On Monday morning, Sue L. Robinson, the former federal judge independently appointed to rule on Deshaun Watson’s long-outstanding player conduct case ruled that he is to miss the first six games of the NFL season.
At the point of writing this, there has been no word on an appeal from the NFL, and the NFLPA as well as Deshaun Watson outlined that they would not appeal the decision yesterday prior to the judgment being revealed.
No matter the ruling, it was always going to be one that split opinion. There are those who will pledge ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and now point to two juries and an independently appointed judge and consider the matter closed after massive scrutiny.
There are those who see there is no smoke without fire, especially as much smoke as 25 members of a class-action suit with their own stories, as well as another 25 or so who stepped forward but for one reason or another wasn’t part of the class action suit with their own stories, and will point to the fact that innocence beyond doubt or that missing six games in the highest-paid professional sports league in the world is justice when proof as a qualifier of guilt when it’s incredibly unlikely to obtain.
With the case being so high-profile and long-ranging as it’s waged over the past year and a half or so, there are a number of things to consider here when looking at the judgment through different lenses. Here’s six things we can take from the decision and Sue Robinson’s 16-page decision summary:
1. The judgment finds that Deshaun Watson sexually assaulted at least four masseuses in the eyes of the NFL
In the eyes of the Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson, the League was able to meet the burden of proof via preponderance that Deshaun Watson committed non-violent sexual assault by means of its definition in the players conduct, namely “unwanted sexual contact with another person” through a series of undisputed facts.
Sue Robinson found the circumstantial evidence of insisting to use a medium/small towel (or a Gatorade towel) increased exposure, and asking therapists to focus on areas that not uncommonly triggered erections made the prospect of sexual touching more likely. She judged that as the therapists didn’t return for future messages it was clear to all that the touching was unwanted.
It was also noted that Watson’s complete denial of even trivial aspects, such as ever getting an erection even during massaging areas where getting an erection would not be uncommon, led to the consideration of the evidence that may not in itself be seen as wrongful in isolation.
Watson was also found to have violated conduct in two other areas. Namely that he acted in a way that posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person, and putting the NFL into disrepute.
This is why Watson and his team believe there should be no games in a suspension, as to suspend him is to assign guilt of sexual conduct at least in the eyes of the league’s conduct policies.
There is also contention about the classification of non-violent sexual assault as the definition seems to be defined from the same classification as violent conduct i.e. domestic violence. Many detractors will note that all sexual assault is violent conduct. However, in line with the policy – this was deemed to be an uncontested point.
2. Watson’s future conduct remains a concern
Take from this what you will, but a further point to the one about a lack of exoneration is that the judge deemed it necessary to bake in a restriction that all massage therapy is to be conducted by club staff.
At many points in the decision document, we see the mention of a pattern of egregious behaviour and in fact a particular quote in the conclusion says that the ‘pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL’.
Even if it could be considered almost a given to showcase ‘next steps’ and guaranteeing progress in terms of a players conduct, it is clear that there are concerns about his future conduct and of egregious patterns continuing.
3. The NFL’s past leniency costs them here and that needs to change
Recently, Calvin Ridley was suspended for a whole season for placing a bet on an NFL game, while De’Andre Hopkins was given the same six-week ban for violating the PED protocols. When you add into this that over at Major League Baseball Trevor Bauer was given a two-year ban under the MLB’s domestic violence protocol, it makes for a question of standards and precedents that the NFL sets itself.
However, in this judgment Sue L. Robinson outlines that it is because of the NFL’s previous suspensions for domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts has been 6 games, and the minimum 6-game suspension is only outlined for violent conduct. It was uncontested that Watson did not engage in violent sexual assault.
Robinson found it important to impose the ‘most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct’ due to Watson’s egregious pattern of conduct. She felt it was the maximum that could be handed down as, in her role as Disciplinary Officer, she has to find a ‘fair’ and ‘consistent’ punishment in line with similarly situated players.
In other words, the NFL should look at the conduct policy before any future cases arise and beef up the potential games and fines to be incurred and have it codified, as there was no case law or indication of anything from 6 games onwards for non-violent misconduct.
There will be more than valid calls for Roger Goodell to dismiss the notion of fairness in this instance (again, from an employment policy perspective) and pass down a harsher sentence to act as a deterrent and future signpost for offenders of the policy in the future. As to whether that would be deemed as valid in this instance with or without a stretched out legal battle with Watson and the NFLPA is something to consider also.
4. Watson stands to lose very little from this
With the Browns contract starting low and building its cap-hit later in the contract, Watson’s outlay for the suspension stands to be just $333,333.
Questions will no doubt be raised at the Browns front office as to whether or not they structured the contract that way. However, the argument can also be made that other ‘superstar’ contracts negotiated by the team are pushing the larger sums down the road. It simply seems too convenient in this case when the numbers are presented.
What’s more, sports-washing is a very powerful thing. Moments after the judgment was passed down, several Browns fans were cheered Watson as he came out onto the training field. The League has created an environment where offenders of various conduct categories are celebrated, and we see their misconduct forgotten about amongst fans so long as they ball out.
5. The Browns stand to lose little from this, too
When looking at this purely from a sporting perspective, as many imagine those in the Browns front office have been doing since March, the Browns are viewing the trade with optimism that it could prove effective in creating a play-off window as early as this January.
The question of ‘but at what cost?’ will be one to wrestle with for many, but when looking at it on paper, a six-game suspension is probably the top-end of what the Browns would find palatable from a sporting aspect. Watson will be out for the following games:
Week 1 at Carolina
Week 2 v Jets
Week 3 v Steelers
Week 4 at Atlanta
Week 5 v Chargers
Week 6 v Patriots
Before then returning to face the Ravens on the road and the Bengals on a halloween Monday Night Football. The schedule was almost made for his return as well and negate the impact of a suspension. If you believe in such conspiracies of course(!)
To face losing teams from last year in 4 of 6, and in both road games means that the Browns will feel they’ve a serviceable chance in the first third of the season in handling Watson’s absence at .500 or better.
All this while his contract is also at its lowest point.
6. This isn’t the end of it
As Sue L. Robinson found misconduct and gave a suspension, the NFL still has an opportunity to give Watson more disciplinary action via. appeal.
From what we’ve seen from sources around the NFL, the League did push for a minimum of a year as well as a fine, and stuck to their guns during ‘settlement negotiations’ on a suspension whilst Sue L. Robinson was coming to her decision.
The League has until 9am Thursday to submit an appeal directly to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, who would then give the final decision.
An appeal might not be forthcoming, mind.
This is the first major incident to be trialled using the new player misconduct procedure outlined in the latest collective bargaining agreement. As such, the optics behind the League approaching the commissioner to overturn an independently appointed judge at the first time of asking would be damaging to the always-fractured relationship between the League and their Players’ Association.
Believeland Brits Podcast focused on the Watson verdict in their latest episode which you can listen to on your favoured podcast provider by going to its linktree: linktr.ee/believelandbrits
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With the Super Bowl done and dusted, the thirsty NFL fans’ eye will now turn to the offseason and Free Agency and then the NFL Draft. Team cap space importance and manipulation is a topic people can argue until the cows come home as there are many teams that always produce Houdini tricks to come in under the cap each season.
The legal tampering period starts on 14 March, which is always a weird concept to get your head around. Imagine being able to legally tamper with things?
Before we get started, there is a really good visual found on Twitter regarding the maneuverability for each of the teams:
No surprise in seeing the Saints at the bottom of the pile, they seem to be there most years. Green Bay, the recently crowned Super Bowl Champions, the LA Rams along with 2 NFC East teams, Dallas and New York, fill out the bottom 5.
Let’s go division by division and look at some key players that are due to hit the market, unless their current owners intervene and stop their players’ eyes prying into other team’s front offices.
Pending Free Agents:EDGE Jerry Hughes, EDGE Mario Addison, CB Levi Wallace, WR Isaiah McKenzie, WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Mitchell Trubisky, RB Matt Breida, RT Bobby Hart, IDL Vernon Butler, RG Ike Boettger, RB Taiwan Jones, WR Jake Kumerow, EDGE Bryan Cox Jr., IDL Harrison Phillips, CB Siran Neal
The Bills will likely get lighter at WR so may look to beef that up in FA or the draft, while there is a clear need along the defensive line.
However, Levi Wallace, who played over 92% of the Bills’ snaps at corner in 2021, would be a good get at the right price. Opposite Tre’Davious White, they have both formed a decent tandem limiting opposing offences to scraps through the air over recent sesasons.
Mitchell Trubisky seems adamant he’ll find a starting job elsewhere. If the market agrees, don’t expect him to back up Josh Allen next season.
New England Patriots:
Pending Free Agents:S Devin McCourty, RT Trent Brown, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB J.C. Jackson, C Ted Karras, WR Matthew Slater, RB James White, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Brandon King, K Nick Folk, IDL Carl Davis, QB Brian Hoyer, LB Jamie Colins, LB Harvey Langi, TE Troy Fumagalli, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
A fair few big names on the pending Free Agent list in the next month, none more coveted than J.C. Jackson. Jackson returned 1 of his 8 interceptions this year to the house, the first of his career. It’s likely that there could be a bidding war on him, which sees him set off into the Massachusetts sunset and out of Foxboro’.
Pending Free Agents: TE Mike Gesicki, WR Will Fuller, Emmanuel Ogbah, QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Phillip Lindsay, WR Albert Wilson, CB Justin Coleman, LB Elandon Roberts, RB Malcolm Brown, P Michael Palardy, IDL John Jenkins, S Jason McCourty, WR Mack Hollins, LB Brennan Scarlett, LB Duke Riley, C Greg Rancz, RB Duke Johnson, LB Vince Biegel, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Durham Smythe
It’s likely that WR will be a sought-after position this offseason for the Dolphins, this should be extended to looking at getting the signature of Mike Gesicki at the TE position. They’ll have plenty of cap space to work with to at least get to the negotiating room with him. He’s improved on the stats sheet each and every season and account for almost a fifth of their first downs in 2021. Tua will be hoping the Dolphins also patch up that offensive line. It’s possible he gets franchise tagged, but unlikely.
New York Jets:
Pending Free Agents: S Marcus Maye, QB Joe Flacco, WR Jamison Crowder, WR Keelan Cole, WR Braxton Berrios, LB Jarrad Davis, RT Morgan Moses, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, LG Dan Feeney, S Lamarcus Joyner, TE Tyler Kroft, RG Conor McDermott, RB Tevin Coleman, S Will Parks, IDL Nathan Shepherd, LT Greg Senat, K Eddy Pineiro, FB Nick Bawden, IDL Folorunso Fatukasi
It’s obvious that the Jets should be looking to upgrade their secondary this offseason, that could also include getting Safety Marcus Maye to re-sign. They, like the Dolphins, have a decent amount of cap space to try and attract the top names to help with the rebuild project at Gang Green. At Wide Receiver, Braxton Berrios could find himself pricing himself out and Jamison Crowder will likely want a decent amount of money to stay.
Pending Free Agents: S Jessie Bates III, CB Darius Phillips, IDL B.J. Hill, RT Riley Reiff, IDL Larry Ogunjobi, TE C.J. Uzomah, RG Xavier Su’a-Filo, CB Vernon Hargreaves, QB Brandon Allen, CB Tre Flowers, WR Auden Tate, P Kevin Huber, IDL Josh Tupou, S Ricardo Allen, CB Eli Apple, LS Clark Harris, LG Quinton Spain, LB Jordan Evans, IDL Zach Kerr, S Michael Thomas, WR Mike Thomas
The obvious one here is Jessie Bates III in the pack of Bengals looking to find some money in Free Agency. He is a candidate for the Franchise Tag but expect the Bengals to use a good portion of their ~$57m cap space to go after Offensive linemen, purely because they aren’t picking in the top 10-15 this year like they have done over the past 5 seasons.
PendingFree Agents: CB Joe Haden, WR Juju Smith-Schuster, TE Eric Ebron, Cb Ahkello Witherspoon, RG Trai Turner, S Terrell Edmonds, LB Miles Killebrew, WR James Washington, QB Joshua Dobbs, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, CB Arthur Mallet, C B.J. Finney, EDGE Taco Charlton, IDL Montravius Adams, RB Kalen Ballage, RT Chukwuma Okorafor
The recently retired Ben Roethlisberger would have also been on this list, had he not retired. Either way, Quarterback will be a major priority this offseason. There isn’t much in Free Agency at the position so expect a trade or Draft capital to be invested.
Of the current crop on offence, offensive lineman Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor played the 1st and 3rd highest number of snaps respectively in the whole Pittsburgh roster in 2021. That’s saying too much due to the line’s performances last season, but they say consistency is the key.
On the defence, former 1st round pick Terrell Edmunds is part of a secondary that struggled last season and could also lose 5-year Steeler and 12 year AFC North veteran Joe Haden as he will be 33 if he plays in 2022.
Pending Free Agents: S Ronnie Harrison, WR Rashard Higgins, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, IDL Malik Jackson, EDGE Takkarist McKinley, LT Chris Hubbard, LB Anthony Walker Jr., TE David Njoku, S M.J. Stewart, LB Malcolm Smith, P Dustin Colquitt, IDL Sheldon Day, QB Nick Mullins, EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo, WR Ryan Switzer
There are a couple of key decisions for the Browns to make this offseason, one of which whose name isn’t on the list above. They need to decide on whether Baker Mayfield is the guy they want going forward and an extension of that is the Wide Receiver position, which currently consists of not a lot after they shipped off OBJ to go get a Super Bowl Ring and Jarvis Landry played hobbled last season.
The two on the above list are Jadeveon Clowney, who amassed 9 sacks in his 14 games played (Tak McKinley, former Falcons 1st round pick is also there) and David Njoku, who despite all the athletic abilities and talent, has just not quite done it consistently in a Browns jersey and will probably be suited for pastures new.
Pending Free Agents: IDL Calais Campbell, IDL Brandon Williams, S DeShon Elliott, C Bradley Bozeman, WR Sammy Watkins, FB Patrick Ricard, CB Jimmy Smith, EDGE Justin Houston, LB L.J. Fort, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Latavius Murray, LB Chris Board, S Tony Jefferson, S Anthony Levine, LB Josh Bynes, EDGE Pernell McPhee, IDL Justin Ellis, QB Josh Johnson, LT David Sharpe, TE Eric Tomlinson, CB Anthony Averett
There are a number of positions that screams “help!” on the defence with a lot of old/injured dead wood and most likely not returning so don’t be surprised to see a lot of these names not on the roster come kickoff 2022. Bradley Bozeman, the Center who was moved from Guard in 2020, has been a decent find from the 6th round back in 2018’s draft and is probably a guy they would like to keep protecting Lamar Jackson.
Pending Free Agents: EDGE Harold Landry, C Ben Jones, LB Jayon Brown, TE Anthony Firkser, LB Rashaan Evans, TE Geoff Swaim, WR Marcus Johnson, LS Morgan Cox, LB Nick Dzubnar, S Matthias Farley, K Randy Bullock, CB Buster Skrine, EDGE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, LB Dylan Cole, LB B.J. Bello, CB Greg Mabin, WR Chester Rogers, IDL Kyle Peko, IDL Trevor Coley, TE MyCole Pruitt, RB Dontrell Hilliard, RB D’Onta Foreman, WR Cameron Batson, S Dane Cruikshank
Harold Landry will command a decent amount of interest and it far from certain he’ll be able to don a Titans jersey in 2022 considering their cap situation. Like the Browns, they have an upcoming decision on Ryan Tannehill certainly next year, if not this (signs point to him being under Center in 2022). If they are unable to retain Landry, that could mean more emphasis on fellow Linebackers Jayon Brown or Rashaan Evans are prioritised.
Pending Free Agents: LT Eric Fisher, WR T.Y. Hilton, RG Mark Glowinski, CB Xavier Rhodes, TE Mo-Alie Cox, WR Zach Pascal, EDGE Al-Quadin Muhammad, LT Sam Tevi, IDL Isaac Rochell, S George Odum, CB T.J. Carrie, RB Marlon Mack, EDGE Kemoko Turay, LT Julie’n Davenport, LG Chris Reed, EDGE Tyquan Lewis, S Andrew Sendejo, S Jahleel Addae, RG Matt Pryor, K Michael Badgley, IDL Antwaun Woods, LB Matthew Adams, LB Zaire Franklin
With Carson Wentz “unlikely” to be in a Colts uniform in 2022, he could be followed out by some long-tenured players such as TY Hilton and Marlon Mack on offence. They should try and keep the services of Mo Alie-Cox, with it looking likely Jack Doyle will retire. He’ll probably garner some interest from others and the Colts have a good cap space situation so expecting some noise in Free Agency, especially as their draft capital isn’t as much as it could be.
