Return of the One-Pager (December 2020)
You better sit down, because I have some thoughts about this unprecedented NFL season.
No need to go into all the drama of 2020. We have all had our own ups and downs this year. There have been many downs, but one up has been the addition of Monday Afternoon, Tuesday Night and Wednesday Afternoon Football. It’s unfortunate that the games have been delayed because of COVID outbreaks, but I am all in favor of football every day of the week. Many others are as well; last Wednesday’s Steelers-Ravens matinee (12:40 PT kickoff) was watched by over 11 million people, which proves what we all suspected: people will watch football no matter what time it is on.
This week, we have two games on Monday, one game on Tuesday, one on Thursday, and a full slate of games next Sunday. Give them all to me! Most years, the hardest part of my week is making it from the end of Monday Night Football to the kickoff of Thursday Night Football. No such problem this week. It is no doubt difficult for the players to adjust to postponed games and Tuesday games, but it has been great for fans to have football on even more days.
In addition to the COVID-related delays and empty stadiums, many other aspects of this NFL season could be called “unprecedented.” For one, the Browns are actually good! I am excited that the Browns are 9-3 so far this year. It’s ironic that they have done so well when no one expected anything from them. Last year they had high expectations and fell flat, meandering through a forgettable 6-10 season. This year, no one expected anything from them even though they had largely the same roster, and they have proven everyone wrong by playing very well and most likely earning their first playoff bid since 2002.
AFC Rankings after 12 games
Three things to watch during the last 4 weeks
Will the Patriots make the playoffs? They are 6-6 but seem ascendant. They are going to need some help, but I think they will come up short, going 2-2 the rest of the way. Either way, for them to be at .500 is remarkable given their injuries and lack of Tom Brady at QB. Their record answers the 20-year-old question of who was more important to the team: Brady or Belichick. Clearly Brady was the key to their continued success. Belichick did the best he could putting this team back together after Brady’s departure, but he didn’t have enough tools to compete with the Bills and Dolphins. Don’t @ me with your “but the Pats beat the Dolphins in Week 1.” Certified Hot Take: The Dolphins will beat the Pats on 12/20 by at least 6 points, knocking them out of the playoff hunt.
Which team will get the #1 seed? The Steelers seem to be the favorite, but with games against the Bills and Browns still to come, I would bet against them finishing with an undefeated record. That would open the door for the Chiefs, who only have one loss and seem to be the better team right now. The #1 seed has outsized importance this year because they are the only team that gets a first-round bye. The NFL has added an extra playoff seed this season to compensate for the unprecedented situation, which means that there will be three Wild Card games instead of two. Lukewarm Take: The Chiefs get the #1 seed and the Steelers end up #2, both with matching 14-2 records.
Which team will win the AFC South? After their surprise march to the AFC Championship Game, expectations were high for the Derrick Henry-led Titans. They have largely proven that last season was not a fluke, riding Henry and his 12 TDs and 4.9 yard average yards per carry to an 8-4 record. This is a good but not great team, having beaten Buffalo and Indianapolis but inexplicably losing to Cincinnati(!). I actually didn’t even know that until I looked at their schedule. Their loss to Cleveland hurt, but splitting their series with Indy mattered much more than the other games. Speaking of the Colts, their stout defense has propelled them to a similar 8-4 record, including wins over the aforementioned Titans and the Packers. Their success is surprising because it was largely unknown whether Philip Rivers would replicate his regular season success at a new team. So far he has proven the doubters wrong and has put together a solid first season as a Colt. Regular Take: My prediction is that both teams will make the playoffs but the Titans will end up with the South Division title because of their easier finishing schedule.
NFC Rankings after 12 games
Three things to watch during the last 4 weeks
Who is best team? The #1 team is clearly the Saints. Even without Drew Brees, they keep winning. Taysom Hill seems to be a capable back-up, but their favorable schedule has kept them at only 2 losses so far. Playing the Broncos in Denver is normally a tough game no matter how good the Broncos are. But it’s pretty easy when all 4 of their QBs are out and their starting QB is a guy who was on the practice squad days before and played some QB in college. Needless to say, the Saints easily beat the Broncos that day, 31-3. The Saints have a relatively easy schedule remaining, but their game against the Chiefs on December 20 will be an early Christmas present to us NFL fans. It will be a good test to see how they up against the best in the AFC.
