So we’ve reached the end of the regular season. It feels like only yesterday I was sipping Cleveland’s Kool Aid while fearing the Los Angeles Chargers. Looking back at my preseason rankings, I was clearly too low on the Bills, too high on Washington, and just right on the Broncos.
Back before the year I guessed this year’s team would finish right around 8-8, give or take two wins. I did not expect they’d do that after an 0-4 start or through three quarterbacks logging snaps. Nor did I expect Vic Fangio to turn the defense into one of the best in football while Bradley Chubb, Bryce Callahan, Derek Wolfe, Kareem Jackson, and DeVante Bausby all missed significant snaps. It’s been one heck of an interesting ride. One of the most memorable seasons since I became a fan.
So for one last time in 2019, let’s take a look at who stacks up where. As has been the case for a few weeks now, the teams on the outside looking in will be ranked according to their 2020 outlook. So if you’re shocked X is so low while they just missed the dance or Y is so high while chasing the first overall pick, that’s why.
Teams who are still alive will be ranked according to how likely I see their chance at winning the Lombardi. This means a team could be ranked lower than their win total, or above a team they lost to. If you don’t like it be sure to let me know how wrong I am in the comments!
Playing for next year
32. Snyder’s Swamp
On the one hand they have a quarterback prospect and the second overall pick. On the other, they lack most of the kind of supporting cast you’d want to ensure Dwayne Haskins succeeds.
I don’t know about you, but I have no faith in Washington to get it right this spring.
Capped-out roster and a new coaching staff means next year will be the first of yet another painful rebuild. It would cost Jacksonville more than $30 million to move on from Nick Foles, so they’ll have to find someone who can make him close to useful or eat the reality that he’ll be the most expensive backup in football.
The No. 1 priority this spring should be to find the means to ensure Yannick Ngakoue is locked up for the long haul. I have no faith this will occur. None.
Until I see how they can fix that offensive line, it’s hard to have a lot of faith in the Bengals competing in the AFC North. Joe Burrow obviously helps, but there’s so many needs and they’re notoriously cheap. Hard to imagine many big name free agents will pick Ohio if there’s any other competitive option. Fortunately for them, once they move on from Andy Dalton they’ll have more than $70 million in cap space.
Way back in April I said this about Daniel Jones:
Jones’ best chance to make it as a starter is to a team like Washington or Cincinnati, teams that can live with the short game and weaponize their quarterback’s mobility, but aren’t looking for a reliable deep ball. My favorite team for him is the New York Giants, where he could work in the Pat Shurmur system and compare David Cutcliffe stories with Eli Manning.
So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens if Shurmur is out. Jones has been better than I dared hope (I expected him to struggle more as a rookie), but he’ll still need a good system and stronger supporting cast to succeed for the long term.
They’re a pretty big wild card with Dan Quinn’s inevitable departure.
Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and some talented pieces across the defense means things could bounce back quickly. The new staff will need to juggle all of that with the fact that they have one of the tightest cap situations in the league in 2020.
Matt Stafford’s now had two seasons in a row end because of back injuries. I’ve always thought he was underrated compared to the national consensus, but at 31 it’s probably time the Lions consider a true backup with upside in case this is the beginning of a trend. Probably not a first-round guy, but a real investment in a project to develop behind their starter would be wise.
Beyond that, Matt Patricia returns. For all his faults (and there’s enough for another post entirely) he did a far better job with the hand he was dealt in 2019 than say Freddie Kitchens. That said, Bob Quinn’s draft history and what looks like a ho-hum cap situation from afar means they’re going to need to make some tough decisions to try and compete in the NFC North.
I had the Miami Dolphins at 30 in my preseason Power Rankings because I thought Ryan Fitzpatrick would win too much for them to stay in the hunt for Tua Tagovailoa. As of today, they have the fifth pick in the draft with three teams ahead of them that surely won’t be looking at passers. If the Alabama star comes out and his medicals clear, they may come out of this spring like bandits.
If Detroit sells their pick to the highest bidder, those draft picks they stripped their roster to accumulate will need to be considered. Otherwise they risk yet another year of floating along at the bottom of the standings in hopes that Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence are waiting at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, they could always settle on Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, or one of the other project quarterbacks that show some promise.
25. Chicago Bears
Mitch Trubisky, a “win now” roster with holes, and the Khalil Mack trade means Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace will need to prove their genius if they’re going to bounce back in 2020.
24. Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff, an a “win now” roster with holes, and a litany of trades mean Sean McVay and Les Sneak will need to prove their genius if they’re going to bounce back in 2020.
23. London Chargers
Talented roster with huge questions at quarterback and along the offensive line. Philip Rivers is either done or playing bridge in 2020, which leaves them a step behind the rest of the West.
While it’s easy to pile on right now, they do have one of the better GMs in football in Tom Telesco and both the cap room and draft position to make some moves, so things could turn in a hurry.
Halfway through this season I would have told you there’s no reason Cam Newton returns to Carolina. Now it looks like a foregone conclusion. His health and the new coaching staff will have a drastic impact on where they wind up, but there are pieces to make some noise in what currently looks like a wide open NFC South.