Former #1 overall pick in 2013 Eric Fisher signed on a 1-year deal last year from the Chiefs and had an OK season on a decent Colts O-Line. He was tied 10th for penalties given up (8) and sacks allowed (7), though it was Carson Wentz at QB (known for holding on to the ball for too long) which is reflected in his better run block performance rather than his pass protection.
Pending Free Agents: QB Tyrod Taylor, S Justin Reid, RB David Johnson, CB Desmond King, LB Christian Kirksey, LB Eric Wilson, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, WR Danny Amendola, S Terrence Brooks, IDL Maliek Collins, C Justin Britt, CB A.J. Moore, LB Neville Hewitt, TE Pharaoh Brown, IDL Vincent Taylor, EDGE DeMarcus Walker, WR Chris Conley, LB Tae Davis, LS Jon Weeks, EDGE Chris Smith, LT Geron Christian, LB Hardy Nickerson, TE Antony Auclair, LG Lane Taylor, QB Jeff Driskel, WR Chris Moore, IDL Jaleel Johnson, RB Royce Freeman, RG Cole Toner, TE Jordan Akins, EDGE Jacob Martin
I’m half surprised this list isn’t longer with the amount of 1-year deals that were signed last year to the Texans roster. We all know that until the Deshaun Watson saga has ended and he’s moved on, this franchise will just be in constant purgatory and still trying to pick itself up from the demolition job Bill O’Brien et al did. As there is a lot of 1-year guys here, don’t expect many back.
One that could be back is Defensive lineman Maliek Collins, who performed OK but that’s not saying much for one of the worst rush defences and averaged 2 sacks per game in 2021 (were the 3rd least in blitz %).
Pending Free Agents: LT Cam Robinson, WR D.J. Chark, LG Andrew Norwell, RG A.J. Cann, IDL Taven Bryan, EDGE Jihad Ward, C Tyler Shatley, CB Tre Herndon, LB Damien Wilson, TE James O’Shaughnessy, CB Nevin Lawson, EDGE Adam Gotsis, WR Tavon Austin, EDGE Lerentee McCray, TE Jacob Hollister, WR Laquon Treadwell, WR Jaydon Mickens, LB Tyrell Adams, P JK Scott, RT Will Richardson
DJ Chark seems like he will be in negotiations at the very least with the team desperate at WR. While Trevor Lawrence will need someone to throw to, even more importantly, he needs linemen to keep him upright and not running for his life. Tackle Cam Robinson, while not elite, is a key cog in understanding the Jags’ priorities this offseason as they hold the #1 overall pick and a tackle named Evan Neal looks like he is the bookies’ favourite to be picked 1st overall. They could sign both Robinson and take Neal 1st overall, but you can be sure at least one of them will be their starter in Week 1 of 2022.
Kansas City Chiefs:
Pending Free Agents: LT Orlando Brown, S Tyrann Mathieu, IDL Jarran Reed, LB Melvin Ingram, CB Charvarius Ward, RT Mike Remmers, CB Mike Hughes, S Daniel Sorensen, WR Byron Pringle, QB Chad Henne, RB Darrel Williams, LB Ben Niemann, RG Kyle Long, TE Blake Bell, WR Demarcus Robinson, EDGE Alex Okafor, C Austin Blythe, RB Jerick McKinnon, FB Michael Burton, IDL Derrick Nnadi, LG Andrew Wylie, LS James Winchester, WR Marcus Kemp, LB Dorian O’Daniel, S Armani Watts
On offence, Orlando Brown should be the #1 priority for the Chiefs this offseason, followed quickly by Safety Tyrann Mathieu on the defence. They are somewhat tight on the budget sheet though and they will be struggling to replace the Honey Badger if he gets decent money elsewhere on the table. Both of these guys are the frontrunners for the Franchise Tag. My money goes on the Honey Badger due to how important he is in that secondary.
With Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson headed for the market, they may look to try and find that 2nd Wide Receiver to help draw coverage from Hill and Kelce.
Las Vegas Raiders
Pending Free Agents: LB Nicholas Morrow, IDL Johnathan Hankins, QB Marcus Mariota, LB K.J. Wright, IDL Quinton Jefferson, IDL Solomon Thomas, WR Zay Jones, RB Jalen Richard, CB Casey Hayward, LG Richie Incognito, WR DeSean Jackson, IDL Gerald McCoy, C Nick Martin, TE Derek Carrier, CB Desmond Trufant, RT Brandon Parker, RG Jermaine Eluemunor, LB Kyle Wilber, RB Peyton Barber, IDL Darius Philon, LB Patrick Onwuasor, CB Brandon Facyson, LB Marquel Lee, LG Jordan Simmons
Usually when you get a change at co-ordinator, they can shake things up so Patrick Graham, formerly of the Giants may look to get some of “his guys” on the defensive side.Of the guys hitting the market, Casey Hayward had himself a good season but with the new DC, unsure whether they’ll look to bring him back. Derek Carr’s situation is worth monitoring as he can be cut if the Raiders wanna move on or even trade him but they or Derek himself may also want to re-enter negotiating that contract. With Marcus Mariota’s contract also being up, we could see either both QBs next year, or neither.
Los Angeles Chargers
Pending Free Agents: CB Chris Harris Jr., IDL Linval Joseph, WR Mike Williams, TE Jared Cook, EDGE Kyler Fackrell, RB Justin Jackson, RG Oday Aboushi, CB Ryan Smith, QB Chase Daniel, EDGE Uchenna Nwosu, WR Andre Roberts, LS Matt Overton, RG Senio Kelemete, K Dustin Hopkins, LG Michael Schofield, IDL Christian Covington, CB Devontae Harris, TE Stephen Anderson, IDL Justin Jones, LB Kyzir White, LG Scott Quisenberry
Mike Williams is probably braced for some big numbers coming his way from a variety of teams, should he wish to take a peek at the market (who wouldn’t). Whether he is deserving of them is another case but fortunately for the Chargers, there is plenty of cap space.
Run defence/interior lineman and Cornerback are areas they’ll look to beef up in March and April.
Pending Free Agents: QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Kyle Fuller, RB Melvin Gordon, CB Bryce Callahan, S Kareem Jackson, RT Bobby Massie, LB Alexander Johnson, RT Cameron Fleming, EDGE Stephen Weatherly, IDL Shamar Stephen, CB Mike Ford, CB Nate Hairston, TE Eric Saubert, C Brett Jones, IDL Justin Hamilton, LB Josey Jewell, LB Micah Kiser, LB Kenny Young
A lot will be determined by how aggressive they pursue Aaron Rodgers (if leaving Green Bay and not retiring) or whether new HC Nathaniel Hackett (formerly of Green Bay for what it’s worth…) deems Teddy Bridgewater adequate enough to warrant entering new contract negotiations. Safety Kareem Jackson was Denver’s leading tackler on the defence last season, but is now entering year number 13. After losing Von Miller who went and got a Super Bowl ring, don’t be surprised Denver address their edge rusher situation.
The Kansas City Chiefs will welcome the Cleveland Browns back to Arrowhead as part of NFL Kickoff in one of the most eye-catching and potentially massively important games on Sunday night.
For the Chiefs, they will be looking to show that they’ve not skipped a beat despite their 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV and to preserve their sixteen game winning streak in September under Andy Reid.
The Browns will be out for revenge after the Divisional Round matchup in January at Arrowhead saw the AFC West side halt all momentum and grind out a 22-17 win with Chad Henne getting the save after a fourth down pass to Tyreek Hill iced the game for good.
Improvements on both sides
Both sides will say that their core objectives have been met behind the scenes throughout the long spring and summer months.
The Chiefs bolstered their offensive line with additions including Orlando Brown Jr at right tackle, Kyle Long and Joe Thuney at guard. Vital moves when you consider their issues at the line in February, and more so as Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Eric Fisher departed.
For the Browns the brief was pretty simple: overhaul the defense. Their first two draft picks saw the completion of that brief in cornerback Greg Newsome II and WILL linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but more so were the acquisitions of safety John Johnson III, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and corner Troy Hill to name but a few.
Both sides will feel that their rosters are at their maximum potential going into the new season, and iron will sharpen iron for both of these teams.
Air threat potent for KC
With the Browns’ defense still bedding in and a number of players being eased into the system over camp thanks to injuries, COVID, or other reasons, the passing threat of Patrick Mahomes will remain as potent as ever.
The starting linebacker trio of Mack Wilson Sr., Anthony Walker, and Shone Takitaki will have to step up to minimise the space around the likes of Travis Kelce in the short and medium game, while Greg Newsome will likely be faced with an opening salvo against Mecole Hardman.
The Browns will feel happier than in January with their secondary as the difference in quality will feel night and day. However, against almost unarguably the best quarterback in football it will take a monumental opening day for many new pieces to align quickly to blunt the Chiefs most potent blade.
Linebacker issues open up 1-2 punch for Cleveland
The run game for Cleveland was vital last year as Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt shared the load for the third highest rushing yards per game last year at over 148. Behind one of the, if not the, premier offensive line of 2020 with no changes going into the new season it’s obvious that we’re likely to see more of the same going into 2021.
Combine this with the news that Willie Gay Jr. is on injured reserve with a toe injury, and that the Browns need to steal clock from the big arm of Patrick Mahomes and all of a sudden things seem a lot rosier for Kevin Stefanski when he calls up a running play.
Expect both Chubb and Hunt to get plenty of opportunities this Sunday as the Browns look to charge down the field in a deliberate but decisive manner.
This game is a lot harder to call than many might think. The oddsmakers have the Chiefs at a six point swing, but we didn’t see that in January and with the Browns arguably being the most improved team in football with effectively a brand new defense, it’s difficult not to see a close game now.
It could come down to who has the ball last, much like the Browns/Ravens Monday Night Football game last year. Either way, it’ll provide an excellent opportunity to both sides to go up against a Super Bowl challenger and see how they stack up for the month’s ahead.
It’s too close to call, but this being written by a realist Browns fan that’s been hurt too often, I’m going to give the fairytale ending to Patrick Mahomes. But only just.
In the NFL, March is a nothing month, the no-man’s-land between the last Super Bowl and the next draft. At this time of year, there are more mock drafts out there than I’ve had hot dinners, with everyone mulling over the value buried somewhere in those seven rounds. That makes it as good a time as any to take stock of last year’s rookies.
Obviously, not every Day 1 pick will have worked out (*cough* Isaiah Wilson *cough*) but the opposite is also true: there are always some hidden gems to be unearthed after the obvious names have come off the board. If you’re a supporter of the Rams or the Texans maybe, and don’t have a first-round pick to look forward to this year, fear not – all is not lost! If your Day 2 and 3 picks turn out half as well as some of those from 12 months ago, you won’t be complaining.
#33: Cincinnati Bengals – Tee Higgins (WR, Clemson) *
With the first pick of Day 2, Cincy found a weapon for their #1 overall pick, Joe Burrow. Many pundits thought Higgins would go in Round 1 so when he was still sitting there the next morning, the Bengals had to pounce. With AJ Green and John Ross failing to provide the necessary deep threat for Cincinnati, the Clemson wideout stepped up admirably with 908 yards (third only to Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb among rookie receivers) and six touchdowns. Higgins only broke through as a starter in Week 3 and lost Burrow for the last six-and-a-half games, yet had two 100-yard games (and a 99). In fact, it took a hamstring injury, early in the final game against Baltimore, to deny Higgins a 1,000-yard debut season. It also meant he only tied Cris Collinsworth’s franchise record of 67 catches in a rookie season rather than beating it. Higgins is the epitome of a Round 1 talent falling into Round 2, and there’s the promise of more to come.
#41: Indianapolis Colts – Jonathan Taylor (RB, Wisconsin) *
The Colts’ second pick had a disappointing start to his first NFL campaign but the former Wisconsin running back suddenly hit a white-hot streak around Thanksgiving, becoming one of the very best RBs down the stretch. From Week 11 onwards, only some bloke called Derrick Henry had a higher rushing grade from PFF than the Taylor’s 91.2, and he averaged 6.2 yards per carry during that spell. He ended the season with 1,169 rushing yards (3rd in the NFL and easily the best of the 2020 class) and 11 touchdowns (T-7th), with only one fumble and one drop. He topped 100 yards on the ground on only his second game, stuck a nice, round 150 on Las Vegas and his 253 rushing yards in Week 17 against the Jaguars set a new franchise record, and carried Indy into the playoffs. For Taylor, the sky’s the limit.
#45: Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Antoine Winfield Jr. (S, Minnesota) *
Landing Winfield in the middle of Round 2 definitely feels like a decent bang for the Bucs (sorry). He was a productive blitzer with nine pressures on 58 rushes – including two strip-sacks – and he finished the regular season with the second-highest PFF grade for run defence at his position (86.3). The Buccaneers’ 26-14 win over the Vikings in mid-December saw Winfield notch 10 tackles, two assists and a sack, while taking great delight in snuffing out a pass aimed at Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl a few weeks ago was yet another highlight to add to the reel. His solid debut season featuring 64 solo tackles, two forced fumbles, six passes defended and an interception.
Without a Day 1 selection, Claypool – the 11th WR off the board last year – was actually Pittsburgh’s first pick of the 2020 draft and he came out all guns blazing from the start. The Notre Dame wideout, who saw more deep targets than anyone in the NFL, ended the year with 62 catches for 873 yards and nine regular-season touchdowns, including two against Cincinnati, three in a 38-29 win over the Eagles and an 84-yarder against Denver. He also bagged two more scores from just five receptions in the Wild Card loss to Cleveland. Claypool looks well placed to kick on from here, especially if JuJu Smith-Schuster hits free agency.
#52: Los Angeles Rams – Cam Akers (RB, Florida State)
Akers, LA’s highest pick in the past three years at #52 overall, joined a busy backfield and missed some time with injuries in the first half of the season. But he started to pick up, peaking with 171 rushing yards in a 24-3 trouncing of the New England on Thursday Night Football. He was also used more in the receiving game as the year went on, not least in the Week 17 win over Arizona when he logged 52 yards from four catches, compared to only 34 yards from 21 rushing attempts. Ending the regular season with 748 yards from scrimmage, he carried on where he left off in the Rams’ two playoff games, racking up 221 rushing yards, 51 receiving yards from just three catches and a rushing touchdown in each game. Akers may yet prove to be the heavy lifter in Sean McVay’s running back committee if he keeps this trajectory going.
#64: Carolina Panthers – Jeremy Chinn (S/OLB, Southern Illinois) *
Carolina only selected defensive players in the draft last year and with the last pick of the second round, they opted for Chinn, a safety/outside linebacker from Southern Illinois. Chinn wasn’t perfect by any means, giving up six touchdowns in coverage and struggling in run defence at times, but the signs are promising, having logged 116 total tackles, the most among all NFL rookies, as well as two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Chinn was even in with a shout of winning Defensive Rookie of the Year at one point, not least because of his two fumble recovery touchdowns on consecutive plays in the third quarter of a 28-27 loss to the Vikings in Week 12, aas well as his two NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month awards.
#66: Washington Football Team – Antonio Gibson (RB, Memphis)
We also know that #2 overall pick Chase Young was the high-profile pick but he wasn’t the only Washington Football Team rookie to make his mark in 2020. Memphis running back Gibson also produced a PFF grade above 80.0, with 795 rushing yards (20th in the league) and 11 TDs (T-7th), as well as 247 yards receiving. His two 100-yard days both came against divisional rivals Dallas, racking up 243 rushing yards on 40 carries and scoring four total touchdowns in two meetings.