Why aren’t the Seahawks better? Before this past Sunday, I would have said that the Seahawks had the best chance of winning the NFC West and getting the #3 seed. Now, I’m not so sure. They were dreadful against the Giants, losing a very winnable game in which they were thoroughly outplayed. This is supposed to be the easy part of their schedule, but the NFC LEast is quickly turning into the NFC BEast. The Giants have won 4 in a row and the Washington Team (Team), whom the Hawks play on 12/20, just put the league on notice after beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh. A week ago the Seahawks seemed to have the NFC West locked up, but now, because of Russell’s inexplicably inconsistent play, they may end up having to go to New York or Washington to play the winner of the East. Not what any of us expected, but they are still 8-4 and play the Jets this weekend, which should help fix some of their problems. After that, nothing would surprise me. Lose all 3 games? Seems plausible. Win all 3 games? They are talented enough to do that too.
Who will end up in the playoffs? The NFC Wild Card race is going to be very interesting. Will 3 West teams make it in? Will Tompa Bay stop their slide and finish strong? Will the Giants or Team run the table and improbably turn around the fortunes of the division? One thing we know for sure is the NFC North will only have the Packers representing the division. The Bears have lost 6 straight, the Vikings are not reliable, and the Lions are the Lions. Temperate Take: The Rams will win the West, the Giants will win the East, the Seahawks and Bucs will be the #5 and 6 seeds and…wait for it…the Cardinals will get the brand new #7 seed. I don’t trust the Vikings to get it done. 3 NFC West playoff teams!
Three Additional Thoughts
1. Beloved commentator Cris Collinsworth got in a bit of hot water last week when he mentioned on air that he was impressed with the football knowledge of the Steelers fans he has met, particularly female Steelers fans. Any NFL fan knows that Pittsburgh has some of the most passionate fans in the country, and it is reasonable to assume that most of them know about their team and the sport. It is not surprising that he would off-handedly make a tone-deaf remark, but it got me thinking about how people can so often be underestimated. I would love it if someone man-splained football to my wife. Having to live with me, she absorbs more about the NFL just half-listening to me ramble on than most casual fans learn in a lifetime. She is a VERY knowledgeable fan, whether she wants to be or not. If anyone questioned her knowledge or dismissed her as a fan, she would quickly put them in their place. Most women I know are NFL fans and have at least a working knowledge of the sport. Underestimate them at your peril.
2. I am very hopeful that the college basketball season continues in earnest. A COVID outbreak within a basketball team is obviously more serious than within a football team because everyone is together more often and it is tougher to isolate individual players, since there are only 12 on a team. Many games have been played, but many has been canceled. I really hope that the NCAA tournament will be played in 2021 because, like last year, Gonzaga is one of the favorites to win it all. They are off to a good start, beating Kansas and Auburn and looking like the best team in the country, but their highly anticipated game against #2 Baylor was called off just 90 minutes before tipoff because of a positive case in the Gonzaga team and traveling party. Seems like these sorts of things will happen all year. The best teams will be the most flexible and resilient. Room Temperature Take: It will be messy and confusing, but things will improve, kids will stay safe, and we will get March Madness in some form in 2021.
3. Speaking of sports championships, any team that wins a championship this year deserves additional praise, not discussion of whether championships this year mean as much as before. Imagine leaving your family for two months to go live in a hotel and never going outside your “bubble.” All you do is practice, play, eat and sleep. That would take a tremendous amount of focus and dedication. It’s no wonder that the Lakers and Lightning won their respective basketball and hockey “bubble” titles. They were the best teams pre-COVID and had the veteran leadership needed to overcome adversity. NFL teams are obviously playing in their home stadiums, but they are still dealing with a lot of challenges this season, from regular COVID testing to playing in front of very few, if any, fans. The best teams are the ones with either veteran coaches and players who have seen it all or younger star players and coaches that are creative and innovative in their approach to managing their teams. I’m now realizing those two narratives would include almost every team, but I’m sticking with it.
Welcome back to the One-Pager! Hope you got something out of it. I am going to be pushing out more content as long as I’m at home and have free minutes to come up with something moderately interesting to say. Thanks for your continued support.