccaneers), but the meat of their schedule is backloaded with little respite. They finish Saints-Falcons-Rams-Seahawks.
I wanted to give Arizona more wins because I genuinely think that a team that presents such a significantly different offense and greater pace of play will surprise some people. However: Put yourself in my shoes and try and find me seven wins on this schedule without knowing how Kyler Murray will adapt, and if he’ll stay healthy. I like them against the Giants and to win their opener against the Lions due to specific potential matchups, assuming that Murray is in. Everything else was extraordinarily difficult.
I have New England losing one of two to the Jets, one to the Eagles, one to the Chiefs and, after great internal strife, one to the Texans (my other thought was the Dolphins, given that there is typically that one odd Patriot loss that propels all the mindless questions about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady slowing down). I want to be on record about this: I’m not doubting the Patriots. I’m picking them to win the Super Bowl. I’m picking them now, will pick them in the middle of their trademark slump and will pick them again to start the playoffs. I remember being at the post-Super Bowl interview session for the Patriots this year and hearing Kyle Van Noy go off on “all of you” who didn’t believe in us. It was a continuation of Belichick’s ludicrous—but apparently effective—messaging campaign last year to somehow convince the greatest dynasty in NFL history that they were being overlooked. Because of this, I am officially putting a disclaimer on everything I write this year. I do not doubt the Patriots.
Despite his middling tenure with the Dolphins and strange, Machiavellian shake-up of the team’s front office, Adam Gase was still one of the best hires of this offseason. The Jets will be more competitive than in years past and make a run at a playoff spot. So much rides on their opening game, a divisional matchup against the Bills that bleeds into games against the stockpiled Browns and a road trip to New England.
I was ripped this summer for suggesting Bills fans should be happy with a record similar to this if Josh Allen makes incremental steps toward being a complete franchise quarterback. Odd, though, that in one version of this exercise, I had Buffalo winning 10 games. Their schedule is not that bad, especially on the front end with games against the Jets, Giants and Bengals to start. The NFC East pairing also gives them a winnable non-conference opponent in Washington.
I tried to find them some more wins, and debated giving them a victory against the Patriots to continue the puzzling run of low-octane teams headed by New England assistants upsetting the champions. I don’t think it’s impossible to get Miami to five wins this year, but the safe play is to view them as a high-percentage favorite for the No. 1 pick in 2020.
I have them losing the season-opener to New England but rebounding well. This is going to be one of the most fascinating divisions in the NFL, and we could see a titanic offensive shift now that Antonio Brown is in Oakland.
My inability to embrace hype is palpable here, and I understand. I have Cleveland splitting all three of their divisional series (an original projection had them sweeping the Steelers, which made sense in a vacuum but feels impossible on a larger scale. Otherwise, my picks went probably as you’d expect, save for a surprise Week 1 loss to the Titans.
This is probably my least favorite result. Cincinnati’s initial 10-6 record in my first projection was a reflection of my positivity surrounding this team, with or without Jonah Williams. Still, the Bengals have a wicked first half, starting in Seattle, hosting the 49ers, traveling to Buffalo, traveling to Pittsburgh, hosting the Cardinals, traveling to Baltimore, hosting Jacksonville and traveling to Los Angeles. It was hard have them emerge from that stretch in a place to make a run at the division.
As I’ve written before, this new playbook without Lamar Jackson’s knowledge deal makes me uneasy. Their record here isn’t a reflection of some foreseen Jackson regression, but more an offensive regression as a whole. I loved what Baltimore did down the stretch last year and thought there was a way to blend that punishing rush offense with Jackson’s natural playmaking abilities, which we saw in spurts and at the end of their playoff loss to the Chargers.
While it’s hard to put too much emphasis on one game, the Colts’ afternoon matchup against the Chargers in Los Angeles to open the season feels like a potential AFC divisional game. I have them winning that game and beating the Titans on the road to start the season 2–0. Maybe this is fueled by the near-mysticism that Chris Ballard’s early tenure has been cloaked in when it comes to the depth chart he’s stacking there. In a lot of ways, this feels like a season where they could pull away from the division.
How much time is too much time for a human to debate picking an early November London game between the Texans and Jaguars? As it turns out, this was the fulcrum on which my entire schedule pivoted. I viewed the Texans and Jaguars like two children, both of which I could not ethically love more than the other. Sure, I liked things about one and not about the other. But in my mind, they are equally great.
Assuming this team pacifies two of its more mercurial-leaning superstars, I think the Jaguars are going to return to form as one of the toughest week-in, week-out opponents in the NFL. Oddly, I have them beating the Texans on the road and losing in London, despite their increased comfort with the logistical turnaround. This division is going to be NFC East-level brutal, but after a few spins through the schedule I can certainly see them within striking distance of a wildcard spot.
A team that I genuinely disrespected my first time through, and probably still am. I listed the Titans as one of my “franchises stuck in neutral” this offseason and while it’s difficult to get excited about their offensive additions outside of AJ Brown’s long-term prospects, they’re also one of the harder teams to pick against on a weekly basis. Are they good enough to beat the Rams? Maybe not. Are they good enough to cause consistent problems for teams like Carolina, Jacksonville and Cleveland? Yes.
Winning the division is another baked-in inevitability I was hoping to avoid, especially since the savvy game prognosticator might build in a bit of regression for the Chiefs in year two of the Patrick Mahomes era. Still, I don’t know if Oakland has gotten good enough to act as a significant speed bump, and Denver will either be playing a rookie quarterback or still pacing an offense with a player remarkably similar to the one who played the position last year. I’ve marked them down for losses to the Chargers, Colts and a super random early-season upset at the hands of the Jaguars since they may still be in the midst of some roster upheaval.
This division as a whole has a brutal schedule, and the Chargers, despite scoring winnable games against the Lions, Broncos and Dolphins in their first few weeks, will face some gauntlets toward the end of the season. I think they’ll amass enough of a bumper to reach the postseason again, though their pre-bye week run of Bears, Packers, at Raiders, Chiefs is tough, as is a finisher of Minnesota, Oakland, at Kansas City.
One of the top-five hardest teams to predict in football this year. I believe colleague Andy Benoit when he said that Gruden’s offense has more high-minded, modern concepts than we give him credit for, and maybe that will bear out over the course of this season with a better offense. Still, is their young core going to be consistent enough alongside a veteran layer of players with a dense injury and suspension background to pick them regularly with any confidence?
I’ve said on many occasions that this will be a well-coached team, despite their circumstances offensively. While the Broncos did a nice job of attaining draft picks that complement both their offense and defense directly, it may not be enough to keep them afloat in this division. Again, this is not a slight against the Broncos, but a reflection of how good this division ultimately is.
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