#85: Indianapolis Colts – Julian Blackmon (S, Utah)
Julian Blackmon switched to safety during his final season at Utah after a few underwhelming seasons at corner, and the move seems to have paid off big time. Through the first 11 weeks of his professional career, Blackmon played lights out and was by far the highest-graded rookie at his position in the league. In a complete role-reversal with Jonathan Taylor (see above), he went off the boil after that. Nonetheless, for a late Day 2 pick, Blackmon was definitely successful, with 35 solo tackles, six passes defended, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
Obviously, top rookie Justin Jefferson took a lot of the limelight in Minnesota but kudos must go to Vikings front office for taking Dantzler, the corner from Mississippi State, late in the third round – especially having already picked a corner in Jeff Gladney on Day 1. A debut NFL season is always going to be a mixed bag but with Dantzler, there were more highs than lows, even with injuries early in the season limiting him to just 11 games. With 46 total tackles, three tackles for loss, four pass defenced, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, as well as two interceptions, he racked up nine solo tackles against Atlanta in mid-October and finished on a high, with his performances against Jacksonville (Week 13) and Chicago (Week 15) securing the top two PFF grades from a rookie corner all year.
#128: Buffalo Bills – Gabriel Davis (WR, UCF)
As a Day 3 pick, some degree of inconsistency is to be expected but there were times during the season when Davis made some big plays and looked the real deal, rather than the 17th wide receiver off the board. The rookie finished the regular season with 599 receiving yards from just 35 receptions (his average of 17.1 yards per catch was 4th best across the entire league) and bagged seven TDs, having carved out a role alongside Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. He also made a name for himself as a sideline toe-tapper, bringing in two tight catches in quick succession in his first playoff game against the Colts. Alas, he didn’t manage to haul in anything in the Divisional Round or the AFC Championship games, but the fourth-rounder looks set fair for another good year in 2021.
Sneed wasn’t even among the first 10 safeties off the board but he certainly represented exceptional value at the end of Round 4. Having played in the slot, out wide and deeper at college, his versality was a contributory factor in becoming PFF’s top rookie defensive back. He allowed just one gain of 20+ yards and according to PFF, only one touchdown, while notching 41 total tackles, three interceptions, two sacks, two tackles for loss, four pass breakups and seven passes defended during the regular campaign –despite missing six weeks with a broken collarbone. With only six starts and nine regular season appearances under his belt, it’s still early days but he’s already sacked both Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen in the playoffs, and played in a Super Bowl (his first loss as a professional). I think snaring Sneed in Round 4 already feels like daylight robbery and I’m not the only one who thinks so: a recent redraft by CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso had Sneed going to the Carolina Panthers at #7 overall.
#182: New England Patriots – Michael Onwenu (G, Michigan) *
Round 5 was a bit of a desert but when we got to Round 6, ker-ching! Jackpot! The Patriots love a sixth-round bargain out of Michigan(!) and Onwenu might just prove to be the biggest steal in the entire draft. The 6’3”, 350lb lineman logged more than 80 snaps at three different positions (left guard, right guard and right tackle) and posted at least a 79.0 PFF grade at each. Despite playing guard in his four years at Michigan, his rookie campaign was mainly spent at right tackle (616 snaps). In a class that featured six first-round offensive tackles, Onwenu scored the highest PFF grade of all of them – and ranked third among all rookies, in all positions, behind only Justin Jefferson and Chase Young. Impressive stuff from the big fella!
Peoples-Jones was another steal in the sixth round, helping to fill out the Browns’ receiving corps when Odell Beckham Jr was lost for the season. Although he only made 14 receptions and no more than three in any one game, he posted 304 regular season receiving yards – that’s nearly 22 yards a pop. Of his two touchdowns, one was a 75-yarder against the Titans in a game they led 38-7 by the break but earlier, in Week 7, a 24-yard catch for the game-winning score against AFC North foes Cincinnati with just 11 seconds remaining made him an instant hero in the Dawg Pound. Given Cleveland’s roster, Peoples-Jones may remain a supplementary weapon but he’s already proved that he can make the big plays when called upon.
Sixty picks after they selected Gabriel Davis, Buffalo netted Bass. The rookie kicker bookended his first pro season with bad games – he missed field goal attempts of 34 and 38 yards in his NFL debut, and also missed a pair of kicks in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore (to be fair, the conditions weren’t great that day). Otherwise, Bass was pretty solid, going 28-of-34 for FGs (82.4%) and 57 of 59 on extra points (96.6%), including 19 successful attempts in his last three regular season games. The 141 points he scored for his team was the fourth-best total in the league.
#199: Los Angeles Rams – Jordan Fuller (S, Ohio State)
With pick-ups like Fuller in Round 6, you can see why teams like the Rams are willing to keep trading their Day 1 picks away for more draft capital. Fuller was an immediate starter on the NFL’s best-ranked defence and even though he missed four games with a neck injury, he still accumulated 60 total tackles, five pass breakups and three picks, two of which came off a certain Mr T. Brady of Tampa during a 27-24 primetime win on Monday Night Football. A further 12 tackles in two postseason games leaves the former Ohio State safety with a tidy Year 1 record on which to build.
#216 Washington Football Team – Kamren Curl (S, Arkansas) *
There was one stand-out selection in the final round of the 2020 draft and yet again, Washington came up trumps. Curl, the Arkansas strong safety, emerged from the shadows when Landon Collins was lost for the year with a torn Achilles in Week 7. He soon became a key part of the secondary, finishing the regular season as the highest-graded safety from the 2020 rookie class. He also made the Rookie of the Year team and one PFF article I read suggested that Curl had a legitimate claim for being the runner-up Defensive Rookie of the Year behind Chase Young, finishing second on the team for tackles (88), as well as notching 3 INTs, four passes defended, two sacks and three tackles for loss. Of his interceptions, taking a game-winning pick back for a 76-yard touchdown against the 49ers in mid-December was definitely one for the Curl family archives.
UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS
We can’t end without mentioning two of the undrafted free agents who got picked up after the draft, given the impact they had.
The Jacksonville Jaguars has 12 picks last year but their best move was probably made afterwards, when they got James Robinson* to sign on the dotted line. The Illinois State RB was a revelation, ending up with 1,070 rushing yards (T-5th in the NFL) and seven touchdowns. He also added 49 catches for 344 yards and three receiving touchdowns for good measure. A legitimate contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year with seven games with 100+ total yards, Robinson posted awesome numbers for an UFA playing on the league’s worst team, especially when you consider they would have been playing catch-up in pretty much every game they played.
I think Indianapolis ‘won’ last year’s draft with Pittman Jr, Taylor and Blackmon among their haul, but they also played a blinder in the undrafted free agent market, securing the services of Rodrigo Blankenship*. The former Georgia kicker became a cult figure during the season, on his way to kicking 43 of 45 extra points (95.5%), 32 of 37 field goals (86.5%) and a tally of 139 points for his team (5th across all players in the league). He was also responsible for 13 of the Colts 19 points in a 19-11 win over Chicago in Week 4, pretty much winning the game by himself. Respect the Specs!
As a side note, the New York Jets were also able to pick up Lamar Jackson after the draft was over. Alas, this particular version was a cornerback from Nebraska but still, it sounds like good value to me!
So here we are folks, Week 17. Happy New Year to all our listeners, readers, followers, lovers and haters.
To adjust a phrase coined by RedZone’s Scott Hanson, “WE ARE IN THE WITCHING WEEK!”
“When play-offs become going home and going home becomes the play-offs.”
No Thursday Night Football. No Monday Night Football. Sh*t is getting serious.
Just the AFC South and NFC East division titles have gone to the wire after the Steelers, Seahawks and Saints clinched theirs last week and we know that Trevor Lawrence will (likely) be a Jaguar come April. However, plenty of games will decide the fates of teams and whether they’ll play post-season football this year. There’s also plenty of jostling inside that top 5 of the NFL Draft order to come too.
There are three games on Sky Sports this week but we are going to preview EVERY game with play-off implications.
Use the menu below to select your desired match-up or just scroll to your heart’s content.
It all comes down to this for Cleveland. Win and they are in; lose and in all likelihood, they are out. After occupying a play-off spot for essentially the entire season, the Browns have reached the do-or-die stage with a home game against their biggest rival to end the longest play-off drought in all of football. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a big enough test at the best of times but for one last time in the NFL regular season, the bigger threat might come from COVID-19.
The Browns could have already punched their ticket with a win against the Jets last weekend but were dealt a body blow when linebacker BJ Goodson tested positive on Saturday. That in itself would have been a blow but when his close contacts were identified as linebacker buddy Jacob Phillips and the entire wide receiving room, it became a catastrophe. Since the conclusion of the game, Andrew Sendejo, the starting free safety, has also now tested positive for the virus and close contacts have been identified in Karl Joseph and Harrison Bryant. At the time of typing, the Browns have eight guys on the COVID list with Thursday being the earliest they may get some of the group back, pending negative test results.
Away from COVID issues, the Browns were down two key offensive line pieces also last week but there is every likelihood that rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills will return to shore up the blindside of Baker Mayfield. There is more of a question mark around the availability of Wyatt Teller but the magnitude of the game would suggest if Teller is even close to a ‘go’, he will be up for this one. The running game has stalled in the absence of Teller over recent weeks. He ranks as the number 1 guard in the NFL so his contribution to the Browns cannot be understated. Rookie Nick Harris, who was destroyed by the Jets, will likely start if Teller does not make it.
No news is good news so we will assume that Jarvis Landry and company will all be eligible to play this week. You simply have to put a line through the Browns wide receiving performance from last weekend and concentrate on what is likely to be a much better product this week. Landry, Higgins and Peoples-Jones have shown an excellent rapport with Mayfield over the past month and with a fire in their bellies from being forced to sit against the Jets they will want to put on a show. From a Browns stand point, that should mean fewer situations where the box is stacked to slow down the running game of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The former only needs to register 41 yards on Sunday to register a 1,000-yard season despite missing a quarter of the season through injury.
Defensively, the Browns could welcome back safety Ronnie Harrison, which would be a huge boost, particularly in light of the Sendejo and Joseph news. Denzel Ward will need to play better than he did against the Jets and a defensive quarterback will need to be established in Goodson’s continued absence. Too many times last week, Cleveland appeared out of position and were burned on two touchdowns with coverage breakdowns. The defensive line will look to set the tone with Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon playing particularly well of late. Myles Garrett has not looked the same player since returning from his own battle with COVID but news of a certain quarterback suiting up for Pittsburgh have certainly added to his own personal motivation for a big regular season finale.
We are of course talking about Mason Rudolph who will get the start for Pittsburgh. Last time the two were on the field together, we witnessed the infamous helmet swing incident, which led to multiple fines and suspensions for both teams. Expect the CBS announcing crew to bore you to tears with constant reminders of this throughout the game and in prematch video packages. In the bigger picture of the game, the Steelers have taken the decision to give Big Ben a week off to prepare for the play-offs. Having not had a bye week in its traditional sense, securing the AFC North with a big comeback win against the Colts last weekend has afforded Pittsburgh that luxury.
Mike Tomlin has indicated that decisions will be made later in the week with regards to other key players and their upcoming involvement in the game. It is highly likely that James Conner, Eric Ebron, JuJu and Diontae Johnson play a much reduced role on offence, even if they do officially suit up. Defensively, it’s likely that Cam Heyward, TJ Watt, Minkah Fitpatrick and Joe Haden could be in a similar position. Assuming Buffalo win their game, the Steelers will finish in the third seed regardless of what happens here. If a win guaranteed the second seed, it could well have been a different approach.
Certainly on paper, the more starters that Pittsburgh rests, the more a Browns victory becomes likely. But trust me, as a Browns fan, we have been here many times before. The players coming in will be looking to make an impact and give Mike Tomlin some selection dilemmas ahead of the meaningful play-off games to come. Chase Claypool, for example, will want to separate himself as a genuine weapon in the passing game after vanishing for portions of the season. Benny Snell will want to be considered for more work moving forwards, particularily with James Conner struggling. Hungry players with an opportunity may actually be more of a danger than players simply playing to not get injured.
Writer’s Pick – Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)
Regardless of the situation, Browns vs Steelers is a huge rivalry game. In recent years, it has been far too lopsided to be considered a genuine rivalry but it would appear those days are drawing to an end. For the Browns however, those days need to end for good on Sunday. Win and you are in, it really is that simple.
Most Browns fans in their wildest dreams would have grabbed that scenario from you 17 weeks ago, so can they get over the line in the finale? Before a miraculous final 20 minutes against the Colts, even with their starters playing, Pittsburgh have been awful for a month. This game was very nearly for the divisional crown, such has been their drop-off from an 11-0 start. But we are where we are, and it is a really difficult game to call without knowing exactly what it will look like.
If the Browns get all of their eligible players back, I would favour them. If they don’t, I would favour the Steelers. If Pittsburgh rests all of their starters, I would favour the Browns. If they don’t, I would favour the Steelers.
The point is, it’s tight to call but let’s stick my neck out one last time: the Browns win and are in for the first time in forever.
Steelers 20 – 34 Browns
Sky Sports – 9.25pm GMT – Cardinals @ Rams
The Cardinals are the NFC version of Oliver Twist: “Please sir, can I have some more (football)?”
“MORE?!?!” say the Rams.
The Cardinals travel to SoFi stadium to face a Jared Goff and Cooper Kupp-less LA Rams, where they need a victory, coupled with a Chicago loss, to ensure they have more games to play this season.
Kyler Murray and the Cardinals were dealt an almost terminal blow last week against divisional rivals the San Francisco 49ers, falling 20-12 and leaving them on the outside looking in.
The Cardinals have not had the best time of it since their Week 8 bye, going 3-5 in that span with wins against the NFC East (completing the clean sweep) and of course that ‘Hail Murray- against the Bills.
The loss against the Patriots is the game they’ll look back on and feel that this was the result that they let themselves down on. In better news, Kyler Murray, who has battled niggles over the past month or two, has looked healthier and far more willing to run the ball with 29 rushes in the last three games. That being said, he has been somewhat questionable this week with a leg injury but has been seen on the practice field according to reports.
The bad news is that the former #1 overall pick and 2020 Pro Bowler has not won in his three previous attempts against the Rams including at least one sack and one interception in each of those games and having very little rushing production. McVay, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and co. all seem to have his number.
They may not necessarily have fellow Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins’ number though, who scored in this fixture on eight receptions, albeit for a lacklustre 52 yards. Hopkins, who many thought may struggle in a new team, is only four receptions away from tying his career best season for receptions but you can argue his TD receptions are way down.
Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds have continued to middle in the backfield. Neither Drake or Edmonds have topped scrimmage 100 yards since Week 10 in that game with the Bills.
A Troy Hill interception return for a touchdown was enough to seal the deal in the reverse fixture but the two running backs that scored TDs for the Rams that day will be missing. Cam Akers is on IR and Darrell Henderson suffered a leg injury last week against the Seahawks, courtesy of Jamal Adams as he was scooting for the end zone.
You have to wonder how much scoreboard watching there will be going on in this one as a Bears loss automatically means the Rams are in the post-season. A depleted Rams team may just turtle up and retreat, allowing the Cardinals to take a win and be in the play-offs with them, meaning three teams from the NFC West reach the post-season.
Talking of the Rams, they have thoroughly underwhelmed in the last fortnight, losing to the Jets (enough said) and the Seahawks. Jared Goff, who has crumbled like an overbaked biscuit, is out for this one due to a broken thumb courtesy of a Seahawk helmet when going through his throwing motion.
Step forward former AAF QB, John Wolford, who has not seen the field since the 2019 preseason and played for Arizona in the AAF.
The gameplan will probably be similar despite the change at QB. McVay will continue to be creative, and continue with misdirection, bootlegs and screens. With two RBs and their star WR missing, it may be a bit more difficult to execute. Can Wolford continue to be a hot shot? I very much doubt it.
They could welcome back OT Andrew Whitworth, who has been on IR since November and have also activated Micah Kiser, which I doubt Rams’ fans will take solace from.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
I cannot see anything other than a Cardinals victory here. The Rams defence has not been depleted anywhere near the same levels as the offence and will cause problems for Kyler so I can see a low-scoring game here.
If McVay can get anything out of this offence, it may well be his finest hour.
But the Cardinals probably only have to score 12-20 points to take this one and it will be the Rams tuning into Redzone or putting on their radios to check on events at Soldier Field.
