Most vulnerable division champs: Packers, Texans in trouble?

One thing stands out when reviewing the final standings from the 2019 season: the list of division winners looks strikingly similar to the list from 2018.

Just three division champions (the Eagles in the NFC East, the Packers in the NFC North and the Niners in the NFC West) did not also capture the title in the previous season, while three (the Patriots in the AFC East, the Chiefs in the AFC West and the Saints in the NFC South) were on at least their third division title in a row.

Will there be an uptick in turnover at the top in 2020? Which powerhouses are looking untouchable — and which reigning champs are on the verge of being deposed?

Below, I’ve arranged all eight of 2019’s division winners according to their vulnerability in 2020, presented below in reverse order, from the safest to the most at risk.

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8) Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West)

Yes, the Broncos and Raiders will field remarkably better rosters than they did last year, and the Chargers definitely should be among the league’s more formidable squads. But the Chiefs are returning almost every key player from a Super Bowl-winning roster and are led by the NFL’s best quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. That should spell success in the AFC West again — with a second straight Super Bowl appearance seeming likely.

7) Baltimore Ravens (AFC North)

With all due respect to New Orleans’ wild-card loss to the Vikings, last season’s biggest playoff upset was Tennessee’s road win over a 14-2 Baltimore squad, despite the Ravens outgaining the Titans by more than 200 yards. I expect reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and his teammates to learn from the loss and come back strong, with the roster getting a talent infusion during both the free agency period (trade acquisition Calais Campbell, signee Derek Wolfe) and the draft (linebacker Patrick Queen, running back J.K. Dobbins). As for the Ravens’ direct competition, I’m not yet sold on the ability of Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Cincinnati to really pose much of a threat.

6) San Francisco 49ers (NFC West)

Two factors threaten the Niners: 1) the inevitable hangover that tends to befall teams that lose in the Super Bowl, and 2) the toughest division in the NFL. Seattle should be right back in the thick of things after losing the NFC West crown to the Niners in Week 17 last season. Arizona looms as a significantly improved opponent, with DeAndre Hopkins aboard and Kyler Murray poised to build off his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Then you have the Rams, who would have made the playoffs at 9-7 in 2019 if the NFL had been following the 14-team playoff format it will adopt in 2020. Working in San Francisco’s favor: 1) last year’s roster is largely intact, highlighted by studs on offense (like George Kittle) and defense (like Nick Bosa) and supplemented by the addition of left tackle Trent Williams and first-round picks Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, and 2) coach Kyle Shanahan knows how to get the most out of this group.

5) New Orleans Saints (NFC South)

I loved the Saints’ offseason moves, led by the signing of receiver Emmanuel Sanders to finally provide Michael Thomas with the kind of on-field complement he’s lacked since entering the NFL in 2016. (The fact that Thomas was working without a legit No. 2 makes his record-setting 2019 catch total of 149 that much more remarkable.) I would be thrilled to see Drew Brees ride off into the sunset with an appearance in Super Bowl LV before calling it a career and moving into the broadcast booth. But it wouldn’t be shocking if the Bucs took a huge step forward with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and a defense that was among the most improved in the second half of last season, as the players mastered the system installed by standout coordinator Todd Bowles. And don’t sleep on Atlanta’s star-studded offense and what should be a better defense. New Orleans is in good shape but should not count on cakewalking to a fourth straight division championship — Brees’ age (41) is a concern.

4) New England Patriots (AFC East)

Some people might have the Patriots atop this list, but I — obviously — am not one of them. New England is facing a slew of questions in 2020, including how the team will perform in the post-Tom Brady era and whether the Bills, Dolphins or Jets (who have all improved) will finally mount a serious challenge in the AFC East. But one simply cannot count out a Bill Belichick-coached outfit. The Pats might not dominate or look as flashy offensively as they did in the peak of Brady’s time under center, but they are returning most of 2019’s top-ranked defense, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and they’ll have a legitimate shot at extending their NFL-record streak of division titles to 12 this season.

3) Houston Texans (AFC South)

Even before making the controversial decision to trade DeAndre Hopkins away, the Texans were vulnerable heading into 2020. With Ryan Tannehill — who finally came into his own as a starting quarterback last season — and reigning rushing champ Derrick Henry returning to Tennessee, the Titans have a great chance to springboard off of 2019’s playoff appearance, while the Colts could also be a factor, depending on how much Philip Rivers has left in the tank. No head coach whose team made the playoffs in 2019 is experiencing as much public criticism (and that’s putting it nicely) as Houston’s Bill O’Brien has this offseason, thanks to the moves he’s made in his dual role as coach and general manager. Could the wheels fall of for the Texans in 2020? I hope not, but we have to acknowledge the possibility.

2) Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East)

The Eagles’ selection of Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft — despite having signed 27-year-old quarterback Carson Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension just last year — was even more surprising than the move you’ll read about in the next blurb. Yes, you can see the logic at work. The Eagles had to address the backup QB spot, considering Wentz’s significant injury history, and Hurts could conceivably contribute via Taysom Hill-style packages while learning the NFL ropes, hopefully helping to realize general manager Howie Roseman’s vision of the Eagles becoming a QB factory. But adding Hurts also gave rise to one of the most intriguing storylines of 2020: How will Wentz handle everything that comes with Hurts’ arrival? (So far, so good …) I expect the Eagles to make the playoffs, but in terms of their chances to win consecutive division titles for the first time since 2003-04, the Cowboys will nip at their heels again, and either the Giants or Redskins could emerge as surprise contenders.

1) Green Bay Packers (NFC North)

It’s easy to forget, but the Packers’ road win over the Bears to kick off the 2019 season was seen as a slight upset at the time. Green Bay spent the entire year proving naysayers wrong, culminating in a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC title game — where the Packers were outclassed by the San Francisco 49ers. Having a year under their collective belts in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense should help, but I’m skeptical that the roster has been upgraded enough this offseason to put the team over the hump. Another concern: The dynamic between two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the man who was drafted in the first round to ostensibly replace him, Jordan Love, could play out in a variety of ways, potentially impacting team success. Oh, and I almost forgot: The Vikings have the makings of a playoff team again, and the Lions will be better with a healthy Matthew Stafford under center.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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