If I took the time to break down the NFL’s starting quarterbacks into tiers, Jameis Winston would fall into that 20-11 range. He’s clearly good enough to win you games, but not so good that he can carry a trash roster to prominence. Unlike just about every other quarterback in the tier, he’s a true roller coaster. On his best plays he’s clearly the most talented passer in most games, while his worst mistakes make him look unsalvagable.
Bruce Arians has the kind of coaching staff and cap space to recreate next year’s roster around his schemes in a way he couldn’t this season. That combined with what may prove to be a reloading Saints team, broken Falcons, and Carolina means a division title is a distinct possibility.
But no move looms larger than the decision at quarterback. Should the Bucs bring him back, and can he make a leap at an age when few quarterbacks break bad habits?
On a halfway related note, Winston is my nightmare ceiling for Drew Lock.
Right now Sam Darnold is pretty much where he stood after his rookie season. He’s promising and has moments where he looks the part, but the book is still out. It’d probably do him some wonders if the Jets go out and find a real supporting cast to surround him with. They’ll have the potential to do that and all reports about Joe Douglas are that he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing. We’ll see.
They desperately need to figure out a way to build a defense around Chandler Jones and the NFC West looks like it’s going to be a murderer’s row again in 2020. But the future is bright for Kliff and Kyler Murray.
18. Denver Broncos
I’m going to lose count of the number of times I’ll watch Lock’s five games by Draft day. Little doubt he gets a 2020 extended run, but a lot needs to happen both for him and the rest of the roster to truly contend.
Fans have been divided on John Elway in recent years. Some believe he’s little more than lucky to sign Peyton Manning. Other’s give him credit for building those teams around a GOAT. One thing looks certain from here, Elway has a chance to make a case one way or the other in 2020.
These two are squaring off to determine who will wind up as the second place team in the AFC West. There’s a snowball’s chance Jon Gruden is coaching for the Raiders’ playoff lives, but scheduling makes this game carry some ramifications in 2020.
Just one thing to keep in mind: If Denver wins, they’re playing the Steelers instead of the Browns next year. With questions about Ben Roethlisberger and a sleeping giant in the Browns, I’d much prefer that.
I trust in the structure, but until the Colts find a real answer at quarterback they’re going to be fringe contenders. In all reality it’s pretty impressive what they’ve done this year with issues with the passing game on both sides of the ball. Fortunately for them they’ll have close to $100 million in cap space to chase answers.
Man was I wrong on Freddie Kitchens. I know I wasn’t the only one, but he was my top coaching candidate when Vance Joseph was fired last year. Clearly pleased Elway and the Broncos didn’t walk down that road.
If John Dorsey gets a chance to fix that issue, they could deliver on some of the hype next season. Baker Mayfield regressed in his sophomore campaign and Odell Beckham Jr. was never right, but there’s talent on both sides of the ball. They’ll need to get Myles Garrett back in the fold, but if so they have one of the stronger rosters in the AFC and roughly $50 million in cap to address the issues.
Still alive. For now.
14. Dallas Cowboys
There’s a couple of interesting factors at play with big D.
- It’s no guarantee the Eagles don’t fall flat on their face against the New York Giants.
- That won’t save Jason Garrett.
- Until Lincoln Riley turns down the soon-to-be vacant post, he’s my favorite for the gig.
Baltimore is resting starters and could still beat the Paxton Lynch (yep) led offense.
If they make it in, they’re a far likelier team to hoist the Lombardi than the Steelers. Got to make it first, though.
My brother will break his television if the Giants pull a dub in week 17.
I would be surprised if the Super Bowl doesn’t go to a team below.
10. Buffalo Bills
Crazier things and all that, but dog help my mentions if Josh Allen wins a championship.
They signed Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson means we can’t rule them out. Everything else points to “dead in the water.” On Sunday there were rumblings among Seahawks’ Twitter about firing Pete Carroll.
Kirk Cousins is the biggest hurdle Zimmer will have to surpass to make a real run for a title.
If J.J. Watt returns and is close to 80 percent healthy, a part of me would want to slide them above the Patriots. They desperately need more out of their defense, but Deshaun Watson and the offense are championship caliber, if healthy.
You can’t rule them out because Tom Brady’s one of the best to ever do it, but as I’ve said a few times in recent weeks: if Bill Belichick can pull this one out, it’ll go down as perhaps his best coaching job ever. We saw this same model in action back in 2015.
One of the things you’ll notice about all seven contenders is there are a number of “ifs” at play. As crazy as it sounds, Aaron Rodgers getting hot for three games sounds likelier than the the scenarios below.
Don’t look now but the vaunted Robert Saleh D has gotten lit up like a Christmas tree the last couple of weeks. My love for the Kyle Shanahan offense is well known by this point, but they’ll need something resembling a pass defense to take home the trophy.
These three look a cut above the rest heading into Christmas.
It’ll probably go down as Patrick Mahomes’ best roster with Sammy Watkins’ cap number ballooning and Chris Jones’ contract expiring. With the way Steve Spagnuolo has turned around this defense with Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu, he deserves assistant of the year.
2. New Orleans Saints
I’ve said since last spring that this looks like the last ride for Drew Brees and the Saints. There’s a part of me that hopes it’s Peyton-esque.
Wouldn’t it be something if the analytics department convinced John Harbaugh to rest starters next week because the divisional rival Steelers are a lot less threatening than the Tennessee Titans?