Cardinals 20 – 10 Rams
Sky Sports – 1.20am GMT – Football Team @ Eagles
The final game of the 2020 NFL regular season sees the worst division in the history of football bring everything to a close.
For Washington, the goal is simple: win and they are NFC East Champions with a 7-9 record. If they lose, the title will go to the victor in the earlier Dallas against New York match-up. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has nothing to play for other than perhaps a slightly better pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. For the first time since 2016, the birds won’t be headed to the post-season and will leave 2020 with some serious questions to be asked. Once again, the NFC East will not have a repeat winner, a streak that dates back to 2004. The division has also never been won by a team with a losing record; 9-7 (on numerous occasions) is the lowest record to win the division prior to this year.
Week 17 match-ups are always difficult to predict, especially when one team has nothing left to play for. Philadelphia heads into the final game week following a drubbing at the hands of Andy Dalton and the impactful Cowboys wideouts. This means they will end with their lowest win total since 2012 when they went 4-12. Depending on results around them, Philadelphia could have the #3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft with a loss; if they pull out the victory, they could pick as far back as #10. Either way, they will have a top 10 pick. With so many questions looming this off-season around QB, front office, head coach and beyond, it is looking like change is afoot for the Superbowl LII winners.
Philadelphia weren’t the only team with off-field issues dominating their coverage this week. Washington parted ways with Dwayne Haskins on Monday, finally ending the cloud of uncertainty that was beginning to engulf his Washington career. This season, Haskins went from starter > back-up > third string > back-up > starter > back-up > waived. It’s been a rollercoaster than I’m sure Head Coach Ron Rivera will be pleased to get off. He said in a statement “I told him that I believe it benefits both parties that we go our separate ways.” The encouraging cameo from Taylor Heinicke late in the game against Carolina on Sunday surely helped Washington’s decision to let the former first-round pick go. If Heinicke starts on Sunday in Philadelphia, he will become the 31st QB to start a game for Washington since 1993.
On the field, things have been just as up and down for Washington. Their dominant defensive line will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a Philly O-line that has given up a league-leading 62 sacks so far this season. In the reverse fixture back in Week 1, Washington had eight sacks against the Eagles and what may have seemed like an early blip has turned out to be the level of the WFT’s pass rush attack. As a defence, they have 44 sacks on the season (6th in NFL); of those, Chase Young has 6.5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss, helping him earn a Pro Bowl nod in his rookie season (one of only two rookies to do so, with Justin Jefferson the other). I would look for Washington to dominate in the trenches against a Philadelphia O-line that has had 13 (THIRTEEN!?) different combinations this season.
On the other side of the football, it very much depends who will be under centre. Alex Smith has shown that he still has gas in the tank and has rejuvenated his career after that nasty leg break he suffered back in November 2018. Even though his stat line in 2020 doesn’t make for great reading (4 TD, 6 INT, 79.0 rating), the Washington offence looks calmer and more effective with Smith as the man with the ball. They will also get a couple of playmakers back for the trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Terry McLaurin will be back to add to his 3 TDs and 1,078 yards this season. They also eased Antonio Gibson back in with 10 rushes last week but he averaged 6.1 YPC. Those two weapons could assist HC Ron Rivera in this win-and-in game.
With Philadelphia, it is difficult to predict which team will show up. They could do what Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz suggested and have a ‘no-hat rule’ (not allowing Washington to win the NFC East crown) on Sunday night at the Lincoln Financial Field. However, with it being Week 17 and nothing left to play for, we could see outings from plenty of young players to see if they can impress coaches and put themselves in the conversation for the 2021 roster.
Jalen Hurts has already been named the starter by Head Coach Doug Pederson and it will be interesting to see how he can bounce back after probably his worst performance so far in Week 16 versus Dallas. His passer rating barely got above 70 and he was picked off twice. However, he did link up with a monster play to WR DeSean Jackson for an 81-yard TD as well as utilising his elusiveness, rushing 9 times for 69 yards averaging 7.7 YPC. The Eagles’ offensive unit has looked revitalised at times with Hurts under centre but it is still suffering with poor WR play, mismatches along the offensive line and penalties. Too. Many. Penalties. They had six false starts on Sunday in Dallas, with reduced fans in the crowd. That number is just not acceptable for an NFL offensive line.
Defensively, Philadelphia is struggling with injuries. With the injury report that came out on Wednesday containing Michael Jacquet, the Eagles now have only two healthy CBs on the roster (Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman). However, some won’t be too disheartened if Jacquet isn’t fit to go as he was pummelled by Andy Dalton on Sunday. He gave up 162 receiving yards from 9 targets, which is the second most of any corner in a single game in 2020. However, I will cut the guy some slack; he was an undrafted free agent this season and has had very little time to learn the defence, not to mention he was lined up against whoever D. Slay wasn’t covering, which was either Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb or Michael Gallup… With safety Rodney McLeod done for the year after tearing his ACL vs Arizona in Week 15, this Eagles secondary is barely limping over the line.
However, what I would expect to see is the pass rush to try and provide turnovers or force quick 3-and-outs for the offence. First-time Pro-Bowler Brandon Graham needs two more sacks to get his first ever double-digit sack season. If DT Javon Hargrave can share a sack, the Eagles will have five players (Graham, Cox, Sweat, Barnett and Hargrave) with five or more sacks, which no other team in the NFL has. However, with Sweat on IR, and Cox and Barnett missing practice on Wednesday, it remains to be seen if the Eagles’ pass-rushing pieces will be there to assist.
I think even if Taylor Heinicke does start for Washington, they will have too much for Philadelphia. The Eagles’ defence is just too depleted and is limping to the end of the season. If Washington can get out in front, the birds just won’t be able to bring it back. In Jalen Hurts’ three starts, Philadelphia have scored 54 first-half points, yet only 13 second-half points. On Sunday against Dallas, following their 14-3 start, Philly was then outscored 34 -3. Teams appear to be making in-game adjustments to Hurts and at the moment, Doug Pederson and Jalen Hurts don’t have an answer.
Writer’s Pick – Ste Tough (@SteTough)
This will be a close one. It probably won’t be pretty and I can see both teams coughing up the ball one or two times. However with Philadelphia’s injuries and just the torrid season they are having, I can see them losing this one. Before tough losses to Seattle and Carolina, Washington was putting together some momentum, winning 4 games in a row including a blow-out against Dallas. If they can hold that Dallas offence to 16 points, they can certainly hold Philadelphia to less.
Football Team 20 – 13 Eagles
6pm GMT – Cowboys @ Giants
Whichever teams comes out victorious at MetLife stadium WILL be in the play-offs before the Sunday Night Football game with the Football Team. With both teams being able to sniff meaningful January football, this should be a good NFC East clash.
The 6-9 Cowboys visit the 5-10 Giants with both teams still in the play-off hunt, which encapsulates 2020 in the NFL. The Giants still have a chance because of their head-to-head with Washington and the Cowboys have the same record so need to better Washington’s result.
The last time these two teams met back in Week 5, Andy Dalton took to the field due to that gruesome injury to Dak Prescott. The “Endzone Ed Sheeran”, as we like to call him here at F10Y HQ, has another chance to put a dagger in Big Blue and is coming off a brilliant and commanding performance last week against the Eagles.
Dalton has completed 65.4% of his passes this year after being in and out of the team due to injury, concussion and COVID, but has steered the Cowboys ship in the right direction. Just 14 TDs and 7 INTs in his 10 games isn’t going to fill them with too much confidence. That being said, 13 of those 14 scores have come since Week 11 when he returned to the field and three of the 7 INTs were before his two-week absence.
He’s thrown multiple touchdown passes in his last four games including three against Philly last week (yes there was a lot of YAC involved; eat your hearts out 49ers fans). The main reason for that is arguably the best WR trio in the league.
Rookie CeeDee Lamb has taken to the NFL like a duck to water or a sheep to shearing. While he hasn’t reached the heady heights of fellow rookie Justin Jefferson, Lamb has on the whole had a very impressive season, even without Dak Prescott. Lamb has had either over 50 receiving yards or 5 or more receptions on 11 occasions this season, and has been more than just a slot guy, taking jet sweeps to the house, scoring on special teams and also winning on the perimeter. He needs just 106 yards to surpass the 1,000 mark against the Giants.
It helps when you are aided by other fabulous receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. The latter had a “don’t forget about me” game against the Eagles, going for 2 TDs on 121 yards and some fine football play after the catch. Amari Cooper has himself yet another 1,000-yard season, albeit a fairly quiet one. The beauty of having three highly talented WRs is that it’s a ‘pick your poison’ type of scenario .None of these guys need to be the focal point from week to week, which makes it hard for opposing DCs.
The Cowboys do have the momentum off the back of three straight wins, putting up 30+ points on each occasion (albeit against bad teams) but it’s the defence that has come to play recently too, which has been very timely indeed. They have forced at least three turnovers in their last three games and have recorded a turnover every week since their Week 10 bye. They’ve given up yardage and sometimes points too but the opportunistic nature of the defence to turn the field on the opposition is vital for this Dallas team to continue not only this week, but if they head to the post-season.
These two teams served up a great game last time out, with the Cowboys winning 37-34 through a Greg Zuerlein kick as time expired, and the Cowboys have actually won the last seven games vs the Giants. The last time the Giants beat the Cowboys, Tony Romo was the quarterback (in his final season). Another highlight from this game in recent years of course was the Monday Night Football ‘Black Cat’ game, which has seemed to continually curse the Giants franchise since.
For the Giants, Daniel Jones has not looked the same QB since his hamstring injury and Colt McCoy has not been able to replicate his heroics he produced in CenturyLink field against Seattle.
They have lost their last three games to Baltimore, Cleveland and Arizona, and haven’t even looked close to a team that is going to win a game. They have a chance to put it all right here but with a total of 62 points in their last five games since their bye and total offence not surpassing 300 yards in any of their last four games, winning this game seems quite far-fetched.
They’ll take solace in the fact that three of their five wins have come in the division and, despite opening as underdogs with Vegas for this one, they will fancy causing an upset.
There’s a Catch-22 here though for the Giants. A win coupled with a Washington loss sees them in the play-offs, but a loss for the Giants coupled with wins for teams in and around the same record could actually see them picking from the #3 spot.
If the Giants are to win this game, it’ll have be won in the trenches. They’ll have to make the game a bit of a dog fight and grind a result out. Wayne Gallman will need to recall his form in the middle part of the season where he was regularly finding the end zone and having 100-yard games. The receivers Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard will need to be easily found by Daniel Jones, and Evan Engram will look to replicate his performance last time out against the Cowboys with a bit of trickery to find the end zone on a rush.
The defence will need to step back up in this one after going missing the past few weeks, especially after that dominant performance at Seattle in Week 13. They have forced just one turnover in their last three. Linebacker Blake Martinez will need to add to his tally of 80 solo tackles and will have to channel his inner Kyler Fackrell who had an interception return touchdown last time these two met. The secondary of James Bradberry (three interceptions on the season), recently extended Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers will need to figure out how to put a fire blanket over the Dallas wide receivers.
To help, they’ll need Leonard WIlliams and Dexter Williams to generate pressure on Dalton and against a Cowboys offensive line that has somehow stayed tight enough to not burst like drainpipes in winter. On a side note, All Pro guard Zack Martin has could possibly return for the Cowboys after joining the designated to return from IR list. Talk about good timing.
Most fans of non-NFC East teams will view the participant from this division as a team that is there to simply make up the numbers in the play-offs; however, I’ll just make you aware of the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the 2010 season (2011 play-offs). The New Orlean Saints came to visit and that’s when “Beast Mode” happened.
Any given Sunday and all that.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
It’ll be a cagey, low-scoring affair in my view and it would surprise me to see both teams turtle up for the majority. Whoever puts their cojones out first will probably win this one and I expect a lot of 4th-down plays. Dallas have the momentum, the better offence and the better weapons, but it’s a weaker foundation with Andy Dalton rather than Dak Prescott at quarterback. New York could have a trick or two saved for this one but a team that is struggling to move the ball, put up points and a questionably healthy QB (still) means that you have to go with the Cowboys for this one.
Giants 17 – 24 Cowboys
6pm GMT – Dolphins @ Bills
Can 2021 start by finishing off one of the Cinderella stories brought to us in 2020? The Miami Dolphins are on the cusp of meaningful January football, but may well need to win to get into the dance, as they take on the red hot Buffalo Bills to close out the regular season. The maths are quite straightforward for Miami: a win guarantees them their spot; a defeat will see them needing a defeat from either the Colts, Ravens or Browns for them to cling onto a Wild Card berth.
Let’s start however with their opponents in this one. The Bills were a fancied pick for the AFC East in the pre-season musings, with the assumed drop-off of the Patriots coupled with assumed mediocrity at best from the Dolphins and Jets. They haven’t disappointed and kudos must go out to them for capturing their first divisional title since way back in 1995. A win here in the season finale will lock up the number 2 seed in the AFC, which is certainly worth its bounty. A guarantee of at least two home play-off games (assuming they win the first), the assumed weakest play-off opponent in that they would play the 7th seed in Week 1 of the post-season and perhaps most importantly, the guarantee of no Patrick Mahomes until at least the Championship game, if both teams get that far.
The final caveat of course is one out of coincidence, but important never the less. A win for Buffalo here could eliminate Miami and as sports has proven down the years, when you have a chance to take out a foe, do so! The plans on how much players play this week has been a closely guarded secret but with some real tangible benefits to winning this game, I would expect the majority of starters to play at least a good portion of this game.
With that in mind, let’s assume that superstar Josh Allen does indeed suit up. In last week’s massacre of the Patriots, he broke Bills franchise records. He now is the franchise leader for completions on a single season, surpassing Drew Bledsoe with 380 completions and counting. He has also overtaken Jim Kelly for the most passing touchdowns in a single season with 34. The outsider for the MVP race has shown phenomenal growth in year 3 and is one of the major factors in the Bills’ results this year. I say one of the major factors as he has plenty of support from running mate Stefon Diggs who has excelled since his trade from the Vikings.
The defence, however, is ranked pretty much in the middle of the pack and has if anything taken a slight step backwards, compared to the dominant group of the 2019 season. They rank 8th against the pass, where premier corner Tre’Davious White leads a talented group. Against the run, however, they rank 19th, giving up 123 yards per game, and 14th in terms of points given up, surrendering 23.3 points per game. Having the number 4 ranked total offence has certainly helped them out throughout the course of the campaign.
So the evidence is there for the Dolphins to game plan for victory. Run the ball effectively and then run it some more. That, however, has proved to be a difficult thing for Miami to accomplish with any sort of consistency this year. Injuries have plagued them at the position with Salvon Ahmed, DeAndre Washington and Matt Brieda seeing plenty of carries with starter Myles Gaskin battling niggles. Gaskin looked sharp last week against the Raiders, averaging 6.7 yards per carry but he didn’t find the end zone and the Dolphins’ leading touchdown rusher on the season is still Jordan Howard who was released weeks ago.
The run game really does need to sparkle as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has really struggled to move the ball over the past few weeks. In two games combined, he hasn’t thrown for 250 total yards while throwing just one touchdown pass and a long ball of just 15 yards. He really needs to put it together this week as Ryan Fitzpatrick will not be unleashed from the bench to save the day. The veteran has been the saviour in Miami but he is unfortunately on the COVID list and will not be backing up Tua this week. That role will go to Jake Rudock who hasn’t tossed an NFL pass since 2017.
The defence ranks as the stingiest in the league giving up just 18.8 points per game. Fuelled by a league-leading 27 turnovers (tied with Pittsburgh), despite giving up a lot of yardage at times, the Dolphins have by and large prevented teams from scoring. Xavien Howard has had an unbelievably good season and has registered nine interceptions personally. Emmanuel Ogbah leads the team in sacks and the veteran leadership brought by Kyle Van Noy has had a transformational effect on a group that was already good before his arrival.
This really is a case of strength on strength. Miami’s four-most frequently targeted defenders (Xavien Howard, Nik Needham, Eric Rowe and Byron Jones) allow a collective completion percentage of 61.8%. The Bills’ top four wide receivers in targets (Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown and Gabriel Davis) catch 71.4% of their targets. It promises to be an absolute cracker.
