I love juicy nuggets, and here’s the best NFL one you’ll read today:
Every year since 1996, at least one team that played on Championship Sunday has missed the playoffs entirely in the following season.
Think about that: From the final four … to left out of the tournament. Wow. That’s quite a comedown.
I was on record thinking that wouldn’t be the case last season. I picked the Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams to not just make the playoffs, but win their respective divisions. Los Angeles fell short on both fronts. Of course. You just don’t spit in the face of history.
Now, with the additional wild-card slot added to each conference in this season’s playoffs, some of you might be thinking this trend will come to an end in 2020. Not me! Again, I learned my lesson about messing with history.
So, at least one of these four teams won’t make it past Week 17: Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans. Who’s it gonna be? Let’s rank ’em, from most likely to least likely playoff absentees:
In theory, Tennessee could — and should — be better. Reigning rushing king Derrick Henry is a bona fide star. In his last 22 games (including the playoffs), the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder has rushed for 2,571 yards and 25 touchdowns. That’s 116.9 yards per game, at a robust 5.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile, I placed my AP vote for 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year on A.J. Brown. I mean, the guy racked up 1,052 yards receiving on just 52 catches — 20.2 yards a pop! Mike Vrabel has proven to be pretty good at this coaching thing. All in all, the Titans are pretty darn solid in every phase. But …
Jack Conklin’s free agency defection scares me. The right tackle’s a beast of a run blocker, so the Henry-led ground attack will suffer from his absence. And while Taylor Lewan still has Ryan Tannehill’s blind side protected, Conklin will be missed on the front side. This is concerning. I thought Tannehill was a legit top-five quarterback during the 2019 regular season. The Titans did, too, locking him up on a megabucks deal ($62 million fully guaranteed!). But can he do it again? Am I wrong to be a bit skeptical, given his inconsistent play in Miami? Meanwhile, the defense still has questions on the pass rush. Jeffery Simmons could certainly make the leap in Year 2, but it doesn’t help that free-agent acquisition Vic Beasley remains M.I.A.
In terms of the AFC South competition, I think the Colts are vastly improved, with a number of fantastic veteran additions (highlighted by DT DeForest Buckner and QB Philip Rivers) and another inspired draft haul (Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor in the second round’s highway robbery). Not to mention, stud linebacker Darius Leonard has a clean bill of health; that’s a beautiful thing for Matt Eberflus’ defense. Houston isn’t as strong after inexplicably dealing DeAndre Hopkins, but the Texans still have the incredible Deshaun Watson, so you know they’ll be a tough out every single week.
I think Frank Reich’s Colts will take the South in 2020. I have the Titans going 9-7 again this year, but missing the playoffs.
My feelings on the Packers trading up for project quarterback Jordan Love — and entirely eschewing the receiver position in a strong WR draft class — are well-documented: I loathed Green Bay’s entire approach in April. It’s a killer for this team’s prospects of returning to Championship Sunday. Missing the playoffs altogether, though? I’m not ready to make that prediction.
Aaron Rodgers is still playing at an elite level and is still the most talented quarterback I’ve ever seen. (Though, admittedly, Patrick Mahomes is knocking on that door — hard!) And when Rodgers is angry, look out. I just wish the organization helped him out. It’s sinful. Beyond Davante Adams, Green Bay’s pass catchers are unproven and underwhelming. From the outside looking in, Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst appear to be striving toward winning games by running the football and playing stout defense. Cool, but, um … YOU HAVE AARON FREAKING RODGERS! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Frankly, I don’t believe the NFC North has a team that’s a true top-seven squad in the NFC. That said, no squad’s horrible. Minnesota just heisted Yannick Ngakoue; pairing him with Danielle Hunter, the Vikings could have the best edge-rushing duo in the NFC. The big question lies in the back end. Mike Zimmer always does a fine job coaching up cornerbacks, but he could have his biggest challenge yet on that front. Offensively, Dalvin Cook’s absolutely dynamic — when healthy. And Kirk Cousins was fantastic for large chunks of last season, but if Cook has trouble staying on the field (again), can the QB carry a team over the course of an entire campaign? In Detroit, I’m quite intrigued by with the Lions’ offensive promise, with the healthy return of Matthew Stafford and the brilliant draft addition of D’Andre Swift. But the defense — and the team tradition of rebuilding since 1957 — are extremely disheartening. The Bears have the pieces on D, but the quarterback position is dreadful. And the David Montgomery injury is disconcerting.
The last-place team in the NFC North might go 8-8, with first place club at 10-6. But someone has to win the division. As long as Rodgers is under center, I will pick Green Bay. I respect the hell out of No. 12, even though the Packers don’t seem to.
There are concerns with the reigning NFC champions, starting with the division. It’s the best in the NFL this year. I can see three NFC West teams making the playoffs. And the other being the Rams, who obviously have a great coach, a high-powered offense and the best defensive player on the planet.
The second concern is Jimmy Garoppolo. Now, I’m not nearly as down on Jimmy G as many others. On the whole, he enjoyed a fine 2019 season. Did the Super Bowl leave a bad taste in my mouth? Sure. Does he still mix in some face-palm throws right to defenders? Indeed he does. But I don’t know how you could watch the entire 2019 season and not conclude that Jimmy’s solid. That’s kind of the problem, though. Solid might not be enough at the game’s most important position. Not in today’s high-flying NFL. Check out the 49ers’ schedule. In how many games do you give the Niners an advantage at quarterback?
And then there’s the scourge of injuries this summer, ranging from Nick Bosa to Deebo Samuel to Brandon Aiyuk to Kyle Juszczyk, just to name a few. The injury bug’s already biting San Francisco pretty hard, and we just entered September.
Here’s the thing, though: San Francisco is just so loaded and so well-coached by Kyle Shanahan. The NFC West is definitely challenging, but the Niners have the best roster in the division — and, quite possibly, the entire conference. This obviously helps Garoppolo, who can lean on his prolific running game and suffocating defense more than just about any other quarterback in the league. And the Niners boast depth in many key areas, so injuries can be mitigated.
Long story short: While there are worries that could theoretically spawn a Super Bowl hangover, it’s tough to see a playoff party that the Niners aren’t invited to.
No need to waste much time here: The Chiefs are making the playoffs. And winning the Super Bowl. Again.
I know, I know: No one repeats. It hasn’t been done since the 2003-04 Patriots. And I’ve already established my respect for historical precedent. So I’m a hypocrite? Well, Kansas City breaks all the rules, having just become the first team to erase three double-digit postseason deficits and win a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the explosive Chiefs are about to punch history in the face. Again.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.
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