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Bold NFL Predictions: Divisional Shake-ups, Playoff Long Shots and the Fate of Tampa Tom

Before the 2020 NFL season kicks off, The MMQB staff makes some bold predictions. Which sleeper teams will win their divisions? Should we ride the Buccaneers' hype train? Will the season even be finished? Here's what we think.

After a lot of planning, isolating and swabbing of nasal passages, Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season has indeed arrived. Who will shake up the playoff picture? Who will fall far below expectations? And will we see a finished season? 

The MMQB staff already made complete playoff predictions and award picks. But before the Texans and the Chiefs kick off, we have some bold predictions about the upcoming season. Here goes nothing ...

Bold Predictions

Brady who?

Tom Brady's old team will have a better record than his new team—and both will have better records than Jimmy Garoppolo's team. Brady's Buccaneers look good on paper, but I see a second-half fade. The 49ers play in the NFL's toughest division, the loss of DeForest Buckner is big, and I still don't totally trust Garoppolo, who could be headed for a Jared Goff–like post–Super Bowl regression. Meanwhile, I don't even care who takes most of the snaps for the Patriots. Bill Belichick will find a way. —Michael Rosenberg

Football persists

The NFL will play its full regular season and postseason, as scheduled, from start to finish. This is not to be confused with saying that’s a good idea. Or that no players will get COVID-19. Or that the global pandemic will not impact the 2020 NFL season, either through an outbreak with one playoff team, the loss of a star player for an important game, or any other number of scenarios. It’s more to say that this is the NFL, the league that plays exactly when it wants, how it wants, the entity that cares a whole lot less about its players than it would like you to believe. Which is why of course the NFL won’t deviate. It’s the NFL. Get ready for some football, amid a global pandemic. —Greg Bishop

Lions and Rams and wins, oh my!

The Lions and Rams will topple last year’s 13-win teams to win their respective divisions. In the Rams’ case, it has a bit to do with the injury-ravaged 49ers. But it also has a lot to do with their coach, who is both good at coaching as well as youthful and handsome, and because of some luck finally comes their way. Ty Schalter had a great breakdown of “coin-flip games” over at FiveThirtyEight last year—games in which each team had more than a 40% win probability in the final five minutes of regulation, much more telling than “one-possession wins”—and the Rams were 0–4 in those games (and yet still would have been the NFC’s seventh seed if it had existed). As for the Lions, they'll take advantage of a division that isn’t very good, but this is mostly on Matthew Stafford, who will put together the same elite performance he did in the first half of 2019 before his back injury. This time, however, the defense will actually get a few stops here and there, so people finally take notice of what Stafford is doing. —Gary Gramling

Bucs bust

The Bucs will miss the playoffs. I’ll preface this by saying I’m a skeptic of dream teams. But as for a sturdier analysis: Brady has a lot to prove, but there’s no question that his performance dipped in his final season in New England. While he went to great lengths (perhaps too great during the pandemic) to get in work with his new teammates, this is a difficult year to be starting over with a new team, new system and new play-caller. It’s also a difficult year to be breaking in a rookie right tackle. Plus, the Bucs face stiff competition in their division with the Saints and Falcons. —Jenny Vrentas

The NFC North's not bad

The NFC North won’t have a team with double-digit losses. And it’s possible all four teams will finish 8–8 or better. I’m saying that for a few different reasons. I think both Minnesota and Green Bay, coming off playoff years, are good but not great. I think Stafford has an MVP run in him, and that Detroit's roster is aligned in a way it hasn’t been in years. I think the Bears’ 12-win year of 2018 wasn’t a total fluke, the defense has a run in it and Mitchell Trubisky has tremendous coaching infrastructure around him after Matt Nagy’s staff makeover. Also, the North drew the two South divisions, which is, at least, manageable schedule-wise.

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Not bold enough for you? Well, it was tough to come up with a bold prediction this year, with all the time we had to pick everything apart. Stafford as an MVP contender, Kyler Murray's having a huge breakout season and the Steelers' bouncing back big … all seemed like mainstream takes. So the NFC North being super balanced is what I got for you. —Albert Breer

Sports shut down ... again

Something so horrifying and stupid happens during the presidential election that the sporting world comes to a complete and total stop—that’s assuming they make it that far to begin with, given the risks of playing a full-contact sport during a global pandemic. —Conor Orr

No tanking in Jacksonville

My bold prediction is fashioned the same way every year: to predict the opposite of the prevailing narrative about one team "supposed" to do really well and one team "supposed" to do really poorly.

Last year's hype seemed to be around the Browns, which I pushed back on in this space. This year's hype seems to be around the Buccaneers and, well, I just don't see it. Yes, they have tall and talented receivers; they've had those receivers all these years they've missed the playoffs. But, you say, now they have Brady and Rob Gronkowski! Yes, Brady is an upgrade over Jameis Winston, but Winston threw for a zillion yards last year, didn't he? And do we really think Gronk can stay healthy? The Bucs may be a decent team, but I'm not seeing them among the seven NFC teams in the playoffs.

As for the other side of the coin, the Twidicule of the Jaguars has been over the top. They are this year's team for everyone to pile on, having just traded Yannick Ngakoue and cut Leonard Fournette in the last two weeks. Such universal criticism and allegations of tanking can only mean one thing: The Jaguars will not be half bad. Granted, they—like the Bucs above—will not be a playoff team, but the "tanking" crowd will eat their words as they will win some games with a young team that holds a lot of future assets. They will be the 2020 version of the 2019 Dolphins, for whatever that is worth: predicted to be tanking while not actually doing so, and showing some promise for the future.

Common narratives in the preseason never come true. Just ask any fantasy football player. —Andrew Brandt

Goodwill for Goodell

My bold prediction is something that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, but here we are. Come the end of the season, Roger Goodell’s popularity will soar to heights unforeseen since maybe the start of his tenure as commissioner. Just a month ago I was as skeptical as anyone that a normal NFL season would be played. Now everyone is more confident (myself included). Obviously, much of that is due to factors and national COVID-19 infection rates outside the NFL’s control. But I think if we get to February and the league has had its full share of 256 regular-season games and 13 playoff contests, Goodell will get a lot of the credit for his leadership and the league’s protocols. If we get to the end of a season and a week or two has been lost or a handful of games here or there have been called off, he’d get even more credit for helping the league navigate a turbulent year.

I think Goodell has also built up a lot of goodwill with his players. When star players pressed him in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to make a statement that Black Lives Matter and that the league was wrong not to embrace Colin Kaepernick, he did it fairly quickly. The national discussion on social justice will continue along with this NFL season, too. There will be kneeling and other demonstrations and protests. There will be a magnifying glass coming straight from the tweeter-in-chief, who will torch anyone if he thinks it’ll be beneficial to his reelection. I think Goodell will side with the payers. I realize that will not be popular with a major portion of the NFL’s audience. That we will live in a polarizing time when nobody can rise above a certain favorability percentage. Everything Goodell does that pleases one side will piss off the other. But I think siding with the players will generally come off well in a league where people are tuning in to watch the players.

Rob Manfred has plummeted in the sports commissioner popularity power rankings, and everyone else gets a bump by comparison. I think Goodell’s time is finally coming. —Mitch Goldich