Writer’s Pick – Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)
If you prefer to view the current state of the NFL by power rankings and not by records, you will find many an observer pegging the Bills ahead of everyone else in the league right now. They are playing some brilliant football and have a high-powered offence that will be able to run with anyone. The defence makes more than its fair share of a contribution and they look a complete unit. Miami have been phenomenal this year and will certainly be up for this one and will make it an interesting contest. I would be really worried about Tua however. Whispers of using their top draft pick (acquired from Houston) on a QB seem harsh, but the reality is the team is probably closer to winning than people realised and can’t afford to be held back at the most important position. I have to side with the Bills in this one, which will leave Miami looking for help from elsewhere with regards to their Wild Card hopes.
Bills 24 – 17 Dolphins
6pm GMT – Ravens @ Bengals
This is as simple as it gets in terms of playoff scenarios: the Baltimore Ravens win and they will be handed a shiny ticket to the post-season dance. They lose and it is likely a lost season, one where the reigning NFL MVP gets dethroned and Lamar Jackson’s play-off record remains on a goose egg.
For the Bengals, a team on a two-game hot streak with a bunch of ragtag starters and a rather good bunch of WRs, this is the opportunity to sign off the 2020 season on a most unexpected high, considering they lost their overall #1 selection QB Joe Burrow to injury quite a while ago.
The Ravens have hopefully learnt the valuable lesson of not underestimating their opponent. Last season, they crashed and burned against the Tennessee Titans in the play-offs, wasting a jaw dropping 14-2 season where Lamar Jackson broke the QB single-season rushing record. The Bengals are not the Titans, but they have beaten the Steelers and the Texans recently, one by digging deep into the defensive playbook and one by out-duelling a dynamic Deshaun Watson.
When the two teams met earlier in the season, the Ravens held Joe Burrow to zero touchdowns and managed to sack him seven times, holding the Bengals to three total points, having gone 27-0 up with just over 30 seconds left. Lamar did not look particularly good, connecting on just over 50% of his passes and inexplicably only rushing for 3 yards on two attempts. In 2019, Lamar had 26 rushing attempts in two games against Cincinnati, gaining 217 yards and two scores, averaging a chain moving 8.3 yards a carry.
Despite some season-derailing injuries to Burrow and Pro Bowl RB Joe Mixon, the Bengals have shown some guts in December. With both superstars healing for 2021, the future in Cincy looks in safe hands thanks to rookie receiving sensation Tee Higgins (pictured), who leads the team in catches, yards and touchdowns. Higgins needs just 93 yards to crack 1,000 as a rookie, a milestone he deserves to achieve having been a threat all season.
The Bengals have been without a 100-yard back since Week 4, even though Washington cast-off Samaje Perine ripped off 95 yards on the ground last week. Current starting QB Brandon Allen had a monster game in Week 16 against a woeful Texans pass D, but don’t expect the same aerial success against a Ravens secondary that is far more disciplined and tough.
The Ravens will continue to deploy a formula that has led to 10 wins this season, running the football both conventionally with rookie JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards (pictured), and unconventionally with Lamar Jackson, who has shown that he is capable of being the box-office performer he was throughout 2019 in December 2020.
Baltimore need to mix the run and pass to win this game and to start winning play-off games (if they get there). This means getting the ball to TE Mark Andrews and WR Marquise Brown, who has had an underwhelming 53 catches to date this season.
The Ravens’ strength beyond the power running game is the defence, which is normally well disciplined and capable of big turnovers in pressure situations. Two key members of the secondary, Marcus Peters and grizzled veteran Jimmy Smith, are both currently listed as questionable, so more pressure goes onto Marlon Humphrey to have a big game.
Rookie LB Patrick Queen has fitted in like a cold hand into a sheep’s wool-lined mitten, and he leads the team in tackles with 102. The team has 39 sacks and surprisingly no individual defender has more than four (Calais Campbell). Sometimes, the collective unit is better than its individual parts. Fully fit, this remains one of the best units in football.
Brandon Allen has shown he is a serviceable back-up QB, and with weapons around him and an offensive line that is working weekly miracles, the Bengals can scare anyone. Scaring is good but you don’t defeat the Kraken by shouting nasty words at its mottled face.
Writer’s Pick – Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)
This game is going to feature a big dose of Gus ‘the bus’ Edwards, a RB who is often dismissed as ‘just another back’. If JK Dobbins is still carrying an injury he picked up in Week 16, then Mark Ingram could be activated. Either way, Lamar Jackson will be making more than two attempts to gain first downs, and will be likely low odds on a rushing TD during the game.
Lamar needs just 93 yards on the ground to become the first QB to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. It will be a challenge, but one missed tackle and a 5-yard scramble turns into a 50-yard score.
This game simply means more to the Ravens, and they will not be underestimating the Bengals, despite a rather straightforward win earlier in the season. I expect Lamar to sign off the regular season in style and this writer to score his second sandwich (I’ll take a Halloumi pitta wrap please, Tim) thanks to the great #8.
Ravens 29 – 17 Bengals
9.25pm GMT – Titans @ Texans
With one week to go, the AFC is all but sorted. The Chiefs, Bills and Steelers are all locked into post-season football already; behind them, five 10-5 teams (Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns and Colts) are fighting for four play-off spots. It’s a case of musical chairs: when the music stops, one team is going to be left standing.
At the moment, the Titans control their own destiny. Despite losing 40-14 to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, they are the best positioned of the AFC contenders to make the post-season. Only this road game against the 4-11 Houston Texans stands between them and an appearance in the Wild Card Round next week. They could even lose and still get into the play-offs if one of the Colts, Ravens or Dolphins also lose. Essentially, Tennessee have the advantage thanks to the tiebreakers so if they (somehow) blow this one, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame.
Many pundits were torn between the Titans and the Colts as the winner of the AFC South this year and as expected, it’s gone down to the wire (as it usually does for the Titans). A win at NRG Stadium on Sunday evening or an Indy loss hands them the division. Indy are currently the ones standing outside the post-season sweet shop steaming up the window, but their Week 17 opponents are the one-win Jaguars. (Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, the Jags’ only victory came against Indianapolis back in Week 1 and with the #1 draft pick sewn up, they don’t have to #TankForTrevor any more. But I digress…)
With a win all but written in stone for their title rivals, the Titans need to match them if they are going to take the divisional crown for the first time since 2008. Luckily, they face an underwhelming Texans team who shared a 42-36 overtime thriller back in October but have been on a four-game losing skid since Thanksgiving. Having lost twice in three weeks to the Colts, they followed up with an uninspiring 37-31 loss to the lowly Bengals last time out, despite Deshaun Watson’s three TDs.
In fact, only Watson (first in the NFL with 8.8 yards per attempt, second with 4,458 passing yards and third with 297.2 YPG) is keeping them in any way relevant, although David Johnson’s 128 rushing yards last week was a long-overdue return to form and their top receiver, Brandin Cooks, is just 16 shy of a 1,000-yard season. Despite Houston’s poor record, this is Watson’s best-ever season with his most TDs, fewest picks, most passing yards and best completion rate. He injured his hand in Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, catching it in a defender’s face mask while attempting a pass, but still plans to suit up for their final game of 2020.
The Titans’ loss at a snow-covered Lambeau Field last weekend was a rare off-night for their offence. The defeat ended a five-game run of scoring at least 30 points, but they still rank fifth in overall offence (390.1 YPG), third in scoring (450 points) and second in rushing yards (2,402).
In Week 15, they stuck 46 points on Detroit and put up nearly 500 total yards of offence, 147 of which came on the ground through Derrick Henry. Defensively, Houston are below average in most categories and rank 31st in run defence. Worryingly for them, Henry – the league’s leading rusher (first in attempts and yards, third in TDs) – needs ‘just’ 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 for the season. Do not rule it out.
But it’s not all about the ground game. Tennessee have two wideouts, Corey Davis and AJ Brown, within sniffing distance of the 1,000-yard milestone while QB Ryan Tannehill has a solid 32 TD:7 INT ratio, despite his two-interception outing in Green Bay.
Writer’s Pick – Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
Tennessee, the 7.5-point favourites, are expected to bounce back from their poor snow-show, although Deshaun Watson is more than capable of putting up points against the league’s fifth-worst pass defence. But who knows how motivated Houston are for this one? The only thing they’re playing for is Miami’s final position in next year’s draft, thanks to the multi-player, multi-pick trade that saw this year’s first-rounder go to South Florida.
Both teams have plenty going on offensively and defences that rank in the NFL’s bottom four so expect a high-scoring affair, much like their last meeting in Week 6. Then, King Henry rushed for 212 yards and 2 TDs, and the QBs notched four scores apiece. With Derrick Henry bang in form and the Titans owning the league’s best turnover differential (+11), it’s hard to see anything but another win, a play-off berth and the AFC South title for Tennessee.
Titans 38 – 27 Texans
9.25pm GMT – Jaguars @ Colts
The Indianapolis Colts will be looking to jump back into the play-off picture in Week 17 as they welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to Lucas Oil Stadium for this all important match-up.
For Colts fans, players and coaches, their shot at the post-season is fairly easy to understand with them needing one team out of the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns or Baltimore Ravens to lose, if we were to pre-suppose they do beat the Jaguars.
Head Coach Frank Reich has already stressed to his team that they need to focus on their own scoreline first however, telling media on Wednesday: “It’s better not to have them (other scores) up there (on the big screen). It’s irrelevant. It can do nothing to add to what we have to focus on.It only has a potential negative effect in our view.”
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this tie yet however. Despite the 1-14 Jags entering the game as a 14-point underdog for the fixture, Jacksonville actually played one of their best games of the season against the Colts in Week 1 by managing a 27-20 shock win over Phillip Rivers.
In that game, Rivers managed to throw for well over 350 yards while only managing only one passing touchdown, and their incredible stable of running backs managed only 76 yards between them.
Things have changed since then however. Not only is Rivers now performing at a high level, but in the absence of Maron Mack, rookie Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin has managed 919 rushing yards in 14 games. He’s currently on a run of five games that has seen him average 97.6 yards per game and five touchdowns.
Despite the loss to the Steelers last week, Taylor even managed 74 yards and two scores as the one-two punch of him and Nyheim Hines once again stretched the defence to breaking point at times.
The Colts’ offence looked smooth and polished in the first half of the Steelers game last week (we won’t mention the second half) and they should have some decent luck in Week 17 against a Jaguars defensive unit that has allowed the third-most rushing yards (2023), sixth-most passing yards (4,067) and the second-most points (464) on the year.
On the other side of the ball, Darius Leonard has led a defensive unit that has been spectacular against the run but struggled against the pass. This was put in graphic detail for all to see during their Week 16 collapse, as Big Ben and Diontae Johnson threw themselves back into the game.
Things didn’t get any easier with the news that starting left tackle Anthony Constanzo will end his season early to have ankle surgery and might destabilise what has been a superb O-line for most of the year. Wide receiver Michael Pittman also potentially misses the game with a concussion.
As for the Jags, their big injury news comes in the form of another start for Mike Glennon and the report that incredible undrafted rookie running back James Robinson has officially been shut down for the season, having claimed his 1,000 rushing yards in what has been a dysfunctional offensive effort for much of the year.
They were crushed by David Montgomery and the Chicago Bears last week, as their struggling defence allowed the running back to go for over 110 scrimmage yards and a touchdown.
Their biggest victory actually came from another source this season, with the Jets winning their two games and promoting the Jags to first overall pick in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. With the right care, the QB prospect can sort this struggling franchise out for years and years to come.
With the team thoroughly out of meaningful reasons to play hard against the Colts on Sunday other than pride, two LSU alumni have stood out as bright spots in the darkness of the 1-14 season for the Jags. Rookie pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson and underrated receiver DJ Chark have both shown moments of serious note, and both will be glad to finish this season and get started again with a more complete roster in 2021.
Chark has managed 700 yards and five scores despite a dismal selection of quarterbacks and passing performance but showed his own ability with a stunning toe-tap touchdown last week in the loss to the Bears. While he didn’t practice on Wednesday, the presumption is that he will be back in time for Sunday, as the Jags look to cap off their own season with some pride and some gumption with which to otherwise remember a season that quickly devolved into fighting for the first overall pick.
Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)
This pick is probably one of the easier ones I have faced all year, with the huge underdog without its best player in James Robinson and likely to rest a couple of their best pieces at least partially, as they look to next season with excitement.
The Colts need this game badly, and while results in other places could still make them just the third team in NFL history to miss the play-offs with 11 wins, I expect the experience of Phillip Rivers and Frank Reich to make clean work of revenge against a Jags team who look down for the count before a ball is even kicked.
Colts 35 – 10 Jags
9.25pm GMT – Packers @ Bears
The Packers travel to Soldier Field where a win guarantees them the #1 seed. It would also likely confirm Aaron Rodgers, the current clubhouse leader, as the 2020 League MVP.
The Packers have won six of their last seven, steamrolling most teams in their way; their only loss came in overtime against the Colts. They face a Bears team that have seen a mini-resurgence, winning their last three games after a six-game losing streak after starting the season 5-1.
Whether they’ve got to this position on merit, luck or a mixture of both is up for debate but for any team going into Week 17, all you can ask as a coach, player or fan is that you have a chance.
The Packers blew away the Bears in Week 12 at Lambeu but this is a Bears team that is possibly a bit more confident and gritty than that game. David Montgomery has come to the team’s aid in the last few weeks, totting up 529 yards on the ground in his last five games, scoring seven times. He has over 1,000 rushing yards on the season now.
After the Packers somewhat stifled Derrick Henry (as much as a team can in December), Montgomery will have to have an effective game for the Bears to try and get ahead in this game. His 10-carry, 53-yard average thus far and 0 TDs on the ground (he has one receiving TD) against the Packers will need to be improved upon.
Montgomery’s efforts have helped take the heat off Mitch Trubisky and how much he has had to carry the team, but he has quietly been very effective since his Week 12 re-introduction into the line-up. His efforts – 10 TDs and 4 INTs since Week 12 with three games with over 70% completion, 2 QB ratios over 100 (and two others north of 95) has all culminated in helping the Bears have a chance to control their own destiny.
The bad news is that Mitch is 1-5 in games against the Packers and has only a 59% completion percentage in those games.
The Chicago Bears’ defence will need to continue its recent string of performances that have seen them bend but not necessarily break. They rank second in red zone scoring percentage on defence and sixth best on 3rd-down conversions allowed. Top tackling linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, supported by leading team sacker Khalil Mack, have a lot to do with the defensive performances this year and will need to get through one of the better offensive lines to get their mitts on Aaron Rodgers. Their defensive line including 31-year-old going on 21 Akiem Hicks has gotten a decent amount of production in his ninth year after a injury-hit 2019.
For the Packers, argulably the hottest team in the league, Aaron Rodgers will continue to go to Davante Adams, a connection we have seen 109 times this season, 17 of those in the end zone. Many belittled the Packers’ draft selections and many wondered why they didn’t go after Will Fuller (lucky for them they didn’t) before the trade deadline, but Aaron Rodgers just does not care. With Adams’ ability and talent to get open despite his hopping at the line, Rodgers seemingly has more than enough with his supporting cast currently at his disposal.
We could see further emergence of 2020 second round draft pick AJ Dillon, who rumbled for his first 100-yard game on the ground and 2 TDs against the Titans, doing his best Derrick Henry impression.
If the Packers do wrap up homefield advantage and a bye, they are more than well equipped to handle any team that comes in to Lambeau. They are actually well balanced both on the ground and through the air, being able to adapt to any team that comes into their house. The Packers’ defence is middle of the road in most metrics, which isn’t particularly a bad thing, but only one team has put up 400 offensive yards on it this season, and required overtime to do so.
Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage have been great in that secondary, and have not given up huge plays for most of the season. At the front end, Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith has 12.5 sacks on the season but it’s a testament to this team that 14 different players have a recorded sack this season. They’ll be beefed up by the midweek addition of DT Damon Harrison.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
It’s a ”win and in’ situation for the Bears, something which Bears fans could have only dreamed of at the beginning of December. Once again, they seem to be at the mercy of “Hot Rod” and the Packers.
I think the #1 seed carrot being dangled right under the nose of the Packers will be more than enough to ensure they are victorious. It will be a tight game and the Bears will be gritty and try to slow the game down, relying on Montgomery rather than Mitch Trubisky (similar to the last few weeks that’s helped them get to this position).
