The 2020 NFL season is nearly upon us, and it promises to be unlike any other one that came before it. In many ways, this will be a year shaped by the coronavirus on and off the field, but when you attempt to set that aside for a moment, the league has never been more interesting between the lines.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes have their Super Bowl window fully open, Lamar Jackson is arguably the most exciting player in the sport, and rebuilding projects in places like Denver, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Arizona among others offer plenty of excitement. Oh yeah, and the greatest quarterback of all-time has switched jerseys and left his Hall of Fame coach to pick up the pieces... with a former MVP.
Peering into the ol' crystal ball then, how could the 2020 campaign play out this fall? Here are a few bold predictions for the upcoming season and more than one surprise that should ring true:
1. Neither Patrick Mahomes nor Lamar Jackson finish in the top three of MVP voting
It's going to be a strange year, but you'd think some of the constants would be the last two MVPs playing at that same kind of level given their ages and the growth still left in their game. However, voters for the award also love a great story, and that will end up working against both Mahomes and Jackson in 2020 as they slip just a bit in the voting for the biggest individual prize in the regular season. Both will post great numbers again, but the presence of guys like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers in new places, potential last licks campaigns in their current setup for Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, plus the general out-of-nowhere rises we've seen... and it's just going to be tough to get the same kind of traction to be MVP again.
2. The 49ers' Super Bowl hangover keeps them out of the playoffs
Kyle Shanahan once again fell just a half short of a Lombardi Trophy last year and should still have a very competitive team back in 2020. Some things will hold the group in the Bay back, however, and contribute to another well-documented hangover from the big game. One thing is injuries, which have particularly hampered the receiving corps during training camp and make an impressive depth chart just a tad thinner. Don't overlook their absolutely loaded division either, with not one single game being much of a gimme and their crossover games ramping up in intensity. Add it all up, and the slight step back keeps them out of the expanded postseason by a single game.
3. Tampa Bay signs Antonio Brown by Week 4
As soon as the league announced the former superstar wideout would serve (at least) an eight-game suspension, speculation picked up that he would wind up with old pal Tom Brady in Tampa. While he will have to wait until the second half of the year to actually suit up, something says that the QB has already been pushing for a reunion and will get his wish after a bumpy early start with the Buccaneers. Head coach Bruce Arians had a bit of a spat with his old player last year, but they put that behind them to eventually bring the unpredictable talker back into the NFL.
4. Toughest division in the league will be the AFC North
When the discussion comes up as to who will hold up the title as the toughest division in football, the NFC West or NFC South typically are first to mind. It makes plenty of sense, with three nine-plus-win teams in the West plus the progress shown in Arizona. The South may well have two of the greatest quarterbacks ever, a former MVP in Matt Ryan and a fascinating situation in Carolina with Teddy Bridgewater and Christian McCaffrey. But the actual toughest division will be the AFC North. The Steelers figure to get at least average offensive output at quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger back, the Bengals may start a rookie under center but he's only the most prolific ever coming into the league, and everybody is aware of what kind of talent is amassed in Cleveland. Given that the Ravens got even better over the offseason, and you can easily see why the annual hard-nosed slog through the AFC North looks even more daunting this year.
5. Doug Marrone is the first coach fired
Here's how bad the situation is in Jacksonville: defensive end Yannick Ngakoue took a nearly $5 million pay cut to get out of Duval. Mix in a starting 22 full of holes (see ya Leonard Fournette), an ongoing pandemic, and the lack of a safety net behind Gardner Minshew II, and you can see why this could be a team that completely bottoms out in 2020 (Perhaps Tanking for Trevor [Lawrence]? Falling for [Justin] Fields? Losing for [Trey] Lance?). The November/December run on the schedule is brutal, so you could pick your time for a late swoon that eventually does Marrone in.
6. The Wildcat returns in vogue
As good as the crop of quarterbacks are around the league (arguably as good as ever), the presence of COVID-19 means nothing is assured from week-to-week. Even if a starter doesn't get knocked out here or there, the expanded practice squad and the ability to rotate a few more people in than normal could unleash several coaches' creativity. Don't be shocked, then, if the Wildcat comes back in a big way — both to lessen the injury risk to No. 1 guys as well as generate some offense in unexpected ways. The defenses are already behind the eight-ball nowadays and this will only add to the pressures they face.
7. John Ross III lives up to his draft position
Hardly anything is expected of Ross in what likely is his final season with the team now that he's in the final year of his rookie deal. He's missed out on several weeks of practice and is going to be behind in getting on the same page in the offense. But despite all of that, he should have a career year thanks to a rare injury-free campaign (fingers crossed) and the arrival of Joe Burrow. His new quarterback put together the best college football season ever at LSU, and his deep-ball accuracy was a huge part of that. It might take a game or two, but eventually, the pair gets in sync and turns into a must-watch tandem.
8. Dallas Cowboys make it back to NFC title game
It's been almost a quarter of a century since America's Team has advanced at least this far in the playoffs… a streak that Jerry Jones has had to stomach for far too long. There's been a lot of talk about the team's defense not being good enough to reach this point, but their recent additions give them one of the better front sevens in the NFC and their offense should take another step after the addition of Mike McCarthy as head coach. Much as the country would rather wallow in the team's misery, that won't be the case in 2020.
9. Von Miller wins Defensive Player of the Year honors
Miller has won just about everything you can in this business with this rare exception. He has remained one of the best defenders in the league and continues to play at a high level as he ages into his 30s. However, circumstances could wind up helping him produce a special, special year in 2020. Some of that has to do with his own team ramping up their offensive production and the AFC West almost certainly turning into a bunch of shootouts — i.e. opportunities for sacks. He'll have two marquee games against Patrick Mahomes and the defending champs, of course, and opportunities to sack Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, and others this year too. If he winds up leading the league in sacks and turning into a terror off the edge as we saw a few years ago, the award could easily be his.
10. It will be a nearly full house for the Super Bowl in Tampa
Call this one as much of a hope as it is a bold prediction, given the current circumstances the league (and the world) is facing. There are 150 days between the start of the season and the final game if all is pulled off without any interruptions. Factoring in the reported progress on potential coronavirus vaccines and the increase in rapid testing, fingers crossed that we get somewhat of a full house of fans in attendance down at Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl LV.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.