If the Bears can’t win their last home game of the 2020 season, they’ll be looking to the NFC West and hoping for some help from the Rams. Get the radios out!
Welcome in again for Week 14’s previews for the Sky Sports games. There are some crackers again this week and we are going to start to see some playoff-style games in the sense that losses for some teams see them elimated from January football. If you want to preview a certain game, click below for your match-up! If your team isn’t on TV this week, you can find our preview of your game in Shaun’s weekly previews.
Wait a second, is this a trap, as Admiral Ackbar likes to scream in his dulcet fishy tones? The Kansas City Chiefs will be mightily relived that the Pittsburgh Steelers finally registered a loss this season, putting both teams atop the AFC with an 11-1 record. What they will not be looking forward to is facing one of the most improved units in football, in the shape of the Miami Dolphins defence.
Along with smiles resonating from Chiefs faces after the Steelers loss, the Dolphins alumni from 1972 (remaining the only team to go a full season undefeated) will be reaching to the back of the fridge to pull out a nice chilled bottle of Moet. Their celebrations will be short lived as the front runner for the 2020 MVP, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, and the rest of the reigning Super Bowl champions will be soaking up some Florida sunshine this weekend as they bring their explosive offensive unit to South Beach.
With four games left, the Chiefs have already secured a play-off spot, so they will now be gunning for the number one slot and precious home field advantage. The Dolphins, as it stands, hold the #6 seed, their 8-4 record and win percentage in conference games being marginally superior to fellow 8-4 record holders the Indianapolis Colts.
Where do you try to stop the Chiefs from gaining big chunks of yardage? It’s a bit like the challenge of trying to catch every raindrop in a storm. The Broncos did an admirable job in Week 13 in slowing the Chiefs down, forcing them to kick five Harrison Butker field goals.
This lack of touchdown action will have Mahomes and his crew fired up, with Tyreek Hill (leading the league in touchdown catches with 13), Travis Kelce (who has the second most receiving yards for a TE in 12 games in the past 70 years) and rookie jitterbug Clyde Edwards-Helaire returning from a brief injury stint. CEH was available in an emergency last week, but was held out to enable a speedier recovery.
CEH can quite easily eclipse 1,000 yards of offence on Sunday, providing he does not underestimate a Dolphins defence that is allowing less than 13 points a game in the last month and that posseses the league’s leading interceptor – CB Xavien Howard (8 interceptions).
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has done an admirable job to date, turning lesser-known players such as Zach Sieler, Jerome Baker and Andrew Van Ginkel (pictured) into rock-solid performers.
Somehow Miami have avoided a quarterback controversy or any sideline animosity by getting rookie Tua Tagovailola and grizzled hirsute legend Ryan Fitzpatrick to bond like long-lost brothers, each stepping up when needed to support the team to continue to progress.
Since the turn of the century, Miami have won their division just the once, falling prey to two decades of TD12, but now they have an opportunity to have a first winning season since 2016. And if they get more breaks than a KitKat testing facility and win out, it will be the first time they’ll reach 12 wins since way back in 1990. Back then, they reached the play-offs and beat the Chiefs in the Wild Card game before being trounced by the Jim Kelly-led Buffalo Bills.
The Chiefs need to bring their big boy pants to Miami, where the weather may be welcoming and the opposition uniform is no silver and black sign of intimidation. But if there’s any degree of underestimation, which was likely the case in part against the Broncos, it will cost KC a possible shot at the AFC #1 seed.
If KC can do anything well, it is scoring quickly and often, so this game will need to see Miami bleed down the clock on every possession they have. Miami’s running game is pedestrian at best, but they will need to feed Myles Gaskin over 20 times to stand a chance of winning the clock battle. Having missed significant time, Gaskin did manage a healthy 90 yards in Week 13, and he will be looking to crack 100 in front of Sky fans.
Writer’s Pick – Lawrence Vos (@NFLFanInEngland)
This would be up there with the shock Washington win over Pittsburgh if Miami could somehow overcome the most dynamic offence in the NFL, with a combination of disciplined defence, strategic excellence and a sprinkling of turnovers. There is evidence that the Chiefs can be manhandled: the Raiders simply out duelled Andy Reid’s crew and Josh Jacobs punched in two scores in the fourth quarter.
Tua will need to play mistake-free football to keep pace with the Chiefs. One suspects there will be a break in concentration by the rookie, and that is going to be enough for the reigning champions to move ever closer to that top seed in the AFC.
Kansas City 33 – 23 Miami
Late Game: Indianapolis Colts @ Las Vegas Raiders
The 8-4 Indianapolis Colts travel west this week to face the Las Vegas Raiders in a match-up that could have big implications in the AFC play-off picture. An Indianapolis win would see them move to 9-4 and potentially leapfrog Tennessee for the lead in the AFC South if they don’t bulldoze the Jaguars like most would expect them to this week. However, if Las Vegas stays strong and hold out for the victory, they would move to 8-5 and move into the 7th seed over Indy – there’s no chance they’re catching the 11-1 Chiefs for the division lead in the AFC West.
The Raiders may not care too much as to why Henry Ruggs III was left wide open downfield in the last seconds of the game versus New York last week. After all, it stopped them from moving to 7-6 and handing the Jets their first victory of the season. However, what they will care about is their defence having a better game. They gave up 376 total yards to the Jets, including 206 rushing yards and 2 TDs. They are now allowing an average of 378.2 YDS/G (22nd in NFL) and 28.9 PTS/G (28th in NFL). They will also be concerned with their pass rush, having only gotten 15 sacks on the season, which is tied for dead last in the league.
What they face this week is a strong Indianapolis offence that spreads the ball around well. Five different players have over 350 receiving yards on the season. Through 12 games, Indianapolis average 265.3 passing yards per game (11th in NFL) and Philip Rivers is having a good season in new surroundings, posting an impressive 68.1% completion rate and 3,263 passing yards. While he probably won’t be in the league for much longer, his experience is helping Frank Reich’s Indianapolis team to push for only their second play-off appearance since 2014. They’re also having success on the ground too. While they were unfortunate to lose rising star RB Marlon Mack to an ACL tear in Week 1, rookie Johnathan Taylor has stepped up to the plate posting over 600 rushing yards from only nine starts and a very respectable 4.1 yards per carry average.
Meanwhile, the Raiders offence will be hoping that Darren Waller can continue playing at the high level he has been. He posted 200 receiving yards last week against New York as well as two scores. He has 742 receiving yards on the season which puts him second only to Travis Kelce among TEs. The Raiders offence are one of the least pressured in the league, which has allowed Derek Carr to have success in moving the chains. Las Vegas is currently 48.7% on third downs (3rd in NFL) and Indianapolis not being a great QB pressure team won’t help their cause. Carr will have an age to find a receiver in this game. Las Vegas’ run game is also vital to their success. Josh Jacobs continues to dominate on the ground, with 782 yards on the season (7th in NFL) and 46 first downs (5th in NFL) with the Raiders as a whole, averaging 121.2 rushing yards per game (10th in NFL).
The Indianapolis defence will have their work cut out when it comes to that LV third-down conversion percentage. Indy is allowing 40.7% third-down conversions so far in 2020, which is 15th in the league. If Carr remains unpressured, this defence could be made to pay. However there are upsides: Indianapolis makes things difficult for opposing QBs in the passing game and just last week ,they held Deshaun Watson to his first game in 2020 without a TD pass. They are holding teams to just over 218 passing yards per game (8th in NFL) as well as only 100.9 average rushing yards per game (7th in NFL). Las Vegas could find it tough to move the ball if this Indianapolis defence comes to play.
Writer’s Pick – Steve Tough (@SteTough)
This is a really intriguing match-up in the AFC playoff picture. It could be a bit of a shoot-out if both QBs get warm and spread the ball around the field like they can. Expect a lot of the ground game too, with Jacobs and Taylor likely to have 15+ carries each. Ultimately, I think it will be a high-scoring game, but a close one. I have Indianapolis to edge out Las Vegas in a nail-biter!
Indianapolis 37 – 34 Las Vegas
SNF: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills
The Pittsburgh Steelers will look to bounce back from their first loss of the season last week when they travel to Buffalo to face the impressive Bills for Sunday Night Football.
The Steelers suffered a crushing 23-17 loss to the Washington Football Team in Week 13, as weeks of miscues on offence and injuries on defence finally struck in unison to undermine what had been an unbeaten 11-0 start up until that point.
Going forward, it’s far easier to see a way out of the offensive issues than injuries, especially with the news that standout veteran corner Joe Haden and linebacker Robert Spillane were absent from practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Spillane has been particularly impressive since he took over middle-linebacker duties from Devin Bush, who tore his ACL in late October, only to have his job made even more challenging in Week 12 when Bud Dupree picked up the same major injury. The absence of either would make victory over the Bills very difficult to manage, especially with the confidence boost Josh Allen received last week with his demolition of the 49ers defence.
Pittsburgh’s loss to Washington, however, was not merely an issue with stopping a team’s offence; in fact, their own offensive errors once again played a part, with several receivers having drops in big moments despite Big Ben still managing to throw for 305 yards and two touchdowns. It was a similar story against the Ravens in a game in which the Steelers could easily have lost their unbeaten streak a week before, yet it was Eric Ebron and Anthony McFarland with crucial drops in the loss to Washington.
The issue was called out in no uncertain terms by Mike Tomlin after the defeat. The 13-year Head Coach warned his receiver group that “they can either catch it or get replaced by someone who will catch it”. It’s a problem that will need an immediate fix to beat the Bills as well, who play opportunistic defence and will have an early Christmas feast should catchable balls continue to pop into the air.
In fact, the Washington game was the second in a row with five total drops, having had just two such games in the last 15 years of NFL football, giving the Steelers a big reminder in all fashions that they need to get back to walking before they can run.
For the Bills on the other hand, Week 12 was a masterpiece of everything they wanted to see from their offensive unit, as Josh Allen returned to MVP form with a sensational 375-yard, 4 TD day through the air on Monday night.
The Wyoming alum once again hooked up snuggly with his two major receiving threats, Cole Beasley and Stephon Diggs, as the Bills torched a defence that showed little resolve, though this week’s match-ups with the Steelers should be a far greater test.
The defence also grabbed two picks off Nick Mullens as it continues to improve. The quartet of Trumaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde looked ominously hooked up as we head into the part of the season where offences start to struggle in colder temperatures.
Over the course of the season, they have consistently given up decent yardage against both the pass and the run (bottom 13 in both categories), but being able to take the ball away, with 19 total turnovers, means that they will easily sniff out any further mistakes from the Steelers’ up-and-down offensive ability.
Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)
I think this game is going to be close, especially if the weather turns the game into a battle of attrition to see who breaks first and makes the big mistake. It’s easy to look at Week 13 and say that the Bills are going to win again because they looked so mightily impressive while the Steelers, well, didn’t. Yet it’s important to remember that the Washington defence is seriously, properly good and they’ve made a lot of teams look bad so I don’t think we will see quite the same story again this week. Despite that, I think Josh Allen has enough to grind and muscle a way past the Steelers in his own building.
Bills to beat the Steelers 21-17.
MNF: Baltimore Ravens @ Cleveland Browns
Prior to Week 1, you’d have got decent odds on the Browns having a better record than the Ravens heading into this clash, but 2020 doesn’t care for the script. It’s thrown it out of the window.
But here we are, the play-off bound Browns (sounds weird, doesn’t it?) at 9-3 host the COVID-hit Ravens (7-5). The Browns have a decent shot here at kicking the Ravens while they are down and could go a long way to making the Ravens’ play-off ambition hang by a thread. A loss for the Ravens coupled with some other results could see Lamar Jackson and co. two games back with three to play. I think that is a big enough carrot in itself for the Browns and Kevin Stefanski.
After four straight wins coming out of the bye, the Browns are dreaming of play-off football. With a win on Monday night, that would all but confirm their first post-season game since 2002 and their first season with double-digit wins since 2007.
The Browns will not be worried by what they saw out of the Ravens as they rushed all over Dallas, but the Ravens defence was unable to get much pressure on Dalton and Dallas were able to convert almost 50% of their 3rd and 4th downs last Tuesday night.
With Baltimore struggling with injuries, COVID and a lack of rhythm coming off a short week, the Browns have the Ravens exactly where they want them. The problems lie a bit deeper than that though for the Ravens, and I can’t but help but get the sense of Colin Kaepernick syndrome with Lamar Jackson with regards to how he has performed this year and how much production he has been able to produce for this offence.
As Jackson is not there with his passing and the weapons in the passing game have flattered to deceive, teams are able to sell out defensively on the run and teams (Dallas aside) are able to limit the Ravens to a degree. The Browns should be able to contain the Ravens enough here.
Yes, it is still a top rushing offence, mustering over 2,000 yards now, and they still manage to gain chunk yardage on the ground after Week 13’s demolition of the Cowboys. But this is a far cry from the 2019 rushing attack (2,494 yards at the same point last season).
Mark Andrews, due to his Type 1 diabetes, is taking a bit longer to come back from COVID and on the defensive side, Calais Campbell did not look comfortable on ‘TuNF’ against the Cowboys after a multiple-week absence with a calf injury. The Ravens need to get healthy and quick, as this game could quite possibly be the start of their play-offs. Their last three games against the Jags, Giants and Bengals are probably three notches in the win column so this game feels like it will decide whether we see Lamar and co. in January.
Switching our attention to the Browns, Baker Mayfield had a career first half last week against the Titans as he helped put 38 points on the board against Tennessee. He’ll be looking to continue the hot streak, as will Nick Chubb who, despite missing four games and change through injury, still sits at 799 rushing yards on the season, ranking fifth among all RBs.
Despite the Browns’ offensive focal point being the run game, if Baker is able to get some momentum going as the regular season closes and play-offs arrive, this team could go far. They need to be as balanced as possible to aid that run game and you do find that games where Baker isn’t playing well or at the level required, the Browns can be defended against.
Talking of the run game, Jack Conklin was limited in practice this week and but Wyatt Teller should be good to come back from the COVID list.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers losing against Washington and having a tough game 24 hours prior to this one, the juiciest of carrots could be dangling with the division title door slightly ajar. The Browns would likely win all of their remaining games going into Week 17 when they face the Steelers, where the division title could be on the line so this is a crucial match-up to close out Week 14.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
It would be “so Browns” of Cleveland to throw it away from this position, but I think Kevin Stefanski has the right culture installed, the right mindset and the right players to be able to secure a first play-off game for almost two decades.
The Ravens are too beaten up and seem a bit too fatigued from the ramifications of COVID sweeping through their team. There is no rhythm or momentum for the Ravens and they are coming off a short week, albeit after playing their “free square” against Dallas.
I’m going for the Browns to win at home and I am more than surprised to see Cleveland as underdogs here so take Cleveland +2. I don’t have a lean on the total points at its current 47 point mark, but would veer towards the under if anything.
Since the Eagles broke their duck in February 2018, we’ve been left with 12 NFL franchises that have never won the Super Bowl. They include the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills, both of whom have appeared four times without tasting victory, and the Cincinnati Bengals, whose most recent appearance came more than three decades ago.
Of those dozen, the Browns, Lions, Jaguars and Texans haven’t even reached the season finale. As the league’s newest expansion teams, Jacksonville and Houston have only been around since 1995 and 2002 respectively, but long-suffering Cleveland and Detroit fans surely deserve a medal by now.
Not a power ranking as such, this is a take on how (im)probable it is for any franchise to win their first-ever title at Super Bowl LV in Tampa come February 2021. I think we need to say from the outset that none of these teams are likely to do so. However, the addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference this season at least gives them all a greater shot at the biggest prize.
So let’s dust off the crystal ball and start the countdown in reverse order, from least likely to the best shot…
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
We shouldn’t really be talking about a debut Super Bowl appearance here. With ESPN’s Football Power Index making Jacksonville the most likely team (23% chance) to pick first in the 2021 draft, a better question might be “will Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence be a Jag next year?”
The team’s immediate fortunes rest on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew II. Minshew outplayed the now-departed Nick Foles, going 6-6 in his first season, and has new pass-catching options in TE Tyler Eifert and rookie receiver Laviska Shenault. If only Leonard Fournette can start finding the end zone again – he only logged three TDs in 2019 – and the offensive line can lend a hand…
On defence, there’s been a bit of a fire sale, with AJ Bouye and Calais Campbell following Jalen Ramsey through the door marked ‘exit’, but franchise-tagging DE Yannick Ngakoue and grabbing linebacker Joe Schobert from the Browns suggests there’s no #TankforTrevor at play here. Nonetheless, both first round draft picks – cornerback CJ Henderson and linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson – will need to find their feet quickly or HC Doug Marrone will be out on his ear.
At least the Jags’ schedule is on the easy side, with the Dolphins, Bengals, Lions and Chargers as the first four out-of-division opponents. Be that as it may, they may struggle to match last year’s 6-10, let alone reach their first-ever Super Bowl. They’re not bottom of every pundit’s power rankings for nothing, you know.
11. Carolina Panthers
Can Carolina push on from last year’s 5-11 under new HC Matt Rhule? When you have Christian McCaffery, only the third player ever to rush and catch for 1,000 yards in a season, all is not lost. But let’s not get carried away…
With Luke Kuechly now enjoying a well-earned retirement, the defence could be a worry. The organisation must have felt the same as they cashed in all seven draft picks on defensive players, boosting the front seven with DT Derrick Brown and DE Yetur Gross-Matos, and adding Jeremy Chinn and Kenny Robinson to the secondary.
These guys are gonna be busy though; 10 of their games will be against divisional rivals Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, as well as Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins. Eeek! The Panthers’ attack is going to have to go some to outscore some of these teams.
The Panthers have been to the Super Bowl twice before without bringing home the bacon, most recently in 2016 when they lost 24-10 to the Broncos. Despite their shiny new QB Teddy Bridgewater and the ever-present CMC, we can be fairly sure they won’t be heading back to the big time quite yet.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
A 2-14 team winning the Super Bowl the following year? It’s a very long shot but in theory, the extra playoff spots mean Cincy can continue to prop up the AFC North and still reach the postseason.
By all accounts, Joe Burrow is acing all the Zoom meetings but without physical reps, it’ll take time for the #1 overall draft choice to gel with his new receiving corps. Despite his 60-touchdown season at LSU, even the future face of the franchise won’t turn the Bengals into world-beaters overnight.
That said, the only way is up for Cincinnati. There were season-long injuries to AJ Green and rookie left tackle Jonah Williams in 2019, while extended time out for John Ross and Cordy Glenn left them relying on fourth or fifth choices at times. Then there was the short-lived ‘Ryan Finley Experiment’, which sounds like a modern jazz combo but was even more painful…
To improve on defence (equal last in the league for yards allowed per play), they dabbled in free agency for a change. Acquiring Houston defensive tackle DJ Reader was a massive coup, safety Von Bell and linebacker Josh Bynes were unexpected arrivals from the Saints and Ravens respectively, and the two Vikings corners – Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – should move that needle too.
If AJ Green stays fit, if Burrow meets expectations, if Joe Mixon has another 1,000-yard year and if the O-line isn’t as leaky (that’s a lot of ifs), Cincy could be half-decent. Statistically, they have the second-easiest schedule of our dozen, with the Redskins, Jaguars, Giants, Chargers and Dolphins in the mix. But given the strengths of their divisional rivals, the long odds aren’t going to shorten. The league’s longest wait since their last Super Bowl, a last-minute loss to the 49ers in 1989, will go on.
9. Detroit Lions
I’m hardly sticking my neck out by saying the Lions won’t be making their Super Bowl debut this season but I expect them to fare a lot better than 3-12-1 this time.
Losing Matt Stafford to a back injury mid-season was a serious setback when he was on pace for a 5,000-yard season. His stand-ins, Jeff Driskel and David Blough, just didn’t cut the mustard, and the Lions lost their last eight straight. Grabbing Chase Daniel in the offseason at least gives them a bit more QB insurance, their receivers could have a decent year and second round pick D’Andre Swift should dovetail nicely with Kerryon Johnson in the RB room.
If Stafford is back to his best, the Lions should score enough points so their fortunes in 2020 will fly or fall with their defence – one of the worst last year. Still, their consolation prize was #3 draft pick Jeff Okudah, the Ohio State CB. Two former Patriots, DT Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins, could prove useful additions, along with Reggie Ragland and Desmond Trufant, but with Darius Slay departing to Philly, the holes aren’t quite plugged yet.
The Lions are a couple of seasons away from having serious Super Bowl credentials so for now, Matt Patricia needs to improve on his 9-22-1 record. The schedulers haven’t been kind, giving Detroit the equal toughest schedule of our gang. With only two home games in the first seven weeks, hitting their stride from the get-go again seems unlikely.
If the D improves, Stafford stays healthy and they get the rub of the green for a change, the Lions could yet win a playoff game for the first time since 2009. After finishing bottom of the division for the last two years, that would be a massive step forward. It’s a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.
8. Los Angeles Chargers
Doubts over a first return to the end game since 1995, when the Chargers lost their only SB to the Niners, are at least partly due to the question marks hanging over the QB position. With Philip Rivers in pastures new, journeyman Tyrod Taylor is the expected starter after three solid-but-not-spectacular years in Buffalo. The front office clearly concurs, or else Justin Herbert wouldn’t have been the sixth overall draft pick. The Oregon product should challenge Taylor and help the Chargers improve from last year’s disappointing 5-11.
Over the offseason, franchise-tagging TE Hunter Henry and resigning running back Austin Ekeler were solid moves, and the Bolts replaced DT Russell Okung with the Packers’ Bryan Bulaga. The other big additions were cornerback Chris Harris from Denver and linebacker Kenneth Murray, a Day 2 draft pick.
The Chargers’ schedule could see Taylor face his old Bills, while road trips to the Saints and Buccaneers should bring him (or Herbert) up against two league legends. It may take a while to bed into the SoFi Stadium so match-ups against the Panthers, Jets and Jaguars could be crucial in building some early atmosphere in their new home. In short, there are just too many things stacked against the Bolts to make a genuine charge at this year’s Super Bowl.
7. Arizona Cardinals
If we’re looking for a sleeper to give the 49ers a run for their money in the NFC West, let alone make a third trip to the Super Bowl after unsuccessful excursions in 2009 and 2017, could that be Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona?
The Cardinals reside in a competitive division, which always makes their schedule tough. This year, they’ll also have Dallas, Buffalo, New England and Philadelphia on their plate although, with the Redskins (or whatever they’re called by then), Lions, Panthers and Jets all front-loaded in the calendar, they could build some early momentum before things get tough.
Things are definitely blooming in the desert, starting with the downright theft of All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins from Houston. He’ll help Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald to elevate Kyler Murray’s game as the QB enters year 2. OT Josh Jones was great third-round value in the draft and Kenyan Drake should continue where he left off, notching three 100-yard rushing games in his eight weeks at Arizona.
But can the D keep their end of the bargain? The additions of Bills DT Jordan Phillips and versatile first round pick, LB Isaiah Simmons, should raise the bar (2019: 28th in points allowed, 32nd in yards allowed), while another linebacker, Detroit’s Devon Kennard, boosts the pass rush.
After finishing 5-10-1 last year, there are bluer skies ahead for the Cardinals. However, unless there’s a massive plot twist, it won’t be the blue skies of Tampa in February.
6. Houston Texans
Established in 2002, the Texans are the babies of our group and have yet to reach the final showdown in their short history. It’s a reach to suggest they’ll be contesting Super Bowl LV as 2020, clearly a stinker for all of us, has been especially horrible for the Texans.
The ‘fun’ started with the AFC Divisional Game, in which they threw away a more-than-promising 24-point lead against the Chiefs, getting outscored 51-7 in the last 40 minutes. And it’s not been great since, swapping top receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for, well, not a lot (sorry, David Johnson fans). ESPN’s Bill Barnwell gave the Texans an ‘F’ and he wasn’t alone in slating the trade.
The Texans did acquire a pair of experienced receivers in Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to give Deshaun Watson options beyond Will Fuller, but if they are going to make the playoffs and beyond, their 28th-ranked defence (slumping from 12th the year before) needs to step up. Will JJ Watt, who’s missed exactly half of the last 64 games with injuries, bounce back to the Defensive Player of the Year version of himself? Can rookie Ross Blacklock hope to replace defensive tackle DJ Reader?
Houston’s schedule is one of the hardest of our SB-deprived teams; their first six fixtures include the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Vikings and Packers, making a 1-5 start perfectly feasible. And with plenty of AFC teams likely to do well, emerging among the conference’s top seven isn’t a given by any means for the Texans.
5. Atlanta Falcons
By the midway point of last season, the 1-7 Falcons were clearly not destined to go back for their third Super Bowl appearance. Then, inexplicably, Dan Quinn’s team hit their stride and won six of their final eight games to finish 7-9.
Having started 4-9 the year before (also ending 7-9 after a late rally), it’s clear that the Falcons don’t fly out of the traps but finish well. Opening with the Seahawks, Cowboys, Bears and Packers doesn’t sound conducive to a solid start in 2020 and another rip-snorting finish might be beyond them this time: five of their last seven games are against the Saints (twice), Buccs (twice) and Chiefs.
With Matt Ryan under centre, Julio Jones (six straight seasons of 1,300+ yards) and Calvin Ridley in the wideout group, Baltimore’s Hayden Hurst plugging an Austin-Hooper-shaped hole at tight end and RB Todd Gurley joining from the Rams, 2020 could be quite something offensively (if Gurley’s gammy knee holds out). On the other side of the ball, Vic Beasley has moved on and they need more than 28 sacks so can new signings Dante Fowler Jr. and Takkarist McKinley get to Messrs Brees, Brady, Bridgewater and Mahomes?
With the personnel in place, Quinn is under pressure to take the Falcons into the postseason. However, they’d need to replicate their form from the latter half of recent campaigns for a whole season and I can’t help but feel their schedule is against them.
4. Cleveland Browns
In 2019, many saw the Browns as a legitimate contender for their first-ever Super Bowl or at least worthy of a side bet. On paper, the names looked good: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett. But in Freddie Kitchens, they had a first-time Head Coach who proved to be hopelessly out of his depth.
He had the ‘anti-Midas touch’: everything he touched went wrong. Baker Mayfield regressed. OBJ disappointed. Garrett went rogue. The O-line was feeble. Despite the hype, the Browns stumbled to 6-10 and stretched the league’s longest playoff drought to 18 years.
Under new HC Kevin Stefanski (their 12th since 2000), the arrow is pointing north. They signed Jack Conklin and drafted Jedrick Wills to help Mayfield to flourish, and both Landry and Beckham Jr. should be over their injury niggles. Chubb and Kareem Hunt are as good as any RB tandem in the league, and free-agency acquisition Austin Hooper is a solid tight end option. Now, if Mr Garrett can just keep his cool…
To that point, Stefanski has inherited a team loaded with potential but he needs to instil more discipline than Kitchens could muster. If he does, I can see the Browns tucking in behind the Ravens and Steelers, and riding the wave into the postseason as the AFC’s seventh seed.
The statisticians say theirs is the easiest schedule of our Super Bowl-challenged group, and with Washington, Jacksonsville, both New York teams and the Bengals (twice) on the list, it’s hard to disagree. Then, once in the playoffs at long last, it’s all up for grabs.
3. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have four Super Bowl appearances under their belt – most recently in 1997 – but no victories. Having reached a Divisional Game last time around, the NFC North outfit currently have the shortest odds among our unlucky 12 to return to the big finale.
Offensively, there’s much to like, even though they shipped star receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills. They used part of their haul of draft picks on Day 1 to pick Justin Jefferson; factor in that Diggs was disgruntled with his situation and it’s probably the best outcome for all parties. Dalvin Cook will shine again, as long as he doesn’t sit out the season.
The Vikes’ defence is more of a worry. They gutted the secondary during the off-season, letting three corners – Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander – walk, and will be relying on rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler to plug the gaps. Those defensive concerns, plus the third-toughest schedule of our 12 – only the Lions, Panthers and Jaguars can contemplate sub-.500 seasons – and I see the Vikes being the least likely of our top tier to lift the Lombardi trophy for the first time.
2. Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ four Super Bowls came in consecutive years in the early 1990s but they lost the lot, and have won just one playoff game since. Now, HC Sean McDermott is looking for his third post-season in four years with the rejuvenated Bills looking like legit contenders for the AFC East title.
For the first time in ages, it’s a coin flip between them and the TB12-free Patriots, though neither has an easy ride fixture-wise. Buffalo has one of the toughest schedules among our bevvy of SB bridesmaids, with the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers all lying in wait. The nearest the Bills get to a gimme are their four divisional games against the Jets and Dolphins.
Putting last season’s OT Wild Card loss to the Texans firmly in the rear view mirror, the Bills have much to look forward to. As well as one of the best defences in the league, Stefon Diggs’ arrival from Minnesota should be a boost to their 23rd-ranked offence. He’d better be though: the Bills handed over a bucket-load of draft spots to get him. Averaging 1,000 yards and eight TDs a year, he also has a reputation for down-the-field catches, which should suit Josh Allen nicely. Pairing running back Zack Moss with Devin Singletary could create the best RB duo in the division, even without the ageless Frank Gore in their ranks any more.
So in summary, all is set fair for Buffalo. Don’t be surprised if they edge some of their tougher contests, win their division and go on from there.
1. Tennessee Titans
Of our teams that have never won a Super Bowl, Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee seem the best bet at putting that right in 2020.
Making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, the Titans exceeded most people’s expectations last year. The decision to replace ineffective QB Marcus Mariota with the Comeback Kid himself, Ryan Tannehill, rescued the team’s season. In their unforeseen push for glory, Tennessee won seven of their last 10 games, and beat the first and third seeds on the road in the process.
So how likely are the Titans to go one better than their only appearance in 2000, when they lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the St Louis Rams? (That was the last time it featured two teams that had never won the title before.) Well, probably more likely than any other team on this list.
With Derrick Henry, who ran the ball 386 times in 2019, on a franchise tag, they can still dominate with their running game. Jack Conklin will be a miss on the O-line, but Isaiah Wilson looks a solid first-round draft pick. Defensively, trading perennial Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey to the Broncos means Jeffery Simmons needs to step up a notch in year 2, while Vic Beasley joining from Atlanta should beef up the pass rush.
With an easier than average schedule, with only the Ravens as a genuine favourite on the fixture list, the Titans seem well-placed to beat Indianapolis and Houston to the AFC South title. Just a win or two more than usual (they’ve finished 9-7 for the last four years) would hold them in good stead going into the playoffs and who knows how far beyond.
How did I do? Do you agree? Let us know @Full10Yards if you’d rank anyone higher than the Titans or want to big up the Jags’ chances
In the wake of Liverpool winning their first Premier League since it’s conception and 30 years, 58 days since their last league title, sporting droughts have been a hot topic as of late.
Whether you are looking to forget Liverpool’s title or a fan looking for some optimism in what seems like the dark age of your favourite franchise, we’ll take a look at the longest droughts which are set to be broken in the upcoming season.
The Cleveland Browns
19 Year Playoff Drought
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way, the Cleveland Browns.
As is reminiscent with the aforementioned Liverpool side, the Browns found themselves turn from a historic franchise winning a combined 4 NFL championships under the likes of legendary Jim Brown and co, to frequently finding themselves as the butt of the joke for verging on the past two decades.
As every NFL fan knows all too well, the drought of the Browns has been characterised not only by its length, but the extraordinary and spectacular failings of the team.
Whether that be the winless season or last season in which the Browns were hyped up by many to be Superbowl contenders, only to put themselves out of playoff contention by winning only 2 games in the first half of the season.
Whilst the Ohio based organisation does have a reasonably difficult schedule, being in a tough division and having to play at Dallas and Tennessee, now seems as good a time as any to make their first playoff appearance since the 2002 AFC Wildcard game.
The Dallas Cowboys
26 Year Championship Drought
Replacing the Browns as the most hyped up team heading into the new season, the Cowboys’ fans look to be rewarded for their wait with an NFL championship come February.
Although there are still question marks over the contract dispute between the organisation and their franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, everything else appears to be in order for America’s team to reclaim their perch. Much to the relief of Dallas fans worldwide, Jason Garrett has left the helm after a decade in the role of Head Coach. Garrett was replaced in the offseason by Mike McCarthy who coincidentally won his only Superbowl ring with the Green Bay Packers the same season that Garrett took over the role as Head Coach of Dallas.
Aside from coaching, although this was often the focal point of Dallas’ fans frustrations over recent years, the initial eye test is that the organisation has drafted well securing Ceedee Lamb as the heir apparent to Michael Irvin to join an already stellar offense.
Although I’m still sceptical about the Cowboys chances to win it all, primarily because of the hype and lingering taste of the failure to meet expectations in the past, the aspirations are certainly still there from many.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14 Year Playoff Drought
Likewise, the Bucs have been an exciting and intriguing prospect for many fans heading into the 2020 season. The Buccaneers previous season was as much reminiscent of a roller coaster as any regular season can be.
From defensive highs like franchise record and league leading sacks from Shaq Barrett’s 19.5 sacks to the lows ranking 29th in overall defense. And of course, the offense. The rollercoaster effect was usually the cause of former first overall pick Jameis Winston who threw for over 5,000 yards and over 30 touchdowns, a feat many Hall of Fame QBs failed to achieve, but also threw 30 interceptions and set the record for 7 interceptions returned for touchdowns.
However, there were signs of life under new head coach Bruce Arians and with the high profile additions of former Patriots duo Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the Bucs look set to make their first playoff appearance since 2007.
Whilst some of the more optimistic fans have pointed to experienced, serial winners in Brady, Gronk and Arians as evidence of a possible title, whether that be divisional or a Superbowl ring, playoffs are certainly within reaching distance.
26 Year Divisional Title Drought
On the face of it, the New England Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East appears to be over. Although the Patriots are still making attempts to hold their title as the top dogs in the division, with the addition of Quarterback Cam Newton to a 1 year deal, the Bills are looking to claim their first divisional title since 1995.
The Bills ended the 1995 regular season with a record of 10 wins and 6 losses, a record they will be looking to match at the very least in the upcoming season. The team’s defense ranked 3rd overall in 2019, and whilst the 2019 pro bowler and interception leader Tre’Davious White grabs the spotlight, the Bills have consistent quality throughout their defense.
Where the team has looked to improve the most this offseason is the other side of the ball, by adding wide receiver Stefon Diggs this past offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings which cost them their 2020 1st round pick among some other deal sweeteners.
The signs of the Patriots dynasty finally meeting its death, whilst historically have been greatly exaggerated, seem as comprehensive as they will ever be. Now, the position is there for the Bills to take the mantle as the top team in the AFC East for the first time in 25 years.
For me, the only question that remains is whether Josh Allen will continue improving and making the necessary leap required heading into his third season to make the Bills the new beast from the East.
It’s probably not that surprising that British athletes carving out a solid career in the NFL have been few and far between. Obviously, there have been a few: London-born running back Jay Ajayi played for the Dolphins before winning Super Bowl LII with the Eagles, while Osi Umenyiora, now a pundit on The NFL Show, is another Londoner with a ring, thanks to the Giants’ surprise win over the Patriots a decade earlier. Before him, Hertfordshire’s finest, Mick Luckhurst, played his entire career as a kicker with the Falcons before becoming the face of Channel 4’s NFL coverage in the Eighties.
But what about now? Who are the guys born or bred on this side of the pond that we should be rooting for in 2020? Here’s the low-down…
THE EIGHT-YEAR PRO
Jack Crawford – Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans
You gotta love Jack. Raised in Kilburn, the early claim for this 6’5”, 20-stone bald guy (due to alopecia) was being at school with Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. He then moved to the States as a teenager with dreams of becoming an NBA star but due to international transfer rules, that didn’t pan out. Undaunted, he took up football in high school and after four years at Penn State, was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Not a bad plan B…
Crawford featured as a backup in his rookie season and appeared in 15 games the following year before being waived. He then enjoyed three-year spells with the Cowboys (you may have seen him at Wembley against the Jaguars in 2015) and the Falcons. Arguably not a starting-calibre lineman, Crawford, who has played at both defensive end and defensive tackle, has registered 136 tackles and 16 sacks to date.
A couple of months ago, Crawford signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. It’s hard to say how it’ll pan out for Jack as he enters his ninth year in the league, but he’s certainly able to fill in should Mike Vrabel need him to. With Austin Johnson signing with the Giants and five-time Pro-Bowler Jurrell Casey packing himself off to Denver during the off-season, there may even be a decent chance we might see him as a starting DT in 2020…
THE WORK IN PROGRESS
Jermaine Eluemunor – Offensive Guard, New England Patriots
Now 25, Eluemunor was born in Chalk Farm, London, to a Nigerian/English family and grew up in Camden. He played rugby and cricket as a youngster – preferring the former – but got into football because of the other football, and in particular, his beloved Arsenal (check out @TheMainShow_ on Twitter).
The story goes that in 2007, he was skipping through the channels looking for the Arsenal match when he stumbled on the NFL International Series game between the Giants and Dolphins at Wembley. His interest piqued, he started down a path that would lead him to play high school football in New Jersey before attending Texas A&M. He and his father briefly came back to England but Eluemunor was allowed to return Stateside, as long as he graduated and put everything into pursuing a career in football.
On the eve of the 2017 Draft, in which he was picked by the Ravens in the fifth round, Jermaine told The Independent“Wherever I get picked, I’m gonna work as hard as I’ve ever worked to make this happen and my dream come true. This is just the start.”
And that he did. Eluemunor made the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All-Rookie Team in his first year, and played 27 regular-season games and one postseason contest in Baltimore before being traded to the Patriots. The 335-pound offensive lineman played 10 times in New England last year and has been retained for the 2020 campaign. Sitting behind left guard Joe Thuney in the depth charts, he isn’t a starter but provides depth in the middle of the line and we should see him get a decent number of snaps this season.
THE INTERNATIONAL PATHWAY PROSPECT
Efe Obada – Defensive End, Carolina Panthers
Obada had a tough start in life. Born in Nigeria before moving to the Netherlands, Obada and his sister got moved to London, where they slept rough and ended up in foster care. He fell into football when he saw how a college friend transformed himself playing for the London Warriors.
Looking for some cameraderie, Obada joined him and was taken under the wing of Aden Durde, who told his Dallas Cowboys contacts about Efe. Obada had only played five games for the Warriors when he was offered the chance to work out for Dallas, ahead of their Wembley game against the Jaguars. Despite his lack of experience, Efe was signed as an undrafted free agent a year later. It didn’t work out, nor did it with the Chiefs and Falcons, so his last hope was the NFL’s inaugural International Player Pathway Program, which placed him with the Panthers’ practice squad.
The following year, Obada become the first player from the program to make a 53-man roster, and played his first regular season game in Week 3 against the Bengals, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. Last October, Obada posted a career-best 24 tackles and played in all 16 of Carolina’s games, including the Buccaneers game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Obada was named an honorary team captain for the 37-26 victory that day, a fitting tribute in front of a ‘home’ London crowd.
Having signed a one-year contract extension in January 2020, Obada is heading into his third season with the Panthers. He’s shown promise so far but has yet to start in any of his 26 appearances to date and hasn’t recorded any sacks. By his own admission, he hasn’t established himself yet and, with a new HC Matt Rhule – let alone 2020 NFL Draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos jumping the queue at DE – he has his work cut out this season. It could be the most important of Obada’s career; he’s set to enter free agency in 2021 so let’s hope he can do enough to earn a longer contract.
THE FIRST-YEAR SUCCESS STORY
Jamie Gillan – Punter, Cleveland Browns
Growing up in Inverness, Scotland, Jamie’s all-consuming passion for rugby took him to Merchiston Castle, a boarding school in Edinburgh with a reputation for fast-tracking players into the Scottish national squad. As a promising fly-half, he developed a talent for kicking – one that would eventually stand him in good stead.
When his RAF dad was posted to Maryland, the Gillan family, including a 16-year-old Jamie, moved too. He had never watched football and initially, had no intention of playing it, but he asked to join the high school team, purely to keep fit during the rugby off-season. With a few tweaks to his technique, Gillan soon became an accomplished kicker and offers began to trickle in.
“All my mates were telling me you could get scholarships for kicking a ball and I didn’t believe them at first,” he told the BBC sport website last year, “but I thought I’d give it a try after I saw the guy missing field goals.”
Well, the punt – if you’ll excuse the pun – was worth it. A year ago, the undrafted rookie was brought in by the Cleveland Browns as a back-up to Britton Colquitt. And whaddya know, after some impressive pre-season turnouts – including a 74-yard punt and some robust, rugby-style tackles on punt returners – he took the starting job from the 10-year veteran.
Known as “The Scottish Hammer” for his solid physique, the long-haired Scotsman soon got the fans and the pundits onside. Gillan was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September, and his debut campaign – 63 punts for 2913 yards, including a 71-yard season’s best – earned him a place on the PFWA All-Rookie team.
I have to hold my hand up to this one: before researching this article, I had no idea that Gano was born in Arbroath, Scotland. But his dad, a US Navy man, was stationed there when Graham was born.
Apparently, young Graham was a decent goalkeeper, and supported Bayern Munich and Scotland. Prior to attending high school in Florida, he was approached by a scout at the end of a summer tournament in which he’d excelled but he rejected the chance to move back to the UK… and join a little outfit called Manchester United.
Gano broke all sorts of Florida State records in his senior year, prompting a pick-up as an undrafted free agent in 2009 by the Ravens (they do like a Brit!). Alas, he was soon released and flirted with the inaugural United Football League, scoring the Las Vegas Locomotives’ championship-winning kick and leading the league in scoring and field goals.
Finally breaking into the NFL in 2009, Gano experienced an up-and-down three years at the Washington Redskins, where he earned a reputation for nailing game-winning field goals in overtime, yet had to compete for his job more than once.
Since 2012, Graham has been a Panther. In his time, he hit the upright in Super Bowl L in the loss to the Broncos, and was named to a Pro Bowl in 2017, having made 96.7% of his FG attempts that year. Having sealed yet another OT win, against the Giants, in early October 2018 with a career-best 63-yard kick, he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and missed the entire 2019 campaign, prompting the 32-year-old to have surgery.
Speaking to Panthers.com last August, he said “Whatever my future holds, I’m excited about it. I’m always going to keep a positive attitude, no matter what’s going on.” Gano’s a decent kicker – he only missed three FG attempts during 2017 and 2018 – so if he can battle back and compete for his old job again, there’s a chance he’ll be a rock-solid leg again in 2020.
THE PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFUL
Christian Wade – Running Back, Buffalo Bills
Christian Wade is currently on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, with hopes of another year of development ahead of him, but he’s already had an impressive career in rugby.
The lad from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, played for Wasps since his school days and went on to score 82 tries for them, which puts him fourth on the Premiership’s all-time list. He also represented England at all levels (alas, only the one national appearance though), and was also called up to the British and Irish Lions squad.
Frustrated with the lack of England opportunities, he decided to switch codes, clubs and countries and try out as an NFL running back, despite having zero experience. He came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, and spent last season in upstate New York on the Bills’ practice squad. Almost immediately, he made headlines, with a 65-yard TD run with his first-ever touch in a preseason game against the Colts, and a 48-yard run with his first catch.
Despite his undoubted speed and athletic ability, Wade failed to make the active roster last year and is yet to appear in a regular-season game. But he’s undaunted, telling The Telegraph“It has been a success to come across, learn the game, participate in practice at full speed and to play in preseason. I just want to keep improving. I’m going to give it the same energy as I did this year and see where that gets me.”
THE 2020 ROOKIE
Julian Okwara –Defensive End, Detroit Lions
Okwara was born in London, when his mother was visiting family, but grew up near Lagos in Nigeria. He moved to North Carolina aged eight and eventually took up football, following his older brother Romeo through Ardrey Kell High School and Notre Dame on his way to the NFL. Romeo (also a defensive end) signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and was claimed off waivers by the Lions in 2018.
Julian was a standout at Notre Dame, making 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks over his last two seasons. And now, he finally catches up with Romeo, having been selected by Detroit in the third round of the 2020 Draft. According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, Okwara could prove to be the steal of this year’s class, after a broken leg toward the end of last season impacted his Combine and quelled any first-round chatter.
Helping to address one of the Lions’ biggest weaknesses last year, their pass rush (tied for second-last with just 28 sacks), Okwara – also considered an outside linebacker – may end up competing with Trey Flowers and Austin Bryant, as well as his big brother, for starting snaps.
Matt Patricia is getting a versatile player who can drop back into coverage or rush the passer. On signing with the Lions, he told Detroit Free Press reporters “They’re getting a pass rusher, great defensive end, someone who wreaks havoc in the backfield.” So look out for Okwara to come out from his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself in the NFC North next season.
THE FREE AGENT
Josh Mauro – Defensive End (No current team)
Mauro began his journey to the NFL in that hotbed of American football, St Albans, but started to play football at Stanford after he moved to the US.
The lad impressed the Steelers enough for them to sign him up as an undrafted free agent but he was released, kickstarting a tour of the league in subsequent seasons that took in the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants (where he got caught up in some controversy over the use of a banned substance) and, finally, Los Angeles. With his one-year deal with the Raiders now at an end, the 6’6”, 290-pound run stuffer is currently looking for his next landing spot.
He’s made 30 starts in five seasons but now aged 28, the clock is ticking and I’m not sure we’ll see him take the field in the season ahead. Fingers crossed.
After missing almost the whole 2019 season due to injury Ben Roethlisberger is poised for a big comeback.
While I’m not a fan of this man, he’s undeniably a great player and given the problems the Steelers had with their quarterback situation last year, I’m sure most Steelers fans want to see him back. Even though Duck Hodges is undeniably one of the best personalities in the sport, his play isn’t quite up to scratch.
I’m a betting man so my money is on Big Ben winning the comeback player of the year with the weapons around him.
Todd Gurley – RB, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons landed the former first round running back, giving him a one year deal worth $5.5 Million.
Now this is more of a risky pick given Gurley’s history with injuries, but provided he can stay healthy, Gurley will want to prove what a mistake the Rams made by dropping him the way they did.
The Atlanta Falcons have a ton of weapons going into this season, so look for Gurley to be a big part of this offence and, health permitting, make a big comeback.
Baker Mayfield – QB, Cleveland Browns
Baker Mayfield was, to put it bluntly, a complete shambles last year. After a record-breaking rookie season Mayfield was poised to come in and bring the Browns their first winning season in years. He sadly flopped. You knew by midseason that hacks like Colin Cowherd were foaming at the mouth watching the Browns struggle to put it together come game time, despite their stacked roster.
The biggest reason for the Browns underperformance was having a first time head coach trying to manage a team full of talent and strong personalities. Oh, and instead of getting an extra piece for their offensive line, they just added OBJ and gave up a first round pick. Never change, Cleveland. Never change.
Mayfield has the talent to be a top tier quarterback in the league, and provided he gets the right attention in camp and stays away from filming so many endorsement deals, I see Mayfield being a serious contender for comeback player of the year in 2020.
Mathew Stafford – QB, Detroit Lions
Until his unfortunate injury last season, Matthew Stafford was looking like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He ranked 8th amongst quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus grading from week 1 to week 9; no small feat.
Now factor in all the weapons this offence has. TJ Hockenson, Kenny Golliday, Danny Amendola and now D’Andre Swift (Top receiving running back in the draft) among others.
If Stafford can start the season strong, and even string together some decent wins for the Lions, there’s no reason we can’t see Stafford take this award home for a second time. Honestly, Stafford has a good a chance as any.
J.J. Watt – DE, Houston Texans
It’s a shame that a man like J.J. Watt has been so unlucky with injuries. One of the best defensive players in the league and, before Aaron Donald came along, probably the best pass rusher, it’s fitting that the only person that can slow down J.J. Watt is J.J. Watt.
Provided he can stay healthy next year as the Texans push for another run at the playoffs, he’s going to be a force. It would be really great to see the former Walter Peyton man of the year award winner add a comeback player of the year award to his collection.
At 31, Watt’s days in the NFL may soon come to a close, so a return to form would be a fitting conclusion to a storied career. Watch for J.J. to leave it all on the field this year if he can stay healthy.